Poetry – Nothing’s Changed

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 was unquestionably one of the world’s defining moments of the last half a century. It helped unite a nation, helped to regain its global status after years of inequality, and most importantly it served as the ultimate confirmation that the Apartheid regime was finally on its way to coming an end.

The isolation, segregation and indeed persecution of the non-white South Africans and anybody who felt opposed to the regime is among the saddest examples of the cruelty of humanity in recent times, since the Holocaust. But in freeing Mandela came a degree of redemption, a chance to put the horrors of the past behind them and build a culture of universal respect.

Of course, some who were hardened by the Apartheid found the whole thing difficult to accept and struggled to make the transition from discriminatory society to an equal one. That was the country’s biggest task at the outset of the new era, and Mandela made his aim to unite the entire nation after he became President in 1994.

‘Madiba’, as he was affectionately known by those who felt close to him, was a revolutionary of the positive variety, and in some cases a miracle worker. South Africa certainly became a better country upon his freedom and subsequent leadership, but he was never going to make everything perfect.

At the time of his death in December 2013, the outpouring of tributes to Mandela was quite overwhelming and rightly so. Only very few people have changed their country so massively, and for the better.

There is still plenty of work to be done, such as lowering the level of crime that still exists in the far from luxurious inner-city regions of cities such as Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, but Mandela will forever be a legendary figure and we all hope that it will be in his name that South Africa continues to make progress on the human rights front.

The end of Apartheid was far-reaching, but its legacy still lasted in some areas including the infamous District Six, which saw over 60,000 non-white residents forcibly removed by the governing regime during the 1970s. Soon after becoming President, Mandela allowed many of those people to return.

Somebody who was vociferously opposed to Apartheid and felt that its aftermath had failed to produce the desired reform was the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika, who refused the right to be classified as a white South African as a matter of principle. Soon before his death in 2002, he released a work called ‘Nothing’s Changed’, where he ruefully claims that the end of Apartheid had done little to alter the inequality within District Six.

He does this by comparing the facilities on offer to the white South Africans, which are full of upper-class and lavish features, while the ethnic groups have to make do with a poor quality of a life and significantly fewer provisions. Afrika states his desire to bring down this establishment by any means possible, but ultimately seems powerless.

Here is the poem in full:

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering,
amiable weeds.

District Six.
No board says it is:
but my feet know,
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.

I back from the glass,
boy again,
leaving small, mean O
of small, mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing’s changed.

This was the first poem I studied as part of my GCSE Anthology, and it introduced me to a style and a realism that I had never come across before. It was hard-hitting, and really put you in Afrika’s shoes, imagining the setting in front of him, picturing the said ‘whites-only inn’ and its juxtaposition with the adjacent working man’s cafe.

It is this juxtaposition – and the repetition within the second stanza – that makes this poem technically brilliant. Afrika paints the picture superbly, emphasising the disparity between the two communities. He avoids sweeping statements, just sticks to simple nouns to describe the scene he witnesses every day, and how he wants to destroy it.

It is worth reiterating that this poem was reflective of the feelings of one – though reasonably influential – South African. Others may have felt differently about the situation at the time, but the work also proves that there was still a long way to go for the rainbow nation to achieve total equality in terms of human rights, and as said before they are still on the road to doing that now, 22 years after the end of Apartheid.

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