The red light flashes on my Blackberry. Message.
“Where are you?”
“Err…in the labs. Why?” I ask, with a confused emoticon.
“Sasol Kunsmuseum, 13:00. Stiek uit!”
I grab a few essentials – including a box of cigarettes, a lighter and a student card – and make my way down the road to the museum for the University of Stellenbosch’s Youth day Celebrations. The day before, I remember Pieter Odendaal mentioning that I must come and listen to the young poets that he, Hale Tsehlana, Adrian Different van Wyk and have been working with. I arrive to find Pieter and Adrian sitting on the steps of the entrance to the museum. They look professionally chilled out, like two proud parents. The three of us wait for the young poets to arrive. Mini-buses pull up and teenagers in school uniforms appear. The programme must be starting soon. Eventually, three young ladies join us on the steps: Chrystal Williams, Levern Florence and Regine Stubbs. All three are full of smiles which attempt to hide their nervousness. The other poets also join us: Nthateng Machaea, Sehopotso Selai, Musa Vos, Vusi Mokoena and Shalton Engelbrecht.
We are ushered in, and awkwardly take our seats. I am pleasantly surprised to see so many fresh-faced, school-uniformed learners. A youth day celebration with a youthful audience – it feels like a breath of fresh air since the last time I passed through the museum. The program is opened by our student dean, Llewellyn Macmaster. His words are stylish and inspiring and attest to an underlying faith in the youth. I’m glad. Too many “older” or “seasoned” (I’m not sure what the politically correct term is) folks don’t give enough credit to our young ones for surviving each so-called democratic day. After Macmaster, Brad Brockman continues the proceedings with a list of sobering statics about the glaring inequalities embedded in our education system and the impact this has on the life-chances of young people. These speeches about reality on the one hand and faith in change on the other, form the backdrop for a practical poetic display of what young people are capable of.
Now it’s time for the young ones to take to the stage. Pieter and Adrian introduce the Word-Full poets. These high school learners all hail from schools in the greater Stellenbosch area and attend the monthly SLiPnet poetry workshops, organized by SLiPnet Community Manager Hale Tsehlana and aimed at fostering young voices.
Nthateng opens the floor with a poem about her tongue-in-cheek coconut identity and how she constantly veers between remembering and forgetting her Basotho roots. She spices up her English with Sotho phrases and reminds us all of the plurality of voices in this place. This is then followed by Levern’s poem, “Die vroue in ôs straat”, a playful piece, which describes the women who live in her street and their stories, emphasising their differences but also affirming how they stand together when they need to. Levern reminds me that we all have women like this living in our streets.
Next up is Regine, who recites the first poem to explicitly speak about the current state of our youth and their daily toils and troubles. She also pays homage to the boy who carried Hector Pieterson on that fateful day in 1976 and invokes his selflessness, calling on all of us to carry those who can’t carry themselves anymore. Sehopotso (aka Palesa to those who can’t pronounce her name, she jokes) captivates the audience with her confident presence and uses hip-hop inflections to spit rhymes about the problems facing her community.
To finish off, Chrystal calmly commands the podium with a beautifully crafted Afrikaans poem about our relationship with the environment and the apathy of so many kids in the face of the current ecological crisis. Her poem shows a technical skill and a sensitivity towards words that is hard to come by these days, and practically unheard of for a lady of her age. She ends her haunting piece with the following words: “en ek glo / dat ons eendag weer die blou hemel sal ken” [and I believe / that one day we will once again know the blue sky].
And with that, the Word-Full poets are done for the day. The rest of the programme consists of a celebration of music and the visual arts and their potential to catalyse social change. But today’s show belonged to the wordsmiths and their knife-sharp tongues, and as I am walking back down the street, back to the computer labs, I am hopeful again, hopeful because this country’s future lies in the hands of these inspiring poets.