Author Interview: South African Novelist Zakes Mda on Mandela, Apartheid, and Ubuntu

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Zakes Mda by Jim Shirey
Zakes Mda speaks at the Central Library on Feb. 16. (Photo: Jim Shirey)

As a boy in South Africa, Zakes Mda saw his father dragged off by police in the middle of the night. His crime was criticizing the racist white government.

He saw family friend Nelson Mandela thrown into prison for his opposition to apartheid.

And while still a teen he followed his father into exile in the British Protectorate of Basutoland (now Lesotho) – all because of the belief that black Africans should control their own destinies.

That would seem more than enough reason for Mda (pronounced mmmm-DAH) to nurse a case of anger and bitterness.

And yet those negative emotions are nowhere to be found in his new memoir, Sometimes There Is A Void.

Mda, 63, says it’s because of Ubuntu, an African philosophy that embraces brotherhood, charity and interconnectedness.

It’s a bit like the American concept of “forgive and forget,” Mda explained in a recent phone conversation from Athens, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Ohio.

“The forgive part is very important. But not the forget part. We don’t want to forget. What happened in the past is part of who we are, part of our identity. We remember so that the lessons of the past can be used in the future.”

Mdu will read from his memoir and discuss his colorful life on February 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kansas City Public Library Central Library, 14W. 10th St.

Ubuntu, Mda went on to explain, is the reason why the collapse of apartheid in the early 1990s was not followed by a vengeful bloodbath as newly empowered black citizens took the reins of government.

“That revenge never took place precisely because so few of us have a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “I’m not unique that way. It’s part of what Ubuntu is all about.”

In recent years, though, Mda has seen a waning of Ubuntu’s influence, especially among young South Africans angry about the economic hardships that continue to afflict the country’s impoverished majority.

“They see that black people who are politically connected have benefited from this new situation, but most have not reaped the fruits of liberation. Most still live in poverty.

“That causes lots of resentment. And it’s not just directed at the new black elite. It is acquiring racial undertones because white South Africans continue to enjoy a much higher standard of living.”

One of Mda’s boyhood memories – recounted in his memoir -- is of being with Nelson Mandela and laughing at a poor man’s rattletrap car.

“You laugh at that man’s car,” Mandela told him “yet you don’t even have one like that.”

Mda said he appreciated the lesson, but in recent years has taken a critical view of Mandela.

“I’m not really in awe of Nelson,” he said. “I knew him long before he became a monumental figure, back when he was just a lawyer from Johannesburg. I’m actually a bit amused by his deification.”

In fact, Mda has written editorials in South African newspapers criticizing what he regards as the patronage politics and cronyism of Mandela’s presidency and its failure to spread the nation’s wealth among all people.

For that reason, he says, he does not feel completely welcome in South Africa, though he has a second home in Johannesburg and spends part of his year there.

In fact, Mda has lived in America since 1981. After his first flush of success as a writer of plays – before they were banned, his works were popular in South Africa though he was forbidden to enter the country to view the productions – he took a teaching job in America.

Initially his award winning novels – Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness, The Whale Caller – were set exclusively in South Africa. But in recent works the locale shifts between Africa and America … a reflection of his own situation as a resident of two countries.

Mda said that his children are a constant reminder that his life straddles two worlds.

“Intellectually they consider themselves South Africans. But emotionally and culturally they are Americans.

“When they speak with me, they speak in an accent very akin to a South African one. But when they talk to their friends they are completely American. It happens automatically.

“And while they like to think of themselves as South Africans and are proud of it, the reality is that they are Americans who would be very much out of place in South Africa.”

Like most Americans, Mda said, his children are largely ignorant about the outside world, especially about Africa.

“To them Africa is a big village. They don’t realize that it contains hundreds of specific cultures enjoying many different levels of development.”

Which brings Mda back to the idea of Ubuntu. It began as a rural, tribal idea, he said, but now it is threatened by modernism.

“The vast majority of South Africans have been urbanized. They live in cities, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world like anywhere else. In that situation it is hard for Ubuntu to flourish.”

More Interviews:
The Kansas City Star
The Boston Globe

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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