Monday, 26 October 2009

Writing in new collection is taut and evocative - Peterson on My Rainbow

An astounding anthology with a poetic vision that is incisive, textured and big-hearted in its treatment of the intimacies and intricacies that link the past and the present, the personal and the political. So says Associate Professor Bheki Peterson of my new poetry collection, My Rainbow.

He further describes the writing in My Rainbow, released in October 2009, as "taut" and "evocative". The book represents a 'best of' selection of my poetry writing over many years.

Although I believe that a good number of the poems in My Rainbow are playful and merely revel in words, Peterson notes that the work is intense, engaging and informed by a clear poetic vision. The book can be purchased at:

Here is the full quote from Peterson:

"An astounding anthology with a poetic vision that is incisive, textured and big-hearted in its treatment of the intimacies and intricacies that link the past and the present, the personal and the political.

The writing is taut and brimming with evocative cadences that recall rites and rights of passage that range from street corners, the whispers of yearning lovers to the bruised but resolute mantras that will activists to insist on a compassionate and equitable world.

The poems, in reading, achieve a collective coherence and visceral power because of Meintjies’ mature perspective and his sensuous and lyrical writing."

Bhekizizwe Peterson
Associate Professor of African Literature
School of Literature and Language Studies

For further details on My Rainbow, see also

Sunday, 25 October 2009

New poetry book My Rainbow hits the shelves

My new poetry book, My Rainbow, has hit the shelves. Check it out. (

The content ranges widely and wildly - it covers the personal and the social and effortlessly shifts vantage points from domestic and highly localised settings to distant places and broader concerns.

The book draws on the best of poems written over nearly 30 years, and gains strength and depth (or at least a distinctiveness) from this wide scope.

My Rainbow can be obtained from good South African bookstores. It can also be obtained, online, from or; or you can trace the book on these websites by searching via author name and surname. (ISBN: 978-0-620-44659-4)

Although the book, taken as a whole, is said to have depth and meaning, My Rainbow contains many fun and playful poems, and quite a few that adopt the perspective of growing up and finding a place in the world.

My Rainbow, by Frank Meintjies, October 2009.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Obama - part of a long journey from slavery to the White House

“I Barack Hussein Obama” … with these words US President Obama was sworn in on 20 January 2009 – and this completes in striking manner the long journey of African Americans from slavery to the present. Or as Rev Jesse Jackson was wont to say, the long walk "from the outhouse to the White House".

That arc of truth – the long journey of pain and mini successes and the slow meander through the wilderness – stretches from former slave Frederick Douglass to Obama.

Homage must be paid to a several leading lights in-between, including Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King. [In addition, although he is not in the same league, we should not forget the role of Jesse Jackson who paved the way for Obama by running (unsuccessfully) for President in 1984 and 1987.]

Douglass, who lived in the 1800s and was born of mixed parentage, physically resisted his master’s beatings, escaped, dodged recapture and went on to campaign in his own country and abroad for the abolition of slavery. Douglass riled the liberals when he pointed out that once free, the former slave encountered unjust restrictions and racist controls – and the struggle for emancipation was as real in the liberal North as in the hardcore South.

By far the most radical and subversive, Marcus Garvey became an icon to millions. In his short life (from 1887 to 1940), he rejected the notion of integration and urged black people to go it alone. He campaigned tireless for some kind of mass return to Africa. Garvey made errors of judgment and drew criticism from certain quarters, but – especially to radical groups such as the Black Panthers – become a powerful symbol. Garvey is also remarkable for his view that all black people, given racist oppression, should unite globally, and that a common movement for liberation should be built.

Martin Luther King’s pivotal contribution is well known and frequently cited. Appealing to a broad range of people, he led with fervour, moral authority and vision, and his drive for civil rights found potent linkages with the anti-war movement of the 60s.

Malcom X also made a singular historical contribution. Focused entirely on galvanizing the black community, he promoted black consciousness, self assertion for black people, militant action and armed resistance. His movement did not take off on a significant scale, but his ideas live on. X’s ideas fed into, among others, the Black Panther movement. (Some members of this movement are still in jail and there is speculation as to whether Obama will secure the release of these men.)

The experience of all these leaders – and the stages of struggle they represent – raises many questions about African Americans and their preferred strategies for freedom. Do they prefer a ‘blacks going it alone’ agenda or is integration more appealing? Will they support militancy and confrontation, or are they generally more comfortable with incrementalism and peaceful requests for change? In what ways do they see themselves as connected to black people in the rest of the world – or do most regard themselves as essentially and primarily ‘Americans’? Did Garvey have some hope of success in promoting a ‘back to Africa’ movement, or is this idea alien to rank and file African Americans? In South Africa, the thinking of all the major US black leaders has had some influence, although some would say that the King approach (inclusive organization coupled with non-violent action) had greater traction. It is also said that Thabo Mbeki reflects a more militant approach towards racism whereas Mandela is associated with strategies of inclusiveness and non-confrontation (although this is certainly not true of the early Mandela who embraced armed struggle).

Obama has achieved outstanding success, his inauguration a crowning moment that follows centuries of resistance to racism. His election is a powerful blow against racists and racist discrimination. But for many African Americans, it’s 'wait and see' time – will his rise to power significantly advance the battle against racism and inequality?

What is your view? In what way does Obama reflect or not reflect the history of black people in the US? Feel free to add your comment.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Matthews & Abrahams shine as Coyaba Chronicles and Quartet provide great reading

There's always superb reading available about and from Mzanzi, and older voices can be as engaging as the new, demanding that they be revisited and even 'reread'.
One of my best current reads is Peter Abrahams' Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the Twentieth Century. It is part autobiographical and part commentary, narrating the major issues in a way that spans many decades (Abrahams was born in 1919) and throws a beam onto the charged and turbulent present.
Abrahams writes with passion and insight: he takes on the issue of race and racism with deft words and an incisive pen. He weaves these views together with his real life experiences in South Africa, Britain and in France. In the course of the book, he touches on the dilemma – if one can call it that – of being Coloured. While he accepts the notion of colouredness, along the way remarking wryly about the in-between state, he also disputes the notion of a 'pure' race. He tells engagingly of the ups-and-downs of choosing a writing life, and of the challenges of making love relationships work.
He canvasses a range of topics. The emergence of the Non-aligned Movement is traced, helped along by wonderful vignettes about Nkrumah, Nyerere, Mboya, etc. (or younger versions of themselves). The cold war and its influence are dissected (and Abrahams notes, with flickers of anger, that Africa's interest frequently died on that battleground). Abrahams explains the intellectual sparring between black voices such as Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Baldwin, showing from his own unique perspective the intersections and divergences among these great thinkers.
Abrahams has done a fair bit of shoulder rubbing with important people in his time – he has enjoyed a drink with various emerging African leaders and with writers that range from Richard Wright to Baldwin to Langston Hughes to Jean-Paul Sartre. He marvels at how (some) leaders change (and adversely so) once they assume power. Leaders who were previously accessible and able to interact, he notes, easily become unreachable and insulated from anyone accept those keen to bow and sing praises. When Abrahams visits an erstwhile friend and a struggle leader that has assumed a national presidency, he is dismayed by the airs and graces and by the reluctance to openly discuss challenges, let alone listen to feedback.
His life constitutes a remarkable adventure, his views on race, democracy and imperialism is illuminating and his writing is replete with intelligence, feeling and style.
Another great read is a collection by James Matthews and associates Richard Rive, Alex La Guma and Alf Wannenburgh. This time the angle is fiction, contained in a publication entitled Quartet: New Voices from South Africa
Matthews himself is continuing his eventful life. Rising from poverty and a poor education, he carved his name in the annals of both journalism and literature. His contributions via the pen were complemented by activist work such as the establishment of a gallery and a publishing house (called BLAC), the latter reaching a zenith in the seventies. He has launched a new publishing house, Realities, which is the platform for the republication of this anthology which features the work of the four.
This text, originally published abroad in the sixties, was banned and not released here. The stories in Quartet depict with flair, wit and often understatement the lives of ordinary black people as they struggle with, get knocked around by and sometimes rise above the day to day grind in racist South Africa. Quartet: New Voices from South Africa: Alex LA Guma, James Matthews, Richard Rive, Alf Wannenburgh (African Writers Series 14)
Shebeens feature, as do witty conversations, transport woes, money problems, male/female encounters and bristling interaction between black and white people. The stories weave a tale less of heroism than of everyday tenacity; at times the characters discover a sense of co-operation amid the desperation, sometimes they make personal shifts, at other times it all ends on a much more open-ended note. Another day will dawn, another story will unfold, all part of the fabric called life. The four writers complement each other powerfully. Matthews weighs in strongly with powerful pieces such as Azikwelwa, The Portable Radio and The Park. These pieces are matched by the immense writing acumen reflected in, inter alia, Wannenburgh's Echoes, La Guma's Glass of Wine and Rive's Rain.
This book is a classic. The writing is evocative, inventive and powerful. Although an aspect of the apartheid system informs many of the plots (that is how the book was curated), the writing is not just a reflection of the thing it describes. It becomes a thing (of beauty and truth) in its own right. As all good writing does, the writing operates on more than one level, conveying something deeper about the human condition, about ourselves. This is why Quartet is being republished: it is writing not just for that time (the good-old bad-old sixties), but for now.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Egelhof explores identity & history in powerful theatre piece

I know Kurt Egelhof as a Durban boy whom I first met way back in the eighties. In his play, For Generations, Egelhof interrogates his past to get a better understanding of himself and who he is in the world today.

This introspection and this interrogation of family and heritage is something many of us are too afraid to countenance, and are even less likely to do in a public forum. (Believe me, many Coloured Durbanites do not want to dig too deeply into their origins; they would rather bluff and pretend than confront or honour the realities of their past.) But Kurt opens his photo albums, the kist and the closet and unveils what lies behind his Durban upbringing for the audience.

Kurt (in the past referred to as Kurtie by a friend, Dawn Robertson) cut his teeth in theatre in the eighties, but in the last fifteen years has strayed from the stage to television production. His current play, For Generations, highlights what we miss when voices such as his go into management or high powered executive jobs.

In For Generations, first launched at the 2008 Grahamstown festival, Egelhof investigates the male lineage of his family – tracing the line from his grandfather through to his son. He speaks of hardship, of intermarriage, of male reticence (that is both stubborn and tragic), of racial injustice and of the "debt" owed and the restoration that needs to take place. His (German) grandfather was shortchanged, partly because he married a Xhosa woman and partly because the world would not honour the talents of a local jazz musician. His father, Basie, fell short because he worked long hours – to the extent that it destroyed his marriage. He was often denied advancement in his work, thanks to apartheid. In the end, he died prematurely in a workplace accident.

Kurt studied a drama degree, one of only a handful of black people in an otherwise all white class in 1980s. As he tells it in For Generations, on graduating he had to face the harsh reality that decent parts were hard to come by. As a 'coloured,' he was viewed as unsuitable for a Shakespeare role and for a part in, for example, a production such as Welcome Msomi's Umabatha. He also had to endure racial discrimination at social venues and at the hands of sections of Durban's population.

For Generations is about a man getting clarity about who he is by understanding his background – the turns and twists his forbears were forced to take in a land dominated and distorted by apartheid. In the play, Egelhof depicts what life was like for his grandfather and father; he takes a brutally honest look at his own experiences, and; he engages with his son's dreams. Through all of this he discovers what he must do. Salvation lies in acknowledging his Xhosa grandmother, in speaking out against the denial of dignity and in calling for truth and accountability regarding the past. He must break the silence, he mustn't acquiesce, he must push back – and in doing so, he must sometimes spoil or disturb the genteel and polite social engagement in present day suburbia.

This play deals with being Coloured in South Africa. This is done not ideologically nor in a didactic manner, but on the basis of relevant experiences skilfully drawn from lower middle class existence and from a particular set of stories about dignity that is both crushed and resurgent.

Egelhof's play is powerfully authentic. It grips you, draws you close and gets you to empathise with a set of ordinary but clearly defined characters (that include his forbears and himself). The play avoids sentimentality; instead, it shares with grit and honesty Egelhof's own moment of awakening. Indications are that Kurt's moment of realisation and insight came during the making of the play itself - in the researching and writing process. One can venture to say this moment of truth is – incredibly – recreated on the stage each time the play is staged. The techniques used in the play, the intimate approach and his direct way of engaging with the audience, makes the play akin to an open-hearted chat with Egelhof.

The play has not yet travelled to all of South Africa's main centres and has yet to make its debut in Johannesburg. It will be interesting to see what Johannesburg critics and audiences make of it, and whether it will get the attention and plaudits it deserves.

Expect greater turbulence in the wake of Zuma court outcome

The Jacob Zuma judgement (of yesterday 12/1/08) is eliciting cheers in some quarters and jeers in others. But for me, a sense of weariness and foreboding is a more relevant response.

It seems the justice system is unable to make charges stick - and the situation is not helped by widely conflicting judgements from the judiciary. All the latest judgement does is send the process back to the legal starting point, from where a new cycle of legal games and contestation between state and Zuma's legal counsel will most likely ensue.

The attempts to prosecute Zuma take place in a context where:

  • Corruption appears to be part of the operating mode of many major companies – in most cases of corruption, a company is often the corruptor;
  • The arms deal remains controversial – and Zuma correctly points out that he was not part of the national political scene at the time the arms deal was being forged and signed;
  • The government's tender processes has in general been undermined; the ANC has itself in an official 10 January 2009 statement argued that the tender process has been poisoned by corrupt practices and needed to be changed;
  • The crossover between business and politics in the last 14 years has raised its own questions - and serious ethical issues. Big Business has used BEE strategically and expediently; it has focused on "empowering" political connected people, ones who help them with information and inside insight about government plans, decisionmaking and tenders. Zuma has not been a central player in BEE deals.

The above context raises question about why Zuma in particular was selected for prosecution. Of course, while we are free to pose such a question, it is not wise for Zuma or those closest to him ask why he was singled out for prosecution. Anyone who is charged should accept that theoretically and legally anyone is eligible to be charged; those who are innocent should be confident they can prove their innocence or that they were wrongfully charged; any person (moreso a politician) has greater credibility when he or she submits to a legal process; and cynics (or in this case, critics of Zuma and the ANC) will argue that most people will cry foul at being prosecuted.

However, the long and short is that the months ahead will be turbulent (above and beyond what one normally expects during an election year). In terms of whether Zuma should go to court and face charges or not, we have two powerful forces facing off against each – one being the establishment and the other a mass based politically movement (sometimes termed the Zuma juggernaut).

In addition, there are many (potential) flashpoints – and tinder dry conditions for conflict in a number of areas. Any Zuma court appearances will become physical sites for expression of mass anger. As Cope calls for the ANC to drop Zuma and denounces him as an unworthy presidential candidate, the level of tension and conflict between ANC and Cope will be increased. And what with persons such as 702's John Robbie raising question's about the judiciary's credibility after such widely divergent decisions on Zuma, the judiciary will again become a target of vicious verbal attacks. Last but not least, the ongoing controversy around Zuma (coupled with his immense mass support) continues to fuel uncertainty and instability in the financial markets.

In this context, no one should be crowing about the outcome of the case, or about the likelihood of ongoing legal contestation (appeals and counter appeals) in the immediate and many months ahead. The political rollercoaster ride – distracting us from critical national tasks, from real debate about developmental policies and from the job of optimally positioning ourselves as a country in the world – is set to continue.