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Reviewed: My Father, My Monster by McIntosh Polela, Jacana

My Father, My MonsterWhen McIntosh Polela heard his book had been shortlisted for the Alan Paton award, he wept openly on the stage. Those in the audience who had read the book felt tearful, too.

Polela is well-known to South Africans from his work as a television presenter on eTV. Latterly he has become the spokesman for the Hawks, his comments and quotations appearing regularly in the media. Handsome and well-educated, one would imagine he came from a comfortable middle class family, privately schooled, perhaps, as he holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When McIntosh was five, he and his younger sister Zinhle were ripped from their home in the Durban township of Clermont and dumped with their extended family in a squalid settlement near Underberg. Bewildered, they had no idea why their parents had disappeared.

There is no doubt that poverty breeds violence, and McIntosh and his sister were forced to endure hideous beatings, burnings and near-drownings.

“The adults would strike with anything they could grab in the moment. They threw cans at our heads, firewood, even burning wood plucked from the fire. Other kids in the neighbourhood were probably punished just as severely as we were. But to me it seemed that we were the only ones being overworked and beaten up. Cleaning the blood off myself after a beating was something of a ritual.”

At six McIntosh was herding cattle, wearing rags and constantly hungry. It was so cold in winter that he curled up where the oxen had been lying on the grass to get some of their warmth.

And yet he prevailed, determined to get an education and get away from the village. A kind nun here, a priest there, an alert teacher, missionary shop owners, wise Tecknikon staff. Along the way small and large acts of kindness from these people propelled him further and further towards his dream.

He very nearly fell through the cracks as a teenager, caught up in the violence between ANC and Inkatha factions, manufacturing home-made guns. Once more, though, he got back on track, a track that eventually led to the LSE.

The question of his parents’ disappearance drives the narrative, and when he learns the truth he and Zinhle are devastated. It has taken McIntosh most of his life to confront and absorb this appalling truth, helped finally by writing this moving memoir.

It is ultimately an uplifting, inspiring tale, but it raises the question of the tens of thousands of children in South Africa who aren’t getting the helping hand they need. And it compels us, too, to reach out our own.

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