Profile of Mongane Wally Serote
Mongane Wally Serote was born in Sophiatown, north of Johannesburg, in 1944. He attended school in Alexandra. The political conditions of the time led him to develop an interest in the Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy and the anti-apartheid struggles of the day. Upon leaving school, Serote began working as a journalist.
More widely known as “Wally”, Serote is generally regarded as one of South Africa’s pre-eminent poets and writers. He is renowned as one of the Soweto poets who embodied the literary revival of black voices in the 1970s. Serote’s poems projected a stark and realistic picture of the apartheid regime. His resistance to the unjust regime extended outside of poetry through active involvement in political resistance by joining the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1969, Serote was arrested and detained without trial in accordance with the regime’s Terrorism Act. During his entire incarceration, he was kept in solitary confinement.
In 1973, after having published his first anthology of poems called Yakhal’nkomo the year before, Serote won the Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize. The following year, he was granted a Fulbright Scholarship and travelled to Columbia University to complete a master’s degree in Fine Arts.
His poems, particularly those from his first two anthologies, have been lauded as pivotal to the rise of the BC movement in South Africa. His later poetry was replete with images of violent revolt against the oppressive regime.
After Serote returned from his studies in the United States of America in 1979, he chose to go into self-imposed exile in Botswana. Once in that country, Serote continued his resistance against apartheid, largely through the work he did by joining the Medu Arts Ensemble. Medu, formed in Botswana in 1977 by South African exiles who included, among others, known exile artists such as Thami Mnyele, saw its aesthetic and cultural approach as rooted in the strands of South African resistance and sought to uphold and affirm African culture, building upon the work of cultural organisations such as Staffrider (which was barely a year old in 1978) and recently formed community arts structures.
In 1986, Serote relocated to London where he began working for the ANC’s Department of Arts and Culture.
Serote eventually returned to South Africa in 1990, shortly after the ANC was unbanned. In 1994, he served as a chairperson of the Parliamentary Select Committee for Arts and Culture.
Mongane Wally Serote spent his lifetime expressing the injustices and harsh realities of life for black people under apartheid. His work has inspired, and continues to inspire generations of youth throughout South Africa, Africa and the world. His contribution to the South African literary arena has been invaluable. His thought-provoking poetry not only expressed the effects that oppression had on South Africans, but it also stands as a timeless body of work that marks an important period in South Africa’s history.
Serote was appointed to oversee the construction of Freedom Park, a national monument, situated in Tshwane, for the heroes and heroines who died in defence of South Africa and in the struggle for freedom. The monument is still under construction and the process continues to benefit from Serote’s outstanding knowledge and leadership. He is currently the chief executive officer of the Freedom Park Trust, where he continues his tireless efforts towards improving the lives of South Africans in the realm of arts and culture.