Malume’s Painting

Of a midweek morning with the country engulfed by the drudgery of electricity load-shedding, the curiosity and enthusiasm of pupils from Penryn College, McCauley House and Nizamiye School combined to radiate the sort of ambience within the Manie Manim theatre, enough to pulsate the energy shortcomings!

The script couldn’t have been more apt, what with the book launch coinciding with the viewing of the play, Van Wyk: The Storyteller of Riverlea – a one man show acted out by Zane Meas and chronicling the memoirs of late literary leading light, Chris van Wyk, and the role books played in his development and outlook on Life!  The play’s set was adorned meticulously with familiar titles such as: The Beautiful Ones are not yet Born; Angela’s Ashes; Things Fall Apart – among others.

But before Meas could strut his stuff, the audience of girls and boys dressed in the various uniforms of their institutions, got to exchange in a Q&A session with Memela, following on the author’s introduction and mention of his rather, daunting-to-follow resume which also represents him as a well-known journalist, public intellectual, cultural critic, commentary contributor, serial letter writer to newspapers and public servant (a role in which he has served, formerly as a spokesperson for the Department of Arts and Culture, and currently as one for SARS).

“The book has been overwhelmingly received”, Memela offered upon a student, seated high-up at the back of the dimly-lit space, enquiring regarding critique of Malume’s Painting.

Unlike previous offerings from the bespectacled letters man with the trademark bucket hat, his latest contribution is a slim easy read merging his text with the easy-on-the-eye illustrations of Christo Wolmarans – and with an underlining twist presented by the integration of late photojournalist, Sam Nzima’s 16 June 1976 iconic image, on the cover and interspersed throughout the subsequent pages!   

Narrated from the viewpoint of the protagonist’s young and assertive niece, Malume’s Painting, according to the provided synopsis, is a part factual history and part fictional story which portrays the journey of a young Soweto student activist who left for exile in 1976 to later return to a democratic society after the fall of Apartheid. 

It explores black-bereted uncle Bhekisizwe’s relationship with his sister whose family enjoys the fruits of liberation and how the new generation is alienated from their history and heritage. Described as a comrade, freedom fighter, man of words, story-teller, creative thinker, historian and a highly conscious and gifted visual artist, Malume uses painting to strengthen his bond with his sister and to relay history to young children. 

The story shows the humanity of freedom fighters and how acts of kindness can change lives and heal families.

In an extended pouring out of his outlook on past events brought back to life in the form of the book, contained in his profile under the sub-title, author’s remarks – Memela had the following to offer:

It is almost 50 years since the 16 June student upheavals. 43 three years to be exact.  I was 15 years in Form 1(todays Grade 8) that I had to repeat in 1977 because of boycotts at the time.  I have always desired to write something on that fateful day. I can say it is a story that has stayed with me over the decades. But I was not entirely sure how to approach it.  But what I cannot deny is that it was my dream to write a story to link the past with the present, to help the youth begin to understand what happened at a young age.  The idea was to write a book that I wanted South African children to read.

“After four decades, some of the intimate details may have faded. But I wanted to take a risk and lay my soul bare about what I remember and the meaning of the event.  This is our story. This is our history. It is long overdue that we, those who were there, wrote our own history.  I do not believe that there can ever be enough books on this. There are as many stories to tell as there were thousands of Soweto students and others around who were directly touched by the events.  Sadly, I am not aware of a single specific book that is aimed at the youth.

Worse, if correct, history was phased out as part of curriculum. In a way, this is part of the effort to bring back history by writing our history to be part of the national identity.  “I am aware that this is a heavy story by its nature. It is a traumatic and tragic event that touches the centre of our sorrow.  One can say it is the kind of story that opened the hearts of young children to life’s betrayal. 

Many children suddenly became adults because of what they experienced and witnessed at the time. It was an unforgettable experience that stays with you for life. Yes, you may heal and forgive but you do not forget.  “But I believe that 16 June was not just about doom and gloom. I think there was something joyful that we could celebrate about what happened.  The youth became fearless and were willing to lay down their lives.  It marked a turning point in history.  It is because of what happened then that we got to be where we are today: a free and democratic society.

“But we have to be careful when we celebrate. They June 16 youth has grown old and conservative.  We have not translated our aspirations hopes and dreams into reality. However, that does not mean that we have failed ourselves. 

It is ironic that we live in the most unequal society today.  Strides have been made but it is a serious indictment that we have children studying under trees and falling into filthy toilets.  “I do not expect everyone to agree with how the story is told. Some will love it to bits. In fact, most people have said as much. They love the story of Malume. Every family has one.  I hope it will spark debate and stimulate interest among young people. 

It is only when we know where we come from that we can know where we are going.  The duty of the youth is to improve upon the past.  We have to pass on the baton. We have to make the youth aware that they have to create their own future. They are heirs of what the 16 June generation fought for.”

If Malume Bhekisizwe’s story reminds latter day intergenerational denizens of South Africa’s painful past, an unfortunate close to home incident renders the author a mirror of youthful aspirations unfulfilled.

In a post book signing session interview in the theatre’s foyer, Memela touched on the sorrowful moment in 2015 when he lost his son, Wamukelwa and daughter-in-law to violent crime still besieging the country.  In a City Press article of 2015, the distraught father had this to say about his son, “He could show what the youth of this country was capable of.  He was a symbol of black excellence.  He opened his own company at a young age and also wanted to open a cooking school and empower others.”

Published by CEM Publishers and dedicated to Nzima as well as to his twin sisters, Busisiwe and Ntsiki Memela, Malume’s Painting follows on his first book, Flowers of the Nation (2005); His Master’s Voice (2011) – a semi-autobiographical second book which traces the experiences of black professionals in a capitalist controlled economy, especially in the media; What Mother Told Us (2014) – a special tribute to ordinary women who have kept the flame of the struggle alive; Zenzele: Young Gifted & Free (2014) – a motivational book that is the practical application of the tenets of the Black Consciousness spirit of self-determination. 

The significance of Zenzele is its aim at encouraging youth from a disadvantaged background to take control of their lives and future. 

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