Poetry and Politics in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Change log
Meyer, Alice Patricia 

This thesis explores the ability of poetry to articulate political critique in Post-Apartheid South Africa. The aim of the project is to evaluate the extent to which poetry provides criticism of a contemporary political climate marked by government corruption, rising social inequality and widespread immiseration. I argue that both ‘poetry’ and ‘post-Apartheid’ are developing and contested concepts that acquire meaning in concrete circumstances and continue to take on fresh resonance in South Africa today. I contend that poetry does not passively reflect historical circumstances nor docilely take its place in a post-Apartheid political climate. Instead, it actively engages with the milieu within which it finds itself and contributes in a meaningful way to our understanding of what the post-Apartheid era actually means.

My study focuses on six poets who represent the innovative and politically charged character of post-Apartheid poetry. The writers I choose to examine are Ari Sitas, Seitlhamo Motsapi, Lesego Rampolokeng, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Vonani Bila, and Angifi Dladla. All of these poets lived through Apartheid and were young, or of middle age, at the dawn of liberation. Eager and able citizens willing to build a new democracy, these artists have been bitterly disappointed by the African National Congress’s abandonment of South Africa’s black majority. The poets in question have set about bearing witness to unrelenting social ills through drawing upon the dynamism of poetry in order to rejuvenate public language, dialogue and debate. Confronted with the over-simplification of information in an epoch of late-capitalism, the poets in this thesis seek to revitalise language, through innovative use of form, in order to fashion new perceptions of the world in which they live.

All of the writers in this thesis have been involved in politics or activism and make a point of incorporating these real world experiences into their work. Thus, Sitas invokes worker chants from his time spent in Durban’s labour movement and Dladla remains fascinated by the Gauteng prisons where he has taught creative writing. The poetry I examine is moulded by the active public life of its writers and in turn seeks to participate in a wider world. In this line of thought, many of these poets have started their own literary journals and publishing initiatives, often with strong ties to social justice movements and grass-roots communities. Here, one can mention Nyezwa’s development of the English/isiXhosa multicultural arts journal Kotaz in the Eastern Cape and Bila’s Timbila publishing in the Limpopo province. Through autonomous methods of poetic production and distribution, poets are able to create spaces in which non-commercial and potentially revolutionary art can be heard.

My doctorate spotlights the artistic and political victories of a pioneering group of poets, who are little known both locally and abroad. My research underscores the politically critical qualities of poetic form and thus has resonance beyond a narrowly South African context. Indeed, I believe my PhD can contribute in a valuable way to debates pertaining to the social relevance of poetry in the world today.

Warnes, Christopher
Post-Colonial Poetry, Post-Apartheid South Africa, Politics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust