Apartheid is over, but it has left scars that seem destined to endure. Tlhabi’s book makes the continuing cruelty within the black community–especially its staggering rape culture– intelligible. Tlhabi’s story suggests the core problem is not poverty, as many Western observers would assume, but the past injuries and injustices that are transmuted and passed down–and across–families through memories and relationships that are sometimes unwanted.
Tlhabi, who is now a media celebrity in Capetown, tells the story of Mabegzo, a young man known for his brutality even among Soweto gangsters. The story is autobiographical, told through the journalist’s own eyes as a very young schoolgirl unaccountably befriended by a man known as a monster in her township. Under the apartheid regime, the police were at war with black townships and so offered little protection or order. Instead, the gangs emerged as an alternative power, sometimes offering a perverse, Robinhood form of rule, but more often merely intimidating ordinary blacks by flaunting crimes and subverting community attempts to live normally.
A key aspect of this intimidation was the gangster’s practice of raping young girls, randomly and at will. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there was an underlying norm that condoned rape and that other men, not just gang members, would also prey on the girls. As is so often the case, the girls would be shunned and shamed for the rape, but the men would frequently (though not always) get away with only a slight rebuke. In this setting, the girls would carry the burden of the baby, as well as interrupted education and lifelong humiliation, under the explanation that they somehow “wanted it” or “asked for it.” Nevertheless, it is also clear that the rate of rape had escalated to a terrifying degree in the lawlessness of apartheid Soweto, becoming an everyday fear even for pre-pubescent girls coming home from school.
It is in this context that Mabegzo, feared by the worst criminals around, approaches young Momo one day and, with only minimal introduction, takes her schoolbags and walks her home. She is shocked to learn that this legendary character, whose name she knows but has never seen, is a clean-scrubbed, seemingly kind and very handsome young man. Yet she is terrified that he will rape her when they get to her house. He does not. Instead, they become friends.
The rest of the story is about Momo’s attempt to understand Mabegzo, trying to reconcile the friend with the monster known all over the township. Her quest takes her through a multigenerational tale that moves between the more traditional life of Lesotho and the urban environment of Johannesburg. The tale unfolds as a grim and heart-breaking story of how violent sexual crimes affect families. Along the way, the reader comes to understand not only how a gangster is created by the unraveling of the social fabric, but how difficult it is for subsequent generations to break the cycle of cruelty.