“I never expected to witness the slow suicide of a country,” writes Joel Hirst in The Suicide of Venezuela.
“Let me tell you, there’s nothing epic about it. We who have the privilege of travel, often look down in satisfaction at the ruins of ancient Greece … Time has polished over the disaster. Now all that is left, are great old buildings that tell a story … not of how they quietly fell away.”
The story of how post-apartheid SA embarked on a path towards killing its own democracy is spelt out in two recently published books. Khwezi, The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, by Redi Tlhabi, traces the origins of our suicidal path.
Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang leaves you pondering if the country of Nelson Mandela can draw back from the brink.
These are important books that clarify the national story dominating the media. Tlhabi takes us back to the ANC in exile. She narrates the remarkable story of Fezekile Kuzwayo, the young woman who accused Jacob Zuma of raping her in 2005.
Like Msimang, Kuzwayo is a child of exile. Her father, Judson Kuzwayo, was a freedom fighter and a close comrade of Zuma. Both men were arrested and given 10-year sentences on Robben Island in 1963. After leaving the island, Judson married Kuzwayo’s mother, Beauty. Kuzwayo was born in 1977. Judson soon decided to move his family to Swaziland so he could become a full-time revolutionary.
Kuzwayo experienced a chaotic upbringing. The picture that emerges is of an unhappy family life with a revolutionary father who was also a serial philanderer. He was killed in a car accident in Zimbabwe in 1985. When her mother travelled to faraway places to act and dance, she left the young Kuzwayo in the care of ANC “aunties” and “uncles”. She was raped at the age of five, 12 and 13 by ANC “uncles”. The proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child” must have had a completely different meaning to Kuzwayo.
Tlhabi says Kuzwayo’s story is SA’s unfinished business.
“Conversations about how our democracy has failed to guarantee economic freedom and equality are taking place … but the sexual violence that women and children endured in the fight against apartheid, has not enjoyed the same attention.”
When Kuzwayo said Zuma raped her at his Forest Town house, she forced a conversation about sexual violence in exile. But SA was not ready. The ANC in exile refused to deal with sexual violence in its ranks. And our country didn’t lift a finger as this young woman was lynched inside and outside court for having the guts to tell the ANC “uncle” that he was not entitled to her body.
Zuma was shortly thereafter rewarded with the highest office in the land. He was helped by an army of comrades, analysts and journalists lobbying for his cause. As president, he went on to violate the very foundation of our nation, leading us far down the path of national suicide.
Msimang was born a few years earlier than Kuzwayo in Zambia, to a revolutionary father and a Swazi mother. Baba “works alongside other comrades to establish a military base. He travels to Guinea-Bissau and stands alongside Amílcar Cabral’s forces staring down the Portuguese on the frontlines. By the time he reaches Lusaka, the man is no longer so young and has seen friends die,” she writes.
But the “pretty young Swazi woman” who becomes his wife and has three children, expresses some ambivalence about her husband’s vocation. Msimang says her mother “is smart enough to mistrust wolves in revolutionary clothing but wise enough only to air her scepticism in private”.
Msimang’s parents ensure their girls know enough about the revolution as they move from one country to the next, getting a fine education and foreign accents. They also work to protect their children from the “wolves in revolutionary clothing”. Mostly, they succeed.
Msimang manages to carve out a life independent of the movement that has always defined her and her family. She thrives professionally as a leader in international NGOs and as a writer. But she is completely unprepared for the real SA, where racism is rampant, the arrogance of political leadership knows no bounds, ignorance is deep, poverty is severe and violent crime strikes real fear in citizens. She experiences all of these personally. Msimang agonises with the country not of her birth, as well as over her own privilege. She does it with humour and pain.
Kuzwayo died unhappy because the revolution spat her out. While the revolution may be leading us towards national suicide, Msimang and Tlhabi remind us that this path is not an option.
Anger is what will pull us back from the brink.
lMorudu is managing director of Cover2Cover Books and director at Clarity Editorial.