African Library: And they didn’t die by Lauretta Ngcobo

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Lauretta Ngcobo: And they didn’t die (1990)

South Africans and others who want to, need to or ought to have an understanding of rural black South African life under the apartheid system can do no better than to read or reread Lauretta Ngcobo’s searing, moving and profoundly probing account enshrined in the unforgettable narrative of her 1990 novel, And they didn’t die. The ring of tragic defiance in that title points simultaneously to the daily, unrelenting battering that this policy inflicted on men, women and children, and to the very harsh costs exacted from all of them merely to stay alive – with their lives often reduced to (periods of) abject poverty and harmed by the ugly denials of black people’s human worth by the racism that the applications and consequences of the policy enshrined and rewarded. But Ngcobo’s wide-ranging text also unsparingly exposes how certain customary rigidities practised in what were (and are?) largely tribally structured lives of people in rural black South African communities combined fiendishly with apartheid regulations and laws to curtail, diminish and plague the lives of people in such communities – with a particular focus on women’s suffering, courage and resistance ordeals. Jezile Majola, the young, married black woman who is the central character of Ngcobo’s novel, is a sensitive register of the gamut of feelings and thoughts produced in response to the abovementioned forces and influences that structure the external conditions of her existence. She is portrayed as living mostly in a village (Sigageni) imagined by the author as located in the vicinity of the rural KwaZulu-Natal town of Ixopo, in a Zulu-speaking area. She lives mostly in the company and under the authority of her strictly custom-adherent mother-in-law, Mabiyela, whose only child, Siyalo, is (of course) Jezile’s husband, and is sensitively portrayed in this narrative. And they didn’t die is an account of terrible times, yet the novel may serve as a superb illustration of how the best African works of fiction archive local societies and histories in complex and insightful ways and demonstrate how the continent’s outstanding authors manage to craft works of great literary art in their vividness, elegance and affective power.

Ngcobo’s skilful interweaving of historical references with familial and village events and Jezile’s personal experiences in her multi-stranded narrative is evident from the start to the end of the novel. What is particularly remarkable is how naturally the political and historical references are incorporated. The novel opens in what is probably the late fifties, when black women’s anti-pass law protests were (again) under way. We see the bleak winter scene of a drought-raddled landscape, in which the central sight of an emptied dip tank for cattle carries historic and symbolic significance. It is the sign of the local women’s protest against the white Nationalist Party government of the time’s attempt to control and regulate their lives “for their own good”, having first created the many structural conditions – loss of fertile land; reduction to subsistence farming on small, infertile land parcels; lack of drought aid; taxes unaffordable for poor rural communities, forcing able-bodied men to try and find work in the white-owned urban industries, etc, etc – hampering any possible flowering of real improvement in the lives of the rural poor. The dipping officer, Mr Pienaar, expresses sentiments in which the white rulers’ inability to understand black South Africans and their deep contempt for them – here, of course, exemplified for Pienaar in the local women’s resistance – are exhibited:

These women, this strange breed of womanhood, thin and ragged and not like women at all – they think they rule the world, they spill men’s beers, they herd cattle, they plough fields, they run this community. That’s what it is; that’s why this defiance – they’ve lost respect for manhood, for all authority, but they haven’t got the sense to do it properly. In the absence of their husbands they’ve lost the need for men; if nobody stops them, they’re going to ruin this country. (2)

After his rant, and as the only (petty) way to express his outrage to the women, Pienaar drives his vehicle straight at a column of hoe-carrying women, to rejoice futilely when they scatter in a panic. Recovering from the fright, the women cluster around Jezile and celebrate the apparent success of their strategy to frustrate Pienaar’s work and to try and force the government, through its local authorities, to hear their insistence that what black South Africans need are clinics, not beer halls and better land allocation, not cattle culling. But Jezile is cut short and cut off from her informal political leadership role by nothing more than “a cautionary look and one or two barbed words in Jezile’s ear” from her mother-in-law, Mabiyela. “Mortified and angry”, she returns to her lonely hut. “No-one really knew how deeply affected Jezile was by her failure to have a baby” (3), the narrative voice informs us. Of course, the single word “failure” immediately indicates the utterly unfair construal of this fate as Jezile’s “fault” – she being a young woman “failing” to do her honourable duty and (moreover) held solely to blame for her present childlessness, despite two years of marriage. Not only is her husband, Mabiyela’s son, left out of the equation, but so are the brutal circumstances allowing men like him under social and economic apartheid restrictions to visit their wives and families for only two weeks a year. Mabiyela’s treatment of Jezile at this time is described bluntly as a “relentless persecution” (3). Very much later, Jezile will ascribe the lack of compassion and disrespect allowed by the customary family hierarchies, which render young and especially childless women the lowest ranking members of any family, to the fact that women like her mother-in-law had to live similarly lonely and unfulfilling, hardscrabble lives and are taking some sort of emotional vengeance on the younger women under their supervision and control.

In an ironic and bitter contrast, Jezile’s dearest friend and age-mate, married to her husband Siyalo’s best friend, Mthebe, is beset with a relentless stream of pregnancies and babies resulting from every single visit from her lazy, improvident and imprudent husband, who lives like a playboy in Durban, hardly communicating with and sending little if any money to his wife and children in “the reserves” – as rural black-allocated areas were termed at this time. As luck would have it, Jezile has her period during Siyalo’s next visit. The knowledge that there is again no chance of a pregnancy at this time throws an emotional pall over them both, and although Siyalo remains as loving, reliable and faithful a husband as their bad circumstances allow, even he (as he returns to his work in Durban) “admitted to himself” for the first time that “they needed a child to hold their marriage together” (9). When Jezile receives Siyalo’s next cool and distant-sounding letter, she is shocked into resolving to act in alleviation of their circumstances. Without confiding in or asking permission from her mother-in-law (a way of behaving sure to earn Mabiyela’s severe censure), Jezile decides that she will find a way to visit Siyalo in the city, by hook or by crook. She forges a letter in which her husband supposedly asks her to come to Durban to see a specialist about her “failure” to conceive, then visits a sympathetic GP in Ixopo and obtains the necessary second letter from him stating that she has to go to Durban for a medical examination at a higher level. The next step is to go queue at the local, aptly nicknamed BAD – the acronym for the (local) offices of the Bantu Administration Department – which governs most aspects of black South Africans’ lives at this time. Seeing the lengthy queue of sad and depressed-looking people at the offices, Jezile refers to it as “the burial ground of all human dignity” (11).

Perhaps predictably, with an awful manner and manners, the BAD official Jezile encounters sneers at “that lying doctor” and tells Jezile, “You want a fuck man you look for a man here” (13). But then, writing on one of her documents, the man demands Jezile’s “pass”, the colloquial reference to the document allowing black South African men (initially), and now also women, to travel out of their area of residence or to work in the at-this-time white-designated areas, by far the greater and more industrialised areas of South Africa. Jezile is stunned – in her eagerness to travel to visit Siyalo, she had momentarily forgotten that she could not do so without the hated pass document, which she, like the other women of her village, had sworn never to accept, as an act of political defiance to claim their right to live in or travel to any part of the country of their birth. Secretly, she goes and obtains the pass. But Mabiyela expresses ugly suspicion concerning the reasons for Jezile’s quite unannounced, unexplained and unpermitted absence in Ixopo – not for political reasons, but as an exertion of her familial powers of control. Jezile snaps and replies with unheard of aggression, and they end up having a major falling-out. In the meantime, Jezile has visited her baby-beset friend and discovered that Zenzile, pregnant again, is emaciated and ill; the pregnancy is not going well, either. They both weep at their separate and seemingly insurmountable problems. Jezile then decides that she has to mend fences with her mother-in-law; no self-respecting son will, apparently, take his wife’s side against his mother. She regains Mabiyela’s grudging approval by sheer hard work, helping to provide for the larger household, of which she is now a part. So, when in a fortnight’s time, Jezile leaves by bus for Durban, she does not do so against her mother-in-law’s rules.

Upon her arrival, Siyalo is fortunately there to meet her and to lead her to the “single men’s hostel” where he (along with thousands of other black male workers – and the occasional “illegal” female visitor) stays; because of the short notice of Jezile’s arrival, he has managed only by sheer luck to get them relatively more “private” accommodation for the rest of her stay. Jezile is disappointed, though she tries to hide it, and mortified at having to share a bed with Siyalo on her first night in Durban closely surrounded by so many other “single” men. But, although the “holiday cottage” in which they have a room is also pretty run down and dirty, they have privacy there and are able to give far freer rein to their love and desire than was possible ever before, even in their own hut in the village. The visit also proves politically educational for Jezile, who learns about and eventually takes part in some of the black women’s demonstrations of the time – marches with placards, meetings, and attacks on the so-called beer halls (government-built), where black men fritter away incomes (meagre enough to start with) to go home drunk and belligerent to indignant or long-suffering wives (and children). Again, Ngcobo recognises the twinning of the major scourge of racist apartheid practices with black men’s irresponsible and often faithless conduct towards wives and families (often, of course, there is a “second wife” or concubine and family in the city, unbeknown to the rural wife and children). Jezile also feels that while in Durban, she must see Mthebe, her poor friend Zenzile’s husband. He puts on a show of wealth and privilege for Jezile’s benefit, treating her like a favourite personal visitor, but “forgets” to give Jezile anything for his sick and lonely wife, or even for his malnourished children – until Jezile makes clear that she will not allow him to leave her without money to take to his wife and family. With some of Mthebe’s money for Zenzile, along with money the flamboyant and irresponsible Mthebe inappropriately gives to her personally, Jezile buys food for her friend and her family and small gifts for her children. Not that the ailing Zenzile is totally fooled by the impression of a caring Mthebe that Jezile attempts to create later to comfort her friend in her lonely suffering, but there is, at least, a moment of relief and nutritious food to share.

Unexpectedly, Siyalo tells Jezile that she must return to Durban a few days earlier than she intended to. Much later, she will discover that Siyalo, who has accepted and supported his wife’s political activism, is himself part of a male group agitating for political reform in South Africa. Back in Sigageni, Jezile feels simultaneously matured and empowered by the widening of her political and social horizon in Durban, and weakened and embarrassed by the knowledge that she has broken the pact with the other women never to accept the pass. Nosizwe, a doctor practising in Sigageni and surrounding villages and the undisputed political leader and instructor of the local women, expresses her disappointment and anger (when Jezile can eventually bring herself to confess the fact of her having obtained the pass to go visit her husband), and her fierce rebuke to Jezile is that their shared “sacrifice” means “personal needs” are “sacrificed for the common good” (42). Nevertheless, she does call on Jezile to report to the other women at their weekly “prayer meeting” – an event which provides the opportunity for the local women to discuss their political situation and plan action – on what she witnessed of the women’s protest movement while in Durban. Probably spurred on to do so by the revelation of even Jezile’s limited political understanding of how apartheid functions and its broader effects on and infiltration of black South Africans’ lives, especially in the rural areas – as apartheid slowly advances and intensifies its death grip – Nosizwe (a woman whose very name identifies her as a representative of the nation) embarks on what is, in essence, a brilliant, brief lecture in political insight and sociology within apartheid’s parameters as seen from the victims’ perspective. At first, Nosizwe feels that she may only have discouraged the women, but after moments of silence, a strong voice is raised, singing the famous, hymn-like song in praise of South African (black) women, “Malibongwe Igama Lama Khosikazi”, and all the other voices soon join in. “Their prayer rose in a crescendo,” even though the women “cried as they prayed” (49). On this note of political solidarity and women’s shared suffering, the meeting concludes, only to be met by the sight of a line of men, some in uniform, evidently sent to intimidate and disperse what they were told is a political protest meeting, but intimidated in their turn by the demonstrations of fervent piety in the women’s weeping prayers. For now, these power representatives leave the women alone, but the general mood among black South Africans at this time is greatly apprehensive, for all have heard rumours of the coming intensification of apartheid’s stranglehold by means of so-called “rehabilitation schemes, the resettlement schemes, the Bantu Authorities Act, the Betterment schemes and many such fine-sounding terms” (as the narrator bitterly adds); all of them know that “things in the country moved at a snail’s pace, but … when they did [eventually arrive, they would] crash in fury over people’s heads” (51).

With intense and initially secret joy, Jezile discovers that she is pregnant. Her happiness is tempered by her discovery that a heavily pregnant Zenzile is now terribly ill. She has not had a single letter, let alone any sign of support, from Mthebe since Jezile’s return from Durban. Caring deeply for her friend as she does, Jezile can do little to help her. She leaves the village to go and visit her own mother. Soon after her return, Jezile gets an urgent message from Zenzile, asking her to come over. Once there, she sees that her friend is in the throes of a dangerously long, difficult delivery process. Zenzile asks to be taken to hospital, but her mother-in-law (and chief midwife) resists and rebukes her, for birth is supposedly “natural” and the “woman’s job”, in which modern medical science has no role. Jezile, with carefully “lowered” eyes and voice, offers to pay for a car to transport Zenzile to the hospital and to cover medical costs, and since Zenzile’s sufferings are clear to all, the older woman at last relents (58). But the car arrives too late – Zenzile dies as she delivers her (dead) baby. Mthebe, the heartless husband, arrives late for the funeral, with a flourish and in a grand car, evidently intent mainly on impressing the locals and putting on a show of weeping.

The NP government attempts to use Chief Siyoka, the local traditional authority figure, to persuade the people of Sigageni to implement the new and even harsher measures, and then fires him (as well as banishes him and his family to a faraway area) when he makes no secret of his actual lack of support of what is to be done – landless local people to be resettled in faraway rural “locations” with strangers in similar circumstances; cattle to be culled to reduce overgrazing; barbed wire fences to be erected by unpaid local labour (men’s as well as women’s) around smaller and geometrically measured plots. The community is filled with justified fury at these oppressive and exploitative measures, but can do nothing effective to resist them against the government’s overwhelming power. In the meantime and, to an extent, because of Zenzile’s death in her birth throes, Jezile grows increasingly anxious about her own baby’s impending birth. Secretly, because she knows Mabiyela would be offended, Jezile books a place in the local hospital and gives birth there to a healthy girl, to be named S’naye – a name whose meaning proclaims, in pride and relief, “We have her” (72). After a visit to her own mother (with her baby) to recuperate and to “share” the baby, Jezile returns to her home to await Siyalo’s arrival on his annual leave. “They all felt fulfilled” (75), the narrator tells us. Although it is a minor-seeming thing, Jezile is nevertheless “puzzled” to overhear Siyalo proclaiming: “Don’t worry, … we’ll fix these Boers this time” (76). Soon after his return to the city, the women’s group decides to burn their passes (at least, those who have them, like Jezile) as a public ritual of political defiance. Then the police start harassing the isolated women in night-time raids – intimidatory tactics meant to smother the spirit of revolt. At this point, Nosizwe and the women of Sigageni and other villages decide to stage a march to the BAD offices in Ixopo and present their objections to recent as well as long-standing treatment of blacks in South Africa. Then, on the eve of the march, Siyalo shows up out of the blue on the doorstep of his and Jezile’s home. He has been fingered for political activities and briefly detained; as a result, his employer has dismissed him. Despite fruitless attempts to find other employment that will ensure him a pass, he is very soon arrested as present “illegally” in the city, and “endorsed out” (in the parlance of the time). This is shocking and tragic news; how will the family survive without his income?

The next morning, as Jezile starts preparing to join the women’s protest march, intending to take S’naye with her, Siyalo has a strange premonition and demands that the baby be left with him and his mother for the day. Reluctantly, Jezile complies. The march ends in a chaotic mass arrest of the participating women; the government will not tolerate such “dangerous” and “subversive” political activity. The terrified women are soon brought to trial and sentenced to what appears to be around six months’ imprisonment – with “hard labour”! Beyond the obvious deprivations that prison life brings, the women are exposed to the leering eyes of prison guards, who “take out” young women they regard as attractive for nights away, though no-one ever tells what happens or asks the women about those dark hours away from their fellow prisoners. Tensions also bedevil relations between the rural and the urban women in the prison for a time, but this eventually resolves itself. Fortunately, Jezile manages to avoid being “taken out”, particularly since she has discovered, after roughly three months in prison, that she is pregnant with her and Siyalo’s second child. The labour of chopping boulders into small stones and gravel that the women are obliged to engage in almost every day, under prison guards’ supervision, is especially hard on Nosizwe, who is unused to manual labour, which the other women have had to do for years, and she has (in any case) been singled out for especially harsh racist and sexist taunting by the guards, resentful of a highly educated, “uppity” and politically conscious black woman showing up their own generally uncouth ways and lack of any tertiary education. Jezile is able to shield Nosizwe, who has become a real friend, from being exposed as unable to deliver (and punished for not chopping) enough stones.

Freed eventually, the women return to their homes, feeling strange but relieved. Jezile, however, is shocked at the malnourished condition of little S’naye. Deprived, initially, of her mother’s breastmilk, and then of all milk when the family’s overstretched, only milk cow died, and with there being no money to buy alternative means of nourishment for the child other than the spare diet they all scarcely survived on, S’naye, a bouncing baby when Jezile left home, is now an ailing child, visibly wasting away. The shocking sight causes an instinctive and profound (though unfair) resentment against her mother-in-law (the main caregiver in Jezile’s absence) in the young mother, now expecting a second baby, and in somewhat less than robust health herself. She also holds an instinctive, irrational grudge against her husband, unemployed as he is, despite his having fruitlessly attempted to make a little money within their indigent community, where no-one has money or food to spare. The family, nuclear and extended, lives for a period in silent misery, neither sharing their feelings nor supporting one another. Now, Mabiyela even starts spreading the rumour that the baby Jezile is carrying must be a prison guard’s. At last, one stormy night, when a nervous Jezile seeks comfort from Siyalo, the two of them are reconciled and at last tell each other all that happened during their separation. When Siyalo happens to discover Jezile’s long-lost wedding ring in the mud of the storm’s aftermath the next morning, he takes this as symbolising and consecrating their reunion. Soon afterwards, he hatches a daring plan – to go secretly to the estate of the prosperous white farmer Mr Collett, their unneighbourly though near neighbour, to milk one of his well fed cows. If they do not obtain milk soon for S’naye, the child will die. When Siyalo and Mabiyela went to Mr Collett’s place during Jezile’s absence – in a vain attempt to buy a little of his many litres of skimmed milk – he had curtly refused to sell them even a drop, stating that all the milk was needed to feed his pigs. Stealing is hence the only option, Siyalo decides – but Mabiyela must not know, as she could never condone theft, even if undertaken to save the life of her only grandchild, so unbending is her commitment to customary culture’s rules.

The stolen milk ensures the (nuclear) family a period of happiness and health. Mabiyela and others are slightly suspicious, but do not actually discover the truth, until Siyalo – probably inevitably – is caught in the act of milking one of Mr Collett’s cows, and arrested. When Siyalo fails to return home, Jezile soon guesses what has happened to him and that their guilty secret will now be exposed to a very resentful Mabiyela. So fearful does this make her that, when her labour pains come that same night, she does not summon her mother-in-law, and gives birth to the child by herself. Of course, this fact, along with the news of Siyalo’s arrest, which she has heard as gossip from a malicious neighbour, is the reason for an intensification of Mabiyela’s fury against her already mistrusted daughter-in-law. Mabiyela appears angrier (at Jezile, whom she holds to blame) than feeling concerned for Siyalo, and is deeply embarrassed that the theft was committed and the milk hoarded. She says terrible things to Jezile, such as, “Why do you suppose your child is more valuable than all the children in this village,” and accuses Jezile quite unfairly of having hatched the plan to steal milk and forcing Siyalo to execute it (146). Mabiyela storms off, in all likelihood to spread further rumours and accusations against Jezile, whom she leaves in a state of near despair – both at the disaster of Siyalo’s arrest and the bleak future she and her children now face, as well as to her mother-in-law’s viciousness. Again, the deadly combination of customary values and the cruel apartheid system have brought devastation into Jezile’s life. Two young local women, both of them deprived of husbands (one by death and the other by desertion), and both having to cope with hostile mothers-in-law, come to Jezile’s aid. They know that “when a mother-in-law blames you for any catastrophe, then you’re in trouble” (147). One of the women, Gaba, sends her eldest daughter (a ten-year-old girl, but a most sensible little person, sweet and competent far beyond her years) to Jezile “to help and carry messages when she was in confinement”, for Jezile has not yet recovered from her second baby’s arrival (148).

Two days later, when Jezile’s own mother has arrived, bringing huge baskets of food including fresh produce from her garden, Mabiyela is shamed into ingratiatingly welcoming her. Masibiya, Jezile’s mother, tactfully offers to go visit Siyalo in prison, so, of course, Mabiyela is forced to accompany her. During the brief, alienating prison visit, Siyalo urges the women to enlist Nosizwe’s aid in assuring he gets a good defence lawyer. Unfortunately, this eloquent man’s liberal and humane arguments make no headway against the iron laws of the apartheid era. Siyalo is sentenced to ten years in prison, and a stunned Jezile has to face a decade without a husband or assurance of any income, and two very young children to raise by herself in the company and within the compound of her hostile mother-in-law. But Mabiyela eventually softens somewhat in her conduct towards Jezile, for “no two people had so little love for each other and yet they had so much in common”. Mabiyela tells Jezile, “You’ll have to find a way to live somehow. You have very young children. They must live through this and survive” (157). If not exactly encouraging or an offer of help, these words at least show Mabiyela’s increased understanding, and even a touch of empathy.

Jezile’s disreputable friends soon come and urge her to join them in a poorly paid work party that will at least bring in a pittance. As Jezile discovers, “what she valued most in the summer of that year was the company of the other women” (160), chatting companionably, and sharing one another’s woes and small successes. She is comforted when their congregation gathers for the occasion of her second child’s baptism, their visiting church minister’s christening of the community’s new babies. The little girl is baptised Barbara Ndondo Majola and will be addressed as Ndondo. But depression descends on Jezile once more when her little bit of saved money runs out and her children again begin showing signs of malnutrition. Having been absent from the women’s group’s Thursday meetings for a long time, Jezile feels a need to reconnect with them, but finds the meeting (as it seems) almost over. It is not, but the gathering’s usual purpose has been usurped by their local councillor Duma, informing them of new, even harsher government measures announced at a meeting between officials, their new unpopularly imposed Chief Siyapi and Duma. Angrily, the women interrupt Duma with fierce accusations of complicity, and he storms off. The community decides to show Siyapi their disdain for sell-outs and stooges. As a result, police and the paramilitary are sent to intimidate the community, increasingly united politically against both the government and those assisting it in the imposition of its restrictive policies. When the people ask Siyapi to meet with them at his grand home, he refuses to emerge to speak to or hear them. The community’s anger at this slight reaches boiling point, and some men rush and set fire to the home in which Siyapi has, in vain, barricaded himself with all his dependants – including grandchildren. Screaming “down with the traitor”, the people present celebrate their violent retaliatory act, despite the danger of imminent reprisals from the government. Ngcobo refers to the “sacrilegious glow” of the dying fire and evokes the horrible, “pungent smell of the burning flesh of dogs and cats and people [who had been] inside the house” and “told the story of anguish and death within” (173). Later that night, a group that includes Jezile comes upon the smoking ruins of councillor Duma’s house, also burnt down with the family inside in the night’s “orgy” of violence. Jezile reflects:

She had lit no fire herself. God knew that. But she felt dirty; God, how to get clean, how to clean the world, how to clean Sabelweni again? How to get rid of the government that poisoned the leaders, and now their people – was there nothing that was not tainted by the evil policies of the government? (174)

Evidently, there is no condonation of murder in either the author’s or Jezile’s feelings; both are deeply horrified, but (as evidently) both know what drove a normally peaceable people to such extreme and ugly acts, at an enormous cost (as they know) to their own future welfare.

Response from the state to these events is swift and brutal: “The whole area … was swarming with police and more soldiers”; “all meetings were declared illegal” and “[l]arge numbers of men were taken to prison summarily”; the police, now even more fiercely “on the warpath[,] … began to commit atrocities against the community”, with women being “particularly vulnerable” (175). Those who wish to maintain the protest movement move to join revolutionaries already in a mountain hideout nearby. The to-and-fro between police harassment and punitive actions (including shooting down men who have surrendered), versus the community organising secretly to maintain resistance and self-respect, continues. One morning, when Jezile returns from the mountain hideout where she has delivered food to the people there, her new friend Nomawa comes early to summon her: a road building work group has just set up camp near their village, presenting a work opportunity. Although Jezile is at first hesitant, her friend assures her that it is time to take independent decisions; Jezile is the one who has to feed her children. They go down and soon come to an agreement that these two women will be employed by the workers; Nomawa will do her share, while Jezile will brew and sell beer for the men and cook and wash clothes for the white overseer. The paid employment ensures food security for a number of weeks, but then the gang has to move on to work on another stretch of road. Jezile is dismayed at the prospective loss of income, when the overseer, a Mr Potgieter, asks her to come and work for his wife in their household in faraway Bloemfontein. Initially, Jezile cannot see herself leaving her two little girls behind, but, to her surprise, Mabiyela tells her that she will look after her beloved granddaughters, which will be no problem if there is money coming in. “Go to the city and we shall all survive” (188), she instructs Jezile.

She soon follows the white man to the train station, she, of course, to travel in a third-class compartment for “non-whites”, far separate from Potgieter’s berth. To Jezile, being by herself as a “single” woman is a novel experience; during the journey, she unexpectedly experiences a flood of undirected erotic sensations, delicately evoked by Ngcobo. But harsh reality reasserts itself upon her arrival in Bloemfontein: black people here all speak Sotho (not Zulu), and Mr Potgieter, who has always spoken to her in English, addresses her from here on in Afrikaans, a language of which she knows a few words only. On their arrival at the Potgieters’ modest, lower middle-class suburban home, the reception is chilly; Potgieter and his large wife evidently do not have a good relationship, while the woman is taken aback at having a completely strange black woman imposed on her household as their “servant”. There are five children, and the workload is heavy with long hours; Jezile’s back room, isolated in the yard, is bare and unwelcoming, with only a candle for lighting. The pay is quite decent, however; the wife offered Jezile five pounds a month, but Potgieter overrides her and makes it 25. Then the old issue of the pass comes up – the family cannot legally employ her without one, but since Potgieter is part of the Afrikaner bureaucratic network, he marches Jezile straight past the long queues and quickly obtains and signs her pass. As she gets to know her situation in this household, Jezile soon encounters “bars” marking “the limits of her humanity”; addressed by Mrs Potgieter as “Annie”, “she had lost her name, her past, her friends and relatives, her language, her initiative, and she felt she was just a shell of her real self” (200–1). There is worse to come. Jezile soon sees that Mr Potgieter no longer goes out to work; he is doing a correspondence course in law in order to qualify as a court prosecutor. She is constantly summoned to serve him cups of tea.

There are ugly marital rows in the household, culminating in a blow-up that ends with Mrs Potgieter lying bleeding and injured on her bedroom floor, while Potgieter drives off into the night. Jezile goes to the woman’s aid, weeping in sympathy. Late that night, having also had to soothe the children and put them to bed, when she goes to her room, she finds Potgieter stretched out on her bed. He grabs Jezile, covering her mouth, telling her, “Now quiet. I’m not going to hurt you. I love you. I’ve loved you a long time and you know it. If you sit quietly down here we can have a lot of fun. I need you and I’m sure you need me” (204). Potgieter adds that Jezile must know that he does not love his wife. Despite her “panic and horror”, Potgieter proceeds to rape Jezile. Afterwards, when she lies “curled up like a ball at the opposite end of the bed and winced and whimpered like a wounded animal”, Potgieter pleads with her to “understand”. He is “sorry it happened that way”, he says, and tells Jezile that if the law did not forbid it, he “would even marry her”; he brought her with him all the way to Bloemfontein because he “could not bear not to see [her] ever again”. Jezile, perhaps even because of Potgieter’s attempt to put a cloak of sentimentality over his brutal deed, remains “inconsolable” and “outraged”, and “felt completely alone” as well as “dirty and steeped in evil” (205). She washes herself over and over at the cold water outside tap – her only ablution facility. Although she thinks of fleeing to Sigageni the next morning, the thought of informing her people of the reason for her sudden return makes her burn with shame; after Mabiyela’s recent tarnishing of her reputation as a virtuous wife and mother, she is not even confident of sympathy and trust in the veracity of her account of her ordeal in the local community. “Rape is a burden to its own victim” (205) – the old and ugly truth of which the narrator reminds us here.

The rape seems not to be repeated, and Mrs Potgieter appears not to suspect her husband as the cause, as Jezile’s resultant pregnancy begins to show; she actually treats Jezile more kindly than before. When birth pains come, the Potgieters drive her to the hospital, where the evidently white child is safely delivered – a little boy. Her whole former life will be overthrown by the event. Even though the police come asking, Potgieter’s local standing allows him to fend off enquiries (this is, of course, the period of the Immorality Act in South Africa, when interracial sex has been criminalised). The next morning, Potgieter puts Jezile on the train home, having bought her a ticket and given her money, nappies and food. She will never see the Potgieters again; she leaves almost exactly a year after arriving in Bloemfontein. Now a new loneliness will beset Jezile. She goes first to her mother’s home; neighbours come to see the child and are quietly dismayed at the evidence of its mixed race. Jezile tells her mother, three days after her arrival, how she was impregnated; the older women in her mother’s community treat Jezile with great tenderness. But, although this child will be a member of his mother’s family by marriage, her mother-in-law has to be informed, and after a fortnight with her own mother, Jezile has to go back to Mabiyela with the baby. In Sigageni, a Majola family council expresses the fear that the police will come down on them because the baby was so clearly fathered by a white man; he cannot be a part of the Majola family, but they cannot decide what to do until Siyalo returns from jail to tell them what he thinks. To Jezile’s surprise, her fierce mother-in-law is now a weaker, softer person, and she allows Jezile to remain in her household with the “scandalous” baby. However, the church is Mabiyela’s mainstay, as it is for so many black women especially, and when the visiting minister hears about the two-month-old baby, he excommunicates Mabiyela for having harboured Jezile and the baby instead of sending them away to live with Masibiya. By the end of the week, Jezile tells her utterly downcast mother-in-law that in order to spare her from being punished for something that is no fault of hers, she will go with her three children to live with her own mother. Fortunately, at a Majola family meeting, it is decided that Jezile will be permitted to do so; the future of the two Majola granddaughters will only be finally determined when Siyalo can be consulted after being freed from jail in several years’ time.

The years with her three children, including the baby (cherished and nicknamed Lungu, meaning “white person”), are eventually happy ones. But then, after the release of Siyalo – who makes no contact with Jezile, or any attempt to hear her account of how she came to give birth to a white man’s child – several messengers arrive out of the blue from the Majola family. They have come to take Jezile’s daughters to their father’s family, who have this customarily indisputable right. Just like that, the two bewildered girls are led away, despite “their eyes pleading” with Jezile’s not to allow this separation. Jezile’s emotional shock at the loss is evoked as follows: “Pain raged beyond her control. Life seemed to recede like the setting sun leaving a pool of darkness behind” (227). Jezile feels as if she has been both emptied and “turned inside out”. Her mother and the local women keep watch over the emotionally and physically collapsed Jezile. It is only after a fortnight in this catatonic state that Jezile stirs again; no longer “frantic”, she calls for Lungu in a voice that is “loud and clear”. Lungu rushes to her side, exclaiming, “She’s awake, mother is awake, she’s all right” (227).

Some time after Jezile’s recovery, she gets the first of many regular letters from her mother-in-law, reassuring her that her daughters are well and have adjusted to life among the Majolas and with their father. As they grow older, the girls are sent to two of the better available boarding schools. Soon, it is 1976. S’naye, at 19, is completing her schooling; she will train as a nurse. Ndondo, who is two years “behind” her sister and in another school, is a leader there because of her strong personality and maturity. Lungu has been placed in the local school for “Coloured” [ie “mixed race”] children; it happens to be the school where Siyalo (who, by proxy, informs Jezile that he has no objection to it) works as caretaker. Soon, the political tensions of the time erupt in demonstrations by schoolchildren that are fiercely suppressed. Ndondo – who committed no violence – has to go on the run from the police, who want to arrest her as one of the protest instigators. Not too long after this, Jezile gets a secretly posted letter informing her that Ndondo has crossed the border to the north to train as an MK soldier. Lungu, who is also an admired leader at his school, despite his youth, gets shot during a demonstration in which he has participated, and is left paralysed in his lower body. But the boy has a strong spirit; his friends, who love him, constantly carry and cart him around, and he eventually, with the help of a bursary, trains and qualifies as a medical doctor.

One evening, S’naye arrives unexpectedly with the news that she was secretly approached by Ndondo and asked to prepare their mother for a risky visit from Ndondo later that night. The visit, though brief and dangerous, is greatly heartening to Jezile, who is proud of her daughter’s courage and dedication. Jezile accompanies Ndondo part of the way when she leaves in the early hours; as she returns home, she finds one of the young white soldiers who have been patrolling the area, somehow informed that Ndondo the revolutionary is around, about to rape S’naye, who remained behind. Desperate to stop this, Jezile grabs a knife and stabs the soldier to death. She is calm in the aftermath, telling S’naye to dress in clean garments and to accompany her to the Majola homestead to inform Siyalo. They walk the entire distance. Jezile’s first words to Siyalo are a reproach: “Why didn’t you ever come Siyalo, ever, ever?” Jezile says that because Siyalo previously never came to hear the truth from her, she had to make the effort to inform him, herself, of the fact that, as she puts it, “it’s happened again. Only this time, he wanted to rape S’naye” – conflating Potgieter and the soldier into a single figure of the white rapist. She tells Siyalo, “I could not let it happen again” (244). She explains that she stabbed the soldier to death, knowing that Siyalo will understand the implications at once – Jezile will be arrested, brought to trial and, inevitably in apartheid South Africa, sentenced to life in prison. Jezile continues, in simple words, “I had to defend her. We have to defend ourselves.” Unspoken in her words, and perhaps not even intended, is the point that for so many years, even after his release, Siyalo was not there to defend her and did not stand by her after the revelation that she had given birth to a white man’s child. All that this gentle man can do is look into Jezile’s eyes, at first “wordlessly”, as both are drawn into a vortex of the memories and feelings that entwine them. Then he holds her hands tightly in his and whispers “inaudibly, more to himself than to her, ‘Jezile, life of my life’” (245).

Those words end the narrative – perfectly, tragically and unforgettably. The meaning of the title is fulfilled, but one is left as wordless as Siyalo. The horrors of this time have still not been erased, but a novel of this stature bears witness to them, as it does to the astonishing courage and strength of many of apartheid’s victims in a way that is adequate to the place, time and people we must never forget, and in whose memory we have to continue to strive for a country in which all lives are cherished and cherishable.

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