Poetry as Politics and Politics as Poetry: A Partial Timeline of Key Historical Developments in Black South African Poetry during Apartheid

Timeline created by facebooker_10223526901307103
  • Group Areas Act of 1950

    Group Areas Act of 1950
    Fashioned as the “cornerstone” of Apartheid policy, the Group Areas Act aimed to eliminate mixed neighbourhoods in favour of racially segregated ones which would allow South Africans to develop separately (Wikipedia). The policy goal of separate development allowed the NP to maintain the status quo of white supremacy as well as control the African labour needed for rapid industrial development. Pass Laws required non-whites to carry 'pass books' to enter the 'white' parts of the country.
  • Suppression of Communism Act of 1950

    This Act gave the government the power to ban publications that promoted the objectives of communism. The Act also made it illegal for any group or individual to bring about 'any political, industrial, social or economic change in the Union by the promotion of disturbances or disorder, by unlawful acts or omissions or by the threat of such acts and omissions'. The vagueness of the terms of the act gave the government broad, unfettered prosecutorial authority to suppress black political dissent
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    The "Fabulous Decade" or the "Drum Decade" of the Sophiatown Renaissance

    "Lewis Nkosi's term ‘fabulous’ in his essay ‘The Fabulous Decade’ encapsulates the [1950s] extraordinary atmosphere of romantic self-construction. Young black intellectuals, writing in English, were entering a modernity that seemed, still, theirs for the taking, and a small white avant-garde [...] were eager to associate with them or to affiliate through writing, as if their combined presence could reverse – like a fable – the effects of apartheid" - Dorothy Driver
  • "DRUM" Magazine Published

    "DRUM" Magazine Published
    In 1952, the newly renamed "Drum" magazine transformed its image by publishing content that reflected the vibrancy of black urban culture under the harsh realities of apartheid South Africa; the young writers of DRUM were "the new African[s] cut adrift from the tribal reserve – urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash". Drum magazine was also integral in galvanising anti-apartheid resistance by publishing content written by influential Black writers and anti-apartheid activists of the 1950s
  • Pass Laws Act of 1952

    Pass Laws Act of 1952
    The Pass Law Act of 1952 was designed to control the movement of black people under apartheid. The Apartheid Government used the law as a tool to segregate populations, manage urbanization, and allocate migrant labour. The pass act was central to ‘separate development’ that was legislated through the Groups Areas Act of 1950 (Phalafala 2020). The resistance to the Pass Law led to many thousands of arrests and was the spark that ignited the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960 (Wikipedia).
  • BANTU Education Act of 1953

    The purpose of the act was to consolidate "Bantu" education (or the education of black people) so that racially segregated schooling and discriminatory educational practices could be uniformly implemented across South Africa. The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 made compulsory the use of Afrikaans as the primary medium of instruction in black schools, ultimately leading to the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
  • The Natives Resettlement Act of 1954

    The Natives Resettlement Act of 1954
    The Natives Resettlement Act of 1954 empowered the Government to remove Black people from any area within and next to the magisterial district of Johannesburg. Subsequently, less than a year after the Act was passed Sophiatown residents were forcefully removed to Meadowlands in Soweto. One of the townships that managed to survive forced removals was Alexandra Township, adjacent to Sandton, an affluent area north of Johannesburg (SAHistoryOnline).
  • Forced Removals Begin in Sophiatown

    Forced Removals Begin in Sophiatown
    Sophiatown was a legendary black cultural hub that was destroyed under apartheid and rebuilt under the name Triomf ('Truimph'). Sophiatown was the epicentre of politics, jazz and blues during the 1940s and 1950s and produced some of South Africa's most famous writers, musicians, politicians and artists. Under the Natives Resettlement Act of 1954, the government began forcefully displacing over 60 000 residents to Soweto, beginning on the 9 February 1955.
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    The "Silent Decade" or the "Long Silence"

    During the 1960s, government censorship and restrictive legislation resulted in the bannings of antiapartheid political figures/organisations (incl. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, uMkonto we Sizwe) and the forced exiles of scores of black writers, poets and antiapartheid activists. With most forms and outlets of expression censored, Black writers started searching for new forms of expression that were "less vulnerable than those that led a previous generation to bannings and exiles"
  • Sharpeville Massacre

    Sharpeville Massacre
    In the township of Sharpeville near Johannesburg, police opened fire on a group of unarmed black protestors, killing 69 people and wounding 180 in a hail of submachine-gun fire. The demonstrators were protesting against the South African government’s restriction of nonwhite travel ('pass laws'). The incident convinced Nelson Mandela to abandon his policy of nonviolence and organize paramilitary groups to fight South Africa’s system of institutionalized racial discrimination (History.com).
  • Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963

    Under the Publications and Entertainments Act, a publication could be banned if it was found to be “undesirable” for any of many reasons, including obscenity, moral harmfulness, blasphemy, causing harm to relations between sections of the population, or being prejudicial to the safety, general welfare, peace, or order of the state. Thousands of books, newspapers, and other publications were banned in South Africa from 1950 to 1990.
  • First Publication of The Classic and the Emergence of Soweto Poetry

    First Publication of The Classic and the Emergence of Soweto Poetry
    Prominent DRUM writer Nat Nakasha announced the formation of a quarterly literary magazine called "The Classic" in 1963, a literary journal in English for African intellectual writers and poets from any race around Africa. Issues featured included writing from Can Themba, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Casey Motsisi. (Wikipedia)
  • Rivonia Trial

    Rivonia Trial
    Often referred to as "the trial that changed South Africa,” ten leaders of the ANC's MK High Command went on trial on charges of sabotage in October 1963. In June 1964, eight of the accused (including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu) were sentenced to life imprisonment. The Rivonia Trial highlighted a conundrum faced by those in the liberation struggle: the way that justice was often at odds with legality. (SAHistoryOnline)
  • 'Die Vlakte' Stellenbosch Forced Removals and Demolitions Commence

    'Die Vlakte' Stellenbosch Forced Removals and Demolitions Commence
    On the 25 Sep 1964, the apartheid government declared land in central Stellenbosch (locally known as 'Die Vlakte') as a 'whites only' area in order to expand the University of Stellenbosch. Die Vlakte was a community of mostly coloured, working-class residents who were dispossessed of their land and displaced to Idas Valley and Cloetesville. In 1976, after most structures of Die Vlakte had been demolished, the Arts and Social Sciences Building was constructed on the expropriated land.
  • Forced Removals Begin in District Six ('Kanaladorp')

    Forced Removals Begin in District Six ('Kanaladorp')
    District Six was an impoverished but culturally vibrant community of predominantly working-class coloured people, producing many prominent writers, artists and musicians including Richard Rive, Alex La Guma and Abdullah Ibrahim. On 11 February 1966, the government declared District Six a "whites-only area" under the Group Areas Act, with forced removals starting in 1968.
  • Formation of SASO (Spearheaded by Steve Biko)

    Formation of SASO (Spearheaded by Steve Biko)
    SASO emerged in 1968 as a unique political group that re-established opposition to the South African government’s apartheid system “aboveground,” as opposed to other black resistance movements (ANC, PAC) that previously had been forced to operate underground. Until the creation of SASO in December of 1968, there were neither black student groups nor black political organizations that were legally allowed to exist. Consequently, SASO filled both of these voids (Blackpast.org).
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    The Rise of Black Consciousness and the New Black Poets of the Seventies

    In the 1970s, South Africa experienced a literary revival of black voices that had been silenced by repression. The 1970s is widely regarded as a defining period for the development of political consciousness among black South Africans with the rise of SASO and BCM, lead by Steve Biko. Literature became a vehicle to promote the political ideals of anti-apartheid popular movements; genres of drama and poetry, especially, were utilised for their immediacy of impact.
  • Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali publishes "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum"

    Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali publishes "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum"
    Published with a preface by Nadine Gordimer, SOCD was one of the first books of poems by a black South African poet to be widely distributed. Mtshali's work was popular among white liberals in SA, which may have made him less of an icon for other black poets. In a 1978 interview, Keorapetse Kgositsile compared Mtshali's case to the Harlem Renaissance in the US; a period when the importance of white patronage for black work made the emerging black literature more politically complex (Wikipedia).
  • SASO forms the Black People's Convention (BPC)

    SASO forms the Black People's Convention (BPC)
    In 1972, Steve Biko terminated his studies and withdrew from student politics at UKZN, turning his attention to the formation of a political body that would mobilise adult constituencies. This led to the founding of BPC, with Biko as its first president. BPC helped to form the Black Community Programmes (BCP), a programme focusing on the social and economic upliftment of Black people. (SAHistoryOnline)
  • James Matthews publishes "Cry Rage!"

    James Matthews publishes "Cry Rage!"
    Having witnessed the profound impact of poverty, exploitation and racism on the psyche and outlook of the oppressed, James Matthews became, through his poetry, a leading poetic voice of the Black Consciousness persuasion. His first published collection of poetry "Cry Rage" (co-authored with Gladys Thomas) became the first collection of poetry to be banned by the Apartheid regime under censorship laws (SAHistoryOnline).
  • South African Government bans BCM, BPC

    The government sought to ban the leadership of the BCM and BPC, claiming that their political philosophies were seditious and thus fomented civil unrest. In late August and September 1974, after holding rallies in support of the FRELIMO government which had taken power in Mozambique, many leaders of the BCM (incl. "Pretoria Twelve" and the SASO nine", including Maitshe Makoape and Mosiuoa Lekota) were arrested under the Terrorism Act and the Riotous Assemblies Act, 1956. (Wikipedia)
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    Burgeoning of Soweto Poetry

    The Soweto Uprising was followed by one of the biggest literary outbursts South Africa has known; an outburst of literary and other cultural activity that marked the climax of the Black Consciousness era. In defiance of the government's efforts to suppress black cultural and political expression, many cultural groups of BC persuasion emerged after Soweto (Mzamane 1988 pp.3). Prominent voices include Mariam Tlali, Njabulo Ndebele, Mzwakhe Mbuli, and Lesego Rampolokeng among others.
  • Soweto Uprising

    Soweto Uprising
    The Soweto Uprising was a series of demonstrations led by black youth on 16 June 1976 against Bantu Education and the "Afrikaans Medium Decree"; a directive that made Afrikaans a compulsory medium of instruction in black schools across South Africa. Students mobilised by SASO, supported by the BCM and BPC, marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. On their way to Orlando Stadium, police fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students.
  • Assassination of Steve Biko

    Assassination of Steve Biko
    In the wake of the Soweto Uprising, security police detained Biko in Port Elizabeth on 18 August 1977. While in police custody in Port Elizabeth and later in Pretoria, Biko was viciously tortured by members of the apartheid security forces. On 12 September Steve Biko died of a brain haemorrhage while in police custody which the government later blamed on Biko's self-imposed "hunger strike". News of the political killing led to international protests and a UN-imposed arms embargo on South Africa.
  • "Black Wednesday"

    "Black Wednesday"
    On October 19, 1977, The World and Weekend World were banned. Further, the apartheid regime declared illegal 19 Black Consciousness organisations and detained scores of activists. Besides banning independent media in an attempt to hide horrendous acts by the regime at the time, authorities acted quickly after coverage of Steve Bantu Biko's murder in September the same year. (SA History Online)
  • Launch of Staffrider Magazine

    Launch of Staffrider Magazine
    In 1978, Staffrider was established as a South African literary and arts magazine by Ravan Press in Johannesburg. It took its name and identity from township slang referring to black youth who travelled either sitting on the roof or hanging onto the outside of overcrowded, racially segregated commuter trains (SAHistoryOnline). Staffrider ushered in the "New Poets of the Soweto era", led by Christopher Van Wyk, Fhazel Johennesse and Ingoapele Madingoane (Mzamane 1988).
  • The Turbulent 1980s: South Africa and the State of Emergency

    The Turbulent 1980s: South Africa and the State of Emergency
    Increasing internal and external pressure on the apartheid state led to its most repressive measures yet. While sanctions were imposed from outside, a mass democratic movement, based on the ideals of the Freedom Charter, arose within the country. The state responded with successive states of emergency that brought white troops to the townships; a state of civil war existed in all but name. Mzwakhe Mbuli, Lindiwe Mabuza and Lesego Rampolokeng (among others) were prominent new poets of this era.