"this is a poem/ about fana mhlongo/ sentenced to death/ in a kangaroo court/ in nineteen eighty five../this is a poem about a case/ never mentioned in the trc../poor innocent comrade fana…killed/ by a people faltering to a dubious truth../ comrade fana was abducted/ in broad daylight/ the place of his captivity/ was an open secret../ comrade fana mhlongo's legs were held/ over an electric stove… in/ a kangaroo court../ and finally pierced his skull/ with a bullet/ and built a fire/ upon his corpse../ rest in peace comrade fana"- POEM FOR FANA;- Mbongeni Khumalo.
Sowetan SundayWorld's literature critic Madala Thepa called Mbongeni Khumalo, "a plucky fellow and a word bully with a bloody nose". He went on to say, "readers have a big advantage over him. Their minds can be repaired and made whole again, which Khumalo's cannot".
He couldn't be far from the truth, but his assessment was an understatement. Khumalo is a mobile search engine of literature. He's not by a long shot a simple man, he's a highly complicated 28 years old revolutionary poet inciting insurrection. He speaks his mind (or whatever remains of it) in a manner that challenges a responsible journalist to ask after every comment if it's on or off the record.
"My poetry is inborn beyond my explanation. It is the magnet quality of my soul. I came into poetry via the written word, reading books at the local library. When I was young I would borrow a book then get told to take it back because I took it from the adult section, then the next time the same would happen until they eventually allowed me to go and read it" he opens our hour long dialogue.
Fact: Khumalo is a poet, I'm a journalist. I like his poetry the same way he likes my writings. As we meet outside Shivava Café at the Newtown Cultural Centre I'm worried that our meeting will end up as a massaging of egos between two men who like each other. And then I remember what my editor said, "the stuff must make me breath heavily". The onus is on me.
First: Khumalo is widely known as schizophrenic Malcolm X, though he looks more like Patrice Lumumba. His friends and critics pile acclaim on him. "South Africa's Malcolm X is the goatee bearded poet, some Sowetan bohemian poet called Mbongeni Khumalo. His words wreck havoc in hearts of power wielders" echoed founder of Timbila Poetry Project to which Khumalo is a patron, Vonani Ka Bila.
"My first experience was with traditional poetry in the Zulu language. Poets like D.B.Z Ntuli, Bambata Vilakazi and others, before (William) Shakespeare and (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge. After that came politically conscious struggle poets like Thulani Mtshali, but very much those of the Pan Africanist school of thought. Those are the ones who inspired me when I attended political gatherings at Regina Mundi" Khumalo spoke.
What about Mzwakhe Mbuli? " Mbuli flourished because he was in the frontline of the party, black consciousness was in the shadows then. To me Thulani Mtshali is one of the most important oral poets along with Ingoapele Madingoane". Though highly critical of praise singers and horn blowers he however admits that Mbuli was important since the police wouldn't chase "die langman" for nothing. He is also quick to add that even in the United Democratic Movement school there were great poets as in Lesego Rampolokeng. He says Rampolokeng did not make the politician's grade because his language was construed and they wanted something expedient, which his how Mbuli came into the picture.
When he talks, Khumalo stares through me with his piercing shy eyes as if he was privy to some secret about the exact date of Armageddon. He is in an armour plated pensive mood that humour can not penetrate.
"I am born and patented a child of the pan Africanist school of thought. We are the revolutionary watchdogs, we regarded the negotiations in 1992 as a betrayal, we opposed CODESA. We foresaw what it was, the making of a great betrayal. That is why I don’t think our position is disillusionment with the system because we weren't even aware of the illusion" he gets political. "I am completely an uncompromising egalitarian poet who believes in an egalitarian society, a democratic socialism. We don't want a situation where people are dying of cholesterol and fat while others are dying of want. Where a poor person is regarded as a failure. Poverty and laziness can't be one. Our problems need to be historised to 6th April 1652 when Jan van Riebeek came and found no hobos. We in turn had to be servants. We've been slaves for long"
Told that since 1994 there have been changes everywhere, Khumalo protest unequivocally, "there's no change as such. What is happening in South Africa right now is reminiscent of the Kunta Kinte story. We have blacks collaborating with the slave taker. There is a forum called the Oppressors Club Pty LTD, which people like Nelson Mandela have joined. What they do is electricity cut offs, forced removals with Red Ants and acceleration of poverty. What we are having under Thabo Mbeki is what Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o called 'a comprado African government'. People like Mandela are just rubberstamping the Rhodes mission of access to mining concessions at the exploitation of the owners- the poor people"
Now, this sounded off the record, but it isn't. There's more, "you must understand that when Mandela came to Jo'burg he became a security guard with a promise of a clerk post. He never got the post then, that is why today he's content with being a superclerk that oversees the exploitation of the masses by big corporations"
Khumalo has no holy cows and intentions of taking prisoners. "Mandela was never radical in the first place. The African National Congress began small as a club of black elites, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers etcetera. What Moroka and others were doing in the Native Representative Council was to give the whites guidelines on how to treat blacks better. There were the Africans and the Africanist. The ANC's embracing of the so-called armed struggle was to threaten the Afrikaner, they wanted to talk with the Afrikaner government. That is why the late Oliver Tambo once wrote Mandela a one sentence letter, 'Nelson, what are you talking with these chaps?'"
I ask him if such senseless talk didn't eventually bring democracy? "Changes were brought about by people inside the country. We don’t know what they were smoking or drinking out there. I come from the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist school of thought relating to guerilla warfare. With that you'll exhaust an army, no matter how large. I believe APLA and MK were more capable of that than Al Qaeda is in Iraq", he says. He still doesn't know why they chose to talk.
In his published poem The State I Am Proposing, Khumalo lamented, "Leaders shall be/ the last ones to be rich/ No leader shall drive/ A mercedes benz/ Where a volkswagen/bettle would do../ I mean to say,/ We shall not be poor/ While our necks are chained/ In goldenjewellery!/ Unless we agree on these terms/ Comrades… All our/ revolutionary talk/ Is a waste of precious tears/ Blood sweat and energy./ yours faithfully/ disgruntled comrade"
Last year, already a widely published outcast, Khumalo's first poetry collection titled Apocrypha was released to rave reviews. In one review it was written, "Apocrypha, is a cheated conscience's war cry. It is the ultimate expression about society's ills in a manner that even the township anthem, the toyi-toyi takes a proud second place. It's deeper than Shakespeare, at your face than Eminem and obsessively conscientised than a tag team of Tupac and Nas can ever get. If there is one book that should be prescribed for schools it is Apocrypha, though it came 50 years too early. Mbongeni is ahead of his time and South Africa is not yet ready for his types".
The poet responds, "I don't go out of my way to use poetry as propaganda. It should be able to stand on its own. Some say my poetry is abstract and not easy to comprehend. It is however a product of my intuition, they just spill out of me and are easily accessible to the common man. When I recite, like when I used to do at Wits University, my poetry just have that magnetic link with the audience. They are intuitive and create that rapport with the audience. I can switch to the level of ordinary people subconsciously. That is why I also write essays to deal with issues in detail. I use the verse and the prose"
He sounds rather old for a man who says he started seriously writing poetry in 1995 and who, rumours about him can already fill a 12 page tabloid. Just click his name on an Internet search engine to see he isn't joking.
"In a sense I'm a lyricist, most of my writing puts sentiment intertwined with politics. There's no clear line of demarcation". One rumour says he is a genius. "I am partly an introvert. I am the brutal individualist. There's a little line of demarcation in my sentiments. Politics is one drug that once it possesses you it becomes your girlfriend, your lover. You always see a humanity threatened by extinction"
However, he himself does not entertain matters of the heart, and finds no reason to write ballads that celebrate a woman. "I believe in crude love for everything. If there is a rose, there are barbwires around it, it's denied love. My love is directed by whatever it is that is at the heart of my soul, it's intuitive, prophetic. It is reflective of a collage of images, the rustic kind of poetry by William Blake. I can't write about daffodils, they disturb the poetic muse"
And what if he has just met someone he likes a lot? "I'm skeptical about romantic love since there are material tendencies within. I agree that we are all prostitutes but some stick there a while longer. With love we are always making sacred and ceremonious of something crude"
Khumalo muses that the heart of political correctness approaches things directly. That it's full of vulgar as in ghetto language. He swears vulgar is the sweetest of all bad.
In I SHARE MY LIFE WITH YOU, Khumalo goes the confessional route. "1986, higher primary, Sayeye initiated me/ into the smoking fraternity/ behind the school toilets/ while other amajita/ from Musi High puffed a ganjaspliff./ 1988, standard five, I became/ a professional drugaddict./ I share my life with you…/ whether to my credit/ whether to my discr/edit/ to my reputation/ or infamy/ I share my life with you…"
Confession? "The poem is autobiographical. I did drugs due to peer pressure and the portrayal of a drunken child as clever. Even when we played house with other kids, you see yourself holding zol and beer. My encounter with drugs was with mandrax". Why mandrax? "The difference between zol and mandrax is rather an extension of a hallucination. Zol makes you euphoric while mandrax carries it hundred times more into oblivion"
Khumalo says he has been clean for years now without having gone the drug rehab route. "Religion made me quit. In 1994 I embraced Islam and the teachings of Malcolm X. He said when he became a Muslim he quit all vices and encouraged purity. It's not easy to quit, there is a strong sense of connection to bad habits. I valued my religion so much"
However, meeting him for the first or hundredth time, Khumalo can not strike anyone as a Muslim or fan of Islam. He says, "I have never renounced my religion. I still pray and fast, though it has become personal. I go to the mosque as an individual, because I believe in the church there are people who are working for the state. They will be keen to see me rubberstamp their decisions. But prophets say things as true as they see them. No one can curse that which has been blessed".
A disciple of fourth century Greek Philosopher Socrates, he adds, "when Socrates was to be killed he said that he couldn't defy the truth as he was forced to obey the inner voice. I think I'll also rather be poor and obey my inner voice. I was reading the speeches of Mbeki and found no reason to praise him. It's a very painful calling not to enjoy the glitter but stand for the truth"
In 2000, due to personal and family disputes or genetic tendencies Khumalo faked insomnia and got a sleeping pills prescription. Then he took a hefty overdose of the drugs and got ready to meet his Maker. "I was referred to psychiatry after I attempted suicide and was diagnosed as suffering from paranoia. They prescribed medication which I felt I shouldn't be taking. Those drugs they wanted me to take will, in a writer cause mental disturbance and kill creativity. The psychologist felt I was worsening but drugs cause mental damage and creativity. I was worried of being a zombie. I would rather have madness than be a zombie". Again, he says he was saved by his religious beliefs. He alleges that drugs like LSD and Mandrax were originally psychiatric pills and that it is prescription drugs that drove rocker Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe to suicide. He says he still goes to the shrink when he feels down and out.
"It made me realise my kinship to Dambuza Marechera, who got alienated, slept at parks while being a celebrated writer. (Khumalo is the 1999 English Academy of Southern Africa award-winning poet) He said in Mind Blast that his writing was like a ghetto demon. Maybe I'm mad, or maybe society is mad" he declares.
"They guy who took a hostage at Wits calls himself Malcolm X and wears horn rimmed glasses like me. We're from the same pan Africanist school of thought, but he's not me" he solves the riddle of his alleged involvement in the hostage drama last year. He explains the root of his controversy and heretic label, which he proudly carries around.
"There was a land invasion in Bredell following a poem I recited at a June 16 rally. Some people said the poem was partly responsible for that invasion. From then on there were always people with cameras following me whenever I went. There would be cops following and haunting me. A reliable source also told me that there is a possibility that I had been poisoned and that there'd been attempts to put me behind bars. There'd been attempts to get into my past to find if I was someone involved in the struggle. There'd been ways to tamper with my health, medical records have gone missing or locked. There've been suspicious activities. Robert Sobukwe emerged out of prison with one lung, Zeph Mothopeng had cancer. There are people who've been made ill to justify their deaths. I'm very paranoid. In 2002 in Port Elizabeth my personal belongings were tampered with" he says without pausing.
"They insult me, they/ …put salt in my wounds/ They, are par/taking the lust supper/ Taking a backbite breaking/ My fleshbread/ Gossipers sipping my holy-blood!/ They! they are crucifying/ The Son of Man…they!/ They are twisting the spelling/ Of my Gospel, they!/ They simply H/ATE me…" So goes his self-mocking poem, BLACKSHIT WHITE S/PIT.
He also believes in the conspiracy theory that there is a Xhosa Nostra whose main aim is to infiltrate all social institutions the same way the Broederbond did. He alleges that there are people in cultural circles who are pushing a Xhosa Nostra agenda. He goes on to say that it's not accidental that HIV/AIDS is high in Kwazulu-Natal and not Eastern Cape.
He attacks the current intellectual debate about language with predatory savagery, "it's not a debate as such. It is to get people to rubberstamp a pre-conceived idea. Taban Lo Liyongo says we should use any other language. Eskia Mphahlele argued that we should colonise the English language. Biko said we need to find a common language. Wa Thiong'o's book Homecoming is in English though he advocates the use of African languages". Khumalo says it is the reason why he snubbed an invitation in September last year to recite infront of wa Thiong'o in Pretoria.
Asked how he plans to spare human life in the event of the revolution he's advocating coming true, "real change will be attained. Malcolm X said by any means necessary. Those in power will surrender. It will be a protracted struggle but ultimately change will happen, society changes. Somebody said you rather break the law than break the poor. We need apartheid reparations. Our demand of reparations also shows that we acknowledge the legitimacy of the multinationals. Anything acquired illegally must be surrendered" Khumalo blurts with finality.
Contrary to what I have heard and read before our Newtown encounter, Khumalo does not bear the hallmark of a paranoid man. If anything, he is detached from most of the laurels society perceives as comfort zones, democracy, objectivity, patriotism, blind political loyalty and the embodiment of good governance in Africa called South Africa.
A Khumalo scholar and poet Thando Mashego summed him up in a poem titled, Great Minds, "have you ever been labeled a maniac/ just because you are different and ahead/ of this slow time/ have you ever been a victim of malicious gossip/ just because you are a free spirit/ has failure the event ever shifted your focus to your focal point/ have you ever been a victim of all these violent obstacles/ if not/ great minds have"