Meet the celebrated literary figure and SA’s newest poet laureate, but some say it was a woman’s turn
The grand old man of liberation poetry, Professor Mongane Wally Serote, was named South Africa’s third poet laureate at a slightly shambolic SA Literary Awards event in Pretoria this week.
And while there has been an outpouring of respect for the struggle veteran, Umkhonto weSizwe commander, traditional healer, member of Parliament, poet and novelist, the literary fraternity has also bemoaned the fact that younger writers and women have been overlooked for the third time in a row.
A poet laureate is a face of a nation’s cultural thought, officially appointed by a government or state institution, a champion for the arts and a voice of the people.
And 74-year-old Serote is all those things.
Famous for poems like City Johannesburg that breathed the heartbeat of the struggle, Serote was born in Sophiatown and raised in the heart of the resistance in Alexandra.
Chatting to City Press last Tuesday night after receiving the accolade, Serote was relaxed, engaged and excited about the path ahead.
“I see my role as being a very serious responsibility, and it needs me to find a way to work with all South African cultural workers in the different art genres and hopefully have consensus that one of the most important things is to restore hope to our people, remind our people that, as a constitutional democracy, the beauty of who we are has been recognised in that Constitution ... Let us find a way through various art forms and mobilise them to give back to our people.”
But celebrated author Zakes Mda summed up what many in the literary world were thinking and sharing online.
On Facebook, Mda said: “Congratulations to my friend Wally Serote for being chosen poet laureate. Well-deserved great poet. An obvious and safe choice, a literary poet of great repute, of high intellectual acumen, of wisdom and experience. But to tell you the truth, I was hoping these guys would take a bolder forward-looking direction, a radical departure from the norm of poet laureateship as a preserve for old men, and choose a younger, female, more performance-oriented and therefore more popular, yet full of wisdom as well, nonpartisan, poet like Lebogang Mashile. That would have popularised poetry even more. Perhaps her time is coming when she’s an old woman!”
City Press asked Serote this very question on Tuesday night and he said: “I am extremely moved every time I go to poets’ sessions and find that there are young women from different parts of South Africa who have allowed themselves to think deeply about this nation, and allowed themselves to contribute to consciousness and solution. So I have no doubt that, very soon, we will have a young woman who is a poet laureate. I have no doubt, I know it is so.”
Despite a no-show by the keynote speaker, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, an interminable three-hour wait for dinner and a programme riddled with glitches, there were cheers and shrieks when black women were named winners.
Among them was New Times novelist and journalist Rehana Rossouw and first-time author Malebo Sephodi, who wrote Miss Behave, which challenges society’s beliefs about what it means to be an obedient woman.
But it was the poet laureate announcement that stole the show – it’s not an event that happens every year.
The country’s first two poet laureates – Mazisi Kunene and Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile – served until they died, with Kgositsile receiving a special official funeral
The first of Serote’s numerous books of poetry was Yakhal’inkomo, which won the Ingrid Jonker prize for poetry in 1972.
He would face months of solitary confinement, eventually graduating from Columbia University in 1979 before spending years in exile.
A Black Consciousness thinker and member of the seminal Medu Art Ensemble, Serote also received the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1993, the Pablo Neruda award from the Chilean government in 2004 and the Order of Ikhamanga in silver in 2007.
He says the late OR Tambo inspired him to take up this mantle: “I remember going to see him during the liberation struggle to give him an update of the work we had been doing on the continent using the arts. He said to me that arts and culture has the potential to unify this nation and build this nation, and history really has shown the arts as having continuously played this role.”