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South African Poems

The poetry of South Africa covers a broad range of themes, forms and styles.This article discusses the context that contemporary poets have come from and identifies the major poets of South Africa, their works and influence.

The South African literary landscape from the 19th century to the present day has been fundamentally shaped by the social and political evolution of the country, particularly the trajectory from a colonial trading station to an apartheid state and finally toward a democracy. Primary forces of population growth and economic change which have propelled urban development have also impacted on what themes, forms and styles of literature and poetry in particular have emerged from the country over time. South Africa has had a rich history of literary output. Fiction and poetry specifically has been written in all of South Africa's eleven official languages

While it has been recorded that literature by black South Africans only emerged in the 20th century, this is only a reflection of published works at the time, not of the reality that black South Africans were writing and reciting in oral forms. The first generation of mission-educated African writers sought to restore dignity to Africans by invoking and reconstructing a heroic African past.

Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo’s iconic works preached a "return to the source" or the wisdom of finding traditional ways of dealing with modern problems. His works included several plays and the long poem The Valley of a Thousand Hills (1941). Poets such as BW Vilakazi gave new literary life to their aboriginal languages, combining the traditional influence of Zulu oral praise poetry (izibongo) with that of the influence of English poets such as Keats, Shelley, Dunbar, Cotter[disambiguation needed], Gray and Goldsmith] (some of whose poetry he translated into Zulu). Herman Charles Bosman, is best known for his Unto Dust and In the Withaak's Shade capturing a portrait of Afrikaner storytelling skills and social attitudes. Bosman also wrote poetry, with a predominantly satirical tone.


With the demise of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, many observed that South African writers were confronted with the challenge of what was now most pertinent to write about, even though the after-effects of this history evidently still live on in the society. The "new South African" democratic era was characterized by what literary critic Stephane Serge Ibinga in her article "Post-Apartheid Literature Beyond Race"  describes as "honeymoon literature" or "the literature of celebration", epitomised by Zakes Mda, who was active as a playwright and poet long before publishing his first novel in 1995. Poets of this relatively stable transition period in South African history also include more irreverent voices such as Lesego Rampolokeng, Sandile Dikeni and Lefifi Tladi, founder of the Dashiki performance poetry movement in the late 1960s.

Another prevalent theme of post-apartheid poetry is the focus on nation-building, with many poets and other writers re-evaluating past identities and embracing notions of reconciliation in order to reflect authentically an inclusive concept of South Africa as a nation, a diverse people united in a commitment to heal the past and collectively address imbalances.


The following are some poets in South Africa. The list is incomplete and inadequately captures the breadth and vibrancy of the poetry landscape in the country. A more comprehensive list with links sits on Wikipedia at List of South African poets.

Gert Vlok Nel

Gert Vlok Nel (born 1963) is a poet, singer, song writer, troubadour. He has published one collection of poems, Om te lewe is onnatuurlik (To live is unnatural), for which he received the Ingrid Jonker Prize.

Lionel Abrahams

Lionel Abrahams (1928-2004) was a poet, novelist, editor, essayist, and publisher. Abrahams's work is largely philosophical, praising integrity and compassion. His poems are characterized by free verse with emotional strength.

Tatamkulu Afrika

Although born in Egypt, Tatamkulu Afrika (1920-2002) went to South Africa at an early age. His first volume of poetry, Nine Lives was published in 1991. Afrika's poetry is rich in natural imagery, and the mood of his poems differ, from simple and innocent to lonely and frightened.

Gabeba Baderoon

Gabeba Baderoon is the 2005 recipient of the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry. She was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa on 21 February 1969. She currently lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa, and Pennsylvania, USA. In 1989 she received her Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology from the University of Cape Town. In 1991 she received her BA Honours Degree in English (First Class) from the University of Cape Town.

She attained her Master of Arts in English with Distinction at the University of Cape Town in Postmodernist Television (Media Studies) and in 2004 completed her doctoral studies in Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, the same year spending time at the University of Sheffield, UK, as a Visiting Scholar. She also completed her dissertation entitled, "Oblique Figures: Representations of Islam in South African Media and Culture."

Michael Cope

The son of writer Jack Cope, Michael Cope (born 1952) is a jeweller and novelist as well as a poet.
His first volume of poetry, Scenes and Visions, was published in 1990. His works detail people, their stories, and environmental imagery. Much of his poetry also quietly offers Cope's views on world-wide issues, such as business and poverty. Cope's second volume, GHAAP: Sonnets from the Northern Cape (Kwela and Snailpress) deals with human origins. His poetry is available online at

Also by Michael Cope: Goldin: A Tale (iUniverse, 2005), a literary novel dealing with the mythic; and Intricacy: A Meditation on Memory (Double Storey, 2005), a memoir investigating memory.


Patrick Cullinan

Patrick Cullinan (born 1932) has published 50000 volumes of poetry, an anthology on the work of Lionel Abrahams, a biography of Robert Jacob Gordon, and a novel, Matrix. Born in Pretoria, he was educated in Johannesburg and Europe. Cullinan's poetic style is dreamy and full of imagery, with a recurring theme of love. He was given the title cavaliere in 2003 by the government of Italy for his work translating much of his poetry into Italian.

The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart

The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride

The child is not dead not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain

The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa

the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world
Without a pass
Uit hierdie Valkenburg het ek ontvlug
en dink my nou in Gordonsbaai terug:

Ek speel met paddavisse in ’n stroom
en kerf swastikas in ’n rookransboom

Ek is die hond wat op die strande draf
en dom-allenig teen die aandwind blaf

Ek is die seevoël wat verhongerd dwaal
en dooie nagte opdig as ’n maal

Die god wat jou geskep het uit die wind
sodat my smart in jou volmaaktheid vind:

My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.


South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies - your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-Gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died."



They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined - just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.


Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -
Fresh from his Wessex home -
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.


Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.


Thousands of White Crosses, white crosses along the road
a dagger through every Boer heart.
Endlessly erected
On the road to the North
thousands on every side.

Wailing comes from every region
throughout our whole land:
Who rests there...a man, a wife...a child?
Oh Lord, You know everything about us,
Hear now also, out of need, our cry.

We as a nation have been tested and purified
down through the centuries, but preserved inspite
of everything through You.
We implore for charity,
a gift of Your grace and Your faithfulness.

Stay still stay,
don't put us to shame.
We can, no, we cannot
mourn any longer.

(translated by Debbie Wren)

Op onder Poems
Title: The Battle Of Blood River

Now life goes on

He knows all my secrets,
I thought I knew all his secrets,
But I didn't know his most important one,
That he didn't love me anymore.
But I could expect it.

One time,
We kissed,
I thought that I belonged to him,
But I didn't.

He said,
I will never let you down
But he lied
He did let me down.

He said,
I love you more than a friend.
But now,
We're not even close to friends anymore.

And every time I saw him,
I felt a very strange feeling in my whole body,
It felt great,
He said he felt it too.

Those moments with each other,
Those moments were enough for us,
But now,
Those moments are gone forever,
And I miss you already.

I miss you,
I miss your smile on your face when I saw you,
I miss your eyes when they look at me,
I miss the times when you were close to me,
I miss your arms around me,
I miss your lips on my lips,
I miss you.

But it went this way,
And life must go on.



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