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The people’s poet

A tall thin man comes onto the stage. Shy. He moves his big eyes from one corner to the other. He raises his hands and begins to speak. His voice is like the sound of thunder and lightning. His long hands fly like birds in the storm. His words are power and beauty.

Maybe you have heard him performing his poetry at a funeral. Or maybe at a worker’s cultural day. Or at a union meeting. When the people’s poet stands up to speak, everybody gets up with him. And they sing: “Re tsamaya le Mzwakhe! Re tsamaya le Mzwakhe! -We are marching with Mzwakhe!”

With each poem, Mzwakhe Mbuli calls the people to travel with him through his world. When Mzwakhe talks of anger, the audience is angry too. When he speaks of happiness, the whole audience smiles. At the end of each poem, the people are hungry for more.

Mzwakhe’s poems come from the street and from the dust. “My poetry is a gift of God. No-one taught me to be a poet. I became a poet by chance.”

But it was no accident that this poet of the people was elected to serve on the cultural desk of the UDF as Media Officer.

And it is not by chance that he is the National Vice-President of COSAW (Congress of South African Writers). He is a man of true commitment — a poet whose words speak for a people and their struggle.


Mzwakhe was born in Sophiatown, 30 years ago. His family was moved to Soweto when he was a baby. “We had hard times when we were young. We had no money. My mother was a domestic worker. Her wages were very low.

“My father was a driver. He was also a traditional singer who loved music. He used to take me to the hostels where he sang. I loved to watch him sing with the other groups and traditional dancers. At home, he sang the songs we heard on the radio. Sometimes, he asked me to sing along with him.”

Mzwakhe’s father knew his son was special. “My father said I must become great. He always said that he wanted me to end up in England. His wish told of the future. My albums are going all over the world. And I may perform in Europe and Canada soon,” says the tall poet.

Ever since he can remember, Mzwakhe dreamed of being a musician like his father. He liked meeting other youngsters who shared his love for music and song. In 1977, while still at school, he joined forces with two friends, Sipho Nkosi and Menzi Ndhlovu. “We formed a group called the New World Quartet. But we weren’t really a quartet — there were 10 of us!”

But Mzwakhe and his young friends were not only interested in music. They also had a love for acting on the stage. He remembers the first show they did — it was a traditional play called ‘The Wizard’.


The young Mzwakhe was thirsty for culture. He enjoyed playing different people on the stage. Everybody loved his deep voice and clever acting. In 1979, Mzwakhe joined a cultural group called Khuvhangano. This group put on plays and performed poetry. “Before a performance, the poets used to go on stage first to warm the audience,” says Mzwakhe.

There were two poets in the group. One of them was Themba Dlamini. He was a comrade. The police were always after him. In the end, he could not stand it any more, and he left the country.

The other poet, Reggie Nikiwe, also left the group around this time. Mzwakhe says: “After the poets left, there was a hole in the group.

“We suffered from that loss. We decided that everyone in the group must try and write poetry. We wanted to experiment. In any language — it didn’t matter. Then it really started!”


Mzwakhe began to write poems. He wrote two poems called ‘I am Ignorant’ and ‘What a Mess’, a protest against the homelands. Soon afterwards, a respected community leader in Soweto died. His name was Reverend Castro Mayathula.

At the night vigil, Mzwakhe was there. The night was long. The young comrades sitting around the coffin sang to keep up their spirits. But they were tired. Then Mzwakhe stood up. He stretched out his long arms. And he delivered his poems in his deep, musical voice.

The ‘young lions’ listened in silence. When Mzwakhe was finished, they shouted and clapped. They loved their tall comrade’s verses. Mzwakhe was surprised. He did not know his poems were so powerful. He says: “For me, I was just trying it out, just to keep the ball rolling.”

The next day there was a big funeral service for Rev Castro at Regina Mundi. “They were all there,” Mzwakhe remembers. “Chikane, Tutu and many others. I walked into the hall. People who were at the night vigil saw me. They asked me: ‘Mzwakhe, give us those poems you gave us last night.’

“I didn’t have stage fright, but I was not sure of myself. I had done plays before — but this was poetry!”

Mzwakhe took a deep breath and went for it. When he was finished, the people shouted and clapped more loudly than the night before.

It was a day that changed Mzwakhe’s life. “From then on, people would come to listen to me, just for the sake of those two poems,” he says. “It was a challenge for me to write more, to create further.”


Mzwakhe carried on with his poetry, moving from one part of the country to another. He took his poems to the people, wherever they wanted him.

He tells his story: “A funeral starts, people are teargassed, shot. And I am there when these things happen. And at the next funeral, the next week, more people are killed. I was there, so I had to go again, as the invitation was already there, in the bullets and the teargas.”

He is a man who has never been afraid to speak out against injustice.

All the hunger, detentions and teargas have not made Mzwakhe weak and bitter. Like his people, the more he suffers, the stronger he becomes. He will never be defeated.

“I am more committed than ever, ever before… I am more courageous than ever, ever before… Yes, I am more creative than ever, ever before…”

NEW WORDS deliver a poem — say a poem experiment — try out new things stage fright — when you are afraid of standing up and acting or singing in front of lots of people activist — someone who works for a political organisation


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