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Not only did the Soweto uprising mark a radical shift in consciousness, it also sparked a renaissance in black South African cultural creativity, writes Mphutlane wa Bofelo. While in the 80s and 90s, ‘literature, theatre and the arts were an integral part of political work and writers and artists were visible and audible in political spaces and platforms’, argues Bofelo, today the arts ‘have been marginalised’ by the ‘pop culture which is utilised by the political establishment to de-politicise the masses’. But there are encouraging signs that radical underground artists are finding ways to keep the arts, theatre and music of revolution alive.

Allusion to the national students’ uprising of 16 June 1976, which started in Soweto, is found in innumerable poems, stories, songs, paintings and theatrical works by both local and international writers and artists.

Amongst others, the uprisings are depicted in the film, ‘Cry Freedom’, the musical ‘Sarafina’, the film ‘Stander’, and the movies ‘1989’ and ‘When We Were Black’. The events of 16 June ’76 are also a major inspiration behind books such as André Brink’s ‘A Dry White Season’, Mirriam Tladi’s ‘Amandla’, Mongane Serote’s ‘To Every Birth it’s Blood’, and Sipho Sepamla’s ‘The Soweto I Love’ and ‘Root Is One.’

For a very long period in South African history, poetry recitations, plays and visual arts exhibitions featured prominently in events and activities marking 16 June 1976. Growing up in the structures of the Black Consciousness Movement, I always looked forward to the 16 June 1976 commemorations, not only for insightful political lectures, but also for poetry recitals, short stage-plays and even some story-telling.

It was on the commemoration services of 16 June 1976, 21 March 1960 and Biko Week that many of us were introduced to the voices and works of Ingoapele Madingoane, Don Matterra, Gamakhulu Diniso, Maishe Maponya, Matsemela Manaka, Farouk Asvat, Duma ka Ndhlovu and Mafube Arts Commune among others.

It was also at these commemorations that I first got the platform to recite my poetry and to act in stage plays. I found myself reminiscing about these moments as I reflected on the influence and symbolism of the 1976 Student Uprising in South African literature and arts. Here I am particularly focusing on the significance of 1976 and Soweto as landmarks and signposts in the emergence and resurgence of what critics like Michael Chapman have referred to by a variety of tags, from ‘Soweto Poetry’, ‘Township Poetry’, and ‘New Black poetry of the Seventies’, to ‘Participatory Poetry’; and ‘People’s Poetry’.

The 1976 National Students Uprising put Soweto on the international map as a social and metaphysical symbol of the totality of Apartheid repression, the reality of being black in apartheid South Africa, the collective discontent and anger of black people, and the radical shift in the consciousness and self-confidence of black people that was infused by the philosophy of Black Consciousness. As the arts and literature captures the heart and soul of a people, this new consciousness became articulated in literature and the arts. 16 June 1976 unlocked the nation’s creative imagination and gave impetus to literary renaissance and cultural movement akin to the Harlem Renaissance. In many ways 16 June 1976 reinvigorated the creative impulse of the literary and arts practitioners in their quest for idiomatic and innovative expression of social reality that went beyond euro-centric conventions. Sam Nzima’s legendary photograph of Hector Peterson’s dead body – which caused worldwide shock and outrage – is in itself a vintage example of the power of the visual arts and its significance as a means of exposition and commentary on socio-political reality and cultural expression.

Building on the momentum initiated by the literary journal, The Classic, which reflected the post-1960 political mood in the country, Black Consciousness-influenced writers like Mafika Pascal Gwala, Eugene Skeef, Mongane Wally Serote, and Sipho Sipamla re-established a vibrant literary tradition within the black community. This also ignited vigorous debates between proponents of art for its own sake and advocates of socially committed art.

From the late sixties concentration on the immediate, everyday township experiences to the early seventies protest at a predominately white readership, black writing of the mid-seventies articulated an uncompromising Black Consciousness voice, leaping into virulent poetry of resistance and rebellion.

Fusing contemporary epic with African oral techniques of repetition and parallelism, writers like Mongane Wally Serote penned a rousing poetry that served as a mobilising oratory and a tool of mass conscientisation, as well as an all-out articulation of the call to action:

‘i am the man you will never defeat
i will be your shadow, to be with you always
and one day
when the sun rises
the shadows will move.’

The distinctly black vision of this literary renaissance was expressed by a return to African names by its practitioners. For an example, Oswald Joseph Mtshali started using Mbuyiseni instead of Joseph, Sidney Sipho Sipamla and Mafika Pascal Gwala respectively began to sign themselves as only Sipho and Mafika and even Ezekiel Mphahlele started to refer himself as Es’kia. This influence spilled off to the music scene where The Beaters changed their name to Harari, and names like Sakhile, Malombo, Malopoets, and Batsumi proliferated. As Michael Chapman has observed, in contrast to the black writers of the fifties and sixties (Brutus, Nortjie, Mphahlele, Nkosi and Nakasa) – who straddled western and African philosophical models, ‘the Soweto poets made a rejection of Western literary and cultural continuities almost a moral and stylistic imperative’.

There is no doubt of the impact and influence that this literary and cultural reawakening had in the development of the People’s Culture of the 80s, the Workers Cultural Movement pioneered by the likes of Alfred Qabula, Eugene Skeef, Nise Malange, Ari Sitas and Mi Hlatshwayo in KwaZulu-Natal and the revival of story-telling and oral poetry as popularised by the likes of Nokugcina Mhlophe and Mzwakhe Mbuli.

Between the 80s and the 90s, literature, theatre and the arts were an integral part of political work and writers and artists were visible and audible in political spaces and platforms. Unfortunately, with the euphoria of the New South Africa and the highly populist environment of parliamentary politics and electioneering, the literary and visual arts as well as theatre and serious music have been marginalised, their voices drowned by the pop culture which is utilised by the political establishment to de-politicise the masses; and make them believe that glamour and pomp is the only thing worth pursuing.

What is encouraging though, is the new phenomenon where radical, underground artists create their own platforms and spaces of keeping the visual and literary arts, grassroots theatre and organic music of revolution alive. There is still room for spaces and platforms for artists and poets who speak truth to power to be created at the events of political parties and social movements.

It is therefore refreshing to note that well known South African poet, Peter Horn, who made his mark with his anti-apartheid poetry, is one of the wordsmiths featured to read their work at the 16 June 1976 commemoration hosted by the Socialist Party of Azania at Regina Mundi in Soweto on 16 June 2010. By featuring such poets and artists regularly, and by having effective arts and culture desks, political parties and social movements will be contributing to the promotion of literature and the arts and therefore to the building of a reading nation. This is one of the tributes we can pay to the heroes and heroines of 1976 who died fighting against gutter education, instead of turning June 16 into a day of bumping and grinding to ‘lyric-less’, ‘message-less’ commercial music.


* Mphutlane wa Bofelo is a cultural worker and social critic.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.