Apartheid, it would seem, was stamped out by spirited feet across every township. Since 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island Prison (a year later Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature), and 1994, when the country’s black majority won democratic rule and the African National Congress (ANC) took power, a new literature began to unfold as well, signposts along the trail of this new society. And now, with these two novels by playwright, poet, painter, and scholar Zakes Mda, recently hailed by The New York Times as “the most critically acclaimed of the new [black South African] novelists,” our perspective has only been enlarged.
Previously, literary visions of South Africa have been limited, often along racial lines. Leading white writers like Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, for example, have continued to expose the wounded, divided psyches of South African whites (and, to lesser degree, blacks). From the younger “colored” writer Zoe Wicomb, author of You Can’t Get Lost in Capetown and last year’s David’s Story, a more multi-layered, inclusive vision began to take form of a society unmoored, maddeningly tangled and haunted by its cruel past. As Coetzee wrote at the time, “For years we have been waiting to see what the literature of post-apartheid South Africa will look like. . . . David’s Story is a tremendous achievement and a huge step in the remaking of the South African novel.”
During apartheid one read the works of writers like Bessie Head, Alex La Guma, and Lewis Nkosi, who for decades depicted the lives of the dispossessed living in shantytowns. But what would the post-apartheid voices say about life in the townships after victory had seemingly been won? Mda, the son of a founding member of the ANC, spent 32 years in exile, yet has returned to a South Africa that clearly inspires him with its new dilemmas and tensions—no longer black and white, so to speak, but much more fluid and murky issues of identity and authenticity, progress and memory. And perhaps it is due to his long absence, too, that he has brought an outsider’s fresh and edgy perspective to bear on his material, swinging loosely from grim social realism to moments of fantastical magic.
His first novel, Ways of Dying, which appeared in 1995 and is being published now in paperback here, is a rollicking, at times whimsical tour through the dying days of apartheid as witnessed by the Professional Mourner, Toloki, who wanders from township funeral to township funeral with the hapless wonder of a Chaplinesque loner. Despite its lighthearted touches, though, as the title suggests, Mda’s story is still rooted in the endemic violence that has long stained South Africa, particularly in the squatter-towns and settlements, where whites are peripheral presences and apartheid is only alluded to.
The “ways of dying” in this novel, we learn with growing horror, are greatly self-inflicted as the country’s freedom struggle reaches its climax. After Toloki reunites with Noria, an old crush from his home village, at the funeral of her son, he becomes drawn into the battles of her township life, where the Young Tigers, the militant youth wing of the freedom movement, hold sway with a deadly authority. The smoke of “burning necklaces” of tires—that ghastly form of punishing traitors to the cause—permeates the book, singeing the edges of the hesitant romance between Toloki and Noria, which Mda builds up from childhood flashbacks to scenes of their respective journeys—quests to the big city. Yet after all the aching tales of dying and death-defying life comes a whiff of optimism, however tainted, in the book’s final pages: a New Year’s Eve celebration. As the festivities wind down, a protective moonlit glow hangs over the shacks: “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 latest novel, The Heart of Redness, follows that glimmer of hope at the dawn of the new millennium, a time “when peace has returned to the land and there is enough happiness to go around.” Unfortunately the future is uncertain—in fact, it will be bitterly vied over—and the “scars of history” are as deep as ever in the small, picturesque village of Qolorha-by-Sea on the Eastern Cape. Here, in the mid 1800s, a teenage prophetess named Nongqawuse called on the Xhosa people to slay their cattle in order to appease ancestral spirits and liberate themselves from white dominance (an episode also described in John Edgar Wideman’s 1996 novel, The Cattle Killing). Her visions ultimately divided the tribe into Believers and Unbelievers, a rift that has continued down through the generations.
A hundred and fifty years later, the townspeople of Qolorha-by-Sea must decide whether or not to allow a modern casino to be built on their sacred, mystical land. Old family rivalries are renewed, and issues of development and ancestral ways (the “heart of redness”) become increasingly contentious. Into this eternal clash walks Camagu, an overeducated and unemployed Johannesburg native who has returned after nearly 30 years abroad only to find that the “fruits of liberation” have all gone to the “sons and daughters of the Aristocrats of the Revolution.” In fact, it is Mda’s biting swipes at the post-apartheid black elite that provide one of the book’s most striking images. “They all have their snouts buried deep in the trough, lapping noisily in the name of the poor, trying to outdo one another in piggishness,” he writes of the businessmen, trade union leaders, and politicians who have benefited from the new rule.
Inevitably, Camagu will be drawn into the ancient fight between the Unbelievers and Believers, as his affections become split between two women from opposing camps. Yet Mda leaves us, again, with a glimmer of possible harmony, as Camagu begins a successful cooperative society in the village and a movement is afoot to establish Qolorha-by-Sea as a protected national heritage site. With its deeply textured combination of the pitfalls of the present with the haunting legacies of the past, The Heart of Redness offers a view of the unwinding road ahead, already several paces beyond the more simplistic, freewheeling Ways of Dying. Here, to use Coetzee’s words again, is another major step in the new South African novel—now a polyphony of voices, suddenly freed yet still shadowed by deep and immense riddles.