/ 22 October 2022

Novel swims with deep issues

Fred Khumalo12 Ih003 Scaled
Deep water: Fred Khumalo’s new novel for young adults, Crossing the River, tackles serious issues such as xenophobia, racism, human trafficking and organ harvesting. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee/ New Frame

Fred Khumalo pulls no punches when it comes to the subject matter of his latest youth fiction novel. While many think of the genre as a breeding ground for optimism, Khumalo uses it to introduce young adults to the  visceral southern African issues of tribalism, xenophobia, racism, classism, rape, vagrancy, human trafficking and organ harvesting.

Crossing the River might be written in a style that is accessible and engaging but the graphic nature of some of the scenes is enough to turn even the sturdiest of stomachs. 

The tale begins with four women relatives on the run from a group of men — who represent the gravest danger in the novel, pursuant predators of sexual exploits that they are. Forgive the frankness, but they rape everything: boys, girls, men, women and grannies. When their sexual appetites are satiated, they satisfy that other lust — greed.

Fleeing for their lives, Nozizwe, her sister Nomfundo, her mom Perseverance and aunt Queenface try to cross a river, where Nomfundo mistakes a crocodile for a log and gets fatally mauled. Nozizwe, too, is nearly lost to the river but that has more to do with her mother’s ineffective lifesaving technique than a sinister reptile. 

The tragic incident precipitates a descent into migrant hell for the survivors as they are picked up by poacher-traffickers posing as border smugglers in Zebediela, Limpopo.

As soon as they enter the men’s secret camp, Nozizwe’s mother and aunt disguise her age and gender. From 15, she is downgraded to 13  and, from identifying as a girl, represents herself as a boy. 

All hope is placed in the tacit social convention that, below a certain age, human beings are not sexualised; they are left alone to develop. Sadly, this silent contract is not always observed, so some acting skills are required of Nozizwe in her new role. 

A flat chest and deep voice aid her cause as she convinces Bazooka, Scooter and Anderson of her male credentials. She even rises to prominence as the organiser of meals. It is only when Anderson discloses what happens to women of a certain age in the camp that Nozizwe abandons her elevated status to seek outside help.

In a magical-realist turn, Nomfundo’s ghost returns to guide her sister with interventions that are sometimes visible to others. While it is true that drunk guards betray the lay of the land to the protagonist, she manages to navigate the wilderness with a proficiency that would mystify Bear Grylls. Perhaps her mastery of the cardinal points is down to her geography teacher Miss Chigumburi, whom Nozizwe repeatedly credits as an inspiration in all areas of life.

As she recalls, the Shona teacher took it upon herself to teach in Matabeleland, where she was constantly reminded of the massacre that her ethnic group inflicted on the Ndebele people. Undaunted, she learns the local language with native fluency and endears herself to the community with her egalitarianism. It was common to see her tilling the fields with an elder or repairing a dress with a youth. 

Such was her knowledge of politics that her opinions were sought by men arguing under the shade of trees, although the same courtesy was not extended to Ndebele women of the community. 

It is this role model whom Nozizwe references in moments of self-doubt, which are rare at the beginning of her narrative, but increase with the difficulty of the journey. 

Always managing to find allies in Scooter, Anderson, Jakobus and Chirwa, Nozizwe avoids the depraved attentions of those who want to abuse her. Her performance of boyness is constantly questioned by those with fixed ideas about hairstyles and emotiveness, but no one pushes her to reveal herself. Only after she announces, “To hell with it,” does she confide her story to the person of her choosing, on her terms. 

Nozizwe is challenged by gender stereotypes all the way through her great escape, even as she beats up boys and leads their gangs. When she bares her genitalia, which happens a couple of times, the men around her revert to a patronising script, even if they were deferential to her alpha-status mere moments before. 

The challenge to sexism issues from Khumalo’s pen but it is not clear what the recommendations are with regard to gender performativity. Perhaps the intention is for readers of youth fiction to reflect on this issue before enacting inherited scripts.

Male-female violence notwithstanding, xenophobia is the social ill with the widest coverage in Crossing the River. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the title alludes to cross-border migration. 

Experience tells us such journeys are almost always economically motivated and fraught with tension resulting from set ideas about citizenship and nationhood. The downtrodden of the host country, who are the most likely to be involved in economically motivated criminality, usually pose more of a danger to migrants than the crocodiles of the Limpopo.

By targeting the multitudes desperately in search of a better life, unscrupulous opportunists find willing marks for confidence schemes involving documentation, transportation and prostitution. Those South Africans — in this case — who are not as unethical as to exploit foreigners, present them with a more insidious threat — that of hostility arising from the scarcity mentality that dictates that our fellow Africans are taking our jobs and overburdening our infrastructure. We have seen the violence that results from this type of thinking, to which human beings are subjected due to the accident of their place of birth.

Ominously, it is not just poor South Africans who think in this myopic way, as Crossing the River illustrates through the character of Doctor-Doctor-Professor Gumbi, named for the two PhDs she holds. She makes it clear she tolerates a Mozambican family friend only because, “He has a PhD, double master’s … He’s making a contribution to this country’s economy and intellectual growth. Those Mozambicans and Zimbabweans who must go back to their own countries are nobodies.”

If advanced degrees are no safeguard against such prejudice, what do we teach the “dear lil creatures” to whom Khumalo dedicates this novel? Are they to inherit a future in which gender-based violence and xenophobia form the fabric of the society? To youths seeking gender inclusivity in cultures as staunchly patriarchal as some of ours, what do we say?

Traditions are not fixed in time — they can and should be changed — and the most dynamic demographic happens to be the youth. Those who need to reflect and make space for a changing reality are not those who are emerging, but those who cling onto a thousand yesterdays, and direct us thence for answers to today’s conundrums.

Crossing the River is not didactic in its vision of a permissive and progressive South Africa. It merely tells the inspirational tale of a young migrant girl who experiences entirely too much trauma for one her age, during a journey necessitated by the search for economic and physical security, through surroundings that work against that design. 

Beyond the calm determination it takes to surmount such obstacles, what recommendations can young women draw from the novel? The answer is not many, although that might be the fault of the society and not the author.

Crossing the River by Fred Khumalo is published by Tafelberg and costs R210.