Novelist, poet and short story writer Mandla Langa’s latest book, The Lost Language of the Soul, is a coming-of-age tale set largely in Zambia and apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s. The novel chronicles the odyssey of Joseph Mabaso, the son of an Umkhonto weSizwe soldier who goes in search of his mother after her sudden disappearance from their home in Lusaka. The search takes Langa’s teenage protagonist through various towns and borders until he ends up in South Africa.
History is also at the heart of Mphuthumi Ntabeni’s fiction. He won the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize in 2019 for The Broken River Tent, a novel about the life and times of Maqoma, the Xhosa traditional leader who was at the forefront of fighting British colonialism in the Eastern Cape during the 19th century. His new novel, The Wanderers, tells the story of a South African woman’s search for her father, Phaks, an exiled freedom fighter who never returned home, even after apartheid had been dismantled.
Bongani Kona: There are several thematic threads connecting your novels, but I’d like to pick up on your interest in the lives of Umkhonto weSizwe soldiers. How did each of you relate to the idea of Umkhonto weSizwe when you were growing up? Mandla, you were part of the 16 June detachment.
Mandla Langa: My first encounter with the idea of Umkhonto weSizwe started quite early, well before I left home for exile in 1976. My eldest brother Sam had a friend who was a teacher, and I could gather from the conversations in our house in Mayville, Durban, that there was some unease about the fact that this friend had left the country. And in those days, when leaving the country to go to exile, people would say that he’s left the country to go to Russia.
And then there was my other brother Ben, who used to tune in to these foreign radio frequencies. And on one of those frequencies, I think, the ANC was actually broadcasting not from Ethiopia but from the Soviet Union, and somehow Ben was able to get that frequency. And that’s when I started to know that there were things called Umkhonto weSizwe, that they were people who were out there, learning how to fight, who would then come back and become part of the liberation army in South Africa.
Then much later, in 1972, I was a member of the Black Consciousness Movement, and at that time there were people who were already quite unhappy about the trajectory or the pace of the struggle. People like Keith Mokoape, who then later became one of the commanders of Umkhonto weSizwe. At the General Students’ Council in Hammanskraal in 1972, Keith and two others declared that they were sick and tired of student politics, and that they were going to leave the country and go and join Umkhonto weSizwe.
Those three, in essence, for me, became physical embodiments of what Umkhonto weSizwe was. Then of course I myself left to join in 1976.
Mphuthumi Ntabeni: I also grew up in the townships and at some stage it became fashionable, people going to join Umkhonto weSizwe and all those things. Many of them didn’t return, although some did. But I was always interested in those who decided not to return. Some stayed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, some went to places like Sweden and others stayed in Tanzania, etc. But I wasn’t really looking for a particular Umkhonto weSizwe story.
When I write, I always try to find what happens when history collides with personal experience. I was always kind of baffled by those who decided not to come back. What is the story behind that decision? Did they feel betrayed by what had happened? As a novelist, I’m drawn to unhealthy silences and that was my motivation.
Kona: Mphuthumi, you wrote in a recent essay for the Sunday Times newspaper: “I’m deliberate in my reading of history. I look for conflicting truths, suppressed facts, unhealthy silences, to create fictional parallel worlds.” Can you expand on these unhealthy silences? And what are some of the conflicting truths and suppressed facts you bumped up against while writing The Wanderers?
Ntabeni: When we write about our history, we tend to write about that generation that went into exile in 1976, but not the people who stayed behind during the 1980s, which I think was the most chaotic time in our townships. That chapter is just kind of left behind, as if there was nothing happening, and when we talk now, we talk only about that generation that came back from exile.
I wanted to use the generation of 1976 [in The Wanderers] to fill that gap, and I also wanted to alert those who don’t know that a lot of things were happening in the townships. We lost a lot of people, and there was a lot of confusion. When we listen to people from exile, they often say we have no idea how much apartheid security forces affected people. People were suspicious of each other, you could never know who was a spy and who was not, but the same thing was happening in the townships. Some of the people who died, didn’t only die at the hands of the apartheid regime, they died at the hands of our own people.
My township in Queenstown, Mlungisi, for instance, has the invidious honour of being known as the first township where the practice of necklacing started. I can remember how easily those things used to happen. I remember that chaos of almost everybody being suspected of being an apartheid spy. So that’s the confusion I wanted to depict in my book, to say that there was also this and it’s not right for us to keep quiet about it, because we lost a lot of people. And when we look back, you realise that most of them were totally innocent.
Langa: I think every struggle is full of ambiguities and every struggle is incredibly messy. Ours was no exception.
When it comes to the different generations, and this is the point I wanted to get into, the ones who were in the camps in 1976 found the older generations and said to them that you guys are wasting time here. We are coming here for six months, we’re going to learn how to fight, then we’re going to go back to sort out that mess inside South Africa. And then the generation of the 1976 found itself being eclipsed by the generation of the 1980s, who came from the bloodiest period in our history, because we must remember there was an escalation of violence and there was an escalation of the struggle.
There were so many human rights atrocities, right across the board, even within the liberation movement itself. That was the period when a lot of people were imprisoned for exactly the thing that Mphuthumi is talking about, of being suspected of being informers.
This is not the place for me to speak about this, but in my own family there was a tragedy that occurred because of this issue of people being labelled as informers. And so, I think one thing we must always remember is that the underpinning of any struggle, especially a long and protracted one, is the incidence of betrayal. There will always be that, and that has also been one of the enduring themes that I’ve gone into in the various books that I’ve written, especially with this, The Lost Language of the Soul.
Kona: Mandla, can you tell us about the genesis of The Lost Language of the Soul? Was this a story you’d carried with you for a long time? And how much of your own experience did you channel into the novel?
Langa: It’s something I’ve carried with me for a long time and the spark, as it were, was in 2008 and 2015, when there were those xenophobic attacks in South Africa. I kept thinking that there must be a way we can speak to this, possibly not directly, but in some creative form.
For instance, I wanted to write a novel with a Mozambican main character because of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, the so-called Burning Man, but I thought that was too close. And also, it would limit the possibility of fiction, because it’s a ready-made scenario and I didn’t want that. I wanted something that I would create from the novel, as it were, and so hence the young boy [protagonist Joseph Mabaso]. He is 14 and in many cultures, that is the year of transition. And so The Lost Language of the Soul is a story also of how a person gets to be initiated from a previous life into a new life.
Now, whether any of my own history can be found in the novel… As with any writer, there will be itsy-bitsy autobiographical material or stuff that you have encountered somewhere. But more importantly, for me, it was the country of Zambia, because I have stayed there. And a country is something that impacts itself on you much more heavily once you’ve left it. When you’re in it, I think you take it for granted. But once you leave it, then you acquire the detachment, that possibility of exercising memory to recreate it for yourself. And so for me this was, I think, the overarching theme. But much more importantly, I wanted people to know where some of these people that we despise and hold in contempt in South Africa, where they come from, how they lived and what they did for us.
Kona: The Wanderers and The Lost Language of the Soul take readers through different countries on the continent – Botswana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe – and further, to places such as Russia. Could you say something about that?
Ntabeni: Touching on this point about xenophobia in South Africa, when I started writing The Wanderers, I kept thinking about the insularity of our literature. It just looks within itself and doesn’t look outside. Most of the time, you’ll find that the popular literature in South Africa, it’s either obsessed with South Africa or heavily influenced by the West. It’s as if we don’t exist in Africa and this is the reason why I decided I’m going to set this book in two countries, but it’s actually three countries: Tanzania, Rwanda and South Africa. Just to break out of that cycle of insularity in South African literature.
And, I think also, we need to be careful about this as writers and cultural practitioners, not to depict South Africa as an isolated country that wants to exist in the West and does not exist on the continent, if you know what I mean. Because in South Africa, you find that people know more about Western literature than they do about African literature. So yeah, that was one of my motivations.
Kona: Your first novel, The Broken River Tent, went much further back in time, to the long resistance against British colonialism in the Eastern Cape. Then The Wanderers takes us into the second half of the 20th century. Did you plan it that way? Both books are also populated with ghosts, the voices of characters long dead whose main function seems to be to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.
Ntabeni: I wrote the books almost simultaneously, because I would get tired of living in the 18th and the 19th centuries, and I wanted to come to a history that is closer to us.
In 1994, our spirits were very high. We had gained our freedom and almost all of us missed what was happening in Rwanda. And so, in a way, I wanted to compare the countries and their transitions [Phaks’ partner Efuoa comes from Rwanda] to see where we are now, because there is this sense of disappointment, of deep disappointment in South Africa, with what Phaks considers to be a sham of freedom, freedom that has no justice. Then, growing up in the 1980s, I had no choice but to collide with historical events.
Someone was saying The Wanderers is an evocation of ghosts, the ghosts of history. And I think that’s a good term because there is so much we don’t talk about. I’m also of the generation that was affected by the HIV and Aids pandemic [Phaks is HIV-positive]. I don’t know why we’re so silent about that when we lost a lot of people during that pandemic. I was writing a book about a pandemic, and then it got published while we’re under another pandemic. It was a strange but beautiful coincidence because I had always wanted to write about the experiences of HIV and Aids because I lost a lot of friends during that time. I always say that we never talk about that era, and I don’t know why.
Kona: Could you both speak about the meanings behind the titles of your novels?
Langa: My children, some of them were born in Zambia, one of them was born in Lusaka, and when they were playing they would be speaking in Chinyanja with the Zambian kids, but when we came nearer they would switch to isiZulu or English. That always struck me, the fact that there are so many layers to each and every one of us but we do not allow those layers to speak to each other, we suppress them. And for me the issue of language then, it’s a trope, it’s a motif. It’s a leitmotif that speaks to… I’ll call it the sempiternal connection of our people, right across the board, from Cape to Cairo. But much more importantly, lots of our people have died in various places but because of apartheid and its depredations, the raids in neighbouring countries, there have been people in host countries also dying together with South Africans.
So, there is that blood connection. And for me, then, this speaks in a more visceral way of an indelible connection. The lost language of the soul is when we blaspheme that, when we get involved in retrograde activities, and call each other all these backward names. When we vilify each other, when we are involved in xenophobia, that is where the loss begins. But it is also a metaphysical loss, at the level of the young man [Joseph] when it comes to his relationship with his own country [Zambia] and the relationship with the new country [South Africa] that is actually his.
It’s all those features at work that finally came up with the lost language of the soul.
Ntabeni: For me, the title of The Wanderers was clear from the start. I happen to be part of the amaMfengu clan and I’ve always had this notion that at some stage I would like to write the history of amaMfengu, how they were dispersed by the Mfecane and even before that, by the Portuguese slave traders, and then they had to go to the Eastern Cape, to Lesotho, to Swaziland, to Zimbabwe, to Zambia, to Mozambique. You find amaMfengu everywhere. We became the blighted wanderers, as they call it.
So, for me, the topic was clear from the start, and then immediately I had decided that Phaks will not come back to South Africa. He himself became this wanderer. He’d been wandering all over and always relying on the kindness of strangers.
Similar to Mandla, I also wanted to show South Africans that before this so-called freedom of ours, we relied a lot on the kindness of other African states and other African people.
Kona: “Mandela is free! Is that enough? Those who fought against us are now his protectors and guardians,” Phaks writes in one of his journals. “They acquired him the way others acquire a myth – as a manipulative symbol for reconciliation and keeping the status quo of their own privilege. They made him into a justification for their immoral gains against the demands of justice by the majority.” There’s an undercurrent of disillusionment running through both books. Could you each reflect on that?
Langa: You know, taking something I’d read in Ayi Kwei Armah’s Why Are We So Blest?, I did write in The Lost Language of the Soul about an old warrior with a broken leg, talking to somebody about the war in which they had been involved, and he asked this question, who won? Now, one way or the other, we have been involved in some war in South Africa, in southern Africa, and our people have struggled. Our people had a vision of an incredible, free democratic future, and it was a future not only for themselves but for their children.
And so when then, the betrayals begin, when the corruption of the spirit starts, when those who are given the responsibility of holding the future, or the treasury of the people in trust, start to act in a way that is anathema to that dream the people had in the past, I think you then as an artist, as a writer, as a poet… you have to carry some of the feelings of the community. And so, some of the feelings of the community translate themselves into the stuff that we write, into the characters that we have moulded. It cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be seen or be read as pessimistic, because with every ending, one has got to leave with a notion that it’s young people who are here, and they will fashion their own future. They will make sure that they don’t repeat those mistakes that we have made.
Ntabeni: I couldn’t have said it better myself. When we look at what is happening now, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that things could have been much better if we hadn’t made all these mistakes. And it’s our duty to show the next generation where the mistakes were made, so that they can learn from them.
Remember I talked about how I don’t like these unhealthy silences? If in the past we refused to remain silent against the apartheid regime, we should [do] likewise with our own people when they betray our hopes. But the thing about South Africans is that we are eternally hopeful, and we’re always optimistic. So, we will forge ahead, but we must always hold our leaders to account. As writers, our duty is to show where the mistakes have been made.