The poem, ‘Nothing’s Changed’ by Tatmkhulu Afrika, talks about the rampant apartheid system in District Six near Cape Town in South Africa, and explores racism.
In the poem Tatamkhulu Afrika, on his return, imagines and hopes for a more just and less racially-divided country, but, to his surprise, no such change is seen anywhere. The situations have become even worse in the way of brutality, exploitation, and discrimination has changed. And this poem reveals the very fact and the poet’s bitter disappointment toward the prevalent racism. The attitude of Nothing’s Changed is revengeful and tragic. It is a protest and a cry of pain. Rather than the white culture feeling guilt and making some kind of recompense for its years of oppression and murder, the ‘brash’ restaurant still symbolizes confidence, even arrogance, certainly no shame.
Explore Nothing's Changed
Summary of Nothing’s Changed
The title of the poem depicts what the poet wants to convey through the text of the poem. He says, “Nothing has changed” ever since he left this place. Even now the discrimination is quite visible not only among the whites but even the things that belong to the whites and the blacks. The poem depicts the apartheid system in District Six near Cape Town in South Africa while exploring the broader history of racism. The ironic title brings to light how the apartheid has changed nothing but the physical appearance of District Six. ‘Nothing’s Changed’ expresses the poet’s anger toward the racists, especially the whites. It reveals the experience of turning back to South Africa after the system of racial separation, called Apartheid, had been upturned.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Nothing’s Changed
‘Nothing’s Changed’ is written in free verse and is separated into seven stanzas. Most of these are eight lines long apart from the fourth and fifth stanza. This may be deliberate. The form of the poem seems to be used as a device to mirror the poet’s feelings. The poem has been declared as autobiographical by Afrika himself. It deals with quite a difficult subject matter and certainly has a rather angry tone.
The poet employs sensual imagery to convey the sense of the surrounding. The opening line is 5 separate monosyllables that we see ‘small, round’, touch ‘hard’, and hear ‘click’. In the second stanza, he makes use of repetition and lengthens the line to grow his anger, and how it consumes every part of him. The stanza on the ‘whites only inn’ is in the middle of the poem. ‘Nothing’s Changed’ also contains several full stops, with the last one sounding final, certain, unanswerable: ‘Nothing’s changed.’
Literary Devices in Nothing’s Changed
Afrika makes use of several literary devices in ‘Nothing’s Changed’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, is seen through the repetition of words that begin with the same consonant sound. For example, “trouser” and “trodden” in lines five and six of the first stanza and “labouring” and “lungs” in the sixth line of the second stanza.
Enjambment is another formal technique that appears when the poet cuts off a line of the verse before its natural stopping point. This technique is used to control the pace at which a reader moves through the text. It can also be used to create suspenseful moments or emphasize certain parts of the poem. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the final stanza and lines one and two of the fifth stanza.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques a poet can use in their work. Without it, readers will have a hard time connecting with the story they are trying to tell. The best writers create images that tap into various senses and encourage the reader to hear, feel, smell, and taste what they are describing. For example, these lines from the last stanza: “Hands burn / for a stone, a bomb, / to shiver down the glass”.
Themes in Nothing’s Changed
In ‘Nothing’s Changed,’ Afrika explores themes of discrimination and racism, as well as violence, and transformation, or lack thereof. The text clearly shows the poet’s anger toward the discriminating and segregating nature of those who even today keep themselves aloof from the colored people (the blacks). This poem might also remind the reader of the widespread caste system in India, where the lower caste and down-trodden people are discriminated against by the upper caste. Racism and casteism are two deeply-rooted sins that have been a stigma on the forehead of humanity for centuries. In the poem, when the poet returns to his homeland, he finds that nothing has changed, the attitude of whites is even now as it used to be when he was a child. With the perfect use of poetic devices and the restaurants, the poet has been able to picture the best picture of racism in South Africa.
Analysis of Nothing’s Changed
Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
in tall, purple-flowering,
The very first stanza of ‘Nothing’s Changed’ describes the physical appearance of the district six areas. It creates an image that almost has apocalyptic like undertones. The language used here is very clever and deliberate. This stanza tells the irritation and anger of the poet when he says that the irritating stones that click under the feet of the poet create the hard irritating sound (an example of onomatopoeia). He says there is untidiness all around, which is increased more by the spreading weeds all around.
Words like click and crunch all have harsh consonant sounds and this creates an image of a harsh environment. Even the flowers are described as being weeds, this helps to give the impression of a run-down area. In this stanza, the poet is shown walking across the wasteland that he knew since his childhood, and the destroyed District 6 fills the poet full of anger and irritation. The words like– stones, seeding grasses, cans, weeds are the images that the poet uses to make his poem lively and realistic.
The poem starts with a very friendly and amicable tone. The opening of the poem with a series of monosyllabic words (as discussed above in the para) is very percussive and helps in building up the imagery in the opening lines in which the poet sets up the wasteland, i.e. District 6. And with the use of first-person, the poet takes us into his world. In the last line of the first stanza, the poet uses another poetic device such as ‘amiable weeds’ while the use of words like ‘clicks’ and ‘crunch’ are examples of onomatopoeia.
No board says it is:
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.
The poet brings a change in the poem’s tone using the two-word title ‘District Six’. This stark statement at the very beginning of this stanza familiarizes the readers about what the poet is going to talk about in the poem ahead. This stanza also recognizes the place as ‘District Six’ which is recognizable not by a sign ‘board’ but by instinct ‘my feet know and my hands…’ In fact every part of the poet’s body seems to recognize it.
The repetition of ‘And’ in the 12, 13, 14, and 15 lines shows the growing anger of the poet. Moreover, the frequent use of punctuation helps in establishing a sense of growing anger. Note this anger of the poet that he has expressed through the imagery of body parts is against the establishment of the restaurant that has been constructed on the debris of District 6.
The construction of a restaurant destroying District 6 also shows the supremacy of the whites over the blacks. This stanza finishes with a sense of great anger ‘and the hot, white, inwards turning anger of my eyes’ which depicts that the poet is full of anger due to rooted hatred of the whites toward the blacks.
Moreover, the phrase “the skin about my bones,” is an interesting one as it gives the impression of somebody who is not particularly well-fed. It’s unclear if this is intentional. He says his lungs are laboring this is another description that might look to emphasize his feelings. It would seem that he is struggling with the experience.
Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.
In the third stanza of ‘Nothing’s Changed’, there is a lovely description in the opening line as Afrika continues his description of district six. Brashness is usually used to describe rudeness and impetuousness using it to describe the glass almost personifies it. This technique helps “bring the area to life” He then switches seamlessly to describing a new eatery that has opened up amongst the chaos.
The poet takes his readers to a ‘brash’ restaurant, full of ‘up market, haute cuisine’ with a ‘guard at the gatepost’. This restaurant can be easily recognized as a place for ‘whites only inn’, which means no black is allowed to get in there.
This very scene of the restaurants and the warnings written here angers the poet, and he calls it ‘brash’, which is a personification of something almost lurking or hiding in the grass and weeds ‘it squats’. The height of the anger is increased more when the poet finds a guard at the gatepost of the restaurant, which means that the people sitting inside the restaurant need protection from a guard. This irritates the poet, and he wants to break the restaurant, “Brash with glass.”
Moreover, Afrika himself has said that this poem is based after the end of apartheid but there, at this point was still a massive divide between wealthy white people and the impoverished black people. He highlights the new imported trees in the area and refers to the food that the place serves as “haute” a slightly derogatory term for the upper-class, before pointing out that the establishment is for whites only. A symbol that despite the end of apartheid the divide at that time was still very apparent.
No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.
This couplet is tinged with sadness. The “we” here refers to the colored and black people. They instinctively know the areas where they are welcome. These areas are no longer signposted, though they might have been in the past. But it is still very apparent that there is segregation in effect.
Along with that, the fourth stanza is brief but it speaks thousands of words through the two lines. This stanza sheds light on the racism inherent in South Africa, and when the poet sees the construction of a restaurant over the debris of District 6, he says though there is no sign, we still know where our place is in society, or where we belong.
The apartheid signs might have gone now that South Africa is a democracy, but the poet knows that as a man of the mixed or colored race he would not be welcome in the restaurant; in other words, he knows where he belongs… Not in there but in the working men’s café down the road!
I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
the single rose.
In stanza five of ‘Nothing’s Changed’, Afrika looks through the windows and sees exactly what he expects to see: the eatery is filled with finery. The tables are set out in exactly the way you would expect to see tables in a luxury restaurant. This is one of just two stanzas in the poem that is a different length the last stanza seems to be shorter as it is used to highlight that important aspect of the poem.
The key feature of this stanza is color imagery, mostly the white color imagery — all that white — the crushed ice, the linen, the rose, the restaurant. The poet has used all these imageries to emphasize the ‘whiteness’ of the restaurant against which ‘black’ would stand out and help in reinforcing the notion that black people are not welcome.
However, ‘the single rose’ on the table is not white, which symbolizes the red blood of all human beings. The metaphor of a flower decorating table also symbolizes the blood that was shed during South Africa’s struggle for freedom.
Whilst apartheid might have officially ended its terrible legacy continues. The shortness of this stanza could be used to represent the poet composing. What is interesting in this stanza are some of the words that are used “crushed”, “fall” and “panes” being used as a double entendre.
Through this subtle use of language, Afrika manages to put across how he is feeling by explicitly stating anything. What is also interesting is the image of a single rose. This represents a feeling of solitude and isolation and signifies the luxury café, which is the attractive looking flower, surrounded by the prickly thorns of the town that has seen so much destruction.
Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.
In the sixth stanza, he describes the contrast between the ‘working man’s café’ down the road and the restaurant on the other side. The poet says that in the man’s café, the blacks themselves have to carry their food with you, the café has plastic tables, and there are no serviettes as people wipe their fingers on their jeans, ‘spit a little on the floor’ and ‘it’s in the bone’. In all, the unpleasant and uncivilized scenario of a man’s café contrasts with the restaurant, which is ‘posh’ and fully embedded with all sorts of amenities.
Moreover, he comes across a “working man’s café” which he claims sells bunny chow, this is slang for a very common food that is very cheap. It is a kind of the Africa equivalent of a cheap burger. This is used to emphasize the kind of establishment this is and draws a nice comparison with the previous restaurant. The descriptions he uses here are great they create a down to earth environment. The people here are “his kind of people” It is apparent from the text that he can relate to the people who eat here. Eating in this sort of establishment is ingrained it’s “in the bone.”
I back from the
to shiver down the glass.
Seeing this eatery has triggered a momentary nostalgia as Afrika is made to feel “boy again” but his positive emotion soon gives way to anger once more. Moreover, the poet moves away from the scene reverts to being a ‘boy again’ and there is a sense of smallness about him with a “small mean O of small, mean mouth” as if the whole experience has left him feeling inadequate and small.
He wants to throw a stone or “a bomb” at the glass; such is his anger at the whole scene, and this is the anger that still exists in the mind of the poet. Besides, he claims his hands burn for a stone. The separation of this phrase onto several lines creates tension and the imagery of his hands burning for a stone and then likening the stone to a bomb. This is very emotive. It makes us think about the level of anger that can make your hands feel like they are burning. His actions are fuelled by rage as he looks for a stone to throw through the window of the up-market restaurant which he considers to be a symbol of the oppression that has happened in that district.
Historical Context of Nothing’s Changed
‘Nothing’s Changed’ is an autobiographical poem. It is about Afrika returning to district six at the end of Apartheid. It was an area that used to be flourishing and now is just a mess. It describes the poet’s anger about what has happened in the area. Under the Apartheid system, the majority of the Black population was treated as slaves. Due to this system, they were compelled to study in their separate schools, travel in their separate transports, and reside in only the separate parts of cities and towns. The blacks were even not allowed to vote, meaning their voting rights were also upheld by the whites due to this racial system. Though the number of white people was very small, they still exploited and ruled the poverty of the blacks by force of their brutal police force.
Personal Commentary on Nothing’s Changed
The poem, Nothing’s Changed by Tatmkhulu, is an attack on the psyche of the castist people and their society. Certainly, this is a stigma on human society if this type of racial system even today exists. No matter what racism the poet experienced during his childhood, now he wished for an atmosphere where no one will be discriminated against based on his color and caste. However, the poet gets extremely disappointed when after many years of his return he comes to the same place where he had spent his childhood and was thrown out of his house due to the prevalent apartheid system. He says, “Nothing has changed ever since he left this place. Even now the discrimination is quite visible to see not only among the whites but even the things that belong to the whites and the blacks.
About Tatamkhulu Afrika
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s real name is Ismail Joubert. Tatamkhulu Afrika was just a pen name he took on after receiving a ban from writing due to his involvement with the ANC. He considers himself an African though he concedes his poetry may come across as European. There are claims that Tatamkhulu Afrika’s poetry still contains an African flavor. He could have been classed as white but as a protest against apartheid changed his religion to Islam so he could be classified as being colored instead.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Nothing’s Changed’ should also consider looking into some similar poems that explore related themes.
- Africa by Maya Angelou – In this poem, the poet describes the plight of the African continent through the extended metaphor of a beautiful woman. It’s one of the best-known poems of Angelou.
- Harlem (A Dream Deferred) by Langston Hughes – Hughes wrote this poem responding to his feelings and highlighting the importance of equality. This poem belongs to Langston Hughes’ best poetry.
- Power by Audre Lorde – This poem takes on the theme of racism in the judiciary, police brutality, and supremacy of the whites.
- Primer for Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks – This poem speaks on the necessity of accepting one’s black heritage and the unified future resulting from that truthful acceptance.