By Nadim Nyker
“They’ve Gone! Compatriot,
Chase them! Chase them!
Lay down the musket
Use pen to chase them;
Sieze paper and ink:
That’s your shield.” – William Wellington Gqoba
On Thursday evening at Rhodes University’s Cory library, something great happened. Intellectuals, black, yellow, white, pink and purple, some university educated, others earning their smarts through worldly experience, caroused and set the temperature as they awaited the launch of Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko’s new books. Opland is a man who has mastered the retrieval and representation of Xhosa literature and Maseko enhanced his vision with her overwhelming experience and skill in isiXhosa.
However, the greatness was not born from the crowd or the editors who came to present their volumes of work. The work itself was allowed shine through, as Opland and Maseko kept to the task at hand: presenting the works of William Wellington Gqoba and David Livingston Phakamile Yali-Manisi.
“The stars of the evening are about William Gqoba and Yali-Manisi, the stars are not about us,” Opland said, opening his address. “We are simply the midwives that have delivered their art.”
The books are in two volumes. William Wellington Gqoba, Xhosa Histories and Poetry (1873-1888) (Vol 1), and D.L.P Yali-Manisi, Historical Poems (Vol 2). The publication presents the poetry in its raw form, one not imposed by “Western modes of art”, which Maseko highlights. The poetry is, therefore, written in its original isiXhosa form and followed by the English translation on the following page. The poetry is interspersed with historical facts from Opland and Maseko.
The poetry of Gqoba and Yali-Manisi is far more than a display of art, opinion and experience. The poetry reflects their interpretation of historical events, such as the Battle of Amalinde. These words show the intentions of their people at the time of events in 19th century South African history.
Gqoba and Yali-Manisi are poets and authors who have played a crucial role in the mobilization of African intellectualism, and with their poetry displayed in their raw form, the critique and scepticism of the Western discourse can be witnessed in its earliest stage.
Maseko recounts memories of the struggle. She talks about Opland at a conference in UCT, trying to prove his argument of how isiXhosa poetry is produced at the spur of the moment. She tells the story of a laurelled academic, with a profoundly English accent, disputing the possibility of this and then being responded to with spontaneous and flawless isiXhosa poetry by a fellow academic.
Opland also paid tribute to Yali-Manisi in his address:
“He once said to me that it was easier for him to create poetry at the spur of the moment than it was to talk; he was so creative.” Opland then celebrated the voices that we, as a society, are to discover with him and return to the public domain.
Opland is attempting to “rescue these writings” from a Western discourse, in which historians and academics have pulled the stories of Gqoba and Yali-Manisi in their own way, to fit their own arguments, essentially destroying a significant amount of what their work stood for.
Opland also addressed the issue of the shortage of isiXhosa literature in South Africa. He claims that the problem stems from the fact that isiXhosa literature is only published as textbooks for educational purposes. It is only in newspapers where amaXhosa people have voiced issues and concerns and, therefore, written for an adult audience.
The newspapers acted as a vehicle for mobilizing the concerns of Africans during this period as well as enhancing the discourse of African opinion. It encouraged a sustained, albeit muted, level of protest during the 19th century, as well as an involvement within the community to voice their concerns in the face of colonial rule. Gqoba was a visionary and innovator, assuming editorship of Isigidimi SamaXhosa, he used it to gain support from the community and as a political tool, engaging with their problems until his death.
In the Opland Collection of Xhosa Literature, which is currently still in his possession, Opland and Maseko already intend to release a 3rd, 4th, 5th , 6th and 7th volume, displaying a variety of work produced by amaXhosa poets.
“This is a series not only of 40 years of evolving language but these are Xhosa poets of high intellect looking back on the events of the year and assessing it as a poet; criticising, praising [it and] writing the most beautiful things. There should be at least 10 volumes,” said Opland.
Dr Conelius Thomas welcomed the crowd, and Prof Russel Kaschula introduced the speakers.
The evening closed with Opland and Maseko reciting poetry from the books: