Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

Third World Express: Trains and "Revolution" in Southern African poetry/Third World Express: Treine En "Revolusie" in Suider-Afrikaanse Poesie

Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

Third World Express: Trains and "Revolution" in Southern African poetry/Third World Express: Treine En "Revolusie" in Suider-Afrikaanse Poesie

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article examines political dimensions of the train metaphor in selected Southern African poems, some of them in English translation. Exploring work by Mongane Serote, B.W. Vilakazi, Demetrius Segooa, Phedi Tlhobolo, Thami Mseleku, Jeremy Cronin, Alan Lennox-Short, Anthony Farmer, Freedom T.V. Nyamubaya, Abduraghiem Johnstone and Mondli Gwala, the argument shows some of the ways in which the technological character of trains and railways is made to carry a message of political insurrection and revolution. The author shows that the political potential of the railway metaphor builds on the general response to railways evident in poems indebted to traditional African praise poetry. The article also demonstrates that political contention within different strands of the Southern African liberation movement could also find expression using the railway metaphor.

Opsomming

Hierdie artikel ondersoek politieke aspekte van die treinmetafoor in 'n verskeidenheid Suider-Afrikaanse gedigte, sommiges in Engelse vertaling. Deur die werk van Mongane Serote, B.W. Vilakazi, Demetrius Segooa, Phedi Tlhobolo, Thami Mseleku, Jeremy Cronin, Alan Lennox-Short, Harold Farmer, Freedom T.V. Nyamubaya, Abduraghiem Johnstone en Mondli Gwala te ondersoek, word aangetoon hoedat die tegnologiese aard van treine en spoorwee op verskeie wyses 'n boodskap van politieke opstand en revolusie kan dra. Die skrywer toon aan dat die politieke potensiaal van die spoorwegmetafoor voortbou op die algemene reaksie ten opsigte van spoorwee wat in gedigte voorkom wat uit tradisionele Afrika-pryssange voortspruit. Die artikel toon ook aan dat die politieke stryd tussen verskeie stromings binne die Suider-Afrikaanse bevrydingsbeweging ook deur die spoorwegmetafoor tot uitdrukking kan kom.

1. The railway metaphor

Railways have infiltrated the sensibility of Southern Africans in different ways. The title of this article is borrowed from a long poem of the same name by Mongane Wally Serote, too long to include here in full, in which the idea of the express train becomes a cognitive metaphor for the revival of the hopes and aspirations of the dispossessed in South Africa, but also worldwide. The poem culminates in the evocation of an express train roaring through the ghettos, literal and spiritual, of the third world, gathering up the energies of the people for a renewed assault on the conditions of their enslavement:

   --it is that wind
   it is that voice buzzing
   it is whispering and whistling in the wires
   miles upon miles upon miles
   on the wires in the wind
   in the subway track
   in the rolling road
   in the not silent bush
   it is the voice of the noise
   here it comes
   the Third World Express
   they must say, here we go again.
   (Serote, 1992:35.)

Serote's poem was published during the run-up to the epochal elections of 1994 which marked the beginning of South Africa's transition to democracy, but the train as a representation of political momentum, an icon of mass mobilisation and social solidarity, has been widely accepted in popular culture for many years. (1) The railway or train metaphor in its specifically political range of reference, climaxing in the idea of revolution, must be distinguished from its role in everyday language. When we say, "that train has already left the station", or "he was going like a steam train", or (of someone's argument) "it was like being hit by a train", we are using the train metaphor as part of ordinary communication, as one of those "metaphors we live by", to employ the conceptualisation developed by Lakoff and Johnson (1980). The basic features which make the metaphor cogent are the train's mass, its powerful autonomous motion, its mobile collectivity (it moves a group of people together), and its size and solidity in relation to the relative frailty of the human body. Miss the train and you are left behind. Get in its way, and you are smashed. …

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