BOOK EXTRACT | A Father is Born by Tumiso Mashaba

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Tumiso Mashaba tackles themes such as black masculinity, fatherhood and generational trauma in this moving new memoir.
Tumiso Mashaba tackles themes such as black masculinity, fatherhood and generational trauma in this moving new memoir.

When I got the call from my mother informing me of my father’s sudden death, I was riding in a rackety taxi after work en route to a mechanic’s place to pick up my wife’s car.

The taxi I was riding in was so noisy that I could hardly make out what she was saying. ‘Papa o thlokafetsi – Your father has passed on,’ she kept on saying, her voice rising with frustration each time.

When I finally understood what she was saying I was stunned. I did not feel anything but surprise. I did not cry, nor was I sad. I was just stunned.

‘OK, I’m on my way,’ I said.

It was early evening when my wife and I arrived at my father’s house. My father’s younger sister M’shala and her daughter Mmapule were already busy clearing out the place to make room for the people who would come to offer their condolences. This hurt me.

His place was my last piece of home, especially after the divorce.

I wanted things to remain as they had been, at least for a little longer. I wanted to hang on to whatever memory was left of him, be it in the framed family photographs that he had hung across the walls, the vinyl records covered in dust, the wind chimes, the table ornaments, the clocks, big and small, that he had kept in almost every room of the house or the outdated encyclopaedias that still occupied the bookshelf in the lounge.

I felt as if his body was not even cold but his memory was already being wiped out.

I threw a tantrum, and they stopped clearing out the place. Then suddenly I felt a flood of emotion rising up, the kind of emotion that brings you up against your own mortality, the kind that lies dormant for years and then comes gushing up for air, for all to see. Nothing had prepared me for this moment.

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I couldn’t help but feel cheated by his death. I felt that he had been taken away too soon. I felt that we had been making good progress with our relationship over the last couple of years and now it was all for nothing.

He was gone, and I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. Before I knew it, I broke down. I cried bitterly, in front of everyone. I cried and I cried. My mother’s younger sister Mmangwane Manana tried to comfort me by reminding me that at least he got to see me pay magadi for my wife – following the traditional Pedi arrangement, where the groom’s family gives money to the bride’s family – and that he also got the chance to see me become a father, so he was at peace. But I was still inconsolable.

Some months later I asked myself why I was so gutted by his passing, why I was so emotional about someone who I felt had tormented me, why I was so shattered by the loss of someone who had physically and psychologically abused me, someone whose open-hand and backhand smacks across the face and on my body as a child made me wet myself.

Why I cried my eyes out so bitterly for this ‘strange man’ whose image was ‘cold and empty’ and whose dominance over my life had enslaved my freedom of self. And then it hit me that in spite of our imperfect relationship I actually did love this man.

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It is a difficult thing to admit but I truly did love him. My father was always present in my life. I cannot ever imagine a time when he was not around. He was always there. This is the man who built me up but also a man who broke me down, a man who left me scarred but also a man who made me strong. I decided to forgive him for his strict and heavy-handed child-rearing style.

He was a product of his time, I reasoned. A sense of nostalgia and love came over me. But one day, while looking in the proverbial mirror of self-reflection, I saw a distance between me and my son Imani. A distance frighteningly similar to the one that had lain between my father and me.

I saw the gap between us widening with each passing day. I saw him reaching out to me, and me struggling to relate to him. I saw myself panel-beating him into this person that I thought he should be, instead of just embracing the person that he was.

I saw myself hopelessly struggling to discern between discipline and punishment, falling back instinctively on what my father had taught me. I saw how I was affecting Imani’s confidence with my cold silent treatments when he had been naughty. At its worst, I saw myself lashing out in anger at him and I saw him pinching his member in fear, afraid that he might wet himself.

I was embarrassed and I was saddened. They say a mirror never lies. If that’s the truth, then my reflection was of a broken man.

What good is a present father if he doesn’t know how to love, I asked myself. Do I even know what love is? I wanted to break this mirror, to shatter it into a million pieces so I could see no more of this reflection, of this truth staring back at me.

This is an edited extract from A Father is Born by Tumiso Mashaba, JonathanBall Publishers, R275 at

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