There is something benignly conspiratorial about how poet and attorney Matodzi Gift Ramashia’s laugh spills out from the side of his mouth in short, rhythmic bursts. It effects the kind of close confidence between people who share a hoard of deep fried chicken or stash of liquor sub rosa at family gatherings.
Delivered predominantly in isiZulu and kasi slang, with occasional Sesotho and English, Ramashia’s spoken-word poetry is reserved for the listener who understands the lingo and is able to get in on the scheme. The leitmotif in his body of work is the violence which permeates, but does not define, the many facets of Black peoples’ existence.
Concerning Blacks, Ramashia’s latest project as the poetic persona Makhafula Vilakazi, comprises eight music-backgrounded poetry tracks that traverse the taboo and confront the uncomfortable with cogent transparency. The collection occupies more fully the space that Makhafula Vilakazi has carved out for himself in the almost two decades he has been in the South African poetry scene. This place, where narrative, theme and language meet, places the listener in character, sometimes as confidant, other times as voyeur and always as witness. The poetry lives with the listener by going beyond art and into the lived experiences of Black people in South Africa and elsewhere.
The project opens inclusively. The title track addresses all Black people, those in the continent of Africa, those in the diaspora and “those who made it and those who built it… the ones inside the jails and jails inside them… who ate at the table, who made the table”. They are heroes and betrayers, rich and poor.
It is the work of the remaining seven tracks to add nuance, context and relatability to these extremes, all while constantly hinting at the spectrum which exists between polar points. “Makhafula” is derived from the Zulu verb ukukhafula. The phrase “to spit” is its English equivalent and is rather inadequate. With the discharge of his chest, the artist paints worlds of fine detail, complexity and authenticity. That is way more than mere spitting.
Practising and repurposing
Speaking from the corner office of his legal practice, Rams Attorneys, in Sandton, Ramashia is casual in a washed-out Orlando Pirates t-shirt, drawing shapes and repeatedly pressing the point of his pen on a scrap of paper. It is like playing the game maskitla/umaxoxisana, to emphasise what words alone cannot adequately express.
Ramashia is less concerned with invention than repurposing what already exists for his ends. “It’s not my wisdom,” he says. “I also learnt poetry from guys who were doing it before me and I picked up the themes from those poets. Those guys would go to jail for the things they were saying. But, nevertheless, they did say them. It’s not something that starts with me, I’m just continuing something that I also picked up.”
Unlike some of his predecessors in the South African poetic canon who wove and laid the themes Ramashia picks up on, he uses vivid depictions of occurrences in the lives of his fictionalised characters. These occurrences work as magnifiers to aid inquiry, instead of as abacuses for calculating conclusions. “Wherever you go, Black people are always at the bottom and it should not be so. I’m trying to understand why it’s like that. I don’t have the answers. In my work, I’m trying to interrogate it.”
Inadvertently, this creative process humanises Black people who are often represented as an amorphous horde living on the edges of a society that, were it not for their existence, would be the model of functionality. The social, political, economic and material conditions that govern the lives of most Black people are, at their core, acts of violence to Ramashia.
“Our existence is violent,” he says. “There is violence perpetrated on us on a daily basis. We are the victims of violence. The fact that it is called South Africa, the fact that we are landless, we are poor and we experience racism every day, every single day – whether you meet a white person or you don’t, you experience racism. Because the fact that you wake in a shack in Alex [Alexandra township] is purely because you’re Black, there’s no other reason. I think we live in spite of the violence that is perpetrated against us.”
This is at its most bald-faced and multifaceted on the third track, Is’cathulo Es’bovu. The poem follows an unnamed character who identifies himself through bravado. It is a character whose legal cases against him and stints he has served edanyana (in prison) serve as an unofficial and quotidian curriculum vitae. The botched robbery he is part of is, for him, a means by which he, his kith and kin can escape poverty, even if it’s for a moment.
Is’cathulo Es’bovu has a dialectical relationship with the character of Samson in Samson, a poem in Ramashia’s first project, I Am Not Going Back to The Township. On the latter track, failed father Samson’s red eyes are a recurring offence that his son hurls against him. This colour is reincarnated on Concerning Blacks as a descriptor of the robber’s shoes, soiled by the blood of his victims. Death is, in both cases, the inevitable outcome of “thug life”. The burial rites are both characters’ granted and denied reconciliations with their lots.
Of love, too
Love and tenderness do not exist as an antithesis to violence in Ramashia’s work. Different kinds of violence permeate all facets of the Black existence. Economic exclusion and poverty at its most extreme exert a pressure on the romantic relationships depicted in both Concerning Blacks and I Am Not Going Back to The Township.
“When you are in love,” says Ramashia, “you’re in love. The material conditions of where you are don’t change the feeling of love. It may be difficult to live it out because of your particular economic conditions. The people I’m writing for are not Instagram models or gentlemen who love purely. My grandmother worked at Shoprite, packing plastics. My grandfather was unemployed. But they raised a family, they raised solid people. That love inspires me because that’s the love I was born from and that’s the love I grew up in.”
Not so for Makhafula, the character on SomDanger Instagram despairs as his childhood sweetheart couples with ibhari enemali (a fool with money), a calm and cultured man of means. Over the course of the poem’s narrative, Makhafula develops a bitter animosity towards the woman he loves, one which propels him to label her thanga leInstagram (thigh of Instagram), for it is the one prominent part of the body women show on the social media platform. His comeuppance is his love’s falling out with her classy beau.
Khanyi, the protagonist of I Am Woman on Ramashia’s first project, suffers a physical violence borne from her partner’s jealousy of fictitious rich men that he accuses her of cavorting with. So, this is not a new theme.
In his body of work, Ramashia’s perspective is overwhelmingly skewed towards male characters and their experiences. Women, for the most part, play supplementary roles that give context to their male counterparts. This is a lost opportunity for a more inclusive exploration of Black existence and how those types of violence exacted on Black people are survived and replicated.
Plainly, Ramashia says that his work isn’t attempting to excuse violence of any kind enacted on any Black person. But, he also says, “When I write, I’m not scared because I live in that violence. And I express it and I might express it in ways that are uncomfortable, but true.”
Writing about, and from, Black existence, when it is informed by the lived experience of being anything but a Black writer in society, offers one type of efficient, disentranced perspective that speaks truth to both power and those who help to define and counter it. This work in turn, and indirectly, critiques what both groups of people prefer to believe about themselves and the “plight of the masses”.
Ramashia, the urbane law-firm director at the height of his artistic and professional powers at 42, sees no difference in the contemporary to the violence enacted on Black people when he was young, Black, poor and gifted. For him, Fanon’s words in his seminal essay On Violence still ring true: “This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species. The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities.”