ONE OF THE ingredients necessary in every generation is a voice of fire. Particularly if it is a generation beset by hurt. Sandile Dikeni had that inimitable quality. A poet, an arts editor and a man of words who originated in a thirsty Karoo hamlet in an apartheid-stained country, Dikeni died from tuberculosis on 9 November 2019. He was 53.
The grandson of a woman who was burnt to death because she dared to speak her truth, and the son of a man who was falsely accused of poisoning the town’s water supply in the early 1960s by the apartheid government’s Special Branch, Dikeni was hard-wired from the get-go to engage with anger and injustice.
Described by the late poet, Peter Horn as an individual who represented the generation after poets of the ilk of Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Serote and Madlenkosi Langa, Dikeni had the courage and the wisdom and the chutzpah to reach to the nub of apartheid’s zeitgeist and bring it out for all to imbibe.
Born on 22 April 1966 in Victoria West, Dikeni attended the University of the Western Cape and attained a journalism diploma from the Peninsula Technikon in the 1980s.
His poem ‘Guava Juice’, a parable that engaged with Molotov cocktails pirouetted him from anonymity at university to the forefront and headlines of the student representative council of the time. His peers recognised that he had important things to say.
The times were turbulent and terrifying as apartheid neared its peak; in the 1980s, because of his incendiary anti-apartheid words, Dikeni was detained without trial at the Lwandle Police Station in Cape Town and Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape. But this period of incarceration was an incubation for him: It was then and there that he started writing poetry.
His three anthologies, Guava Juice (Mayibuye Books, 1992), Telegraph to the Sky (UKZN Press, 2001) and Planting Water (UKZN Press, 2007), hold the magic of his talent. Dikeni’s other gift was spoken language. When he recited his own – or others’ – words, they came to life in a way that was timeless. He performed at political rallies, voicing his work and strong opinions against injustice.
During the 1990s, he worked as the arts editor on publications of the ilk of Die Suid-Afrikaan, the Cape Times and This Day SA. Apartheid was not yet completely dismantled, and it was unusual for a black poet to be appointed in this type of role. Indeed, most people employed in editorial capacities in the newsrooms were white; Dikeni’s presence sparked controversy and backlash. But that did not allow him to detract from his work. Colleagues remember Dikeni as one who could take the piss; one who could make them laugh; but one whose grasp of political injustice was tough as nails. For many, he was considered one of the bravest people in journalism during that transitional time for the country.
Dikeni had one sister and four brothers. In 2005, he was the sole survivor of a very bad car accident. He injured his brain irrevocably and was cared for, for 14 years, by his sister, Nomonde.
His death of tuberculosis is poignant: he lost Phri, one of his brothers some 15 years earlier from the same terrible illness. His poem ‘Track of the Tracks’, mourns the immensity of the loss of this beloved sibling.
Dikeni’s message in his poetry, which was often violent to the touch, defined a means of articulating anger for a generation of young South Africans who had been abused by apartheid values.
Dikeni leaves his sister, Nomonde and his brother, Leslie as well as many good friends and thousands of people who were deeply moved and inflamed by his beautiful proactive poetic words and calls to action.
Jessica Joubert, in 2021, was a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She took part in VIT-101, a course which focused on arts writing, given by Robyn Sassen.