Africa Today 48.4 (2001) 138-142
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For nearly half a century, South African literature was almost wholly preoccupied with apartheid and the struggle to overthrow it. Thus, when white minority rule finally ended in 1994, one of the most frequently asked questions in literary studies was, what will South Africans write about now? The Memory of Stones, Mandla Langa's third novel, and David's Story, the long-awaited follow-up to Zoë Wicomb's 1987 collection of short stories You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, together suggest that the tumultuous transition to democracy and black majority rule has provided enough drama to keep the country's writers busy for many years to come.
Unfortunately, in the case of Langa's novel, his eagerness to finish what could have been the quintessential postapartheid novel may have led him to publish his brainchild prematurely, resulting in a book that feels unpolished and at times simply incoherent. The Memory of Stones is an ambitious work, with a huge cast of characters whose interlocking stories encompass two decades and stretch from Johannesburg to Angola to Hungary. The central story, however, takes place in 1996 in Ngoza, a region of war-torn KwaZulu-Natal whose inhabitants were forcibly removed many years ago to make way for a military base. The Land Claims Court restores [End Page 138] this land to its previous inhabitants, a religious group led by the charismatic Baba Joshua. Joshua establishes the Temple of the New Jerusalem, a name that suggests a return from the diaspora. Joshua's followers "had repudiated all knowledge of the past, which had been typified by treachery, shame and a potential to diminish hope" (p. 23).
Unfortunately, the "Other World" outside the settlement continually impinges on the sect's self-imposed isolation and willful amnesia. Johnny M., a powerful gangster/warlord/tycoon, is determined to drive out the newly returned residents and build a giant casino and resort at Ngoza. When Baba Joshua dies, Johnny M. seizes the opportunity to consolidate his control over the region. On his deathbed, Joshua had named Zodwa, his only remaining child, as his successor. Having recently finished her law degree at Wits University in Johannesburg, Zodwa assumes the reins only grudgingly, and the traditionalists in the settlement chafe at being ruled by a woman. Johnny M. attempts to use the resulting schism to install Baba Joshua's treacherous brother-in-law Mbongwa as his puppet chief.
Zodwa is not without her own supporters, however. The alliance that forms behind her soon includes the stranger Mpanza, a former freedom fighter now down on his luck after his return from exile in Europe. Mpanza, like the members of the Temple of the New Jerusalem, is trying to escape from his troubled past. Years earlier, at the height of the country's political unrest, he had taken part in the assassination of his friend and commander Jonah, who was wrongly suspected of being a government informer. Jonah was Zodwa's brother, as Mpanza knows, but Zodwa has never learned the circumstances of her brother's death and is unaware that his guilt-burdened murderer is at her side.
The Memory of Stones dramatizes many of the painful paradoxes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission era, in which the desire to forget the past clashes with the need to remember. The book's title is apt but ambiguous: the elders of the Temple remember their ancestral land from the time before the forced removals; at the same time, the earth seems to have memories of its own. Zodwa's revelation is that rather than burying the past in oblivion, as her father had taught, her people must reclaim the past as their own. She tells her assembled followers, "This is where the bones of our forefathers are buried. . . . this place is the repository...