The People’s Poet – Thembani Ma’at Onceya

By Chelsea Haith

Zion Eyes cannot stand still for a moment. In his large, brightly coloured shweshwe shirt and matching pants, he shuffles on the spot wherever he is. Ideas or poetry pour out of him like a tap that cannot, or will not, be turned off.

“I have become the poet that is inside me,” he says, his thin arms reaching out as if to draw the world in.

Zion Eyes performs at the Cycle of Knowledge regularly and is a member of the core group of organisers.  IMAGE: Chelsea Haith

Zion Eyes performs at the Cycle of Knowledge regularly and is a member of the core group of organisers.
IMAGE: Chelsea Haith

Thembani Ma’at Onceya, otherwise known as Zion Eyes, is a renaissance man. Studying, practicing journalism, writing and performing poetry, and of late leading the re-politicization of Rhodes University under the banner of the Black Student Movement (BSM), there are never enough hours in his day.

The driving force of Onceya’s motivation is verse. “It is poetry that has made me question the history and politics. And it is poetry that has driven me to do what I’ve been doing,” he says, the sweep of his arms punctuating each sentence, measuring the rhythm of his words.

Born and bred in Extension 9 in Joza, Onceya says that living in the township provides inspiration for his spoken word poetry.

“My poetry is based on political poetry. I call it protest poetry sometimes. I write about crime, HIV/Aids, all of these things,” he explains and then pauses, grinning. “I also write love poetry,” he says laughing, his light-sensitive eyes twinkling behind the dark oval-frame glasses he wears to protect them.

Sobering, he adds, “I’m interested in what makes someone become a criminal; it must be a mental decision.” Musing on this, his body winds down to a momentary pause. It is as though he is coming into focus, his whole being centring on the idea he’s holding in his mind. Behind the glasses his gaze is focused elsewhere. “It is these answers to the questions that society cannot answer that my poetry looks for,” he says, snapping back to the here and now. His body starts up again as his mind returns to the present. The gap in his front teeth winks at the world when he grins, his body settling once again into the dancing rhythm that carries him through his busy days.

Onceya’s involvement with the BSM began when he and his friends started to have conversations about the lack of inclusivity and transformation on Rhodes’ campus.

“We started to share our experiences and out of that sharing the movement was born. From there we started to challenge issues that we thought were suppressing us,” he says, gesturing at the clock tower behind him, which is symbolic of the institution.

It is important to Onceya that the BSM is not reduced to a single motivating factor. “We are calling for total liberation. The name change is the umbrella over the movement but we are also looking at vac accommodation and the Oppi Bus that stopped running. It is shameful when students who live in Joza have to walk back from Rhodes at night,” he explains, referring to the uproar in 2014 when funds to transport Oppidan students to and from the township were cut. “We are also looking at curriculum transformation, something that students have never been involved in before,” he says, nodding seriously.

Onceya is passionate about transformation at the institution and believes in a "total liberation".  IMAGE: Chelsea Haith

Onceya is passionate about transformation at the institution and believes in a “total liberation”.
IMAGE: Chelsea Haith

Before he became a student at Rhodes University Onceya had been entering and winning poetry competitions since 2008, performing most recently at Poetry South Africa in Durban in 2012, at the 2013 Hip Hop Kaslam Awards and winning the Multilingual Creative Writing Competition at Rhodes University in 2014. His work as a scriptwriter has also been performed on the Fringe programme of the National Arts Festival in 2012 and 2013. These days he studies isiXhosa and Linguistics and continues to develop his poetry as one of the core members in the poetry collective the Cycle of Knowledge.

“We came together for the sake of sharing our experiences, our memories and our intelligence,” Onceya says, describing the principles of the collective. The Cycle of Knowledge meets every Tuesday, alternating venues between the English Department at Rhodes and the Assumption Development Centre (ADC) in Joza. “The poetry that we are doing in the Cycle of Knowledge brings the township vibe together with the student vibe,” he explains, emphasising the inclusivity and open-mic nature of the meetings where anyone is free to join in and share their work.

“Poetry is something very strong and to me it is something that can lead the world,” Onceya says, coming back to his first love. His hands reach out again, drawing me in to better understand what this art form means to him: “It is something that is very unique when you start to understand why you are here, what is the purpose of your life.”

Watch the video here:
4.15 – Poetry performance
8.45 – Activism



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