Mda’s collage of truth

2012-09-22 10:01

We are outside a guesthouse in Melville with a large lawn in the back yard and a pool.

The acclaimed writer, dressed in cap and braces, and the admiring journalist are sitting on comfortable chairs on the lawn in the afternoon winter sun.

She can hardly believe she’s actually meeting with this world-renowned, award-winning writer.

He takes some Kleenex from a little packet in his pocket and wipes his nose, complaining about a dust-mite allergy.

The journalist sympathises. Ever so often, a hadeda flies past and makes a mocking noise.

Journalist (blushing, stuttering): I’ve only read about four, four and a half of your books, but you’ve written, what, 20 I’m still busy with your memoirs. Wish I had more time, I don’t get a lot of time to read books ...

Writer: Work, yes, I don’t get to read much either. (He currently lives and teaches in the US, but his accent doesn’t betray this.)

Journalist (pleasantly surprised): So what made you decide to write Our Lady of Benoni as a play?

I must say I didn’t like the idea of reading a play, but when I did, I loved it, and it was quick to read.

Writer: You are aware I am a playwright actually, initially. For many, many years I’ve been writing plays, and plays only.

The novel writing is very new and only started in the period of transition in ’92.

When I discovered the novel it actually took over my initial profession, which is playwriting.

When I started writing novels, I only wrote a play once, and only because it was commissioned by a Dutch theatre company.

With this one (Our Lady), well, I got this subject matter and I felt I wanted to write something on it.

It just wouldn’t work for me for a novel. I felt this would be handled better as a play.

Aside: The writer explains in detail how he was inspired separately by Joburg beggars; Francesca Zakey, who saw the Virgin Mary in Benoni; and the various superstitions around virginity.

One day he decided to draw all these together in a play.

The journalist lifts her eyebrow enquiringly at the mention of virginity.

Writer: It struck me that, in fact, virginity is not for the benefit of the woman, it’s a man thing. It’s a prize.

I mean, the woman does not own her virginity, it is owned by the man, and it is a commodity that must be preserved on behalf of men.

At first it’s preserved on behalf of the father, and then the father transfers it to the other man.

Journalist: Kind of like the wedding ritual. The Right Reverend Comrade Chief my Leader in the play, who was accused of rape: were you by any chance inspired by real political events? (The journalist later notices the play was set in the autumn of 2006.)

Writer: In my play there was this woman who goes out there to demonstrate, you know, on behalf of this reverend who is accused of rape.

The things she says there, for instance that it was very silly of this woman to complain when she was raped by such an important man, she should be proud – all those things were said by women who were toyi toying outside the courtroom where (President Jacob) Zuma was heard (in his 2006 rape trial).

I went there, I interviewed them, and I took these words, you see, I took them word for word, because what I was interested in was why are these women there in support of somebody who is accused of violating another woman?

I would have expected there to have been some female solidarity on issues like this.

So you see, all those things are from real life, they are not from my imagination. I wrote this play, unlike the things that I write such as the novels, specifically with the intention to teach, with the intention to say: “Hey these are the strange things that I’ve discovered, I want to share them with you.”

Journalist: Like a collage?

Writer: You are correct to say a collage, that was what I had in mind when I create work like this, it is a collage.

Journalist: Are there plans to perform the play?

Writer: In Cape Town, at the Baxter, yes. It will have to be adapted, you know, it’s very long. I had a reading directed by Lara Foot and we discovered it’s almost two-and-a-half hours long. So when it has to be performed we’ll have to cut it drastically.

Journalist: What are you working on now?

Writer: Another novel (to be published towards the end of the year), and I’m also working on children’s stories.

Aside: The interview trails off into politics, culture and tradition, and more politics.

The journalist loves it.

She could listen to this writer all day.

Journalist: You often warn about the negatives of culture and tradition.

Do you think people will ever listen?

Writer: No, no they won’t. They think I’m mad.

Journalist: How does that make you feel?

Writer: Well, I know I am not mad, that they are the ones that are mad.

The sun leaves the garden and they go inside, into the lounge.

The writer’s daughter, who the journalist estimates to be only a few years younger than herself, comes to collect her father for his book launch at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein in the early evening.

They exchange warm greetings. The journalist exits.

» For more extracts from the interview, visit

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