Motho ke Motho ka Batho Babang

(A Person is a Person Because of Other People)

By holding my mirror out of the window I see
Clear to the end of the passage.
There’s a person down there.
A prisoner polishing a doorhandle.
In the mirror I see him see
My face in the mirror,
I see the fingertips of his free hand
Bunch together, as if to make
An object the size of a badge
Which travels up to his forehead
The place of an imaginary cap.
                  (This means: A warder.)
Two fingers are extended in a vee
And wiggle like two antennae.
                  (He’s being watched.)
A finger of his free hand makes a watch-hand’s arc
On the wrist of his polishing arm without
Disrupting the slow-slow rhythm of his work.
                  (Later. Maybe, later we can speak.)
Hey! Wat maak jy daar?
                  — a voice from around the corner.
No. Just polishing baas.
He turns his back to me, now watch
His free hand, the talkative one,
Slips quietly behind
                  — Strength brother, it says,
In my mirror,
                  A black fist.

— Jeremy Cronin

insideJeremy Cronin was raised in a white, middle-class family in Cape Town, South Africa. A member of the banned South African Communist Party, he was arrested in 1976 and charged with conspiring with the African Nationalist Congress to circulate anti-apartheid propaganda. He plead guilty and was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison under the Terrorism Act. Six months into his sentence, his wife, Anne-Marie, died of a brain tumor. Three of his seven years were spent in a maximum security prison on death row. Cronin began writing poetry while awaiting trial and continued writing secretly in throughout his incarceration. Many of his poems were smuggled out, and when he was released in May 1983, he gathered and revised them into the collection Inside.

[Research note: Inside (; Andrew van der Vlies, “An Interview with Jeremy Cronin Contemporary Literature Vol. 49, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 514-540.]

For Don M — Banned

it is a dry white season
dark leaves don’t last, their brief lives dry out
and with a broken heart they dive down gently headed for the earth,
not even bleeding.
it is a dry white season brother,
only the trees know the pain as they stand still erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire
indeed it is a dry white season
but seasons come to pass.

— Mongane Wally Serote

South African Mongane Wally Serote was arrested in June 1969 by the apartheid government under the Terrorism Act. He spent nine months in solitary confinement before being released without charge. Serote wrote this poem for Don Mattera, a poet who was banned — prohibited from appearing and or speaking at public functions —by the government between 1973 and 1982.

The Mob

These are the faceless horrors
that people my nightmares
from whom I turn to wakefulness
for comforting

yet here I find confronting me
the fear-blanked facelessness
and saurian-lidded stares
of my irrational terrors
from whom in dreams I run.

O my people

O my people
what have you done
and where shall I find comforting
to smooth awake the mask of fear
restore your face, your faith, feeling, tears.

— Dennis Brutus

South African poet and journalist Dennis Brutus was banned from all social activity for protesting the apartheid government. He was arrested in 1963 for breaking that ban, which prohibited him from meeting with more than two people at once. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but he escaped while out on bail. He was re-arrested and shot in the back during a subsequent escape attempt. He was then sentenced to 16 months of hard labor on Robben Island. Brutus wrote this poem about a white crowd that attacked black protestors at the Johannesburg City Hall after the passage of the General Law Amendment Act (Sabotage Bill) in May 1962.

Think of Me Sometime

think of me, sometime
as you rise at dawn
the day, like your heart,
filled with dreams and
hopes that will come true
while I am filled with doubt
think of me, sometime
as you walk unshackled
and your movement takes you
into shaded walks and pleasant places
horizon stretched beyond the eye
while I am confined
think of me, sometime
as you fill your cup with wine
and sing your song
finding merriment in your meaning
with friendship all around
while my cup is dry
think of me, sometime
as you lay enfold
in your lover’s arms
enchanted by the music
of hearts beating in time
while I make love to myself
think of me, sometime
as you look at your son
at play with his sister
around their mother’s feet
a scene of family complete
while I have fathered none
think of me, sometime
as you enjoy life
and watch flowers bloom
to grow and give delight
life as light as air
while life for me has died

— James Matthews

Most of James Matthews’ poetry was banned by the government of South Africa during the era of apartheid. He was denied a passport for 13 years and imprisoned from September to December 1976. Listen to Matthews recite this poem at the Poetry Archive.