Mda’s liv­ing his­tory

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Lit­tle Suns by Zakes Mda Umuzi 269 pages (hard­cover) R200 at

When we meet Malan­gana on a vil­lage path in De­cem­ber 1903, he is “hob­bling on twisted crutches”, curs­ing and wheez­ing, bro­ken as a heart in ex­ile. “A strange-look­ing man like this couldn’t be ex­pected to be­have like a nor­mal stranger,” say the cou­ple who in­sist he take shel­ter. They’re right, be­cause Malan­gana is a des­per­ate lover on an epic jour­ney, and a cadre de­ter­mined to de­colonise the lives and land of the Mpon­domise peo­ple from their Bri­tish masters.

By the time the next chap­ter jumps back 23 years, Lit­tle Suns is such an Mda page-turner that the reader is an­noyed to have to leave 1903.

In 1880, the Malan­gana we meet is a “young man fresh out of the school of the moun­tain”, in love with a bush­woman and diviner, Mth­wakazi. The king’s horse keeper, trans­la­tor and ad­viser, he is fa­mous for hav­ing been whipped and im­pris­oned by his cruel and un­usual colo­nial gov­er­nor, the mag­is­trate Hamil­ton Hope.

Malan­gana’s rev­o­lu­tion be­gins when he is ex­pected to take up arms for the oc­cu­py­ing Bri­tish against a fel­low African, a Ba­sotho chief who re­fuses to pay taxes to the queen. True story.

Ev­ery­thing in Lit­tle Suns is crafted from Mda’s re­search into his own ances­try – ex­cept Malan­gana and Mth­wakazi, who are fic­ti­tious (along with a horse called Gcaz­im­bane, who is as much a char­ac­ter as they are).

Mda in Lit­tle Suns is a trick­ster who, by writ­ing his­tory, writes about the con­se­quences of coloni­sa­tion, the af­ter­math of democ­racy, Marikana and #FeesMustFall. He isn’t here to give us any clear an­swers, but he brings to life how colo­nial struc­tures were and are forged, and how an­cient and fierce South Africa’s strug­gle against white supremacy has been.

In Lit­tle Suns, as in The Sculp­tors of Ma­pun­gubwe – but done so much bet­ter here – Mda leads us to the fire­side, where go­gos sit telling the fam­ily story.

With a glint in his eye, he pep­pers his tale with lessons from his­tory, and re­stores sto­ries that were erased. When the king meets Hope and re­cites the names of his an­ces­tors in greet­ing, Malan­gana is quick to point out that Ma­mani’s name has been omit­ted. Ma­mani, it turns out, was born first, but over­looked for the Mpon­domise throne in the 1750s be­cause she was a woman. She re­fused to ac­cept this, killed her en­e­mies and made her­self king (yes, king). She took a wife and in­structed her brother to im­preg­nate her part­ner to pro­duce heirs. True story.

There are de­li­cious pol­i­tics at play in Lit­tle Suns. Along the way, the reader will learn trea­sures such as ex­actly how of­fen­sive the term ‘San’ is to abaThwa; how it was the French mis­sion­ar­ies who taught the peo­ple of Le­sotho to eat horse meat; how par­ties of black work­ers were tasked with plant­ing ex­otic and in­va­sive trees, such as blue gum and pine, across the land; and how the old men called brandy “Queen Vic­to­ria’s tears”...

Into this real life story of co-op­tion and re­sis­tance, Mda weaves his love story as grandly as he did in Ways of Dy­ing and The Whale Caller. Per­haps too grandly, be­cause I was ex­pect­ing a lit­tle more at the end, and more of Mth­wakazi’s life in the mix of this po­tent novel.

The best bit will be when it is pre­scribed in schools and South African his­tory (not the one told by the con­querors) comes alive in young read­ers’ minds.

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