Going to De Beers

Posted on August 30, 2015 in Essays

Review of David B. Coplan, In the Time of Cannibals, The word music of South Africa’s Basotho migrants (University of Chicago Press, 1994)

Hurry quickly people,
You know, those of Mojetla’s should take dry grass stalks:
Now you fold them double,
Now each one dig out the earwax,
And listen to the wonders and evils of the world.

Marvellous things are happening in the study of African Oral Literature. The days are gone when the subject was dominated, in Ruth Finnegan’s words, by the “study of detailed stylistic points or formulaic systems leading to statistical conclusions”. Students have dug the wax out of their ears and begun to attend to the intellectual content of performance. Thus, hard on the heels of Karin Barber’s superb study of Yoruba Oriki (I Could Speak Till Tomorrow, 1991) and Isabel Hofmeyr’s eloquent account of South African oral narrative (We Spend Our Lives as a Tale that is Told, 1994) comes David B. Coplan’s loving analysis of Basotho migrants’ sefela.

The Basotho have been selling their labour to South Africa first on the railways, then in the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg since the days when Moshoeshoe successfully repulsed attempts to absorb his mountain kingdom. Today, labour migration is the pervasive reality of Basotho life, involving 80 per cent of men and an unknown number of women for long periods of their working lives. Sefela, or to use the full name, sefela sa setsamaea-naha le separloa-thota, “songs of the inveterate travellers” (or as one of Coplan’s singers put it, “songs of those who have seen the places and the spaces in between the places”), are the poetic autobiographies of these adventurers. Coplan has recorded performances from both men and women, mainly in the shebeens of the lowland border towns where the recruiting offices are located, following up the recordings with interviews to elucidate points of meaning and form. Proving the appropriateness of the name sefela, he never found a single performer in the same place twice.

No sefela were recorded before 1975, and the history of the form is uncertain. The name links it with the self-praises of initiates on the day of their graduation (and hence to the name missionaries gave their hymns, operating on the principle that the devil has the best tunes). But Coplan shows persuasively that sefela are related to the non-chiefly self-praises commonplace throughout southern Africa, and he offers riveting exegeses of two comparable texts published by Hugh Tracey in 1959 and by H. E. Jankie in 1939. Internal evidence suggests origins in the late nineteenth century. Singers boast about walking to Kimberley. Hardly any work at Kimberley these days, and none of them walk there, but “Going to libere” (De Beers) is still shorthand for working in South Africa, and it was 1906 when the first rail link reached Lesotho. Further internal evidence is the common “set piece” describing the train journey south. Most migrants these days go by taxi, taking the diesel from the border. But sefela are full of loving descriptions of centipedes panting and belching smoke as they carry the workers south.

A typical male sefela will be 500-900 lines long, performed before a noisy shebeen audience and containing (in no special order) descriptions of his origins, his herding days, his complicated journey to the mines and his experiences there. The women, who have made the journey as brewers or prostitutes (or both), are equally resolute and individualistic in their self-praises, singing of boyfriends and gang fights and defending their life-style as useful and positive. An English poet can only envy the comprehensiveness of the form and the variety of tone and diction as the singer “shakes the nation with a song about his own experience”. Sefela can accommodate this: “These clouds cradle on their shoulders the dawn / This moon cradles on its shoulders the stars”; and this: “What do I say to you, gamblers (poets)? / I was the clerk of the toilet / Man , I was serving toilet papers / I was forever viewing the backsides of people.” One singer describes how the train taking him back to the mines passes another decorated with karosses (a chiefly prerogative) carrying a gift of oxen from South African Prime Minister Verwoerd to Chief Leabua Jonathan. In this exchange of “cattle”, he sees the whole predicament of his country and his people.

Most impressive is what sefela tell of the gold mines. It is rare for Southern African songs to take us down the mines. Chopi migodo stop at “the door of the cage”, talking of the courage needed to enter, while a popular song in Malawi considers all the possible destinations of the labour migrant but balks at “ku-Joni (Johannesburg) where there are ladders going down”. These sefela singers are bolder. One graphic poem describes a mine accident in which a hundred men died: “It’s me who survived, a cannibal of a man, / I was pulling corpses from under rocks, / People’s children have rotted; they smell, / They already swarm with maggots, / No, but these mine affairs, you can leave them.” Another, in an astonishing turn of trope, uses the paraphernalia of mining cables, ore-buckets, bad food and infested clothing, the unexploded charge left in a drill hole as metaphors for poetic composition: I (recite) as long as the cable pulling ore-buckets around the scotch-winch. I refuse (to empty) into the collecting drum, Even back down to the diggings still full . . . .
<p class=”poem”>What do I say to you, gamblers?
I am a dog’s stomach; I don’t get cooked.
I am skin with lice; I am not worn.
I am nest of mites; I am not entered.
I am like a charge that remained in the ore-face (unexploded).</p>

Coplan is an anthropologist and a former professional musician. He is very good on the popular culture of shebeens, gang warfare and prostitution. His descriptions are vivid and he packs his text with fascinating detail such as that “No17” is slang for something out of control because that’s what the label on a bottle of Lion lager reads as, when drained and upside-down. In one startling passage, he gets migrants to perform for him the dance at which handsome new recruits are distributed to the older miners as their compound “wives”. On the poetics of sefela he is less agile. His approach is thematic, but the themes are anthropological (birth, herding, initiation, migration), the songs being raided for insights into these life stages. Though his quotations are generous, it is a little disappointing that he offers only two complete texts (if the University of Chicago Press is responsible for this, then shame on them; they should be urged to publish an edited selection of the “dozens of recordings” Coplan made). In his comments on the making of sefela, he is too dependent on the rather wooden comments (wooden in contrast to his own lively style) of earlier experts, to the effect that metaphors have “both emotional and ideational content”, or that games are classified by “the perceptible qualities inherent in those modes of production”. Throughout the text, he tends to insert adjectives like “intertextual”, “hypertextual” and “metapoetic” into sentences which work perfectly well without them. These over-the-shoulder glances at postmodernism seem unnecessary in the discussion of a genre in which, if the author is dead, there’s no performance and the audience goes home disappointed. What is needed is an aesthetic which has the author alive and kicking and which gives full weight to the authority of his or her language, an authority which Hugh Tracey was the first to label “poetic licence”. It is not for nothing that these singers are known collectively as “the eloquent ones”, or individually by such sobriquets as “Wheels” (because of his rolling style of delivery) or “Mr Worldly” (because of his deployment of several languages).

Coplan concludes that “the continuing development of Sesotho as a living culture guiding autonomous social action has passed in large degree from aristocratic retainers and praise singers to the inveterate travellers”. It is hard not to have some sneaking sympathy with the Mosotho professor who complained to Coplan that “these things . . . bars and prostitutes . . . were never in Lesotho, they have been brought in from South Africa”. But with this book the ball is in the professor’s court. It is in the imagined world of sefela that Lesotho’s future, whatever it may be, is contained. As for African studies, may the gods send us many such books.


First published Times Literary Supplement, 2 June, 1995.