Sunday, 1 November 2009

Nothing's Changed

'Nothing's Changed' is the expression of Tatamkhulu Afrika's opposition to the system of apartheid in South Africa, under which black people were denied many of their basic rights, and were not allowed to mix freely with white people. Afrika was actually born in Egypt but went to live in South Africa as a young child. Here he returns to South Africa after the apartheid system had been abolished, but finds that black people still do not have equal rights.

The first of the seven stanzas takes the form of a single sentence that spans eight lines. The opening line of the second stanza tells us that the first stanza is a description of District Six, a run-down area of the city of Cape Town. The poet walks through stones, grasses, rubbish and weeds that he sees as 'amiable', or friendly. In three instances the verbs 'click', 'thrust' and 'crunch' are emphasised by their position at the end of a line.

In stanza two, the poet tells us that there is no sign to say which district this is, but he knows instinctively that it is District Six. His recognition of the place is conveyed through a list of parts of his body that know exactly where he is: 'the skin about my bones, / and the soft labouring of my lungs'; repetition of the pronoun 'my' reinforces his personal experience of this place. The final two lines of this stanza introduce the first sign of his intense emotion: 'the hot, white, inwards turning / anger of my eyes'.

The third stanza describes a 'new, up-market' restaurant that is for white people only. The opening word of the stanza, 'Brash', tells us immediately how showy this place is (and, ironically, 'brash' can sometimes mean white-faced). The alliteration in the phrase 'flaring like a flag' in the following line continues to convey the idea that this restaurant asserts itself even in its name. Amongst the weeds, pine trees (Port Jackson trees) are beginning to establish a more sophisticated look for the surrounding area. The restaurant offers 'haute cuisine' (high-class, elegant food) and the presence of a guard is necessary to ensure that only white people enter.

Stanza four is the mid-point of the poem and draws attention to itself since it consists of just two lines: 'No sign says it is: but we know where we belong'. Again, the poet does not need a sign to spell out what type of place this is. Using the pronoun 'we' shows that he identifies with the black people, even though he was not one of them by birth.

In the fifth stanza, the poet continues to describe the restaurant. He knows what he will see inside it, but presses his nose 'to the clear panes' to confirm his suspicions. Everything is superior: 'crushed ice white glass', a linen tablecloth, and a rose on each table.

The penultimate stanza sets up a sharp contrast whereby Afrika introduces 'a working-man's cafe' just a little way away from the restaurant. Here, bunny chows are served: half loaves of bread are scooped out, filled with curry, and this is then eaten with the hands by dipping in the scooped out bread. Nothing could be further from the images of the third and fifth stanzas, as the workers sit at plastic tables, wiping their hands on their clothes, 'spit a little on the floor'. The last line here, 'it's in the bone' tells us that these people behave like this instinctively, never having entered a place where that kind of behaviour would be frowned upon.

The final stanza returns us to the up-market inn, or restaurant, and the poet moves back from the window, feeling that he is back in his childhood days at the time of the apartheid system. He still feels the same anger against that system, and has a fierce impulse to smash the glass: 'Hands burn / for a stone, a bomb'. The reason is obvious from the poem's final line, reiterating the title, 'Nothing's changed.' The black people of this region are still treated as if they are inferior.

This is a strong, politically emotional poem in which Tatamkhulu Afrika, although not black himself, speaks out against the injustice of the system of government in South Africa. His use of sharp contrast between the eating places of the white people in a classy restaurant and the black people in a working-man's cafe makes his message strike home with a direct forcefulness, and we sense his anger running through the poem's seven stanzas.

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