Literature has its own internal struggles, struggles informed by opposing schools of thought, by tensions between organic and traditional intellectuals, by different sites of use. Literature can also contribute to struggles in society and processes of social change. The same goes for poetry.
Against a backdrop of a massive mobilisation for social change, huge swathes of writers in South Africa – the ones seeking to use their writing as a part of a transformative arts practice – have experienced the contestation at both levels. This contestation occurred in the context of the epic struggle on the southern tip of Africa to overcome oppression – South Africa’s black majority denied the vote, confined to a limited area of land, movement restricted, economically excluded, seeing the wealth of the country extracted in ways that impoverished them and the country, etc – and to fight for justice.
Given its historical trajectory and the strong global patterns in the economic exploitation prevalent in SA, that struggle can rightly be cast as a decolonization struggle. However, until the recent upsurge of student protest and resistance, this term has not been widely used in South Africa. The book being reviewed is itself a part of the reassertion of that characterization.
However, although the book’s sub-title can be seen as opening questions about how artists define themselves, about consciousness in South Africa and about articulation of the South Africa problem, it is timely. It is profoundly relevant to this country, grappling as it is with an incomplete transition, reeling under the new exclusions and making little progress in erasing the deep tracks of slavery and colonial domination.
The book is further relevant to anyone who is interested in how the pen was used (and made prominent, vital and sometimes mighty) in the struggle to upend apartheid and to unsettle and resist economic exploitation.
The book is divided into several sections, pre-Sharpeville, post-Sharpeville, post-Soweto and present-day. These demarcations should be taken as organising tools, ways of making the book more accessible rather than a cast-in-stone periodisation. Although the certain historical occurrences are clear turning points in the political struggle, it’s not clear why these dates should also be seen as pivotal points in literature. In real terms, movements or schools often precede political moments or new forms of artistic expression.
The poem from which the title is drawn is wonderfully ambiguous. “Go nineteen seventy six” alerts the reader that that great event (the mass resistance of June 1976), notwithstanding its ongoing celebration as a heroic moment, can equally be seen as a year of great loss.
“We have lost the battle
You were not revolutionary enough
We do not boast about you
Year of fire, year of ash”
The poem is powerful, inviting the idea that struggle proponents should not claim easy victories. All struggles have setbacks that, if analysed and understood, can strengthen a new phase of struggle and stimulate new levels of consciousness. However, the pain and loss should never be sugar-coated or minimised.
In adopting the title, Years of Fire and Ash, the editor/compiler may be alerting us to the fact that struggle is never a straight line. The fire speaks of the burning motivation and determination to be free; the ash represents the cost.
The pre-Sharpeville section of the book regrettably features only a few poems. These do not provide enough scope for range of voices in a period that covers several centuries and that spans a range of struggles including the Khoi Khoi-Dutch Wars, the Cape Frontier Wars, the Anglo-Pedi wars, the battles between the Voortrekker and Zulu and the Bambata Rebellion of 1905. In addition to wars, the period involved ongoing confrontations around issues of land (and settler expansion), cattle (with cattle raids on both sides), taxes, labour needs of the mines. According to Amagama eNkululeko! Words for freedom: Writing life under Apartheid, a text produced by Equal Education, colonialism was “resisted strongly and experienced setbacks.”
The pre-Sharpeville section contains the notable voices of Dube, Dhlomo, Jolobe, Vilakazi and Peter Abrahams. These writers have also made their mark through other forms of writing, but Years of Fire and Ash usefully highlights how they have wielded poetry. Abrahams’ work takes on a broader anti-imperialist approach while Dhlomo’s poem conveys a warning of impending militant national struggle:
“Subdue them now you may
Tis but delay. Another day
When God commands they will be bold
They will strike hard!”
The post Sharpeville section features eight poems from the likes of poets such as Mandla Langa, Pascal Gwala, and Wally Serote. These are all more modern poets in the sense that their period of heightened impact and prominence includes the late seventies and eighties and, for some activists, extends to the present. They, together with poets like James Matthews (referred to in the media as the ‘dissident poet’), and Dennis Brutus, took the fight to the enemy in strident words, with Matthews’ poetry being routinely banned.
Words from these poets helped lay the basis for both the growing mass resistance of the eighties; remained a continued inspiration well into the early nineties and beyond, and; informed the resurgence in literature as articulated in the formation of COSAW (the Congress of South African Writers) with its strong grassroots work, publishing house, widened access for new voices and a clear activist stance.
Mandla Langa and Wally Serote’s poems identify and highlight the spirit of defiance in small actions. The message from these poems to the oppressor was clear: You control me, but you cannot control my response. Poems such as these contributed to a new consciousness, a new defiance, signaling clearly the end of compliance, fear and acquiescence.
Years of Fire and Ash gives greater prominence to the post-1976 period. There are seventeen poems in this section, making it more representative of resistance-orientated poetic works in the period concerned. The section features notable names like Mothobi Mutloatse, Eugene Skeef (who together with Mandla Langa played in the band Malapoets), Es’kia Mphahlele and Ingoapele Madingoane. Mutloatse, who also played a critical role as founder of Skotaville Press, experimented with form, bending and twisting language to raise his voice against subjugation. His piece in this volume, a poemdra, is an example of bold deployment of language. It speaks of “the child of rags,” “the child of evictions” and the child who watches “how the boss shouts and swears” at his father – all the time the child in the poem stores up her/his anger to eventually hit back at the system.
This section raises questions about whether, in compiling the volume, Mbao was motivated by choice of poet (their role in the story of poetry’s response to subjugation) or choice of poem and its impact. In some instances, the editor has opted to not to use the poem (by a featured artist) that has had the greatest impact. Thus Madingoane is referenced but not his poem Africa My Beginning, Africa My Ending which made waves and could be recited by many activists in a period lasting more than a decade. The same goes for van Wyk. He is represented by A Riot Policeman but not by his powerful and widely-referenced poem, In Detention, a work which bitterly mocked the official explanation for deaths in detention.
In relation to poets, the impact of their work and their place in the story of poetic resistance, noticeably absent from this collection are, for example, Sandile Dikeni, Lesego Rampolokeng, Don Mattera and worker poets Nise Malange and Alfred Qabula. The worker poets delivered poetic messages to huge gatherings of workers; Dikeni’s rousing poems such as Guava Juice were complemented by reflective poems on self-transformation as well as global exploitation and ever-changing forms of oppression under capitalism.
In Rampolokeng’s case, it is a sustained body of work that hits home in ways that have depth, that uphold his sharp critique of canonicity and grand literary conventions and that clearly foregrounds the role of the socially conscious poet after 1994. Although he has given several interviews, these articulations are contained in the poems themselves. According to James Ogude, in an article entitled Writing Resistance on the Margins of Power: Rampolokeng’s Poetry and the Restoration of Community in South Africa, the poet’s work must be situated within resistance literature as well as a corpus of African literature that forges community in the face of colonialism pressures and that used imagination to bring new realities into being. Ogude states that, for Rampolokeng, the liberation quest “is the struggle to lay claim to that terrain of creative energy which offers the possibility of willing new realities into being and repossessing /restoring, through the power of the word, that which had been fractured by generations of domination – the sense and fact of human community.”
The last section of the book is titled the Present Day, a section focusing on what may be termed the ‘now’ poets. Actually, the section focuses primarily on a subset of the socially-conscious poets active in the current time – the new poets that occupy the spoken word scene. I have attended many slam events. Most of the poems blasted from these stages orientate less towards socio-historical poems and much more to poems on identity and the self – and including topics such as mental health, violence against women, family dynamics and absent fathers. Of course, oppression has both a material base and effects such as trauma, alienation and disease at various levels. As it turns out, for this section the editor has chosen poems that include a historical sense. Perhaps Mbao has done so to illustrate the bridge between this period and the work of earlier times. The poems in this section signal the continuity of poetic voices against white supremacy, neo-colonialism and systems that dehumanize well into the future.
One of the ‘now’ poets, Lebohang Masango writes, “And we have always been a story people:/our fathers have chanted their poems against the sky.” Ayanda Billie, a writer of consistent quality and impact, speaks of death rates in the post-colony and warns, “There will be more and more dying/Storms of stars invading the sky.” Zewanda Bk. Bhengu’s poem highlights his stand against commodified education and a new elite that continues old patterns of domination. The poem asserts: “We will not be silent/while government propagates violence…../Against young adults and minors.” Anga Mamfanya asks, “What happens when happiness is rendered hollow by gunshots/fired into the night’s skin?” Her poem asserts that a revolution is coming, that, “Women are assuming their role at the forefront of change” and “Deadbeat dads are returning home”.
Standout works are those of Mjele Msimang and Masai Sepuru. Mjele challenges the ‘born-free’ appellation attached to those born after 1994:
“As long as we fool ourselves that
an African on the Security Council
I was never born free”
Masai’s poem, the last one in the book, laments the fact that his poems focus on “what has already been said before”. This stand has taken its toll: “My knuckles are bloody from banging against it steel”. This focus on the same enemy over time – usually with little breakthrough – is a bit like Goundhog Day; he asserts: “It is tiring, draining my energy”. But then, acknowledging the immense contributions of Baldwin, Bra Hugh and Mama Winnie as compared with his relatively miniscule efforts, the poet rededicates himself. The poem concludes:
“… they have earned their rest
I am only getting started”
Years of Fire and Ash has gaps and can probably be fattened out in later editions, especially since the compiler argues that “the poems collected here are an historical archive of decolonial thinking” (although Mbao also states that the poems selected for inclusion should be taken as mere samples of all the relevant work out there). At the same time, it does succeed in conveying poetry’s impact in the decolonization struggle. In achieving this, no small role is played by the compiler’s outstanding introduction. In it, he asserts that decolonization is rooted in the understanding that “the structures, values or systems are fatally inadequate and in need of change”. He goes on to state that “(f)or literature and poetry, the work of opposing subjugation has been the vigorous contestation of representations imposed from elsewhere”. For Mbao, decolonization – especially in relation to poetry – is less about the past that needs to be summarized and more about an ongoing process of knowledge-creation. He wants to use this book as a means to present “a radical knowledge movement” that communicates “thoughts about the present”.
Mbao provides a complex set of reasons for putting this collection together (and shaping it in the way he has), all of which invite closer reading by those following the trajectory of transformative arts practices in South Africa at different times. Suffice to say that, in this text, he leans toward the current generation of poets, arguing that their work is “corrective” and brings about diversity. While older work was generally men-centred and “assumed a collective position from which to speak”, the current set of poets and their work reflects greater diversity. While the old poems leaned towards the “direct moral appeal”, the ‘now’ poetry – poetry of the post-apartheid period – “addresses itself to different anxieties of living”, These assertions will no doubt by debated by practitioners and analysts concerned with this field. Nonetheless, Years of Fire and Ash (including Mbao’s substantial introduction) affirms – in compelling ways – the important and multi-phased role and the impact of poetry in the struggle against colonial, post-colonial, imperialist and racist subjugation in South Africa.