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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Season of Poetry in Politics

Last year I undertook to prove that the comedian was a threat to the poet. This was after I had been to several corporate functions where comedians such as Trevor Noah, Eugene Khoza and Loyiso Gola, were hired to regale audiences. These comedians are even infiltrating the literary space now, performing at occasions such as the Sunday Times Literary Awards.

I have since come to the realisation that the comedian is no threat to the poet, the politician is.

There will be poetry galore when the ANC opens nominations ahead of the Mangaung conference in a couple of days. Statements made during tumultuous political moments are often emotive and deeply metaphoric. These statements are usually made impulsively — neither pre-digested nor thoroughly contemplated. The spontaneity of such statements is what makes them profoundly poetic.

One of the generic features of poetry is that the words embody meanings beyond their literal sense. In South Africa politicians unleash copious amounts of such verses especially during the time of elections, and they seem unaware of the depth of the statements that they make most of the time. This is what I call Poetry in Politics.

One of the notable poetic moments was when President Jacob Zuma, after being acquitted of corruption charges, told his supporters that there’s no point of wasting energy beating “a dead snake.” That dead snake was supposedly his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, whom he had defeated in Polokwane. Zuma was probably not thinking that the bone of a dead snake can remain venomous, as we witnessed the loud cheers with which Mbeki was received at the centenary celebrations in Mangaung on 8 January this year.

As the leadership of the ruling party cut the cake celebrating the centenary, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was tasked with the responsibility of toasting to the life of the oldest liberation movement in Africa. It was here that Motlanthe, known for his immaculate demeanour, made what turned out to be one of the major blunders in his political career. He turned to the crowds and shouted, “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne, and of course they do so on your behalf through their lips.” He further instructed those who did not have glasses to raise their fists!

In South African politics there can be no poetry without Julius Malema, described by Lindiwe Mazibuko of the Democratic Alliance as a “Frankenstein monster.” Malema was elected as the president of the ANC Youth League amidst a bum-parade in Mangaung in April 2008. Shortly after his controversial election, Malema called for Mbeki’s head and publically declared that he would “kill for Zuma.” Needless to say he never killed anyone, at least not as far as I know, but his words reverberated across South Africa and throughout the world.

Malema soon became a force to be reckoned with in the political arena because of his erratic statements. Several times he was voted as newsmaker of the year, and made friends and foes along the way. It was he who once said, “In politics there are no permanent friends or enemies.” And so, one wonders if Malema would one day be a bed-mate of the person he described as the “ugly woman in a blue dress who dances like a monkey.”

The “monkey” metaphor was also used by former police chief, General Bheki Cele, when he said about the murder of Annie Dewani, “A monkey came all the way from London to have his wife murdered here.” Another high profile case that is worth a mention is the Bulelani Ngcuka spy trial. During cross-examination, Kessie Naidu asked Mac Maharaj, “Why is getting an answer from you like extracting teeth?” To which Maharaj replied, “During my life I have been used to people doing that without anaesthetic.”

Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition, once took on Malema, calling him an “inkwenkwe,” an uncircumcised boy. Such a label is highly offensive in Xhosa culture, a language that Zille was speaking at the time. Malema retorted rather nonchalantly, “I do not understand why racist Helen Zille tells people about our secrets because if she says I am an inkwenkwe, surely she cannot talk about something she has not seen before.”

But the “Frankeinstein monster” had to bounds, something that landed him in front of the ANC’s Disciplinary Committee. Thousands of his supporters protested and vandalised shops and other establishments in downtown Johannesburg where the hearing was held. Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary General of the ANC, who in my view should be crowned the Poet Laureate of Poetry in Politics, chastised: “When you open the window to bring in fresh air, and mosquitos also come in, you take responsibility for both the fresh air and the mosquitos.”

Counting on the role that he and the youth league played in the ascendance of Zuma to presidency, Malema was quite confident that the ANC would be lenient. He argued that the ANC is not a pig. It doesn’t eat its own children. Lo and behold, the axe fell on Malema’s neck in November 2011, and Mantashe gloated, “the ANC is like an elephant, it is big but when it moves, it can move very fast” and crush everything on its way.

Halfway through the year hundreds of learners in Limpopo province still did not have textbooks, but one man drove all the way from Limpopo to deface a painting that exposed another man’s genitals at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. As if that’s not enough, Senzeni Zokwana, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), threatened a men-only march, where they would march naked to protest Brett Murray’s offensive painting at the Goodman Gallery. In the end we were deprived of the bum and belly parade!

Intense political atmospheres often induce the best of verse. And perhaps the reason why the politician prevails over both the poet and the comedian during contentious political moments is because the politician possesses all these qualities. In such a situation the politician becomes fodder for both the poet and the comedian. Let the nominations begin and let poetry overflow from the mouths of the politicians!


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 27th, 2012 @12:56 #

    Great post, Siphiwo.
    "...(there are) poets who are invited to most government and corporate functions. I've heard rumours that they are paid extremely well. These poets, by nature, are opportunists. As long as they get paid and receive sufficient media coverage in the colours of the rainbow nation or Vodacom or Bafana Bafana, they are willing to suffocate the real voices within. You can call these clowns anything, but certainly not poets. The kind of content that characterizes their scribbling is inept human rights rhetoric, slogans about non-existent transformation and change, blind celebration of NEPAD and African Renaissance, and self-praise. Often they write about sex and are known for shouting women's power. They call Biko, Hani and Sobukwe's names without having read enough of the doctrines these fighters pursued in their lifetime..." - Vonani Bila


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