I SPEAK TO THE SILENT
KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004
Reviewed by Joy
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.
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:
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
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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