Sex and the struggle

Mandela’s Ego

by Lewis Nkosi


Not for the first time, Lewis Nkosi will baffle and entertain in equal measure with a novel about sex. He did so with Mating Birds, which had readers wondering whether it was a male rape fantasy or an ironic critique of a male rape fantasy. I thought it offered the critique, and I would take that view again with Mandela’s Ego, which strikes me as a breathtakingly provocative account of masculine sexuality in the struggle.

The story revolves around Dumisani Gumede, a product of Mondi Missionary School in the Ukahlamba Mountains of Zululand, who grows up in the Fifties and reaches adulthood in the years that Mandela is on the run. Dumisani is a lovers’ lover who, from a remarkably young age, conducts an “amatory campaign” to conquer as many virgins as possible. Nkosi hits an overwhelmingly ironic note, with Dumisani failing to perform with Nobuhle, whom he pursues for most of the novel.

Dumisani’s career as the Bull of Mondi is strengthened by his adoption of Mandela as his personal myth. The boxer, the orator, the activist, the lawyer, Mandela is everything he aspires to be: “the Black Bull, massive, towering, a pillar of strength”. Dumisani punches above his weight, though, and when Mandela is arrested outside Howick pretending to be a chauffeur and later locked away on the island, Dumisani goes into an untreatable sexual malaise.

Neither traditional nor modern medicines, nor the gentle ministrations of former lovers, not even the attentions of the sexually (and racially) mysterious Madame Bianca Rosi can help him. Only with Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison is he able, in middle age, to achieve a kind of concourse.

Nkosi’s allegory is plain: political clout can be read in terms of sexual potency, oppression in terms of emasculation. The link between male sex and male politics has been noted before, most obviously in the case of Black Consciousness. In this novel, however, the link becomes a source of weird comedy. In the work of male writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, it is the woman’s body that is associated with the nation. In linking the nation with the phallus, Nkosi reverses and unsettles the gender stereotypes.

In ideological terms, what happens when the founding years of revolutionary struggle are retold as a story of male potency? Nkosi seems to be saying that the current debate about masculinity has a longer history than we care to think about. Was there always a worm in that proud past, which has now grown into a monster?

If so, he also offers a cultural history behind the inflation of masculinist tendencies. Dumisani’s schooling at the Mondi Mission was at the feet of Father Edmund Ross, who saw his Zulu charges in terms of a medieval fantasy, “when the great tribes of Europe were still young and vigorous and full of sap, before too much civilisation has razed their spirit, when pastoral life still bore witness to that ideal of pure love, expressed in absolute freedom and innocence”. Mission-school pastoralism combined with traditional patriarchy (to which his father’s generation still adheres) provide fertile ground for the development of Dumisani’s condition.

In its treatment of cultural tensions under colonialism, Nkosi’s narration echoes Chinua Achebe’s, and before him AC Jordan’s, but Nkosi is also far from the ethnographic novel of the mid-20th century. Three things mark Nkosi’s writing as radically different from that tradition: his lack of didacticism (this novelist is no teacher, unlike Achebe), his foregrounding of sex and his irony, before which nothing is sacrosanct.

Despite the provocations of its title, the novel says little about Mandela himself. Like Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela, it disturbs the boundaries between biography, history and fiction, engaging directly with national myth. Dumisani has a Mandela-sized ego, but this novel doesn’t go much further than that in referring to the grand old man who still fuels the nation’s dreams. Mandela’s Ego weaves an idiosyncratic, wily path into the national consciousness.

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