I SPEAK TO THE SILENT
Mtutuzeli Nyoka

 


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University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
 
Apartheid South Africa
 
We meet Walter Hambile Kondile in prison, a sad, decent man condemned to imprisonment for life for the murder of a national hero who was also a monster. We don’t know how this hero was a monster, but Hambile has received a letter from a John Smith, asking for his story.
 
In between teaching other inmates how to read and write, this gentle old man tells John Smith the story of himself and his daughter, Sindiswa the freedom fighter, and how her death dominated his life. A submissive laborer, who left college to take a job tending horses and orchards when his father died, Hambile had an inflexible determination to educate his brilliant daughter. His partial education had not succeeded in turning him from the life of silent obedience, but hers turned her into one of the “most wanted” leaders of the student rebellion. What happened to Sindiswa after she fled the country? What Hambile learns changes him into a man of action – and a condemned prisoner.
 
Author Mtutuzeli Nyoka has given Hambile Kondile a diffidence and dignity that makes him easy to love. By the time the book reaches the harrowing events, the reader has been led easily into them by his hero’s essential niceness. Hambile, speaking in the first person, tells of the destitution and degradation of his growing up, and the horrible times of the war, but his tone is one of sadness more than condemnation. When he condemns, it is true evil that he is condemning, and the silence that condones it. In the end, Hambile agrees with his daughter that his generation, who accepted the treatment meted out to them, were as much to blame as anyone. But all this is very personal for him, and at the last, his peace must come from very personal events.
 
Over and over again as I read, I was seduced into thinking of I SPEAK TO THE SILENT as a memoir. Hambile Kondile’s story is written with such authenticity of wandering thought patterns, of tone, even of afterthoughts, that it feels like it must be someone’s memoir. My guess is that it a combination of the experiences of Dr. Nyoka and people he has known, and the evidence given at the truth hearings, a sort of official confessional held by the new South African government after the civil war was over. It was Dr. Nyoka who fashioned these into the thoughts of a man who – I must force myself to remember – didn’t really exist.
 
I SPEAK TO THE SILENT is not necessarily the only view of twentieth century South Africa. Dr. Nyoka has Hambile say that he never saw an English South African who was not rich, and I know some non-rich English South Africans myself. But Hambile does make an effort to avoid stereotypes, to factor his own hatred into his judgment, and basically to give credit to good men on every side.
 
I picked I SPEAK TO THE SILENT out of a booth for international books because of the harmony of its language. The author, Dr. Mtutuzeli Nyoka, not only writes with the instincts of a writer, he can also be found on-line as a leader in South African sports organizations. He was a kickoff speaker for the 2005 Homebru campaign for South African writers. He had this to say about the place of writers in the South Africa of today:
 
“Though our cultures, languages and values are diverse, we are an African country in the process of renewal. We cannot allow our future to be shaped by circumstances. The stories, therefore, that we write must reflect the new African character we desire.
 
“It must be stories that drain off the racial lightening that seems to play above the heads of most mortals in these days. It must be books that favourably adjust race relationships by way of promoting mutual knowledge and reciprocal esteem. What one is talking about is an elevation and nobility of purpose.”
 
When compared to much of the delving-into-muck writing I avoid today, these are fine goals indeed for a writer to aim at, whether they are achieved or not.
 
April 2005 Review
 
 

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