This paper seeks to argue that in both short stories "My cousin comes to Jo’burg" and "A present for my wife", Mzamane celebrates the life and resilience of what Poet Laureate Langston Hughes calls “the low-down folks”, showing how they consciously deployed trickery, lies and guile in order to survive and also subvert repressive and life-denying apartheid legislation.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes –
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them see us while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
We wear the mask, Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872–1906
When Professor of English, author and literary scholar Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane passed away on 14 February 2014, one of the treasure troves he bequeathed to us was a collection of short stories entitled Mzala, for which he shared the 1979 Mofolo-Plomer prize with Achmat Dangor.
This essay seeks to centre and celebrate his craftsmanship by revisiting two literary gems which are part of his collection, Mzala. The pieces under discussion are “My cousin comes to Jo’burg” and “A present for my wife”. I argue that Mzamane was a master craftsman and innovator very much on the same literary trajectory as Poet Laureate Langston Hughes, who catapulted his blues-inflected poetry to the centre of the African-American literary landscape. In Mzala, Mzamane deploys humour and trickery to tell the tale of black people’s oppression and survival under dehumanising apartheid laws and rules – and how the recipients of such laws and legislation used trickery and lies in order to subvert and disable them.
In an essay entitled “The trickster in African-American literature”, Trudier Harris writes:
By definition, tricksters are animals or characters who, while ostensibly disadvantaged and weak in a contest of wills, power and/or resources, succeed in getting the best of their larger, more powerful adversaries. Tricksters achieve their objectives through indirection and mask-wearing, through playing upon the gullibility of their opponents. In other words, tricksters succeed by outsmarting their opponents. In executing their actions, they give no thought to right or wrong; indeed, they are amoral. Mostly, they are pictured in contest or quest situations, and they must use their wits to get out of trouble or bring about a particular result ... It is generally believed that enslaved persons did not share with prying researchers the tales containing human characters because the protagonists were primarily tricksters, and the tales showcased actions that allowed those tricksters to get the best of their so-called masters.
(https://www.nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1865-1917/essays/trickster.htm; accessed 6 March 2017)
Harris’s take is instructive, and the points he makes are germane in dissecting the two short stories under discussion in this essay – with the exception that, in Mzamane’s narrative, the landscape is populated by active human beings striving for survival and inclusion in a tough, hostile, unreceptive and polarised gold-digging Johannesburg, in which one’s blackness automatically conferred the status of a potential criminal and deviant in the eyes of its self-righteous white folks.
In an essay entitled “Carnival as an embedded narrative in Mbulelo Mzamane’s short stories”, Lokangaka Losambe asserts:
Faced with restricting, confining and dehumanizing apartheid laws such as the Immorality Act, the Group Areas Act and the like, the oppressed of all racial groups in South Africa created a second world, in which they acted out, promoted and hoped for freedom. That world constantly subverted and undermined the official apartheid order and, by so doing, gradually brought it down. It was, indeed, a popular world, animated by the spirit of the carnival, with its emphasis on “the material bodily principle” and popular laughter, a world that degraded and killed in order to regenerate life that the apartheid system killed (2000:30).
In the story “My cousin comes to Jo’burg”, both Mzalujola, the one-time “green and raw as a cabbage” country bum, and the streetwise Jikida collaborate and use trickery to disable throttling apartheid legislation – and also to dupe their opponents. This is how the author describes Mzalujola at the beginning of the story:
He’s been in the city for years now. But there was a time when he was as green and raw as a cabbage ... Mzalujola was more surprised than annoyed by this unexpected outburst from boys who should have been looking after cattle in the veld. He left them and walked up to an elderly woman carrying a child on her back, who directed him to Mzimba’s Native Eating Bazaar (1995:3–4).
It is interesting to note how Mzalujola’s rural memory seems to direct his thoughts and reasoning as he thinks about cattle and the veld when he sees these idle township-bred boys who laugh at him. It is also interesting how the author cleverly mentions “Mzimba’s Native Eating Bazaar” to show that apartheid was very much official government policy at this stage. But how does Mzalujola shed his “green and raw as a cabbage” image? The following excerpts, which will be quoted in full, are indeed instructive:
Around this time, Mzalujola struck up a few significant acquaintances, significant because they were later to turn into valuable allies. The first was Jikida, a sly man who could make his way out of a hungry crocodile’s mouth with ease. He’d been a constable once, just in order to establish contacts with the police force. He also served two terms as a member of the township advisory board, during which period he made a small fortune by charging people who came to consult him, as though he were a lawyer. At the time when Mzalujola got to know him, he described himself as a herbalist and a landlord.
Thereafter, Jikida’s house became Mzalujola’s second home. It was at Jikida’s that Mzalujola met his first girlfriend, one of Jikida’s tenants. Jikida occupied a four-roomed municipality house and rented three of the rooms to different families. He meddled with the feminine members of his tenancy more than was appreciated by their male counterparts. It was the unavailability of alternative accommodation which kept them at Jikida’s (1995:9–10).
In the extract quoted above, Jikida is portrayed as someone who initiates Mzalujola’s metamorphosis from a naive country bum into the realm of trickery. He comes across as a transformative agent who also links him up with his first girlfriend. As Harris points out in his essay, tricksters are, by nature, amoral, and their purpose is to outwit their perceived opponents and gain the upper hand – at whatever cost. Jikida imposes no ground rules in his house – everything is in a state of flux – hence, it becomes possible to set up Mzalujola with one of his female tenants. After meeting Jikida, Mzalujola’s life is utterly transformed – he becomes the quintessential trickster, as the following extract illustrates:
His pass gave him a sense of space. He refused to be confined to any one job, so that in his many years in the city he’s worked as a doctor, a painter, a priest and a prophet. He’s been arrested and deported to the Transkei several times. Once, the police managed to guard him as far as Bloemfontein. He came back to Johannesburg on a goods train. These experiences have revealed rather more to Mzalujola than a landscape shows to a bat’s eyes. “Uvukile manje,” as everybody acknowledges: he’s as wide awake as an owl. He has remained in the township, where his wits have sharpened with exposure to the vicissitudes of life (1995:12–3).
One has to give due credit to Jikida’s unorthodox, subversive and effective manual of trickery which helps to transform Mzalujola into a financially independent and resourceful figure, capable of conjuring and enacting his own brand of trickery, which he uses in outsmarting his desperate and gullible township-based clientele and the over-zealous agents of the repressive apartheid order.
Like Langston Hughes’s blues-inflected poetry, Mzamane’s Mzala stories centre the lives of those whom Hughes calls “the low-down folks”, the everyday people. These are ordinary, free-spirited people who are not constrained by class considerations or pretentiousness – they are free to be free. They do not shun traditional forms of alternative medicine, and Mzalujola cashes in on their non-elitist lifestyle and disposition. Here is how Langston describes these ordinary black people in his landmark essay, “The Negro artist and the racial mountain”:
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority – may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well-fed, or too learned, to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago, and they do not particularly care whether they are like White folks or anybody else. Their joy runs bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations.
And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.
(https://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g/hughes/mountain.htm; accessed 23 January 2017)
In his practice of alternative medicine in the township, Mzalujola inadvertently participates in a laudable, liberatory project. He becomes an active agent of decolonial thought, whose value and thrust lie in that it seeks to demolish narrow Eurocentric universalism of epistemologies; it elects to install pluriversality that recognises other knowledges in their loci of enunciation. The first step of decoloniality is the valorisation of epistemologies “that have been distorted, bastardised, ignored and rendered irrelevant by the Euro-North American episteme” (Sithole 2014:vi). Decoloniality recognises that “ours is an asymmetrical world order that is sustained not only by colonial matrices of power but also by (specific) pedagogies and epistemologies” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013a:10), and, therefore, "the points of existential realities of suffering, oppression, domination and exclusion" (2013a:15). By situating Mzalujola as a decolonialist in the story under discussion, coloniality is unmasked, resisted and destroyed, and this entails decoloniality as a political-cum-epistemological liberator project that seeks to challenge the asymmetrical organisation of power in the world.
Decoloniality, which is drawn from Latin American thinkers, is privileged in that it seeks to decolonise the “epistemologies of the South” (Santos 2014) through acts of “epistemic disobedience” (Mignolo 2009), and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni adds it is contrary to the poverty of postmodern-postcolonial, Marxist and Nationalist critique (2013a), which criticized modernity from within the hegemonic Western epistemology. Decolonial critical theory is a critique of modernity from without, and has thus the potential to pursue a “democratisation of knowledge, de-hegemonisation of knowledge, de-westernisation of knowledge” (2013a:15).
One of the ways in which Mzamane sustains the trickster motif in “My cousin comes to Jo’burg” is through his deployment of humour, as the following excerpts illustrate:
My cousin, Jola, comes from Tsolo in the Transkei. He has the stature of an adult gorilla and walks with his arms flung far out and his hands curving in, like a cowboy ready to draw. He has a protruding chest which seems to lead him wherever he goes (1995:3).
Mzalujola’s woman – her husband was actually a nightwatchman in town – was stout in a pleasantly feminine way and bowlegged.
Her breasts were two water melons and her buttocks gave an equally succulent and corpulent impression. Her dresses sat on her like an eiderdown on a double bed (1995:10).
In situations of distress and repression, laughter can be therapeutic. In his collection of essays entitled Going to the territory, Ralph explains the efficacy of laughter in the arts as follows:
I would add that during the Depression days of the play’s great success, there was such great need for relief, both economic and spiritual, that the grotesque nature of its comedy was fully justified. Perhaps its viewers laughed, and then in retrospect grasped the interplay of social and economic forces upon which the play is focused, and trembled ... The greater the stress within the society the stronger the comic antidote required. And in this instance the stress imposed by the extreme dislocations of American society was so strong and chaotic that it called for a comedy of the grotesque (1995:184–5).
Commenting on Mzamane’s skilful deployment of humour in Mzala, Losambe asserts:
Thus, although Mzamane writes within the tradition of humorous storytelling set by Casey Motsitsi between the 50s and the 70s in South African literature, as Martin Trump has noted, there is no doubt that he has perfected it and can now be said to be South Africa’s master of popular laughter (2000:46–7).
In the story “A present for my wife”, the narrator-trickster figure is presented in the form of working-class, poorly paid husband who is married to a housewife whose list of demands is as long as it is unrealistic. He is under siege from his domineering wife, who does not seem to appreciate that her husband’s “ever thin wallet” – to invoke a line from Wally Serote’s poem “City Johannesburg” – cannot meet all her expectations. Her appetite for worldly things inadvertently puts a strain on their marriage, as the following extract illustrates:
What do you do with a nagging wife? She knows very well that I barely earn enough to enable us to rise above pap and morogo.
Yet she expects me to buy her expensive leather jackets, mink coats and evening dresses – which she’ll never wear, anyway, since she can’t afford to attend balls and shows (1995:77).
Feeling the strain of these unrealistic demands, the husband enacts a multi-pronged survival strategy, which entails trickery, lies, deception and half-truths, in order to save his marriage – even though he is exposed at times. His wife wants to keep up with the Joneses, and she even forces him, at times, to resort to unconventional ways of acquiring what she wants:
She won’t believe me when I tell her that the things Mazibuko brings his wife are all stolen, every single item of them. “Kutheni ke wena ungenzi nje ngamanye amadoda?” she asks. I tell her I can’t steal just because everybody’s husband is a thief. It’s against my convictions (1995:77).
But these convictions are suspended at times when the going gets tough, or even when it suits the trickster-husband, as the extract that follows below reveals:
I must resist that as long as I can. Has she ever gone hungry? Let her name a single day when she’s gone to bed without food. Not always decent meals, I admit. But don’t I eat the same food? I always augment this with fish and chips and half a loaf of brown bread in town, same as she does. Do I ever hide my pay pocket from her? I give it to her, sealed, every Friday. It’s true that sometimes I steam it open before I get home and seal it again. But it isn’t as if I do that every Friday (1995:78).
To help cope with his wife’s unending demands, he sometimes resorts to the drinking of alcohol for relief and calmness. The extract that follows captures the modus operandi of the quintessential trickster-husband in action:
“She wants a fridge. How did you get yours?” Mazibuko has brought the bottle of our special KWV. What I like about this brandy is that it really has no hangover to speak of. I often provide this speciality myself. Surreptitiously, of course. My method is simple. After I’ve doctored my pay packet, I buy one and give it to Mazibuko before we get home.
It’s then up to him to come and invite me. The trick almost always works. As far as she’s concerned, Mazibuko can never err. The perfect gentleman, neighbourly and all that. She’s lectured me more than once about men who parasite on others, because she thinks I drink Mazibuko. The lecture goes in through one ear and out through the other ... Don’t I know what I’m talking about? The other day Mazibuko and I return home – we travel in the same train to work and back – laden with liquor, groceries and meat. It’s a whole chicken and we ask her to fry it for us, sharp sharp. She obliges. I can’t forget how we got that chicken so I keep on reminiscing and laughing over the episode. She comes in from the kitchen and asks how we got the chicken. I’m in my most communicative mood and so I don’t see Mazibuko’s forbidding frown until it’s too late. So I explain that we snatched it off a crippled White woman. It’s only when she spits on the floor and disappears into the kitchen that I realize something’s gone wrong (1995:79–80).
The interesting thing to note is that the trickster-husband’s wife’s moral compass seems to vacillate. Her self-righteousness is suspect and phony, given that she had earlier on encouraged her husband to do exactly as other men were doing – and, by implication, steal. Although Mazibuko and the trickster-husband’s act of snatching chickens is denounced by the domineering wife, their act is a subtle protest action that speaks to the need to address and overcome the glaring social and economic inequalities in apartheid South Africa. This reality seems to have eluded the wife of the narrator.
Under unrelenting pressure from his wife, the narrator eventually concedes to her scheme – the turning of their house into a shebeen. He probably thought such a scheme would bring some economic relief of sorts, and also that it would give his wife a sense of financial independence and unlimited access to the glamorous lifestyle she yearned for so much. But, the opening of a shebeen itself had some political ramifications, since such outlets were regarded as unlawful by the repressive political order. Their sprouting in black townships spoke to the unevenness of the country’s economic order. When the trickster-husband and his wife turn their house into a shebeen, they inadvertently commit a subversive act and are inaugurating black economic empowerment and self-reliance – which was one of the tenets of the Biko-led Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. Throwing light on the symbolic significance of the shebeen that the husband and his wife finally agree to set up in their house, Losambe writes:
This is indeed a “Fish Pond” of carnival action, a subversive space of intervention of the apartheid order enforced by its oppressive agents such as the corrupt and brutal liquor squad that keeps the narrator “in constant fear”. The pond will certainly breed and groom more carnival agents from the rank and file of the above-mentioned professional groups for an effective transformation of the whole South African society. Because her carnivalesque goal is an open, wider project, the narrator’s wife does not want to confine its activities to the township, and therefore implicitly compels her husband to join Mazibuko in extending its subversive thrust into bigger, exploitative, apartheid-supporting business establishments. Her carnivalesque desire thus becomes comparable to that of Meisie, her role model, and also highlights the contribution of women to this “unfolding culture of liberation” against this background. Meisie’s paradoxical disapproval of theft, while at the same time relentlessly making demands that go beyond the scope of what her husband can afford, and her acceptance of expensive gifts, which she should know must be ill-gotten, bring to light her character as an accomplished, masked carnival agent. However, her genuine and determined refusal to cook the chicken that the narrator and Mazibuko have “snatched [...] off a crippled White woman” (80) should be seen as a reflexive moment of self-criticism in the carnival action.
She seems to indicate by this gesture that “the unfolding culture of liberation” is neither racist nor gender-biased and should include all the deprived in South African society (2000:42).
In both stories under discussion, Mzamane has deployed two formidable twin pillars – trickery and humour – in order to effectively recapture specific moments of the black experience under apartheid rule. Not all those moments were characterised by gloom and doom. Some of them were as exhilarating as they were daunting.
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