“In the last decade there has been a proliferation of explicitly feminist Afrikaans poetry collections published by young women who under apartheid would have been classified as ‘coloured’. In this seminar I lay out the foundation of a larger project in which I investigate what happens when this poetry is not seen (as is generally the case) as an extension of or addition to the Afrikaans literary history, the latest iteration of a gradual expansion of this literary sphere, but rather used as a point of departure or a lens through which to reconsider Afrikaans literary history and the ways in which it is understood,” said Iso Lomso fellow Bibi Burger of the Department of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria. (In July Burger will join the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town.)
The project will result in a book. For her seminar Burger presented highlights of the background and literature review, and focused in detail on the first Afrikaans poetry collection by a black woman published in 2005 by Diana Ferrus.
“It’s about not just considering black women’s writing as an expansion of the voices in Afrikaans literature, but rather using their work as a lens through which to reconsider the history of Afrikaans literature,” she said. “Afrikaans poetry was originally by and about white men – the tradition is emphatically male. Elizabeth Eybers provided one of the early female voices while Adam Small was regarded as the voice of black Afrikaans speakers – both are canonised, but as a supplement to white males. It’s only at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries that black women get a voice.”
Burger also hopes the work will shed further light on the counter history of Afrikaans as a decolonial language away from its image as the language of apartheid and oppression. She explained that the black oral tradition of Afrikaans literature is largely unrecorded – usually only seen from an anthropological perspective. Afrikaans emerged from the interaction between colonisers, enslaved people and the people already living in the country. Its first written forms were in Islamic texts. It included contributions from slaves, settlers, various Khoi and other languages. However, she also warned: “There is no doubt that Afrikaans has emphatic multicultural roots but, at the same time, the idealised celebration of Afrikaans as a creole language has been used cynically by some groups to protect its place as a minority language and to protect the privileging of white Afrikaans speakers.”
She traced the roots of contemporary black Afrikaans poetry to the 1980s and specifically to the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of the Western Cape where intellectuals and writers (including Patrick Petersen, Peter Abrahams, Eugene Beukes and André Boezak), in the spirit of black consciousness, rejected the problematic moniker ‘coloured’ in favour of ‘black’ and started the important work of identifying an oppositional and suppressed black Afrikaans literary tradition.
Following on Steve Biko, this group conceived of blackness as a political positionality, not about pigmentation but mental attitude, and saw the identification as black as equalling the road to emancipation.
“The tradition they identified was, however, largely male. Whereas the first Afrikaans poetry collection by a black man was published in 1944, the first collection by a black woman was (self-)published only in 2005—Ons Komvandaan by Diana Ferrus. I argue that the contemporary deliberately black and deliberately feminist Afrikaans poetry written by women such as Veronique Jephtas, Lynthia Julius, Ronelda S. Kamfer, Jolyn Phillips and Shirmoney Rhode can be understood as emerging in the wake of both this black Afrikaans literary tradition and following the precedent set by Ferrus.”
Poets of literary merit
Focusing in detail on Ferrus’ collection, Burger pointed out that Afrikaans literature was a world that black female writers entered somewhat precariously. Ferrus herself referred to her work as a ‘small collection’ emphasising the anxiety of female authorship and inability of the Afrikaans literary system to identify black women as poets of literary merit. She also chose to self-publish either out of necessity or deliberately to show her rejection of the traditional industry.
Turning to the content of Ferrus’ collection, Ons Komvandaan, Burger pointed to the title emphasising heritage, ancestry, place and community, enhanced by the extensive use of images – photos and documents – throughout. “Some poems are clearly autobiographical but at the same time about community history.” As a nod to and inclusion of herself in the broader tradition, Ferrus includes a poem for anti-apartheid poet Patrick Petersen. She also includes poems about famous South African women – including Sarah Baartman, Winnie Mandela and Brenda Fassie
“In the poem titled ‘Ons Komvandaan’ she explicitly looks at the influence of slavery today and provides a lament for the loss of pre-slavery history,” said Burger.
She pointed to this link between the personal and fictional, between historiography and fiction, and the telling of stories not in the archives as a feature of this writing, highlighting also the collection Uit die Kroes by Lynthia Julius.
“There are signs of dialogue between the writers writing individually. The dialogue with other writers including the males is positive and in solidarity, although there is criticism of men in the community and in their lives, especially those they see as complicit in white patriarchy.”
And it is this complicity with the system that Burger hopes to expand on further. In her 2019 collection Chinatown Ronelda Kamfer criticised canonical Afrikaans white women poets for their implied complicity with apartheid and continued white hegemony within the Afrikaans literary sphere. “Feminism as we knew it in Afrikaans literature is largely white,” said Burger. “Kamfer challenges white feminists who were complicit, part of the system, didn’t fight. As a young, white, Afrikaans-speaking academic and writer I was confronted by my own blind spot, punched in the guts, challenged to reread Afrikaans literature and to bring my own emotional reaction into the work.”
Using Kamfer’s critique and the work of other feminist literary academics, Burger hopes the project will build on postcolonial feminist studies to synthesise this under-researched feminist literary tradition in Afrikaans while investigating its political and aesthetic contributions and possibly comparing this phenomenon within other settler colonial contexts. She also hopes to highlight the need for professional translations of these works to encourage dialogue with English South Africans and global literature.
“This literature is being written while black feminist poetry as a movement is still emerging, which is exciting,” she said. “I don’t know how it will be read in future.”
“However, I think Afrikaans poetry has a future,” she added. “For a while there were no young poets, now it’s a vibrant, alive scene. I’m excited about it. It’s new and vital to the language and literature.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu