Ts’eliso Monaheng

"I do remember some happy moments, yes, but there was always a gaping hole that could not be filled. Sometimes I am attacked by a profound pain, the cause of origin of which I cannot fathom. Sometimes there is a void"

In his memoirs, novelist and playwright Zakes Mda provides a thread that ties together the disparate aspects of both his youth and adult life, subsequently presenting a fairly intimate portrayal of what has arguably been a life well-lived. The roots of his family structure - beginning with his ancestor Mhlontlo, a rainmaker and medicine man of the amaMpondomise people, to his great grandfather's homestead in the Eastern Cape's rugged terrain - are expertly congealed and furtively engaged with. He takes liberty to point out every family member's eccentricities, like his grandfather, the headman of a small village who had amassed property but later lost his marbles due to a knife stabbing on the head, or his cousin Mlungisi who was quite popular with girls.

His skill, of course, also lies in how he sees the characters to completion. We know, for instance, of the knife incident that left his grandfather mentally unstable. Mda is also aware of his upbringing - almost painstakingly so.

Throughout the book, Mda's tone is welcoming. One senses an unhinged level of honesty in his narrative – forthcoming, unrestricted, and intent on mapping out the whole picture, a picture devoid of any glaring omissions. Zanemvula, his full name, is a double entendre that can mean 'the rain bringer', or 'the one who has been brought by rain'. We discover in the memoirs that it was adopted from a character in a 1940s Xhosa novel that went on to be hailed as one of the finest on the African continent. 

The portrayal of both his childhood and adult experiences is laden with the wisdom of one who has ruminated over those experiences, and struggled - succeeding in some parts - to come to terms with their meaning. He strays from any intellectual verbiage, opting rather to engage in an open-ended dialogue with the reader. Gugu, his wife, features extensively throughout the book, and the reader is always in tow to serve as the third axis everywhere they go - be it in the busy streets of Johannesburg or the hinterlands of the Maloti mountains of Lesotho and the Eastern Cape. 

Mda has struggled with the South African government, oftentimes being overlooked for job opportunities because of his staunch criticism of how the post-apartheid government operated (and by all intents and purposes, continues to operate). He would engage with citizens at large through a series of articles in various South African publications, voicing his dissatisfaction and disillusionment with concepts such as Black Economic Empowerment, a “patronage system” that benefitted a select few while excluding the mass populace from participating in their own country, hence fuelling the disenchantment of the unemployed masses today. He even wrote a letter personally addressed to then-South African president Nelson Mandela, after which he received a personal call from Mandela himself arranging a meeting to discuss the issues he had raised. The meeting never happened.

However, Mda had encountered Mandela forty-odd years prior, as a family friend. He recalls a car ride during which Mandela reprimanded him for a mischief he had committed, but also tells of a Mandela that was rather jovial and loving. His father A.P. Mda was somewhat of a figurehead in the South African liberation struggle, having laid the foundations of the ANC Youth League as well as being one of the founding members of the break-away Pan-African Congress (PAC) under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe. The allegiance with Mandela had started years prior though; Mda’s mother trained as a nurse with Mandela’s then-wife, Evelyn Mase.

Mda portrays his father as being rather stern in the household, but always showing a relaxed attitude towards others. “He had a way of making you feel not only that you were a disappointment to yourself and your parents, but you also let the whole continent of Africa down”, says Mda in retrospect, before ending off with “Africa cannot afford to have people who do such things.” 

Because of his political activities, A.P. was exiled to Lesotho (then Basutoland). The apartheid government then went after his family, which meant that they too had to follow suit. Mda was the first to go, leaving his mother and siblings behind. He arrived in Lesotho during its heady days, just as it was on the verge of obtaining independence from Britain. His activities with the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), an ally of South Africa’s PAC – ignited his political consciousness. According to Mda, BCP played a critical role in preventing Lesotho from becoming, at the suggestion of Hendrik Verwoed, a Bantustan of South Africa, in the vein of Ciskei and Transkei. 

It was in Lesotho that Mda came of age. He wrote, drew, and became part of the fabric that would later draw up policies in government. He engaged with South African struggle veterans such as Potlako Leballo while also ruminating with the likes of Jane Fonda and Gibson Kente. The latter had a touring theatre company, and is responsible for Mda’s early ventures into playwriting. 

"I was marked for life chasing a girl", notes Mda in one of the earlier chapters, perhaps hinting at the prominent role women were to play in his life. "For as long as I remember", he states "women have always been a strong part of me." Women such as Nontonje, the housekeeper who molested him as a child; Keneiloe, his childhood love; Adele, the fiery-tempered ex-wife who would hurl insults at him in front of their children; as well as Gugu, his current wife, muse, and love of his life. 

The memoirs are a full-fledged, intimate excerpt of the roots of some of the liberties Zakes Mda has fought so long for. The reader meets a Mda who, in his words, was a “late bloomer”, a Mda who has always respected women, even at the expense of being seen as 'soft' among his contemporaries. Then there is the Mda who, feeling disillusioned as an artist in Lesotho, got impetus from the 1976 riots in South Africa to keep drawing, writing, and creating. We learn of fallen soldiers, people who haunt his dreams up to this day. His gift for detail is impeccable, especially for one who has been in the setting being described – whether Johannesburg’s leafy suburbs, or the rugged yet breathtaking terrain of Lesotho’s Maluti mountains.

Throughout the book, Zakes Mda alludes to a persistent ‘void’, one that refuses to be allayed regardless of how many novels he writes, how many community projects he helps to found, nor how many of his internationally-acclaimed plays get performed. In his own words: "Those [experiences] were some of the humbling moments of my journey. There would be many of them in the future. They could not but transform me. But none of them could completely fill the void."

Ts'eliso Monaheng is a Lesotho-born writer with a keen interest in music. His focus is in covering emerging music scenes (mainly jazz and hip-hop) in Africa and the diaspora.