This dissertation rethinks the legacy of the anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko (1946-1977) in terms of his influence upon post-apartheid South African poetry. Comparing Biko's own writings on Black Consciousness and the poetry of contemporary South African poets, I show that Biko's ideas have come to underpin a field of post-apartheid poetry that I call "Biko poems."
Two questions guide this investigation. First, what is it about Biko's legacy that avails itself so potently to poetic elaboration? That is, what does Biko's articulation of Black Consciousness offer that allows it to be so vigorously engaged within poetry?
I address this question in Chapter One, positing that Biko's early essays, published under the reoccurring title "I Write What I Like," and under the pen name "Frank Talk," model a form of performative writing crucial to his subsequent poetic legacy. In particular, I discuss the manners in which these essays construct Black Consciousness as the struggle to generate black political presence, and black writing as a crucial aspect of this struggle.
I thus assert that Biko's essays fuse the struggle within Black Consciousness for black political presence with the struggle within performative writing to "make absence presence," as Della Pollock has defined performative writing. Biko's essays can accordingly be understood to open his legacy up to subsequent poetic elaboration, as they forward black writing as a key manner in which the struggle for black political presence can be enacted.
The subsequent chapters of this dissertation are motivated by a second question: if Biko's legacy allows for a potent understanding of black writing as crucial to the struggle to generate black political presence, what work does this understanding do in the present? I address this second question by examining the different manifestations of Biko's performative articulation of Black Consciousness in the work of contemporary poets.
In Chapter Two I examine the struggle within the work of Mphutlane wa Bofelo to redeem the performativity of Biko's legacy against Biko's appropriation as a symbol of elite privilege in the post-apartheid era. In Chapter Three, I examine the effort within the work of Bofelo and Kgafela oa Magogodi to leverage Biko's performativity to sanction contemporary black performance poetry.
In Chapter Four, I explore Vonani Bila's use of Biko's performativity to underwrite his development of a rural poetics. Finally, in Chapter Five, I discuss how this performative mandate to arise through self-determined struggle comes into tension with Biko's own haunting presence in the works of Bofelo, Magogodi, Bila, Bandile Gumbi and Lesego Rampolokeng. That is, I show that these "Biko poems" are propelled by their irresolvable effort to both employ Biko's performative precedent and escape it.
Collectively, then, I argue in this dissertation that Biko's performative articulation of blackness and black writing continues to animate contemporary South African poetry, as poets both leverage and struggle with Biko's haunting specter in their efforts to performatively emerge in the present.