Zakes Mda
Zakes Mda; drawing by David Levine

We are our omissions. Or, to put it more precisely, we—ultimately and alas—become our omissions. At least, if we are writers of serious fiction, we run that risk. Because literary biography and criticism, already strongly inclined to forensic approaches, are now operating well beyond the familiar territory of the standard authorial shortcomings and sins of commission, out in the horizonless region of the social lacunae discoverable in even the most celebrated oeuvres. No need to belabor the point. Here’s a random sample of such lacunae: Jane Austen (plantation slavery), Joseph Conrad (race), a good part of the nineteenth-century pantheon of American writers (slavery, race), George Eliot (deficiencies in women’s educational access), Henry James (the injustices of the class system), most postwar German writers (the horrors of the Allied bombing campaign).

Contemporary writers, going forward, will prudently wish to become as comprehensive in their acknowledgment of prevailing evils as they can manage. And how can that be a bad thing? But applying the category of omission to fellow writers in real time feels awkward and unfair. I know because I’m about to do that to two novels out of post-apartheid South Africa—two accomplished, vivid, skillfully made novels by Zakes Mda, wherein, it seems to me, a great omission intersects detrimentally, profoundly detrimentally, with Mda’s achievements and objectives in writing these books.

Speaking of unfairness, too much is expected of post-apartheid black literature. The community of serious readers, and bien-pensants everywhere, eagerly await the works that will dramatize truths about the spectacular dismantling of the old regime, about a victory won and consolidated with so much grace and forbearance, about the new society under construction. We want the voices of Gordimer, Brink, Coetzee to be matched, surpassed, by new black voices. So it’s to be expected that the first fruits by writers creating in the new era will be candidates for overpraise driven by the emotion of welcome, or underpraise if they are seen to fall below certain standards. Great events don’t necessarily produce great literature, but we want this one to. It’s useful to keep this in mind in assessing Mda’s work and the great acclaim it has received to date. He has won every major literary prize South Africa has to offer. And, of The Heart of Redness, the front flap copy concludes with, “It is, arguably, the first great novel of the new South Africa….”

Mda’s novels, Ways of Dying (1991) and The Heart of Redness (2000), could be described as fables. The first is set in East London, on the Indian Ocean and Cape Town, more than five hundred miles away, during the early stages of the final transition to black rule. The second is set in the hinterland of the Eastern Cape, after the accession of the African National Congress to government. It isn’t exactly an omission, but it is a disappointment that only one narrow aspect (violent conflict between Zulu migrant workers and Xhosa squatters) of the liberation struggle is reflected in Ways of Dying, and that in The Heart of Redness the liberation struggle is treated as external, something over with, whose only apparent result, at least to the jaundiced eye of the book’s hero, has been to raise an unpleasant, self-serving new elite to power. Both books tell stories of true loves finally found, prosperity and right vocation achieved.

Ways of Dying is the lesser work. Toloki, a cheerful lost soul, a short, fat, ugly, initially malodorous man in exile from his home in the Eastern Cape and living on the streets of an unnamed port city, probably East London, crosses paths with a beautiful woman from his past, Noria, a homegirl now living in a squatter settlement. They are both in their late thirties. Undistracted by the violence surrounding him, he finds, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, love and potential wealth, and experiences a renewal of his long-dormant artistic powers.

Toloki is the rejected and abused son of a blacksmith who, when Toloki was a boy, turned away from his trade of shoeing horses and mending farm implements and began obsessively and unprofitably forging images in iron and brass representing strange beings described to him by the spirits. He was able to create these figurines only when the child Noria was singing wordlessly to him. She was, for most of her childhood, shanghaied by Toloki’s father for this purpose. Toloki, himself artistically talented, won a calendar art competition sponsored by a white-owned milling company, which somehow provoked the brutal beating from his father that drove him into a wandering life.

In the city, mishaps repeatedly thwarted the virtuous, entrepreneurial Toloki, until he had at last invented for himself a profession, one truly novel in southern Africa. Inspired by the frequency of violent death in his world, he set himself up as a professional mourner, someone hired to express grief lavishly at funerals, in which capacity he reencountered his childhood friend Noria as she buried a young son executed by members of what Mda refers to as “the political movement,” meaning the armed youth squads of the African National Congress. They connect, and the story proceeds.


Mda is adept in his use of flashbacks. The courtship-success storyline is intercut with scenes from the past lives of the two main characters, most of them featuring violence, cruelty, hard-heartedness, abandonment, or rejection. In toto, they make up a spectacle of injustice rooted directly, by Mda’s account, in black mores. The white oppressor classes are only twice implicated in these recalled horrors, and in only one of these cases is there no black accomplice. Here’s a partial census of the events that have affected the lives of the main characters: competition between village choirs leads to murder…. A violation of the protocol governing the rank order in which bereaved sons should be shaved preparatory to a funeral leads to the beating death of the family patriarch…. Serial killers murder children for body parts to be used in muti (witchcraft)…. Noria’s father attempts to rape the nanny Noria has hired to care for her first son….

Noria’s husband abandons her and takes their child with him to employ as a prop in a panhandling scheme, but, after work one night, he ties the child to a pole in a culvert and goes off to drink, discovering on his return that the boy has been eaten by wild dogs…. Noria’s second child, five years old, goes to a marshy area near the squatter camp to torture frogs but is taken by ANC youth militants who punish him for his contact with Zulu migrant workers by necklacing him, having the petrol-filled tire set alight by a seven-year-old playmate of the boy…. The same militants who have murdered Noria’s child burn her shack down for good measure…. A dispute over a tin of beef leads to a massacre…. White cops force black taxi drivers to copulate with corpses, just for fun. No reader can miss the degree to which the bulk of this violence is home-grown.

But life, of course, goes on. The spirits come through. Toloki’s dead father appears in the dreams of a rich landsman of Toloki’s, instructing him to collect the hoard of figurines left behind at his death and convey them to Toloki, on pain of having the landsman’s pet fleas die. A mountain of figurines appears in Noria’s yard. They will be valuable to collectors and museums. Toloki and Noria unite. She takes up singing wordlessly again, allowing Toloki to recover his artistic powers, but at a higher level, since he can now sketch human beings, which he had been unable to do as a child. The figurines glow in the dark. The local children laugh. All ends well. There is even a suggestion that in future the tire-burnings will be just for fun, as they are on New Year’s Eve, and not for murder.

You leave Ways of Dying feeling tricked, in a way. Certain things are clearly missing. For example, in the panoply of unnecessary deaths, not one person is a victim of disease. There will be an echo of this oddity in Mda’s next book. But set that aside. Somewhere in this book a U-turn has taken place. What seemed to be a narrative tending toward radical statement, toward a critique of the violent tendencies entrenched in the culture and of the opportunities they opened up for a white state eager to exploit them for its own dying purposes, evaporates. Mda turns away from that suggestion, much as his character Jwara the blacksmith turns away from the world of work and toward fantasy. Mda finally seems to be saying that if violence is in this particular people, then so is the answer and solution to violence, in the form of the people’s gods and ancestors. The spirits will deliver. A reader hesitant to draw this blunt conclusion will console him- or herself by recalling that Mda has chosen a naive narrator, a displaced peasant like Toloki himself, to tell the tale:

Boxing Day. One of those senseless holidays when we do not bury our dead. Like Christmas Day. Instead we go for what we call a joll. All it means is that we engage in an orgy of drinking, raping, and stabbing one another with knives and shooting one another with guns. And we call it a joll.

Noria threatened to give him a thorough hiding. He cried and asked for mercy. Noria decided not to punish him. At least he had not gone there [to the march] with Danisa. She did not want to answer to ‘Malehlohonolo if the children drowned, or if anything terrible happened to them. Things of that nature spoilt friendships.

The reader assumes that these attitudes, the narrator’s, do not represent the author himself, which leads to the related assumption that neither should the militantly nostalgic thesis that offers the Xhosa gods and ancestors as a kind of solution be taken as the author’s personal solution. The Heart of Redness sheds light on this matter.


The Heart of Redness is a more complicated work. It aims higher than Ways of Dying. Both books are metaphors for what has been called “the African predicament.” Ways of Dying, to enhance that reading, employs a genericized setting, without place names, recognizable monuments or buildings or streets. The African National Congress is referred to as “the political movement,” Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as “the tribal chief,” Xhosas as “the southern people.” A government death squad is characterized as including “foreign mercenaries from a destabilized neighboring country.” The Heart of Redness unfolds in recognizable locales—Johannesburg, briefly, and then Qolorha, with the city representing failed modernity, and the rural village balance and social renewal. All the characters in Ways of Dying are peasant types and they may be understood as collectively embodying a paradoxical Xhosa bundle of destructive and redemptive tendencies and potentials, with a bias toward the redemptive. The main characters in The Heart of Redness function as exemplars of distinct, antagonistic positions on the true meaning of progress and the value of ancient ways.

The hero of The Heart of Redness is Camagu, a man in his late forties, who has returned to South Africa after thirty years of study and work in the United States. The year is 1998. Black rule has been fully established. Camagu is a Ph.D. specialist in the field of “development communication.” His absence during the revolution is held against him:

The jobs he had been applying for had all gone to people whose only qualification was that they were sons and daughters of the Aristocrats of the Revolution.

Camagu could easily have benefited from this system if he had played his cards right from the beginning. He knew a lot of people in exile, many of whom were prominent members of the Aristocrats of the Revolution. He had even gone to school with some of them. He had been involved in antiapartheid demonstrations in various capitals of the world with a number of them. It would have been easy to attach himself to them, or even buy a membership card. But he chose to remain independent, and to speak out against what he called patronage. Now that he is unemployed he regrets his indiscretions.

Camagu is unable to do better than part-time work in a trade school. Everything disaffects him. There is a student strike at the school. During it, the principal is held captive by the students. The manner in which the strike is settled disgusts him and convinces him that it is time to go elsewhere:

In the course of the jubilation [over the ending of the strike] the rights of the principal who lost his freedom for a whole week were not considered at all…. The message was clear: to get your way with the government you must break the law…kidnap somebody…burn a building…block the roads…thrash South Africa!

On the eve of his departure—for America—Camagu wanders into a funeral service, where he is entranced by the dirge-singing of a beautiful young woman, NomaRussia. She is from Qolorha and will return there. His passion is inflamed. He decides instantly to follow her to Qolorha-by-Sea, in the Xhosa homeland, where the balance of the present-tense action takes place.

Camagu, resettled in Qolorha, continues his quest for love and work. He contemplates the question of which of two local women he should marry. NomaRussia is not one of them. She has vanished from sight, the victim, we later learn, of a curse. One candidate for Camagu’s affections is Qukezwa, the daughter of Zim, the leader of a faction of Believers, as they are known. Believers are distinguished by their insistence that the Great Cattle Killing of 1856–1857, about which more below, a catastrophic event in Xhosa history precipitated by the prophecies of a teenaged girl named Nongqawuse, was in fact a good thing, the right thing.

Xoliswa Ximiya, the other candidate, is the daughter of Bhonco, the leader of a faction of Unbelievers which takes the contrary position. The women are opposites: Qukezwa is warmhearted and playful, untutored, a child of nature conversant with the local plants and animals and given to wandering in the out of doors. Xoliswa is “cold and distant,” ambitious (she is the principal of the village secondary school and wants to move up in the education bureaucracy), and she is “model-thin,” which Qukezwa is not. The redness in the title of the book refers to the red ochre used in traditional cosmetics, of the kind Qukezwa favors.

In the matter of vocation, Camagu tries this and that. He sets up a seafood-supply enterprise, making use of tips on harvesting techniques provided by Qukezwa. He moves on to organize local women in the production of items of traditional costume for sale in the boutiques of Johannesburg. Qolorha is poor but the region is scenically rich. Gathering momentum in the background is a plan to establish a huge tourist complex, featuring a casino, in Qolorha. The Unbelievers, generally uncritical when it comes to economic progress, are partial to this option, despite its predictable costs to the environment. The Believers, who oppose it, want something else, a holiday camp to be owned by a village cooperative, an environmentally gentle camp with simple lodgings widely dispersed through the forests of the place. The casino project is defeated and the coop is created. Camagu takes a management position with the coop. He marries the warmhearted Qukezwa and fathers a child. The rejected Xoliswa leaves for the city, in part to seek medical help for the sudden appearance of scars on her body, an affliction magically passed down the Unbeliever family line, which replicates the scars on the body of its historical progenitor, scars left after a beating inflicted on him in punishment for his failure of belief in a prophet preceding Nongqawuse.

The two narratives alternate in the book: Camagu’s story, in real time, and a past-tense retelling of the Great Cattle Killing epic, starring a mix of real and imagined participants, many of the latter from the lineages of the Unbeliever/Believer clans still contending in modern Qolorha.

Mda’s recreation of the Great Cattle Killing is impressive. This cataclysmic episode represented a demented terminal phase in the Xhosa resistance to expanding British power. Armed action had been ongoing for years. A succession of Xhosa prophets had arisen, enjoining the people to reform their ways, and, in the case of one of the first prophets, Mlanjeni, to undertake a limited sacrificial offering of cattle to the ancestors, all these measures being understood as adjuncts and aids toward the Xhosa’s main effort, guerrilla war. But the British bloodily prevailed.

A final prophet, the girl named Nongqawuse, appeared and declared the need for the most far-reaching and absolute collective act yet, a mass exercise in self-purification and self-abnegation—the destruction of the wealth of the Xhosa people, all the cattle and all the crops in their possession. The prophet’s promise was that this act would be followed by the sea’s opening and yielding not only resurrected cattle and restored crops but resurrected ancestors and a supernaturally powerful Russian army that would smash the British just as the Russians had, recently, smashed them in the Crimea. Nongqawuse was obeyed by most, but not all, of the Xhosa, with the inevitable outcome of famine, destitution, and death, the effects of the event reaching down through the generations.

Mda’s recapitulation of this dire business is brisk and harrowing. And the very effectiveness of his evocation of the Great Cattle Killing nightmare raises unsettling questions about the polemical uses to which he chooses to put it. Because he has made it the basis of a complete invention. Although, as common sense would suggest, belief in Nonqawuse’s prophetic instructions among the remaining Xhosa could not, did not, survive the horrifying outcomes they produced, Mda posits a present-day revival, among a group of descendants of a major player in the original madness, of stubborn belief in the prophecies. This is expressed as the assertion that all would have been well if only more of the Xhosa had obeyed Nonqawuse. This invention falls somewhere between a recklessly bold conceit and a canard, to speak the truth about it. There are no Believers, no group or movement of Believers. There do exist what are called “cults of affliction” in modern African religion, but this is not one of them. No, it is a device intended for something, a something not difficult to divine in the calculated victory handed to Qolorha’s Believers in their battle against the modernizing Unbelievers.

Mda is audacious. He invents the Believers, colors them virtuous, loads the favor of the spirits on them (demonstrated in the many magical benefits they receive…there are many more than I’ve touched on). With these moves, Mda makes it impossible to read The Heart of Redness as other than a literary gesture against modernity, against the heedlessness of gangbuster capitalism, against secularism. But of course it’s more complex than that. I’m out on a limb here, but I’m guessing that for Mda, it’s not the beliefs themselves he wants to valorize—to use a piece of jargon that happens to fit here—it’s…believing itself.

The thematic interlock with the message of Ways of Dying is clear enough, except that in the earlier book a distancing from the embrace of belief is achieved through having events registered by a naive consciousness, as I’ve noted before. But in The Heart of Redness, Mda is out in the open. I think he is in the grip of nostalgia for the feelings of power and possibility that absolute belief, belief à outrance, confers. I don’t know what to call this. It’s more a stance than a thesis or a program. In the Church it might be called fideism. Nativism is a term in anthropology that might have been applied to it, or to a component of it. That term is taboo now. Toynbee’s term for a related phenomenon is archaism. None of the above is just right. And there is yet more to this. I sense in Mda an extreme, almost religious, impulse to identify with forebears who have, irrationally or not, given up everything in the struggle against an ultimately unstoppable adversary. Writers are complicated.

This brings us, finally, to the great omission in Mda’s work, an omission perhaps excusable or contextually explainable in Ways of Dying, but so startling in The Heart of Redness that it must inevitably affect the future reading that the book will receive. The AIDS pandemic is absent, totally absent, here. That’s an impossibility. The single greatest threat facing South Africa is not glanced at. The extent and horror of AIDS was fully known during the period in which the book is set. Bitter debate over what course of action should be taken to confront it dominated public consciousness in 1998. Roughly 20 percent of the adult population was already infected. AIDS was surging in the countryside as well as in the cities. It has been estimated that by the year 2015, one third of South Africa’s children will be motherless.

The Heart of Redness’s narrator is of the normal, omniscient type, an educated observer. And the main characters in the story are educated, professional people. Why is AIDS absent from their thoughts? Did Mda thrust it aside because it would have constituted a distraction undermining his purposes in writing the book? Or…is it possible that AIDS isn’t absent? That the Great Cattle Killing is somehow a metaphor for AIDS? Well, no, it’s not possible: Mda’s winners, the ultra-traditionalists, believe that the Great Cattle Killing was a good thing. To conjecture that Mda might be using the Great Cattle Killing as an AIDS metaphor, you must propose that he is suggesting that AIDS is in actuality a good thing. It is not possible that he is doing that. I have no good explanation. But a courtship drama playing out against the background of a community fervently divided over issues of development policy surely risks being perceived as oddly narrow if it lacks even the slightest reference to the lethal shadow falling over the prospects for fruitful marriages and general prosperity in that community and in that country.

Was the AIDS crisis omitted because its presence would have made implausible the optimism, or social energy, that the story promises as it does its work of encouraging attachment to the old ways? With AIDS omitted, Mda has created a novel that is, finally, an escapist dream, a fable more than a parable.

Here are a couple of last thoughts. In constructing his romantic brief for ethnic conservatism, Mda has chosen the Great Cattle Killing as his master symbol of the old ways at their most toweringly powerful and terrifying and compelling. Or at least he is signaling his alignment with Xhosa who, for whatever reasons, supposedly retained an attachment to this dread historical moment. And yet, ironically, it was an importation from the West, the idea of the resurrection of the dead, a direct borrowing from proselytizing Christianity and an item utterly absent from the old Xhosa religion, that gave new impetus to the resistance movement, leading to the cattle-killing frenzy, which led to mass starvation. This was not the old religion. The new ingredient was the promise that now everyone, ancestors, cattle, everyone, would be coming back. This was revolutionary. It was the old-time religion driven mad by modern borrowing.

Lastly, and just to get it off my mind because it’s been bothering me, I have to admit to being unable to suppress an unnerving sense of correspondence between AIDS and the Great Cattle Killing, since both mobilize some similar attitudes—death risked under false assumptions or in ignorance or in denial of what is actually known about what is likely to happen. There is a current of thought circulating in southern Africa, stemming from the African Renaissance movement, that bases its reform proposals on models taken from African culture of the pre-colonization period. One idea presented in this discourse is that European culture arrived at its world-conquering status only after enduring and surmounting and internalizing the lessons of the Black Death. I hope this is not an influential meme.

Writers hate reviews in which their judges jog quickly through the good points of the book they have written and then turn to the more interesting process of consulting the entrails of the book for signs of what might be expected from the author next time out, what signs they can find suggesting that the next work might be greater, stronger, more relevant. I am unhappy feeling myself in this position, but here I am. I don’t know a great deal about Zakes Mda. He has been a visiting professor at Yale and the University of Vermont and he is a playwright as well as a novelist. I’m not familiar with his plays, and it may be that he has addressed questions like mine in other aesthetic venues. But I do know that I’ll read the next book Zakes Mda writes with anticipation and with the hope of encountering a different omission, the absence of a controlling, reflexive, culturally backward-looking ideology.

This Issue

January 16, 2003