Having read the famed South African novel “Cry, The Beloved Country” by Alan Paton and the libretto of “Lost in the Stars” a musical adaptation of the novel by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, I was intrigued by the deeply moving story of the Zulu Reverend Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, which is set against the background of Apartheid South Africa in the mid-20th Century. I understood the work to be that of hope, love, courage and survival, and ultimately, the dignity of humankind. But what also intrigued me apart from the protagonist and his son was John—Stephen Kumalo's brother.
John is mean, unapologetic and anti-Christian. In the libretto from “Lost in the Stars” he calls his brother Stephen a 'faker in Christ', a harsh and demeaning way of addressing a relative. At first I wanted to dismiss him as nothing but hateful. As a fellow Christian, I could empathize with Stephen, who is going through a difficult time dealing with his son whom he discovers has impregnated a girl out of wedlock, has left her and joined in with a wrong crowd.
During the course of his search for Absalom, Reverend Kumalo eventually finds out Absalom has also killed Arthur Jarvis, a white man who had been responsible for helping black people in the village of Ndotsheni whence both Stephen and his family came from and that Absalom was slated to die by the hanging. However, to just dismiss and pigeon-hole John into this category would have been too simple and hypocritical for me, as I pride myself on being astute.
I thus needed to dig deeper to understand John’s character, his background, his rationale and his viewpoints and what gave birth to his disdain for so many things, including his brother's religion. I realized that John represented many people who thought and acted like him, and were influenced by the socio-political climate of their time. In order to understand John, I would have to understand his environment and its polarizing elements. I needed to also unearth Stephen’s personality type and understand his struggle and pain and where this generated from.
This all happened as I was reflecting on my next engagement with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, in a production of “Lost in the Stars”. These characters inspired me to connect profoundly and explore what could be my next book. I felt that immersing myself into character analysis and intertwining that with a real historical background of Apartheid in the mid-20th century would increase not only my understanding, but also my appreciation of the regular people whom these characters represent. And more importantly, this would increase my affinity for John as well.
Out of this was born the idea for me to write another book and with it, I hope to create a dialogue that would examine more closely the conflict between the characters of John and Stephen, and what they represent, it could also be argued that these characters can be best exemplified by real life persons such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and their interfaith dichotomy as well as differences in their approaches towards the Jim Crow Laws in the US. I believe that their struggle presents an opportunity for us to look at new ways of bridging the gap and understanding this situation. Thus enters our protagonist, Diliza Sabe.
Diliza’s narrative is a historical-fiction novel inspired by my role preparation research and informed by images of my own imagination in search of a truth and understanding within historical oppressive social systems such as apartheid and segregation in mid-20th century South Africa.
The setting of this narrative is that of moving paradigm as it unfolds over international waters starting from the Bantu State of Ciskei, South Africa and subsequently, the continent of Africa. Diliza is the focal point of the narrative with supporting characters that help enhance it.
I've created Diliza based on people who, like John, are iron-willed in their cultural propensity and prospects in life. This unbending attitude is complicated by their background, beliefs and customs within an enigmatic socio-political landscape. Diliza's attitude creates a complex course in his pursuit of a better life for him and his family. Not only does his attitude create a hindrance to him personally, but it also has affected his family in a negative way—a total opposite to what his true intentions are.
Where his family and wife could be of help to him, Diliza wants to “go solo” because he believes his family cannot understand his role as the spiritual head of the house. Diliza is solitary in both pursuit and failure. However, Diliza is not alone in this predicament as many men who emerge from similar fates and cultural backgrounds such as he, also face similar results.
Now that I am in my early 30s, it is easier for me to have a better understanding of what Diliza and his peers struggle with, since we share commonalities in background. However, I have now been blessed with an incentive of travel, pedagogy and meeting people from all walks of life, which has afforded me opportunities to learn about various cultures and religions and appreciate their different manner of doing things, which has deepened my knowledge.
Through crafting Diliza and his contemporaries' experiences as children, and creating an understanding of their socio-political inculcation and lack of formal education, as well as the timeline of their lives and nuances of their culture, it becomes easier to construct a lens through which we can understand the depth of their complicated lives. This lens can then inform a social construct to enable critical conversation about current affairs.
Many people have not escaped the complicated mindset that Diliza and his contemporaries hold as their creed. While lives have improved for many since Diliza and his generation were growing up, there is still an identity crisis issue and diffidence crippling the African society at the turn of the 21st century.
I know many people like our protagonist on a personal level. Their lives have been driven by anxieties—perpetuated by frustrations of being stuck on a path which never reaches its destination. The “macho” outlook of these men also presents a problem, because they believe “Indoda ayikhali” (“a man doesn't cry”). Men are conditioned to feel that they do not cry, because to do so would show weakness, and that they should stand alone in facing difficulties.
These men also forget that communication forms partnerships and that if no one is aware of their problems, then no one can come up with comprehensive solutions to address these issues. This repetitive cycle then affects their families and children in a negative way, making them pawns, rather than partners.
Many sociological problems within working class black families stem from single-parent households what many people may have overlooked is that even in two-parent households, there can be major problems including alcoholism, illegal gambling, and the preoccupation of fathers who are beaten down spiritually and cannot connect with their children in ways they are supposed to.
Instead these fathers communicate through force and ambiguity, leaving families stunned and abused. For children in these conditions, everything is learned on the streets rather than in the home. Diliza falls into this trap when he is emotionally absent for his children, thus repeating the mistakes of his own father. Diliza’s father was away most of the year, slaving away in the gold mines, leaving young Diliza to teach himself how to be a man.
When his father did return, he did not bond with his son. Young Diliza learns how to be an adult from the streets, without his father, which creates a recipe for a complicated upbringing.
I've named him Diliza, a name which means 'to destruct', symbolizing how self-destructive his actions will be as he continues to search for solitary success. I conceived that his father named him this as an answer to the state of segregation prevalent in his time and that it was his father’s desire to dismantle the system over time. It was a prequel to how parents in the 70's and 80's would follow suit and Christen their children with political names as a way to show their disdain of segregation and call to its defeat.
My mother's uncle named me Bayempini which was a call for children of the generation of MK (Umkhonto Wesizwe, an armed wing of the African National Congress) and APLA (Azanian People's Liberation Army, an armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress) to take up arms when they came of age. For Diliza though, the name that was bestowed upon him to be a reckoning for the destruction of segregation rather becomes a curse as his life unfolds into a self-destructive fashion.
Diliza is blinded by the misconceptions of his own beliefs, his life unfolds into a cycle of blunders. Will his life continue towards this self-destructive path? Is there hope for him? is there hope for men in his shoes? Will Diliza find retribution through hard work and discernment of his shortcomings? Will he die or will he be doomed to everlasting despair?
“I have tried to live without hatred or retribution.
Absolved and caring, I thought myself someone of value but,
I’m just the help who serves others with no rewards of my own.
Frustrated also by my own defects, I act indifferently even towards my kin.
I sense violent passions growing, At times I wish to act on them,
but I palpitate and weep in despair,
Acting on those first instincts would betray the spirit of Ubuntu.
The spirit of humanness, compassion and understanding.
I descend from those who cried in vain when they had lost all,
I aligned those cries to that of my struggle.
That dream fought for by my ancestors, was it real?
It gleamed with triumph and secured equality for all,
It resuscitated black consciousness,
It lifted the dreams of the downtrodden, the suffering,
and aroused the beauty of the African Renaissance.
It put to task those who abuse their appointed positions,
and have betrayed their call to duty.
It ensured acquisition of economic freedom for all in this lifetime” Diliza Sabe
Diliza's last name, Sabe, forms part of the Jolinkomo clan within the Xhosa Nation, the second largest cultural group in South Africa after the Zulu-speaking Nation. The Xhosas form part of the Southern Nguni ethnolinguistic group of people representing two-thirds of South Africa’s Black population, together with the Zulu and the Swazi peoples. The Bantu-speaking peoples—ancestors of the Nguni and Tswana-Sotho language groups (Batswana and Southern and Northern Basotho)— migrated down from east Africa as early as the 11th century AD.
The Nguni peoples were farmers who raised cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs and horses, and grew grains, corn, beans, squash and watermelons. Because of this, the Xhosas had an abundance of wealth, status, and respect. Cattle were used to determine the price of the dowry or ‘lobola’. They were also the most acceptable offerings to the ancestral spirits during rituals.
There is no historical account as to why the Nguni (Bantu) emigrated from Central and West Africa and settled in Southern Africa, however it is likely that escaping slavery which had become prevalent in West Africa, initiated by the Portuguese together with rich West African land owners, and the need for greener pastures in the South were incentives for the migration. Once they had settled in the Northeastern part of what is now South Africa, somehow the Nguni were disbanded with the Xhosas moving into the Eastern Cape Province.
The arrival of the Dutch settlers at the Western Cape in the mid-1600s disrupted the livelihood of the San (hunters) and Khoi (farmers) who were the first dwellers of the Cape and South Africa for thousands of years. As the settlers expanded territories, they dispossessed, decimated, or enslaved the indigenous Khoi herders and imported slave labor from Indonesia, India and Madagascar for cheap labor, thus creating and entrenching a pattern of white legal dominance until Britain abolished the slave trade in 1834. The settlers pillaged through the land and committed a horrific genocide by eradicating the livelihood of the San. Small groups of remaining people fled to Namibia and Botswana.
When the British expanded their presence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries towards the east, they encountered the Nguni clans. In resisting colonial proliferation, black African chiefs founded significant and paramount kingdoms and nations by assimilating neighboring chieftainships. The result was the emergence of the modern day Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana and Venda, Xhosa and Zulu nations. The Xhosas in particular would fight with the British settlers for over one hundred years in what is now known as frontier wars, culminating in nine wars.
Before colonialism, the aristocratic chiefs had symbolized their authority by wearing special animal-skin clothing, and trinkets—the paraphernalia of power— conveying this through the functioning of tribal courts and assemblage. Chiefs were entitled by custom to show, gather, and increase their wealth through the possession of many wives and large herds of cattle. Their wealth was concentrated in livestock and people, as a result even paramount chiefs did not live a life materially much better than that of their subjects nor did they interfere with domestic affairs of their clans, they simply conferred to junior chiefs or elders.
It is only with the advent and extension of colonial capitalism that sumptuousness, high-status manufactured items, and a European education became symbols of social status. Moreover, European fashions in dress, art, housing, worship, and transport became general status symbols among all groups except rural traditional Africans by the mid-19th century.
The Sabe family descended from these Nguni families, who having lived in the South for hundreds of years were deprived of their land. By the end of the 19th century, African chiefdoms were defeated. From 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape, until 1908 when discussions for the Union of South Africa (1910) were initiated by Britain and the Afrikaners following the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), the Bantu peoples were suppressed and did not have a voice about the ruling of the country.
Even after the Union of 1910, black Africans were not included in the negotiating tables. Eighty-five more years were to pass until the Codessa negotiations concluded in 1993 demonstrating that there was some ray of hope.
This meant that three hundred and forty-one years had passed before any talks of democracy or inclusion of the black race as citizens of South Africa occurred. This system impoverished and disenfranchised the Bantu from their wealth, their belief system and overall sense of well-being. Steadily, they moved to inner cities to seek work. By the late 1990s, most of these families had become migrant laborers who constituted a large percentage of the workers in the gold mines.
Until the late 19th century, South Africa had a primarily agricultural economy that had marginally productive land and was dependent on livestock farming. Because this was the primary economic enterprise for both black Africans and settlers, conflict between those groups centered on the possession of land for livestock to graze on.
In 1867, diamonds were discovered at Kimberley in the Northern Cape. The wealth generated from this finding helped finance the exploitation of the gold sandbank on the Witwatersrand in 1886. The city of Johannesburg would be founded and built on this gold deposit.
For the development of mines for both gold and diamonds, cheap labor was required both locally and internationally, and brought in from neighboring countries such as Mozambique and Botswana. These people were housed in segregated areas or compounds which were divided into ethnic groups, and they received contracts for under 20 month periods of time. There were no assurances of re-employment, proper life insurances or union worker rights in place. Stringent health checks were in play before miners could be accepted for employment because of the dangers of working underground and the threat of pneumonia which was prevalent in the northern provinces.
Subsequent to this, the Anglo-Boer war had caused mines to close down, leaving thousands of men unemployed and destitute. What followed was a series of labor strikes and World Wars I and II which affected the markets and economy in many places around the world, spurring the Great Depression. Despite this the price of gold in South Africa hadn’t suffered heavy losses. In 1946, further gold mines were found through scientific research, discovered in the Orange Free State where Bloemfontein is (now Mangaung and the birthplace of the African National Congress). This greatly improved the African economy.
This is the year when our protagonist Diliza was born. Two years later in 1948, the Afrikaner-led National Party assumed power and the socio-political spectrum changed for everyone, and in even more radical ways for black and coloured people. Even after the union, the Afrikaners never forgot their defeat and cruel treatment by the British and what it was like to be imprisoned in concentration camps. This resentment led to the integration of Afrikaner nationalism and political dominance by the mid-20th century. The Apartheid (apartness) social hegemony was born out of this resentment and gradually hard-wired into the culture of the ruling class.
It would grow to be a well-hidden conviction that black South Africans were believed to be and treated as inferior to Caucasian South Africans and the subsequent legislations ensured that work and education opportunities for blacks would be severely limited.
The mining industry disrupted farming and ensured the devastation of provincial agriculture, which especially affected the northern provinces. Nonetheless many farm workers in southern areas like Diliza’s father migrated up to the northern provinces and the mines because of the better economic opportunities that existed there. This move converted the male provincial farmer into a migrant worker. Over time, this change produced a permanent unemployable lower class among black Africans which consequently placed many in abject poverty.
Diliza's father, while away in the mines, lived in the hostels of Alexandria, Johannesburg. He, like most miners, only visited home once a year during the Christmas season or sometimes only once every other year. It was also prevalent for many young miners to never make it back home due to death in the mines or assimilating to the fast life of the big city such as Johannesburg, particularly those who had emigrated from villages and small provincial farms and cities.
Mrs. Sabe worked as domestic help for both affluent and middle-class families in the suburbs close to King Williams Town, which would become part of the nominal independent Bantu state of Ciskei in 1972*1. Diliza went to missionary schools, which he disliked for a number of reasons.
Converting natives to Christianity had allowed the missionaries to spread their ideology and a Western way of life among 'pagan' Africans and to set up schools that would adequately educate the natives to understand and recognize church activities.
This influence of liberal integration and bigoted ideals in missionary education taught Africans to believe in the probability of gradual assimilation into the ruling class. This social process made most of those who were educated from this system and who had converted into Christianity despise their former lives and believe that they were better than their uneducated families because they were like Europeans. During the 1800s, almost all of the formal education for Africans was provided by missionary schools. By the end of the 19th century, South Africa had a missionary aggregation which exceeded almost anywhere else in the world.
After the founding of what is now Cape Town by Jan van Riebeeck in the early 1600s, there emerged a color echelon system of which physical indicators of racial origin served as the basis for. However, because of a shortage of European women in the Cape, the settlers did not preclude interracial sexual intercourse and/or procreation between themselves and slave women. This gave birth to children of mixed parentage and because of the aforementioned color echelon, these children “ranked” higher than black Africans. Eventually the Cape would soon evolve into a creole population of free people of color known today as Coloureds.
Over three centuries, the system of racial segregation gradually attained a formal legal status, culminating in the deprivation of black peoples in the 1960s. In this process, color and class came to be closely distinguished, with darker skin color legally confined to a lower social and economic status. This meant that Caucasians rated first, with Indians second, Coloureds third or upper class Coloureds in the same positions as Indians and then the native blacks in the bottom, creating a basis for economy, education, and social class formation.
In spite of this color bar in all economic areas, some Africans, Coloureds, and Indians procured a formal education and a European-style middle class cultural and economic identity as clergy, clerks, teachers, farmers, clerks, teachers, and merchants. It was from this class, educated at mission ‘native colleges’ such Lovedale College, Genadendal, St. John’s College and Fort Hare University that black nationalism and the movement for racial equality recruited many prominent leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Thambo and Allan Boesack.
From this said class also emanated clergymen like Stephen Kumalo as well as a Christian middle class, which constituted some who embraced Christianity and combined it with their native religion. This class was more likely to be involved in politics as well. Another social class discarded the native religion in favor of conservative Christianity, but in the process alienated themselves from political life or societal mandates. From this latter group, there are some in present day South Africa who abstain from voting or participating in political or civil life. They are more concerned with spirituality, church growth and evangelism, the kingdom of heaven as well as the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The emergence of this class was to be a cause for a dichotomy between what would be referred to as “amaqaba” (the uneducated) from the native religion and “amagqobhoka kunye namakrestu” (the educated and Christians). Diliza loathed this latter class because he believed they thought themselves better than everyone else and he could not understand why they shelved themselves in religious immunity when there were movements against racial segregation and other civil issues which needed every able-bodied person to take part in.
*1 Ciskei is a former republic/independent state within South Africa which was designated for the black South Africans specifically the Rharhabe sect of the Xhosa people in what is now part of the Eastern Cape Province. Through the Group Areas Act of 1950, black South Africans were forcefully removed from urban areas, stripped of their citizenship and moved to 'homelands' and rural areas where they could be taken to the Central Business Districts areas as cheap labor. Ciskei and another Bantu State, Transkei, were designed as consolidation prizes to make the black working class feel some kind of ownership. The idea was enacted in 1961 and formally legalized in 1972 with Ciskei becoming a recognized State on December 4, 1982. These Bantu states would be disbanded at the dawn of the new democracy in 1994 and fall under the now Eastern Cape Province.
CHAPTER ONE: Grandson of the Nguni
It is the first day of school and Diliza is beginning his third grade class. The first lesson on a Monday morning is a religious studies class. The Reverend Father Charleston, whom the students refer to as “father” or “master”, teaches the third grade class. He ticks the attendance list and thereafter looks on his program notes. After this he searches with his eyes through the class, and meets Diliza’s eyes. He immediately poses a question.
“ Ah, Diliza!” asks the Reverend, “ Tell me, what does your name mean?”
“It means to pull apart, father,”
“To ‘pull apart’ you say, what exactly is to be pulled apart? I’m curious,”
Diliza searches through his mind and thinks of an appropriate answer,
“My father says it's our people's answer to pulling segregation apart,”
“That's a terrible name and a sad case for your parents to think like that. But not to worry, I shall remedy the lapse in your parents’ judgment they are uncivilized heathens, after all”.
As he’s pronouncing his venomous words, the Reverend shakes his head in disbelief, he doesn’t like Diliza's answer and what his name represents. He ponders for a while, his broad mouth and laughing eyes are an indication of an impending decision that is likely to displease Diliza. The Reverend then decides to christen him with another name.
“From now on your name shall be Kevin, from the Irish language. It means to be gentle. You may roll your eyes all you like, by the grace of God or by the rod, we will train you to be obedient, show respect and appreciate the help you are receiving. We save you heathens from your ungodly ways and transform your lives to a better and civilized way, yet you refuse to come out of the darkness and see the light. You may not like this but my dear Kevin this is not an egalitarian condition, you will learn your place. God says in the bible ‘Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge : but he that hateth reproof is brutish'*2 Do you understand this?.... of course you don’t, it means if you don’t follow my instructions you’re stupid, are you stupid Kevin?”
“No Father,” responds Diliza trying to hold his tears from falling and suppress his looming anger.
“Of course not, because you know your place,”
It has become prevalent for the missionaries to give natives anglicized names for the 'convenience' of pronouncing 'easier' names, since the natives especially the Xhosa, have clicks which are hard to formulate for foreigners.
“These foreigners denounce our religion as demonic and dare to change our names and our way of life, alas, the life of a black man in this land is a conundrum. If only I were stronger and old enough I’d take him on for this insult.” whispers Diliza to a friend in a lamenting voice
Diliza wants to fight the Reverend's bidding but doing so will have unintended consequences for him. Corporal punishment is prevalent for disciplining children and Diliza knows he will be spanked should he talk back. The rod has become a symbol for teaching or ‘taming’ what the missionaries term ‘the organizationally indisposed’. This instrument will be applied at will should any ill discipline surface. Diliza has had run-ins with other teachers in the previous grades, and as a result of the spanking he has grown a hearty distaste for corporal punishment and any manly authority.
The following years at the missionary school are a test and a challenge for Diliza. He is a bright student with good grades—inquisitive and hungry for knowledge—but he feels censored on what subject matters he is allowed to explore. He also feels that the teachers are always out to get him by asking evaluative and provocative questions and yet he must steer clear of speaking his mind and expressing his passion lest the reverends retaliate and put him ‘in his place’. They have studied his personality and know he has a temper. They set him up to fail, all the time. He must become a disciplined Christian kid, at all costs.
At the age of ten, Diliza has become conscious of the extent of the reorientation from ‘heathen’ to ‘Christian’, because the missionaries have formed strong, disciplined societies and expect their converts to abandon traditional beliefs in what they deem 'sorcery' in the native religion.
Since his parents cannot afford to send him to private schools and are determined to get him an education, the missionary school is the only feasible option. But it has come at an emotional price. If only the school taught basic literacy and other regular subjects like arithmetic, African history from the African viewpoint, and geography, it would be a different situation.
Diliza wonders why they have to teach 'Christian propaganda which seeks to supplant his own religion and convictions'. From a young age Diliza has been conscious enough to regard the missionaries as untrustworthy and as an obstacle to his freedom of values. His parents instruct him on a daily basis to learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic but ignore the 'religious propaganda'. Diliza doesn’t understand the latter concept, but he has agreed to follow his parents' commands nonetheless.
The voice of his mother is always in his head whenever he feels doubt at school and he hears her saying:
“Diliza, my son, never allow those white devils to convert you from the religion of your forefathers. They want to relinquish our essential community bonds such as ‘lobola’ (dowry). They have worked to modify the economic base of our communities. Moreover, they have censored our art including music, dance, design and they have even amended what we should eat or not it. Never let them get through to you my son. Stay true to yourself and channel the spirits of Jolinkomo with you”.
Another issue which has been troubling the young Diliza is the absence of his father who isn’t always around to protect him and his younger sister, Mapule (whose name means “born during a rainy day”) and teach them Xhosa values to counter the missionary doctrine. During breakfast Diliza inquires of his father,
“Mama, father always says I will be the pride of the Sabe clan and become an important facet in the destabilization of the racial apartness. But when he returns home from the mines, he never spends time with me and Mapule. When he performs Thanksgiving rituals to thank our ancestors, why doesn’t he include me in the proceedings so that I can learn our traditional ways? And if I’m supposed to be a great man, why doesn’t he respect me?”
“My son, your father means well. But he has not learned how to communicate better with people in general. He comes from a generation where man ought to be tough and communicate more with actions. But know that he loves you and I love you as well. You and Mapule are my pride and joy, and you’re bright children who will learn just through observation and trying until you get it right. I will teach you all I know to help shape your learning. By taking care of your sister you will also learn a great deal about compassion and communication”
Mapule contrasts with Diliza’s eventual cynicism and militancy by being a righteous, positive thinking child. Diliza adores her, but his machismo at times warps his brotherly role when she wants to play and bond with him he sometimes refuses. At the bidding of his mother, he then gives in and takes her with him. As soon as his mother is out of sight, he always inserts his authority:
“Mapule, listen carefully. If you are to come with me, know your place and do exactly as I tell you, otherwise I’ll send you back home and then you can play with your dolls and build houses or whatever it is the hell girls do. Also, you are to refer to me as bhuti (big brother).”
“Yes bhuti” answers Mapule.
All she cares about is just being with him and playing ‘hide and seek’ or climbing the fig tree outside with her big brother. She is a jovial person and always wants to play, consequently it does not register to her when he’s serious. She always looks out for the positive. Her love and adoring factor wins him over, his outbursts do not last towards her. She is the gateway to his emotional side.
The unconditional love and support from their mother is also what glues the family bond and strengthening of their relationship. She is at work most of the time, but she is caring and takes care of her children as best as she can. She wakes up very early in the mornings, at around five o’clock. She is awake to prepare breakfast and school lunch and leaves for work. Nosakhele (Mrs. Sabe) spends most time with her children during dinner time when she’s back from work and on some weekends when she’s not called at work.
Diliza takes care of his sister’s morning preparations and leaves her with a neighbor ‘Aunt Vivian’ when he goes to school during the year. In December when schools are closed, he spends time with her, even amid the occasional tantrums he throws.
December is also full of activities and an important facet in the livelihoods of the Sabes and many other families and wives whose husbands only return once a year. The locals refer to this time as the "big days". This has a deeper meaning to them, as by the time they reach December 16, which is now 'reconciliation' day in South Africa, many folks who work in the firms, factories and mines have by then closed or are closing for the summer holidays and have just received their December bonuses.
There follows daily celebrations until at least January 3rd when kids prepare for school and adults have to return to work. By then money has been spent doing braais (barbecues), on new clothes, on the hosting and throwing of parties, and on buying food in bulk for the many out-of-town guests like Diliza's father and many relatives who visit families once a year, and on the ritual Thanksgiving events.
Mr. Sabe over-indulges on alcohol daily only to wake up for 'imiqabulo' (drinks to kill the hangover), and tell of the previous day's skirmishes, talking to himself like a crazed man.
“Hey, we had a blast yesterday, man that number by Hugh Masekela followed by Miriam Makheba took me back to the village mountains. Those American boys Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis may be geniuses but I’m rooting for my homeboy ‘Ma-se-ke-la’.
Let’s take one for the team …
Hey where’s my drink? Diliza where’s my drink?…
Have you stashed my drink?...
You better not, otherwise Sabe trouble will find you boy …
That rascal doesn’t answer, so rebellious, he doesn’t know his place….
Ah!!! I’ve found you castle milk stout, a beer for real man, bitter and strong like Sabe…“
He continues to drink again until he passes out on the couch. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning, but he’s already drunk.
For many families December is a time of 'Imiphumo'- where boys aged between sixteen and eighteen come out of initiation schools for the path to manhood and responsibilities. Each weekend, some family is slated to celebrate this event, which means more free meat, food and drinks for the neighbors and thus, Mr. Sabe.
With the African sun as the center of warm summer days, accompanied by wind and rain, this time has always been filled with merriment and celebrations. Though Diliza is conflicted about his father’s lack of enthusiasm he is somewhat occupied by activities with other children. The kids like dressing up in December and having new clothes and things they couldn’t afford during the year. By December 16, the schools have long closed and the Diliza gang has an abundance of time to roam free.
On Christmas Eve, Diliza and his close friends have made a pact to wake up very early on Christmas morning in order to see the Christmas sunrise. Their mothers have also agreed to wake them up by five o’clock.
As if woken up by an alarm Diliza is already up even earlier, enthusiastic and already outside, shouting “ Liphi ilanga lekrismesi?” (“where’s the Christmas sun?”) and eagerly looking out for the sun to dance*3. This day though it is not be, but that never diminishes the enthusiasm of the young souls. Upon seeing the sunrise, they are just happy to know that they have new clothes to show off to their friends later. Other children who are less privileged have gotten second-hand clothes from their mothers' work places. Those are hand-me-downs from the bosses' children, most of which are still in good condition. While others are going to wear cargo pants and Bobby socks.
After Diliza comes back from his “dancing sun” adventure, he takes a bath and has raisin bread with prickly pear jam and cool aid. His mother has already started to cook Christmas dinner. The kitchen is decked with Diliza and Mapule’s favorites: steamed bread, raisin bread, and even roasted bread from the fireside. With that his mother has also made delectable jams and marmalade from the fig trees on their back yard and peanut butter spreads. On the table mealie-rice (crushed corn kennels used to replace rice) is already cooked with potatoes in one pot, then canned fish and masbaank mackerel fish on the other pot for lunch. She also used small cabbages and butternuts from the garden which are half-cooked.
For dinner she will prepare tripe and samp (coarsely ground corn/mush), as these are favorites for both her husband and Diliza. But she also prepares ‘Hong Kong Chicken’ sauce for her baked chicken, which Mapule prefers.
After eating his breakfast and getting dressed in his new apparel, young Diliza is ready to hit the road by eleven o’clock, and his sister follows him. Noticing his tail,
“Eh, Mapule where are you going?”
“I’m coming with you”, “With me to where exactly?”
I want to come get candy with you”
“Not today lil’ sis, the boys next door and I have some work to do. You’ll slow us down”
His mother noticing the commotion gives him a glare and he complies. He’s not going to be a cause for her sorrow on Christmas day. Diliza loves Mapule and they have a very close relationship, at times though he gets restless because with her he feels he always has to be gentle, patient and understanding. His cynicism and machismo sometimes get the best of him.
He takes his sister by the arm and they go next door to his neighbors’ house to galvanize his two friends to start taking the Christmas long walk around the village, dressed up for Christmas.
“Boys and girl it’s D-day, let us pick up the pace. We have work to do. The candy is not gonna pick itself up. Plus we have to beat the competition and get as much as we can”
They then go to each house asking for candy, similar to the custom of “trick or treating” (Sicela ikrisimesi) during Halloween in the US.
“Trick or treating”. By one o’clock the three comrades and Mapule have made rounds on over ten blocks asking for candy and they’ve come up with a fine score, so the time has come to split the earnings. It is not an egalitarian enterprise, but rather a hierarchy. Diliza is the oldest at age ten, while the brothers from next door are seven and five respectively, and Mapule is four.
“Since I’m the oldest, it is the law of Qamata (God) for me to get the remnants of the candy once we’ve split them three ways, eh four ways, Agreed?”
The five year old isn’t convinced, “But why should you get more Diliza?”
“Because it is the law of the universe and you will be blessed on this day if you respect your elder, ask your brother” but before the other brother has answered, Diliza makes an executive decision
“It is settled then comrades”.
Diliza has thus won this battle. Eventually though, most of his candy is eaten by Mapule by the time they have reached home. There’s a devilishly content smile upon her cute face as the nagging to come along paid off big time.
Mr. Sabe hasn’t paid any attention to the family. That same Christmas day he returns home past midnight and demands food from his wife. There’s a shebeen (informal pub) called ‘Margaret’s Tavern’ a block from his house. After he had eaten his tripe he left for the shebeen as they sell home made beer ‘umqobothi’ which Margaret, the Shebeen Queen*4 brews herself.
This is his favorite drink including ‘Castle Milk Stout’ which he mixes with milk and as well as drinks brandy. This has made him very drunk and irrational. It is a summer day and now soaking wet outside. On his way out of the shebeen, Mr. Sabe misplaces his house keys, after a futile exercise looking for them, he decides he is going to disrupt his sleeping family.
Upon entering the house from the back door having missed some steps hits his head against the fig tree amid the haziness, he knocks hard and starts yelling as well.
“Nosakhele, wake up woman, and open this door! Do you want me to get drenched in this damned rain?
There is no response. He continues to yell louder and starts kicking and smashing his fists against the weathered door. By now Nosakhele has been abruptly awoken. Meanwhile Diliza and Mapule have also been awoken by this noise, they hear their mother scamper to the door as the nearby neighborhood dog takes up his low-pitched barking.
“Hayibo Diliza’s father-(she never refers to him by his name), why do you wake me up this late, where are your keys?” inquires Nosakhele
“Woman, know your place, open this goddamn door or else I will knock you cold!” affirms the abuser.
“Okay wait, allow me to get dressed and I’ll come open the door” says Nosakhele.
Mr. Sabe by now is collapsing his head against the back door, singing gibberish off-key. The side door flies open as soon as she releases the bolt, nearly hitting her in her lowered head she ducks and he falls right on his face. By now Diliza and Mapule have started making their way through the living room from their sleeping rooms to the kitchen where the drama is unfolding, they are stopped by a loud cursing voice.
“Kwedini, why the hell are you up? Take your sister with you and go back to sleep. You all do not know your place, I’m the head of this house. You are sheep, you are donkeys and I’m a lion. A donkey or sheep cannot lead a lion. When I tell you to tow the line you follow suit. do you hear me?; I’m hungry, make me food, woman.”
The children and Nosakhele are now scared and they follow orders as instructed. Diliza is angry at the way his father treats his mother, but knows better than to interfere when his father is in a drunken rage. He still bears a scar on his right arm where he had been badly cut by a broken glass table top, broken as Diliza was thrown into the table by his father last time he visited.
Diliza comforts little Mapule until she falls asleep. He never leaves her sight as he doesn’t know what his drunk father may do next.. After getting the food he wanted, Mr. Sabe demands sex, right in the kitchen. When Nosakhele refuses, he starts hitting her.
All the traumatized Diliza can hear are screams from Nosakhele and his father yelling “Shift position, Nosakhele, you are a sheep and I am a lion”.
“Do not worry my young sister, I will be your defense against that monster and any other person who might try to hurt you. If only I were stronger to subdue and beat the hell out of my father” affirms Diliza as he caresses the sleeping Mapule, with tears falling from his cheeks.
Nosakhele doesn’t report this to the police nor to the neighbors, instead she keeps it all in, like many abused women who are scared to report abuse crimes for the fear of reprisals. Diliza doesn’t understand the rationale for her decision but Nosakhele is still holding on to the hope of a family unit and raising her children within a two parent home.
This experience increases Diliza’s hate but even more than his hate, it increases his affinity for his mother and his sister whom he feels protective towards. Mapule is still too young to notice what is going on, but Diliza has noticed it all.
Meanwhile Mr. Sabe wakes up the following day, unashamed and acts unaware of what he has done the previous night. The children and Nosakhele are in the kitchen eating breakfast. He yawns and raises his arms waking himself up while sitting on the table, ready for breakfast. He neither greets his family nor apologize for yesterday’s occurrence,
“Pass me the milk kwedini and don’t stare at me, don’t you have grass to cut or something?” he eats his oatmeal and completely oblivious as to why everyone is looking at him like that. Some form of amnesia seems to have crept up on him about yesterday’s events. They all leave him at the kitchen, disgusted.
“Women are an enigma, she’s mad for no apparent reason and it’s not even nine o’clock yet. Nosakhele should know her place…
Didn’t I leave my milk stout here yesterday? Boy I had a blast yesterday…
And now to wake up to this morning drama like I’m supposed to read her mind. What am I, a diviner with gifts from uQamata and the ancestors?
She’s teaching this boy her tricks. My boy will not become effeminate. He is the Sabe hope, a men’s man finish and klaar”
Diliza has long wished his father's irregularly-scheduled visits would be happier family affairs. He wanted his father to help him through his adolescence, but Mr. Sabe has no time for his boy. The miner rarely has more than two weeks in the villages but he wants to spend as much of this time with his chums and at the shebeen as much as is possible.
But of late, while young Diliza, like the rest of the children, also love December holidays he does not appreciate his father's conduct and prefers spending time playing or visiting with his friends and being away from home as much as is possible. What brings him home more often that he would like to is to check on his young sister and takes care of her when his mother is at work. Although many people have closed for work, Nosakhele as a domestic worker only has off from work on Christmas, Boxing day and New Years Day.
Diliza’s father is not helpful, instead he delegates work to Diliza by giving him daily chores such as cutting the grass, pulling weeds or other manly deemed housework which Diliza is always at pains to do. Perhaps being a macho man hasn’t allowed Mr. Sabe the luxury of a father-son relationship like every human being. Everything with him has to be tough to 'strengthen' Diliza even though he is hardly sober enough to earn the respect he wants given to him.
“Kwedini Diliza! (young Diliza!) I'm helping you to be strong so that you'll be self-sufficient when you become a man!” exclaims Mr. Sabe.
But Mr. Sabe never feels a need to have regular conversations and talk to him about school or girls or anything a young boy may need to learn from his father. He hardly has time for his young daughter and see to her attention and needs.
It is ironic that although Mr. Sabe has these flaws, he still demands respect.
He regularly says “I'm your father, kwedini Diliza,” or to his wife “I'm the head of this house, Nosakhele,” or “You are a woman, know your place”.
Mr. Sabe leaves less to be desired because of this conduct. In Xhosa there's a saying “Indoda yindoda ngemisebenzi” (“A man is a man owing to his works and deeds”). What this means on an intrinsic and deeper level is that a man must adhere to many societal norms. But since Diliza doesn’t think his father measures up, he becomes emotionally distant from him. The streets and his peers provide him with everything else he thinks he needs.
“To hell with my old man! He is always drunk, he possesses no timing to realize what's really going and that the sun has set,” complains Diliza to one of his friends. It amazes Diliza how quickly his father's violent outbursts seem to disappear after his anger has been spent on his petite wife. Diliza does not know it but his father is plagued by the same sense of despair that the teenager is now experiencing. Neither male in the family seems to see a path to happiness.
Seeing his mother beaten and sexually harassed by his father has fueled the already burning malaise, hate and confusion in Diliza's heart. After the holidays are over, Diliza increasingly spends more time with his friends on the streets where trial and error become the norm of his learning curve. Diliza is left confused because his mother has refused to report it. Part of him hates what has happened but there’s another part that develops the misguided foundation where he thinks it’s permissible for him to behave that way towards girls. With his mother always at work during the year and his father in Johannesburg, the stage is set for mischief and the following few years will cause conflict between Diliza and his mother especially with the change of houses from the rural areas to the city of Zwelitsha.
* 2 Proverbs 12:1 (KJV)
*3 He and his young friends believe in a myth shared by so many that on Christmas day the sun dances, celebrating the birth of Christ. He doesn’t care about the birth of Christ part, but he’ll celebrate the dancing sun nonetheless.
*4 Shebeens were operated illegally by women who were called Shebeen Queens, this itself a tribute and revival of the African tradition where alcohol brewing was a women’s responsibility. The Shebeen Queens sold home-brewed alcohol and also provided patrons with a place to meet and discuss political and social issues. Often both patrons and owners were arrested by the police only to return and reopen their spots.
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