[Conversation Issue] Kanga and Khwezi: Kwezilomso Mbandazayo challenges the memorialisation of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo

Kwezilomso Mbandazayo, known as the womxn who loaned her name to Khwezi, Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser, offers a personal reflection on the Abantu Book Festival event featuring Mmatshilo Motsei and Redi Tlhabi—whose books, published a decade apart, deal with Zuma’s rape trial. Mbandazayo’s essay is also an address to an old friend.

The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court: Reflections on the Rape Trial of Jacob Zuma
Mmatshilo Motsei
Jacana Media, 2007

Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo
Redi Tlhabi
Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017

Fezeka, this is one of the most difficult pieces I have ever written. Now that it is done, having burst forth almost uncontrollably from within me, I see it also as one of the most necessary. My wish is that this meditation opens avenues to healing and sparks critical questions about biography.

The date is 9 December 2017, a hot Saturday afternoon. It has been a year since your death, ten since Mmatshilo Motsei published The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court, a book that documented the public vitriol directed at you after the violence visited upon your body by a father figure—your uncle in every way but blood—and eleven years since the verdict was handed down, for him, against you, by a court of injustice. In death you have garnered the sympathy that was cruelly withheld by a public in thrall to patriarchy (its sobriquet for Zuma is literally ‘uBaba’) and titillated by scandal. The sympathy your death elicited, along with the passage of time, cleared a less fraught path for another writer, Redi Tlhabi, to publish Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, which came out in September.

Redi Tlhabi, Lebo Mashile and Mmatshilo Motsei (Image: Abantu Book Festival/SUMM Media)

The two womxn are here today, together in conversation for the first time, under a big, white, air-conditioned tent in Mofolo, Soweto, at the second Abantu Book Festival. The discussion is titled, simply, ‘Khwezi’. At the urging of Motsei, the packed space heaves with people chanting your name over and over again: Fezeka Ntsukela Kuzwayo, a name you kept in a safe place after that night on 2 November 2005 at that house in Forest Town, a name you retrieved in 2011, upon your return to the country, and wore publicly with pride, even as some continued to hiss at the mention of you.

But, before I go further, I ask for your permission to invoke your memory, sis wam—as Motsei did at the beginning of the Abantu event. May I write about you? May I write about the Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo I know; about Fez, my big sister?

My intention isn’t to exhume you. It isn’t to fashion your bones into a skeleton that forms a framework from which to hang an argument that makes sense of the senseless violence against womxn and the social attitudes that enable it. You have done your work and deserve rest.

I also don’t intend merely to reflect on these two books in which your name features; nor will I set out in detail the discussions at the Abantu event. Rather I want to examine the thoughts and feelings—the raw discomfort, really—that reverberate through me as I listen to the two powerful womxn, moderated by Lebo Mashile, lead a conversation about you, and to do this with honesty and vulnerability. With every word I put down, I aim to use the space created for me by our Black feminist ancestors, who disturbed the false distinction between writing either from the head or from the heart.

I also write to challenge and attempt to right wrongs committed in your memorialisation.

There is no doubt that you are the person best positioned to write about Fezeka, to decide which parts to leave out and what to expose, and to determine how you should be depicted. With you gone, though, the parts of you that don’t make for spicy commentary from another’s perspective are being lost in public Memory, capital ‘M’, a theme that emerges strongly as the womxn speak about you, and as I reread Kanga and pore over Khwezi for the first time.

What of the silences that remain as we pick and choose what we want Memory to remember? This question lingers over me.

Ordinary things, such as the fact that you were so terribly neat, are being lost in Memory. So, too, is the fact that you carried your passport everywhere, and that you existed, prior to that night in Forest Town, as a terribly warm-blooded, sexual being, that you had studied theology.

What can we learn about you, and ourselves, from these parts of your life being left out as you are remembered?

It is not enough for biographers to say we readers can write our own books if we have doubts about their texts and approaches. Those who write biography must recognise the power they wield over Memory and account for their choices.

I am glad to see Mashile, a poet, artist and warrior womxn, moderate the event, navigating the highly charged space with grace. She stood by you Fez, Lebo wa rona did. I will never forget the day she wore a One in Nine Campaign T-shirt on national television for her show, Latitude, just after the verdict that exiled you and vindicated misogyny was read. It is serendipitous that one of the best offerings around thinking about Memory comes from her.

In her poem ‘Tell Your Story’, from her 2005 collection In a Ribbon of Rhythm, Mashile says:

After they’ve fed off of your memories
Erased dreams from your eyes
Broken the seams of sanity
And glued what’s left together with lies,
After the choices and voices have left you alone
And silence grows solid
Adhering like flesh to your bones

They’ve always known your spirit’s home
Lay in your gentle sway
To light and substance
But jaded mirrors and false prophets have a way
Of removing you from yourself
You who lives with seven names
You who walks with seven faces
None can eliminate your pain

Tell your story
Let it nourish you,
Sustain you
And claim you
Tell your story
Let it feed you,
Heal you
And release you
Tell your story
Let it twist and remix your shattered heart
Tell your story
Until your past stops tearing your present apart

Memory is the contestation of parallel or competing recollections, deployed into a world where some have the power and privilege to make or have their recollection supercede others’. Memory asks: Who gets to remember you, Fez, and how? Whose story becomes ‘the Fezeka story’ in the public imagination? To whom are the storytellers accountable? Are they, in fact, being accountable? What intentions lie behind the telling of the story, and who is nourished and who diminished in the telling?

I watch from a corner of the jam-packed tent as Mashile does three simple things that involve the conservation of radical memory.

The first is to remind the crowd about the vast differences between the times and public attitudes when the two books were released.

Kanga was published during the most difficult time to write about Khwezi: in 2007, as Zuma consolidated his power ahead of his fight for the presidency of the African National Congress. It was the year of the ‘Race to Polokwane’, one over which an anything-but-Thabo-Mbeki fog descended, after the judge in The State vs Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma handed ‘uBaba’ a public victory that put the bodies and lives of womxn everywhere in deeper peril.

Fast-forward to 2017. Attitudes towards you, Khwezi, have softened somewhat, and even some who counted among Zuma’s staunchest supporters back then say they made a mistake in standing by him—but not because of what he did to you; because of what he is doing to the country as state president. The gall. Suddenly journalists sound radical and seem intrepid when they ask candidates vying for ANC leadership positions whether or not they believe you.

Enter Khwezi, the book, into this time, when there is a bounty on Zuma’s head—a fact that makes life easier for its author. There is now a vocal anti-Zuma crowd that swarms towards anything critical of his character and conduct, a crowd that was very much absent a decade ago. Listening to the conversation in the tent I wonder what responsibility an author has, writing about you at a time when it is undoubtedly easier to do so. Is it to push us collectively to plant another flag in the service of your ongoing vindication, Fezeka? Or is something else going on?

The second act of conservation of radical memory that Mashile performs is being the first, and only, person to mention the One in Nine Campaign—a collective of womxn who came together specifically to support you, curating much of the solidarity for you, both during and after the trial; a collective whose members were the first to say, unreservedly, ‘I believe her,’ when it was the hardest time to do so.

This collective remains an obscure footnote to Memory, both in much of the history I hear repeated on stage and within the two books written by the two powerful womxn seated there.

If we are to insist on continuing to explore and explain the violence against womxn that is a daily occurrence in this country through one of the violations to which you were subjected, Fez, what does it mean, at the same time, to fail to recognise or diminish the resistance and labour of other womxn that, in my view, rejuvenated African feminist action in South Africa? What does that erasure do to Memory? What does it do to Black feminist futures?

Tlhabi admits that she chose to write her book when it was easiest to do so. But what she does not acknowledge is that the main reason why you, Fezeka, the flesh-and-blood human being, remained a part of South Africa’s consciousness for a decade is because the One in Nine Campaign refused to let you become a speed bump on the way to the presidency in the Jacob Zuma story, in the way his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has brushed off his role in the Marikana massacre. In Tlhabi’s retelling, unfortunately, the campaign that helped to make it easier for her to write Khwezi is banished.

In contrast, the recognition of loss recurs throughout Motsei’s work and words. She asks, for instance: what have we lost when we are unable to respect the authority of leaders who head the so-called Moral Regeneration Movement of the country? (As deputy president, Zuma was the patron of the body officially tasked with overseeing this project.) Motsei’s craft and wisdom help us think through historical and political contexts in emancipatory ways, which deserves praise.

Her words at the Abantu event inspire these thoughts: How are we to know what we have lost if we are not willing to acknowledge the wounds we carry around with us, and examine them in the service of healing? What do we lose when our interest lies not in stitching Black communities back together but in how much wealth we can amass? Although she locates the ills of the patriarchy where they belong, systemic and structural at the global level, Motsei also reminds us that ‘a revolution based on truth and justice starts with me’.

After the release of Kanga, Motsei experienced loss of income, of friends and of security—a testament to the ways in which your trial, Fezeka, represented violence against all womxn. Truly inspired by your courage, Fez, she spoke when, as a womxn, she shouldn’t have. The punishments to which she was subjected served two painful purposes. The first was to make speaking out in the interests of justice so personally costly that one might think twice the next time. The second was to encourage those who witnessed the punishments being meted out to turn away in the face of wrongdoing.

You know well the personal cost of speaking out, Fez, as do the one in nine womxn from whom the campaign that gathered around you drew its name: the ones who, knowing the odds, knowing the systems ranged against them, chose to open a case with the police anyway.

Motsei’s words also trace the impact of the trial on the ordinary South African man, reminding us of the permission that Zuma—an elder and a leader—and those who stood with him granted men to continue being reckless with, and feeling wholly entitled to, the bodies of Black womxn. She reminds us that Zuma is just one man—yes, one with power to maximise the punishment for speaking out against him, but still just one among many men of similar ilk.

As a leading activist in anti-violence work with men, which centres around feminism, Motsei gifts us both language and praxis for working with men to end gender violence, in a way that does not pander to the patriarchy. Through her work our ideas and conceptions of justice are challenged; she pushes us to think, using every part of who we are, about how we would like to be as a people and what accountability must look like. The questions raised and concepts created in her work, as captured in Kanga, are firmly established in debates about the abolition of violence against womxn and about what it means when we outsource gender justice work to a criminal justice system that was never meant to heal the wounds of colonial exploitation but rather to reinforce this exploitation.

Reading Kanga, you begin to understand the kind of world in which the man who raped you, Fez, becomes not only the publicly accepted victim but also becomes empowered as he rides his victimhood to the highest public office in the land. This is the kind of world where a piece of clothing, a kanga, is seen as shorthand for consent; a world where culture and law become active agents in our oppression.

Tlhabi, on the other hand, focuses her book, and thus her contribution to the discussion, on that night, 2 November 2005, and the subsequent court case, the trial of Fezeka, a shameful moment in our country’s history. She says that one of the reasons she felt it was important for her to write the book was for it to serve as a nail in President Zuma’s coffin in the dying days of his presidency.

That reasoning invites questions. Why, then, subtitle her book ‘The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo’? What have you, Fezeka—a person, not an object—to do with sealing shut the coffin of Zuma’s presidency? Why would a book that bears your name foreground the experiences of someone else, its author, in every chapter, the longest of which is about the rape and what the court said?

The rapturous reception Khwezi has received makes those words scary to write and puts me, a Black womxn speaking her mind, at risk. It is difficult to state publicly any disappointment, despair, hurt and anger at this more recent work supposedly about you, Fez, without it sounding like sour grapes. Or without trepidation, in that I might be emboldening the stereotype that Black womxn would rather tear each other down than build each other up. It is difficult to express these feelings while simultaneously appreciating how Khwezi the work has seen to it that the Memory of the Fezeka of Forest Town, an important historical figure, now resonates with audiences who, if we are to be honest, did not care and did not believe her then.

It is beautiful to see her name vindicated among as large a crowd as that gathered here at the Abantu Book Festival.

The Memories of Fezeka’s trial that stitch Khwezi together are deeply personal for Tlhabi. As she is entitled to, as the author, she inserts herself into the centre of the story. We hear, both at the event and in the pages of the book, how Fezeka’s story has always haunted her. We are told about the threats to her life and to her family that came as a result of how she spoke about the case on radio. However, her insistence on reflecting on her own irritation at the decisions and whims of Fezeka, going so far as to offer judgment on how Fezeka should have dealt with the traumas of her life, is, in my view, unkind and uncalled for.

In Khwezi, Fezeka is full of laughter and restlessness, and Tlhabi is always present to give grounding advice. As I read and listen, I wonder where Tlhabi’s vulnerabilities lie, where her faults are, what she is showing us about herself that might have any number of us bristling with irritation? The contrast is jarring between the infantilising way she chooses to portray Fezeka and how she herself, at the centre of the story, emerges flawless.

Tlhabi’s questions about how Fezeka could have trusted Zweli Mkhize, how she could have trusted the police, and how and why she married Thandeka, among others, lack the nuance of empathy for how these choices are framed by trauma, history and context. In her book and in conversation at Abantu a Memory-distorted version of you, Fezeka, emerges, centred on how you survived a single rape. The rest of the violence that you opened up to and talked about is relegated to the status of a diversion in what reads more like ‘The Baffling Rise of Jacob Zuma’ than a history of your life.

The book does not do much to tell us who you were, Fezeka, but it does at least make us #RememberKhwezi. Its title invokes the toxic atmosphere of the trial, which required you to conceal your identity. In doing this it acknowledges that it borrows from the thinking of those who do the work of anti-violence daily: thinking that, therefore, has a texture that we perhaps cannot expect from a journalist. But this leaves me wondering what purpose this book serves and for whom it is intended. The AfriFem movement in South Africa has always known that the country’s criminal justice system is anti-Black and anti-womxn; we did not need Khwezi to tell us this afresh.

At this point I quietly pick up my things and leave. The warm air outside the tent allows me to breathe, at last, and the sun feels good against my skin. Khwezi is not written for womxn like me, I conclude. It might not even, I wonder, be written for womxn at all. And, I think, that might be fine.

What preoccupies my mind, nevertheless, is Khwezi‘s role in Memory.

At one point before I leave, the conversation lingers far longer than I am comfortable with on the silence of womxn and the complicity of womxn in protecting violent men. My discomfort stems from the fact that these conversations quickly go to a place where womxn who remain silent are framed as perpetrators. But it’s while sitting in discomfort that we must explore the degree to which, as a collective, we protect and promote violence, even when it costs us nothing to stand with the truth. Too often these explorations frame womxn as the keepers of secrets and stop there, without questioning the oppression that makes silence a perfectly understandable action.

That said, womxn, even in our silence do we, and should we, think about how and when we can do the work of living as free beings.

This is the biggest lesson that you gave me, Fezeka. Your utter refusal to expect and accept a violent world, even against your better judgement. You were never safe as a result, but I’d like to think that there were moments when you glimpsed life as a free Black womxn.

This unwillingness to be inured to a violent world is why you were willing to hand over your diaries to a womxn you had known only a short while. But I can only express horror at the sight of words from one of these diaries reproduced and analysed in Khwezi, knowing that during your trial entries like these were used to degrade and strip you naked—as though the original violation makes the reproduction acceptable.

A decade later, Khwezi also does little to dispel the presumption that you were a heterosexual womxn—a presumption that one conversation with you would have dispelled.

Memory asks that we question what purpose is served by the portrayal of a lesbian womxn in a way that erases her sexuality. We must ask how and why the parts of your life through which readers would experience you in your power and allow you to exercise your agency are left out.

Of course an author is entitled to draw inspiration from another’s life to create a representation that constructs a broader social commentary, or furthers a political agenda. But we must ask how much longer, and to what extent, we can continue to hold up Fezeka of Forest Town as a mirror to explain our society, a mere case study, without wrenching from you, Fez, the humanity you refused to relinquish in life.

Will we write about the Fezeka who insisted her real name be used? Will we write about the Fezeka whom no one can give a voice back to, her voice being something she never truly lost? Will we write of the Fezeka who was living openly as a Black HIV-positive womxn in the early 2000s and working to eradicate the stigma of the disease; the Fezeka who was feminist activist fire in her own right?

You changed our lives forever, Fez. It is now on us to refuse the misrepresentations of Memory by writing stories that remember you and what you stood for more completely. If we do not, we risk inadvertently granting Zuma and the patriarchy more power than they ever had over you when you were alive.

In this regard the less celebrated Kanga towers head and shoulders above Khwezi, its younger sibling. The former fashioned your memory into intellectual tools that can be used to start dismantling the patriarchy, a cause that ran through every fibre of your being. The latter sets its sights merely on using your memory to seal Zuma’s tomb. You were never interested in taking Zuma down. You were interested in justice for yourself, and for all womxn.

I was called back to the tent to witness Mashile’s third act of conserving radical memory—radical queer memory. She ended the session with a performance of ‘The Woman Who Gave Her Name’, a poem she wrote declaring love for us and the name we shared. Memory conserved, Fezeka wam, may ensure the survival of this precious narrative.

I remain amazed at what has become of this, which started out as us marvelling at a shared name, you saying with conviction that you knew I gave it to you and that we would one day stand face to face. You telling Mashile in no uncertain terms that I gave it to you, that I loaned you this name. We were the two Kwezis in One in Nine: the Khwezi with the ‘h’ and the Kwezi without it. This narrative became ours. It was funny. It was real. And it was special.

Only after you took the name did I consent to the borrowing. We were dykes together, daddy’s girls sharing different but similar experiences of being steeped in political activity. We shared a yearning for beauty. And you raised me as a big sister would. For these reasons it is difficult for me to see you stripped of agency in a critically acclaimed book that is apparently, but not materially, about your remarkable life. In the book’s pages, you exist as a confused young woman in your forties. Perhaps your ANC bloodline makes it okay for people to refer to you perpetually as a ‘youth’, but you lived the kind of uncompromising and extraordinary life that only a wise and wayward womxn could achieve. For this and more, Fezeka, I will love you forever.

9 thoughts on “[Conversation Issue] Kanga and Khwezi: Kwezilomso Mbandazayo challenges the memorialisation of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo”

  1. You shake a rock, you unleash a boulder…
    I am soooooo grateful. I love you Kwezilomso.
    Thank you for saying it on all our behalf.
    Thank you for your bravery.
    Thank you for shining the light.
    Thank you for being you. Kea o rata. Bunie

  2. Thank you Kwezi for offering us a glimpse into the love world you and Fezeka inhabit. And offering outrage, and rage at the besmirching of Fezeka. Thank you for loving Black womxn so fiercely that this Truth pours out of you. I love you Kwezi.

  3. I was in the tent amd your writing made me revisit that days’ memories. I hadn’t read Redi’s book and wasn’t planning on buying it. Mashile’s poem to you evoked curiosity in me that moved me to read. Thank you for your review! Great article

  4. A beautifully written piece that serves as a warning and perhaps advice to prospective authors. Decide whether the book is about you or the subject you chose.

  5. I don’t thing Redi was trying to portray Fez as a confused forty yr old-even though that’s exactly how I walked away thinking who Fez was-I honestly think the book came from a good place and perhaps because Fez died before completion of the book-perhaps Redi shud’ve just left it and not continued either-coz either way I think in the times we’re living in-Fez was going to be vindicated-either way….so ya–tough 1

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