Your rights are going!

So pick up your pen,

Load it with ink.

Sit in your chair --

Repair not to Hoho

But fire with your pen.

These lines were written sometime in the 19th century, by a black South African named I.W.W. Citashe who exhorted his people to use and believe in the power of words, according to his own example.

Years later, these words serve not so much as a call to arms as a model of what is glaringly absent from current U.S. debate about South Africa: the voices of black South Africans, voices from the inside. Bishop Tutu has been doing double duty as one "voice" of black South Africa; he has a constituency, but he is the first to say that he is "a political leader by default because the real leaders of our people are either in prison or in exile."

The white South African minority government has constructed an elaborate system to quash free expression. But we do have the poets; a few, at least.

Nigerian tragedian Wole Soyinka once commented on the role of the artist in society, "The artist is a citizen first of all. His responsibility to society is no more and no less than the responsibility of a carpenter, a mason, a preacher, a doctor." Given that black South African poetry is available here in a few imperfect but nonetheless enlightening anthologies, we can use those words to begin to look inside the country, to listen to blacks describing what they see around them, and what they want.

Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali tells of black miners who dig gold and diamonds from the depths of South Africa:

We come from across the

Tugela river,

We are going to EGoli! EGoli!

EGoli! (Johannesburg)

Where they'll turn us into

moles

That eat the gold dust

And spit out blood.

Mongane Wally Serote's "City Johannesburg" offers another view of a black worker's life:

This way I salute you

My hand pulses to my back

trouser pocket

Or into my inner jacket pocket

For my pass, my life.

Jo'burg City . . .

Listen when I tell you,

There is not fun, nothing, in it,

When you leave the women

and the men with such frozen

expressions.

Families, and family continuity

and strength, are a popular

theme in many of these poems. Keorapetse Kgositsile constructs a hypothetical conversation across generations:

Daughters and sons are born

now and could ask,

You know: knowing your impotence why

Did you bring me here?

I could say:

Life is the unarguable referent.

What you know is merely a

point

of departure. So let's move.

Indeed, one wonders what parents, black and white, must teach their children in that country.

Poet Dennis Brutus' own life has been characterized by flight: born in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, he lived in South Africa from childhood before being imprisoned, detained, shot through the back, banned, and finally expelled from the country, primarily due to his campaigns against apartheid. South Africa is no longer his physical home, yet his spiritual connections are strong:

The long day's anger pants

from sand and rocks;

But for this breathing night at

least,

My land, my love, sleep well.

As in any other country, the exile's ties to his land are often complex.

Obed Kunene's poem "Apartheid Falling" is very explicit in its demands:

I will sit up and take note

when the whites say to me,

black man, no more pass for

you

black man, you are free now

to work and live where you

will . . . .

black man, you shall elect

men and women from your

race group

who will sit and talk with us

in Pretoria and Cape Town

and together we will decide

how our beautiful, bountiful

country

should be run.

Poets will forever muse over

words. What is their power?

Do they make a difference?

Knowing words don't kill

But a gun does.

That's struggle.

That's what M. Pascal Gwala states bluntly. Mongane Wally Serote might respond with an excerpt from his poem, "Black Bells":

. . . . words

Make pain,

Like poverty can make pain.

If the poet is a citizen as any other, then his words are his particular tools, or weapons. Poets are social commentators, to the extent that we are all social commentators on our own lives, the ones who know them best.

South African repression is simply too great for us to forget that these words have escaped by a combination of luck and design. To a large extent, oppressors can choose even their opposition's spokespersons. And poems are not policies; that should be obvious.

But we can form no truly helpful policies on South Africa without listening to the people in question. Poetry aims for the heart, and even the coolest of logic should be viscerally informed.

Ask any black man

he'll tell you

without looking it up in a dictionary

what pain is --

go on, ask him.

These words are the smallest of peepholes, but they start to let in the light.

Elizabeth Alexander is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff. states bluntly. Mongane Wally Serote might respond with an excerpt from his poem, "Black Bells":

. . . . words

Make pain,

Like poverty can make pain.

If the poet is a citizen as any other, then his words are his particular tools, or weapons. Poets are social commentators, to the extent that we are all social commentators on our own lives, the ones who know them best.

South African repression is simply too great for us to forget that these words have escaped by a combination of luck and design. To a large extent, oppressors can choose even their opposition's spokespersons. And poems are not policies; that should be obvious.

But we can form no truly helpful policies on South Africa without listening to the people in question. Poetry aims for the heart, and even the coolest of logic should be viscerally informed.

Ask any black man

he'll tell you

without looking it up in a dictionary

what pain is --

go on, ask him.

These words are the smallest of peepholes, but they start to let in the light.