Serote, Mongane Wally

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SEROTE, Mongane Wally

Nationality: South African. Born: Johannesburg, 8 May 1944. Education: Sacred Heart High School, Leribe, Lesotho; Morris Isaacson High School, Soweto; Columbia University, New York, M.F.A. 1979. Family: Married Pethu Serote. Career: Former copywriter for advertising company, Johannesburg; staff member, Medu Arts Ensemble, Gaborone, Botswana. Since 1986 cultural attaché, Department of Arts and Culture, African National Congress, London. Imprisoned under terrorism act, 1969–70. Awards: Ingrid Jonker prize, 1973; Fulbright scholarship. Agent: Jane Gregory Agency, Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9RL. Address: 28 Penton Street, P.O. Box 38, London N1 9PR, England.



Yakhal'inkomo. Johannesburg, Renoster, 1972.

Tsetlo. Johannesburg, Donker, 1974.

No Baby Must Weep. Johannesburg, Donker, 1975.

Behold Mama, Flowers. Johannesburg, Donker, 1978.

The Night Keeps Winking. Gaborne, Botswana, Medu Art Ensemble, 1982.

Selected Poems, edited by Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane. Johannesburg, Donker, 1982.

A Tough Tale. London, Kliptown, 1987.

Third World Express. Cape Town, D. Philip, 1992.

Come and Hope with Me. Cape Town, D. Philip, 1994.

Freedom Lament and Song. Cape Town, D. Philip, 1997.


To Every Birth Its Blood. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1981; London, Heinemann, 1983; New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989.


On the Horizon. Fordsburg, South Africa, Congress of South African Writers, 1990.

Gods of Our Time. Randburg, South Africa, Ravan Press, 1999.


Critical Studies: ''Towards a Survey: A Reflection on South African Poetry'' by Cosmo Pieterse, in Culture in Another South Africa, edited by Willem Campscreur and Joost Divendal, New York, Olive Branch, 1989; ''An Author's Agenda (2)'' by the author, in Southern African Review of Books, 3(3–4), February-May 1990; Orpheus in Africa: Fragmentation and Renewal in the Work of Four AfricanWriters by Jane Wilkinson, Rome, Bulzoni Editore, 1990; "Negotiating Poetry: A New Poetry for a New South Africa" by Colin Gardner, in Theoria (Natal, South Africa), 77, May 1991; "Black Man's Burden: A Conversation with Mongane Wally Serote" by Andrew McCord, in Transition, 61, 1993; "Stoking the Third World Express: The Politics of Cultural Transformation" by Jean-Philippe Wade, in English in Africa (South Africa), 20 (1), May 1993; "Waiting for the Children: Coetzee and Serote across Cultural Barriers" by Andre Viola, in Nationalism vs. Internationalism: (Inter)National Dimensions of Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Ken Goodwin, Tubingen, Germany, Stauffenburg, 1996; interview with Rolf Solberg, in Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970–1995, edited by Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mongane Wally Serote comments:

I am primarily known as a poet. I have, though, written short stories, a novel, and plays and am preparing a manuscript of essays on culture.

*  *  *

Mongane Wally Serote is perhaps the foremost black South African poet of his generation, and throughout his career his poetry has consistently been a political, committed, liberation poetry. According to Serote, any writer, but especially one in a country such as South Africa, cannot separate writing from the political and cultural situation in which he or she writes. As Serote said in 1990 in the Southern African Review of Books,

What is the role of writing in overcoming ignorance? … Writing, which is a segment of culture which is life itself, cannot be divorced from economics or politics. It is how societies are organized that says how they will eradicate ignorance. It is for all these issues … that I can say that the first commitment of any writer is to politics; the second, which makes the writer, is in writing.

In South Africa's "anti-life culture" of apartheid, the role of the poet, particularly the black poet, was that of freedom fighter. Writing in English, a language for black South Africans that both represents colonialism and oppression and marks its difference from the oppressors' tongue, Afrikaans, Serote created a poetry of protest and of hope, but his writing primarily documented the suffering, hope, and struggle of his people. It was populist, accessible, and oral in mode. (Much protest writing in South Africa must be performed orally, for the adult population is about 50 percent illiterate, thus the prevalence of drama and poetry as forms of literature and oratory.) But it was nevertheless not simple, being rich in allusion, imagery, and metaphor. Like much contemporary poetry in South Africa, as Cosmo Pieterse has said, "the lexicon of [Serote's] poetry is the experience of pain … Its vocabulary is militant but not militaristic, its diction various, as that of its tonalities … vibrate on many levels: the poem-song involves us in pain and tragedy and asks us to re-evaluate our history and our existence." Poems such as "Prelude" demonstrate his keen awareness of the contested position of writing in such cultural struggle, even as it documents his commitment:

When i take a pen,
my soul bursts to deface the paper
pus spills—
deforming a line into a figure that violates my love,
when i take a pen,
my crimson heart oozes into the ink,
dilutes it
spreads the gem of my life
makes the word i utter a gasp to the world—
my mother, when i dance your eyes won't keep pace
look into my eyes,
there, the story of my day is told.

As in much of Serote's other poetry, this poem is made up of short bursts of words and speech and of powerful, evocative metaphors. As Pieterse suggests, Serote's poetry is song. Serote relies on the rhythms and structures of song—repetition, brevity, powerful images—to create a sustained emotional intensity that pervades all of his work. Critics of Serote's work have pointed to his innovative poetic craftsmanship, often ignoring the African sources of the poetry, as Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane suggests in his introduction to Serote's Selected Poems:

… making-by-naming is not an invention of a new poetic device but the use of traditional oral modes and indigenous forms of expression—which may sound "new" and "fresh" to those who are not intimately acquainted with the traditional culture and languages—but which are, in fact, the authentic evocation of the social and cultural milieu.

Serote's use of a vocabulary and syntax "genuinely shaped by black urban life in South Africa" and of township colloquialisms and clichés is, then, not so much innovative as hybrid, both documenting and ironically commenting on the position of the community for and to which he writes. Mzamane explains that

… he can also cultivate an artistic detachment through the use of expressions that are deadpan, which … bring out most effectively the callousness and the insensitivity of the people … [and] in a manner which never detracts from the gravity of the situation evoked … the simplicity and effective tone of his language … are intended to make his appeal to the black community as broadly based as possible.

Of the many European and African forms that blend in Serote's poetry the elegy and the African panegyric form are perhaps the most prominent. Poetry about place especially uses the devices of repetition and invocation to provide an almost incantatory power. Serote's Alexandra poems and his "City Johannesburg" are perhaps the best examples:

This way I salute you:
My hand pulsates to my back trousers pocket
Or into my inner jacket pocket
For my pass, my life,
o'burg City,
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach groans a friendly smile to hunger,
Jo'burg City
My stomach also devours coppers and papers
Don't you know?
Jo'burg City, I salute you;
That, that is all you need of me,
Jo'burg City, Johannesburg
Jo'burg City, you are dry like death,
Jo'burg City, Johannesburg, Jo'burg City.

A short poem such as "For Don M.—Banned" uses repetition and consonance to a different effect. Certainly the significances of "white" in this poem, as well as the metonyms for imprisonment, demonstrate how inextricably Serote's writing is wedded to the South African context, and the poem also resonates with the sense of political hope for and the inevitability of liberation that later became pronounced in his poetry. (It is worthwhile noting, too, that this poem is the allusion in André Brink's novel A Dry White Season):

it is a dry white season
dark leaves don't last, their brief lives dry out
and with a broken heart they dive down gently headed for
  the earth,
not even bleeding.
it is a dry white season brother,
only the trees know the pain as they still stand erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire,
indeed, it is a dry white season
but seasons come to pass.

If there is a political movement or progression in Serote's poetry, it has been toward a more radical and optimistic view of the possibilities for black South Africa. Strongly informed, as Mzamane suggests, by the black consciousness movement, Serote's poetry moves from concern with and addresses to the white community, as in the poem "The Actual Dialogue," to a complete commitment to and involvement with his own community. Serote's epic poems, in particular, manifest this trend in his work, their length allowing him to combine many of his characteristic concerns, styles, and devices. No Baby Must Weep; Behold Mama, Flowers; and A Tough Tale are by turns meditative, autobiographical, and hortatory, the first in particular being a sustained treatment of the role that women, especially in their role as mothers, have had to play in the struggle in South Africa. Mzamane comments,

… in some of these poems he conceives of Black women—downtrodden and degraded yet long-suffering and dignified—as being the vanguard of the Black people's struggle for liberation … The effect of these poems is to explode the myth that women in traditional society are passive and subservient, by showing their crucial role in sustaining life, ensuring social stability and effecting change.

There are occasions when Serote's depiction of women reverts to stereotype and other uncomfortable images, in "Alexandra," for instance, where the metaphor of the town as a woman elides the lived oppression of black women. Throughout most of his work, however, he celebrates and mourns women's position respectfully and sincerely. No Baby Must Weep opens with an address to the mother figure—"let me hold your hand / black mother let me hold your hand and walk with you"—moves to an address to the speaker's actual mother from childhood—"mama / you know you never let me become a caddie / or a garden-boy / let's stop here a little mama"—and then speaks from adulthood:

i'm hurt mama
my heart bleeds like the pouring sky
and my pores squeeze droplets out
i wish to stop weeping
but mama
you in your hope as fat as your breast
fed me with the mild milk
you put me on your lap of hope
me a load on your back
I'm hurt mama,
my heart is a wound leaping pain like flames
I'm frightened of death
because i have never lived
you grew a hollow and named it me

The poem then leaves the mother to address the mother country, Africa—"i / i am the son of this earth / … / let my hand go now my mama / leave me here in the street this dirty dusty muddy street /leave me here / alone in the minute of my moment"—and finally comes to rest at home—"ah / africa / is this not your child come home."

Serote has also devoted a considerable amount of his writing to the victims of apartheid, to those who were banned, tortured, and imprisoned, as well as to another representative group, children. These poems are often the focal points for his horror and outrage. Thus, "Child of the Song" assaults any sense of complacency:

yes, the day was not ours nor the night
remember how someone's baby rushed out of the
  tenth floor
and crushed on the tar
his blood splashing on the flower petals in the garden
so you heard the laughter of the law
what will you say to your son

But children also become the hope for the future. Indeed, Serote figures all black South Africans to be "children of Soweto," and in "The Breezing Dawn of the New Day" he suggests that "yet some day has gone and left some children here / who ask and ask and so teach us how to talk and fix an eye on any other eye." In this context the Afrikaners' self-appellation as the chosen people, "god's children," is bitterly ironic—"did you hear / how some people, god's children, talk / about us"—and Serote indicates black Africans' determination to talk back and reclaim their history for their children's future:

we sing here, for we can sing still, about our national life
a life
which must grow now
like a child
a child looked after and taught well
that is our future,
we keep the record
and some child somewhere in the mist of this death
  will know
the breezing dawn of the new day—
they will put brick on brick
and build, a new country.

As the title of this poem and the subsequent long poem "There Will Be a Better Time" suggest, Serote's increasing militancy also evolved into an apocalyptic vision, a hopeful one, of the political future for South African blacks. "There Will Be a Better Time" is adamant in its denial of the situation under apartheid—"no we say / no we say in one voice / no more we say / no more of the bad time"—and concludes by avowing a better future—"ah / there will be a better time made by us." This is not to suggest, however, that the anger and intensity of Serote's poetry has dwindled completely or that his commitment to documenting the suffering of his community has lessened. His long poem A Tough Tale holds both directions in tension:

Then, I must admit—our sorrow is as red as blood
the silence comes
the quietness holds us, with its chill
it cuts then, painfully, between the mind and heart
They come young
they speak of rubber bullets and birdshots
they speak of young fresh blood spilled in the streets
these children of a restless hour.

Serote, however, ultimately refuses the despair that filled some of his earlier poetry: "This is not and must not be a sad tale / it cannot be." He imagines his country's future in a way that reflects back on his love for South Africa and for his art: "we know all this and more / and yet this time asks: really? / yes we do / for our future is a poem which says so."

—Aruna Srivastava