Mongane Wally Serote

Learn more about Serote and his writings (click here for information and purchase) When you select any Amazon item to buy from the Voices Education Project web site, and then check out at Amazon.com, a portion of your purchase price will be paid to Voices to support our work. Mongane Wally Serote was born in Sophiatown … Continued

Learn more about Serote and his writings (click here for information and purchase)

When you select any Amazon item to buy from the Voices Education Project web site, and then check out at Amazon.com, a portion of your purchase price will be paid to Voices to support our work.

Mongane Wally Serote was born in Sophiatown on 8 May 1944, just four years before the National Party came to power in South Africa. His early education took place in the poverty-stricken township of Alexandra and later at Morris Isaacson High – the school in Jabavu, Soweto, that would much later play a significant role in the 1976 uprising against Bantu Education. As Serote’s high school years came to a close, he joined the African National Congress. He soon became involved with the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and was inspired by the poetry that spoke of black identity, resistance and revolt.

In 1969 he was arrested and detained for nine months in solitary confinement under the Terrorism Act. In 1972, he published his first collection, Yakhal’inkomo, which went on to win the Ingrid Jonker Prize for debut poetry in English. This early success was followed by a string of highly acclaimed collections throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

South Africa during the 1970s was fertile ground for a literary revival of the silenced black voices withering under state repression. This was a defining period for the evolution of political consciousness among black South Africans, and BC affirmed and fostered black cultural values, aiding the establishment of a racial solidarity in the face of harsh oppression. The literature of Serote’s fellow writers Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Mtshali, Chris van Wyk, Mafika Gwala and Don Mattera spurred on the political ideals of anti-apartheid popular movements. Many of these works aimed at mobilising audiences; the immediate impact of drama and poetry drove the momentum for change.

Serote was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and received an MFA from Columbia University in 1979. His poetry that took shape during this period suggests influences from the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude movements, with hints that the writing of Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee and Ishmael Reed offered him a new mode for expansion and expression.

Unable to return to South Africa after completing his studies, Serote remained in voluntary exile, going to Botswana in 1977 where he rejoined the ANC underground and military wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe. Together with the artist Thami Mnyele (whose image of a mother and child graced the cover of Yakhal’inkomo) he was instrumental in establishing the Medu Art Ensemble in Gaborone.

His debut novel, To Every Birth Its Blood, (Ravan, 1981) offers a riveting insight into the political activity in the 1970s, exploring the tensions of state violence, black apathy and the shift into violent dissention. Serote’s later novel, Gods of Our Time (Ravan, 1999), outlines the growing militancy of civilians and the gathering intensity of military campaigns that ultimately contributed to the toppling of apartheid.

In 1993, his seventh poetry collection, Third World Express (David Phillips, 1992) won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2004, he received the Pablo Neruda award from the Chilean government.

Serote held a variety of positions in the ANC, returning to South Africa in 1990, when he was appointed Head of the Department of Arts and Culture of the ANC in Johannesburg. He has also served as chair of the parliamentary select committee for arts and culture. Serote was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei. Until recently he was a Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Portfolio Committee for Arts, Culture, Language, Science and Technology.

(for james matthews)

so you heard the night break into a laughter
when the dogs began to howl
and now you pass the day
having heard the scream of cats making love beneath broken automobiles
and your memory
like your eyes
like your whiskers
was witness to it all
otherwise why would you ask me about nina simone
your eyes say nothing nice about the minutes you carried
nor your whiskers
because they smell of alcohol
and your memory keeps throbbing behind your eyes
otherwise why would you sing with ausi miriam
about the empty days
and the nights which shattered your sleep
child of the song
tell us

how we used to sit in the womb of the dawn
crushing the days that the future held
popping them
as if they were bugs troubling our night
and we staggered into the mourning into the street
where everything screamed: sonofabitch!

yes, the day was not ours nor the night
remember how someone’s baby rushed out of the tenth floor
and crushed on the tar
his blood splashing on the flower petals in the garden
so you heard the laughter of the law
what will you say to your son
or my son, every mourning is a dangerous alley
prophets claim the future
and the present destroys them

child of the song, sing don’t cry
with song and dance we defied death
the heavens are blue because they are empty
beware, my brother, of park benches
sitting there
is the last thing a fighter must do


(for sisters and brothers who may be weary)

so you keep looking back
if you did not listen when the past was breathing
the present erases your name
child don’t let laughter from insane strangers snatch our faces
the present is surprised at our songs
it is shocked that we still walk the streets the way we do
lost as we are
torn and bewildered by the sounds of our names
it is surprised that though the sight of our eyes staggers
and though the gait of our shadows seems to limp
we still put brick on brick and tell our children stories
so you keep looking back
even when the darkness is so thick it could touch your eyeballs
even when the darkness is such a huge space
ready with an insatiable thirst, swallowing, and even ready still to swallow
the last red drop that trickles still from your little heart,
don’t you hear the songs
they can live in the present if we let them
these songs have a prowess of our mother’s back
and the eloquence of our grandmother’s foresight
about the time that never was
and the earth whose rhythm is an intoxicated dizziness
feel the wall while you walk and hold, hold
glue your eye into the distance and keep walking
move, child, move
if we don’t get there
nobody must . . .


how do we learn from what we talk
and from what we hear
how do we learn
that when an eye is poked out
what remains is a hole
that this assaulted space
will never be the same again
that the hole that remains is like a womb
it throbs and throbs with memory

the eye,
with its hasty footsteps moves and moves
yet when it rests, like a river which heaves with breath
but spreads and spreads in motionlessness
we read what the eye writes
eyes can break like a branch loaded with fruit

since there is no such thing as choice
the eyes see what they see
let the hole throb
scars are moments where we have been
one with one foot must move must still move

Source: Poetry International Web: http://www.poetryinternational.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=15594


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