‘Mama never told me she loved me. Mama couldn’t even say happy birthday to me’—Read an excerpt from Lebo Mazibuko’s debut novel, Bantu Knots

The JRB presents an excerpt from Bantu Knots, the debut novel from Lebo Mazibuko.

Lebo Mazibuko
Bantu Knots
Kwela Books, 2021

Read the excerpt:


‘Fiela, fiela, fiela ngwanyana’

Sweep, sweep, sweep girl

‘Wake up, Naledi! A girl must wake up and sweep before the sun is shining.’

Why was Mama waking me up that early and why was she telling me to go sweep? Mama never asked me to sweep.

The cold was brutal, biting into my skin even through my thick, hooded jacket. I was still trying to gather my thoughts when it dawned on me that teaching me how to sweep was Mama’s gift to me.

I was sneezing continually, my nose running, failing to cope with the dust that sprang up with each swift swipe. Next door, MaKarabo was sweeping too. She laughed, amused that I couldn’t detect where the wind was blowing from; it kept scattering the dirt I was trying to gather.

‘You are just like Karabo—lazy. You can’t even do something as simple as sweeping. Who are the poor men that are going to marry you young girls of today? You are spoilt because of the rights that Mandela gave you. You come into our houses and you tell us about feminism and independence. There’s no word for “feminism” in any African language because those things came with white people and democracy. Look at the divorce rate, all because women want to be men.’

MaKarabo was wrong. Yes, I wasn’t great at sweeping but it was also August—the windiest month of the year. Everyone knew how dusty the township was in August. It had nothing to do with Mandela, white people, and feminism. Still, I was grateful that she showed me what to do, even while chastising me and all the other young black girls who didn’t wake up at the crack of dawn to clean.

‘Naledi, look where the wind is coming from and sweep in the same direction as the wind is moving. I mean this thing is logic. Kante, does this Mandela education only teach you about rights and they neglect to teach you about logic?’

Back inside the house, Mama was sitting at the table, her Bible open in front of her. She began to read to me.

‘Who can find a virtuous woman?’ Mama always sounded proud and read with such passion when she read the Bible. ‘For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.’

That scripture was my grandmother’s second gift to me. ‘This is the sort of woman that God wants you to become, Naledi—remember that as you are busy celebrating. Today you will make the porridge,’ Mama said, closing her Bible and getting up to leave the table.

One could hardly consider this a celebration. I was surprised by Dineo’s phone call. Months had passed since I had last spoken to her.

‘Happy sweet sixteenth, Naledi. O gole o gole o gogobe.’

‘Thank you, Dineo,’ I said before hanging up.

I had nothing more to say to her.

*  *   *

Mama was officially retiring. Already way past sixty, she said she was tired.

On her last day, she asked me to help her to get the rest of her things from Anika’s house. So we were back in the small cold room, where we listened to the two dogs barking while we packed away some of Mama’s things. We walked into the kitchen and found Anika making tea. She had placed two small cups on saucers on the kitchen island. I didn’t know Anika could make tea. It seemed to me like everything was done for her.

‘Oh, Nalady, you’re also here,’ she said, walking towards the cupboard before returning with another cup. Anika added the teabag and boiling water in my cup. She then sat next to Mama and held her hands. ‘Oh, Norah, this house is going to feel so empty. I left rehearsals early so I could say goodbye. I don’t know where any of us would be without you. All the advice you gave me because some silly boy broke my heart. You really have been like a mother to me.’

That girl’s mouth ran like a motor. I looked up to see if my grandmother was annoyed and was instead shocked to see tears falling from my grandmother’s eyes. Mama only cried when she spoke to God. The incredible magician was pulling tricks out of a hat. What Mama said next left me floored.

Mama took a sip of tea. ‘Oh, Anika! Know that I love you … You are an amazing young woman.’

Mama never told me she loved me. Mama couldn’t even say happy birthday to me, let alone call me amazing.

Anika handed Mama a photograph of the two of them. Mama looked at it, then held it close to her chest.

Anika had a way of revealing parts of Mama I never knew existed. She had a way of unearthing desires within myself I didn’t know I had. I didn’t have many photographs of me and my grandmother, but I suddenly wished we had taken photographs together.

‘I’m so excited that I finally get to play the lead in a production,’ said Anika.

‘I still can’t forget the first time I saw you acting. You stood in front of so many people and you were not even scared.’

‘Oh no, Norah, I was so nervous. I’m always nervous.’

‘Then you hide your nerves well, my girl.’

‘I just love it,’ Anika explained.

‘Me too. I also love it.’

Anika and Mama turned to me. Anika had a smile on her face. Mama looked stunned.

‘Hao wena, since when?’ Mama asked.

I had got so sucked into their conversation that I had let my secret passion spill all over the kitchen table.

‘Naledi, since when are you an actress?’ Mama repeated.

I understood where her shock was coming from—nothing about me spelled movie star. I had always been shy. I’d been exploring the world of stories secretly for so many years but something about that world made me feel like I belonged.

‘Sweetie, if you love it, do it,’ Anika said. It was that simple to her. ‘And you speak so well, I’m sure you’ll make it,’ she added.

I’m not sure why Anika thought that was a compliment. I doubted that she would have said that to a white kid.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.


‘Is it a strange thing that someone like me can talk?’

Anika’s eyes opened wider. ‘No, no, I mean, of course someone like you can speak. What I meant was, you know like—’

‘Hayi maan, Naledi, what’s wrong with you,’ Mama cut in. ‘Anika is helping you, so listen and stop asking questions that have no direction.’

I wished that Mama would have let Anika finish explaining. I was hoping to hear her answer. Instead, Anika and I talked about what I needed to do to prepare to study drama.

‘And I have a whole lot of scripts and things I can give you. If you need help, I’m just an afternoon cup of tea away. Oh, and a taxi ride away,’ she said.

‘It took three taxis to get here,’ I corrected her.

‘Jesus Christ, three taxis!’

I was almost excited to see Mama shut down Anika for being blasphemous, but Mama said nothing. She didn’t even flinch.

Anika giggled. ‘So I’m just a cup of tea and three taxi rides away. And we all know how entertaining those taxi rides are.’

Anika did not look like she had seen what a taxi rank looked like on TV, never mind ever having been in a taxi.

‘So you’ve been in a taxi?’ I asked.


‘You’ve been in a taxi, right?’

‘Oh, no! But Norah tells me all about her adventures,’ she said.

God bless her ignorance, I thought. She didn’t have a clue about what our lives were like. Hearing stories and living the story were completely different. But Anika was sweet. Very sweet and kind.

She seemed not to pick up that I found her irritating, though. ‘Here you go, Nalady,’ she said, giving me a pile of scripts and novels and even poetry books.

I wanted to correct her—My name is not Naa-lady—but she had given me all that stuff. I didn’t have to steal them like I had planned.

‘Are you not going to say thank you?’ Mama gave me a nasty look.

‘Thank you, Ah-nih-kah,’ I said, ensuring that she heard that I had made a conscious effort to pronounce her name correctly.

I left that afternoon carrying a whole lot of literature and even more unanswered questions.


  • Lebo Mazibuko was born in Johannesburg and grew up in the township of Pimville, Soweto. She discovered her passion for storytelling at a young age attending school at the National School of the Arts, where she matriculated. She is a trained theatre performer, having obtained her B­Tech in the Dramatic Arts at the Tshwane University of Technology.


Publisher information

‘Beauty is painful and expensive, sistas!’

Young Naledi wants to trade her bantu knots for Nonhle Thema’s hair on the Dark and Lovely box. She wishes she looked more like her light­skinned mother too. Ledi grows up in Pimville with her strict grandmother Mama Norah. During the day, she lives vicariously through the characters in Ndende Street and at night, she recites her bible verses with Mama. While her mother, Dineo, leads a life of glamour, chasing the blesser lifestyle.

Mama and Dineo have opposing views on everything and Ledi often finds herself in the middle of their conflict. When she starts university, she has to find a way to reconcile traditions and modernity. Bantu Knots explores the complicated mother­daughter relationship and trying to come together to understand each other. We follow Ledi as she forgives a father who denies her; navigates the pressures of her circumstances, womanhood and beauty ideals—and pursues her dreams in spite of it all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *