Meet a gay warrior poet


When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, the framers of its constitution added historic sexual-orientation protections partly in tribute to the gay men and lesbians who fought to end apartheid. Get to know one such hero, the late poet/guerrilla Tatamkhulu Afrika, in an exhibit at Cape Town's Bo-Kaap Museum, near where he lived.

Afrika (1920-2002) was born to Turkish/Egyptian parents and adopted as a child by white South Africans. Fighting for the Allies in the Second World War, the man then known as John Carlton was captured and spent three years in German and Italian prison camps; his autobiographical novel "Bitter Eden," begun in prison, describes love between three men in that harsh world.

He returned to find his beloved Cape Town, long a place of relative tolerance, riven by tightening segregation. Considered white by the authorities, he got himself reclassified as Coloured so he could continue to live in his District Six neighborhood. He converted to Islam, took the Muslim name Ismail Joubert and gave what money he had to charity. Eventually, he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. When his activities got him banned from public speaking or writing, he simply carried on under the new moniker "Tatamkhulu Afrika," his ANC code name.

After apartheid ended, Afrika felt free once again to concentrate on his art. "Bitter Eden," his third and greatest novel, was published in 2002 on his 82nd birthday; days later, he died of injuries suffered in a highway accident.

Walk through the fast-gentrifying old Muslim quarter, and you can sense his devotion to tradition, faith and service, but also his frustration with the world's worship of material things, as manifest in his most famous poem, "Nothing's Changed":

Small round hard stones click under my heels, seeding grasses thrust bearded seeds into trouser cuffs, cans, trodden on, crunch in tall, purple-flowering, amiable weeds.

District Six. No board says it is: but my feet know, and my hands, and the skin about my bones, and the soft labouring of my lungs, and the hot, white, inwards turning anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass, name flaring like a flag, it squats in the grass and weeds, incipient Port Jackson trees: new, up-market, haute cuisine, guard at the gatepost, whites only inn.

No sign says it is: but we know where we belong.

I press my nose to the clear panes, know, before I see them, there will be crushed ice white glass, linen falls, the single rose.

Down the road, working man's cafe sells bunny chows. Take it with you, eat it at a plastic table's top, wipe your fingers on your jeans, spit a little on the floor: it's in the bone.

I back from the glass, boy again, leaving small mean O of small mean mouth. Hands burn for a stone, a bomb, to shiver down the glass.

Nothing's changed.

The museum is at 71 Wale Street, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town; open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission R10 (about $1.50); open with free admission on South African national holidays; closed Sundays and on Christian and Muslim holidays.

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