Mathews Phosa’s recently published collection of poetry is the result of the fortunate rediscovery of a number of poems he wrote while in exile in Maputo, Mozambique.
In the introduction below, extracted from Chants of Freedom, Phosa writes that poetry, was a favourite hobby of his in exile. While he managed to find time to indulge his desire to write, he did not have the luxury of being able to archive his work. The chaotic way it was written and collected, as well as message of the poems in his collection, reflects the reality of the struggle.
Read the introduction, along with two poems from the collection:
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In 1981, I opened the first black law firm in Nelspruit, in the then Eastern Transvaal (today’s Mpumalanga Province) with two friends and colleagues. Among the numerous cases the firm handled, I also represented members of the African National Congress (ANC) and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the Spear of the Nation). Consequently, in 1985 I was forced to flee my country of birth into exile. During my stay in Maputo, Mozambique, I became a regional commander of a unit of MK. This unit operated clandestinely, servicing political activists inside South Africa. It was a perilous task. The apartheid state used every means at its disposal, mostly illegal, to break the ANC. Exposure could result in detention, disappearance and even death. Members of my unit had to be extra vigilant; we were always on the move and in hiding. It is surprising that in spite of this I was able to find time to indulge in one of my favourite hobbies: writing poetry.
I first developed an interest in poetry when I was a teenager looking after my family’s livestock in Polen, in the then Northern Transvaal (today’s Limpopo Province). But I started writing when I was a student at Maripi High School (the name was changed to Orhovelani High after the introduction of the homeland system). Back then I wrote poetry in my indigenous language, Sepedi (North Sotho). One such was ‘Tjeketjeke’, a poem about my grandmother’s movement when she brought us food in the field where we were looking after the livestock or tilling the land with donkeys and cattle. When I went to the University of the North, popularly known as Turfloop, I wrote and read poetry in Afrikaans. This was new and unexpected. Due to apartheid, the majority of black South Africans associated Afrikaans with oppression. It was particularly the case in an environment where the Black Consciousness philosophy was dominant. In spite of this, my poetry stimulated an interest among the students and was the highlight during the African Arts Week. Some of my poems, like ‘Wie is ek in my land van geboorte?’ (‘Who am I in the land of my birth?’), were subsequently published.*
I wrote many poems in exile. Regrettably, archiving them was a luxury I did not have. Chants of Freedom is a collection of poems which, fortunately, made it back to South Africa after 1990. I became aware of the existence of these poems only this year, when I was researching for my biography. I felt it was imperative that they be published, including a couple I had penned recently. All the poems in this book are in English.
The poems in Chants of Freedom are a reflection of the various influences during the different times in my life. For example, I grew up in a rural area where we lived off the land and hunted to survive. ‘This one is ours’ speaks to that time in my life, a life that was disrupted by the government’s policy of forced removals. Many black people were forced to become migrant labourers. I have vivid memories of my late father working as a teacher in the distant Lowveld villages. Before him, my grandfather worked in the diamond mines in Kimberley.
‘Gold’ illustrates the plight of migrant labourers in South Africa.
The poems also pay tribute to the role played by women and the youth in the liberation struggle. In ‘The beautiful ones are now born’, I show how the youth resuscitated the names of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, among others, and inspired widespread resistance across the country.
I finally took the decision to leave the country and go into exile after learning that one of my comrades, with whom I operated underground, had been detained and severely tortured to the point that he broke down and divulged some sensitive information to the police about my role. Such a comrade would generally be perceived as a sellout. In ‘Comrade, you’re not a traitor ’, I attempt to explain that we cannot afford to judge or condemn those we feel betrayed us and the struggle. We have to first try to understand the circumstances that caused them to respond in the way they did.
My ‘chants of freedom’ are distinct in their attempt to demonstrate that the political activists were human beings. They had feelings. Occasionally, feelings of uncertainty crept in, and quitting for some, if not most, seemed like the best option. Conversely, ‘My share’ attests to the unyielding belief among political activists that South Africa would one day be free and everyone would enjoy the fruits of democracy. This is what inspired peace-loving people to continue struggling in spite of the risks involved.
Finally, the poems in this book celebrate the victory over apartheid. They eulogise all those who contributed to the fight for democracy, black and white. They are a clarion call to all to work together to make South Africa a better country.
I want to acknowledge my grandfather ‘Mochaka’ and grandmother ‘Tjeketjeke’ for contributing so much to my upbringing; and my father and mother for ensuring I received education, and for shaping my life. I want to thank my wife who stood by me before and during the difficult times of exile when she lived like a widow; for her unstinting support and love. I want to thank my four children – Moyahabo, Tshepiso, Mathlatse and Lesika – for being such a great inspiration and source of unending happiness.
* Mathews Phosa, Deur die oog van ’n naald (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1996)
Mathews Phosa April 2015
South Africa belongs to us all
We belong together – she belongs to us all no whites will be exiled to the sea,
no blacks will be discriminated against ever
Hold hands dear brother embrace good sister
Tomorrow beckons to us all
to rebuild and transform from the ashes of segregation to a new edifice of non-racialism
she belongs to us all
Let us toyi-toyi quietly to a common future one South Africa
one citizenship one future
Boys and girls are back
Humbly claim your victory, boys and girls are back,
looking into a treacherous tomorrow, this is your time,
to make or to break.
Give us the spirit,
we need a virile soul, give us a vision,
we need a tank of ideas.
Choose your side, you can’t be both and everything,
to fish and swines.
Hard work is the seed, to plant, to venture, this is the final option,
for burgeoning nations, wisdom is the watchword.
You call yourself a leader, you close your ears,
shut your mouth, open your eyes,
Extracted from Chants of Freedom: Poems Written in Exile by Mathews Phosa (Penguin)