In Biko’s Time
The townships all around
East London were on fire,
and the newspaper left its
front page blank,
with only a sentence:
There is news we are not allowed to bring you
This is how you learn
what your mother looks like
when she lies;
this is when you learn
that even if it is meant
even if it is almost true
that there is nothing
(for a white child)
to be afraid of,
a lie is still a lie.
“I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Blade Runner, 1982
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,”
and they don’t believe,
him or anyone else, although they pretend,
of course, being well brought up.
Under the desks they are fingering their smartphones,
speaking to friends not there
or sitting a row behind,
their quick downward glances more honest
than their polite attention.
His words cannot make them live it,
the sweet crisp of a human ear,
the coughing reek of hair and tyre rubber,
everything he cannot unsee
the fierce hunger of a mob
forming and unforming
and forming again further down the street,
a mass brain without a thought,
with a twisted instinct for fire.
“All these moments will be lost,”
to these polite young strangers
so keen to hide their disinterest from him.
“Lost in time, like tears in rain.”
My father drove to all three nearby hospitals.
He showed them the blood in his car
and the woman trying not to die
with a baby coming too soon,
but they shook their heads
and said no, not here.
He drove into Soweto,
to Baragwanath Hospital,
a long way further from Sandton or Morningside
or all the white hospitals;
she lived, but the baby died.
We’ve seen the writing on the wall
people say, and they pack up
their families, and all their belongings
(except for, often, the family pets
which are left in overcrowded shelters)
and they leave for Australia or Canada or the UK
There are great waves of such emigrations:
each time the writing appeared clearly on the wall
In between the emigrations are the immigrations.
People come back.
Back from Australia, Canada and the UK
to the green grass of home
and what does the writing say then?
Now again people are saying they can see it;
nowhere else in the world
looks particularly palatable though.
I wonder how many will go,
how many will stay;
how many will return
after a suitable period has elapsed.
Jeannie Wallace McKeown is a mother, writer and poet living in Grahamstown and working for Rhodes University after years spent in London and Durban. She is a member of the Rhodes University MA in Creative Writing part-time cohort, focusing on poetry which is free form and which explores transitions and transformation. (SA)
this poem appears in our print quarterly number eight, Dear South Africa.
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