Friday, October 13, 2017


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)

Monday, October 02, 2017

If I Stay Right Here

When I attended the launch of Chwayita Ngamalana's debut novel I was distracted by the interviewer's obsession with the lesbian nature of the relationship at the book's core and the intrigue that surrounded the graphic sex scenes. Sure, the novel is definitely R18, but at the heart it is about an abusive relationship - which is far more fascinating.

Shay, a young journalist, meets Sip while writing a story and finds herself crossing all the lines as they start a passionate romance. The book follows their tumultuous relationship in raw detail. With ease, Ngamlana manages to capture the rhythm of the push and pull that characterises abusive relationships - contrasting the abusive episodes with the alluring qualities that make one stay.

It's an adventurous debut and anything but safe. It broaches abuse in homosexual relationships, something I don't think we talk about enough, and explores some very interesting and experimental literary techniques that made it stand out as a debut, for me.

I was initially distracted by Ngamlana's claim that it was 70% autobiographical, as I was trying to sift out the fact from fiction. Once I suspended my investigation I found myself engrossed in her characters. If you are not afraid of its subject matter it is worth a read.

I haven't read a local book that deals with the these themes in this fashion and I thought it was an incredibly brave starting point as an author. Ngamalana was bold and took a personal risk to write this novel. I am looking forward to seeing what she does next.

If I Stay Right Here by Chwayita Ngamlana (Blackbird Books, 2017)

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Secrets of My Life

Like millions of people around the world, from time to time (when no one is around to judge me) I tune in to Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I am not particularly invested, but I do enjoy watching them eat salads, complain about being famous and play out cheesy pranks and plots. It's mindless.

When Caitlyn Jenner released her memoir, The Secrets of My Life, I was intrigued. If ever anyone had a hook in her book it was Caitlyn. Few people have won an Olympic gold medal for decathlon, been an integral part of the commercialization of sports celebrity, married 3 powerful women, been involved in the OJ Simpson debacle, raised one of the world's biggest celebrities, fathered one of the world's biggest models, nurtured a group of siblings who have collectively broken the internet and transitioned.

Unfortunately, like Caitlyn's cancelled reality show I Am Cait, the book is just okay. Caitlyn comes across as somewhat self-absorbed and isn't really likable. The book is thin and doesn't offer much more than what you've probably seen on TV. It fails to really articulate gender dysphoria with any depth and barely outlines the real daily challenges of being a trans woman in enough detail for one to relate.

Caitlyn repeatedly refers to Bruce's white male privilege and acknowledges that it has protected her from many of the struggles, but it feels like an excuse to focus on the superficial - it is not really interrogated. I have read a far more interesting account of being a trans woman - Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa by Anastacia Tomson and I highly recommend it.

If you're a huge fan of the Kardashians it's probably worth a read, if not don't rush to your bookstore for this one.

The Secrets of My Life by Caitlyn Jenner (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)