Redi Tlhabi’s Endings and Beginnings opens with a murder scene. A bullet-riddled young, black male body is lying dead at a street corner and the whole community has come out to celebrate. He was a gangster, murderer, rapist and robber.
It is payback time for Soweto’s haunted history of jack-rollers — the girl kidnapping phenomenon and reign of terror — that people have forgotten about. But a little girl who grew up in the once notorious township of Orlando must purge her soul of this terrible memory.
Tlhabi’s debut novel sub-titled a “Story of Healing” makes for troubling reading not because of its naïve attempt to humanise black tragedy, it is a superficial account of a tragic social and economic history where the brutality of an economic system has not only been deliberately underplayed but totally over-looked.
Tlhabi is destined to be a leader of a new generation of black female writers who make apolitical and ahistorical literary art. Tlhabi’s story of Mabegzo is supposed to be just another normal story of a young male who turns into a brutal monster simply because he grew up without intimate ties or knowledge of his mother.
Only the black-on-black violence, the self-infatuation and the humanisation of black tragedy is made to seem authentic. In fact, nobody is a victim in this story as everything — in terms of how people turn out — can be traced back to the wrong choices and mistakes that were made by Imelda, Nkgono and Jakobo. But this is socio-political nonsense. Redi’s handling of one of the most brutal experiences at the height of the violent 1980s is superficial and hollow.
This story is chock-a-block with humanitarian plastering of deep psychological wounds. This explains why it has been well-received by the middle classes. This is the perversion of poverty, unemployment, inequality and brutal racial domination into an acceptable way of life. It not only fits in the cultural strategy to depoliticise black literature — where the writers make no reference to apartheid — but it reveals how Tlhabi is an independent, courageous and objective writer who gets into the soul of human story-telling.
At the time of Mabegzo’s killing by his criminal friends, the townships were not only caught up in deep political rumbles but even 11-year-olds knew that some tsotsis, thugs were very political in their criminal activities. It is for this reason that they would be welcomed back like heroes upon returning from their shenanigans. The mid-1980s were about “making the country ungovernable”. But Tlhabi neither locates her story in the context of the prevalent political resistance nor links the behaviour of her criminal characters to the upheavals in the country. Everything is just pure criminality and loss of moral compass.
Perhaps offering sandwiches to a charming and good-looking murderer, rapist and killer is the only truth about township life that Tlhabi knows and is comfortable with. But this watering down of a life of poverty, unemployment, hopelessness and crime is a misrepresentation of township reality. People like Mabegzo who relied on hand-outs for survival were not victims of a lack of initiative or laziness but were at the receiving end of helplessness and structural violence inflicted by the system.
When Tlhabi attempts to humanise this story, she is trying to please a middle-class audience that has grown tired of stories that blame apartheid for everything. The only good aspect of Tlhabi writing skills is that not only is she free to sugar-coat black suffering but she has told her story in a pretty engaging manner.
We have just entered the literary blaxploitation era in which an increasing number of black female writers — Khanyi Mbau, Bonnie Henna and Kelly Khumalo, among others — are being celebrated for their naivety and apolitical stories that appeal to human interest.
So, Tlhabi is part of this new fashionable literary trend where attractive, articulate and intelligent-sounding black women publish books that tell the authentic black experience beyond the apartheid blame game. Their books extract and celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over poverty, abuse, drugs, depression and, of course, senseless criminal violence perpetrated by black males.
Maybe the apolitical human approach to storytelling is not necessarily a deficiency. There will always be a tension between those who uphold the aesthetics of beautiful writing and others who promote ideological or a political perspective. Perhaps the ideal is to strike a balance. But as we move deeper into the new South Africa, Tlhabi et al are clearly communicating the new political-cultural codes that expect everybody, especially black writers, to get over apartheid and tell more human stories.
Thus Tlhabi is not interested in digging deep into the socio-economic circumstances that made it almost impossible for Mabegzo and his peers to be anything more than just thugs. Instead, they are depicted as society’s lost souls: young, black, violent and self-destructive.
This is, predictably, a normal story with a human touch. It will also do well because not only does it promote middle-class values — moving out of the townships and returning to find closure — but will make it easier for everyone who desires for poverty and wealth to co-exist well together. At any rate, it portrays thugs as people who, ultimately, get their just dessert. Fools will buy into this superficial political nonsense.
Now at the height of her career as a radio and television talk-show anchor and commentator, Tlhabi seems incapable of discerning the continuing impact and legacy of apartheid on black lives in the townships and everywhere. In fact, she is at the forefront of not blaming apartheid for anything as she overindulges the new post-apartheid notion of blacks, including President Jacob Zuma, taking responsibility for what happens to one. The Tlhabi politics have become the new currency.
But they are valid in their own way. Instead of concentrating on the legacy of apartheid, blacks have every right to look deep into their individual souls to explain everything that has happened to them, especially the bad things. Mabegzo chose to turn into a criminal when he was thrown out by his family. And this is not ghetto sentimentality but looking at township reality through cold eyes to put things into a human perspective. So — depending on how you choose to see things — it is not entirely true that Tlhabi has distorted a township tragedy. This is actually a new way of looking at the black reality.
An appreciation of Ending and Beginnings requires ignorance of the political happenings in Orlando, Soweto — of the time when Mabegzo was killed. Presumably, many readers will respond well to this human story but without the correct socio-economic context, Tlhabi’s story leaves a big void in the soul. In fact, it is a beautifully written story that is patronising to black suffering. What a waste of talent!