African Delights: an extract from Siphiwo Mahala’s collection of short stories

| Siphiwo Mahala

Siphiwo Mahala’s short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines locally and internationally and have been collected together in African Delights (published by the Jacana Literary Foundation). The result is a unique tour of South African life.

The book is divided into four parts, starting in the jazzy 1950s in Sophiatown and the Drum era, continuing into the states of emergency years in the 1980s, moving through the transition of the 1990s, and finally reflecting on the first decade of our democracy with its tenderpreneurs and lavish Jozi lifestyle.

But more than just telling a good story, Mahala is engaged in dialogue with the past and previous representations in fiction. His The Suit Continued for example is a critical homage to Can Themba’s iconic short story.

Mahala has established himself as an inspiring new voice in South African literary fiction. As Njabulo S. Ndebele put it, “If there is an measure of the confidence of South Africa’s still-new democracy, despite its many political upheavals, it is to be found in literary testimony [of Mahala].”

His debut novel When A Man Cries (2007) can also be read in isiXhosa (Yakhal’ Indoda) which Mahala translated himself.

EXTRACT: ‘The Suit Continued’

It is annoying when people keep telling the story of a woman who was tormented by her husband because I left my suit in his house. You know, people think that she was the only one who suffered. But then, I don’t really blame them because maybe that’s how Can Themba wanted them to feel.

The only thing he mentions in his propaganda piece The Suit, is that I ran away. Did he think that that was the end of the story for me? Did he think that I, a respected schoolteacher, enjoyed running around the streets of Sophiatown in my underwear? Did he think that I felt no remorse when the woman decided to put an end to her life? No, those things could not just happen and leave me feeling no shame. Besides, I had my own humiliation to deal with. I’m neither a writer nor a journalist as Can Themba was, but I thought I should jot down a few lines so people know my side of the story before I sink six feet under. This is not a confession, but a testimony.

First of all, it was never my style to have dealings with married women. You see, there is this thing about a woman: if she wants you, she is sure to get you. Unlike us; if we want her, we have to go a long way trying to impress her. Somehow I feel that women do take advantage of us men. In fact, women of those days had a great deal of advantage over us.

When I met this girl, I had had a few tots of brandy, not to get drunk; just to cure my body after a Sunday afternoon of heavy drinking. Please note that I’m addressing her as a “girl” because that’s what she looked like when I first met her. She didn’t seem like a married woman at all. I know when alcohol registers itself in a man’s head, even the ugliest woman suddenly becomes attractive, but this was not the case. She caught my eye with her red mini-dress that girls used to wear in those days. Ag man, I forgot that you young people wouldn’t know those dresses. Let me just say, they are seductively equivalent to the tight shorts and the skimpy blouses that young girls wear these days. When I see these girls, I feel like getting young again. I may have a bald patch and a wrinkled skin, but my heart feels as young as ever.

But that’s not the point. What I’m saying is that this woman took advantage of me the first day we met. It was during lunch break and I went to Thirty-nine Steps, as I usually did on Monday mornings. That’s what we used to do with Can when he was teaching at Madibane High School in Western. I had been friends with Can since our university days at Fort Hare. You see, this is what I like about being a teacher: you are within the community and you can always take a moment out to rid yourself of a hangover. We usually bought our hooch from Thirty-nine Steps and took it to Can’s “House of Truth”. Decent guys in Sophiatown used to drink there.

On this morning my throat was as dry as a desert, and my whole body was shivering. The noise that the children made sounded like a beehive inside my head. Every word I said trying to silence them echoed in my aching head, and they wasted no time in making irritating whispers and pointing towards my direction. Hangover was playing with me, I tell you. I knew the only remedy was to pay a quick visit to Thirty-nine Steps.

Can was now working as a journalist for Drum, and I knew I’d find him there. Well, he was not there yet and I did not mind having a brandy half-jack by myself. Fatty, the enormous shebeen queen, seemed to be pleased that I took the drink on credit. Man, that woman knew how to do business. She was always happier when you went there without money because she would charge you double the amount. You would not think about that until at the end of the month when you had to pay her. As friendly as she was when she gave you the drink, Fatty took no nonsense when she wanted her money. Sometimes I just felt she increased the bill because she knew I was a bit drunk when I initially made the credit. I didn’t dare to complain because Fatty was never reluctant to squash a man with her bare hands.

Here I am again dwelling on shebeen life, but that is not what this testimony is about. It is about this woman who got me into trouble. I call her “woman” because I never knew her real name. Yes, I slept with her a couple of times, but still I did not know her name because she called me “sweetie” (it was the first time a woman had taken to calling me that), and I had to refer to her in the same way. I only knew her name after I read Can’s story. Matilda (as Can calls her) came in and sat on the arm of the sofa I was sitting on. I knew she was attracted to me because I was looking good. Although I was not a full-time member because I had a decent job, I was often associated with the Americans – that notorious Sophiatown gang. I had on my Humphrey Bogart hat, my blue suit, and brown-and-white Florsheims, “America’s finest shoes” (as the advert claimed). Even the Mapantsulas of these days wouldn’t match my style during those days, let alone a man who wore khaki-green messenger uniforms. I was mjita van Kofifi, I tell you.

Matilda was just one of many women who couldn’t wait to jump into bed with me. Okay, to make a long story short, Matilda asked why I drank there because it was not the right place for gentlemen like me, especially during school hours. I told her it was the only place where I could drink. She said no, I must come over to her place and finish what’s left of the brandy there. Well, needless to mention, drinking was not the first thing we did when we got to her place. In fact, it went down well after we gave each other some bodily pleasures.

There is nothing as nice as something you are stealing. I knew very well that my wife would not have been happy to find me there. But, nonetheless, it was good; I really enjoyed my time with Matilda. It became a habit for me to spend some time during my lunch breaks at Matilda’s place. You know, there was this thing about her: she was not a nagging woman. One thing about women when you have an affair is they usually ask you about your other relationships. How many kids have you got? Are you married? Do you like your wife? Things like that. I really hate it because the inquisitiveness forces you to give her ears what they want to hear. It’s better when we do what brings us together and leave other business alone. Finish en klaar!

African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala

ISBN 978-1-4314-0251-9 243 pages

You can follow @SiphiwoMahala on Twitter.

Review written by Brent Meersman for GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Arts and culture

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