Gopolang Botlhokwane

South African poetry has historically existed on the margins, often considered too radical to have a mainstream audience. But things are changing, there’s a generation of local poets dragging the artform back into the spotlight and one of those poets is Vangile Gantsho.

Gantsho has held her own in the absence of any significant following and quietly amassed a poetic arsenal big enough to afford her a chance to contend for the title of Azania’s foremost poet. From her first collection Undressing in front of the window (2015), which Don Mattera called an “unuttered plea to be listened to and valued” to the many poems littered all over the Internet and published in various poetry journals, Gantsho has now gathered a significant following. Last year the Mail and Guardian featured her in its annual 200 young South Africans list as a hard hitting poet and cultural activist, and it’s not hard to discern why.

In 2012, she stormed her way to poetic relevance with the publication of her poem I expect more from you, which is about the intimate cost of freedom and what those who had to pay it are holding out for. Gantsho captures the internal scars of dispossession so succinctly:

Because my father fought
for you
Instead of spending time with us
he lay on cement floors
behind bars
behind dustbins
under beds
in wardrobes
for you

Besides being a poetic bomb thrower, Gantsho is also a traditional healer by training and holds an MA in creative writing from Rhodes university. In 2018 she travelled back home to the Eastern Cape to spend some time training as a healer. When I asked Gantsho about her training as a healer, I was curious to know how that experience influences her work. “I think as people we bring ourselves to our art. Wherever we are in our lives will be reflected in the work we produce. So definitely, my life, my journey, my activism all of it has poured itself into my writing,” she said.

Her buck doesn’t stop at poetry. She has also overseen the productions of several plays over the years. Of all the shows she has produced, she considers Human 4 Human to be her favourite, mainly for the lessons it taught her.

Human 4 Human saw four young SA women tell their individual stories back in 2014. Gantsho shared the stage with Hannah Foster, Mthunzikazi “Nolali Wase Cala” and Sarah Godsell in an effort to get people in a country so racially polarised, to see one another as human.

“The way it came about and the work it required of us…[was] such a challenge. A huge learning curve. It also allowed us to work with some of this country’s most talented theatre practitioners, a hugely humbling experience. Human 4 Human grew and took multiple turns. We had epic fails and some shining moments,” she said.

The rise of local poets such as Vangile would of course be impossible without independent publishers who continue to invest in poetry albeit with very little resources and very little guarantee for return on investment. Gantsho is herself a publisher as part of Imphepho Press which has assembled an impressive roster of literary talent, and was born after her long stint in the publishing industry.

“It’s a huge learning curve. I’m an artist and tend to think of books as pieces of art, so the commercial compromises are a huge challenge,” she says.

Gantsho’s second collection of poetry titled Red Cotton is the continuation of a steady stream of new poetry books being published to critical acclaim, from Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia which has cast local poetry in a new spotlight to Thabo Jijana’s Failing at maths and my other stories. Red Cotton debuted last year alongside another hair raising collection, Feeling Ugly by stablemate Danai Mupotsa. If her first collection was an “unuttered plea to be listened to and valued”, Red Cotton is an assertion of the plight of black women. A poetic canvas made out of a collection of experiences that define the lives of black women trying to survive what activist Wanelisa Xaba calls “post apartheid – apartheid” or the angst of being free only in words. Very little has changed in South Africa and it is black women who often bear the brunt.

A girl, a large plate,
Seven children each with spoons
Only she is left hungry.

Gantsho isn’t trying to interrogate whether black women stood a chance in trying to unshackle themselves from patriarchy, that has already been established. What her work asks of us, is to listen and then listen some more. Maybe as we hear these words over and over again we might begin to understand the pain that black women are forced to suffer. She writes thinking of girls who might not have the language to claim their bodies. Or mothers who might run out of ways to tell their daughters to conceal themselves just so that boys can feel comfortable.

Smear yourself
all over their bibles
Stain their linen
with cum

Preserving culture is one way that black South Africa has attempted to resist the post 1994 neo-liberal onslaught guarded by the African National Congress. But too often culture is manipulated and denied of its dynamism, and this is where a poet like Gantsho proves her necessity. She places herself between culture and new ways of being. She tries to negotiate a platonic existence between the two, where seeking to expand how we understand culture isn’t necessarily its negation. She refuses to surrender to the idea that somehow a woman who defines herself as queer is unafrican.

The strength of Gantsho’s work is consistency, though Red Cotton is a new body of work, it reads like something she has said before only this time she might have a weapon on hand to drive her point home. Though its diverse in the experiences it tries to relay, I suspect Red Cotton for most men would be a difficult read. Without caring much for masculine sensibilities, Gantsho finds a way to vividly paint uncomfortable situations black women have to endure often at the hands of men.

A man who raised three children pins his helper to the floor.
The woman who raised his children walks in as he unzips his pants.
On the phone, the helper’s words sound like a sharp knitting needle into the daughter’s head. Down her neck.

She leaves you feeling like you’ve just had an uncomfortable but necessary conversation with your sister, like she finally built up the strength to finally confess all her secrets to you. And by this I mean the crimes against black women. Things she experienced but never had the courage to say or write. Things she wanted to tell you but never got a chance.