Antjie Krog and the role of the poet in South African public life

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When South African writer Antjie Krog was just 17, she wrote a poem for her school magazine that was shocking enough to upset parents at Kroonstad High. The fury caught the attention of Sunday newspapers, which descended on the town in the Free State province.

The 17-year-old had expressed the wish to:

to build me a land/where the color of the skin does not count/only the mark inside/of oneself; where no goat face in parliament / can keep things verkrampt permanently / where I can love you, / can lie next to you in the grass / without saying “yes” / where the black and white hand in the hand / can bring peace and love / to my beautiful land.“ (Translated from Afrikaans by Krog.)

In South Africa in 1970, the apartheid policy of the white minority government rejected “racial” mixing and prohibited sexual relations between blacks and whites. The poem attacked conservative Afrikaners (verkrampt means cramped, but also a political designation).

The newspaper Die Beeld repeated the entire poem and consulted Dr. Ernst van der Heerden, poet and head of Afrikaans and Dutch at Wits University, to find out if it had any merit. His opinion was that Krog’s work resembled that of famous poets Breyten Breytenbach and DJ Opperman. As the press descended, the poem was republished (in English in the Rand Daily Mail). Her mother became involved in advocating for her writing. The poem appeared in the African National Congress (ANC) publication Sechaba (the ANC, now the country’s ruling party, was then a liberation movement in exile). His father was summoned by the Broederbond (a powerful and secretive patriarchal Afrikaans nationalist society), to explain how this could have happened.

This rapid set of events led to the publication of his first volume of poetry – Dogter van Jefta (Daughter of Jephthah) – but without the offending poem appearing in it.

This story contains all the ingredients of Krog’s deployment trajectory as a South African voice: an uncompromising stance on one’s own experiences and thoughts and the courage to speak them out loud, instant attention from the press and literary fraternity, and a curious and grateful public. .

This year, Antjie Krog celebrates its 70th birthday and its passions and commitments, forged in the 1970s, are undeniable. For decades she has represented the important role a poet can play in the public life of a fractured country.

Two audiences

With Dogter van Jefta, Krog was immediately set on the path to becoming a serious poet, a writer mentored by Opperman and able to produce volume after volume with the assurance that thousands of people would buy them. But the poem’s appearance in Sechaba and the London Observer gave Krog another audience, unseen and silent for many years until the liberation movements were banned and the ANC returned to South Africa.

Krog in 2006.
MARK WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images

At a rally in Soweto in 1989, ANC cadre Ahmed Kathrada, freshly released from prison, quoted Krog’s poem written when she was 17. How did he get his hands on it in prison on Robben Island? He thought maybe it was in a magazine. It touched him so much that he wrote it down by hand and kept it.

Krog had thus become a recognized poet in South Africa, but also a voice of dissent and of hope for those who were in prison and in exile. The two characteristics of the poem, aesthetic-poetic and personal-political, and their intertwining, have since marked all of Krog’s work as she moved from poetry to journalism, to writing non-fiction books in English. and that she took an academic position. at the University of the Western Cape.

The truth commission

Krog had written book reviews for the press for a few years before becoming editor of the left-leaning Afrikaans magazine Die Suid-Afrikaan in 1993. But that was in 1995 when the public broadcaster’s radio crew was preparing to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (TRC) that Krog entered news journalism correctly. She became head of the Afrikaans reporting team at the SABC. The TRC was a court-like restorative justice body that sought to expose human rights abuses under apartheid, which officially ended in 1994.

Bringing a poetic sensibility to journalism, Krog pushed the boundaries of radio reporting. She insisted that the voices and sounds of the people involved be front and center in the listener’s ear. Reporter Hanlie Retief called her

a disturbing conscience, an umbilical cord between the TRC and the speakers of Afrikaans. She… let the often macabre testimonies sometimes moan, sometimes sing.

The constraints of news journalism annoyed Krog. In a burst of energy, she produced an English-language non-fiction book that describes the experiences of TRC reporting, Country of My Skull. The book also told the powerful stories of the victims and their families.

It was this book with its blend of reportage, memoir, poetry and fiction that propelled Krog onto the international stage. Hundreds of invitations have been extended to speak at conferences and the book has been incorporated into university courses around the world. The power of the book lies in the brutality of its experiences and its unflinching descriptions, combined with worldwide attention to commissions of inquiry into past atrocities.

How South Africans talk to each other

Two more books followed as Krog tackled creative nonfiction, A Change of Tongue and Begging to be Black. Working in both English and Afrikaans, she has done her own translations and released more poetry, such as Body Bereft/Verweeskrif in 2006.

Using this facility in both languages, she also drew on her experience in the 1980s, at anti-apartheid rallies with poets reading in other African languages. She ventured into writing that worked in the interstices of translation, in the untranslatable. The remarkable book, There was this Goat, co-authored with Nosisi Mpolweni and Kopano Ratele, picked up a TRC testimony that had both fantastical and bizarre elements.

Krog was present during the testimony and had read the official translation but was not satisfied with it. She, Mpolweni and Ratele worked on a retranslation. She had developed a preoccupation with the way South Africans talk to each other, how they listen and what they hear. As the authors write:

We became aware of the barriers that we must overcome, as well as the efforts that we must make to reach some understanding of our fellow men.

This project became Krog’s academic work. Although previously she had engaged in translation and transcription projects, these were either her own writings or forays into older works in indigenous languages. Some were commissioned, such as the Afrikaans translation of former President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Now she works with a team that selects key historical texts, usually in a single African language, which are then translated into many South African languages.

Krog has been busy with the same job since she was 17: using all her literary devices to get South Africans to see and listen to each other. In my doctoral thesis and my book on Krog, I summarized the role I see her playing in South African public life. It is to affirm the literary as a resource of social and political life, to bring the intimate into the political by affirming its disordered, emotional and passionate dimensions, and by insisting on the very great value of open-heart encounters with the other. .

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