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Read an excerpt from Lesego Rampolokeng's Bird-Monk Seding, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Lesego Rampolokeng is a poet, word performer, and the author of 12 books, including two plays and three novels. He has collaborated with visual artists, playwrights, film-makers, theatre and opera producers, and musicians. His no-holds-barred style, radical political aesthetic and instantly recognisable voice have brought him a unique place in South African literature.

The gathered, sweating, angry-to-trembling Afrikaners in the dusty street want it to have been an attempt at rape. An assault on their grasping at white nationhood. The hands are on the guns. The trucks roar, eager to grab whoever it was. Old woman speaking, the one who lives in the house opposite, with her Parkinson’s-diseased geriatric husband who can only hobble a quarter step at a time from the door to the gate, and her divorced, middle-aged, bulimic daughter. She speaks fast, her squeaky vice trying to rise above the deep-throat growls of the trucks and their old-republic-clad occupants. She prattles fast about how i am a good person, i live in that little house behind the trees, i help out… and it is to not have them turn their murder-intent and fire attention on me… Yes, they gathered in, wanting it to have been an attempt at despoiling this white woman.

And the victim… she struts, the attention bringing a little colour, in vain, to her face. She is walking off her soles, bouncing, glad. She looks like crumpled khaki, like brown paper wrapper out in the elements too long. Like she has been through storms, wind, dust then drain-water drenched and cast out in the driving sun. Pink blotched some kind of symmetry across the face. Deep lined, the visage. Trenches cutting in and across. Thin to the bone, you can see the bones sticking out on both shoulders, desperately holding her shirt up. She bathes in the harsh light of her victimhood. For a change because always when she walks past, the boers look at her. Surreptitiously, the grimaces forming, and steal their glances away, never staring.

Ashamed.

She is no boeremeisie to hold up in pride of the Van Riebeeck and oom Paul Kruger old tradition. She hustles all – black, white – for money in the street. The pale skin peeling off her face. She collects and sells scrap metal across the freeway and…you need not be told but you can see the drug-hunger. The craze behind the skinless eyes.

This day her two children, 6 and 8, ran screaming down the dirt-street and cries filled the air. I ran out. And heard through the trees bordering our properties my AWB neighbour furiously saying, loud-voiced – i later learned it was into her telephone – ‘kom gou…kom gou’ and blabbering incoherently, other things. By the time i got to the gate there were three trucks and a couple of cars gathered in the street, guns on show. A police car arrives, and the police are bored, one yawning. It is Monday morning.

They don’t believe this rape story. The AWB neighbour, predatory, like the smell of blood was in the air and the wounded close by, was wafting and floating around, holding centre-court.

Book details

Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Sue Nyathi's The Golddiggers

It’s 2008 and the height of Zimbabwe’s economic demise. A group of passengers is huddled in a Toyota Quantum about to embark on a treacherous expedition to the City of Gold.

Amongst them is Gugulethu, who is hoping to be reconciled with her mother; Dumisani, an ambitious young man who believes he will strike it rich, Chamunorwa and Chenai, twins running from their troubled past; and Portia and Nkosi, a mother and son desperate to be reunited with a husband and father they see once a year.

They have paid a high price for the dangerous passage to what they believe is a better life; an escape from the vicious vagaries of their present life in Bulawayo.

In their minds, the streets of Johannesburg are paved with gold but they will have to dig deep to get close to any gold, dirtying themselves in the process.

Told with brave honesty and bold description, the stories of the individual immigrants are simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming.
 
 
SUE NYATHI was born and raised in Bulawayo and resides in Johannesburg. An investment analyst by day and a storyteller to her son at night, she writes to escape the reality of financial markets and economic shop talk. She made her screenwriting debut on the award-winning e.tv series Matatiele. Her first novel, The Polygamist, was published in 2012 and readers can look forward to its film adaptation in 2019.

Chapter Nineteen:

Every morning Portia paraded down Pritchard Street to the offices where she worked on the corner of Market Street and Von Brandis Street. Even though her shoes squashed her corns and made her feet swell she bit down the pain and soldiered on. She practiced walking in her heels diligently in her apartment. Many times before she had fallen flat on her face leaving her son reeling with laughter. However, Portia was determined to master the art of walking in high heels like her work colleagues at Hulisani, Hirsch, Hlomani and Associates.

They occupied the seventh floor which they shared with some accountants and consulting engineers. Portia sat in the reception greeting clients with a sunny smile and answering telephones with practiced efficacy. She had not always been in the foreground. Instead she had lingered in the background; cleaning toilets, making tea and sweeping the office floors. Beyond these chores she was often sent to run the personal errands of her bosses.

Advocate Hirsch loved a particular brand of Colombian coffee, which she bought at a café at the corner of De Korte and Juta Streets. Advocate Hulisani often sent her to pick up his dry cleaning from a laundromat on Eloff Street. When lunch time came, she would go and buy Advocate Hlomani his chesa nyama lunch on Commissioner Street. He thrived on his staple of pap and braaied meat and never deviated from the set menu. Sometimes when the messenger was out running errands and there was an urgent delivery to be made they sent Portia.

It was for this reason that Portia had made a habit of memorising street names. Kotze. Loveday. Kerk. Plein. She had a map of the CBD etched in her head. It was the only way she could navigate the city of Johannesburg without getting lost. Even if she got lost, which she had on many occasions, if she could find a familiar street name she would easily find her bearings once again. With the passage of time Johannesburg had become less intimidating and more accommodating.

She had no idea how the city actually came to be christened ‘Johannesburg’, which to her seemed like an odd name. The origins of the name ‘Johannesburg’ were contentious but most accounts seemed to allude to the fact that the city was named after Johannes Joubert and Johannes Rissik, men who had both been responsible for land surveying and mapping of the town. The combination of their first names let to the coining of ‘Johannes-burg’. The suffix being an Afrikaans word meaning ‘town’. But whatever you wanted to call her. Egoli. Joni. Jozi. Joburg. Johannesburg was undeniably one of Africa’s economic powerhouses and it is for this reason that she was able to lure people from all over the continent. All of them were gold-diggers seeking fame or fortune. Or both.

Portia had found her gold nestled amongst the overgrown grass in Joubert Park. For the first few weeks in the city she and Nkosi had slept on the vacant seats in the busy transit terminal. They slept in good company with other passengers who were transiting from one city to another. Every morning they showered in the public ablutions. When they were clean they would spend the day roaming the city with Portia knocking on doors for a job. Any job. Doors were slammed in her face. Exhausted and dejected they’d spend the rest of the afternoon at Joubert Park. Nkosi had even made friends with children who had finished school. Portia would watch him from the park bench, trying not to feel sorry for herself. Her optimism was wearing thin and so was their money. She spent her every penny sparingly but two months of sleeping on the streets was enough to get her worried. She contemplated catching a taxi back to Plumtree with the little money they had left.

Her husband had been right; Johannesburg was no place for a woman. But then Nkosi had kicked a soccer ball under the park bench where Portia was seated. When she bent over to retrieve it she stumbled across a handbag which looked like it had been thrown hurriedly under the bench. Curiosity got the better of her. The bag had already been ransacked, it seemed. However, the real treasure was the green ID booklet. She took possession of it and threw the bag aside. She quickly shoved the booklet into her bra. The next day Portia assumed her new identity as Phakama Hlophe. After a visit to Harrison Street she was able to get a password-sized picture which she superimposed on Phakama’s picture. Armed with her new ID, Portia went about trying to enrol Nkosi into a crèche. Little Angels Daycare Centre was happy to take him. She paid the enrolment fee and left him there as she went about her job-hunt. By the end of the week she had landed herself a position as a cleaner with Hulisani, Hirsch, Hlomani and Associates.

Portia and her son continued to sleep at Park Station. They ate the leftovers that she cleaned off the plates from the staff at work. She would walk Nkosi to crèche every morning before racing off to work. She was the first person in the office but never the last to leave. The advocates were always in the office. Sometimes when she arrived in the morning she would find Advocate Hulisani still in his office looking ruffled and exhausted with bloodshot eyes. Of all the advocates he was the most vocal and often succumbed to fits of rage. It was not unusual to see interns or legal assistants running out of his office followed by law journals and anything else he could throw at them. Often after such incidents Advocate Hirsch would go into his office to calm him down.

Clifford, the messenger, had told Portia countless times that Advocate Hulisani was good at his job, which is why his name appeared first. His reasoning however could not be substantiated and Portia never questioned it. Clifford maintained that Advocate Hulisani insisted that the practice would die if he ever left. Portia was fearful of him and tiptoed around him lest he unleash his rage on her.

When month-end came Portia was excited to receive her first salary. That night she and Nkosi did not eat leftovers but instead from one of the fast-food restaurants at Park Station. When they went to sleep on one of the benches Portia assured hr son they would be doing it for the last time. The following day they went hunting for a place to live. They managed to find a one-bedroomed apartment on Edith Cavell Street. It was a threadbare apartment with the cupboards almost coming off the hinges. The landlord said that was the reason he only wanted R1 000 for it. They slept on the parquet floor on their sponge mattresses which they had purchased for R600. Portia assured her son that things would be better.

“Next month I will buy you a new bed.”

Nkosi threw his tiny arms around her and hugged her.

“I know you will, Mama.”

At night Portia dreamt of all the things she would do once she got her second pay cheque. The new stove. The new sofa. The new television set. She fell asleep dreaming about the new bed.

One afternoon at work, as she was washing cups in the kitchen, she heard Advocate Hulisani shout that he needed some documents typed. Portia went to the front to hear what the commotion was about.

“Where is everyone?” he screamed. “Where are the interns?”

“At court,” replied Portia.

“Kopano? Where is she?”

“Still at lunch,” replied Portia.

Hulisani kicked the plant in the reception knocking it over. Portia quickly rushed to catch it but it was too late.

“I need this document typed now!” he screamed.

“I will call her,” replied Portia shrinking away and heading towards the switchboard. At times she did hold the fort for Kopano when she wanted to take an extended lunch. Kopano’s phone just rang. Portia hung up feeling disconcerted.

“I can’t get hold of her,” she replied. “But I can type.”

He eyed her circumspectly. “Are you sure?”

Portia had taken a typing course at school. She could type 80 words a minute so when her fingers hit the keyboard she was not in totally unfamiliar territory. The computer keyboard was much softer than the typewriter and her fingers slid across the keys. She typed whilst Advocate Hulisani paced the room as he dictated to her. He often came round to look over her shoulder to see if she was actually typing.

By the time Kopano came back Portia was editing the document, checking it for errors. Advocate Hulisani was so impressed with Portia that Advocate Hirsch and Advocate Hlomani soon got wind of it. They started saying her talent was being underutilised in the kitchen as a cleaner and that was how Portia got promoted to front office. She now sat with Kopano and helped with other office duties. Her promotion came with a pay increase which Portia welcomed.

The following month she and Nkosi moved from the grimy apartment to a beautiful high-rise apartment on Kerk Street in the heart of the Johannesburg CBD. It was clean and secure with controlled access. She could sleep at night without fear in her heart. She could now afford to shop at the department stores like Edgars, Foschini, Spitz and Truworths. She had brought her furniture from Russells and Morkels. For the first time she felt like she was living the life she deserved. A life she was determined to live to the fullest.

As much as possible Portia tried to emulate the ladies at work. She looked at the way they dressed and would improvise slightly and come up with her own look. She listened to how Kopano and the other ladies spoke and would imitate them. She would practice religiously at night, imitating the intonation and mannerisms. Gradually the old Portia began to disappear, making way for Phakama.

Portia always enjoyed the brisk walk to work through the CBD.

The town was always full of life and joie de vivre. The only time it took a sojourn was on Sundays. On those days she went to church at the Methodist Church on Delvers Street. She could easily have attended the central Methodist Church on the corner of Small and Pritchard but it was overflowing with Zimbabwean refugees who poured into Johannesburg like heavy rain. The church sheltered thousands who slept on its floors. Portia preferred to distance herself from her kith and kin. Phakama had no place being there. She felt no allegiance to or kindred spirit with them. She had a new life now. A new beginning.

Book details

"Barbetje had helped me with the first two births - the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire." Read an excerpt from Maxine Case's Barry Ronge Prize shortlisted novel, Softness of the Lime

Published in the Sunday Times

Barbetje cleared her throat again.

“Just say what you want to say,” I told her, addressing her in English this time. My English was better than hers by then.

Barbetje ignored me and instead bustled about the kitchen while I watched her with defiant expectation. She took out two cups and saucers: not the good stuff the family used, but not the worst. She placed the sugar and a jug of milk next to them and then poured the tea that had been warming on the stove all morning into the cups. She stirred them briskly, then passed me one.

“Hot, sweet tea always makes me feel better,” she explained. I could believe it; she drank several cups a day.

“Why don’t we sit?” she suggested, pulling out a chair at the table. We seldom sat there; the table had always been reserved for the family, even once the misses left. When we worked we stood, but Barbetje was having none of that.

“My legs are sore.”

I sat down, since I knew that no one would actually tell me that I could not. Anyway, it was usually Barbetje who watched me, to make sure that I didn’t overstep my bounds, and if she told me to sit then I would sit. We sipped our tea in silence. I decided that I would not goad her to talk. Maybe I was afraid of what she’d say.

“His father was exactly the same,” Barbetje said, once I had nearly finished my tea.

I stirred the bottom of my cup, thinking that the words alone must have tasted like sugar on her tongue, but she had surprised me with the tea. Such a sweet irony, I thought, that Barbetje should be to one to show me how I too had been deluded enough to believe that a man like that would keep his word: “I will marry you one day; I will give our children my name”. That’s what he used to say on the nights he wanted to talk.

I was glad that Barbetje hadn’t required me to confirm the news of his marriage; she probably already knew, perhaps she was privy to the details. I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I let her speak.

“Always promising one thing but doing another,” Barbetje said.

I wanted to ask her about the children she’d borne; I wanted to know what had happened to them, whether she’d thought they’d make a difference. I wanted to ask whether the old man had been able to sell his own flesh and blood. If his son was exactly like his father, I needed to know that.

Barbetje had helped me with the first two births – the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire. Not to be hurtful, but it had never been my plan. The hopeful among us saw children as negotiating instruments, a tool when we had so little with which to bargain. Others bore children to punish, a constant reminder of the sins of the fathers. All those fathers sinning so unconscionably, ardently, what was another child when compared to able hands, strong arms, feet? A baby for some was gold, and if not gold, then silver.

A baby is not a bird…

I remembered the words from Rakota’s tale; had always wondered what it meant. Those words were the first thing that came to mind when I saw the child, the first one, a girl. Birdlike bones and damp feathers of hair like a newly hatched chick.

A baby is not a bird…

Barbetje’s words disturbed my thoughts. “‘n Stywe lat het geen konsensie nie,” she said, placing a hand on my shoulder.

It was true what she said. A stiff rod had no conscience.

Book details

"Etienne sees only one face in the twilight crowd: Axel's." Read an excerpt from SJ Naudé's Barry Ronge Prize shortlisted novel, The Third Reel

Published in the Sunday Times

The opening band is called Namenlos. They play their first song: Stunde Null is waiting behind the stage. Mindless copycats, Etienne thinks. Echolalic music.

There is a single prop in the middle of the stage: a huge grey-green sound recorder. A mute piece of equipment from some government office or other, built – so it seems – to withstand a nuclear war.

Christof – “our technical boffin”, as Frederick refers to him – tracked it down somewhere in Berlin and had it delivered.

They look at each other. Then the three gazes settle on Etienne. He isn’t sure what he should read into them. A plea? A threat? How does it happen that the three of them always simultaneously make the same demands? And that – this he is only realising now – a collective chill can emanate from them as suddenly as collective warmth?

Namenlos ends their session, leaves the stage.

Smoke is pumped out of the machines, enfolds the instruments. The four of them jump light-footedly onto the stage, one by one. Screams rise from the crowd. While they saunter to their positions, the huge sound recorder’s two reels start turning, magnetic tape tautened between them. Loud, declamatory male voices can be heard: speeches by the East and West German politicians interrupting each other, talking over each other until it becomes sheer cacophony. No single voice can any longer be distinguished from the others. Etienne enters with an extended drum roll, foot on the drum hammer’s pedal. Sparks fly when he rubs steel files over each other. Frederick emerges from the smoke behind the synthesiser: an ominous note is growing, a siren straight from hell.

They play. Play. As none of the echo-bands can.

They recycle noise from the void. It merges with the sounds of cars on highways, tractor engines and power plants’ furnaces. New noise ensues, killing old noise. And then it starts all over again. They have to let go of everything – extinguish everything – that preceded the noise. There is no longer any history, nor any future. No bodies and no consciousness. Everything is sound.

The surging crowd grinds the tomato field to a pulp. Stunde Null play ‘God’s Idiots’. They play ‘The Language of Men and Machines’. There is a moment of silence; the eclipse begins.

The four of them look at each other, then start playing ‘Sonnenfinsternis’. The moon punches a hole right through the sun. Below them everybody is going into a frenzy. A black cloud shifts over the whole of Germany, making everyone deaf.

The evening air lays a lulling hand on Etienne’s forehead. But it isn’t evening; it is afternoon. They are playing to drain the sun of its warmth. At the height of the solar eclipse they keep an impossibly long and cold note. Vibration from the blood. Then they let go. They chase the moon off, bring back the light.

Etienne sees only one face in the twilight crowd: Axel’s. Around him, people are rising and falling, as if under a vast sheet. Axel isn’t wearing any sunglasses, is looking at Etienne with naked eyes. Etienne plays his drums for the tree resin dripping from Axel’s back, for the childlike scribblings on his skin. For how small he looks underneath the German sky.

Around Axel, dozens of people have stripped their clothes off. Ready to follow the music’s commands, to march straight into the flames.

It takes a while before Etienne realises he is the only one still hitting the drums. The other three are watching him in silence. Somewhere they have lost each other. They know he is now playing for Axel only.

The crowd has been wounded, Etienne thinks as he touches his painful erection. They are covered in blood and slimy scraps of flesh. Like a scene of mass surgery – an open-air operation room, patients who start wandering when the anaesthetic fails. But what is actually clinging to them, is tomato pulp.

His three friends’ eyes have become cold. They no longer know him. Etienne looks out over the heads, finds Axel’s face.

The lyrics of the last two lines of ‘Sonnenfinsternis’ linger on “Everybody knows this is Nowhere/Follow the fire and it will guide you home.”

The Third Reel

Book details

Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Kirsten Miller's The Hum of the Sun

On the side of the road, two boys are walking, holding hands. The smaller, barefoot one does not speak. The words are there in Zuko’s head but they are stuck somewhere between his thoughts and his mouth.

He sees patterns, though, all around him – in the clouds, the stones, the arch of the sun. He hums the sun’s sound, his fingers painting pathways in the air. Some say he is cursed, others believe he is magical.

To Ash, Zuko is his little brother, all he has left in the world. He has not heard of autism. The older boy is a teenager who has seen more than most his age. Ash stood beside their mother when she buried their sister. Then, when his mother also succumbed to illness, he dug her grave alone. Now he is leading his brother to the city to find their father.

As the two traverse the land, they are forced to eat what they find and sleep under the stars. And Ash keeps wondering: Will their father know them? Will he take them in?
 

Kirsten Miller is the author of All is Fish, shortlisted for the EU Literary Award, Sister Moon, and The Hum of the Sun, winner of the Wilbur and Nino Smith Foundation’s Prize for Best Unpublished Manuscript. Her non-fiction book, Children on the Bridge, on working in the field of autism was longlisted for the Alan Paton Award. She lives in Durban.

Read an excerpt from Kirsten’s exceptional novel here:

They followed the road that drew away from the town. Ash’s boots drummed a determined crunch on the gravel, repetitive, rhythmic steps that Zuko counted as he walked. The sound kept their pace, measuring the morning. Zuko focused on the footsteps. The distance between each step remained exact, emitting no sound as negative space, predictable and consistent. Footsteps, like stars and circles and a pattern of sticks and stones, had the potential to be infinite if something didn’t occur to stop them. There was the predictability of potential infinity. So reliable. Nothing other than what it was.

Ash carried the green bag on his back. The clouds in the sky held no such pattern nor predictability. Clouds tumbled like bedclothes with neither order nor purpose for themselves when the night was over. Ash’s free hand kept a firm grip on Zuko’s. Zuko understood it prevented his impulse to run back. It kept their motion forward, despite what his body might want. The craving was to watch the sharp pine needles fall from his hands for hours behind the house, or for some other activity that could satisfy his need for the whole space of potential infinity.

Zuko had no knowledge of what was in front of them. A pigeon chortled a hollow, hooting sound from deep within the base of its throat. Gravel crunched. Trees held the boys on a single track, guarding the road on either side. His bare feet were practised at navigating the endless small stones with ease. He counted them beneath his calloused soles. He matched his steps with Ash’s stride, but the rhythm fell out too soon because his legs were shorter, his feet more feeling, and he lost the balance between their movements. A quiet discomfort grew in his chest.

As the morning warmed, the sound of birds penetrated the air, stabbing-pitched tweets, unpredictable and random. He wrenched his hand from his brother’s and covered his ears to protect his brain. He heard Ash’s voice and his fast-talking, but the words were indecipherable. He had no idea what they meant.

A cold jab sliced through his foot. There was no pain. Instead a thick sensation of bile passed through his gut. He took his palms from his ears and shook his head. When it failed to work the first time, he kept up the motion that put the nausea in the background, and gave him something to focus on. Ash kept up the rhythmic crunch beside him, looking ahead. Where are we going? Zuko wanted to ask, but he had no words to say it with. Why have we left my mother in the ground? When will we go back?

Slowly the clouds melted from the sky, and left an endless hole of blue. The cold on the underside of his foot grew. He couldn’t look down. The sick feeling pulled him forward and he was afraid he would fall. Suddenly Ash grabbed hold of his hands.

“Zuko, your foot!” Ash yanked him onto the side of the road where soft tufts of grass grew together to create a resting place. He sat and took Zuko’s heel in his lap. The knapsack rustled. Ash extracted the water bottle from the bag and poured water over the wound to clean it. Then he put the bottle to his lips and drank in two guilty swallows. “Here,” he said, and handed the bottle over. “Have some. We’ll fill it up at the bend, before the road leaves the river.”

Zuko drank. The water seemed only to fuel the sick feeling inside him, to swell the sack of nausea that weighted his stomach and head. He stopped drinking. Ash took the bottle back and screwed on the lid. He leaned over Zuko’s foot. “There’s glass in here,” he said. “I’m going to pull it out with my nails. It’ll be sore. Hold on.”

Zuko’s brain isolated the word “sore”, and rolled it around in his mind. He tried to figure out what that was. He only knew his foot was cold and his head was thick and he couldn’t look at the cut or the blood that continued to seep from it, though Ash had tried to wash it away with the water. Something plucked his skin, like a string or a harp or a bow or a chicken’s feather. The cold intensified, and then faded. “We’ll find you a pair of boots,” Ash said. “You can’t go the whole way without proper shoes. And you’ll have to wear something on your feet when we get there.”

There remained a picture so clear it might have been a photograph in Zuko’s memory. It had been four years. Now he thought of the man smiling and the man not smiling. He thought of the man with his arm around his mother, and how the top of his head had looked when he’d held Zuko up high above him and bounced him in the air with giant hands. A searing ripped through Zuko as though it was sound. Ash’s elbow angled into him as he tore a shred of cloth from the bottom of his shirt, and bound Zuko’s foot with it. Zuko laughed into the air. If he squinted his eyes and held his head at a certain angle, his toes seemed to have separated from the rest of his body.

***

They reached the main road two hours later. On the way, a vehicle stopped. A man put his head out the window of the cab of a truck supporting a canopy filled with chickens. Ash recognised him as the owner of the makeshift spaza shop where his mother had bought their milk and washing powder and green hand-hardening soap. “You boys not at school?” the man asked. He wore a woollen knitted hat over the dome of his head.

“My mother died,” Ash replied.

“I heard from the priest,” the man said. “We’re expecting a funeral.”

“I heard,” Ash said. “We won’t be there.”

“You don’t go to school?”

Ash squinted at the road ahead. “Zuko doesn’t go to school. He won’t sit in a chair too long.”

“And you?”

Ash shifted on his feet. “I can’t go now. There’s things I have to do.”

“You should have shown your mother some respect and buried her properly.”

“There’s a lot of things we don’t do properly, my family.”

“I heard there was a rich guy who supports you. From the city.”

“I don’t know about that.”

The man pointed at Zuko. “Is he the one that won’t speak?”

“Can’t speak. He would if he could.”

“I heard about him. He okay in the head?”

“He’s standing right here. Don’t talk about him like that.”

“From what I’ve heard, he won’t understand me anyways.”

“That’s not true.”

The man put both his hands on the wheel, and looked bored.

“You going to the city?” Ash asked. He assessed the chickens in the back. They’d both fit in there, if they had to.

“Why? You want a ride?”

“Our father’s there.”

“You’ve got a father?”

“Everyone’s got a father.”

“Not everyone knows who that is.”

“I know. She told me. My mother told me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “From what I heard, your mother quite liked the men.”

“What are you saying?”

“Nothing. Get in the back with the chickens. I’ll give you a lift home.”

The sky rolled out to another place. The road would take them there. There was nothing to go back to. Ash shook his head. Zuko squinted into the sun and played with the light through his long eyelashes.

“No,” Ash said. “We’re on our way already.”

“Someone will report you, taking a kid like that on the road.” The man flicked his left indicator, already resigned that they had made their decision.

“You think he looks like he doesn’t want to be out here?”

The man shrugged, and pushed his beanie back from his dark forehead. “You got shoes for him?”

“In the bag,” Ash lied. “He doesn’t like wearing them.”

“If anyone asks me, I’ll deny I ever saw the two of you. I don’t want any trouble.”

Ash shrugged. “Whatever. It’s a free country.”

“Now it is.” The vehicle accelerated onto the tar and the wheels spun slightly, like the sound of a small animal.

Book details

"These riots, when it came down to it, were all about one thing. Land." Read an excerpt from Mphuthumi Ntabeni's debut novel, The Broken River Tent

The Broken River Tent is a novel that marries imagination with history.

It is about the life and times of Maqoma, the Xhosa chief who was at the forefront of fighting British colonialism in the Eastern Cape during the nineteenth century. The story is told through the eyes of a young South African, Phila, who suffers from what he calls triple ‘N’ condition – neurasthenia, narcolepsy and cultural ne plus ultra. T

his makes him feel far removed from events happening around him but gives him access to the analeptic memory of his people. After being under immense mental pressure, he crosses the mental divide between the living and the dead and is visited by Maqoma. They engage in different conversations about cultural history, literature, religion, the past and contemporary South African life.

Read an excerpt:

The Gravediggers

The entrance to the Hangberg Multipurpose Sport Centre was unusually busy for a non-social grant payment day. Media cameras were everywhere. Their little village town had caught the attention of the nation, Phila thought, if not exactly the world.

“Ngawethu!”

The main speaker for the evening had entered the hall. While other speakers assembled on the podium Phila took a seat near the back. Although he regarded himself as part of this community, he felt somewhat out of place, as if he was faking his solidarity to leech onto the people’s pain.

It was soon evident that the community meeting had been hijacked by politicians and Phila had difficulty holding his concentration. A guy from something to do with Social Justice was saying something about the government marginalising and criminalising the poor. “The lies of the city and provincial officials who call us drug lords when we demand our constitutional rights shall be exposed!” he cried, becoming very animated.

He spoke for quite a long time, mixing English in Afrikaans. People clapped violently. Next a Rastafarian took the microphone, first hailing Haile Selassie and Jah and then dissing the “Babylonian governments and their system of oppression. Dem tell us to reconcile, meantime dem serve us snake for fish, and rocks for bread. Mandela se kak!” The crowd went wild. “Ons KhoiKhoi mense! We demand our land back …” There was something impressively radically anarchist about the Rasta.

As the meeting finally looked as if it was drawing to an end, after almost two hours, and the cameramen were packing up their equipment, Phila went outside to get some air and have a cigarette. He found himself reflecting on the reason for this meeting, the events of the past week which had culminated in what the media, with their flair for dramatic nostalgia, had called Black Tuesday. The police had come, around 2am, in what one of the speakers had termed ‘apartheid style’, to evict people who had illegally invaded land on the slopes of Hangberg. Phila wasn’t totally clear about the details but the violence had started when residents resisted the police. On his walk back home earlier, after having fish and chips at Fish-On-The-Rocks as the sun went down, his route took him close to where the events of Black Tuesday had unfolded. The place had looked like an abandoned movie set for the apartheid era. On his way he had stooped to pick up a used teargas canister shell, obviously from a police shotgun, and he’d slipped it into his pocket without thinking.

That speaker was right. The events of the previous week had introduced a reminiscent order of apartheid days in the streets of their village town. Phila himself had been there, doing what he could to help. When a TV newsman at the riot scene had asked him to give his opinion, on camera, he had wanted to sound revolutionary, to send a clear message that the impoverished should not be pushed around and criminalised for being poor. Instead, dogged by his middle-class timidity, he’d come up with a cautious statement about “the irony of the fact that when developers for the rich want to push mountain firebreaks it is done at the stroke of a pen, but now that the poor have run out of living space they are treated like brigands who are illegally occupying land.”

It irritated him that he was always so cautious, reasonable and unspontaneous. His mind was neither quick nor nimble; he lacked the gift of spontaneity, which was why he found it hard to improvise on the spot. At best he had keen powers of observation and some originality when given a moment to apply his mind, but his kind always got swallowed by the revolution.

He thought about how, a decade and a half ago, during the so-called rainbow era of Mandela, the country was full of hope and assertive belief in the renewal of its humanity. Now he saw the return of cynicism, suspicion, despair, and police terror, the suppression of freedom, with all the accompanying horrors. Community meetings with fired-up rhetoric. Loud-hailers on the streets, calling citizens to action – like the one on the red bakkie that had gone past his window and alerted him to this meeting tonight, urging residents to “do a postmodern on the BRUTALITY of the police last Tuesday, when they invaded our community APARTHEID style. Injury one! Injury all! The BOEREBOND is on the rise again!”

Outside he was joined by a podgy fellow who had been at the podium table and whom Phila was sure he’d seen somewhere else. Initially he couldn’t place him but then he realised: he was the security guard at the local supermarket, who usually greeted him when he went there for supplies, who sometimes helped him with the groceries, very politely, to the car. Phila always made sure to tip.

“Nice of you to join us, sir,” the fellow said with his usual politeness. Phila was glad to recognise a face in that sea of strangers. The fellow swapped his cigarette to his left hand before extending his right, and they ended up shaking hands for a little too long and more vigorously than was necessary.

“I never figured you as the revolutionary type,” Phila said, regretting the statement the moment it went out of his mouth. It turned out the fellow was a community leader of some kind. Inside, when people had kept referring to community leaders and shouting socialist slogans, they had been referring to him. An ironic twist surely – socialists guarding the doors of capitalism? Talk about capitalism producing its own gravediggers, thought Phila.

He was still turning fiery phrases over in his mind, of the type he could have used in front of the TV camera when he’d had the chance. The government is wiping our turned-up noses with the sword; our liberators have turned into our oppressors. A luta continua! Deep down he knew there was no way he could have said all of that. Even in his head it all sounded fake. He was no revolutionary; neither did he want to be one. He believed more in the evolution of the mind, the gradual progress etcetera.

The usual crap of weak characters who never want to be involved in the real struggles under the guise of being civilised. The irony was that he spent almost all his life trying to civilise his mind; now he was doing everything possible to escape the fate of Prufrock, the ineffectual, wellbred man during times of rising tensions and turbulences.

Irony struck him again as he said goodnight to the community leader and set off home. These riots, when it came down to it, were all about one thing. Land. The irony, in the twenty-first century, was that the players were still the same as before. You had the KhoiKhoi people on the slopes of Hangberg, and the Xhosas – mostly from the Eastern Cape, where their forefathers had fought the British colonial powers – on the slopes of Karbonkelberg where Imizamo Yethu informal settlement was situated. And then in the affluent valley down below were mostly the white people, progeny of the settlers from the 1800s.

Phila walked home under a maturing sheet of darkness. Moonlight cracked the sky with pale fissures of light.

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