Posts Tagged ‘apartheid’

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Image via BooksLiveSA on Flickr.

I am happiest when I am able to make connections with other writers based on the work I do here on my blog. I should tell you this story.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is one of South Africa’s acclaimed poets. I say South-African even though she is Ghanaian/Australian by birth. There’s story behind that. I’ll tell you a summary as I have it from her wikipedia page.

Phillippa was born to a Ghanaian father and Australian mother but was adopted into an apartheid-era white South African family when she was 9 months. She grew up to 20 before she knew she was adopted, and did not meet her biological father till years later. Her writing has reflected her obvious internal struggles of identity. Phillippa lectures creative writing now at Wits University in Johannesburg. She has published two poetry collections, Taller than Buildings and The Everyday Wife, among a host of other featured publications.

Well, back in January, having discovered this blog, Phillippa got in touch with me and we begun discussing literature and the common language of our poetry. After so many emails back and forth, guess what? Phillippa is in Ghana! And we are going to be on radio together on Sunday reading and talking poetry on Writers Project on Citi FM 97.3. That’s more exciting than I just made it sound..haha! Please tune in to us at 8:30pm GMT on Sunday 26th April or online at http://www.citifmonline.com.

And not only that! She will take Dr Mawuli Adzei’s writing class at the University of Ghana on Monday 27th at 3pm and then we have the German Goethe Institut hosting her for a reading of her works and book signings on Wednesday 29th at 7pm. Good immersion into the arts scene in Ghana, this should be. All times are in GMT. Thanks to Martin Egblewogbe and Nana Yaw Sarpong of the Writers Project Ghana for making all this possible.

Please tune in online to the radio event if you’re not in Ghana and attend these events if you are. I am happy when blogging jumps from the screen and translates into tangible realities of literary adventure. I will be back to share the fun with you when the week is through.

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Nelson Mandela: Pic. cred: Guardian Las vegas

Nelson Mandela: Pic. cred: Guardian Las vegas

The world has lost an icon with the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela yesterday. We can’t begin to find the words to say all he stood for in the history of humanity that can go so crooked at times. Mandela was hope where it was hopeless and light where it was dark. If he had not lived in that era of South Africa’s life, the country may never have been the country it is now.

In the cell opposite Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, was our poet friend Dennis Brutus, who wrote It is The Constant Image of Your face and A troubadour I traverse, all reviewed previously on this blog. Both of them were partners against apartheid, working in the quarry together, cracking stones and being tortured. It is fitting we honour the memory of Mandela today with poetry that was written by a man who knew him first hand. Dennis Brutus wrote this poem after Mandela was released from prison and was on his way to finally assume presidency of South Africa, unify a nation standing at a point of indecision on its future and teach humanity a lesson on forgiveness.

Here is Dennis Brutus’ tribute,

For Nelson Mandela

Yes, Mandela, some of us
we admit embarrassedly
wept to see you step free
so erectly, so elegantly
shrug off the prisoned years
a blanket cobwebbed of pain and grime;
behind, the island’s seasand,
harsh, white and treacherous
ahead, jagged rocks
bladed crevices of racism and deceit
in the salt island air
you swung your hammer grimly stoic
facing the dim path of interminable years,
now, vision blurred with tears
we see you step out to our salutes
bearing our burden of hopes and fears
and impress your radiance
on the grey morning air

 

My name is Dela. Even before I was old enough to know anything about this world, my cousins called me Man-Dela, in tribute to the greatness of a man whose life touched everyone who believes in the greater humanity, irrespective of country. I bid him peaceful rest. We will tell our children this, that we lived in the time of Nelson Mandela.

POET’S PROFILE

Dennis-Brutus-001Dennis Brutus campaigned for freedom in apartheid South Africa and as was normal, he was persecuted by the apartheid government. He tried to flee from detention after being handed to the South African authorities by the Mozambiquan authorities and was shot in the back at close range. On partial healing, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island where he was kept in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. According to the apartheid code, he was considered a coloured person.

Dennis Vincent Brutus was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games. He lived between 28th November 1924 and 26th December 2009. He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had ancestry of mixed French, Italian and South African.

His activist life likens him to a crusader for his country. A knight on duty for a mistress; and this has so often appeared in his poetry. He loved South Africa deeply and did everything to win its freedom. In this poem, “It Is the Constant Image of Your Face”, he closes the first stanza by saying “my land takes precedence of all my loves”. This was his passion. While he was in prison, news broke that South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as he had campaigned for.

IT IS THE CONSTANT IMAGE OF YOUR FACE
It is the constant image of your face
framed in my hands as you knelt before my chair
the grave attention of your eyes
surveying me amid my world of knives
that stays with me, perennially accuses
and convicts me of heart’s-treachery;
and neither you nor I can plead excuses
for you , you know, can claim no loyalty –
my land takes precedence of all my loves.

Yet I beg mitigation, pleading guilty
for you, my dear, accomplice of my heart
made, without words, such blackmail with your beauty
and proffered me such dear protectiveness
that I confess without remorse or shame,
my still-fresh treason to my country
and I hope that she, my other, dearest love
will pardon freely, not attaching blame
being your mistress (or your match) in tenderness

REVIEW

This poem is a typical Dennis Brutus poem. As is characteristic, he compares his love for South Africa, to the love he has for some other person. Maybe, a woman!

He opens the poem by saying ‘the constant image’ (line 1) of his woman’s face and the ‘grave attention’ (line 3) of her eyes which survey him amid his ‘world of knives’ (line 4), accuse him perennially. This is all coming to him as a memory because in line 2, he makes the allusion to a period gone when his love was knelt before him with the frame of her face in his hands. His ‘world of knives’ can mean so many things at once. It could mean that Brutus was surrounded by apartheid South Africa with its numerous brutalities. It could also mean that he was conflicted inside him, in a way that struck him like many knives piercing at once. Again, he could be talking about the conflict between his two loves as the poem tells us as we read on. And we are yet to know what she accuses him for, but Brutus doesn’t make us wonder long. She accuses him of heart’s-treachery (line 6). No, not even accuses but convicts! He has accepted that he has been treacherous to his woman, going on to probably share his love with another. But he does not apologise for it. He tells her that none of the two of them can ‘plead excuses’ (line 7) for his seeming infidelity because apparently, he cannot stop his love for his land and she can also ‘claim no loyalty’ (line 8). I want to risk saying that he is saying that he’s not bound to be loyal to her because ‘my land takes precedence of all my loves’ (line 9). He loves his land more than all his other loves. His land is his woman’s rival.

The second stanza is an attempt to pacify the heart of his woman who has been brought to the saddening realisation that she cannot have her lover all to herself. He begs mitigation (line 10), meaning that he admits that he has done wrong but is ready to give reasons for it. He calls her lover an ‘accomplice of my heart’ (line 11). That is like saying that she is equally guilty of his betrayal of his greater love. The woman is so beautiful that she has blackmailed him with her beauty (line 12) and made him a backslidden lover when it comes to his land. He has given his heart to another one outside his precedent love. In fact, her love for him has been so sweet and protective that he finds no shame in confessing his denial of his country. He calls it a ‘still-fresh treason’ (line 15). But in this confused place, a world of knives, he pleads, hopes (line 16) that his dearest love (line 16), South Africa, will pardon him freely (line 17) and not blame his woman. He ends by revealing more of his confusion, saying that South Africa, his first love, is his woman’s ‘mistress (or your match)’ (line 18), not knowing which to say is more tender. He loves one, he loves the other. One was able to conspire with his heart and steal his affection from the other, and now he does not even know whether the two are matched or one is dearer to his heart.

The greater emotion here is Brutus’ guilt of diluting the apartheid struggle with other cares. His love of his land is shown here overwhelmingly. This poem is another beauty that has added a little more tonnage to my love for this most romantic of poets coming from Africa.

POET’S PROFILE – DENNIS BRUTUS

Brutus-Poetry and Protest

Brutus-Poetry and Protest

Dennis Brutus campaigned for freedom in apartheid South Africa and as was normal, he was persecuted by the apartheid government. He tried to flee from detention after being handed to the South African authorities by the Mozambiquan authorities and was shot in the back at close range. On partial healing, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island where he was kept in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. According to the apartheid code, he was considered a coloured person.

Dennis Vincent Brutus was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games. He lived between 28th November 1924 and 26th December 2009. He was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had ancestry of mixed French, Italian and South African.

His activist life likens him to a crusader for his country. A knight on duty for a mistress; and this has so often appeared in his poetry. He loved South Africa deeply and did everything to win its freedom. In his poem, It Is The Constant Image Of Your Face, he closes the first stanza by saying “my land takes precedence of all my loves”. This was his passion. While he was in prison, news broke that South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as he had campaigned for.


A TROUBADOUR I TRAVERSE…

A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with an amorous hand:
5 and I have laughed disdaining those who banned
enquiry and movement, delighting in the test
of wills when doomed by Saracened arrest,
choosing, like unarmed thumb, simply to stand.

Thus, quixoting till a cast-off of my land
10 I sing and fare, person to loved-one pressed
braced for this pressure and the captor’s hand
that snaps off service like a weathered strand:
– no mistress-favor has adorned my breast
only the shadow of an arrow-brand.


REVIEW


“A troubadour I traverse…”
is a poem written on chivalrous themes. It is a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, made of a full octave (rhyming abbaabba) and a sestet (rhyming abaaba). First off, a troubadour is a medieval European poet-knight whose duty it was to ride alongside and defend a mistress. Until the troubadour retires from service, his duty is to die defending her. And he often praised her high unattainable love in his lyrics.

But Brutus is a troubadour for his homeland, seeing South Africa as a mistress for whom he must live and die. In the title and first four lines, Brutus talks about his romantic traverse (or travel – line 1) across the land, exploring its wide-flung, spread-out or exposed parts in a movement that is sweeter than any other that he knows. He does so with zeal and with his “amorous hand” (line 4). And in this ecstasy, he has laughed at all those who have sought to stop or question him even though he knew that a crusade in the name of love for South Africa under apartheid meant that he will die protecting her or be doomed to Saracened arrest (line 7). Saracens were Muslim Arabs against whom Christian knights fought the wars of the Crusade. Significantly, South African police armoured cars were also called Saracens. And in the face of this threat of arrest, he chose only “simply to stand” (line8) unarmed.

So he continues the protest, enjoying the romance with his land while tempting the apartheid regime for an arrest, quixoting till he is cast-off from his land (infer line 9). Don Quixote was the protagonist of the Spanish novelist Cervantes’ book and he spent his life fighting imaginary monsters and enemies, earning him a laughable reputation. So Brutus makes himself a quixotic fool for his homeland by a love that presses him (line 10) and which makes him prepare for an imminent arrest (captor’s hand – line 11) till he is snapped off service (line 12 – killed for his mistress South Africa or made incapable by detention). No mistress-favour or emblem of service adorns his breast as is usual for a troubadour but only the shadow of an arrow-brand (lines 13 and 14). The arrow-brand is the standard British symbol for a convict and Brutus’ reference to an arrow-brand could be the scar he keeps on his back from a gunshot for trying to flee from detention.

It is amazing how romance, the story of a man’s life and apartheid themes can be merged into this one poem of fourteen lines. Brutus is an African hero for giving us a chronicle of the fight against apartheid through the eyes of an African poet.

POET’S PROFILE

Mtshali

Mtshali

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a South African poet who was born in Vryheid, Natal. After his early education, he left for Johannesburg with a dream to pursue further schooling in the University of Witwatersrand but he fell victim to the endemic workings of the apartheid era in which he was born. He did not gain admission and resigned to live in Soweto, a Bantu suburb of Johannesburg.
But Mtshali was a dreamer. He continued to war in his mind the injustices of the system in which he was born. His poetry borders on the survival of a people and the hope that tomorrow will bring. His commentaries were sometimes of the despair of a people who doubtless continued to protest. His great poem, “Amagoduka at Glencoe Station” closes with these epic lines:

“We’ll return home
to find our wives nursing babies-
unknown to us
but only to their mothers and loafers.”

This explains the disruption of family life and with it, identity, which was one of the trademarks of the apartheid era.
The beauty of Mtshali’s poetry is that though he wrote about serious issues, his lines were comical, humorous and sometimes, careless of the consequences. That was a subtle way of saying the most difficult things and getting the desired impact. He has been tagged as one of the most influential black South African poets of all time.

JUST A PASSERBY
I saw them clobber him with kieries,
I heard him scream with pain
like a victim of slaughter
I smelt fresh blood gush
5 from his nostrils,
and flow on the street.

I walked into the church
and knelt in the pew
“Lord! I love you.
10 I also love my neighbour. Amen”

I came out
my heart as light as an angel’s kiss
on the cheek of a saintly soul.
Back home I strutted
15 past a crowd of onlookers.
Then she came in –
my woman neighbour:
“Have you heard? They’ve killed your brother.”
“O! No! I have heard nothing. I’ve been to church.”


REVIEW

This poem is a sarcastic statement of the helplessness of black South Africa under the apartheid regime. The story is almost unbelievable but is not surprising, with the knowledge of Mtshali’s style. The poet narrates his witnessing of the clubbing of a man to death. He uses the word “clobber” (line 1) which is a more savage form of “clubbing.” Knobkieries or kieries, as he uses here, are huge clubs that are used for defence across East and Southern Africa.
The first six lines are gruesome narrations of a slaughter scene. The clobbered man is here representing the rights of the black race in the apartheid regime apparently beaten to death. But nobody can talk about it. He is said to scream with pain/ like a victim of slaughter (lines 2-3). He bleeds from his nostrils (line 5), representative of all the blood that was shed in apartheid South Africa.
But the poet just passes by, helpless.
He walks into a church. This cowardly act of unconcerned piety reflects the total failure of the passivity that apartheid-era religion offers. Religion is a means of escape and under its purported shade, the poet can declare: “Lord I love you…”(line 9). Love is a high contrast to the emotion that courses through his veins. He feels anger and hatred but in the church, he leaves all those emotions outside. “…I also love my neighbour. Amen” (line 10) is the phrase that reinforces his denial.
Now, the poet leaves the church …heart as light as an angel’s kiss/ on the cheek of a saintly soul… (lines 12-13). His conscience is cleared and he struts home. Strutting is walking with kingly poise and haughty carelessness. Past the spot of death and with others looking on, he walks home, not even stopping. Does he not care? He does. But in apartheid South Africa, where the life of a black man means less, survival overrides sympathy. Even brotherly sympathy! So it is of no consequence when his woman neighbour comes in to tell him of the death. Of no consequence to him but to our shock when we find out that it is his brother who was clobbered!! … “Have you heard? They have killed your brother” (line 18).
Mtshali is a master. The poet just answers, in unbelievable self-denial: “I have heard nothing. I’ve been to church” (line 19). This last line opens the eye to the horror of apartheid and makes us appreciate the work of Mandela and all those who fought for the end of the system. This last line enforces Mtshali as a master.