South African poet Fhazel Johennesse’s poem “Living in a Flat in Eldorado Park” is a part of his collection The Rainmaker which was later published in Modern South African Poetry (1984). Categorized under the “township poetry” which are composed by coloured poets in line with the black consciousness, the poem traces the living conditions of men and women in the congested, dingy and poverty stricken settlements of Eldorado- a town in the south of Johannesburg in South Africa which was assigned as a coloured township during the Apartheid. As an anti-apartheid artist, Johennesse started a literary magazine titled Witie to flame the rising angst of young writers against the injustices in their lives because, in the words of Oswald Mtshali- “a black man’s life in South Africa is an endless series of poems of humour, bitterness, hatred, love, hope, despair, and death. Every day is a challenge in survival not only in the physical sense but also spiritually, mentally, and otherwise.”
Living in a Flat in Eldorado Park | Summary and Analysis
The poet employs a first person speaker whose gender is unknown. He/she narrates the overall experience of living in the Eldorado Park which is overwhelming and overpowering. The words are penned in free verse and one can observe playfulness in the use of syntax and grammar which suggests a sarcastic tone. There is a sense of frustration and helplessness associating the meticulous description of unpleasant conditions in the overcrowded residence. By listing down various quotidian activities the speaker observes during the day, the poet attempts to provide his readers a peep into the struggling lives of black community who are forced to live in such situations. However, the poem on its surface highlights the messy conditions and interfering life of the speaker but at the same time propounds a feeling of communal belonging. There is togetherness in the unintentional interactions between the speaker and his/her neighbours which evidences the presence of life. Despite being the puppets of racial segregation, the community develops a way to live in harmony in the chaotic lifestyle.
Living in a Flat in Eldorado Park | Analysis, Lines 1- 9
Twenty-two kilometres away from the city
perpetually ravaged by wind and dust
the roads bumpy and a challenge
to all car owners and the postal service
a happy lackadaisical affair and
the blocks of flats scattered around at random
and the outside walls of the flats defying
cleanliness and the parade of life
outside my door:
The poem commences with a specific detailing of the distance between the white and black settlement which is “twenty two kilometres” as an outcome of the apartheid government’s racial discriminatory law. Eldorado Park is away from the city which also suggests its remoteness from urbanisation and development. It is always experiencing strong winds that carry truckloads of dust into the bumpy streets. The poor road infrastructure evinces the difficulty that lies in travelling, especially for the daily work commuters.
The architectural design of the accommodating facility comes out as a “lackadaisical affair” to point towards the casualness and lack of attention in building it that apparently opines on the blacks not requiring a proper place to live. The buildings are not proportional and the area allotment does not follow any strict calculations. Apart from the intricacies of the measurements, the area also fails to accomplice with sanitation which is a primary factor of consideration in any place of dwelling.
Living in a Flat in Eldorado Park | Analysis, Lines 10-19
the drunk trying to mount the steps
swearing as he skids in predecessors’ vomit
and a curious two-year-old watching
his antics and a woman of indeterminate age
dragging an impossible bundle of washing with half a
dozen kids clawing at her skirts and another
toddler searching for space on a wall
to mark his passing with a piece of chalk
and the occasional tinkle of glass
as a stone is hurled through a window
The speaker in an exasperating tone begins with activities that presumably annoys him the most which are arrival of drunkards one after the other covered in vomit and screaming cuss words while a woman with many children carries heavy baskets of clothes. A few notorious kids throw stones at the windows which lead to shattering of glasses and unnecessary mess. Such episodes reveal the social features of the township life.
Living in a Flat in Eldorado Park | Analysis, Lines 20-29
and the grating calling of a mother
shouting for her child and
the rich pong of gas exuding from
the slowly rotting garbage in dustbins
and the throaty gurgle of pipes
as someone else’s crap passes through
my flat and the infuriating
tap taptap on the ceiling as
some brat upstairs explores the
mysteries of his floor with a hammer
The speaker continues the catalogue expressing mother-child banters, garbage filled dustbins that are not cleaned since ages and its smell permeates the houses like an uncalled guest. The “gutter pipers” are personified in their “throaty gurgle” that produces sound when someone is disposing off their waste. There are no boundaries and the lack of privacy makes the speaker uncomfortable.
All kinds of movements, sounds, smell and sights infuriates the speaker who feels, listens, smells and sees them without any will. Mbulelo V. Mzamane in the essay “New Poets of the Soweto Era: Van Wyk, Johennesse, and Madingoane” holds a similar observation about the poet’s use of “all his senses to convey the cheap quality of life in South Africa’s black ghettos. Images of vomit, excreta, and putrefaction convey his disgust.”
Living in a Flat in Eldorado Park | Analysis, Lines 30-42
and the frequent knock on the door
as someone tries yet again to sell
tomatoes steelwool washing baskets
dance-tickets spices or toilet-seats
and the maddening toot-toot of
the milkman as he sells his milk
for four cents more than the dairy does
i think of all these things
when someone asks me if i like living
in eldorado park
not bad at all
Johennesse’s poems are a microcosmic representation of working class living in such townships where people engage in small jobs like door to door selling. The prices of the products these sellers quote are often more in comparison to the market outside implying corruption.
The last set of lines reveals the speaker’s actual thoughts about his neighbourhood. He/she is unable to recall anything good when someone interrogates him/her about his/her residential locality but as a humble person he/she answers in an approving affirmation. Thus this account of Eldorado Park in its vivacity and mayhem resides in the thoughts. The non-capitalised “i” becomes a representative of community rather than an individual conviction. The essay “A Critical Survey of Contemporary South African Poetry” substantiates “township poetry [as] both angry and encouraging; it is both hopeful and desperate for change.” Poems like these share a vision of black unity, achieving their rights in South Africa and their recognition as humans deserving equal opportunities.