Facing the shadows: learning from Mtonga.

By Nadim Nyker

A brother’s love is unspoken; it is shown in his moments of frustration when you lose your rugby game and overwhelming aggression when someone picks on you. Your achievements are his and the pride is shared, always.

The heat peaked, together with the traffic. The car pulled over to the side of the road outside the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. Mandla Langa stepped out of the passenger seat, his dress simple and immaculate. Lusaka served as home for exiled ANC members such as himself. A home was hard to find and safety even harder, and whether they went hand-in-hand was questionable at the time.

 He walked into the office with urgency; the matters of a nation that seemed out of his reach depended on his actions today. Every moment counted and this urgency developed into a daily ritual; second-nature.

The problems of the nation seeped into the air around him and into his thick skin, its continuance grew on Mandla. A colleague entered his office, the atmosphere the same as any other day.

”Your brother has died”, he said. “He was shot”.

The air was not the same anymore; it was sharp, abrupt, and allowed him no area to breathe deeply. Mandla felt “unspeakably alone”.

It only took a few days for the truth to reach Lusaka. Mandla conversed with his dear friend, Thabo Mbeki. They sat together silently, frustrated and hurt. News had reached that it was one of the Umkhonto we Sizwe members who murdered Mandla’s brother, Ben, in Pietermaritzburg. Mandla felt a sense of ambivalence and confusion, he fought a mental war against the people around him, the ostensibly loyal members of MK; who could he really trust?

The room Thabo and Mandla sat in felt hollow and empty, the moonlight accompanied them very dimly tonight. Mandla was angry and helpless as he lost himself in thought; he had known his brother’s killer. They had been close friends during in his time in Angola; the man was in his platoon and also from his township. Mandla was highly fond of him.

The following night, the moon shone just the same.

Mandla Langa writes a grappling tale in The Texture of Shadows, a tale which is hard to differentiate from reality. A tale which is only a tale in the matter of formality, but rather cements the unspoken conflicts of the South African past. It is with austere words that these problems come to life through the adventures of character Nerissa Rodriguez, accompanied with a wild creativity, where it is more than evident that we face similar issues today.

The Texture of Shadows can be found at Exclusive Books and Van Schaiks countrywide.

The Texture of Shadows can be found at Exclusive Books and Van Schaiks countrywide.

A rich sense of reality compels itself into the novel from the get go, where Nerissa writes a letter to the President. It is hard not to relate this to Mandla’s life, especially to his brother’s death, when the character states:

I have grappled with the concept of The Individual- what forces one to become a star that is unable to extinguish its own fire, or bestows the kind of beauty that leaves destruction in its wake?

On 5 March, Mandla had his book launch at Rhodes University, “Normally, I will not give in to speaking a lot, like Miriam Makeba once said, ‘I’m so fucking shy’.” In his presence, one feels a warmth and soft-heartedness, and in his words, his weighted wisdom is carried through gracefully, enchanted by humour.

So, are we still in the shadows?

“It would be insurmountably dishonest to say that South Africa is now at its Prime,” Mandla says.This is a book launch like no other, where the author is more interesting than the unread book, and it is with this trust in his calibre that we are already sold into his literature.

Even if South Africa is not in its prime, Mandla Langa certainly is. After a dedicated life to the liberation of the nation, his struggle did not stop after 1994. Rather, his poignancy on the current state of our nation is one that is second to none, a nation that very few are more in touch with than him.

“The 21-year-old problematic, stubborn, and bratty child called The New South Africa, is a beneficiary of that goodness, that humaneness which comes from that troubled past,” Mandla goes on and says, “It is a past we must enter with caution”. He plays the past against the present:

To accept one’s past, one’s history, is not the same thing as drowning in it. An invented past can never be used, it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like plague in a season of drought.

It is with this tenacity that Mandla faces the political heads of our country, and opens up a transcendental piece of work that attempts do justice to the sufferings and wrongdoings of the past by his own people. This can only be truly conceived with the artistic freedom that a fiction novel entails. Siphokazi Magadla, discussant of the evening, put it perfectly:

As important as the biographical work of the anti-apartheid struggle is, the limits of that work is often that the attention given to the chronology and accuracy of depicting the historical events as it happened, often denies us the space to focus on how the people that experienced the events felt about it.

It is with defeating this chronology that the novel and the significance of its events become timeless. Where its events become an experience in the mind of the reader, creating an everlasting connection and, essentially, a deeper reality.

Mandla Langa autographs The Texture of Shadows.

Mandla Langa autographs The Texture of Shadows.

Mandla also addressed his views when asked about his take on writing in English:

I look at English as another tool in my disposal, which is kept as sharp and as clean as possible. English no longer belongs to the English. Sometimes I think in Zulu, sometimes I dream in kaleidoscopic colours that later can be translated into English.

This statement was immediately met with an applause by the audience, sharing an overjoyed connection with his beliefs as if what was on their minds all along was finally being said. A re-instatement that it was time to accept the appropriation of English.

In essence, however, The Texture of Shadows is a building block for a better South Africa. When everything is laid out on the table, there is only moving forward. Mandla is asked how his comrades are reacting towards the novel, the audience silently focused on him.  “Unfortunately, I intimidate them,” he says, the audience chuckles. After breaking the silence, he takes on the question more seriously:

“Dirty linen is dirty linen, the longer it is kept in, the worse it gets,” he says this with a smirk on his face, but his eyes are astute and explain the trials these words have come with. “Self-criticism was the credo of the liberation struggle.”

The procession takes a while to fade, with constant questions asked by passionate members of the audience.

It is now my turn to show my trust in Mandla. I get up and buy his book, nervously anticipating moving to the front of the line for him to sign it. The closer I get to him the calmer I become, watching his heartfelt interactions with the people around me.

He asks my name, shaking my hand. “It is an honour to meet you,” I say.

“It is my honour to meet you,” he replies, scratching off his name on the front page and signing it. Mtonga.

To Nadim, best wishes. Mtonga

To Nadim, best wishes. Mtonga.


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