South Africa: Life with Father

James Shirey
Zakes Mda at his house in Athens, Ohio, 2010

The first novel of South African writer Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying (1995), told the story of Toloki, a down-at-the-heels loner who witnesses the mindless violence that convulses a black community in the final days of apartheid. He becomes a professional mourner and wanders from funeral to funeral, varying the mourning ritual he performs to suit each occasion. For instance, he knows never to sit inside the house for the meal after the township funerals of the “better-off people”—he might not be welcome—but to line up and eat standing from a paper or plastic plate. He must also not mix with the “rabble,” who will be fed outside from communal basins.

He eventually reunites with an old sweetheart from his home village and after the death of her son becomes more seriously involved with the ongoing battles of township life over the post-apartheid leadership. The novel’s most distinctive feature is the skillful use of flashback, particularly in the childhood scenes that intersperse Toloki’s journey toward a more superior milieu. This gives the novel a sophistication of movement that belies the somewhat folksy and, in the end, perhaps overly optimistic trajectory of the story, into a conclusion in which a New Year’s Eve celebration under a moonlit glow seems to herald the end of thieving and brutality:

The smell of burning rubber fills the air. But this time it is not mingled with the sickly stench of roasting human flesh. Just pure wholesome rubber.

Mda’s best-known novel, The Heart of Redness (2000), also made use of a bold structural device. One story takes place in the middle of the nineteenth century, in the small village of Qolorha-by-Sea in the Eastern Cape, where a teenage girl named Nongqawuse has a vision and then instructs the villagers to slaughter all their cattle as a sacrifice to the gods. She assures them that the ancestors will then rise from their graves and defeat the British. The folly of following this spiritual path results in the defeat of the amaXhosa people, and the consequences of this act continue to the present day.

A parallel modern-day narrative concerns Camagu, a man in his forties, who, armed with a doctorate, returns after many years in the United States to South Africa, where new, corrupt elites stand in his way and he fails to find a job. Thoroughly disillusioned, he decides to return to America, but on the eve of his departure he meets a beautiful girl and follows her to Qolorha-by-Sea. There he becomes involved in the disputes in this still-divided village between those who are keen to embrace the modernized world of casinos and “development” and those who remain true to the traditional values visible in Nongqawuse’s story.

Mda maintains a tension between a haunted past and an impatient, potentially violent present,…

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