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Vonani Bila
(South Africa, 1972)   
 
 
 
Vonani Bila

The fifth in a family of eight children, Vonani Bila was born and grew up in poverty-stricken Shirley Village, Limpopo, where he walked 14 kilometres daily to Lemana High School in Elim. He went on to study at Tivumbeni College of Education and hoped to join Umkhonto we Sizwe until the death of his father necessitated a change of plans. Bila is the founder of the Timbila Poetry Project, which has published a series of poetry collections and the literary journal Timbila. He has been instrumental in getting the works of marginalised poets into circulation and has been a nurturing inspiration for aspiring poets, holding workshops and actively encouraging new voices.

A poet writing in English and Tsonga, Bila has performed in Belgium, Sweden, Holland, Ghana and Brazil, and has authored eight storybooks in English, Northern Sotho and Tsonga for newly literate adult readers. In 2005, he was nominated for the Daimler Chrysler 2005 South Africa Poetry Award.

Bila describes his father, Daniel, as a gifted singer, composer and player of the timbila (African thumb piano), and his mother, Fokisa N’wa-Mahatlani, as an astute historian and teller of tales. The gifts he inherited from both parents are richly evident in his own poetry, which addresses issues such as the failures of the government to deliver on the promises that were made at the dawn of democracy, abuse of child and women, and the tragedy and state neglect of HIV/AIDS.

On the subject of poetry in South Africa, the poet Gabeba Baderoon writes, “The reality of contemporary South Africa is tough and expensive, often violent and sexually predatory, often fatally xenophobic. South African poetry deals directly with these realities. Vonani Bila writes in ‘Horrors of Phalaborwa’ of the murder of a farm-worker by a white farmer, who threw the former’s body to lions . . . [his] performances are only transcended by the quality of his writing. Incantatory, attentive, a poet of searing honesty who did not leave behind his critical eye with the end of apartheid but also measures the brutalities of the present. Yet, he is also a poet of patience and gentleness, and his meditation on the love story of a political activist is unforgettable . . . Bila [proves that] politics is alive in South African writing, but its domain is longer than the struggle.”

Bila is outspoken about the cult of mediocrity that he perceives in local performance poets who mimic US ‘thuggery’ at state and corporate functions, and the commodification of poetry in general in the new South Africa. He sees himself as a patriot, even – and especially – when he is speaking out about the injustices in South Africa. “Some poets are happy to be commissioned to write about brands and labels,” he says, “I’m not such a clown. They demand to perform at government functions, and they are paid good money.”

Gary Cummiskey, poet, journalist and independent publisher, echoes Bila, writing, “Thankfully for South African poetry, Bila is no performing puppet and nobody’s clown.”

© Liesl Jobson

Bibliography

No Free Sleeping, Timbila Poetry Project, Elim, 1998
In the Name of Amandla, Timbila Poetry Project, Elim, 2004
Magicstan Fires, Timbila Poetry Project, Elim, 2006
Handsome Jita: Selected Poems, UKZN Press, Durban, 2007

Links
Vonani Bila's poems online at Botsotso

Vonani Bila’s poems online at Southern Rain Poetry

Interview with Vonani Bila and Michelle McGrane

Article on independent publishers in South Africa, including Timbila Poetry Project

Launch of Handsome Jita

{a href="http://www.ukznpress.co.za/book.php?action=displaybook&conf[bookid]=303" title="Handsome Jita homepage"}

 



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