Born with Clenched Fistsby Brandon Edmonds / 14.11.2011
Tumelo Khoza, a mere 22 come December, is a beautiful religious poet who wrote a poem called “Democracy” that suggests she may just be that rare thing, a truly fearless national voice. “I was inspired by the news,” she emailed me. “The politics in our country and the kids who are growing up in this new South Africa, the people in rural areas and those who just don’t care anymore.” Her lines really resonate.
Our parliamentary authorities / who lift the clenched fist of revolutionary hypocrisy
Mahala: That’s strong stuff. What does this hypocrisy entail? Do you feel betrayed by the ’94 compromise?
Tumelo Khoza: Instead of moving forward, we seem to be pushing to turn the tables on our former oppressors, which is a waste of energy. It’s limiting. I don’t feel too betrayed by ’94. Mandela tried. My pastor, Winston Mashua, once told me, “Change does happen overnight, it’s the consequences that take time.”
Obsessed with the honey of money / that stings the BEEs / it’s no wonder our flag is forever asking Y endlessly
How has the ‘honey of money’ destroyed what was best in the liberation movement?
Tumelo Khoza: People are becoming so selfish. The race to personal riches is blocking out the bigger picture. We need to move forward. To focus on what matters. What people need. Without forgetting where we come from. Okay your father raped my grandmother and she aborted what could have been the next president of our country. We can argue about that forever. Or we can focus on not landing ourselves there again. There is so much courage and achievement in this country. The child who grows up under difficult circumstances and surpasses all that hinders them. Who grows up without arrogance or shame. Proud of where they come from. Who they are. They return to better their communities. It happens. Everywhere you look, alongside the problems, mixed in with them, there is growth and positivity.
Tumelo grew up in Eshowe, a small town in northern KZN. Her parents both taught. After her dad died, her mom raised the family. “I was a hardcore tomboy,” she says. “Loved wearing baggies and cutting my hair short.” Poetry got to her early in Grade 4. “I found it fascinating that you can write what you feel and express it – especially because I come from a background where you aren’t allowed to answer back.”
She was introduced to hip hop at Eshowe high school. “I chilled with the Grade 11 guys who expressed themselves through ciphers and battles and poetry.” She makes ends meet at an admin job Monday to Friday. “After hours and on weekends, I travel, perform, write and rehearse.” She’s always on it. “I practice in the mirror, in the shower, walking down the street, and just before I go to sleep. I even practice when I eat – everywhere, all the time.” This is a calling. “Taking up the call just happened; I never planned for it to happen. It’s a gift God placed in my hands at birth. We are born with clenched fists, carrying our gifts, and as we grow, they unfold.”
What’s striking about her work is how love and relationships, both with God and boyfriends, outpace her blackness. Where too many performance poets fetishize race and make it a catch-all category to explain everything, Khoza seems to be pushing beyond it. “I’m over race,” she says. “We are all human beings.”
Way back in 1990, Albie Sachs famously called for a liberal-humanist culture free of the joyless strictures of Struggle: “What are we fighting for but the right to express our humanity in all its forms, including our sense of fun and capacity for love and tenderness and our appreciation of the beauty of the world? Let us write better poems and make better films and compose better music.” It’s depressing how much that last bit still applies. District 9, Freshly Ground?
Tumelo Khoza, at least, is exploring her ‘capacity for love and tenderness’. Khoza’s spirituality, like William Blake’s, is fresh, frank and sensual. In one poem she imagines both she and her lover swallowed by God and they “swim through his bloodstream”. In another poem “we smoke cone spliffs with fallen angels so that they feel high”. There’s sweet cosmic playfulness to Khoza’s work. “Sex is easy,” she writes. She means giving in to temptation. “It’s easy compared to going against your human nature,” she tells me. “Which is naturally rebellious.”
It’s not all great of course. She’s 22 in December. There’s some growing to do. A lot of the work is sophomoric and weak (“I want to remove your sunglasses / And ask why you walk around disguised”), lines that have been done better, ideas that want experience – but there’s no denying her clarity or commitment. “Tumelo means faith,” she says. “I write because I seek healing, answers, to release my frustration and find joy. I trust the poetry to speak for itself.”