‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala

One of my favourite poems by a South African poet, ‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala, is about women’s experience of street harassment, particularly black women. It is powerfully written, and makes reference to Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman put on display for entertainment in England and France during the 1810s due to her large buttocks. She was displayed in several circuses, and wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her. Thwala’s poem is about the sexual objectification of black women’s bodies, particularly by white men, drawing parallels with the ways in which Baartman’s body was perceived.

‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala

Jinne, hoekom het julle swartjies sulke mooi boude?
You hideously hiss and hoot while your
Tongue turbulently twirls twixt your teeth and your
Bulge bulbously bulges between your legs
Claiming that I should take it as a compliment
and be an accomplice and acquiesce you
a slice of the sjokolade-koek
because I am too beautiful for a black girl
and therefore should not be wearing a doek
en ek moet bly ommie-hoek
so that jou vrou en kinders don’t see
that you do not play by die boek
want swart en wit moet nooit meng nie
maar jy wil nou kroek
and I should know that my behind is all I am good for
en glad nie meer as dit ooit soek
ag nee! My skin is too dark
my English isn’t sharp
and my hair is so coarse!
But my butt…
My butt does wonders for you, of course!
So you drive past dark alleys hoping I will be there
So you can feed your fetid fetish and hope and wish that Oom Hans
Of Tant Sallie don’t see you met ‘n swartjie in jou bakkie
En as jy my sien,
You slow down and slobber
And flash me a twee-honderd-rand noot
And scream: “Kom vat meisietjie, gaan koop vir jou brood”
And you disclose your disgust
At my disapproval and drive past, while people stare at you aghast
Want jy kry dit nie man!
Dis duidelik dat ek is jou Swartjie Bartman


You can find out more about Lesedi Thwala here, where you can also hear the poet give a reading of ‘Swartjie Bartman’.


“Nobody Cares Who Wins”

This is one of my favourite poems by Margaret Atwood, in which she contemplates war and our reactions to victory and defeat. Taken from her collection of poetry, The Door.


Nobody Cares Who Wins

Nobody cares who wins wars.
They care at the moment:
they like the parades, the cheering;
but after that, winning diminishes.
The silver cup on the mantle
engraved with some year or other;
a hoard of buttons, cut from corpses
as souvenirs; a shameful thing
you did in white, hot anger shoved
back out of sight.
Bad dreams, a bit of loot.
There's not much to say about it.

That was a fine time, you think.
I've never felt more alive.
Nonetheless, victory puzzles you.
Some days you forget where you've put it,
though younger men make speeches about it
as if they had been there too.

Of course it's better to win
than not. Who wouldn't prefer it?
Losing, though. That's different.
Defeat grows like a mutant vegetable,
swelling with the unsaid.
It's always with you, spreading underground,
feeding on what's gone missing:
your son, your sister, your father's house,
the life you should have had.
It's never in the past, defeat.
It soaks into the present,
it stains even the morning sun
the colour of burnt earth.

At last it breaks the surface.
It bursts. It bursts into song.
Long songs, you understand.
They go on and on.

Fiction Fridays: Poetry

Two weeks into the year, and I have read two books and several short stories. Alas, the novels are not much to write home about – despite the fact that one was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 – and most of the short stories have been mediocre. So instead, here is a selection of my favourite poetry from this week. Once again, I have managed to inadvertently make selections dealing with the same themes: race, racism, ethnicity, identity and belonging.

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Say No, Black Woman, Say No – Gcina Mhlope

One of my favourite poems to emerge from women’s resistance to apartheid.


Say No – by Gcina Mhlope

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they call your jobless son a tsotsi
Say No

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they call your husband at the age of 60 
a boy
Say No

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they rape your daughter in detention and call her
a whore
Say No

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they call your white sister
a madam
Say No

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they call your white brother
a Baas
Say No

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they call a trade unionist
a terrorist
Say No

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they give you a back seat
in liberation wagon
Say No
Yes Black Woman
a Big No


Taken from Women Speak: Reflections on Our Struggles, 1982-1997, edited by Shamim Meer, p. 44