My mom is a voracious reader. My first memories of learning to read are sitting in bed with her as she read to me, and then slowly learning to read back to her. She is always reading at least one book (normally more than one) and since she’s got her kindle I’m too scared to ask how many books she has queued up. We have quite similar tastes in books, and so when she passed on Redi Tlhabi’s Endings and Beginnings I was keen to see what it was like. That was about a year ago, and somehow I only got around to reading it when I started this project. I’m sure my mom will be relieved to get her book back.
Endings and Beginnings details Redi Tlhabi’s personal journey as she grapples with her relationship with known gangster and murderer. She begins the story when she is eleven, two years after her father is murdered. On her way home from school one day she meets Mabegzo, an older man in Soweto who is allegedly a gangster. They develop a close but conflicted friendship, one that is short lived but affects her deeply. The remainder of the book follows her journey into her adult life as she tries to talk to members of Mabegzo’s family and his friends in order to work out her feelings for him, and to learn more about why he chose the path he chose.
I have worked in the field of women’s rights, with a focus on sexual violence, since 2009. Throughout that time I have come to know the impact of an act of sexual violence on the life of the survivor, her friends and family, and her community. I have also learned that sexual violence is something that lives in the minds of South African women, even when they are at their safest. Rape is something that many women expect will happen to them in their lifetime, and something that Tlhabi points out is the anger and hurt that women feel when they are forced to feel ‘lucky’ if it has not happened to them yet.
Mabegzo’s story is heartbreaking, and it is easy to see how he could have been introduced to a life of violence. It’s also easy to see how hard that life is to escape – retaliation is a big part of any gang member’s life, and so like in the movies where people tell one lie to hide another, one crime is committed to hide another, or to address any perceived threat. Tlhabi asks in the preface:
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?
But, despite Tlhabi’s obvious emotional connection to Mabegzo, I found it hard to feel the same connection. I think my work in the field has left me with little patience for rapists, who often rape more than one woman, often without caring about the impact they may have. I think that choices are hard to make, but they must be made one way or the other, and I believe that when someone rapes someone, they have chosen to do that. The idea that people rape girls, and go on to live their lives, rarely thinking about what they’ve done enrages me. The idea that you should forgive a man who commits violence against women because he promises not to do it again, and perhaps is sorry for what he has done, is one that I struggle with.
The book won the Sunday Times Alan Paton award for non-fiction in 2013. However, some controversy surrounded the book this year, as members of the community claimed that the story told was not accurate. Whilst I’m not sure of the outcome of the allegation, I think it’s always interesting to engage the debate on how much truth is required for a book to be called non-fiction. The book is currently being developed into a screenplay for a film.
It was good to read a book where the female characters are so strong-willed that they defy societal expectations, or at other times enforce them with such fury that they come to dominate the lives of those around them. This story explores various matriarchs and I think that this is extremely valuable. Women are powerful, and this comes through clearly in Tlhabi’s text. I liked that she allowed for their power and for their flaws, and made obvious that the two are not mutually exclusive – that most of us are just doing the best we can in the way we know how to.
Redi Tlhabi is a radio journalist on 702 and Cape Talk. She also writes a column for the Sunday Times. You can follow her on twitter here.