A Tribute To Mafika Gwala

The highlight of the MACW-organised events at Wordfest 2014 was a tribute to the great poet of black consciousness, Mafika Gwala, attended by Gwala himself and a highly appreciative audience. Although Gwala was too ill to read he was gratified to hear his poems read by MACW student poets and poetry teachers. Lesego Rampolokeng, who MC-ed the event, wrote:  “This special session provided not just a ‘look back in hunger’ but a map towards some possible, positive, poetry-filled future(s). Mista Gwala remains a defining force for those of us fortunate enough to have been touched by his presence, his life, his work. It was inspirational and humbling.”  Gwala passed away two months later, on 12 September 2014 at his home in Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.

 

 Mafika Gwala

On 7 July 2014 at Wordfest, in the National Arts Festival, a reading was held to honour the poet Mafika Gwala.  

Gwala, who wrote in English and Zulu, was an important activist in the Black Consciousness period of the 1970s-80s, and he remained radical in his views long after the momentum of the BC movement had faded.  He had been a member of SASO and the Durban Black Communities Project, and was at one stage the editor the journal Black Review.   He was one of the founders of the Mpumalanga Arts Ensemble, a significant cultural force in Natal which was instrumental in the founding of Staffrider magazine.  He wrote significant defiant essays, and he wrote two books of poems  Jol'iinkomo, (1977) and No More Lullabies (1982).  Later, with Liz Gunner, he wrote a book on Zulu praise poems titled Musho! Zulu Popular Praises (1991).

Gwala’s poetry was a powerful influence on many poets of the next generation, including Lesego Rampolokeng.  Over the past year Rampolokeng has made a documentary film Word down the Line with poets who influenced his writing and his politics when he was younger. Gwala was one of them.  Rampolokeng found him still living in Hammarsdale.  Even though poverty-stricken and ill, he was sharp and rebellious as ever. 

After this Rampolokeng, who teaches in the Rhodes MA in Creative Writing, decided with Robert Berold of the MACW to bring Gwala to Grahamstown for a public tribute in the form of a reading of his work. Funds were sought and kindly provided by the office of the deputy vice-chancellor Prof Sizwe Mabizela [for accommodation and transport] and by Wordfest [for honoraria for Gwala and for Rampolokeng as MC].   

An important detail had to be resolved first.  Gwala’s first book Jol'iinkomo published by Ad Donker was out of print, and could not be found anywhere, not even from online used book stores.  With the help of NELM, the MACW scanned a library copy of the book, and reprinted a limited edition of 20 copies to present to Gwala and to those who were to read.   

Gwala flew in from King Shaka airport on Saturday 5th. On Sunday there was a rehearsal, in fact two rehearsals. Gwala was there listening – silent most of the time, but quick to point out where the readings could be improved.   The readers were all people who knew and loved Gwala’s work -- David wa Maahlamela, Kabelo Mofokeng, Napo Masheane, Robert Berold, Kgebetli Moele, Vonani Bila and Lesego Rampolokeng.     

On Monday at 11am a large and enthusiastic audience arrived.  The readings were passionate and fierce, in keeping with Gwala’s spirit.  The event was filmed both by the SABC and by filmmaker Michael Jaspan on behalf of the MACW. A high point was Bila’s rousing rendition of the ‘The Children of Nonti’, one of the great affirmative poems of Black Consciousness.  And then Rampolokeng outdid himself with a brilliant reading of ‘Getting off the Ride’ the long and angry jazz-inflected poem which is probably Gwala’s masterpiece.

The video record means that the event will be accessible to new generations of South Africans, who will surely need to fortify themselves with the implacable and compassionate tones of Gwala’s poetry.

Vonani Bila wrote afterwards: “The tribute to Mafika Gwala was an emotional event. He silently sat in the room full of notable poets and scholars, his heart giggling and his eyes full of life. He knew he was the revered poet to whom we had come to offer our homage. When I read his poems, I became one with his assertion of a South African art that speaks of everyday life, a poetry of engagement which our children should be studying at school and varsity,  a poetry that reminds us that not so much has changed in the landscape of power.”

Lesego Rampolokeng wrote:  “This special session provided not just a 'look back in hunger' but a map towards some possible, positive, poetry-filled future(s). Mista Gwala remains a defining force for those of us fortunate enough to have been touched by his presence, his life, his work. It was inspirational and humbling.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Modified: Fri, 27 Mar 2015 16:43:25 SAST