As an appalled country tries to come to terms with the rape and murder of Anene Booysen, those wishing to understand the plague of rape in South Africa would do well to read this unsettling, moving book.
In telling the story of her childhood and her friendship with a feared gangster in the dusty streets of Soweto, Tlhabi reveals the webs of neglect, outmoded beliefs and moral and physical poverty that blight countless lives and create the conditions for unspeakable violence.
Tlhabi’s early childhood in Orlando East was a happy one. Her mother was a nurse, her father a former shebeen owner and a popular, charismatic man. She adored him, and he, her, so when she witnessed his body lying in the street, the life stabbed out of him and his one eye gouged out, she was acutely traumatised. She was just nine years old.
Two years later, in those same streets, she beholds another dead body, that of her friend and protector, the despised tsotsi Mabegzo. Killed on the corner where he always waited to accompany her home from school.
In Endings & Beginnings Tlhabi sets out to explore the nature of this unlikely friendship. Mabegzo was legendary in the community, a vicious killer and rapist. Mothers would threaten their daughters: “When girls misbehaved or played in the streets past their curfew, mothers would demand, ‘Do you want Mabegzo to take you? He will if he sees you in the streets. He rapes girls.’”
So when a handsome, polite young man approached her after school one day, she had no idea that this was the feared Mabegzo. At just 11, Tlhabi was being pestered by the 19-year-old Siphiwe, who had her in his sights. “Every time he appeared in front of me I began to shake like a leaf. He was ugly and menacing, and I would break out in a sweat that trickled down my back and my legs…I knew it was only a matter of time before he violated me.” She had just escaped another sickening encounter with Siphiwe when Mabegzo stepped into her life.
And so he began to look out for her, walking her home from school every day, bringing an umbrella to shield her when it rained and yet never, to the disbelief of those who saw them, trying to take her for himself. And in those walks Tlhabi learned about his background. Mabegzo was the child of a gang rape, of “jack rolling”, whose mother had been sent away to Lesotho in disgrace because she was pregnant as a result. He was taken in by his grandparents in Soweto, although his grandfather never spoke a word to him. He was seen as an evil child, born of evil. His mother married in Lesotho but never returned to claim him. He dropped out of school after he hit a teacher who was harassing his cousin. In short, he didn’t stand a chance. Abandoned, unloved, and uneducated, he played out his power in the only way he knew.
Tlhabi does not glamorise or excuse Mabegzo. When he heard that Siphiwe had been menacing her, he killed him. She learned that he was still “taking” women, and later still learned that he had a girlfriend and a baby at the time that he was chaperoning her. In her journey of healing she tracks down his mother and child and other relatives, trying to make sense of who he was and what had shaped him.
She examines the hollowness in both of their lives and how this bonded them. And she has, it seems, made peace with his memory.
And yet it is her descriptions of that milieu that worry, the commonplace occurrence of rape and wife beating, of the obdurate silence of the community. In that world “girls must be grateful that they haven’t been raped.” And if they are, they are judged harshly, it is somehow their fault.
It is no wonder that Redi Tlhabi is so outspoken about crime and violence and we applaud her for it. In her work as a radio and television presenter she is whip-smart and dauntless, but deeply sympathetic too. Her own life experience has shaped her. As she writes:
“With every news item about a young man who has raped, murdered or robbed someone, I have found myself asking, is this another Mabegzo? Where do these criminals come from? Who raised them and was there ever a time in their lives when they had hopes and dreams and their laughter filled the air?”
And so, as we watch the trial of Anene Booysen’s killers unfold, we will also ask these questions. This is an important, illuminating book and one which has taken immense courage to write.
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