Interview with Mongane Wally Serote, conducted by Leon de Kock, 7 March 2012, US Woordfees, Stellenbosch
Born in 1944 in Sophiatown, growing up and going to school in Soweto and in the township of Alexandra, Mongane Wally Serote joined the African National Congress (ANC) underground and subscribed to the philosophy of Black Consciousness (BC) as early as his teenage years. Arrested at the age of 25 under the Terrorism Act and held in solitary confinement for nine months, he published his first volume of poetry soon afterwards. After completing a Fulbright scholarship at Columbia University in 1979, he was unable to return to his home country, and lived in exile in Botswana and London for many years before finally returning to South Africa in 1990.
As his interviewer, Professor Leon de Kock of the Department of English at Stellenbosch University points out as he opens the interview at Stellenbosch’s Erfurthuis, Mongane Wally Serote’s biography appears almost emblematic of a certain generation of black South African writers, often referred to as the “Soweto Poets”, several of whom were born in the 1940s and debuted around the 1970s. Even though Serote’s career occurred in the vanguard of this literary renaissance and political movement, he dismisses with a smile De Kock’s question about whether he might yet produce an autobiography: “I feel I am too young to write an autobiography.”
The author of four novels and 14 volumes of poetry – the first of which, Yakhal’inkomo (1972), won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for the best debut volume of poetry in English – Serote talked freely about his political activities from the 1960s through the 1980s, his work for the ANC and under the influence of BC, his life in Alexandra and Johannesburg before and after apartheid, and his time in solitary confinement – a time where he experienced, both on a physical and a psychological level, the “utter, utter cruelty” of apartheid.
Referring to anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko, Serote explained that the most pressing aim of BC was the formation of a black cultural consciousness, and the free expression of black South African voices on literary, political and social levels. Probably the most subtly dangerous aspect of apartheid as it was implemented in South Africa between 1948 and 1990 was the way it was entrenched via ideological normalisation – a point made by both Serote and De Kock during the talk. Laying open the brutalising, dehumanising forces of the system, BC was to intervene and disrupt racism in all fields of human agency.
“In Pretoria, we were not allowed to walk on the pavement, and not allowed to enter certain shops,” Serote remembers. “It was a very difficult time.” It was the time of pass laws, when blacks’ every movement was strictly regulated.
“We didn’t even know how very beautiful our country, South Africa, was, because we were stuck in the townships.” Dwelling on the paradox entailed in labeling blacks “non-whites”, a term that had been widely adopted and which would identify blacks negatively with reference to the positive white other, Serote noted that it took him a long time to accept and embrace non-racialism as something he would “die for”.
As a young man born into and raised in apartheid South Africa, black nationalism and militancy appeared to him as the only potentially effective answers to white oppression and institutionalised racism.
“We saw writing as something that could inspire, record, express, but also entertain,” Serote noted in response to De Kock’s question if writing was seen as part of the struggle in BC circles. Noting that he became familiar with English poets Wordsworth and Keats thanks to good schoolteachers in English, Serote said he started writing when he was just 14 years old.
What really inspired his writing, however, was the groundbreaking novel Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe. It was only after reading Achebe’s novel that he realised “everything [he] had read before was about things he had not experienced himself”.
Trying to give expression to his own experiences, the black experience in South Africa, Serote recalled how he defied his grandmother by publishing poems like “What’s in this black shit”. He could not understand why – even though she saw with her own eyes “how wrong things went in this country” – his grandmother did not want such gruesome experiences to take shape in the form of letters, black on white.
As much as he loved his grandma, Serote said, he felt he had to oppose her on this point. Regarding writing as a way of creating a platform, “a weapon of defiance, of creating a future for ourselves”, Serote pointed out that this could never have been done in the “white” aesthetics of a Keats or a Wordsworth, a form that would sharply collide with the BC context. In loosely structured free verse, everyday black experience was fed into language that was forged in a local context (illustrated by words as “donga” in Serote’s poems). BC writing defied the conventions of bourgeois poetry in terms of both language and content. This is exemplified by his critically acclaimed poem, “City Johannesburg” (1972), which Serote read to the audience after being asked to do so by De Kock:
This way I salute you:
My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket
Or into my inner jacket pocket
For my pass, my life,
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach growls a friendly smile to hunger,
My stomach also devours coppers and papers
Don’t you know?
Jo’burg City, I salute you;
When I run out, or roar in a bus to you,
I leave behind me, my love,
My comic houses and people, my dongas and my ever whirling dust,
That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye.
I travel on your black and white and roboted roads
Through your thick iron breath that you inhale
At six in the morning and exhale from five noon.
That is the time when I come to you,
When your neon flowers flaunt from your electrical wind,
That is the time when I leave you,
When your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling darkness
On your cement trees.
And as I go back, to my love,
My dongas, my dust, my people, my death,
Where death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh,
I can feel your roots, anchoring your might, my feebleness
In my flesh, in my mind, in my blood,
And everything about you says it,
That, that is all you need of me.
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg,
Listen when I tell you,
There is no fun, nothing, in it,
When you leave the women and men with such frozen expressions,
Expressions that have tears like furrows of soil erosion,
Jo’burg City, you are dry like death,
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg, Jo’burg City.
Listening to Serote perform in his own voice, the poem’s contradictory essence becomes even more evident: expressive of a sense of despair and hostility on the one hand, it is a love poem at the same time, dedicated to this city, Jo’burg City, where life and death, hunger and love, “dongas” and “neon flowers”, “friendly smile(s)” and “frozen expressions” co-exist on a daily basis to make a home out of an essentially inhospitable place, a place as familiar as a family member, a friend, a lover, a part of the self (“I salute you”; “my pass, my life”; “When I run out, or roar in a bus to you, / I leave behind me, my love”, “That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye “; “my love, / my dongas, my dust, my people, my death”).
Starting out with poetry, it was in the 1980s that Serote realised he would also need another form if he wanted to record and describe apartheid’s everyday experiences, the struggle, the interior of the lives of people whose “incredible strength in the face of adversity” he had a clear notion of as he wrote his first novel, To Every Birth Its Blood (1981). Set in Alexandra, Johannesburg, and infused with mood and jazz, the novel reflects strong characters with a deep sense of having to find a way to live and survive. As Serote noted, the book allowed him to portray many horrid moments without abandoning the “utter optimism” visible even in people’s faces – faces that harbour pain, but reveal a “beautiful, friendly smile” at the same time.
Concluding the interview, Serote said he thought that even in what has been termed the “post-transitional period” in South African literature, writers should “still have a mission” – to communicate across barriers, even if apartheid was not the main motivation any longer. Taking a question from the audience about how he rated South Africa’s current education system, Serote expressed concerns on a number of levels. Most importantly, however, he emphasised the richness of diversity in South Africa in terms of culture, language and religion – a diversity to be valued as a “treasure”, but which until quite recently was regarded as something to be erased.