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Chris Mann PDF Print E-mail
Chris Mann (1948-) was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and spent the first fifteen years of his working life in rural development and poverty alleviation, primarily as Administrative Director of the Valley Trust (1980 to 1992) outside Durban. He was responsible for innovative projects in low-cost water-supply and sanitation, small-scale agriculture and labour-intensive public works.

For example, the public works programme provided seasonal part-time employment for eight years for over a thousand people who constructed pipe-lines, secondary roads, small dams and sports-fields. This project helped initiate public works activities in the civil engineering department at the local university.

Service delivery was accompanied by the facilitation of new democratic institutions during a fraught and at times violent period of the struggle in the valley. These ranged from protected spring, school and community- garden committees to the first democratic development and services board in the area.

His other experience includes being a teacher of English in a rural black school, a junior lecturer in the Department of English at Rhodes University, founder and chair of the Teacher Development Foundation (1982 – 2002), a trustee of the Donaldson Trust, a member for five years of the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee in KwaZulu-Natal, co-founder and song-writer of Zabalaza, a cross-culture band performing in English and Zulu (winner of the SATV Follow-that-Star new band competition), a member of the National Economic Forum’s Task Team on job creation, a parish councillor, Deputy CEO of the Grahamstown Foundation, secretary of Spiritfest and co-founder of the Masikhulisane Trust and the Anglican Guild of Men (Grahamstown Cathedral Parish). Sport – he played club cricket and rugby on and off till thirty having played first team pretty much throughout his time at school, for example fly-half for Bishops 1st XV.

His formal education includes an MA from the School of Oriental and African Languages (London) in African Oral Literature, Zulu 1 and 2 through UNISA, an MA from Oxford in English Language and Literature, a BA from Wits University  majoring in English and Philosophy and a course in financial management at Wits Business School. His languages in declining order of competence are English, Zulu, Afrikaans, Italian and Xhosa.

Now based at the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, he is the founder and convenor of Wordfest, a national multi-lingual festival of South African languages and literatures with a developmental emphasis. (See He convened an international conference on the economic benefits of the arts which inter alia prompted the cultural economics activities of the Rhodes University Economics Department. Other innovative ideas that have been implemented include WordBeacons, SciFest, sculpture poems and multi-media productions of poetry that use modern information technology to create a genre tentatively called graphic poetry.

His poems have appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, journals, textbooks and in various anthologies in South Africa and abroad. He gets on the road once or twice a year and performs his work at the national arts festival, at schools, universities and conferences around the country from year to year as part of a life-long passion to promote poetry in the public domain. Lifelines, for example, has been performed fifty times to date.

The Comrades’ Marathon, an extended poem in alliterated verse celebrating the race and its founder and based on  the Olympian odes of Pindar (about 500 BCE), was published in the souvenir booklet of the 2004 race. Money a long satirical poem in rhyming tetrameter couplets about the history and nature of money was first published in Business Day and The Roman Centurion’s Good Friday, an extended meditation on the crucifixion drawing on Nguni and Celtic prosody, has been performed in churches in Grahamstown, Durban, Johannesburg, Oxford and Dublin. He recited his oral poem Till Love is Lord of the Land at the rally in Kings Park Stadium that welcomed Nelson Mandela to Durban after his release from prison.

Chris Mann is a South African of English, Dutch and Irish descent (McMahon). His writing is informed by the daily use of different South African languages and his varied experience of people and life in that country. His nickname ‘Zithulele’ (Xhosa/Zulu) means a taciturn person. He and the artist Julia Skeen were married in 1981. They have two children and live in Grahamstown.

Selected Work

Granadilla. From Horn of Plenty. (including Julia Skeen's illustration)

I can remember a Christmas in the Drakensberg
whose grey seraphic crags
Lifted the riddle of serenity
and placed it high
above the sprawl of human habitation.

I was a student of Zulu literature
equipped with sleeping-bag and tape-recorder
traipsing around the foothills
in search of a clan's epic poem.

The grey-headed imbongi I'd come to record
had lost a hand on the Reef
was stretched on a sleeping-mat
unwilling to perform
but asked about work
he stood and shaking the stump of his arm
cursed the mine in a rage.

That was I suppose
an epic poem of a sort
the textbooks had yet to enshrine.

As for the granadillas
a vine of them flourished along his fence
the pods leathery and wrinkled
the skins flaking.

The juice in those he offered me
was nearly dry
but the seeds were there alright
black and live.


Main publications

1979. First Poems. Cape Town: Bateleur Press.

1979. A New Book of South African Verse. With: Butler, Guy (eds). Cape Town: OUP.

1982. New Shades. Cape Town: David Philip.

1992. Kites. Cape Town: David Philip.

1992. Mann Alive! Cape Town: David Philip.

1996. South Africans. Maritzburg: University of Natal Press.

1997. The Horn of Plenty. With: Julia Skeen. Grahamstown: ISEA, Rhodes.

1999. The Roman Centurion’s Good Friday. Grahamstown: Grahamstown Cathedral.

2002. Heartlands. Maritzburg: University of Natal Press.

2003. In Praise of the Shades. Grahamstown: Grahamstown Cathedral.

2004. Walking on Gravity. Grahamstown: Grahamstown Cathedral.

2005. Thuthula. Johannesburg: Ravan-Macmillan.

2005. Beautiful Lofty Things. Grahamstown: Grahamstown Cathedral.

2005. “Walking on Gravity.” In: Dante in South Africa. Cullinan, Patrick and Watson, Stephen (eds). Cape Town: Centre for Creative Writing, University of Cape Town.

2006. Lifelines. With: Skeen, Julia and Craig, Adrian. Maritzburg: University of KZN Press.

2010. Home from Home. Cape Town: Echoing Green Press.

2012. Small Town Big Voice. Ed. Renard, Andrew. Port Elizabeth: SACEE.

2014. Rudiments of Grace. Grahamstown: Cathedral of St Michael and St George.

Productions in verse

The Sand Labyrinth. 1980 National Student Drama Festival.

Mahoon’s Testimony. Broadcast on SAfm in 1998, rebroadcast 2007.

Frail Care. Broadcast on SAfm in 1997 and re-broadcast in 1999 and 2007.

The Crux of Being. 1999 National Arts Festival Fringe.

In Praise of the Shades. 2003 National Arts Festival Fringe.

Thuthula. 2003 National Arts Festival Main Programme.

Walking on Gravity. 2004 National Arts Festival Fringe.

Beautiful Lofty Things. 2005 National Arts Festival Fringe

Lifelines. 2006 National Arts Festival Fringe production.

LifeSongs. 2007 National Arts Festival Fringe installation. With: Skeen, Julia .

Epiphanies. 2008. National Arts Festival Fringe installation.

LifeSongs. 2011. National English Literary Museum installation.

The Ballad of Dirk de Bruin, 2014. National Arts Festival Fringe.


Guest writer, Poetry Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2002.

Guest writer, Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore, 2003.

Guest writer, International Festival of Literature, Montecantini, Italy, 2004.

Royal Society and Academy of Sciences of South Africa lecture, Rhodes, 2006.

Main Awards

Olive Schreiner Prize for South African Poetry in English.

South African Performing Arts Councils’ Playwright of the Year.

Newdigate Prize for Poetry while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

Hon. D. Litt. (University of Durban-Westville, now UKZN).

Eastern Cape Premier’s Award for Literature.

Ad Hominem Professor of Poetry, Rhodes University 2003 -

English Academy of South Africa Thomas Pringle Award 2007.

Author Map (Port Elizabeth)


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