‘Johannesburg winters are brutal; you freeze to the bone marrow here’—Read an excerpt from Nthikeng Mohlele’s new novel Revolutionaries’ House

The JRB presents an excerpt from Revolutionaries’ House, the latest novel from Nthikeng Mohlele.

Revolutionaries’ House
Nthikeng Mohlele
Jacana Media, 2024

Johannesburg winters are brutal; you freeze to the bone marrow here, whimper like a puppy. I am old in experience, not necessarily in age, though at my fairly advanced age, I cannot be said to be young. Or rather, I feel old, but that could very well be from eating so poorly for so long, having lived the life of a vagabond and undecided pessimist. I have, as a result, become immune to most things: happiness, insults, arousal. Everything seems either wrong or woefully inadequate in this metropolis: the violent clash of sonic terrors, suspiciously clean air, a grave shortage of human beings who still remember what it is to be human—so much so that the premature and often gratuitous dying around me reminds me that there is, in fact, a life to be lived, erratic dying to be dodged, imagination to be unleashed. An elixir against dreadful routines and angst, imagination has unpredictable ways of setting me free, sometimes too free, that I have to pinch myself and remind myself that I am dirty and poor. But by dirty, I don’t mean a lack of bathing or soiled clothes—no, rather a lack of things society has deemed a denotation of cleanliness: perfume, a fixed home address, a comb, nail clippers, maybe a woman’s gaze and affections to purify the soul, children of my own to seek and mind and who will later disregard a wisdom shared with purpose and hope, and, most of all, a name in some social discipline. In music. Or photography. Business. Maybe design. In the almost sacred art of cuisine. I have neither name nor vocation, so I am considered unclean.

It is in how Johannesburgers look at me, with pity and impatience, suspicion and sometimes even cruel irritation. I am not a beggar, never have been, and work for my upkeep doing whatever seems logical at a particular moment: washing a taxi or two at the Lilian Ngoyi Street taxi rank, selling legally sourced scrap metal, or a hundred rand earned from offering to wash dishes at restaurants at the Newtown Cultural Precinct and surrounds. All I have is my mind, with all its varied light bulbs and sirens, its spikes and chains, fluid temperament and formlessness. Sometimes, though, my mind has a habit of disappearing on me, but, my God, how orchestral my being becomes when it returns—like those millions of gallons of water let loose in giant concrete dams. Spectacular. Powerful. Thunderous.

For meals, instead of begging or stealing, I wash dishes, including at Gramadoelas, the restaurant opposite the Market Theatre in Newtown. I wash coffee-stained teaspoons, mayonnaise-and-spinach-besieged forks, fat-laden plates, wine-and-lipstick-stained glasses, the soapy water transforming into glittering oil and curry golds as if possessing mineral deposits: cake smudges, chewed bone fragments and sticky pastes, toothpicks snapped in half, vegetable matter, the purple-red residue of beetroot from plates bearing testimony to both messy and precise eaters, and always the looming threat posed by remnants of fresh-cut chillies to eyeballs. There are also muddy chocolate and vanilla milkshake glasses, murderous steak knives, lingering bits of mashed potato and spaghetti on forks, soup bowls, carving knives, champagne flutes, side plates, metal clicks and porcelain collisions in underwater cleansing, a vagabond’s hands and time traveller’s brain clearing pyramids of restaurant dishes for one hundred rand. Sometimes two hundred and, in rare moments of human generosity, five hundred. The monetary value does not matter to me. It is what I can do with such dishwashing riches, those meagre donations, to procure basic human needs that will enforce a measure of self-worth and respect: an earned meal when not fasting, a toothbrush, the occasional haircut, maybe a new shirt, nail clippers or a comb.


I knew. We all knew. Everybody knew. The world knew. Those living among the open sewage in Alexandra Township—they knew; as did those hopefuls and manic depressives living hollow lives and dying unremarkable deaths in crowded shacks in Soweto and Winnie Mandela, in Vosloorus and Soshanguve, in the shanty towns of Macassar in the tourist haven of Cape Town and other places, restless patients tossing in soiled bedding across the Republic because some nurses stopped caring. We, my former comrades and I, knew we could not hide behind the politics and political philosophies of dead Europeans, that of idealistic and dead Africans claiming we were Pan Africanists while our people were being ravaged by hunger and disease, or hold on to the mantras of deceased Russians. It seemed to me, I told my comrades at Revolutionaries’ House, that our revolutionary zeal ended at good intentions, before greed and envy and callousness diminished us to warring factions suspicious of everyone and everything.

We know our revolution spluttered and almost died, even while some in our ranks were still wielding bloody knives red from the very soul of our nation: stabbing, slashing, twisting and, again, stabbing—inflicting horrific wounds, decimated by comrade daggers determined to murder and maim, to live without conscience. To hell with the lot of you, I told my compatriots at Revolutionaries’ House. I cannot stand for shit, for theft and power mercenaries. You do not, I told them, so angry that I was almost foaming at the mouth, represent me. I was not tortured and almost killed, my freedom taken from me and from many other good men and women of conscience, to be counted among those soulless individuals who look on while our once trusted comrades behave in such vile and atrocious ways. It makes me physically sick, delirious, infecting me with rage that we, we, we who have suffered and sacrificed so much can be the very ones selling our souls like this! It cannot be. And, no, I don’t care what happens to me, whether you despise or expel me—I will speak the truth whether you like it or not. There are, encouragingly, still noble men and women in our ranks. But we cannot do anything of value or importance when we are covered in maggots, while our very being is corroded and rots from within because we break bread with charlatans! I am sick to my very bone marrow, comrades, with the filth that has besieged our Movement. I hope we fucking lose the next elections, because you have become unthinking and unfeeling zealots, the lot of you. Why should power, such a precious commodity, come at such a cost, be entrusted to you, comrades? I have pleaded, begged, cajoled, persuaded, encouraged, listened, hoped, toiled, compromised, waited, despaired, sacrificed, participated, written, wept, defended and become what most of you have yourselves said was the epitome of selflessness. Well, if you won’t hear me, I have to tell the lot of you to go to hell. Both the noble and the fucked in spirit. It doesn’t matter to me any more. But I will not, I told stunned and offended comrades at Revolutionaries’ House, be found guilty and condemned by association. I cannot be one of you any more. To my noble comrades, I salute whatever good is left in you and, to the rotten and depraved shadows of former comrades, hear me: You do not belong in Revolutionaries’ House, and to hell with the lot of you. The gall, the temerity, the sickening myopia of calling yourself freedom fighters induces nausea. Shame on you, political degenerates and sociopaths. Thank you for listening. I was, I told our National Executive Committee meeting, resigning my Party membership with immediate effect. Silence.


Following my tirade, seething with anger and utter frustration, I promptly fell sick: wave upon wave of nausea descended upon me like a plague. I went to the ends of medical science and spiritual enlightenment to diagnose my peculiar ailment, this forceful, sudden, draining and ferocious terror that moved and kicked and clawed at my very bowels. How was it that I could not hold anything down, even with the greatest of wills. I vomited everything I ate, all I attempted to drink, like multiple violent pregnancies rolled into a single living horror. Dr Xaluba, specialist in gastrointestinal medicine; Dr Liebenberg, trusted and recommended in mental conditions; Maubane and Zungu, celebrity doctors gifted in the art of curing the creepiest and most nebulous of allergies; Dr Gordon, nutritionist and dietician; Dr Mashabela, rheumatologist. Countless pulmonologists, psychiatrists and osteopaths who, puzzled and frustrated, said: Mr Winston, we are, unfortunately, unable to pinpoint the exact nature and origin of or cure for your illness. It is indeed an unfortunate and concerning predicament. So I suffered, slowly evolving into a gaunt shadow of myself, an image of those shell-shocked infantrymen in Germany or Vietnam, their souls decapitated, eardrums blasted, nerves scraped to breaking point by war. There is an unending din in my ears, spirited whistling, church bells, lonely fragments of jazz. I lie awake and sob, say to myself in a hushed whisper: I know what might be wrong with me. Politics. I am a victim of power, of indifference.

I spent months in and out of hospitals, fed the only way I could be saved, intravenously. All your vitals are pitch perfect, the doctors told me, and we cannot find anything remotely related to your condition in any of the medical studies, case histories and textbooks. I felt special, in a twisted and mirthful kind of way, existing in a haze of what seemed like permanent hunger and delirium, my mind clutching at the faintest and fast-diminishing pebbles of sense, of reason, sanity. I feared madness, talking to myself, horrified by the remote but nevertheless possible reality of me parading in the nude up and down Nelson Mandela Bridge, on Mary Fitzgerald Square, scaring dining and drinking theatre and music types at Niki’s Oasis on Lilian Ngoyi Street by declaring at the top of my voice how I have come to loathe politicians. Was the affliction really about politics, or had I convinced myself that it was some political virus that had infected me? Could my disorder be proven through medical science, or was it more a soul ailment, a battering of the conscience that left it woefully ill equipped to deal with disappointment, with seething rage, with disillusion? Disappointment because my comrades and I could have been better, feeling people; rage because I took too long to rebel; and disillusion because there are limits to political life, to what wielding power can achieve. There is no purity in politics—everything seems polluted, compromised. Horse-trading. Fragile alliances. Maybe that is what had infected me, that in-betweenness, the submission to half-measures. So I continued to vomit like a drug addict in treatment, battling my addiction to toxins. The body, I must tell you—or, rather, a hungry body—experiences its own narcotic effects: that slow and steady lightheadedness when the worst of the hunger pangs have passed, that touch of hallucination triggering mental flight, that state of beautiful weightlessness. How affecting life is in that rare state, the perfect alignment of body and soul, that sense of tangible being. Like grasping at the thighs of a gorgeous and unpredictable woman, nibbling her nipple, knowing full well that that could result in a tirade of insults or even a brutal slap. In another sense, that zone of weightlessness is akin to awaiting good and life-changing news but unsure of when it will come; just this bubbling of uplifting emotions. Could stale politics be to blame for my sickness, archaic politics trying to solve modern problems, without heart of foresight? Maybe … that kind of thing can infect you, kill you even.


A revolutionary, solitary, nude march up and down the full length of Ntemi Piliso and Gwigwi Mrwebi streets. What would that have proven? Piety, madness or freedom? Maybe the nudity would suggest and affirm a return to nature, albeit in this concrete empire of Johannesburg, with its elected and erratic rulers, their unknowable passions and perversions, their wrestling for prominence. No, I could never have allowed a total descent into madness, into nude statements, no matter how grand or artistic or rebellious, for a sure, sometimes agitated, sometimes trembling voice told me: You are a substantial man. And yet that is not what I saw in the mirror. When I still had a house to call home, in the heart of Saxonwold, a charming three-storey behind high perimeter walls, I existed in a perplexing state of present and residual guilt. How was it that I had everything I needed, that I could, on our political campaign trails, step over streams of Orange Farm raw sewage and look elderly Diepsloot invalids in the eye, knowing that they still await government help: to eat, to heal, to bury their dead? How could I, in good conscience, prowl the Rosebank, Hyde Park, Sandton City and Brooklyn malls in search for a bite to eat, to spend and entertain myself, and then come home to this palatial pile on Methwold Drive with its servants and cameras and immaculate garden without, however unearned or misplaced, any sense of shame?

But why shame? For being once reasonably wealthy and living infected by politics? Is politics my ailment, or rather bad politicians who have unleashed in me this precarious state of internal sweating, torrents of perspiration raining down on lungs and spleen and heart, the seemingly permanent saltiness in the mouth, the din in the ears and blurred vision? I am sick, that is a fact, but I cannot explain or understand the nature of my sickness, except as a general idea of a body tearing itself to shreds. My blood is still red, surprisingly. The way I feel, it is as if my countless blood tests will reveal blood transformed, alien blood, blood blue or green. I am not exaggerating: I am homeless, truly and totally sick for months now. There is, a stone’s throw from where I rest my bones under this concrete bridge between Brixton and Braamfontein, some arresting street graffiti of Mandela in the company of Kwaito artists and advertisements for mosquito repellent. Mandela on T-shirts of passing strangers, Mandela on the side of buildings, Mandela on billboards, Mandela in boardroom art, smiling Mandela immortalised on metropolitan buses. You see Nelson Mandela everywhere in this city, in the Republic—not Nelson Mandela Nelson Mandela, but images of him in art, photography and sculpture. In documentaries and countless books too. Steve Biko too, but not so much. Many public speeches are sprinkled with ‘as Nelson Mandela or Biko said or taught us …’ by those not immune to quoting famous and important people with their mouths rather than their hearts, devoid of anything resembling principle. I have heard thieves and delinquents of varied eccentricities and debauchery lean on Mandela, perhaps to appear worthy and significant. I have thus, in that haze of disbelief and disgust, made unworthy enemies for I have always been quick to pull such thieves aside and whisper: Mandela is turning in his grave, with pests like you remotely claiming his legacy, Comrade Frank. Everyone knows you are worthless, even on the lowliest of human-achievement indicators. You have survived this world with sheer lack of conscience, backbiting others for sport. I have seen many at the receiving end of my verbal arrows swallow hard, hyperventilate. Tell him, the cowardly comrades said, spurred by nonexistent moral courage and self-preservation. I, on the other hand, was born ready to die, I taught my soul, and repeated it so often until it bowed to my commands, until I built a remarkable reputation as a fire-breathing comrade when crossed—death threats notwithstanding.


I, as I lay on my bed made of plasma television boxes under the Nelson Mandela Bridge, serenaded by the monotonous track music of passing trains and the general sonic ambience of this metropolis (vehicular traffic, ambulance sirens, the odd helicopter overhead), think about the kinds of enemies a man of my stature may have accumulated over the years.  


  • Novelist, playwright, entrepreneur and brand marketing and communications professional Nthikeng Mohlele has authored six critically acclaimed novels and two short story collections. He dabbles in journalistic writing and literary criticism and is the winner of the University of Johannesburg Main Prize for South African Writing in English and the K Sello Duiker Memorial Prize. The Discovery of Love won the 2022 HSS Award for Best Fiction: Short Stories. His theatre writing credits include I Am A Woman and The Affairs of State. Mohlele’s work is taught at leading South African universities, including his alma mater Wits University and the University of South Africa. Mohlele’s other interests include music, photography, technology, film and design. He lives and works in Johannesburg


Publisher information

Mister Winston is a substantial man, an honest man, a ‘good’ politician. Or at least, this is how he likes to see himself.

But as his life falls apart and his political party’s hypocrisies and failings become impossible to ignore, this easy image begins to crack, and he goes from being a potential president to a man washing dishes and sleeping under bridges.

With lucid prose and startlingly beautiful imagery, Nthikeng Mohlele reaches into the consciousness of a man fallen from grace, and the disillusionment, fractured morals and unravelling personal life which led to this spiritual exile is revealed. Revolutionaries’ House is an electrifying novel of love, power and attachment, and their many betrayals.

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