Friday, April 22, 2005

Ear to the Ground

Kiri Sailiata
Comparative Freedom Movements
Prof. Rachleff
April 18, 2005

"Ear to the Ground: Contemporary Worker Poets" COSAW & COSATU publication.1991. > The Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) merged forces to publish a remarkable compilation of poetry showcasing the artistic talents and political subjectivities of the South African Black working class. The excerpt available focuses on the experiences of three South African activists: Frank Meintjies, Cindy Maroleng, and Buysile Jonas. Prefacing each artist/activist/worker's poetry is a photo and brief biography. In this paper I will give an introduce each poet and discuss very roughly, as I am not an English major nor a poet, the major themes of each poem and how they relate to cultural production as a means of resistance.

Frank Meintjies was very active in the trade union movements of South Africa. He first worked for the Diakonia and the Media Support Project which serviced various trade unions in Cape Town and then served as an information officer for COSATU in the late '80s. Meintjies also had established talents in the form of print media as a journal for the Natal Witness and its black counterpart, Echo. His work was very much influenced by his Marxist friends and their discussions regarding Brecht, Black Consciousness Movement, and Breytenbach.

One of Meintjies' main purposes in performing and writing poetry was in reaction to the hierarchicalization of education in South Africa, "I saw how the elites used language and their expertise with the written word to dominate. I wanted to use words to explore, to express and through my own feelings and responses, contribute to the working class." His second poem entitled, "Unemployment" addresses the lack of opportunities available for working class blacks and how it strikes at the very pride and core of man unable to provide for himself. In the poem he talks about his unfruitful search for a job, borrowing money from his girl-friend, and stealing fruits from a market. Meintjies does not reinforce the stereotypes of the unemployed black South African male, but rather explores the reality and the reasons behind the construction of that reality. He writes, " here with my back against the café wall/and my pride buried/and I think and think/and I hear my teacher's voice/ 'education is the key'/ the dagga mocks and asks/ 'but where's the doors?" Irony and humor are ever present as he paints the portrait of the black working class male.

The poem in the section is entitled, "This Compelling Freedom," Meintjies plays upon the sense of sight and sound saying "I'm a prisoner of my eyes" and "I'm a prisoner of my ears" following each stanza of descriptives. It's a poem which is just as much a tribute to the suffering that is apartheid as it is to the strength and defiance of a people trying to overcome. His last verse places himself unmistakably in the thick of the struggle for freedom, "From this liberation/This compelling freedom/Of sound and sight/I speak to you."

The third and last poem is dedicated to "Mr. G." and entitled, "Days Before The Strike." The subject of the poem is a man delivering newspapers and his truck is stopped at an intersection. Meintjies comments on the dishonest content of the news and the man's solidarity with organized worker action. The last stanza says, "A comrade passes/You lean out of the window/ Shout 'amandla!'/ The reply, cheerfully/ 'one day workers will be free!'/you agree/Mr.G."Cindy Maroleng the second poet showcased in this excerpt gained her experience with the written word as the daughter and unofficial 'secretary' of a poet and Tsonga folklore author father. She earned money as a freelance writer for various newspapers including the Drum. Maroleng attributes her formal training as a writer to her work with the Bra Stan Motjuwadi, editor of the Drum. She earned a diploma in journalism from Natal Technikon in 1988.

Her background in union activities was as a former member of COSATU's paper union PPWAWU. She was chairperson the COSATU Johannesburg local media structure. Maroleng in league with other so-called, "cultural activists," formed the Soweto Culture Forum and served as the first deputy chairperson.

Maroleng's first poem is entitled, "Red Eyes," and is much more abstract and inclusive of mythical symbols and qualities than Meintjies' pieces. She does not concretely write about union activism or social problems in South Africa as much as she explores the creative experience. "Beyond the Limpopo I did not know/there lies more than/waterfall, mountains and valleys green/I did see this red carpet outstretched/across the Bridge Beit/beckoning to the souls/troubled by the monster below," thus begins the first seven lines of her poem.

Maroleng's second and final poem is entitled, "Memories." She explores through memories and bearing witness to the effects of the apartheid system. It begins with commentary on the deplorable state of education, "a system that/deprived me of living my life/to the full/i'll pick up the pieces/ and be a man/ a hu MAN being." She then references the atrocities committed by the South African state "God help me/shake the hand that/that pulled the trigger/that killed my brother/massacred/wiped out/my whole kin/on that fateful night." Maroleng describes the gruesome details of a mining worker's life "when i laboured/sweating/deep down/shaft 11/for starvation wages/help me/smile with the face/ that once harbored hatred" Buyisile Jonas is described in his biography as "Soft-spoken, pint-sized, Buyisile Jonas, is engaged in giant sized work." His work with the trade union movement is the former Education Officer of the National Union of Mineworkers. Jonas is also National Co-ordinator of "an organization like COSAW." He joined the mining industry in the early 80s and became a member of NUM. "My poems and short stories did not escape the realities of the mining environment."

The first piece by Jonas is entitled, "Tribute to Geofrey Njuza, A mineworker who died on 2 September 1989." In this poem Jonas heroifies the life of Georfrey Njuza and offers his example as a model of activism, struggle, and strength. "We draw determination/To expedite apartheid's termination," ends the poem.

The second poem written by Jonas is a piece entitled, "Cause for celebration," he talks about the return of the political prisoners namely Mandela. He describes South Africa not as a bleak place of struggle but rather as "This blooming of a new South Africa."

All three poets are examples of the way in which poetry has been used to privilege and acknowledge the subjectivities of the black working class population in South Africa. The themes of these poems: apartheid, resistance, working conditions, education, opportunities, unemployment, movement leaders, union organizing, are themes relevant to the materials we have covered extensively in class. The distribution and accessibility of this pamphlet to other black working class people is not known. However, given that these three individuals are so deeply connected with not only the labor organizing but 'cultural activism' their voices receive great attention. We can see through the example of Meintjies, Jonas, and Maroleng how forms of cultural production such as poetry are expressions of resistance in the freedom movement of South Africa.