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Mongane Wally Serote


Mongane Wally Serote is a renowned South African poet and writer.


Mongane Wally Serote was born on 8 May 1944, just four years before the National Party came to power in South Africa. He grew up under apartheid in Sophiatown, now a white suburb of Johannesburg.


Mongane Wally Serote had is early education in the poverty-stricken township of Alexandra and later at Morris Isaacson High – the school in Jabavu, Soweto, that would much later play a significant role in the 1976 uprising against Bantu Education. As Serote’s high school years came to a close, he joined the African National Congress. He soon became involved with the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and was inspired by the poetry that spoke of black identity, resistance and revolt.

Later on, he went to study in New York, obtaining a Fine Arts degree at Columbia University.


After leaving school, Serote began working as a journalist. In 1969 he was arrested by the apartheid government under the Terrorism Act and spent nine months in solitary confinement, before being released without charge. His first volume of verse, Yakhal'inkomo was published in 1972 and in 1973 he won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for Poetry and the following year, he was granted a Fulbright Scholarship and travelled to Columbia University where in 1979 he completed a master’s degree in Fine Arts. He then entered a period in his life, where he was exiled from South Africa. Initirom South Africa. Initially he lived in Gaborone, Botswana , where he continued his resistance against apartheid, largely through the Medu Arts Ensemble. Medu was formed in Botswana in 1977 by South African exiles who included, amongst others, artists such as Thami Mnyele.

They saw their aesthetic and cultural approaches as rooted in 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). From Botswana he moved to London where he worked for the African National Congress and after his return to South Africa in 1990, he headed the Department of Art and Culture for them.

In 1981 he published a novel, To Every Birth Its Blood and in 1993, he won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. In 2004, he received the Pablo Neruda award from the Chilean government and more recently the South African government has awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga in silver for his contribution to literature with an emphasis on poetry.


  • Serote has served as chair of the parliamentary select committee for arts and culture, and is currently the CEO of Freedom Park, a national heritage site in Pretoria opened in 2007.


  • On the Horizon

  • To Every Birth Its Blood

  • Gods of Our Time

  • Scatter the Ashes and Go

  • All works


In practice, Serote, a deeply spiritual man, is involved in the vital healing the country needs. In his private capacity as a traditional healer – a sangoma – and as CEO of the Freedom Park Trust, he was instrumental in overseeing the construction of the Freedom Park Memorial that opened recently in Pretoria. This visionary monument, built in a stark and beautiful spot, honours the contribution of those comrades who served the struggle for liberation with their lives.


Physical Characteristics : He is a Black South African

  • “Nicholas Meihuizen: “if hope is a tool, language is its implement, and, again, Serote would effect transformation through language. His war against apartheid has been a way of words, in the most literal sense, and the world has witnessed that such a war can influence hearts and minds.”

    Nicholas Meihuizen: “. . . for as political entities South Africa and Ireland have both been subjected to histories of violence based on colonial ethic discrimination and it variations, including the binaries inherent in colonialism: Master and Slave, First World and Third World, Settler and Indigene. What are the responses of Heaney and Serote to this violence? Leading from this initial broad-based question is another more specific and more contentious one . . . which has to do with the social reverberations of art.”

    Michael Chapman: “grapple with the problems of squalor, violence, death, destitution, exploitation and the Black People’s quest for identity and a sense of community. Serote’s identification with the problems of the Black community is manifested through his use of ‘a profoundly compassionate authorial presence’ in many of his poems. But he can also cultivate an artistic detachment through the use of expressions that are deadpan, which, far from sacrificing the emotional intensity of his poems, bring out most effectively the callousness, and the insensitivity of people.””


Thamsanga Mnyele - South African - artist
Thamsanga Mnyele - friend of Mongane Serote

Thamsanqa (Thami) Mnyele was a South African artist associated with the anti-apartheid politics of the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement.


His political views can be clearly seen from his works. Serote's poems contain a strong element of political protest; he was tested to the limits of endurance in 1969 when he spent nine months in solitary confinement, though in the end was released without being charged.

Starting out with poetry, it was in the 1980s that Serote realised he would also need another form if he wanted to record and describe apartheid’s everyday experiences, the struggle, the interior of the lives of people whose “incredible strength in the face of adversity” he had a clear notion of as he wrote his first novel, To Every Birth Its Blood (1981). Set in Alexandra, Johannesburg, and infused with mood and jazz, the novel reflects strong characters with a deep sense of having to find a way to live and survive. As Serote noted, the book allowed him to portray many horrid moments without abandoning the “utter optimism” visible even in people’s faces – faces that harbour pain, but reveal a “beautiful, friendly smile” at the same time.