‘Remember Sharpeville’: Radical Commemoration in the Poetry of the Exiled South African Poets, Dennis Brutus and Keorapetse Kgositsile
The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 has been widely seen as a watershed moment, marking a fundamental shift in the nature of the resistance to apartheid. Its effect on cultural production was monumental: in the face of a massive government crackdown, almost every black writer and artist of note was forced into exile. The poets who write within the long shadow of the massacre must negotiate its legacy and the fraught question of its commemoration.
This article takes as its point of focus two poems by Dennis Brutus and Keorapetse Kgositsile that address the place of Sharpeville in cultural memory. I consider the distinctiveness of the poetics of mourning and commemoration that they fashion in relation to South Africa’s most renowned elegy for the victims of Sharpeville, Ingrid Jonker’s “The Child.” I suggest that Brutus’ anti-poetic, subverted elegy “Sharpeville” re-stages commemoration as an act of resistance that is prospective rather than retrospective. In considering Kgositsile’s poem “When Brown is Black,” I examine Kgositsile’s transnational framing of Sharpeville and its location on a continuum of racial suffering, drawing attention to the significance of the links that Kgositsile forges between Malcolm X and “the brothers on Robben Island,” (42) and between Sharpeville and the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965. This paper suggests that for both Brutus and Kgositsile commemoration is framed as a mode of activism.
Keywords: Sharpeville, Ingrid Jonker, Dennis Brutus, Keorapetse Kgositsile, cultural memory, commemoration, elegy