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Rethabile Masilo’s Waslap (The Onslaught Press, 2015)

Rethabile Masilo’s Waslap (The Onslaught Press, 2015)

Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, as contributing editor, introduced Tears in the Fence readers to Rethabile Masilo’s poetry. Masilo, born in Lesotho, a small landlocked country encircled by South Africa, where the majority of the population subsists on farming, fled the war torn country in 1981. He lived in South Africa, Kenya and the United States before settling in Paris, France. Being in exile offers Masilo the opportunity of locating his family’s history, culture and country in sharp focus. He is a poet of observation, belief and testimony. Much of Waslap is imbued with grief and loss from the killings of the civil war, which began in 1970, and has a great sanctity for life, the natural world and family life. The narrator’s parents and grandfather, near to and after their death, emerge as central figures.

‘Mountain II’ recalls his grandfather’s hands, formed by making tools made before and used after the war for breaking stone, shaving wood and creating space to live as part of reconstruction. Here the narrator is silently led at four a.m. up the mountain and his grandfather ‘like Moses inside Mount Horeb’ breaks the silence to speak ‘to a presence in the mist.’ The extended family hold hands ‘like the last people on earth’ as he speaks to the rocks ‘halfway to heaven’ and they breathe vapour in and out standing ‘with death.’ It is a powerful image with the grandfather who ‘dreaded no one’ a modern Moses shepherding his flock ‘from the caves / staring at us with empty sockets.’

The family live in a room, ‘sunk into the earth’, in a house on a hill, ‘like a grave expecting someone’ until disturbed by guerrilla intruders ‘upsetting their prayers, and three square meals a day.’ Life expectancy in Lesotho is currently 49 years. Masilo leaves his poems open refusing any easy closure. ‘Going through my father’s things’ finds the narrator mute in the face of the documents his father left behind. He picks up

the copy of a Reformed Church
Nicene Creed he once copied in long hand, and framed,
And remain in that dark room, seeking his meaning.

The poems possess a reverence for simple things, such as the narrator’s father’s waslap (wash cloth) and his clothes, matter of factly described in ‘The waslap of my father’:

I wet the waslap and dabbed his brow,
Before scrubbing him well from
Sternum and chest down to the legs.

The poems move somewhat chaotically between an African past and Parisian present, where rebel music, the jazz of Abdullah Ibrahim and MC Solaar rapping in French contributes to the sense of a secret Africa and the narrator stays ‘strongest when I’m with prostitutes, letting their tempest admit mine.’

Waslap, illustrated throughout by Matthew Staunton, shows a deep of Lesotho, which gained independence from Britain in 1966. It is without chronological or geographical sections, and the randomness produces a meandering, African quality. Some powerful poems, such as, ‘If needs be’, prefaced with part of Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia trial speech end line “If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”, are poorly positioned and seemingly appear out of context. ‘If needs be’ with its modulated rhythms and simple rhymes is a call for self-sacrifice to political and Christian freedom from terror, prison and death, and ends:

I cannot succumb – slay me,
slay too the baby in its sleep
as you scamper to keep
from harm no one whose loins
hold a further future: take,
take my life please right now
and let’s be done with it.

David Caddy 27th June 2015

Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Die Kind’ / ‘The Child’

Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Die Kind’ / ‘The Child’

Nelson Mandela began his inaugural Presidential address to Parliament on 24 May 1994, speaking about the poet, Ingrid Jonker (1933-1965), as someone who ‘gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world.’ He continued in his measured voice and manner that ‘In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life. In the dark days when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life. To her and others like her, we owe a debt to life itself. To her and others like her, we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched and the despised.’ This extraordinary recognition of an Afrikaner poet was followed by a recitation of her poem ‘The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, written in the aftermath of the massacre at the anti-pass demonstration in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Violence erupted throughout South Africa. When a black baby was shot dead in her mother’s arms by police in the black township of Nyanga, Cape Town, Jonker was outraged and went to the Philippi police station to see the body. Mandela’s reading, which differs from the 1968 Jack Cope and William Plomer and 2007 André Brink and Antjie Krog translations, manages to get to the poem’s core without embellishment. I have to say that I prefer his version. It is starker and to the point. I suspect that he memorised the poem and deeply felt its impact throughout his legal struggles and subsequent imprisonment.

The child is not dead…
the child lifts his fists against his mother
shouts Africa!…

The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at
nor at the police post at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet
through his brain…

The André Brink and Antijie Krog version in Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau) is quite different, far more flowery and wordy. The lack of firmness in their version is in stark contrast to Mandela’s more direct and blunt account. Jonker’s audio recordings of this and other poems display a cadenced and musical voice, which Mandela’s English recitation captures more closely in simpler language. It is in the final stanzas that Mandela’s radically different translation hits home hardest. Whereas Brink & Krog translate the original:

Die kind is die skaduwee van die soldate
op wag met gewere sarasene en knuppels
die kind is teenwoordig by alle vergaderings en wetgewings
die kind loer deur die vensters van huise en in die harte van moeders
die kind wat net wou speel in die son by Nyanga is orals

‘The child is the shadow of the soldiers / On guard with guns Saracens and batons / the child is present at all meeting and legislations / the child peeps through the windows of houses and into the / hearts of mothers / the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is / everywhere’

Mandela said

the child is present at all assemblies and law-giving
the child peers
through the windows of houses
and into the hearts of mothers
this child
who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga
is everywhere

I am happy with Mandela’s omission of a whole line. His version, much closer to Cope and Plomer, cuts to the core and uses the word ‘assemblies’ in terms of both protest and parliamentary gatherings. The poem ends powerfully with the child not needing a pass to be a South African, and it is this that aligned her with the banned Africa National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress.

The full address is at

Ingrid Jonker, a central figure in the Sestigers group of bohemian poets and writers, petitioned the National Party government in 1963 protesting against its increasing censorship defying her father who was the chief censor. When her volume of poetry, Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) was published in October 1963, Jonker offered to visit her father and bring him a signed copy. He told her to post it, adding that he had no wish to be seen with her in public. Her poem, ‘The child was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, had an immediate galvanising impact. She was indefatigable in her opposition to censorship, the pass laws of apartheid, and decision not to change a word of her poem. She never compromised her thinking.

David Caddy 14th December 2014

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