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“The Apartheid Sword has Cut too Deep in Us”: Mathews Phosa Discusses His Lost Poetry Collection, Chants of Freedom

Mathews Phosa

Chants of FreedomDeur die oog van 'n naaldWhen Dr Mathews Phosa allowed Professor Philip Bonner of Wits University to convince him to write a biography of his life in exile, little did he know that from the 40 boxes of documents from his personal archive would emerge the long-lost poetry he wrote while he was commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe in Maputo.

It was the height of the Struggle, and Phosa was one of four people called back to South Africa to negotiate the terms for a democratic South Africa and write the Constitution. In the process of fighting for our freedom, the poetry was left for another day.

“I never thought the poems would be published – in fact when they got lost I’d given up hope, I said ‘they’re lost, they’re lost’, it’s like anything that’s lost,” he says, adding quietly, “When they were discovered I was elated.”

Phosa was born in Mbombela in Nelspruit and grew up in the rural area of Mokopane. He can speak 11 languages and is fluent in nine, one of which is Portuguese, and also writes poetry in Afrikaans. The revised edition of his Afrikaans poetry anthology, Deur die oog van ’n naald, was published in 2009 by Tafelberg.

Chants of Freedom: Poems Written in Exile was published this year by Penguin Random House.

The “Terrorist Lawyer”

In writing Chants of Freedom, which records the history of South Africa in poetic form, Phosa says he learnt that “a poem must be timeless. It’s validity must not be limited to time, people must still want to read it after 100 years.”

Phosa opened a legal practice in Nelspruit in 1981, and shortly afterwards the National Party caught wind of the “terrorist lawyer” through the capture and torture of one of his fellow freedom fighters. In 1985, Phosa left South Africa to lead MK in Mozambique. One of the poems in the anthology, “Comrade, you’re not a traitor”, expresses Phosa’s deepest feelings about this time in his life.

Listen to Phosa reading the poem, and relating the story behind it:

Jesus would have taken a stand against apartheid

Does Phosa think of himself as a poet or a politician first? “I think I’m just an ordinary South African citizen, who like any other person at my time was thrust in a political cauldron – the struggle against apartheid.

“I said the other day, if Jesus was born in South Africa at that time he might have been rebellious too. He might have been a revolutionary too; Jesus would have taken a stand against apartheid, I think, so it didn’t take much for a human being with a good conscience to be able to take a stand against apartheid.

“So, that makes me a politician? I’m not so sure. But the conditions under which I lived made me write poetry. That made me a poet? I’m not so sure. But I accept that’s what came out of it, that I’m writing poetry, I’m a poet.”

The apartheid sword has cut too deep in us

All the poems in Chants of Freedom talk to the sharing of experiences, in the past, present and future. The poem “Matthew Goniwe” tells the story of the secret graves of apartheid. Goniwe was one of many sons, brothers and husbands who were assassinated by apartheid state machinery and disappeared off the face of the earth. In another poem, “A poem for James Matthews”, Phosa writes: “The apartheid sword has cut too deep in us.”

Will it ever be possible to heal this country?

The first thing that needed to be done at the dawn of democracy was to “stop the hanging of your own comrades”, Phosa says. “What inspired us about the future of the country that time was the goodwill of South Africans. We knew South Africans were tired of this apartheid – black and white. The white people could not defeat us, we were at each others’ throats, and it was necessary that we forget about the fighting, sit around the table and negotiate a future.

“Which is what we did, and what does the world call it? A miracle. A miracle? When we worked so hard; we shed our blood for a miracle? No, it’s not a miracle, we worked at it.”

Despite the reconciliation the country saw after 1994, Phosa feels that South Africa is still lacking when it comes to economic reconciliation. “We must make it an agenda to fight poverty,” he says. The poem “Boys and girls are back” says exactly that – with great power comes great responsibility.

Listen to Phosa reading the poem:

Chants of Freedom not only relays the stories of the struggle, it also pays tribute to the role of women, the youth, the trade union movement and the working classes in the fight against apartheid. Phosa also offers praise to the leaders who were brave enough to lead the struggle, people like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Walter Sisulu and many more. About Madiba, Phosa says: “He lead at a critical time in the history of our country, but he was never lead by his emotions, his anger, his bitterness. He was led by his wisdom, his statesmanship; his magnanimity made him rise above the smallest of feelings to show us the way.”

“But give credit to De Klerk too,” Phosa adds. “De Klerk was a partner in peace for Mandela. Without that partner in peace, peace was not possible.”

Afrikaans belongs to all of us

Phosa is not only bilingual, he’s multilingual, and deftly defeats the myth that Afrikaans is the language of the oppressor:

“Is that what you call it? Do you call Coloured people oppressors? Let’s be careful about what you call Afrikaans. There are more than two million Coloured people whose mother tongue is Afrikaans.

“For me, Afrikaans is one of the 11 languages of South Africa, we say in our Constitution we must promote all of them.”

Empowerment through education

Phosa’s advice to young people is to call on the government to invest in their education. “If we invest in the education of our young people we will have empowerment through education. There’s no way you’ll give a child at school a BEE deal, they won’t understand it. So how do they benefit? Through education.”

He says that the private sector must also play a role in advancing the youth, an investment which will turn around the economy and shape smart young people. “The world has moved, you either move or you stay in a museum of history.”

The unsung heroes

Phosa ends our conversation with a story about “The unsung heroes” – black people who fought side by side with whites during World War II. His grandfather told him that when they returned home from Italy, the white people were given farms as payment, while the black people surrendered their arms and received bicycles.

Listen to the story, and the poem, in Phosa’s own words:

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