Degradation on the streets of Soweto
THE timing of Redi Tlhabi’s book about her Soweto childhood, her near rape and the violence that swirled around her growing years, is uncanny, coming as it does when SA seems to have reached a tipping point about violence against women. Yet it is pure synchronicity. The radio and TV host spent seven years writing Endings and Beginnings: A Story of Healing (Jacana). Indeed, Tlhabi was reluctant to let the book go, repeatedly repossessing it from her editor’s clutches.
For most of her life, Tlhabi has wanted to understand why the handsome Mabegzo, a gangster, murderer and rapist, chose to save the 11-year-old then Redi Direko from a fate she daily expected on the dusty streets of densely populated Orlando East. He died as a result of his efforts to prevent her being raped. She does not spell this out explicitly but the link is clear.
Mabegzo’s life ends in the book’s introductory chapter. "I’m standing at the street corner and, for the second time in my short life, looking down on a dead body," writes Tlhabi. "There’s blood coming out of his mouth, just like with Papa two years ago. But unlike Papa his eye isn’t hanging out of its socket. It still looks weird though, like he’s winking at me. Papa also winked at me."
The book doesn’t get any less compelling than this start; I was instantly hooked.
Tlhabi is direct and unequivocal both in her book and our interview. Her gaze does not falter when I read out what her near-rapist, Siphiwe, did, grabbing her while she was walking home from church one Sunday morning.
He told her that she was going to become his "wife" that day and when she didn’t respond, he slapped her face. When she told him she was having her period, he yanked her panties down in front of his friends and passers-by, exposing her and her sanitary pad.
The humiliated girl walked home — "I imagined his phallus invading me, violating me, destroying me."
In the wake of the recent gang rape, disembowelling and eventual death of Bredasdorp’s Anene Booysen, I want to know if the same degrading treatment meted out to the young Redi Direko in the 1980s occurs on Soweto streets today.
"No, not now because there is vigilantism. Back then, black people didn’t have political power, and with it now has come a level of authority."
This is why Tlhabi insists that a lack of action over rape today is not informed by a lack of power — "It’s just apathy."
But "today there’s no way that a boy’s going to do that to a girl in broad daylight, no flipping way in hell."
But to be a girl in 1980s Soweto meant to be powerless. Into this volatile situation stepped the "jack-roller" of the neighbourhood, Mabegzo.
For some extraordinary reason, he chose to befriend the little fat girl, walking her home from school, much against the wishes of her single-parent, nurse mother and her extended family. For eight months, the 22-year-old from whom others shrank in fear protected Tlhabi and slowly told her the story of his miserable life.
He was the progeny of gang-raped Imelda, who was shunned by the community and sent into exile in Lesotho by her parents. The shame and blame were laid at her feet.
When a Basotho suitor emerged, her family insisted the baby she adored must be concealed and his unloving, disapproving grandparents swept him off to Soweto.
They changed his name from Lethabo, meaning "joy", to "bad luck". He never knew his mother, and in time he grew into his name — a rebel with a cause.
When Tlhabi met him and it was clear he was interested in her, she expected rape to follow. Such was her abject despair and acceptance of her fate that she displayed no fear, something she believes may have intrigued him. But, she still has no idea why he treated her so differently from everybody else in his dreadful life, conjecturing only that it may have been their shared sense of parental loss.
She saw a crowd one spring day around a body on the street corner where he always waited for her after school, "onlookers feasting their eyes, just as they did with my father". A police officer kicked the corpse, eliciting cheers.
She prayed silently for him.
Tlhabi’s mother subsequently moved the family out of Soweto and sent her daughter to Parktown Convent, from where she launched herself into radio and TV.
But she never forgot the gangster. He haunted her. She repeatedly returned to Soweto to try to connect the dots that made up Mabegzo’s life.
She says several times that her trauma was secondary to his story, but the process of piecing together his disjointed background has helped make sense of her own life.
The aura of strength around Tlhabi, her determination and clear mind, combined with a burning curiosity about life in general, and the mystery surrounding the deaths of Mabegzo and her father in particular, eventually yielded startling results.
I’m not going to spoil her beautifully written story by telling you what she found out but maybe in another life she’d have made a good detective.
The result is an important book. It reads like a movie script, and already she is being approached with film offers, but it is also a sociopolitical account.
The reasons for our scourge of violence, of rape, of using women’s bodies as turf for wars and ownership, become much clearer as you race through this vivid account of volatile Soweto.
Tlhabi has run workshops with former rapists in townships around Joburg as part of an academic study in an effort to understand the rapists’ background.
"Who were their mothers, who raised them, how did they grow up and were they educated? Once you’ve read about Mabegzo you’re not surprised he was what he was."
She adds firmly that her quest is not to elicit sympathy "but to force us to take seriously the need to educate children. And that does not mean the man in a silk shirt does not rape".
Tlhabi has been an avid reader all her life, maybe as a form of escapism, and she religiously sets aside time each day, and big chunks of it at weekends, to read.
She penned this book while juggling two jobs — radio and her South 2 North international Al Jazeera TV show — training for marathons, writing a Sunday newspaper column and organising her recent marriage.
She quails at the thought of another book and the heavy hours it entails "but I want to write, it’s like a burning, it scares me".
I have no doubt that sooner rather than later, a book will emerge that just may include the mysterious murder of this lovely writer’s father.