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Grandmothers Teaching: A view from South Africa

The proliferation of MA in Creative Writing programmes at universities raises questions of how creative practice is being institutionalised, incorporated, and made complicit within the system. Amidst calls to decolonise South Africa’s education curriculum, three writer-teachers reflect on how and why they teach, and on the possibilities of a committed and emancipatory teaching praxis. The following pieces are drawn from presentations given at the 2016 Teaching Practices in Creative Writing colloquium at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

Outside the Classroom/Off the Page

Lesego Rampolokeng


That I end up teaching in the Rhodes MACW course is near miraculous, since, from a very early age, I was not encouraged to read. I had this very evil aunt – she was very terrible, vicious – who stood against the existence of books in the house. Books breed rats, she said, and if you have books you are going to have an abundance of cockroaches in the house. So she would take the books and throw them out to be rained on in the yard. I think that’s where I started struggling with the written word.

The spoken word… I got my first taste of poetry, of the musicality of the word, in the inherent rhythms of language from my grandmother, who could not read or write, except the numbers one to 36… that’s because she played Fa-fi. I’m not joking when I say that for poetic flow, for cadence, for rhythm and, you know, rhyme, this Eminem guy or Nas or whoever would stand no chance against my grandmother.

So books themselves were burned and burned, but the spoken word itself kept coming, with all the poetry I could possibly imagine. I got that from my grandmother. I came out of, for instance, the church, the Catholic church, because that’s where I encountered the poetry of Black Consciousness. Regina Mundi in Soweto was one place where you could have Ingoapele Madingoane, Matsemela Manaka, Maishe Maponya perform for us and my brothers.

Most creative writing teaching occurs outside the classroom. Those of us who frequent shebeens can attest to the fact that the art of storytelling is in there. There are no greater storytellers than drunkards and children, and for these I was always first in the audience. Like Bosman says, it’s no use having a great story if you don’t know what to leave out, where to introduce the tension, or whatever. That I got in shebeens, that I got in kindergarten grounds listening to children speak. That’s where I got a knowledge of where to hone my writing. That’s why it’s rather ridiculous to be saying to a creative writing teacher that they shouldn’t fraternise with their students, as has been said to me. I prefer to drink with my students and that’s exactly where the writing gets to happen. Dambudzo Marechera’s Scrapiron Blues includes a whole lot of shebeen tales, as he called them.


This piece appears in the Chronic, April 2017.

I refuse to regard creative writing as something which only belongs on the page. I’ve drawn my own inspiration from the old Setswana man, Ratsie Setlhako, an incredible poet, from whom I can draw a straight line to the Caribbean isle of Jamaica, to the person who is seen as the godfather of toasting, U Roy; from U Roy to the poet I Roy, and from there to hip-hop with Public Enemy, and draw it right back down there. That is why in my poetry seminars I use hip-hop music, reggae music, video clips – I use every single place I can think of where the word is alive. Wherever I can find it, I attempt to then reproduce that in the class. To make us, you know, move away from this ridiculous belief that the page is God – if it’s on the page then “oh wow, it’s holy”, but if it’s coming out of your mouth… doesn’t carry the same weight, especially coming from the fact that we live in a country that does not respect African languages. What I also attempt to do is to break the English language from within; have it speak, as they say, in the voices of the land.

In giving these little anecdotes, I’ve tried to show that the themes and the poetics with which I am involved, attempt to break away from the Shakespearean, from the Goethe-based, from the whatever. I celebrate Pier Paolo Pasolini and Antonin Artaud who are essentially literary outlaws, who speak from the gutter, one could say, who speak from the street corner, who speak from the shebeen of which we’ve spoken, who speak in ways that are not jacket-and-tied up. That’s what I attempt, both to create in my own literature and to impart to whatever student might be interested.

Rampolokeng is a poet, playwright, novelist and filmmaker and a teacher in the MACW programme at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.


Teaching Creative Writing in African Languages

Sabata Mokae


I work for a university – Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley – that is not yet three years old. We are starting everything from the ground, literally everything. It is still being built physically, and so is the academic project, which includes the creative writing programme.

For a new creative writing programme, the question was: “Why do you want to teach creative writing when there are more than ten universities doing that in South Africa already?” I write in an African language and I believe we must grow creative writing in African languages, so I wanted to make that the foundation of the programme. Which led to other questions: “What do we do with African language writing? What are your concerns with it?”

I do have concerns. The biggest concern is about quality. Writing in an African language means that you have to read literature in that language. But publishers like to cut corners. Sometimes their proofreaders are people who speak the language but are not writing the language, or maybe not even reading it. They disregard issues like dialect. They expect somebody who speaks Setswana in Pretoria to proofread a piece written by Motswana in Thaba ‘Nchu. The other concern is exposure to feedback. Are people writing in African languages exposed to the same level of criticism of those who are writing English? Are they exposed to the same kind of training and education? The answers are: “no”, “no”, and “no”.

What do we do? Do we allow African language literature to die a natural death? Do we simply accept that it does not enter the mainstream? People who write in African languages largely write for the school-prescribed book market; that is not mainstream. I personally refuse to write books for schools. I know there’s big money there, but it works against mainstreaming African language writing. I’m happy to hear someone say they’ve got their last R200 and they’re going to buy my novel and read it. That’s the reader I want: not someone who reads it because if they don’t, they will fail an exam.

So we said to our new university leaders, “no, we are not going to allow writing in African languages to die, we’ve got to start somewhere”. That’s when we decided that we are going to introduce urban creative writing in African languages. But which African languages? We started by looking at where we are. Where we live, roughly 70% of the people speak Setswana.

So we chose Setswana. At the same time we said this is not where we are going to end, we need to think of other languages. We included the other African language spoken in the Northern Cape, which is isiXhosa. And then there’s Afrikaans. People think that Afrikaans is spoken largely by white people, but most of the people who speak Afrikaans are not white. Even black people speak Afrikaans when they are angry. It is very easy to express anger in Afrikaans, “I’m going to moer you!” So we decided on these three languages.

English as an international language is overrated. It does not even give you access to half the African continent, you know? Why can I not write in a language that is spoken by more than ten times the population of Iceland when I have a writer friend in Iceland who has 26 books written in Icelandic? My thinking is that if your book is good, it will get translated. It will get adapted. It will develop feet. It will move.

It’s not going to be an overnight thing. It’s like climbing a mountain, because multilingual as it is, South African literature is still very much generally English speaking, you know? My white friends don’t know how it feels to write in a language that’s not yours, that you don’t speak every day. I was born to parents who speak Setswana, I live in a community that speaks Setswana. The cops speak Setswana, the petrol attendants speak Setswana, the students at the university speak Setswana. There is absolutely no way that my English is going to be better than my Setswana. It is so unnecessary for someone like me to punish himself, to express himself in a second language, writing something as long as a novel, when I can do that in my mother tongue. I tasted freedom the day I wrote my first Setswana novel. I said, “Oh, so it feels like this, nê?”

Mokae writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction in English and Setswana. He is the author of the biography, The Story of Sol T Plaatje, and the head of the MACW programme at Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley.


Trauma and Image

Mxolisi Nyezwa


In my teaching of writing I often draw on my early years of growing up in New Brighton, especially our country’s past and its divisive politics, how being born black in South Africa affected my childhood and my first awareness of poetry and its meaning in my life. I have learned that the doubts and the confusion of childhood are the green pastures of poetry, the only respite to the blackness of my soul. I believe everyone has a difficult story – it is an endless source. My role as a teacher is to encourage students to find theirs, and for poets that always means finding their own embedded images.

History and the Image

I am aware that my own birth was a fractional accident, a molecular happening. A squiggle of sperm met an ovum in the subway. A collision happened. A heedless man was born.

The horror of history is not found in the history textbooks. The horror is not in the stories that are written which we read with three eyes open, one eye guarding the fire, another sculpting the stars and counting the passing seconds. The horror lies in our minds. It is in the images that history has embedded in our minds. This truth was revealed to me by my task as a poet who looks for answers in his life, a poet who has nothing comforting to share with the world.

Thirty years ago, when my suffering was most acute, I became a prophet in my township of New Brighton. I had a more honest way of looking at the world, a poet’s vision of a skewed lamp and a convex glass lens. I didn’t know what was happening around me. All I knew were the fleeting images of dust and death, billowing smoke that spoke of burned bodies, angry bullets from the mercenary soldiers of the illegitimate government. I was a teenager and just starting to experiment with writing my poems, I was a broken ship, a soup ladle, a nubile soul.

I remember the day that I was invited to a poetry seminar at a university in Port Elizabeth. After the students’ quite penetrating comments I was also asked by the English poetry lecturer to respond. I mentioned that the gross and stark imagery of my poem referred to the Red Location, a corrugated and poor black area in Port Elizabeth, during the early 1970s.

The lecturer grew visibly upset. He remonstrated that poets are not really needed for input at his university as their comments are often misplaced and inappropriate to the scholastic requirements of the English class. The offending input was my reference to the bucket system which de-humanised black Africans for many years: to relieve themselves, black South Africans had to squat on a black bucket in communal toilets. These buckets were lined up in long torturous rows under stinging sunlight all over Red Location to be collected and emptied by the municipal workers, ooSovityo. These were the important and defiant images that I was thinking about when I wrote my poem which were now being contested and thrown out of court by the learned professor.

Teaching writing

Being a poet has taught me how to live with and survive the cruelty of childhood. I have discovered that poems that speak most profoundly for me, that I constantly use as crutches for support, are able to transcend the disturbing images that hold them together, and serve as water that quenches my thirst.

When I teach I use these and other stories to show students that what is already embedded in their minds is the source of all poetry. I do this by exercises that aim to evoke acute experiences in the students’ minds. These experiences can be of a pleasant or unpleasant nature. I am particularly attracted to pain as I think it ruffles the mind more, spiralling the student to the havoc of unanswered questions and dark feelings. This method of teaching writing by introducing to the student a negative stimulus is similar to taking an ice cream cone from a child. It is a shock treatment, introducing irritation and discomfort. The student is guided to focus on the drama of his elliptical emotions, channel the energetic outbursts into a poem to best contain the array of feelings, and yet keep them in an order. The sequencing of the poem’s words and stanzas doesn’t have to be in any logical semantic order, but the poem must still contain enough internal coherence and energy to survive the instability or disruption of its presence: the obvious loss of a map and a country for the poem.

The successful poems for me, as a teacher and as a poet, are the ones that will achieve the balance between the disturbing feeling of remembering a personal calamity, and the ability to remain calm and energised, remembering to breathe freely under water while holding your breath. True writing comes from our deaths, large and small.


Nyezwa is a poet with several volumes of poetry to his name and the editor of Kotaz, a multilingual South African journal. He lives in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, and teaches in the MACW programme at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.


This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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