Fall 2023 Issue

Iphupho le Vezandlebe

1. Umhlabathi na manzi  

My dear friend Mzilikazi never closed his eyes when he died, that is what I  remember. The waters of the English Channel swallowed him whole. He shouted  “kuyo buya kulunge we mfana ka Msomi,” as he sank deeper and deeper into the raging waters. He didn’t panic, he stared intently at me as the final breaths of his life rushed out of his body as if to save themselves from his dying flesh but he never closed his eyes. I wish I could’ve closed mine because those bloodshot eyes, his heaving chest and the tears that showed themselves despite the waters of the  English seas resting permanently on his face, all of these ugly visions are the pictures that paint my dreams every night. Never mind the fact that I am a soldier,  never mind the fact that, despite the desperate protests from my family, I boarded a  ship and prepared to give my life for the honour of this blemished land. I listened as  Reverend Dyobha said, “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do; you are going to die, but that is what you came to do.” I went quiet, I prepared to die, and even though I didn’t, that is what I intended to do. I left my land and prepared to die on the battlefield like a  man. I watched my comrade Mzilikazi take his final breath and fall into the greedy mouth of the Victorian seas and I too prepared to die. I didn’t die that day but I beg to differ. My body and spirit exist together but each is divorced from the other even as they live. I came home to no hero’s welcome, no medal of honour and no real recourse except the measly bicycle I rode to the farm I suspect belonged to my grandfather, Nomdayi. He called me a traitor, not understanding that I was giving myself to die so that he could live a little more freely. I could see it then but now I see it no more: the dream of an enemy bullet punching through my heart. My blood gushing out of my body, nourishing foreign lands, seeping into the soil and water and swimming through vast seas to reach the land my family would be rewarded with as a reward for my brave sacrifice. Dust-to-dust, as my body would give to the dust, the dust would give to Nomdayi and all his descendants. Of course that wasn’t to be. I came back home, was labelled a traitor, and then relegated to a life of ploughing another man’s land and resting my body on the soil I left behind.  

This is my every day, not much has changed since my departure and return. The walls of this small Natal town scream big English terms that I still can’t hear. My 

dear friend Mzilikazi was my translator. If he were here he would tell me what the mighty words hanging from the town buildings meant. He would tell me which part of this town I could occupy during the small moments of adventure that allowed me to leave the farms for a few minutes on some few days. Midday in the quiet land arrives to find my toiling body tired from all the work but I can’t afford to rest. The tranquil silence of this scorching summer’s day cannot afford to be disturbed by my aching screams when they greet the violent strikes of my baas’s lashes, so I will rest when nighttime falls. The sun takes her leave and the moon stands in her place, this changing atmosphere is the sign I need to finally be free and rest on the mattress of the room provided to me by umlungu wami. I can’t do much but eat, bathe and rest for tomorrow is hurriedly on its way. I close my eyes and Mzilikazi’s eyes open in my dreams, the terror of nightly perils has struck. This time it sends me back to the farm I left behind when the sun took its rest, but this time the scorching sun is replaced by the violent waters I survived in the English seas. The soil gives way and the land I tend to with care is suddenly engulfed by spiteful waters. My body ceases to move and my eyes are made heavier by the images they hide in the confines of my brain. Water, noise, Mzilikazi. Chaos, silence, and the words of a dying  Reverend Dyobha. This is a recurring dream, or perhaps a nightmare I’m not exactly sure what I should call it. The picture is always the same. Water, death, and the unclosed eyes of a lifeless Mzilikazi, but today it's different. Today there is a child amongst the waters. A young man clad in a crisp white shirt, crying for his life, swallowing the polluted English waters with every new scream. I stretch my hand out to save him, usually, it would be extended to Mzilikazi but today I must save this unknown child. I feel him in my blood, he must be my kin and this is why I too begin to die when my hand is unable to reach. I swallow the waters, I keep my eyes open like Mzilikazi, waiting to see the sickle of death as it prepares to strike me down. I swallow, I fight the ghosts pulling me further into these English waters and as soon as I resign myself to my tragic fate, my eyes open in the here and now. Bath basin in the corner, dust-stained mattress before me, light streams of sun sneaking into the corners of my eyes. Tomorrow has arrived and the soil waits to receive my loyal hands’ work.  

2. Igolide ne ndlala 

The tomorrow I dreaded yesterday has arrived. I am forced out of the hard and uncomfortable bed that could best be described as is’kebe sika Mendi, an imbalanced boat floating in unknown seas and causing my back extreme discomfort. He changed his name to today and announced his unwanted presence through the ferocious knocks of umphathi as he shouted, “heiii vukani bafana, iskhathi sokuya emgodhini sesi shayile,” and with that, we know that our restless slumber must end abruptly. The day has broken and the man must rise to earn his keep. Except in these quarters, the rising of the sun is the unseen enigma many of us will never see. We are the children of the earth’s belly; we beat the rock and give its glimmering tears to the masters who own us. They polish it slightly and sell it to their brothers beyond foreign seas. The tears turn into paper and with it, they buy fancy suits, eat fine food and dance to the rhythm of our pulsating picks and spades. They give us just enough to send to our wives in the village and buy the brandy that helps put us to sleep in these crowded hostels. We left our homes as men, but here, we are boys, and when morning dawns, the boys must rise and adorn the overalls that will help them beat the rock hard enough to give the master more shiny, glistening tears. My name is Bhekizitha, son of Msomi, and grandson of Nomdayi. Born of men who spent their days anointing shame and dishonour into the pours of their skins, men I refuse to resemble. I carry their names but I denounce their history, after all, it isn’t a mistake that they call me Bhekizitha. He who stands vigilant and ready to fight his enemies and it is a position I assume with pride and honour. I am a man, and even though the people here call me a boy, I know that I am a  man. I know I am a man because I leave my boyish ways at the gate when I go back home. I know that I am a man because when I first came here, I wore a fine woollen blazer, a white linen shirt, a black tie and neatly ironed flannel trousers that covered my shiny crocket shoes. I dressed like a man and in the corridors of this hell, I was turned into the boy I am today, but when I leave here, I will do so as a man. My heart will be hardened enough to ensure that Veronica receives me as a man is to be received by his wife. I will wear the stern face I keep hidden under my bed. I will eat and be full, I will drink and be bamboozled and in the confines of the house I intend to buy with my wages, I will be the man that Veronica deserves.  

For now, though, I am a boy. I wear my blue overalls and makarapa. I pick up my tools and descend with the other men into the dark and damp belly of the earth. We dig and pound and scratch and sing and fight the walls of the earth that hold our masters up with all our might, we will beat this rock like men and toil till we can finally restore the lost jewels of the grandfathers who never stood up to their masters. Umphathi is a white man and on most days I want to bash my pick into his head and make him pay for all the times he hurls verbal mud in my face: calling me  kaffir and boy and all the other things that remind me that I am but a boy in these quarters. When I arrived, my suit was stripped off me. I was made, by Umphathi, to take off all my clothes and stand stark naked with hands stretched into the heavens while my dignity and manhood shrivelled in shame. In that moment, I was no longer Bhekizitha, I was Msomi and Nomdayi and all the other men who were stripped naked and prodded by the Boers just so they could live another day. My enemy reduced me to a number, a boy. He made me stand bare in the examining room of the Witwatersrand mine and told me to squat and stand and sit and cough and be counted as an uneducated cow waiting to be milked beneath the land that swallowed my father’s blood. I redeem myself every day though. I swing my pick harder; I load up more gold than the others. I wake up earlier and I leave late. I  speak the Boers language and this is what makes me superior, this is what makes me a bigger boy than all these other boys.  

When nighttime falls a part of me wishes I could stay and prove to Umphathi that I  deserve his respect. I wish I could continue to swing my pick and show him what my hands can do. Maybe then he will stop slapping me around, maybe then he will  stop calling my beloved Veronica “a kaffir bitch who married a useless boy.”  Perhaps if he sees the violence with which I swing he will realize that the only reason my pick hasn’t smashed his empty brain is that he is protected by the hues of his pink and pale skin. Today I heard him tell his friend, Van der Merwe, how he was mesmerized by his maid’s pussy last night. He spoke with excessive pride, even thumping his filthy hands against his massive chest. He laughed aloud and said the poor girl didn’t even make a sound; he said this is how he can do her while his wife sleeps. “Hulle is vuil maar hulle is lekker” he said, and I swear, in that moment, I  could have broken every bone in his body. How dare he disrespect another man’s property like that, eating from his garden with impunity. That night I was glad to finally get to my room and sleep. The other men sat around a fire in the compound,  sharing battle scars from the day’s underground events. I took my leave early and retreated to my bed, I stared at the picture I had of Veronica that bra Bob had made on my last visit home. She wore a floral dress and looked prettier than usual because she had come from church that Sunday. I needed to prove that I was a man at home so I asked bra Bob to make the image and have it framed before I left. I  remember the pats on the shoulder, the filthy lips being licked while smelly scrotums were rubbed as the image was passed around, boys being boys.  

I slipped into a deep slumber still clutching the image of Veronica in my hands when suddenly, the motionless figure in the portrait moved boisterously as she always did when she saw me walking up from the bus stop. She danced and ululated as she prepared to receive me into her arms. I waited to finally feel her warm embrace when I found myself suddenly motionless. I lay rigidly atop a  gravestone with the name Mzilikazi written on it. My mouth suddenly turned dry when I saw Umphathi, clad in a fine woollen blazer, a white linen shirt, a black tie and neatly ironed flannel trousers that covered shiny crocket shoes. He picked my wife up and started to twirl her around joyfully. She laughed at first and I dug into the depths of my soul to scream angrily at her. She turned to face me and her face changed. Yes! My Veronica was coming back to me, she realized that this man was 

the enemy I had my eye on and she started to resist. Umphathi dragged her by the arm into the hut, she cried and kept saying “hayi Bhekizitha, ngiya cela baba, ngi  cela ungi xolele.” Tears ran down her face, she looked at me with heartbreak and the white man in my clothes dragged her into the darkened hut. I watched him pull his trousers down and they dropped like the lift in the mine. I watched him push her against the wall with the violence of a black man’s hand thumping metal into the underground walls. I watched him plunge his manhood into her body without shame, he thrust in and out violently, she cried and cried till she could cry no more and I just lay there quietly taking it in, because what else could I do? I watched Umphathi beating my Veronica until tears glistened against the dark melanin of her skin, I felt the air turn sour as though every breath I took was sticking to my lungs like glue. The walls of the hut started to cave and as the roof fell upon Veronica and Umpathi, I seized the urge to fight and gave myself to this unknown grave. I closed my eyes in the surrealism and was awakened by my roommate Khumalo who stared at me with a look of concern. “Hee mfo, enden?” he asked while staring at the clammy picture that was still squeezed into my thumb. I opened my eyes and saw the darkened walls of the hostel. I saw my uniform and remembered that I was not the man lying on an unknown grave but I was the boy who would wake up tomorrow to beat the rock that would give me shiny tears of gold.  

3. Uloliwe ne ghoni  

Gold is the standard of the quintessential kasi kleva. A gold tooth, a gold watch,  a gold pinky ring against ighoni. Glimmering golden earrings to go with the gold-framed sunglasses beneath ispoti. This is the standard for the knife-wielding commanders who terrorize the timid commuters riding the trains from Jozi to  Soweto. We are long-suffering people. We spend our days toiling the luscious grounds and tending to the blooming flowers of opulent suburban homes. Here the grass is always greener because our hands are there to traverse the soil and massage its roots so that it is the fertile bed where beautiful things bloom. I am  the son of Bhekizitha, my name is Bhekumuzi. A name that is poignant for its sense of duty. I took Bhekizitha’s place in the hostel, I also took his place in the family. I am the one who must stay vigilant, the one who must keep vigil and ensure that the home is consistently watched over. I wake up every morning to ensure that I go to earn my keep. The sun finds me sitting between other desperate black bodies in the coach of a train to the city. It is hard to be us in these times. The kind of black men who work and serve the white men that our neighbours fight against. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one to shun the stone-thrower's quest for freedom, but freedom is hard to fight for when my stomach is empty. I was not lucky to be born with the gumption of a gold-wearing, knife-wielding general who makes his living from repossessing the wages of the weak. I am the weak, I am a man in the township and a boy in the suburbs.  

The temporary relief of clean fresh northern air is quickly replaced by the teargas-stained atmosphere of the smokey township skies. I am on my way back home, resting my head against the window of a musty train carriage carrying tired workers—the simple task of getting home safe in an unpredictable South Africa.  We sit somewhere between Die Vaderland and the republic and every day the prospect of bloodshed is not farfetched. Today is no different, the snazzy tsotsi stands in the corner of the carriage, waiting to wield his knife and slay another man to survive yet another day. Today he looks different. His spoti is replaced by a beret and he has no golden ornaments decorating his body. He is here to kill, not for money but to mark his presence in the register of freedom fighters.  The train comes to a stop at the Dube train station, our nervous general moves closer towards his prey. A young man who lives a few houses away from me.  The man has a finely combed afro, I have heard rumours about him. It is alleged that the finely combed afro was seen amongst a group of men who hacked another to death with pangas and izagila. It is said they beat him senselessly and that the yellow t-shirt, with a black and green logo on its chest, was turned red by the blood that rushed out of his open wounds. The dead man lived in the township. His name is unknown but it is said that he was one of those Mandela chanting, scruffy beard-wearing, fist-raising hooligans who call themselves comrade, the kind who was the perfect target for men with finely combed afros. As the train stops, people rush out of the carriage and as I try to rush out with them, the beret steps in front of me and stabs the afro rapidly in the chest. Blood gushes, a few desperate breaths and a violent thump to the ground render the afro lifeless while the beret runs out and away from the tortured screams of desperate and tired witnesses.  

This is the nature of our days, sometimes they are quiet but most times they are violent and disruptive, a man gets stabbed and dies and most of us can do nothing except jump over his body and stay silent to preserve our own fragile lives. I got home feeling shaken, but there was nothing I could do. The afro was rumoured to have come from Kwa-Nongoma just like me and in some way, it feels as though I have lost my brother. It feels as if I watched him drown in a sea of unending violence, while I stood there silently and in shock. I get home and can’t even muster up the courage to eat. I bathe to remove the stains of treacherous murder and retreat to my bed. While it takes longer than usual, I eventually close my eyes and find myself sitting in the train carriage once more. This time the carriage is empty, I  sit motionless while the afro lays dead in a pool of blood on the ground. His face is different, he looks like my young son Musawenkosi, who is back home with my wife Nozizwe. Musa’s eyes are open in this dream, he stares at me with his lifeless eyes and as I raise my head my hands are suddenly soaked in blood and a bloody knife seems stuck in my palms. The eerie carriage has an unnerving coldness about it, nooses hang where the handles that support commuters used to be. On each one, there are unknown names and suddenly all the commuters who had rushed out of the train earlier start filing in and each one claims a noose for their helpless necks. My body is too weak to fight, I try to wiggle out of this nightmare and the sun’s vicious rays eventually save me as they remind me of the start of yet another day. One wonders how this one will end. Will blood stains colour the carriage floors or will the sweat of weary workers wash away yesterday’s sins? 

4. Amandla nobu thakathaka 

Musawenkosi, the Lord’s mercy. That is the name I was given on the day I took my first breath. It is an irony only surpassed by the image of a colourless rainbow. The Lord’s mercy has all but shined on me in the first few years of my newfound adulthood. I am a graduate of Witwatersrand University, this is where my grandfather descended beneath the highveld fields and a school now stands.. I worked hard to get here, I travelled far and substituted a workers’ overall with a graduation gown. My father died after his people were attacked by a mob who lived across the road from the hostel where he stayed. My mother never spoke much of him except that he left home to find work and came back trapped within the confines of a pine wood coffin. His passing was painful but it offered a little respite: my being fatherless and illegitimate qualified me for the loans that made it possible to acquire the piece of paper that grants me the privilege of being an academic. Poor, landless but nonetheless an academic. As  I sit inside this train, I am reminded of the time my mother said never to ride the trains in Johannesburg. “Ubabakho waye ngafuni kabi ukuhamba nge stimela, angazi kwa kwenze njani, kodwa nawe ungalingi ugibel’ istimela.” What an inconsiderate instruction for a poor man like me. How else was I meant to commute in this expensive city if not by train? In any case, this is the new South Africa, I have no reason to fear trains if they are all I can afford. 

Today, the noise of school kids speaking module C English is more annoying than usual. I am coming from my fifth failed job interview and I honestly have no patience for people who seem happier than I am. I rest my head against the broken window of the train and fall into a deep sleep despite the noise. In my quiet slumber, my mind sets sail aboard an old ship with what looks like a priest speaking indistinctly beneath the noise of furious waters. The ship suddenly breaks into pieces and bodies are flung this way and that. I fall into the water and my body grows cold and stiff. In the distance, I hear the laughter of module C English bellowing beneath the waves in my mind. An old man stretches his hand out to me and beckons to me to hold his hand. I can’t move, I want to grab his wrinkled hand so badly but my arms betray me and I stare at him helplessly. The waters swallow me whole and suddenly, I find myself lying on a grave beneath nooses in what seems like a golden set of gallows. Who is to be hung here? The water swallows me again and the violent waves turn into blood. It streams from the walls of the train carriage where I find myself sweating profusely. I still couldn’t move until the forceful slap rushes across my cheeks and wakes me back to reality. I am on the train, it is empty and two young men wearing gold chains around their necks, golden earrings on each  earlobe and DMD spotis, grab me by the collar and shout “he voetsek slap tiger, leth’ iphone ne nkyuku!” I stare at them helplessly as they dig into my pockets and help themselves to the last of my belongings.  

They sit me back down and run quickly out of the train. I examine the damage and realise that the only thing they didn’t steal from me is the piece of paper that dimmed the colour from my rainbow. A letter of demand from Wits, reminding me that until I pay what I owe them, I can never really call myself a graduate.  Such is the fate of dark-skinned brothers in the republic that was once a  Vaderland. This is why Mama said to never take the train home. This is why my white shirt and shiny shoes will never matter because I am the child of drowning men and blood-stained sands. I came here hoping to attain a hero’s welcome. I came here thinking I would toil towards Cum Laude and return home clad in a noble black gown, speaking the right kind of English to return the land that was stolen from my father and grandfather and great grandfather but that was not to be because mine is the life made up of restless sleep reserved for the children of servants, men who are boys by day and men by night. No woman to carry my bloodline, no money to buy me happiness, nothing but the scent of empty freedom and the indignity of being the man who gives and gets nothing back. Such is the work of a God who spoke through a man to tell other  men to “be quiet and calm because they had only been brought here to die.” 

Tshepiso Mabula

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