The AVBOB Poetry Competition | 3 South African Female Poets to Remember this Women's Month

3 South African Female Poets to Remember this Women's Month

August marks Women's Month in South Africa, commemorating the momentous event on August 9th, 1956, when 20 000 women bravely marched to Pretoria's Union Buildings in protest against the nefarious apartheid-era pass laws. The day has come to symbolise the strength and courage of women in the country, with the infamous saying "Wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo” (you strike a woman, you strike a rock) coming to symbolise the brave spirit of resistance and determination, amid even the most troubling of times.

In celebration of women's month, we reflect on three pertinent South African female poets, each of whom used poetry to reflect their truth and share their stories.

Makhosazana Xaba

Poet, author, and academic Makhosazana Xaba utilises her poetry to convey her political and socially transformative work. Originally trained as a psychiatric nurse and midwife (and an influential figure in the liberation struggle), this powerhouse literary icon worked with various NGOs worldwide. A fierce advocate for gender and LGBTQ rights, she eventually completed an MA in creative writing and has published two poetry collections (These Hands and Tongues of Their Mothers) and has been included in various short story anthologies.

Xaba believes in the importance of bringing dates and particular historical moments into her work, echoing the sentiments of Adrienne Rich that poems should be dated as "a declaration that place[s] poetry in a historical continuity, not above or outside history." Xaba's poetry speaks to future generations, sharing the vast and complex history of the country. In 2004, reflecting on ten years of democracy, she wrote the poem “Summer”. In her own words:

" A summer of colourful houses along major highways
And a summer of women in high places, making meaning

It is a summer of songs composed in blood,
tuned with guns and arranged in conversations.
It is a summer of songs I sing in swelling volumes.

Her poetry highlights the intricate entanglement of the personal and political, captivating poignantly how rights have been attained but that violent histories loom. Explore her incredible poems, and short stories (Running and Other Stories).

Although Jonker's life was taken far too soon by suicide when she was only 31, her words resonated with sensitivity and soul, reminding us to see the humanity in those around us. Madiba himself read her pertinent poem “Die Kind” (The Child) at his inauguration, saying of her impact: "She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life."

Diana Ferrus

Diana Ferrus is another remarkable South African storyteller, activist, and poet. Her work reflects on the social and political, paying particular tribute to her own Khoisan heritage. One of her most revered works is the poem ”I've Come to Take You Home”, which pays tribute to Khoisan woman Sarah Baartman who was taken out of South Africa under false pretences and forced to work at a freak show in Europe in the 1800s. She died alone and far from her family. Ferrus' poignant poem served as a catalyst to finally bring her remains home.

In 2002 a delegation, including Ferrus, went to France to fetch her remains, and she was reburied on Women's Day the same year. Themes of women's rights, slavery, exclusion, politics, and history are woven into Ferus' work, illuminating how poetry can honour the past and envision a better future.

Explore Your Poetic Voice

Each of us has a story within, and we can use poetry to share that truth. If you have ever dreamt of putting those words to paper, explore our vast poetry library, and feel inspired by the words and stories of local writers. Our poems are available in all South Africa's 11 official languages, making it a space where poetry is accessible to all.