I might have been in standard two when a short story in our prescribed Setswana set work book titled Matlhasedi introduced me to the manipulation of context in literature.
Typically, Matlhasedi, penned by JM Ntsime, oozed with cautionary tales often rooted in mythology. Like most of Ntsime’s stories, in Matlhasedi humans interacted with otherworldly beings along varying topo-graphies of Bophuthatswana.
There was one tale which had Tlhakong, the birthplace of my maternal grandfather, as its setting. In the story the village was flanked by two mountains. On one peak of the mountains lived a giant female snake and on the other a male, both referred to as Ditlhware in Setswana.
Unable to be with each other physically, they communicated at dusk through something like morse code using the brightly-lit bulbs located between their eyes. They were in love and left to their own devices in a narrative that made them lead characters while the humans below were just cameos in their story.
It was at this moment that as a nine-year-old child living in Meadowlands, Soweto, in 1993, I became aware of how context can be a malleable thing and how imagination was applicable to any historical, political and social conditions.
Urban mythology on the other hand, as we observed growing up in Soweto, carried the yoke of a far more complex make-up — defined by the biases and politics of the urban/rural divide. Drenched in the pain of psychological brokenness, unending tragedy and spatial inequality, this mythology is born of violence.
Makhusha, Vera and Pinky Pinky
Soweto’s mythologies of ghetto fabulousness have, for the most part, been passed down from generation to generation through spoken word, creating a collective familiarity and ownership of these stories, often going beyond the original locale. Additionally, there is a contest between stories that are genuinely believed to have taken place and those considered to be myths.
In my understanding, the myth is adopted by a generally sceptical generation whose “belief” is a result of wanting to unconsciously displace the violence that was. Ironically, this clash of beliefs plays into the manipulation of context, as fact and fiction fight it out.
To the believers, it is within the realm of mythology, for example, that Meadowlands township spawned Simon Makhusha Maseko.
Known as the Rambo of Soweto in the late 1980s, this story emerged against the backdrop of upheaval spurred on by civil intolerance as a result of the Congregational Group Areas Act. He was a serial killer with Houdini-like capabilities that enabled him to elude law enforcement.
Legend has it that, if the police were in pursuit of him at a market, for example, he would morph into one of the fruits or vegetables sold by the nearest vendor.
In the winter of 1986 when I was two years old, an aunt left me unattended in the house because she had heard word around the neighbourhood that Makhusha had finally been cornered by the youth of Meadowlands while in a hideout in Brakpan. She had gone to witness his necklacing.
In full view of the masses, he was beheaded a stone’s throw from his mother’s house in Zone Six. This was at the tail end of a declared state of emergency in Soweto that had persisted since the 1970 uprisings.
The same era also gave birth to the devastatingly beautiful Vera the Ghost, who was reported to have been a hit-and-run victim and had returned for vengeance by haunting highways leading into Soweto. In her wake, inebriated young men would offer her lifts only for their bodies to surface on top of tombs at Avalon Cemetery. The lucky ones drove into smog, got lost for hours, but lived to tell of yesternight’s tale while under the spell of Vera.
My pre-teen years, 1995 to 1996, lean towards the legend of Pinky Pinky. Half girl and half boy, sporting a bright pink outfit loud enough to be a siren that shocked the living daylights out of the negative attitudes towards intersex individuals.
Pinky Pinky inhabited school toilets and was the first mythological character I can honestly attest to have wanted to know personally, despite the rumoured violent slaps they gave children going to the school’s lavatory. Pinky Pinky’s myth would later turn into a girl’s-only affair, when the spirit assumed the form of a female wearing pink underwear and would torment young women. During this time trips to the toilet would only be made in groups.
Thinking of how these events have been spoken about over time makes me uncomfortable now.
As much as the emergence of these characters is born of traditions of storytelling, the passage of time — or perhaps growing up — has left me with dissatisfaction regarding the violence central to their legends. Upon reflection, I am taken aback by how a collective imagination is desensitised to the brutality at the heart of it all.
These myths could do with being carefully revisited from a sociological vantage point and ultimately re-imagined in the form of an alternative “B-Side”, as there would be on a tape or vinyl.
But reimagining them will require us to examine our own complicity in their pervasiveness. The yearning to gloss over Makhusha’s psycho-psychic struggles as a would-be murderer is strong. Vera’s motivations in targeting entitled masculinities with her wrath should not be overlooked. Neither should Pinky Pinky’s challenge to long-standing hetero-normative standards associated with the hood, in which anyone who does not identify as strictly male or female is met with hostility. Pinky Pinky’s mythology spoke to the myth that is uniformity.
How can these characters and the milieus they existed in be subverted? Maybe this could happen through a mechanism that transmits in various 21st century and futuristic digital forms. One could be as an ambivalent meme of Pinky Pinky perpetuated on our Twitter feeds. True to her milieu, Vera’s possession could be as an artificial intelligence chat-bot that goes rogue on a road safety app on that fateful night when the tyre runs over a nail along the Soweto highway.
Although a moving target, the ultimate awareness is that context is one heck of a smoking gun given the right timing and paraphernalia in a narrative.
Black Panther and the power of perception
The age of increased internet connectivity is by far the most interesting, as multiple contexts are given a platform to integrate. Within this web of connectivity, Black Panther makes history by smashing pre-booking records as the fastest-selling Marvel film ever.
African mythology, as seen through the lens of sci-fi, is all the rage. Populated with a predominantly black cast and aesthetically aided by Seshoeshoe, Maasai, Nguni and Yoruba mysticism among others, the fictitious locale of Wakanda is this mysticism in the mainstream.
Well aware of the current context, a larger corporate mythology is woven behind the scenes by an establishment that is at pains to re-adjust to the fact that cinema-going culture is dying in the wake of binge watching through streaming services and pirating sites. To be believable, the ultimate subversion must be enacted through a sustained effort to let the black creative process lay bare its complexity without having to explain itself or by tokenised through the true ownership of mythologies.
In memoriam of context as a shape shifter
From memories of Ntsime’s love story between two serpents to the ambivalence of Soweto’s mythological characters burdened by violence, context as a modern day fixation can sometimes be over-emphasised. But one cannot ignore it. Stories get told and then splintered over time, which begs the appreciation of context as an elusive yet powerful force in national mythology and storytelling.
In a time where social media is hostile to any kind of nuance, it is surely a storytellers’s duty to experiment with shifting contexts, while also seeking — if not creating — new platforms to practise this fine art.