In a recent interview about her autobiography Poli Poli, activist and poet Barbara Masekela observed that African children are often raised by people other than their parents, and that generations have grown up feeling abandoned and lonely. This is especially true of those whose parents were involved in the liberation struggle. The work of Mandla Langa is streaked with the themes of exile and abandonment.
Langa is a writer who has slowly and quietly grown in stature, and he can now take his place alongside the South African literary greats. Drawing on his own experiences in uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) military camps, he presents, in books such as The Texture of Shadows, an intimate knowledge of the foot soldiers of the revolution and the pashas who moved them around, often blindly, on the chessboard.
In his latest book, The Lost Language of the Soul (Picador Africa), Langa takes the idea of abandonment, marries it with betrayal, penance, idealism, and disillusion, and then fashions it all into a quest novel, a picaresque political thriller set in the late ’80s that tears from Zambia through Botswana and into South Africa.
Joseph Mabaso idolises his father Sobhuza, a South African freedom fighter who lives with Joseph’s mother Chanda and siblings in Lusaka. He is used to his father being away on important business, but at 14 he has begun to resent these frequent absences: “He wishes Ma was just a simple Zambian woman who had no connection with a South African man. These men [...] come into these places propelled by something huge and ravenous. No doubt they love their children but it is a love that cannot be free of the rage from the past it has fled.”
When his mother vanishes one night, Joseph knows something has gone terribly wrong and sets out on her trail, ignoring the danger he faces. Langa traces his journey on a canvas that heaves with life and colour.“ Walking now on an unpaved road, a truck laden with mupapa logs trundles past, leaving behind a spiral of smoke and dust... there are battered cars on either side of the road, skinny boys sitting next to piles of retreaded tyres for sale or exchange.” There’s the quartermaster store where shelves “sag under the weight of blankets, uniforms in plastic wrapping, gumboots, and cans of powdered milk and tubs of tomato paste are stacked in rows that go up to the ceiling”.
Other shelves are crammed with bound copies of Sechaba and The African Communist. Characters leap off the page: a snaggle-toothed man called John the Baptist helps fighters cross the Zambezi in his dinghy and warns of Nyaminyami, the river god who stains the water red if your heart is not pure. We meet Comrade Chuckles, a former beauty queen, and Comrade Dictionary, who got his name in prison because he was good at Scrabble. There are pangolin poachers and criminal kawalalas and a broken-bodied girl called Leila who drives a horse cart.
As colourful as it is, we’re not allowed to forget what danger Joseph is in — Langa keeps pulling us up short with eruptions of violence and the loss of people close to him. As in his other books, the author scrapes away at the burnished myths of The Movement to reveal an uglier history of corruption and malfeasance, such as the smuggling of medical supplies and rhino horn by operatives, and a shocking deceit within the ranks that sees a woman killed for being an enemy agent when in fact this is a lie.
This is a pained reference to Langa’s own life: his brother Ben, a prominent KwaZulu-Natal activist, was murdered in Pietermaritzburg in 1984 by MK operatives after he had been accused of being an informer. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the ANC admitted to having been “disinformed” into murdering him by a double agent.
As a character in this book comments, “Treachery is one of the main ingredients of any liberation movement.”The Lost Language of the Soul could have used a sharper paring knife — more is not always more in literature — but from the outset we are rooting for our lonely young hero as he searches not only for his mother but also for a metaphorical safe house where he can lay his head and his heart.
• From the October edition of Wanted, 2021.