Innocent and Bare.

Sunday 13 September 2015: Mathews Phosa and Antjie Krog.
By Isabeau Steytler

‘Chants of Freedom’ is the new collection of poetry from former MK-regional commander and Premier of Mpumalanga, Mathews Phosa. It comes year after his first collection of poetry ‘Deur die oog van ‘n naald’ poignantly written in Afrikaans. During this session of the Open Book Festival Phosa spoke to Antjie Krog about his upbringing, his relationship with language and his poetry.

Krog began the session by asking Phosa about his early years living in Polen, Limpopo. Phosa told us about his father who was a teacher and his mother who was a nurse trained in World War II. His grandfather was a miner who decided that his children would never work in the same conditions that he did, and that the way to ensure this was to provide them with an education. Phosa’s grandfather therefore saved the little money he made in the mine to send his children to school.

Phosa became interested in poetry while at school, writing his first poems in SePedi. However, when he went to the University of the North (at the age of fifteen) he started reading and writing poetry in Afrikaans. He explained that he studied Afrikaans deeply as 85% of his subjects were in Afrikaans, ‘Whether I liked it or not, I lived in Afrikaans. I learnt to think first in Afrikaans’. At Krog’s request he recited a poem from his new collection about the writer James Matthews.

comrade James Matthews
once asked me to write a poem
about the Wounded Nation
that was in 1974
now is 1986
I still have not done so
I’m guilty of poetic negligence
I stand convicted
now I shall serve my sentence

Phosa told us how he had met Matthews when he used to come and read poetry at the University of the North. It was James Matthews who told Phosa to write poetry in Afrikaans. This poem, he said, was about remembering Matthews’ advice while he was in exile.

Phosa recalled an event at the University of the North where he recited poetry in front of a crowded hall of black students to whom Afrikaans was strongly associated with Apartheid. Nevertheless, Phosa stood up and presented his Afrikaans poetry and was met with a standing ovation. Phosa used this anecdote to explain his assertion that Afrikaans is an innocent language. It is not only the language of white people, he pointed out, it is also the language of coloured people. And it is also the language he chose to write poetry in.

Phosa then spoke about his poem, ‘Comrade you’re not a traitor’ which he said was about Comrade September who had been head of ANC political intelligence during Apartheid and had defected. At the end of Apartheid he said to the ‘ANC-guys’, if you want to start nation building it starts here, within us, then that crosses over to white and black and the rest of the nation. Phosa explained that he had tried to understand September and when he did so found that he did not think of him as a traitor anymore and could forgive him. The last lines of the poem read, ‘comrade we cannot judge you never shall we condemn you you are not a traitor’.

Krog then asked Phosa to read one of his poems in Sotho and Zulu.

‘le ya mmona Mandela (2x)
yoo – yoo sa’mma (3x)
a paletse bo Vorster
yoo – yoo sa’mma (2x)

Phosa explained that this poem is a chant. It pays homage to the role played by women, trade unions and freedom fighters. It is a chant of freedom which warns that liberation is only half the battle and that new liberators must be careful to respect the Constitution, deliver services to the people and to serve, serve and serve.

Krog turned to one of the poems which is both in English and Afrikaans ‘Boys and girls are back’ which Krog read in Afrikaans and Phosa read in English.

Wees beskeie in julle oorwinning: Humbly claim your victory,
dit is julle kans boys and girls are back,
om te maak of the breek. this is your time,
… to make or to break.

Krog pointed out that the two poems have the same number of stanzas, and the same content but mischievously suggested that Afrikaans ‘is net mooier’ (is just more beautiful).

When questions were posed by the audience, many were directed at gaging Phosa’s opinions on current social and political matters. One audience member said that what Phosa had said about Afrikaans as a language being innocent resonated strongly with her but asked what about the students who feel alienated by the language? Phosa said that in this kind of situation one is required to take emotion out of it and listen to both sides. He reemphasized that Afrikaans is totally innocent. While it may have been misused, he said, it should not be crucified, ‘we should not hate Afrikaans itself’. Phosa added that every child is born ‘onskuldig en kaal’ (innocent and bare). They should know their history, he said, but not carry its baggage.

Despite having reached the end of the hour, Krog decided not to end the session on a political note. It would be far better, she said, to end with a poem.

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