South African poet performs for British royalty

12 March 2014

South African poet, writer and performance artist Phillippa Yaa de Villiers read her poem, Courage – it takes more, at a function at the annual Commonwealth Observance Day celebration at London’s Westminster Abbey on Monday.

Organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society, the celebration was attended by members of the British royal family, including Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Prince Edward, as well as by senior politicians, high commissioners and Commonwealth dignitaries. More than 1 000 young people also attended the event.

Yaa de Villiers was commissioned to write the poem for the event by the Commonwealth Education Trust.

In an interview with Sunday World newspaper last week, Yaa de Villiers said: “The reason I was appointed was because I’m working with Zapp – the Southern African Poetry Project – which is a four-year collaboration between Cambridge University and Wits University’s education department.”

Launched at Cambridge University in 2013, Zapp brings together leading poets, teachers, educationalists, scholars, publishers and arts administrators. Cambridge’s education faculty said they were “delighted” that Yaa de Villiers had been chosen as this year’s Commonwealth poet.

Upbringing

Yaa de Villiers was born in South Africa in 1966 to an Australian mother and Ghanaian father and was given up for adoption to a white family when she was nine months old. She was only told that she was adopted when she was 20. Her upbringing is a strong theme that runs through her poetry.

The African Book Collective describes the poet as a multiaward-winning writer, performer and editor. After a decade of scriptwriting for television she won a place on the British Council’s Crossing Borders programme and then a grant from the Centre for the Book, resulting in her first volume of poetry Taller than Buildings in 2006. Her second volume, The Everyday Wife, won the Poetry Award at the 2011 South African Literary Awards.

Performance

Original Skin, her one-woman show, toured South Africa and internationally. She has performed her poetry in Cuba, Germany, Sweden and Zimbabwe and was a writer-in-residence in Belgium. Yaa de Villiers’s poetry and prose are widely published in journals and anthologies.

Her appearance at the Commonwealth Observance Day celebration was not the first time Yaa de Villiers has performed in the UK. She told Sunday World that she did a five-city tour with fellow South African poets Lebo Mashile, Don Mattera and the country’s poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile in 2009.

Commonwealth Observance Day has been celebrated every year since the 1970s. In recent years, it has shifted away from a day event and moved towards celebrating Commonwealth Week, with Commonwealth Day, a multifaith service, as its centrepiece.

SAinfo reporter