When people heard that Sandile Dikeni passed away last Saturday after suffering from TB, many thought immediately about Guava Juice, his almost anthemic poem which defined the angry youth of the mid-1980s.
Guava Juice was powerful - it was a metaphor for throwing petrol bombs at the police, who were hated by anti-apartheid activists because they protected and upheld unjust laws.
Dikeni riled up huge crowds at political rallies throughout the Western Cape, with many mimicking the throwing of petrol bombs.
But if Guava Juice’s raw energy captured the anger of the 1980s, when we all suspected that freedom was around the corner - all it needed was one last push, I preferred to remember Dikeni through the words of two of his later poems, when he replaced the anger with a sensitivity that captured the hopefulness and hopelessness of our democracy in a loving, almost pleading manner.
Love Poem for my Country describes the beauty of South Africa in vivid detail. Dikeni writes about the valleys and rivers, the birds, the reptiles, the baboons, the mountains, the sea, the mines and the miners.
But he also captures the unity, which many would have seen again over the past few weeks since the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup.
My country/is for unity/feel the millions/see their passion/their hands are joined together/there is hope in their eyes/we shall celebrate.
The Dikeni poem that really spoke to me was Telegraph to the Sky, the title of his second anthology. He asks us to “stay with me” as he journeys through the confusion that many people have about living in post-apartheid South Africa, where the remnants of the past impact on the present and the future.
I would feel gooseflesh all over my body when he read this poem at regular Monday night poetry sessions in Cape Town, especially his plaintive plea at the end:
Stay, so that we sing/songs from experience/we sing ideas from consciousness/and let’s cultivate destiny/from the barrenness of this,/this history./Stay with me./Shall you?/Please?
Chimurenga, with whom he worked for many years, is having a poetry session in his honour on Monday night at their “factory” in Woodstock. No doubt, someone will recite Telegraph to the Sky, but it will not be the same.
Born in Victoria West in 1966, Dikeni was more than a poet to me. He became a close friend after I appointed him as arts and lifestyle editor at the Cape Times in the mid-1990s, shortly after our country became a democracy.
It was a strange time when the so-called mainstream newspapers had mainly white staff, even though the readership did not reflect the demographics. While there was strong opposition to me appointing a black person to such a senior position, Dikeni won everyone over with his humanity, humility, infectious laughter and smile.
Dikeni never identified himself on the basis of skin colour, but he had empathy for those more vulnerable than him in our society. His empathy and hatred of race-based politics is probably what drove his anger during the 1980s and his determination to contribute to building our democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s.
He was involved in a serious car accident in 2005. He appeared to make a recovery, but he was never the same after that, often suffering from memory loss. Over the past while, he had been suffering from TB and living with his sister, Nomonde, in Khayelitsha.
Dikeni deserves to be remembered not only for Guava Juice and The Spear, another of his Struggle poems, but also for using his words to express his love for our country and asking us to “stay” with our democracy.
Rest in peace, my friend.
* Fisher is chief executive of Ikusasa Lethu Media. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher