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Listen to an excerpt from a recording of Stalwarts performed by Mzwakhe Mbuli
 real 28k

Friday, 5 November, 1999, 13:59 GMT
Campaign steps up for 'people's poet'
Mzwakhe Mbuli (pic: campaign web site)
Mbuli has criticised governments during and after apartheid
His poetry fuelled the movement for democracy and inspired a nation, but now he is languishing in a South African prison.

Yet the man known simply in South Africa as the "people's poet" has not been forgotten and a web site has been created calling for Mzwakhe Mbuli's freedom.

The campaigners behind the site say he has been singled out for unfair treatment in prison, and supporters in South Africa allege government harassment. They are pushing for a date for his appeal and are urging people to petition the South African Government against what they claim is a miscarriage of justice and a political conspiracy.

The government rejects Mbuli's supporters' allegations as "unfounded" and say he is being treated as an ordinary prisoner.

Bank robber and superstar?

Mzwakhe Mbuli was sentenced to 13 years in prison on 29 March this year, after being found guilty in a South African court of robbing a bank. This coincided with the release of his latest album on EMI: "Mzwakhe Mbuli Greatest Hits: Born Free, But Always in Chains".

The judge found Mbuli and two associates guilty of the 1997 robbery, after police said they discovered more than $2,000 in cash, pistols, a hand-grenade and ammunition in their car.

Mbuli says a bag was planted in his car.

The 1.95 metre (6 feet 4 inch) tall artist describes himself as a musician who speaks poetry and deals with the truth. He maintains he was framed because of allegations he was making about drug-running among senior politicians.

'Appalling' conditions

His treatment in prison was heavily criticised by campaigners. Former MP Helen Suzman was one of 2,000 visitors before his trial and described the conditions in which he was being held in the overcrowded Pretoria Maximum Security Prison as "appalling".

Mzwakhe Mbuli: "My resilience is beyond malicious allegation. My spirit cannot be broken"
In late August, Mbuli was transferred to Leeuwkop Prison, near Johannesburg and supporters say other charges are pending, including another bank robbery.

The South African Department of Correctional Services says he is entitled to three non-contact visits of 45 minutes a month, unrestricted writing and receiving of letters, and access to a telephone.

However, campaigners say his use of the telephone is severely constrained by long lines.

In Pretoria campaigners say he was restricted to only one visit, one telephone call and one letter per month and unlike many of his fellow inmates, Mbuli was not allowed any food brought in from outside.


Under the old apartheid regime, he found life uncomfortable as an outspoken poet and was detained on several occasions - he once spent six months in solitary confinement.

The apartheid authorities were angered by the poems he performed at funerals, which were memorised and recited by others.

He received international exposure after performing a traditional praise poem at the inauguration of former President Nelson Mandela five years ago, but since then his relationship with the ANC became more troubled.

Mbuli spoke out against violence and corruption and has not stopped. When his guilty verdict was handed down this year he was heard to say: "In an environment of lies, the truth becomes a stranger."

Through his recorded poems and now the website his voice can still be heard.

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22 Apr 99 | Africa
Prison for 'people's poet'
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