‘Ways of Dying’ – an undying South African narrative

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Gracious Madondo

Zakes Mda, whose real name is Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda, is a South African novelist, poet and playwright, who has won major South African and British literary awards for his novels and plays.

Mda’s name might appear unfamiliar to many Zimbabweans, who are not lovers of literature, but his resume is so rich it is recognisable beyond the borders of his native South Africa.

Of late, Mda has been in “the eye of a storm” when he appeared to cast serious aspersions on the suitability and eligibility of the MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa as a presidential contender.

Mda was particularly peeved by Chamisa’s jibe at a rally in Britain where he challenged his opponent Emmerson Mnangagwa that he would voluntarily give away his 18-year-old sister to him if he managed to garner 5% of the votes in the impending Presidential election.

The South African writer was not charitable in his response to Chamisa’s jibe.

After retweeting Zim Media Review’s comments quoting Chamisa saying; “If Mnangagwa wins 5% in a free election, I will give him my sister. I have a sister who just turned 18 and looking for a husband. I’m betting on this because I know it won’t happen,” Mda curtly responded; “What crap is this? A shameless man who can think of a bet like this (even as a joke) does not deserve to be a leader of anything.”

There was an immediate flurry of responses from Twitter users most of whom concurred with Mda that the MDC-T leader was really offside, as his comments appeared to commodify and perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women.

Even when some apparent MDC-T leader supporters tried to justify the jibe as part of the Shona cultural lexicon, Mda fired back saying; “My brother, it was clear to me that everything was uttered in jest, as part of some cultural banter between competing politicians. We do have such jokes too that are premised on the inferiority of women and the superiority of the patriarchy that OWNS those women.”

I must confess that it was partly because of the storm created by Mda’s tweet that I became so interested in fishing out some of his celebrated novels and plays. I settled on “Ways of Dying” (1995), a novel that from a casual reader would appear like a book not meant for adults.

However, a more attentive reading reveals a serious text dealing with serious issues of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to freedom in a comical and whimsical manner that prods the reader to dig more into the text as it revolves around Toloki – the professional mourner.

Fashioned with a touch of wit and humour, “Ways of Dying” traces the life of the ordinary South Africans five years after the end of apartheid, capturing the various survival tactics the common man had to employ in the face of crisis.

“Ways of Dying” is set in an unnamed South African town during the “transitional period” in the 1990s soon after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which coincided with the relaxation of the ban of political parties.

The period was characterised by politically motivated violence that rose from the divide-and-conquer strategy employed by the white racist government, as it clung to power. 

“Ways of Dying” follows the funerals attended by Toloki in his job as a professional mourner as he wanders from township to township attending burials. 

“It is in this regard that Mda’s story becomes deeply rooted in the violence in South Africa which is the main cause of death in the story.

The text reveals how political unrest was the major cause of death in the community soon after the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Political party supporters attacking the shanty settlement marked one of the most horrific mass murders in the progression of the story.

Late at night a political group named Battalion 77 supported by immigrants from a nearby hostel invaded the settlement and started randomly killing and burning of the shacks with people inside leaving 52 people dead.

“The soldiers of Battalion 77 opened fire. They entered some shacks and raped the women. They cut the men down after forcing them to watch their wives and daughters being raped. In one shack, a woman who was nine months pregnant was stabbed with a spear. 

As she lay there dying, she went into labour. Only the head of the baby had appeared, when it was hacked off with a panga by yet another warrior,” the narrator says.

The novel also attacks the follies of the upper class that is in control of the superstructure as well as the government exposing their corrupt and unjust rule of law.

After the Battalion 77 attack, the shanty residents attempted to push for justice but to no avail, as the government was siding with the battalions and not the community.

“The residents and the political movement were pointing a finger at the hostel migrants and Battalion 77. The government was denying Battalion 77 was involved, and the tribal chief was denying that his followers had anything to do with it,” Toloki narrates.

This, however, is a microcosm of the situation in South Africa where the white upper class manipulated the law in order to oppress the black majority

The novel is engrossed with death, as evidenced by the death of Noria’s son and many unnamed men and women killed in the violence

“They said more bodies with similar wounds had been found nearby. They were all packed into the police van and dumped in the mortuary,” as the night watchman who witnessed the ordeal                  narrates.

Mda plays with characterisation in exposing the violence and how life during the transitional period had embraced death as a way of life through the character Toloki who earns a living through the death of others.

Toloki is a self-employed mourner whose ends meet are acquired from being a mourner and the fact that he survives on this trade reflects how the community was gloomy with death.

The unmanned community of shanties has become the new homes to those who left the village in search of better life in the city. 

Mda clearly points to hardships that made rural life impossible when rural after a drought.

 “Memories have faded from the deep yellow-ochre of the landscape, with black beetles rolling down to feed on the hapless insects, to a dull canvas of distant and misty grey. Now, however, it is all coming back Pale head boys . . . looking after the cattle whose ribs you could count, on barren hills with patches of sparse grass and                           shrubs.”

Even though Mda openly criticises his people in his call for justice and patriotism, “Ways of Dying” falls short in that it does not offer solutions or give answers to the critical issues raised in the      text.

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