As South Africa’s Heritage Day is on upon us, I thought it would be topical to take a glimpse at a small fraction of the poetry that has arisen from South Africa’s vast oral poetry traditions.
With 24th September having been previously celebrated in SA to mark the death of Shaka, the Zulu King, it seems appropriate to begin with one of the poems praising his military genius and catalogue of victories. Shaka is a martial poem of amazing force and energy, full of imagery of lions, leopards, fires, furnaces, axes, spears, hawks and vipers. The Zulu Warrior virtues of bravery, ferocity, agility and strength are praised and the tone is confident and aggressive, Shaka setting his own stamp on the nation.
This can be balanced by a short poem that presents the aftermath of Shaka’s conquests from the perspective of those who suffered from them. The Dirge of the Warriors Widows is a lament by Sotho women that is said to date from the time of Shaka’s wars.
Going back in history beyond the era of Shaka, the hunter-gatherer cultures of the various Khoe, Tuu, or Kx’a-speaking peoples collectively known as the San are among the oldest on Earth. This San poem observes how the moon appears to die and then be reborn over the course of it’s lunar cycle, with the poet reflecting on whether this is a metaphor for all life.
The poem I would like to end on is by the acclaimed Xhosa writer and Imbongi poet Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi (1875–1945), which was originally published in the Xhosa newspaper, Izwi Labantu (‘The Voice of the People’) on December 8th 1908.
It’s title, The Grave of the King refers to the Keiskamma River (iXesi in Xhosa) that flows from the Amathole mountains into the Indian Ocean. During the course of the Frontier wars that raged from 1779 to 1879, the Xhosa were pushed back from their former territories by the expansion of the British colony to the region of the Keiskamma River.
What begins as a recounting of the historical events that took place along the length of this river, and a remembrance of the people, both European and African, that walked along its banks, builds into a call to action for future generations to embrace this history and look to the future with optimism.
(African Poems were featured in the article “Heritage Day: The Brilliant Cultural Heritage of South Africa” by the educational publisher, Twinkl.)