Zakes Mda

"The Madonna of Excelsior"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 23, 2004)

"She is a dreamer. A raw sienna mother with splashes of crimson. And she spends her red days lying naked on the red soil between two peach trees with blue trunks. She gave birth to the trees so that they could provide her with shade. But there is hardly any shade because the trees do not bear leaves. Only pink blossoms. Born and reborn all year round. Without bearing fruit."

Niki, the mother in this painting and the main character in this novel, poses often for Father Frans Claerhout, an artist whose expressionistic paintings in bright colors feature native South Africans as the models for religious paintings. Niki, who posed originally because she desperately needed the money and was willing to travel thirty-five kilometers to Fr. Claerhout's studio, often on foot, is a favorite model, along with her daughter Popi, a five-year-old, light-skinned child with blue eyes and softly waving hair.

Niki's story—from her teen years to old age—here becomes the story of South Africa during the last half of the 20th century, a novel told from the perspective of a black author, and quite unlike the novels of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee, though they cover the same period of history. In sensuous, intensely visual language, author Mda recreates Niki's life, showing her day-to-day struggles under the apartheid government of the Afrikaners while also depicting her as Fr. Claerhout sees her in his paintings—as a colorful Madonna figure, the mother of children who will eventually change the world. Without resorting to melodrama or clichés, he portrays Niki as an imperfect, sometimes angry, and often calculating woman determined to hang on to her pride while using the only power she has, her sexual power over the men who would control her.

Excelsior, the township in which Niki lives, has 2470 whites, 23,594 blacks, and 580 colored (mixed race) in 1971, yet every governmental position is held by whites, all major businesses are white-owned, and all power rests in white hands. Through Niki's story, the reader sees black women regarded as chattel, raising the children of the whites (often at the expense of their own black children), while being paid barely subsistence level wages to do jobs no one else will do. Often mistrusted and humiliated by employers, and regularly harassed and even raped by their bosses, town officials, judges, and even clergymen, they are victimized again and again, yet we see in Niki a woman who never yields to self-pity, maintaining her pride even when she and eighteen other women and the men who have used them are put on trial for violating the Immorality Act, a violation which produced Niki's daughter Popi.

The small town in which the action takes place is a microcosm of the larger country of South Africa. The reader becomes acquainted with the townspeople of both races in Excelsior, develops sympathy for some and abhorrence of others, and sees South African life as it affects fully-developed and realistic characters of both races. It is the "colored" people, like Popi, who belong to no culture, who have the most difficult lives—they are too white for the black society in which they try to live, and far too black to be part of white society, even if they wanted to be.

Not without violence does the political climate eventually change from the conservative Afrikaner belief that it is their God-given right to rule, to the rule of the black African majority. Yet very little of the actual violence is shown in Excelsior. Popi, her brother Viliki, and a group of young people have been part an underground movement that has gained the support of laborers and ordinary black people who believe in the Movement's idealistic goals, and they have forced the ruling powers to take notice of them. Observers, such as the book's unnamed narrator, comment that Viliki and Popi have experienced a rebirth from their political involvement, "Born again, not into some charismatic religious faith….[but] into the suaveness of local government politics." And when both Popi and Viliki both join the governing council of the town, they become "a united front against retrogressive forces in the council chamber. For two years, the voice that came from their mouths was one voice."

All over South Africa, similar changes were taking place by the early 1990s, with South African President F. W. de Klerk ending apartheid and releasing Nelson Mandela from jail, but these national changes are treated only peripherally. The author keeps the action firmly focused on the changes in the lives of Excelsior's "little" people, both black and white, as they are affected by the winds of change. And, the author shows, changes--not always good--continue, even after the blacks elect a majority of councilors and a black mayor: "As soon as the [black] revolutionaries had got into power…they had focused on accumulating farms and hotels for themselves. Ardent revolutionaries continued to use the rhetoric of socialism, while in behaviour and outlook they were born-again capitalists."

With vivid scenes from South African life, both the good and the bad, from the 1970s to the present, author Mda presents a clear-eyed vision of South Africa's transition from a restrictive, white-ruled government to a democratically elected government with room for both races. The black people here are real, not idealized, people with real hopes, dreams, and strategies for survival, and they evoke enormous sympathy from the reader, especially as their personal limitations and faults become clear. Though Mda has no sympathy for the abuses inflicted by the Afrikaners who were in power for so long, he reveals a broad vision of a future that includes both races working together. Concentrating less on national violence and battles for survival, and more on the individual, racial conflicts of people in Excelsior, many of whom the reader has come to like and respect, he presents an exciting story of complex issues in a clear, straightforward narrative which throbs with life and offers both hope and warnings for the future.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
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"The Heart of Redness"

(reviewed by Wenkai Tay JUL 24, 2004)

Those who live in the shadows of colonialism respond in two ways: they can either embrace their past, or rebel against it. The Heart of Redness, like many other works of post-colonial literature, considers this rift of opinion in the context of South Africa.

Straddling history and modernity, Zakes Mda's The Heart of Redness tells the story of the descendants of Xikixa, the headless ancestor, and their intertwined fates.

The 1800s were troubling times for Xikixa's twin sons, Twin and Twin-Twin. Crops were failing, their cattle were dying, and the white settlers continued to encroach upon their land. Just then, a teenage prophetess Nongqawuse declared that a Day would come when the spirits of their ancestors would drive the whites out of their land - only if the Xhosa people would sacrifice all their cattle.

Amid such desperation, many believed Nongqawuse's prophecy and began killing their cattle. This episode is an actual event in history that took place from 1856 to 1857, when the Xhosa nearly drove themselves to starvation.

The Day came and went, but nothing happened. The outcome of Nongqawuse's prophecy further polarized Xikixa's descendants into two groups, the Believers who believed in Nongqawuse and their ancestral spirits, and the Unbelievers who didn't. The infighting between these factions allowed the British to strengthen their position in South Africa.

Fast forward to modern times: the feud rages on between the Believers, who stand for continuity and tradition, and the Unbelievers, who opt for modernization and development. The older generation of Xikixa's descendants remains mired in the past, unable to agree on a course of action that will take their community into the future.

In contrast, the younger generation is ambitious and dismissive of tradition. Xoliswa Ximiya, a young schoolteacher educated in America, is exasperated by her elders' preoccupation with the past, and sees a need to move on.

"Don't you understand?" she asks. "People I have been to school with are earning a lot of money as directors of departments in the civil service. I am sitting here in this village, with all my education, earning peanuts as a schoolteacher. I am going. I must go from this stifling village."

Should the people of South Africa preserve their traditional way of life, or reject it in favor of progress and development? Author Zakes Mda asks searching questions about South Africa's fractured past and its uncertain future, but gives no easy answers.

One episode in particular captures the dichotomy of views represented in Mda's novel. Here, Qukezwa Zim is furiously chopping down an inkberry bush, a plant that is not native to the region. But her actions confound Camugu, who finds the plant's bluish-purple flowers attractive. To which Qukezwa retorts, "Nice plants, eh? Nice for you, maybe. But not nice for indigenous plants. ... It kills other plants. These flowers that you like so much will eventually become berries. Each berry is a prospective plant that will kill the plant of my forefathers."

The novel's distinct political bent and strong sense of place may attract only a select audience, but its sincerity could garner a broader readership. As someone intimately familiar with the aspirations and insecurities of his people, Mda writes with immediacy and honesty. In doing so, Mda hits at the core of what it means to be human: the joys, tears, hopes and fears we all share, wherever we are in the world.

Far from being parochial, books like The Heart of Redness urge us to ignore our superficial differences and focus instead on how much we have in common. This is the single most valuable contribution of world literature to our troubled world.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews


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About the Author:

Zakes MdaZanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda, better known as Zakes Mda, was born in the Eastern Cape in 1948. He earned his M.A. and M.F.A at Ohio University and his Ph.D. at University of Cape Town. He is a novelist and playwright, and has received every major South African prize for his work, including the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa Region, for The Heart of Redness, and the Olive Schreiner and M-Net Book Prizes for Ways of Dying which has since been adapted into a play, a jazz opera and a Broadway production. He is also an internationally recognised painter, poet and academic. Having spent 32 years in exile, his novels interestingly depict characters coming to terms with post-Apartheid life. He returned from exile in America to Africa in 1995.

Mda presently commutes between the USA (where he is Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Theory at Ohio University) and South Africa , where he runs a number of community projects and playwriting workshops. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014