Although it is not clear from the title, Neser’s splendid book is a case study, an in-depth examination of the life and work of the Transkei Xhosa poet David Manisi. Neser’s starting point is Jeff Opland’s formidable work on Xhosa literature, his scholarship and the archive he built up of Xhosa oral poetry and publications, much of which had previously been inaccessible. Neser warmly acknowledges Opland’s foundational work, along with that of other scholars such as Isabel Hofmeyr and Karin Barber — effectively giving the lie to Zakes Mda’s contention in Sometimes there is a Void that, unlike creative writers, academics are a bunch of mean-minded ingrates, forever at each others’ throats.
Neser’s account begins with Manisi’s 1954 praise poem to Mandela, a poem “part character summation, part prophecy and exhortation [that precedes its subject’s] transformation into the major symbol around which anti-apartheid commitment would mobilize”: to quote the text, “The poet names you Gleaming load: / you set Africa blazing”. Neser examines Mandela’s role as a Thembu chief who rejects an exclusive Thembu identity.
She then proceeds to a summary account of Manisi’s own sense of multiple identity at the time the poem was composed: both a member of the ANC and the official praise poet of Kaiser Matanzima’s Transkei Thembu chiefdom; a Mission-educated Methodist “whose Christianity accommodated ancestral veneration”; a man who demanded a single education system for all South Africans and yet who fought to preserve Xhosa forms of knowledge; a guardian of Xhosa history and a fervent pan-Africanist.