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

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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

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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.

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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.’ ”

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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,

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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.”

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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. . . .

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“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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Mbuli is a leader in efforts by the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid groups, to harness the creative energies of writers, musicians, actors and artists, whites as well as blacks, in a new cultural organization that will attempt to intensify anti-apartheid activities.

Culture and the Struggle

“We are doing a lot today to integrate culture with the struggle, not so much to make it relevant to the people--that’s terribly patronizing, isn’t it?--but to draw from their strength and to turn culture into another weapon we can use against apartheid,” he said.

“Some people like to say that they are artists, not politicians. To me, that’s nonsense--artists must be involved in the struggle if their art is to have any worth. How can we write about nature when the ground is soaked with blood? Those working across the broad spectrum of culture must realize this. Are we as cultural workers responsible and disciplined enough to be the voice of the oppressed people?

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“Poetry has made me stronger politically and more committed to the struggle. One of the greatest joys I have is meeting someone who says that he joined the liberation struggle after listening to my poetry.”

To carry that message further, Mbuli recorded 10 of his poems earlier this year in “Change Is Pain,” and although the government subsequently banned the recording, copies continue to circulate throughout the country. He said he is planning another recording, “Likely to Be Banned.”

Black artists must combat government propaganda on the state-run radio and television stations and in the white-owned press, he said. “The television and radio bombard people with lots of ideas that neutralize them and manipulate their intelligence,” he said. “This propaganda is used in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways to bolster the cracking pillars of apartheid.”

Detained by Police

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Mbuli has been detained--whether for his poetry or his politics, he is not sure--several times under the country’s security laws and the current state of emergency. Earlier this year he was questioned by security police for three weeks about suspected links with the outlawed African National Congress and then released without charge.

“They asked me, ‘Why are you going around making so much noise all over the country?,’ ” he said. “ ‘What are you--a megaphone for the ANC? Who’s behind you?’ I said, ‘No one, I’m just being creative.’ ‘Creative--who told you to be creative?’ They seemed to think any creativity by a black must be an ANC plot.”

Mbuli, almost inevitably, wrote “Behind the Bars,” a poem about detention. “It’s so common an experience that I couldn’t not write one,” he said. “What they don’t realize in this regime that every detention, even each death in detention, strengthens our determination.”

While Mbuli, like many other activists, has lowered his profile a bit, appearing with little or no notice or performing at closed meetings, he maintains that he will not censor himself to avoid new confrontations with the authorities.

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“I am not prepared to become a puppet of myself,” he said, “and I won’t put myself in a mental prison with fear of what the police will do if I write this way or that I might end up on Robben Island (a penal colony).

“Some poets, some activists, are trapped by self-censorship, fearing that if they speak their minds they will be detained. . . . One shouldn’t betray one’s convictions by writing things that do not reflect what’s happening in the country. But it is painful--it has to be painful to write about slavery and not about freedom.”


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