Devil's Peak from a descending Table Mountain Cable Car.

Letter from Cape Town

 Selina Tusitala Marsh on coconuts and colonialism.


Nearly There

There’s a poem that needs finishing. It began in London and will end in Cape Town. It started on the night of March 14 after a conversation with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at Malborough House. I had been commissioned to write and perform a poem for Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, for Commonwealth Observance Day on behalf of its 53 member states. After the Westminster gig we were invited back to one of the palaces, where I met the Duke of Edinburgh and had the following exchange:

‘Good evening, Your Highness.’

‘Yes. And what do you do?’

‘I’m a poet.’

‘Yeeess. But what do you dooo?’

‘Oh, I teach postcolonial literature at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.’

Cocking his head and holding my gaze, the Duke replied, ‘Post?

Slight smirk on his face, he then moved on down the line to other greeters.

After sharing this story with some poets, it was suggested that I record the conversation and turn it into an audio poem, capturing as many people with as many different accents saying the word ‘post’. I said I could do one better, that in July I was going to the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies conference in South Africa. There, I’d have Commonwealth representatives galore to give me their own accented enunciations of ‘post’: ‘POST!’ ‘post –‘, ‘post?’, ‘PoSt’, ‘Post!’, ‘P**T’, and perhaps even ‘!//post’ (if there were any Khoisan speakers around).

So, I’m off to Cape Town to finish a poem, write some poetry, and give my conference paper on an experiment where I apply avante garde poetry techniques (a mixture of Found Poetry, Erasure Poetry and Open Field Composition) by blacking out Albert Wendt’s classic 1977 novel Pouliuli (which happens to mean ‘black’, ‘void’ and refers to a metaphysical darkness). I’m also running a poetry workshop with Glen Arendse, a Boesman Mouthbow musician (the hunting bow is also a traditional instrument of the San Boesman – yes, think The Gods Must Be Crazy, then think again).

I’ve previously run workshops using my identity chant, ‘Fast Talking PI’, as a vehicle for cultural adaptation. It’s worked well with Somali Refugee Youth who, keeping its basic structure, had replaced it with their own Somali rhythms, sounds, metaphors and images, creating ‘Fast Talking AS (African Somalis). The audio poem was part of The Mixing Room: Stories of Young Refugees in New Zealand exhibition at Te Papa Museum for three years.  The conference workshop was given a really imaginative title (‘Workshop’) and so I’d suggested to the Head of ACLALS the title ‘Coconuts in Cape Town’ – alliteration and assonance being the Alpha and Omega of poetic oral and aural acrobatics, and cultural conundrums being its raison d’être (for the ‘Fast Talking PI’, in any case).

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the word ‘coconuts’ has largely been reclaimed by the Pasifika community from its derogative, racist context, popularised in the heyday of the 1970s when the milk-and-honey-coloured gates of immigration, formerly flung open to fill the blue-collar labour shortage of the ‘60s, were slammed shut during the Dawn Raids of the ‘70s and tightened with targeted immigration policies of the ‘80s. I still remember reading graffiti sprayed in sans serif stupid under the Kingsland/Morningside bridge: ‘go hom cocanut’ [sic]. The reclamation of the coconut, Pacific icon of cultural wealth, health and identity, is now evident in Pasifika businesses, books and multi-media resources. Siliga David Setoga’s Popo Hardware Ltd sells ironically logo-ed t-shirts, subverting commercial logos and sardonically skewering them to represent Pasifika identities.  ‘Popo’ is a Samoan word for coconut and an acronym for ‘People of the Pacific Ocean’. Self-proclaimed as the politically incorrect voice of the people, the tag line notes that ‘Popohardware is not a label. It’s an attitude.’  It’s these kinds of attitudes that centre Pasifika worldviews and stories and inform everything from anthologies like Niu Voices (Huia Publishers, 2006) taught in universities and schools (‘niu’ being the Polynesian cognate for coconut) to multi-media websites about all things Pasifika, such as The Coconet TV.

But in Cape Town, I discovered that ‘coconut’ remains off-limits to acts of agentic reclamation.  It is still used, according to Glen Arendse in communication prior to my trip, in a derogatory sense. ‘I know of no attempt locally to recuperate the term for positive popular use,’ he wrote, ‘and so it remains in use with the derogatory hooks and spikes …. So much about identity politics remain tricky in our context at present.’

According to a colleague based at the University of the Western Cape, ‘coconuts’ is a word ‘generally used by black people, to refer to a black person who has been educated in a formerly white school and who seems to have taken on the values of the “white” world. It signifies deracination and even cultural betrayal.’

Both the musician and the academic note the potential for vibrant conversations around issues the word ‘coconut’ raises.  They both mention the possibility of the term instead being used, in the words of my colleague, to ‘celebrate cultural hybridity and the ability to straddle diverse worlds’.  However, as both the musician and academic note, that time is still a long way off.  I’ll get a better indication of how far off when I get to Cape Town.


Relaxing in front of 'the line' between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

Relaxing in front of ‘the line’ between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.



I fly from Auckland (where the conveyor belt is broken and we have to manually pile our bags in the corner) to Sydney (where we are delayed two hours) to Johannesburg (where no Auckland bags arrive and my connecting flight is missed so I am put up at City Lodge for the night) to Cape Town.  Bagless and in a taxi to Stellenbosch (about a 40-minute drive) I ask the white driver about the word ‘coconuts’.  You can say ‘white’, ‘black’ and yes, even ‘coloured’ here quite unselfconsciously – everyone knows who and what you mean.  But when I use the word ‘indigenous’ it always receives a quizzical look – ‘Okay, okay, you must mean the Khoisan, but they’re long gone’, or ‘You mean the Dutch in the 1600s?’ or ‘Oh, the Khoisan? We all part Khoisan, especially with the recent land reclamation cases!’

The driver says he personally doesn’t see it as offensive but he personally wouldn’t use it (he says ‘personally’ a lot, as if it legitimises any opinion he might have in race discussions which might easily tip into being volatile). It just describes someone brown on the outside and white on the inside, like an African or a ‘coloured’ person with an education.

‘But personally,’ he says, ‘my advice to you is that even if you hear them call themselves that, it’s best that you don’t.’

Just like ‘coconut’ back home, I guess. I mean, ‘we’ can call ourselves coconut, freshy or FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), but its use is dependent on PI group membership.

My Sydney to Jo-burg transit companion, Charlene, an affable white South African photographer born and raised in Jo-burg, is more direct in her response to my question.

‘Ooo, don’t say that word my dear’, she says, leaning into me and clutching my shoulder. ‘It’s like the N word and it’s plain insulting! People are people and most of them are good and honest and friendly – I know this, I live in Johannesburg!’

But, I gently remind her, Jo-burg does have a reputation for being the murder and crime capital in South Africa. I was told only to transit through and not wear my blingy wedding ring (or to wear it diamond-side palm down) if I valued my life or my stuff – and this by South African immigrants, a number of whom have resettled where I live, on Waiheke Island (AKA a comparative ‘fantasy’ island where houses and cars are still left unlocked and where ‘fast running PIs happily do so, at night time, and alone).  These are people who walked away from their farms twenty years ago with just the clothes on their backs and what they could salvage from their bank accounts (one is now head of a medical practice; the other is mowing lawns on the island).

‘Oh, no one was forced off their farms by gunpoint! The media exaggerate! The government offered a bit of money for their farms. Those kinds of people can’t accept the changing times and what the Truth and Reconciliation process was all about. Everything is unfair for those people, they never saw that they got wealthy on unfairness. They never believed it could end.’  Charlene, with her coiffured hair, glittering shellac nails and ready smile will never leave Jo-burg, although she’s sad at the thought that one day her children – now 11- and 13- years-old – will.

Charlene then shares her exploits from her last night in Auckland with me – ‘Such a fun city! No guns!’ She clasps my knee and nudges me with her shoulder.  Her physically demonstrative behaviour strikes me as unusual from someone who looks like her (yes, strange white women usually don’t pull and push affectionately). In a pumping nightclub, she tells me, Charlene and the girls were talking animatedly in front of the bar. An ‘Asian’ woman standing behind them, waiting to place her drink order, impatiently asked: ‘Well, are you going to order or what?’

To the horror of her Kiwi girlfriends, Charlene whirled around to face the woman and did ‘the Robot’ (the 70s-80s dance craze), saying: ‘Hey, ching chong ching chong ching chong!’

She is laughing again at the memory. ‘I don’t know why they were upset with me, it was just a bit of fun!’

I say it might have something to do with calling someone a coconut in South Africa. She waves me away with her sparkly manicured nails and goes to refill our coffee.


There there

Still bagless, by Day Three I learn that I can travel much lighter than initially thought. I have ‘luxury’ accommodation (at the Oude Werf, the oldest hotel in South Africa, easily a third of Auckland’s prices and three times as nice as our nice-nice hotels), good wine (a mere $4 a glass), my red Moleskine notebook (the pages never fall out) and my red walking boots – I’m good to go!

The conference at the University of Stellenbosch kicks off with San boesman-inspired music, spoken word, and a gaggle of over 300 academics from 40 nations. But I don’t feel ‘there there’ in South Africa until I walk the land’s back and the most historically significant bits of Table Mountain National Park.  Michael, the President of ACLALS, takes the afternoon off to drive me to the Cape of Good Hope. He feels guilty about scheduling all three of my sessions on the sole allocated Tour day. I take full advantage of said guilt and we speed off to witness the clashing of the world’s two most contrasting bodies of water, the cold Benguela current of the Atlantic Ocean and the warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean. Its renowned (now non-functioning) lighthouse perches on the cliff 249 meters above the sea. Once its light could be seen 67 kilometres out to sea, but it was positioned so high that it was often covered by cloud or mist, as discovered in 1911 by the Lusitania. Another lighthouse was built below, on Dias Point, at 87 meters above sea level.



Rock Dassie on Table Mountain.


The gorgeous ascent literally and figuratively takes your breath away with over 250 species of birds, wildlife (we spotted the San boesman’s revered Eland, the largest species of deer), and diverse vegetation, known as ‘fynbos’ – Afrikaans for ‘fine bush’. Indeed, with typical lack of imaginative flare (or more kindly, literal choleric precision), the Dutch tend to name things as they see them: Dorp Street, the main road in Stellenbosch, means ‘road’; the Eerste River, which I run along, was named by Dutch settlers in 1669 because it was the ‘first river’ they came across; Stellenbosch was named in 1679 after Simon van der Stel and his settlement in the ‘wild forest’ or ‘wilde bosch’.

The town is famous for its vineyards, oak trees (planted for wine barrels which, like the first lighthouse, turned out to be a dud idea as they leaked and French barrels were imported for the job) and the Hottentots Holland Mountains – you heard me. Hottentot – the Dutch name for Khoikhoi or Khoekhoe (depending on dialect) are the autochthonous people of the place.  Khoikhoi means ‘people people’ or ‘real people’. Their tongue-clicking infused language was heard by the Dutch as consonantal clashes and ‘hottentot’ approximated the sound and entered colonial vocabulary. ‘Holland’ refers to ‘homeland’ and ironically acknowledges that once these majestic mountain ranges, this land, was the homeland of the rapidly displaced Khoisan.

Vanessa, the black walking guide I hired on Day One had eagerly shown me van der Stel’s profile in the mountain range – what I saw were bodies, lots and lots of bodies, lying down. Hottentot is now an offensive term to use. The infamous colonial displaying of Saartjie Baartman (born around 1789, and from the cattle-herding Gonaquasub group of the Khoikhoi), was peddled and showcased as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.  Baartman was bought, sold and paraded around Europe as a freak show and scientific curiosity while alive. When she died, her body was cast, dissected, and her brain and genitals pickled and displayed in jars.  Her anatomy was displayed in a French museum until 1974. In 2002, as requested eight years earlier by Nelson Mandela, she was returned to her homeland and buried.

Back to standing by the lighthouse at the Kaap die Goeie Hoop, which, even if not completely accurate in its popular geographical assignation as the Southernmost tip of Africa (that’s Cape Alguhas, 150 kilometers away), Cape of Good Hope is the point where ships begin to travel more eastward than southward. Like Cape Reinga, you can see the current turn back against itself and on clear still days, Michael says you can see a line.

Seeing lines is what such trips are about.  With kids, cats, in-laws, a full-time job and contract work, I don’t do Writer’s Residencies. I make them happen inbetween the Indian Ocean of family and the Atlantic Ocean of work. Lines of poetry are created in the clash of currents, in the residual tides, in the crested peaks of time and space riding the energies of living.  My Writer’s Residency is mobile, fluid, and occurs in the marginalia of other main events like conferences (including plane, airport and hotel time which still counts as alone time and easily blossoms into writing time), workshops, and nature hikes.

Over the six days of my trip I find other lines. ACLALS 2016 honoured the nineteenth-century Khoisan figure of //Kabbo.  His name means ‘rainmaker’, ‘storyteller’, ‘visionary’, ‘dream’.  His stories provide one of the most comprehensive Khoisan language sources of information on the significance of rock paintings and petroglyphs.

A prisoner at Breakwater Prison in Cape Town in the 1870s, //Kabbo came to the attention of  linguist Wilhelm Bleek and his daughter Lucy Lloyd. //Kabbo and a few others lived with the Bleeks for several years while they recorded and translated his stories, archiving this rapidly disappearing language in over a hundred notebooks and 12,000 handwritten pages. It was //Kabbo’s desire to preserve the stories of his people.  The Keeper of the Kumm, //Kabbo’s story, was a book I saw in many students’ hands at the conference.  On Day Two when I enter the University of Stellenbosch, there is a basket of rocks on the top of the steps. We are asked to take a rock and place it by the large photo of //Kabbo in honour of his dream for his people’s stories to live on. I pick up an orange oblong piece of shale and add it to the mounting pile.

I don’t call my conference paper ‘Coconuts in Cape Town’. I don’t want to shut any stories down.  But on Day Three, standing on the Cape Fold Mountains, the oldest in the world and formed more than 500 million years ago, I begin serving up words on the famed Table Mountain. At this ancient juncture, the point where southern Gondwanaland broke up, collided and drifted away, I begin to walk this land, talking its stories, listening to its poetic rock paintings and petroglyphs:


Perlemoen Lines


Southern Gondwanaland

has a sandstone palette

of burnt orange shale

pinks, greys, purples


of quartz and granite stories

ground in ochre, blood,

egg white, and animal fat

mixed in perlemoen shell

and dipped with brushes

of delicate quill and hair


by San Boesman

painting shamanic poems

on cave walls and rocks


the spider sun waves

climbs, bathes.


Back Here and Everywhere

I come back with lines and opportunities. Lines remain in my head and I’m hoping that the principal of contiguity will help them tell a story.  I think of a fellow conference attendee, Cheela from the University of Zambia, who specialises in onamastics, obsessed as he is with names and naming systems. He wants to collaborate. I mention this idea of working together to a colleague who researches in postcolonial literature back in Auckland.  ‘Zambia?  Hardly a prestigious university.’ I take that as a ‘No’ and go ahead and accept Cheela’s Facebook friend invitation, emailing him some promised resources and consider the possibilities of a collaborative project.

I think about that beautiful word ‘Masiphumelele’, how it luxuriantly rolls off the tongue. I’m told it means ‘let us rest here’; in Xhosa it means ‘we will succeed’.  Once a shanty town of 8,000 known as Site 5, post-apartheid Masiphumelele has grown into a resilient township of over 30,000.  Such townships consist of semi-permanent metal shacks and in equal portions are filled with the horror of poverty, disease and a lack of infrastructure; and the allure of mad variety in the beauty of people, cultures, and food. During apartheid Masiphumalele residents were regularly removed to Khayelitsha, the largest and fastest- growing township in South Africa. These townships formed as a result of the Group Areas Act of the 1950s where the separation of whites, coloureds and Africans was enforced. Khayelitsha is now considered a city in its own right, complete with varying levels of infrastructure, and more importantly, voting power. But that’s another story.

The opportunity I’m left with is that in 2019, I will host the next ACLALS conference here at the University of Auckland: 40 nations and over 300 international delegates telling their stories in the largest Polynesian city in the world. And that’s a story for ‘everywhere’.



Glen Arendse, Mouthbow Musician, me, and Cheela Chilala from Zambia University.


Selina Tusitala Marsh teaches Pacific Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Auckland.  Since 2005 she has employed her roving Writer in Residence mentality and while working, written poems in 17 countries.  She is currently editing Tightrope, a third collection of poetry.




'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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