Love Song to Resistance


Phillippa Yaa de Villiers


Resistance defines us, upholds us, makes us viable. At a biological level, our muscles are maintained and support our physical lives by being challenged. The effort of resistance gives our bodies tone, and our voices resonance. Tone is a sound, which adds other layers to what we say. At seven, a spanking taught me that my muttered “sorry” was not so much an apology as raw cheek as my mother hissed, “der ton mach der musik”—she only ever reprimanded me in her native German. Tone is sound and also register, as my mother’s manicured hand taught my bottom that far-off and unforgettable day. Register is attitude and also turning up.

In this time of fraught communications, I want to be perfectly clear: I am writing on behalf of nobody but myself. The tone of this time is stand up for Palestine, which some people might find uncomfortable. Off you go then, go watch some cat videos. Or play padel or do whatever you want. Sorry to sound so terse, but I’m entirely occupied by Palestine. Like the more than 100,000 people who keep taking to the streets in what seems to be a vain attempt to get their governments to stop supporting the genocide.

Over the past six months, Palestine has politically educated me, and the fundamental lesson is that I am still learning what apartheid means despite the fact that I’m a South African who grew up under the original. It was only as a mature adult that I understood that resistance feels comfortable to me, because like our comedian Trevor Noah, I was “born a crime,” biracial during the early years of apartheid, adopted by white people on condition of silence. Yes, that’s me, hiding in plain sight. Growing up in duplicity, gaslighting was my bread and butter. But there was also love. And is to love, that essential truth, that I continually return. The foundational revolutionary poet, Keorapetse Kgositsile, to whom I owe a large part of my writing career, sings in his poem “Red Song,” “armed struggle is an act of love.” Love is our highest purpose. It is the MacGuffin for all our shenanigans.

As a teacher of creative writing, it’s incumbent in my practice to consider whatever in the human animal produces text, the milking of memory and outrage, all of which is informed by some version of that word which one hesitates to glibly ascribe, for it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. For the word’s meaning is a collective effort, infused by each of our interpretations and resonances. Love begins with acknowledgement. As the isiZulu greeting goes, “I see you.” Sawubona. We see you Palestine. We see you Zionist Israel. We see those of you who say no, enough. And when you see things, you cannot unsee them.

When, on a blustery day in Cape Town in 1986, my father confirmed what I’d long suspected, that I was Black, it was a moment of truth. It birthed in me a furious desire to discover who I was beyond the opinions, narratives, and judgments projected on me by others. There was something belittling about staying in the version of myself invented by them, it made me feel demeaned, a nobody. It wasn’t very political, but I took the whole anti-apartheid struggle personally, it seemed to be an effort made by nobodies who wanted to be somebodies in their own right. A multifarious, international cohort of people of all classes, who stand up and crack out of the globalizing glaze of statistics, and risk everything, just to exist.

There is something deeply humanizing about how Palestinians name and remember the martyrs of this genocide. Every single one counted, which makes them matter, bestows on the abstract, materiality, resisting the erasure of statistics. In October, when we thought our voices would be heard, my friends and I attended one of the many marches for Palestine in Parkview, Johannesburg. They were selling roses labeled with the names of the children killed by the IDF. Days later, the rose was fading. Still bright red, the edges of the petals had dried to the color of blood.


Three months later, the rose is fragile, brittle, dried out, but endures as a memory of a moment of resistance. A life that was created, delighted in, and nurtured is now mourned and remembered. The South African poet Donato Mattera’s memoir of his family’s life during the Sophiatown removals, Memory is a Weapon, reminds us that to resist forgetting is to insist on a world which lives on and matters, remaining as a vibrant source, despite the forces that seek to erase it.

There have been at least 31,490 deaths since Ahmed Al-Wasim Zuhair Abdul Qadir Al-Kurd’s sixteen-year-old life was snatched from him. Incrementally, the world’s concern for what is happening in Palestine has fermented, strengthened into an elixir, one that seems to be filling people out, making them dare to shout. When despair threatens to drain us of all will to action, resistance reminds us who we are.

If you’ve ever left a toxic relationship, you will recognize this moment. By now you feel suffocated by the person, even by the things you once adored. It marks the dawning of consciousness, when your will-to-life just wants to be somewhere else. It literally cuts off the part of you which was engaged/obsessed/addicted with something or someone which no longer supports your vibrant sense of life, your mojo, your hip-hopping joy. Turning away from them is as difficult as stopping a bad habit. It is as painful as kissing your dying mother. But you do it because there’s nothing left. It forces you into a new place—perhaps only a step from the nowhere you are leaving behind. You will never be the same. As you resist the resigned victim attitude you’ve come to know so well, you step deeper and deeper into the somewhere else your spirit is seeking; as you resist, your somebodiness rises in you, strengthens your spine.

Resistance will make you walk differently. You may want to get a new pair of shoes, something appropriate to the way you now move in the world. The terrain itself has shifted, because you'’re somewhere else, and you might need to run towards, rather than away from something. You’re on your way somewhere, reclaiming your own story.

During my MA studies at Lancaster University, the poet Jane Draycott introduced us to the “satellite poem,” a poem about a moment in historical time where you have a chance to write yourself into a picture that contains the whole world, as if seen from a satellite. On the one hand, the genocide in Palestine offers an opportunity to mark where you are right now, it is a landmark moment. For some, Palestine may reawaken the specter of injustice that is closer to you. One of my students asked, why should I care when nobody cared about the massacres of my people?

In fact, rather than erasing any other genocide, injustice, or wrongdoing, Palestine illuminates it. It comes from the bone of our being, which reminds me of the isiZulu idiom for a lover, “bone of my heart,” carefully drawn into English by the poet Makhosazana Xaba, tenderly reminding us of black, queer love in her seminal short story collection, Running. Because of the way that technology is enabling our prolonged exposure to the atrocities, people who are living a very different lifestyle have a chance to step over the usual (false) markers that divide us and identify with the trauma that Palestinians are experiencing. Palestine is making us appreciate—and I mean that as a means of perception, not just gratitude—what it is to be human. TikTok is alive with expressions of concern, of care, of outrage, of despair—expressions which veer between love poems, rage, and overwhelm. A spectrum of suffering, within which everything serves to make us aware of the true victims.

Watching what is going on in Palestine is like dying a million times, dying as a child, as a man, as a woman, as a nurse, as a journalist, as a mother, as an infant. Devin G. Atallah and Sarah Ihmoud invite us to “cast in our lot with the wretched of the earth” in their compelling essay, “A World Without Palestinians” in the Massachusetts Review. I am and I am not Palestinian, as much as I witness the atrocious genocide, I am on the other side of the world. I am not being hunted like an animal, culled, slaughtered, destroyed, silenced, and erased. If I am free, how will I spend my freedom? What is the timbre of my resistance?

The resistance movement in South Africa has a long history of support and identification with the Palestine liberation movement. Most recently the National Union of Mineworkers has added their voices to the ceasefire demand and aligned itself with the movement for a free Palestine. Gift of the Givers, our most efficient aid agency, has dispatched food parcels, doctors, and medication. Zukiswa Wanner returned the prestigious Goethe Medal with which she was decorated. In 2006, the Encounters Film Festival screened the documentary Hijacker and invited Leila Khaled on a speaking tour. The Muslim community of the Bo-Kaap in Cape Town has painted the city walls with the colors of their protest, which dates back decades. But I am perhaps even more moved by the young Palestinian woman who says that “my name does not matter”. Their voices cut off in mid-sentence. My son is just a little older than she is. I want to speak to everyone who is still alive, to those who have ears: never forget the outpouring of art, video reportage, music—in fact the very impulse itself, to resist eradication. Therein lies your freedom. What if Palestine is not a shortcut or a trending meme or a catchall for manufactured concern but a point of intersectionality, a moment to mourn all attacks on life and freedom, and an acknowledgement of what Madonaldo Torres calls the decolonial turn, the gear change to resistance. An opportunity to remember the eliminations of First Peoples on every continent; the illegal and militarized occupations of Tibet by China; Africa, South America, and the world by Europe; the Gukurahundi; the Rohingya crisis; Sudan; the Chibok girls; Congo then and now; Rwanda—each instance of suffering also included in our responses to what is going down in Palestine, to our own lives, which are also in bondage. (OMG Ukraine. Yugoslavia. Chechnya. Turkey. I wonder if people also suddenly realize OMG that sound from next door was a body being beaten. OMG is that my child / parent with dementia / dependent asking for water—how long have they been thirsty?) You may ask, what about the hostages? Besides the ones you have no control over, what about the ones inside of you? What part of you has not seen daylight for decades, that you’re holding hostage, blindfolding, beating with a rubber hose, whipping, threatening? For what ransom? We draw courage and affirmation from the expansive action of South Africa’s genocide case brought to the International Court of Justice, and the subsequent ones like the case brought by Namibia that references the Herero Genocide of 1921 at the hands of Germany. The collective of lawyers, working beyond the narrow interests of race, class, religious, national, political, or even judicial allegiances, for what defines us as a species: the pursuit and expression of love. This might be a defining moment in our evolution, and it is not being ignored. We, the people, and our memories, the sieve through which the siege is reckoned with, will never, ever forget.

Who else but you?

For the thousands who stood up for Palestine, and continue to do so

I Family

in the beginning I knew nothing
of who I might be but a yellow file
I might be Aborigine
(at the time I didn’t know I could claim
to be First People) so I jumped
into the dreamtime
learnt words like genocide
which the world did not see
as a holocaust
or anything to get upset about
because only chosen people
can claim that
and who would choose
to be us?

in this dream I was a green ant
and the last one left
to speak my language
like each lawyer carrying
a severed limb to
lay before the arbiters
like Mtutuzeli Matshoba
speaking for the silent

II Taste

it was a jacket
no it was a pantsuit
no it was a pair of sunglasses
no it was a lycra leotard
no it was smashed spectacles
no it was a skirt
no it was a seven-year-old
having her leg amputated
without anaesthetic
no it was a sundress

actually it was a fashion line
adorned by linen-wrapped bodies
and everyone was sorry
to have caused offense
at least they did not mimic
the agonized screams
that would have been
in really poor taste

sorry to offend you
by pointing out
your offensive behaviour
Blame Me on History
wrote Bloke Modisane


III Relative

when, for the purpose of sharing
the minister of utmost happiness decreed
that everyone was entitled to an armload
of talent, no matter their
belief and Heba Zaqout
painted Palestine in
bright, bursting colors
and hope and food and abundant
smiling women and doves
and fireworks exploding
over the golden dome of her
dream city

and now
under the rubble
clutching the keys to the home
they won’t return to
in the fragrance
of prayer and
white phosphorus
grateful to have not died

The moment Desmond Tutu cried
he legitimized the TRC  


IV Gathering

who else but you
could bring
a charge against Israel
said Sabitha Satchi to me
that afternoon we grappled
the Constitutional Court art collection
the visions reflected in her
bright black eyes recalibrating
our inner worth and bleeding hurt

the Cecil Skotnes’ power leering
the tapestries by AIDS survivors
(our quiet genocide)

Sabitha continues in my head
already adept at bandaging
could conjure a whole body
with its own voice
and collective memory
that turns cacophony
into a justice song

who else but you?


V A luta Continua

• Sometimes it seems that there is only one poem, and all of us are writing it.

• Outside the Constitutional Court a sit-in has been in progress since 1 November by members of the Khulumani Galela campaign, mostly in their seventies and eighties, are demonstrating.

• Our problems are elsewhere and also at home. Apartheid is still alive.

• Black billionaires haven’t helped any more than white ones.

• Nevertheless

• We are not alone, and those who came before us, have shown us the way.

• I like the feeling that resistance gives me. It feels too much like love to feel like life is worth living without it.

• What would you do if you could

• hear the sound

• of your soul’s dreaming


Spring / Summer 2024

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers writes, performs and lectures in Creative Writing at Wits University, Johannesburg. She is a member of the African Poetry Book Fund’s editorial board, and is a Distinguished Alumnus of Rhodes University, Makhanda. Her most recent publications are essays in The Creative Arts: On Making and Meaning (Dryad Press, forthcoming); Notes from the Body: Health, Illness, Trauma (UKZN Press, 2023) and Relations: An Anthology of African and Diaspora Voices (HarperVia, 2023) and poems in New Daughters of Africa (Myriad Press 2019), Konch Journal (2020), New Coin Journal winner, Dalro/New Coin best poem winner 2021). She co-edited The Collected Poems of Keorapetse Kgositsile 1969-2018 (University of Nebraska Press, 2023) and is a member of the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund. She is a distinguished alumnus of the Rhodes University’s School of Journalism. This contribution to the Evergreen Review is in her personal capacity.

support evergreen