The Underground poem and the SA election

Almost forty years ago now – in 1986 – three British writers had the inspired idea to display poetry on the London Underground. The programme became enormously popular, and is still active today. The poems range from classic to contemporary. They are displayed three times a year, and have also been collected in several volumes.

So what, you may ask, do poems on the dank and crowded London Underground have to do with a hot and dry Karoo town, decidedly above ground, some 6 000 kilometres away? And specifically with our forthcoming election? Well quite a bit, actually …

One of the founder members of the programme was the poet Cicely Herbert, and at one point or another a poem by herself titled ‘Everything Changes’ was also featured. It appears in the illustration above, but here it is again:

Everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later
but what’s happened has happened,
and poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again.

What’s happened has happened.
Poisons poured into the seas
cannot be drained out again, but
everything changes. We plant
trees for those born later.

Following our transition to democracy, I gave a copy of the poem to Sizwe Dyasi, then a prominent youth leader and educator at Umso Senior Secondary in Colesberg, where I was headmaster. He had been deployed (as it were) to the position of interim acting town manager of Umsobomvu municipality, and hung the poem on his wall. (He did not last long in this position, but that’s another story. Come to think of it, that sort of dynamics has quite a lot to do with our current story, but I just won’t go into it now.)

For many reasons, I still find this a telling poem, but especially on the eve of our approaching elections, when our personal and political fates and the future of our country will (supposedly) be in the balance.

The pundits, pollsters, and various other members of the South African commentariat tell us that change is definitely on the way. Toverview has its own voices on the go in our special election series, from local writer Phakamisa Mayaba to the renowned historian and commentator R.W. (Bill) Johnson.

My own attitude towards the election is grounded in my personal experiences of rural politics in and around Colesberg since the 1980s, which I may write about once the election dust has settled. They provide me with ample ground to doubt whether change will come as decisively as the pundits generally suggest. But then …

Part of the charm of Herbert’s deceptively simple poem is that it is ambiguous — in fact, quite enigmatic. Clearly, it tries to unpack the mysterious dynamics of change. The first verse is sceptical, emphasising that the past cannot really be changed, and we can’t influence its consequences. Clearly, this has a bearing on our post-liberation fortunes – as we approach our fifth post-transition election, many voters are disillusioned about the extent to which we have failed to achieve what we set out to achieve in 1994 – in other words, the degree to which our hugely unequal society has been resistant to change.

By the same token, it’s easy to be skeptical or cynical about the degree to which whatever post-election government emerges will be able to fundamentally change the course of our society in the future.

But then, in a subtle shift of wording, Herbert goes on to say that everything does in fact change. Stasis is never forever. And what we do today, whatever we set in motion, will benefit a later generation, without us knowing exactly how this will turn out.

In our beloved, troubled society, poisons have indeed been poured into the seas that cannot be drained out. However, Herbert reminds us that this is not immutable, and that change always remains possible.

As we witness the gradual break-up of the ANC’s 30-year hegemony, there are signs that the major political role players are very much aware that they need to change the way in which they have practised politics for the past 30 years.

Former president Thabo Mbeki has made it clear that he is campaigning for the ANC on condition that it honours its commitment in its election manifesto to ‘renew’ the party and root out power-grabbing and corruption; and has announced that, after the elections, he will launch a campaign for a national dialogue. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has also emphasised the party’s need to honour its commitment to renewal.

The veteran politician Bantu Holomisa has repeatedly called for a national convention, and the DA has begun to build what it regards as a viable broad-based coalition.

The roles to be played by the MK Party and the EFF remain opaque. Certainly, there is a significant consensus that the EFF has not proven to be a stable or productive coalition partner in numerous struggling metros. Perhaps Malema will also realise the time for naked political opportunism is over, and if he is to play a really meaningful role in South African politics, he has to change his game.

Specifically, which this remains tantalisingly – or agonisingly – uncertain, the ANC’s support in the national election may drop below 50 percent, thereby ringing in a new era of coalition politics in which more interests and groupings will be drawn into governance, which will hopefully become more effective and accountable.

(Indeed, while this obviously is not the be-all and end-all, it is sobering to recall that well over half of Mandela’s first cabinet comprised white, coloured and Indian people. Today, there are only one white, one coloured and one Indian person in Ramaphosa’s 32-person cabinet. Of course, Mandela’s first cabinet comprised a Government of National Unity, as prescribed in the interim constitution. But still.)

So, will we begin to cope with the deeply pervasive and long-standing issues from which our politics have been born? My greatest relief is that, at long last, we are on the edge – the rim of the ploughshare, so to speak – of building what we should have built in 1910, when, instead of heeding the appeals of the ANC, another others, our so-called Union of South Africa continued to reflect the interests of a minority intent on continuing its rapacity for diamonds, gold, and the rest of the colonial bounty.

However, Herbert’s poem also reminds us that this is not going to happen by itself. Even though we might not know whether they will survive, or who will shelter in their shade in the coming years, we still need to dig those holes and plant those trees.

Meanwhile, herewith a link to Louis Armstrong singing ‘A Kiss to Build a Dream On’ …  May you dance to this on your way to the polls …

Any comments? Write to me at

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