Interview: Mbali Vilakazi, Poet And Author Of 'The Black Pimpernel' Mbali Vilakazi, the winner of our Poetry Games last year, honors Mandela's memory with a poem, "The Black Pimpernel." The title is a derogatory nickname given to Mandela in his revolutionary days. Vilakazi's poem looks toward the future: "And if we have stood on the shoulders of giants, / We are giants still / And giants, we will come again."

An Elegy For Mandela Looks Back In Mourning, Forward In Hope

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When he was a young man, Nelson Mandela cut a dashing figure; a revolutionary who by the early 1960s, was underground and known as the Black Pimpernel.


It was a nickname taken from a character in the novel set in the French Revolution, called "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Mandela, too, was a master of disguise; appearing suddenly to deliver a fiery speech, then disappearing.

MONTAGNE: As Mandela himself put it: to the annoyance of the police and the delight of the people. This week, we reached out to poet Mbali Vilakazi in Johannesburg. Last year, she won MORNING EDITION's Olympic Poetry Games. She had that revolutionary Mandela on her mind when she came to write an elegy.

And I would like to quote you just a moment from the poem before you read it to all of us. You write: This is not the time for tears nor celebration. There's a moment in which it's like this is a time to really dig in and do what Nelson Mandela would have you do, I should suppose. How do you see your generation?

MBALI VILAKAZI: What has been interesting for me is the response of just ordinary South Africans, and that speaks to how deeply ingrained he was in the fiber of our homes. We grew up with this man. He is ingrained in our personal stories, too. So the fact that he was away, I think, only served to enlarge the idea of him and what the country was going through. Even though we were young - because I was young so for me, I wanted to begin where I stand. I wanted to look back, but I wanted to also begin with a firm footing in the present, looking towards the future because as that generation that comes after all of what has happened that has enabled even me to be here and have a voice, it is now up to us.

MONTAGNE: Let's hear the poem then, "The Black Pimpernel."

VILAKAZI: (Reading) This hour upon the horizon is its own song, a dirge. But this is not the hour of yesterday. This is not the time for tears nor celebration. We have our work to do. And we have been shown: Wind of life blown without roots into exile and iron-fire grieving, blood and shackled love and those other things - those that remain undone.

We have always been reaching. Before the smoke machines and statues of bronze and invention. Before martyr and metaphor. Before the truth and the lies. Before ambiguous and surface scraped clean of complexity.

There were regular swoops on your Orlando home then. There were the workman's blue overalls and the Mazzawati tea glasses. And there was you - The Black Pimpernel. The fearsome shadow of purposeful stride, an AK-47 grip on necessity, a chauffeur's hat and your pocketful of tickeys. You have always had your way.

Black fist of words raised beyond the precipice. You bore the burden: Hammer, rock and the lime quarry in your eyes. They say it affected your sight. I am not a saint, you said. A man who seeks the hands of children in the crowd. The terrorist and the statesman. The paradox comes home, here, where we remain. Where a daughter will remember how she could not touch you. Behind the glass behind your smile.

Mortal, man, one amongst many. You led yourself and lead us to the same. And of what you could not give, we will remember that you did not take. We will make our own meaning. This hope, it belongs. It is ours. We claim it. This is the hour of tomorrow. And if we have stood on the shoulders of giants, we are giants still and giants, we will come again. Because we are all Nelson Mandela. And because the struggle continues.


MONTAGNE: Mbali Vilakazi, thank you very much.

VILAKAZI: Thank you so very, very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Her poem, "The Black Pimpernel," was written upon the death of Nelson Mandela.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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