After examining the most spectacular instance of the fine line between creativity and cribbing in SA literature, Stephen Gray writes about Zakes Mda.
The recent exposures in the world of South African literature of fakes and phoneys who use others’ work without permission, cashing in on it as if it were their own originally, has shifted towards none other than that cultural icon, Zakes Mda.
He is probably the country’s leading and most successful black producer of fiction, with a reputation one would have thought placed him way above reproach.
Born in the Transkei in 1948, as his following of readers must know, he lived for many years in exile. He first became known as a playwright, with his stint as a pioneer theatre communicator at the National University of Lesotho resulting in a doctorate. This in turn became his quite excellent handbook on how to con audiences into social development, When People Play People, in 1993.
The same period gave rise to his award-winning novel, She Plays with the Darkness, a zestful and likeable work about scam artists. Currently in its fourth printing in South Africa, it has gone into an American edition, translations and so forth, bringing its Johannesburg-based author all tokens of esteem and just rewards. So Mda, who bills himself without a qualm as “the internationally acclaimed playwright, novelist, painter and academic”, moved on and up.
Then in 2000 he produced a novel called The Heart of Redness, now in its eighth impression from the local Oxford University Press, and well distributed elsewhere. Seemingly this was in reply to the challenge made by John Edgar Wideman, the African-American novelist, who had remarked that if South Africans could not produce fiction on their own writer’s gift of a theme—what used to be called “the national suicide of the Xhosas”—they were a lot of moegoes.
Mda duly obliged, with his bestselling blockbuster, described as a “seamless weave of fascinating history, powerful myth and faithful depiction of people and place”.
The Heart of Redness is indeed based on that gruesome and tragic episode, which surely every school goer has heard of, even if it is hardly comprehensible: how in the 1850s an orphan prophetess called Nongqawuse persuaded the Gcaleka clan under King Sarhili to slaughter all its herds of lungsick cattle. Her belief was that on the forthcoming New Year’s Day all the ancestors would arise with multiple red suns, and also with healthy fresh livestock. These would reinforce a combined resistance to the British, now encroaching right on their Kei border.
Although Mda does not get around to mentioning the statistics, in his setting at the Qolora in fact some 50 000 believers died of starvation, while another 150 000 were desperately displaced into colonial service.
Well and good so far: one of the grand masters of South African letters was bringing to life a drivingly powerful version of an unforgettable part of our heritage. For extra value, he embedded it in a sort of no-hope opera of contemporary incident, playing out at the same locale a century and a half later.
Overlook the split infinitives, incorrect tense changes and the incessant authorial directions that often make Mda’s work look like a first draft. Here was a manifest authority hectoring us on Xhosa usages as well, as author Peter Becker used to do, just to assert how far above the unlettered in tribal jargon he was. Never mind that whenever Governor Grey opened his mouth, this epic seemed to descend to the level of cartoon. The Heart of Redness was also into serious structural problems, having to backtrack into the pluperfect far too often. But Mda’s exuberant bluster pulled him through with the usual appealing brio.
Except that an American historian, Andrew Offenburger of New Haven, Connecticut, has found out that the basis of The Heart of Redness is not Mda’s own intellectual property. Beginning as a devotee of Mda’s with a visiting fellowship at the University of Cape Town, he thought to check out the master’s sources in the local archives. These Mda evidently never bothered to visit himself, despite the fact that the photo of his woeful hysteric comes from there. Nor did he ever take the trouble to visit, for example, the piles of Brownlee material in the Johannesburg Public Library, of which he is an honorary patron.
In fact, as Offenburger deduced, instead of playing some fashionable game of so-called intertextuality and cross-referencing and trendy borrowings, as quite a few sophisticated postcolonialist critics had assumed, Mda simply lifted his whole underpinning, holus-bolus, from one single source.
In the recently published issue of the Indiana University Press quarterly journal, Research in African Literatures, Offenburger goes to print with his devastating reportback. He shows, with pages of parallel text examples, how lazy-minded Mda must have merely taken gobbets of Professor Jeff Peires’s magisterial Alan Paton Award winner, The Dead Will Arise of 1989, grafting them into a work the public has all along supposed his own. None of these excerpts are indicated as quotations, and most of them are pretty well verbatim. Even the name of his principal (fictional) character is nicked from Peires. Such pilfering could not have been accidental, either, for there are 88 examples. Offenburger goes as far as to plot a graph to indicate how the purloining even proceeds in Peires’s original order.
Given the right to reply against such an indictment in the same issue of the journal, and writing as a professor at Ohio University, Mda appears wholly unable to salvage his professional standing. While freely admitting he cadged from Peires as his sole source, he does point out, however, that he had referred to his influence, with thanks, in his dedication.
But that is hardly the same as making due acknowledgements, point for point, as nowadays is customary even in historical novels. Sensitive sub-editors usually guard against such instances of copyright abuse, which could lead to legal claims against them and the relationship between publisher and author is based on a trust that texts are original, after all. Usually this is a contractual stipulation.
And yet, with all the illicit cargo, ironically The Heart of Redness had gone on to win the Sunday Times Award in turn, as well as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa, and so on. Had none of the adjudicators, nor any of the educators who prescibe the work as a setbook, spotted that it went off like a damp crib?
In the afterword of the recent reprint of his The Dead Will Arise, Peires does mention that a certain further use of his decade-long, hard-earned research had taken place. But until Offenburger’s whistleblowing he admits he had not realised the extent of the burglary. Being generous-spirited, and not inclined to elevate his own reputation by joining any mudslinging, he has decided not to pursue the matter. He admires Mda’s location scouting and concurs with Mda that fiction-writers are traditionally irresponsible anyway, taking advantage of being shot of the disciplinary controls of academic discourse. So Peires will leave it at that.
The Dead Will Arise
On the great day, two suns would rise red in the sky over the mountain of Ntaba kaNdoda where they would collide and darkness would cover the earth.’
There would be a great storm, which only the newly built and thatched houses would be able to withstand. Then the righteous dead—not those who had been killed by God for their wickedness through snakebite or drowning—and the new cattle would rise out of the earth at the mouths of the Kei, Kwenxurha, Tyhume and Keiskamma rivers.
The Heart of Redness
On that great day two suns will rise in the sky. They will be red like the colour of blood. In the middle of the sky, over Ntaba kaNdoda, our sacred mountain, they will collide, and the whole world will be in darkness.
A great storm will arise, and only those huts that are newly thatched in preparation for the arrival of our ancestors will survive it. Out of the earth, at the mouths of all our great rivers, the dead will arise with their new cattle.