Stranger at Home: The Praise Poet in Apartheid South Africa by Ashlee Neser, Wits University Press 2011.
Although it is not clear from the title, Neser’s splendid book is a case study, an in-depth examination of the life and work of the Transkei Xhosa poet David Manisi. Neser’s starting point is Jeff Opland’s formidable work on Xhosa literature, his scholarship and the archive he built up of Xhosa oral poetry and publications, much of which had previously been inaccessible. Neser warmly acknowledges Opland’s foundational work, along with that of other scholars such as Isabel Hofmeyr and Karin Barber — effectively giving the lie to Zakes Mda’s contention in Sometimes there is a Void that, unlike creative writers, academics are a bunch of mean-minded ingrates, forever at each others’ throats.
Neser’s account begins with Manisi’s 1954 praise poem to Mandela, a poem “part character summation, part prophecy and exhortation [that precedes its subject’s] transformation into the major symbol around which anti-apartheid commitment would mobilize”: to quote the text, “The poet names you Gleaming load: / you set Africa blazing”. Neser examines Mandela’s role as a Thembu chief who rejects an exclusive Thembu identity.
She then proceeds to a summary account of Manisi’s own sense of multiple identity at the time the poem was composed: both a member of the ANC and the official praise poet of Kaiser Matanzima’s Transkei Thembu chiefdom; a Mission-educated Methodist “whose Christianity accommodated ancestral veneration”; a man who demanded a single education system for all South Africans and yet who fought to preserve Xhosa forms of knowledge; a guardian of Xhosa history and a fervent pan-Africanist.
It is the sometimes tragic contradictions that these multiple affiliations led Manisi into that form the key focus of Stranger at Home, as Neser demonstrates how Manisi’s praise poems “reflect, resist and sometimes buckle beneath the strain of the identities and the beliefs they expressed in the divisive and coercive contexts of apartheid South Africa”. Rather than replicate Opland’s project of elaborating and elucidating the genre of praise poetry, Neser states: “I hope to engage the scars in Manisi’s poetry — those sites of strain and damage and counter-efforts at repair at which a world and a poetic sensibility proved mutually inhospitable.”
Although at first glance this might seem to be a decidedly specialist academic text, Neser amply demonstrates how crucial a form of expression praise poetry has been in South Africa, with the result that one can recommend the book as an important read for anyone engaged in the complexities of history and discourse practice in this country (that is, with what has been done and with the ways we elect to speak about what has been done).
Following such scholars as Leroy Vail, Landeg White and Duncan Brown, Neser establishes how a praise poem is far from being a compendium of flattering references to big men but how, rather, it is an important medium for communicating to leaders a people’s “dissatisfaction and demands”, so that the imbongi (“praise poet” in Xhosa and Zulu) “must be interpreted as a defender of the interests of the community as a whole”. What then is the imbongi to do when, as under apartheid and Bantustanisation, those interests are savagely compromised, strained and pulled asunder? “The essence of the form,” states Neser, “from pre-colonial times to the present is not its ability to decide unchanging identity but rather to accommodate the human complexity of connections and mutability.”
The body of Neser’s book begins by recounting Manisi’s rise to prominence as a popularly acclaimed praise poet, both giving oral performances and publishing poems in the newspaper press. Neser is good on the symbiosis between oral and written forms, which are sometimes crudely and mistakenly assumed to be antipathetic. For various reasons, not least the intensification of apartheid during this period, Manisi’s published work slipped into obscurity; Manisi came to regard it as a gift to posterity.
The focus shifts to Manisi’s conflicted response to Thembu chief Kaizer Matanzima — a tool of Pretoria, yet a figure whose authority was important for the well-being of the chiefdom. “Since izibongo (praise poetry) is an urgent political form”, comments Neser “it is difficult to see how Manisi could have withdrawn from Transkei politics without foregoing newspaper publication (as he did in 1955), unless he [were to have] adopted a public position against Matanzima”.
The wealth of detail in this section of the book, and the care with which the history is plotted and referenced, remind one that Neser’s text originated as a doctoral thesis — yet it is a highly readable and illuminating account of the political crucible within which Manisi’s career played out.
With the Bantu Education Act, Manisi bewailed: “You must write rubbish, not tell the truth about the situation.” Yet, as Neser comments, “Manisi’s poetry depends on the convention that the imbongi is a political figure tasked with the role of delivering honest verdicts on his community’s behaviour.” As a resistance poetry that was urban and in English came to the fore, “Manisi was left ideologically stranded . . . his desired publics divided, and his loyalties [to the ANC, to the chiefdom] out of synch with one another”.
Some of the poetry Neser quotes here has a searing power, all the more lacerating because of the complex political contradictions within which it was composed. For example, some lines on Mfantu, the nineteenth-century chief deposed by the British and imprisoned on Robben Island, a poem that exemplifies Manisi’s central dilemma, as it argues for the restoration of the chiefdom in the corrupting and compromising context of apartheid at a time when Manisi’s audiences were more and more taken up with the race struggle and repudiated “discredited authenticity”.
In the work of the Soweto poets there developed an exhortation of black nationalist politics that cut through the contradictions Manisi found himself locked into, producing a discourse that was contemptuous of sell-out chiefs and their alleged lackeys, the imbongi. Yet, as Neser points out, the role of the imbongi is to highlight contradictions and to attempt to unravel them, in a quest for enlightenment. This is a task Manisi was not always equal to, for example, in his praises to Matanzima at Transkei’s “independence” celebration, where the contradictions became only more stubbornly gridlocked.
The close reading Neser performs throughout the book is perhaps at its sharpest with the extraordinary third poem Manisi performed on this occasion. “[‘President’] Sigcawu’s portly figure appears to be the subject of Manisi’s praise, but when the poet stresses the emaciation of Transkei’s starving inhabitants, the image of the swollen president becomes grotesque . . . The beauty of the chiefs Manisi describes conceals the ugliness of their people’s deprivation, and signals their complicity in Transkei’s suffering.” (Neser doesn’t go in much for comparative readings, but some comment here on contemporary praises of King Mswati would have been interesting).
The latter part of Neser’s book, “Inventions for the record”, covers the poems Manisi produced in academic contexts, “manufactured to solicit and capture the poet’s improvisations”. Neser’s concern here is to explore these contexts of “poetic production and mediation”, contexts imbued with the apartheid paradigm. Although Neser doesn’t so much as nod at the Marxist notion of means of production and their role in the formation of textual ideology, in effect the account runs along these lines.
Neser comments that “most of Manisi’s academic auditors [in South Africa and the USA] had little sense during the poet’s performances that they were being addressed as political agents in terms mandated by a powerful genre”. This suggests a sharply humorous scenario, yet the overall picture was bleaker. In a final chapter Neser constructs a sensitive and incisive account of the multiple dilemmas Manisi faced as a touring poet in the US university system: how to relate to his (often baffled, sometimes hostile) audience, with its complicity with capital in South Africa and with its nation’s own systemic racism; how to project steps forward to South Africa’s liberation, in a context in which Manisi was accused by the ANC in exile of being a stooge of Pretoria.
On a cursory flip-through, Neser’s book looks like a pretty forbidding prospect. It has been brought out in miniscule print: in the body of the text, 120,000 words are crammed into 250 pages. There are no illustrations. A few photos of Manisi in performance would have been welcome, and it would have been extremely helpful to have a series of maps showing the territorial transmogrifications of Transkei from the nineteenth-century onwards.
Still, I can recommend this book very warmly indeed. It grips the attention throughout, leading one really to root for Manisi, if not uncritically. Neser’s way of working fully vindicates Terry Eagleton’s assertion (in How to Read a Poem) that the charge that literary theory has killed off close reading is “one of the unexamined clichés of contemporary cultural debate”.
Apart from anything else, Neser’s book is a work of reclamation. Manisi died in 1999 in “total obscurity”; he appears never to have had the opportunity to give public performance — life’s blood of an imbongi — in the new South Africa. Neser has done this complex and fascinating artist proud.