In his review of Lesego Rampolokeng’s Bantu Ghost (2009), “Post-Freedom Dreams and Nightmares”, reprinted in this special issue, Mphutlane wa Bofelo aptly writes that “one could not help but come to the conclusion that Lesego Rampolokeng is to literature and theatre what Fanon and Biko are to socio- political analysis and activism.”
This powerful statement has always resonated with me and yet, whilst many full-length studies, special issues, and monographs on Biko and Fanon have been written (at times they have perhaps been over-written), this special issue is the first gathering of words which is primarily dedicated to Rampolokeng’s oeuvre.
The various articles and pieces are attempts at commemorating, reflecting on, and engaging with Rampolokeng’s oeuvre 30 years after the publication of his first book, Horns for Hondo in 1990.
My introductory reflections will hopefully provide a glimpse into themes that readers of Rampolokeng’s work have been engaging with and beginnings of new conversations around his work, which we must carry forward on different platforms. The themes and concepts that I will attempt to reflect upon are by no means an exhaustive reading of his oeuvre, but rather ideas, sketches, and readings that are to me central in order to make sense of such a multi-layered and complex body of work. I will primarily engage with three to my mind central issues in his work: lineages and legacies, global Black Consciousness, and gender dynamics/writing women.
The contributors of this special issue deal with other central themes in, and perspectives on, his work, such as the relevance of his early work for the present (Matthew Krouse), a detailed analysis of Horns for Hondo and Rampolokeng’s craft of performing poetry (Andries Oliphant), writing from the margins/the writer as in/ outsider whilst writing from within the centre back to the centre (Olivier Moreillon), the centrality of music and musicality for/in his work (Warrick Sony, Salim Washington, Sam Mathe, and myself). The importance of his writing as reflection of struggles of mirror to society is what runs through all articles like a golden thread. However, although this special issue is an attempt at celebrating and thinking through multiple dimensions within Rampolokeng’s oeuvre, it should only be seen as a momentous force to drive an ongoing conversation about his work and should thus be read as fragments, as ideas, and as beginnings of a more rigorous conversation about Rampolokeng’s work and its significance for South African literary history.
Fragment One: Lineages and legacies
One of the most fascinating things that I found about Rampolokeng’s writing when I immersed myself in his oeuvre in 2017 was that I could hear a global gathering of rich echoes of artistic voices: Antonin Artaud, William Burrows, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and, perhaps more faintly, Sarah Kane and even Federico García Lorca. Most central to his oeuvre, however, are, as the narrator in Bird- Monk Seding (2017) says, Black artists with a “social conscience” (Rampolokeng, Bird-Monk 18). The narrator, Bavino Sekete, in fact provides us with Rampolokeng’s artistic lineage when he explains:
I came to black consciousness via Mafika Gwala. I carry Aimé Césaire in my head. Frantz Fanon is my father. Burroughs is central as daddy formal innovator, plus. […] My ghetto-youth bibles: Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s ‘Call Me Not a Man’ and Mbulelo Mzamane’s ‘Mzala’. Matshoba first dealt with ghetto reality at whitelight, searing, excoriating, burn-the-place-clown line-them-up-I’ll-shoot-them level. Mzamane made me realise that life grows, even at the most despicable, revolting, clown-in-the- sewer-sucking-on-faecal- matter level. My gutter anthem was the ultimate poem of my black consciously-reaching-for- selfhood clays, ‘Afrika My Beginning’ by Ingoapele Madingoane.
This rich lineage is what I find challenging and fascinating at the same time. For the dedicated reader, Rampolokeng’s work is a chance and a call to enrich ourselves both in fictional and critical writing. I found myself going back to familiar texts, such as Fanon and Artaud, and studying rigorously texts previously not known to me, such as Mafika Gwala’s poetry and Aimé Césaire’s writings. However, Rampolokeng’s writing, though it is a form of teaching, is by no means didactic. Many of his works are not only commentaries on the socio-economic state of the oppressed (particularly in South Africa), but also lessons in art. (We must remember wa Bofelo’s poignant quote [at] the beginning of my introduction.) I have tried to grasp this particular phenomenon in Rampolokeng’s work, to give it a name, a definition (as of course most academics would).
One could, of course, simply say that the author is using intertextual and intermedial devices, that, like every other text, Rampolokeng’s work is a palimpsest. However, I feel that that would create a gap, that it would not do the call to remember and commemorate his lineage justice. I thus suggest calling the tracing of his own lineage and the legacy he is leaving for himself and us as readers ‘lyrical criticism’. His commentary on the arts, his teachings of writers both from the margins and the centre through references and allusions, are always delivered in poetic form. Lyrical criticism is a hybrid genre, situated at the interstice of poetry and critical engagement within cultural and literary studies.
It resists and defies academic conventions. Simultaneously, it consists of cultural, artistic and philosophical theory on a level which must be regarded as at least as valuable and significant for literary and cultural studies as more canonical approaches to theory. I find two of Rampolokeng’s works particularly striking in this regard: Bantu Ghost and A Half Century Thing.
Wa Bofelo rightly points out that Bantu Ghost “started as a tribute to Steve Biko but ended as homage to black thinkers who have made a contribution to theorisation on the Black experience” (wa Bofelo 2020). The play is thus not only an elegy to Steve Biko, but also a rich archival monument to other Black thinkers across the globe, such as Frantz Fanon, Sonia Sánchez and Aimé Césaire, to name but a few. Like inscriptions in a monument, quotes by these and other thinkers are woven into Rampolokeng’s own poetry (Rampolokeng, Bantu Ghost pp. 13-15) and thus form a lineage of writers that inform his thinking, his political stance, and that point the readers to these thinkers so that we may learn and remember/ commemorate this particular artistic legacy, and by implication, form a part of it, be it as writers, teachers, or critics.
Rampolokeng uses similar techniques of tracing his lineage and in this case perhaps leaving his own legacy in print in his 2015 poetry volume A Half Century Thing. The cover is an image of Phefeni in Orlando West, Rampolokeng’s birthplace, and in “Theatric Sticks & Powdered Bones” he speaks about his birthplace when the lyrical I says: “so … I took to Staffriding … all the way from Phefeni to HERE” (Rampolokeng, Half Century 82). The volume also is a celebration of Rampolokeng’s 50th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the publication of Horns for Hondo, all indications that this book is not only speaking of legacies that other writers have left behind, but also of his own.
A Half Century Thing is lyrical criticism that engages with various themes, such as (South) African literary history, hip-hop, oppression, inequality and the quotidian lives of Black people. Perhaps the strongest section of the book are the poems for South African poets Keorapetse Kgositsile (“Base for bra Willie”), Mafika Gwala (“Libation Blues for Mista
Gwala”), Mongane Wally Serote (“Word to Serote”), and Seitlhamo Motsapi (“Earth Shallow (Solo for Seitlhamo”). The poems do not only allude to music through their titles, but are crossing genres in form and style.
They are praise songs and partly resurrections of texts that have been largely neglected in South African literary history.
Although both Kgositsile and Serote have been, through their status as poets laureate more ‘visible’ in the South African literary landscape, there have been few engagements with particularly their earlier works and most of their works from the 70s and 80s are out of print.
Mafika Gwala has been hopelessly understudied and were it not for South African History Online, his work would have been unavailable to the current generation of readers. I am not aware of a full length study of Gwala’s work, although, as Warrick Sony mentions in his piece published in this special issue, Rampolokeng is currently writing a PhD on Gwala’s oeuvre, thus ensuring that Gwala’s importance not only be stressed in the form of lyrical criticism, but also in somewhat more ‘conventional’ academic circles.
Seitlhamo Motsapi is perhaps the least known of the four writers. He has written one book of poems and has since not been a central figure in the South African literary landscape. Rampolokeng’s four poems/lyrical dedications are, much like Bantu Ghost, an archival preservation, a repository of knowledge, a tapestry of commemoration and remembrance as a tribute to otherwise marginalised voices and texts.
Fragment 2: Black consciousness as a global movement
In a conversation between Mafika Gwala and Lesego Rampolokeng, Gwala states that we need a “better Black Consciousness” (Gwala and Rampolokeng 2014). Both him and Rampolokeng agree that it is important to think of Black Consciousness in a global context. Gwala stresses that:
Vietnam was an essential part of our struggle. Because from there we could learn something like black consciousness should not be around colour. It should be around the natural struggle of people wanting identity themselves as a whole. Same with the
Cubans. The Cubans taught us that we had to stand on our own because we wouldn’t liberate ourselves if we always thought that some people were doing it for us. And it even came to Cuito Cuanavale. Cuito Cuanavale taught us that now was the dead-end street. There was no going further. It meant open confrontation with the system, against the system.
The people of Guinea Bissau, they taught us lots of things. They taught us tolerance. They were divided, a diverse society actually. But within that society they sought unity and they readily found it because they were honest with their principles. (Gwala and Rampolokeng 2014)
Rampolokeng’s work embraces and carries forward Gwala’s philosophy of looking outward from within. As a middle Eastern woman who grew up in Germany, I am often struck by how much his work – although, of course, rooted in South Africa – speaks to me beyond my present context of being at home in South Africa. I remember clearly how I was transported back to Rostock in 1992 when listening to Rampolokeng and the Kalahari Surfers’ Bantu Rejex, which I write about in more detail in my piece on the eponymous album published in this special issue. I felt a sense of solidarity and a shared refusal to forget the tragedy and injustice of Rostock.
In Horns for Hondo the lyrical I says “Israel Is fresh in my mind & a god that left carnage behind only to push it to the Palestinian front to make another nation bear the brunt I weep for Palestine & humanity turned bovine” (Rampolokeng, Horns 33, original emphasis). These are only two of many instances of solidarity, of grief for the oppressed, and anger against oppression in the world. I have only chosen examples that speak particularly to me and my context.
But Rampolokeng’s work is constantly inward- and outward looking at the same time, that is to say, although the setting is more often than not local, the text looks out into the world and is a testimony of Rampolokeng’s direct literary and political lineage to Gwala’s definition of Black Consciousness. It is therefore not surprising that Rampolokeng’s work speaks to a global readership, that those of us who have experienced violence, oppression, and racial denigration elsewhere can relate to his words. To my mind, this global solidarity, both on an artistic as well as on a political level, is a hopeful, empowering, and propelling aspect of his work that has often been overlooked by critics.
It is this global outlook which makes me return to Rampolokeng’s work time and again, often in moments of crises and despair, such as when an explosion hit Beirut on the 4th of August 2020. I reread “Lines for Vincent” (1998) and think of the revolution and the subsequent betrayal that many people in Beirut have felt before, but particularly after the 4th of August.
Dima Chami writes about this in her contribution to this special issue. She draws on the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s description of Beirut in the 80s and how timely it still is for the present, and I am reminded of how timely Rampolokeng’s earlier work still is for contemporary South Africa.
Other scholars and critics will perhaps take up the task of comparing the contexts of Beirut and South Africa, differences and parallels in the writings of Rampolokeng, Darwish, and other poets from both countries. I, however, felt, if not comforted, then at least not alone in my grief and the knowledge that, perhaps, through global solidarity not only on social media and quickly fading posts, but in poetry, we could be on a journey which entails what José Esteban Munoz calls “communal mourning” (Munoz 73), a global mourning, perhaps.
This global grief, then, which arises from a place of love for each other as oppressed people, has, as has been evident in the global movement of Black Lives Matter and in global solidarity with Palestine, for instance, led and must further lead to global solidarity and militancy. Here Douglas Crimp’s words, although spoken in a different context, come to my mind: “Militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy” (Crimp 18). So then, might this be what Gwala is demanding of us when he says we need a “better Black Consciousness”, which is echoed in Rampolokeng’s oeuvre?: A global togetherness in grief, mourning, solidarity, and ultimately, a call for action.
I see Rampolokeng’s gestures of moving outward, both in terms of socio-political commentary and drawing on a rich legacy of cultural thinkers as a step forward within the (South) African literary landscape.
Of course, Rampolokeng is joint by other voices in this endeavour, although they vary vastly in style and technique. Zoë Wicomb, interviewed in this special issue by Lorraine Sithole on her latest novel Still Life (2020), and Busuku’s forthcoming book, “And, in those Honeyed Regions”, from which excerpts are also published in this special issue are further examples. However, there remain questions and reflections to be made on what a “better Black Consciousness” might look like in more detail in order to move forward.
How can we achieve a ‘better”, or perhaps ‘different’ black consciousness that draws on both Gwala’s and Rampolokeng’s thinking and that builds on it further? Thus, when Busuku’s child character in “The Impaled Night Sky” (2020) asks the simple yet profound question: “Are we there yet?”, we cannot yet respond in the affirmative, but perhaps we can say that we will be getting there.
Fragment 3: Writing women
I began engaging with Rampolokeng’s oeuvre in 2017 and I remember many conversations which started on a light note and ended with a taste of discomfort. Often, when particularly women writers asked me what my area of research was and I responded that I had been thinking of writing a monograph on Rampolokeng’s oeuvre, the response was more often than not: “Why? He is violent. The writing is sexist. The language misogynistic.”
After a time of not being quite able to express what caused my discomfort with this response, I felt, and still feel, that it is two things which I, as a scholar of Rampolokeng’s work, have had to grapple with. Firstly, and this is easier for me to respond to than the second aspect, I felt that many times readers, particularly of poetry it would seem, conflate the writer and the person (and in Rampolokeng’s case there is a third level of conflation happening, namely the performer, that is to say the stage persona with the man himself). My view is that, to reiterate what Olivier Moreillon also stresses in his piece on Blue V’s in this special issue in line with Roland Barthes, the author is dead. It is tempting to conflate Rampolokeng the performer on stage who ‘takes up space’ and who exudes a more than self-confident aura during his readings with the person off stage and the lyrical I in his poetry and the first person narrators in his novel(s), which I would argue is yet another level, but I agree with the British playwright Sarah Kane that “if they don’t know what to say about the work, they go for the writer” (Kane and Rebellato).
The second issue is less easy to put aside. It is a question that arises both out of the conversations I described in the beginning of this fragment and through having studied Rampolokeng’s oeuvre for almost four years now: What happens to women in his writing? How does he write women? Am I, as a woman of colour, disturbed by the representation of women? Of equal importance is the question as to why there is a silence, a haunting gap, almost a refusal to write about gender issues and the representation of women in Rampolokeng’s oeuvre by critics across gender and race. Because I find this gap more jarring and disquieting than some of the graphic content in Rampolokeng’s oeuvre, but more so because the women in his oeuvre haunt and fascinate me in equal measure, I must attempt to begin to fill this gap, to speak about the women.
Unlike many women I have spoken to, it is not the violent language which unsettles me throughout Rampolokeng’s oeuvre. Reading words like “fucking”, “bitch”, and “cunt” does not cause outrage in me as a reader. Reading violent sexual scenes does not shock me as much as it perhaps does other readers. After all, I read Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, and Philip Ridley long before I encountered a single poem by Rampolokeng. No, it is not what most women feel who (almost) feel repulsed by his writing that disturbs me. I find it much more disquieting to read moments during which women are abused and brutalised and to, at times, feel a gap in the writing, a lack of empathy and compassion on the part of the narrators. In Blackheart, for instance, which is Rampolokeng’s first published novel, the following scene leaves me cold and trembling:
she’s near breaking point. let her break. shatter. fragment.
Million bloodsplashedpieces. i watch her. i’ve done all bleeding week.
through the lens her face is drawn. stretched out. tight. death mask.
she looks around. furtive. time after bleeding time she darts her eyes
around. a trapped mouse. i feel her fear. touch her fright. smell her
panic. the taste of it in my mouth. my stomach rumbles. thunder
coming to her. a mad train. hurtling through time caught in a
jammed moment. electric failure. avalanche. stampede. rockfall. she
looks at me. straight. she can’t see me though her eyes are wide.
graves. dark is my friend. she’s a deer. frightened. those eyes are
going to pop. i can make them pop. burst. explode. scatter to hit the
(Rampolokeng, Blackheart 6)
This (surreal) scene of violence is particularly jarring because the violence seems gratuitous, because the readers do not know about the relationship of the couple before this scene. It is also disconcerting because the narrator derives pleasure from the woman’s fear and vulnerability. He displays an unsettling “libidinal investment in violence” (Hartman 6) while the woman is frightened to death.
The scene is also distressing because the narrator is cold and unmoved by the murder he is about to commit or that he desires to commit. I say desires because in an unexpected twist it turns out that it might be the woman who murdered the man (Rampolokeng, Blackheart 8). Thus, the readers are left wondering as to what really happened, as to whether this scene is ‘real’ at all or whether it is a no less frightening, but mere wishful desire on the narrator’s part.
Other scenes where women are central to the narrative are even less clear cut. Bird-Monk Seding describes a terrifying gang rape of a young girl when the narrator, Bavino Sekete, remembers his childhood:
Happiness, all good & nice in the neighbourhood.Hormonal riot coming on, we went there & got into it, making out. That was the night of my vaginal circumcision. Odd as it may seem. I took a thrust, pain shot through my groin, like dynamite blasting my crotch. Like some razor had gone slash in my loins. I left the place with blood on my pants-front & flowing from under my eye cos then, these guys, friends of mine, came in & stuck an Okapi in my back, demanding that i get off so they could get on, wanting to run train. Memories of shit i would rather drop except to say i got cut, the one with the knife was trying to poke my eye out, i think. Well, they too carry reminders of that night. We all do, hearts heavy with piled-up crap. (Rampolokeng, Bird-Monk 8)
I ask myself, along with different friends who have read the novel: What of the girl? What happened to the girl? We know what happens to the narrator, but where is she? And now, when I read Bird-Monk Seding and Whiteheart side by side -for I have realised that this is how I must read Rampolokeng’s novels, which can be read as three books in one- I find her. I have spoken about her often. But only now do I realise that it is the same girl because the gang rape scenes in Whiteheart and Bird- Monk Seding are so similar. The difference is, however, that the younger narrator in Whiteheart, the child through whose eyes we see the gang rape happening, is more empathetic, in search for answers as to what happens to the girl, than the more mature, distanced, and perhaps jaded narrator in
So, what happens to the girl? Who is she? The girl who, as I write elsewhere about Vincent in “Lines for Vincent” (1998), seems to melancholically haunt Rampolokeng’s texts (Demir forthcoming)? In Whiteheart, the readers find out that the girl’s father rapes and violates her in unspeakable ways and that she, in an act of what John Berger in a different context describes as “undefeated despair” (2006), proceeds to season and cook the dead body of her tormentor after he mysteriously dies -or she might have killed him; the readers are presented with two versions- whilst raping her, a horrifying, graphic moment of melancholic incorporation of a lost, in this case perhaps never had, object of love. However, she is stopped in her tracks. The narrator states:
working away like the cook she’d been since early childhood for a long time while the neighbours drawn by the foul stench of it all came pounding on the doors. but they hadn’t done that when he’d been causing her pain. they knocked shouted & then broke down the door to find her laughing & crying aloud into the night. it hasn’t dawned yet. she’s in the mental asylum. i was there. they call it a centre for the rehabilitation of the mentally handicapped. she’s no mental cripple. disturbed they call it at times. but it goes beyond mere disturbance for me. way away & beyond even an upheaval. it’s more than one long eternal psychological explosion at work on that human system. it goes deeper than any psychiatry textbook will ever delve to explore.
(Rampolokeng, Whiteheart 9)
Here moments of empathy and grief for the girl are clearly visible on the narrator’s part. The horrific violence that she experiences at the hands of her father and other men is clearly edged in his body and mind. And yet, it is unsettling that the girl remains unnamed, that she eventually seems to disappear because the narrator does not see her in the psychiatric ward when he is there, and that this disappearance is mimicked in Bird-Monk Seding, for her story has faded from the pages, replaced by the narrator’s trauma after having witnessed the gang rape.
The last woman I must write about has a name: Bongi, the woman in the eponymous poem which was published in The Bavino Sermons (1999 ). “Bongi” tells the story of her and her lover in exile and their return to South Africa. And although the story is narrated to the lyrical I by Bongi’s unnamed lover, it is of Bongi’s hardships during the armed struggle in exile that the readers learn:
[…] when the bullets flew, when the bombs raged she gave birth
in the bush, wrapped the child in an army shirt plucked from a dead
guerilla, after washing it in the drinking water from her canteen.
the second child she gave birth to in a refugee settlement makeshift hospital
while her comrade kept guard.
(Rampolokeng, Sermons 83)
Bongi endures multiple traumas during her time as a soldier, but despite this, her fighting spirit seems unbroken:
a face as red as the waste between her legs came into her view in her rifle’s sights and she swabbed it. another one
tried to dive and her bullet helped it on its way.
Bongi reminds me of a painting by Dumile Feni – called “Untitled” – of a Black woman holding a rifle in one hand and carrying her baby in the other. The poem might be the lyrical interpretation of Feni’s painting. However, while the painting does not speak about the woman’s homecoming, the poem does. It is a homecoming shadowed by betrayal, death, and brokenness.
Bongi’s lover returns into the arms of his former lover, walks out on her and their two children. This betrayal does to Bongi what war could not do: It crushes her mental health. Or perhaps it heightens Bongi’s traumatic experiences and brings them to the fore.
Upon realising that things cannot be the same with his erstwhile lover, the father of Bongi’s children returns home only to find that Bongi killed the girls and attempted suicide herself. The tragic scene is narrated in all its horrifying details, but without judgment for the lyrical I stresses that
“his leaving blew bongi’s sanity to shreds. she didn’t know his coming”
And yet, despite the loss of her sanity, Bongi displays a shattering, tragic moment of undefeated despair -much like the girl in Whiteheart- when she is “hurling “inkatha” in his face before she passed out.” (Sermons 84). The bitterly ironical juxtaposition of inkatha, a symbol of unity, and the irretrievably broken home of the protagonists is an unspeakable moment of loss and tragedy of such horrifying proportions that I cannot find the words to accurately speak to the poem. But Bongi speaks. That one word – inkatha – symbolises the hopes she might have had for her family to live in peace and unity after the traumatic years of war. Simultaneously, it speaks of unbearable, bitter, angry disappointment caused by her lover’s betrayal.
Like the girl in Whiteheart, Bongi is taken to a psychiatric institution. This raises a final question which I must ask myself: Why are these two women who have haunted me throughout reading Rampolokeng’s work cast away into a psychiatric institution? Perhaps it is because society fears precisely this undefeated despair which both women have in their spirits despite being physically and mentally broken by the world, by men. I am not sure whether this is the answer, or whether I will find answers to my question.
However, I know that I will continue to grapple with it beyond these pages, that I must continue speaking about the women, these two and Vincent’s mother in “Lines for Vincent”, and other women in Blackheart, and Mmaphefo in Bird-Monk Seding. And, of course, when I think of the women I must also ask myself about different representations of masculinity in Rampolokeng’s work. However, for now, this fragment on women is an invitation for other readers and critics to embark with me on this journey.
Burger, John. 2006. “Undefeated Despair.” Institute of Race Relations, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 23-48.
Crimp, Douglas. 1998. “Mourning and Militancy.” The MIT Press, Vol. 51, pp. 3-18.
Demir, Danyela Dimakatso. (forthcoming). “Fragmentation, Space-Time Collapse and Melancholia: Reflections on Lesego Rampolokeng’s Bird-Monk Seding.”
Hartman, Saidiya. 2008. “Venus in two Acts.” Small Axe 26, vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 1-14.
Kgositsile, Keorapetse. 2018. Home Soil in my Blood. Johannesburg: Xara Books.
Munoz, José Esteban. 1999. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
Rampolokeng, Lesego. 2017. Bird-Monk Seding.
Grahamstown: Deep South.
2015. A Half Century Thing. Grahamstown: Black Ghost Press.
2009. Bantu Ghost. Johannesburg: Mehlo-maya.
2005. White Heart: Prologue to Hysteria. Grahamstown: Deep South.
2004. Blackheart: Epilogue to Insanity. Johannesburg: Pine Slopes Publications.
1999. The Bavino Sermons. Durban: Gecko Press.
1998. Blue v’s. With German translations
Rodwell, Bobby. 2014. Word Down the Line. Johannesburg: Mehlo-maya.
Web1: https://chimurengachronic.co.za/poets- are-hurting/. Accessed on 16 November 2020.
Web 2: https://youtu.be/EAYfvqN5RVo.
Accessed on 16 November 2020.