A review by Smart M. Maqubela
Reading Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni (popularly known as Zakes) Mda’s novels, one can’t help but notice that they are based in an historical setting. His Heart of Redness was set against the backdrop of the Nonqgawuse catastrophic prophesy that Afrikans must kill all their cattle and thereafter the dead will rise and all colonials will be driven into the sea; She plays with Darkness on the Lesotho of Leabua Jonathan and the coup which kept him in power (inspired and masterminded by the British) as well the one which removed him from power (inspired and masterminded by apartheid SA); The Madonna of Excelsior on the sexual relations between Afrikan women and conservative Boers at the height of the Immorality Act which sought to regulate intimate relations among the “races.”
Asked in a television interview why it was so, he answered that the past is always strongly present in our present; and that the past is often used by the ruling elite to make excuses for their failures. No doubt the past is important. What is happening always has to be understood in terms of what had happened. And in order for us to move forward correctly and constructively as Afrikans, we need to go back to our past and retrieve those things we have left behind, especially in this critical time in our journey. A people who forget/neglect their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes over and over again.
What I was curious about finding out when I picked up his autobiography, Sometimes there is a Void, was what role, if any, his father played in influencing his style of writing. His father, Ashby Peter Mda (popularly known as ‘AP’) was a founder of the ANCYL and mentored many of the leaders who would later play a marked role in this country’s liberation struggle. People like Anton Muziwakhe Lembede, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, etc. Though AP didn’t join the Pan Afrikanist Congress (PAC) when it broke from the ANC, he is considered the organisation’s “founding spirit.’’ He also speaks of his as a “PAC family.”
The first thing I learnt was that AP was quite a disciplinarian. Writing about the time when his father worked as a lawyer in Lesotho, he mentions how he’d always be buried in his case load and during those times no one was allowed to even whisper as he demanded absolute silence from them. And that extended to their mother whom he once admonished, in front of the kids, when she whispered during those times.
I learnt also that politics is in his blood. He writes about how AP used to talk to them about politics and during those AP did all the talking. The kids would just say; ‘ewe tata’ meaning ‘yes father’ during the course of their political education. Of course, the kids would have preferred to be outside playing with their mates, and so they never really enjoyed those talks. But when he was older, Zakes mentions that he wished he had paid more attention to AP’s political teachings.
I guess it is true that if you teach a child in the way s/he should grow, s/he will not depart from it when older. This is applicable particularly to those teachings brought down by the father. There is just something about words spoken and actions modelled by the father. This makes sense because fathers are the foundation upon which families and society is built. And as such, society is as strong and/or weak as its fathers. Speak to any male behind bars, and you’d never hear them say that they turned to a life of crime because they lacked strong and positive female role models in their lives. It’s always the father who was not there to inspire positive Afrikan masculinity in the son which created the void that was filled in by the gang.
Early in the book, we are introduced to Chief Mhlontlo, Mda’s revered ancestor. The Chief is renowned to have killed the British resident magistrate of the area of which he was paramount chief of. This happened in 1880. “Mhlontlo invited the magistrate to a ceremony at Sulenkama, the seat of the amaMpondomise kingdom. The magistrate, a violent and arrogant man called Hamilton Hope, set off with much pomp, thinking he was going to be the centre of the ceremony, only to discover too late that the ceremony was about his own ritual murder.”
The amazing thing was that after his capture, the chief won the case for the magistrate’s murder! More than it being a “ritual” murder, the killing of the magistrate was very much part of the struggle against colonialism. And our royals were very much in the lead of those struggles and it’s quite a travesty that we do not have a day declared as a holiday in their honour. (For more on this see my article, “Afrikans, heroes and public holidays”).
As an intellectual, Zakes Mda understands that he has to plough back to his community. And thankfully he answered in the affirmative to the call to plough back. This puts him head and shoulders above those who feel that their accomplishments are theirs alone and so they do owe anyone any obligation.
To this end, he started a bee keeping project in his home village in the Eastern Cape. He is also involved in an AIDS trust which he established in Sophiatown. There’s work he’s doing in Market theatre where budding playwrights are being groomed as well as creating opportunities for actors/actresses some of whom have carved niches for themselves in television and other mediums.
Our country, indeed our continent can do with more intellectuals whose hearts are in the right place. Intellectuals ought to illuminate the path so others can find their way. They should be there as sources of inspiration and pillars of hope in their communities. This they can do by not necessarily contributing money (though money is always welcome, provided every rand can be accounted for). They can act as mentors and coaches (especially for boys without fathers); use their contacts to create opportunities for others; etc.
All in all, Sometimes there is a Void is a candidly written piece of work and it comes with very high recommendations. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy, available at www.zimbaramabwe.co.za. It sure is worth its weight in gold!