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Tatamkhulu Afrika

Gus Ferguson

Tatamkhulu Ismail Afrika’s life was a fugue of intertwining identities. Amongst other things he was, in chronological sequence, a novelist, a soldier, a prisoner of war, a miner, a political activist, a poet and again, towards the end of his full and fulfilling life, a novelist.

He was born in Egypt in 1920 of an Arab father and a Turkish mother. He was brought to South Africa in 1923, orphaned, and raised by foster parents. He served in World War II, and was a POW for three years. After the war he was, inter alia, a miner, a barman, shop assistant, bookkeeper and a jazz drummer. He moved to Cape Town in 1964, when he reconverted to Islam and joined the resistance to apartheid. Arrested in 1987 for “terrorism” he was listed for five years as a banned person and until his death drew a pension from Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Since 1990 he published eight volumes of poetry and four prose works. At the age of 17 he finished a first novel, Broken Earth, which was published by Hutchinson (UK), but did not write again for 50 years. His new swell of creativity brought in prizes for poetry, including the CNA Debut Prize, Pringle Awards, and Olive Schreiner and Sanlam Poetry Prizes.

In the latter part of his life he lived simply and frugally in a wooden hut in the backyard of a house in the Bo-Kaap. A generous and compassionate man, he gave a large portion of his income to establish an Islamic centre in Guguletu and to run a crèche. He died on 23 December 2002 of complications from being in a road accident after having been knocked over by a car.

My friendship with Tatamkhulu Afrika began in the late 80’s when he was still banned but publishing in contravention of the banning order. He then wrote under what was his struggle honorific, Tatamkhulu Afrika, which he later adopted officially by deed poll.

My involvement in his literary activities included the publishing of four collections of verse, and being present at the reading of three of his novels and acting on an ongoing basis in an ad hoc secretarial capacity.

Tatamkhulu Afrika was an extremely complex and contradictory man. He was, as he described it to me once, without skin. He had no defence against injustice, no ability to shut down his humane compassion at the needless and cynical suffering of others.

In his poetry, which was both narrative and lyrical, all his concerns, religious, political and compassionate, were usually simultaneously present. His view of the world was intensely metaphoric in that behind the mundane is always the extraordinary and eternal. At his funeral Moulana Hooseini made the case that Tatamkhulu fulfilled the three primary criteria for a poet of Islam: he was of the faith, he was perceived to be a good person and, most importantly, he was one who in times of injustice or crisis could be both the “eyes and tongue of the people”.

In addition to this, Tatamkhulu Afrika was a poet in terms of other cultures. As an English language poet he had both a clear and individual voice and tremendous literary craft which at times displayed his early influences, mainly Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walt Whitman.

Tatamkhulu leaves behind a legacy of both published and unpublished work. Unpublished he still has two novels, two plays, an autobiography, one poetry manuscript and a number of unpublished poems.

The year before his death was an extremely satisfying one for him in that the novel Bitter Eden, based on his POW experiences, was published by Arcadia in Great Britain. He finished his autobiography and was working on a final draft of his novel Lizard on the Wall. Bitter Eden was launched on 7 December, just after Ramadan, and by design coincidental with his 82nd birthday. Sadly, his accident, which proved to be fatal, happened two days later.

As with all true poets his intense observation of human life often had a prophetic element, as this extract from his last published poem, “Midnight’s Man”, shows.

Walking midnight’s streets,

I start no sound,
leave no spoor, pretend
there is no shadow coming at me from behind.

Misshapen, thin,
lurching like a crippled bird,
a Quasimodo on the run,
I am but my shadow on the ground.

Tatamkhulu’s shadow will be with us for a long time.

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