The Interview – Zakes Mda: When elephants fight

2013-10-13 14:00

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Novelist, playwright and artist Zakes Mda is under no illusions about his beloved country. Charl Blignaut had lunch with him in Stellenbosch.

The great South African novelist is in fine spirits despite having just returned from a disastrous trip to Port Elizabeth.

He was there for National Book Week, one of a delegation of writers dispatched to help grow a culture of reading among schoolchildren.

At Red Location Museum, the excited kids were about to start a quiz and spelling bee when they were disrupted by striking librarians.

The organisers decided to move to a venue that doesn’t house a library, but the angry librarians followed. The event was canned.

It’s a painfully typical South African story – the right to education clashing with workers’ rights.

I ask Zakes Mda (65) if he has any sympathy with the librarians.

“My sympathies are always with the children, you see,” he responds.

“They suffer when these elephantsfight.”

Seated in his office at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, in his britches, cap and sneakers, the author of Ways of Dying, The Madonna of Excelsior and Black Diamond talks in a voice that uncannily sounds like Nelson Mandela’s.

“We must go to lunch,” he says next. “You may do whatever you want here, but at 12.30pm it is lunch. It’s one of their strictest rules. We also have weekly seminars where the fellows then report on what they are doing.”

The fellows are artists and academics in residence.

Athol Fugard is writing a play and Mda a new novel.

With our exceptional Stellenbosch salads – Mda is a vegetarian – we sit on the terrace of an institute that rests unobtrusively in indigenous gardens.

It’s not where I pictured him writing a novel, in the heart of the contested winelands in a building that belongs in a magazine.

“I’m not writing it here. I come for research. It’s a historical novel that needs very heavy research,” he says.

“And then I go back to my place to write.”

He is grateful that someone is paying him to write a novel, a subject that comes up again later.

Although Mda travels home often, he and his family are based in America, where he is a professor in creative writing at Ohio University.

I ask if he is sad not to be working at a local university, guiding African writers.

“I was offered a job there after I was unemployed for seven years in South Africa. Not just sitting, but looking for work. They (the Americans) say: ‘Hey, we need you here. And we are going to educate your children.’

“So you go there. They pay me to write my own books. ‘Because your writing gives glory to our university,’ they say. That glory comes with new business. So how can I be sad about that? I’m very happy about that.”

Him being forced to leave the country is ironic, because Mda is an undeniable, bona fide South African national treasure.

His plays, and adaptations of his novels, are being staged across the country.

At the airport’s Exclusive Books, his face smiles from the covers of reissues of his growing body of novels.

One of them – The Whale Caller – is being made into a film and another is earmarked for TV.

His latest, Sculptors of Mapungubwe, arrives on the shelves this month.

He is an outspoken critic of government – try following him on Twitter – yet, even so, his books officially populate our schools and prisons.

“I don’t like Zuma,” he says when I ask. He never has, he says, even before the “rape thing” and the “sugar daddies”. “I could see immediately that this guy is a Zulu traditionalist. He is a homophobe. That’s a deal-breaker for me. It tells me immediately what kind of a person you are in as far as human rights.

“Obviously I don’t think that he should be the president,” he says later.

“But then I’m in the minority, because the majority chose him. But then I know the majority is always wrong anyway. That is a fact?…?that is why we have opinion leaders in our communities. If there were no opinion leaders, we would be doomed.”

Where in the ANC, I ask, does that place outspoken thinkers like himself?

“The ANC was a place for thinkers before. I’m still hoping that it will revert to what it used to be. But I’m not basing my hope on any reality, really. Dessert?”

We skip the dessert and I listen to him talk about the ANC that he loves – the champion of the human rights that we enjoy today.

And the ANC that infuriates him, as well as “the threat that is coming which they don’t see”.

He says: “On the one hand, coming from the middle class youth, who don’t have any ties to that history of the struggle and who mostly will be following the DA?...?(And also) from the unemployed that are going to follow the Malema-type populist parties that will emerge.”

When their majority decreases, they will begin to wake up, says Mda.

“That’s when I feel that that intellectual tradition, the Pallo Jordans and so on, will re-emerge and begin to be respected again?...?Of course, it may just go to the dogs.” He pauses, then adds: “And it’s better that it goes to the dogs than it stays with this rotten lot that we have now ... corrupted by power.”

These sociopolitical cycles are the grist of his writing mill and always have been. I have not yet read all his work – he’s prolific – but there is a sense of the grand historical jester in Mda’s writing.

Take The Madonna of Excelsior: In a conservative town in Free State in 1971, the apartheid leaders have noticed the proliferation of mixed-race children in the township.

The baases have been having sex with the maids, who are arrested under the Immorality Act.

Then the white elders of the town are implicated and charged too. The world media comes to town. True story.

Its power lies in its female voice and in its bigger picture – of the power sharing, democracy and transition that follows.

One of the bastard children serves on the council and witnesses the new leaders sit in the chairs of the old and perpetuate their systems, reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Mda’s 2009 novel, Black Diamond, hilariously pairs a middle-aged white Afrikaans magistrate with an upwardly mobile black security expert as unexpected lovers in the middle of a crime drama in Roodepoort in the present day.

The new book – The Sculptors of Mapungubwe – is set 1?000 years ago in order to consider what we can learn from precolonial Africa.

The novel he is writing in Stellenbosch taps his family history, crossing the South African and Lesotho border in the 1800s.

It is based on the true story of the Amampondomise people and their king, Mhlonhlo, who killed a British magistrate called Hamilton Hope.

“I already have the main character in my mind,” Mda says. “And I also have the woman, who happens to be of lower social standing, a Bushman woman, whom he falls in love with.”

Mda’s project is to employ the past to show how the present is shaped – and, in the process, how it will affect the future.

The sun has moved across the sky and our lunch must end. I could kick myself for having wasted half an hour earlier discussing a problem I am having with something I am writing.

Except I shouldn’t. Mda offered firm and engaged advice that has stayed in my mind ever since the terrace. I envy his students in Ohio.

We are heading out when he asks for a lift. His wife, he explains with a twinkle in his eye, wants him to lose weight.

She made him promise not to hire a car in Stellenbosch, so that he would have to walk the kilometre or two to his guesthouse.

In the car, I am talking about recent homophobic attacks and he tells me about some of his research for Sculptors.

Homosexual practice was fairly common in precolonial Africa, especially in spiritual societies, he found.

It was the colonists who introduced the homophobia that we live with today.

If our leaders read his books, they might understand the tragic ironies of our current situation.

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