and chair of Comtask, in
The Mark Gevisser Profile
Author in need of healing
‘However far apart our bodies may be / Our souls are locked together in perpetual embrace.” So concludes a poem by Ben J Langa, written to his younger brothers Mandla and Bheki after they went into exile, and published in Staffrider. As the invocation of a shared childhood, the poem is moving for its absolute lack of political dogma, as if describing the effect of exile on a family is politics enough. It is a simple, but great poem; its inclusion well-warranted in an anthology entitled A Land Apart, edited by Andre Brink and JM Coetzee in the late Eighties.
Although Mandla Langa is back in South Africa now, he remains as far apart from his brother’s body as he has ever been. For Ben Langa, a prominent Natal activist, was murdered in 1984 in Pietermaritzburg by Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operatives who accused him of being an informer. As he predicted, though, his soul does remain in perpetual embrace with that of his brother: his spirit is to be found all over The Naked Song, Mandla Langa’s recently released collection of short stories.
Mandla Langa was in exile when his brother was killed. The morning after the murder, he went into work as usual and was told about it, casually, by one of his colleagues at the Department of Information and Publicity in Lusaka. He had, in fact, trained one of his brother’s murderers in Angola. Another, meeting him in Lusaka, almost cruelly told him how much he resembled his brother.
Back in South Africa, two of the perpetrators were caught and sentenced to death. The oldest Langa brother, Pius — then an activist attorney — stood up at rallies, stated his objections to the death penalty, and called for his brother’s murderers’ sentences to be commuted. What an extraordinary family! The men were hanged. In exile, Mandla Langa broke down: “My brother dies through an agency I’m familiar with — our own — because he’s suspected of being an informer. My mind jumps … Is it true that this is what he was? And if it’s not true, what are we?”
The first question has been answered: in its submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last week, the African National Congress admitted to having been “disinformed” into murdering Ben Langa by a double-agent named “Fear”. But the second question remains — “what are we?” — and forms the basis for his critical, searing narratives; stories that break new ground in South African literature, not only because of the way they represent street suss with sophisticated fluency, but because of their introspection.
Mandla Langa is the first South African writer to give literary voice to the trauma accompanying the return from exile, and the transition from “struggle” consciousness into that void where your own beliefs and desires, rather than those of the movement, define you.
He uses the word “naked” to describe why he does not want to take the story of his brother to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “From the images I’ve seen on the box, I’m terrified of the commission. To sit in front of that crowd of strangers and unburden yourself, to be naked in public, it’s a terrifying prospect. And I’m not sure I’m in touch enough with my emotions to go through with that.”
His title story, The Naked Song, has as its protagonist a psychologist, Leonard Gama, who is confronted with a patient rendered mute by his return to South Africa. It turns out that the trauma that robbed him of speech on his return to South Africa is the revelation that his missing girlfriend — an MK cadre — was killed because she was suspected of being an informer. Gama experiences an explicit identification with his patient; they are clearly the two sides of Mandla Langa, both in need of healing.
Langa is gentle and sensual, sloe-eyed and languid. His brother’s death, he tells me, “remains unresolved; something for me to deal with through other forms of creativity”.
He returned to South Africa late, only in 1994, as he had been the ANC’s deputy chief representative in London, and — like his character Blade Zungu in the story Proud Flesh — collapsed into alcoholism. “When I came home after all those years, I was aware of my own sense of vulnerability, my inability to come to terms with the new country even though I’d been part of the process to dismantle the old one. But coming back and dealing with the greed, with the palpable poverty, brought about a doom that I thought was going to be my undoing.”
He pulled himself out by writing, by finding “interlocutors” who could express what he was feeling. And so we have Leonard Gama and Blade Zungu. So too do we have Caleb Zungu, an insurance salesman who tries to kill himself because he is going bald; and Jomo Khumalo, a failed artist whose destiny becomes entwined with a Sekoto-like figure from exile, and who finds salvation by following his father’s example by taking the cloth.
Unlike his own father — a charismatic minister whose mission took him and his poverty-stricken family all over South Africa — salvation comes, for Langa, not from the Christian paradigm of absolution or redemption. It can also no longer come from the struggle paradigm of revolution and political liberation. It comes, rather, from self-knowledge.
Langa’s characters, more often than not, are artists — painters, musicians, journalists — whose craft is unable to save them from their anguish. He says that what saved him was the process of inventing his stories: “To be able to look at other people, their humour, their trickery, and bounce that off my own life.” He doesn’t say it explicitly, but he knows, I am sure, that this is just the first step. If anything will save him, it is the nakedness of his own song.
He has published two novels previously, both before the backdrop of the struggle. Both have had limited circulation and have received scant attention. The Naked Song is in a different league, and Langa now carries with him all the insecurity of a creator awaiting the reception of his new work. He often pauses in his storytelling as we sit on his Jo’burg stoep, to ask, “how do you say it?”, before embarking upon the word he thinks he wants.
His home is a rambling old highveld affair. His wife Ilva is a new bureaucrat: she runs Tokyo Sexwale’s office. And yet their home has the unironed feel of the marginal artist: it has not been smoothed into soullessness by the hot press of power. Langa has chosen to make the writer rather the politician his primary identity.
And yet he is very much a public figure, in what has become one of the most illustrious, if diffident, families of the new dispensation. Pius Langa is on the constitutional court; Bheki Langa is chief director of Jacob Zuma’s Economic Affairs Department in KwaZulu-Natal.
And Mandla Langa is president of the Congress of South African Writers and chair of Thabo Mbeki’s Task Group into Government Communications (Comtask), set up to determine how government communication is to be restructured and what should be done about the ownership and control of South African media.
Langa readily admits to some “schizophrenia”; the cleavage of his life into an individual writerly self and a collectively identified public self. He’ll do the praise-songs if he has to: “But even though, when I do, people tell me, ‘that’s brilliant’, I know it’s not me.”
Which probably renders him eminently qualified for the chairship of the task group: what better person to assess the government’s propaganda apparatus than one who has set as his literary project the need to find an individual destiny within the collectivity of struggle and transformation? He has steered Comtask – — its Stalinist nomenclature notwithstanding — away from precisely the kind of interventionist agenda many believe the state wants.
The group, which met with parliament this week, plans to release its recommendations in October. Langa says the South African Communications Services (Sacs) “must not have the monolithic structure of a ministry of information”; although he won’t say it, he is clearly appalled by a suggestion that Sacs should transform into a government news agency. He believes that diversity within the media is the best way to ensure the government’s side is heard.
And while he understands the government’s prickliness about criticism in the media, he thinks this criticism is unmotivated, rather than undue. “Take the Aids debacle,” he says. “If it had broken out in England, [Nkosazana] Zuma would have had to resign. But here, the media just bays for blood rather than putting the facts as strongly as possible, rather than constructing arguments that are irrefutable. And they bay for blood in a way that makes other people move into a laager rather than take them seriously. So yes, I think the media in South Africa can actually be quite tame.”
Langa, after his homecoming-funk, has bustled into activity. He is writing an opera with Hugh Masekela; he has set up a production company that has adapted South Africa’s best short stories into a series he is hoping to sell to the South African Broadcasting Corporation; and he has been writing a television column for the New Nation. There’s a sharp, canny energy to his prose; a wonderfully wry humour and an obsession with post-apartheid Johannesburg or the KwaMashu of his childhood.
But the heart of his work comes from a darker, more troubled place: “[N]ow we all smile, baring the teeth of ceremony”. Blade Zungu reflects on the new South Africa in Proud Flesh. “The exiles move from lands that become forgotten as time passes … The men jump into the nearest beerhall and drink and drown and rise no more. The young ones watch. They see their friends growing up in despair; the young woman with eyes as ageless as the sun knows her body is being watched by wolves. The wolves laugh and slink into corners and blow another blast of Durban Poison and a desperate drunk sings ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’, wishing for caring human hands to hold him and carry him home. But where is home? Tears sprang into his eyes again.”
As Langa and I sat on his stoep, he tried to suppress his own tears while talking about the death of his brother. What upsets him is not so much the tragic error of Ben Langa’s murder, as the memory of how callously the information was imparted to him; as if the movement had failed in its paternal duties. “Where is home?” asks Blade Zungu in Proud Flesh. His distress — and perhaps Mandla Langa’s too — arises, at least in part, from the realisation that the ANC does not and cannot provide the home it promised.
Therein lies Langa’s critical consciousness: it might not assure him longevity in the political elite, but it may well render him one of South Africa’s great post-struggle writers.