'Nothing's Changed' Poem Analysis
'Nothing's Changed' is a poem that focuses on the apartheid system that was in operation in South Africa from 1948-1990.
Basically, apartheid means apartness in Afrikaans ( the language of South Africa, derived from the Dutch introduced by Protestant settlers in the 17th century). It was a brutal system created by the white government to separate blacks from whites and pervaded all levels of society.
Blacks had to go to different toilets and washrooms, had to live in poorer districts, had no say in government and were not allowed to vote in elections. They were treated as second-class citizens, with few rights and few opportunities. Disproportionate police violence against blacks was common.
'Nothing's Changed' was written in 1990, sometime after the end of apartheid. The speaker in the poem details the reasons he thinks that apartheid still exists, despite the fact that officially it is no longer practiced.
- Note the build-up of tension as the poem progresses. There is anger and physicality reflected in the language - click, thrust, crunch, labouring, hot, brash, burn, bomb.
- The present tense brings an immediacy to the poem, so the reader is right there with the first-person speaker.
- In the end, the speaker is a boy again, looking back, and experiencing similar feelings of anger and frustration. In his mind nothing much has changed, the system still keeps the blacks segregated.
The author himself was a political agitator and protestor, joining in with other freedom fighters- Nelson Mandela among them- they spent years in the same jail - against the harsh regime that shackled millions to a life of misery and poverty.
Born Ismail Joubert in Egypt, Tatamkhulu Afrika (his African name means Grandfather Africa) with an Arab father and Turkish mother, could have been classified as white but chose to fight with the blacks by joining the ANC in 1984.
The struggle finally came to an end in 1990 but voting, regardless of colour and ethnicity, didn't become a right until 1994.
South Africa could have become a bloodbath no doubt, but Nelson Mandela once released from jail and free to become leader declared that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) would oversee 'restorative justice' for all.
Nothing's Changed highlights the fact that for many blacks a life of hardship still is the norm. The whites are privileged and dine in fine restaurants whilst the blacks, not allowed in the posh dining place, have to make do with a scruffy dirty café.
It was first published in the book Nine Lives, 1990.
Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering,
No board says it is:
but my feet know,
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.
Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.
No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.
I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
the single rose.
Down the road,
working man's cafe sells
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table's top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it's in the bone.
I back from the
leaving small mean O
of small mean mouth.
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Stanza By Stanza Analysis
'Nothing's Changed' concentrates on the descriptions, observations and feelings of a speaker visiting an area of a city, District 6, and coming to the conclusion that nothing has changed since he was a boy, meaning that the blacks, the working class, are still poor and essentially segregated from the whites.
This is despite the end of the cruel apartheid system that was operating for decades in South Africa.
A person is walking, feeling hard stones under their feet, crunching on cans hidden in the weeds. A very physical start to the poem, descriptions of a kind of wasteland, or a small part of it.
It's a first-person speaker so the reader is close to the action, in amongst the images. There is already the feel of dramatic contrast - in language sounds (hard consonants against soft vowels) and in the environment, between stones, cans and the friendly (amiable) weeds.
This is District 6, an area that was bulldozed and flattened during apartheid, the blacks driven from their homes. The signs have gone but the speaker - through his feet - knows this is the place.
Repetition builds up the frustration, the physical pent-up feeling which results in angry eyes. This is a person who is returning and does not like what he sees and feels.
Here is a new inn; it is brash (overbearing, arrogant) and its name is flaring like a flag - that could be a red flag, or flare, a warning of some kind. It's right there in the weedy wastes.
The trees are Port Jackson willows, an evergreen introduced from Australia in 1848, freshly landscaped to fit around the posh restaurant which has a guard present to keep out the blacks presumably.
This is the shortest stanza but hits home hard because the repeated No sign says it is means that although it isn't officially broadcast in public everyone knows that blacks are barred from dining.
And for the first time, the speaker admits to being one of those blacks by stating ...we. He knows exactly what the situation is.
Then more physicality with a nose pressed against the brash glass. The speaker looks inside but has already guessed what he'll see...the best glass, linen, a single rose, and if it's white surely symbolic in this context.
In contrast down the road is the working-class café where you can buy cheap local food...a bunny chow (hollowed out bread filled with curry) and eat it at a plastic table.
It's all very familiar. There's one place for the white wealthy, another for the poor blacks. It might not be apartheid per se but it is blatant economic disparity, and the results are the same. People kept apart. A class system perpetuated.
With mouth on glass making an O shape the speaker remembers when he was a boy, perhaps peering in at the wealthy white diners all those years ago someplace.
The frustration makes him angry. All he can think about is the injustice that still prevails and he pictures a stone, a bomb, to help alleviate the pain of the struggle. Life is still not how he would like it to be that is why the anger rises, because, according to him, nothing's changed.
In real life, there was a violent uprising against apartheid, hardly surprising given the harsh brutality of successive white governments in South Africa. Nowadays the country is relatively peaceful, thanks to the legacy of people like Nelson Mandela and the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika.
A Deeper Look
'Nothing's Changed' is a free verse poem of 7 stanzas, 49 lines in total. There is no set rhyme scheme or metre (meter in American English). The lines are mostly short, terse and direct, helping set the tone of the poem, which is immediate, angry and physical.
Internal rhyme brings some echo and inter-connection, for example in the first stanza: heels...seeding...seeds...weeds are long squeezed vowels contrasting harshly with the hard consonants of click...cuffs...cans and crunch.
Stark contrasts throughout the poem help underline the tension, whilst repetition, or anaphora, particularly in the second stanza, reinforces the idea that everything is the same.
Note the language used too. It imparts a sense of burning injustice:
and the hot, white, inwards turning/anger of my eyes.
Brash with glass,/name flaring like a flag,
Hands burn/for a stone, a bomb
Quote From Tatamkhulu Afrika On Inspiration For the Poem
District Six was a complete waste by then, and I hadn’t been passing through it for a long time. But nothing has changed. Not only District Six…I mean, we may have a new constitution, we may have on the face of it a beautiful democracy, but the racism in this country is absolutely redolent. We try to pretend to the world that it does not exist, but it most certainly does, all day long, every day, shocking and saddening and terrible. Look, I don’t want to sound like a prophet of doom, because I don’t fee like that at all. I am full of hope. But I won’t see it in my lifetime. It’s going to take a long time...
© 2019 Andrew Spacey