An extract from Redi Tlhabi’s book, Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo
Persecuted and exiled for accusing Jacob Zuma of rape, the late Fezekile Kuzwayo showed enormous bravery and strength of character, as this excerpt from Redi Tlhabi’s new book reveals
SHE made everyone sit up and listen when she laid a criminal charge against South Africa’s future president in 2005. Jacob Zuma claimed their sexual encounter in a bedroom of his Johannesburg home had been consensual and that she’d “asked for it”, but his accuser, known only as Khwezi, insisted it was rape. Zuma was eventually acquitted while the young woman, who was HIV- positive, was forced to flee the country fearing for her life.
And that was the last most people heard of her until a decade later when she passed away, and activists holding “Remember Khwezi” placards staged a silent protest in front of Zuma as he gave a speech during the announcement of the 2016 municipal election results.
But exactly who was the brave woman who took on the most powerful man in the land? Horrified by the way Khwezi had been vilified, former talk show host and political commentator Redi Tlhabi was determined to find out.
She reached out to the Aids activist soon after she went into exile and over the years a deep friendship bloomed. In this poignant extract from her new book, Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, Redi reveals the traumatic effect the trial had on her friend and how it haunted her right up until her death last year.
DURBAN, 15 October 2016 I AM stunned. Broken. Here I am, attending a funeral instead of a triumphant book launch. We’d imagined the scene so many times: the exultation we’d feel when she showed her face to the world, told her story and reclaimed her name.
She was adamant – she’d attend the launch and I was to introduce her by her real name. In one of our conversations, she’d told me with admirable defiance: “He’s not hiding. Why must I? Khwezi has served me well, but now it’s time for her to go.”
I believed her: months before her death, I sent her two books by courier. I asked her to whom I should address the package. “To me,” she answered.
“No, I mean, should I use your public name – Khwezi – or something else?”
She hadn’t used her real name for more than a decade; I didn’t want to blow her cover. Her response was emphatic: “My real names, dear. Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.”
On 6 December 2005 Fezekile laid a charge of rape against Jacob Zuma, who was at the time fighting for his political life, having been removed from his post as deputy president due to corruption charges. She claimed that while staying as a guest at his home in Forest Town,
Johannesburg, Zuma – a man more than twice her age and whom she said she regarded as an uncle – raped her.
“I didn’t set out to change history,” she later told me. “I just wanted to fight for myself, at last. It was important for me to say to him, you can’t come into my body and just do what you want to do. And soil me like that.”
“But taking action against such a powerful . . .”
She interrupted me before I could complete my sentence. “I didn’t think about that, his power, his position, that I was a nobody and he was someone powerful. I didn’t think about those trappings. This is what he did to me and I had to fight for myself. Qha! (That’s all!)”
But immediately after laying the charge she came under enormous pressure as she found herself surrounded by a lot of people who tried to persuade her to drop the charges. Zuma later testified that he’d asked them to contact Fezekile and her mother, Beauty.
“I was genuinely taken aback. I just didn’t think it would play out like that, with people I trusted just barging into my space and bombarding me. I mean, their greater concern was the ANC and not me, their child.”
By the time Fezekile took the stand she was demoralised and frightened. She told me she expected a bullet to land on her body from any direction; she had no doubt there were plans to harm her. The trial was a major hurdle for Zuma to overcome. After he was acquitted his victory reverberated throughout the country as he rode the wave.
SINCE the trial I’ve thought of Khwezi all the time – followed her everywhere and kept abreast of her activities. The hatred towards her was so intense she was forced to leave South Africa. I wondered how I could be part of a society that allowed the erasure of a young woman’s existence. Life simply went on and the man at the centre of the storm became the president. It is surreal.
The day after the trial concluded, Fezekile and her mother went into exile. Their country, their home, had spat them out. Simply put, they’d been hounded out. During the trial their house in Kwa-Mashu – a township in Kwa Zulu-Natal – was burnt down. It’s suspected Zuma supporters were the perpetrators, but no one was arrested for this crime. There’s no doubt this criminal act was meant to scare her into submission. Added to this, her public near-lynching during every day of the trial made living in South Africa untenable.
Fezekile and Beauty moved to the Netherlands in May 2006. They had a lot of support and soon made friends. A new life began. Beauty became active in a local church and took up sewing to keep herself busy. With her magnetic personality and adventurous spirit, Fezekile became active in the cultural and NGO scene.
She loved to dance and sing, and spent many afternoons and evenings attending local festivals and poetry evenings. In front of a live audience she performed her now-famous poem “I am Khanga”, a reference to the garment she was wearing in her bedroom at Zuma’s home. The future president had told the court he’d read the item of clothing as an indication that Fezekile wanted to have sex with him.
“So, tell me about the khanga,” I later asked her. “What about it?”
‘It was important for me to say to him, you can’t come into my body and just do what you want’
‘Well, you wrote a poem about it?” “No, dear. I wrote a poem about it after they’d made the khanga a big deal. Up until that moment it was just a piece of cloth.”
She’d never imagined the khanga would be a symbol of seduction. “Don’t people wear lace and satin and G-strings when they want to seduce someone?”
We had a great laugh – knowing, however, that the debate about what victims were wearing when they were raped is anything but frivolous.
Until the day she died Fezekile could not grasp what the obsession with her khanga was. It’s a long piece of cloth that mothers use to carry their restless babies on their backs, or women wrap around their bodies at the beach. It’s long and wide enough to cover the entire body, with minimal flesh exposed. She didn’t see how a khanga could be construed as an invitation.
In Amsterdam her life took on a manageable rhythm and she continued seeing a therapist. But, after four-and-ahalf years, Beauty was not coping. She was in her late sixties and desperate to return to her roots. The weather was harsh. She hated being away from her friends and family. Fezekile couldn’t bear to see her mother unhappy.
Marc Wegerif and his wife Teresa Yates, an American-born lawyer, opened their home to them in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in early 2010. Fezekile and her mother stayed with the couple and their two daughters for more than a year.
But in 2011 Beauty wanted to return to South Africa. Fezekile called Ivan Pillay, the deputy commissioner of the South African Revenue Service, and told him of their unhappiness. Ivan promised to assist and called Moe Shaik, who’d been one of her father’s comrades during the struggle and was then head of the South African Secret Service.
Moe promised to speak to Zuma, who’d become president, and guarantee their safe return to SA. This is absurd. Even though there was no law forbidding her from entering SA Fezekile couldn’t just return to her democratic homeland for which her father, Judson Kuzwayo – a senior Umkhonto we Sizwe leader and a comrade of Zuma’s during the apartheid struggle – had sacrificed so much.
Moe returned a message to Ivan, presumably from Zuma, informing him that Beauty and Fezekile could return to SA and nothing would happen to them.
And yet some of her friends, not entirely convinced the risks had dissipated, advised Fezekile against the move. But she wanted to make her mother happy – she told me she felt guilty about uprooting Beauty. So for the first time in five years they touched down on South African soil.
But she found it hard – she felt South Africa would never welcome her back. A short time later she packed her bags and returned to Dar es Salaam where she found a teaching post, staying with Teresa and her family once again.
Teresa says this was quite a happy time for Fezekile. But then a classic pattern emerged again. As soon as things started to go well, Fezekile wanted to leave.
She eventually returned to SA where she found a job as a teacher at a primary school in Musgrave, Durban. But when Teresa saw her towards the end of 2016 she was clearly not doing well.
Despite having taken her ARVs religiously for many years, she’d stopped at some point, much to the disapproval of her many friends. She’d chosen to focus
on what she described to me as holistic healing. The opportunistic illnesses, combined with depression, made a toxic mix.
She’d also started feeling that her life was not her own. “What do you mean?” I’d asked her some weeks back. “I don’t know how to explain it. I’m feeling a bit strangled, suffocated . . .” I asked her whether she was happy. Her answer was revealing. “Well, I’m happy when I see Ma smile,” she said, “but generally, I think happiness has a short life span.”
But nobody is really sure what was going on with her towards the end. In the week before her death she left me a series of voice messages. I’ve listened to them regularly and they break my heart every time. It’s strange how we interpret words. When I first listened to the messages, they didn’t seem like a cry for help – just Fez talking as she usually did about how she felt. Now that she’s gone, they’ve taken on a different meaning, poignancy.
I replay her words, detailing how overcome she was by pain. She was often overwhelmed by life, but would quickly bounce back, saying, “Anyway, dear, I’ll take it one fool at a time.” This time, she said, “I’ll just go with the flow.” And then she got serious, describing her condition. “I’m not feeling so hot. It’s just . . . um. I think I’m just still going through a rough patch and I must go with it, go with the flow. I don’t know what’s going on.”
WE WALK steadily towards the altar. It was decided that all the pallbearers would be women to mark Fezekile’s commitment to wom en’s rights. I’ve never been to a funeral where women have used their collective strength to carry one of their own. With my hand on that brown casket, it feels as if I’m fighting for Fezekile, picking her up after a nasty fall, that we’re all saying, “So many have let you down, but we’ll pick you up and carry you to a place of glory.”
We carry the casket up three flights of stairs and through a narrow entrance to the Methodist church. Many of us have tears running down our faces but we have determination, strength in our numbers and a raging fire burning in our hearts.
But it all seems so wrong, still. Fezekile took her last breath, it’s reported, on her way to a Johannesburg hospital. Some of those close to her were surprised she’d died, saying she’d never been sick; others said she’d been ill on and off for the better part of the year.
The unfairness of it hits me like a tidal wave. Every time Fezekile had come close to feeling her feet on the ground, it seemed to shift from beneath her. My mind travels to a conversation we’d had. She’d been elated that the psychologist who was seeing her mother was pleased with her progress. She sent me a video of her mother exercising and seemed amused by it. “I haven’t seen this in a long time. The old girl still has her magic,” she said. And, “Maybe life will work out after all, sweets.”
Her sister Zintle believes she died of depression: “It killed her. There was just too much happening in her life. It killed her. Nobody can survive that kind of life.”
Depression may not have been the direct cause of death, but it could indeed have led to major health problems such
as high blood pressure and a compromised immune system.
This isn’t how Fezekile, or Fezeka, as some called her, was supposed to be buried, with appeals for a venue and funds for the burial and security. It was from the run-down house in KwaMashu that her casket had made its way to the church.
As if to comfort her, the congregation
sing, over and over, “Fezeka we, thula mtwana mtanam, silwela amalungelo,
Fezeka we (Dear Fezeka, don’t cry, be still my child, we will fight for these rights).”
As the casket containing her mortal remains descends, I feel an overwhelming sadness. Fezekile died so many deaths in the 41 years she was alive yet always managed to resurrect herself.
When I once asked her where she found the courage to lay a charge against such a powerful person, she answered, “I had to fight back. I’ve never fought for myself. If I don’t fight back, this would keep happening to me. Even when it was clear that I would lose the case, I never once regretted fighting for myself.”
She may have lost, in the eyes of her critics, but not before inflicting a bruising wound. Not before demonstrating to the vulnerable that there’s no shame in speaking out, even against the most powerful members of society.
Khwezi’s was a moral victory. Now, she rests.
‘With my hand on the casket, it feels as if I’m fighting for Fezekile, picking her up after a nasty fall’
ABOVE and BELOW: These pictures were taken in 2008 while Fezekile was in hiding in Amsterdam. ABOVE RIGHT: She felt guilty that her mother, Beauty, was also forced into exile because of the Zuma rape trial.
MAIN PICTURE and BELOW: Fezekile Kuzwayo looking happy and carefree while in exile in Tanzania. LEFT: Activists surprised President Jacob Zuma by staging a silent protest in her memory as he spoke in Pretoria last year. ABOVE: Fezekile’s grave in Durban.
ABOVE LEFT: Mourners at Fezekile’s grave. ABOVE: Activists surround her casket.
THIS IS AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM KHWEZI: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF FEZEKILE NTSUKELA KUZWAYO BY REDI TLHABI, JONATHAN BALL PUBLISHERS, R175 FROM TAKEALOT.COM.