Past imperfect

2011-10-20 00:00

McINTOSH Polela is an unusual man. Unique in an African sense — because in South African tradition you are judged by your culture, your roots and your name.

His name is entirely his own. He changed it legally to remove the bitter legacy of his past, taking McIntosh from a famous reggae singer and Polela from a river that runs near his home in the Drakensberg.

He is a journalist, police spokesperson and author of a book, My Father, My Monster. “Some people love the book and they praise it to the hills, and others think it is a betrayal of African culture. They say that these things I have mentioned should not be said,” commented Polela after his book launch in Durban.

“But I am not a person who needs to be validated by what people think. I have lived with criticism my whole life. I have had to survive despite what people thought, and so I wrote what needed to be said.”

As spokesperson for the Hawks, the South African Police investigative task team, he defies expectations. His book is a personal story about chasing down ghosts from his past, and seeking to find forgiveness in his heart.

It is ironic that a spokesperson for a law agency was once a troubled teenager who desperately wanted to find his father and kill him. In his heart, he felt only rage and pain. Polela was a very angry teenager who searched for answers from his relatives, and received only vague half-truths. He was sure of one thing. His mother was dead and his father was to blame. He fashioned illegal home-made guns and sold them to political gangsters — always intending to keep one of the guns to kill his father.

The local community cast him out, and he was seen as a troublemaker. His journey from tortured teen to national law-agency spin doctor is a long, fascinating tale. Writing the book was not easy. “At times, I would sit and write it all down, and then something would hit me in the gut. It would be a painful memory and I would have to stop for a while.

“I tried to take my sister along on this journey with me, facing the hurt of our childhood. But she was still shocked when she saw it all on the page. She read the book and she cried. She said it had jogged her memory, and so many things came back to her of what we went through.

“Some people say I was brave to tell the story because what I say will hurt people. But I have only told the truth, and I did not do it for them but for me. I got to a point in my life where I had to write it and get it out. I found that it was very cathartic.”

Polela and his sister Zinhle were raised by their mother’s relatives, and they were tormented and teased because of their family circumstances. Their father killed their mother, but no one would tell them what had actually happened. As small children they kept waiting for their mother to fetch them, but she never came. Their father wanted nothing to do with them, or so it seemed.

They felt like they were burdens on their already poor relatives.

Living in rural Pevensey, they were essentially orphans. They knew hunger, pain and emotional abuse, and Polela did not even trust those who appeared to help. A white family, the McNamaras, in the Underberg district offered to adopt his sister. For her, this was a way out of a miserable existence, but Polela did not trust them. Only years later did he come to see them as his adoptive parents.

One of the strong messages in the book is that he found hope and inspiration in his darkest days with the help of teachers who inspired him to focus on his studies and to aim high. Even though he had no way of knowing how he would afford any tertiary education, they encouraged him every step of the way.

A kindly nun encouraged him to return to school when she noticed that he was not attending, a teacher talked to him about the importance of forgiveness and a priest convinced the church to pay his deposit for tertiary studies. At technikon, a lecturer convinced him not to drop out when things seemed bleak.

At the book launch in Durban, two of those important mentors, Father Madela and Mike Maxwell, were in the audience and as Polela read out passages in the book, these people who really helped him on his journey to success were moved by his words. “They were listening with tears rolling down their faces. I felt humbled by their reaction.”

All of these people were instrumental in building up his shattered self-esteem, and putting him on the road to becoming a journalist. Polela attained success in his career, first as a regional radio journalist, and later as a television reporter for He also got a chance to study further in the United Kingdom.

But he recalls: “I always felt hollow inside, as if there was something missing. I knew that I had to meet my father and face the person he is. I knew that it would be tough. To meet the person who killed your mother: it is an extremely difficult thing. But when that person is your own father — that is a real challenge.

“Of course, I had hoped that he would say sorry for what happened, or at least explain. But nothing like that has happened. I had to make a really difficult choice. To live with disappointment is one thing, but to live with hate in your heart, that can destroy you. I chose to forgive and get on with my life.”

Polela and his sister met their father, and they even managed to get him to show them where their mother was killed. Polela performed a cultural ritual to bring his mother’s spirit back home to rest. After she was murdered, her body was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Polela has tried to find her grave, but it has been impossible. He says this book has been a journey to the past, and it was about exorcising demons from his memory. “I can say this book needed to be written. Now I feel I can really embrace my life.”

He believes there will be other books in the future, as the writing bug has bitten.

• My Father, My Monster is published by Jacana and is available at most leading book stores.

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