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Arts & Culture Trust of the President

A worthy attempt to stress the importance of education

Abner Nyamende

Department of Linguistics & Southern African Languages

Isahluko Sokugqibela
Zibele Sisusa

It is refreshing to read a Xhosa novel in which the author addresses himself to current issues in the history of our country. Isahluko sokugqibela is the story of two youths, Themba and Bongani, who abandon school while doing Std 9 and set out to look for work first in Umtata, then in Queenstown. On their way to Umtata they stop at a homestead in the Xhokonxa area, where meat is being prepared for the villagers. The villagers immediately suspect these two juvenile strangers of having murdered one of them, whereupon they (the villagers) call the police.

In Umtata the misfortunes of these two young men are compounded by the fact that they cannot find decent jobs because they do not possess matric certificates. Together with the other vagrants they are fed with soup by the welfare workers, something that humiliates them even more. They then hitch a hike and finally end up in Queenstown. Here fortune favours Themba and he finds a job with Fisher Panel Beaters. Soon he is given an office and is put in charge of the business’s cash. At the same time he falls in love with a highly qualified lady teacher and they both live in a flat.

Bongani is not so lucky and ends up in a farm where he is instructed by the farmer to look after his sheep. On receiving his first wages, he abandons the sheep and resurfaces in Cape Town where he finds work as a petrol attendant. After some time both Themba in Queenstown and Bongani in Cape Town lose their jobs and become destitute. Bongani returns home crestfallen, and the story ends with Themba contemplating his sad journey back home.

On the contrary, Themba’s sister, Nomfundo, does very well at school, qualifies as a social worker and marries a successful lawyer.

The story focuses on the lack of enthusiasm the present generation experiences about school among the black communities. Without attempting to explore the reasons for lack of interest in school on the part of the youth, Sisusa sets out to demonstrate the hardships young people are certain to encounter without education. He presents education as a form of insurance against unemployment and the absence of job security. Those who endeavour to obtain education are seen by the author as sacrificing much in order to achieve their goal. Education is at once something that must of necessity be endured though it is painful to acquire. About Nomfundo, who finally achieves her goal, he says:

    Wabhinqa omfutshane apho wafunda akafeketha  … Wayefumana amagingxigingxi apha naphaya kodwa enganikezeli. Wazinikela eluncamile ulonwabo lwezinto zaseyunivesithi.

    (She put up a big fight and focused all her strength on learning … She encountered problems here and there but refused to surrender. She committed herself, giving up all the joys and fun of being a university student.)

The above quotation is a clear example of the general puritanical attitude towards education as something that must be endured rather than enjoyed. When one looks at the traditional precolonial methods of education among the Xhosa one can easily perceive the fact that education was to be enjoyed first and foremost, and there was no fear of failure.

Sisusa’s novel shows much potential, but, nevertheless, its author suffers the same fate as most Xhosa writers, who are locked up in a vacuum where it is impossible to measure the expectations of the reading audience, because, in any case, the potential reading audience is largely dormant and no one seems to read published books except those that are prescribed at school. We see here a writer wrestling with a subject he can only hope will reach the hearts of his people.

First of all, nothing seems to link the title, Isahluko sokugqibela (The last chapter), to the main message of the story, namely, that education redeems from hunger and destitution, and that it is the only means by which an individual can serve his people (issues that are themselves highly debatable). Thus the title remains for the greater part obscure and inaccessible. Nothing seems to feature and stand out as a representation of the last chapter in the story. A chapter is normally found in a book and can be translated in metaphorical terms to mean the last stage of an individual’s life. But by the end of the story both of the leading characters, Themba and Bongani, are still young and have the potential to catch up with their education. The death of Themba’s father does not feature as a central event as he is only a minor character. If this title were to be said to reflect a Xhosa idiom, such an idiom would indeed be quite parochial.

Themba’s father, who perpetrates serious violence on his son, does not seem to be much attached to the latter. We watch the scene in utter disbelief when he suddenly dies of a heart attack, supposedly due to his grief after being rejected by his son.

There are one or two disconcerting inconsistencies that could be attributed to a possible lack of writing experience on the part of the author. At Fisher Panel Beaters (p 69) the writer states that the manager gave Themba cold tools and it was cold on that day. We deduce from the previous pages (pp 66-8) that this cold was experienced on 13 February, suggesting a considerably hot season in the Eastern Cape, a time when temperatures are high even at night and cold is not a concern. Another example of an inconsistency is where the writer informs us that Bheki proposed marriage to Nomfundo when they were doing their final years at university (p 98). Yet the writer maintains that whilst Nomfundo was celebrating her success after passing her BA degree, Bheki was already a lawyer with an office of his own in Durban (p 98). We know that Bheki could not be logically said to have managed such a fast-tracked career in the domain of law in South Africa in the 1990s.

The theme of domestic violence, which leads to collective communal trauma, is treated too light-heartedly and dismissed without much attention. Here again the novelist misses a good opportunity to captivate his reading audience. This, coupled with the fact that the writer fails to acknowledge the experience of both Themba and Bongani as itself a form of education, reflects a rather narrow-minded interpretation of the term education.

This novel represents a worthy attempt to stress the importance of education, but, viewed in the context of the present South African unemployment scenario, it fails to account for the absence of jobs even for university graduates. Themba, who scorns education and rejects his parents, loses his job and begins to feel bad about the way he has treated his father, but his misfortunes do not seem to be occurring as a direct result of his rejection of education nor do they appear as unique.

Sisusa does not appear to set a new standard for contemporary Xhosa novels. Generally, Xhosa novelists concentrate on elementary designs of realism and do not seem to spend sufficient time in creating and designing their fiction to fit the description of advanced word art. Sisusa’s novel possesses a linear plot like a short story, and is not enriched by any deep meaning because, in any event, it lacks deep structure.


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