Book 20: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: 491 Days.

Books I've read

Winnie Mandela, prison, journal

Ever since reading Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull in 2012 I have had a strange fascination with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. As an aside,Country of My Skull touched me very deeply. I recall sitting at my desk one afternoon, head literally on the book, and sobbing because of its powerful depiction of the TRC hearings. I am not yet brave enough to read it again, and so won’t be reviewing it for this project. But if you would like to learn about this process then I highly recommend it.

Growing up, Madikizela-Mandela was someone whose narrative was overshadowed, for me, by Nelson Mandela’s and so it was only much later in life that I began to read about her, and the important role she had to play in South Africa’s history. Thanks to the patriarchy for that.

Apology is something I have been fascinated with since I took a course on violence at Rhodes in 2006. The idea that you can harm someone, and then use a few words or gestures to show them that you in some way take back what you have done seemed to me to be inherently problematic. Perhaps I am just unforgiving, or perhaps I know from personal experience that the connections between apology and forgiveness are more tenuous than we often allow them to be. From this instability of connection emerges the option of forgiveness without apology or apology that doesn’t quite achieve forgiveness. It was in this framework that I began to engage with Madikizela-Mandela for the first time.

In Country of My Skull I learned about Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her implication in the abduction and murder of children. I became obsessed with her time at the TRC, watched all of the footage on youtube, and spent a great deal of time mulling over the issue. I must be honest and say that my heart hardened in some way to a woman who could not allow a mother the chance to grieve properly.

In 2013, I went to watch Long Walk to Freedom. I had only read the first part of the book, but obviously knew the story, and was interested to see the depiction of my country’s history. This movie shook my hardened heart.

Of course, I do not support violence in any form and it is well documented that the Mandela United Football Club was involved in extreme violence. But, she was there, holding it together, at the front lines, and she didn’t have the option of thinking about peace. But, the movie meant I considered for the first time how frustrating it must have been for Madikizela-Mandela to have been left to hold the fort at home, to have been whipped away at night without any idea where your children would end up, imprisoned in solitary confinement, and then to have an estranged husband emerge after such a long time and be expected to give up control of things to him, or to change the way things had been done.

As a feminist, this expectation that he would automatically know best really pissed me off. I felt such rage for her at what must have felt like a betrayal, to have been doing what she thought best and to be chastised for it. I began to rethink my treatment of her.

And so, with this background I bought 491 Days, from a bookseller on Church Street, with the intention of giving her some mental airplay. The book details her time in solitary confinement through history, letters, and a foreword and afterword.I was surprised to find that in the prologue of the text Madikizela-Mandela expresses doubts about the current political administration. Yet again this was a reminder to me that history has deprived me of a fair assessment of Madikizela-Mandela, and what we need is more books written about women involved in the struggle, and in other elements of South Africa’s formation.

Two things in particular stuck out for me from 491 Days.

First, that what Madikizela-Mandela and her fellow inmates had to endure was undeniably torture. To be deprived of food, sanitation, medication, and communication is cruel and inhumane. I have no idea what happened to her jailors, but I did not feel forgiving towards them reading this book. I do not feel forgiving towards them now.

Second, and linked to the first point, when you are deprived of communication and correspondence in a climate that is as uncertain and duplicitous as apartheid South Africa was, this must do something to profoundly affect the way you are able to trust. To live a life of constant suspicion and mistrust must be incredibly tiring and painful. To send out letter after letter and be unsure whether it has been received, or a reply has been sent, must be harrowing. To be deprived of hearing from your loved ones is cruel.

It brought home to me how important it is to communicate, to ensure that we are reaching the people we care about. That to be a person who is able to trust, and to have never had that trust come under fire, is an extremely privileged person to be.


Book 16: Sindiwe Magona: To My Children’s Children

Books I've read

sindiwe magona

Once I went to an American Embassy organised event and of the over 100 people who were there, they asked me and Sindiwe Magona to stand up as the two writers in the room. At that point I thought ‘shit, I better start taking myself seriously if I’m going to be able to stand up with great women writers like Magona.’ My memory of her from that event was of a woman who radiated calm. It felt wonderful just to be in her presence.

To My Children’s Children is a letter, or memoir, from a Xhosa grandmother to her grandchildren – a project undertaken with the desire that as the world changes, some memories and rituals should not be forgotten. The story follows her life up until she is 23 years old. She asks in the preface

“How will you know who you are if I do not or cannot tell you the story of your past?”

Her prose is lyrical and what is perhaps most magical about is the way that the story is written – when she writes of her childhood you feel as though you are listening to the words of a child, the world takes on a mystical and innocent quality. As Magona tells of her adulthood the issues tackled and descriptions used become more serious, more analytical. She is self-deprecating and very very funny. I love sarcasm, always, and Magona’s sense of humour had me smiling.

I also value the book as a project. Both of my grandmothers have passed away and I feel sad that their stories were never documented. All we have left now are stories about them, and as is normal, grandparents always seem old in a child’s mind. This means that we missed out on knowing about their youth, their hopes and dreams as children. More than one of us at the AWDF and FEMRITE women’s writing workshop this year spoke about documenting the stories of older women, and I think it is really an essential project.

Book 10: Redi Tlhabi: Endings and Beginnings

Books I've read

Redi Thlabi, Book, Fiction, Woman, Women, Write

My mom is a voracious reader. My first memories of learning to read are sitting in bed with her as she read to me, and then slowly learning to read back to her. She is always reading at least one book (normally more than one) and since she’s got her kindle I’m too scared to ask how many books she has queued up. We have quite similar tastes in books, and so when she passed on Redi Tlhabi’s Endings and Beginnings I was keen to see what it was like. That was about a year ago, and somehow I only got around to reading it when I started this project. I’m sure my mom will be relieved to get her book back.

Endings and Beginnings details Redi Tlhabi’s personal journey as she grapples with her relationship with known gangster and murderer. She begins the story when she is eleven, two years after her father is murdered. On her way home from school one day she meets Mabegzo, an older man in Soweto who is allegedly a gangster. They develop a close but conflicted friendship, one that is short lived but affects her deeply. The remainder of the book follows her journey into her adult life as she tries to talk to members of Mabegzo’s family and his friends in order to work out her feelings for him, and to learn more about why he chose the path he chose.

I have worked in the field of women’s rights, with a focus on sexual violence, since 2009. Throughout that time I have come to know the impact of an act of sexual violence on the life of the survivor, her friends and family, and her community. I have also learned that sexual violence is something that lives in the minds of South African women, even when they are at their safest. Rape is something that many women expect will happen to them in their lifetime, and something that Tlhabi points out is the anger and hurt that women feel when they are forced to feel ‘lucky’ if it has not happened to them yet.

Mabegzo’s story is heartbreaking, and it is easy to see how he could have been introduced to a life of violence. It’s also easy to see how hard that life is to escape – retaliation is a big part of any gang member’s life, and so like in the movies where people tell one lie to hide another, one crime is committed to hide another, or to address any perceived threat. Tlhabi asks in the preface:

Where do these criminals come from? Who raised them and was there ever a time in their lives when they had hopes and dreams and their laughter filled the air?

But, despite Tlhabi’s obvious emotional connection to Mabegzo, I found it hard to feel the same connection. I think my work in the field has left me with little patience for rapists, who often rape more than one woman, often without caring about the impact they may have. I think that choices are hard to make, but they must be made one way or the other, and I believe that when someone rapes someone, they have chosen to do that. The idea that people rape girls, and go on to live their lives, rarely thinking about what they’ve done enrages me. The idea that you should forgive a man who commits violence against women because he promises not to do it again, and perhaps is sorry for what he has done, is one that I struggle with.

The book won the Sunday Times Alan Paton award for non-fiction in 2013. However, some controversy surrounded the book this year, as members of the community claimed that the story told was not accurate. Whilst I’m not sure of the outcome of the allegation, I think it’s always interesting to engage the debate on how much truth is required for a book to be called non-fiction. The book is currently being developed into a screenplay for a film.

It was good to read a book where the female characters are so strong-willed that they defy societal expectations, or at other times enforce them with such fury that they come to dominate the lives of those around them. This story explores various matriarchs and I think that this is extremely valuable. Women are powerful, and this comes through clearly in Tlhabi’s text. I liked that she allowed for their power and for their flaws, and made obvious that the two are not mutually exclusive – that most of us are just doing the best we can in the way we know how to.

Redi Tlhabi is a radio journalist on 702 and Cape Talk. She also writes a column for the Sunday Times. You can follow her on twitter here.


A short non-fiction piece I read this week by Rosa Lyster

Short pieces
Image stolen from Liam Kruger's twitter (his piece is brilliant too by the way)

Image stolen from Liam Kruger’s twitter (his piece is brilliant too by the way)

I picked up my first copy of Prufrock magazine this month and so far it has been a great read. Yesterday on my train ride home I read the short piece written by Rosa Lyster about her experiences growing up in a politicised family and the expectations that created for her about what it meant to be an activist.

I loved the pace of her writing, the introspection and the dry humour. It was a well thought through piece that made you want to read and find out if the visiting Egyptian scholar would be as serious as he was built up to be, as well as Lyster’s surprise/delight/enthusiasm when he was, but was also so much more.

The most resounding thing (other than the really lovely pace of the writing and dry humour) was the idea that most people think that activists are ‘not normal’ but have something else wild or revolutionary about them. As an activist for women’s rights I often get frustrated by people who think like this, and really frustrated by people who choose to do nothing because it seems like too much effort. All the activists I know are just normal people, living in the world, doing the best they can to change it for the better. This last bit is usually done after hours (unless they are lucky enough to work as full time activists) and so it really is just normal people committing something. Deciding that to do nothing is (really embarrassing, uncool, the worst) not acceptable.

I also liked the idea of activists as normal because there are a few activists in SA who seem to get a reputation as the ‘super activist’ and they ride on this wave pretty hard. Most of the time they are, as Lyster allows for them to be, doing something important but not necessarily nice. So I thought it was important that given our past of glorifying those that made a difference to the point where they were able to do unspeakable things, and be forgiven, we reflect on how that’s not always the best way to go about it.

So I encourage you to read it, and if you don’t feel like you’re an activist, to think about the ways that you could do something small about something you’re unhappy with in the world, and then to do it.

Rosa is a writer and poet based in Cape Town and you can follow her on twitter at @RosaLyster

Read Prufrock magazine too – great writing by lots of young cool people. You can follow them on @PrufrockMag or visit their website here