Book review | Scattered - The odyssey of Khulu Mbatha

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Mbatha slots neatly into the latter category of those writers who fall under the ‘narrative of ascent’ category. Photo: Supplied
Mbatha slots neatly into the latter category of those writers who fall under the ‘narrative of ascent’ category. Photo: Supplied


It is former president Barack Obama who opined in his national bestseller autobiography aptly named The Bridge that there was a distinct difference between European literary writers and the African-American type.

To paraphrase him, he pointed out that in European literature, a writer writes his or her novels, plays and poems initially. It’s only towards the end of their life term and writing careers that they pen a memoir - an autobiography.

On the other hand, it is rather common among African-American writers to begin their writing lives by penning an autobiography, which he assumed was a way of asserting themselves.

He pointed to a further writing peculiarity by African-American writers, which the literary scholar Robert Stepto called ‘a narrative of ascent’.

READ: Books | The second category of political insurance

In this instance, the writer begins in a state of incarceration or severe deprivation. Malcolm X, the cantankerous civil rights activist in the 1960s’ US is one such lively example.

This is what I could further also liken to the rags to riches type of story.

Escaped former slave Frederick Douglas, who later became a writer, abolitionist and social reformer, is also such a good example. As he succinctly put it:

You have seen how a man was made a slave, you shall see how a slave is made a man.

The similarities with the above-named anecdote on the life of Dr Khulu Mbatha in his freshly published book Scattered are haunting. While it has lots of elements that veer to it being the ‘narrative of ascent’ theme, it is actually not his first but second published book that he has written.

His first was one tagged Unmasked – why the ANC failed to govern, published in 2017.

Still, Mbatha slots neatly into the latter category of those writers who fall under the ‘narrative of ascent’ category.

From a young man harassed out of Soweto by the evil South African apartheid state security police, who pursued and ultimately forced him into exile to a returning hero and cadre of the revolutionary governing party, armed with a doctorate in philosophy from an East German University, acquired during the cold war era nogal.

He is your quintessential struggle icon.

Though the book Scattered is mainly about his enforced exile due to the 1976 Soweto student uprising, in which he was an active participant, his brushes with the apartheid government officials started much earlier in his life.

This was when his family - father and mother and six siblings - were evicted from Western Native Township, renamed Westbury in 1962.

This was at a much fragile youthful age of eight. With childish innocence, he admits he actually enjoyed the government truck ride to Moroka, Soweto, and often wished it could happen again.

The removal was in terms of the implementation of the Verwoerdian policy under The Group Areas Act of 1950, which segregated residential areas according to race.

READ: Book Review | We Can Fix Ourselves | We simply need to love and respect ourselves

But it got worse. While in Western Native Township, the natives had co-existed as one when they were carted off to Soweto.

This was done according to their tribal affiliation.

Fast forward to the year 1976 when the author was in his teens.

He and hundreds of other young black South Africans took to the streets in protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at black schools.

The protest, as history shows us, ended up in a bloodbath.

After the orgy of violence suffered by hundreds of Sowetans - both children and adults - many young people fled the country.

They found succour abroad - both in Africa and across the seas.

Khulu Mbatha explained that even though 1976 was the catalytic year, his political awakening had begun much earlier.

As a high school pupil at Sekano Ntoane, which happens to be President Cyril Ramaphosa’s alma mater, he had come across teachers like Tom Manthata, who had infused the philosophy of Black Consciousness into him and other pupils.

The philosophy, popularised by Steve Biko and others like Onkgopotse Tiro, played a pivotal role to all those pupils who were fortunate to come across it, as it completely changed their personal and political outlook.

READ: Nkosinathi Biko | National identity: flagging social cohesion

It mostly uprooted the inferiority complex instilled by the apartheid regime, a system that indoctrinated black people into believing they were inferior to white people.

Black Consciousness simply reversed all those negative perceptions of self by asserting that ‘black is beautiful’ and that ‘black man, you are on your own’.

It was believed by commentators of the time that Black Consciousness was the spark that lit the Soweto uprising into a raging inferno on June 16 1976, led by the inimitable Tsietsi Mashinini.

When the Soweto uprising happened, Mbatha had already finished high school and was now a student at the University of Zululand.

Like many of his age mates, he was so moved by what had happened in his home town that he decided to act on it.

In October 1976, he skipped the border and landed in Swaziland (now eSwatini).

The irony of the matter was that while growing up, his father used to relate to them about how he used to jump the border fence now and then in earlier years into Swaziland and back to visit relatives displaced after border posts were introduced overnight by the past colonial authorities.

Out there for the first time in their political lives, Mbatha and his comrades came across the ideological differences between the ANC and PAC in exile.

It was startling, mainly because, like many of his friends and comrades, he was a product of the Black Consciousness movement, which was not an organisation, but a philosophy, a movement.

For a while, the children of the Black Consciousness movement chose to remain neutral in the face of a clear contestation between the ANC and the PAC.

However, that did not last long as they soon found themselves on a flight – his first – to Tanzania where the ANC was to become the main host and benefactor. 

They were ultimately given the option to choose.

Like most, he contended that exile was no walk in the park. He deemed himself one of the luckier few who ended up being sent to Europe, while others remained in camps in Africa, receiving military training.

As it happened, Mbatha found himself in the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.

It was there that he resumed his tertiary education, which was disrupted by the events of 1976. From Leipzig University, he emerged with a master’s degree and later a doctorate in philosophy.

It was also there that he met his first wife, Anna, a Greek communist. They had a daughter, Dimitra, but they could not survive the test of living in exile and foreign culture in Greece. The daughter remains his cherished princess though.

After the divorce, he met another Greek woman, Texla Metaxa, through a project he was working on in Athens.

They had a son, Nelson, who was born on December 27 1990, the same year the world-famous statesman, Madiba, was released from years of incarceration. The parents never married, though.

Mbatha came back to South Africa in 1991 and had an illustrious public sector career, including being under the Mandela presidency and being the right-hand man of the first foreign affairs minister, Alfred Nzo.

He then became the CEO of The Road Traffic Management Corporation and then a special advisor on international relations to the incumbent president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

It was a befitting gesture to the story that his new book had its first launch on July 16, right where it all started in Soweto at Eyethu Cinema Complex.

It’s a book worth reading, packed as it is with pictures from a bygone era, pictures that complement the narrative so elegantly told.

Maisela is management consultant and published author.

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