Mi S’dumo Hlatshwayo (1951) grew up as an “illegitimate” child in a working-class household in Cato Manor, Mkhumbane – a sprawling shack settlement in Durban. His family’s poverty caused him to leave school by Standard 7 and search for a job.
As he said all his dreams were sunk: “…I wanted to be a poet, control words, many words, that I may woo our multi-cultured South Africa into a single society. I wanted to be a historian of a good deal of history; that I may harness our past group hostilities into a single South African history … After 34 years of hunger, suffering, struggles, learning and hope, I am only a driver for a rubber company” (FOSATU Worker News, June 1985, no.35).
Not looking back
He continued his self-education by reading whatever came his way: from Biology primers to isiZulu history books. He learnt about poetry through the eChibini (or St John’s Apostolic Church) which was famous for its healing rituals. He had joined the church after being healed from a serious illness. In that independent African church of the poor, he experienced for the first time in his life a community of concern and care. He also experienced in the church’s emotional gatherings his baptism in “words of fire”: the lay-preachers, men and women who were imbued a prophetic and messianic vision, had integrated the imbongi tradition of Nguni poetry in their religious sermons. He was discovering there, the power of language and poetry – where Christ, sometimes a furious black buffalo cut through the shrub and gorged to proclaim his victory on earth.
He started participating in efforts to organise the Clermont community and later joined MAWU when it started organising at Dunlop Sports where he was working. But, if anything, it was the Dunlop strike of 1984 that triggered him to cultural action.
After hearing Qabula perform his izibongo of FOSATU, he realised that one did not need to be somebody from the university to write poetry. In fact, he was schooled through the church in the tradition himself, without knowing it before. He composed ‘A Black Imamba Rises’ to praise the Dunlop workers’ struggle. He then joined Qabula and others to form the Durban Workers’ Cultural Local.
He has since composed more poems, written and directed plays and initiated many projects. In October 1985 he resigned his Job at Dunlop Sports to become the Local’s full-time cultural organiser.