Bongani Mdondo

Flaxman Qoopane is a South African literary giant, a man of letters and champion of books. He contributed many articles to magazines and newspapers in South Africa, Tanzania, USA, Holland, Italy, Ethiopia and Spain. He performed protest poetry abroad, established a children’s library and became a household name in the Free State.

Flaxman Qoopane was a cultural activist, poet, writer and journalist passed away almost a year ago at the tender age of 62. During his time he churned out countless books and articles in a variety of publications and contributed immensely to African literature and academia at large. Some of his books include From My Diary, A Poet Abroad, Letters to a Poet (edited by Molebogeng Alitta Mokhuoa) as well as Adventures in Journalism and Memoirs of a Cultural Activist.

Born on 23 July 1955, Qoopane hailed from Hillside View, Bloemfontein and spent 13 years in Tanzania as an ANC exile from 1979 until his return on June 18, 1992. While some erstwhile political exiles, prisoners and activists often wrestle for political positions, Qoopane survived on his love for books.

Involvement in the liberation struggle and life in Tanzania

Qoopane was introduced to the liberation struggle by an ANC political activist in 1977. Subsequently he joined the ANC in Matola, Mozambique in 1981. During the 1980s whilst still a student at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) – a college built in 1979 for political exiles in Morogoro, Tanzania he joined the department of Information and Publicity and worked for Radio Somafco as a news presenter. He also enrolled at Tanzania School of Journalism where he wrote and edited English news, which ultimately landed him a place as a newsreader at Radio Tanzania Dar es Salam in 1991.

In 1986 he taught at the Somafco primary school in Tanzania and also performed freedom songs and a revolutionary poetry. During his exile in Tanzania, he participated in the Rally People’s Support for the ANC in Arusha from in December 1987 – and in the process he performed poetry in the presence of ANC president Oliver Tambo, former statesmen Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Sam Nujoma of Namibia. He also participated at a rally which took place in February 1990 to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. On in March 1990 he performed poetry for the late former president Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela when they visited Tanzania. Other prominent figures he performed for included Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki.

Activism through arts

In November 1985 Qoopane became part of the Somafco delegation that paid a visit to Italy. While in Europe he seized the opportunity to perform liberation poetry to conscientizing Europeans about the liberation struggle in South Africa. Even though he started writing poetry a few years earlier, he was reluctant to go public with them as they were mainly for his self-consumption and entertainment of his friends. He was later convinced by his comrades to share them with the world.

Continuing with his travels, Qoopane became part of a group of four members from Somafco who went to study in Moscow, Russia in January to December 1987. While in Russia he met many ANC members who were studying there. He visited the graves of two struggle leaders, Moses Kotane and JB Marks including the cenotaph of many soldiers who perished during the Second World War. During his stay in Russia he expounded the activities of the revolution both inside and outside of the country. People were informed about Somafco and consequently pledged to support the school by sending various accouterments. He also organized students and formed a multi-racial group which came to be known as the Komsomol Solidarity Ensemble and consisted of members from Japan, India, Congo, Spain, Guyana, the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa. Komsomol Solidarity Ensemble performed protest poetry and liberation songs. He further urged members to join the anti-apartheid movements to fight for the release of political detainees. During the Alexander Pushkin Poetry Festival in Moscow on June 6, 1987 he was awarded the Alexander Pushkin Prize for Poetry.

Return to South Africa and illustrious career in journalism

Qoopane, a literary giant in his own right, was a man of letters and a champion of book. He contributed many articles to magazines and newspapers in South Africa, Tanzania, USA, Holland, Italy, Ethiopia, Ghana, Spain, Hungary and Russia to mention but only a few. Upon his return to South Africa on June 18, 1992 he became a regular contributor to The Voice newspaper in Bloemfontein. A most assiduous researcher and writer, Qoopane felt very much at home in the world of journalism. Like any other journalist, Qoopane was versatile, but his passion was always arts and culture.

In July 1992 he joined Express as a freelance journalist. He was also employed as a journalist for Goldfield Tribune and became in charge of the publication’s office in Bloemfontein. In November 1996, he joined Lengau newspaper which was distributed in the Free State, Northern Cape and Lesotho. Other articles of his were published in Next magazine between 1996 and 1998, shortly before the magazine’s closure on April 17, 1998.

Qoopane was adept with the camera, and published a myriad of magnificent photographs in numerous magazines and newspapers which appeared in publications such as Realtime and Next. Some of his best features were published in the quarterly magazine, Realtime. His work was also published in the Bona issue of February 1999.

Afterward he became a contributor to the New African Publications and Times Media Limited which had a Sunday newspaper, Sunday World. The newspaper also produced a supplement about arts and culture – HOLA, and he contributed several articles and photos to the supplement. He contributed to the controversial Taxi Bulletin which later changed its name to Free State News where some of his articles and photos featured prominently in September 1999.

A giant’s job is never done

On August 28, 1992 Qoopane joined the writers’ association COSAW (Congress of South African Writers). He was introduced to COSAW by it’s then president Professor Njabulo Ndebele in a letter received in March 1990 and dated February 21, 1990. The association was established in July 1987 at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Some of its aims was to promote writing and publishing in all the country’s official languages, and to nurture new and emerging creative talent. Some time in 1993 Qoopane was elected a chairperson of COSAW in the Free State. He was also the Bloemfontein coordinator of the Cape Town Community Publishing Project.

He also established the Eclectic Writers Club in 1996. Although the club encountered challenges to getting their books published, the first batch of books written by members was published and the Free State Provincial Library Services ordered a significant number of copies. As time went on, orders for books written by members came from regions like Gauteng – and some were published and sold by members, both locally and abroad. Copies of Qoopane’s books were distributed in places like Britain and America. In one of the books editions he recounts how exhilarated he was when told that one of his books was being read at Georgetown University in the United States.

On July 10, 1995 he learned that the officials of the Little Library in Johannesburg were looking for writers to facilitate writing workshops for children’s stories in the communities countrywide. Together with his team, Qoopane assisted several children to write their own books, including the South African Children’s Alphabet. The work that they produced was internationally recognized in April 1996 at the Bologna Book Fair. The Little Library was awarded the 1996 Ibby Asahi Award for the promotion of reading.

Qoopane aspired to establish a library at some point in his life, and his ambition was fulfilled when the Qoopane Literary Gallery and children’s library was established in 2011 to inculcate the culture of reading among children. He was also the Gallery’s curator and its director. Many children still frequently come to the library after school to do their homework and engross themselves in literature.

The book Letters To A Poet contain a collection of letters written to Qoopane by sundry, national and international writers is probably a first for the Free State. He corresponded with many poets across the world, these includes but not limited to: Peter Schutt, Jack Hirchman, Tim Hall and Asad Salameh. He was the pride of the Free State and he knew how to market himself, eventually becoming a household name in the province. Together with other prominent figures such as Zakes Mda, Denis Brutus, Njabulo Ndebele, Naruddin Farah, Wole Soyinka and Mongo Beti, who all belonged to the Union of Writers of the African People (UWAP) of the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, Qoopane changed the landscape of African literature. The arts and culture fraternity in the Free State should honour and keep alive the memory of this outstanding figure whose contribution in the realm of arts and culture have put the province in the spotlight.