The protest poet who loves to perform


The protest poet who loves to perform

DEBORAH STEINMAIR touches base with the indomitable Diana Ferrus, who turns 70 next week.


DIANA Ferrus, one of our national treasures, turns 70 on August 29. I met her in the noughties in Observatory, at Touch of Madness, a restaurant that regularly hosted poetry slams called Off the Wall. In that intimate space, she performed her poems as only she can, with song, dance, a small drum, and the full force of her personality. Time stood still and the air crackled with energy. It will remain with me for life.

Afterwards, I spoke to her. She immediately felt like family; I recognised a member of my tribe. After that, I bumped into her at various events, always with great joy.

Ronelda S Kamfer wrote about a coloured woman with a dirty look. Diana has a loving gaze that is also formidable, an unyielding eye. She has Khoi and slave ancestry, that creative and colourful injection we all fervently seek in our family trees.

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“Ferrus" is a cheerful name that reminds me of a ferris wheel. “It's strong, it stands for iron. Maybe I have a bit of iron too, yes, I had to."

She comes from activists and troublemakers. About her ancestors, she says: “My grandfather, my father's father, came to Worcester from Calvinia. It was during the time of the uprising in Calvinia, and he was one of the wanted men. He actually fled Calvinia and got a lift with a lawyer who was on his way to Cape Town. He put him on a cart and covered him. He got off at Ceres and didn't stay there for long. He walked to Worcester and met my grandmother there."

She delved into the archives and discovered the name of the great patriarch. “That patriarch's son's will was written in Dutch. There was a Frans Ferus. Feruses travelled across the Northern Cape. From Beaufort-West to places like Upington, Keimoes, Kakamas and Kenhardt. I want to believe we're of Irish descent, I don't know. I'm still researching."


She strongly believes poetry has to be heard: “I truly believe that poetry should be performed because, for me, it's about connecting with the audience. Poetry doesn't fully come alive if the beauty of its sound doesn't reach the ear. For the performer, it's a grand celebration because now they have their whole body to connect with the audience, to touch them even more powerfully than reading the poem could do. Later, you develop techniques to engage with your audience — even to flirt with them and convey your poem more strongly."

Regarding her upbringing, she says: “It was a difficult childhood, but there was beauty in it too. My mom and dad read us poems, and at school we had to recite poems for the inspector, and I think that inspired me to write. But it was also during the apartheid years. You couldn't easily talk about things, it was hush-hush, you had to whisper about things happening in the country, and I grew up in a politically conscious family."

She wrote to address injustices: “It was my way of talking about it. My first poem was about pictures in a newspaper of a train accident where many black people died. The second one was also about pictures in a newspaper, where people from Doringbaai stood on the beach and saw the boat sink in which their family returned with their catch."

What was the highlight of her career? “Wow, surely when we went to fetch Saartjie [Baartman] and I performed the poem there at the handover, and I could look directly into the eyes of the French politicians, and the French minister of research said, ‘We must ask ourselves who the real monster in the story is.' I could recite my poem, and I could sing for Saartjie, and we could fly away from there."

She also received an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University and the freedom of her town, Worcester. “And the SBA [Foundation for Empowerment through Afrikaans] honoured me, and the kykNET Fiëstas and many other things. Oh my, I haven't had only one highlight, you see."

We talk about her journey with Sarah Baartman. “Internationally, she was so exposed, so humiliated and ridiculed. First in England, and also in Ireland. France was truly the major exploiter. Her owner sold her to an animal trainer. He further exhibited her and used her in trick shows, turning her into a prostitute. She died quickly; she wasn't even in Paris for a year. What they did to her in the name of science was actually in the name of racism and gender-based violence, and the fact that she had to endure it and that they wrote theories on her body and wrote books about it — what they said about her, they said about us, and everything they said about her haunted us. She's important because what happened to her should never happen again, and we know: we're not there yet."

Diana still performs regularly. “I love performing. If I see I can captivate an audience, wow, that's the greatest reward for me. Even though I'm turning 70, I still pray for good health so that I can continue to captivate audiences." She laughs heartily.

Which young poets excite her? “I work with young poets on the Mengelmoes Digters project. There are poets like Naidene Lottering, Ghaireyah Fredericks, Merle Danhouse, Jadrick Pedro, Sophia Oliphant, Salvia Ockhuis, many others. Those who write in Cape dialect and work hard at their craft."

Give us hope, Diana

Does she have hope for our country? “Yes, a lot of hope, because where else would you go? I see people leaving saying there's no crime now, there's no this and that. But you know, if I compare it to America, I could be shot dead in a mass shooting at any moment, just like here. Someone told me this morning they're going on a trip to Rwanda, but they were warned that travellers should bear in mind: it's a beautiful country, it's clean, but it doesn't have the freedom of speech that we have in this country. Anyone who criticises the government here doesn't have to lie awake tonight fearing their doors being kicked open. I have hope for our country. As soon as we get crime under control, and the greed for money, the criminality and killing for money, we will be the most wonderful country. The more people participate in the decision-making process and the more people hold politicians accountable, on a national level, on a provincial level and on a local level, the less time there will be for corruption."

What is the best advice she's received? “There's a lot. The big thing is: you have to rediscover yourself every time, reinvent yourself, bring something different forward. Constantly work on your product, see what others are doing."

Does she enjoy cooking, or only with words? “I'm left-handed, and for my family, my people, my mom and dad and aunts, I was in the way. When we worked next to each other, one would peel potatoes and the other would cut bread, then my arm would touch their arms and then I would rather just sit down and read. I didn't spend much time in the kitchen. In my 40s, I suddenly realised that cooking is actually an art, but I haven't learned much about it yet. I sometimes like to be behind the pots. I make delicious soup, then I bake tasty fish. That's all I can do. I'm currently trying to bake cookies; I've never baked cookies before." She laughs.

“I will now read you two poems that I've recently written."

* On Sunday 27 Augustus RSG will broadcast a live tribute to Diana. 

♦ VWB ♦

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