Thursday, 18 April 2013
The Struggle to know a dark soul: Redi Thlabi's Endings and Beginnings
The personal story, or the story of or about an individual’s experience, as opposed to one that raises explicitly large questions – of philosophy, politics, culture and society – the keyword here being “explicitly”, continues to exercise a notable influence on recent black South African writing. Given the times, this is to be expected: the large questions have shifted to the background and become, in the words of the American Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, the “political unconscious” of the narratives.
Against this background, Redi Tlhabi’s Endings & Beginnings (Jacana) is a retrospective narrative of her brief platonic, but for an 11-year-old nevertheless intense, friendship with Mabegzo, an Orlando East jackroller, that raises deeper social questions within a personal narrative framework.
The author states her approach in the preface, “(m)y fervent belief that social conditions create the monsters who terrorise our lives and make us prisoners in our own country has made me curious about their background”.
My curiosity lies in the intersection of, and tension between, the personal and the socio-historical points of view that Tlhabi uses as the basis for this memoir.
For it is in the movement of the narrative between these modes that Tlhabi finds some difficulty in attempting to process, in 2004, the meaning of the events of her brief friendship with Mabegzo in the few months of 1989, which is also the time in which he died by a friend’s bullet at the age of 22.
In this light, Endings & Beginnings could be said to perform two seemingly mutually incompatible acts within two seemingly incompatible narrative frameworks: Tlhabi’s personal narrative seeks a symbolic exorcism of the “ghost” of Mabegzo, while the other seeks to explain the broader socio-historical context that shaped him.
The narrative framework of the 26-year-old Redi Tlhabi (nee Direko) is relatively secure in its empirical method and social analysis, and it is through this that she frames another, much less secure, of an 11-year-old Tlhabi grappling with a social milieu in which metaphysical explanations of social phenomena co-exist with sociological ones. For instance, describing some of the times she had with Mabegzo, the 11-year-old Tlhabi recalls one moment in which “he launched into the story of his life”, that is, of the gang-rape of his mother and of his birth from the rape, overheard in the streets from other children. But she also recalls how these moments of “clarity” – they never were clear – would be followed by spells of absence while Mabegzo visited a “sangoma for cleansing”.
Indeed, Tlhabi is aware now as she was then that there are other means of mediating the events of 1989 and Endings & Beginnings negotiates their validity. All the same, the layers that make up the narrative, which include interviews and her own deductions, are not altogether amenable to a single over-arching framework.
Nevertheless, now distrustful of metaphysical explanations of social phenomena, including Mabegzo’s grandmother’s – that “by giving (Mabegzo) to us, God was teaching us a lesson” – the 26-year-old Tlhabi – journalist, social activist, post-graduate student of literature and suburban woman – attempts an analysis that would achieve two things: explain the world in which Mabegzo lived and died, a world in which her father also died as violently in 1987; and unburden herself of her enduring ambivalence about a killer and rapist who was kind to her in an aggressively masculine environment of which he was both a product and an agent.
These contradictions prompt a myriad of questions: “Who was he? How could anyone be so evil and yet so gentle and loving? Is it possible that he was simultaneously humane and psychopathic? Can a single human being possess a soul so worthy of admiration and condemnation in equal measures? What demons ran amok inside my beloved Mabegzo, and could they ever have been silenced?”
Needless to say, Endings & Beginnings is presented as a product that can silence the “demons… inside… Mabegzo” insofar as they now haunt the author’s consciousness too. And here the memoir reveals itself as a high-stakes proxy battle on two fronts, in the light of which the seemingly incompatible acts of symbolic exorcism and rational explanations coalesce, even if tacitly. How, then, are these two acts brought together in the narrative, given that they inhabit different discursive frameworks? Exorcism – or unburdening – carries strong religious, even Catholic, connotations, whereas to explain – as it were, to shed light on – presupposes a rational act governed by the laws of enlightenment reason.
For instance, the words “evil” and “demons” above, whatever metaphorical import they may also carry, do not easily find common cause with the vocabulary of social history – social history being an enlightened and, as the theorist of historiography Hayden White notes, even “bourgeois” science.
The answer lies in the decisive move that Tlhabi takes in Endings & Beginnings to frame the experience of the 11-year-old Redi (with its frame of reference) within the thesis that the narrative sets forth in its preface.
To this end, what may at first appear an incidental inclusion in the first chapter, namely, the brief allusion to the political and historical coming-into-being of Orlando East, increasingly becomes crucial to the project of the memoir to place Mabegzo and his underworld in a social and historical context.
Endings & Beginnings may not in the end be an apology for Mabegzo – in fact, it is quite the opposite – but it is nonetheless an attempt to “unravel layers of a complicated life” as it were, “a reflection of the contradictions of his being”.
And in many ways these are the contradictions of Orlando East, where he came from.
In the first chapter Tlhabi details the creation of Orlando East in 1931, describing it as a transit dwelling space for blacks, which would become the model for Soweto (the acronym for South-Western Townships). This already offers the reader a glimpse of the tragic foundations of a community that “got used to” or “endured” its social conditions. The name of the street where 11-year old Tlhabi grows up, Sofasonke Street, captures this tragedy both in its literal and symbolic meanings.
Literally, sofasonke is an isiZulu word meaning “we shall all die”, but in its symbolic use in the 1950s as the name of a black civic movement, the Sofasonke Party, it meant “we all die together”, a rhetorical challenge to resist the consequences of the Land Act of 1913. Either way, if one reads (or misreads) the meaning of the street name, it captures quite forcefully the idea of a social death that it both institutes and hopes to keep at bay.
As Tlhabi observes in chapter six, on her return to Soweto in 2004, when she began her research on Mabegzo, this social death remains the background against which the “tenacity of its people and their ability to make progress against all odds is evidenced” and, one might say, measured.
Otherwise, the “young men and women who should be actively employed are (still) basking in the sun with little chance of finding work. It’s still life as I knew it back then.”
For Tlhabi, returning to Soweto in 2004 with a more developed analytical facility, she is able to observe the fragility of the family structure as the basic social unit, or the ever-present threat that, where it exists, it might break down.
This creates an enduring insecurity about the township, where, given the history of Soweto, the family structure has never been quite secure.
In this light, Mabegzo, with one out of three possible fathers after the gang-rape of his mother, Imelda, by three local boys, is an extreme but not unique product of a disintegrated family structure.
It is thus not surprising that Tlhabi, as an 11-year-old, spends a great deal of time describing her parents’ formative influence on her early childhood, but also how her father’s violent death at the hands of unknown, and never-to-be-known, killers opened up an area of vulnerability for her and her mother in particular. Whereas she could escape to the East Rand where her family eventually moved, and to better schools, she is not in doubt that this was a privilege that few in the township enjoyed.
It is in the context of family cohesion and disintegration that Tlhabi tracks the life of Mabegzo before and after he is expelled from his grandparents’ house at the age of 15 – these are the “social conditions that create (Mabegzos)”.
The first task Tlhabi sets herself in Endings & Beginnings is to put an end to her torment “for loving Mabegzo” and come to terms with his character.
“The time has come for me to find out more, to try to gain the understanding that he (Mabegzo) always said I lacked. I need to know what drove him to unleash such terror on others, and to die unredeemed at just 22.
“I want his family to account for the burdensome name they visited upon an innocent child (ie Mahlomola, which means sorrow). And I desperately hope that uncovering the conditions of his upbringing will give me the insight I need to finally forgive myself for loving Mabegzo.”
The words and phrases, “to find out”, “understanding”, “to know”, “'account”, “uncovering” and “insight” frame the process of uncovering the conditions of his upbringing in a particular way but also account for the kind of answers that the process would yield.
This approach, as Tlhabi soon finds out, can at best yield only a partial understanding and conflicting insights, as accounts from differing points of view from family and friends can unravel only a few layers of an identity that was shrouded in mystery and silence from birth to death. His maternal grandmother, Nkgono, can at best offer a religious explanation of how he changed from “a normal little boy” to “a difficult child”, and his mother, Imelda, who provides an elaborate account of his childhood, hardly knew him (as an adult). And there is also, of course, the issue of the seven years he spent either in the township underworld or prison after he was expelled from his home. The underworld is a world of rituals, of cryptic codes and of insider knowledge, which further thwarts Tlhabi’s attempt to answer one of the memoir's founding questions, that is, “who… was Mabegzo?”
Yet, surprisingly, it is the paucity of empirical facts that brings about the memoir’s most durable insight. Tlhabi, it will be recalled, sets out not only to find out who Mabegzo was – a “bourgeois” project that has little chance of success, in my view – but also, perhaps more importantly, who he might have become under different circumstances. It is only after she abandons this hypothetical question, or rather, after she comes to the bitter conclusion that he was a rapist and killer who indeed died unredeemed but not a hapless victim, that she transforms her memoir from being a series of snippets gleaned from awkward meetings with those who “knew” Mabegzo to an inquiry into the thematics of masculine power, whether violent or benign, and pre-eminence/entitlement.
Abandoning the cumbersome “fact-finding missions” to the township, a constant source of self-consciousness for her, she invites Imelda to her suburban house. The invitation is a revelation, not so much of Mabegzo as he was (a pointless quest, really) but during the conversations with Imelda, which last for seven days, reveal something of the secondary roles that many women still play in the dramas of and about their own lives.
I think it is these conversations that finally allow Tlhabi to lay down the burden of who Mabegzo was, or any family account or discovering why Mabegzo said she lacked the ability to understand him (she may never know what Mabegzo meant).
Endings & Beginnings is a complex book to pin down, for its author keeps revising her terms of dealing with its thesis, though she is sufficiently self-reflective to know the subject of her book is ultimately herself.
It is a book worth reading for its style and substance, but for its charming self-consciousness too. - published April 14, 2013.