Mda’s living history
Little Suns by Zakes Mda Umuzi 269 pages (hardcover) R200 at takealot.com
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.