‘There are zealots?among us’

2014-09-14 15:00

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In this edited extract from Mandla Langa’s new book, he finds that cracks in ‘the movement’ are magnified over time

On 31 March 1985?–?a day remembered clearly because, even in the liberation movement, it signalled the beginning of the financial year?–?she was summoned to a house in the Lusaka suburb of Kabulonga. To her surprise, she found the President of the Movement waiting for her.

Dressed in a blue-and-white tracksuit and sneakers, he took his time telling her and the few people in the lounge what he wanted done.

“All my life,” he said, “I’ve been fascinated by the process of rebirth?–?of regeneration. When I wasn’t herding our scraggly goats and cattle, my schooldays in Bizana, in Pondoland, were spent studying the patterns of life, the journey taken by organisms from dust into life and back to dust. In the church, the sermons were delivered with much fanfare and bravura, without giving us an explanation of the miracle that nature provided and displayed every living day.

“I did a bit of service as an altar boy,” he went on, “to try to get a ringside seat to the unfurling wonders that held our people spellbound.

“Even much later, at the University of Fort Hare, some of my colleagues scoffed at my preoccupation with the trajectory of life. It is a trajectory blasphemed daily by the policies of apartheid, where our people groan under the yoke of oppression, the denial of our humanity. The women sitting at the lip of a grave wailing?–?sometimes silently, without tears?–?while a loved one is being laid into the ground.

“The men died early,” he said, in full cry. “Life expectancy was low, from the bottle, illness, knife, gun or the rope, but mainly from despair. I joined the Movement as a boy. It was not a conscious act the way you enrol into a class of Physics. It was something that had claimed me long before I could say I am a member of the Movement. After that it didn’t seem as if any reality could exist without the Movement. And life before that seemed like no life at all.” Here he looked Chaplain Nerissa (Nerissa Rodrigues) in the eye and she was surprised that his eyes were black but ringed with brown, irises that seemed infused with an energy that was tormenting its owner.

He said: “And so it pains me that there are zealots among us whose practices are inimical to life. They are menacing the Movement, which has, throughout time, preached the sanctity of life. I hear of torture of prisoners?– South Africans?–?by our people.” He paused. “We might even have our own dead, whose remains were not handled with dignity. I have cast around in my head for someone with the necessary qualifications and it all points to you. I want you to find out what is happening in our camps, especially our camp in Sector 37.”

Chaplain Nerissa wondered what these necessary qualifications were. Her religious training, which had earned her the sinecure job of chaplain?

Which liberation movements still had chaplains? It just meant that the President wanted someone who’d know what to do with the bones of the dead.

She shook her head. Nerissa had heard the rumblings, especially that some of the comrades abused women and that people had been locked up or even executed for minor infractions. She had no illusions that the camp admin would welcome her with open arms. But she was an old hand at dealing with stonewallers.

She thanked the President for placing his faith in her. She left.

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