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Nthikeng Mohlele

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Vacuous Tomorrow

Stun grenades. Riot police gear. Arrests. Memoranda of demands and of response – students to Vice Chancellors and vice versa. Irritations with historically undesirable symbols, in physical and ideological terms – even in the realm of the spiritual. Daring images rendered in freeze frame and moving pictures on social media: heightened voices, boiling emotions, stern finger pointing. Two hundred plus dead miners – dead for demanding a living wage. Scars: on families, on the national consciousness.

Freedom is found wanting, to be an empty basket, sailing covered in algae, with no Moses to be given to Pharaoh. Who then shall part the Red Sea of our future – to avoid at all costs, a vacuous tomorrow? Vacuous. Hazy. Dispiriting. It is one thing to set laws, to govern institutions, to set and pursue ideals. But how does one govern perturbed souls, a groundswell of impatience with the promises of tomorrow? How do Governors of the now reconcile the solid foundations of democracy with the treachery of building a nation through turbulent winds of an aversion to the perpetuation of dispossession and suffering? Dangerous things, words – prophetic, in the most unexpected of ways: “The people shall govern.” Four words, whose true meaning and ramifications have far surpassed the attainment of elementary freedoms (assumed and understood to be God given) – to more unforgiving avenues of freedom of the higher planes, freedom written in block letters: FREEDOM. This is an arrogant kind of freedom: grounded. Impatient. Demanding. It pays no heed to assurances and platitudes, scorns promises without the immediacy of sustainable and righteous action. It is temperamental, this new wave of freedom, suspicious, easily angered, all too knowing and showy of its price tag. I am expensive – it says, because I have the scars from decades of whip lashes. These, these, these scars on my black back and some white backs there, are the merciless stings of the lash.

This Verwoerdian lash is of ignorance imposed on me against my will, regardless of my God given abilities and personal drive.

These eight, deep lashes, are for generations of poor and despondent people who silently wished they were never born.

This three here, right across my buttocks, are prejudice lashes – lashes engraved on my body as an insults and reminders that I couldn’t think, dream, innovate, feel, lead, achieve, be rewarded, celebrated, and bearer of flags of my Republic.

This one here, that gauged my right eyeball, failed to blind me to the deception of tyranny, even of the subtlest hue. My back is ruined, yes, my skin broken and unsightly. A slave’s back. A back that tells a story, of patience and understanding stretched to breaking point. I am owed a meaningful future – resourceful and dignified – but forget that whip. It won’t work this time. I have been whipped simply for breathing before. Wrong things must fall. Welcome to the War of Conscience.


A Broke and Conscious Youth Who Cannot Afford Not To Be Educated.

The Scent of BlissSmall ThingsRusty Bell
Book details

A Belated Courtesy Note to Former Chief Justice, the Late Pius Nkonzo Langa

Small ThingsRusty BellOne dabbles in the arts, in literature – imagines, hopefully explores and illuminates, in whatever meager ways, the complexities of life and the evolving concept (s) of nation, of civilizations, perhaps even of science.

This all good and well – encouraged, but potentially worthless if that inquiry and collective wisdom is premised on individual achievement for its sake – on excluding the faintest and at face value, seemingly unimportant voices of history and the now.

It is impossible to reduce the scope, premise and contradictions of collective achievement to a single Facebook post – but one can, in broad strokes, attempt to shine a torch on often muddled theories that are supposed to propel humanity to its full potential: “It’s the economy, stupid” politicians say – mounting presidential campaigns built on energy, food security, personal safety, education, care for the aged and vulnerable, geopolitics; relations with other nations, temperament and outlook in the use of armed force – among other considerations. Intricate, important and eternally changing matters – sure – but there is one often overlooked constant: integrity. One word, that speaks so so profoundly to the dictates of conscience – that is so understated yet potent, without which everything dims into half truths and nothingness.

One of my greatest fears – which I am not ashamed to share is / was to die without having acknowledged the profound impact a certain gentleman (unknowingly, because we have never met) has on my life compass. His biography and achievements dazzle; don’t need repeating. A listener. Empathetic. Principled. Warm. Unassuming. Hardworking. Insightful. Humble. Composed. Cerebral. Humane.

Thank you, former Chief Justice, the late Pius Nkonzo Langa, for subtle but far reaching lessons in The Science and Sacredness of the Conscience.


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There Might Never Be An Answer

The arts are, in general and in reality, often a short cut to hunger and angst, a phenomenon euphemistically referred to as that of a “struggling artist”. It is an ancient concept this, a picture of an impassioned and idealistic would-be icon of his generation (or of all time): in literature, motion pictures, music or visual arts – surviving on stale bread and cheap coffee while nursing stomach ulcers from rejection letters and phone calls.

Hollywood A-lister, Robert De Niro, succinctly summarised a looming life of a starving artist in a recent commencement speech at the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, telling graduates in arts majors, truthfully but not necessarily in clean language: “You made it. And, you’re f–ked.”

Witnessing and dreading being burdened by turmoil and indignities resultant from artistic fate and miscalculations, some parents typically insist on a safety net vocation (lawyer, pilot, doctor) to counter their offspring’s possible future life of despair and vagabond leanings. If some teenager fancies being, for instance, a Mandla Langa, Lauren Beukes, Damon Galgut, Zukiswa Wanner, Niq Mhlongo or damnit that Thando Mgqolozana rebel, the answer, expressed or thought, is likely to be: haven’t you ever heard of Chris Barnard? Patrice Motsepe? Ring any bells?

But the heart transplanter and mining magnate expectations should perhaps be inverted, and humorous and deadpan commentary courted. Something like: tell me, my beloved Jacob, after raking those leaves off the lawn, mastering the periodic table and polishing those abused shoes of yours, how you intend standing shoulder to shoulder with or beating Soyinka, JMC or Naipaul? Have you read them? Bessie Head or Saul Bellow? Herzog? What is your take on Moses’ predicament? What? You have never heard of Antjie Krog? No! She is not a dentist. She never was – and, I suspect, has no such ambitions. Poetry and teeth? Are you serious, Jacob?

Or do you want to be the other Jacob? You see? You have not thought this through, have you? You are almost 21. How do you intend paying for your rent two years from now, without me having to look for you in dingy and sordid backpacker nests? Speak, darling, why are you suddenly mute? Do you still want to be a writer: esteemed, revered, immortalised?

How are you going to handle hefty themes, including those of flammable love, war, treachery and nobility if you fail to polish your shoes? How can you even think clearly, let alone craft lucid prose, when you cannot replace the toothpaste cap after use? You see? Aha. You thought it was easy, didn’t you? Go read The Life and Times of Michael K; come share your thoughts, why you think, believe or imagine Michael would find pleasure farming in and feeding on pumpkins, hibernating in caves! Or simply go to medical school; but it depends, again, if you have it in you to butcher people, study and comment on their strange warts, make guarded predictions about their constipations. See? None of it is easy. In the meantime, be a good boy and rid the lawn of those damn leaves!

Which brings me to the crux of it all, a question much repeated to scribes in interviews and during panel discussions: what makes a writer. It is, I suspect, good grammar, imagination, a studious mind, a touch of controlled madness, discipline and all other factors from avid reading to possessing a flaming heart, that contribute to perhaps birthing, but not sustaining a writer. For writing is lonely. Demanding. Frustrating but often richly rewarding at the best and worst of times. Apart from telling tales; it has no formulae.

It is prestigious without being easily accessible. It stalks. Dwarfs. Lampoons. Weighs on. Betrays those that love and follow and practice it, partly because it is at once a game of the mind and the heart – but also of sensory sampling, something not easily reduced to definitions and explanations. It, at its very best, infects, drains, propels and illuminates, all the while remaining elusive and not completely reliable. It can cultivate powerful foes, literature, polarise and instigate – but when all is said and done, simply remain words on a page. Words. Inanimate. Indifferent to changes in temperature, accidental coffee stains, toddler pen assaults.

How then, does a parent guide a Jacob, who fancies literary “perks” and celebrity, the intricacies of a literary life? How does anyone reduce all the highs and lows of literary realms into coherent advice to a Jacob who, leaves half raked, lazy and despondent, asks: are the Kardashians on yet – remarks from a lazy son, offspring with a blunt and blind conscience, to the true ramifications of serious literature. Would suffering, starvation and a Kardashians television diet, a Shakespeare produce? Maybe, maybe not.

But again, how does Jacob’s father, a trusted railway engineer, equipped with knowledge of lives of locomotives, cultivate the fragile and rock solid instincts needed to tame literary yearnings? It’s an impossible task, made seemingly possible by parental love and cautions, which as a cold fact, mostly translates into rental arrears and chronic insomnia. Unless, unless – you answer to Marias, Wa Thiongo, Nabokov, Roth, Achebe, Morrison, Brink, Camus, Llosa and others, the few and far in between that almost got away.

So: maybe Jacob should polish his shoes and rake leaves. Become an auditor, a bean counter, reviewing and confirming, the creative relationships corporates have with money. But what if he has in him, by chance, the stuff of Cervantes, Sartre or Marechera? Art; literature – impossible, unknowable, and elusive things to parent and police.