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When history is suspended

(In memory of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave)
by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa 

I collected this testimony during a recent road trip to South Africa. Seated at my side was a gentleman in his thirties, with a penetrating gaze, slow movements and a slurred and tired speech, but with a smile upon his lips, hinting at a personality full of irony, very much like that of a natural-born jester who plays with proverbs in front of a crowd. Between a greeting and comments typical of the occasion, there was mostly silence, which was broken only when the bus entered South African land.

“I always thought that South Africa was my homeland,” he said, suddenly interrupting the silence that had befallen us for the last hour and a half.

“Aren’t you Mozambican?”

“I am, too,” he replied.

“I don’t understand.”

“They know me here as John Matsolo,” he explained.

“I’ve lived here for more than ten years. I decided to try my luck in South Africa a couple of years after Mandela’s release. I am a refrigeration technician. I learnt this skill in the former East-Germany. I was part of madgermanes, the group of Mozambican workers co-operating in Germany. The signal to leave sounded when the wall fell in 1989.

“Did you still witness…?”

“The euphoria of the re-unification?” he anticipated, “I was in Dresden. What I felt immediately after the fall of the wall was the rise of the skinheads, like mushrooms. I left in 1991, after our fellow country man Jorge Gomondai was murdered. The socialist values that they preached so frequently – everything collapsed with the wall. And in here, the same happened. The people also use masks.”

“How so?”

“I’ve lived in South Africa since 1994. I live in Alexandra; it’s my township. The lights of Johannesburg’s great concrete expanse are our sky, the starry sky of our hopes. I always liked Alexandra. Here, I am John Matsolo. It’s my South African name. In Mozambique, I am João Matola. I always believed that I was John Matsolo.”

He stopped talking. His gaze was fixed on the endless green of the large agricultural fields beyond the road. Further afield, at the foot of the hills that rolled graciously along the mountain range, there emerged small rural villages, carefully distancing themselves from the large and smooth road, but nonetheless inducing envy with their urbanistic rigour. However, Matsolo was not contemplating these varying scenes of nature through the window against which he leaned his head, supported by the palm of a hand, an arm firmly shored up by the elbow against the window frame. No, his was an internal landscape. From him, words came out slow, firm, balanced. His tone of voice was low. His throat wasn’t free to project loud, capital intonations. But that tranquillity was disturbed, at times, by an internal voice that yearned to be heard. But once expelled, the word returned to its familiar placid state.

“Perhaps they allowed me to believe that I was Matsolo,” he pondered, after a time. “For more than ten years they called me Matsolo. And I believed, in truth, that I was Matsolo. Amongst my closest ones, my language was the isiZulu and, sometimes, isiXhosa. At work, it was English. Life was favourable to me. But the last two weeks changed my life for the second time. What happened with Ernesto Nhamuave… we only became aware of it days after the riots…” he drifted, pained.

“Ernesto was burnt alive!”

“It was a fire ignited by restless hearts; short of sight, short of peace. I stopped believing that people did in fact know me as Matsolo. When I heard the word maXangaan, the name by which we Mozambicans are known here, because they think we are all Xangaan, I felt in my body the weight of the hatred that word carried. I had to take my family away from Alexandra. We took refuge in the big city. Our township was also under the storm of hatred that hit the major settlements of the black South Africans.”

I let him catch his breath; release some of the shards of the bloody memory of those dark days. Tears had welled up in his eyes.

“I accepted their culture,” he resumed, “I left my habits behind. I assumed myself to be Matsolo… But they, in truth, never did accept me. When caught by the whirlwind of hate, all they saw was Zimbabweans, Malawians, Ethiopians, only foreigners. To all of those, they directed the hatred they felt for their own miserable lives. It was tough. And even tougher was when we saw the images of Ernesto Nhamuave burning alive. They wrote “Burning Man”, “Burning Nation”. But what was burning away wasn’t only South Africa, but also the world; the world that burns with misery and hate. The world that killed Jorge Gomondai in Dresden, up there in the white north, also burns. And now in the black south, Nhamuave burnt away, symbolising all the Nhamuaves that are set alight by the torch of hatred.

“Hatred,” he repeated, “all of it.”

“But there was also solidarity…”

“People are like the sea,” he answered. “It reaches equilibrium from within. And other seas keep lending their waters – warmer waters – to the rough sea. But the shark is always at the ready.”

“And it needs not masks,” I retorted.

“But when they are too many, the masks appear everywhere. The image of Alfabeto has travelled around the world and moved people, but the virus of intolerance hasn’t disappeared; it’s still out there, around the corner. What’s important is to fight it continuously. The skinhead youths of Dresden came from the same families that were teaching us the principle of solidarity; the same families from which came our neighbours, our co-workers and our drinking buddies. Intolerance, in today’s world, is the shadow that emerges when the light shines solely on a rich minority.”

“A very dark shadow,” I added.

“Strange.”

“Cancerous.”

Downtown Johannesburg came into view. All around, we could see street-corner vendors, drifters, beggars. As if to run away from the great dark shadow, those with means were seeking pleasure in more distant places, seemingly inaccessible. But the shadow is deft.

 

Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa is one of Mozambique’s most celebrated novelists and, most recently, the author of Os Sobreviventes da Noite. This piece is translated from the Portuguese by Maria Gabriela Carrilho Aragão.

 

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This story features in the Burnin’ and A-Lootin’ section of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

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