We have just returned from six weeks in the Western Cape of South Africa and ten days exploring central Namibia, its neighbor to the north. While it is the people in all their rich diversity and turmoil that has brought me back repeatedly over the past fifteen years, this time it is the mountains, the minerals they guard, and the land they shape that dominate my memory. The southern tip of Africa wears a necklace of mountains, generally known as The Escarpment, that winds from northern Namibia for some three thousand miles past Cape Town and up to the Zambezi River at Mozambique. In Namibia this escarpment lies some seventy miles inland,allowing the accumulation of vast sand dunes over the past millions of years. No trip to Namibia is complete without a visit to the most famous red dunes at Sosussvlei, so I include it here. The dunes are composed of a quartzite sand blown in from the shore and oxidized into deep orange and red.
But sand dunes, with their exotic ecology, wildlife and vivid colors, are not the only feature of this escarpment. Namibia is also home to uranium, copper, diamonds, gold and many other precious metals and gemstones. At the other end of this escarpment, in the high country (the Highveld) around Johannesburg, lie vast deposits of gold and diamonds, not to mention deposits of coal that keep the country from turning to solar and wind power. In this region, there is an area called the Witwatersrand (“the reef of white water”), where gold was discovered in the late nineteenth century. The gold rush, along with the diamond rush around Kimberly to the west, and the mining industry it spawned, shaped not only South Africa’s labor practices but precipitated the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901. Violent struggle in South Africa bears the marks of this crucible of men and minerals to this day. So does its finance. The unit of currency, the rand, is named for this reef of gold.
Efforts toward unification and reconciliation since 1994 have labored within the shadow of this structure of exploitation and conflict. Even the popular soap opera, Isidingo, takes place around a mine (“Horizon Deep”). It is under the cloud of this history that the police massacre of mine workers took place at Marikana on August 16 of last year. Like tectonic forces, police, unions, workers, the falling price of platinum, and the Lonmin Mining Company crashed together, leaving more than fifty workers and at least two policemen dead.
Along with the murders of young 17-year old Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, which we passed through on our visit, and Reva Steenkamp, girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius, the Marikana massacre has precipitated a wave of consternation, lament, and argument about how to get the country back on track toward a more just and peaceful life. It is in that context that this poem arose a few weeks ago. Now that I am back home I can add the spoken version to this poem and my earlier one from South Africa.
has shot us
yet in chains
we washed our spears
in anger, blood, in mother tears.
Their bullets cut us
upon the ground
glistening in sweat
beneath the rand.
It rule us still
so very still
within the land.