Mda, Zakes 1948–
Zakes Mda 1948-
(Born Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda) South African playwright, novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer.
A prolific author of works in a variety of genres, Mda is considered one of the foremost writers in post-apartheid South Africa. Born into the apartheid system—which, from 1948 to 1990, legally mandated racial segregation and the subservience of blacks to whites in all aspects of social and political intercourse—Mda witnessed its malevolence firsthand. In his writings he explores both the causes and the effects of a society organized in terms of racial dominance and exploitation, as well as the spirit of revolt that eventually led to its dismantling.
Mda was born in 1948 in the Herschel District of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. His paternal grandfather, Charles Mda, was a petty chief whose job was to enforce apartheid laws. His father, A. P. Mda, was a founding member of the African National Congress Youth League, where he worked with Nelson Mandela, before leaving that group to join the more radical liberationist Pan Africanist Congress. His mother, Nompumelelo Rose Mda, was a nurse. Because of his father's political involvement, the young Mda came into regular contact with some of South Africa's leading activists, and for a brief period he lived in Mandela's home, Orlando. In 1963 Mda's father was forced into exile in the Basotholand Protectorate—later the independent Kingdom of Lesotho—and a year later, Mda crossed the border to join him; two years later, the rest of the family followed. The move forced the family to learn a new language and Mda's feelings of inadequacy in both his native tongue and that of his new country led him to begin writing his creative works in English when he was in high school. Mda went to schools in Lesotho and Switzerland before moving to the United States to pursue a master's degree in theater at Ohio University, after his first published volume of plays, We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays (1980) met with great acclaim. Mda next received a master's degree in mass communication, also from Ohio University.
In 1985 he returned to Lesotho to work for the country's National Broadcasting Corporation Television Project while continuing to write and produce plays. Shortly thereafter, Mda took a position at the University of Lesotho as a professor of English; in 1991 he became head of the university's English department, after receiving his doctoral degree from the University of Capetown in South Africa in 1990. Upon his return to Lesotho, Mda co-founded the Martholi Traveling Theatre—with which he went, with his students, to rural mountain villages to help the residents express themselves through drama—and was director of the Theatre for Development program at the university. In 1992 Mda received a fellowship from Yale University's South African Research Program; he remained in the United States, teaching at various universities, until 1994, when he returned to South Africa to serve as a visiting professor at Witwatersrand University's School of Dramatic Art. In 1996 Mda took over the directorship of Thapama Productions, a motion picture and television production company, in Johannesburg. In 1998 he took part in a cultural exchange program in Reykjavik, Iceland, called Shuttle 99, conducting workshops in children's literature for South African and Scandinavian writers. In the early 2000s Mda began dividing his time between the United States, where he teaches creative writing at Ohio University, and South Africa, where he directs the Southern African Multimedia AIDS Trust, produces plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and works as a beekeeper in the eastern Cape region.
In his plays and novels Mda investigates apartheid and all its attendant social ills: forced relocation, migrant labor, poverty, violence, and unjust land distribution. He also examines problems with the post-apartheid system and postcolonial governments in Africa. In his first published play, We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, Mda confronts the disillusionment of soldiers who have fought in the liberation of a fictional African country. After fighting in their country's war for independence, two soldiers return to civilian life, but have neither homes nor jobs. They commit minor burglaries and live in a city park, maintaining the militaristic demeanor they learned in the war to deflect their alienation from the new society they have helped to create. In And the Girlsin Their Sunday Dresses (1993), Mda again addresses what happens to a country's people after liberation. Two women—identified in the play as The Lady and The Woman—wait to buy rice at a government aid food depot. Although the interaction between the women seems simple, through their conversation the audience learns of the inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy that has sprung up in their newly independent country, which in many ways is even worse than the exploitative colonial rulers. In another early play, The Hill (1990), two migrant workers, disenfranchised by the collapse of South Africa's agricultural economy, await word on whether they will be hired as laborers in the country's gold mines. Trapped in a kind of limbo, the men develop what Mda reveals to be a diseased and degrading relationship of chronic one-upmanship, even comparing the relative size of their stools. Meanwhile, the work in the mines, which the men believe will bring them great wealth, turns out to be just as dehumanizing as their joblessness—in fact, Mda portrays migrant labor as little more than modern slavery.
In his novel Ways of Dying (1995) Mda again focuses on South African social problems, this time portraying the country's violence in the lead-up to the antiapartheid revolution as largely self-inflicted among poor blacks—the self-imposed "ways of dying" of the book's title. The Heart of Redness (2000) examines how black South Africans responded to their new freedoms just after the end of apartheid. In this novel, residents of a village in the eastern Cape must decide whether to accept the proposal of a black empowerment firm that wants to capitalize on post-apartheid possibilities by turning the village into a tourist destination. Mda addresses the many meanings of "progress" and contrasts the native experience of Africa with Joseph Conrad's white European view of it in his novella The Heart of Darkness. In his next novel, The Madonna of Excelsior (2002), Mda takes up the subject of miscegenation. The book is based on an actual 1971 court case in South Africa in which nineteen blacks in the town of Excelsior were charged with violating the country's Immorality Act, which outlawed sexual encounters between blacks and whites. In The Whale Caller (2005), Mda explores the range of human love relationships in a story of a man who is torn between his love for a woman and his obsession and fascination with a whale. Mda's most recent novel, Cion (2007), continues the story of the protagonist of Ways of Dying after he has moved to the United States and attempts to negotiate the seemingly strange habits of his new culture.
Mda has received numerous accolades and honors both as a playwright and as a novelist. He is considered one of the leading voices in South African letters, particularly for his acknowledgment of the ambivalent nature of liberation in African countries. Of this quality, Chijioke Uwah noted: "Mda's creativity and foresight have never been in doubt. At a time when playwrights were concerned with the evils of apartheid he had the foresight and courage to deal with issues beyond the demise of apartheid." In 2003 Mda became engaged in a public spat with the American novelist Norman Rush, who (in a January, 2003 New York Review of Books article) excoriated Mda in a review of The Heart of Redness, accusing him of clinging to a "culturally backward-looking ideology" and of ignoring the African AIDS pandemic in his novels. Mda, for his part, responded with outrage over the expectation that he should include a comprehensive analysis of AIDS in all of his books, noting that Rush did not take white South African writers to task for not discussing AIDS. Mda has also sometimes been censured for the violence, hopelessness, and predictable characterizations (especially of whites) in his works, but he continues to be esteemed for his passionate and imaginative portrayals of life in contemporary Africa.
*We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays (plays) 1980
Bits of Debris: The Poetry of Zakes Mda (poetry) 1986
The Hill (play) 1990
†The Plays of Zakes Mda (plays) 1990
And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses: Four Works (plays and dramatic poetry) 1993
When People Play People: Development Communication through Theatre (nonfiction) 1993
Ways of Dying (novel) 1995
Melville 67: A Novella for Youth (novella) 1997
The Role of Culture in the Process of Reconciliation in South Africa (nonfiction) 1997
She Plays with the Darkness: A Novel (novel) 1999
The Heart of Redness (novel) 2000
The Madonna of Excelsior (novel) 2002
§Fools, Bells, and the Habit of Eating: Three Satires (plays) 2002
The Whale Caller (novel) 2005
Cion (novel) 2007
*Includes We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, Dead End, and Dark Voices Ring.
†Includes Dead End, We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, Dark Voices Ring, The Hill, and The Road.
Includes And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses, The Final Dance, Banned, and Joys of War.
§Includes The Mother of All Eating, You Fool, How Can the Sky Fall?, and The Bells of Amersfoort.
Chijioke Uwah (essay date May 2003)
SOURCE: Uwah, Chijioke. "The Theme of Political Betrayal in the Plays of Zakes Mda." English in Africa 30, no. 1 (May 2003): 135-44.
[In the following essay, Uwah analyzes Mda's stance on the political stagnation and broken promises that followed rebellion and liberation in many African countries.]
Africa's political history has been a continuous song of promises and betrayal. Mike van Graan captures this sad reality very eloquently in his paper titled "Theatre in the New South Africa: Sellout or Vanguard":
Utopia is a relative state of being. For many in oppressive situations, the kingdom which they pray might come has for so long been ‘a pie in the sky when you die.’ Many died, and for those left behind, the demise of the immediate tyranny which drove them to prayer in the first place has been confused with the notion that the kingdom has come. Yet for many post-colonial Africans, for many post-military junta Latin Americans, for many post-communist dictatorship East Europeans, the kingdom which they at one stage thought was nigh, is not among them, has still not come and may indeed be further away.
But maybe for some it has come. Either new elites have emerged or old elites have continued to enjoy their privileges, but now with greater legitimacy as the tyranny under which they acquired their privileges has been cast on the scrap heap of history and the cocktail party and caviar boundaries have been redrawn to accommodate a few former victims.
This summary of the realities of the third world political landscape forms the bedrock of Zakes Mda's political vision in most of his plays in the seventies and eighties. His scepticism about the political future of South Africa is rooted in the perception that many African countries that acquired independence are no better off now. Will South Africa be any different? Broken promises seem to be the rule rather than the exception in all of these countries. He articulated his disillusionment in an interview with Myles Holloway: "Yes, I am disillusioned with independent Africa. I don't see any overt independence at all. Most liberated countries have just taken over the colonial structures" (Holloway 1989, 86).
His disillusionment found expression in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, a play produced in 1978 in which he accurately predicted the state of the common man in a post-independent South Africa. It is a play that concretely demonstrates the concept of betrayal, for—like millions of other Africans—the South African masses represented by the two hoboes would find out that all their sweat and blood for the liberation of their country was in vain. Like other Africans north of the Limpopo, they would find out that independence has merely been a changing of the guard; only this time the new guard happens to be black. Mafutha, a character in the play who is representative of the new ruling elite, demonstrates his lack of concern for the welfare of his people. While the veterans Sergeant and Janabari were trying to reach out to him, he was busy negotiating with the white banker, symbolic of Western neo-colonial institutions, for a position in the country's Stock Exchange. The sense of betrayal prompts the veterans to ask the all-important question:
We are the men who sacrificed our sweat and blood for the cause. Was it for this, Janabari?
We made the sacrifice. Our only mistake was to come out of it alive.
(Mda 1980, 7)
Mda's intention in this play is to explore the idea of betrayal in the lives of the common people. Throughout the play he exposes the veterans to all kinds of ill-treatment reminiscent of the colonial days. Firstly, there is Cabinet, the highest policy-maker in the land whose sole aim should be the welfare of the poor masses. Its callous eviction of the veterans from the park, which can only be compared to the land-grabbing tendencies of the colonial masters, is the first blow to the veterans' dream of an egalitarian society.
Cabinet is interested in you insofar as it wants your type cleared off the streets. (Brandishing the letter.) Our country is chairing an international conference on Environment. Delegates from all over the world will be flocking all over the city. Tours will be conducted for them throughout our beautiful city, and as I told you before, you are not anyone's idea of a tourist attraction.
The thematic similarity between this incident and another that takes place in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's play, This Time Tomorrow (1972), needs to be emphasised. Mda has repeatedly stated that his inspiration—and, perhaps, scepticism—came from reading Ngugi's works about Kenya. In This Time Tomorrow Ngugi also highlights the plight of the common man in post-independence Kenya. Thousands of poor people were callously evicted from their slum dwelling in Nairobi because as Kiongo, the city council health inspector declared, they represent an eyesore and embarrassment to the government in the eyes of the world: "‘By twelve o'clock today these shacks must be demolished. They are a great shame on our city. Tourists from America, Britain and West Germany are disgusted with the dirt that is slowly creeping into a city that used to be the pearl of Africa’" (Ngugi 1972, 193).
The similarity in reasons given by officials for the eviction of their people in both We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and This Time Tomorrow is very conspicuous. In both cases the interests of visiting European and American tourists come before those of the masses of the people.
Later on in the play Mda presents the audience with the cumulative effect of the suffering and the feeling of betrayal by the veterans. He articulates their loss of patriotic zeal through their inability to sing for the fatherland:
Come Janabari, let us sing for the fatherland. The land we liberated with our sweat and blood. Our fatherland. (They stand together, and then open their mouths wide, trying to sing. But the voices won't come out. In frustration they stop trying and sit down.) It is of no use, Janabari.
Our voices are gone.
And we can't sing for the fatherland before we sleep.
Let us sleep without the song.
(Mda 1980, 23)
The song element is important here because it represents patriotism and love for one's country. In the European tradition, the national anthem is supposed to stir up the spirit of love and commitment to one's country. In the African tradition, a song is used to demonstrate joy and happiness. There is always a song for every occasion. The fact that the veterans are unable to sing for their fatherland means that they have lost their love and patriotic zeal for their country.
If there is one character that Mda uses effectively to portray the theme of betrayal it is Mafutha, who, as mentioned earlier, is symbolic of the new leadership in post-independent Africa. This is the leader upon whose shoulders rest the hopes and aspirations of millions of people who have suffered at the hands of their colonial masters. What Mda portrays in the character of Mafutha is the metamorphosis that takes place in the mind-set and attitude of African leaders after independence. Thus we see an example of self-centred, egocentric and corrupt leadership. Mda represents these qualities through Mafutha's actions. When he comes across the veterans in the park, he ignores them:
Good morning, sir, Mr Mafutha.
How are you, Mr Mafutha?
(Businessman looks the other way and walks on with offended pomposity …)
Mm, Serge. It is our people who snub us.
In the African tradition, and especially in black communities in South Africa, greeting is a very important aspect of social relationship. When people greet each other, it is a symbol of respect and of communal values. It shows that the people respect and care for one another. When people fail to greet, it is regarded as arrogance and lack of respect. Mda draws from this aspect of African tradition to highlight the gross neglect of the masses of the people by the leadership. The fact that Mafutha was negotiating his political future with a foreign power reflects his lack of sensitivity to his people's needs.
Frantz Fanon highlights this point in his book The Wretched of the Earth when he says:
Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty and national dignity. But as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete form the needs of the people in what touches bread, land and restoration of the country to the sacred hands of the people, the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the General President of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns which constitutes the national bourgeoisie.
(Fanon 1961, 133)
It is important to point out that Mda's indictment of the post-colonial situation is based on socialist principles. His distaste for capitalist exploitation is voiced later by Janabari, who says:
We are not getting our share of whatever there is to be shared. That is what the learned ones call Capitalism. It has no place for us … Only for the likes of Mr Mafutha and the other fat ones at the Chamber of Commerce and Stock Exchange. Serge, I have been trying to tell you that our wars were not merely to replace a white face with a black one but to change a system which exploits us, to replace it with one which will give us a share in the wealth of this country. What we need is another war of freedom, Serge, a war which will put the land back in the hands of the people.
(Mda 1980, 22)
An understanding of class conflict marks off Mda's social criticism from that of the broad African nationalism of the time. Mda locates the source of oppression at the conjuncture of class, race, and capital. According to Myles Holloway:
Mda's political vision, particularly in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, is more comprehensive than the dichotomy of black heroism and white oppression that characterises a great deal of black theatre. Mda attempts to encompass in dramatic terms the complex interaction of race, class and capital as the determinants of oppression and exploitation.
In Mda's view, oppression is the prerogative of the rich and powerful—but frightened—class who are paranoid about losing everything. It doesn't matter whether they are the colonial masters or the new black elite. It is usually the poor and the helpless who suffer.
If Mda was predicting political betrayal in independent South Africa in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, he has followed through forcefully in Mother of All Eating (first produced in 1992). ‘Eating’ (slang for embezzlement and corruption) has become rampant in post-1994 South Africa and surpasses the scale of corruption predicted in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland.
Mda must certainly feel betrayed, and his scepticism—which was prompted by his experiences in other African countries (in particular Lesotho, where he spent the greater part of his life), and which he articulates in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland —seems to be vindicated by tendencies in the new South African democracy. Mother of All Eating centres on the activities of ‘the Man,’ a Principal Secretary in the government's Health Ministry. Through the actions and dialogue of this character, Mda exposes the extent of corruption and betrayal of the poor masses by government bureaucracy in the post-independence era. The audience will certainly react with shock at the level of corruption being portrayed on stage, but as the Man rightly points out, this is no time to point accusing fingers or gasp in horror, because everyone in society is guilty of corruption in one way or another:
I hear your whispers and snide remarks. Who of you here can claim to have clean hands? Now tell me! Did you buy those BMs and Benzes that you drive with your meagre salaries? I am no different from any one of you. The word that we use here at home is that ‘we eat.’ Our culture today is that of eating. Re ne re ja soft. Everybody eats. From the most junior civil servant to the most senior guy.
(Mda 1995, 9)
Using the character-audience interaction device, which again is drawn from the traditional African theatrical repertoire, Mda points out that because the society is rotten, no one should sit in judgement. The audience here sits in judgement not only of the characters on stage but of themselves as well. Mda's intention in this play is to shock the audience with the reality of political independence in Africa—and South Africa in particular. He presents this play using direct symbolism, a departure from the vague and ambiguous symbolism he applied in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland :
Oh, it is you, Mr Director of Department of tenders … Ah, so you have received the five thou that I left in your pigeon-hole at the club. That's very nice, isn't it? … Well, it is true that we chose that particular tender because the contractor promised to pay us ten percent kickback if we gave him the contract … Yes, the contract was tendered at 10 million rands. Yes of course one percent of ten million is one million … let's not kill the goose just yet, we are going to get lots and lots of golden eggs from it.
The use of this kind of direct symbolism demonstrates the playwright's anger at the turn of events in the ‘new’ South Africa. He had warned in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland that the South African masses may not reap the fruits of independence. His scepticism seems to have been vindicated by the high levels of corruption demonstrated by officials of the present government. The main character describes the extent of corruption in the ministry:
You see, in government, when they discover your corruption, they promote you. There are two reasons for that. The first is that they want to shut your mouth so that you won't reveal what you know which may expose some of the top dogs in government. The next reason which is more important is that they appreciate your brains and want to bring you up there so that they may benefit from your expertise in corruption.
The theme of corruption and betrayal of the poor is further emphasised by Mda's use of contrasts. He presents another character, Joe, who is a close friend of the main character. Joe is a model citizen. He is committed, patriotic and exceptionally honest in the discharge of his duties, but the irony here is that he is regarded as a villain because of his honesty. He is fired from his job and finds it difficult to secure other jobs. When he manages to secure jobs he is fired from each of them because of his honesty:
Man: Well, the big guns had had enough of Joe and his holier-than-thou attitude towards our noble tradition of ‘eating.’ They fired him. After being kicked from Power Supply, Joe moved from job to job. Every time he gets a good job with a lot of prospects for ‘eating’ he tries to be honest. So they kick him out. I have told him, "Wake up, Joe, wake up!" But Joe will never wake up. Right now he is unemployed.
Another of Mda's recent plays that highlight the theme of political betrayal is You Fool, How Can the Sky Fall? First produced in 1995, the play portrays the illusions of petty dictatorship in a country that has just achieved political independence and exposes the extent of nepotism in government. The play also shows how a preoccupation with power can hamper the normal running of a country, causing chaos. In his review of the play, Raeford Daniel remarks:
Zakes Mda's play You Fool, How Can the Sky Fall? was written, I understand, sometime before the new dispensation came about in South Africa. So, while some of the situations contained therein may be deemed painfully close to the bone, one can only hope that the playwright was not being overly prophetic.
The play centres on a small band of cabinet ministers confined in what looks like a prison cell. They spend their time paying sycophantic court to the benevolent President, lusting after the female minister among them and suspecting each other of betraying the cause. Significantly, throughout the play the ministers never discuss anything regarding the improvement of standards of living among the people. In the course of the play the ministers are taken away one after another to be interrogated and tortured by some unnamed power referred to simply as ‘them.’ At the end, the traitor is revealed to be the benevolent dictatorial President and he gets his due punishment.
Presented in the form of a comedy, this play bears a close resemblance to We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, for it makes far-reaching comments on the ugly state of affairs in post-independence Africa using a combination of satire and symbolism. Thus, while the audience will be amused by the dialogue on stage, the message will nevertheless be clear to them:
You remember when the daughter of the Honourable Minister of Agriculture was getting married? Yes, the wedding of the year … or was it the decade now? The wise one, the father of the nation, instructed the Honourable Minister of Information to decree that for the whole of that week nothing newsworthy in the country and indeed in the world would happen. Those who were going to commit murder and rape waited in eagerness for the week to end. All international struggle and natural disasters were on hold. All the news on radio, on television and in the newspapers was about the wedding and only the wedding was to be reported … and in meticulous detail too.
It is this pre-occupation with trivial issues to the total neglect of the real issues affecting the life of the ordinary man in the street that dominates this play and forms the central theme. Mda here suggests that there is something irresponsibly carefree about post-independence Africa. He jokes about how lightly cabinet takes its responsibilities. He presents a cabinet on whose shoulders rest the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the people, but who are more concerned with trivial matters to bother about this very important responsibility as demonstrated here by the Culture and Agriculture Ministers fighting over the affection of the Minister of Culture, a woman who seems to enjoy the attention as well.
May I wash your feet, beautiful princess?
(amused) We don't have any water here.
With my tongue. (To Agriculture) See if you can top that.
Me, I don't lick your feet. I give you the time of your life as only a man can do. (He pinches her bottom.)
You do that again I am going to cut your thing, which is already not there in any case.
While the Ministers of Agriculture and Culture struggle over the affection of the Minister of Health, the Minister of Health is revered for his numerous money-spinning contracts he had brought the way of the Honourable Cabinet Ministers: "Justice: Why would we wish him dead? We all admired him. We all owe our wealth to his resourcefulness" (11).
The concept of deception which goes hand in glove with betrayal is emphasised with symbolism. Mda did this in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, where the removal of the hoboes from the city streets and parks was done to present a façade of prosperity and cleanliness to visiting delegates of an environment conference. In this play Mda shows how cabinet manipulates the perceptions of the public, using its influence to deceive and betray. For example, they use the frontage of film-set housing to deceive investors into perceiving prosperity. The daughters of the revolution represent the only real threat to the dominance of the president and his cabinet. Mda uses them to symbolise the suffering masses who have had enough of the neglect and oppression that characterise post-independence Africa. The shrapnel wounds on their naked bodies symbolise the wounds of colonialism, oppression, poverty, lack of dignity and the struggle for liberation. The fact that these wounds have not healed shows that oppression, poverty and lack of dignity, which were characteristic of their lives in the colonial era, continue even in the post-independence era and highlights the corruption, dictatorship and insensitivity that characterise the post-independence era. The fact that their wounds have only healed on the surface points to the disappointment felt by the masses, who have sacrificed so much for independence only to be betrayed by their own people who they fought to put in place.
You said when you saw the naked women they had scars … healed scars.
Scars … wounds … Ma'am, I tell you they may look like scars, but inside they are dripping with the agony of freshness.
It is these scars dripping with the agony of betrayal that characterise life in post-independence Africa—and, by extension, South Africa. It is important to note that when one looks at the political situation in this country, Mda's criticism of post-independence Africa is very close to the situation at home. The theme of betrayal is especially relevant to South Africa when one considers the fact that South Africa should have learnt useful lessons from the political situation in other African countries. What we see here, however, is a situation where the real heroes of independence are abandoned to a life of hopelessness and despair while the black elite, having achieved power through the sacrifice of these poor masses, abandon them to a life of poverty—the same situation they suffered under apartheid. In an article in City Press in June 2001, Mpumelelo Mkhabela writes that, after sacrificing their youth for freedom, thousands of ex-soldiers are now faced with a bleak future: "Seven years into the new dispensation, there are thousands of former cadres roaming the streets unemployed with no hope for the future as the 25th anniversary of June 16 approaches" (2001, 21).
It is a credit to Mda that he could foresee the situation before it arose. This emphasises the fact that theatre needs to play a more active role in criticising the corruption of the political elite and portraying the plight of the poor. As Robert Kavanagh so rightly put it some time ago: "The changed political atmosphere in the country makes a revaluation of the function of the theatre in South Africa a painful necessity" (1979, 38). He was, of course, talking about post-Soweto South Africa, but his point is as pertinent today as it was then.
Mda himself pointed out that a truly South African theatre will not be that which is the sole privilege of the dominant classes but that in which peasants and workers are active participants in its production and enjoyment (1992, 216). Mda's creativity and foresight have never been in doubt. At a time when playwrights were concerned with the evils of apartheid he had the foresight and courage to deal with issues beyond the demise of apartheid.
Daniel, Raeford. 1995. Rev. of You Fool, How Can the Sky Fall?, Zakes Mda. The Citizen Feb.: 16.
Fanon, Frantz. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.
Holloway, Myles. 1989. "Zakes Mda: An Interview with Myles Holloway." South African Theatre Journal 2: 81-88.
Holloway, Myles. 1989. "Social Commentary and Artistic Mediation in Zakes Mda's Early Plays." English Academy Review 6: 28-41.
Kavanagh, Robert. 1979. After Soweto: People's Theatre and Political Struggle in South Africa. London: TQ Publications.
Mda, Zakes. 1980. We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
———. 1992. "Politics and the Theatre: Current Trends in South Africa." Theatre and Change in South Africa. Ed. Geoffrey Davis and Ann Fuchs. Harwood Academic: Amsterdam. 193-218.
———. 1995. "Mother of All Eating" (unpublished typescript).
———. 1995. "You Fool, How Can the Sky Fall?" (unpublished typescript).
Mkhabela, Mpumelelo. 2001. "Was the War for Liberation Really Won?" City Press 10 June: 21-22.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o. 1972. This Time Tomorrow. London: Heinemann.
Van Graan, Mike. 1991. "Theatre in the New South Africa: Sellout or Vanguard?" Southern African Association for Drama and Youth Theatre (23pp.).
Sten Pultz Moslund (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Moslund, Sten Pultz. "Zakes Mda: Ways of Dying." In Making Use of History in New South African Fiction: An Analysis of the Purposes of Historical Perspectives in Three Post-Apartheid Novels, pp. 90-113. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003.
[In the following essay, Moslund examines Mda's use of the apocalyptic and the carnivalesque in Ways of Dying to portray the political and social conditions of South Africa just after the end of apartheid.]
All the historical elements in Ways of Dying evolve from the story of two village cousins, Noria and Toloki, who meet again in adulthood after a long spell of separation; both having been away from home and having led their lives independently since adolescence. Gradually, as they confide in each other about their pasts, a picture emerges of two different, but rather emblematic, lives torn by the course of South African history. Both protagonists left the countryside to seek their fortunes in the city, only to be sucked into a whirlpool of squalor, rejection, dejection and violence. Toloki, as a result, has retreated to a hermetic life of homelessness after an elapse of abuse and ostracism and Noria has lost the magical powers she possessed back in the village of evoking happiness around her with her laughter and song. She has turned into an empty shell after a failed marriage, prostitution and the loss of two sons of whom the latter is said to have been the reincarnation of the former. The first son, Vutha, was chained to a pole by his father and died of starvation. The second son, Vutha the Second, whose father is unknown, is executed by the liberation movement, accused of being an informer of the rival ethnic group, despite his age of five.
As Noria and Toloki reacquaint themselves with each other and fall in love, they learn to combine their strengths, revived from their creative minds and innocent fascination with life, to vindicate ways of living despite the life-negating realities of squatter camp existence and the prevalence of the violence and destruction that pervade their surroundings.
With Ways of Dying, we stay within recent South African history. The narrative time, although vague through the absence of any specific reference to time and place, can be identified as the transition years of the early 1990s. Notably, the historical focus is on the problems of violence that spilled over into the transition from the South Africa of the 1980s that Serote and Nicol characterise. Instead of a relief from violence with the beginning of negotiations between the warring factions, the country seemed on the brink of disintegrating into a hellish scenario of uncompromising racial and ethnic antagonism, arbitrary killings and pervasive lawlessness. This is illustrated in Mda with the historical accuracy and biting realism we saw in Serote. Clashes between youth and police continue and tsotsis and state-sponsored vigilantes are savaging train commuters and the townships relentlessly. The Third Force continues its covert tyranny, supplemented by an upsurge in right-wing assaults on random black victims. And ethnic violence, orchestrated by the apartheid police force and spearheaded by Mangosuthu Buthelezi (alluded to in the story as "the tribal chief"), is threatening to plunge the country into a bloody civil war (17, 169, 170, 88-9, 132-34). The latter is evidently an expression of the fear that was generated by the death tolls in ethnic hostilities which amounted to 6.000 in the years between 1990 and 1995 (Maphai, 1995: 73).
However, the tropes that run through the novel to capture the essence of this society imaginatively are surprisingly ambivalent, wavering, as Johan van Wyk observes, between the apocalyptic and the carnivalesque (van Wyk, 1997: 80). The apocalyptic revolves around an imagery of all-consuming death that spreads from the war between the state and its resistance, to the killing of children and the killing of birth itself. The final stage represents the doom of halted fertility and is referred to symbolically on several occasions. It is followed through in the images of murders of innocent children, of men being forced to make love to corpses, and it culminates in the symbolic scene at the massacre in the squatter camp by the police and tribal agitators where a pregnant woman is stabbed with a spear. In the minutes before she dies, her labour begins, but as soon as the baby's head appears it is chopped off (170). "Soon we shall experience the death of birth itself", is the germane reaction to the whole situation when the funeral orator, the "nurse", is obituarising Noria's second son, the reincarnation of her first child, on the birthday of Christ at the beginning of the novel (5). If fecundity is squelched, the only thing that is given life is death. At another funeral, of a father who was murdered at his son's funeral, the nurse closes the circle of national self-destruction: "funerals acquire a life of their own, and give birth to other funerals" (149).
The carnivalesque interrupts to offer a strange but welcome relief to the otherwise grim picture. Whereas the apocalyptic images suggest death-in-life, the relief is to be found in its antonymic coinage life-in-death, as a whole range of examples confirm the presence of a courageous spirit in the face of death. These reveal themselves as an element of comedy that fuses with times of deadly seriousness. At one point several funeral parties fill the entire cemetery with laughter as the nurse at one of the graves passes a joke about the deceased. Likewise the novel opens with slapstick humour, when the funeral procession of Noria's son collides with a merry wedding procession; and a comedy of errors evolves when two bodies are mistakenly swopped in a morgue (152-3, 7, 17). But the components of life-in-death run deeper than mere comedy.
A notable manifestation of the carnivalesque is in the character of Toloki who himself encompasses the dual representation of thanatos and libido. Since childhood he has always been associated with death-in-life. Growing up in the village, he was treated cruelly as a social outcast. People regarded him as ugly with the looks of "something that has come to fetch us from the other world" (64). The strong link with the other world is maintained in his adult life. He establishes himself as a professional funeral mourner in the city and apart from being referred to by others as smelling of death (50, 90), he forges the otherworldly connexion himself by stating that "death continues every day. Death becomes me, it is part of me" (106). Yet his professional costume evokes as much of the burlesque as solemnity in relation to his vocation. Bought a long time ago in a shop that rented out strange and fanciful costumes for parties, Toloki's all-black scarecrow outfit with tight pants, cape and top hat (21), is evocative, as van Wyk points out, of New Year carnivals as much as of the terror of Halloween: death is contextualised with the games and fun of imagination (van Wyk, 1997: 88). In addition, Toloki is one of the most zealous characters in the novel. Notwithstanding his solemn companionship with the dead, the principle of life-in-death is expressed in both his witty allusions to his austere occupation as well as in the fact that he makes a living out of other people's mortality. As he puts it: "As long as there are funerals I'll survive" (46).
The ambivalence thus surrounding the representation of the country's violent history will be explained in this analysis by, once again, turning to the two functions of literature identified by Njabulo Ndebele. To recount what has been said about Ndebele so far, he operates with literature as a medium that may inform as well as involve its readers; literature may serve to display a recognisable picture of reality, or history, and it may serve to bring about a transformation of reader consciousness. Although the latter appears as the nobler purpose in Ndebele's criticism, in that it contributes to the development of such human preferences as sensitivity, subtlety and critical insight on which the perfection of any society depends, and although Ndebele has criticised resistance literature for being superficially sensationalist because its authors were preoccupied with informing without involving, both functions of literature must be regarded as relevant (see Ndebele, 1994: 40-53, 73).
Translating the mentioned doublesidedness in Mda's representation of the past into Ndebele's terminology, it is arguable that the very realistic and uncompromising depiction of violence and its metaphorical support in the apocalyptic strand of the novel corresponds to Ndebele's notions of supplying the reader with a recognisable reality. Mda seeks to communicate a picture of the violence of the past with an imagery and a realism that is as palpable as that in Serote where the unpleasantness of the past is to be mirrored in no uncertain terms. Conversely, the carnivalesque involves the reader by inviting a change of consciousness, not unlike Lindi's song in Gods of Our Time, that may result in socially and culturally constructive ways of dealing with an otherwise malignant past. These two sides to the novel will be followed through in turn. To start off with the informative presentation of history, Mda provides the reader with a familiar picture of how several dynamics have contributed to a particularly harsh brutalisation of the people of the country's social periphery, all leading to a state of social, cultural and moral dislocation in the novel's present.
As Toloki and Noria re-familiarize themselves with each other, we are provided with a multitude of flashbacks and digressions from the main story that explain how the present came to be through a dismembering past of western intrusion and apartheid tyranny. Already in their youth, the stronger forces of western modernisation begin in make themselves felt in the violent clashes between old and new value systems. Competition arises between traditional religion and Christianity, embodied respectively in Noria's mother, That Mountain Woman, who works as a sangoma and in the Archbishop's independent church (96-7). Similarly, Napu, Noria's lover, is enabled by the opportunity of wage labour to acquire a status of individual independence and break loose from the traditional system of bride wealth liability towards the family-in-laws. Instead of paying lobola, he takes the pregnant Noria away to get married before the magistrate (69). Lured by the bright lights, they seek their fortune in the promises of the new values of the city. But the promises, of course, turn out to be illusory: "There were no diamonds", Noria relates, "nor was there gold. Only mud and open sewers" (126). Napu is not able to provide for his wife and son and their marriage sinks with the material and spiritual deprivation of their lives. The final stage of bereavement is reached when Noria prostitutes herself in order to survive. As she sums it up bleakly herself: "I have been chewed, Toloki. Chewed and then spewed" (135). When we meet her again in the squatter camp, she has lost the magical laughter that evoked immediate happiness around her in the distant time and place of the village. Libido has been reduced to a faint will merely to stay alive.
Toloki follows the same path from a traditional rural past to the disillusion of modernisation, although his passage is qualitatively different from Noria's. Whereas the story of Noria illustrates the social and cultural uprooting of black South Africa, Toloki's delineates the moral disintegration of the apartheid society into a chaos of callous violence. He flees the village after having been brutally assaulted by his father but his ensuing quest for "love and fortune" is "dogged by deaths and funerals throughout" (58). From the countryside, where white farmhands set alight their black colleagues for the fun of it and a whole community abominates itself by cruelly murdering ten bandits in a moment of raging mass-justice, he moves to the city where death and apathy are "even more plentiful", as described at the beginning of this analysis (57). Life has become worthless as apartheid and its multiple consequences breed an inferno of obduracy, abuse and anarchy. In the words of a nurse:
Normal deaths are those deaths that we have become accustomed to, deaths that happen everyday. They are deaths of the gun, and the knife, and torture and gore. We don't normally see people who die of illness or of old age.
This remark seems closely coupled with the central phrase of the novel which touches on the self-enforcing catalyst of social, cultural and moral depravity:
Death lives with us everyday. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living. Or should I say our ways of living are our ways of dying?
The normality of murder, torture and gore referred to by the nurse further contaminates the already bleak ways of living, which in turn precipitates more death in an endless vicious circle. It is the sign of a prideless society that has turned in on itself in a thrust of self-destruction where even innocence kills and is killed. As in the case of Vutha the Second who is necklaced by the youth of the resistance movement and set alight by his playmate (177).
The sociologist Dumisane Ngcobo, in addressing the social, cultural and moral upheaval that has been sketched in the realist strand of Mda's novel, speaks of an aftermath of nihilism, mass psychological depression and social despair among large sections of the black South African community (Ngcobo, 1999: 139). Their willing or forced acceptance of alien Eurocentric worldviews in the modernisation process has resulted in Africans being de-centred to the fringes of a basically European civilisation. This denigration, Ngcobo goes on, "is carried out through a denial of blacks of their own history and thus a denial of their humanity …" (140). To further explicate Ngcobo's contention, non-western people in their representation in Euro-centric discourse is characterised by their "lessness". According to Frantz Fanon, Eurocentric discourse has pervaded every sphere of life in the postcolonial world as a legacy of colonialism. African children, for example, are brought up to see the world from an almost exclusively Western perspective. The education they receive is European through and through. Even entertainment is produced in the west, with Tarzan or Crusoe against the savage world as the archetypal hero-villain structure. Western bias is stigmatised even on word level to impose itself on consciousness: black is "evil", "dirty", "diabolic"; white is "innocent", "bright", "clean", "pure" (Fanon, 1967: 189). From childhood, black identity is thus subconsciously subordinated, or "socially appropriated", in Foucaultian terms, by the endless reproduction of the European ideal (Fanon, 1967: 146-9 and Foucault, 1972: 227). Transferred to Jackson's theories on story-telling, such representation is devastating to self-perception. Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre's observations, he states that shame and self-negation arise
… when the recognition of who one is ceases to be mirrored by those one loves, and comes to be determined by one's appearance in the eyes of others, filled with indifference or hate…. [A]ny inner reflections on who one is are eclipsed by the external definition of what one is in the eyes of others. No longer a subject for-oneself, one is reduced to being an object—isolated, exposed, fixed, categorised, and judged by the Other.
(Jackson, 2002: 58)
In South Africa, Ngcobo says, the imposition of alien and rather self-centred norms and world views at the expense of a culturally imbedded value system coupled with the undermining of society by violence have entailed "a near eclipse of hope and collapse of meaning" (141). Certainly this has long been the state of affairs in the squatter camps depicted by Mda, which have remained a monument of economic exploitation and socio-cultural ostracism ever since Toloki acquainted himself with them eighteen years ago (138).
Against such circumstances of absolute public and private self-negation, the only remedy, says Ngcobo, is "a new black leadership grounded in African culture and capable of removing the defeatist attitude from amongst the black periphery" (153). In other words, a self-generated discourse is needed in which people are allowed to fashion a positive self-image and are allowed the necessary amount of autonomy of the definition of reality it takes to influence and to change reality.
This is precisely where the second, the consciousness-raising element of Mda's fiction sets in. Whereas a recognisable picture of the South African transition and the socio-cultural causes that lead up to its dismal disposition represent the historical thread in the novel, the aforementioned life-in-death qualities run as a strong ahistoric or imagined undercurrent of the narration. As in the case of Serote's psychological probe into the consciousness of the struggle and Lindi's song, the imagined domain supplies the historical information with a conjectural vestige of how to counteract the historical reality. As in Serote, creativity plays a crucial role in dignifying the ways of living and dying in the face of ugliness and abomination. Indeed Toloki and Noria, in drawing, singing and in their artistic construction of Noria's tin shack, manage to humanise the most inhuman conditions. The shack, in their eyes, becomes a piece of art and it is the power of imagination, too, that enables them to "see beauty where there is none" in the scene where the couple transcend the depressing reality of their surroundings by envisioning another, prettier world with comforts and a garden on the walls papered with bright pictures cut from glossy magazines (103-4). However, in contrast to Serote, the consciousness-raising mechanisms in Mda's novel are much more concerned with an explicitly cultural revival, as if responding directly to Albie Sach's request in 1989 for a development of an "artistic and cultural vision" that corresponds to the political development of South Africa" (Sachs, 1998: 239). To elaborate briefly on Ndebele's literary theory, he agrees with Ngcobo that cultural recuperation among the oppressed in South Africa is essential in rejuvenating a sense of social positivism. He qualifies the literature of involvement as a literature that frees the social and cultural imagination, to reconstruct an African aesthetic and value system after the disruptions caused by European hegemony:
The material life of Africans should be given a new forward articulation that will enlarge intellectual interest and expand the possibilities of imagination. It is a re-evaluation which, I believe, should result in a profound philosophical transformation of the African consciousness, a consciousness that should and must endure.
(Ndebele, 1994: 161)
Mda returns to the same idea in his visions for the genre that has earned him his renown, the Theatre for Development, by proposing that "… Development is meaningful only if it allows for the empowerment of local communities … to promote a spirit of self-reliance among the marginalised" (quoted in Mervis, 1998: 39). In this respect creative works play the crucial role of "enrich[ing] and expand[ing] people's own forms of ex- pression". A play or a piece of literature thereby "strengthens the point of view of the most progressive section of the people; and it roots itself in tradition and develops this in a positive manner" (quoted in Mervis, 1998: 44). As it has been shown, Serote does move beyond the stage of mere informing to involve the reader in a scrutiny of the psychological depth of subjugation. However, in spite of his own appeal in an interview to rearticulate the "wisdoms, gems and treasures of African culture", there is little of this in Gods of Our Time, apart from in Lindi's song at the end (Solberg, 1998: 84). Conversely, the theme of life-in-death in Ways of Dying, the ways of living, that particularly Toloki and Noria are searching for, is often intricately associated with an attempt to reconnect themselves with a humanist value system that, to a large extent, is rooted in the African tradition they were born into. Another way of putting this is that Serote's preoccupation with political empowerment is shifted in Mda to a preoccupation with social and cultural empowerment. And in a manner of speaking, the absence of a survival language in Serote's characters, and the tentative suggestions of its recovery in a self-reliant form of expression, is to be found in Mda in the explicit reconnection of life with African tradition and ethos.
Hence, a version of the Ubuntu philosophy is to be found in the squatter camp community which is surviving history on mutual caring and assistance, generosity and selflessness (42-3, 60-2, 125-6). Moreover, values are frequently drawn from pools of traditional wisdom. Proverbs, for instance, soothe people not to despair by the burden of hardship: "Our elders say", Toloki is reminded by Noria, "that an elephant does not find its own trunk heavy" and "In our language there is a proverb which says the greatest death is laughter" (157 and 153). Likewise there is the reassurance of tradition in the metaphor of Toloki and Noria's way of sleeping. According to custom, they curl up in a foetal position, thus suggesting the auspicious quality of shared cultural values. Not only do they reassure the community a sense of togetherness and belonging, they produce a promise of life and regeneration, signalled in the connotations of the unborn child and rebirth every morning that may be affirmed even in the midst of death and destruction. In that light, the coinage "Our ways of dying are our ways of living" and "our ways of living are our ways of dying", becomes positively ambivalent by also inviting a change of consciousness that diminishes the weight of affliction. It becomes possible to humanise the ways of dying, if the ways of living are generated from the larger body of the community as well as from the accumulation of knowledge and experience that is expressed through its cultural idioms. Or, to contextualise the central lines with Ndebele, the transformation of consciousness, from that of self-destruction to regeneration, relies on "a forward articulation" of "African social and cultural consciousness".
At a metanarrative level, the novel itself underscores the urge to overcome "the defeatist attitude" among black South Africans that Ngcobo speaks of in that several formal strategies are adopted to articulate an African aesthetic. First of all there is the narrative voice. The narrators, the plural "we", explicitly assign their authority to the oral tradition:
Just like back in the village, we live our lives together as one. We know everything about everybody. We even know things that happened when we were not there…. We are the all-seeing eye of the village gossip. When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, ‘They say it happened …’ we are the ‘they’. No individual is the owner of the story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.
In this way the indigenous techniques of story telling are foregrounded in the otherwise alien form of the written novel and the western literary concept of the "omniscient narrator" is amusingly concretized by constituting a participatory, physical presence in the story.
The structure of the narration shares similar features from orature. The main storyline digresses with flashbacks of other stories in what Margaret Mervis calls a "disjunctive style" which, she says, "negates linear time, reflecting rather the cyclical nature of oral narrative" (Mervis, 1998: 50). One may even elaborate on Mervis' observation and argue that the time structure of Ways of Dying is spiral more than cyclical. The return to the trope of rebirth at the end of the novel, for example, where Toloki and Noria wake up on New Year's Day from sleeping naked in the foetal position, has been pushed in a positive or upward direction in comparison with the starting point of the narrative circle on Christmas Day (9, 181-2). The renewal of life implied at the end of the novel is not shaded by the burial of new life as it is at its beginning and likewise the still burning tyres at the New Year celebrations, which carry the connotations of necklacing and the killing of Vutha, release only the smell of "pure wholesome rubber" without "the sickly stench of roasting human flesh" (199).
Thirdly, Mda's application of the English language invites the imposition of local mastery of the foreign medium. As mentioned in the analysis of The Ibis Tapestry, language, to Bakhtin, is "overpopulated with the intentions of others". The implications of this propagation are but aggravated when the value-laden language is that of a former coloniser with a long history of subordinating indigenous modes of expression. In the face of this, Mda overcomes the stigmatisation in the master language of otherness and subordination by adapting English to a local colour. The text which is richly interspersed with African proverbs, expressions and idioms, comprises an altogether African South African English (see: 3, 6, 22, 56, 68). Against this background it is arguable that Achmat Dangor misses the mark when he in his harsh critique of Ways of Dying dismisses Mda's language as "laboured" and proliferated with "badly constructed sentences and malapropisms" (Dangor, 1996: 22). In fact any interest in standardising English in accord with metropolitan dictum is bound to be outvoiced in the future South Africa. Hitting the nail on the head, Guy Butler predicts that "twenty million blacks will use English for their own interests and ends, without worrying much about the views of less than two million English-speaking South Africans" (quoted in Ndebele, 1994: 99).
In inseparable closeness to Ndebele's twin paradigms of a consciousness-raising literature and the revival of African culture is, of course, the embrace in Mda's novel of magical realism. Magical realism itself is, as Michael Chapman has aptly demonstrated, an integral part of African orature in which "imagination conjures up a plentitude of possibility in the emotion-saturated, surprising language of dream and desire" (Chapman, 1996: 48 and 40-9). At the same time there is in magical realism, as an independent contemporary form, an inherent appeal to the validity of traditional cosmologies, which only reinforces its faculty for cultural revival. According to Gabrielle Foreman, Magical realism bypasses what may seem as the "total negation of faith and tradition" in modern civilisation. Magical realism, she says:
… presumes that the individual requires a bond with the traditions and the faith of the community, that s/he is historically constructed and connected. Echoing Alejo Carpentier, who first named the phenomenon, critic Marguerite Suárez-Murias contends that ‘the marvellous … presupposes an element of faith on the part of the author or the audience.’
(Foreman, 1995: 286)
Hence a connection is drawn between gusto and the traditional past, as in the metaphor of the figurines made by Toloki's father Jwara which bring bliss and amusement to the children of the squatter camp at the end of the novel (197-8). The figurines were created by an amalgamation of two forces, Noria's magical singing and Jwara's dreams (23, 25). Bearing in mind that dreams in African oral tradition are often associated with messages from ancestors (see van Wyk, 1997: 83), there is a promise of restored placidity, symbolised in the township children's laughter, by cultivating a creative link between the traditions of the past and the present. The figurines, it should be noted, too, are brought to the squatter camp by the otherwise anaemic undertaker Nefodolodwhe whose financial success has made him discard all connections with his "backward" and "indolent" people. At one point, his westernized consciousness recedes as he is forced to make a tribute of recognition towards his kinsmen after Jwara's ghost has haunted him with the demand that he find the figurines in the village and return them (189-94). The magic that is offered in African folklore also helps Noria surmount the tyrannical presence of history in a much more subtle, and perhaps for that reason a much more successful and convincing way. After her first son, Vuthi, falls victim to the state of depravity that is forced upon the squatter camp environment, in that he is kidnapped by his morose father and dies tied to a pole without food and water, it is through the magic of divine conception and reincarnation that she overcomes the loss (139-40). Whether the magic is to be interpreted as ontological, as reality being magic, or epistemological, as Noria's worldview being magic, the fact remains that her African heritage tenders an alternative reality that defiantly slips through the claws of history (for ontological and epistemological magic see Faris, 1995: 165)1.
At this stage it is appropriate to insert the caveat that Mda, despite his emphasis on cultural self-determination, does not present an uncritical embrace of African tradition or advocate a new form of cultural chauvinism in South Africa. As it is, he incorporates in the novel a resistance to its own form. This is primarily expressed in the narrative voice which, on the one hand, is self-critical of the community it represents and, on the other, not always reliable. In regard of the sexual escapades of That Mountain Woman (who is from another village), the narrators say: "We told the story over and over again, and we laughed and we said, ‘That Mountain Woman has no shame’". After which it is confessed: "But one could detect a smack of envy in our voices when we said that. Those were adventures that would never be seen in our conservative village" (34). As concerns the cruel treatment by the community of Toloki in his childhood who would mercilessly be chased away for his ugliness when everybody enjoyed Noria's laughter, the unreliability of the narrators reveals itself when they claim always to have been happy when Toloki and Noria were happy and felt the pain when they were hurt (8)2. Instead, the cultural regeneration that Mda offers, is to evolve from a non-essentialist and non-static dialogue between the values of tradition and contemporary needs and as long as Africans recover from the defeatist attitude about their own tradition, the ideal of hybridising African culture with all other cultures in South Africa is not rejected. This idea is in many ways illustrated in Toloki's vocation which is soundly rooted in and in touch with traditional African practices, yet greatly inspired and moulded by so many other cultures and religions, from Hinduism to Christianity (see 125)3. Similarly it has been shown how the novel itself forms a great hybrid between a modern, western tradition and African traditions of storytelling.
In addition to the culturally transformative elements that have been analysed, the insertion of magical realism into a historical novel may also be interpreted in terms of Coetzee's notions of a literature in rivalry with the discourse of history. Accordingly, it is the argument here that Ways of Dying, in addition to applying to Ndebele's theory of a literature informing and involving, reaches beyond the kind of supplementary historical fiction that merely adds to history a certain density of observation or lived experience4. Just as the magic fences off the tyrannical presence of history in Noria's story of divine conception, the tyrannical presence of the discourse of history is fenced off by magical realism as a creative mode in assertion of an entirely independent literary discourse.
The fusion of magic with reality in the novel, such as Noria's second pregnancy or Toloki's ability to remember his father's death before he has heard of it (van Wyk, 1997: 101), is as disruptive of the conventional discourse of history with its foundations in western rationality and logic as Nicol's deconstruction of narrative authority and objectivity. And like Nicol's postmodern ventures, the magic in Ways of Dying opens up another discursive universe distinct from that of the traditional historical novel insofar as it offers an alternative epistemology, in oxymoronic rivalry with the historical material that is presented. In this respect, Faris and Zamora claim that:
… magical realism is a mode suited to exploring—and transgressing—boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical or generic. Magical realism often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction. The propensity of magical realist texts to admit a plurality of worlds means that they often situate themselves on laminal territory between or among those worlds—in phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common, where magic is a branch of naturalism, or pragmatism.
In other words, Mda is able to set up a parallel discourse of promise that coexists ahistorically with and in rivalry to the historical discourse, the realism, of the novel. Whereas the discourse of history and rationality, employed in the novel's realistic representations of history, offers only a bleak life-negating predictability of cause and effect gathering a momentum of misery, the elements of the fantastic explode the confines of that very discourse by inviting us, like The Ibis Tapestry, to think differently from the dominant meaning-making systems. Only with another language of extended possibilities does it become feasible to deal with and thus to counteract the course of history. Hence multiple historical causes effect the death of Noria's son, but magic brings him back to her; multiple historical forces turn Nefodolodwhe against his own people, but magic, the return of Jwara's ghost in his dreams, forces him to reconnect: and multiple historical forces sentence Noria and Toloki to a squalid existence and also deprive Noria of her second child, but magic, or at least epistemological magic, conjures up another mindset between the two of them that helps them conquer these realities. The discourse of magic, to sum up, defies the inevitable defeat that permeates the discourse of history. The mode of loss is countered with a mode of replenishment.
A question that comes to mind when considering the depiction of suffering in Ways of Dying is whether the blend of carnivalesque and magical ingredients does not diminish the drabness of the realism. One argument that may be launched against the aesthetic elements in the novel is definitely that beauty may take the sting out of suffering and consequently erode the political message of calling attention to the injustice committed against the destitute in South Africa, then as well as now. The beauty that Toloki and Noria are able to conjure out of their drab reality, for example, as well as magical realism itself, could foster an unintentioned romanticization of the squatter camps where a hard-hitting realism would have had an uncompromising effect. However, as André Brink argues, creativity and imagination are in many instances required to make suffering palpable. As a sobering contrast, Brink calls attention to the mind-numbing effect of the persistent realistic reportage of violence on television, which was also what inhibited Poley in The Ibis Tapestry (Brink, 1998: 19-21). In alignment with Brink's argument, it may be maintained that it is not sheer beauty but a certain tragedy in the beauty, when, for example, Toloki and Noria wander in their imagined and materially unobtainable garden. This generates a sense of deflation lurking right below the surface of the thrill of the moment. Similarly it is the duality in the book of history and the human responses that makes us recognise at one and the same time the inhumanity of life in the squatter camps and the humanity of those bawdy, miserable people who are so easily dehumanised.
In further accord with Brink's contention, many critics share the conviction that magical realism may be seen as "an antidote to the exhausted forms of expression", such as natural realism and post-modernism (Zamora and Faris, 1995: 7). So the ambiguous representation of the past in Ways of Dying, which simultaneously confirms a well-known picture of reality and disrupts our normative perceptions of reality, enforces on the reader a new and fresh engagement with the history before him or her. In other words, it provokes an attention-drawing and, with its metaphorical potency, consciousness-raising actuality, which urges the centre of society to reconsider its derisive perception of the periphery.
To return briefly to the constellations in the novel between the discourse of history and the discourse of literature, these become all the clearer when Ways of Dying is interpreted as a future history. Whereas the historical material in the novel represents a world of facts, the counter-historical discourse of magic repre- sents a world of utopian longings. Michael Green maintains that in contrast to historians who are reluctant or unwilling to make predictions about the future:
… novelists are precisely able to ignore the caution of the historian because their enterprise carries, quite obviously, a different emphasis. Their concern is to make the present meaningful in terms of its possible outcome; the imaginative effort invested in this is not to be measured in terms of their literal ability correctly to foresee the outcome, but rather in their ability to use a particular literary strategy to intervene in the present.
Accordingly the magical realist components of Ways of Dying disrupt the discourse of history, that so blatantly mirrors poor South Africans in a world of denial and destruction, and offer instead a discourse of opportunity by means of which the dystopian direction of history can be changed to a utopian direction. At the same time, it is arguable that the capacity of magical realism for disrupting our normative perceptions of reality is a prerequisite for the change of consciousness it takes to acknowledge the utopian allusions of the novel as other than outrageous. In Coetzeean terms of a rival aesthetic, the magical universe in Ways of Dying and its utopian implications empower the novel to "evolve its own paradigms" and "issue its own terms", independently of the discourse of history, in a way that forces upon us a reassessment of what is considered socially, politically and economically plausible. In the words of André Brink, we are urged to:
… imagine what has previously been impossible: to grapple, exuberantly and adventurously, with the limits of the possible…. [as] only by dreaming and writing the impossible can life be made possible.
(Brink, 1993: 2)
It is the utopian aspirations and their very probability in alternity which impinge themselves on present reality and keeps us in touch with the very sources of revolutionary energy in the midst of a worldwide supremacy of conservative politics (see also Jameson quoted in Green, 1997: 248-9).
With that, it is fitting to delve further into that Other historical discourse of the novel, off-limits to the ordinary historian, the implied visions of the future, which also come in other forms than the magical.
Green explains about future histories that they:
… seek to comment upon the past and present by projecting the implications of the past and the present forward in time. In this way they reverse the standard techniques of historical fiction, but remain directly related to them. In any event, attempts to give meaning to the past generally involve … an implied or explicit appeal to the future.
This appeal to the future, he continues, can involve either a desire or a warning, a utopia or a dystopia (264). As it has been indicated, history in Mda's novel contains a projection of both in correspondence with double entendre of the imagery; that of the carnivalesque and that of nightmarish terror.
To outline briefly the utopian allusions, which have already been suggested in the analyses of the consciousness-raising dynamics of the novel and its rival mode, there is a utopian desire embodied in Toloki, Noria and their good neighbours to overcome the burdens of the past by recreating a social fabric woven by moral, cultural, communal and humanist positivism. This will engender an all-inclusive society based on a shared set of values, including economic, racial and gender equality, social responsibility and pacifism. In short, a society constructed on a social conscience similar to the philosophy of Ubuntu that disallows any form of human abuse or undesirable marginalisation. As has also been stated, it is not only their political inferiority that Serote is concerned with, but the social and cultural deprivation of the majority of the South African population that must undergo resuscitative treatment, if they are to have any democratic right of independently participating in shaping society. Only then, says Ndebele, will the oppressed discover a "new, rich and very complex social language of their own" (1994: 119).
The dystopian indications in Ways of Dying evidently centre on the further disintegration of society into an anarchy of violence, civil war and utter self-destruction, if no counter is generated to stop it. The emphasis in the novel on the "tribal chief", for example, and his ability to animate an imagined and aggressive ethnicity warns of the destructive potential of group politics coupled with political intolerance and a zero-sum orientation (e.g. see 47-9). Similarly post-apartheid South Africa is experiencing a taste of the dystopian vision of the novel. Hein Marais, for instance, refers to the phenomenon of a "lost generation" of South African youth "with little education, poor job prospects, and prone—en masse, it seem[s]—to violence and other ‘anti-social’ behaviour" (110; see also Deegan, 1999: 173). The crime statistics speak for themselves: more than 20,000 South Africans were murdered in 1995 and 36,888 cases of rape or attempted rape were reported. The same year, there were 12,531 cases of vehicle hijackings and 1996 counted 481 crime syndicates operating in the country. Moreover, cases of burglary, robbery, assaults and drug trafficking in South Africa continue to hover among the highest numbers in the world (Marais, 1998: 107, 109). Again this can be contextualised with the disappearance of the enemy for the combat-minded youth in Gods of Our Time who, adding insult to injury, have no other skills than fighting and are offered no alternative livelihood.
Obviously the development of the spiritual culture of the country—intellectualism, ideas, feelings, ethics—to counter this dystopian advance is far from adequate to stop the tide of disintegration. There is a compelling need for the development of the material culture as well; for as long as scarcity exists for the masses, there is a breeding ground for animosities, be they based on race, class or ethnicity.
If navigated by utopian aspirations, post-apartheid South Africa will relieve the squatters of their material misery through economical redistribution. But Ways of Dying presents a past that is very prone to confer upon the country a drive in the direction of dystopia. First of all there is a brief mention of the rich whites at the tourist centre of the city who:
"don't pay any particular attention to [Toloki], except of course to make sure that their wallets and handbags are safe. But then that is what they do every time they see someone who does not look quite like them."
In this snapshot description, superimposed on the background of the squatter camps, the entire question of future redistribution is encompassed. It points forward in time towards the indecisive resolution of the battle over South Africa, which has led Jay Reddy to comment that "the end of apartheid seems to represent for the white minority a defeat in which they have lost nothing" (quoted in Ndebele, 1994: 156). In other words, the negotiated settlement has guaranteed no material concessions on the side of the privileged for the sake of the underprivileged5. This is to be seen in the light that post-apartheid South Africa is still described by the World Bank as one of the most unequal economies in the world with a gini coefficient of no less than 0,68 (Marais, 1998: 106).
The implication of underlining the indifference of the rich to the poverty around them while not mentioning the question of guilt throughout the novel, seems, then, to agree with Ndebele when he, instead of guilt, demands that those who prospered on apartheid should accommodate the need for redistribution: "Guilt is irrelevant, but it crops up because the struggle was unresolved. Those who have lost should properly experience loss, not guilt" (156). Guilt, he goes on to say, is a personal flagellation that leads to humility which is not a good sight on a national scale. On the contrary, justice, understood as paying back, is a "decisive corrective action" that "leads to knowledge and responsibility". Although Mike Nicol in The Ibis Tapestry radically dismisses any alleviation of guilt for the sake of remembering, he shares with Ndebele and Mda the idea that the offenders are indebted to the offended, illustrated in Sarra's devotion to Salma's recovery. However, as was also shown in the analysis of The Ibis Tapestry, the wealthy parts of the white community are "ensconced in so much political and economical privilege" that they are able to barricade themselves and their riches behind barbed wired walls with "armed response" signs, from where it is easy to ignore the anguish of the periphery. Even if this may ultimately change the white phobia expressed in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace of being "raped" through race-related retribution from a dormant to an actual peril.
There is also an appeal in Ways of Dying to the current incumbents. If the beneficiaries of apartheid are not ready to take direct responsibility, the initiative lies with the government. In this respect, the future African leadership is represented in a manner that may foretell rapture as well as agitation. It is a taste of utopia that the high-ranking leaders of the resistance movement visit absolutely the lowest end of the social scale to listen to their grievances. But the fact that the leaders arrive in a big, black Mercedes Benz, "high powered" and "bejewelled", already signals great distance (161-2). And aloofness is further emphasised when the leaders ask Noria, in perfect anticipation of the ANC's attempt to censor history as discussed in the Serote analysis, to keep silent about the execution of her son as it will weaken the outward image of the movement (166-7).
The question, then, is whether the leaders, once in power, will take the masses into consideration who bled for the common cause. Initially, the democratically elected government of 1994 set up the so-called Reconstruction and Development Programme for rapid redress of past inequalities, which, among other things, resulted in the extension of water and electricity supplies to many remote and poor areas of the country as well as the construction of one million houses. However, after less than two years, that ambitious programme was abandoned in favour of the current supply-side strategy, GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), that aims not at forthright redistribution, but at creating the most lucrative conditions for the private economy in the hope of bringing about a "trickle down effect" while cutting government spending and reducing state assets (Lundahl, 1998: 29-31). Similarly, there is clearly a government reluctance to implement even the recommendations of compensation and rehabilitation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its final report. The report suggests among other things that the beneficiaries of apartheid, and especially big business, should pay a reparations tax for the development of poor South Africa (see Krog, 1998: 432-3). As Annette Lansink says, none of the recommendations have materialised in government policy, and the funding of the Truth Commission's Reparations Committee is so severely curtailed that the majority of victims who were promised compensation are still waiting for it (Lansink, 2000: 9; see also Matlou, 2001 and Merten, 2001).
Above all the government and office holders appear more interested in careerism and in uniting the elite within the existing order rather than stirring up the masses with expectations of fast deliverance. Whatever it may be, it is certainly not the utopia embedded in Mda's history that dictates the direction of the near future in South Africa. The restraint in the country on the subject of social justice, among the privileged as among the government, is staggering when one considers the compelling and inescapable everyday signs of the wrongs of the past: the violence and the deprivation in the townships and squatter camps.
A third dimension that is included in Mda's future history of dystopia concerns the antithesis to the cultural flowering that was mentioned as part of the utopia. In the absence of a strong will to consciously develop independently along culturally connected lines, the alternative is an obdurate society of individuals bent on materialist self-gain. The representative of this future scenario is the undertaker Nefodolodwhe who has chosen an uncompromising denial of his rural past and developed an avaricious scavenger-mentality in looking forward to the fatal misfortune of his fellow men (see: 116-7).
Ndebele maintains that depriving the oppressed of any meaningful spiritual life of their own, as referred to earlier, has also deprived them of any control of their own fate. In correspondence with Ngcobo's argument that blacks have been denied their own history and humanity and Jackson's observations on discursive objectification, they are doomed to respond to history instead of initiating it (1994: 159). If this is not made up for, as in Mda's vision of a reaffirmation of African values, oppression will continue, although masked to the extent that the oppressed do not perceive their own oppression. The glitter of apartheid, Ndebele says, like materialistic extravagance, rich neighbourhoods, institutions of financial power, which previously represented exclusion and repulsive, exploitative white power, now represent "opportunity and possible fulfilment". And so the "brazen oppression of the past is now replaced with the seductive oppression of having to build and consolidate and enjoy what was achieved at our expense". Instead of a "self-created reality" the only option for the disempowered is then one of absorption and accommodation like Nefodolodwhe (153-4). Society will continue along the lines of the old order of the African being contained within a western pre-eminence rather than a new order of African self-determination in a truly free society. Instead of freedom, Ndebele concludes, spiritual emptiness will prevail at the expense of constructive content (136-7).
So, all in all, the past as it is represented in Ways of Dying contains a host of indications that point towards an undesirable future in South Africa and a continuation of the dystopian development that has gathered increasing impetus throughout the apartheid years and, earlier still, since the western disruption of the African civilisation. In order to turn the tide of historical cause and effect it is necessary, accordingly, to imagine the impossible. Hence the utopian innuendoes of a truly egalitarian society brought about by social and cultural self-determination are forwarded as an indismissable alternative, which, in the light of a discourse of expanded possibility, ought to appear all the less improbable.
1. It should be noted that the vindication of African culture and aesthetics that is so explicitly suggested in Ways of Dying seems only possible now that the retribalisation policies of the National Party are gone. During apartheid, it was considered an almost pro-government statement to claim one's ethnic heritage. Hence the outspoken self-negations of the Drum magazine at the height of the resistance:
Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! We don't care about chiefs! Give us … anything American. You can cut out this junk about kraals and folk-tales and Basutos in blankets—forget it! You're just trying to keep us backward, that's what!
The reconsideration of this mentality in Ways of Dying is not an isolated case. Can Temba says: "Those of us who have been detribalised and caught in the characterless world of belonging nowhere have a bitter sense of loss (quoted in Gready, 1990: 147)."
In post-apartheid South Africa even white authors have used the change to reimagine Afrikaner or English identity by forging a cultural connection with indigenous tradition in a thrust to finally take root on the continent as Africans. The story of Krotoä, for instance, a Khoi-San woman who married and had children with the Danish surgeon Pieter van Meerhoff in the 17th century, resurfaces again in Afrikaner memory after its apartheid repression, as a myth of the unifying foremother, onse ma, who has fostered a fundamentally hybrid race (see Coetzee, 1998: 112-15). And in terms of literary form, works like Brink's Imaginings of Sand and Etienne van Heerden's Ancestral Voices are joining Zakes Mda by revalidating African traditions of story-telling and magic and mixing those with oral traditions among Afrikaners and the English settlers.
2. In the same way an uneasiness deriving from repression of the truth may be detected in the case of Noria's second pregnancy. The narrators never question her claim to divine conception despite the gossip of Noria seeing other men and gossip being one of the primary sources of the narrator's omniscience (140 and 8). Of course the possibility of a divine pregnancy serves the principle of presenting South African ontology as magic by taking magic for granted, or, as Faris puts it, to make it "grow organically out of reality" (106). How- ever, the context of Noria's pregnancy invites an unnerving ambiguity. Just as much as the incident may be genuinely magic, the magic may also prove to be Noria's mind playing a self-deceiving trick. Considering the ambivalence of her many "dreams" of strangers that arrive to make love to her before she falls pregnant, the magical conception may turn out to be the poignant sign of a mental defence mechanism that is protecting Noria from the painful memory of being raped.
Antjie Krog refers to an almost conspiratorial silence about the issue of rape during the hearings of the Truth Commission:
There seems to be a bizarre collusion between the rapist and the raped. Although rumors abound about rape, all these mutterings are trapped behind closed doors. Apparently high-profile women, among them cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and businesswomen, were raped and sexually abused under the previous dispensation—and not only by the regime, but by their own comrades in the townships and liberation camps. But no one will utter an audible word about it.
Although Noria of course belongs to a different level than the career-minded ministers and businesswomen, many reasons for keeping silent may be the same. A clinical psychologist, Nomfundo Walaza, adds "[w]ho have been raped know that if they talk about it in public they will lose something again—privacy, maybe respect" (277). The fact is that the silence of the public, which, in this interpretation, is represented in Ways of Dying in the absence of any response from the narrators to Noria's pregnancy, endorsing or rejecting the magic, preserves the issue of rape as a taboo or a violation that women have to endure privately. Even Serote's novel, which is so concerned with a female perspective of the past, is conspicously silent about rape. Although the crime itself and the almost ritual repression of it in public, are, of course, far from problems that are confined to African societies, the culturally specific addressal in Ways of Dying concerns a skepticism towards the communal voice and its silences, and a skepticism towards self-righteousness alignments by the same voices behind a pretense of Africanism as a moral high ground (see for instance Malungana, 1999 for an example of how uncritical Africanism can be exploited to championing a silencing of women).
3. The ideal way of instituting social modernization and development was touched upon by Bessie Head who stressed the necessity of indigenous incorporation—especially when the impulse of change was as foreign as the European. She made the following observation in Botswana:
If one wishes to reach back into ancient Africa, the quality of its life has been preserved almost intact in Botswana …. Anything that falls into its depth is absorbed. No new idea stands sharply aloof from the social body, declaiming its superiority. It is absorbed and transformed until it emerges somewhere along the line as ‘our traditional custom’. Everything is touched by ‘our traditional custom’—British Imperialism, English, Independence, new educational methods, progress, and foreigners. It all belongs.
(Head, 1990: 15)
4. At this juncture it would be appealing to amalgamate Coetzee and Ndebele's theories by stating that Ndebele's literature of involvement corresponds to Coetzee's rival mode. A consequence of such an argument would be that Ndebele's literature of informing equates the information that is passed on to the reader through the discourse of history. The parallels between Ndebele and Coetzee in this respect are pronounced but not convincing. First of all historical discourse may be as involving as informing in that there are consciousness-raising potential in the historian's choice of perspective for any given historical period. It may be argued, for instance, that the probes into the psychology in Serote's characters and Lindi's attempts to redress the tormented minds around her add to the historical material a certain and engaging depth without taking up arms against the discourse of history itself.
5. It can be asserted against this argument that redistributive concessions have been imposed on the privileged after all, in the form of increased tax-rates (which prior to the year 2000 reform, in regard to income tax, amount to 45% for the highest salaried groups (see South African Revenue Service: www.sars.gov.za/Default.htm). However, the new budget as presented by Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel in February 2000 compromises these measures to a certain extent with new tax breaks for the employed. Jay Reddy's comment could furthermore be defended when arguing that taxing customarily loads the burden of redistribution unevenly on the middle-class and lower middle-class when considering the advantages of tax deductions that are always enjoyed by the wealthy. As it was phrased in the editorial of the Mail & Guardian on the 25th of February 2000, in reference to Trevor Manual's promise of an asset sales tax directed against the rich (a cushion against the left-wingers' response to the tax reductions): "… the rich can afford to pay cunning accountants to help them avoid the worst stric- tures of the capital gains tax" (The Mail & Guardian, 2000; see also Barrell, 2000). In that light the greatest beneficiaries of the apartheid system are still able to circumvent their social responsibilities.
Barrell, Howard: "Budget Backs Business for Growth" in Daily Mail & Guardian, February 25, 2000 (www.mg.co.za/mg/news/2000feb2/15febbudget2.html).
Brink, André: "To re-imagine our history" in The Weekly Mail & Guardian, Review of Books, September 24-30, 1993 (pp. 1-2).
Brink, André: "Interrogating Silence: New Possibilities Faced by South African Literature" in Writing South Africa. Literature, apartheid, and democracy 1970-95. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, (pp. 43-54).
Chapman, Michael: Southern African Literatures. London and New York: Longman Limited Group, 1996.
Coetzee, Carli: "Krotoä remembered: a mother of unity, a mother of sorrows?" in Sarah Nuttal and Carli Coetzee (eds.): Negotiating the past: The making of memory in South Africa. Oxford and Cape Town: Oxford University PRess, 1998, (pp. 112-19).
Coetzee, J. M.: Disgrace. South Africa: Random House (Pty), 2000 (First published in Great Britain by Martin Secker & Warburg, 1999).
Dangor, Achmat: "Just Before We Shall Sing" in The Sunday Independent, 4 February, 1996, (p. 22).
Deegan, Heather: South Africa Reborn. London: UCL Press, 1999.
Faris, Wendy B.: "Scheherazade's Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction" in Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris (eds.): Magical Realism. Theory, History, Community. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995 (pp. 163-89).
Foreman, Gabrielle P.: "Past-On Stories: History and the Magically Real, Morrison and Allende on Call" in Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris (eds.): Magical Realism. Theory, History, Community. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995 (pp. 285-303).
Gready, Paul: "The Sophiatown Writers of the Fifties: the Unreal Reality of Their World" in Journal of South African Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, March, 1990 (pp. 139-65).
Green, Michael: Novel Histories. Past, Present, and Future in South African Fiction. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1997.
Head, Bessie: "Social and Political Pressures that Shape Literature in Southern Africa" in Cecil Abrahams (ed.): The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc., 1990 (pp. 11-17).
Krog, Antjie: Country of My Skull. UK and South Africa: Random House, 1999 (first published in South Africa by Random House, 1998).
Lansink, Annette: "Forget revenge … what about compensation?" in Sowetan, 29 March, p. 9.
Lundahl, Mats: "The Post-Apartheid Economy, and After?" in Lennart Petersson (ed.): Post-Apartheid Southern Africa. Economic Challenges and Policies for the Future. London: Routledge, 1998.
Malungana, S. J.: "The Relevance of Xitsonga Oral Tradition" in Alternation, Vol. 6, 1999, (37-54).
Maphai, Vincent T.: "Liberal Democracy and Ethnic Conflict in South Africa" in Harvey Glickman (ed.): Ethnic Conflict and Democratization in Africa. Georgia: The African Studies Association Press, 1998.
Marais, Hein: South Africa: Limits to Change. The Political Economy of Transition. South Africa: University of Cape Town Press, 1998.
Mervis, Margaret: "Fiction for Development: Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying" in Current Writing, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1998 (pp. 39-55).
Mda, Zakes: Ways of Dying. Oxford and Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Ndebele, Njabulo: South African Literature and Culture. Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Ngcobo, Dumisane: "Nihilism in Black South Africa: the New South Africa and the Destruction of the Black Domestic Periphery" in Alternation, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1999 (138-54).
Nicol, Mike: The Ibis Tapestry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998.
Solberg, Rolf: "Interview with Mongane Wally Serote" in Writing South Africa. Literature, apartheid, and democracy 1970-95. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, (pp. 180-6).
van Wyk, Johan: "Catastrophe and Beauty: Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda's Novel of the Transition" in Literator 18 (3), Nov. 1997, pp. 79-90.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson and Faris, Wendy B.: "Introduction: Daiquiri Birds and Flaubertian Parrot(ie)s" in Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris (eds.): Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995 (pp. 1-11).
Bell, Madison Smartt. "Mammals in Love." New York Times Book Review (8 January 2006): 9.
Review of The Whale Caller that finds the book superficially charming but missing what Bell considers Mda's usual complexity.
Donadio, Rachel. "Post-Apartheid Fiction." New York Times Magazine (3 December 2006): 48-53.
Includes Mda in an analysis of major young fiction writers in post-apartheid South Africa.
Farred, Grant. "Mourning the Post-apartheid State Already? The Poetics of Loss in Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying." Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 1 (spring 2000): 183-206.
Concludes that Ways of Dying fails as a work of post-apartheid literature.
Goodman, Ralph. "De-Scribing the Centre: Satiric and Postcolonial Strategies in The Madonna of Excelsior." Journal of Literary Studies 20, nos. 1-2 (June 2004): 62-70.
An exploration of Mda's use of satire and postcolonial discourse as a means of liberating "the subject from the power of hegemonic language."
McLaren, Joseph. Review of The Heart of Redness: A Novel, by Zakes Mda. Africa Today 51, no. 3 (spring 2005): 134-36.
Reviews The Heart of Redness and praises Mda's use of metaphor to portray post-apartheid South Africa.
Mngadi, Sikhumbuzo. "Some Thoughts on Black Male Homosexualities in South African Writing: Zakes Mda's The Hill and Kaizer Nyatsumba's ‘In Happiness and Sorrow’." English in Africa 32, no. 2 (October 2005): 155-68.
Examines homosexuality among black men in South Africa as Mda presents it in his play The Hill.
Zulu, N. S. "The Collective Voice in The Madonna of Excelsior: Narrating Transformative Possibilities." Literator 27, no. 7 (April 2006): 107-26.
Discusses what Mda's use of a collective voice in his novel The Madonna of Excelsior reveals about South Africa's transformation from a society of institutional racism to one in transition.
Additional coverage of Mda's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 205; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 151; Contemporary Dramatists, Eds. 5, 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 225; and Literature Resource Center.