The rise of womanism in South African praise poetry: Dismantling past traditions of patriarchy 

Praise poetry, known as ‘izibongo’ in Zulu, ‘maboko’ in Tshwane, and ‘lithoko’ in Sotho (Gunner 1991:1), is a unique form of oral literature in Africa. It is practised across the continent in various countries as a means of storytelling, historical interpretation, entertainment, political discourse, and ceremonious adulation to kings, chiefs, warriors, and other important figures (Finnegan 2012:81-83). Praise poetry is a semi-structured genre where there are loosely defined categories and functions which serve different purposes (Finnegan 2012:81-83). Both male and female Africans are involved in the art, each having their own roles to play (Finnegan 2012:83-110). An investigation into these roles leads us to question whether there is equality between the genders in this industry of performance poetry in Africa. The content of the poems also provides an indication of whether this particular art form is patriarchal or not. In this essay, I will pay particular attention to South African praise poetry to demonstrate that there is a slow shift away from patriarchy towards inclusivity. The genre of praise poetry has progressed from being predominantly male to include more female poets who have gained fame and respect across the African continent. I will begin with a discussion of the past, before addressing the current shift away from patriarchy. 

Ruth Finnegan (2012) writes extensively about praise poetry in her book, Oral Literature in Africa. From reading about the customs and traditions related to praise poetry in her book, one can notice that praise poetry functions within the patriarchal system of the culture. It does not go against the traditional beliefs of male superiority over women. The praises show that men are given more reverence than women, men are praised more often than women, and male poets supersede the number of female poets.

Starting from childhood, boys are trained to become praise poets during initiation practices. An investment is made into developing and honing their performance skills. The king’s court provides apprenticeship opportunities for potential poets. A male is chosen as the lead praise poet, called an ‘imbongeni’. His role is to work closely with the king’s royal entourage to praise the king and the ancestors. The imbongeni has a troupe of performers who also work with him; in this team there is only one female and her role is to essentially provide sound effects for the main poet. She is not given the role to perform the words or main parts of the poem. She works to emphasise the points which the imbongeni makes. (Finnegan 2012:146) Her function is limited and is secondary to the male poet. This clearly indicates a patriarchal structure within the king’s royal performance group. It is also worth mentioning that the queen does not have a praise poet of her own. 

Apart from the royal courts, praise poetry is performed in communities. There are individuals who work as freelance poets. They move from one place to another, seeking out wealthy and important people to praise (Finnegan 2012:152). The subject of their praises are usually the ones to pay them, therefore their praises are mostly given to men, as men are the ones who hold the wealth in the patriarchal communities. As Finnegan points out, “Poets naturally turn to the patronage of well-off men” (2012:153). This is yet another way in which women are side-lined from the content in poems.  Men form the bulk of the content in poems because they are the kings, chiefs, and warriors in the community. When women are praised, it is often in the capacity of being a mother. She is respected and admired for her role as a mother, and not for her individuality, career, or other achievements. Women in the community sometimes do write and recite poems, but these are usually only on the subject of domestic issues, where women might complain about problems with polygamy. Elizabeth Gunner says, “Women’s izigiyo hardly ever touch on war, and focus often on things close to their lives like money (or the lack of it) or absent lovers…” (1991:2). This reinforces patriarchy where women are limited and reduced.   

The women in the community are given the opportunity to create and perform praises in a specific setting. They are called on to give praises at funerals and memorial rites. This is the one category in which women are given the leadership role (Finnegan 2012:53). This decision, however, is based on the stereotype that women are more emotionally charged than men. This type of praise singing at funerals and memorial rites include sobbing, wailing and weeping. Finnegan states, “Certain kinds of poetry are typically delivered or sung by women, particularly dirges, lullabies, mocking verses, and songs to accompany women’s ceremonies or work” (2012:58). However, the content performed by these women praises the lineages of both the maternal and paternal ancestors, so in this regard there is equality amongst the genders. However, there are instances when the content of songs favour men and their motivations to enforce patriarchy. By taking a close look at some of the poems in Elizabeth Gunner’s anthology, patriarchal beliefs stand out as a recurring reminder of the prominence given to men over women in South African praise poetry. 

In the book ‘Musho!’ written by Elizabeth Gunner (1991), there are poems under the chapter of Men, Women and Children, which vividly describe the attitude of men towards women. Polygamy and adultery are praised amongst men. When Elias Majadu is confronted by his mother-in-law about hitting his wife, he blame-shifts onto his wife, saying that she fights him! (Gunner 1991:197). An attitude of contempt for women underlies the male-dominated culture.  Lines such as, “Fucker of the girl who was too hot and was never satisfied, whom he passed onto his brother. His brother in turn passed her onto the Mpukunyoni fellows with the heavy balls” (Gunner 1991:197), shows that men have the freedom in izibongo to speak about women as they wish, and they are spurred on by their male peers. In comparison, the poems show that male genitalia are described with honour and strength to glorify the masculine. In the poem, The Izibongo of a Young Mjadu Man, it is said, “One whose penis head has medals of honour” (Gunner 1991:199). The title of Gunner’s book itself, shows us that at the heart of praise poetry is the masculine – Musho means ‘Speak him’.    

However, scholars such as Musuko (2009) claim that there are historic poems which honour women. In her article ‘The depiction of Mkabayi: A review of her praise poem’, she references a praise poem about Mkabayi. She states that “Her [Mkabayi’s] praises bring home the point that even under difficult circumstances, women can achieve equal opportunities and equal rewards for their efforts” (Musuko 2009:130). I disagree with Musuko on this point that women are given due respect in praise poems. Musuko herself states that Mkabayi is described using male qualities such as strength and courage:

Mkabayi is addressed as Soqili, ‘Father of Guile’. This is a male salutation. She was commonly referred to as Baba, which is indicative of her importance and standing among the Zulus. This name transported her from the subservient and insignificant status of a woman, to one of a prince and later, a father figure, commanding the utmost respect and obedience. (Musuko 2009:125) 

This indirectly says that women do not possess strength and courage. The Zulu nation viewed Mkabayi as a masculine figure, and could not define her as a woman who possessed admirable qualities. It would seem that in the past, the Zulu nation could not accept that women possessed remarkable qualities, and had to be likened to men to be recognised for strength, wisdom, and courage. 

However, in recent years, there have been changes to the artistic landscape, as womanist movements in South Africa have amplified their voices through the art form of praise poetry. Poets such as Lebogang Mashile, Jessica Mbangeni, and Koleka Putuma have gained renown in the country for their poetic skills and meaningful messages. They have been taken seriously and given public platforms (on television and in other media) to showcase their works. This demonstrates that the industry is progressing to be more inclusive of women poets who can be considered as equals with male poets. Much like society in general, women are not as repressed as they were in the past, and this is noted in South African praise poetry as well.  

Jessica Mbangeni performed a powerful tribute to women on Live AMP SABC 1 in 2020. She honoured several female leaders who impacted South Africa in different ways over the past century. She praised Lilian Ngoyi, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Brenda Fassie, and other well known women. She likened them to giants and gold, and saluted them for their indomitable will. Mbageni motivated women to be strong and courageous, as she boldly and confidently performed her praise poem on stage, while being broadcast live on national television. 

Also on television, a young South African girl was awarded the honour of winning the famous show, ‘South Africa’s Got Talent’ for her praise poetry in 2012.  Botlhale Boikanyo’s poetry praises different human beings, honours Nelson Mandela as a heroic leader, and comments on aspects of life and spirituality in Africa: 

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure

It is our light and not our light that most frightens us

We ask ourselves, 

“Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?” (Boikanyo 2012)

Thank you Tata

You are my hero, my inspiration

And you make me proudly South African  (Boikanyo 2012)

Africa my roots

Africa my pride

Ohh africa

My motherland

A place so rich and gifted (Boikanyo 2012)

She was only 11 years old during the competition yet her wise words, admirable talent, and  captivating performances won the hearts of judges and voters. Botlhale Boikanyo is a perfect example of the change taking place in South African praise poetry, where girls and women get to take centre stage, have their voices heard, and be recognised for their value in society. 

Platforms such YouTube and TikTok have provided opportunities for female poets to showcase their talents without the consent of their male counterparts or society. The Internet has provided freedom of speech and expression for these women who were previously suppressed in the genre of praise poetry. Women are also free to share their thoughts and opinions on Twitter. This has opened up channels of communication for women to praise each other, support each other, and share their perspectives on topics which they were previously excluded from (such as politics, and current affairs). Lebogang Mashile has provoked thought in audiences with her commentary on politics and social injustices, while also writing poems which empower black women: 

I want to write a poem

About pretty black girls

Who don’t relax and lie their dreams away

Voices that curl

The straight edges of history

Hair thin slices of a movement

Turning the world kinky

I respect the disciplined silent screamers

Who expose the holes

Emily Dickinson, I am climbing through

To your wooden shed of isolation

Where the robin’s song

Robbed you of your sanity

I revere people to my own detriment

Perhaps you did too

But when I enter your hallowed hearth

Please don’t turn me away

I want to show pretty black girls

How to look at their hearts

With eyes blaring at full blast

The way you did

Together we can build a bridge

To the promise in their faces

And pull them towards poems

By pretty black girls

Wearing crowns of change (Mashile 2017) 

In this poem, Mashile encourages black women to be a part of the movement that causes change in society by empowering women to love and respect themselves, while building a better future for women. 

I conclude that in the past, praise poetry on the surface, looked like a free genre involving all genders, but on closer inspection revealed an underlying structure which reinforced patriarchy in South Africa. Female poets in the royal courts, freelance female poets, and women in the community were assigned separate functions which were subordinate and supportive to male poets. Women’s voices were restricted and reduced based on the topics of praise which they were allowed to speak or sing about. A clear distinction existed in praise poetry, by way of gender roles about who performed what and how, and within the content of the poems itself. However, modern times and the digital revolution has brought about change in this genre where women have the freedom to praise each other openly on public platforms. Whilst it is not common to see male poets praising women, several poems have surfaced where women praise and support each other. The feminist movement in South Africa, known as womanism, has aided female poets to break out of the gendered roles of the past, and step into new territory where women are given equal respect and honour as men. Whilst the genre of praise poetry may not entirely be equal yet, there is a shift taking place, which seems to have a promising future ahead for women in South Africa. 


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