Friday, October 13, 2017

Khwezi



When I first caught word that radio broadcaster and journalist Redi Tlhabi was working on a book about Khwezi, I genuinely asked, "Who?" 'Khwezi' was the pseudonym given to Fezekile Kuzwayo - the woman who was brave enough to press rape charges against the then former Deputy President Jacob Zuma. It is hard to believe that it has been 11 years since the conclusion of that trial.

The fact that I, like many people around the world, had forgotten about Khwezi was one of Tlhabi's key motivations to write the book. Though many of us believed her, she was vilified by the majority of the country and forced into exile as Zuma was acquitted, paving the way for him to become the president of the country. Unfortunately, Fezekile never lived to see her name reclaimed. She died around this time last year as Tlhabi was working on this book.

The book is more than a recap of the rape trial. And though she introduces us to Fezekile and contextualises her life, it isn't a biography, though Tlhabi does her best to give us a well-rounded view of who Fezekile was - flaws and all. If anything, Tlhabi uses the book to put us on trial as a society, exploring a baffling culture that not only creates and maintains a status quo where abuse and violence against women can flourish but also rewards it by effectively co-signing a two-term presidency. She looks at the historical and contemporary factors that created a situation where we could be okay with a man forcing himself on his close friend's daughter.

Though Zuma was the defendant, Tlhabi highlights that it was, in fact, Fezekile who was on trial as details of her sexual history were used to portray her as a 'loose woman' in a situation where she wouldn't have had any political or cultural power.

Her analytical narrative is chilling. At times it reads like a blockbuster thriller, as Tlhabi sheds lights on the sinister forces that were at play throughout the trial. I made the mistake of reading it while I was in bed with flu and had to put it down at times because it made me feel physically worse. If you have no idea what people mean when they talk about toxic patriarchy, then you need to read this book.

Tlhabi's account of the trial and its aftermath is long-form narrative journalism at its best. I didn't think she could top her award-winning debut Endings & Beginnings - but she has. The book has been an instant bestseller, garnering an unprecedented amount of well-deserved acclaim and interest, and is one of my most important reads of the year.

Khwezi by Redi Tlhabi (Jonathan Ball, 2017)