It’s 1899 in Johannesburg. Talks of an impending war between the English and Afrikaners hover over the city. Those who have the means to quietly make their way out of Johannesburg do, leaving thousands of migrant labourers from Natal stranded and without work because the mines have been closed indefinitely, in anticipation of the war.
This was a real historical incident. Even though the only way out was on foot, the labourers had to make their way home. With some difficulty, an official from the Natal Native Affairs Department, John Sydney Marwick, negotiated with the Afrikaner forces to ensure a safe passage for the labourers to make it from Johannesburg to the Natal border, 301km away. Walking the distance with them, Marwick became known as Umuhle, the good one, among the labourers. And so the story of the 7 000 labourers making their way out of Johannesburg continues to be told.
Often referred to as the Marwick march, this 1899 event did not lack media coverage. Yet author Fred Khumalo has long been concerned about how it was covered solely from the perspective of Marwick. “They speak of Marwick and the natives but these natives are not given names, we don’t know their stories,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
Something in Khumalo couldn’t make peace with the idea that “this white man organised all these people without the help of prominent leaders in the Zulu community. What would have happened to African protocol”?
Thus THE LONGEST MARCH (Umuzi) was born.
Khumalo is a prolific columnist, essayist and novelist based in Johannesburg. All together, his bibliography — short story collections, novels and long-form nonfiction essays — adds up to a total of 11 texts spanning more than 14 years. Attached to this are journalistic and essay contributions in a number of books going as far back as 1992.
Retold from the perspective of protagonists Nduku, Philippa and Xhawulengweni, The Longest March starts shortly before the expedition and relays the events that led the three characters away from their homes and from Johannesburg.
This Johannesburg is unlike the multiracial melting pot that we know today. With the city being just two decades old, the only black folk present are migrant labourers in need of a job.
Khumalo was able to place the reader inside 1899 Johannesburg with the help of the Johannesburg City Library. “They’ve got a rich newspaper archive that gave me a flavour of what Johannesburg was like way back then,” he says.
One of the ways Khumalo uses fictional characters to illuminate a real, historical situation is through the character of Nduku, a man who helps his boss rally the people who need to make their way home. With instruction from Marwick, Nduku reluctantly speaks to iinduna, convincing them to convince their subjects to join the march. Through Nduku’s struggle with having to lead this movement, the reader is introduced to his lover Phillipa, a coloured woman who is able to pass for white during these times.
The third lead is Xhawulengweni, a pickpocket Khumalo uses to reference the prominent 19th-century South African figure Nongoloza, founder of the 28 Gang. Xhawulengweni is one of Nongolaza’s apprentices and a character Khumalo developed to further the plot’s realistic feel.
On the surface, Xhawulengweni decides to join the group because it’s an opportunity to cash in on the large crowd. But we soon find out that his story is connected to that of the other leads because he has a romantic past with one of the other figures. Though it feels a bit haphazard, the author’s decision to include a queer thread is a mission to argue against the idea that queerness is an unAfrican concept brought to the continent through colonialism. He explains that invisibility does not amount to non-existence.
Through their intersecting stories the reader navigates themes of migration, black masculinity, displacement, aspirations, racial identity, sexuality before wokeness, and the struggle between independence and ubuntu.
As a fictional text based on a historical occurrence, The Longest March displays a gratifying coming together of the writer’s journalistic and creative muscles. “Whenever I’m digging on matters that date that far back, I realised that I have so many questions that cannot be answered by anyone,” Khumalo says. His uninhibited imagination and need for extensive research blend into a practice that sees him addressing historical gaps through fictional characters.
To put this book together, Khumalo set out to read all the newspaper clippings about the event that he could get his hands on, before going to KwaZulu-Natal to visit the KwaMuhle Museum. An additional reference was Elsabe Brink’s 1899: The Long March Home — A Little-Known Incident in the Anglo-Boer War.
How does Khumalo get going on such a work?
“I sit with it, think about it thoroughly and if it still attracts me then I draw an outline of where the story is going.” This comes from years of having great ideas that led to beautiful writing but not solid stories. He then establishes two to three major characters and decides how their stories will unfold and intersect. “Of course [writing] is a work of art that might change on the way. But it helps to have a guide,” he says.
Above the arresting love triangle and his reversal of the erasure of the black characters in the narrative, what makes The Longest March a worthy read is Khumalo’s ability to patiently take the reader back to a time before they existed, and make them feel as if they were there. — Zaza Hlalethwa