An Open Letter to TEDxStellenbosch by KOLEKA PUTUMA

Word N Sound Live Literature Movement


Dear TEDxStellenbosch Organisers

I trust this finds you well

I am writing to you concerning your request to publish my TEDx talk with the exclusion of my last poem “WATER”. The talk, which was filmed at the TEDxStellenbosch “Think. Experience. Discover Africa” event on 05 September 2015, consisted of three of my poems which were all selected to begin a dialogue around the event’s theme, and draw attention to a movement such as #LUISTER which was and should have been at the centre of the town’s focus and conversation (including the TEDx event).  My form of articulating thoughts or ideas is through the spoken word medium. When invited to give a talk in the form of my preferred medium: poems, there was no conversation about the kinds of poem(s) I was permitted or not permitted to share. Prior to the event I emailed one of your team members an outline…

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Starting at 22 years of life, may this be the mantra.

often, we become consumed with routine and movement. about next steps and five year plans. and while these maps are essential for our understanding of placement on this little ol’ globe. there is something quite incredible about stillness. about taking the time to listen to our breath. the rise and collapse of our being. there is something worth holding onto when we recreate moments of gratitude and laughter and achievement and safety. when we allow tears to bathe us into a soothing embrace. yeah, life can be really difficult sometimes. i have crawled into the cave of my mind and made home of it. i know what the dim light can foster. it can knock courage from our wind. it can make love incomplete. but there are moments, small miracles, we are built upon. take with you all that is a good song. my friends, i tell you, everyday is yours.

-Tonya Ingram

White People I Applaud You!- A Reflection On TEDxStellenbosch And Other Gwaans/WATER

About a week ago, I was having doubts about whether or not to accept and utilize the TEDxStellenbosch platform, or reject it. I did not know how or why I would/could bring attention to the LUISTER movement (which is and should be at the centre) of the town’s focus. After much whatsapping and emails with my close tribe of people who I always run to when my head is a bit of a jungle, I decided to use my 8-12 minutes to have an honest conversation through my work. Keeping in mind the agenda of what my work seeks to do. The nature or reason behind the TEDx plattform is to spread ideas, and how I do that is through poems. My medium of articulation is through the spoken word- I was invited to be in that auditorium as a speaker to deliver a talk utilising my medium of expression, right…


One thing I was not prepared to do was to censor or dilute the work. What I performed there would be something I’d perform at Parliament or at the White House or on some tiny stage in some coffee shop in Observatory. Nobody is exempt from what I feel is my truth (which is relative of course), nobody and especially not whiteness.

I was the last speaker scheduled to talk for the day. I don’t want to say much about the performance and the in-betweens of it. But, I will say that I could sense that I was engulfed by the audience’s rage and unease. The auditorium was silent, some people were turning red in front of my eyes (as if their glares would move me to stillness). The last poem particularly is what unsettled and sent them (the white people) (of Stellenbosch) (in 2015) off the edge.

There was an awkward and stiff applause at the end. And of course, without fail, they turned the conversation around to be about their uncomfortably, the inappropriateness of the 12 minutes, how they felt violated etc (the list of comments I heard post performance is endless) comments pertaining to the agitation and disruption of their space and their precious TEDx, by my poems. Of course you would police me.

Of Course I was not there to express and talk openly about Black pain. Of course I was not there to share an idea that still needs honesty in a democratic what-what. Of Course my TEDx talk was designed to unnerve you and infringe on your comfortability. Of course those whole twelve minutes were about you!!! Like. Why would you actually listen? Unless it’s some Gumbaya tune that you can sing along and dance to. As long as it does not expose what you are avoiding, we cool right?

The last poem I shared “Water” (included below) validates some of the ways that white people (still) don’t recognise and see the ways in which they are still oppressive and traumatic for our existence. Again, I wish I could purchase boredom or indifference somewhere, to activate every time I step into these kind of spaces, every time a white person flips the conversation or gaze around to be about them being victimised, but unfortunately I can’t afford boredom or indifference. What I can afford and will continue to invest in, is the mother*** truth.  In how many languages or ways are we going to have to ask you to Listen, cause even in Afrikaans, you can’t hear it.


I am at peace shame.

Water © Koleka Putuma

The memory of going to the beach every New Year’s eve

Is one I share with cousins, and most people raised black

How the elders would forbid us from going in too deep

To giggle, to splash, in our black tights and Shoprite plastic bags wrapped around our new weaves, forbid us from riding the wave,

for fear that we would be  a mass of blackness swept by the tide

And never to return

Like litter

The elders forbid us as if the ocean has food poisoning

I often wonder why I feel as if I am drowning every time I look out into the sea

This and feeling incredibly small

I often hear this joke

About Black people not being able to swim

Or being scared of water

We are mocked

And we have often mocked ourselves

For wiping our faces the way that we do when we come out of the water

Compare it to how they do it all bay watch like

And how we so ratchet like with our postures and kink

Every time our skin goes under

The reeds remember that they were once chains

And the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships onto shore

Whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk

Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty

This is why our irises burn every time we go under

Every December sixteenth, December 24th and December 31st

Our skin traumatises the sea

They mock us

For not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental in trying to execute our extinction

For you, the ocean is for surf boards, boats and tans

And all the cool stuff you do under there in your suits and goggles

But we, we come to be baptised here

We have come to stir the other world here

We have come to cleanse ourselves here

We have come to connect our living to the dead here

Our respect for water is what you have termed fear

The audacity to trade and murder us over water

Then mock us for being scared of it

The audacity to arrive by water and invade us

If the land was really yours then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass

Then quit using black bodies as tour guides or the site for your authentic African experience

Are we not tired of dancing for you?

Gyrating and singing on cue

Are we not tired of gathering as a mass of blackness to atone for just being here

To beg God to save us from a war we never started

To March for a cause caused by the intolerance for our existence

Raise our hands so we don’t get shot

Raise our hands in church to pray for protection

And we still get shot there too

With our hands raised

Invasion comes naturally for your people

So you have come to rob us of our places of worship too

Come to murder us in prisons too

That is not new either

Too many white people out here acting God

Too many white people out here doing the work of God,

Too many white people out here period

And this God of theirs has my tummy in knots

Him and I have always had a complicated relationship


This blue eyed and blond haired homophobic Jesus I followed in Sunday school

Has had my kind bowing to a white and patriarchal heaven

Bowing to a Christ, his son, and 12 disciples

For all we know The disciples could have been queer, the holy trinity some weird twisted love triangle

and the Holy Ghost transgendered

But you will only choose to understand the scriptures that suit your agenda

You have taken the liberty to colonize the concept of God

gave god a gender, a skin color and a name in a language

we had to twist our mouths around

Blasphemy is wrapping Slavery in the Gospel and calling it freedom

Blasphemy is having to watch my kind use the same gospel to enslave each other

Since the days of Elijah We have been engineered kneel to whiteness

And we are not even sure if the days of Elijah even existed

Because whoever wrote the bible did not include us

But I would rather exist in that god-less holy book than in the history books that did not tell truth

About us

For us

On behalf of us

If you really had to write our stories

Then you ought to have done it in our mother’s tongues

The ones you cut off when you fed them a new language

We never consent

Yet we are asked to dine with the oppressors

And Serve them forgiveness

How, when I have no other ingredient but rage

Another one (who looks like me) died today

Another one (who looks like me) was murdered today

By your kind

May that be the conversation at the table

And we can all thereafter wash this bitter meal with amnesia

And go for a swim after that

Just for fun.

Just for fun.

Here’s a #SneakPeak of Images I took With Photographer: Elelwani Netshifhire

An overdue love letter.

Dear silence

It has taken me a long time to realise that

Noise has a nasty way of creeping up on people

Or maybe it is the other way around

I am present now

I hope time allows for all my delayed responses

I hope time is forgiving of my prolonging

I hope that hope does not mind my using her name in vain

But I know no sweeter blasphemy


I am relearning the taste of peace

I had forgotten that it is an acquired melody

My breathing is the house I jiggle nude in

Life keeps meeting me at the front door

Asking me to come in.

I have done nothing to earn its daily visit

Last week I knelt on the bathroom floor

I prayed over a white sink smudged with toothpaste and tears

I said God out loud.

I can’t remember when last I did that.

It was all the prayer I needed.

Two days ago. God took my hand and said

You are everything and enough. Let go.

I feel like a King dining in a kingdom I do not deserve

But serves me its best

Over and over again

Even when I am a mess

Especially when I am a mess

How I am all at once mess and fragile marrow,

Magic and miracle

But 70% mess on a good day.

Dear Silence.

Healing is a choir chanting my name in caps and exclamation marks

Love is stapling all my scattered pages

It does not mind that they are not numbered

Tomorrow is an unexpected gift

One I am excited to receive

But not entitled to.

Dear silence

I have missed you



Let’s talk

I want to hear what’s on your mind.