Award-winning author and retired UKZN academic Dr Betty Govinden delivered the fourth annual Mafika Gwala Lecture on the Howard College campus.
Hosted by the College of Humanities together with South African History Online (SAHO) and the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), the lecture coincided with the fourth anniversary of the death of Gwala and was part of a research programme led by SAHO to critically evaluate the role of the Arts in the struggle against apartheid.
During the lecture, Govinden analysed Gwala’s poetry, situating it within the themes of place/space, identity, decoloniality, history and the role of poetry and the Arts of resistance. She noted that Gwala’s work featured places such as Umlazi, Verulam, Sophiatown, District Six and even Sharpeville.
‘Through these places and what they symbolise, we all identify with the reality of life in these spaces because of the “common landscape of black experience”,’ said Govinden. ‘They are heavy with symbolism of one kind or another – whether they denote apartheid separate living, or the site of apartheid atrocities, or global injustice,’ said Govinden. ‘Gwala identifies with these places in different ways, foregrounds them for their varying and competing value in our collective memory- our collective psyche, highlighting them for what they stand for in our history, local or global.’
On Identity, Govinden argues that Gwala always posited that one should never forget humanness. ‘The act of writing is an exposure and a refusal of the very denial of identity. Gwala’s writing of this, is not one of condescension, of “lending a voice to the voiceless, or speaking for the silenced”. He is a conduit,’ she said.
Govinden claims that Gwala was writing against the inherited, dominant understandings of poetry, where poetry is about the sublime, the uplifting, and not about the sordid realities of life. ‘Gwala, dramatically and unequivocally, invokes an alternative understanding of poetry – a poetry of resistance, a poetry of revolt, a poetry of the sordid, squalor of injustice all around us,’ she said.
Govinden encouraged more research and publishing and publicity on Gwala as a Durban writer, a KZN writer, a writer from South Africa, the continent, and the African Diaspora. ‘I would encourage poetry reading and workshop sessions here on campus on his work and that of other writers and poets. This should be for students and staff, whatever their disciplines. We need to critically expand our understanding of what teaching and learning on our campuses entails,’ said Govinden.