Images of the black youth in two poems by Wally Serote and Njabulo Ndebele, viz: “My brothers in the streets” and “The revolution of the aged”

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Wally Serote (Photo: Open Book Festival) and Njabulo Ndebele (Photo: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Abstract

This paper is a "journey back" that looks at how the black youth deployed its energies under apartheid rule in South Africa. I argue that some of them naively misdirected their energies and hurt their very own communities. They had a propensity to self-destruct –and that constituted a setback to the noble cause of freedom. Lacking in their actions were key tenets, such as: racial pride and solidarity, being your brother's keeper and respect for the elderly.

The other young group that is under discussion also comes across as highly energetic, politically engaged, and committed. The only chink in their armour is that they are impetuous, impatient and haughty. They think they know it all and view the wisdom of the previous generation as irrelevant and invalid.

Both Wally Serote and Njabulo Ndebele are literary aficionados who initially cut their political teeth in the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, whose tenets entailed self-love, self-reliance and cultural affirmation. Both writers played a sterling role in the advancement and preservation of the black aesthetic. Their copious and eclectic literary output has earned them the respect of their peers in South Africa and beyond its borders.

In this essay, I argue that although Serote’s “My brothers in the streets” and Ndebele’s “The revolution of the aged” were written at the height of apartheid rule and repression – and directed specifically at a recalcitrant black youth – the message embedded in both poems has resonance because they address germane social issues that continue to afflict the black community in South Africa. The tone of both poems is admonitory, cautionary and, at times, downright embedded in disgust because of the situation on the ground. In Serote’s “My brothers in the streets”, the voice deployed is of an “insider” who is part of this besieged and terrorised community, as the title of the poem signifies – “My brothers”. He does not disown these irresponsible black boys, but he also does not identify with their actions and, therefore, feels he has a moral and ethical responsibility to raise his voice and denounce their actions. The tone of the speaker is forthright and admonitory throughout the poem, and it reflects the gravity of the situation he is addressing: “my brothers in the streets│who holiday in jails│who holiday in hospitals│who smile at insults│who fear the Whites”.

The picture that emerges here is of an energetic youth who have no sense of purpose, who have no social consciousness, who have no racial pride or solidarity – and these were key tenets that informed the Black Consciousness Movement that shaped Serote’s political and cultural trajectory. The sort of course that these boys have charted is inherently dangerous and self-defeating, and death is always a distinct possibility. The propensity of the black youth to self-destruct and engage in violent behaviour does not seem to be a uniquely South African phenomenon. In Arnold Rampersad’s illuminating dissection of youth violence in Chicago, in his introduction to Richard Wright’s novel Native son, he writes:

On the other hand, he was well aware from the start of the fundamental nature of his central character, who epitomized for Wright the most radical effect of racism on the black psyche. He recalled having met at least five specific Biggers in his youth. The first had been an ugly, brutish bully who, impervious to notions of justice or fair play, had intimidated and abused Wright and other black boys. The remaining prototypes of Bigger, however, distinguished themselves by the way in which their antisocial behavior was linked to their hatred of Whites. The behavior moves on a spectrum from devious opposition to white power to an open defiance of even its most intimidating shibboleths. Surviving miraculously in some cases, the most aggressive Biggers could not be cowed by threats of violence or by the law ... Wright himself declared that the turning point for him in his understanding of social reality – “the pivot of my life” – was his discovery of the ubiquitousness of Bigger: “there were literally millions of him everywhere” (2005:xvi).

In Serote’s poem, the speaker is trying to rein in these boys and also trying to arrest their descent to self-destruction: “You horde-waters that sweep over black pastures│you bloody bodies that dodge bullets│who booze and listen to records” ... The notion of being “your brother’s keeper” has no meaning to the youth described in the poem – neither is the imperative of racial solidarity entrenched in their psyche.

The disgusted speaker further depicts these urchins as predators who have no regard for the value and age of women – and also that some of their callous actions border on downright incestuous behaviour, as the following lines illustrate: “Who’ve tasted the rape of mothers and sisters│who take alms from white hands│who grab bread from black hands│who spill blood as easy as saying ‘voetsek’│Listen! Come my black brothers in the streets│listen, its black women who are crying” ...

The word “crying” points to widespread suffering in this besieged community, and that women are constantly cringing at the relentless violent attacks of these rude youngsters – youngsters who have no sense of self-worth, no sense of community. The voice that permeates the poem is one of rational thought and concern in the midst of the spectre of violence unleashed by the misdirected youth.

Regrettably, the spectre of violence graphically portrayed by Serote in “My brothers in the streets” continues to rear its ugly head in post-apartheid South Africa. The following lines from Chris Mann’s poem entitled “Is this the freedom for which we died?” are indeed instructive:

Whenever I stop to think deeply│during these days of violent change│I meet up with the martyrs for freedom│going into a school│they see two boys stabbing each other│"The pupils are over-ruling the teachers"│says another of the heroes, and look at that!│"Is this the freedom for which we died?"│Walking the streets at night│they find the doors locked and barred│as if the people had built their own prisons│ and lived inside them huddled in fear│another of them says, “I can’t believe it!│Is this the freedom for which we died?”

“My brothers in the streets” seems to fall under what one may call “literature of interiority”, in that it is self-critical in orientation and the focus is not on the white man, but rather on the actions of a violent and trigger-happy black youth. In the introduction to Selected poems, a collection edited by Mongane Wally Serote, Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane throws some light on Serote’s black audience-directed poetry:

Having despaired of ever convincing White society of the need for reform, Serote concentrated all his efforts on the Black community. His poems about Black people and their mode of life are largely written from a Black Consciousness perspective. In some of the poems he conceives of Black women – downtrodden and degraded yet long-suffering and dignified – as being in the vanguard of the Black people’s struggle for liberation in the manner in which Sembene Ousmane and, to a lesser extent, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Hamidou Kane and Okot p’Bitek handle women in their work (1982:31).

After reading Serote’s poem, one is left with a myriad of questions such as: What is it that would drive young people to engage in such antisocial and self-defeating behaviour? Is it poverty? Is it lack of opportunities in life? What could be the cause of this indiscriminate and unbridled eroticism that knows no bounds? Could it be due to the weakening or collapse of the family unit? Could it be a backlash that is a result of poor or absent parenting? Could it be due to the accessibility and proliferation of drugs within black communities? Could it be due to frustration caused by an oppressive and paralysing socio-political and economic environment, such as the one Serote captures in the poem “Burning cigarette”? Questions, more questions. This is how Serote portrays the black youth under apartheid rule: “This little black boy│Is drawn like a cigarette from its box│Lit│He looks at his smoke hopes│that twirl, spiral│curl to nothing.│He grows like cigarette ashes│as docile, as harmless│Is smothered”.

Very few South African literary scholars have given due attention to one of Njabulo Ndebele’s literary gems, the poem “The revolution of the aged”, which was originally published by the now defunct literary journal, Staffrider. One of its salient features is the ubiquitous voice of the sage offering wise and practical counsel to the black youth. It seeks to centre rational thought, rethinking and modifying one’s strategy, and sound workable tactics as critical tools for subverting human challenges.

Right from the beginning of the poem, one deciphers a voice that is measured, temperate and mature, the voice of a wise old man who realises that his time is up – and that he has a moral responsibility to impart valuable life experiences to the youth: “My voice is the measure of my life│It cannot travel far now│Small mounds of earth already bead open my grave│So come close│lest you miss the dream”. His references to his “grey hair”, “wisdom”, “skin-folds of age” speak to his being highly qualified to pronounce on the matters he has in mind – and, also, that his moral authority is untainted. The speaker is portrayed as a repository of good, wise living who draws specifically from his own life experiences – experiences that have enhanced his longevity: “that is how I have lived│quietly swallowing both the fresh and foul│from the mouth of my masters│yet I watched and listened” ... The deployment of the word “masters” conjures up an atmosphere of unequal power relations, relations of domination and subservience. One can assert that the sage in the poem is, in fact, talking about survival tactics that one needs to employ in an untenable and disabling space. The speaker’s submission is not impractical, unempirical conjecture; it is based on palpable, lived experiences.

He sounds like the “author” of a good and wise-living or template manual that he wishes to pass on to the exuberant younger generation – hence the invitation: “So come close│lest you miss the dream”.

In the next stanza, he addresses the impetuosity, intemperance, impatience and overzealousness of the youth in their quest or pursuit of what is an otherwise noble goal: “I have listened too│to the condemnations of the young│who burned with scorn │loaded with revolutionary maxims hot for quick results” ... This could be read as a veiled criticism of the black youth’s over-reliance on dogma, uninterrogated assumptions, and the use of violence when clamouring for change, as the key words “burned” and “revolutionary maxims” signify. He does not suggest that they should not fight and just acquiesce – he wants them to fight smart; he wants them to get their tactics right. In the next stanza, the voice of reason raises another crucial aspect that should be integral in their battle plan: self-restraint. He writes: “They did not know their anger was born in the meekness with which I whipped myself” ... He then proceeds on his cautionary trajectory about the folly of not taking the cue or the wise counsel embedded in the collective experiences of the pathfinders, the previous generations: “It is a blind progeny│that acts without indebtedness to the past” ... The measured, humble voice of the sage permeates this poem.

As the poem unfolds, we encounter or experience a clever deployment of the word “flute” – a metaphor that speaks to the all-consuming monster of dispossession and disinheritance. Again, here, the speaker centres patience and temperance when advocating or clamouring for what is legitimately yours – a tactic that begets one humiliation and dehumanisation at times: “I followed this man│asking for my flute│he would not give it back to me│how I planted his garden│cooked his food│how I cleaned his house│and polished his shoes” ... Implicit in these lines is the fact that the attainment of freedom is not an overnight thing; it requires perseverance and patience. The road that leads to its attainment is replete with a myriad of challenges. Equally instructive are the following lines in stanza two, in which the sagacious and value-oriented speaker asserts: “If you cannot master the wind│flow with it│letting know all the time that you are still resisting”.

Is this a political poem? Yes, it is. What is the thrust of its argument? It is that it would be foolhardy to gainsay or deride the vital role played by one’s predecessors in the struggle; patience and self-restraint are the cornerstone of a successful struggle; being dogmatic, impetuous and arrogant can be self-defeating in the quest for freedom; one needs to be realistic about one’s strengths and weaknesses so as to be able to adapt to the situation and modify one’s tactics in order to suit the material conditions on the ground.

Both poems under discussion focus on the black youth, who seem driven by different kinds of energy. Ndebele’s poem portrays a highly energetic youth who want to bring change overnight – but there are chinks in their armour: they lack tactical acumen; they think they know it all; they do not tap into all the resources at their disposal, represented by the wise speaker in the poem, whose “voice is the measure of my life”, who says that “small mounds of earth ... bead open my grave”; “if you cannot master the wind, flow with it, letting know ... that you are resisting”. Failure to heed the truism embedded in the sage’s counsel would further prolong their oppression and also delay the attainment of the much-sought-for change the youth were clamouring for.

The youth portrayed by Serote in “My brothers in the streets” are devoid of a fundamental human trait – ubuntu (humanism). They have no moral compass and are a menace to society. They have no political consciousness; they are basically a law unto themselves. Whole communities are under siege because of their despicable actions. Both poems are compelling reads: the sorts of values they seek to impart to the younger generation are as relevant today as they were in apartheid South Africa.

 

Bibliography

Mann, C. “Is this the freedom for which we died?” Source: http://www.chrismann.co.za/poems/politics/21-is-this-the-freedom-for-which-we-died. Accessed on 27 January 2017.

Mzamane, MV. 1982. “Introduction”. In: Selected poems. Ed: Wally Serote. Parklands: AD Donker.

Ndebele, NS. 1988. “The revolution of the aged”. In: Ten years of Staffrider: 1978–1988”, vol 7, no 3 and 4.

Wright, R. 2005. Native son. New York: Harperperennial.

 

Biographical note

Phil Ndlela holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, USA. He is a senior lecturer in the department of English at North-West University, Mafikeng campus. He teaches South African and African-American literature. His research interests include black South African writing and politics, African-American literature and prison writing. He has held lecturing positions at the following South African universities: the University of Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the University of Zululand. He is currently the Andrew Mellon Foundation visiting humanities professor at Claflin University in South Carolina.

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