Instead of a Praise singer, which has become something of a tradition, poet-playwright and actress Siphokazi Jonas was tasked with reciting her bespoke poem What does not sink ahead of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address. And she did not disappoint.
Through her moving recital, Jonas not only lamented the waves of trauma we are experiencing but also directed our eyes to the blatant double standards of law enforcement when enforcing lockdown regulations. Poor black South Africans were killed and water cannoned while affluent maskless white South Africans (or alchemists) had Police Minister Bheki Cele dance for them on the beach.
“What does not sink is a reflection on the far-reaching effects of Covid. The psychological mass trauma, not only as a country but that suffered by every citizen of the world.” said Jonas
Asserting herself and reclaiming the steps of parliament, Siphokazi’s poem sought to remind the country of its dormant strength and persevering spirit. She reminded us that drowning is not an option. She lauded the communities that know how to hold each other in death. Communities that now have to find new rituals of mourning.
“We are a people who know how to build out of the remnants of disaster,
and we will do it again, and again”- Siphokazi Jonas
‘What Does Not Sink‘, by Siphokazi Jonas
Ufikile unogumbe, ugalelekile
Akankqonkqozi, udiliza umgubasi.
There is a flood inside our house.
The water climbs up the wall when we weep;
it does not let us breathe.
Everything is wet with grief.
Before this pandemic, we would cast a funeral song into the dark like a flare,
and the neighbours would come to hold our arms as we drove the water
out the door.
Before grief reached out ankles.
Before it swept us to our knees.
Before it flowed into our pots and our beds.
To mourn meant a community gathered,
like a bank between you and the river of death.
Now death has dampened this ritual –
We mourn alone.
The neighbours lift their arms to relieve the water in their lungs —
We are drowning.
This flood has reached into the inner rooms
and quenched lives young and old.
It has taken what we are not ready to lose.
It spits the stories of the living into the street as injured furniture.
Like pensioner in line for a social grant
whose life has no space to protest a beach,
but she still returns home, clothes soaked.
Or the man who dies for a beer in his backyard.
And the nurse tying a tattered mask together with prayer and is still unprotected.
Or the artist who contemplates eating her own words to ease her hunger — and art starves.
This flood ruins us all.
But what of the after,
when the depth of this moment is absorbed
Who will we be?
We are a people who know how to build out of the remnants of disaster,
and we will do it again, and again.
When we salvage what is useful,
may we find ourselves baptised into something new:
New ways of mourning,
A people who have learned to breathe underwater,
reciting the names of those we have lost, and memories that never sink.
Brave and unapologetic, Siphokazi Jonas is one of the hardest working creatives in South Africa. She is the English Poetry Editor of New Contrast journal and the Performing Arts Director of an elementary school in Gainesville, Florida. Siphokazi has written and produced multiple plays. She co-wrote, directed and produced the critically acclaimed stage play #WeAreDyingHere which takes a haunting look at the scourge of abuse, rape and femicide in South Africa. We are dying here which also features poet Hope Netshivhambe and singer Babalwa Makwetu currently in production, being adapted into a short film.