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Jacana

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“These riots, when it came down to it, were all about one thing. Land.” Read an excerpt from Mphuthumi Ntabeni’s debut novel, The Broken River Tent

The Broken River Tent is a novel that marries imagination with history.

It is about the life and times of Maqoma, the Xhosa chief who was at the forefront of fighting British colonialism in the Eastern Cape during the nineteenth century. The story is told through the eyes of a young South African, Phila, who suffers from what he calls triple ‘N’ condition – neurasthenia, narcolepsy and cultural ne plus ultra. T

his makes him feel far removed from events happening around him but gives him access to the analeptic memory of his people. After being under immense mental pressure, he crosses the mental divide between the living and the dead and is visited by Maqoma. They engage in different conversations about cultural history, literature, religion, the past and contemporary South African life.

Read an excerpt:

The Gravediggers

The entrance to the Hangberg Multipurpose Sport Centre was unusually busy for a non-social grant payment day. Media cameras were everywhere. Their little village town had caught the attention of the nation, Phila thought, if not exactly the world.

“Ngawethu!”

The main speaker for the evening had entered the hall. While other speakers assembled on the podium Phila took a seat near the back. Although he regarded himself as part of this community, he felt somewhat out of place, as if he was faking his solidarity to leech onto the people’s pain.

It was soon evident that the community meeting had been hijacked by politicians and Phila had difficulty holding his concentration. A guy from something to do with Social Justice was saying something about the government marginalising and criminalising the poor. “The lies of the city and provincial officials who call us drug lords when we demand our constitutional rights shall be exposed!” he cried, becoming very animated.

He spoke for quite a long time, mixing English in Afrikaans. People clapped violently. Next a Rastafarian took the microphone, first hailing Haile Selassie and Jah and then dissing the “Babylonian governments and their system of oppression. Dem tell us to reconcile, meantime dem serve us snake for fish, and rocks for bread. Mandela se kak!” The crowd went wild. “Ons KhoiKhoi mense! We demand our land back …” There was something impressively radically anarchist about the Rasta.

As the meeting finally looked as if it was drawing to an end, after almost two hours, and the cameramen were packing up their equipment, Phila went outside to get some air and have a cigarette. He found himself reflecting on the reason for this meeting, the events of the past week which had culminated in what the media, with their flair for dramatic nostalgia, had called Black Tuesday. The police had come, around 2am, in what one of the speakers had termed ‘apartheid style’, to evict people who had illegally invaded land on the slopes of Hangberg. Phila wasn’t totally clear about the details but the violence had started when residents resisted the police. On his walk back home earlier, after having fish and chips at Fish-On-The-Rocks as the sun went down, his route took him close to where the events of Black Tuesday had unfolded. The place had looked like an abandoned movie set for the apartheid era. On his way he had stooped to pick up a used teargas canister shell, obviously from a police shotgun, and he’d slipped it into his pocket without thinking.

That speaker was right. The events of the previous week had introduced a reminiscent order of apartheid days in the streets of their village town. Phila himself had been there, doing what he could to help. When a TV newsman at the riot scene had asked him to give his opinion, on camera, he had wanted to sound revolutionary, to send a clear message that the impoverished should not be pushed around and criminalised for being poor. Instead, dogged by his middle-class timidity, he’d come up with a cautious statement about “the irony of the fact that when developers for the rich want to push mountain firebreaks it is done at the stroke of a pen, but now that the poor have run out of living space they are treated like brigands who are illegally occupying land.”

It irritated him that he was always so cautious, reasonable and unspontaneous. His mind was neither quick nor nimble; he lacked the gift of spontaneity, which was why he found it hard to improvise on the spot. At best he had keen powers of observation and some originality when given a moment to apply his mind, but his kind always got swallowed by the revolution.

He thought about how, a decade and a half ago, during the so-called rainbow era of Mandela, the country was full of hope and assertive belief in the renewal of its humanity. Now he saw the return of cynicism, suspicion, despair, and police terror, the suppression of freedom, with all the accompanying horrors. Community meetings with fired-up rhetoric. Loud-hailers on the streets, calling citizens to action – like the one on the red bakkie that had gone past his window and alerted him to this meeting tonight, urging residents to “do a postmodern on the BRUTALITY of the police last Tuesday, when they invaded our community APARTHEID style. Injury one! Injury all! The BOEREBOND is on the rise again!”

Outside he was joined by a podgy fellow who had been at the podium table and whom Phila was sure he’d seen somewhere else. Initially he couldn’t place him but then he realised: he was the security guard at the local supermarket, who usually greeted him when he went there for supplies, who sometimes helped him with the groceries, very politely, to the car. Phila always made sure to tip.

“Nice of you to join us, sir,” the fellow said with his usual politeness. Phila was glad to recognise a face in that sea of strangers. The fellow swapped his cigarette to his left hand before extending his right, and they ended up shaking hands for a little too long and more vigorously than was necessary.

“I never figured you as the revolutionary type,” Phila said, regretting the statement the moment it went out of his mouth. It turned out the fellow was a community leader of some kind. Inside, when people had kept referring to community leaders and shouting socialist slogans, they had been referring to him. An ironic twist surely – socialists guarding the doors of capitalism? Talk about capitalism producing its own gravediggers, thought Phila.

He was still turning fiery phrases over in his mind, of the type he could have used in front of the TV camera when he’d had the chance. The government is wiping our turned-up noses with the sword; our liberators have turned into our oppressors. A luta continua! Deep down he knew there was no way he could have said all of that. Even in his head it all sounded fake. He was no revolutionary; neither did he want to be one. He believed more in the evolution of the mind, the gradual progress etcetera.

The usual crap of weak characters who never want to be involved in the real struggles under the guise of being civilised. The irony was that he spent almost all his life trying to civilise his mind; now he was doing everything possible to escape the fate of Prufrock, the ineffectual, wellbred man during times of rising tensions and turbulences.

Irony struck him again as he said goodnight to the community leader and set off home. These riots, when it came down to it, were all about one thing. Land. The irony, in the twenty-first century, was that the players were still the same as before. You had the KhoiKhoi people on the slopes of Hangberg, and the Xhosas – mostly from the Eastern Cape, where their forefathers had fought the British colonial powers – on the slopes of Karbonkelberg where Imizamo Yethu informal settlement was situated. And then in the affluent valley down below were mostly the white people, progeny of the settlers from the 1800s.

Phila walked home under a maturing sheet of darkness. Moonlight cracked the sky with pale fissures of light.

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