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Sepamla, (Sydney) Sipho

SEPAMLA, (Sydney) Sipho


Nationality: South African. Born: Johannesburg, 1932. Career: Trained as a teacher and taught in secondary schools. Personnel officer for company in East Rand. Editor, New Classic and S'ketsh! magazines. Address: c/o Fuba Academy, P.O. Box 4202, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa.

Publications

Poetry

Hurry Up to It! Johannesburg, Donker, 1975.

The Blues Is You in Me. Johannesburg, Donker, 1976.

The Soweto I Love. Cape Town, Philip, London, Rex Collings, and Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1977.

Children of the Earth. Johannesburg, Donker, 1983.

Selected Poems, edited by Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane. Johannesburg, Donker, 1984.

From Goré to Soweto. Johannesburg, Skotaville Publishers, 1988.

Rainbow Journey. Florida Hills, South Africa, Vivlia, 1996.

Novels

The Root Is One. London, Rex Collings, 1979.

A Ride on the Whirlwind. Johannesburg, Donker, 1981; London, Heinemann, 1984.

Third Generation. Johannesburg, Skotaville, 1986.

Scattered Survival. Johannesburg, Skotaville, 1988.

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Critical Studies: "Sipho Sepamla: Spirit Which Refuses to Die" by Stephen Gray, in Index on Censorship (London), 7 (1), 1978; "Sipho Sepamla, The Soweto I Love" by Vernie February, in African Literature Today (Freetown, Sierra Leone), 10, 1979; "The Price of Being a Writer" by Mark Ralph-Bowman, in Index on Censorship (London), 11 (4), August 1982; "Black Consciousness in East and South African Poetry: Unity and Divergence in the Poetry of Taban Lo Liyong and Sipho Sepamla" by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, in Presence Africaine (Paris), 140, 1986; "The Days of Power: Depictions of Politics and Community in Four Recent South African Novels" by Kelwyn Sole, in Research in African Literatures (Bloomington, Indiana), 19 (1), spring 1988; "Fictionalization, Conscientization and the Trope of Exile in Amandla and Third Generation" by Johan Geertsema, in Literator (South Africa), 14 (3), November 1993; Riot: Episodes of Racialized Violence in African and African American Culture (dissertation) by Sheila Smith McKoy, Duke University, 1994.

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Sipho Sepamla and Mongane Wally Serote are the two poets who started the black poetry revival in the 1970s in South Africa. They centered their poetry around life in the townships and expressed the anger and frustration of the urban, educated black, increasingly hemmed in and thwarted by the apartheid state. Both were influenced by the black consciousness movement and the new resulting self-awareness and sense of value. Sepamla is a case of a peace-loving man imbued with a generous love for humankind and a natural inclination toward gradualism, persuasion rather than violence, antiracism, and belief in the values of education and art but who is pushed into bitterness, hatred, and an increasingly radical form of protest. In his first collection, Hurry Up to It!, he uses humor and irony as weapons of protest, and they give the poetry an essentially private dimension despite the public nature of the subject of apartheid. An example of this is "To Whom It May Concern," in which Sepamla uses apartheid officialese to criticize the inhumanity of the system:

Please note
The remains of R/N 417181
Will be laid to rest in peace
On a plot
set aside for Methodist Xhosas

Such irony is always in danger of souring into bitterness under the impact of the gross injustices of the system, something Sepamla is aware of and tries to fight. In the poem "Nibblings" he expresses hate for lies, bitterness, blacks who hate whites, white liberals, and people who admire him because of his education, but he is basically "in love with mankind." Despite bitter poems like "The Applicant," his first collection is lighter in tone than the following volumes.

The Blues Is You in Me came out in the year of the Soweto uprising, and the theme of political protest is prevalent. A poem like "I Remember Sharpeville" is in the mold of the classic protest poem. Dedicated to "our dead heroes," it tells the story of the uprising, describes the anger and the shame at the burial of the victims, and vows to remember their names. The language has changed from private imagery to public rhetoric, and the poet uses organic imagery to convey the strength of the uprising:

like a sponge
it sucked into its core
the aged and the young...
it rolled over
crushing the cream
and the scum of its make-up
into a solid compound
of black oozing energy.

The more sinister aspects of the oppression are discussed in terms of silence, both a reality and an apt metaphor for a poet's greatest fear. In "Silence" the poet protests against enforced silence, banning, and jail ("don't kill me with silence"), and in "Silence: 2" the silence of jail is compounded with that of despair ("a silence I fear"). Finally, in "Double Talk," a poem about broken promises of improved conditions, there is "a huge enforced silence, but nodding of heads."

Although living in a deteriorating political climate, Sepamla continues to express his basic wish to live and love and not to be forced to feel bitter and humiliated, something that can be seen in poems like "The Ash Urns" and "The Love I Know." There is even room for one nonpolitical, lighthearted occasional poem, "The Peach Tree," which incidentally highlights deprivation by indicating the vast areas of experience that are eclipsed by the cruelty of the system and the necessity of fighting it. In the same vein the poet feels guilty about not taking an active enough part in the uprising, as in poems like "Tried to Say" and "Reaching Out," in which he wishes that he could be "without apologies and unsaid insanities."

A final theme, which points forward to the following collection, is township life, a celebration of survival skills outside white law in poems like "Statement: the Dodger," "Zoom," and "The Kwela-Kwela," which tells the story of a boy on false crutches. The form of the poetry varies with the content, but it is all free verse and saturated with jazz rhythms, often syncopated, which lend a sense of urgency.

The Soweto I Love continues the themes of the previous collections but also expresses the new awareness and, even more radically, the altered state of being of the post-Soweto era. The poem "At the Dawn of Another Day" exemplifies this ontological change, with the refrain "give me this day myself" seen as the result of the new order. Children are taking the lead and telling their parents what to do, and students are leading the community. The last illusions about peaceful solutions and the good intentions of the system have been broken, naked violence has erupted, and a new order of consciousness has been born, carrying the poet along with it. The radicalization in this volume of what had been essentially moderate views is seen to be a result of the excessive violence of the system in putting down the uprising. Poems like "A Child Dies" describe the brutality: "he was pounded and pounded / with a gun but … we buried the mess another day." Torture and murder have become part of the poet's daily reality and, in poems like "How a Brother Died," his poetic vocabulary, and he monitors his own change. In "The Late, Late Show" he rejects all attempts at conciliation and declares, "I can feel my grin turn to a grimace / my patience has been wearing thin."

Sepamla's new sense of defiance is expressed in a series of confrontations with the system under its various guises. These confrontations are not violent, for the poet is not a revolutionary hero, but he is registering the new mood made possible by the schoolchildren fighting in the streets. In "On Judgement Day" he rejects the stereotyping of blacks as "singers, runners and peace lovers." As there are only dirges to sing and no peace to love, the long and cherished tradition of peaceful resistance must be abandoned. In "Measure for Measure" he further distances himself from the white images of blacks:

calculate the size of house you think is good for me
and ensure the shape suits tribal taste...
and when all that is done
let me tell you this
you'll never know how far I stand from you.

This defiance is hard-won, for through his education Sepamla has been exposed to a Western value system, which he cannot deny and which still informs most of his poetry. The radicalization of a basically moderate poet like Sepamla is an indication of the state of affairs under apartheid in South Africa.

—Kirsten Holst Petersen

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