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Bessie Head PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 04:14

Bessie Head (1937-1986), one of Africa's most prominent writers, was born in Pietermaritzburg's Fort Napier Mental Institution. The child of an "illicit" union between a Scottish woman and a black man, Head was taken from her mother at birth and raised in a foster home until the age of thirteen. Head then attended missionary school and eventually became a teacher. Abandoning teaching after only a few years, Head began writing for the Golden City Post. In 1964, personal problems led her to take up a teaching post in Botswana, where Head remained in "refugee" status for fifteen years before gaining citizenship. All three of her major novels - When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power - along with other works were written in Botswana during this period. Bessie Head died in Botswana in 1986 at the young age of forty-nine.

Though Bessie Head's life might be seen as sombre and traumatic, her works present love and light alongside the pictures of hardship and isolation that she paints. Head uses intense imagery and vividly describes the beauty found in both human and environmental nature. She praises good as she condemns evil, and expresses her hope for peace and change with her criticism of the apartheid. Head wrote that she viewed her activity as a writer as "a kind of participation in the thought of the whole world'.

Head remains a constant source of academic and critical interest. In 2015, her unpublished letters were included in a collection, entitled Everyday Matters, which was edited by Margaret Daymond. In the same year she was listed as one of the six best African writers by digital news publication Connect. Namwali Serpell, a 2015 Caine prize shortlisted author, paid tribute to Bessie as an African author who inspired her.


Selected Work

From Maru, 1971

When people of Dilepe village heard about the marriage of Maru, they began to talk about him as if he had died. A Dilepe diseased prostitute explained their attitude: 'Fancy,' she said. 'He has married a Masarwa. They have no standards.'
By standards, she meant that Maru would have been better off had he married her. She knew how to serve rich clients their tea, on a snowy- white table cloth, and she knew how to dress in the height of fashion. A lot of people were like her. They knew nothing about the standards of the soul, and since Maru only lived by those standards they had never been able to make a place for him in their society. They thought he was dead and would trouble them no more. How were they to know that many people shared Maru's overall ideals, that this was not the end of him, but a beginning?
When people of the Masarwa tribe heard about Maru's marriage to one of their own, a door silently opened on the small, dark airless room in which their souls had been shut for a long time. The wind of freedom, which was blowing throughout the world for all people, turned and flowed into the room. As they breathed in the fresh, clear air their humanity awakened. They examined their condition. There was the fetid air, the excreta and the horror of being an oddity of the human race, with half the head of a man and half the body of a donkey. They laughed in an embarrassed way, scratching their heads. How had they fallen into this condition when, indeed, they were as human as everyone else? They started to run out into the sunlight, then they turned and looked at the dark, small room. They said: 'We are not going back there.'
People like the Batswana, who did not know that the wind of freedom had also reached people of the Masarwa tribe, were in for an unpleasant surprise because it would be no longer possible to treat Masarwa people in an inhuman way without getting killed yourself.



1968. When rain clouds gather. London.:  Victor Gollancz.
1971. Maru. London: Victor Gollancz
1974. A question of power.  Johannesburg:  Heinemann Publishers. 
1977. The collector of treasures and other Botswana village tales. Sandton:  Heinemann Educational Publishers.
1981. Serowe, village of the rainwind. Johannesburg:  Heinemann Publishers.
1984. A Bewitched Crossroad : an African saga. Johannesburg:  Ad Donker. 
1989. Tales of Tenderness and Power.  London:  Heinemann International. 
1990. A Woman Alone : autobiographical writings. ed. Craig MacKenzie. Johannesburg:  Heinemann. 
1993. The Cardinals: with meditations and stories. Sandton:  Heinemann Educational Publishers.
1991. A gesture of belonging : letters from Bessie Head, 1965- 1979. (ed) Randolph Vigne.  London:  Heinemann.

Author Map (Pietermaritzburg)

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Mi Hlatshwayo PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 04:13

Mi S'dumo Hlatshwayo (1951 - ) grew up as an "illegitimate" child in a working-class household in Cato Manor/ M'Kumbane - a sprawling shack settlement in Durban. His family's poverty caused him to leave school by Standard 7 and search for a job. As he told FOSATU Worker News all his dreams were sunk: "... I wanted to be a poet, control words, many words, that I may woo our multi-cultured South Africa into a single society. I wanted to be a historian of a good deal of history; that I may harness our past group hostilities into a single South African history ... After 34 years of hunger, suffering, struggles, learning and hope, I am only a driver for a rubber company" (FOSATU Worker News, June 1985, no.35).

He continued his self-education by reading whatever came his way: from Biology primers to Zulu history books. He learnt about poetry through the eCibini (or St John's Apostolic Church) which was famous for its healing rituals. He had joined the church after being healed from a serious illness. In that independent African church of the poor, he experienced for the first time in his life a community of concern and care. He also experienced in the church's emotional gatherings his baptism in "words of fire": the lay-preachers, men and women who were imbued with a prophetic and messianic vision, had integrated the imbongi tradition of Nguni poetry in their religious sermons. He was discovering there, the power of language and poetry - where Christ, sometimes a furious black buffalo cut through the shrub and gorged to proclaim his victory on earth. He started participating in efforts to organise the Clermont community and later joined MAWU when it started organising at Dunlop Sports where he was working. But, if anything, it was the Dunlop strike of 1984 that triggered him to cultural action. After hearing Qabula perform his izimbongo of FOSATU, he realised that one did not need to be somebody from the university to write poetry. In fact, he was schooled through the church in the tradition himself, without knowing it before. He composed 'A Black Mamba Rises' to praise the Dunlop workers' struggle. He then joined Qabula and others to form the Durban Workers' Cultural Local.

He has since composed more poems, written and directed plays and initiated many projects. In October 1985 he resigned his job at Dunlop Sports to become the Local's fulltime cultural organiser. Hlatshwayo is the current CEO of the Durban Arts Association.


Selected Work

The Black Mamba Rises

The victors of wars
But then retreat
The Builders of nests,
But then like an ant-eater
You then desert.
Heavy are your blows,
They leave the employers
On your side are your
Brothers even at the new
Let it be workers! They say,
The heaven above also

Ngudungudu, the woman
Who married without any
Busy boiling foreigners'
Yet yours are lying cold.

The humble bride,
Affianced without the
Bridegroom's consent
Yet others are affianced
With their fathers consent,
Even the Japanese have now
Come to be your bridegrooms,
So! Bride why are you entwined by chains,
Instead of being entwined
With gold and silver like the others?

The Black mamba that shelters in the songs
Yet others shelter in the trees!

Ancestors of Africa rejoice,
Here are the workers coming like a flock of
On rising it was multi-headed,
One of its heads was at Mobeni,
Njakazi, the green calf of
MAWU can bear me out
Another of its heads was at baQulusi
Land at Ladysmith,
On rising it was burning like fire

Even Sikhumba - the leather that
Overcomes the tanners,
Sikhumba who knows no race
Who stabs an old man and
A young man alike,
Using the same spear
Who stabs a man's bone,
Inflicting pain in the heart
But he is now showing a
Change of heart Here is the struggle,
Sikhumba and Mgonothi are mesmerized,
Asking what species of old mamba is this?
Dying and resurrecting like
A dangabane flower.
It was stabbed good and proper during the Day,
At Sydney Road right on the premises,

To the delight of the impimpis,
And the delight of the police
There were echoes of approval there on the
TV at Auckland Park saying:
Never again shall it move,
Never again shall it revive
Never again shall it return
Yet it was beginning to tower with rage.

The old mamba that woke up early in the
Morning at St. Anthony's
Let's sit down and talk, he
Now says

The spear that thundered at
Dawn at St Anthony's,
The spear that devoured the father and the sons
And the daughters
Then the men came together,
Devouring them whilst singing
Yet the songs were just a decoy.

Rife are the rumours,
That those who defied the
Unity have sunk,
To the throbbing hearts of the
You black buffalo
Black yet with tasty meat,
The buffalo that turns the
Foreigners' language into
Today your're called a Bantu,
Tomorrow you're called a Communist

Sometimes you're called a Native.
Today again you're called a foreigner,
Today again you're called a Terrorist,
Sometimes you're called a Plural,
Sometimes you're called an
Urban PURS

You powerful black buffalo,
Powerful with slippery body
The buffalo that pushed men
Into the forest
In bewilderment the police
Stood with their mouths open

Rife are the rumours
That those who defied
Being pushed into the forest
In exile they are,
One Smit is in exile across
At the Bluff,
One Madinana is in exile across
The Umgeni river,
Both can bear me out.

Praise poets, messengers Observers,
Run in all directions,
Stand on top of the mountains,
Report to Botha at Pretoria
Report to out heroes on the
Report to the angels in your
Say unto them - here is a
Flood of workers,
The employers have done what
Ought not to be.

Why tease the mamba in its
Century old sleep?
The writing is on the wall,
No stone shall stand on top
Of the other till eternity,
Tell them - the borrowed
Must be given back
Tell them - the chained
Must be chained no more
Tell them - these are the
Dictates of the black mamba,
The mamba that knows no
Tell them - these are the
Workers' demands,
By virtue of their birthright
Dunlop workers
I'm taking My hat off,
I'm bowing to you with Respect.

(Dunlop Strike, St Anthony's, November 9 1984)



1986. Black mamba rising : South African worker poets in struggle : Alfred Temba Qabula, Mi S'Dumo Hlatshwayo, Nise Malange.

Author Map (Cato Manor)

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Mazisi Kunene PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 04:08

Mazisi Kunene (1930 - 2006) was an epic poet who lived in KwaZulu-Natal. He studied at the University of Natal, and won the Bantu Literary Competition Award in 1956. He left South Africa in 1959, taught in Lesotho, and years later gained the distinction of becoming Professor of African Literature and Language at the University of California in Los Angeles. More recently, he was  based at the University of Natal, Durban. For Zulu Poems (1970) Kunene collected and translated into English his early poetry. Evolving from traditional Zulu literature, the poems reflect the importance of this social and cultural inheritance. With the publication of Emperor Shaka the Great (1979), an epic poem inspired by the rise of the Zulu empire - Shaka's royal kraal was located at KwaDukuza - followed by Anthem of the Decades (1981), a Zulu epic dedicated to the women of Africa, Kunene earned critical as well as popular recognition. His reputation was further enhanced by the elegiacal poems collected in The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982). Acknowledged for his commitment to the language and history of his Zulu heritage, Kunene will undoubtedly continue to be a major voice in African literature. His more recent works include Isibusiso sikamhawu (1994), Impepho (1994), Indida yamancasakazi (1995), Umzwilili wama-Afrika (1996) and Iziyalo zomtanami (2007).

In 2015, Kunene was the recipient of a South African Traditional Music Achievement (SATMA) Award which took place at the University of Zululand.

Selected Work

Was I wrong when I thought
All shall be avenged?
Was I wrong when I thought
The rope of iron holding the neck of young bulls
Shall be avenged?
Was I wrong
When I thought the orphans of sulphur
Shall rise from the ocean?
Was I depraved when I thought there need not be love,
There need not be forgiveness, there need not be progress,
There need not be goodness on the earth,
There need not be towns of skeletons,
Sending messages of elephants to the moon?
Was I wrong to laugh asphyxiated ecstasy
When the sea rose like quicklime
When the ashes on ashes were blown by the wind
When the infant sword was left alone on the hill top?
Was I wrong to erect monuments of blood?
Was I wrong to avenge the pillage of Caesar?
Was I wrong? Was I wrong?
Was I wrong to ignite the earth
And dance above the stars
Watching Europe burn with its civilisation of fire,
Watching America disintegrate with its gods of steel,
Watching the persecutors of mankind turn into dust
Was I wrong? Was I wrong?


1970. Zulu Poems. New Jersey, United States: Africana Publishers.
1979. Emperor Shaka the Great: a Zulu epic. Nairobi: East Africa Educational Publishers Ltd.
1981. Anthem of the decade: a Zulu epic. Gauteng:  Heinemann Publishers.
1982. The ancestors and the sacred mountain. Gauteng: Heinemann Publishers.
1994. Isibusiso sikamhawu. Cape Town:  Via Afrika.
1994. Impepho.  Cape Town: Via Afrika.
1995. Indida yamancasakazi. Pietermaritzburg:  Reach Out Publishers.
1996. Amalokotho kanomkhubulwane. Cape Town: Via Afrika.
1996. Umzwilili wama-Afrika. Pretoria:  Kagiso Publishers.
1997. Igudu likaSomcabeko. Cape Town: Van Schaik Publishers.
2007. Iziyalo zontanami.  Durban: Mazisi Kunene Foundation.

Author Map (Durban)

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