WANNER: Free at last in the Soweto that gave me spirit to write
What you need to know:
- But it is also in this same Soweto that the first draft of The Madams was written.
- At that time, I was working as a publicist for the Alf Kumalo Museum in the Soweto neighbourhood of Diepkloof Extension.
- The title was much more grandiose than the wages that got into my bank account at the end of the month.
- What the job lacked for in salary, it more than made up for in giving me free time though.
I am in Soweto for the Abantu Book Festival. Founded by Thando Mgqolozana, it is the first book festival of its kind in this satellite town of Johannesburg that the apartheid machinery named South Western Townships. Being here reminds me that the writer in me was created here.
I first came to Soweto at the age of 15. The African National Congress had just been unbanned and my late father, who was in the military wing of the now governing party, could now come home with his family freely after 29 years of exile. I arrived on a plane from Harare with a ticket I would later find out was given to many of my exile cousins by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. My mother was not with me and would follow later. I did not kiss the ground, as she suggested I do upon first stepping in South Africa. That would have been too demonstrative and embarrassing. My father picked me in my Uncle Velile’s Honda Ballade and took me to what would be my home for the holidays — Uncle Velile and Auntie Thembi’s home in the Soweto suburb of Protea North.
On that very same day of my arrival, my younger cousins Zuko and Loyiso decided they needed to show me around. They informed me that there was a white boy who had seen me and liked me. My 15-year-old mind was pleasantly surprised that South Africa had already transformed so much since the unbanning of political parties that we already had white people in the townships. I would later learn that ‘white’ was township parlance for light-skinned when I met our neighbour Mandla.
But Zuko and Lolo did more to look out for my social life. They also introduced me to their friend’s sister Mpumi. Mpumi became my immediate best friend when I went to her home and saw a room that her father had set aside as library. Her father and veteran Drum journalist ZB Molefe has, to this day, one of the best home libraries I have. It is he who said to me after I presented him a copy of The Madams 10 years ago — dedicated to him by the way: “Well done. But baby, we all have a book in us. When you write your third novel, come back to me and I will then call you an author.” I came to him with a smirk and my third book four years later and he did call me an author. For some reason, that has always stuck out to me as a greater accomplishment than any award I have been shortlisted for or won.
But it is also in this same Soweto that the first draft of The Madams was written. At that time, I was working as a publicist for the Alf Kumalo Museum in the Soweto neighbourhood of Diepkloof Extension. The title was much more grandiose than the wages that got into my bank account at the end of the month. What the job lacked for in salary, it more than made up for in giving me free time though.
At that time, with no computer of my own, I had enough free time at work to write the very first draft of The Madams in a space of three weeks. The boss’ car was loud and one could hear it as he parked it in the driveway. As such, I always had sufficient time to close the window on the computer, open another one and pretend I was working tirelessly at archiving photographs or writing funding proposals.
And so when Thando was discussing Abantu with me and suggested that it would be in Soweto, there was something special about hearing this. Abantu in many Nguni languages, means people. In South Africa, there is a word for people of a paler hue — abelungu. And so when the word abantu is used, it means darker-skinned folk.
On Wednesday afternoon after the media conference as the writers and the volunteers danced, it occurred to me that this was the very first time that I have seen dancing at the beginning rather than the end of the festival.
I first arrived in Soweto when I was 15, but for the first time in my life on Wednesday, I felt truly free in this Soweto that birthed the writer that I am.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya. [email protected]