(Monday 9 December 2013 in the fourth day after the passing of Nelson Mandela)
In the early 1990s, in the time after the release of Madiba, Bonita and I were living in the Boland town of Ashton. During that period there were significant uprising of the people resident in the east Boland towns of Bonnievale, Robertson, Ashton, Montagu and across to Swellendam. Folk who had felt the brunt of unbridled racism took to the streets, embarked on consumer boycotts and general acts of civil disobedience – . and police violence. With the blessing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu I embarked on a 21-day fast in the Crypt of St George’s Cathedral to draw attention to violence being perpetrated by the police of the region. I think that it was in the second week of the fast that Nelson Mandela visited Ashton to rename Zolani Community Centre in his name. Trevor Manuel received Madiba at DF Malan airport and before departing for Ashton called to enquire if he should bring the Big Man via the Crypt. I declined believing that the visit would subject my fast to negative scrutiny. Ai, to be young …
I remember that day in Zolani-Ashton
when you blessed a hall with your name.
I wasn’t there. The ones who were
recall your regal grace, your Madala sexiness
as you stood there ‘neath the scalding Boland sun.
The Langeberg Mountains, dull-grey and curious
behind you. They will talk
about the warmth in your eyes and your declared
pride in them and their unsung bravery
Now as I await the tears still to come
from somewhere close but deep
in the hidden mystery of my soul
I wish I had been there
and had obeyed the call to break my Cathedral-based fast
for freedom and an end to police violence
to join all on that day when a Prince of Men
stood hand-shake and hug-close
to anoint Ma Memani
with a lifetime of joy which not even the poverty of this time
could ever take away.
Oom Don Mattera
This is not a poem yet
but only the first touch of intention
but when I saw you, quiet, unnoticed at the edge of the busy crowd
I without a thought of decorum and place
knelt, kissed and held your hand
and we spoke as if we had met before
and I felt the way I did when I first read ‘Azanian love song’
and knew then that another knew
what it means to be a bushie wat ken
and so I salute you Mattera
poet of all the people
want ek notch djy’s ‘n jieta wat weet wa’ die buchu blom
And when you declared our love for Madiba
I wanted to call out to you there on that distant stage
not to say a word, not a sound of a syllable more –
just to stand there and let us see you
the poet-prophet who sang out of the heart of the brave
of a time ‘when freedom finally walks the land’
but this is not a poem yet
only the slight stutter of gratitude
for a poet’s life
To be read while listening to the live version of John Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”
(Wrote this in 1990 for a friend who had been tortured to the extent that his wife only recognised him by the shoes he wore on the morning of his arrest)
You and I, wrapped tight in the cosiness
of mutual trust and confidence,
spoke once on a day, many winters past,
of a time away from the routine measure
of prison and death, of compatriots in exile. A time
when every day for every mother,
orphan, youth and friend would be a holiday,
and the prisons empty and the streets filled
with the shouts and laughter of fathers and lovers,
hugging and holding
drying tears once forever as close as a thought
or a whisper of a name. A time
when our parliament of the people and of mercy
would outlaw racism, banish hunger
and unemployment and, for sure,
abolish the death penalty
for such would be our world
when Africa comes home at last. You and I
spoke on a day many winters past
about our dreams of a dawn
that would bless our land and brighten
our doubt-contoured days. And now,
in this spring-hint of a morning
I thank God for you
and that my name
was not amongst those you mouthed
as the wet rubber, drawn over your beaten head
smothered your breath to a dead-slow pulse
in the femoral artery of your inner thigh. And now
ever so often, in this longing distance
from our dark winter day
I scan your laughing face on TV or in a newspaper
for a glimpse of that hope that mothered our victory
with its promise of a time when every day
for every mother, father and orphan,
youth and friend, would be a holiday.
In January 1980, I stood knocking on the door of 100 Tugela Way, Portland, Mitchells Plain. It was a Monday morning and I was there to leave a message from my friend Willie.
While I waited I secured my size-28, postman’s bicycle with a chain to the tar-pole of the car-port of the house. Meanwhile my knock had been answered and I eventually became aware of this presence straight out the Songs of Solomon: “She was dark and comely”. And she was laughing at me.
I discovered later when were dating that she was laughing at me and this bike of antiquity. She was also amused by my old balie fisherman’s’ haversack which was full of emptiness except for a dairy, an apple and a small, hard-covered collection of John Milton’s poetry.
Sometime in the course of that year I wrote her this poem …
(The poem was accompanied by a leaf as green as our young love).
When the Hills Were Dark
For Mzi Mbangula: rest in peace, comrade of my youth. During 1981 I attended a YCS conference in SOWETO. On the way back, Zelda Holtzman who I met in Joburg suggested that we visit the mother of a friend in Zweletemba on our way through Worcester. The friend in question was Mzi Mbangula, the nephew of Rev Otto Mbangula. I had known Mzi and he and Simon Fredericks were both YCS activists and had gone into exile more or less the same time. Mzi was an astute observer with a keen intellect, complimented by his wry wit and easy laugh.
When we met Ma Mbangula, her opening question to Zelda was “Where is my child?” That moment unlocked the following poem
On a morning such as this.
when the hills were dark
with the colour
of burnt dark.
And the sun in the wind
was soft upon
And the streets of the places
where we live
were very still.
On a morning such as this.
when the hills were dark
when not even you mother knew
you left us.
So Much to Declare
During a visit to the USA in May 2013 I found a way to calm my spirit as I stood in line for the intimidating ways of ‘Homeland Security’. I would play on my i-pod Chris McGregor’s ‘Country Cooking’ to remind myself that God loves me and the hostile dude in uniform without measure.
Entering Mzantsi in 1982 after a visit to the UK, I had poetry as my rock and shield.
London, a frozen, dark distance
from sunny skies over Joburg
as BA flight 307 touches ground
on my anxious land. Yet rejoice, O my soul.
AJ Luthuli International Airport
where the open doors
of peace and friendship
who love freedom and our people
to a liberated South Africa.
the peaked cap of officialdom,
admires the miniature bust of VI Lenin,
COLLETS price tag still intact.
Porters on lunch-time break
grin amandla smiles.
forms the excited queue.
I wonder how the debate about a new name for our country was faring and Phila’s suggestion that the Settlers Monument in Rhini, once Grahamstown, be made into the biggest beer-hall in the Eastern Cape.
And last year, like a dream, walking with Fidel Castro along Bernard Fortuin Avenue pass the Alex la Guma Cultural Centre in Elsies River where the Orient Bioscope used to be, and the Commandante laughing through his beard at my account of how we youngsters used to cheer when Zorro rode onto the screen and into our lives. And Daniel, (yes man, Daniel Ortega) saying that they did the same when he was a boy in Managua and Che somewhere in jungled Bolivia.
“Anything to declare?”
like blue eyes hard
crashing ten-storeys down,
dangling like time.
“Anything to declare?”.
Blue eyes shouting,
“Ja, boesman, with your wing-tip shoes,
button-down collar and new blue suit.
This is South Africa!”.
“Anything to declare?”,
whipping up the Riotous Assembly of my fear.
“Yes”, I smile from the tip of my trembling toes,
“South Africa belongs to all, and to me and you, Piet”.
He does not hear the roar of “Mayibuye!” at Freedom Square.
“The People Shall Govern”, I assure him,
speaking now with the voice of the thousands
who gathered at The Congress of the People.
“Goed. You may go”.
I pick up my suitcase
and my ruffled courage and walk
past the soldiers.
My Mandela T-shirt
against my beating heart…
Lincoln van Sluytman is a fellow from Georgetown, Guyana. I met him in New York in 1982. He introduced me to the politics of Malcolm X, Maurice Bishop of Grenada and the music of that region, the West Indies. One day we travelled up to Harlem where we attended a solidarity concert in the Marcus Garvey Park. Up on the stage were members of the ANC Youth League. Lincoln heard me singing along quietly to some of the freedom songs. He seemed to love and be amused at the same time that he and I, though similar in appearance, bonded by politics and the associated variants of culture such as jazz – though we were different in the non-essentials, yet so the same in the ways that matter.
Comrade, my brother,
it’s a long way from Georgetown
Guyana and New York
to where I am,
walking down Raglin Road in Grahamstown, South Africa
longing to see you as I did on West 13st,
telling me about Brother Malcolm
Masekela’s horn and Abdullah’s Cape-scapes
contouring the night.
And your smile, wide and rude-boy happy
like a clenched heart
beating in the anthem we sang
in the Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem:
“O se boloke setchaba!”.
Save our people
from the misery
of the empty pot
and the treacherous deceit
of imperial illusion.
And you laughed at me,
African and part of you and Asia
and the whole damn wide world
we breathe in word and being,
from an African dawn
to our western decline
And laugh, my brother,
for fighters do not fear
the despot’s wrath
and laugh my brother,
a part of me and the fist
that will sweep in the day,
and may it soon come,
when the people declare –
from the Antilles to Angola,
from Beirut to Brixton,
from our lives to the heart of God,
– January 1983
In 1983 I was in my second year of studies for the priesthood at St Paul’s Seminary, Grahamstown. One night we had a debate about this or that. Afterwards a fellow, much older than I, spoke to me and moved me to this poem…
“thank you for what you said”,
clasping my hand,
in a hold of understanding.
became a friend
asking about the tomorrow
that we build today.
i turned my face
to the dark,
of the garden.
-the feast of the epiphany 2013