Afrika, Tatamkhulu 1920-2002
AFRIKA, Tatamkhulu 1920-2002
PERSONAL: Born Mogamed Fu'ad Nasif, December 7, 1920, in As-Sallum, Egypt; died from complications suffered after being hit by a car, December 23, 2002, in Cape Town, South Africa; son of an Egyptian-Arab father and a Turkish mother; raised by English Methodist family in Limpopo, South Africa, as John Charlton; lived with Afrikaans foster family after World War II as Jozua Joubert; changed name to Ismail after conversion to Islam, 1964; married; one child. Education: Attended military college near Pretoria, South Africa. Religion: Islam.
CAREER: Poet, novelist, activist, and bookkeeper. Worked variously as bartender, drummer in a band, shop assistant, laborer in copper mines. Founder of anti-apartheid and charitable organization Al-Jihaad. Military service: Served with South Africa's Union Defence Force during World War II; interned for three years by Nazis as prisoner of war. Served with Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in South African struggle for independence.
AWARDS, HONORS: Thomas Pringle Award, and CNA Debut Prize, both 1991, both for Nine Lives; Olive Schreiner Prize for Poetry, 1992, for Dark Rider; Sanlam Literary Award, 1996, for Turning Points, and 2000, for Mad Old Man under the Morning Star.
Nine Lives, Carrefour-Hippogriff (Cape Town, South Africa), 1991.
Dark Rider, Snailpress (Plumstead, South Africa), 1992.
Maqabane, Mayibuye Books (Bellville, South Africa), 1994.
Flesh and the Flame, Silk Road International Publishers (Cape Town, South Africa), 1995.
The Lemon Tree, Snailpress (Plumstead, South Africa), 1995.
Turning Points, Mayibuye Books (Bellville, South Africa), 1996.
The Angel and Other Poems, Carapace Poets, Snailpress (Plumstead, South Africa), 1999.
Mad Old Man under the Morning Star, Snailpress (Plumstead, South Africa), 2001.
Poems published in numerous magazines and anthologies.
Broken Earth, Hutchinson (London, England), 1940.
The Innocents, David Philip (Cape Town, South Africa), 1994.
Tightrope (collection of novellas), 1997.
Bitter Eden, Arcadia Books (London, England) 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: It would seem as though everything in his life conspired to keep Tatamkhulu Afrika from writing, but in his last decade he managed to author eight books of poetry and three novels, to add to the one novel he wrote at age seventeen. By the time he died at age eighty-two, he had won five major South African literary awards and numerous honors. Yet, Afrika, whose name means "old man of Africa" or "Grandfather Africa," lived an astoundingly simple and financially impoverished life. He had five different legal names in his lifetime, having been born Asian, reared English, converted to Islam, and adopted by the Cape Town "colored" community.
Born in Egypt and orphaned at age two, Afrika was raised as John Charlton by an English Methodist family. His foster mother taught him at home until high school. At age seventeen, Afrika dropped out of school to write his first novel, Broken Earth, a 300-page "tour de force of juvenile conceit," as he later called it in an interview for Books. The novel, an English romance written in three months, is set in the bushland of southern Africa's Northern Transvaal, a region he loved.
Soon after Broken Earth was published, Afrika joined the South African military and went to Egypt during World War II. He was captured by the Nazis and held in prisoner-of-war camps in Italy and Germany for three years. While in the camps, he wrote a second novel, using a Red Cross pencil and paper. His sleeping bunk provided the only private space he had in which to write. The novel, which would later become Bitter Eden, is "a thinly fictionalised account of my life in the camps," he said in the Books article. Near the end of the war, however, as the prisoners were being moved to another location, Nazi guards found the nearly completed manuscript hidden in his clothing and ripped it to pieces in front of him.
When Afrika returned home, he learned that the London publisher's warehouse containing his first novel had been bombed during the Blitz and its contents destroyed. Devastated that his two novels had been casualties of the war, Afrika stopped writing until 1991. Two copies of Broken Earth were later found and are now housed in the Grahamstown Literary Museum and the Johannesburg Central Library.
After World War II and his release from the prisonerof-war camp, Afrika returned to Africa and was taken in by an Afrikaans family, changing his name to Jozua Joubert. He worked at several jobs in Namibia, including copper mining. He moved to Cape Town in the early 1960s and was jobless and hungry for six months before he was taken in by a Muslim family in the poverty-stricken District Six. In 1964 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Ismail. He founded the activist and charitable organization Al-Jihaad, to battle apartheid and help the poor in the district. He had himself classified as "Malay" instead of "white" so that he could stay among them. During the South African struggle for independence, Al-Jihaad became affiliated with the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and his African comrades gave him the "praise name" Tatamkhulu Afrika, which he kept for the rest of his life. He had found his home and his people.
However, Afrika's work with Al-Jihaad led to his arrest as a "terrorist" in 1987, and for five years he was banned by the government from writing and public speaking. Seeing the suffering of those imprisoned changed him. According to Chris Barron, in Afrika's obituary in the Sunday Times, "He came out 'enraged,' and with a sharpened appreciation of the suffering and emotions of oppressed people outside."
Afrika stayed in Cape Town, although District Six was demolished. He found a tiny room in the "colored" section of Woodstock and later moved into a "wendy house," or shack, in a backyard in the Bo-Kaap section, with spare furnishings that included a bed, a typewriter, and a note from Nelson Mandela thanking him for some poetry he had sent him. Afrika rode a bicycle everywhere he went until he was in his seventies and then walked—even until shortly before his death, when he was 70 percent blind.
His imprisonment and the daily exposure to the poverty of those around him were a catalyst for Afrika to begin writing again. He started with poetry, publishing two prize-winning volumes, Nine Lives and Dark Rider in 1991 and 1992. These were followed by five more books of poetry; a novel, The Innocents, based on his years with Al-Jihaad and featuring a homosexual security policeman; and Tightrope, a collection of novellas revolving around a petty criminal who takes refuge in a homosexual relationship—all published during the 1990s. In 2001, his final book of poetry, Mad Old Man under the Morning Star, brought Afrika his second Sanlam Literary Award.
In 2002, on the author's birthday, the novel Bitter Eden—destroyed by Nazi prison camp guards and rewritten from memory fifty years later—was finally published. Just two days later, Afrika was hit by a car on the streets of Cape Town and died within two weeks.
Bitter Eden is the story of male heterosexual prisoners of war who, deprived of female partners, find sexual comfort and passionate love in one another. It concerns the memories of Tom Smith, an elderly married man whose wartime experiences are revived when he receives a letter. Smith tells the story of prison-camp mates Douglas and then Danny, a man with whom he shares a bunk and falls deeply in love, although a long period of uncertainty precedes their physical relationship. Anne Susskind, in a review of the book for the Mail & Guardian Online, wrote, "Afrika is brilliant at charting the intricacies of psychological unease, at detailing the motivations that drive his protagonist. … Bitter Eden is, perhaps, about a realisation that sexuality is much more fluid than it is generally seen to be or allowed to be, but it is equally about transcending sexual politics." Kai Easton, in a review for the Independent, called the novel "harsh, exquisite and concise." Easton concluded, "An elegantly crafted work, Bitter Eden is an astonishing story about men in close quarters forging relationships that border on trust and betrayal—and how love, in war, is an ambivalent bond." Peter Whittaker, in a review for the New Internationalist, praised the novel, saying it "self-assuredly combines raw earthiness with dreamlike poetry." Michael Peel, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, observed that the novel "is above all a work of sensual disorientation. … It is as if the author were wrestling with the question of whether he should allow the dark side of his early experiences to suppress his natural human optimism."
Afrika's poetry has received critical acclaim reaffirming his many awards. Keith Gottschalk, in an obituary for the Mail & Guardian Online, commented, "His poems have a rigorous integrity, whether describing the lyrical beauty of the moon setting over Signal Hill or the sordidness of being mugged or molested." Quoting Afrika's friend and fellow poet Peter Horn, Gottschalk concluded, "'That is the sign of the poet, that he has no eyelids to hide behind, that he has to see it all, joy and pain, stench and death.'"
In a review of Afrika's Maqabane for the University of Cape Town Web site, Horn wrote, "A city like Cape Town has many spaces. Poetry inhabits the spaces between. Spaces not seen by its citizens, unacknowledged spaces, or spaces rejected as filthy non-spaces. It is these forgotten spaces … that attract Tatamkhulu Afrika." Afrika wrote in his verse about the stark contrast between towering new office buildings and shacks standing in tall grass in Cape Town—and the contrast between the citizens who occupy each.
In an acceptance speech for his second Sanlam Literary Award, received for Mad Old Man under the Morning Star in 2000, Afrika said, "Over the last eighteen months I realised I was writing more, not about the joys of old age, but the agonies. … When I looked at what I'd written I found it had formed a sequence about an old man under a morning star. … I read the poems right through and found they have a cumulative effect, as does old age."
Greg Hacksley, in an article for the Rhodes University Department of Journalism Web site, commented that Afrika, in Mad Old Man, "describes his sensations, and his lack of sensation, with a passionate honesty almost too painful to bear, and yet the verse moves with such freshness and through such meticulously chosen words and images that the collection and every poem in it is gripping."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Books, spring, 2002, "Life Begins at 80," p. 19.
New Internationalist, November, 2002, Peter Whittaker, review of Bitter Eden, p. 30.
Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 2002, Michael Peel, review of Bitter Eden, p. 20.
Writers & Company,http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/ (March 26, 2003), "Tatamkhulu Afrika."
Independent Online,http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/ (August 27, 2002), Kai Easton, review of Bitter Eden.
Mail & Guardian Online,http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/ (October 10, 2002), Anne Susskind, "Prisoner of Love."
Rhodes University Department of Journalism Web site,http://photojourn.ru.ac.za/cuepix/ (May 19, 2003), Greg Hacksley, "Afrika Wins Again—The Sanlam Literary Award."
South Africa—Poetry International Web site,http://southafrica.poetryinternational.org/ (March 26, 2003), "Tatamkhulu Afrika."
University of Cape Town Web site,http://web.uct.ac.za/ (November 4, 1995), Peter Horn, "The Spaces between Tatamkhulu Afrika, Maqabane"; (February 1, 1996) Peter Horn, "Tatamkhulu Afrika."
Roots and Water (film series), BBC Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2000.
Mail & Guardian Online,http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/ (January 24, 2003), Keith Gottschalk, "Nine Lives, at Least."
Sunday Times,http://www.suntimes.co.za/ (January 12, 2003), obituary by Chris Barron.*