The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from They Got To You Too by Futhi Ntshingila, which will be published in October.
They Got To You Too
Pan Macmillan, 2021
The silence between us is long and I’m reeling because, of course, I know the story of that minister punched by my colleague, Jakob Greyling. I wasn’t shocked to hear about the camps and how they treated women but, while I’d heard things, I didn’t know they were so awful. I suppose there is no logic to war. We did the same in the army to any captured rebels we could lay our hands on. It reminded me of what Miles Davis said in his biography that an erect penis has no conscience. I’m ashamed to say he was right. I know what we did in the name of supposedly protecting our country and we justified all manner of evil. Any war-torn country carries unmentionable pain and humiliation inflicted on its women. The irony is that I recognised myself in many of those bastards. I used to do those things to women and I particularly hated women who put up a fight. A part of me prays that I die before I have to tell my Girlie that part of my story.
All the talk about this virus and possible lockdown leaves me hoping that I contract the bloody thing and exit this world before I have to face anything more about my past. I know that’s a terrible thing to wish for but the links between our stories are adding to the weight of the bricks I am going to drop on Zoe with my story. She’s going to think I am a monster. Especially because I’m playing the role of a grandfather, something I haven’t got to do with my own biological grandchildren. At times I can sense Zoe’s hesitation but I’m in too deep now not to probe any further. I know to give her time to decide what layer of her story she wants to peel away next.
I wasn’t surprised to hear how the comrades loved their jazz music. We used to sit in our vans listening in on the houses we were targeting. We had them wired so we could eavesdrop to pick up any information on what was being planned. In some of those houses all we heard were the tunes of Nina Simone damning the whole state or the mourning sound of Billie Holiday detailing the gruesome lynching of black men hanging from trees like strange fruits. Some days when things were really bad, we would intercept night vigils where women were singing and praying. As they tired, the haunting voice of Mahalia Jackson and her ‘God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares’ sent ice into my stomach each time I heard her sing.
Something about dodging bullets and eluding death made many of our targets party hard too when they felt they had the chance to let loose. We intercepted weddings and listened in to what I imagine was true love made whole through laughter and declarations, women promising to wait and men promising to protect. I don’t know if any of these sacred rites touched any of my men but if they did they dared not show it. It wasn’t said but we all knew we were no match for some of the music and its ability to move us.
The saxophone wizard, Miles Davis, put us all into a trance and we’d forget all about our mission. There is something to be said about the power of music. The times we would leave with nothing to report back, we’d have to make things up to avoid being seen as useless but we would be full from the music. The comrades’ taste in music showed me that we weren’t dealing with fools. There was something sophisticated that I didn’t associate with the caricatures we had been indoctrinated to believe. They were more than just people who served us tea, tended our gardens and looked after our children. Despite my hate back then, jazz music reached me and yanked the wall of hate I had built up. That’s how I got to read all about the genius that was Miles. The funny thing is that if we had met back in the bad old days, it would have been two bulls clashing and it would have been bloody. I have no doubt he was his own man who didn’t play by the rules of any man. His saxophone won in the end.
I must have zoned out and dozed off because when I wake up, Zoe is long gone, having tucked me in for the night.
- Futhi Ntshingila is a writer from Pietermaritzburg. She is the author of Shameless, Do Not Go Gentle and most recently They Got To You Too. Her work centres on women and marginalised communities. Ntshingila holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and currently lives and works in Pretoria.
Hans van Rooyen is a former police general raised by two women who survived the 1899 South African War. He finds himself being cared for in an old age home by the daughter of liberation struggle activists. At eighty, he carries with him the memories of crimes he committed as an officer under the apartheid government. Having eluded the public confessions at the TRC for his time in the Border Wars, he retained his position in the democratic South Africa, serving as an institutional memory for a new generation of police recruits.
Zoe Zondi is tasked to care for the old man. Her gentle and compassionate nature prompts Hans to review his decision to go to the grave with all his secrets. Zoe has her own life story to tell and, as their unlikely bond deepens, strengthened by the isolation that Covid-19 lockdown brings, they provide a safe space for each other to say the things that are often left unsaid.