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The worker poets

“Awe Comrade! Awe Comrade! Ngake ngahamba Nokuhamba Comrade — Two Sheleni Ngafika ezintabeni zomhlaba — two Sheleni Ngahlangana nama Comrade amaningi — two Sheleni”

So cried the poets, Temba Qabula and Mi Sidumo Hlatswayo, at a metal workers meeting in Johannesburg not long ago. Their poem went on:

“Angibuza comrade — two sheleni athi wena nsizwa ungo waphi ? — two sheleni Ngabatshena ngathi eSOUTH AFRICA — two sheleni eSoweto — two sheleni eCrossroads — twosheleni eChatsworth — two sheleni”


All the workers in the meeting joined in. They shouted “two sheleni.” Temba and Mi smiled. They were happy because everyone was shouting with them.


Learn and Teach wanted to speak to these poets. They said we must come at 7 o’clock the next morning — they had a meeting at nine o’clock. Seven o’clock is very early for Learn and Teach but we were on time.

Mi Hlatswayo is about 35 years old. He comes from the Durban township of Claremont. Qabula comes from the Transkei. They both work for the same company, Dunlop. But they work at different factories.

Mi says, “When I was at school, Njabulo Ndebele was my best poet. Now it is Qabula. I met Qabula in 1980. He read a praise poem at a Dunlop meeting. I liked his idea — that you can use poetry for the struggle.

“I learned a lot from Qabula. He is a migrant worker. He knows more about the old ways. Living in the township you don’t learn about customs.”


Qabula just smiled. He is older than Mi. Qabula did not finish school. He went to work on the mines in Carletonville. But now he works in Natal.

“We work hard at Dunlop Rubber Company” says Qabula. But my poetry comes to me at work — while I drive my forklift. I keep everything in my head. If I see something that hurts me, I spend the whole day making a song about it.”

Qabula writes his poems down at night. “Sometimes I wake up at midnight, I put on my paraffin lamp and I write and write….until I just fall asleep. And sometimes I have an idea but I have to wait for the feeling before I write.”


“I started writing in 1960,” says Qabula.”Many of my friends died that year at Ingquza Hill. There was a big ANC meeting there. The police came in helicopters and started shooting. After this I began to write about our people and our struggle.”

But that was over twenty years ago. In 1980 Qabula joined the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU). Qabula became a shop steward in his factory. But the Dunlop bosses took a long time to talk to Mawu. So Qabula wrote a play called Dunlop.

Later Qabula wrote a long poem praising MAWU and FOSATU, the group of unions that MAWU belonged to. Qabula read this poem at many meetings.

“Fosatu, you are the lion that roared at Pretoria North, with union offices everywhere.

While I was walking, thinking about the workers problems, I saw a fist hitting Dunlop’s cheek.

While Dunlop was still shivering, The Bakers bosses were asking: What did my neighbour do that he is being hurt like that?

I saw many fists hitting Bakers’ ribs, Then the Dunlop boss got worried, He called the shopstewards and asked: Madoda, please tell us, is Mawu now trying to cause trouble at Bakers? No, Banumzane Then who is organizing at Bakers? Of course, the Sweet,Food and Allied Workers Union But where do they come from? From Fosatu This Mawu, where does it come from? Also from Fosatu Same constitution? Yebo Don’t worry, Jim, it’s still another Mawu

Chakijana! Wake up and wear your clothes of power and wisdom Keep your gates closed, Fosatu, Because the workers’ enemies are waiting to kill you Oh! We poor workers, dead we shall be if the enemies win. Close! Please close your door!”


If you think this poem is long, it is only part of Qabula’s poem. All of Mi’s and Qabula’s poems are long. They are like the poems of old African storytellers — the imbongi.

When Cosatu started, Qabula and Mi wrote another long poem — in praise of Cosatu. They called it ”The Tears of the Creator.” The union asked them to read it at the first Cosatu rally in Durban.

“We are working on plays and songs about workers,” says Mi. We use things like, ‘Heyta Comrade Barayi, Heyta Comrade Mayekiso.’ This helps workers to know their leaders — and to praise them. We write in Zulu and Xhosa so that people understand easily.”


Mi talks about what the union has given people. “The unions have not just made us strong in the factories. They have made us strong in ourselves. People are proud to be workers.

“People are singing about themselves and their unions, like the Cosatu choirs. People are also writing plays about their struggles. There are so many worker plays these days — The Long March, about the fired Sarmcol workers, Usuku, and Ziyajika.

Mi says, “It is good that people are writing and singing about themselves. Before people listened to records from the big record companies. The record companies chose what songs to put on record.

“The big companies put money first. But when people write their own songs and poems, they put the workers first.”


In January Mi left his job. He wants to write poetry, music and plays full time. “Before I knocked off at 5 in the evening. I did not have time to do all the writing I wanted. Then some workers asked one of us, Qabula or me, to work full time.

“There is no money for this kind of work. So now I work part-time work at the University of Natal to get money. With the rest of my time, I write.”

Qabula still works for Dunlop. He is luckier than Mi because he writes his poems in his head. But Qabula says anyone can write poetry.

Qabula says,” People must write. They must take out their pens and paper and write. It doesn’t matter if it is good or bad — the voice of the workers must be heard.’


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