Story of a renaissance man
Sometimes there is a void: Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda (Penguin)
Depending on our age, some of us associate Zakes Mda with finely crafted novels that combine humour with social commentary; an earlier generation regard him as one of the best exponents of South African protest theatre; a few regard him as primarily an academic. He is all of the above and more—as his highly engaging memoirs demonstrate.
Unless one is caught up in the “mystique” of the writer, the subgenre of “writer’s memoir” is daunting to any reader or reviewer. At best it can be a somewhat exaggerated apologia pro vita sua—in short, the autobiography as novel. The worstcase scenario is that it is a deadly dull account of inspiration, perspiration and writer’s block punctuated in the best moments by literary prizes, bestsellerdom or—the ultimate victory—both.
Thankfully Zakes Mda’s memoir has much more to it than the latter—he has, to put it mildly, had an interesting life. And the book is marked by all the characteristics that have made his novels (and plays) justifiable literary and financial successes: a deceptively easy, almost conversational style, with wit and compassion.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Zakes Mda would lead an interesting life. The son of the lawyer and intellectual AP Mda, one of the founders of the ANC Youth League who has largely been written out of South African history for committing the unforgivable sin of breaking away to form the Pan Africanist Congress, Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda grew up in a thoroughly political environment. His father was also a consummate teacher who instilled in the young Zakes a love for literature and art.
As a youth he followed his father into exile—to Lesotho, where AP Mda was a highly respected lawyer who used his talents not to accumulate wealth but to serve the community. While still at school, Zakes Mda was involved in both the PAC and the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP)—though in both cases he eschewed activism, concentrating instead on writing, painting and the enjoyment of music.
After a brief flirtation with the idea of following his father into the law, Mda chose to devote his energy to writing (while holding down a series of teaching jobs).
Full-time writing career
In the 1970s and 1980s he focused on playwriting —for which he won literary awards and the ire of the South African censors, an imprimatur of excellence in those times. On the strength of his plays he won a scholarship to study at Ohio University in the United States, where he completed two masters’ degrees—in creative writing and in television studies.
On returning to Southern Africa he lectured in the English department of the National University of Lesotho and completed the first PhD awarded by the drama department of the University of Cape Town. After 1990 he returned permanently to South Africa, lectured at Wits for a while and then branched into a full-time writing career, producing a series of highly acclaimed novels.
Eventually the call of academe summoned him back to Ohio and a professorship in creative writing. He continued, however, to commute back to South Africa and Lesotho regularly, where he remained involved in a range of works—as dramaturge at the Market Theatre, work with people with HIV/Aids and continuing his support for a rural women’s beekeeping project.
Interspersed in this “professional” life, Mda recounts his personal life: sexual abuse by a nanny as a young child, a brief flirtation with revolutionary politics (as a teenager he and a friend narrowly resisted the temptation to assassinate a Lesotho politician) and a series of failed marriages. The last marriage but one, culminating in an acrimonious divorce and custody battle that spanned the US and South Africa, features prominently in the last 50 pages, perhaps the most compelling part of the book.
He is now very happily remarried.
On another level we see Mda the social and political commentator in full force. This includes a spirited defence of the politics of his father and the early PAC’s inclusive African nationalism (and some withering remarks about how the PAC turned out). We are also privy to the at times fratricidal politics of pre- and post-independence Lesotho.
But his most strident comments are reserved for what he sees as the corruption, nepotism and crony capitalism of the new South African state, where political connections are more important than ability, with the result that many talented black people have been forced to join the brain drain overseas.
A further theme that runs through the book—and is reflected in the title—is Mda’s professed atheism. It is a contradictory theme, because Christian and African traditional religions feature in a number of ways. At one point Mda recounts how he left a copy of one of his books at his father’s grave, after speaking to his father. He admits that his is a slightly odd kind of atheism, with none of the vitriol of the “new atheists”.
What emerges from this memoir is a fascinating life, one that is hinted at in his fiction but never crudely transposed into any one of his works. It is the story of an African renaissance man, the son of an African renaissance man, who espoused in his life an African renaissance that is infinitely more complex—and hence more interesting—than most of the thought of the new ideologues of the African Renaissance.
In a time when many have sold out their foundational vision to getting rich quickly, it is refreshing to read of someone who has maintained his integrity.
Quite often the memoir can be dull and self-congratulatory. Although this book contains sparks of vanity, Mda is also refreshingly honest about his weaknesses. On a number of occasions he refers to incidents that he sums up with “I was ashamed”. And, with only a few exceptions, he displays a commendable generosity towards his enemies.
He is also never dull. Though a long book with a complex structure—told mostly in flashbacks, with a present that is in fact a recent past, culminating with a painful divorce and a happy remarriage—it is written in a style identical to his novels: fast-paced narrative, critique that never becomes crude polemic and irony that steers between comedy and satire. A book that one would like to read slowly but also cannot put down, it should appeal to his many fans and encourage those unfamiliar with his writing to go after his earlier works.
I suspect it will, deservedly, be a strong contender for literary awards.