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At the Margin of One/Many Languages

Essays on South African Literature


Peter Horn

The essays collected here are responses to books of poetry and prose published during the transition period from the apartheid regime of the mid-1980s to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The volume comprises a variety of texts written during the crucial mid-1980s – the time of the «Emergency» and the height of oppression – up to and including the installation of the first freely elected South African government in 1994.
In the years of anti-apartheid struggle, the immediate political conflict was pre-eminent in the minds of many poets but extended to broader concerns about race, writing and colonialism, such as the debate about the imbongi (African praise singer) as the true antecedent of the contemporary African poet. After the end of apartheid new challenges came to the South African book publishing industry and, thus, to South African writers, as they tried to make sense of the past and draw tentative lines into the future. The works of J. M. Coetzee, Njabulo Ndebele, Kelwyn Sole, Sandile Dikeni, Vincent Swart, Heather Robertson, Patrick Cullinan, Seitlhamo Motsapi, W. P. B. Botha and more are read against this changing social and political landscape.
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The poet has nothing but his voice: On the poetry of Tatamkhulu Afrika


The poet has nothing but his voice.1 His deeds are not in the book which we read. Later there may be autobiographies or biographies. Researchers will dig up what the poet has not said. Critics will tell us his secrets. The blurb of the book gives you tantalising hints of a man who fought at Tobruk, worked in the Namibian copper mines, founded Al-Jihad, and was arrested for “terrorism”. There are prizes to testify to Tatamkhulu Afrika’s skills, the 1991 CNA debut award and the 1992 Olive Schreiner Prize. But here and now we only have that voice: and it needs to convince us.

Tatamkhulu Afrika’s voice is one of those voices which carry the seal of their honesty in their words, and if I had never met him I would know that this is the voice of a person of honesty, and gifted with an eye for the reality in which he lives. This is what immediately struck me about Tatamkhulu Afrika’s writing. It writes a voice. What is so convincing about his poetry is that it does not attempt to appear more than it is: the voice of a human being, who has been involved in the struggle which we all know, and who has observed and described incidents and people he met in this life he has lived, discovering love and humanity even in the gutter, discovering lust under yellow plastic covers, discovering human pain, “a harsh, raw cry of unfeigned pain”,2...

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