Poetry & Politics

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The arts and culture space in the Township

I had the privilege of attending the InZync Poetry Session last night at the Township’s incredible arts and culture space with Esme and the Dutch student who is also living at Mama’s. The venue was jumping, crammed full of mostly young people, white and black, all very cool and hip and arty. The line-up was pretty stellar, and included a Syrian now living in France, a Nigerian, South Africa’s Dissident Poet, South Africa’s Poet Laureate, and a number of exceptionally talented young local artists.

The caliber of the poetry was like nothing I have have ever witnessed before. Spectacular poetry. I was particularly impressed by the amateurs who performed. So, so moving and evocative and powerful. Clearly I am not a poet, because I am utterly at a loss to describe how bodily and emotionally and intellectually I was moved by their words and performances. (Obviously I forgot to bring my audio recorder, so I tried to catch some sound using the video setting on my camera).

I have had a number of conversations with various people over the past several weeks about the surprising (to me) lack of anger that I sense in many of the people I have met here. I feel that if I were living in a Township, after having been forced to leave my home community because the ruling minority decided that my part of town was ‘desirable,’ if I saw these prosperous gated communities and massive wine farms and old white people driving Bentleys and Aston Martins I would be PISSED. One incredible Mama that I met, who had been a social justice advocate at a time when her colleagues were being assassinated, told me that it takes too much energy and eats away at you to hold on to all that anger and resentment. Another incredible Mama told us about when people had to wear a large placard around their necks, known as ‘dompas‘ (literally ‘dumb pass’), any time they wanted to leave the Township to go to town; this while she hosted my dad and I for lunch in her home and laughingly encouraged me to keep trying to learn to cook chakalaka.

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A pink BMW convertible drives past Mama’s house in the Township

These conversations generally lead to talking about how the students are angry, and I have touched on the student protests already in a previous post, but I don’t think I have adequately expressed how PISSED they are. I got a real taste of just how angry some of the students are last night.

The poets spoke about their anger at living in townships, about having been taught a history that glorifies their colonial oppressors, about being robbed of their culture and dignity, about the stupid wine farms. About seeing white people clutch a little more tightly at their bags and edge a little further away on the sidewalk when this particular young black man approaches. There were lots of fists clenched high in solidarity and protest. There was singing and cheering. I didn’t understand all of it, as a lot of the poetry was in Xhosa, but believe me when I say that I felt it. And I know that I barely grasped a fraction of what was going on due to my total lack of understanding of what it is to be South African.

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In this photo you can see the white suburb on the right, wine fields, the farm manor house at the far left, and the shacks on the lower right.

At one point, a performer asked the other poet on the stage, ‘Do you hate all white people?’ as part of the dialogue in their performance. Without missing a beat, someone in the front row shouted, ‘YES!’ and the room erupted. There was laughter – the outburst didn’t feel hostile or threatening – but there were for sure a few ‘Damn straights!’ in there as well.

Now let’s put this in perspective (from my perspective): easily 40-50% of the people in that room were white. Two of the poets were white, as was the DJ. And the white poets spoke very evocatively about the need for change. In that moment I felt strongly how little some South Africans feel has been accomplished in terms of achieving racial equity. At the same time and upon further reflection, I’m fairly certain that a mixed-race crowd erupting into laughter and cheering at a statement of ‘I hate black people’ would literally be national news.

A short while later, the MC came on stage and asked that these discussions be held respectfully and without hostility. He said that these are issues that must be discussed, in spite of discomfort and awkwardness, but they must be discussed in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation. Afterwards, Esme told us just how rare these discussions really are, that honest conversations about race and all that implies, in her understanding at least, are almost taboo among many South Africans.

And did I feel guilty, standing there in the back of that room? You bet I did (thank you Catholic upbringing). Shame flooded over me when the young man talked about seeing white people grasp at their purses at his approach. I may not have pulled that exact move (I hope), but I have been guilty of wondering if certain black men in a crowd are looking for an opportunity to snatch something of mine. To be fair, my white skin stands out like a neon sign in the Township, and at any given point in time I am usually carrying enough sellable stuff to literally change a person’s life (I’m saying literally too much, but it’s true). I have also been robbed by young black men at least six times in various countries in Africa. And the family I am staying with is constantly advising against my leaving the yard alone, to the point that they come and stand on the sidewalk in front of the house to wait for the bus with me (yes, it feels exactly like kindergarten). On Sunday afternoon I wanted to bring something to a Mama who lives half a block away and had to be accompanied by Mama’s daughter and three little kids. Are they acting in an overabundance of caution? Probably. And is it unfair to the residents of this community, who have been nothing but kind and welcoming to me? Absolutely. But guess what the narrative becomes if something bad happens to me or any other visitor to the Township? What then gets told of what is ‘true’ about this community?

At any rate, last night’s experience at InZync is not one I will soon forget. It has given me a lot to ponder about race, rage, and the powerfully painful legacies of colonialism (one of which, of course, is my presence here).

 

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