[Access article in PDF]
Mourning the Postapartheid State Already? The Poetics of Loss in Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying
II. Authorial Projects
What good can come of grief?
--Homer, The Odyssey
Despite their rehearsal of the gestures of resistance theatre, Mda's plays never subscribe to resistance theatre's central dogma, the vision of revolution that will transform utterly the lives of those audacious enough to prosecute it. In the spirit of the doubting anarchists he describes as his lasting influences, Mda leaves the stage with few positive commitments. With its thoroughgoing suspicion of systems of every sort, his drama comes closer to the theatre of the absurd than the theatre of commitment.
--Jan Gorak, "Nothing to Root For: Zakes Mda and South African Resistance Theatre"
Zakes Mda's first novel, Ways of Dying, is a flawed work that is, in part because of its shortcomings, symptomatic of the condition of postapartheid South Africa. Resonating with the rich uncertainty of the political transition from the repressions of National Party (NP) rule to [End Page 183] the democratic government of the African National Congress (ANC), Mda has produced a work that is located in an indistinct, contradictory historical moment. Set in an era that appears to belong in equal measure to the past, present, and future, Ways of Dying captures the entangled and uncertain tenor of an historic(al) era--a moment in which these different epochs are difficult to distinguish, complexly bound up in each other. In this novel the anticipations of the democratic future coexist awkwardly with the memories of past injustice. The poverty of the apartheid era, for instance, is sometimes indistinguishable from the current deprivations of the squatter camps, a ghetto that one Mda protagonist tersely refers to as the "informal settlement, as the place is politely called" (42).
However, while Mda's chief protagonists, the rural transplants Toloki and Noria, struggle to negotiate their pasts and map their futures, the immediacy of their moment is their chief concern. The present, both for the characters and for the "new" nation, functions as a barometer of change. Years after Toloki and Noria have moved from the nondescript South African countryside to the unnamed metropolis, five years after the first democratic elections, a few short months since the retirement of an iconic president (Nelson Mandela) and the inauguration of his successor, and almost a full decade after the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of the black liberation movements (1990), this is the point at which to take stock--personally for Toloki and Noria, and historically for the nation. It is at this fin-de-siècle conjuncture, which finds Noria in a crisis (having just buried a second child) and the postapartheid nation celebrating itself, that the present has to display its difference from the past: it has to offer more than a hint of chronological and ideological separateness--the postapartheid moment as opposed to the apartheid past. The present, Ways of Dying shows, bears the (often onerous) weight of both history and the expectations of the future. In order for the postapartheid future to be manifestly different, the novel suggests, it has to distance itself from the political atrocities and the (anti-apartheid) radicalism of the past. Although the novel's antipathy to the repressions of the past are explicable, Mda opposes (however mutedly) any recourse to earlier modes of political resistance: it is precisely because Ways of Dying implicitly rejects anti-apartheid radicalism that this essay will engage the problematics of this postapartheid position. Why is anti-apartheid opposition so untenable to Mda? What fears does the radicalism of the past hold for the present and the future?
A writer with a complex sense of historical process, Mda aims his critiques less at the excesses of the apartheid regime (though the apartheid [End Page 184] security forces are by no means exonerated) than at the phenomenon known as "black-on-black" violence. 1 These ethnic-based clashes, which have in general...