I looked back
I went through my pockets
We crawled in.
The young men sang.
In that dark moment
– Mafika Pascal Gwala
South Africa lost one of its finest poets, Mafika Pascal Gwala (67), when he passed on Sunday. The poet, born in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, was known for his writings in both in English and Zulu and his involvement in politics dates back to the 1960s. He used his pen to speak out against the injustice of apartheid, actively served in the Black Consciousness Movement and was a member of the Black South African Student Organisation as well as the Black Communities Project, in Durban.
He, along with writers, Mongane Wally Serote, Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Mandla Langa and James Matthews were a group known as the “Soweto poets” in the late 1960s. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian in 2006, Gwala described his involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement as a trend that was necessary “in bringing in what the white opposition [to apartheid] couldn’t bring into the struggle”.
One of his best-known poems is The Children of Nonti, which was published in 1977. He had a knack for fusing rhythm into his writing. According to Gwala, fellow poet James Matthews once asked him: “How do you get to make music in the flow of your lines?” But the musicality in his poetry was not something he did consciously. Music just flowed in his veins and spilt onto paper.
Gwala has influenced a number of contemporary poets in South Africa. Lesego Rampolokeng, who admires Gwala’s work, interviewed him for his recent documentary film Word Down the Line, where Gwala shared his views on how far he thinks we as a country have come.
“Mafika brought me to consciousness. I didn’t come to consciousness because of Steven Biko or whatever,” Rampolokeng said in an interview with the M&G.
A powerful force
The master’s programme in creative writing at Rhodes University held a reading of Gwala’s literary work at Wordfest in Grahamstown, in July this year, to honour him.
“We honoured him because we felt he hasn’t been honoured the way he should’ve been,” poet Robert Berold told the M&G. Berold’s favourite poem by Gwala is Getting off the Ride, also published in 1977. “His poetry has a powerful force and it always moved me; it remains strong even though the political circumstances have changed.” According to Berold, Gwala had been ill for quite some time and his health had not improved during his visit to Grahamstown for his tribute.
Gwala was living in Hammarsdale, near Durban at the time of his death. He leaves a body of work that includes essays, short stories and a collection of poetry. He wrote two books of poems Jo’Liinkomo (1977) and No More Lullabies (1982) and also co-edited the book Musho! Zulu Popular Praises (1991), a literary commentary on Zulu poetry with English studies Professor Liz Gunner. His interest in politics extended beyond poetry; his qualifications include a MPhil in the study of politics of development in the Third World from the University of Natal and he was a researcher at Manchester University.