McIntosh Polela in conversation with Janet van Eeden about his memoir My Father, My Monster

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My Father, My Monster
McIntosh Polela
Publisher: Jacana
ISBN: 9781431401604

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Short review by Janet van Eeden

It’s no surprise that this book made my top three reads for The Witness as well as my top ten reads for LitNet. McIntosh Polela’s memoir of his brutal childhood, My Father, My Monster, is a searing examination of the lives of McIntosh and his sister, who found themselves parentless and living with uncaring relatives in the Bulwer area when they were very young. It’s a story of triumph over adversity and his sensitive story reassures those of us who believe we can make a difference that sometimes a helpful hand can change one person’s life. I read the book from cover to cover in a single sitting and it wasn’t long before I picked it up and read it right through again. It’s a beautiful book, and something our rather jaded rainbow nation needs right now.

Q&A with McIntosh Polela

McIntosh, ever since we sat next to each other on a plane, flying to Sithengi’s Film Market in Cape Town as we were both recipients of a bursary from SASWA to pitch our films there, you’ve spoken about the story you wanted to write about your past. I was moved then, and when I read the rough draft of your novel I was moved even more. It’s beautifully polished and published now, and your gruelling story is out there for the world to read. Has this changed the way you feel about life now? Are you more settled in the present now that you’ve put the past to rest?

I thought that writing my story was going to help me put the past behind me. But it made it all very fresh. It’s almost as if it happened just the previous day. But at the same time I found that writing my story gave me some release. It heals me having to talk about it so often to so many people since the book came out.

For those LitNet readers who haven’t had the chance to read your book, will you briefly describe the journey you take us on through My Father, My Monster?

This is my journey from about the age of five, when my sister, Zinhle, and I were moved from a life of relative opulence in Durban to extreme poverty in rural Underberg, in the Southern Drakensberg. Here Zinhle and I experienced brutal abuse. I found myself at that young age having to shoulder the responsibility of protecting my sister, while we waited for years for our parents to come and rescue us. But they never came.

I can’t imagine anything more painful for a small child than being abandoned with relatives who didn’t want you there. They were poverty-stricken themselves and weren’t keen to have you. How did you survive emotionally being bullied every day and watching your sister getting abused by them too? Did you have to develop a certain ability to distance yourself from reality to cope in such harsh circumstances?

I lived in a virtual world where everything was almost perfect. I daydreamed about the life back in Durban, about perfect strangers rescuing and looking after us. When I got beaten up, I pictured everything when it was over. It helped me look to the future instead of dwelling on my pain. But this still did not rescue me from the pain and helplessness I felt from failing to protect my sister. I hated myself for this.

As you grew a little older you were still very unhappy, and being a herd boy was one of the duties you had to perform. You learnt how to make a gun, though, with bits of scrap metal. That takes tremendous intelligence – to work out something so specific with just bits of scrap? How did you learn how to do that?

I got caught up in the political violence between the ANC and IFP. This is when I came across different types of homemade guns. I’ve always been creative. I studied these weapons and modelled my own. The incredible thing was, it discharged a real bullet at the first attempt.

You credit one of the nuns from the local school for taking you off the streets. Can you tell the readers of LitNet briefly how that happened, and what her actions meant to you?

I was walking by aimlessly on a dusty street after having been disowned by my extended family for getting involved in politics. Sister Margaret von Ohr was looking for directions to the local school. She insisted that I walk with her to the school. It was during these fifteen or so minutes that she asked me about my life and insisted that I return to school. She gave me a job as a gardener at the local Catholic mission. She was also the first person to say I was good at something. She complimented me on my command of English. Having been abused so much and being told I was stupid almost on a daily basis, I felt it was my responsibility to repay Sister von Ohr by immersing myself in my books. Sister von Ohr’s actions saved my life.

Many families helped you along the way, none of them your own relatives. I’ve often thought about how a single intervention opened a new world to you and it inspires me to help others when I can. Do you think this knowledge makes you more generous as a person yourself, knowing that a stranger’s actions can turn someone’s life around?

I always have a soft spot for people in need. Whether they are strangers or members of my extended family is immaterial to me. My own experience taught me altruism. A contribution, however small, can change someone’s life.  Something as small as a compliment, or reminding someone that they are good at something, can help lift their spirit and coax them to take another step.

You have succeeded in so many areas of your life and your time at e-tv made you a household name as McIntosh Nzimande. Could you tell the readers of LitNet what made you change your name officially when you could have traded on the surname Nzimande which everyone knew you by?

One of the things I decided to do to help me deal with my past was to approach my father to tell him I forgave him for killing my mother and robbing me of my childhood. I had used the name Nzimande reluctantly when I decided to be a journalist as a way to prevent my father from recognising and coming looking for me. I wanted to approach him when I was ready. When I finally did so in 2008 I wanted him to also help me accept my surname by apologising to my mother’s family. It was important to them to accept my surname. It was also important for me to be able to say this surname with pride. I decided to abandon it when I did not get an apology and when he told me he didn’t care what surname I used. For me Polela is a surname I can say with pride. It also has a profound meaning for me.

You moved from e-tv when you were given a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. You did your Masters there and I remember receiving photos of you in British bowling alleys having a good time with fellow students. Was studying in London one of the high points of your life?

This was indeed one of the highest points in my life. It helped me reflect very vividly on how far I had come. It also taught me that there was no limit to the things I could achieve. But the most important thing to come out of this was after I completed my studies and started to do some soul-searching. This is when it occurred to me that I was never going to find closure if I didn’t deal with my past.

Your feelings for your sister Zinhle have always been very strong. In fact, the strength of the relationship between you two was the reason you were given the bursary to pitch this idea for a film at Sithengi. I still remember the beautiful pitch you did, enacting your journey with your sister. How has she felt about your writing this book? Has she managed to move on from the horrors of the past? Are you two still close?

I walked the journey with my sister when I wrote my book. I called her often to update her, and we talked at length about the things that used to happen to us. We relived the past, cried together and tried to find healing. It has taken longer for my sister to heal, but she has finally forgiven our father. In a way the healing process continues for both of us. The bond the two of us share is unshakeable. We experienced pain, went hungry and waited for our parents together. I lived and survived because of the strength she gave me, and she has made it known I was the only reason she chose to live. Our bond and love for each other is very strong.

The “monster” of the story is your father. You confronted him only a few years ago about what he’d done to your mother. As you’ve mentioned, he was unrepentant. Has he reacted in any way to this book or has it shut its existence out from his life? Do you keep in touch with him now?

My father and I are not in touch. When I tried to build some sort of a relationship with him, I soon realised that he is flawed beyond redemption. It was very hard for me to realise that he took pride in having killed my mother and got away with it. I informed him I was writing a book at the first opportunity I got to talk to him. He wasn’t moved. Every since the book came out he hasn’t reacted at all.

Your job still keeps you in the public eye, as spokesperson for the Hawks. Are you happy about your new position in society, on the side of seekers after justice, or do you miss your days as a hard-hitting investigative journalist for e-tv?

I thoroughly enjoy my job. This has probably been the happiest time of my life. But one never moves on from being a journalist. I do miss it at times. But the thrill I get from my job fills that void.

You said you’re going to take time out in January to start writing your new book. Can you tell me a bit about its subject matter? Will it, too, be non-fiction?

It’s a non-fiction book called The Diary of a Doormat. In my journey to find healing and deal with my past I came across this incredible woman with a profound story of her own. I decided to write and tell her story because I feel it’s dying to be told. I think I’m drawn to writing non-fiction stories. I’m not sure that I will ever consider fiction. Watch out for it in 2013.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, McIntosh. I appreciate it enormously and it’s always lovely to talk to you. Good luck with that next book.  



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