Defend Truth


An ode to an uncrowned national poet laureate — Sandile Dikeni


Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.

Now that Sandile Dikeni is gone, too soon, a new responsibility falls on me and everyone else that loves this country. It does not matter whether you are Varara or Zim-Zim. The past is dead and gone, and we have to bury our differences. What unites us is far stronger than what divides us. We have to unlearn the past to learn to live together. We are united in our diversity.

A beloved son of the soil. That is how I saw him. I never told him, but he was highly favoured. He must have intuitively felt and known it. He was young, gifted and black, truly blessed.

There were brief times where we would be at the same place at the same time. This would be in Yeoville, Newtown or, later, in Rosebank and Cape Town.

Unavoidably, the attraction would be some cultural gumba or artistic event that attracted the arty-farty type. We lived and loved the arts. We talked, drank and laughed together whenever we could.

It was mostly at events that we met. I have never been to his house or apartment. He, too, did not know where I lived and never set foot there.

For someone who knew both of us, it would have been incorrect to presume we were competitors. We had long, drawn-out discussions and debates on everything: arts to politics, media and propaganda, reconciliation to transformation, identity and belonging. It was a question of perspective. As a result, we spent a lot of time arguing.

In principle, it was a matter of perspective and principle. He was obviously, what was called a Varara – a member and follower of the Mass Democratic Movement or ANC ideological thinking.

I was an unaffiliated journalist and self-styled insurgent intellectual mistaken for a Zim-Zim – a Black Consciousness activist and member. It was a mistake for him and others to put me into a box.

Once upon a time, a mutual friend and rising advertising mogul Sipho Luthuli’s posh place in Athol, Sandton, I was certain he was going to throw a punch at me, smash a whisky glass on my face or chase me out like an unwanted dog.

He had, all of a sudden, become rowdy, in an aggressive mood. There was violence in his words and his eyes. It was also in the tone.

He strode towards me, coming from the kitchen with the whisky glass, to confront me on my perspective on political and corporate developments and politics. He had suddenly remembered I’d strongly criticised Luthuli’s advertising agency, Azaguys, as a white front manned by fast-living black professionals who were out to make a fast buck in the name of black aspirations and hopes.

He spoke with a haughty tone: “Who are you to judge who is black and who is not? What gives you the right? And what do you know about nation-building?”

I do not quite remember how the matter was resolved. I was afraid that he would get violent. The Varara type suffered from that violent inclination. They were notorious, including the thinking types among them. They were always the first to throw a punch or disrupt a meeting, including their own.

Maybe his question was correct and valid. I thought the drinking spree would have launched us into a brilliant analysis of my right to freedom of expression or the co-option of blacks into the corporate world. Why did I need the approval to comment on political developments in the country?

Nevertheless, this question of black identity in a non-transformed South African rainbow nation is both sensitive and controversial.

All I remember is that I ultimately staggered out of Sipho’s place late on a Sunday night. I was half-drunk because a part of my soul was troubled and sobered by what had happened. As I drove home in the dark, his hostile tone stayed with me.

I loved it when someone, anyone, reacted strongly to my writing. I was a voice of the people with a desire to table unconventional thoughts and views to stimulate debate and challenge thinking. I did not write to be controversial, for its own sake. There were many issues in the blind spot, which black and white people refused to confront.

He was my highly talented brother, colleague and associate. The fact that I had touched a raw nerve meant I had a point.

This unsolicited assault made me realise that writing strong political stuff will touch some people the wrong way. It leaves you lonely and feeling abandoned, especially if you were not part of the happy-feely reconciliation and rainbow nation project.

Nevertheless, we somehow made up and continued to respect each other. It was a turning point. There was a simmering tension. His conduct and utterances haunted me. I did not accept that it was a drunken stupor.

The explosive political reality of the mid- to late-1990s compounded the relationship. People were killed over a difference of opinion or political orientation. Everyone was expected to hlala phans’ubamb’umthetho – shut up, sit down, listen, do as you are told.

In its own way, it marked a turning to democratic centralism. This was not the culture of the Mass Democratic Movement. It was imported and came with the former exiles.

I do not quite remember the first time I saw or met him. Sandile Dikeni was, apparently, a household name. His reputation was ahead of him.

It was around 1986 when I was a post-graduate journalism student at Stellenbosch. He was a student leader at the University of the Western Cape, the self-styled home of the intellectual left. He was a big name in anti-apartheid circles. His poem Guava Juice romanticised violence.

Shake, shake my comrade / shake that invention of the working class / shake that unifying medicine before it is too late / shake before the time come to pass / shake that guava juice”

His poetic and ideological stance intrigued me. I had spent the previous year, 1985, as a rookie reporter covering township upheavals, with comrades heightening the pressure against apartheid. Many people were dying, black people killed black people in the townships. It hurt and tore my soul.

Exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo had exhorted the youth to make the country ungovernable.

I was present when Maki Skhosana was mistaken for an impimpi, a sellout, and was burnt to death in Duduza. I witnessed that. I wrote the story, if correct, and colleague Tladi Khuele took the pictures. We were a young news team whose beat was self-inflicted black death.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu lamented the violence and threatened to leave the country. The internecine violence forced us young journalists to attend funerals every Saturday. We woke up almost every day of our lives to go to work to go to the townships to do a body count. This was 1985/86, the last push against apartheid. Or so we thought.

He was a celebrated poet who espoused and promoted this violence. I could not forget his name. His words had unusual strength and power. It was in his tone of voice. The words and voice fuelled the fire and urged the youth to seize the moment to push the struggle forward. The demand was the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the liberation movement and the return of exiles.

So, it was the word that brought us together, that saw us meet at these cultural gumbas that were part of the struggle. I think around that time he was appointed editor of Die Suid Afrikaner, an influential opinion magazine. It was the beginning of an amazing career for him.

This sudden rise to fame, fortune and power of a relatively young black writer intrigued me. I was suspicious and felt that he was falling into a trap, was being set up to protect and preserve white supremacy.

A number of naïve young black journalists were being fast-tracked to be the face of conservative publications that did not promote radical economic change. The prerequisite was not to write honestly about land dispossession and economic inequality or racism.

There was no denying that it was a historic achievement for him. He was a young black boy who spoke fluent Afrikaans and grew up in the platteland of the conservative Northern Cape.

Perhaps it marked the opening of doors of opportunity for highly talented young black journalists and writers. He had suddenly become an important voice. He was setting standards. Many looked up to him.

What is relevant here is that I have always held strong opinions about the role and responsibility of black journalists, writers and editors. This included creative intellectuals, like poets and artists, in general.

For me, in the entire history of South African journalism, beginning with John Tengo Jabavu in the 1850s, black journalists have been instruments to promote and entrench an unequal and unjust social, economic, political system.

They have always been condemned to work within the system, to be part of the system that oppressed and exploited their people. For most black journalists, it was a situation of making the best of the bad. Every man for himself as they rushed to climb the career ladder.

Even with the establishment and launch of so-called black titles, the question of ownership was crucial. Black journalists were limited to write about sports, crime, society and parties. This only changed in the 1970s, especially with the outbreak of the student upheavals. The slight shift was towards writing politics, mostly anti-apartheid politics that promoted working within the system.

So, his sudden leap to fame and power was fraught with these conditions. My views did not impress him and many black journalists. This dispute afflicted our relationship.

In his poetry, columns and political utterances, black people recognised the soul fire community that he spoke to and spoke for.

Soon after, he was the arts editor at the Cape Times and there was a lot of brouhaha over that.

While the conservative white community saw this as a revolutionary step, the blacks, including coloureds in Western Cape, saw him as a voice that would correctly report and interpret their condition. He was their passionate voice. There was terror in the minds of the whites. His views were unprecedented in a modern Cape Town. But they were moderate views that demanded integration.

For me, it was another controversial appointment. He was a highly talented black writer and creative intellectual. The editorial executives used him, again, as a political commodity to create an impression of transformation in the media.

Wherever he went, friends, fans and hangers-on mobbed him. What was missing was signing autographs. That happened when his books, like the columns anthology Soul Fire came out. I was so excited that I got two copies.

However, something in me died. South Africa got talent but it was wasted, used for wrong reasons of boosting newspaper circulation to make money. Worse, the desire was to propagate the notion of a rainbow nation without justice and equality. This bubble would burst, at some time.

I always went up to him to chitchat about this and that. I was neither a rival nor envious. Every man must listen to his drumbeat and march to it. He was in tune with his inner self. Moreover, he was doing very well. The voice of the new rainbow nation. There was now peace in the land.

For him, it was not about fame and fortune. I think it was what he loved and believed in. He honestly and sincerely loved his people and country. He wrote soul-stirring prose and poetry, including My Country:

My country is for love/so say its valleys/ where ancient rivers flow/the full circle of life/ under the proud eye of birds/adorning the sky.

My country is for peace / so says the veld/where reptiles caress / its surface/with elegant motions/glittering in their pride

 My country / is for joy / so talk the mountains / with baboons / hopping from boulder to boulder / in the majestic delight / of cliffs and peaks

My country / is for health and wealth / see the blue of the sea / and beneath / the jewels of fish / deep under the bowels of soil /hear /the golden voice / of a miner’s praise / for my country

My country /is for unity / feel the millions /see their passion /their hands are joined together /there is hope in their eyes /we shall celebrate”

The new nation in the making needed heroes. He was a prophetic voice, a truly beloved son of the soil. It is all there in his poetry. He was a witness who expressed a lived experience, albeit remote to the majority of the people. South Africa was an unjust country despite the cosmetic changes.

This country’s concept of journalism, creative writing or political activism is not worth raising now. To “make it”, you must become part of what we fought against, an unjust and unequal economic system. Not many people can see the meaning or effect of this. They prefer not to seek out the real issues.

However, success and achievement remove you from being among the people. You are of them but not with them. To enjoy privilege like a ngamla, you must be physically removed. It is a matter of personal choice. It is what it is.

There was a time when he was the spokesperson at the Department of Human Settlement. This was the government division for spatial planning. To date, there is no transformation in cities and towns, let alone in residences.

There are still spaces that are shaped and built according to race. The new economic apartheid is non-racial. Class is the new criteria. It is all about affordability, economic access and power.

In hindsight, one can see how raising such uncomfortable issues would strain our relationship. For me, it was not so much a matter of black achievement and success that he epitomised. The issue was its meaning and relevance. What did it mean to be a super-achiever in an unjust and unequal society? This was what put us on different sides of the barricades.

At a crucial hour of the early 1990s, black people could not speak truth to each other. They were not allowed to find common ground and vision. Those who were Clever Blacks or Zim-Zims had to shut up. They had no right to question the positive developments that were taking us towards the rainbow nation.

Yet to continue to grow, he needed to surround himself with men and women who did not agree with him. When you do not do that, you do not grow. There were pressures, now, for all of us to fit in or leave. Do not question authority. To survive, you must do as you are told. Silence and obedience were the new rules.

I fell silent around him. Much of the strain in our relationship was caused by looking at the same country but seeing two different nations: one was rainbow and the other was African majority.

He was a very fine young man. I was five years older, if correct. He had a powerful mind that pursued an overpowering rainbow nation vision. Moreover, he had started out on this journey at a very young age, coming from the dry and thirsty Victoria West in the Karoo. What he wished for was a genuine South African nation to rise. There would be no black, no whites, and just South African citizens. Tambo and Mandela believed in the same dream.

After all, he was a highly gifted and anointed young black man with African parents who spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa, lived among the coloured people and the powerful white establishment embraced him.

There were moments when I felt that my criticism was very harsh. I was too loud in my questioning of Sipho Luthuli’s Azaguys. He felt it was his responsibility to defend not Sipho but the dream of South Africans learning to live and work together. I believe that was his serious intention. This dream was not attainable in Nelson Mandela’s lifetime nor his now that he is dead.

It remains a dream worth defending and promoting. He did not take kindly to the criticism or the pointing out of its flaws.

We somehow made up when he was a political editor at Business Day. He always was handpicked for great opportunities and eager to try new things in the media, the cultural sector and government. I was not surprised. It was his way of life and this was intuitively connected to his soul. He was a truly blessed son of the soil.

When he was involved in a car accident, something died in him. It affected us all.

Apparently, three fellow passengers died on that night and he survived with memory loss. Life can be unfair.

When so bright a light loses his mind and speech, the nation is without prophets and interpreters. He left a big void that needs to be filled. It is now over 10 years since the accident. We are all the poorer. We have no voice.

Sometimes, very briefly, the confrontation at Sipho’s place plays itself in my mind. I see his eyes flashing and his voice. That tone will always stay with me.

I do not have the heart to pretend that I did not understand what stirred in his soul. It is obvious that he was aware of the injustice and inequality that reigns supreme in our beautiful land. He wrote about it with passion.

He was much willed in his dream of a rainbow nation. It is naïve to dismiss or categorise him as political immature or co-opted. He understood and represented a powerful vision that we the living are still struggling with to this day.

What his soul represents is an unmistakably powerful vision that demands that we, at the individual level, answer the question: what have I done to create a united and better South Africa? He gave us his word and lived his dream.

For example, when the Bokke returned with the Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup, some top people did not comprehend the unity displayed by people of all races, backgrounds and creeds. This was exactly what he defined, captured and reflected in his poetic and political writings.

Now that he is gone, too soon, he has imposed a new level of responsibility, for both me and everyone that loves this country. It does not matter whether you are a Varara or Zim-Zim. The past is dead and gone, now. We have to bury our difference. What unites us is far stronger than what divides us. We have to unlearn the past to learn to live together. We are united in our diversity.

Sandile Dikeni made no bones about which side he stood on. He was on the side of his people, united in their rainbow colours. His vision and prophetic energy had the energy to change the world.

I saw him once or twice after his accident more than a decade ago. He was not the same vibrant and lively man. He tried to speak and to read his poetry, again. However, it was not like before. He lacked energy and power. He was not the same man.

He seemed determined to regain his life. I do not know if he was afraid of death. His mind could no longer control his tongue. When we met, he smiled. We shook hands and hugged. Something had died in him and me.

That marvellous poet and lively character were gone. I respected him. It made me angry to realise how we had abandoned him. There is this thing about South Africa to be too busy to visit the sick or soothe their wounds… until they are dead. Looking at his plight, I felt that we were not there for him. Maybe I was not.

I prefer to remember him as a highly talented young black man who got people on their feet through poetry. His writings stirred minds and stimulated national discourse. He was a beloved son of the soil, truly blessed.

The last time I saw him, he was wearing his signature dungaree jeans, a black hat and dreadlocks. I did not know that he would die of TB at the age of only 53.

He had no business to die. His spirit lives. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted