Poetry by Ayanda Billie, Siza Nkosi Mokhele, Maneo Mohale and Masai Sepuru from Years of Fire and Ash: South African Poems of Decolonisation

The JRB presents a selection of poetry from Years of Fire and Ash: South African Poems of Decolonisation, a new anthology edited by Editorial Advisory Panel member Wamuwi Mbao.

Your Poem Saved Me
Ayanda Billie

In hours of strange dreams
The air was damp and motionless
It felt like the end of the world was near
My forehead touching the sky

In the sky there is a moon,
Her shape stops you
And makes you see yourself
Over the high sea

From where I stand
There is a little girl, dead
Behind Umnga tree
With a yellow dress and one earring

There is a funeral procession every weekend
In Matanzima road
Accompanied by an eternity
Of hot tears

There is non-stop music from the tavern
‘Jerusalem ikhaya lam’
Frightening the birds
Tormenting the stillness of the stars

There will be more and more dying
Storm of stars invading the sky
And I remember your poem
Where our people’s sorrows are buried.

Broken things
Siza Nkosi Mokhele

not because I emerge out
of broken things
kraals in my homestead are overflowing
grandmother has named them all

one day one of the heifers
was late to return to the great-house
we heard it bellowing
moooo mooo my teats are in heat

there is abundant milk, the calf is emaciated
please let me in old-lady
grandmother opened up to the calf ’s jubilation
it soothed its mother by suckling

we also assisted by milking it
we drank the milk while it was warm
not because I emerge out
of broken things

I come from maternal quarters
from ancestral altars soiled by whirlwinds
at the hearth – where the elders lie waiting
where women kneel on broken knees

I know pain well
the sorrow of losing that which I held dear
a bowl in which flowers were kept
the coal-stove tales of grandmother

I am built out of ashes
I break things out of anguish
not because I came from
the midst of broken things

(Translated from the Zulu by Menzi Maseko)

Maneo Mohale

In your mother’s red golf, you ask her what benoni means.
Son of my sorrow—hearing the sun instead,
you turn the word over in your mind like a coin.

Ghosts are living in mine dumps
as your mother drives you home. Honeycomb
mountains are brittle. Tomorrow, you ask

her for a crunchie after school. Like all names
of the bible, benoni sounds ancient. Out
your mother’s mouth magic. Manjink. Meijik.

You are still small enough to hide
inside the good book’s rice paper pages. You do not know yet,
what you are—have not had leviticus angled at you

like an ice-pick. For now, the bible is a hand drum
for women dressed in white and blue. Ko katlehong,
in a pockmarked garage, they are women made of clouds

and ocean. They make terrifying sea-wide music. Sgubhu:
the plastic bottom of everything that has a heart. Shells
and bottletops on ankles. How neatly

old and new gods sit together.
In school, you meet a man called cecil john
and learn the word pioneer.

Turn the word over in your mind like a coin.
Your mother is a witness. Your mother is
a pioneer, not yet knocking on doors

to tell people about the good news.
You wonder if cecil was a witness too, wonder
on whose doors he knocked,

for which god, to spread what good news.

fatigue of revolution
Masai Sepuru

I am tired of this old machine that runs on coal, blood,
        and steam
My knuckles are bloody from banging against its steel
I feel as though I have wasted my life away, navigating these
With a map passed down by those that came before me
Trying to find a way out of this labyrinth of bright corridors
        and dark alleys
Is this all that my art is for?
Protest and reiterate what has already been said before
There must be more, surely

I also want to write poems about roses and lilies
Protest for climate change, and endangered species
But how?
When my kind is also endangered
Constantly in danger, or seen as a danger
So much anger
So much healing needed
There isn’t enough skin for these inherited wounds
Still, the machine finds a way to curve in new ones

Sometimes I get tired of playing the victim
Only to be reminded that I am not playing at all
Even though my life is treated as a game
Points for political gain
Companies use black rage to promote sales
When regardless of all the lives at stake
Politicians and the media still debate my life for argument’s sake

Semantics and nuances
Time wasted
Justice delayed
Pit us against each other
‘Whose shade is more deserving?’
‘Who is more African’
‘Who kneels for which god?’
‘Who identifies as what?’
Movement derailed
When the smoke clears and the dust settles
It is all still the same

But all we ever asked for is to be seen as people
Not just fuel
Not just ones and zeroes
Or gears and levers that run the machine
But people
Regardless of our shapes and form

I am tired of sounding like the crazy one
The conspiracy theorist
‘Here he goes again with his black history shit’
My resistance is met with resistance
Despite the evidence
Documentaries and libraries filled with the history of my
        people’s tragedy spread across centuries
I find myself protesting against the same enemy
It is tiring, draining my energy

Am I a joke to you?
It is a joke now to be woke
A meme
A way to mock my struggle
I am always told to get over it,
And sometimes I think I should
I guess it’s my fault for thinking they will page through the books
And my words would be the ones to finally break through

How naïve
To claim to be tired
When all I have done is shared a few posts
Read a few quotes
Cast a few votes
Wrote a few poems
And poked a few holes
And to think that I will be the one to finally sink this boat?

This machine
It reached my shores long before I was born
Who am I to think that I will sink it?
When it threw Hani overboard
And made Biko walk the plank
Took Sobukwe to an island
And turned Nelson into its friend
And instead of returning the land, it made us sign papers
        and shake hands

But its engine is still running, the turbines are still turning
I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of it
Its history of murdering my people fills me with rage and
        justifies my cowardice
I look back with admiration and shame at the youth before me
How they looked deep in its eyes and dared to burn it
And I dare to say that I am tired?

Baldwin was tired
Ali was tired
Bra Hugh was tired
Mama Winnie was tired
And they have earned their rest
I am only getting started

From Years of Fire and Ash: South African Poems of Decolonisation, edtied by Wamuwi Mbao, 2021 (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

  • Wamuwi Mbao lectures in English studies at Stellenbosch University. He writes short fiction, and his research interests are in South African post-apartheid literature, architecture and popular culture. He is a SALA-winning literary critic with the Johannesburg Review of Books, where he sits on the Editorial Advisory Panel. His short story ‘The Bath’ is included in Twenty in 20, a collection of the twenty most significant short stories post-1994.

The JRB Poetry Editor is Rustum Kozain

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