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,
My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets
For my thin, ever lean wallet,
While my stomach growls a friendly smile to hunger,
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,
That’s so related to me as a wink to the eye.
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.
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”.
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