I have a mental block where pages of books are concerned. I am easily turned off by any book that reaches the 500-page mark. I make a conscious effort to avoid any such book. Life is relatively too short to be bogged down by any book that large and it is made worse by the fact that I am a slow reader and also by the fact that I have an alarmingly long TBR list. Sometimes there is a void falls into this category and considering that I have quite a few of such sized books, you have to wonder for my sanity at times. However, despite this book inching close to 600 pages, I came to the conclusion after reading it that it was a very good choice.
I need to declare at the start that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I may have struggled with the endless stream of Sesotho names seeping out of almost every page of the book (this makes sense as Zakes Mda spent a huge chunk of his life in the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho) but I stuck at it and was rewarded with a vulnerable, introspective and well-written memoir. This is not a memoir to be considered lightly. Besides being well-written in an intriguing style (the story weaves from the past to the present, from one paragraph to the next), Zakes Mda is open unpretentious and never hypocritical in his assessment of the life he has lived and is still living.
As an outsider, he found (and still finds) himself on the periphery of power not because his contributions or potentials are minimal but because coupled with his frankness, he has refused to toe the line. His commitment to the apartheid struggle oscillated between the PAC and ANC. He found ways of contributing to the fight against apartheid without carrying arms (he just did not have a heart for it). There is an aristocracy of the liberation movement in South Africa. A class that arrogates to itself the power to determine whose struggle credentials is valid and whose is second class. In this aristocratic class, the ANC blood is royal blood and every other contribution during the liberation process is second class, no matter the influence and impact of the contributor. Outside the aristocratic class, you are a confirmed outsider. This explains why the likes of Zakes Mda remain outsiders. It also explains why a giant like Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the founder of PAC is almost a footnote in the history of liberation orchestrated by the ANC and is almost forgotten as the freedom is being enjoyed.
Forced to the outside, Zakes Mda focused on his writing and while this has brought him considerable success and fame, what sticks out in this memoir is how seemingly basic anecdotes became anchors for some of his bestsellers. It is also telling how some of his observations about the South African polity remain valid either over decade after they were first observed by him or about three years after the book was written. Very little has changed on that front.
One of the soaring heights of humanity is introspection that leads to redemption. While the book is replete with all sorts of destructive and rockstar living (as is the case with most humans), it makes for an interesting read to see Zakes Mda turn his personal life around by arising above most of the pain of the past. While the man has a sharp tongue with which he lashes out at those who have failed and hurt him, he does not fail to apply the same measure of lashing to himself. There is no hypocrisy here. While there may still be a void, the reader can only be grateful to Zakes Mda for his candid introspection that yielded this humane, witty and educative memoir. Recommended.