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Poet of the Struggle : His Verses Urge South African Blacks to Confront 'This Spirit of Hitler, This Fascism of Apartheid'

December 01, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

SOWETO, South Africa — Africa, do something for the spear has fallen . . .

Pick it up and fall to battle,

Pick it up and fight side by side for these freedoms,

Pick it up, fight side by side for a democratic South Africa.

With the power of an African drum, Mzwakhe Mbuli's deep voice booms out one of his best-known poems, a call to action, a challenge to black South Africans to intensify their struggle against apartheid.

The poem is one that he recites frequently at the funerals of black activists, each time running through the lengthening list of those killed in that struggle.

"God has given a life unto man, and man has taken a life from man," Mbuli begins. "God forgives--I don't, for the heart of Africa is bleeding . . . ."

Moving Verse

The emotions are raw, the words rough, the verses deliberately devoid of literary polish.

Yet, the power of Mbuli's poems, declaimed with a rhythm and a force that echo the strong traditional poetry of Africa, brings crowds to their feet, ready to "pick up the spear" and to confront what he calls "this spirit of Hitler, this fascism of apartheid."

"The tradition of no surrender is the name of the game," he declares in another poem. "The tradition of no surrender is the name of the game to a people's republic, . . . to a people's government."

His are not the poems of protest of many other black writers, describing the horrors of apartheid, Mbuli said in an interview, but poems of resistance, urging people to work--to fight, if necessary--for faster change.

Known now as the "poet of the struggle," Mbuli, 28, who is unemployed, has emerged over the last three years as an important black spokesman, articulating not only the anger of the militant black youths but also their determination to end apartheid within their generation.

"Now is the time," he says in a poem often recited by militant black youths, for South Africa's black majority to end its subservience to whites, to reclaim the land taken from them by European settlers, to end their oppression and secure their liberation. "Yes, it is the time."

Although Mbuli gives South Africa's white-led minority government little quarter, he nevertheless describes his poems as "messages of hope" for blacks.

"I don't want to leave people in despair," he said. "There is enough pain in this country without emphasizing it and stressing it and dramatizing it. So I remind them of the pain of the past, but there is always a message of hope with a call to action. That's why I wrote, 'Today's pain is tomorrow's imminent comfort.' "

But in another poem Mbuli implores whites not to ignore the rising black anger and cling to the country's system of racial separation and minority white rule but to come to terms with blacks for the sake of a peaceful future:

Bait the hook to suit the fish,

Place the worm to catch the fish,

Give what the fish wants to have it out of the river,

Give me what I want to have me next to you,

Tie what you want to what I want.

Reciting his poems at political rallies, union meetings and church services around the country as well as at the funerals of black activists, Mbuli's urgent calls to action sum up the mood of "the struggle," as blacks call the anti-apartheid movement.

"What do the people think? What do they feel? Just listen to Mzwakhe," said veteran anti-apartheid leader Albertina Sisulu, co-president of the United Democratic Front. "He sums it up, he expresses it. Mzwakhe's voice is an authentic voice of the people."

Part poet, part political organizer, Mbuli is at the center of what blacks now openly call "the resistance"--so much so that he is often underground, pursued by the police, and increasingly involved in broader political issues.

"Before the spirit of Hitler destroys man," he says in another poem, "wake me up to join you in the march to a people's democratic government."

The words sometimes look awkward on paper--political rhetoric verging on Marxist agitprop--but they take on a natural strength when recited.

"Our African poetic tradition is oral," Mbuli said, "and that is a more appropriate form for my message. . . .

"Look, I don't write sonnets because I am not writing about love. I don't write odes because I'm not writing about nature. I use the language of the people, the language of the struggle because I am writing about the people and about their struggle."

For decades, however, the focus of black literature in South Africa has been apartheid, and the political commitment of writers has long been clear.

"Our difference today," Mbuli said, "is mobilization. . . . This is not poetry for reflection or description or comment--this is poetry for action."

The late Agostinho Neto, an Angolan revolutionary and poet who became that country's first president after it won independence from Portugal, is a model for Mbuli. "Neto used both the gun and the pen to liberate his country," Mbuli said. "I see myself in a similar role except I am not holding a gun."

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