The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


The Heart is a Fist: Makhosazana Xaba and Poetry of Resistance    
Wed, 13 April 2022

This Freedom Month, the AVBOB Poetry Project shares the poetry of a formidable woman and former freedom fighter. Professor Makhosazana Xaba is a poet, award-winning writer, activist and academic. Her life has been dedicated to political and personal freedom. She was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University. Aspiring philosophers and poets will be rewarded by delving into her oeuvre.
Humans hold a deep desire to find the right words for any given moment that passes through us. Sadness, anger, love, joy, injustice, even emptiness – such is the gift great poets have in describing these, making us readers feel that they have cracked open our chests, and now we are seen, witnessed. For centuries, poets have harnessed the power of language and imagery – observing with clarity the various selves we inhabit and speaking truth to power, even when their voices shook.
Prof Makhosazana Xaba’s acts of resistance underpin her ground-breaking collection, These Hands, which established her as a major literary figure when the Timbila Poetry Project published it in 2005.
Xaba trained as a midwife and nurse. She returned from exile with the ANC Women’s League in 1990. At the start of the new millennium in 2000, she started writing poetry, with her work delving into critical observations of post-apartheid society as well as the continuing oppression of women’s voices and the serious issue of sexual violence.
Her essays, short stories and poetry address concerns that has persisted for so many years since freedom was won, such as the ongoing transformation of violence and racism. 
The poems in These Hands confront erasure and trauma, especially for black women, who have fought for their existence in private and public spaces for hundreds of years. Xaba’s words are raw and unflinching, while still making room for yearning. Yes, there is hunger here – hunger for assault and violence to be recognised as the monsters that they are, for women’s bodies that have been invaded to have their pain acknowledged, for the enormity and intimacy of language to encompass both the personal and political.
Xaba's advocacy and enduring message of justice is a timely reminder as we celebrate Freedom Day in South Africa. She believes it is vital to write as much as possible for future generations to understand their present circumstances and where they come from – an ancestry through words. Her title poem from her debut collection, These Hands, bears potent witness to her personal experience as a freedom fighter:
These hands have pressed buttons, knobs and switches
They have turned screws and wound clocks
Steered wheels and dug holes
Held instruments, implements and ligaments
Moulded monuments, created crafts, healed hearts.
Poetry is an effective tool to advocate for change, raising awareness about the human struggle for liberation. Makhosazana Xaba wrote poetry to be visible – to make cruelty, intolerance and brutality front and centre to those who would otherwise look away. Her refusal to disappear and the insistence of her poems are an act of resistance and, ultimately, of love.
The AVBOB Poetry Project offers poems that resonate with and bear witness to life and hope in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages. Find these treasures online at and register online to receive news of the sixth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition.

Photo credit:
Photo courtesy of Nonzuzo Gxekwa.