Five minutes with author Sihle Khumalo – ‘We are getting closer and closer to the abyss …’
 More about the book!

Sihle Khumalo has travelled all over Africa getting to know the people. But it’s South Africa’s history that bewitches him, and for his latest book, Milk the Beloved Country, he started off by looking into the history of place names – but ended with a lot more stories to tell.

What is it about South African history that intrigues you?
South Africa’s history is complex, convoluted and complicated. As an example, if I were to ask ‘when did South Africa gain its independence?’ what would your answer be? Will it be 1910 when we became a Union, or will it be 1961 when we became a Republic or will it be April 1994, when all races could vote in the general elections? It is that very complicated history which makes our modern day challenges and problems have a degree of knottiness.

What is it about South Africans that intrigue you?
In Milk the Beloved Country, I state it as a matter of fact that sometimes I do not understand (some) South Africans. At times I think we were bewitched. Sometimes I feel we are too trusting and, with respect, naïve. How do you explain, as an example, that the country is going down the drain in front of our eyes and yet a sizeable portion of the population still obsesses about sport results week after week …

You have made several trips through South Africa and the rest of Africa, getting to know the people and their stories. What is the one thing that stands out?
Generally speaking, poor people are the most hospitable and giving, and rich people are full of shit. Let me rephrase: rich people are sometimes snobbish and self-conscious.

What unsuspected little gems did you come across when researching this book?
Some of the names of certain cities and towns fascinate me. Did you know that there is city in South Africa which is named after a horse? A dead horse, at that! And then there are towns that were named after governors, as an example Somerset East and Somerset West was named after Lord Charles Somerset. What is not known by most people is that Somerset’s eldest brother, Henry Charles Somerset, got a town named after him. The latter’s title was the Marquis of Worcester. Somerset’s father, who never even visited South Africa, has not one, not two but three towns named after him. You can read all about it in my book.

Should we not just accept that milking the cash cow is the way SA works?
Hell no! We as citizens are not vocal enough. These corrupt politicians know that, amongst other things, we move on too quickly from issues that matter. South Africans have a very short concentration span. We talk about a huge scandal for a day or two and we soon start obsessing about possible sport results in the coming weekend. Besides being distracted by sport, our justice system is not as effective and efficient as one would love it to be. At times I feel like even old coal-powered steam engines are far more efficient than our lacklustre justice system.

Do you have hope for our country and its people?
It’s complicated. It all depends on what happens in the next few years. There is still a window of opportunity but with every day that passes, I feel, we are getting closer and closer to the abyss. And, history is the witness, once we become a failed state, it will take generations to pull the country out, if ever. For me to have hope, I will need to see more and more South Africans speaking truth to power. At times, I strongly suspect that there is something either in the water or in the air which makes most of us – notwithstanding seeing the rot right in front of our eyes – submissive and docile.

Milk the Beloved Country is out now.


This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine from Penguin Random House South Africa. 

Categories Lifestyle Non-fiction South Africa

Tags Milk the Beloved Country Penguin Random House SA Sihle Khumalo The Penguin Post

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