Born in Egypt, and orphaned at the age of two, Tatamkhulu Ishmael Afrika (as he is today known) was raised by a white Christian family in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1950, with South Africa's adoption of an apartheid regime, he (controversially) appealed against his classification as 'white', and joined the 'colored' community.

After his first arrest in 1964, Afrika converted to Islam, taking the Muslim name Ishmael. He went on to found the militant group Al-Jihaad ("The Holy War"), and campaigned against the apartheid regime as a member of the ANC (African National Congress), under the codename Tatamkhulu Afrika ("Grandfather of Africa", roughly). Arrested again in 1987 for 'terrorism', he was banned from writing or speaking in public for five years, during which time he published poetry under his codename. Shortly afterwards, he changed his name by deed-poll, adopting an entirely African identity.

Today, Tatamkhulu Ishmael Afrika is a well-known poet and writer, and a hero of the South African apartheid era. He has won numerous literary awards, including the CNA Debut Prize (1991) and the Thomas Pringle Awards (1991 and 1993). His poetry is particularly potent in its expression of the frustrations of a generation, rendered with an African flavor in a manner familiar to a more Western audience.

To me, growing up amid entrenched racism in the Middle East, Afrika's poetry was both fascinating and inspiring, as befits such a colorful personality. Now in his 80s, Afrika lives in a small wooden hut in Cape Town, and in the interviews I have watched comes across as a pleasant if eccentric old man. Hopefully, the recent addition of his poem Nothing's Changed (which I've included below in full) to the NEAB GCSE syllabus will go some way to educate Westerners about the dangers of prejudice, the complexities of life outside their own sheltered environs and the life and works of this astonishing man.

The following poem is, according to Afrika, entirely autobiographical, inspired by a visit he paid to an area known only as District Six. Formerly a mixed society, rich in many cultures and home to members of every social class and ethnic grouping, this region was declared 'white only', and razed to the ground after the re-settling of most of the inhabitants.

District Six was never fully redeveloped.

Nothing's Changed
Probably written around 1990.

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust
bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering, amiable weeds.

District Six.
No board says it is:
but my feet know,
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man's cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table's top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it's in the bone.

I back from the glass,
boy again,
leaving small mean O
of small, mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing's changed.

    -- Tatamkhulu Ishmael Afrika

©1994 Tatamkhulu Afrika
From: Maqabane
Publisher: Mayibuye, South Africa
ISBN: 1 86808 232 6

NEAB Anthology 2000/2001

A picture of Tatamkhulu Afrika can be found at

I feel I should update this to note that Tatamkhulu Afrika died on 23/12/2002, as a result of injuries he sustained after being knocked over by a car two weeks earlier. I hear he left behind (among other works) an unpublished autobiography. I imagine it would make a fascinating read.

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