“It won’t work, it won’t work.
This resurrection thing”
After fifteen years since the release of his debut collection The Girl Who Then Feared to Sleep & Other Poems, Angifi Dladla is back. The forty poems that comprise Lament for Kofifi Macu (Lament), divided into three sections, mark a subtle shift in Dladla’s style. They paint an increasingly bleak picture of South Africa:
“No God! With such reprise,
no healing in our lifetime!”
For those who remember, The Girl Who Then Feared to Sleep ended with a sense of positivity where perhaps it should not have been expected. It was a collection written as a retrospective study of apartheid repression in the 1980s. As Dladla said when interviewed: “We were helpless. The only way was to look inward meditatively to get strength, direction, assurance.” And the peoples’ spirit was of hope and defiance. That first collection ends with these three lines:
“i’ve got nothing left now;
but a bright star i hear far, far…
Lament turns this relationship inside out. On the whole, the inward nature of his earlier works has gone. This is a new series of poems that is largely marked by their exteriority. Dladla is carefully exploring the outside and everyday, and he is reveling in it. These are poems in which the poet has the freedom to play with language and form while depicting experiences that range across South Africa’s diverse social landscape, including his conversations with the local chicken vendor and his encounter with a dog at a shebeen. Yet this freedom of subject has not translated into the realization of previous hopes. The son of Dukathole (a rural township in the Eastern Cape) may be free enough to return home by train from a large Johannesburg township where he now lives. He remains, however, an “alien”. Even though the dog may not be in chains at the shebeen, there is “not a tongue out, not an ear up […] not a lick, not a wag.” Rather there is just an expression of pure despair. Dladla writes:
“God, if a shebeen is a dog’ hospice,
man has evolved, intoxicatingly backward”
Bleakness is not only evident within Dladla’s depictions of the everyday. In another departure from his previous work, Lament is not afraid to mix in sharp, explicitly political criticisms. The third section is an expression of anger towards South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, who have presided over two decades of lingering poverty, poor education, and limited service delivery:
“No latrine, no tap, no shower.
Kids shit like rats, some like cats
No school, no library, no news vendor. Adult read birds
or paper scraps; kids dream of texts never will they get.”
These are the failings of a political elite that have overseen the continuation of apartheid oppression in a new disguise. One poem in particular, ‘Poet’s Report To FIFA’, makes Dladla’s point with special poignance. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa appeared to be the epitome of colour, freedom, and celebration. Behind the symbolism and posturing, however, Dladla examines its true legacy:
“And so FIFA con test left us
with stillborn Zakumi and Diski-dance.
What a rich harvest of red ants and
new shantytowns we won.”
On one level, Lament is a collection of frustration, lost opportunity, and despair. That will be obvious to all who read it. Yet these are not the only themes that run through its pages. These poems are not totally devoid of something else, something I struggle to define but that appears in flashes and you glimpse just enough to feel a softening of the collection’s otherwise fictive tone. This might be the “daunting” experience we have all felt when writing a letter to a teacher; memories of childhood curiosity and enthusiasm when plunging into a canyon that today “you would never, never try;” the silent patterns of love described as “a great dance of no movement at all;” of the physical pleasure of sex that takes you to “worlds I never imagined existed.” Such moments appear throughout and indicate Lament’s roots in reality. It is not trying to so forcefully describe South Africa’s problems that everything else is lost. Instead Lament is true to life. Perhaps Dladla’s biggest success, therefore, is to offer poetry that provides a remedy to South Africa’s long-held binary condition. Within the bad – and yes it is bad – there can still be the good. To put it another way, in the darkness there are always moments of light. For example, ‘These People’ is a poem of “arrogance, insult and calumny” yet at the end there is stanza that could even make you smile:
“We are a birdsong, a snow crystal, a crop circle,
toothless giggles of a toddler on a beach.”
And on that smile I will conclude. There are two resurrections of sorts at play here: Dladla’s and South Africa’s. The country described in Lament has been resurrected from the horrors of apartheid yet it is struggling to move forward with democracy. South Africa is held back by the corruption, violence, and inequality of those who liberated it. In that sense, this resurrection thing really does not work. For Dladla, however, the resurrection of his poetry certainly does succeed. Yes, Lament is bleak: The poems cover a lot of ground, they definitely don’t shy away from criticism, they are sometimes challenging. But that said they draw you in with their empathetic style and they offer something new at each turn. There is a sense of inspiration amongst them. Perhaps Dladla is calling all who read this collection to embrace creativity and to start writing however bleak the picture that surrounds them may be. Personally, once I finished the final poem I could only hope that, for Dladla’s resurrection at least, there is more to come:
“Now is the moment;
the great moment
we have been waiting for.
Let miracles begin,
let life prevail,
let stories roll,
let drama flare up,
let poetry explode,
Angifi Dladla is a poet and playwright who writes in both English and Zulu. He is the author of eight plays and a poetry book in Zulu titled Uhambo. For many years he has been a writing teacher and director of Femba Writing Project, publishing school and prison newspapers, and the anthologies Wa lala, Wa salaand Reaching Out: Voices from Groenpunt Maximum-Security Prison. Lament for Kofifi Macu is Angifi Dladla’s first collection of poems in English since The Girl Who Then Feared To Sleep (2001).
Tom Penfold is a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg. His research covers a wide range of South African cultural production ranging from fiction to graffiti. In 2017, he published a monograph with Palgrave MacMillan, entitled Black Consciousness and South Africa’s National Literature. He has a longstanding interest in performance poetry and song, and has worked closely with poets and artists across South Africa.