K Sello Duiker challenged our taboos and spoke truth to our trauma, leaving a lasting effect on the generation to follow. But what future did he imagine for the black child and what possibility of freedom? Manosa Nthunya considers these.
Kabelo Sello Duiker wrote three novels in his 30 years on earth: Thirteen Cents (2000), The Quiet Violence of Dream (2001), and The Hidden Star (2006).
Much of the praise that his work has received is because of its boldness in tackling difficult and unspoken issues; homosexuality, drugs abuse and sex work were among his many themes.
He was a writer who wrote against the literary grain of his time and that is why he has earned a unique place in South African fiction.
Indeed, Siphiwo Mahala, Eusebius McKaiser, Barbara Boswell, Thando Mgqolozana and Nakhane are among the many who have credited Duiker as inspiring them to do the kind of work they do.
It has been 13 years since Duiker died. What has South Africa become since his passing and what questions do his works pose for us in the present?
They are impossible questions to answer, of course, because people have been affected differently by his writing and this affective dimension will probably continue as new readers encounter his work.
What kind of space or home, though, did he want South Africa to be? This is a significant question to contemplate since Duiker’s work explores the lives of the marginalised.
As we celebrate Pride month, it might be worthwhile to reflect on this writer and the contribution he made to how we think about the post-apartheid space.
Angry young men
When asked why he wrote The Quiet Violence of Dreams, Duiker responded that it was to expose the violence that has been a feature of South African life since colonialism and apartheid and that continues to manifest in post-apartheid South Africa.
We are shown the debilitating effects of this violence on his 23-year-old protagonist, Tshepo, who lives in Cape Town and feels “angry with the world, with life and its fastidious order of things” as the country’s past, contrary to his expectations, still exacts a strong influence in the present.
What emerges as one reads is the incredible trauma that Tshepo has endured in his young life. The trauma is a direct result of the deeply racist, sexist and classist world in which he finds himself.
These themes of subjugation, dispossession and trauma are also explored in Duiker’s first novel, Thirteen Cents.
Its protagonist, Azure, is a homeless boy: “I live alone. The streets of Sea Point are my home. But I’m almost a man, I’m nearly 13 years old. That means I know where to find food that hasn’t seen too many ants and flies in Camps Bay or Clifton.”
Azure finds himself on the streets after both his parents are brutally murdered.
Because of this vulnerable position, he is repeatedly exploited by gangsters and by the old white men to whom he sells his body.
The novel shows how the post-apartheid space continues to be exploitative towards its most vulnerable assets, its children.
Duiker’s concerns about the African child are also explored in The Hidden Star, where 11-year-old Nolitye lives in a township with a single mother who struggles to provide for her.
The quiet violence of sexuality
A dominant theme in Duiker’s oeuvre is sexuality and this is dealt with in great detail in The Quiet Violence of Dreams. Tshepo lives in a conservative society that does not allow him to express his sexual desires.
It’s only when he starts work as a rent boy at a brothel named Steamy Windows that he starts exploring his sexuality.
He sleeps with a lot of men –particularly white men – and after these encounters stops feeling shame about his sexual interests.
“No one should tell me what I can and can’t do with it [his body], when it is I who faces loneliness, despair, confusion.”
It is at this point that Tshepo understands he has to take responsibly for his life and not define himself according to hegemonic heteronormative expectations.
Tshepo’s story was published in 2001 and in 2018 South Africa continues to be a deeply conservative space.
This is most evident in the fact that every year there are black lesbians and transgender people who are killed because of how they identify.
This tells us, as Duiker understood too well, that transgressing social norms can often come with tragic consequences.
But the question to be asked and answered is whose norms are upheld and which dominant historical discourse has enabled this?
We have no home
It’s a question I am interrogating for my PhD project – with the concept of home in contemporary South African literature.
I look at the work of Duiker, Zoë Wicomb (October), Nkosinathi Sithole (Hunger Eats a Man) and Boswell (Grace).
These novelists are all concerned with the ways in which the past continues to have a persistent influence on our present. Perhaps it could not be otherwise.
But what is most interesting, or distressing, are the ways in which these novelists depict the contemporary South African home or lack thereof.
If the notion of home denotes ideas such as belonging, comfort and safety, these novelists reveal the precariousness of such an undertaking.
This is because of how the past continually intrudes into the private lives of their characters, making any attempt at creating a home a demanding endeavour.
At the end of The Quiet Violence of Dreams, Tshepo moves to Hillbrow and works with orphaned children to try to respond to the pervasive trauma that still haunts South Africa. Most telling of his desires to create a different world is the easel he keeps in his room.
Through it, he hopes to dream and craft the kind of world in which he would like to live. He says: “It is my most prized possession, next to my books, and it stands in the middle of the room … I still haven’t drawn anything or attempted a painting. I am waiting. I am absorbing, remembering, deciphering.”
This is because Tshepo’s hope can lie only in dreaming up a world different to his past and present.
The future in flames
Similarly, Azure also dreams of a different world. He has a fantasy of destroying Cape Town as it has been responsible for much of the violence and trauma he has experienced.
It should not be shocking, then, that it was also in Cape Town, years after Duiker’s death, where the #Fallist movement would ignite.
All of this tells us that the past is still too much with us and to deny this is to deny history.
It is perhaps also important that by the end of The Quiet Violence of Dreams nothing has been painted on Tshepo’s easel.
We, as readers, may be left with the responsibility of reimagining and thinking against the violence that is depicted in the novel.
What kind of home, the easel seems to ask us, do we want South Africa to be?
Should we, in fact, even continue to think of South Africa within the confines of a nation-state or should we rather imagine it as a much more expansive space that is able to accommodate those who inhabit it and those still to come?
The possibilities and limits of creating a home will continue to trouble South Africa and much of the world for quite some time.
This is because homes, as Duiker’s works show, are never a given but are always in the process of making and unmaking.
Post-apartheid South Africa continues to create itself within the modus operandi of apartheid, in which some are included and others excluded in what we call the “post”.
We should rest assured that no matter how comfortable the homes we create are, they will always be disrupted by those who are still attempting to create their own.
And their homes might, as history shows, be in direct opposition to the homes we treasure.