Bongani Madondo is a con-man. This is meant in the most level-headed and generous of ways.
Immersing yourself in his voluminous book, Sigh, the Beloved Country: Braai talk, rock-n-roll and other stories, makes you feel as though you’re in the company of a mercurial jester, whose sole mandate is to complicate rather than enlighten.
The same things you enjoy about this self-proclaimed aesthete’s meandering tales are the very same things you might have come to be wary and weary of.
In the winter of June 2013, Madondo escaped to the sleepy coastal enclave of Port Edward to begin stringing together the essays, long form pieces, interviews and (love) letters that comprise Sigh the Beloved Country. The night before he returned to Jo’burg, thieves smoked up his holiday pad, stole his laptops, ransacked the house and out went an inspired spurt of work.
He probably wept. As a result, “he failed not once, twice, but thrice” to deliver the manuscript to the project’s initial publishers Jonathan Ball. “I missed the deadlines because I was not feeling the work. The writing was kak. I was averse to do a journalistic compilation. I wanted to achieve a literary experimentation, free myself from journalism. But I had no idea how to. Hence I fell into depression.”
Sigh the Beloved Country is a beautiful book, that says something of the heart of the man, but it won’t tell you who Madondo is. A passage from his essay, The BLK JKS on the Dark Side of the Moon, sums it up: “You travel deeper into its recess and you realise that sense, as in ‘common sense’, or logic is Bull. Con, at best. That the elements that render the elusive concept of beauty, such a magical concept, are the ones that don’t make sense.”
Madondo is a master in obfuscation and this is evident if one reads the man’s chapter on race. While the author removes the ideological distance between Penny Sparrow, Gareth Cliff and Eugène Terre’Blanche, he spends most of the chapter entitled Black Eish and White Eina circling around the issue as if he is trying to ignore it.
Madondo believes there are myths on racism that need to be debunked.
I, on the other hand, believe there are few, if any, people, who believe that whites are helplessly racist or believe that racist whites are unaware of their racism. He does.
One tends to believe that beyond the bluster, no doubt a function of the headline and sound bite-hungry media, all this jabbering about race in South Africa is helping us to reach greater levels of nuance. People who sound as though they believe whites are helplessly racist are just not being heard correctly.
It seems as though Madondo didn’t gather his thoughts enough on this chapter on racism. There is also the nagging feeling that perhaps he doesn’t want to.
The chapter is salvaged by a pensive essay from guest writer Eula Biss, who writes about educating her son on the connivance of whiteness in keeping racism thriving.
In the week that this review was written, Madondo, through two articles dealing with the same subject (the demand made by Lauren Beukes and Nakhane Touré — interestingly erased by Madondo — that apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock leave the Franschhoek Literary Festival), was being patted on the back by the internet. His article, which some took to be directed at Beukes, (who Madondo regards as a friend), says the author assumed a moral high ground over De Kock by asking him to leave the festival.
It doesn’t help that Beukes said she was doing this in the name of the distressed and “uncomfortable” black participants.
“Black South Africans do not need you to do anything for us even if it is well intended,” shouted Madondo.
The article, both the edited and longer versions, were Madondo at his finest in his mastery of communicating with the written word. But perhaps Franschhoek itself was the blemish and not Beukes’s actions, in the spur of the moment.
Madondo feels the rhetoric that has come to be associated with #fallism is naïve and lacks nuance. On the other side of a deep engagement with Black Consciousness, Madondo says, is an intense self-love that does not need to be articulated in racial terms. In other words, he considers himself to be ahead of the curve of this debate.
I have often wondered whether Madondo’s wide, multi-cultural and frequent referencing that has seen the author direct readers to Nick Tosches, Bessie Head, Robert Palmer, Hunter S Thomson, James Baldwin, Patti Smith, Fela Kuti, Public Enemy, Sinead O’Connor, Jeff Buckley, Santana, The Ramones and the likes — all with the equal fervour and veneration — is this idea walking in the flesh.
A writerly shorthand for Madondo’s aesthetic is writer Nelson George. George’s love for his people, and his empathetic and intellectual understanding of their need to consistently reinvent themselves is evident from seminal collections such as Buppies, B-boys, Baps and Bohos (which collected his writings from the Village Voice).
More recently, George’s interview with D’Angelo for the Red Bull Music Academy series and his recent musings such as the recently published appraisal of Prince’s Sign o’ The Times album emphasise this point.
George’s commitment to blackness without ever soapboxing, and musician and author Greg Tate’s flair for lyrical flamboyance, is, perhaps reductively so, to catch a glimpse of where Madondo is coming from.
Madondo is probably both seduced and reviled by the idea of being considered a sellout. Seduced, because he feels it can be explained: “The accusation hardly sticks as my works remain proudly pro-black, issued out of the multiple and complex black experiences.”
But it also tires him, because he feels he earned his black consciousness stripes as a teenager. They have become dispensable to him.
And it is probably also difficult for Madondo to aim at a universal appeal without being something of a protean. This means, just as he implores us that no racist is ignorant of their actions, no “sell-out” is, either.
How else can one survive on words alone, in the constricting jungle of Johannesburg, for the better part of three decades and not be a chameleon?
Depending on one’s perspective, everyone can be accused of singing for their supper out here. His writing alone tells you how many celebrities he has annoyed, how many ethical lines he has (almost?) crossed and how little he cares about political correctness.
In Sigh, the Beloved Country Madondo’s genius comes not in the form of taut, memorable one-liners but in how he dreamscapes on the page. In some sense, he is the ultimate somnambulist, seemingly conducting these interviews in his head, in his lumbering gait and wide-eyed smiles. How else could Philip Tabane come alive like that, not on stage but on the page? What is the real deal with Madondo and Miriam [Makeba]? Brenda [Fassie]? Simphiwe [Dana]? The list goes on. If reading is the cornerstone to writing, then Madondo has read too much, walked these streets too much and barely survived them.
With its indulgent, luxurious sprawl, Sigh, the Beloved Country is a big “fuck you” to journalism in South Africa and its lameness. Who better to write it than one who has turned his back from this lame practice.