Mongane Serote, City Johannesburg

The following was originally published in Afrikaans in Rapport’s ‘Groot Woorde’ series (6 February 2010). Wish I had had more space:

City Johannesburg – Mongane Serote

This way I salute you:
My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket
Or into my inner jacket pocket
For my pass, my life,
Jo’burg City.
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach growls a friendly smile to hunger,
Jo’burg City.
My stomach also devours coppers and papers
Don’t you know?
Jo’burg City, I salute you;
When I run out, or roar in a bus to you,
I leave behind me, my love,
My comic houses and people, my dongas and my ever whirling dust,
My death
That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye.
Jo’burg City
I travel on your black and white and roboted roads
Through your thick iron breath that you inhale
At six in the morning and exhale from five noon.
Jo’burg City
That is the time when I come to you,
When your neon flowers flaunt from your electrical wind,
That is the time when I leave you,
When your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling darkness
On your cement trees.
And as I go back, to my love,
My dongas, my dust, my people, my death,
Where death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh,
I can feel your roots, anchoring your might, my feebleness
In my flesh, in my mind, in my blood,
And everything about you says it,
That, that is all you need of me.
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg,
Listen when I tell you,
There is no fun, nothing, in it,
When you leave the women and men with such frozen expressions,
Expressions that have tears like furrows of soil erosion,
Jo’burg City, you are dry like death,
Jo’burg City, Johannesburg, Jo’burg City.

(from The Lava of This Land: South African Poetry 1960-1996, ed. Denis Hirson, TriQuarterly Books, 1997)

I FIRST encountered this poem as an English I student at UCT in 1986, and it soon became one of my favourite poems. Coming from Afrikaans-medium schooling, I struggled in English I and enrolled in the department’s academic aid programme. Every Friday afternoon, I spent up to two hours with a tutor, Wendy Woodward (now herself a writer and a lecturer at UWC), trying to unlock the secrets of “critical analysis”.

I suppose it’s partly this process that has lodged “City Johannesburg” in my heart and mind, alongside John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”, W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”. And it is also a homage to Wendy Woodward’s tutoring that all these poems are firm favourites to this day.

Through the years I have also come back to “City Johannesburg”, in senior and graduate classes, and also when, as a lecturer, I tried to share this fascinating poem with students. Written probably in 1971, and published in 1972 in Yakhal’Inkomo (the cry/bellow of cattle), “City Johannesburg” fascinates me because of the way in which it fuses politics and aesthetics: what is being said is astutely fused with how it is being said.

First, the politics, which is easily read from the poem: working class black experience in Johannesburg during a time of pass laws. And it is in the context of the pass laws that the poem makes its greatest statement – that black people have an urban identity, in contradistinction to the ‘tribal’ identity on which apartheid sought to peg the pass laws.

The aim of the pass laws were to keep black South Africans out of white areas by regulating especially their urban movement. The apartheid premise for this was that black people were largely rural, tribal and tradition-bound. This rural and tradition-bound identity justified the Bantustans, while the pass laws helped apartheid South Africa to see the presence of black South Africans in cities as a temporary inconvenience.

And here is a poem that insists on a black urban experience, and which falls into a tradition of 20th century urban poems. With its regular refrain, “Joburg City”, it is even reminiscent of Part I of Eliot’s “Preludes” from the early part of that century.

But the formal aspects of the poem are fascinating because it reveals an ambiguity about that urban identity. That opening line – “This is what I am going to say now” – places the poem in a tradition of African praise poetry and also opens up the main ambiguity of the poem. Note the word “salute”, which is both a gesture of praise and of subservience: “This way I salute you”.

The poem uses other features of traditional praise poetry: the repeated “salute” to the city by calling out its name (as well as other forms of repetition), and the heaping of noun phrases at the end of sentences (“my pass, my life”, “to my love,/ my dongas, my dust, my people, my death”).

Praise poetry is not all about praising the king. The praise poet has a license and a duty also to criticize, and “City Johannesburg” is then a critical praise poem to the city. It acknowledges the centrality of the city to the speaker’s life, but criticizes that centrality. However, the criticism is also softened by wry humour: “a friendly smile to hunger”. In the end, the city comes across as a paternal but negligent deity. The city is not dismissed in anger, but rather in resignation. The address is respectful, but also earnest, desperate and finally sad. If this was a love poem, it would have a broken heart.

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8 Responses to Mongane Serote, City Johannesburg

  1. David Thwala says:

    Can somebody help me: what does Wally mean when he says, ‘My stomach also devours coppers and papers’?

  2. RK says:

    David, coppers and papers = money.

    To all the students who have plagiarised from this post, I’ve sent a copy of this to your teacher/lecturer.

  3. mokebe says:

    Wow! I have often remembered this poem from my high school teachings, and it has always touched my heart deeply.

    I read the note you wrote on it, and am amazed at the simitlarity in taste with regards to poetry.

  4. suave da poet says:

    this poem is so touching and leand leaves footsteps for the next generations to follow

  5. Coppers = small change. Papers = notes. Johannesburg is all about
    industry. It’s where money is made. However, the function of business is
    not just to make business owners rich. It’s also to provide a livelihood for
    the people who work for them. Food costs money – don’t you know!!!

  6. naisha says:

    what does the neon flowers flaunt their way to the falling darkness mean?? Someone please help!

  7. mphaka says:

    what a lovely poem
    neon flowers are all the electronic lighting that switches on when darkness falls, again off when the morning comes

  8. […] this morning of how frequently it has been evoked in fiction: from Nadine Gordimer, Can Themba, and Mongane Wally Serote, to Marlene van Niekerk, Ivan Vladislavić, and Lauren Beukes. Because the city is so new and has […]

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