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Buffeted by life in small-town South Africa

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Chris Mann is Emeritus Professor of Poetry, Rhodes. He'll be performing the song Things keep changin’, staying the same along with other work at international poetry festivals in Venice and Vicenza next week. Fafa Hopkins is his stage name.

Living in a small town in the hinterland is tough. I don’t know if it’s possible to make a generalisation about poetic sensibility, but my old inner aardvark has been buffeted over the past six weeks. Here are some examples.

Waking in the early hours of a hot night with an acrid smell in my nostrils, knowing before I opened my eyes that the municipal dumpsite was on fire again.

Driving past the traffic department and the cathedral, swerving past serious potholes and smelling the sewage that has backed up into town from the overloaded old sewage works down the Belmont Valley.

Looking at the smouldering heap of rubbish in front of the city hall, dumped and burnt there during a lunchtime demonstration by Makhanda-Grahamstown East people, protesting at the lack of water, housing and refuse collection.

Reading that the new mayor had called the town filthy, that the heroic CEO of the National Arts Festival had announced that the festival would go on, no matter what, that the municipality’s director of infrastructure, suspended months ago, had still not been called to a disciplinary hearing, despite a devastating drought, and that the municipal workers, including the street cleaners, were nine weeks into a strike, on full pay.

Talking with a recently retired civil engineer on High Street, hearing him say he didn’t need the money, he could put in another sewage works, but affirmative action would never allow that, and suddenly realising that the very things people fought against in the apartheid era were back, albeit in a new guise, namely job reservation, segregation, and colour-coded ethnic nationalism.

Feeling the thumb of a priest write a cross on my forehead while kneeling with closed eyes at the altar rail beside people all over town during a packed Ash Wednesday communion service in the cathedral, graced by different choirs, Allegri’s Miserere and hymns in indigenous languages, and hearing the strangely enlightening refrain, “Dust thou art, and to dust shall return”.

Reading that the Gift of Givers organisation had successfully drilled for water round town, and visiting the borehole site near the water treatment works, reflecting on an irony, that an extraordinary Muslim doctor, influenced by a mystical experience in a Sufi mosque, was bringing hope to all people in town, assisted by a hydrologist, an avowed Christian who states that he wakes and prays for guidance.

When preparing for a talk to overseas people, brooding on taboo topics during the apartheid era, and now, and on figures, found on the Stats South Africa, IPID and Daily Dispatch sites, that show that about 175 people die in police custody each year, that probably more youngsters die and are mutilated each year during initiation rituals than were massacred at Sharpville, and that there are about nine million unemployed people.

Creeping round the house late at night, checking locks, candle in hand, during another bout of blackouts euphemistically called load shedding, hearing my cell phone ping and wondering if a member of the neighbourhood WhatsApp group had another attempted robbery to report, eight in a week, all within 200m – which ended when two youngsters entered and stabbed a man in a makeshift house in the corner of a sports field visible from where I write, were chased across the field, down the railway line, shots in the air, two teenagers arrested and charged with robbery and attempted murder.

Watching the driver of a donkey cart outside the kitchen window one boiling hot Saturday morning stand up to whip the donkeys trotting down the street, and recalling Yeats’ poem:

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places but the lash goes on.

Saying to myself, as I look out of my window at the bees whizzing around their hive and bringing in nectar and pollen from the bright orange-red blossoms of a thick green tecoma hedge nearby, “Belt up, get rid of your maudlin anthropocentric hubris”.

Then getting on with family life, writing, Wordfest and Spiritfest, and civil society agitation, and rehearsing a poem-song to sing at Harry Owen’s remarkable month-end poetry sessions in Café D’vine in New Street in the evening.

Does all this sound familiar, dear fellow artists and citizens? I’m due to travel north next week and wonder what impact northern institutions and rampant anthropocentric hubris will have on the groggy aardvark within.

Times Keep Changin’, Stayin’ The Same

When folk say times are achangin’,

They peddle snake-oil lies,

The Horses of Apocalypse

Still gallop through the skies.

And Lazarus the beggar man

Still groans at Dives gate,

He wears the wounds of centuries,

Holds out an old tin plate.

The croupier spins the wheel of chance,

The game is still roulette,

Times keep changin’, stayin’ the same,

You work with what you get.

Xolelani! Oh! Be merciful!

I’m not givin’ up on lovin’, lovin’, lovin’,

I’m not givin’ up on lovin’ yet

There’re dust-clouds of delusions

A-whirlin’ in each mind,

With fashions, fads and fantasies,

Cruel thoughts and kind.

I wish I knew a neighbour

Who had no fault or stain,

There’s a mean old reptile

a-lurkin’ in every brain.

Well some say blame the system,

And blame is surely due,

But when you point a finger,

Three point back at you.

Xolelani! Oh! Be merciful!

I’m not givin’ up on lovin’, lovin’, lovin’,

I’m not givin’ up on lovin’ yet.

I’ve roamed the restless planet

And seen dark thunder clouds,

I’ve heard the crack of rifles,

The shouts of angry crowds.

I’ve smelt a spring rain on the wind

And picked up broken glass,

Red bits, blue bits, green and gold

In the rubble and the winter grass.

I’ve seen a shimmerin’ rainbow

Come and go in the sky,

It’s glimmering in the mist ahead,

If not now, by and by.

The croupier spins the wheel of chance,

The game is still roulette,

Times keep changin’, stayin’ the same,

You work with what you get.

Xolelani! Oh! Be merciful!

I’m not givin’ up on lovin’, lovin’, lovin’,

I’m not givin’ up on lovin’ yet.

© Chris Mann/Fafa Hopkins 2019 DM

Chris Mann is Emeritus Professor of Poetry, Rhodes. He’ll be performing the song Things keep changin’, staying the same along with other work at international poetry festivals in Venice and Vicenza next week. Fafa Hopkins is his stage name.

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