Aryan Kaganof

The Release, Eric Miyeni, Umuzi, 2012 Fools of Melville, Andile Mngxitama, Sankara Publishers, 2013 Khalo’s Letter to Mandela, Shameela Seedat, CCTV, 2013

On page 137 of The Release Eric Miyeni writes:
A t T h o m a s ’s h o u s e J e r e m y t o o k d a g g a f o r t h e f i r s t t i m e a s i t w e n t around and was amazed that nobody cared that his lips had touched it and that they carried on smoking it after he had sucked on it. We r e t h e s e r e a l l y w h i t e p e o p l e ? T h a t n i g h t , h e w a s i n t r o d u c e d t o L i n t o n Kw e s i J o h n s o n . E v e r y b o d y e l s e w a s s u r p r i s e d t h a t h e , t h e only black in the group, was the only one who did not know LKJ. Linton crooned pain on this strange night and brought tears to J e r e m y ’s e y e s . A l l b e c a u s e t h i s w h i t e b o y l o v e d t h i s m u s i c s o a n d told Jeremy as much.

The scene is moving on many levels. No matter how perfectly Jeremy attempts to replicate the tropes of white success, his (replicated) success remains entirely ersatz because success in an anti-black world, what the white world always has been and still is, is always and only against himself. In other words, paradoxically, every time Jeremy succeeds at a particular milestone in his life’s journey, he feels a peculiar sense of failure; success in the white world actually drains his life energy, depletes him. The more successful he is, the worse he feels about himself. The only way to understand this apparent conundrum is to realise that the world as we know it is anti-black and that, for a black subject, success in this world is self-defeating, a kind of perpetual suicide bombing with all of the pain and none of the closure. It is precisely from this nervous condition that Jeremy seeks his release. Hence the title of Miyeni’s book.

bewailed does not happen enough in South Africa (if at all). When whites cultivate an interest in black culture it is always an anthropological imperative that is being addressed. When Jeremy discovers LKJ through the medium of the daggasmoking white hipsters, his experience of his own blackness is entirely anthropological: “Everybody else was surprised that he, the only black in the group, was the only one who did not know LKJ.” This sentence presupposes that knowing LKJ is akin to a sense faculty for a black subject, that knowing LKJ is somehow ingrained into black consciousness itself. Here, in their very love of presumed black culture, the whites again reduce the black to something essential, to something closer to animal than human. More repugnant than this reductio ad absurdum is of course that Jeremy shares this moment with them as they do. He absorbs their surprise and is made aware that his blackness is always the subject of calibration by whites. Instead of being scandalised by these kaffir boeties, Jeremy sucks on the dagga joint, passes it around and becomes maudlin in their company. “All because this white boy loved this music so and told Jeremy as much.” Tears come to Jeremy’s eyes as he appreciates his white friend’s love of the trope of his blackness. He is actually grateful for being turned into an animal by the white gaze; it is certainly better than nothing, for is it not so that all striving by blacks for success in the white world is based on the assumption that the black world is nothing; not even nothing, but less than nothing, not even a world, a lack? Miyeni’s novel is about this lack, about the yearning to be released from this lack.

The reader cannot help feeling a frisson of horror at the sense of self-abjection conveyed by Jeremy as his lips suck on the dagga joint. Jeremy is seeing his lips through the eyes of the white partygoers around him; he dissociates from his own experience of the event and lives the moment as he imagines a white would. He expects a reaction of revulsion from the whites when the dagga joint is passed from his lips to theirs. When no such reaction is forthcoming, the split in his consciousness is not normalised, he does not feel ‘accepted’ or ‘human’ in the manner of the vaunted nonracial Charterist tradition, but rather experiences the event in the form of a question: “Were these really white people?” Jeremy is split and can only ever experience the world as an incessant shimmering between black death and white life. Black aspires to white life but can never gain this life because white life is built on black death, is black death. The Release is a novel profoundly grounded in this understanding. Or to put it another way, one cannot make head or tail of this book, of protagonist Jeremy’s inexorable journey into self-destructive violence, without being grounded in this clear metaphysical understanding: whiteness is death to blacks. Blacks cannot succeed in the white world, for to succeed in the white world is to be dead as a black. It was his profound understanding of this predicament that made comedian Dave Chappelle turn his back on a $50 million contract and flee the United States to Africa where he lived for a year avoiding the slave catchers. But there is no release from the perpetual slavery of the black condition. This is what The Release is about. It is a wonderful leap of the imagination to have Jeremy experience Linton Kwesi Johnson, a seminal trope of blackness, through the mediation of his white buddies. Except LKJ isn’t “a trope of blackness” unless one is white. Here something interesting happens. Here we have an example of the kind of thinking that Ashraf Jamal has 64

Stockholm Syndrome
All black South Africans suffer to a lesser or greater degree from this condition. Stockholm Syndrome is the condition whereby a captured subject falls in love with the ideological programme of his or her captors and so fully identifies with this programme that he or she voluntarily joins the captors and becomes a faithful adherent of the captors and their ideas. The most explicit example of this national conditioning of Stockholm Syndrome is Nelson Mandela, who emerged after 27 years of incarceration in love with the culture of his captors. When Jeremy’s tears pop into his eyes at the love of the white boy for LKJ’s music we are reading a textbook manual on the operation of Stockholm Syndrome. Jeremy is grateful that a member of his oppressors has validated and vindicated the awful lack of his blackness by loving a music that he did not even know existed until this white man introduced him to it. The ironies are myriad here – Jeremy actually receives a missing piece of his (b)lack self from the white friend, who presumes to know what a black should know – why else would he be surprised when Jeremy indeed does not know LKJ? If the truth be told, Jeremy is in the den of his slave catchers and it is a testament to Miyeni’s rigour that the entire pack of them are exposed as such a little later in the book.

Perhaps inevitably there is no release from this so-called New South Africa and the novel’s utterly grim and futile finale sees Jeremy turning his gun on his black brother instead of his white captors. The Release is an implosion of black-on-black violence that exactly serves the white world best. The book operates as fiction but it might as well be called A Manifesto of Hopelessness. In short, it offers no release. On page 85 of Fools of Melville Andile Mngxitama writes:
The following morning Nceda arrived with food. They shared. Then she searched under her bed, many tins were opened until she came to the one filled with two hundred rand notes. It was a result of many months of work and saving. She thrust the money in the hands of Mngoma and said, “you go and continue the fight and let our gods be with you. This is my little contribution” . Mngoma had learned the previous night from the soured tongues of the women who were not afraid to show their nakedness to strange men, about Nceda’s ways to stay alive in a place of death. How could he take the money earned from such deeds, from one whose pain was heavier than any one he knew? She looked at him with the eyes of the fire of war. He couldn’t refuse the contribution.

Mngxitama is a controversial figure in South Africa, not least because he seems to be the only writer who has systematically and fearlessly exposed the Emperor’s New Clothes of the ‘post-apartheid’ period. He seems to write in a frenzy. The two short pieces that comprise Fools of Melville are screaming for more work, for a re-write, for revisions. Perhaps it is apposite that he has chosen to publish in this barely-finished form because this writing has less to do with what the whites have called literature all these years and more to do with black survival. This is not humanist writing. This writing chooses for black life first, whatever that might turn out to be after the living death of blackness is excoriated, made visible, certified insane, demonised, hung up to dry, whatevered, given, in short, a chance to breathe. It’s not just hungry writing, it’s not just angry writing, it’s not badass like Bongani Madondo, it’s not all over the place and without caps or punctuation like Lesego Rampolokeng; it’s abrasive, sharp, shards, shitty. It’s not Slavoj Zizek and it’s probably not the writing that Ashraf Jamal was hoping for when he wondered why South Africa hadn’t produced any great thinkers, but it’s exactly the writing that a thinker would write if South Africa had any thinkers now. Filmmaker Khalo Matabane is the third Fool of Melville, perhaps the greatest of all three because he’s actually very good at what he does, which is invent new forms for the documentary. In the strangely titled Khalo’s Letter to Mandela, Shameela Sadat documents Matabane making a documentary about Nelson Mandela. The gleefully irreverent Matabane describes being inspired by the firing squad of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and then goes on to spend minutes recounting in glorious detail how he would like to arrange a firing squad to publicly shoot corrupt government officials and leave their bodies rotting for the vultures to eat. The scene is hilarious because of the reaction of white film producer, Dan Jawitz, who sits next to Khalo throughout the tirade gulping down his soup, wondering if it will be his turn next. But here’s the rub: Khalo can imagine putting corrupt black politicians in front of a firing squad, yet he cannot imagine doing the same to apartheid generals. The film closes with a passionate discourse by Matabane to his filmmaker friend, Akin Omotoso, at a Melville eatery:
And I think that most intellectuals and most people on the left undermine the fact that the majority of black people, especially black women, understood that their lives could never change by Mandela’s ideas of reconciliation and forgiveness, but they had hoped that their children and their grandchildren’s lives would be different. They understood that they were the sacrificial lambs; they understood that they were sacrificing themselves for their children and their grandchildren. What people do not accept is the fact that their children’s – and it looks like their grandchildren’s – lives are going to mirror their own lives. That is what is scary I think for most people.

Violence explodes at the end of this short book, but it is of an entirely different sort than the hopeless fratricide that Jeremy commits at the end of The Release. Mngxitama sets a white farmer up for a highly choreographed castration scene that reads like Akira Kurosawa would have directed I Spit On Your Grave. The writing is electric, not merely because Mngxitama can wield a pen, but because the consciousness behind this violence has chosen not to deface itself, has rejected the abnegation of volunteered slavery and has chosen life instead. Life in the sense of a celebration of all that is sovereign, all that has real worth. There is no delay in this choice, it is resolute, right here, right now. The scene is filmic but the writing has the calm purpose of a mantra. There is an almost hymnal quality to the castration: “With this swift act Pieter was relieved of his instrument of violence.” The calculation in this act of grisly retribution removes itself from the angsty, miserable confines of the fractured, shimmering black of consciousness that is so tedious in Miyeni’s alter ego Jeremy. Here, in Mngxitama’s literary parable, violence attains the nobility of a sacrifice. This is a covenant of blood, explicitly stated in the court case scene that closes the book:
I plead guilty to all the murders of the white people killed in the war for our land since they arrived here three hundred and fifty years ago. I plead guilty for all the deaths which will be committed by the children of my children in another three hundred years if the land remains stolen. I plead guilty to all the murders of the black collaborators. I’m guilty. This is our land we [sic.] taking it back.


Then a guy called Mofundi sits next to Khalo and proffers his hand: “Sawbona mfwethu, my name’s Mofundi, what’s yours?” “Khalo Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga.” “Nice name. What does it mean?” “It means Khalo the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” Mofundi is still for a while. “I see.” “What do you see Mofundi?” Khalo really wants to know. Mofundi stands up and starts singing in his best Louis Armstrong imitation voice: I see trees of green/ red roses too/ I watch ‘em bloom/ for me and for you/ And I think to myself/ what a wonderful world. Mofundi and Khalo dance cheek to cheek, very slowly, all the patrons at Six are in tears. Even the cynical barman has to clear a lump in his throat. I see skies of blue/ clouds of white/ Bright blessed days/ warm sacred nights.... Outside in Seventh Street, the heavily armed and uniformed Ushaka car attendants gather in front of the bar, join hands and move slowly from side to side, humming a gentle lullaby chorus: And I think to myself/ what a wonderful world. We dolly back and up, the crane taking us higher and higher until we can barely see Melville from our vantage point in the moon. The colors of a rainbow/ so pretty in the sky... Gun shots ring out in the distance. Are there on the faces/ of people going by... The sound of somebody crying. I see friends shaking hands/ sayin’ how do you do?... The ugly, grating sound of somebody dying. They’re really sayin’/ I love you... An angry ambulance siren harmonises with the plangent wail of a police van that’s 65 seconds too late. I hear babies cry/ I watch them grow... Jozi’s syncopated tapestry of late night sounds tell us her gritty story in no uncertain terms. They’ll learn much more/ than I’ll never know/ And I think to myself what a wonderful world. In Khalo’s metamorphosis of image and reality, he becomes the esurient monster at the table; indeed he becomes the table itself, devouring its contents. He learns in this way that it is possible to change one’s name but not one’s nature, one’s essence. The bed is larger, the room more luxurious; the nightmare is the same. He remembers his black unconsciousness period fondly: blackness was a convenient

camouflage, a skin to hide under, avoiding the real existential issue facing all of humanity: why are we here as opposed to not being? Khalo had ceased to think of himself as a black man; black as he undeniably was, he left minor issues of melanin and the particularity of the angle of the rays of light cutting into his skin to lesser intellects. His interest now was specifically directed at exploring the parameters of the hereafter. It was not earthly misery that occupied his thinking time anymore but a real engagement with the absolute ontological reality of the universal soul. “Hey Boss!” somebody yells out to Khalo. He looks up out of his inky black eyes, but he doesn’t recognise the man. “Don’t you know me?” Khalo shakes his head slowly. “You fucked me up two years ago in Randburg, outside Rhapsody’s.” Khalo peers intently at the pale man: “No sorry ngamla, but I can’t place you.” “Yes, you motherfucker, you klapped me and left me out on the pavement.” Khalo can’t remember the incident: “And why did I do this thing?” “Because I was raving my tits off and got cheeky.” “So listen boet, get smart and get out of my face now, before you get cheeky again and I have to fuck you up again.” The man looks at Khalo with a startled mixture of fear and admiration. He would like it for a man like Khalo to befriend him. But Khalo’s a loner, doesn’t run with the pack. Prefers his own company to that of fools. Considers most men fools. “I really don’t need this shit,” Khalo reaches for his Glock. The man puts up his hands, turns around and slinks away, sharplike. Khalo is relieved that he doesn’t have to do any killing tonight. Khalo wants to die, not to kill. His killing days are over. But killing is a mode that’s hard to say goodbye to. One develops a taste for it and soon the slightest reason will do. Khalo knows he killed one too many, allowed what started out as an occasional necessity to rapidly decline into an addiction to wholesale slaughter. Of course he could also choose to simply stay at home, avoiding all the suckers he despises. But that way he might never bump into the Angel of Death again. And he’s sworn to kiss her or kill her or die trying both. What a clown. What a fool. Khalo, waiting…

Aryan Kaganof is a South African filmmaker, novelist, poet and artist. His films include Giant Steps and SMS Sugarman, the first film to be completed using a cellphone camera.


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