Jeremy Cronin’s Cape Town

The leftist and poet Jeremy Cronin speaks on identity politics and race in South Africa's second city, Cape Town.

Basil Coetzee in a still from the music video for Bright Blue's "Weeping." He had a solo on the song.

The Winter 2008 issue of the journal, Contemporary Literature, has a long interview with the South African Communist leader and ANC MP, Jeremy Cronin.  If you know Cronin, born in 1949, who is also a very good poet (my favorite by Cronin is his book, “Even the dead”), he has been a key ideologue in South Africa’s official left. He also spent time as a political prisoner of apartheid. This excerpt, has Cronin speaking on identity politics, race and Cape Town:

… My home city, Cape Town, is unique in South Africa in that around half of its population is, to use South African parlance, “Coloured,” neither of distinctly European settler nor of indigenous African (including Khoisan) origin, but a blend of these and, importantly, also of diverse East Asian, Madagascan, and Angolan origins—the result of over a century and a half of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town is not always a popular city among many in the new South African elite, partly, I suspect, because its mixedness starkly challenges the cornerstone assumption of fixed racial identities. Anyhow, all of the above is the immediate context for some of my recent Cape Town work, like “A poem for Basil Mannenberg Coetzee’s left shoulder.”

He then goes onto to explain who Basil Coetzee was and his influence on cultural politics in the city:

… Basil Mannenberg Coetzee was an iconic tenor saxophonist in Cape Town. His signature tune, “Mannenberg,” named for a particularly tough Coloured ghetto on the outskirts of the city, was always played to great acclaim in the 1980s in political mobilizational drives (along with scratchy recordings of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”). “Mannenberg” is one of the classics of Cape jazz, a style that evokes many local sounds—Malay choirs, carnival troupes, church brass bands, the muezzin’s evening call to prayer, the dried-kelp horn of fish vendors, eighteenth-century Dutch sailors’ chanteys, and much more. My own poem evolved eclectically out of sketches and notes I have been making over the last twenty years. The white, working-class municipal swimming-pool attendant who was always high on marijuana and who liked to tell me his “philosophy of life” is there. The community organizer who, in the 1980s, was always urging us to get our “arses into gear,” and who then went on to be South Africa’s High Commissioner in London, is there. So is the trade-union organizer who avidly read Lenin and had detailed plans for a citywide insurrection that never quite happened. (The insurrection was going to be based on Coloured garment workers in factories with rather non-Leninist names—Fun Frills, Tiny Tots, Parklane Lingerie. How could a poet not fall in love with the creative energies and incongruities of all of that?) The poem, and others like it, is, I hope, a celebration of popular creativity and struggle…a struggle that has not ended.

Further Reading

Cape Town’s Inner Ugly

Patricia De Lille, one of South Africa’s most popular post-apartheid politicians, claims she tried to redress spatial apartheid in Cape Town, but the legacy of her seven year run as mayor is one of violent forced removals and a refusal to upgrade informal settlements.