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Toward a biography of Isicamtho poet, Isabella Motadinyane

by Sizakele Nkosi


Soweto-born Isicamtho poet, Isabella Motadinyane, whose Complete Poems were re-published posthumously in 2016, is here introduced to the world of literary criticism. Living and writing both during and post-apartheid, she is the first woman to write and perform poetry in Isicamtho; a notable act of defiance, as this was hitherto considered a male space. Two of her poems, “Touting Taxi” and “Rope sa Motswetse” are sensitively read by fellow Sowetan, female poets (of the next generation) in order to shed light on Motadinyane’s biography. With the intuition of a poet, the researcher brings to life a “Touting Taxi” ride, interpreting Motadinyane’s images, music, movement and nuanced use of Isicamtho. The reading takes us through the poem’s assault on the senses and simultaneously sensitizes us to the politics of urban black life. In “Rope sa Motswetse” the researcher leads us through variations of tone and emotion in the poem, as it moves from the anger of a woman over sexism in the community to a humble, prayerful attitude, as she seeks to bring the community of men and women together and solve this and other problems. In both poems, Motadinyane’s womanist stance surfaces; she also reflects her community through storytelling, activism and vision. The significance of this article lies in the freshness and authenticity of the analyses, the insights into Motadinyane’s biography and the fact that a new voice and new literary genre, Isicamtho poetry, is analysed within the arena of literary criticism.

Towards a Biography of Isabella Motadinyane

Isabella Motadinyane was a Sesotho, Isicamtho and English poet, musician and performer born in 1963 in Soweto. She was a talented actress and singer who went as far as grade 5 in formal schooling. She studied piano at the “Five Roses Bowl” (endnote: 1) and as a result of creative writing workshops, she wrote a poem “one leg in” which contained a phrase, “die is mos botsotsos”. This phrase afterwards gave rise to the name of the Botsotso Jesters, a poetry performance group of which she was a founding member, in 1994. The group’s publishing arm, Botsotso Publishing, brought out the two collections We Jive like This (1996) and Dirty Washing (1999) which included her poems.
+++These became the source of Bella (2007), her collected works. Her voice is also captured on the Botsotso Jesters’ 2001 CD, purple light mirror in the mud, and in the videos of two performance festivals in Grahamstown, Jikeleza Train (1998) and Poetry 99 (1999). Motadinyane was born in Mofolo, a location in Soweto named after the important Sesotho novelist, Thomas Mofolo, author of Chaka, a fictional account of the life of the Zulu King, Shaka. She was brought up by her grandmother and given the surname Motadinyane even though, when she traced her roots and the whereabouts of her absent father, she discovered that she was from the Mabalane family of Meadowlands / Ndofaya.
+++In 2016, Deep South republished Bella as Complete Poems with new translations of phrases and poems by Lesego Rampolokeng, and without the illustrations of Ike Muila, her fellow poet, mentor and lover. The photograph on the cover of the book by Michael Jaspan, introduces the reader to the tone of Motadinyane’s work.
+++I wrote this poem in response to it:
+++a woman in a red doek gives me her back. her eyes staring at me. a woman in a red
+++doek is sitting on a bench. her arms stretched out in a fist. a woman in a red doek blurs
+++out buildings with black windows. her eyes are staring at me with flames. a woman in a
+++red doek is in the middle of the picture. the backdrop has a loud moving noise.
+++ a woman in a red doek is gatvol,
+++ a man in a black cap is cut off the frame.
+++ his body is absent.
+++ his lips are half-opened.

It is almost impossible in South Africa to live and sustain life as a writer unless it is truly a calling or one’s life purpose. Motadinyane enjoyed a glass of beer as consolation and reward for her hard work, both as a healer and poet. She was a highly spiritual person chosen by her ancestors to serve as a thwasa or sangoma-to-be. She told her lover that amongst her ancestors, she is guided by three outstanding characters: a Christian poet, a sangoma and an aggressive dumbfounded instructor who facilitates messages among Christian prophets and sangomas and usually visits her when she is on a beer-drinking spree. This combination of personalities is very reflective of the people of Soweto. Their history has left them with traces of self-destruction like excessive alcohol consumption and violent behavior. Motadinyane’s purpose as a writer and healer, I believe, was to address these issues through poetry.

Isabella Motadinyane met her untimely death at the age of 40, in 2003 in Orange Farm, a township in East Rand, Gauteng. In his tribute to the poet, Ike Muila wrote: “she told me she won’t live long because of her stomach ulcer complications. She told me her mother took her to a family planning clinic for sterilization and birth control while she was a young school kid for fear of unwanted pregnancy. She told me her tubes got blocked. Sore stomach pains which would finally take her life. She was an extraordinary woman with many special gifts. Her poetry was a calling from the ancestors” (qtd. in Motadinyane 2016: 52). That forced sterilization, which eventually took Isabella’s life, speaks to the violence against women and children as well as a problematic patriarchal society.

Isicamtho: language as defiance
Isabella Motadinyane was the first female to write and perform poetry in Isicamtho (endnote 2). Her poetry reflects the politics of being black and woman during and post-apartheid, something rare in South African literature. The history of Soweto springs ultimately from the passing of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act which forced black people to seek new work in different provinces. The influx of black people into Johannesburg led to a further segregation under the Urban Area Acts, as early as 1923, enacted and enforced to control black people. They were positioned further away from the city with a long commute to work. Soweto is a meeting point of music and language from different parts of South Africa and this developed into a complex language, called Isicamtho. Motadinyane uses this language to strengthen her poetic voice.

The intertwined history of language, land dispossession and cultural oppression in South Africa, is still one of the major struggles against white supremacy. The apartheid government discredited and destroyed people’s indigenous languages through institutional racism that led to the Soweto uprising. On June 16, 1976 and the months following, over 3000 students were injured and about 200 killed during a protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. Language was and still is an important element of identity that carries the knowledge, memory, culture and heritage of black people. Motadinyane creatively uses language as a protest against the apartheid system and by being the first woman to write poetry in Isicamtho. She and Ike Muila, who could be called the inventors of Isicamtho poetry, seek in their poetry to unsettle the division that the apartheid system created among black people, by separating them through language and ethnicity. Writing in Isicamtho gave them a common ground in which all African languages (including English and Afrikaans) could start restoring themselves and live in harmony. As language evolved in the 50s, 60s and 70s, Isicamtho was spoken predominately by males. Motadinyane was a rebel against the divide between men and women. She was open about drinking beer which was always seen as an activity in which only men could participate. Drinking beer was in itself an act of defiance against societal norms ascribed to women in black society.

Language is a living thing. It is continually changing. For a poet there is no such thing as “correct” English or correct Sesotho, and as for Isicamtho, it is all “incorrect”. “We cannot decree the meaning of words, and their associations and shades of meaning keep changing – some stay stable, some don’t. A poet’s intuition knows this. Understanding the unintentional meanings of words is especially important for poets writing in a second language” (Berold: 5). Motadinyane writes in Isicamtho, with Sesotho being the first language base and English/Afrikaans/Tsotsitaal as second languages. From my reading of Motadinyane’s Isicamtho poetry and from the few facts gathered of her life, she displayed the characteristics of a womanist and hence my choice of womanism as a theoretical underpinning for interpreting her poetry in this article. Specifically, I’ve adopted Hudson-Weem’s ‘Africana Womanism’ with its family-centeredness, which seems to best describe the poet’s worldview, as gleaned in the storytelling, activism and vision that come through her poetry (endnote 3). What makes her Isicamtho poetry convincing is that she is writing in the language closest to her:

A Womanist Reading of Motadinyane’s “Touting Taxi” and “Rope sa Motswetse”
Poetry is best understood through the awakening of the senses, and the direct response of the reader. Attempting to analyze a poem, especially an Isicamtho poem, line by line or by getting stuck on individual words/expressions is to cut out many of the elements that make a poem work, such as its musicality, verbal associations, and tones. The only advice in order to enjoy the pleasure of this kind of poetry is to “dive in” and simply experience the poem.

Touting taxi
Touting taxi
pep talk
from zola ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 5
to jozi
music background
loud and loud
pep talk
trace +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 10
toilet tissue
van bo
ke bona dibono I see buttocks
ke sa bone without seeing +++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 15
beng ba tsona whose they are
topsy turvy
pep talk
constant thuggery +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 20
criss cross
cross pollination
christianity charged
short cut corner
magomosha style Tsotsi style ++++++++++++++++++++++++ 25
market and nugget
taxi topsy
pep talk ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 30
drinking beefeaters
eyes off
melting bazookas
meaty juice
ba harela jwala they guzzle the alcohol +++++++++++++++++ 35
eke ba kgaohile maoto as if their legs were cut off
kwala molomu lovey shut your mouth lovey
ke mametse I’m listening to
touting taxi
topsy turvy ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 40
pep talk.

(Motadinyane, 2016: 24)

“Touting Taxi” echoes the disorder around Motadinyane as she takes us on a touting taxi ride. She composes the music with images packed in short lines that fill the mind with moving traffic, the up and down movement of black bodies, taxi rank music speakers and hooters, crime and poverty, style and culture. The taxi moves leisurely from one kasi / (location) to another, people getting off and on the taxi until they reach their final stop. The destination in the poem is Jozi, an Isicamtho name for Johannesburg. The poem moves loudly (lines 1-9) and then it stops (line 10) to breathe out a “pep talk’’. A pep talk in English usually means a talk intended to make someone feel more courageous but in Isicamtho, it simply means a conversation. The up/down movement of music and sound continues throughout the poem but in line 11, she jumps into an unpleasant image of tissues, which could, in this poem mean the tissues tossed by the taxi commuters, especially snuff sniffers – a dirty image. The dirty image continues and the poet breaks into her mother tongue of Sesotho, with a strong bassline that sounds like a sangoma drum initiating a connection between the physical world and the ancestral world (lines 14-16). The poet sees buttocks when commuters are sitting in the taxi or getting off the ride. This image can be a symbol of the indignity of black township life. The line is followed by a rhyme (lines 20-25) about the cross pollination between the constant rate of crime and the role of Christianity in the society, which has been tainted with corruption. The poet describes the chaos around her by graduating the dirty image to a nauseating image of meaty juice (line 34) and drinking beefeaters (line 31). Beefeaters is the name of an alcoholic beverage but the way she plays around with the word makes one want to vomit. These are not only the effects of excessive drinking but also the colonial legacy left in street names, “corner market and nugget” (line 28). She continues the “topsy turvy pep talk” that brings the reader’s attention to alcohol consumption in black society.

The use of Isicamtho as a language or creative expression follows the heart beat and the content engages and uses all the senses. The poet switches from Isicamtho to Sesotho for the second time in the poem when she mentions alcohol abuse (lines 35-38). This observation lowers her voice; she goes into a pensive mood and closes the poem with a sad tone:
shut your mouth lovey
ke mametse ++++++++++ I’m listening to
touting taxi
topsy turvy
pep talk

As in “Touting Taxi”, so in her Sesotho poem, “Rope sa motswetse”, Motadinyane positions herself as a womanist. In “Touting Taxi” she draws attention to the indignity of township life, as black people crowd and cram into taxis taking them to low-paying jobs in the city. In “Rope sa motswetse” she criticises the roles of family members, challenging the patriarchal system that has for many years protected the man and prescribed the woman’s subordinate role. In the poem, Motadinyane argues that equality and the restoration of the nuclear family is the solution. The poet addresses the issues, using a language that is very close to the body; alive with movement and music.

Rope sa motswetse
basadi mantlung
banna ntle
ho qaaka mona
banna akgelang
pelo ya morena +++++++++++++++++++++++ 5
melamu le se e lebale
phala di be ho lona
ho qaaka mona
mosadi a tswa a kgenne
a jele sekaja +++++++++++++++++++++++++ 10
fuba di le moyeng
mose o kuketswe dinokeng
monna qosheletsaneng
tedu ha se tsa botsofe
tedu ke tsa lekaota ++++++++++++++++++++ 15
mosadi wa chobolo
o lebisitse bohale lekaoteng
la hloka ho tsotella
la tswela pele le peipi
phate tsa lahleha motseng ++++++++++++++ 20
tjhaba sa hloka kgotso
fanang beso
fanang katlotla
fanang ka kgotso
fanang ka rope sa motswetse ++++++++++++ 25
le ahe kgotso motseng
Morena hlwella dithaba
o kope kgotso ho ramasedi
a ho sedimosetse
rapedisa pula Morena ++++++++++++++++++ 30
kgomo tsa ntate
di tshwerwe ke lenyora
baahisane haba mahlong
ba hadiketswe
dithose melomong +++++++++++++++++++++ 35
metsi ha ho sa kgellanwa
tsena ditaba di mahlong

(Motadinyane, 2016, 44)

In what follows I have adapted Lesego Rampolokeng’s translation from the original Sesotho where I do not feel he has completely captured a woman’s point of view. I have put Rampolokeng’s translated text in brackets and my new translations/adaptations in bold font. My aim in this translation is to re-create the energy and accessibility of Motadinyane’s voice, to make an inviting, disconcerting poem in English that carries with it all the connotations of the corresponding phrase in the Sesotho poem. I have tried not to stray from the literal, from the image as she has conceived it. I believe that metaphor is the guardian of reality (Watson: xiv) and that a translator is like an actor “interpreting” a text for a larger audience than those who speak the author’s idiom. The aim is to be faithful to the emotion that generated the original poem and re-create feelings, not words.

Thighs of a motswetse
women (indoors) in the house
men (outdoors) outside
there’s a problem here
(men throw out the heart of the king) behave like the heart of a king
don’t forget your fighting sticks +++++++++++++++++ 5
keep your whistles with you
there’s a problem here
a woman came out angry
in full flight
chest puffed out up in the air ++++++++++++++++++ 10
dress hitched up to the hip bone
(man run and hide deep in the undergrowth) man in hiding
beard do not only belong to old age
beard belong to the lone warrior
the woman who is a shrew +++++++++++++++++++ 15
(pointed her sharpness at the young strong warrior ) directed her anger at the warrior
the warrior who paid no attention
continued smoking his pipe
blankets got lost in the neighbourhood
the nation was without peace ++++++++++++++++++ 20
(give us peace) give my people
(give us respect) give with praise
(give of peace) give with peace
(Give of a thigh of a new mother) give with a thigh of a motswetse
build peace in the neighbourhood +++++++++++++++ 25
king climb the mountains
ask for peace from the almighty
may bless you
pray for rain my king
my father’s cattle +++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++ 30
they are thirsty
neighbours do not look one another in the eye
we no longer draw water for each other
(these matters are in the eye) the eyes are telling stories

(Motadinyane, 2016, 45)

A motswetse translates as a new mother – a mother who has just given birth – but there is no equivalent term in English, hence the Sesotho word is retained. Rope sa motswetse is also a name for the Basotho blanket given to a woman when her first child is born. This poem is about the thighs of a new mother whose body has just gone through labour, has been between life and death and it is tired. Motadinyane identifies that women are kept inside the house, labouring while men are outside, gallivanting (lines 1–2). Labour in the context of the poem refers not only to the physical uterine contractions of childbirth but also to the work that women do, day in and day out, at home. The poem then gives us an image of the heart of a king (line 4) as a way to deal with the injustices towards the women. It is difficult to translate this image because of its depth in meaning: “akgela pelo” in English, translates as “to throw out the heart of a king”. However, in Sesotho, it means men should behave like kings who are kind-hearted to their subjects. The woman protagonist in the poem mobilizes the community to stand up against gender based violence which rests in the safe arms of men. After speaking of the men’s status as kings, she reminds them not to forget their weapons and whistles (lines 5-6) because the war is being waged against the women in the community.

An image of an angry woman introduces us to a second problem (lines 8-19): the response men give is problematic because men are in hiding, and carry on as if nothing is wrong, and ignore the women. Here Motadinyane changes her tone to sarcasm and repetition to illustrate her anger (lines 21-24). She calls on them to use their beards or balls not for entitlement but as strength that can bring peace to the nation. She calls them out through a prayer for peace, praise and for, “rope sa motswetse”. Motadinyane draws our attention to how men have forgotten their role and have damaged relationships, using the blanket (rope sa motswetse) (line 19), as a metaphor for abuse towards a woman. “Blankets got lost in the neighborhood” / diphate di lahlehile motseng (line 20) can also be interpreted as rape or violation of a woman’s body. “Diphate” which is commonly known as “dikobo” in Sesotho, is something sacred to couples in a relationship. This translates as an intimate lovemaking between two people who are married or in love. When a blanket is taken away from a woman, or disappears in the community, this sacred intimacy is lost, and violence that is thus perpetrated against women contributes to “neighbours not looking each other in the eye” (line 32) and “neighbours no longer drawing water for each other” (line 33) because a criminal offence has been committed, a woman’s body has been violated.

Motadinyane uses short lines to create urgency in her words. The Sesotho poem also carries the music of that urgency through melody and prayer; fanang beso/ fanang ka tlotla / fanang ka kgotso / fanang ka rope sa motswetse. This changes the mood of the poem to a humble state of a prayer for the community and an attitude of humility. “Rope sa motswetse” by urging both sexes to perform their roles conscientiously, suggests a womanist perspective that coexists alongside Ubuntu, which celebrates the differences in the gender roles and responsibilities without looking down on either. Motadinyane is deliberate in urging the men to pray for rain (line 28). The line suggests, in addition to its literal meaning, that the ancestors are not happy with the way women are treated, thus there is drought. Rain is a symbol of purification and life in the context of African spirituality.

A final word on Motadinyane, womanism and Isicamtho
This article, introducing Soweto born Isicamtho poet, Isabella Motadinyane, to the world of literary criticism, begins to write her biography. It reads Motadinyane as a womanist, who foregrounds race, as she depicts the politics of urban black life in “Touting Taxi”. It further reads Motadinyane as a womanist who challenges sexism through an appeal to the entire community, men and women. Her 2016 Collected Works opens up other womanist themes, such as African spirituality and femicide. More research will be conducted on Motadinyane towards completing her biography. Through reading her creative work, my future research also hopes to explore and define Isicamtho as poetry, music, and a language and culture of defiance.


  1. “Five Roses Bowl”, situated in Mofolo Park, was built in 1976 and over the years has hosted art festivals and music competitions, with local and international musicians performing on its stage. Right up to today, it offers community music classes and outreach to schools in Soweto.
  2. My understanding is that Isicamtho is a language that enables the flow of communication among speakers of different languages. My doctoral work involves defining Isicamtho and Tsotitaal beyond their linguistic features and differences.
  3. My understanding of womanism is gleaned from Asante’s (2004) Afrocentricity. A Theory of Social Change as well as Hudson-Weems’ 2004, Africana Womanist Literary Theory.

Works Cited
Asante, M.K. 2004. Afrocentricity. The Theory of Social Change Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. [ISBN 9780913543795]
Berold, R. 1994. Finding a poem within a poem. On editing your own poem, Grahamstown. Rhodes University: Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA). [ISBN 0-86810-264-4]
Hudson-Weems, C. 2004. Africana Womanist Literary Theory. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press. [ISBN: 978-1592210565]
Motadinyane, I. 2016. Collected Works, Grahamstown: Deep South Publishing [ISBN 978-0-9870282-7-3
Watson, E. (trans.) in Prado, A. 1990. Alphabet in the Park: Selected Poems (Wesleyan Poetry in Translation) [ISBN: 98780819511775]