South African poets – Two poems about women

The Woman at the Till by Tatamkhulu Afrika

She had a plain, hard face,

A head thrusted forward like a hawk’s.

Impossible brass triangles,

Improbable steel manacles

Cluttered her thin arms.

Clearly, she had little love for the world:

She had learned, though,

That she would not win,

So she did not throw your change at you,

Nor did she press it in your palm,

But placed it, sullenly,

On the counter in between.

She would wrap your purchase languidly,

Yet fast enough to cut off an complaint,

And when she had her punch-up with the till,

It was an exercise in ferocity,

Delicately restrained.

She was what we call “Maboer”,

A low white trash,

AWB most probably,

Slouching barefoot in Boksburg or Mayfair West.

I did not feel any particular hate for her,

Perhaps because I was what

She would call a low black trash,

Which made us quits.

And then I noticed that

She did not look at or thank

Anyone, black or white,

And such indiscriminating unsociability

Won her my respect!

But then one day a brazen clash

Of colours drew my eyes

From their customary casting down,

The ritual bartering of cash for cloth,

The careful I-do-not-see-you stale pretence-

She had bought herself a brand-new blouse,

A rioting of palms and psychedelic birds,

A raw extravagant, revolutionary thing,

As African as I.

I exclaimed in wonderment I could not hold in-

“What?’’ she barked,

Looking at my hands.

“I said your blouse is beautiful.”

For the first time ever she looked into

My eyes, and time stood still:

Her universe turned on an axis thin as a pin.

Then a strange and lovely tenderness touched her mouth,

A faint blush tinged her dead-white skin:

“Thank you,” she said, and smiled.

About Tatamkhulu Afrika

Novelist and prize-winning poet, Tatamkhulu Afrika (Xhosa for Grandfather Africa) was born in Egypt in 1920 and came to South Africa as a young child. He was a veteran of World War 2 and, as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), was active in the South African freedom struggle.

His first novel, Broken Earth was published when he was seventeen (under his “Methodist name”), but it was over fifty years until his next publication, a collection of verse entitled Nine Lives.

He won numerous literary awards including the gold Molteno Award for lifetime services to South African literature, and in 1996 his works were translated into French. His autobiography, Mr Chameleon, was published posthumously in 2005.

You can read more about Tatamkhulu Afrika here:

The Zulu Girl by Roy Campbell

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by the flies.

She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled,
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks.

His sleepy mouth plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:
Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple
Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.

Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
An old unquenched unsmotherable heat –
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.

Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.

About Roy Campbell

Durban born, South African poet, Roy Campbell was considered by T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell to have been one of the best poets of the period between the First and Second World Wars, and is recognized in South Africa today as one of the best poets the country has ever produced. Fellow South African poet Uys Krige described him as “the most poetic of poets” and believed him to be a perfect example of how the true artist could, ignoring all obstacles, dedicate his life to his art. He was a swashbuckling adventurer and a dreamer of dreams, as well as an individualist who attracted controversy. His vocal attacks on Marxism and Freudianism, popular among the British Intelligentsia, and his stance in the Spanish Civil War, along with his satire of colonial life in Natal, isolated him from many would-be supporters of his work at the time.

Credit: If you follow the link you can listen to an interesting 30 minute video about Roy Campbell.

What did you think of these two poems? Which one did you prefer? Let me know in the comments.

68 thoughts on “South African poets – Two poems about women

  1. Both poems are amazing, like their authors but oh! The first one touched me deeply it was wonderful.
    It makes me see how far I am from being a true poet. Something to strive for!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Rebecca, thank you very much. I am delighted to know that. I am pleased to share some South African poems and poets. We have a lot of talent in this country. I learn from your posts too. I don’t know that much about Canada and I am thrilled to learn more.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lately, I’ve been thinking that I need to become more familiar with South African literature. (I’ve just read Nadine Gordimer.) These two poets give me a good start; I’ve added them to my reading list. I like both poems equally well. Will you be featuring more South African poets?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HI Liz, I am glad you enjoyed these. I enjoyed them because both scenes are familiar to me. I am planning on sharing more South African poems, including some form the Anglo Boer war and some ‘struggle’ poems. I am so pleased you are interested.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. I also enjoy studying literature from a regional perspective, which provides additional insights. I took Southern LIterature (US, of course, not hemisphere) in college. Now, I’m thinking that I wish I could have taken regional literature courses that focused on regions in the Southern Hemisphere.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Some things are better done as self study, Liz, otherwise we would be an Uni forever. I was going to do an economics degree but all the courses covered things that didn’t interest me and not everything that did interest me so I resorted to self study and wrote my several publications about listing and investing in Africa.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. That must have been challenging. The majority of my courses were English and history, and they were all taught in the lecture format. I loved it! Going to class was like sitting down with someone and listening to him or her tell me stories.


  3. They both read Tennyson. The first was a very short, well drawn screenplay dismissed by the adverbial cop outs. Not too familiar even with early 20th Century poetry that was adverb laden. Could have been Hemingway without them. The second was more traditional western rhythm and rhyme with dead on language. I would put the second in the folk art category and can see why the praise. The first, while a great story, reads almost like propaganda. Which fits. Both poets voices grounded in their experiences and endeavors.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. And you know, dang, I wanted to get back to you on the audio book thing – Because 10 my opinion isn’t the only one, and 2) to have a reason (for me) more than an opinion. I like to see whatever it is in print because I like to see the mechanics, good or bad. I can back up with my eyes and find the speed bump or a well-drawn device much easier than I can go “Huh?” and hit rewind. After a lifetime in the production and delivery of audio product I can easily see the usefulness and attraction of audio books for others with dissimilar personal requirements. Hey, I once had to hire 8 different voice talents to do a forklift safety video for international distribution. Talk about trying to figure inflection… Carry on. Write well and often!


  4. It does not seem like propaganda at all to me. Why do you think that? Because people actually see each other’s humanity despite their differences and you think that can’t really happen?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robbie, thanks for sharing these poems and talented poets. I love stories told through the rhyming prose. I may have to give it a go. Hugs xx


  6. I like both for different reasons, fascinating that ‘men’ so artfully describe ‘women’ … are there no female poets there? The first resonates deepest.


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