To the man who bled words

A writer died this week. He was a poet. A jazz fiend. A word junkie. A lover of wine and good food and long talks.

He was a journalist, too. 

But Tiisetso Makube was a rare breed of journalist, the sort who write from the soul. He was on a quest for truth. He bled out his words, and he paid dearly for each one. 

He was my friend, and I was his editor. 

I loved him through the words he would deliver in a voice so distinctly his own; I fell for him the first time I read him. Often Tiisetso would ask questions in his pieces. He asked himself. He asked the reader. He asked the universe. He wanted an answer but so often he had none, not one, at least, that would be the least bit satisfactory. So he would ask. What time is it? he wrote, more than once, quoting a poet whose name he never told me. 

So beautifully he would put the mundane, so passionately he would tell the story of his country through his subjects. Tiisetso wasn’t always an easy edit. And I wasn’t always an easy editor. We would go back and forth in our dance. He put up with me and my nit-pickity ways. I pried and pushed because I knew there was more I could take from his fingers on that keyboard. In the end, he would always give it up, give it everything. And when it was done, when it was all on the page, I would only ask for another. 

One day, a couple of years ago, he sent me an email out of the blue. It was this: an excerpt Anton Chekhov’s Terror. “I am afraid of everything. I am not by nature a profound thinker, and I take little interest in such questions as the life beyond the grave, the destiny of humanity, and, in fact, I am rarely carried away to the heights. 

“What chiefly frightens me is the common routine of life from which none of us can escape. I am incapable of distinguishing what is true and what is false in my actions, and they worry me. I recognise that education and the conditions of life have imprisoned me in a narrow circle of falsity, that my whole life is nothing else than a daily effort to deceive myself and other people, and to avoid noticing it; and I am frightened at the thought that to the day of my death I shall not escape from this falsity. 

“I don’t understand men, my dear fellow, and I am afraid of them. It frightens me to look at the peasants, and I don’t know for what higher objects they are suffering and what they are living for. 

“If life is an enjoyment, then they are unnecessary, superfluous people; if the object and meaning of life is to be found in poverty and unending, hopeless ignorance, I can’t understand for whom and what this torture is necessary. I understand no one and nothing.” 

I heard today that Tiisetso was gone, found dead on Wednesday in his home in Tsakane on the East Rand. I understand he likely died of a seizure. Tiisetso lived alone. He was just 35. I lost a friend. His daughter, Natalie, named after Nat Nakasa, lost her father. Many, many, many people lost a friend. And South Africa this week lost one of their own. 

This week we lost a true writer.   

Here are some of my favourite pieces by Tiisetso, which appeared in the Mail & Guardian:

Snapshots of a life that was 

Nat Nakasa: Writing to the beat of a different drum 

Fish tales and faded hope on the famished road to Mangaung 

Buckets, pits and poverty: how the other half defecates 

Tanya Pampalone

Tanya Pampalone

Tanya Pampalone is the executive editor of the Mail & Guardian, where she oversees print and digital enterprise and narrative journalism projects including eBooks and special editions, such as the popular end of year and annual religion issues. Tanya occasionally lectures on media ethics and editorial independence at the Sol Plaatjie Institute at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. In 2012, she won South Africa's top journalism award, the Sikuvile, for creative writing and was a finalist in the feature writing category. In 2013, Tanya was selected as the Menell Media Fellow at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy in the United States. Currently, she is on the editorial board of the Menell Media Xchange.Tanya has more than 20 years experience living and working as a writer, columnist and editor for magazines, newspapers and online publications in the United States, the Czech Republic and South Africa. She has a BA in journalism from San Diego State University and a master's in writing from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Chimurenga's Power Money Sex, Cityscapes, Empire, Food and Home, Los Angeles Reader, Mail & Guardian, Maverick, Newsweek, Prognosis, San Francisco Examiner and, among others. Read more from Tanya Pampalone


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