written by Nana Walter Kefuoe Chakela
Professor Mongane Wally Serote has been given the highest honour a writer can receive from his/her nation!
The honour of National Poet Laureate, bestowed on Prof. Serote on 6 November 2018 during the South African Literary Awards (SALA) ceremony at the University of South Africa (UNISA), is an accolade singularly distinguishing a poet for the body of excellent work, consistently produced over a period of time.
In this case, Serote has been consistently writing and producing poetry of the highest aesthetic quality for over 40 years: from the early publication of his work through Rhenoster books, to his recent post struggle poetry; decrying the death of his comrades in the underground.
The name Mongane Wally Serote scopes beyond literature. It is synonymous with the entire cultural front of the liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa. While in exile, he spearheaded the organisation and mobilisation of cultural activist/practitioners/workers through major festivals, symposiums and conferences in Botswana (1982), Amsterdam (1987) London (1990). Some of these activities galvanised the cultural isolation of Apartheid South Africa by the international community.
Upon his return to South Africa, he led the Culture and Development Conference in Johannesburg (1993) which discussed the formulation of a new cultural policy paradigm, namely the variant White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage. After the first democratic general elections in 1994, he became a Member of Parliament and Chairperson of Portfolio Committee of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.
As a poet and novelist, he has published four novels and fourteen volumes of poetry that include: Tsetlo, To Every Birth its Blood, Gods of Our Time, History is the Home Address, Revelations, and Rumours. Yakhal’inkomo (1972), one of his earliest poetry collections, won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for the best debut volume of poetry in English. In 1993, he won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2004, he received the Pablo Neruda award from the Chilean government. In 2007, he received the National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver from President Thabo Mbeki for his “Excellent contribution to literature, with emphasis on poetry and for putting his artistic talents at the service of democracy in South Africa.” In 2008, his book Third World Express was selected for Africa Book Centre’s 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century. In 2012, he received the Golden Wreath Award for lifetime achievement in poetry, making him the only South African poet to be awarded this award and also only the second African to receive this award after former President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor!
The changed political circumstances in South Africa, and elsewhere where he was exiled at some intervals, ushered in by the democratic order, has not blunted Serote’ voice; almost five decades later. This poet remains committed to his revolutionary language. He is unflinching and uncompromising in his tone.
It is thus quite surprising that in some circles, Serote’s national accolade of poet laureate seems to have caused some murmurs of discontent. Granted, our consumption of literature is aesthetically determined, and is likely to be differently viewed, based on readership and poetics, but that the decision will be based on an examination of production over an extended period of time, is not debatable.
Either the people whore are dissatisfied with Serote’s honour of poet laureate don’t understand the process and meaning of the status, or they think age and popularity are distinguishing features of this status; in which case they would be woefully misguided. If, on the other hand, they have no clue, then why don’t they say so to spare the nation in general, and South African writers in particular, embarrassment?!
South Africa has, in the past, given this honour to Dr. Mazisi Kunene, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile; two distinguished poets with a large body of writing to their names. This choice conformed, in all respects, to the highest levels of poetic and thematic works of artistic production. We surely cannot be expected to drop the standards suddenly and go populist.
As the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA), of which Serote is an officially registered member, we are honoured to be associated with this literary giant whose stature equals that of an African baobab tree that has survived life’s vicious elements.
We are indeed proud of him and hope that the younger model themselves against the benchmark he has set to be equal or even exceed instead of being recruited as rivals against him. There can never be any other way except mediocrity packaged as literature. NWASA intends to organise a special function soon to pay tribute to the icon as a literary institution and his work as poetic encyclopedia.