Antony Altbeker speaks to Redi Tlhabi, a finalist in the Alan Paton Awards, about her memoir of growing up in Soweto
South Africa’s appalling levels of gender violence and the vulnerability of young girls are at the heart of your story. But it is also incredibly intimate and personal. Why did you write it?
Really, I had no idea that I was writing a book. When I began the project, all I intended was to revisit a chapter in my life that I really wanted to understand. I needed to find a way to come to terms with what had happened because I was haunted by it. In fact, the publishers had to persuade me that this was worth publishing. But the fact that the world is still so hostile to women, to young girls and to the poor persuaded me that I should share my story.
You make the streets of Orlando East seem terrifying, especially for girls.
They were scary. But the most troubling thing is that at the time I didn’t think of them as dangerous. The constant harassment, the threats of rape and jackrolling: all of it seemed so normal. I was uncomfortable a lot of the time, but on some level I didn’t think of what was going on as wrong. And that is the real tragedy. Girls were expected to just accept their fate, that they would be attacked and that they would get no sympathy. I could only see how kids were robbed of their childhoods after I left Orlando.
Why was Orlando like that?
I don’t know. If you were involved in a physical fight with another child or throwing stones, adults would intervene. But when young men would torment girls on the streets or grab them for jackrolling, then everyone was paralysed. Of course, the context matters. There was so much unemployment and political violence. So some people may have thought that there were bigger problems to deal with. I think if someone had started to scream their lungs out, lots of people would have joined in. But that never happened.
Mabegzo was one of the most notorious jackrollers, yet he treated you like an angel. Why?
That’s what I was trying to make sense of in writing the book. I’ve always assumed that part of it was that he sensed my brokenness over my father’s death. But it may also have something to do with how I treated him. Everyone was terrified of him and would run away from him. And I think he generally enjoyed that. But I was the one person who reacted differently, though that was mostly because I didn’t know who he was when I met him. I had heard of Mabegzo, but he didn’t look anything like I thought he would look. He was clean and handsome. He didn’t walk the way the bullies in the street walked. He wore proper shoes, not All Stars. So when I met him, I didn’t know who he was and I was unafraid. I was curious and maybe a little attracted: I looked him in the eye and talked normally, like to any other person.
There was a big age gap between you. Wasn’t that a little strange?
My attraction to older men started with Mabegzo and it persists to this day with my husband. I probably needed a father figure. After my father’s murder, I had become extremely serious about life. The giggles of other children, really, they just got on my nerves. For me, life was serious, almost suffocating. I tended to avoid people of my own age.
While writing the book, you discovered Mabegzo had murdered Siphiwe to stop him from raping you. How did that make you feel?
Even at the time I suspected Mabegzo had something to do with it. So my story is also about Siphiwe and what happened to him, and about how I feel responsible for his death. But it was years later that I confirmed that Mabegzo had killed Siphiwe. When I heard that, it made me physically sick and threw me into a deep depression. After all those years I suddenly understood that I had caused a lot of sh*t for him and his family. I was filled with self-loathing.
But you knew it was not your fault.
Yes, but I was revolted by Mabegzo. Any consideration he had shown me paled into insignificance compared to what he had done to Siphiwe. Whatever Siphiwe was saying and doing, Mabegzo would have known that I would think killing was vile. If he really cared for me, he should have treated that part of me with respect. So I felt betrayed. But I also felt guilty, not just because of the death, but because of the relief I felt when Siphiwe died. The fact that I felt this was good riddance. My feelings were very complex.
Mabegzo’s mother, Imelda, is at the heart of the book. Her message is that sometimes it’s better not to reconcile and forgive.
Beautiful Imelda. She is my hero. She has had more of an impact on me than Mabegzo. Her victory is the life she manages to lead even after all the pain she suffered.
At some point during our conversations, I had to stop trying to make her forgive her mother; to stop forcing her story to be one of reconciliation and happy endings. I was desperate that she give up her bitterness towards her mother. I thought this was tainting her. But actually the right way to say it is that she had the strength to allow herself never to forgive. So this is not a perfect ending with everyone kissing and making up. Her choice was to live or die and she chose to live.
Do you judge Imelda’s mother as harshly as Imelda does?
In their feedback, my readers have been really hard on Nkgono. But what she did was common – when girls got pregnant, their mothers would send them to the rural areas to be raised by their grandmothers. Even when the pregnancy was not the result of a rape. And Nkgono’s initial reaction was not to send Imelda away; she did so only after the community began to gossip about Imelda and her pregnancy. But Imelda hates it when I talk in a way that suggests that Nkgono did what she did to protect her. She won’t accept that.
Nkgono’s big mistake – the one that Imelda cannot forgive and maybe we should not forgive – is that, having sent Imelda away, she decided to raise Mabegzo herself and to separate Imelda and Mabegzo forever. Only Nkgono can really explain that, but she never did: she just did what she believed was God’s will.
- Endings and Beginnings is published by Jacana
- Endings and Beginnings: A Story of Healing by Redi Tlhabi
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