We come from a tradition of poetics, which has always responded to the state of the nation. This tradition, whether you are a griot in west Africa or an imbongi in south Africa, has always been about true talk, as Fela would put it.
Our words have questioned, challenged, celebrated, called out, wondered, fantasized and even mystified our rainbow pretensions, our joys, and our angers. Poetics have allowed our imaginations to flourish. To dream of a South Africa where a black man and woman don’t have to salute any city with their hands reaching into their pockets for the passbook (Serote, City Johannesburg), . To call out injustices and stand up against them. “The child is not dead not at Langa nor at Nyanga/ not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville/ nor at the police station at Philippi/ where he lies with a bullet through his brain” (Jonker). They have comforted and even incited movements into action. “No easy way to freedom/ Ten lonely years black hopeful men/ Food being their wish/ Courage their pay” (Madingoane).
Times may have changed. Technology may have advanced and poetic forms have developed and come in and out of style. But we know that the role of poetry hasn’t really changed.
In 1948, H.I.E Dhlomo wrote, “the tribal man will tell you that the Izibongo are the wealth of our country, the soul of the state, the dignity and meaning of the Race – are God himself!” These words were first published in 1948 but they were harkening back to a time way beyond colonial South Africa.
In his essay, in the 1948 April edition of Native Teachers’ Journal, Dhlomo talks about the importance of Zulu Folk Poetry, Izibongo, “living poetry”. A tradition so powerful, it would bring people from far and wide to one place where they would sit “down quietly and listened to, participated in, and enjoyed living spoken poetry, dropping fresh and fragrant, new and warm, from the lips of the poet.”
This poetry, we learn from Dhlomo, went beyond self-expression or even just being the praises of an individual or a king. These poems “reflect[ed] and interpret[ed] the experiences, thoughts and feelings, and [gave] a picture of the life of the people and the times and conditions”.
Times may have changed; times have stayed the same. Poetry will always respond to and provoke response in society. This cyclical relationship has built cultures, has shaped how we think and view ourselves. And people still come to poetry sessions to find meaning.
So the poets who are, as Dhlomo puts it, the soul of the nation have a responsibility to the people. They draw from their environments even when they are, like Mbuyiseni Mtshali, describing a loaf of bread:
“Brought to the café,
warm wrapped in cellophane
by “Eat Fresh Bread” bakery van”
Or like Mphutlane wa Bofelo observing contrasts
“a bird in the air
singing a love song
a hunter on the jump
celebrating a catch”
If you want to tap into the psyche of a nation, you have our poetry, which has always, even at personal level, captured our nation’s state of being. While many poems are lost to memory we can look back at publications like Staffrider, which inspired Poetry Potion, Contrast, New Coin and others.
If you look closer you will see that these poems are not just mere descriptions or observations but they capture the spirit of the times. Our poets are continuing this standard of talking truth to power during colonialism, through apartheid and all the way till now. Many wrote about the end of “protest poetry” but that was a limited way of viewing the state of poetry. In Head of Fire, Lesego Rampolokeng wrote, “A generation born among roses speaks with a mouthful of thorns”.
This is the generation of poets coming up in the euphoric early 90s with the intoxicating air of freedom. If you consider the our collective headspace – the unbanning of freedom struggle movements, the announcement of Mandela’s release and the ensuing talks of freedom and political change… the threat of civil war, the many harrowing deaths like in Boipatong, which we have yet to speak off. We could’ve been a nation in silence.
“If we forget the past-
We’ll forget ourselves
And the rock might fall back
To its original spot.”
Mzi Mahola warned in the June 1994 edition of Carapace. Even as Mzwakhe Mbuli moved more into music, he still warned us “ukulimala kwengqondo ukulimala komuntu” and Zolani Mkiva brought back into the spotlight tradition Xhosa poetry.
Think about the hopes and dreams many of us had for what change would mean, feel, look and taste like. It seems, many have been left bitter.
“neighbourhoods are full of guns
AKs and Uzis used for cellphone theft
the minister’s cooking crime statistics
accusing us of whining everytime we open our mouths”
How did times change if even in the 70s, before the rainbow, mouths were full of thorns as Sepamla wrote in The Soweto I Love?
“I was born by the stroke of wars
I was born by the ravages of disease
by the events of plagues
I know the stench of this land”
And so this tradition continues, as poets respond to tragedies like Marikana, as poets challenge the state to do right by South Africans, and as poets offer their love songs to our beautiful land.
In The Way of Love, Mphutlane wa Bofelo writes, “The soul of the poet lies in the spirit of the people and the hope of the people is in the voice of the poet…”
So here we are… This is our eighth print edition; Poetry Potion celebrates eight years online in June. Post-apartheid South African is almost twenty-one years old.
Jacob Zuma, the fourth president of South Africa, has said that South Africa has a good, but not easy, story to tell. The realities of the post-apartheid hangover coupled with a swift descent into corruption – “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts,” said Lord Acton – have led us to really ask ourselves what story we want to tell about ourselves.
What story does our poetry tell us about the last twenty years of South African about the state of our nation? Are we truly a transformed nation? Do we have a good story to tell?
In this edition, poets address twenty-year-old South Africa. This edition would’ve have been published in November 2014 but the delay gave us the opportunity to extend it with poems responding to President Zuma’s 2015 State of the Nation Address. In keeping with the age-old tradition of izimbongi zaseMzansi, these poets, seek to provoke, question, inspire and challenge the reader out of complacency.
I hope that you enjoy this edition of Poetry Potion and that you continue to support and engage us on our various online and offline platforms.
duduzile zamantungwa mabaso
13 March 2015
 Serote, Wally Mongane. “Johannesburg.”
 Jonker, Ingrid. “The Child is Not Dead.”
 Madingoane, Ingoapele. “Africa My Beginning, Africa My Ending.”
 Mtshali, Mbuyiseni Oswald. “Portrait of a Loaf of Bread.” Sounds of the Cowhide Drum. 1971. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2012. Print.
 Bofelo, Mphutlane wa. “Contrasts.” The Way of Love. Durban: Mphutlane wa Bofelo, 2011. Print.
 Rampolokeng, Lesego. “Iron Peace.” Head on Fire. Grahamstown: Deep South, 2012. Print.
 Mahola, Mzi. “Forget the Past – Forget Yourselves.” New Coin Volume 30 Number 1 June 1994
 Mashego, Goodenough. “south afrika ills.” Just Like Space Cookies. Shatale: Tenworkers Media, 2013, Print.
 Sepamla, Sipho. “This Land.” The Soweto I Love. Africa Book Centre, 1977, Print.
 Democratically elected presidents are counted from the 1994 election. Before that there were seven apartheid presidents with a different constitution and law at play.