Zukiswa Wanner is the author of four novels, two works of nonfiction and three children’s books. She is also a publisher and founder, curator and editor of fun arts-related initiatives like Artistic Encounters, AfroYoung Adult and in response to coronavirus, Afrolit Sans Frontières. 2020 has been the longest time she has stayed in any one African city in the last ten years.
May 2021 Author
MZILIKAZI INTRODUCED ME to Slindile on Sunday, 11 February 1990. An insignificant date to others perhaps, but to my artistic soul, an indication that we were meant to be. Mandela was freed the day I met Sli. Coincidence? I think not. The gods of Africa were clearly telling me that just as the country was about to change, so too my life.
Heady day, that was. On that day even my normally strict mother did not yell at my friends and me for sitting on her lawn smoking zol. It was in this chilled but elated atmosphere that Mzi walked in my mother’s matchbox yard
with Sli. She was alright – nothing that great to look at but what I remember about her even back then was that she was different. In accordance with the elation of the day, she was wearing a black and yellow dress with a green headscarf,
already making fashionably political statements at the age of 15.
There are those who question why, when I talk of my life I always start from the day I met Sli. Why, for example, I do not talk about my childhood or any of that stuff that other people talk about when saying their memoirs or writing their bios or whatever you think I am doing.
There is nothing much to tell.
My mother was a school teacher. My father was a lawyer who graduated from that bastion of black education of the early 20th Century – Fort Hare University. Perhaps if he had been born at another time in another place, papa would have been successful as a lawyer and we would have led a nice upper middle class lifestyle but that was not to be. He was a black man born and educated in apartheid South Africa and he had to make do with being a court clerk when practising law failed to pay. But we were better off than most. We might not have been a middle class family in the strictest sense of the cash but we certainly were among our neighbours in Orlando West. Our family was what our neighbours called
“respectable” until my elder brother embarrassed us with his ways.
We were three children in the family. I was born the younger brother in a family of two boys and one girl, the girl the last born. It was an ordinary childhood. I woke up, went to school, and spent most of my days with my best friend Mzilikazi who stayed in Dube. One day, my brother Sindiso decided that he would not go to school anymore because he had found a quick way to make money. He told my parents
“Papa, ma, I think it’s best I don’t go to school anymore.”
My father was stunned. He looked at him speechless but with his face speaking volumes. My little sister Buhle was still young but both of us positively shrunk into the Joshua Doore sofas in our living room at this announcement from Sindiso.
He was going to get it, we feared. It was my mother who found her voice first.
“Uthini?” she asked as though she had not heard.
“I said I think it’s best I don’t go to school anymore,” he replied without flinching. I was scared for him but was also immensely proud of him. To answer our parents like that?
My father looked at him, “Shut up and stop talking rubbish. You will go to school and finish your matric then go to university like you should. Now enough of this stupid talk.”
The stage for a joust had been set.
“Papa, I am not asking, I am telling you,” Sindiso answered boldly.
My father stood up from his sofa – daddy’s sofa – in the left hand corner of our council house sitting room. He slowly took off his belt and said, “You are telling me? You are telling me? You think you are a man in this house now that you have
been circumcised neh? Who do you think you are talking to me like that?” He raised his voice as he quickly covered the distance between him and Sindiso, which, as anyone who has visited any of those township houses knows, is less than four footsteps.
My father was the law in our house. No-one had ever answered him the way Sindiso had. He lifted the belt to Sindiso but my brother stood up and held the belt as my father was about to lash him.
“Hhayi no papa. Don’t,” Sindiso spoke looking at our father with a steely gaze.
My father must have known he was now talking to another man and not just his boy because he put his hand down in a resigned fashion. My mother jumped in trying to avert disaster.
“What are you going to do without an education, huh?” she asked.
“What education ma? Bantu education that teaches us to be slaves to white people? One of my friends spray paints cars and has asked me to join him. I have already been doing it and am good at it. At least we won’t have to work for any white people and in a few years I can set up my own franchise.”
My father shook his head and said in a defeated voice, “Looking for a quick buck! No-one ever got rich without an education.” It’s a good thing he never lived long enough to know today’s popstars or soccer players.
“Papa you had an education and look at you now. Is that rich? ‘ja meneer, nee meneer’,” my brother sneered.
Now it was my mother’s turn to stand up. She walked to him and slapped him full force on the face, “How dare you talk to your father like that, heh? Get out of my house right now. Get out.”
My father was glad for the support. He added, “Ja, get out and don’t come back. If you will not go to school or work in this house, you…”
I pipped in timidly, “but papa, he wants to go to work.”
Both my parents looked at me and yelled, “Voetsek wena, shut up,” then my father turned to Sindiso and said to him in a harsh voice pointing to the door, “Wena msunu ka nyoko, phuma! Out!”
As I said before, my family was a respectable one and my father put the ‘respect’ in respectable. I had never heard him swear before. That came as a shocker for all of us and I recall seeing Sindiso’s face look confused for a moment before he gathered his wits about him and walked out as though he had not a care in the world. Buhle and I held each other’s hands tightly, wondering what had just happened. I was ten, Sindiso was 16 and Buhle was six.
Sindiso went to stay with his friend down the road and although my mother would sneak in food to him, as far as my father was concerned, Sindiso was dead. It was then that our parents pinned all their hopes on Buhle and me.
Being a middle child, I had been able to do whatever I wanted knowing most of the attention was on the other two but now I found myself being forced to go to music lessons because I was weak at maths and someone had told my mother that playing a musical instrument would improve my mathematical skills. I never did become an Isaac Newton but I fell in love with the trumpet – a tragedy for my mother who still believes that artists need real jobs. Buhle more than made up for my failures academically though. She started reading at four – no, not in the morning but four years old and was highly competitive. She seemed to enjoy reminding my parents how much better her grades were to mine from the very first time she started school so I hit back. I told all her friends, truthfully, that she still wet her bed.
This childhood rivalry was to set off a lifetime of antagonism between us. Sure, as far as many people are concerned we are a loving brother and sister and we will
defend each other when push comes to shove but we do so love a good tussle in private.
She knows no matter how well she does in her life, I will always be our mother’s favourite and I know no matter how well I do in life, she will always be more intelligent that I am. So we are secret nemeses.
Sometime after leaving home, my older brother went into exile as a Pan Africanist Congress operative. No. there was absolutely nothing wrong with the PAC back then. Viva Pan-Africanism Viva. But my brother Sindiso did not join PAC because of his beliefs. More because he had been liberating expensive vehicles from the wealthier members of society and selling them to chop shops and the cops were catching up with him. Like most people in Orlando West Extension, Sindiso had been a Charterist but when some PAC recruiter came around while he was drinking with a friend of his in the hotbed of the Africanists across the bridge in Orlando East, he knew salvation had come. When the cops came to our house asking for Sindiso, he had already flown the coop.
When my father heard of Sindiso’s disappearance he sneered, “Exile? I always knew that boy would come to no good. At least he was clever enough to fly although only an idiot goes to PAC.”
Papa was a supporter of the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front, a Charterist like the rest of the neighbourhood. And it was this support that would leave our house fatherless. The tighter Botha’s noose became around anti-apartheid activists, the more active my father became in the movement and one day when I was thirteen, my father disappeared, no-one knew where to but a certain notorious Special Branch man – black not white – was suspected of knowing what happened. The Special Branch man never did get to testify at the TRC because he had managed at the right moment to align himself to the ANC and was now considered
one of them. Carry a few bags, wash a few feet, and claim you have found God and you are absolved of all the murders.
Bloody benevolent comrades. Politics is kak man.
But this left me, at the age of thirteen, as the man of the house. It was a role I took seriously, my mother indulged, and Buhle resented.
It was a difficult role too since in my neighbourhood it was never defined what it is that men did exactly. There were two types of them you see. There were the happy-go-lucky men in the neighbourhood who would send me to buy them some loose skyfs at the nearest spaza shop as they drank at all hours of the day. Then there were the salt of the earth type of men like my father and Mzi’s father who looked after their families and came home on time but these men were dictatorial. Their wives feared them. Their children feared them. I never wanted to use either of the two groups as role models. What examples of men? I once asked Mzilikazi.
How am I to turn into a better man if these are the only men I am encountering?
But I did my bit. The income was now a little tight. With my father gone, we started eating a little more mngqusho than usual. Mphokoqo and maas became a meal instead of a snack. And I, in the company of Mzi and some man our mother had hired, started selling amalahle to the places without electricity to help mama out with extra income.
There are those who ask why I don’t talk of my childhood when I talk about myself.
The events that happened in my childhood were not my story.
It’s the story of my father and my brother.
And perhaps my mother and her heartbreak.
I only began to live that day I laid eyes on Slindile. The day I fell in love at the age of 17 to the woman I shall never stop loving, is my defining moment. In some ways like that poster boy for political prisoners worldwide, my life was not my own until 11 February 1990.