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Moses Mtileni: tribute and poems

Tribute by Vonani Bila

Moses, we shall sing your Redemption Song By Vonani Bila.
The senseless murder of Nzama Khaizeni Moses Mtileni, on 8 July 2019, left me devastated. What kind of a liberated country slays and crushes its erudite poet and an intellectual of Moses’ ilk? He chose to live among the ordinary people and wrote poems about his everyday encounters as a way of confronting the glaring suffering and hardship of the township and rural people. His poetry is populated by dissidents and the discarded: a blind beggar with a bowl at the corner Bree Street; the retrenched mine worker who returns home to die; the landless who invoke ancestral forces to reclaim the stolen and misused land; the shack dweller who watches on as his corrugated tin house is razed down by a brigade of the merciless red ants; the Mozambican immigrant named Mido Macia who is handcuffed and dragged behind a police van before dying in custody. And his crime? “Parking his car on the wrong side of the road in Daveyton”. Moses’ poetry celebrated pan Africanism and a prosperous Africa, but equally challenged the mad dictators that are hell-bent of strangulating the African child’s future.

Moses was a man with three Masters degrees, a poet and PhD candidate at Wits. He fervently read the Bible alongside Karl Marx’s Capital and Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and didn’t find any contradiction nor downed any delusional opium. He believed in hard work, justice, solidarity and equality; and cherished love and peace as values that make us better human beings. His poetry, inspired by several key poets such as the Egyptian-Greek wordsmith Constantine Cavafy and the South African, James Magaisa, wasn’t meant to mislead the nation to take arms and stir revolution without thinking, but to prick the conscience of those who wield power. He wanted to inspire societal development instead of helplessly watching the forces of greed do as they wish whilst their actions breed our burgeoning disaster of poverty, racism and inequality.

Big Moss, as I fondly addressed him, was a humble giant, with a trademark beard who was always willing to go an extra distance in everything he pursued in life. Born in 1983, he treasured his rural upbringing at Nkuri-Tomu near Giyani, despite the absence of express roads, universities and proper medical services. Here, like all of us, he ate from the same bowl with his siblings; played communal children’s games like xikoriyo and ximbvati. It is the same place which ignited his love for the Xitsonga language, music, parables, folktales and idioms told to him around the whispering fires. It is the place that continues to be the centre of traditional cuisine of tshopi, tihove, masense, and xigugu.

In recent years Moses envisioned building a library with relevant literary resources and internet connectivity at Nkuri-Tomu village, so that the children of peasants who receive education in broken down schools and under marula trees, could match their counterparts in urban South Africa. With his deep knowledge and skills in town planning, economics and governance, he was equally keen to transform the uneven, racially-structured city of Joburg. He journeyed and walked along Bree Street, smelling the pungent smells of utter poverty and reeking urine, eating pap and vleis in makeshift food outlets; listening to people’s stories of misery and triumph, and thus sharply understanding the true colours of the South African economy.

He chose to live with his folk in Tembisa township, on the periphery of Joburg. Surely, he didn’t know that thugs, perhaps from the same township, would break into his house and snuff away his life so prematurely. Moses always believed that South Africa, and his township Tembisa, would one day be a beacon of hope, a place free of violence, rage, corruption and greed.

On Monday night, the 8th this July, thugs left Moses Nzama Mtileni cold, and shot and injured his wife, in Tembisa. Thugs, black or white, are all the same – bad news. President Ramaphosa, we are dying. Vho-Matamela wee, ha fa ha hela. Be hard on criminals, the modern day ‘Babylon’. Outlaw guns – instruments of death that daily leave children as orphans.

Moses steadfastly listened to Bob Nesta Marley’s solo acoustic ballad, “Redemption Song,” because like Marcus Garvey, Josiah Tongogara and Steve Biko, he believed in the sovereignty of his mind – the mind that dares to confront the thorns and prickles of our phony liberation.

      “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
      None but ourselves can free our minds
+++Have no fear for atomic energy
+++‘Cause none of them can stop the time
+++How long shall they kill our prophets
+++While we stand aside and look?”

In his poem devoted to Bob Marley and titled‚ “Sing Our Redemption Songs Marley,” Moses echoes Marley’s voice.

      “The minds of the oppressed remained chained in illusion
+++Growing dreadlocks tabooed by the learned
+++Owls and hyenas belong to the same tribe
+++Laws holding souls and spirits in captivity
+++Universities and churches graduate thieves and murderers
+++Women’s screams have become our lullabies.”

Moses’ commitment to poetry and the development of indigenous literature was practical and remarkable. He started Nhlalala Publishing, an outlet devoted to publishing mainly in Xitsonga. Under his publishing belt, he churned out his ground-breaking political novella Mpimavayeni as well as Loko Mpfula a yo Sewula – an anthology of poetry by ten new Xitsonga poets. Before his untimely death, he had taken up the arduous task of translating a selection of my English poems into Xitsonga. Prior, he had already translated Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story, “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright” and Peter Horn’s selected poems into Xitsonga. Only last month, he informed me of his advanced plans towards the establishment of the first Xitsonga literary prize in post-apartheid South Africa. “I want you to be one of the poetry adjudicators,” he ordered softly, and I nodded with great delight.

What kind of a people are we who murder the best among ourselves? My humble brother, fellow black poet, as we grieve for your sudden departure, please know that the poems that you’ve penned will always console us the way Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” did for you, sharpening your political consciousness and sustaining your creativity. May God and your ancestors protect and guide your spirit forever.

Vonani Bila is a poet and founder of the Timbila Poetry Project in Shirley village. In 2014-2015, he supervised Moses Mtileni’s MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University.

Poems by Moses Mtileni

a nation becoming
(rough notes on twenty years of democracy)

we slaughtered a buffalo for a braai
after Eugene and his horses left the trade centre
beard, short khakhis and a long gun at hand
under curious trees inaugurating future bosberaads
khakhi shorts and talk of volkstad and gunshots departing

did you tell her mother and father and the gods
that their daughter has died in faraway lands
with none her own but wandering spirits like her own

a beautiful bird quizzed us
whether toppling bloodthirsty clowns amounted to a revolution
enough to undress soldiers and dissolve an army
bury angola guerilla tactics, cuban aid and soviet training
worthy of the majestic animal we butchered for a braai
or drowning in liquor toasting to a rainbow future

did you tell her father and mother and the gods
that their daughter has died in faraway lands
with none her own but her own spirit wandering

mines or banks or farms were deleted from the agenda
only parliaments and city halls and embassies were tabled
for discussion
and private rights cemented in a fragile covenant
in whose wounded womb crawled a new nation
no questions asked: die stem-nkosi sikelel blended
our enoch sontonga son of the soil like we all are

did you tell the gods and her father and mother
that their daughter has died in faraway lands
with none her own and no flowers laid to mark her grave

the chief of nkatha, mtwana ka phindanghene
as if to curse tomorrow, almost walked away
until a solid promise was extracted from the negotiators
that homelands would be renamed provinces
and prime ministers converted to premiers
inaugurated every five years after a ballot
leaving intact the designs of architect verwoerd
savages lumped variously according to tribe

did you tell her father and the gods and her mother
that their daughter has died in faraway lands
with none her own but the tormenting sounds of unceasing gunshots

every other bleeding memory shall be deferred to a commission
whose chair is to be an amusing emeritus bishop
to dull the sting of grueling confessions
we shall call it truth and reconciliation
following a chorus of rigged testimonies and half-truths and streaming tears
we buried atrocity in pardons and dragged reparations
and those lost in the jungles of exile were never fetched

did you tell her mother and father and the gods
that their daughter has died in faraway lands
with none her own but tormenting fractures of freedom longing

future bosberaads, curious trees,
departing gunshops, boipatong
someone asked of the freedom charter,
and its place on the walls of the union buildings
they were warned of the omnipotence and might of the markets
and how those that owned the wealth that fed me and you
would skip the border to protect their interests
so quietly a resolution was mumbled
bury the freedom charter on a tomb
locate it in a small tower in the middle of kliptown
a glamourous state funeral would be organized
poet president thabo mbeki would render the oration
and the square is to be duly dedicated
to that silent old sage walter sisulu

did you ask of her mother and father and the gods
that they please welcome this their daughter
give her a place to rest in this her plundered home
for she is a spear, fallen in combat


Naskanani, kuvulamukhalabye +++++++++++ Naskanani, says the old man
Wanganaskanananaskanani +++++++++++++ Please naskanananaskanani
Ahenhla ka naskanani +++++++++++++++++ On top of naskanani
U yi naskananahaleno ++++++++++++++++++ Andnaskanana it here
Ni ta naskanananaskanani ++++++++++++++ So I naskanananaskanani
Valangutana +++++++++++++++++++++++++ They looked at each other
Hatlisamani, demmet ++++++++++++++++++ Hurry man’, dammit
Kambe i maninaskanani ++++++++++++++++ But who is naskanani

+++++++++++++++means everything and nothing at the same time, it is a
++++++++++++++++++It is both a verb and a noun,
++++++++++++++++++and none of the above


Naskanani, or nasika: is ‘thingy’ in English, if such a word exists, or nantsika in IsiZulu

Sing our Redemptions Songs Marley
(for Robert Nesta Marley)

Sing our redemptions songs
Kingston town is a ruin of a paradise
The drum of poverty echoes through the streets of Trenchtown
The flowers of song blossom to bury thorns and prickles
Peter Tosh caught a bullet and cursed death
Bunny Wailer disappeared in the jungles of time
How many rivers do we have to cross
To rescue the precious stones plundered

Sing our redemptions songs
The campaign to journey back home buried in the waves of Carribea
The dream of visiting the graves of our forefathers drowned
Africa is but a dying heath of flowing rhythms of the mbira and marimba
Who says a new home can be built on the hilltops of Babylon
When Hussein Barack Obama crawls through the corridors of a white house
Crawl chasing a dream of transitions that never come
Ancient Marcus Garvey snores violently in his grave
The whip of slavery explodes still to disrupt our peace

Sing our redemptions songs
The Lion of Judah has found a new home in the mountains
We take a leaf still from Revelations 5: 5
The virgin girls await still the arrival of the groom
Lamps burning until the olive oil flies with the winds
The herb is a restless bone foretelling the suffocating sorrows of Babylon
Holy Mount Zion brews miracles still.

Sing our redemptions songs
Zimbabwe searches for her soul still
Tongogara and Chitepo are but mere skeletons on a forgotten shrine
The hippos ravage fields they have not cultivated
Gabriel stretches his legs on the throne collecting fragments of madness,
Planting epilepsy in the bones of Harare
The basket of Africa an ingredient for jokes
Congo and Sudan remain sores in the nose
The unification of Africans an agenda item in AU boardroom sessions

Sing our redemptions songs
Babylon stands firm still on her two feet
Another leaf from the folktale of history is burnt
Children fed lies and poisoned to curse their roots
Thieves and murderers showered with honours and titles
Our humanity plundered and buried in angry flames
We gonna fight, we’ll ave to fight, fighting for our rights
Life is one big road with lots of signs

Babylon a fierce mamba pregnant with poison

Sing our redemptions songs
The minds of the oppressed remained chained in illusion
Growing dreadlocks tabooed by the learned
Owls and hyenas belong to the same tribe
Laws holding souls and spirits in captivity
Universities and churches graduate thieves and murderers
Women’s screams have become our lullabies
Sheriffs kill still our seeds before they grow
When we shoot them we are thrown into dungeons

Sing our redemptions songs Marley
So we smile with the rising sun
For redemption songs is all we’ve ever had
The Island Jamaica is a rare pebble
The gravity of the grave despise the beauty of your heart

Corner Bree

flocking in still
several exits and entrances
cnr bree and ntemipiliso
every day end we queue here
greetings on a phone to Harare
we shuffle
12 13 I enquire on my way
marshall points as he counts
1 2 3 4 the red inyathi
behind the white siyaya
sings, eyes closed,
a young girl holding her hand
bowl in hand, cents clanking
no notes in sight
flocking in still

Translated from Xitsonga by the author

he arrived yesterday at dusk
the sun descending on the hills of man’ombe
no ululations for an arriving groom were heard
makhahlele wa mbhombhi was no groom
an anguishedshrill was heard from n’wa-maringa
as he entered the gates
she had last seen him during the year of the locust
when he left to fend for the chicks like his peers and folk
only to be swallowed by the mines of carletonville
nown’wa-maringa is in mournful black
long before her hair begins to gray
anglogoldashanti was not among the mourners
cents for compensation will land two moons from now
gold is yet to be processed in far-off lands
todaymbhombhi will be wrapped in a blanket for burial
particles of clay will mark his grave
for he came home empty-handed
The chicks will remain and eat the soil
Joburg and Kimberly are a bitter seed of toil