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Thando Mgqolozana

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Death by Death

A kid listening to Madosini at Centre for the Book

A kid listening to Madosini at Centre for the Book

Sanqa got up on Saturday morning and told the world: Wondering if I should show up at this photography gig later this morning. Just had a dream where I was making photographs at the Table Mountain and witnessed a boy being swallowed by a huge snake; after which the snake came for me, still with a lump on its throat. I was smart though: woke up just before it ate me. This is why I’ve never died in any of my deadly dreams, Sanqaz: I know just when to wake the fuck up.

Sanqaz was what she called her Facebook friends–a derivative of her nickname.

The Facebook update was posted at five thirty; by six thirty – too early for anyone to be on Facebook on a Saturday morning – she’d amassed a total of 46 enthusiastic Likes, a statistic befitting the comic elite of social networks. The Comments came in droves, ranging from the cracking, ‘Kwaaaa! Totally hilarious, Sanqa!’ by her friend Nwabisa Gorgeous, to the less manic, ‘I can’t handle such hecticness in ma dreams,’ by a Lungelwa Malgas.

Flight Ntokozo001, our common acquaintance, asked a question that had the pretentions of philosophy, ‘But is it tragic to die in one’s own dream?’

To which Sanqa replied, ‘You are right, Sanqaz: dying in one’s own dream isn’t so bad, compared to hearing about your brutal murder in another person’s. Ha ha and ha!’

Blaq Rage budged in, ‘Where’s the gig? LOL…’

Rollies wa’a Gcogco said, ‘Sanqa, you are dead my friend. The snake swallowed both you and I – I am that boy you just witnessed being eaten up. I, too, went through the confusion and denial before I realized shit, I’m dead. I’m fucking dead; in a snake’s squishy tummy.’

Sanqa said, ‘*dead*’

By nine forty five, her update was the hit of the day, with Comments in the high 60s, 5 Shares, and a staggering 98 Likes. The latest Comment came from one Call_Me_Teezy, ‘Ma drmz are de west wen im on ma periodz. Killz me lol lol’

On Twitter, Sanqa’s last input was from the previous night where she’d said, ‘Next photography gig: making images of nunus being read to at Centre for the Book, Queen Vic. Str., Cape Town.’ To this, Twitter reported: Random House ZA and 8 others retweeted. Book Quotes and 2 others followed you.

She was considered a late bloomer on Twitter, but her less cynical followers often commented that she was becoming Twitterliterate.

It was the publisher, Random House ZA, around midday that first enquired about her whereabouts, ‘@RandomHouseZA: nunus at Centre for the Book going uuuh aaah as Madosini narrates a folk tale. Anyone sighted the fab @Sanqa yet?’

The books website retweeted the Random House ZA tag, and then said, ‘@BooksaLIVE: Nope, @RandomHouseZA, @Sanqa’s not in the Chris van Wyk reading either. Looking forward to the snaps. #NunusRead’

Elelwani, a fellow photographer, must surely have read the earlier tweets from Random House ZA and Books aLive, for she tweeted at two o’clock, ‘@lwanie: When my girl, @Sanqa, goes MIA O_o. Hope she’s shooting, shooting. Or rather, MAKING ‘em images… #NunusRead’



Sanqa believed one didn’t take photographs, one made them. In a series of one-liners on Twitter, she’d once argued: 1) A photograph -or image, as I call it- is not fruit hanging on a tree: you don’t just take it. You make images. 2) And when you make an image, you are freezing a moment. No moment is the same as the other. No two cameras make the same image. PS: we don’t make images as they are; we make them as we are.

Whenever Sanqa had announced she’d be going for a photography gig, her stans went berserk with anticipation: they’d go to her old albums and start Liking or adding new Comments on each and every image. At five that afternoon, no Facebook album of hers was left untouched. Other friends who had previously Commented on those old albums received Notifications of new Comments and then came in a hurry, thinking Sanqa had tagged them on fresh images.

The cyber suspense on her wall was palpable.

I was in my room at Liesbeek Residence, going through her Facebook, when I received a call from my brother. I never wanted to admit this but he was Sanqa’s boyfriend. They lived together in Tokai. I let the phone ring a little bit, so as not to give the impression that I was too eager. There were unresolved things between us. Besides which, he was always too concerned about my state of mind since our parents were killed in a car accident.

When I’d picked up and said ‘Sharp, Buddha?’ there was a silence.

‘Buddha?’ I called out again.

He said, ‘Mninawa, listen, are you at res?’

‘I am.’

‘Are you sitting down?’

‘Yeah. What’s going on?’

‘Please have a sit.’

‘I’m sitting. What’s happening?’

‘Listen,’ he was always asking me to listen. ‘Sandisa is no more.’

‘No more?’

‘She’s gone.’

‘What do you mean?’

Mamela, I am sorry, ‘fondin. She’s killed herself. It was too late when I arrived. Please take a cab to Tokai. The cops are here …’

A part of my soul died that day. Sanqa was my senior by two months, three weeks, and four days, but whenever the issue of our age came up she said I was younger by a whopping three months. For our undergrad we went to Rhodes together. When mom and dad died, my brother decided I should live closer, so I applied for a postgrad place at UCT. While she knew about my brother’s intentions, I didn’t tell her I’d sent an application to UCT – I didn’t know how – and when she found out I’d been accepted she blasted me.

It was our biggest fight.

But she saw me off at the bus station in King Williamston without much struggle. Hardly a week later, around mid-morning, there was a knock on my door at Liesbeek. When I opened Sanqa was standing there with the security guy in tow, helping her with the suitcases.

‘You’re so stupid, Sandisa!’ I’d blurted, utterly amazed.

Tshini,’ she’d said, ‘You’re not allowed to just leave.’

We were kids the last time we shared a bed. At Rhodes she’d dive on top of my bed; we might tussle, or she’d ask me to base her scalp, or we’d cover ourselves with a blanky while watching a movie from my laptop, but we’d never spooned. Now with the length of my body against hers, I felt how hairy her body was. The soft, soft hair of her body had this warm current that was pulling me. Her neck was resting on my arm, the hand cupping her breast. The silk nightdress might as well not have been there. The movement of her hand on my face was as though she was an art enthusiast, exploring a sculpture. In a gentle movement I was grinding against her groin from the bottom, and she against mine from the top, but I disappointed both of us by not having condoms. There were none in the bathrooms and a walk to the garage would have been too risky. Though very belated, it would have been a first for both of us.

In the morning I received a letter from the matron’s office, warning me about the consequences of keeping squatters in one’s room. Sanqa had to go and stay at my brother’s in Tokai, while she was looking for a place of her own. Her parents were okay with it. She wasn’t interested in postgrad. Since she had a place to stay, didn’t have to buy groceries, and while looking for a job, she used her money to get the Nikon camera.

It took them three months to disclose that they were now partners. She and I never spoke about it. She tried but I didn’t allow it. What could she possibly say that’d make me hurt less? I stopped going to Tokai. I agreed to meet them separately if they came to Liesbeek, as long as we’d not discuss what had happened. I followed her on Twitter and Facebook – the images were phenomenal – but I never Liked, Commented or Retweeted her stuff. I watched in silence.

Buddha said that morning she was meant to do the photography gig but she’d had this nightmare. When he left the house for a series of business meetings at the V&A, Sanqa was going to see her shrink. She didn’t answer his texts throughout the day. Upon returning, he found her body in the bathtub. I still don’t want to imagine it. When I arrived in the evening there was still a mess. I felt drops of piss squeezing out of me as though I was a nervous dog. She was taken to the morgue. The cops took him in for questioning. I went along to support him. While I was waiting, I decided to announce the news of her passing on her Facebook. The one-liner I posted has to be the hardest I’ve ever written in my life: Sanqa is late.

The mistake was not evident to me until a few seconds too late, when the first Comment from Call_Me_Teezy popped in, ‘Ded, cremayted and buried… ROFLMBAO.’

While I was typing a response, a flurry of Notifications poured in:

Xhosa Guy said, ‘dis z getting beta.’

‘Joek of the day!’ said Mbuzobuciko van de Linda.

Our common acquaintance from Rhodes, Flight Ntokozo001, said, ‘Hello wethu, @Mninawa. Nice to see y’all still together. Lookin good chap *winks*.’

It took me all night to convince Sanqa’s cyber world that she was late as in dead. But even later when everyone seemed to believe my announcement, and when others were already sending their RIPs, a sarcastic Nkem Phillip said, ‘Death by death, Lol.’

On Monday, on campus, I found an email Sanqa had sent me that Saturday morning: It was not a boy in the dream. It was you. It was always you. I didn’t find a way to forgive myself for what I did. So I decided not to stay. I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me for this one; and please, please Mninawa, live and grow old. I will always love you.

No Hunger Today

No Hunger Today
So there was I attending the ‘out to lunch’ writing session at Queen Victoria Street at the Center for the Book, Cape Town, and I was about to be asked a shocking question. This is my second day attending. Last Wednesday was my first and it wasn’t that bad, I think.
I go up the concrete staircase which is made in such a way that it looks like one big stone carved nicely to make stairs from it. Gently, I shove the wooden door on which a piece of paper written Push is pasted with a sealing tape. The security guy is here like last week and the week before. He’s sitting inside his wooden security box place. He is wearing a navy and blue security uniform. On my left is the receptionist lady behind the wooden reception counter. Her face is as heavily make upped as it was last week and the week before. I invite them to smile at me by flashing my own smile as a way of salutation. I want to keep greetings to the minimum, I know my people.
“Out to lunch,” I announce the purpose of my visit here, in case nobody remembers me.
“Brada, is it well today?”
“It is well, sir, thank you. Is it well with you too?”
“It wouldn’t help to complain, brada. It wouldn’t help.”
“I see,” that’s my normal response to anyone who tries to tell me how difficult it is to be black in this country because I already know. I am black too, and I have struggles of my own that I don’t tell anyone. In fact, my work contract and lease agreement both expire in two month’s time and I haven’t found a new job yet. I have no savings to speak of. My life has never been more uncertain. But I am not going to ask anyone for help, and neither am I going to the villages to stay and complain about being an unemployed graduate. I’ve got my pride and I have vowed to myself that I am going swim through this shity time. I just need to make sure I keep my sanity intact.
Actually, that’s why I am here today. I am here to participate in the ‘out to lunch’ writing group so that I can establish a consistent routine of writing short stories every Wednesday, apart from the novel manuscripts I’m working on at home. I have recently found that I enjoy writing and lately I even have a feeling that I can’t not write. I have to be writing because I’ve got stories to tell, or else I would lose my sanity. I write to keep sane. So that is the plan, and it does not involve complaining about how difficult it is to be black because that’s a given, universally. Even in blacks only societies, black people suffer. So if fellow black men tell me things like ‘life is such a struggle it does not help complaining about it’ at the drop of a hat, my response is a flat, unconcerned ‘I see’, which could mean anything really.
Imagine someone telling you ‘it wouldn’t help to complain’, when in fact that is a very complaint on its own.
“I see,” so I tell the security guy as I turn my attention to the receptionist lady. He seems to have gotten the message because our conversation ends right there, without elaborating on what an illusion this democracy turns out to be.
There is silence.
“How are you, my sister?”
“Eyi, mntasekhaya, is it even worth asking… its nuffin but problems problems problems,” she says.
“I see.”
This is it; I’m done with these people. I shall never ask them how they are doing because it turns out I don’t want to know. Or maybe it’s because I already know. I know that no one chooses to be a receptionist or a security. I shouldn’t have asked such a ridiculous question in the first place, because I know it’s not nice to be who they are. But it’s not because I pity them that I won’t ask how they are doing again. It’s because I’m tired of complaints. I’ve never thought about it this way. I’ve asked people so many times before and that’s all I’ve been hearing: complaints, complaints, and more complaints –in that order. And I’m tired of hearing it.
In fact, from today I won’t be asking anyone because I’ve discovered that I am not exactly interested. Not as long as there’s still so much uncertainty in my own life anyway. You know, it’s nice to listen to other people’s problems when your life is sorted. It can even make you cry sometimes. But when you are in the same situation, and you know you’re not supposed to, it’s quite different. That’s why I don’t identify with them today. I know I’m not supposed to be where I am.
“A little late today,” I say, summoning all politeness in me just so that I can disappear from these people. I think the Jacob so-you-think-you-can-preside Zuma government must establish a Ministry of General Complaints with a motto like ‘cry and we’ll kiss it better.’ Or something. We already have the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, don’t we? If we are to complain about some things, might as well go N1. Allocate budget, personnel and all.
“You have a pen today, brava?”
“Yes, thank you,” I say, and I want to add, “what? you think I’m an imbecile?”
There is silence.
I push into the great hall and here is a sacred space. I can hear the echo of my own breathing. I am surrounded with brownness. I can smell the wonderful smell of old wood and I particularly marvel at the softness of the navy rug on the floor. I feel like taking my shoes off and just enjoy every step by step on this smoothness. The silence in this place is enriching.
“Greetings everybody,” I say when I enter the small ‘out to lunch’ room at the far end of the great hall. There are one two three four people seated round the table. Each one has a writing pad before them and the ‘out to lunch’ box is at the center. They mumble their greetings and I find a chair between the old man who looks like a retired professor and the elderly woman who doesn’t look like a local. Jack, the guy with a blonde beard and brown woollen jersey from last week, is wearing the same clothes and looks like he never left this place, and is sitting on the right side of the retired professor, where he sat last week, and the week before. And next to Jack is a young fellow who is not so clean, and whose hair is somewhere between an afro and locks –depending on how much you contemplate him.
“Let’s get cracking ya’ll,” announces Jack.
“Who is going to choose ze topic today?” asks the old lady on my left, and my suspicion is confirmed, she’s not from here because we don’t have ze topics in this part of ze world.
“I chose last week,” I say to eliminate myself as today’s option.
“You, you choose ze topic today,” she instructs the young fellow whose fingertips have turned brown from smoking the ends of cigarette ends.
“Me, okay,” he says, and he opens the ‘out to lunch’ box and picks up a piece of paper which he reads to us.
“Hunger,” he says, and without pausing he adds, “no, we not have hunger again, we have hunger that day, no hunger today.”
He says this with such passion I find myself nodding in agreement that hunger is not such a good idea to write about today. It’s clear to me that hunger affects this fellow so much that writing about it, again nogal, would be absolute torture. He reaches for another one and this time he tells us that we must come up with new topics before he reads, “barbed wire fence!”
For a brief moment I watch these people who do not think about what they will write but start writing without more ado and I wonder if I will ever reach this level.
There is a silence.
All reality fades away and the five of us here allow ourselves to be consumed by the phenomenon of a barbed wire fence. When it’s time to read, I volunteer to start with my own. The first line goes something like: and if there is anything else to write about today, then it must be about a barbed wire fence. I go on using a barbed wire fence as a metaphor to illustrate how the law, politics, religion and hunger are a barb to humanity. I enunciate the word hunger. When I finish, there is a collective sigh as everyone is still swallowing my words. I must have raised the tempo too high, I think. And I’m beside myself with pride.
Next is ze o’lady. She reads a story about a couple who lived in a farm, raising zeir little boy who one day asks why zeir home was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Surprised by ze question, ze father answered that it is to keep bad people outside ze yard. I yawn, and so does everybody.
Then the young fellow who had read us ze topic reads his story too. I find it fascinating when he ends by saying a barbed wire fence is an illusion of safety.
“If not, then I never writ,” he says, and all I can think of is that here is a K Sello Duiker in the making. Except that he might just have plagiarized Shakespeare on the last words.
Jack’s writing is different. He writes about the unsolicited barbed wire fences surrounding Christina Aguilera’s life. Then he closes the book and runs his fingers over the Christina Aguilera cover, his eyes closed.
There is silence.
I think we have a problem here. But I must not judge, you see.
Lastly, the retired professor reads his script. There is something about his voice. It sounds deep and so matter-of-factly it’s like those voices you hear on a documentary film.
“Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives,” that’s what we are being told by the retired professor. Or at least that’s what we hear, which may or may not be what he necessarily wrote. But dammit, his voice!
There is silence.
“Great, everybody don’t forget ze new topics for next week, okay.”
As I walk towards the door, rushing so that I can enjoy my catwalk on the rug, the young fellow grabs me on my upper arm. It’s violent, I think.
“Good write ne.”
“You are not doing badly yourself.”
Now we talk about our writing as we walk on the carpet. Of course I am annoyed because I am not enjoying the silence and the softness. To enjoy the softness of this rug I must concentrate, but now…
“You stay where?”
“Me? I live in Plumstead.”
There is silence.
The young fellow looks at me with awe. What I said is unbelievable to him. I know because Plumstead is a rich suburb, sort of, and it must be puzzling to a homeless person to have a fellow black person who claims to live in such luxury. I can see he wants to say more. And to tell you the truth I am now willing to have this conversation.
“Are you African?”
Am I what? That is the next question I get asked. I mean, really, what else could I possibly be. I’ve had people ask me which country I come from or which tribe I am, but I’ve never been asked this before. I don’t know whether it’s an ‘out to lunch’ trick question or what, but I nod.
“Yes, I am an African.”
He falls silent and walks away to start a conversation with the security guy about the difficulties of life, leaving me dumbstruck. I leave and as I snake through the gardens I think about the question. What makes me an African? Have we, as a nation, finally figured out who is an African and who is not yet?

Thando Mgqolozana
September 2008

Let’s Party

So there I am, walking into the great hall on Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town. If it’s not Queen Vic Street then stuff it. I climb the concrete staircase and walk through the wooden doors. I push in and there is the security guy behind that wooden security box thing. It’s him, he was here last week.
“Yes, brada?” he says.
“Midday, sir.” That’s me, towing the line between he and I.
There is silence.
“Eh-m…” he says, I think he wants to ask what my business is in this place.
“Out to lunch,” I say.
That’s the reason I’m here –out to lunch. This place is called the Center for the Book. It’s sort of a division to the National Library. I’ve recently discovered it. In fact, a fellow colleague-friend showed it to me while I accompanied her to mosque last week.
When I saw this place I thought: there is a place where my writing will find a home. I made a mental note to attend the weekly writing meetings held on Wednesdays here.
“It’s called ‘out to lunch’,” the receptionist lady had said.
Her face was heavily make upped, I noted.
“Okay,” I began, “and they don’t charge, like?” I verified.
I wanted to make sure because I didn’t want to find myself in money situations. Plus I wasn’t sure what would be the outcome of the Jacob Zuma corruption case yet. I’d vowed never to spend unplanned moneys in case JZ lost the corruption case, because that would have led to a civil war since big people had sworn they’d kill for him. So I thought I’d need the cash to escape to Zimbabwe, now that it’s a country again. As things turn out, I didn’t need to run. Not yet.
“You pay nuffin,” she said.
So here I am today, ready to do whatever it is they do at that ‘out to lunch’ meeting room. I enter the great hall and I immediately love the softness of the rug on the floor. I like the echo in the hall too. It reminds me of the days I used to attend Jehoviah’s Witness services. At the far end there is another door where I am told it’s the ‘out to lunch’ meeting room.
I jiggle open the door and walk in. There is only one person sitting mournfully on the round table. My sinus is offended by the smell of dust, and I don’t like the sound of a naked wooden floor. I greet brother-man and we shake hands. His pale hands are warm but hard, nails uncut, unshaven blonde beard and he’s got a brown woolen jersey on.
“I’m Ta-Ndo… my first time here.”
“Jack… welcome.”
Then he points to the small box placed next to a note book on top of the round table. The book is covered with a Christina Aguilera poster, I observe. He tells me not to worry. All that’s done here is get a surprise topic out of the box, and then everyone starts writing. Twenty minutes later, everybody shares their piece to the whole group.
“Nothing hectic, na’m sayin,” he says with a sneer on his face.
“Okay,” and I want to say: are you kidding me!
“Ya’ll need a pen and paper to do ya thing, na’m sayin?”
I go to the receptionist lady to borrow ‘out to lunch writing tools’. She checks here and there behind that wooden reception counter.
“Jo, it seems there’s nuffin,” she says, and smiles only to reveal a tired make upped face.
“Wait, there’s a pen.”
I take the Government Issue pen and inspect it. Ladies and gentleman, it’s got no ink! I scribble on the blank sheet she’s given me and surprise: the pen does write! I wonder how much the pen’ll last me though.
“Ma pleasure.”
I walk into the ‘out to lunch’ room and find a full-house of strangers who call themselves writers. Everybody is staring at me and my throat begins to constrict.
“Great, ya’ll. Lets get cracking,” says Jack the man with a blonde beard.
He asks me to open the ‘out to lunch’ box and pick a topic. I’m surprised. I’m shy. Everybody is still staring at me. I open the box and randomly pick out a piece of paper. I read aloud:
“Let’s party!” I declare the topic.
Guess what? Nobody says nuffin, nobody thinks, nobody even thanks me. Everybody starts writing furiously, because writing is to writers what a party is to party-animals. So like a true ‘out to lunch’ writer, I pen this story and read it out loud for everybody.
I hope I did well.

Thando Mgqolozana