n English in Africa - Written out, writing in : orature in the South African literary canon

Volume 35, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0376-8902



As described by Duncan Brown, South African orature represents "our truly original contribution to world literature" (Brown, 1). This paper explores how orature might be successfully 'written into' the South African literary canon whilst promoting recognition of its existence as an oral form. My recent experiences of the difficulties, challenges, and benefits of teaching South African orature within the Rhodes University English department, have alerted me to the urgent need for the creation of a student- and teacher-friendly anthology which would collect, re-voice, and adequately contextualise a selection of the seminal works of South African oral poets from the colonial to the post-apartheid periods. Much of this poetry already exists in print-form but, despite an increasing recognition of oral poetry through a number of endeavours such the Poetry Africa Festival, the Lentswe Poetry Project on SABC 2, the Timbila Poetry Project and others, South African orature remains marginal in the country's literary canon. It is largely absent from the curriculum in the literature departments of its universities. The need to redress this situation is crucial, but the process of setting up and teaching an undergraduate course in South African oral poetry, while possible, is complicated. The works of our most important oral poets are scattered in a variety of books, libraries, and collections. The usual process of drawing up a booklist of set texts is undermined by the stark reality that many of the books are out of print. Fully giving voice to these texts is even harder to achieve - CD and video recordings of performances (if they exist at all) are not easily accessed or disseminated.

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