Considering the relationship between South African poets and their communities – Juliette Mann

Juliette Mann is a graduate in English Literature from the University of Birmingham with a particular interest in gender presentation in poetry. She is currently doing a ski season, with a view to working either in education or in publishing if she doesn’t spend the rest of her life adventuring around the world.


A painting by Godfrey Rubens of the Sharpeville massacre which took place on 21st March 1960, Sharpeville, Gauteng province, South Africa.

‘It has been the traditional role of the black poet – again, given the nature of the oral tradition – to be the point of consciousness, or superconsciousness, of his or her people’ (Henry Louis Gates). Considering the relationship between South African poets and their communities – Juliette Mann

Due to the South African apartheid regime that stratified society along pre-existing colonial racial lines, a universal South African experience was impossible during the years 1948 to 1994. This resulted in highly politicised, stratified poetry that necessarily detached its writers from all but their own communities. In this essay I examine South African apartheid poetry, focusing on the concerns of race, language and setting: all of which are instructed by the political situation. Mongane Serote, a Black Consciousness poet utilised his art form to express the struggles of, and  unite, the black (mainly urban) community in his four poetry collections of the 1970s.

I will discuss his poems ‘No baby must weep’[1], ‘Hell, Well, Heaven’ (51), ‘Alexandra’ (51) and ‘City of Johannesburg’ (49) and question whether this overtly political art can be said to represent his community, writing, as it does, with such an explicit agenda. In contrast, Ingrid de Kok, a female white South African had to navigate a polarised white community, from the instigators of the apartheid regime, to the guilt-ridden white liberals. I will examine her poems ‘My father would not show us’ (144), ‘To drink its water’ (141) and ‘Ecotone’ (153) to assess her relationship with the white community, and how her status as a colonial descendent in a society that implicates her as an oppressor by virtue of her race affects her relationship to the physical land of South Africa.

The most obvious link of the poets to their communities in the context of apartheid South Africa is their race. It is practically impossible and redundant to attempt to separate the writing of Black Consciousness poets from their race, which in turn implicates the writing of white poets as racially significant. Mary West draws attention to the effects of race upon the white (female) community: ‘white South African women are closely linked to the acute sense of ambivalence that marks their response to race and belonging in post-apartheid South Africa.’[2]

Despite writing during apartheid, de Kok’s poems are characterised by a sense of uneasiness generated by this ambivalence towards the communities she is describing. In ‘My father would not show us”(144), the speaker betrays a sense of dislocation from her family and community, establishing this ambivalence. The opening stanza, ‘My father’s face / five days dead / is organised to see me’ expresses the speaker’s distance from her family : even in death the family interactions are characterised by performativity and artificiality, ‘organised’ by forces beyond the dead man’s control. This replicates the political situation in South Africa, where human interactions were the result of political manoeuvring.

The race of the speaker is dubious: the reference to ‘a house with a tin roof’ conjures up images of the shanty townships which were traditionally the home of black communities during apartheid. However, the explicit reference to colour in the line ‘everything he hears is white,’ cannot help but have racial connotations due to the inescapable pervasiveness of race relations in South African life. This sense of displacement and yearning for a ‘childhood as it might have been: / a louder, braver place’ is representative of the ‘overall mood of the white South African writers from this period (70s and 80s)… frustration, alienation, apprehension, thraldom to a crippling irony…. Wittingly or unwittingly, the whites wait for something, anything to happen’[3]. De Kok’s poem betrays a deep sense of stasis.

The unresolved familial and racial themes in the poem can be read as related to the socio-political immobility which resulted in a residual sense of guilt in liberal white communities and which contrasts with the dynamism of Black Consciousness poems. However, this unresolved duality can also be read as an attempt to create a platform where dialogue between these two racial binaries becomes possible, which Durrant finds characteristic of de Kok’s work, ‘the poet… attempts to assist at, to bear witness to, the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators, to testify to the pain, even the impossibility of their telling’.[4]

This reconciliatory approach is fraught with political implications, explained by Mary West as the inherent inability of white South Africans to relate to the struggle of the black community due to their position as ‘individuals who have been allowed the comfort of disapproving of, even resisting, the apartheid regime, but from a position of relative safety, as a result of material privilege and empowerment through education’.[5] Thus, even as a white poet speaking as the point of consciousness for the liberal anti-apartheid community, de Kok is still implicated in the mechanisms of oppression which necessarily embroils her poetry in the context of oppression, rendering a formalist reading impossible, as the socio-political contemporary situation rendered even those opposed to the apartheid regime pawns in the political landscape.

For Mongane Serote, engagement with race is much more explicit. Writing with the intention of speaking for and uniting the Black Consciousness community ‘and its tenets of self-liberation’[6], his writing has been described as seeking ‘to make readers aware of the human degradation and desolation of township life under apartheid rule’[7] delineating a political preoccupation in his works. Thengani Ngwenya references the ‘deliberate foregrounding of the theme of racial pride’,[8] referring to the preoccupation of the defiant black subject in Serote’s poems. The speaker in the first extract of ‘No Baby Must Weep’ (41) can be read as such a figure: the defiance of first line ‘i am the man you will never defeat’ is repeated as a refrain four times before being slightly adapted in the final stanza ‘no man can defeat another man / we can sing together’. The evocation of the united black community in the phrase ‘we can sing together’ is typical of Black Consciousness poetry ‘characterised by a foregrounding of the communal rather than the individual’[9]

The depiction of a strong black self within a united community is rendered in such lines as ‘my song will merge with the breeze’ which tie the black speaker together with the physical space of South Africa which is evoked in the penultimate lines ‘we can eat together / make the world together’. The simplicity of the lexis, indicative of ‘the exhortatory language of the political rally’[10] connotes the unity within the black community that Serote was speaking for. The political situation in South Africa necessitated that poetry penned by Black Consciousness writers focus upon race as it dictated every element of life for the black community. Serote’s writing had the purpose of uniting the black community and rallying them around a strong, defiant voice, it disregarded the nuanced introspection of de Kok’s examination of her community. Serote’s agenda was to speak to his community from a revolutionary political viewpoint.

In the context of South Africa, the decision to write in English has substantial political repercussions (which by virtue of the political landscape rendered it also a racially provocative), as it is ‘inseparable from the spread of British and American Imperialism’[11]. As the language of (one of the) colonisers, black and white South Africans writing in English are ‘reconciling the language of the coloniser with the requirements of a liberatory poetic discourse.’[12] For many black poets such as Serote, this reconciliation lead to the emergence of Black Consciousness ‘Protest poetry’[13] where ‘The language, form and structure… reflects the poet’s attempts to merge the traditional oral forms with both contemporary township forms of cultural expression and modern western poetic forms’[14] in order to develop defiant and subversive poetry.

Serote’s poem ‘Hell, Well, Heaven’ (40) demonstrates close relationship of Protest poetry to ‘traditional oral forms’[15]. The repeated refrains ‘I do not know where I have been’ and ‘But Brother’ create a song-like cadence, which the internal half rhymes including ‘Hell, my mind throbs like a heart beat, there’s no peace;’ [italics mine] also emphasise. The simple vernacular, with few polysyllabic words or use of extended imagery befits the performative existence such protest poems enjoyed: ‘These poems were specifically composed for performance, or recitation at political gatherings… It would be incongruous to have such poems written in complex diction and imagery’[16]. The defiant use of ‘non literary’ poetic idiom is best described by Mothobi Mutloatse: ‘we are going to kick and pull and push and drag literature into the form we prefer. We are going to experiment and probe and not give a damn what the critics have to say. Because we are in search of our true selves, undergoing self-discovery as a people’[17].

In Serote’s poem ‘Alexandra’ (p.51) the relationship between language and content is even more fraught, due to the politico-historical significance of the townships in the apartheid regime which were ‘specifically designed to keep cities white’[18]. The township is inseparable from the violent history of white supremacy, meaning that the decision to write in the language of the white oppressor is politically significant. However, the inclusion of a single word of South African dialect in the horrifying lines ‘Your breasts ooze the dirty waters of your dongas / Water diluted with the blood of my brothers, your children’ draws attention to the difficulty of describing the African experience in English. ‘Dongas’: ‘A channel or gully formed by the action of water; a ravine or watercourse with steep sides.’[19] conveys a violence in the ‘steepness’ of its ‘ravine-like’ structure. The landscape of Alexandra is characterised by a brutality that cannot be conveyed by the English equivalent, ‘gully’ which connotes gentleness.

By intertwining the vocabularies of these two languages, Serote is contributing to the formation of a new language, appropriate for the future of South Africa, adhering to Mutloatse’s statement. Ndebele summarises this phenomenon: ‘South African English must be open to the possibility of becoming a new language. This may happen only at the level of vocabulary (notice how the word ‘necklace’ has acquired a new and terrible meaning) but also with regard to grammatical adjustments that may result from the proximity of English to indigenous African languages’.[20] In these examples we can see that in order for the black South African poet to be the point of consciousness of their community, they must adapt the language of the oppressor to forge a new literary, as well as social, identity. The language Serote choses to write in is inseparable from the political concerns of his community, thus the very form of the poems are inseparable from the historical moment of their composition.

The relationship between white poets and the English language is more subtle than the overt politicisation of the linguistic choices of the Black Consciousness poets. De Kok’s ‘To drink its water’ (141) subverts traditional English proverbs, providing a source of political comment in a domestic setting. [21] In the first two lines, ‘Home is where the heart is: – / a tin can tied to a stray dog’ the punctuation at the end of the first line creates a sense of resolution, the form matching the content of the proverbial wisdom. However, the absence of a capital letter from the beginning of the second line leaves the reader feeling that the seemingly straightforward meaning is being dislocated by the deviation from standard grammar. The monosyllabic, bleak line evokes connotations of homelessness, by equating the ‘stray dog’’s ‘home’ to ‘tin can’ de Kok undermines the wisdom of the proverb. The quintessentially English proverb has been destabilised, suggesting that the language is incapable of explaining the realities of the white community in South Africa.

The choice of proverb explores the sense of alienation felt by many of the white population: as descendants of the colonisers they can be seen as neither indigenous to Africa or to Europe and lack a definite sense of belonging. However, de Kok later harnesses a South African localism in the line ‘water the eye of a goat / on the fork of an honoured guest’ referring to a kidney bean-like food unfamiliar to non-South Africans, demonstrating de Kok’s determination that her poetry is relating to, and written for, the South African community despite any potential postcolonial estrangement from their ‘homeland’. Like Serote, de Kok portrays the English language as incapable of describing white South African life and as incompatible with its emerging literary identity. In this sense, it is impossible to disassociate either de Kok or Serote from their communities when regarding their linguistic choices. Both utilise the language of the colonial oppressor to comment on their own communities, but manoeuvre English away from colonial, canonical forms to a more appropriate idiosyncratic South African vernacular.

As I have demonstrated, the issue of race permeates the linguistic and formal choices of South African poets, who also navigated a geographically racialized locale where the physical separation of the white and non- white communities deepened the racial binaries in society. Townships and the urban dominated the Black Consciousness poets while white poets focused on more rural aspects of South African life. Barnard explains how the segregation of physical spaces were ‘essential political features of South Africa’s ‘pigmentocratic industrialized state’. [22] Furthermore, Gunne comments that ‘without such territorial devices as the black township and the Bantustan, and the policing of these spaces by means of forced removals and the pass laws, apartheid would have been impossible to implement’[23]. Thus it is apparent that the geographic landscapes are inseparable from the communities that inhabited them. Serote’s poem ‘City of Johannesburg’ (48) depicts the close relationship between Black Consciousness poets and the urban environment, through a speaker who moves from the black township to the white cosmopolitan city. For example, the second stanza describes the township in energetic, intimate terms:

‘When I run out, or roar in a bus to you,

I leave behind me, my love,

My comic houses, and people, my dongas and my ever

whirling dust.’

The half rhyme of ‘love’ and ‘dust’ is paired with the end-stopped lines and caesurae throughout the stanza, creating a heavy, slow cadence and suggesting a reluctance to leave the township. This renders the speaker’s relationship with the inner city – which is personified and referred to as ‘my love’ throughout the poem – a complex one. The city is depicted as a living being: ‘I travel on your black and white robotted roads/ Through your thick iron breath that you inhale / At six in the morning and exhale from five noon.’ However, the vitality of the city is constantly tarnished, as seen in the phrase ‘thick iron breath’ which connotes metallic pollution rather than an organic entity. Race is also implicated in the use of the words ‘black’ and ‘white’, and the ‘roads’ become a metaphor for the interaction between the races in the city.

As Henry Louis Gates has commented, despite attempts to separate communities across the world (specifically in the USA), he quotes James Baldwin, explaining ‘each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other – male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white’.[24] In light of this, Serote can be seen as commenting on the arbitrary segregation of the city along racial lines where the black population are forced to live in townships ‘where death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh’ but work alongside whites (albeit in highly unequal jobs with unequal pay) in the city. The rural is evoked in the phrases ‘neon flowers’, and ‘cement trees’, but the artificiality of the city is emphasized as utterly separate from the natural in the same way as ‘thick iron breath’. The inability of the city to sustain life is summarised in the penultimate line ‘Jo’burg city, you are dry like death’ which determines the city as infertile, suggesting that the current urban model is unsustainable and change is inevitable in the future.

The black community is depicted as having a complicated relationship with the city. At once the source of their livelihood, it is also the site of some of the most oppressive privation and danger which is seen in the constant undermining of words and phrases that evoke life and hope. The city is depicted in terms of ‘binaries’[25] of life and death: black and white, the organic and the artificial which replicates the schisms of the social and political communities. Ndebele regards this approach as reductive, desiring a departure from the Manichean binaries of stereotypical, antithetical, yet collusive mirror-imaging of a state induced ‘anonymity’[26], but I feel that Serote’s engagement with the reality of the city, where the black and white communities have no choice but to interact and therefore influence each other somewhat diminishes the binary division of the city and gently suggests a future of reconciliation, unlike the Protest poetry.

For de Kok, the rural is much more integral to her work, particularly in the poem ‘Ecotone’ (153) where stereotypical African landscapes such as ‘savannah grasslands’ are depicted. The title of the poem, meaning ‘a region of transition between two biological communities’[27] could be applied to the spaces inhabited by the black and white communities. Ironically, the same sense of foreboding and danger that permeated Serote’s poem is present, the phrase ‘the rasping of hunting and hiding / Chocked us in the dark’ contrasts with the pastoral scenes that open the poem.

This uncomfortable dislocation could be seen as comment on the sense of white disbelonging in the South African landscape. The final line, ‘one thing becomes another, imperceptibly’ can be read as a postcolonial comment on the colonial settlers becoming naturalised, the process of white European settlers becoming white South Africans. The reference to ‘no-man’s land’ adds to the sense of alienation that pervades the poem, which also bears connotations of violence and the fight over territory. In many ways, trench warfare is a fitting allegory for the colonial struggle, exemplifying the stasis of social and physical mobility facing the South African communities. This immobility and lack of cultural engagement with other locales renders the racialized poetry as inherently limited.

Ndebele explains how black culture should look to the ‘rural areas as genuine sources of an array of cultural symbols by which to define a future cultural dispensation in South Africa’[28]. In other words, in order to reconcile the social divides of the country, the geographic divides have to be readdressed physically and in art. The limiting nature of Black Consciousness poetry – where certain motifs such as ‘the city’ are constantly rehashed – needs to be restructured to include neglected elements such as the rural landscapes and population, otherwise the poet can by definition not be the point of consciousness for the black community as they only speak for one part of the community.

Ndebele also points out that anthropological and cultural studies of the rural South African population have mainly been restricted to the research of white liberal universities,[29] therefore these populations have not been represented in these field by their ‘points of consciousness’ – ‘peasant consciousness never seriously benefitted from the now relatively sophisticated intellectual perspectives of its own original sons and daughters’.[30] The black community needs to reclaim the rural from the arbitrary Bantustan regions to develop a universal black South African identity. Similarly, de Kok cannot speak for the entirety of the white community if the geographic exploration of her work centres on the rural and speaks only of ambivalence rather than the deep sense of patriotic South African pride that many white South Africans do enjoy.

Despite the premise that Black Consciousness artists were seeking to promote potential liberation in the future, Ndebele bemoans the potentially damaging preoccupation with political concerns within the movement. He argues that for art to be transformative and transcendent, a more complicated treatment of contemporary issues was required, instead of the reliance on standardised tropes of oppression that inspired ‘a defensive attitude which may prevent the oppressor from reforming the system’.[31] In order to influence social change, art was required to retain its autonomy from the sociopolitical and economic hardships of the time.[32] In this line of thinking,  Serote’s explicit and continual evocations of apartheid injustice actually produce a reductive art form: ‘we have a society of posturing and sloganeering; one that frowns upon subtlety of thought and feeling, and never permits the sobering power of contemplation, of close analysis, and the mature acceptance of failure, weakness and limitations.’[33]

However, despite this criticism of Black Consciousness poetry, Ndebele also emphasises the complete permeation of the concerns of the community into the art of black poets. We can see that for the Black Consciousness poets, a separation of politics and art was not only fundamentally impossible, but inherently opposed to their poetic mission. The extent to which their poetry aided the emancipation of the black community is debatable, due to its inherently self- promotional and militant nature which served to reinforce the racial and social binaries already rampant in society. The relationship between Black Consciousness poets and their communities is therefore difficult to establish, as so much of their work was written in the idiom of the political rally and with the agenda of militant liberalisation of the black self. The absence of introspection determines that it is difficult to understand the personal and more sensitive elements of the community.

In contrast, the introspective and unresolved nature of de Kok’s poetry evokes the sense of guilt felt by the white liberals who were ensnared in the apparatus of apartheid by their race, but neglects the many other concerns of white South African life.  De Kok’s lack of resolve results in a stasis in her poetry that replicates the contemporary political stalemate and disenfranchisement of many South Africans of the era. Both poets are inherently limited in their poetic scope due to the socio-economic-spatial restraints on their communities, resulting in a stunted poetry that cannot speak for the entirety of either society.



[1] Mongane Serote, ‘No baby must weep’ in Ten South African Poets, ed. by Adam Schwartzman (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), p.41. All subsequent references to Serote and de Kok’s poetry shall be from this edition and cited in parentheses. [2] Mary West, White Women Writing White: Identity and Representation in (Post-) Apartheid Literature of South Africa (South Africa: David Philip Publishers, 2009), p. 16.

[3] Gareth Cornwell, Dirk Klopper and Craig MacKenzie, Colombia Guide to South African Literature in English Since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 23.

[4] Sam Durrant, ‘The Invention of Mourning in Post-Apartheid Literature’, Third World Quarterly, 26 (2005), 441-450 (p.448).

[5] West, p.4.

[6] Cornwell, Klopper, MacKenzie, p.162.

[7] Ibid, p. 163.

[8] Thengani H. Ngwenya, ‘Black Consciousness Poetry: Writing Against Apartheid’, in The Cambridge History of South African Literature, ed. by David Attwell and Derek Atteridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 500-522 (p.502).

[9] Cornwell, Klopper, Mackenzie, p.164.

[10] Ngwenya, p.505.

[11] Njabulo S. Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: The Rediscovery of the Ordinary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p.100.

[12] Cornwell, Klopper and MacKenzie, p.161.

[13] Ibid, p.19.

[14] Ngwenya, p.518.

[15] Ngwenya, p.518.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Cornwell, Klopper and MacKenzie, p. 105.

[18] Sorcha Gunne, Space, Place and Gendered Violence in South African Writing’ (New York: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.93.

[19] “Dongas”, Oxford English Dictionary <> [accessed 09/01/2016]

[20] Ndebele, p.112.

[21] Cornwell, Klopper, MacKenzie, p. 82.

[22] Rita Barnard, Apartheid and Beyond (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) p.6.

[23] Sorcha Gunne, Space, Place and Gendered Violence in South African Writing (New York: Macmillan Pelgrave, 2014) p.93.

[24] Henry Louis Gates, ‘The Close Reader; Both Sides Now’, The New York Times (2003) <> [accessed 29/12/2015).

[25] Michael Titlestad, ‘Writing the City after Apartheid”, in The Cambridge History of South African Literature, ed. by David Attwell and Derek Attridge(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp.676 – 694 (p.682).

[26] Ndebele, p.5.

[27] ‘Ecotones’, Oxford English Dictionary <> [accessed 09/01/2016]

[28] Ndebele, p.27.

[29] Ndebele, p.25.

[30] Ibid, p.26.

[31] Ibid, p.28.

[32] Ibid, p.27.

[33] Ibid, p.50.


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