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Zakes Mda: A Novelist of the New South Africa

Rayne Attwood By Rayne Attwood Published on September 27, 2017
“Now a new order exists in South Africa. Like all regimes before it, the new dispensation is narrating the past from its own perspective, recreating and reshaping it to palliate the very present it continues to mismanage with impunity, erasing the contribution of some from the annals of history, and lionising the current crooks, the harvesters of matundu ya uhuru, the fruits of freedom.”
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These words were spoken in June 2017 by South African novelist, poet and playwright, Zakes Mda, keynote speaker at the Sunday Times Literary Awards at which he won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for his novel Little Suns. Readers of Mda’s work will recognise the powerful effect of an unjust past resurrected to expose present evils. Both in his art and as a public persona, his observations are always illuminating and often ruthless. The satiric novel Black Diamond (2009) is the most naked example of Mda’s criticism of the post-Apartheid nation that freedom fighters, including himself, fought to create. The Johannesburg of Black Diamond is not simply a vibrant, multi-racial melting pot, but home to an increasingly corrupt black ruling class, still cashing in on moral justification earned twenty years before. While some South Africans might flinch from his gaze, there are few individuals better placed to criticize contemporary South Africa than Zakes Mda.

Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda grew up in 1950s Apartheid South Africa. As son of the exiled freedom fighter Ashbey Peter Solomzi Mda, a founding member and president of the ANC Youth League, he was acquainted from a young age with the prominent figures – and the brutal realities – of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He and his family endured interrogation and harassment by police, and at age fifteen he left the Eastern Cape to join his father in the impoverished mountain kingdom of Lesotho. By this time, Mda had begun writing in isiXhosa, and had published his first and only short story, Igqira lase Mvubase, in a youth magazine. No matter how bright the early flare of talent, many emerging radical voices might be silenced by police intimidation and having to abandon a mother tongue for a new language, but these oppressive and exiling experiences were what shaped Mda as a writer:

“They would pick me up from Tapoleng Primary School where I was a pupil, load me in the back of a pick-up van, and put me in front of an impressive array of uniformed white officers who sat there and bombarded me with questions about my father and the people who visited my home. Sergeant April was the only black African in the room, and he translated their questions and my answers. When I hesitated, or said something they did not like, they barked in unison: ‘Jy sal begin om te lieg! Jy sal begin om te lieg!’ They said it in such a rhythmic manner, which was both beautiful and menacing, that instead of being scared I admired the way they delivered that line with such dramatic impact. This was the scene that inspired me to write.”
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This passage comes from an unpublished autobiographical work, Personal History, discussed by Dorothy Winifred Steele in her thesis, Interpreting Redness (2007). If you’re eager to read about Mda’s life, he has since published a spellbinding memoir, Sometimes There Is a Void (2011). This detailed work chronicles – among other things – the development of his writing, the anti-Apartheid movement, life in exile (both real and self-imposed), his marriages, vices, and the perils of the high-life in post-1994 Johannesburg.

Exiled in Lesotho, Mda began to write plays, adopting the penname ‘Zakes’. He founded Marotholi, a travelling theatre group which produced theatre for community upliftment – a far more involved undertaking than a city-dweller might imagine, as the communities in question were located in remote mountainous regions of Lesotho. While in exile he wrote plays in English to bring the South African liberation struggle under an international spotlight. He also joined the resistance group, the PAC (Pan African Congress), and was a member of its armed wing, Poqo.

Mda was a celebrated poet and dramatist at the height of the resistance movement. He published his first volume of poems, Bits of Debris in 1986. His play We Shall Sing for the Fatherland (1978) won the first Amstel Playwright of the Year Award and won him the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree in theatre at Ohio University. But it was later, back at home in post-Apartheid South Africa, that Mda first gained international fame, this time as a novelist.

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His debut novel Ways of Dying (1995) touched a nerve in a nation struggling to repair itself after what was arguably the most violent decade of its history. Set between the release of Nelson Mandela and the ANC's 1994 election victory, the novel follows Toloki, a self-employed professional mourner attending community funerals in an unnamed township. Deprived of food and clothing, Toloki subsists on what grieving families can afford to contribute for his efforts. Though poor, he views his ascetic lifestyle as necessary preparation for the important work of mourning, which he considers – and is in fact received as – a valuable contribution to the community. As Toloki devotes himself to honing the art of grieving, readers begin to wonder what specters of his own past he is readying himself to grieve for. Toloki’s repressed past begins to open up when, at the funeral of a child, he is reconnected with an old acquaintance, the bereaved mother, Noira. The reunited pair give each other the courage to reenter and move through the violent story of their shared place of origin, as well as their individual tragedies. This collective memorial effort, dramatized with redemptive magical realist passages, suggests the necessity of collective mourning on a national scale: only by re-inhabiting its past and searching for the truth can the country begin to move forward. 

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If you’re new to Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying is a must. And if you’re touched by its magic or compelled by its insightful and tender handling of Community, his subsequent novels will not disappoint. The multi-generational saga, The Heart of Redness (2000) explores a rural Xhosa speaking community’s conflicting desires to cling to and shake off a traditional way of life. The novel’s scope is both vast in time-scale – the beheading of Xikixa, the ‘Headless Ancestor’ by British colonizers continues to play out in contemporary village life – and flexible in its modes of story-telling. Ostensibly realist, the narrative lapses seamlessly into oral-story telling and magical-realist episodes that, far from detracting from the reality of the fictional word, help a foreign reader apprehend characters’ true experiences. Mda’s protagonists – in this novel and much of his other work – are engaged in a physical or emotional journey in search of truth, which, as his fiction suggests, has less to do with facts than with belief and the stories communities tell across time. 

“There is nothing foolish about belief... It is the same sincerity of belief that has been seen throughout history and continues to be seen today where those who believe actually see miracles.”
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In The Heart of Redness, like many of Mda’s works, the push-pull between generations, families and races is the backdrop for a touching love story. In Little Suns (2015) he overlays historic material – in this instance, oral histories passed down by his ancestors – with a transcendent story of enduring love. Set in 1903, the novel accompanies exiled Malangana (Little Suns) on his search for his long-lost beloved, Mthwakazi. The Eastern Cape natives had been separated twenty years earlier when a colonial magistrate was assassinated in the midst of power struggle between the AmaMpondomise and the British. In Mda’s characteristic style, his fictional account of historic clashes between tribal and colonial forces offers a truer story than the official history.

More than twenty years after the end of Apartheid, there is still plenty of South African history to be rewritten. It is heartening to think of Zakes Mda writing it.  


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