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.