Pardon Mzwahhe Mbuli!


Text of remarks by IAIN BOAL at Black Oak Books in Berkeley on September 24 during an evening of readings and discussion sponsored by PEN West in observation of Banned Book Week.

"No oppressive regime can press on the hot lid of a boiling pot forever". These are the words of the imprisoned South African poet and musician, Mzwakhe Mbuli. He was born in the 1950s in Sophiatown–the Harlem of Johannesburg–home also to Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and other writers, musicians, and poets later driven into exile or killed. His hometown was razed to the ground in the early 1960s by apartheid’s bulldozers, now a more familiar instrument of terror, then rebuilt as an Afrikaaner settlement and renamed Triomf ("Triumph").

Mzwakhe Mbuli was relocated to Soweto, and moved with the young lions of the 1976 intifada. At public rallies and funerals his grandiloquent voice carried the collective grief and anger. He became the chief remembrancer of those felled in the struggle for freedom. Once the eulogies were spoken, he would melt away into the throng of mourners. He became known simply as "uMzwakhe". His dubbing and rapping in the township styles of marabi, kwela and mbaqanga were banned from the airwaves, but his poetry and songs had, and have, a life beyond state-approved and corporate media–on the lips of an enduringly oral culture. Because he continued to sing and perform while banned, Mzwakhe was forced underground. He did time in the dungeons and torture rooms of the South African police. In 1994 he delivered, in the amaZulu tradition, the praise-poem at Mandela’s inauguration:

I talk of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
The leader that stood the test of time
Like gold and diamonds.

Mzwakhe may have played state poet for a day, but the new South Africa was no more receptive to his fearless "reprezenting" than the apartheid government. The censorship and persecution continued. The Inkatha Freedom Party banned his 1996 album KwaZulu Natal, and he survived an assassination attempt. In 1997, when about to confront Mandela with evidence of police corruption and brutality under the ANC government, he was framed–quite egregiously–for armed robbery, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He found himself in the same death row block where he was tortured and held in solitary confinement in 1988. He was put in a cell with Januzs Walus, the white supremacist assassin of his friend Chris Hani. No surprise, perhaps, that Mzwakhe has written a poem called "Freedom Puzzle".

Tonight Mzwakhe is still not free, despite the long campaign at home in South Africa (muted by widespread fear of reprisals), and despite the international solidarity work by P.E.N. and Amnesty, and by Dorothy Flynn in Boston. And despite–finally–a prison visit from Mandela. There is hope of a release in November, but even so, unless he obtains a presidential pardon from Thabo Mbeki, neoliberal huckster for the free movement of goods and capital, Mzwakhe’s own free movement, and his ability to perform, will be seriously curtailed.

His pardon will not only be a blow for justice, in more than one sense, but will give heart to the banned and the censored everywhere, fighting against the proscribers, the impounders, the inquisitors, the commissars, and all those with their hands pressing on the hot lid of the boiling pot.

La lutta continua. Thank you.

For more on Mzwakhe click here.

Iain A. Boal, an Irish social historian of science and technics, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at: iboal@socrates.Berkeley.EDU

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