The right to write in your mother tongue - Reflections of a wordsmith    
Thu, 11 March 2021

On Human Rights Day (21 March), the AVBOB Poetry Project focuses on the powerful link between poetry and human rights with Vonani Bila, a leading poetry light in South Africa. Bila’s personal north star has been the sacred constitutional right of all South Africans to speak in their mother tongue. The AVBOB Poetry Competition promotes and celebrates this right by publishing and rewarding poets in all 11 languages.
Bila reflects on the role of poetry in the 61 years since Sharpeville: “This is poetry’s ongoing work – to fight the tendency to self-erasure and self-annihilation, to protest human rights violations and speak up for the human rights protections and reparations that remain outstanding. Poetry offers us a place to express our full humanity, while doing the work of resistance. Poetry publication opens spaces for healing to happen – especially when it finds form in our mother tongue.”
Bila is an internationally feted poet and a publisher, translator, educator, and a proud activist for Xitsonga. Based at the University of Limpopo, he mentors writers across the land. Bila is also a survivor. The right to life as a fundamental human right touches a deep nerve, literally and metaphorically. In a robbery and attempted murder in his home in 2015, he took five bullets in front of his three children. 
One remains, lodged in his thigh. Five years later, he explains, “I walk like a crab, but I can’t run… I’ve recovered my mental state, but you can’t really measure a person’s mental capacity. Mad people can write poems too...” His humour, candour and self-reflection helped him survive. So did his anger. His poems are unashamedly mad with grief, with fury, and also with passion. Directness and vulnerability infuse his work, blending with compassion and clarity to form his unique voice. His poems appear world-wide in Poetry International WebThe Common and New England Review, and his oeuvre is explored in scholarly journals like Mediations.
His wry poem, ‘Autobiography – with thanks to Nazim Hikmet’, traces his rise to fame as a poet:

I’ve been a poet since I was 17
Poetry has been my passport to countries around the world
My poetry is published in ten or fifteen languages
It is used in foreign universities
Quoted in papers, magazines, newspapers, dissertations and books
Researchers from far visit to make films about me
But in my South Africa, in my Xitsonga, my books are foreign
And there’s no library or bookshop to keep them safe in my village
For Bila, the right to participate in the cultural life of your choice is imperative to preserving cultural identity and to remedying the historical injuries wrought by poverty, xenophobia, and history. He goes straight to the point in a Johannesburg Review of Books review of Ayanda Billie’s KwaNobuhle Overcast: “The extent of the destruction, dehumanisation, deep-seated divisions and self-hate – including self-annihilation – in under-developed black townships... shouldn’t be viewed as a shocking and isolated phenomenon.”
In a 2007 interview (Dye Hard Press blog), Bila committed to “promote writing and publishing in all South African languages, and give voice to excluded black, rural and women writers, as well as those writers and poets who say things that annoy those that wield power – be it government or business”. His commitment to protecting and preserving his mother tongue goes well beyond lip service. In 2016, after many years of compilation, he published a Xitsonga dictionary with Max Marhanele. Tihlùngù ta rixaka: dikixinari ya ririmi ra Xitsonga.

There isn’t yet a bookshop in Shirley Village, near Elim Hospital. There is, however, a writers’ retreat centre, the Timbila Writers’ Village, with a private library that keeps Vonani’s books safe. That, too, is his vision and his handwork. 
AVBOB Poetry editor-in-chief, Johann de Lange, recognised Bila, saying, “Vonani’s determined spirit and dedicated vision have greatly impacted our poetry landscape by promoting and assisting indigenous poets. His poems help to heal the divisions in the South African psyche. The AVBOB Poetry Competition’s aim is to provide a platform for writers to find their voice in their mother tongue. We hope that many poets, touched by his vision, will write and submit their poems in the vernacular to the AVBOB Poetry Competition, which opens in August this year.”
For more information on the AVBOB Poetry Competition, please visit the website: