Tatamkhulu Afrika is a white South African man who associates himself with the downtrodden black, indigenous communities of the land. He writes this poem to express his anger, resentment and pure outrage as to how nothing has changed since the abolition of Apartheid in his homeland.
After years of separation from “District Six,” the area he used to reside in, a part of the landscape where there were only black people allowed to live and congregate, he returns to find the harshness of his former landscape has not changed and although the rules of separation and apartheid have gone, the poverty of the working classes, eating their “bunny chows” is contrasted with those people of more wealth who eat in the “whites only inn” in comparative luxury. They have their “haute cuisine” meals and a “guard at the gate post” to protect their privacy, while the aging man presses his mouth and nose to the pane of glass that still separates him from the “linen falls” and the “single red rose” on the tables in the “up market” restaurant.
Because of this, his anger is first expressed in short, single word comments such as “small” and “round” and “hard” on the first line, to evoke the growing sense of outrage he feels. When delivered slowly, the anger is allowed to be shared with the reader or hearer [poetry is recited often]. These words in the first line make the reader visualise someone who is slowly, angrily, letting the words appear and as the reader goes through the rest of the poem, the intensity of this emotion increases.
In Stanza [verse] two, the words on each line begin to get longer, as the poet expresses more anger. He says that “there is no board” to tell him this is District Six, where he was brought up, but his “hands” and his “feet” and his “lungs” know where he is and it paints a picture of a man growing in his pain and misery at what he is seeing. The repetition of the word “and” at the beginning of each line adds to his frustration as if he is finding it difficult to keep calm. The pain of separation as he observes this dilemma is palpable. His sense of indignation grows as he shares that he is transported back in time to when he was a boy “leaving small mean O” on the pane of glass in the stylish whites only inn, looking inside with anguish. It comes as no surprise therefore, that his final words are ones that reflect what he would like to do next; to find “a stone, a bomb, to shiver down the glass” and destroy what for him, represents the continuation of separateness and segregation between the blacks and the whites in his homeland.
Clearly, here is a man who is angry and emotional at his return to his homeland. Seeing the black community so poor and downtrodden turns his anger into words and as his levels of pain and frustration grow and increase, his disdain at recent cultural history in South Africa is at the forefront of his writing and in this instance, he is extremely effective at sharing his emotions. The contrast between the “amiable weeds” that represent the black South African communities is made with the way the new restaurant “squats” in the wasteland of weeds, as if it does not belong there. It is evident therefore, that he is making the point that the people of the land, the ones who deserve to own and work the land are the amiable, friendly, black communities. The ones that are “incipient” with their “Port Jackson trees” that are new to the landscape are intruders in a foreign land.
Tatamkhulu Afrika, in such a short space of time, creates a pedagogical message for all who would choose to read it, in the aim of showing that nothing has changed since the abolition of Apartheid!