Uncovering a family’s truth
My father’s home was a safe house, a refugee camp. It was not a haven where Gogo, his mother, would shower me with wet kisses and light cheek pinches when I was growing up.
Instead of peeling peach paint or copper-brown bricks, the exterior is covered in tiny charcoal-coloured sedimentary rocks that prick my fingers. Although I have managed to grow to 1.5m over the past 22 years, my grandparents’ raised patio sits at a height slightly above my shoulders when I stand on the ground. So to enter the house, I must climb five stairs and walk three short steps across the raised patio to reach the front door where I must knock three times before the creaking door and rusty burglar-proof gate are unlocked.
While I wait to be welcomed I cannot peek through the windows. The windows are a foggy yellow plastic material covered with a dotted pattern of indentations — that I have since learnt is a bullet-proof enhancement fitted into the house’s windows, decades before my parents met. Once I manage to walk in, the aroma of dusty books, fresh ginger cookies and stale garlic cloves ooze out of the walls but fail to warm up the dimly lit house.
Together with its high walls and silent nature, it is impossible for outsiders to be aware of who or what is in the home. It is an impenetrable camp — designed to protect its inhabitants — political activists — from the outside world.
In the same way, Papa and his three brothers are impenetrable to the next generation — their children. Apart from the basics, my siblings, cousins and I know very little about the paths our fathers and ancestors have travelled for us to get here: a point where four blood brothers — who live no more than 30 minutes apart — have become friendly strangers who only interact at funerals, unveilings and meetings concerning wills.
Being one of the youngest children, I learnt to ignore this slight itch. If my older brothers or cousins were not questioning it, neither would I. This was the case until last month when I watched Sello Maseko’s production, Angola, at the State Theatre. The stage play focuses on the untold stories of the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadres who envisioned a free South Africa, gave their youth and ultimately their lives to fight towards this by offering patriotic service.
Throughout the production I am uncomfortable and cannot consume Angola solely on a superficial or intellectual level. Instead I am forced to interrogate myself about why this information is new to me when I have an uncle who not only returned from the border wars in 1992 but also survived the underground flesh-eating, spirit-crushing MK camp, Quatro. I leave the State Theatre with questions and new fears. How did my uncle end up in Angola? Why do we never talk about it? Why do we never see him? Is he okay? Are we okay?
My father’s younger brother, endearingly known as Rangwane, was born Ezekiel Hlalethwa in 1961, the third of four sons. Until I uncovered his truth, Rangwane, only in my view, was the favourite uncle who was always reciting poetry, theatrically imitating his brothers when they were too serious, gifting me with books and art instead of reprimanding me. Even when the elders of the family dismissed him as the high misfit, Rangwane never stopped smiling so I continued smiling back. I was unaware that, like the house he grew up in, his smile and the family’s dismissal were a sturdy brick wall built to protect the truth they decided was too painful to inspect.
“I left home in 1981, as a 20-year-old boy, to live in a hostel in Krugersdorp. While I was there I was a member of a musical group called Badiri with the likes of Lentswe Mokgatle and Uhuru Moiloa. My father did not want me because I had rebelled. My family did not want me. Even the community, because people were afraid of being imprisoned because they were associated with me. So I left home,” he says.
After living in Krugersdorp for three years, he skipped the country under the combat name Arafat Mothiba. He went to Angola and trained under MK in the Barney Molokoane camp in Caculama where he served in spite of the ill treatment he received for practising his right to agency and questioning authority. “I … Arafat,” he whispers with hunched shoulders raised in pride to hide the secrets of Quatro in his eyes, “I served. I did my patriotic service.”
In 1989 he moved to Luwero, Uganda. He was then deployed to Kampala as a cultural activist leading a musical band called South Pearl Melody. “In Uganda my songs were banned. They said after singing my songs the soldiers became rebellious. But the truth is their minds were being opened.”
While he was away, he did not write a letter or send a word home to ensure his loved ones of his survival. Instead he clung to music, theatre and literature as his roaming intangible home — a practice he continues today.
Rangwane left South Africa in 1984 before Mama le Papa married in 1987 and he returned in 1992 while Mama was breastfeeding the brother who precedes me.
Although Rangwane may have returned home, he never regained his autonomy or freedom. Even as a returned soldier he continued moving camps. His first stop was the home he had left in Soshanguve. He then relocated to Mahikeng to live with my parents who housed him until they felt his company threatened the safety of their children. So he moved in with my eldest uncle until he moved back into Gogo and Mkhulu’s house when my grandparents fell ill and needed care. When they died, he moved to his current residence where he lives alone.
“I support the production. People need to know our truths. All our truths. When you know the truth your conscious is elevated,” starts Rangwane on my visit to his matchbox-sized abode in a veteran settlement in the northern part of Pretoria. While I am there, I require absolute silence and concentration to make out his words and piece his scattered thoughts together. In between sips from his one-litre Castle Lite bottle, he slurs his histories in an eloquent hushed voice that speaks to the undying paranoia that comes with being interrogated and surveilled without consent.
He is afraid but delighted that the production is aiding a narrative he has tirelessly tried to begin. “They don’t see me. But they recognise my father. The same father that I lost time with for the struggle. That very same struggle that I gave into. That father didn’t want me.”
When Rangwane admits this, his four-room house feels like it has shrunk into a narrow hallway, a destination I have been dreading. The Mkhulu that I knew was a hero. He was not the wounded activist that Rangwane describes, who mourned the death of his dreams by neglecting his sons to nurture his anger.
To open up the claustrophobic space, Rangwane and Papa turn to what I watched them turn to before I lost my milk teeth. The living area of the four-room is furnished with very little. A refrigerator, a dozen paintings, some turpentine, slightly open cans of paint and two guitars. Papa picks up the guitar closest to him and begins tuning it. Rangwane plays a few chords on the other guitar and instructs Papa to follow his lead.
The longer they play and sing, the more the room loosens its grip on us. Like the musical relief orchestrated by Angola’s musical director Nkamogeleng Lebeloane, the strings comfort us. Between chords they resort to meaningless banter about who taught who how to play and their faces relax into wide smiles that lift their matching grey goatees.
I cling on to the relief knowing it is temporary and this is only the first step of a narrow and steep walk to reconciling the past with its current consequences.