All posts by Mtutuzeli


Franschhoek Literary FestivalThis past weekend I attended the Franschhoek (French corner) Literary Festival. It was three days of sheer delight with many of the luminaries of the country’s literary world present. I had never before been to Franschhoek wine valley, a small heaven just an hour’s drive (83kms) from the Mother City, because like many I believed the world came to an end in Cape Town. Surprisingly, the more west one drove the prettier things got.

Franschhoek is a little gem with its beauty evident in its people, manifest in every home and building, and displayed in the many works of art housed in the galleries that line its main street. It is an oasis of colour, charm and of course wealth. Like the great cities of the ancient world, with the high walls to keep the invaders out, it is surrounded by mountains (an ancient mountain range believed to have been formed some 250 million years ago) as if to protect it from the cynical gaze of the world. Surely, this is what paradise is supposed to look like.

It is situated on sections of two Hugeunot farms – La Cotte and Cabriere. Its beauty notwithstanding it has had its fair share of conflict. It was once the site of several battles between the indigenous population and European settlers. And during the Anglo-Boer war a large military camp was established roughly where the present day museum and cemetery are.

I was invited by Andrea Nattrass, my publisher, to give an address at the opening event arranged by Pan Macmillan SA held on Friday at the Ebony gallery. The latter, with its colourful and beautifully decorated spaces, had what in my untrained eyes were fine modern pieces of art, and interior furniture on display. The evening went very well not because of my speech but the excellent food and wine, together with company of men and women who graced this special occasion.

I had planned to go and listen to Vanessa Goosen the following morning. I had followed her story with keen interest in the 90s.

The arrest of a former Miss SA in Thailand on drug charges had grabbed the attention of the whole country. Whether guilty or not, most of us sympathised with her. She was young and pregnant and didn’t seem to deserve a long jail sentence in a foreign country.

Her talk was moving and painful, and I was very happy to get an autographed copy of her book. Soon after, it was my turn, during a lunch time session, to talk about my second novel A Hill of Fools. It was satisfying that the venue was sold out, and that a lively debate followed on the book’s message.

The Sunday Times dinner at the La Cotte wine farm was the highlight. However despite the brilliance of the setting, and of those who attended, it was Jenny Crwys-Williams who captured the house. She was in fine form and her enthusiasm as infectious as ever. She is worthy of a novel in her right. The nominees for the Sunday Times Literary Awards were all worthy of their nominations.

After a late Saturday night I indolently slept in on Sunday morning. I consequently missed out on the morning book discussion sessions with the authors – some of which would have been interesting to attend. I eventually woke up to a brilliant summery day, and after a late breakfast, I patiently waited for my last session with the poet Oswald Mtshali, to be chaired by Professor Ndebele. It was once again a riveting session with the Professor adroitly controlling the discussion.

In the end it was an impressive and a thoroughly enjoyable weekend that left me asking for seconds. I hope to be back next year. For those who missed this one, there is good news: there is another one next year.

Congratulations to the organisers and the many hardworking people who made this event a success. I sincerely hope more people, particularly black South Africans, will attend in future. The winner of course was Franschhoek – for its engaging beauty, for its understated charm and for its generous hospitality.

Mtutuzeli Nyoka at the Franschhoek Literary FestivalMtutuzeli Nyoka at the Franschhoek Literary Festival

Mtutuzeli Nyoka at the Franschhoek Literary FestivalMtutuzeli Nyoka at the Franschhoek Literary Festival



Another young victim of our country’s violent and senseless crime.

Sandton-20130509-00442I read with great shock this morning of a St Stithians pupil, my son’s school, who had been shot dead in his home. His name was Phakama Ndlovu and he was 17-years old.

For a brief moment,” the report in the papers state, “Phakama Ndlovu’s eyes locked onto those of the man who was trying to save him.”  But Phakama did not respond, he had been shot in the head and later slipped into a coma. His mother was first shot several times in the chest and died on the spot. Phakama who was with his mother, and had tried to come to her aid, was shot in the head and died several days later. A shop-owner in the area, who had accompanied the first person to the scene, claims to have heard eight shots.

I attended the memorial service for Phakama held at the school. I was early but found the chapel crammed. There was a huge concourse of school children with their parents- friends and colleagues who had to come to grieve and support Phakama’s family. I sat outside, and did my best to ignore the chill, with boys from another school.

The service started with a moving tribute to Phakama by the school principal. He was followed by several of Phakama’s friends who all spoke lovingly and highly of him. Though there was occasional laughter, the service was marked by tears not just from friends but even those who, like me, did not know Phakama.

“I am not supposed to come here and talk about the death of one of our young people,” said the priest, an eloquent sage with the most soothing voice. Indeed the death of one so young is an indictment of our society.

South African society is violent beyond description. We have been numbed even to the horror of death. It is a violence that constantly robs our country of its future and of its talent. Our homes have ceased to be our sanctuaries. Even there, violence can crawl in like a snake and bite you.

When ordinary citizens try to raise the alarm there is the inevitable reference to statistics that indicate a slight drop in violent crime-something that should not obscure that we are still one of the most violent countries in the world. The one statistic that is consistently overlooked is that our violence has got colour and race-both victim and perpetrator are overwhelmingly black. We continue, as a nation, to sin against ourselves. We are plagued by the very perversity that we tirelessly blame on others. Like the mighty Romans before their fall, we are blind to the fact that our biggest enemy lies not without but within.

Americans are in dialogue with each other, and battle about how to deal with gun-related violence in their communities. It is a healthy undertaking led by their leaders to prevent the country, one of the most powerful forces in the history of man, from destroying itself. We need to do the same. Much as we may seem powerless to effect change, we must always refuse to accept the unacceptable crisis of violence in our midst.

At the conclusion of the sermon by the priest, Phakama’s friends did the school war-chant. It was not as loud as usual, but it was still a roar of defiance. Thucydides wrote: “Do nothing or be free’, by this he meant that if we don’t defy what is manifestly evil we shall all be engulfed and destroyed by it. These chanting children seemed to be teaching us this simple lesson with their strident outrage.

The boys then hugged each other almost in total silence. But the sounds of their cries, and the sight of their tears were unbearable to watch. I left without seeing my son, something that I had desperately wanted to do. I desperately wanted to hug him. I desperately wanted to tell him how much I loved him. Phakama’s death had, among other things, reminded me of transitoriness of life. It made it more urgent not just to love others but also to enjoy every moment that we are alive.

I cannot imagine the pain that Phakama’s family feels, or that of the grieving father who had his son and wife so brutally snatched from him. But I am certain they are thankful for the school’s effort in comforting them. It was a sincere and a loving tribute, reminding us of the goodness and decency that still prevails in our country. So despite my anger and frustration at society I continue to hope. The children’s defiant chant gives me hope.

Fare the well Phakama, my dear son and brother: a young man who by most accounts was blessed with many and varied gifts, a rare caterpillar who never became a butterfly. May the Almighty God bless yours and your mother’s soul.


A Death remembered.

It was twelve years ago this month that a friend of mine called to tell me that her daughter, Nomonde(not her real name), had committed suicide. It was shocking news since I knew the girl well, and had known her for most of her short life.

She had been a patient for several years, and was one of the most enchanting female specimen I had ever encountered. She was charming and captivating. A 13 -year old girl with a fund of wit. A born rebel with a mind of an adult.

What I had missed in the many visits she and her mother had made to my rooms had been her sadness. It had been hidden below the veil of her beauty and her singular personality. Thus despite my experience as a clinician I was oblivious to her suffering. For several years she was nothing more to me but a beautiful little girl with a blocked nose.

I knew Nomonde’s mother better. What I knew of her was that for most of her life she had been sexually abused by father (Nomonde’s grandfather)-a senior policeman who was highly respected in his community.  Her first sexual encounter had been with her father. Nomonde’s grand-mother, had witnessed her daughter’s abuse, but soon died before her daughter was fifteen years old.

Then a series of her father’s girlfriends and stepmothers drifted in and out of my friend’s life until she eventually left home in her late teens. Nomonde was born during this time. She had committed suicide, it seems, on learning that her grand-father was also her father.

Her bubbly personality notwithstanding, she could not overcome the grief that came with the knowledge that she was the product of an incestuous relationship. At thirteen years of age she thus mustered the courage to slit her wrists and ended her life.

Despite the knowledge I had of her mother’s painful childhood I failed to discern the wound that this tragedy had inflicted in Nomonde’s young soul. I had missed the sorrow and the mist in her eyes. I had missed the air of melancholy about her: for if I had seen it, I could have raised the alarm and possibly saved a life.

Perhaps I was pre-occupied by the unending shower of patients that flooded my medical rooms, and perhaps too complacent and blinded by the success of my practice.

I vividly remember our professors’ repeated counsel at medical school that our patients were far more than just the sick chests and tummies they complained about. We were taught to always be aware of the entire human being. But all I saw of Nomonde those many years ago was her beauty, a radiant personality, and her blocked nose: a little girl with force and presence.

I remember advising Nomonde’s mother to go for counseling following the girl’s tragic death. I am not certain if she heeded my advice. I never followed up. With hindsight I should have, and even insisted that she does. How casual we sometimes are even with matters of life and death.

Nomonde’s memory (and that of her mother and grand-mother) hovers enormously in my mind and with it the reminder of the huge responsibility we have as clinicians. No matter how fulfilling our successes, our mistakes can be utterly devastating. Our skills count for little without the patient and careful observation of the hidden and deadly signs that lurk below the façade of a “normal family”.

In the medical profession tragedies such as this are unfortunately our teachers, a prism through which we view our challenging profession, and a foundation for all the lofty aims of scholarship and learning.

Thus after 28 years of medical practice, as if to do penance to the ghost of that young life, I still remind myself to listen and observe carefully. There can no better lesson and no worthier endowment to any aspiring clinician than that.



A Hill of Fools on HOMEBRU 2013

Homebru 2013 CampaignThe 2013 HOMEBRU campaign launched at Exclusive Books on the 26th of April, and my new book A Hill of Fools has been selected.

Exclusive Books has put together a wonderful selection of unique South African perspectives in this year’s campaign – click HERE to see the full list of books chosen for 2013. And, if you are a Fanatics member, you can earn bonus points to the value of R20 on every Homebru book purchased.


Love of Language and Writing

I am sometimes asked where my love and inspiration comes from for writing. I think this has been continually nourished by a life-time of reading. I have had the stupendous fortune to grow up in a home filled with books. They were the lucent edges of a memorable childhood.

I remember the enchantment, and the sweet thrills that books brought, and still do, into my life. Not only was my mind nourished and my spirit refreshed, but each book beckoned me to another, and another. These treasures all led me to a vast Eden of knowledge.

However reading as a writer is different from that of leisure.  As a writer you have to go beyond the story and learn not just the vocabulary but also note the style of the author’s writing. You discover that words can have melody and rhythm. You learn to appreciate the beauty of simplicity and the importance of brevity and clarity. With time, as your own writing improves, you realize that writing is not perhaps a gift that one is born with.

It is not an art, as William Zinsser points out in his book On Writing Well, but a craft that can be learned and honed. It is hard work. It requires one to impose rigorous self-discipline. Every word in a sentence must express an idea and have meaning, or better still be a pearl, and the superfluous ones be mercilessly culled. .

What type of books is the other question that people frequently poise? Perhaps this is personal. I have tried to read poetry but I often found it hard. I read a lot of history, from ancient to contemporary works, and lots of biographies. Maybe the reason for this is that for me writing is not only about the language or just telling a story but also about the great forces that shaped people’s lives and the causes they stood for.

Day after day a writer has to study the vast landscape of the human drama. The writer’s mind is always working as he studies and stores away the form and mannerisms of man. The writer has to always observe, collect and critique things.

But just as important as everything I have already observed, is to tell a story that is worth reading. The very best books, whether fiction or non-fiction, have for me been able both with language and the plot to instantly grab my attention and pull me along excitedly to the very end, leaving me in a state of an almost unending climax. These books, throughout the story, had pace and cohesion.

The best way therefore for me to write was just to write: it was to do so with unceasing diligence, passion and sincerity.

As the love affair with writing matures, I have found that the beautiful prose that has often eluded me is, though fitfully, now emerging. I now relish the written word and am smitten by language. Because of the wonder of words and the beauty of language most things in my life now seem worthy.

The storyline for A HILL OF FOOLS

Book cover for Mtutuzeli Nyoka's A Hill of FoolsI suppose my interest in slavery was piqued in the 80s when I laid my hands on a banned copy of RootsAlex Haley, and I read it as a thirsty man would sip water. I think I was both stunned and fascinated that money could buy human beings as property.

Since then I have steadily devoured most of what I could find on slavery, not for the purposes of academic learning, but out of interest in the history of the continent: what my late school principal once referred to as the worst affliction visited on any continent in the last millennium.

Of all the material I have read through the years: Up from Slavery Booker T. Washington, Incidents in the Life of slave girl Harriet Jacobs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Stowe, AmistadAlex D. Pate, and others: Alex Haley’s book still remains to me the most important book on the subject ever written.

Thus when I started writing my first book, I SPEAK TO THE SILENT, in the late 90s, I knew that my next book would have slavery as its backdrop – and thus the idea of A HILL OF FOOLS was born. A lot of documentaries and books on African slavery focus on the victims’ fate after they have been snatched from their homes and shipped to the new world. They dwell on the horrors of slave plantations, and the degrading humiliation of slave auctions in foreign markets.

Others deal with the harrowing ordeal of that final journey to the new world – what is often referred to as ‘the middle passage’. But I had to find out about how slavery enacted itself on our continent. I set out to discover the instinctive reactions of the ordinary African men and women to the extreme burden of slavery. I have therefore based the story entirely on the continent.

I hope in the end that I did not oversimplify the rather complex subject of slavery. It still exists in the brothels around the world, and in the form of child and human trafficking – with over 12 million people today held in bondage of sorts. Almost every country in the world, either as a source or destination of this human traffic, is affected.


The storyline for I SPEAK TO SILENT

Book cover for I Speak to the Silent written by Mtutuzeli NyokaIn the late 80s when political parties were unbanned in our country some of the returnees found refuge in Ponte City, a large apartment building that once shimmered with beauty, buzzed with life, but now looks like a crumbling and dilapidated ruin. I was at the time a tenant in room 1309, a trainee resident in the Department of ENT at Wits.

Since exile, perhaps more so than ordinary life, is often stalked by many medical and psychological illnesses, word soon got around of my residence in the building. In no time I became a resident physician to many of the returnees, unsung heroes and heroines of our struggle. I ferried many in the middle of the night for the treatment of many ailments. I would smuggle some into the wards at the Hillbrow Hospital to avoid the fear members of the Special Branch of the infamous South African Police force.

I searched the hospitals’ medicine cabinets for whatever drugs or remedies I could get to treat the many and varied ailments this group had. The ultimate reward for me, as it would be for any doctor, was to help those who were in need. But there was also another gift: that of friendship to many. In some instances though I became someone to confess to about the many and heavy burdens of life in exile. To say I was badly affected by the trauma they shared and the sadness of their narrative would be an understatement. Nothing in my short life then had prepared me for what I experienced.

This is how the seed therefore of I SPEAK TO THE SILENT was planted. I could never of course divulge the names of those who trusted me with their pain. I had also to fictionalise their painful experience. In the end I had to write the book, if only to help myself heal.  Since the book was released there has been gratitude, repeatedly expressed, by all those who shared their secrets with me. For this, and the rewarding experience of writing my first novel, I shall always be grateful.