The Poets of No Sure Place

  • Tom PenfoldEmail author


Penfold sketches the increasingly complex nature of literary politics in post-apartheid South Africa. Beginning with the period immediately after transition, the chapter suggests a fall in literary standards occasioned by a recurrence of solidarity literature, a centralisation of publishing and a struggle to impose new critical perspectives. Penfold argues this situation has slowly improved. He turns to consider the rise of post-transitional literature and a new group of poets—The Poets of No Sure Place—who attack the current government and paint a hostile alternative picture of South Africa. The hopes of a utopian Rainbow Nation have died and been replaced by disillusion and uncertainty.


Post-apartheid Transition Literary politics Poetry of No Sure Place Criticism 

The 1980s once again changed the relationship between politics and culture. New forms of poetry and theatre had moved imagined alternatives to the anti-apartheid state into temporary physical reality. White minority rule was figuratively removed during performances. It seemed like apartheid South Africa was becoming increasingly destabilised and transition more imminent. As a result, the country’s writers—like the country’s politicians—began to ask what form the new nation should take. As the interregnum loomed, several important interventions were made, led by Njabulo Ndebele (1986) and Albie Sachs (1989; 1991). These questioned the place of politics in art and thus they announced a new literary politics that threatened to fundamentally change the direction of South Africa’s national literature . The result saw new splits and new imaginings appear. Amongst these were those offered by a group of poets that I term the Poets of No Sure Place. This diverse group challenged the idyllic South Africa offered by many African writers who had become increasingly intermeshed with the ANC. Instead, they addressed the sense of disconnection many citizens felt and continue to feel towards the new South Africa.

6.1 Literature in the New South Africa

Ndebele ’s ‘The Rediscovery of the Ordinary’ first presented at the New Writing in Africa conference in 1986 called for writers to abandon the style of spectacle and reportage that had dominated South African writing for the past decade. Ndebele admitted that spectacle had artistic merit and he justified political journalism for reporting what was already ‘absurd’ (1986, 144) in a situation where everything was unavoidably political. However, this said, he maintained that the new South Africa needed a return to the ordinary and everyday. Continued pamphleteering, he argued, risked reducing complexity to ‘simple formulations such that understanding is prevented, or at best, clouded’ (Ndebele 1994, 138). Additionally, textual production needed to move away from dominant narratives of Western realism and thus become a force for liberation and not continual oppression. Ndebele proposed that writers explore the imagination and everyday. Such moves would facilitate new styles, continue to raise consciousness, and show that the struggle involved real people with their own individual agency.

Ndebele ’s argument was repeated 3 years later by Albie Sachs in his controversial article ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’ (1991). Sachs likewise dismissed the continued use of culture as a weapon of the struggle .

[Currently] the more fists and spears and guns, the better. The range of themes is narrowed down so much that all that is funny or curious or genuinely tragic in the world is excluded. Ambiguity and contradiction are completely shut out, and the only conflict permitted is that between the old and the new, as if there were only bad in the past and only good in the future […] but never acknowledging that there is bad in the good, and, even more difficult, that there can be elements of good in the bad. (Sachs 1991, 187–188)

Saying little noticeably different to Ndebele ’s earlier formulations, Sachs ignited arguments that had proliferated during the 1980s and sparked huge controversy. Stephen Clingman observes, ‘to many, Sachs’s pronouncements came as a breath of relief; to others—worker and community poets […]—it felt like a betrayal’ (2012, 645). Criticism was rife. Peter Horn felt the ‘intervention contributed immensely to the destruction of a very interesting cultural undertaking’ (2000, 38). Serote, too, fiercely asserted, ‘Sachs didn’t know what he was talking about […] everything we did [had to be] highly politicised’ (2000, 149).

Sachs has since clarified his position by insisting he was not advocating a complete separation of art and politics. He was merely calling for writers to embrace more than ‘one kind of cuisine’ (1992, 18). As with Ndebele, neither intervention was reliant on a binary dynamic between art and politics as much of the criticism seemingly suggests. Rather, these two proposals saw protest literature as a literary form that coexists alongside those with imagination or that pay more attention to the ordinary. This view has since been supported by philosopher Jacques Rancière who has stressed the similarities between aesthetics and politics and likewise dismissed as a ‘false dichotomy’ (2004, 60) the presupposed differences between art-for-art’s sake and art for political means. He claims ‘they intermix in any case; politics has its aesthetics and aesthetics has its politics’ (2004, 62). Furthermore, Rancière agrees that literature must embrace a range of forms. His words echo those used by Fish at the beginning of this study and suggest that literary form is governed by attitudes and ideology. It can evolve over time. Rancière opined:

This does not mean that it becomes invisible with the emergence of a new regime […] At a given point in time, several regimes coexist and intermingle in the works themselves. (2004, 50)

Neither Ndebele nor Sachs wanted a fundamental change in the direction of South African literature . Instead, they advocated the necessary creation of alternative forms that would mutually inform and improve the quality of South African literature . Thus they implicitly embraced a fluid relationship between politics and culture outside any fixed dichotomy.

This situation seemed to become increasingly untenable. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing to the mid-1990s there was an increased merger of artists into active political roles. Sachs himself was a prominent ANC figure who felt it within his ambit to comment on culture. Serote is another, as he became head of the DAC. And though numerous artists during the transition years ‘slowly cut themselves loose from politics and the [DAC] because they felt their principles of supporting artistic freedom just “reproduced old clichés of the past”’ (Ernst 2002, 19), the new organisations that formed failed to achieve lasting autonomy. Notably, the politically independent National Arts Coalition that found initial success was eventually disbanded. Many of its leading members migrated back to the newly formed (as of 1994) Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology (DACST). Indeed, the DACST’s rhetoric of facilitation and arm’s-length governance of cultural bodies increasingly became a façade for interference and tight monetary control. Funding was withheld from numerous cultural projects and the risk of political prescription grew (Graan n.d.).

6.2 Publishing and Criticism

In the immediate post-apartheid period, the possibility of artistic independence or at least political non-interference appeared to be an increasingly hazy pipe dream. Leading writers merged into the new political hegemony. Similarly, the publishing industry became increasingly centralised. This vastly reduced the number of independent magazines that had proved so important for showcasing new writers and alternative national imaginings.

The reasons for this trend are varied. One possible explanation includes the mainstream media’s expansion into black politics and other areas covered exclusively by alternatives during apartheid. Moreover, to compound this problem, the alternative presses arguably self-harmed by attempting to become mainstream themselves and abandoning the ground that caused their original popularity (Berger 2000, 90). Funding, though, is perhaps the biggest cause behind the reduced diversity in the publishing sector. During the 1980s, the alternative press was positioned as a force of opposition and was heavily reliant on foreign funding, which was primarily sourced from Scandinavia. Such monies dried up in the 1990s. Foreign countries initially supported the alternative press as a contribution to the anti-apartheid effort but, once liberation was achieved, South Africa’s struggles were no longer priorities on their respective foreign policy agendas. Parallel problems were also encountered by the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW ) with similarly fatal consequences. The withdrawal of foreign support led to a financial shortfall that could not be adequately filled. Interestingly, however, it has also been suggested that much of COSAW’s money had been squandered beforehand. But, regardless of an exact reason, it is these financial considerations that, coupled with the mainstream press’ attempts to empower new demographics and acquire a liberation heritage (Oliphant 2000), resulted in the merger of the great stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle into larger conglomerates. Ad Donker was acquired by Jonathan Ball in 1989, which itself was bought 2 years later by Nasionale Pers’ (Naspers) Media24 print division. Elsewhere Hodder & Stoughton achieved majority shares in Ravan Press in 1994 (Altbach and Hoshino 1995). Thus the space for radical or experimental new writing narrowed in favour of more commercially viable and, in many cases, subservient literature.

Looking back on the early years of post-apartheid South Africa, author Damon Galgut lamented this situation and observed how, as a result, ‘a lot of what gets written now is just not terribly good’ (2006). Meanwhile, for Ari Sitas, South African writing temporarily ‘went for a walk’ (2000, 91). What was produced was rarely ground-breaking and often lacked imagination or critical punch. Furthermore, solidarity literature, ‘increasingly characterised by a strategically polite professionalism’ (Johnson 2012, 833), held high favour with politicians and publishers alike. For example, Serote ’s recent works Third World Express and History is the Home Address were criticised for being poetically weak and too politically subservient (Chapman 2009, 176). The government maintained that support was the best way to nation build and, aided by artistic centralisation, this was evinced in leading literature. To quote Lesego Rampolokeng, literature tended towards the ‘bring-on-the-poet-to-lick-the-stage-clean-for-the-politicians thing’ (2003, 138). Academia compounded this decline in literary standards. The initial anthologies of the post-apartheid period arguably failed to significantly push new work and stayed loyal to tried-and-tested writers. From a poetry perspective these collections included Michael Chapman’s The New Century of South African Poetry (2002). Academic literary criticism , meanwhile, struggled to move beyond the binary formulations of yesteryear and maintained a tendency towards ‘black and white, good and bad, past and present’ (Frenkel and MacKenzie 2010, 5). As Tim Couzens (1990) observed, there remained a clear need to reconfigure criticism, to be more critical and adventurous.

This picture of mediocrity has slowly lifted. As a crude measure, the number of entries for South African literary prizes reveals the increasing amount of original new work that has been published in recent years. Yet problems still remain. These new texts receive little visibility in popular circles and the reviews that do exist are ‘largely uncritical and function as free advertising for the publishing houses’ (Johnson 2012, 834). Academia has also struggled to bring this new work to significant attention. This is despite the prevalence of journal articles and scholarly monographs focused on South African literature . Such troubles largely rest on the high cost of open access (Breckenridge 2012) and a lengthening publication backlog. This latter concern owes primarily to a desire to publish in journals on specific accreditation lists, for example, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) approved list. These challenges are significant. They should not, however, obscure the fact that criticism and literature have finally begun to break with the past.

6.3 Poetry of No Sure Place

Eco-criticism, the material history of the book, post-post-apartheid , and post-transitional are just a selection of the new formulations used to explore imaginaries of South Africa now. Ronit Frenkel and Craig MacKenzie (2010) usefully sketch the widening range of post-transitional novelists that have appeared during the last decade. These noted examples, which include Imraan Coovadia and Niq Mhlongo , have embraced new subjects, ‘politically incorrect humour, and inclusive satire’ (Frenkel and MacKenzie 2010, 2) to freshly question solidarity literature. Concurrently, an emerging group of poets are writing experimental and critical poetry. Examples can be seen in the recent anthologies It All Begins edited by Robert Berold and Denis Hirson’s The Lava of this Land.

The most exciting illustration of these new poets has arguably occurred in New Coin . This is a small poetry journal published out of Rhodes University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape and edited by Berold for most of the 1990s. Berold was only fifth choice for the position and, arguably, not the most popular candidate for those within the University’s English Department. This unpopularity and the journal’s decreasing audience meant Berold’s task was not easy. His solution to these challenges was to radically alter New Coin’s direction and discard Guy Butler’s previous editorial style, which relied on a school of liberal white poets who worked amongst a conflicted settler presence. At the risk of further alienating any loyalists, Berold instead chose to pursue a different path. He sought out and mentored ground-breaking new poetry that was prepared to cross the numerous, often emotional and fraught boundaries of a wounded South Africa (Nyezwa 2015). Berold published more risk-taking and marginal content.

Berold ’s editorial decisions became an ideological battle poem by poem. He wanted unique pieces that chimed with his long-standing interest in the experimental work of British artist Tom Pickard and one of his favourite poetry collections, America, a Prophecy. This American anthology published previously unrecognised poets and unofficial texts , including sermons, oral testimonies and gospel music. Berold was likewise looking and finding new poets outside the traditional mould. Consequently, New Coin became increasingly experimental and was not governed by reputation. The result was a conversation among styles, forms and races that began to shake up the country’s literary scene (Berold 2012). New Coin’s pages were filled with different, sometimes conflicting, ideas of the nation. Poets writing from within the academy were positioned alongside those from townships; performance and spoken word poetry was juxtaposed with heavily crafted textual pieces; writing with a fierce South African locale appeared with work that reflected an abundance of global influences.

Lesego Rampolokeng is perhaps the most well known of these poets. Born and raised in Soweto, his collections reflect the violence of his childhood and the turbulent relationships he had with religion and the English language during his upbringing. However, his poetry is best known for its difficult relationship with the incumbent ANC government. Rampolokeng writes to counter the myth of the new South Africa. His poetry exemplifies his call to ‘not let people lie to you about this new South African Rainbow crap’ (2010). Such are the power and extremes of his alternate national imaginings that he is often viewed as an embarrassment by the literary establishment. His critics revile his bluntly critical gaze and ‘dirty aesthetics’ (Johnson 2003, 70). He does, though, have a growing following in South Africa and internationally. His poetry is a clear example of how literature is defined by community attitudes towards it and it is a poetry that mobilises a politically agitated and disaffected youth.

Equally explicit in his criticisms but perhaps more playful is Seitlhamo Motsapi . As a previous university lecturer and member of the President’s Office, Motsapi’s intelligence and erudite nature is reflected in his debut collection, Earthstepper/The Ocean is Very Shallow (1995). Motsapi embraces music and linguistic mischief as the best means of expressing his dissatisfaction. He draws heavily on the cultures and everyday languages of Africa and African-America. Indeed, his approach to language turns ‘the lingua-franca of convenience into the discourse of drug-induced and shamanic madness, which is the only way to liberate us from the everyday’ (Horn 1996, 70). Motsapi’s poetry evokes the necessity of looking again at the utopian dream without blindly accepting it. He implores his readers to consider the depth behind the political rhetoric.

Angifi Dladla is a poet, playwright and language teacher based in the East Rand, Johannesburg. He believes in the healing power of literature and, in his own words, feels ‘poetry demands a search for the essence of things’ (2003, 173). His collection The Girl Who Then Feared to Sleep is thus unsurprising for reaching into the depths of the individual experience. Likewise, Mxolisi Nyezwa’s three collections are notable for their personal, introspective nature. Born in 1976 in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, where he has lived ever since, Nyezwa holds perhaps the bleakest view of South Africa’s future and believes ‘reality is a big lie’ (Nyezwa 2008, 20). His poetry’s frequent movement from sense to sense creates an instability that matches his apprehensions for the new South Africa. While Rampolokeng, Motsapi and Dladla present alternative imaginings that continue to depict a whole—though bleaker—nation, Nyezwa’s images are more fragmented, loose and unbalanced. His poems showcase his opinion that ‘the way things are, we are all just hanging on to pieces of meaning. We don’t see the bigger picture yet. When we see clearly we’ll all be caught off-guard’ (Nyezwa 2008, 25).

These brief biographies of four poets who were published in New Coin illustrate the profound differences on show. Yet, despite these contestations, each poet recognises that a gap is beginning to ‘yawn open between an imagined, ideal future and the bitter social problems remaining on the ground’ (Sole 2014, 56). They present a unified message and grapple with the uncertain and precarious nature of intense social change. There is a united sense of apprehension and instability; a feeling that each poet is refusing to be publicly subservient while simultaneously exploring his or her own personal grievances; a desire for poetry to become an almost cathartic space of expression in a country where everything else often appears controversial and dramatic. Therefore, their poetry adds to a growing post-apartheid disillusionment and sits comfortably within the post-transitional genre. However, perhaps more so than the post-transitional novelists mentioned above, these poets have suffered from the closure of radical publishing spaces. I have discussed elsewhere (Penfold 2016) how their politics and tone has seen them run afoul of dominant publishers and poetry magazines. Consequently, their voices are only known by a small minority of South Africans. They have gained little traction outside of their own immediate literary circles or beyond the few academics that recognise them. They may write poetry that depicts universal experiences and political anxieties shared by the majority of the South African population but this poetry has been heard by very few and respected by even fewer. Thus the Poets of No Sure Place represent a voice that, while being the voice of the people, is not the popular voice. It is a poetic voice that echoes the malaise of sadness and uncertainty that lurks in the consciousness of the new South Africa but has so far been marginalised and not found adequate expression.

6.4 Identity and Blackness

The Poets of No Sure Place cannot be understood as Black Consciousness poets in the same way as others discussed in this study. However, their desire to present challenging ideas of the nation does suggest a continuation of the ideology’s influence. Lesego Rampolokeng ’s poems speak directly to his upbringing in the hotbed of Black Consciousness that was 1970s Soweto. His poem ‘Lines for Vincent’, a tribute to his late cousin, has a sporadic rhyming pattern that he uses to reflect the sporadic gunfire that occurred nightly in the township. This effect is also enhanced by the use of alliterative plosives in phrases such as ‘the bomb bullet blade poison’ (l. 63), which is then followed on the following line by the soft sibilance of ‘or just silence’ (l. 64). And while it can be argued that his performance style and heavy use of free form and staccato rhythm is reminiscent of Caribbean dub poetry, Rampolokeng is keen to stress the importance of his childhood on his work. In his house, he was exposed to the protest poetry aired on Radio Freedom whilst his neighbours simultaneously played jazz music. ‘The lines being read seemed to flow over the music that was coming in through the walls’ (Rampolokeng 2003, 26). Indeed, the fluid cultural influences in his aesthetic speak directly to the imagined cultural environment he created in his head as a child.

Rampolokeng ’s poems are also notable for their often crude sexual imagery. On one level these images depict perhaps the most extreme instance of the ordinary and everyday: The human condition at its most basic and atavistic. Meanwhile such sexuality presents a scathing attack on the current South African dispensation that has become embroiled in corruption, turncoat politics, sexual violence , and economic exploitation. All these claims find support in lines including:

     sexchange jesters for judas-rewards & fighters-to-order
     on yr knees & open wide & cum on the heart
     rather dry ink than bare arse for rim-job/anal attack before
               master & baas (‘Bavino Street Hymns’ [l. 121–24]).

The sexual motif also conjures the images of castration that predominated in Black Consciousness literature . Consider:

     what antidote for colonial-cock-chop-long?
     self-deification          eunuched at conception
     sinking into a cuntal swamp
     where phallus once was now a stump
     retro-suture for the future wounds on the horizon (‘Bavino Street Hymns’ [l. 144–48]).

For Black Consciousness, ‘possession of the sexual member was political shorthand’ (Magaziner 2010, 33). Castration was frequently evoked to either represent the denial of African agency under apartheid or refer to African collaborators in the system. Similarly, Rampolokeng continues to draw on the Freudian metaphor through the dual images of the eunuch and phallic stump. These represent a renewed loss of power that can be linked both to a hangover of the colonial experience and into criticisms of the current government’s tendencies towards neo-colonialism. Neo-colonial policies are similarly castrating. They deny prosperity and limit the possibilities of success on offer to South Africa’s future generations. Interestingly, the above extract also implicitly questions whether what should be a place of growth and reproduction is actually tending towards an overpowering, inhospitable environment. Old methods, made fashionable by neo-colonial politics, are undermining progress and are being used to stitch together a future that will only prolong hurt.

Motsapi similarly evokes the divides between today’s ANC and the wider South African constituency. He speaks of leaders and their ‘bleeding triggah of lies/that quiets the poor’ (‘soffly soffly nesta skank’ [l. 16, 17]) while, exemplifying his linguistic playfulness, he announces the advent of ‘politshams’ (‘soffly soffly nesta skank’ [l. 14]) who play ‘politricks’ (‘drum intervention’ [l. 23]). The latter portmanteau directly references Mickey Smith’s ‘Me Cyaan Believe It’, which was an expression of outrage towards the ghettos in 1980’s London. Smith attacked a Conservative government seen at the time as naturally divided from the British poor. Meanwhile, Motsapi’s anger is directed towards the ANC, who derive their legitimacy to rule from liberating a population they, in reality, now neglect in favour of their own self-interest.

Such dissatisfaction has led to a re-examining of identity and an increased awareness of how blackness is discussed in contemporary society. Race and South Africa’s racial past is increasingly being invoked in political discourse in order to encourage support for the government over any criticism of the ANC project. Racialised rhetoric has become an attempt to nullify opposition and protect the government’s image. In some cases, race has also been used to achieve desired changes in government and business (Ndebele 2000; Krog 2003). It is this usage that Motsapi ’s Earthstepper collection rallies against. Motsapi returns blackness to a force of inspiration, a means to do and not simply to get something. This is powerfully explored in the provocative ‘The sun used to be white’. The opening lines—‘now since blkness can be a betrayal or/a shuttling blaze of glory rending the sky’—dramatise the political divisions within the African population and, read in the context of the poem’s later lines, suggest today’s government betrayed previous Africanist movements that sought to elevate the honour of blackness. Interestingly, the use of ‘shuttling’ reinforces Alistair Sparks’s (1990) observation that Africanist movements have historically occurred in a series of reincarnations and declines.

The major theme of ‘The sun used to be white’ remains the psychological aspect of a continuing liberation struggle. Blackness is deployed as a loud violent cry—evoked through the noun phrases ‘razor clamour’ (l. 8) and ‘scared holler’ (l. 12)—and as an attempt to reassert African history. Motsapi seeks to prevent the inferiority complex of ‘inner decay’ (l. 8) and the possibility of ‘onelessness’ (l. 33). Alongside this intellectual call there also remains physical and spiritual/religious qualities. This juxtaposition creates a three-dimensional struggle which explicitly criticises the national image of contemporary South Africa. For Motsapi, true democracy is not achieved through appearances or clichéd rhetoric. Democracy can only be achieved when it has depth, which it so far lacks.

     & though the ocean clamours into a roar
          though the waters invoke the drowsy spirit
     of thunder
          the ocean is very shallow
          a time short like loss
          a mountain low like hate
     the ocean is very shallow (l. 68–74).

Angifi Dladla also explores identity but he does this through an emphasis on pan-humanism. This said, race is never completely excluded. Dladla occasionally speaks directly to the racism he feels still exists in society. The most notable examples include ‘Whiteness’—‘where whiteness is the equation/of eternal terror and obsession’ (l. 2, 3)—and ‘From Sunrise’. The latter poem sharply contrasts black and white experiences and, by presenting the contrast to whiteness as ‘shadows’ (l. 21), suggests Africans are still defined in the white image. This is reinforced through the almost mirror like reflection of stanza structure. The first stanza reflects the white experience. It speaks of malls:

     with glass complexes
     where escalators show
     eat and eat and eat… (l. 6–13).

The second stanza discusses the contrasting African experience in townships and slums:

     with dusty cul-de-sacs
     where death shows
     solidarity (l. 19–21).

Dladla evokes the limited possibilities available to the African population. They have been continually mistreated and oppressed. The white population, however, gorges unrepentantly. Yet a chance of reconciliation still remains. Dladla does hint towards the possible salvation of joint community and solidarity. Across the collection, he criticises the loss of neighbourliness that stems from materialism . He writes of his beliefs in ‘South Africa’s ideas of ubuntu [which, he feels,] can be found among inhabitants of countries right across the globe’ (Sole 2010).

‘When I was a Child’ is another poem that evokes white racism . In this instance, Dladla highlights the violence and injustices of colonial rule while simultaneously evoking the white attitude of superiority. Clear, simple lexis makes white superiority appear unquestionable: ‘their ways/are all superlatives’ (l. 25, 26). Yet the use of the past tense throughout ‘When I Was A Child’ suggests a degree of similarity can be found amongst races if one accepts ideas of pan-humanism. Here, Dladla begins to practice his assertion that ‘I am not dealing with race—but with humanity and bodies’ (2003, 181). This claim finds support elsewhere, as Dladla evokes unracialised bodies in order to discuss the fundamentals of human existence and not physical differences. He repeatedly stresses a sense of togetherness and warns against materialistic individualism that will result in ‘bodies today;/nobodies tomorrow’ (‘Bodies’ [l. 11, 12]).

6.5 Physicality and Dreaming

Dladla’s warnings against materialism resonate with those offered by Motsapi through his analysis of black music in Earthstepper. For example, Motsapi continually refers to the synthesiser as a symbol for the problems of capitalism, materialism and neo-liberalism . He juxtaposes this with sounds of a musical tradition from across the African Diaspora . His poems lament the loss of this traditional sound in the wake of artificially produced music intended for the consumer marketplace. Motsapi writes in ‘maasi dreadbeat’, ‘the drums gather dust’ (l. 31) and for ‘too long, way too long/the mountains haven’t heard flutes’ (l. 34, 35). This poem is proceeded by ‘brotha saul’ where the powerful idioms of the African continent—symbolised by ‘de lyaans’ (l. 2)—are now evoked purely for touristic gain. They are ‘frozen in their gloss of postcard’ (l. 4). This notion of a lost African identity is positioned against the West and its associated music.

In ‘solo/together’ these sounds are merely remembered ones overshadowed by ‘my son’s synthesiser’ which ‘spat blue red venomous disco’ (l. 19, 20). Moreover, the synthesiser produces ‘electrick kisses/that laugh like delayed thunder’ (l. 27, 28) as:

     america upright like an alligator
     rained her chabois who smiled like sulphor
     into the parched belli of saddam
     for a time there was a fears
     peace wd hobble the oily east’s
     while darkness salaamed wall street (l. 29–34).

Here, the economic self-interest behind American expansion and international interference is laid bare. Elsewhere in the poem Motsapi also speaks of large Western corporations. He describes the global market place of consumerism thus, ‘the coca-cola cartel were the rats/dancing in the maze’ (l. 11, 12). Interestingly, this opposition against increasing American influence reflects concerns expressed by Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka in ‘United Snakes of America’. For both poets, America’s neo-colonial and materialistic culture is an unwanted occupant damaging local ways of life.

Despite these wider international comments on materialism , Motsapi ’s main focus remains South Africa and the troubling effects of the ANC ’s neo-liberal Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR ) policy. ‘Earth’ is just one example that speaks against this top-down macro-economic approach and reveals the follies of urban migration that has increased in its wake. It is clear through the title that those who have suffered are those who rely on the land. There has been no decline in rural poverty despite the promises made by the elites when they introduced GEAR . The dream has become unobtainable and economic gaps have widened:

     but now you see me
     all earthscent skewed skunk
          pulp in the rot to a fetter
     now you see me
     a bruising stagger
          hammered to hell
          & screwed to a grovel by capital
     while their dream comes true
          suited greed to highrise paradise
          pulsing oil glitter through lucre (l. 13–23).

Motsapi ’s condemnations of capitalism are clearly evident here through the use of half-rhyme, for example ‘hell/capital’, and the end focus on ‘lucre’. However, this extract is also notable for bringing together a range of intensely physical and bodily images. These constructions allow the poem to flow from sense to sense, from the visual to the olfactory and the tactile which are ‘constantly conflated […] in a frenzy of synaesthesia ’ (Chrisman 1996, 33). Motsapi, therefore, embraces the synaesthesia of high-modernism that was originally conceived to resist easy commodification and ideas of mass culture. Motsapi ’s techniques are calling for a return to critical art. He attacks a consumer society based on simulacra where images are presented to obscure reality yet become accepted as truths themselves. Motsapi’s physicality provides a dynamic force that exposes the falsities of these images and, instead, reveals the actual realities of life. This allows him to then criticise prevailing images of the Rainbow Nation that are characterised by a facile pluralism. Motsapi, like Rampolokeng disputes such portrayals and presents a more dystopic imagining of the nation where ‘the “human” is a space intersected by material constraints and subject to the manipulations of the powerful’ (Sole 2007, 153).

In attempting to move beyond materialism and ideas of the human as subject, Motsapi also enters into dialogue with spirituality and dreaming. The poetic voice in Earthstepper is often that of a lone male who, though acted upon by powerful consumer forces, seeks to preserve the spirituality of his own culture against the inauthentic representations that dominate the global marketplace. These authentic cultural practices are often depicted with religious and spiritual lexis. Indeed, Motsapi’s poetry uses these more ephemeral themes to warn against the ‘false redemptionism of messianism’ (Chrisman 1996, 33) which characterises prevailing attitudes towards African culture. Second, and continuing the dialogue with an illusive spirituality, Motsapi warns against the power of dreaming. Dreams may allow for the return of African history but, in today’s materialistic culture, this history may not maintain its essence. Dreams give and take.

This paradox finds expression in Earthstepper’s final poem ‘river robert’. Here the image of South Africa Motsapi presents dismisses the utopian dreams of transition .

     i have one eye full of dreams & hintentions
     the other is full of broken mirrors
     & cracked churchbells

     i have one eye full of rivers & welcomes
     the other is full of flickers & fades (l. 14–18).

If, as Chrisman suggests, Earthstepper is an analytical collection that ‘follows a careful, subtle sequence [outlining] the fundamentals of his aesthetic-political concerns’ (1996, 35), then Motsapi is ultimately unable to offer a definitive route out of society’s problems. The collection begins by suggesting the fading of the liberation dream—‘i tell us this love/because the roads/have become hostile’ (‘sol/o’ [l. 20–22])—and ends with a dream that still exists but has retreated into a series of flickers and fades. Motsapi presents an alternative imagining of the nation and reminds his audience that the possibility of history repeating itself is very much alive. Broken mirrors do not stop reflecting; rather they present a distorted image with cracks in new places.

Dladla’s work similarly includes a tension between physicality and spirituality . The Girl Who Then Feared to Sleep collection begins with a six-part chapter entitled ‘Dreaming’. There is the constant feeling of something unknown that cannot be grasped:

     In search of a vocal mirage
     Which becomes an echo
     The nearer they advance (‘The Intangible’ [l. 19–21])

This is best illustrated in the opening decastich, ‘Song of a Fertility Doll’. This poem expresses the innate but elusive power within all humans. This spirit remains throughout life’s journey and drives emotions: ‘i’m the shadow, I won’t drown […] i’m the shadow that leads’ (l. 2–4). Possibly read as an allusion to Psalm 23, the shadow acts as a reassuring, safe presence and drives connotations of hope and life. There is only shadow where there is light. Finally, it is hoped this essence will create a more physical reality: ‘listen to the silence in silence—/the dream materialising…’ (l. 8, 9). A more material physicality then grows through the collection and Dladla harnesses this tactility to suggest South Africa’s troubles and continuing violence . Dladla embraces:

concise, surreally tinted but devastating images of the real; who can forget the corpse in the street after necklacing in the poem ‘Impression’ that resembles ‘human gravy in the sun’? Or [in ‘Vacancy’] the ‘red/shoe on the railway’ that ‘licks shuddering wounds and/wails like a cheated/coffin’. (Sole 2010)

Spirituality and dreaming giving way to more physical distress is a hallmark of Poetry of No Sure Place . These poets suggest that the dreamt democratic success of post-apartheid South Africa has largely failed to appear. However, though uncomfortable imaginings of the new nation are presented, there is still hope. Dladla , like Motsapi , warns against the very real possibility of history repeating itself: ‘The way you are, is the way he was’ (‘The Building, The Weapon, The Way’ [l. 7]). But he has not given up. Images of fertility are conjured at the beginning of the collection. Meanwhile, Dladla returns to the notion of a human essence at the end of his collection when he suggests another new beginning. When evoking the apparent finality of death in ‘Song of the Aged’, the gaze, at the last moment, is turned inward to an inexhaustible light, ‘but a bright star i hear far, far…/within’ (l. 26, 27).

Poetry of No Sure Place is epitomised by this tension between despair and a desire to keep believing. These are poets rendered off balance by the apparent incongruence of idealism and realism. Nowhere is this more visible than across Mxolisi Nyezwa’s three collections of poetry. ‘Things Change’, the first poem of his opening collection Song Trials, speaks of an enduring belief in the possibility of change, yet one that is mixed with uncertainty. The poem includes the prophecy ‘at least then, it won’t be like this/it will be a totally new suffering’ (l. 1, 2). This said, any future failure is described as born from love and misplaced optimism:

     it will be like a song set free
     from a careless heart…
     (our failure will have its dignity) (l. 18–20)

Following ‘Things Change’ is ‘It All Begins’, a second poem that depicts a new South Africa that began ‘with the promise of peace/in the avalanche of lies’ (l. 12, 13). Again, however, such pessimism is not final. Change continues and may bring hope: ‘and it all begins/and it will never cease’ (l. 21, 22).

This hopeful future becomes less apparent in Nyezwa’s second collection, New Country. The title poem appears as an ironic love song to the new nation:

     new country
     i bow down
     towards you (l. 7–10).

Nyezwa then reveals how the new South Africa has not yet become the imagined panacea. He depicts ‘men and women with money’ (l. 16) who have abandoned the dreams of ‘fallen heroes and comrades’ (l. 20) and not met popular expectations. Nyezwa warns that disquiet and change can reoccur:

     the revolution will begin
     and the fathers and teachers
     follow like funerals in the wake

     new country
     the struggle continues
     revolutions never end (l. 32–37).

At the end of this second collection, Nyezwa begins to depict his growing despair by moving from physicality to a spiritual and religious focus. Here spirituality acts as a ‘symbol of self and of presence’ (Metelerkamp 2001, 123). Contrary to Motsapi and Dladla , such spirituality does not represent an inextinguishable hope but rather introspection and profound solitude. This is most evident when Nyezwa describes himself as ‘a shadow/in a blue ship’ (From A Blue Container in Motherwell’ [l. 5, 6]) cast away on the large, relentless ‘stony sea’ (l. 19). Elsewhere, in ‘Walking the Earth’, Nyezwa’s disillusion is juxtaposed alongside a questioning of his own significance:

     i have been thinking of my life
     as a man busy drowning
     with no hope of martyrdom
     or staying alive.
     and during the many storms of my life
     what happened?
     what really happened? (l. 6–16).

This despairing, hopeless commentary epitomises Nyezwa’s most recent collection, Malikhanye, which is a tribute to his late son. Once again returning to the metaphor of death, Nyezwa’s images of South Africa suggest very little change.

     now i understand the world
     i know the world is shallow
     with its own fine sea
     with its water and minerals
     and so little has changed (‘From a Blue Container in Motherwell’ [l. 7–11]).

Nyezwa is not content with merely depicting failed change. Rather, he seeks to understand why. In ‘To Know You’ each stanza begins with a desire for knowledge. Nyezwa alternates between ‘i want to know’, ‘i want to find you’, ‘i want to see you’, ‘i want to hear you’ as his desire for knowledge moves from sense to sense in a manner that highlights his use of the allusive image. This desire to connect on every level characterises a lack of progression and completeness. This thus creates a permanent sense of uncertainty—an imbalance that reflects Nyezwa’s personal apprehension and the tensions of Poetry of No Sure Place .

6.6 Unspeakable New Imaginings

Rampolokeng ’s alternations between spirituality and physicality are done to a range of effects that differ from those above. For example, religion is frequently juxtaposed alongside the sexualised and grotesque body. In ‘Welcome to the New Consciousness’, Rampolokeng writes:

     some have ejaculations for lunch
     some count on cunt cum
     while some just read palms and psalms
     for a sum of things to come (l. 27–30).

Through these two motifs, Rampolokeng explores the hypocrisies of the church and uses the ‘low’ to desacralise the ‘high’ (Veit-Wild 1997, 563). Indeed, Rampolokeng—who was strictly brought up in a Catholic environment—has long interpreted religion as a source of violence . He believes the presence of an omnipresent God to be nothing more than a thinly veiled threat for people to follow the righteous path, what he has previously described as religion’s ‘THIS or DEATH kind of situation’ (2003, 23).

Rampolokeng ’s use of religion can be read as a rebellion against faith and a warning against uncritically following a force believed to bring good. He attacks the ANC on similar grounds. ‘Welcome to the New Consciousness’ exposes the dangers of unwavering political loyalty. Rampolokeng reveals the discrepancies between reality and rhetoric by representing a ‘sham change’ (l. 35). The example:

     for some the sun
     for some the moon
     for some (perhaps the wise)
     both the sun moon shall rise (l. 12–15).

emphasises the clear divisions that still exist within society. Meanwhile the connotations of sun and moon as light and dark suggest that these divides are still largely felt on a racial basis. However, this said, the use of parenthesis could be seen as suggesting the uncertain possibility of racial equality, though the use of ‘some’ that is used to create these divisions again suggests a vague, imprecise quality that doubts today’s divisions fit the clearly marked ones of the past. Either way, separations remain inescapable. The couplet ‘some sit in the power tower/some shit in a flower shower’ (l. 6, 7) offers another example. The words themselves reveal the new society’s fundamental contradictions—evoked by the rhymed ‘tower’ and ‘shower’—where some rise and others fall. Such difference belies an unconscious equality suggested in the similar structure, rhyme pattern and repeated sibilance.

‘Welcome to the New Consciousness’ is notable for its simple lexis and hyperrealist images. These features allow Rampolokeng to provide an overpowering barrage of images that explode the myth of change. The sharpest criticism comes with the use of word play:

     WELCOME to the new consciousness
     of derearranged senses
     we utilise everyone (l. 59–61).

The new consciousness is portrayed as a reversion to the previous. The rearrangement that took place after transition has been undone and, with the temptation to read ‘deranged’ and ‘derearranged’, it is seen as a state of confusion, even insanity. Moreover, the final line suggests a lack of independent power. The people are not actors who actively shape their own destiny but subjects to be used by a more powerful force.

Rampolokeng ’s criticism and the shocking state of the alternative South Africa he presents led him to be vilified by the literary establishment. They claimed he was not airing the popular consensus. However, in disproving this view, Rampolokeng took aim at the establishment itself and made a bid to reinstate poetry’s function of ‘allowing access to a more sublime or insightful “truth”’ (Sole 2007). In ‘Talking Prose’, Rampolokeng asserts that poetry’s function is not that of the ‘rent-a-poet’ (l. 2) enterprise he feels is advocated by the government’s cultural arm. He suggests these poets who ‘pose with a rose’ (l. 8) have washed their hands of poetry’s true function. Offering pure gratification neglects the truth behind government rhetoric and ignores the situation most South Africans face:

     now poetry is a beauty pageant
     jump the class fence land in affluence
     but what lies beyond the prettiness of the performance
     when gangrene sets in after the applause? (l. 16–19).

Many of the poets published in Berold ’s New Coin joined Rampolokeng in rallying against the ‘commodification of poetry in the new South Africa’ (Sole 2010). They present alternative imaginings of the nation, ones they feel reflect the experiences of the majority.

This critical tone in a country like South Africa that has such a longstanding tradition of solidarity literature has led to further tension, which I briefly mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. The Poets of No Sure Place are left unsure whether they should write at all since their criticisms are not widely heard and often fall on deaf ears. And while all the poets discussed in this chapter exemplify this paradox to some degree, Nyezwa writes it explicitly into his work. He is clear that there is an important task for the poet to undertake despite the marginality that ensues. This dilemma is expressed in ‘The Poet’s Failure’:

     driven by cold emotions into the shades and shadows
     of a dying land, we had words that choked to be said—
     and we never said them (l. 12–14).

Nyezwa also questions the worth of his poetry given that it is not the popular voice. A reoccurring theme in New Country is the tension between his need to write and his feelings of frustration caused by the fact his words seem so inconsequential:

     i have to be serious about many things
     the strength in my little finger
     my poems which make no meaning (‘I Have to be Serious About Many Things’ [l. 1–3]).

Malikhanye takes this even further. Nyezwa asserts, ‘don’t ask me about any of my poems/for i will tell you that people are murdered in my country’ (‘The Road Ahead’ [l. 1, 2]). He presents a view of literature that matches his political view. Despite suffering to write, he feels his art is almost worthless. Notwithstanding the struggles that took place, the new South Africa he portrays has seen very few improvements. Nyezwa’s poetry, like all Poetry of No Sure Place , presents an alternative South African nation where hope is rapidly fading. A veil of post-apartheid disillusionment is tightening its grip.

     suddenly everything falls into place
     all my aching agonies
     hurry up to nothing (‘A Burning Sea’ [l. 6–8]).


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of JohannesburgJohannesburgSouth Africa

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