South Africa: Poets who refuse to know their place

South Africa: Poets who refuse to know their place

Date: October 26, 2013
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Natalia Molebatsi performing at Speak the Mind, Arts Alive 2013 at Bassline, in Newtown, Johannesburg. Photo: Raphael d'AbdonTshwane, 24 October: The first time I experienced performance poetry was in the late 1980s when I saw “the people’s poet”, Mzwakhe Mbuli reciting at an anti-apartheid rally. His performance was the highlight amongst many passionate speeches and revolutionary slogans. He delivered a powerful, yet entertaining message that supported the crowd who longed for the death of apartheid. I fell in love with Mbuli’s words and I wanted to dance inside the depth of his voice. I thought to myself, “When I grow up, I want to be a poet.”


Years later, I got to know inspiring performance poets like Lesego Rampolokeng and Kgafela oa Magogodi who reinvigorated my love for performing words. However, by the end of my teenage years, my dream of being on stage had faded and I believed I would always be part of the audience.

But, in the early 2000s, thanks to visionary performance poetry collectives such as Feela Sistah in Johannesburg and WEAVE in Cape Town, for the first time, South African women were the face of spoken word poetry. They had powerful voices that laid down a clear feminist agenda.

The inequalities of our past, not only put women’s issues on the back seat, but also never afforded women and girls the opportunity to tell their version of the story. This movement was significant because the poetry addressed public and private politics in ways that many women could relate to, especially young women exploring the meaning of freedom in post-apartheid South Africa. Their messages also resonated with me being a young black woman in a country deeply rooted in patriarchy.

These women poets gave a voice to the voiceless -domestic workers, sex workers, homosexual women and others who knew what oppression felt like. This spoken word canvass helped write women out of stereotypes, painting them as front liners and survivors, instead of deviants and victims.

Women poets in South Africa continue to challenge their audiences, ensuring that society is aware that being a woman remains a struggle. Many argue that society should erase or at least question the oppressive cultural beliefs that threaten young women’s agency and independence.

I began frequenting the previously male dominated spaces where poets performed. The powerful, sexy feminist poets who came before me, inspired more young women to value and share their opinions. The energy that oozed from their bodies gave me and other women the confidence to get behind the mic.

However, opportunities for poetry shows with a specific focus on women were still few and far between, so we had to create our own spaces. With our own money and resources, we organized Body of Words, a theatrical performance staged at the Market Lab in 2010. With the collective energies of the three founders of Feelah Sistah -Myesha Jenkins, Napo Masheane and Lebo Mashile, along with Khanyi Magubane, Linda Gabriel, Phillippa yaa de Villiers and Khosi Xaba we created a platform, rich in performance and words that both women and men could relate to.

Although open mic and poetry shows remain common in alternative spaces in Johannesburg, only one in five young poets behind the microphone is a woman. But, there are new rising voices such as Nova Masango, Mandi Vundla and Vangi Gantsho, who are growing the movement by creating more spaces such as No Camp Chairs Poetry held at the Union Buildings in Tshwane.

There may be more male voices battling it out over the microphone, but the repertoire that these feminist poets have introduced within poetry circles ensures many women have a place in the narrative being written. They are a generation of women who refused to ‘know their place’. This narrative assures girls all over the country and beyond, that when they feel inspired by poetry, jazz, science or engineering, they can always believe that they are deserving and worthy of their aspirations.

Natalia Molebatsi is a writer and poet based in Tshwane. The two-time Mbokodo Award nominee has performed all over the world and is the co-founding member of the intercontinental jazz-funk band, Soul Making. She also teaches human rights and provides career guidance to high school learners. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.




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