Tumelo Khoza at Poetry Africa 16
By Rustum Kozain
As much as I am loathe to discuss poetry along that old-school split of “print” and “performance” poetry and all the variants both branches spawn, it is necessary to remark, that the annual Poetry Africa festival in Durban has done much to dissolve that boundary for audiences. Or, to dissolve the boundary in terms of what audiences may understand poetry to be. Some staid critics have remarked on how the festival has devolved into a ‘spoken-word festival’ – referring to poetry that depends more on the performance or dramatic qualities of the speaking voice than the ‘recitation’ of print poetry does.
This is a back and forth that seems unending. Some oral poetry is terrible, no matter how good the delivery, and some good ‘print’ poetry is often destroyed by weak, unrehearsed reading. Good poetry is good poetry, no matter the primary medium of its delivery.
And Poetry Africa 16 (October 2012) was full of good poetry. I was riveted during readings and performances by, among many more, Saul Williams, D’bi Young, Tolu Ogunlesi, Werewere Liking, Nii Ayikwei Parkes and a group of Swedish poets, a collective known as Ordsprak, whose material, in general, crossed and transgressed the oral/print boundary in intriguing ways.
Also noteworthy was the general bent towards an almost collective progressive politics, especially also among South African poets. Croc-E Moses’s mind-bending wordplay exposed ideologies of power behind our most common news discourses. An intense piece by Mbali Vilakazi fused poetry and movement and took on the intersection between women’s oppression, capital and environmental destruction. At open mic sessions on the fringe of the main events young poets had a thing or two to say about South African politics.
Perhaps it is because I haven’t been to Poetry Africa the previous few years, perhaps it is because I’m resident in Cape Town, but the event felt to me like a revival of progressive political culture – as if poetry in South Africa is also now riding a global wave of dissatisfaction in which young people are speaking out about local and global political issues.
The youngest South African poet at the event was Tumelo Khoza (b. 1989). Having been attending the festival since she was fifteen, she was ecstatic about debuting as a participant and quickly overcame her nervous anxiety during a performance that, I swear, almost set the auditorium alight. With “This Young Man,” a risqué poem in which she reverses traditional gender roles in the mating game, she called a fellow poet onstage, had him sit cross-legged on the floor and addressed this prospective “lover” with lines that ranged from the romantic to the searingly erotic. And as if that was not enough, the refrain to the poem was “Give a girl a bone.” (Based on the nursery rhyme “This old man”.) Her mother was in the audience, to whom she had apologised beforehand, but her attitude nevertheless suggests a fearlessness in poetry that perhaps only young poets in South Africa are prepared to muster.
In two other poems, “Mr. President” and “Democracy”, this fearlessness finds expression in a poetic discourse that seems unburdened by any historical relativism that may soften criticism of ANC politicians. While “Mr. President” was written while Thabo Mbeki was in power, Khoza did not introduce the poem as such. Mbeki is unnamed in the poem and while some details clearly reference him, the poem may as well have been addressed to Jacob Zuma:
Mr President please,
Tell us, what do you do for my people and me
When your promises are hand-painted on kasi walls
Yet these streets you never walk,
When we believe you,
Yet you always talk the same broken fraud
In articulated tongues …
We are starting to yawn!
WHAT, MR PRESIDENT?
ARE WE DUMB, MR PRESIDENT?
We refuse to be quiet
Or else we’ll never die old.
So bold you look in your flashy car
And your fancy home
LOOK AT US WHEN YOU TALK TO US!
LOOK AT US WHEN YOU TALK TO US!
LOOK AT US AS WE SPEAK!
While the poetry may appear flat on the page, it is of course in the delivery, the rhythms and emphases that the poet’s voice adds, that bring power to the poem. Add to this a present context where the ANC’s responses to criticism includes dismissing “clever blacks” and demanding “respect” for the president, his office and elders, I found the poem particularly powerful. It is, after all, the cultural component of a growing dissatisfaction and restiveness also among young South Africans that has found expression in strikes and local rebellions. And it is a demand to be heard and for those in power to face the causes and reasons for dissatisfaction.
In “Democracy”, Khoza personifies our political system as a disaffected teenager, a boy who is simply a reflection on those in power “who lift a clenched fist of a revolutionary hypocrisy”. In the context of the many social and political contradictions in South Africa – the broken promises, rural neglect, the self-enrichment of BEE, etc. – Democracy grows more and more disaffected until he pours petrol on the flag and sets it alight. Khoza is a new, young voice, but the language of the poetry recalls the protest poetry of the 1980s. The causes of disaffection are not attributed to some vague “history” or a legacy of apartheid; instead, the target of such anger and disaffection is the present state, without qualification. Keep an eye on Tumelo Khoza.