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‘The Zulu part of me was taken’ – Nomavenda Mathiane tells her grandmother’s story, beginning as a child during the Anglo-Zulu War

nomavenda mathiane


Eyes in the Night

In Eyes in the Night, respected journalist and author Nomavenda Mathiane tells the story of her grandmother, who was a child during the Anglo-Zulu War.

Mathiane is at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, where she shared a panel with Daniel Browde, author of The Relatively Public Life Of Jules Browde, and Marianne Thamm, whose memoir Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me was recently released.

Mathiane explained how she “stumbled” into her grandmother’s story.

“My mother died when I was about 66 years old,” she said, “and after her funeral we were seated at the table with my brothers and sisters, and casually I turned to my older sister, and I said ‘Mum never used to tell us about her mother, why is it so?’ And frankly I didn’t think she was going to answer me, but lo and behold she said, ‘It’s because her mother’s story was too sad.’”

Mathiane says she remembers her grandmother as an imposing and capable presence, but her early years were far more precarious.

“I knew gogo as this big woman who could make cheese, could make butter, could make soap. All the things we could not afford, because my parents were officers in the Salvation Army, so there wasn’t much money around.

“But my sister told me that gogo was 10 during the Anglo-Zulu War. She was hiding in the caves with her mother and her little sister. Her father, who was the chief inDuna of King Cetshwayo, was killed during the war, and when they went back their land had been taken, their homes had been destroyed, she doesn’t have a father, her mother doesn’t have a husband. Then the Zulu culture kicks in. The brother must marry her mother. She says, no ways. They make her uncomfortable, and they flee the homestead.”

There began an extraordinary story, and Mathiane says she felt shocked that she had never heard it before.

“My sister was telling me this, and I couldn’t take it. My mother had died without telling us these stories. When you look at how her mother suffered, you realise that the story was too painful. But more than that, we were growing up in the 70s and the Struggle was gaining momentum. Between themselves my father and my mother decided that they mustn’t tell us the story, because because we would get so angry that we would walk straight into the liberation movements. But we ended up getting involved anyway; you couldn’t live in the township and not get involved.”

Mathiane says at times while writing the book she felt angry that a part of her culture and history had been denied her.

“The story of my grandmother has been a journey for me. I grew up in the townships, and I knew very little about Zulu ways. I’d never been to Zululand except on the occasional visit. Even Zulu language, I knew Zulu as a spoken language, but in a language there are idioms and expressions that I wasn’t familiar with. Of course I had heard of the Battle of Isandlwana, but I never knew about the warriors, the generals, what actually happened.

“The sad part is that our parents didn’t talk to us about these things. So the book took me to various areas. Sometimes I would get so angry that I was denied, I was impoverished by being raised in the township. Because there’s a part of me that was cut off, that I didn’t know about. It was just a Christian upbringing, period. And yet there was the other side of me, the African in me, that was never discussed. None of the Zulu rituals were performed. We were Christian girls. The Zulu part of me was taken.”

Mathiane says she hopes her book helps to “inculcate a sense of questioning”.

“Young children, both black and white, must question their parents, their grandparents: where do we come from? You cannot know where you are going, if you don’t know where you come from. It’s time that we told our own narratives. This is the first book of the victims of the Ango-Zulu War. Nobody has ever written about what ordinary Zulu people went through. I would implore you to talk to your children.”

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