From left to right: Chrystal Williams, Pulosetsoe Dingiswayo
Stellenbosch University Youth Day Celebration, 13 June 2013, Sasol Art Museum.
Flying shit. Mandela’s flailing health. Uhuru? Feet are marching. Heart shaped, hard headed, UN sanctioned, Forced intervention brigades. Hidden Gaddaffi billions. Banks are to blame. Secrecy. Silence. The right to know! The middle-class calling… Desperate Youth. Equal education. No to woodwork norms and standards. Julius Malema talking revolution. Restless nation. Home invasions. The people shall speak In Striking parallels…
Amid the headliners, the one-liners and the shit, I migrated back to Stellenbosch – a homeless pigeon. Feathers flustered, eyes battered from nine years of overexposure to Stellenbosch University. Wobbling through the Sasol Art Museum, the chairs are all lined up, just like the people and the ideas. Young school-uniformed faces, combined with youngish staff and students, make up the audience. A tree painted on canvas, a podium and an exhibition by Johann Du Plessis called “Silence” forms the backdrop for the Speak Up Speak Out Youth Day programme.
Refilwe, from the Division for Community Interaction, introduces the theme, setting a crisp tone for Head of Student Affairs, Mr. McMaster, to follow. Dressed in black, McMaster reflects on 1976, stating that, “it was about taking a stance against something. It wasn’t just about Afrikaans tuition, but a system of oppression.” This point is strengthened through the use of a Desmond Tutu quote. McMaster proposes that we should think about Stellenbosch University as a symbol of freedom, as an institution that seeks to encourage young people to think critically and speak out.
Yet, I wonder how one encourages young people to speak out within an architectural space that monumentally remembers men who have inflicted historical trauma, and silences the uncomfortable stories of oppression outside. The theme of Speak Up and Speak Out actually seems quite fitting read against the backdrop of the exhibition “Silence”.
Ziyanda Stuurman, SRC member, eloquently speaks to the topic, highlighting both the characteristics of leadership and figures such as Mandela, Ghandi and Mother Theresa as examples. She also touches on the everyday ways in which people can take responsibility for one another by investing the time to listen to each other and share their passions, thereby igniting and inspiring one another to have the confidence to Speak Up, since “it becomes harder to ignore once people are saying the same thing.”
Paul Roos head boy, much like Ziyanda, speaks eloquently to ideas of taking ownership of leadership. Dylan is inventive, and with a flare for the theatrical, he demonstrates his idea of taking ownership by calling on someone in the audience to knock over a book from where they were sitting. With the superhero quotes that were floating around, I secretly hope for a display of superhero powers. Telepathy. Or telekinesis maybe. No luck unfortunately. As Dylan puts it “if you want to take ownership of leadership you have to get up and do it”.
Warning: Too many clichés can cause a slight sense of claustrophobia. Furthermore, their favourite occasions are politically historic days. They are the gatecrashers in a politically constipated vocabulary.
The speeches and the clichés are over, the moment signalled by the introduction of Allison-Claire Hoskins and the INKcredible Poetry Collective from SLiP. Allison bridges the gap from speeches to poetry, with a powerful poem about the red tape of silence regarding rape, reflecting on silent acts of protest. It got me thinking about the effectiveness of using duct tape and silence to give voice to those who remain silent about rape. Maybe this does reinforce a culture of silence even if it is done in solidarity.
This opens this floor for the INKcredible poets to follow. I watched some of these young poets the previous year. Grown in size and definitely in confidence, I feel this is the only group that addresses and engages the theme with linguistic variety and poetic style. They show how and why they “value their voice.” Among them is Nthateng Machaea. Central to her performance is the notion of voice – a voice that “speaks like thunder”, “a voice that is her pride”. Nthateng is followed by Chrystal, who, in Afrikaans, showers her “lyrical geskenke” on the audience with “ritmes van waarheid.” My favourite line from Chrystal’s performance, the gift I walked away with, is her last one: “ek is gebore met my hart buite die box”. The other poets that also grace us with their words are Vuyisa Zibeko, Pulosetsoe Dingiswayo and Nasiphi Mafumbula. A seamless and seemingly effortless performance, I hope to continue to see these young poets on platforms for expression.
An interjection of melody and spoken word ushered in the next performance.
A sêr-group then takes the stage, demonstrating their voices through harmonies and harmonicas. Sweetness on the ear. The only thing I wonder is: how do the songs being sung and the music being played relate to the theme, or to Youth Day for that matter? I wonder what things like 1976, systems of oppression and protest mean for the singers and the musicians. Historically, music strummed important chords of the dissident silenced masses.
The final thread of the program is an introduction to the second- and third-year Fine Arts projects. Three students, namely Carla Wessels, Lisa Du Toit and Carmen Titus explain their artistic journeys in the creative projects. Each student was given an object, which they had to use to come up with some form of narrative/journey. It was a project that “intended to stimulate and encourage self-discovery, originality, independence, and individuality of thought.” I guess in the Fine Arts department, critical thinking isn’t just a cliché, but a methodology which they incorporate into the course framework. This year’s youth celebration was definitely an improvement on last year in terms of variety and theme. Unfortunately, I no longer wear rose tinted glasses. It seems irony is now in a relationship with cliché. In fact, cliché is now pregnant with critical thinking.
“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.
Clockwise from top: 1) Not even the camera can keep up with Sehopotso, 2) Nthateng takes a moment to reflect, 3) Regine, Levern and Chrystal, 4) Nthateng in control
Our country has a proud history of using words to critique the status quo, to imagine new and more humane ways of living together. In a time where money and guns seem to hold sway over the future of our communities, we believe that words are the best and most powerful defence against corruption and violence. We believe that the poetic word emancipates and enlightens, that it dances on the tongues of the dispossessed, refusing to be silenced.
Learners at the SLiP poetry workshops
It is in this spirit that SLiP organises monthly poetry workshops for high school learners from the Stellenbosch area, including Kylemore, Kayamandi, Pniel and Cloetesville. We have about ten learners who regularly attend the workshops and our explicit aim is to train these young and talented minds to become poets – whether it be on the page or on stage – and to arm them with the explosive power of words. We want to educate these young people to become spokespersons for their respective communities through their poetry. It is therefore also crucial that we encourage them to write and perform in their mother tongue, whether it be English, Xhosa, Sotho or Afrikaans.
SLiP Community Manager Hale Tsehlana is in charge of organising and presenting our workshops, while Adrian “Different” van Wyk and Pieter Odendaal also lend a hand. Matie Community Service (MGD), with whose collaboration the workshops are presented, has kindly made available the use of its facilities.
Hale Tsehlana starts a brainstorming session
This page is devoted to our learners and their poetry. Keep an eye out for news regarding the workshops and the events we are planning.