The Black Consciousness Movement in South African Literature (2)

by Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede

It would be proper to consider Sharpeville as the political watershed leading to the poetry of black Consciousness. Thus the time space between the late fifties into the sixties and mid-seventies would be the proper period of this kind of creative effort. In effect that poetry could be described as post-Sharpville. Some members of the that generation were Don Mattera, Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, James Mathews, Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho sempala and Mafik Gwala.

The culture of performance was encouraged through a conscious organisation of readings in a social milieu created by the Western Areas Students Association (WASA), where Mattera cut his literary teeth. There were debates on current issues and discussions on literature as well as arrangement of picnics. Poetry readings were accompanied by jazz music. Mattera described the poems read as protests poems appealing to the humanity of whites. He was arrested in February 1963 tortured and interrogated on ‘communist poetry’ by which the authorities meant his description of the Sharpeville massacre in a poem titled ‘Day of Thunder’:

The calling
The crying
The dying
Of men, women and children
While my people sang:
Return Africa
O Africa return
Bitter was the day…

The de-valued quality of life in South Africa is reflected in the following line of the same poem:

The stench of dead animals
Urine and human dung
Give the township its body odour…

A tentative appeal to white humanity in “The eye of God/looks down ashamedly/on the council of shacks gives way to fear: “A poet shivers/Afraid to die […]” and moves on to a questioning of the system: “Let us halt this quibbling/Of reform and racial preservation” […] and to black pride: “I am the black plum/Fruit of mama africa/Spirit that cries out beyond the horizon/The soul seeking emancipation/I am Africa […] /I am no stranger to this earth/It is mine […] ” and finally to defiance: “Men look on my blackness/As a weed that must die […] /Sweet, sweetly my blackness blooms/And becomes my beauty.” In this way he graduated to the themes of the black consciousness movement: racial pride, dignity, rejection of white ideals etceteras. By the time he reached that point he had gone through a maturation period in the Black thoughts group of poets (including sempala, Serote, Dangor and farouk Asvat) with same commitments of Black introspection. This quality of protest and eventually of an inward-looking permeates the poetry of the group and is emphasised in a poem by Sempala in “Talk,talk,talk”:

Shit baby
I want to squawk
To say you don’t need painted lips
‘Cause those lips can bleed your blood
You don’t need that hair sliding off like that
‘Cause a plaited head can do its own thing
Me and you gotta do our own thing sometime
yeah baby
[…] we gotta keep squawking
Till the devil com outta his hole tail between
legs saying:
Very sorry sirs!

The poets got confrontational too in their work with time. Here is James Mathews in the collection “Cry rage!”: “white man/who needs your double-faced morality?/The word of the white man has the value of dirt”[…] And finally there is that strident call to the Black man to wake from his slumber, to take up arms (at least in a moral sense) and change his lot:

Freedom’s child
You have been denied too long
Fill your lungs and cry rage
Step forward and take your rightful place
You are not going to grow up knocking at the back door… (Mathews).

This confrontational tone colours the outlook the outlook of all of those poets, who were mostly unpublished (except in SASO newsletters) at the time and who deliberately made black people their target audience:

Black man, Black nation
Arise, arise from the slumber
Prepare yourself for war [!]
We are about to start

And in the same vein, Mandlenkosi Langa says in “Banned for Blackness”:

Look up, black man, quit stuttering and shuffling
Look up, black man, quit whining and stooping
[…] raise up your black fist in anger and vengeance.

It reaches a crescendo it the following lines from Thabo Molewa’s “Final solution”:

Hey black man
Sitting in the sun

Hey black man
they ‘ve taken your land
Hey black man
they ‘ve killed your wife
Hey black man
they ‘ve raped your wife
Hey black man take up the gun
kill the white.

Dramatic pieces of the black consciousness era was much in the same didactic tone as the poems above. one would assume that the literary quality of most of the poems is tainted by the same penchant for the diction of slogans and propaganda. Obviously the political dire straits in which the black population found itself was responsible for that to a large extent, and the need to say something quickly, to hammer hot words into place and catch the sparks as they fly, in a manner of speaking.

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s.moodley August 27, 2007 - 7:35 am

i would like to read your views on plays, performances used to raise political consciousness in the 70s

Anonymous December 26, 2005 - 12:48 pm

i am writing a advanced higher dissertation on the BCM and this article was ideal!It has allowed me to create the framework for my dissertation,giving me a clear plan and method of thinking


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