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Sometimes there is a void (review)

Sometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an OutsiderSometimes there is a Void – Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve often found that I enjoy literary biographies and memoirs more than the works of the writers themselves, and this one is no exception. I had read one of Mda’s novels, Ways of dying but I knew him mainly as a newspaper columnist before I came across this memoir in the library. I found it very interesting, partly, no doubt because the life and times of Zakes Mda overlapped so much with my own. As I often do, I’m expanding my review on GoodReads here, adding some reminiscences of my own, and comparing Mda’s experiences of some events with mine, because that was what I found most interesting about the book

Like me, Zakes Mda was born in the 1940s, so we belong more or less to the same generation, one of the ones before Americans started giving them letters. He grew up in Johannesburg and in the Herschel district of the Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border. His father was a political activist, first in the African National Congress (ANC), later in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and had to go into exile in Lesotho, along with his family. So Zakes Mda finished his schooling in Lesotho after dropping out and going back to complete his high school education.

He describes one of his drop-out periods as follows

We saw ourselves as part of the international hippy culture. Make love, not war. Janis Joplin was our chief prophetess. “Mercedes Benz”. That was my song asking God to buy me the luxury German sedan. The one that I sang as Mr Dizzy strummed the guitar. I never learnt how to strum it myself, so he strummed it for me. And hummed along. Another prophetess was Joan Baez with her folk songs. And the prophets were Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with his psychedelic rock. When we were around the shebeens of Maseru reverberated with some of their music instead of the traditional Sesotho songs that were a staple of drunken sing-alongs. And Mr Dizzy strummed his guitar.
Source: Mda 2011:159

And I can say much the same of when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg and Durham in the 1960s. Mda mentions Jeremy Taylor’s Black and White Calypso from the revue Wait a Minim, which I saw in Johannesburg in 1962 on my 21st birthday.  Mda heard it sung by his friend Mr Dizzy (Sechele Khaketla) in Maseru shebeens, and it seems that Jeremy Taylor’s satire was appreciated just as much there as it was by the all-white audiences in Johannesburg. And a few years later Bob Dylan’s satire had much the same effect, when he was singing about “you unpatriotic rotten doctor commie rat” — just how the South African government of the time thought of us.

Mda tells his story in a series of flashbacks — visiting places from his past, and then telling of past events in those places. And so I discovered that he was far more than a novelist and newspaper columnist. He had begun as an artist, hawking paintings to tourists in Maseru, and his fame was chiefly as a playwright. He also became a teacher, teaching literature and creative writing both in Lesotho and in the USA.

I knew vaguely that plays that were banned in South Africa were sometimes performed in Lesotho — my wife had once travelled from Durban to Maseru with her cousins to see Godspell, which was then banned in South Africa. What I was not aware of was that there was such a lively literary scene in Lesotho, with local authors and playwrights mingling with South African exiles, so Mda’s memoir reads like a who’s who of southern African writers.

I am more historically inclined, so what I found most interesting was Mda’s take on historical events that I had been aware of, but from a different viewpoint. The ANC/PAC split of 1959, for example, and its relation to the politics of Lesotho. I had then been living in Johannesburg and at university in Pietermaritzburg, where I had once tried to explain it to some of my fellow students, and I was interested to see that my explanations fitted pretty closely with Mda’s experience.

Mda’s father was critical of a preface to a book of his plays, written by Andrew Horn, which said that Zakes Mda questions the basic tenets of the PAC, saying that they rejected class analysis of South African society and adopted a narrower race-based Pan-Africanism, influenced by Marcus Garvey. Mda’s father rejected this analysis.

My father believed that in a free and democratic South Africa there would be only one race, the human race. He spoke of non-racialism as opposed to multi-racialism long before it became the trend in South Africa and wrote against “narrow nationalism”. Race as defined by the social engineers of the apartheid state came into play when he discussed the intersections of class and race. Even ardent Communist leaders like John Motloheloa came to him for his class analysis of the South African situation. Although I am not an authority on my father’s writings, as people like Robert Edgar and Luyana ka Msumzwa are, I’ll be so bold as to say Marcus Garvey never featured in any of them.
Source: Mda 2011:353

And that was how I tried to explain it to white South African students in 1965. The predominant perception among whites at that time was that the PAC was racist and anti-white (and anti-coloured and anti-Indian). And the PAC, being banned, could not correct this impression. No doubt some rank-and-file members saw it that way, and their opposition to communists in the ANC was that most of the communists were white. But that was not how Robert Sobukwe expressed it, and he had been a lecturer at Wits University when I was a student there. Sobukwe said that whites were Africans too, as long as they saw Africa as their home, and did not have one foot in Europe. In his book Mda reports that the PAC later did become more narrowly racist and chauvinist, and he then switched his support to the ANC, but at that time Robert Sobukwe was in prison, and could not influence its direction so easily.

I was disillusioned with the PAC, though I still believed in two of its three guiding principles, namely continental unity and socialism. It was with the leadership’s interpretation of the third principle, African nationalism, that I had a problem. It was quite different from the way in which my father used to outline it for us at one of his family meetings. His was not a narrow nationalism. It was all inclusive of all South Africans who identified themselves as Africans and paid their allegiance first and foremost to Africa. But the way my PAC comrades understood the concept it became clear to me that the rights of citizenship of a future Azania, as they called South Africa, would be limited only to black people of African descent. In the meetings which we attended, especially when I was staying at the Poqo camp, the leaders did not make any bones about that. I saw this position as a misrepresentation of the tenets of African nationalism as propounded by my father.

The PAC wrote extensively against tribalism: African nationalism was essentially about embracing Africans regardless of which cultural, linguistic or ethnic group they belonged to. But our PAC and Poqo cadres in Lesotho, who were predominantly amaXhosa, had a negative attitude towards their Basotho hosts. They viewed themselves as naturally superior to other ethnicities.
Source: Mda 2011:250

I had visited Maseru a few times in the 1960s when attending student conferences over the border at Modderpoort in the Free State. On free afternoons groups of us went to Maseru just to enjoy a freer atmosphere. There we sometimes met a bloke in a pub, Desmond Sixishe, whom we didn’t quite trust, and thought was a South African government spy. On one such visit we saw a procession of vehicles, mainly LandRovers, with flags waving, hooting and celebrating. They were from the Basutoland National Party (BNP), which had just won a by-election. We stood at the side of the road as they went past, giving the hand signals of the opposing parties, the Basutoland Congress Party and the Marema-tlou Freedom Party. A few hours later in the pub Desmond Sixishe told us he had seen us, as he had been in the procession. It turned out he was a big BNP supporter. And from Zakes Mda’s memoir I learned that he had become a cabinet minister. But he later died in an ambush on a mountain road.

I was in Namibia when the BNP lost the 1970 general election, but continued to rule by staging a coup. I was then far away in Namibia, but Mda confirmed that it was just as nasty from close up as it looked from a distance, and after that Lesotho immigration and other border officials went from being the friendliest and most welcoming on the subcontinent to being the surliest and most arrogant and officious.

Another link that I found was that Zakes Mda had stayed at my Alma Mater, St Chad’s College, Durham. Same place, different times. I was there from 1966-1968, and he was there 25 years later.

The following year I went to Durham, England, as a writer-in-residence at the Cathedral there. I was the guest of an organisation called Lesotho-Durham Link which was itself linked to the Anglican Church. My brief was to write a play that would be performed in the Norman Cathedral as part of its nine hundredth anniversary celebrations. I was based at St Chad’s College just across the street from the Cathedral and I spent a lot of time taking walks along the Wear River. It was during these walks that my character Toloki was born.
Source: Mda 2011:357

Durham Cathedral, above the banks of the River Wear, where Mda’s character Toloki was conceived

His character Toloki is the professional mourner who is the protagonist in Ways of dying, and I recall many walks along the banks of the River Wear (as it is called locally — the “Wear River” is a South Africanism). My friend Hugh Pawsey would give names to the strange alien vegetation that I had previously read about in books, but could not have identified or even imagined — beech trees, rhododendrons and so on. Rhododendrons are a bit like oleanders and azaleas, which we do know. I recall the “Count’s House”, a tiny dwelling once the home of a man who was only three feet tall. But I can picture the place where Toloki was born. .

Mda does not tell us how he felt, as an atheist, being asked to write a play to commemorate the centenary of an Anglican Cathedral, but he did leave before his term as writer-in-residence was up.

When I was a student in Durham in 1967 there was a civil war in Nigeria, and the Eastern Region broke away from the federation and became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Someone from the Nigerian High Commission in London came to Durham to speak to the university African Society about the civil war, and noted that the Igbo people of the Eastern Region had a legitimate grievance, because 30000 of them had been killed, but he said that was not a sufficient reason to break up the federation.

I found  it interesting that Mda and I both supported the breakaway state of Biafra, though for quite different reasons. Mda and his friends supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, in spite of its being contrary to Pan Africanism. They knew the Igbo people well because of Chinua Achebe’s books, and did not know of any other of the peoples of Nigeria. In 1967 the only book by a Nigerian author I had read was My life in the bush of ghosts by Amos Tutuola, who was a Yoruba from the Western Region, It was a kind of magic realism story.

At independence in 1960 Nigeria was a federation of three regions. The Northern Region was Muslim and feudal and dry savannah or semi-desert, where Hausa and Fulani people dominated. The Eastern Region, where the Igbo people lived, was around the Niger Delta, largely forest, rich in oil, and the people were mostly Christian. Igbos from the Eastern Region migrated to the north for trade and business, but because of religious and cultural differences were regarded as exploitative foreigners, and were increasingly subject to xenophobic attacks similar to those on Nigerians and Somalis in South Africa in the 21st century. Eventually in a pogrom some 30000 were killed, which led to a civil war, and the secession of the Eastern Region as Biafra. And in the northern part of Nigeria the killing of Christians by Muslims has continued to this day.

Mda notes that such a thing went against his Pan Africanist sentiments. He wanted the countries in Africa to be united. He mentions admiring Julius Nyerere, who united Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania. What he does not mention, however, is that Julius Nyerere supported Biafra, one of the few African leaders of the time to do so. After the secession of Biafra ended, and Nigeria ceased to be a federation and became a unitary state with the aim of avoiding such secessions in future, Nyerere published a kind of elegy for Biafra, explaining why he had supported it. He said it was an elementary matter of justice. But in this world oil counts far more than justice.

A couple of years later I was living in Namibia, where South Africa was busy tightening its control, and planning to apply the apartheid policy in Namibia as it was doing in South Africa. I saw each of these closer links as a retrograde step, and was glad to see the independence of Namibia. So I am not a strong pan-Africanist. And one of the reasons for that is apparent from Mda’s own life. He was able to escape the clutches of the apartheid security apparatus precisely because Lesotho was not part of South Africa, and though the South African security forces made incursions into neighbouring countries, and kidnapped or killed people, Mda and his family found a safe refuge there. An advantage of having a lot of small countries rather than just one big one is that there are more places where one can take refuge from an oppressive government.

Mda also makes some interesting observations about developments in South Africa since the end of apartheid. He describes attending his mother’s funeral:

Throughout the ceremony I wear a white Xhosa ceremonial blanket, which makes me feel rather silly. These are some of the traditional innovations that have been introduced by Cousin Nondyebo into our lives. We never used to practise any of these customs when my father was alive. We didn’t even know about them. But, what the heck, it’s only for a few hours. I might as well humour the neo-traditionalists in the family and wear the ridiculous blanket. It all has to do with the movement that is sweeping the country of black people trying to find their roots after having “lost” their culture due to colonialism and apartheid. The problem with this movement is that it does not recognise the dynamism of culture but aims to resuscitate some of the most retrogressive and reactionary, and sometimes horrendous, elements of what used to be “tribal” culture but have long fallen into disuse..
Source: Mda 2011:543

This neo-traditionalism and attempts to resuscitate the culture of an imagined past has been much promoted by the SABC, and has led to the phrase “our culture” being used to justify all kinds of dubious practices. A few years ago a student who had studied in another country was told by the college authorities that he would not be readmitted as he had committed adultery with a married woman whose husband had vowed to kill him if he ever saw him again. On being asked about this the student attempted to justify his adultery by saying “it’s our culture”. I wonder what King Shaka, who had no compunction about putting adulterers to death instantly, would have thought about that.

Mda also has some interesting comments on the tendency to refer to the people who used to be called Bushmen in English as “San”:

You’ll notice that I keep referring to these vanquished people as the Bushmen instead of the politically correct term that is used for them today, the San people. The reason is simply that these people never called themselves the San. They merely referred to themselves as “people” in the various languages of the tribal groups. The clans or tribes did indeed have names: the !Kwi, the /Xam and so on. The San label has the same weight as Barwa or abaThwa or Bushmen, it was what other people called them. They were called the San by the Khoikhoi people (who did call themselves the Khoikhoi) and the name referred to those people who were vagabonds and wanderers and didn’t own cattle,. The Khoikhoi even called fellow Khoikhoi who were poor and didn’t have cattle San. So the name, though generally accepted, has derogatory origins.
Source: Mda 2011:306

I found the last hundred or so pages a disappointment, however. Mda was going through an acrimonious divorce, and lets a lot of the acrimony spill over into the pages of his memoir. During much of that time he was teaching at a university in Ohio in the USA, but he says little about his classes or what he was teaching, or the literary characters he met. It was all about his wife and his marital problems. I’ve no doubt that that played a big part in his life and affected his creative work, and so could not be left out. But there seemed to be too much self-justification, and trying too hard to persuade the reader that his wife was an evil villain. But for that I might have given it five stars on GoodReads.

Mda was also asked by many why he lived in Ohio and taught at a university there, now that South Africa is free. Why did he not return home to help build the nation? And he explains that there was no place for him in South Africa, dominated as it is by crony capitalism, where who you know is more important than what you know and in applying for a job party affiliation trumps competence every time, whether one is talking about membership of the board of the SABC or running a municipal sewage purification works:

Though Mda doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems reasonable to me to infer from what he does say that the ANC has learned a great deal about how to govern from the Broederbond, and in this respect has confirmed the observations of Paolo Freire in his Pedagogy of the oppressed — that the oppressed interrnalises the image of the oppressor.

 

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