Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Achmat Dangor’s powerful and thought-provoking novel Dikeledi
 More about the book!

The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!

Staying in this evening? Get comfortable with a glass of wine and Achmat Dangor’s Dikeledi – the story of an ordinary family in the extraordinary days of apartheid.

Dangor is an award-winning poet and novelist whose titles include Kafka’s Curse (1997) and the 2004 Booker shortlisted title Bitter Fruit, which was recently rereleased in a new edition. Until recently Dangor was the Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He lives and works in Johannesburg.

About the book

An evocative and finely detailed novel of ordinary life under apartheid that follows the lives of a family, particularly the women of various generations, who are named Dikeledi, who together form the backbone of the story.

Dikeledi captures, carefully and movingly, the essence of the turbulent days in which it is set. The focus on family drama within an incredibly difficult social situation, the small daily struggles rather than the huge challenges that conventionally make for ‘good’ archival footage, are what sets the novel apart from other literature that deals with the period.

Read the excerpt:



A Place of Fear

(Newclare, Johannesburg, circa 1970)

There came a time when people hurried through the streets of Newclare as soon as the sun started to set. Even workers from the nearby abattoir, who used to hang around the taverns on Russell Street, trying to forget about the day’s blood and gore, left immediately. The sight of the young girl sitting by herself on the curb increased the air of apprehension. With her head held high, hands resting on her knees, she peered into the darkness that everyone else seemed afraid of.

She cocked an ear, the way an adult would, listening intently to noises coming from the veld. Some of the passers-by slowed down. They too heard, as if anew, sounds that had become familiar and insignificant. The spruit, a brook that waste from nearby factories had turned into a sluggish, polluted sluice, seemed once again to gurgle musically. Stirred by the wind, trees lining the banks groaned in protest at this outrageous subterfuge, for the contaminated water provided very little sustenance. A strange birdcall – or was it a child crying? – added to the weird atmosphere.

A few people stopped to look more closely at the girl. She wore a red nightgown, warm slippers, and her hair was neatly braided. By her dress and her manner, curious rather than forlorn, they knew she wasn’t from one of those impoverished malala-pipe – drain-sleeper – migrant families. So what was she doing here, sitting all by herself, in a gutter?

The iron gate behind her rattled as it was dragged open, and a man stepped out.

‘Dikeledi!’ he shouted.

Startled, the girl stood up.

The man took her by the hand and led her through the gate. People looked on anxiously. Where was this man dragging the girl off to? Through the wire fence they could see a shop with darkened windows. It was obviously closed for the night. In the yard a woman was standing at the door to a small cottage. She was obviously waiting for the man and the young girl. All three went inside, shutting the door behind them. The shaft of light from the cottage that had lit up the street for a few brief moments was abruptly cut off.

Ah, just a family protecting their child. Conscious of the darkness again, those who had stopped to see what was going on hurried along, anxious to get out of Newclare before the night demons took over the streets.

* * *

No one could tell just when Newclare had become such a place of fear. This once-peaceful township where people of all races had lived together for years without conflict was transformed. The fierce Basotho clans – the Russians – had recently started squabbling again, abandoning the solidarity that repressive apartheid laws had forged among them. Even their king in nearby ‘Basotholand’ could not stop ancient enmities from resurfacing; soon the air was filled with warring voices, the clash of sticks and shields, even gunfire. But their violence was scrupulously internecine, rarely spilling over into other communities. This new sense of fear was more insidious, something without any historical roots; it was an invisible, imagined monster that haunted the residents.

Legend has it that it all started one Friday night at Uncle Tommy’s Spot, a shebeen much loved by indigenous city dwellers. Only white man’s liquor, brandy, whisky and bottled beer, was served here. The noisy umqomboti-drinking rural contract workers stayed away. No women were allowed, except prostitutes, and they did their business outside, in the back yard toilet or up against a wall. Yes, at Uncle Tommy’s men could talk freely, real bra talk, without fear of offending anyone. Some city kleva, having downed quite a few double brandies, initiated the discussion by commenting on the real reason the township was crawling with cops. It had nothing to do with the war among the Russians or the endless talk of resisting the forced removals. In any case those dumb Boers didn’t even understand the tsotsi song Ons dak nie, ons phola hier! (We’re not going, we’re staying here!)

Maybe Nelson Mandela and his buddies started it all by calling on people to take up arms. But they were in prison now, and whoever took over from them wasn’t content with just trying to inspire people; they were willing to force them to become soldiers.

‘They are after ordinary majietas like you and me. They snatch us, take us to some faraway country, where we are bewitched into thinking we are freedom fighters who will be able to come back to fight the amaBunu. Fight with what? Arms, knives, catapults, sticks? You can’t take on cops who carry rifles when you are only armed with gonies, ketties and kieries. Still, they want amasoja. That’s why you aren’t safe anywhere. You can disappear while crossing the bridge, walking through the tunnel from Newclare to Western Township, hurrying up Price Street towards the hospital, or strolling home from a shebeen late at night. The cops aren’t here to protect us. They are here – look at them, all over the fucking place – because they think we’re going to be spirited away, turned into zombies somewhere in Africa, come back ready to kill, and willing to die if necessary.’

He spoke with great authority, hinting that he had inside information. It was true that his uncle was a cop, maybe even in the Security Branch. Yes, the Boers had started recruiting blacks as SBs. At first his fellow drinkers laughed dismissively – hey, only cops are stupid enough to believe shit like that. But soon this braggart’s tale, the sheer scale of it, started to resonate among fellow drinkers. They felt compelled to expand on his grandiose nonsense, a question of honour

among guys. Fortified by many glasses of cheap brandy, others started boasting of having actually encountered, and outsmarting, the ‘snatchers’, who were not Mandela’s or Sobukwe’s people, or any politician’s for that matter.

They were bad spirits, amadlozis, who were unhappy that people didn’t pay them enough tribute, didn’t slaughter beasts in their honour, angry that the youth of today no longer respected any of the ancient traditions. ‘The amadlozis hate the music these laaities listen to, the way they straighten their hair, the clothes they wear, particularly women. Their skirts are so tiny they may as well be naked. And worse, they are let into clubs, allowed to drink in places where only men should be. The spirits blame us, our generation, for not guiding the youth.’

‘The amadlozis are punishing us by sending bad spirits to steal our flesh and our souls. Those things bark like ntšas – eish, real evil dogs – when you challenge them; some even turn into snakes. You have to be fast with a knife, and know just how to shaya them with a kierie.’ Thus it was that these hallucinatory stories, inspired by drunken bravado, gave life to the nameless dread, amorphous monsters that were beyond politics, and who changed their nature, growing in horror with each retelling.

* * *

In the home of Patrick and Julia Tau strict rules were laid down. Be indoors before nightfall; make sure the windows are closed and the doors locked as soon as the sun sets; the children are not to speak to strangers and are forbidden from going into the veld (really an abandoned farm overgrown with thick bush).

Patrick was particularly concerned about Dikeledi, their eight-yearold daughter. She seemed totally without fear. Even as a baby she didn’t cry when left alone in the dark. Instead, she gurgled and stretched out her arms, as if reaching out to someone only she could see. No, Dikeledi wasn’t afraid of the evil creatures that were said to go slithering about the streets after dark.

Earlier that night, Patrick had gone into the children’s room, filled with pride. He wanted to see them again, snug and elegant in the dressing gowns he had spent so much money on. Dressing gowns were unheard of in most township homes. Their son Pitso was on his own, reading.

‘Pitso, where is your sister?’

The boy shrugged and without looking up from his book indicated with a thumb thrust over his shoulder, as if to say, Out there, where else? Patrick rushed to the front door, shaking his head reprovingly at Julia who sat mending clothes in the narrow front room, as if it was her fault that Dikeledi had managed to sneak out on her own.

He stood on the stoep and looked out at the street. Through the wire fence he could see Dikeledi sitting on the curbside, staring into the impenetrable shadows of the veld across the street. He ran down and found the gate unlocked. He wasn’t even going to ask what – or who – she was looking at; he just wanted her back inside. She had disobeyed a direct instruction – don’t go outdoors alone at night – and had exposed herself, her family and Lalloobhai, their landlord, by leaving the gate unlocked.

Though he was firm, he didn’t hurt her in any way. No matter how much they sometimes angered him, Patrick never beat his children. When they were back inside, he made Dikeledi sit down next to her mother and he started lecturing her.

‘Child! Do you know who the sons of Satan are? They look like us, like me, like Pitso; you will never tell that they are the Devil’s children until you look into their eyes. And then it is too late. They have been put on earth to sow anger and discord; they steal, murder, rape and maim, because it is in their nature. They are evil, wa bona? The only way to avoid them is to seek God’s company, and it is not to be found in the streets of Newclare at night, my child!’

Dikeledi stared at her father, his blazing eyes and his rigid body, released herself from her mother’s arms, and gently touched his hand.

‘Ntate, I’m so sorry. I wanted to see the bird …’

‘What bird?’

‘So beautiful, Ntate, dark – like our Mama. It was crying, like a girl, Ntate, a lost girl.’

Pitso joined them. He listened to his sister trying to imitate some kind of birdcall, but all that came out through her pursed lips was a whimper, a sound so innately human that he doubted it could have been made by a bird. He put his arm comfortingly around her. Julia shook her head, silently urging Patrick not to interrogate the child any further.

Patrick shut his eyes. They thought that this was a sign that he was softening, as he often did after he had scolded the kids, and that he would soon speak to them in his gentler voice, say sorry for his harsh words, even if he did qualify his contrition by adding, ‘It is for your own good.’ But he remained silent, his head resting in his hands, like someone in pain.

After a while he got up, offered his dismayed family a faint smile and went to the bedroom. He sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to dispel a long-forgotten image that had come back to him when Dikeledi imitated the bird crying out like a girl in distress.

A man is scolding a beautiful young girl, somewhat older than Dikeledi. She sits under a tree with her head bowed. The man turns and walks away. The girl looks up, cries out despairingly. The afternoon’s stillness is shattered. A startled bird, crying out in an almost human manner, as if echoing the girl’s weeping, flees its refuge in the branches above her. The leaves stir and the boughs creak, adding to the air of lament.

* * *

Julia found him sitting in the bedroom an hour later, silent and immobile.

She had put the kids to bed, hoping that the two of them would have time to talk. He had been very harsh with Dikeledi. She was only a child, after all, and children are often drawn to forbidden places precisely because they have been made to seem so fantastical. Men who bark like dogs, dogs that become lions, sons of Satan, all inhabiting the very streets Dikeledi played in during the day. Drunken adult gossip seems to have taken over our rationality, she thought. Is that what oppression does to us?

‘Patrick, we need to speak. Patrick, are you all right?’

He merely nodded and continued staring into some unfathomable distance. She knew it was futile to try to engage him in any rational discussion now, so she undressed and tugged at the bedding. He raised himself briefly to free the blankets and sat down again in silence. She climbed into bed and lay on her back, once more trying to understand what turned him into this mute and immobile stranger. However, tired after a long and difficult day, she dozed off, drifting in and out of sleep. At least an hour passed before she felt him slide into bed beside her. She moved closer to him, gently wrapping him in her dreamy warmth. Usually, this kind of gesture helped dispel his darkest mood, often drawing him into the fierce sex he was capable of. But he remained tense, his back like a bulwark against her.

She turned away despairingly. How much she had wanted to tell him about what happened after he left the living room, how Dikeledi and Pitso had embraced her, as if she, and not their daughter, had been the victim of his anger and his strange behaviour afterwards.

‘Hawu, Mama,’ Dikeledi had asked, ‘what is rape, what it is maim?’

Julia had hesitated. As a nurse in the hospital’s trauma unit, she saw so many crushed women, young and old, children even, whose bodies and souls had been violated by men who did not see the humanity of their victims. But how had her daughter, still so young, connected those two words, maim and rape?

In her own mind she couldn’t conceive the vulgar detail, the utter grossness of one human body invading another, let alone describe it to a child. No, let Dikeledi keep her innocence, she thought, the joy of believing so utterly in the innate goodness of people. She will lose it soon enough in the township.

But Dikeledi was staring at her intently, and she knew that her daughter, young as she was, would not be satisfied with a compensatory smile and a hug. She had to respond.

‘Bad things, very bad things done by very bad people.’

‘Oh! You mean by the sons of Satang, Mama?’

Pitso shook his head and walked away, scornful of the discussion about good and evil, God and the Devil, that his mother and his sister were about to get into.

‘Yes, child, the sons of Satan.’

Dikeledi looked at her quizzically, sucked her thumb, something she hadn’t done for years, and asked in a voice so sincere that Julia knew her daughter was trying to mask her disdain for the formality of her mother’s answer.

‘Mama, doesn’t Satang have daughters?’

‘No, I suppose not.’

‘And God? He has no daughters?’

‘Well, we are all his children.’

‘But he doesn’t have a daughter, like I am Ntate’s daughter?’

‘No, not a daughter in that way.’

‘But he has a son?’

‘Dikeledi! Stop now.’

Mama, why is God afraid of Satang?’

‘Keledi – God is never afraid of Satan.’

‘Oh, but Satang is a tsotsi?’

‘Yes, in a way, he is a tsotsi.’

‘If Satang had daughters, they would make him stop doing his tsotsi things.’

They sat in silence for a moment, Julia unable to make sense of her daughter’s train of thought. But Dikeledi persisted. ‘And if God had daughters, they would say, “Father, go out there and give that tsotsi a good hard klap!”’ She slapped the air in front of her, imitating one of Patrick’s gestures to describe the way that young tsotsis who molested people in the streets needed to be dealt with. ‘Or, God’s wife would go to Satang’s wife and tell her to stop her sons from being tsotsis. You know the way Ous Nomonde went to Ous Ruth?’

Julia had to fight back her laughter. By using the colloquial ‘Satang’, its guttural harshness jarring with her gentle singsong voice, and by describing him as no more than an ordinary township thug – a mere local tsotsi – Dikeledi had somehow reduced this embodiment of evil to something human, whose errant ways could easily be corrected by decisive parental action. Yes, Julia could imagine the conversation between her neighbours, Nomonde urging Ruth to talk to her son, who kept bad company and could turn into a tsotsi.

She had embraced her daughter, resisting the temptation to giggle along with her. God and the Devil suffered equally the disability of having no daughters. What an astonishing thought. She could imagine Dikeledi testing this naïve logic on her father. Patrick would not have responded kindly, even though he would know that there was some truth to this. Women brought gentleness to this world of men, often making it more just.

Of course, Julia was also concerned about the children’s safety, but she did not share Patrick’s often-irrational fear, especially for their daughter’s wellbeing. He had this almost superstitious anxiety that the child’s name – Dikeledi, ‘child of tears’ in Setswana – would become tragically self-fulfilling. Still, she had felt guilty that she was perhaps undermining his fatherly authority.

Releasing the girl, she had whispered, ‘Dikeledi, my child, listen to your ntate. It makes him very unhappy when you do that, you know, go out into the darkness on your own; and we don’t want Ntate to be a sad old man, do we?’

Dikeledi had nodded, the laughter abruptly gone from her eyes. She had walked off to bed silently, her head bowed.

Watching her walk away, Julia knew in her heart that the child had suddenly recognised the relentless sadness in her father’s eyes, and that her mother had implied that Dikeledi was responsible. How Julia had longed to follow her daughter, take her into her arms and say, ‘I did not mean that you make Ntate … well, the way he is. Some people are what they are.’

But would Dikeledi have understood this? Julia couldn’t very well tell the girl that her father was one of those people who were incapable of being happy. Not the mere ability to laugh and joke – Patrick certainly was capable of being jolly – but of being truly joyful inside of himself. She had hoped to have been able to convince him to go and talk to Dikeledi, smile at her, make her laugh, and demonstrate that he was not inclined to misery by nature.

She glanced over. Patrick had fallen asleep. She struggled against a familiar anger rising through her limbs, and had to stop herself from waking him and screaming, Hai wena! That darkness inside of you, inside all those damn silly, superstitious people out there, will destroy us all. We can’t go on being afraid all our lives!

To distract herself, she starting humming words from her favourite song, hearing Hugh Masekela on the saxophone, someone singing, ‘Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, can you dig it …’ She tried to envision Masekela’s saxophone filling the room, with a cadence gentler even than the song’s words, but it didn’t help.

Despairingly, she reached deep into her childhood memories and started reciting a prayer in a low monotone. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me …’

Psalm 23. Her mother used to read it to the children when their father was away attending gatherings at the paramount chief’s Great Place. Those prayer sessions were more acts of familial togetherness than worship, designed to ward off the malevolent silence her father would bring home from those meetings. Julia was by no means pious, and the psalm had over the years become more of an adult’s lullaby than a prayer. Her mother Elsie’s voice, warm and alive in her mind again, lulled Julia into the peacefulness she needed to fall asleep, and she started dozing off.

But a man’s voice, patriarchal and gruff, intruded. Her father, home from one of his meetings? No, it was Patrick, sitting upright beside her, as if in some kind of trance, taking up the psalm exactly where she had let it trail away: ‘… Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

The fervour of his voice stripped the psalm of her mother’s warmth, restoring its formal intention, nothing more than a plea to God for mercy and absolution. But he ended with words of his own, a spontaneous confession, uttered in such a humble tone that Julia’s beloved prayer suddenly seemed incomplete. ‘Forgive me for the sorrow I have caused, for the harm I have done, through acts of commission and omission, forgive me, oh Lord!’

Her anger dissipated. First there was compassion for Patrick, then sadness. How she wished that tonight he had reached out to her and offered, even if only somnambulantly, words of remorse to her and not God. I’m sorry for walking off and leaving you to deal with Dikeledi’s hurt and confusion. Something really mortal in its simplicity, for shit’s sake, and an embrace! All she wanted was to be held, not to have to taste the salt of her own tears. Not to be fucked or even kissed – just held.


Categories Fiction South Africa

Tags Achmat Dangor Book excerpts Book extracts Dikeledi Friday Night Book Club Pan Macmillan SA

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