In this extract from the celebrated book Black Tax: Burden of Ubuntu author Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho explores the fine line between helping out and being taken advantage of
After what seemed like an eternity, the prison doors flew open for me on 11 November 2010 and I stepped out, free at last. Immediately after my arrest, I realised that I had wronged society by breaking into and stealing from numerous business premises in Makhado and that I had to take full responsibility for this and work towards turning my life around.
After 11 years in prison, I felt that I had paid my dues. I came out with some education because I had studied while I was inside, all in preparation for my future, should I live to see the day of my release.
Back in my hometown, Madombidzha village in northern Limpopo, circumstances were such that I found myself waking up each morning and walking to the Muromani crossroads to hitch a lift to town, where I would wander along the streets in the hopes of getting a job of some sort, either from townspeople or with local businesspeople.
I ended up getting work at someone’s house as an all-rounder handyman: I cleaned the yard, took care of the garden and washed the nine dogs. Come month-end, however, the madam of the house said she had no money to pay me and suggested that I accept a bicycle which was lying around the yard as payment. I immediately stopped working for this indifferent madam.
Rather than continue being subjected to disrespect and ridicule I started selling snacks on the streets of Makhado town at the taxi ranks and salons. My stint as a hawker or vendor – pardon the pun, for I remain Vend a – lasted for about eighteen months.
During this time something wonderful happened: my first book, a collection of short stories entitled A Traumatic Revenge, was published. This completely changed how people viewed me, both in town and in the village. Some thought I had instantly become rich, while others said I was on the path to fortune.
The former group found it rather strange that a supposedly rich man would continue to sell snacks at the taxi rank. The latter group suggested that I should stop selling snacks and focus on writing for schools on a full-time basis. They had this idea that when a writer publishes a book it is randomly and instantly prescribed for learners. They also believed I would soon build myself a double-storey mansion like the majority of Tshivenda authors who had come before me.
These misconceptions placed me in a difficult position. When I was busy moving up and down the taxi rank selling snacks, an employed brother would come at lunchtime and ask me to buy a loaf of bread, polony and a soft drink for us to share. If I told him I was penniless, he would point at my pockets, bulging with coins and say, ‘But here, you’ve got money.’ He would go as far as to suggest that I had even more money from my book sales in the bank and that it was a wrong that I wanted to spend that money alone.
Towards the end of 2011, I started writing features and art reviews for a youth-orientated supplement of a community newspaper. While I was paid for it, I didn’t make enough to stop selling snacks. The following year, I started writing for the main newspaper, where I learnt many valuable writing skills.
In 2012, I travelled to Kinross in Mpumalanga to visit Ethokomala School, a reformatory facility for delinquents, where I had also spent some time as a young inmate. It was part of the research for my second book and I wanted to revive my memories of the experiences I had had there. My first novel, The Violent Gestures of Life, was published the following year. At that point I stopped selling snacks and focused on selling my books and freelancing for a variety of print and online publications.
It was a big challenge, and frustrating at times, to be a freelance journalist without private transport, and so, a few years later, I bought my first car. I had worked very hard and felt I deserved a skorokoro to make life easier and more enjoyable.
As I drove to town every morning, many men would call my name when I got to the Muromani crossroads, asking me to give them a lift. Whenever I pulled over, three men would fight to get to the passenger seat, while at least seven or more would try to find a spot on the back seat. Eventually, six men would sit on a seat meant for three persons.
All of them were from the same village as me; they are homeboys and homemen. They were all my brothers. To reason with them about the possibility that there could be a roadblock ahead where I ran the risk of being slapped with a R3 000 fine was futile. All they needed was to get to town so they could hustle for piece jobs. In the evening, after an unsuccessful or successful day of looking for a job, they would walk to Mavhidani Cemetery at the entrance to Makhado, a spot from where hundreds of men and women hitched a lift to the villages.
On one occasion my car was full and three more brothers still wanted to force their way in. I explained tactfully that the car was full and there was no more space. Dejected, they stepped back. Then I heard one of them say, ‘U vho ri tongela ngauri u na goloi!’ (He no longer cares about us now that he owns a car!)
One of the men who was outside the car reprimanded him, but the third seconded the first man’s comment. I felt quite insulted and disappointed – his words left a sour taste in my mouth.
I decided to drive along Muromani without stopping. I couldn’t endure being victimised by my own brothers, so I’d rather not give any of them a lift.
Soon after that day, the car’s engine oil started to leak into the radiator. A local mechanic suggested we open the engine and replace a top gasket, but he accidentally interfered with some of the sensitive parts of the engine and that meant the end of the road for my car. I didn’t want to waste more money on it, so I had to sell it at the cheapest price.
Without a car, I had to start using public transport again. But once you have tasted the freedom of movement from having your own car, you cannot compromise. Luckily, I managed to save enough to buy another car.
Now, when I passed the Muromani crossroads in the morning, I stopped to offer lifts to people because of a guilty conscience. I thought that maybe I had lost my first car because the gods had noticed that I had forsaken my brothers by refusing them a lift.
In African culture, if you forget or neglect your brothers and sisters, the gods are likely to forget or neglect you. This is not something to be taken lightly. By our traditions, a brother or sister must lend a helping hand to a fellow human being, including strangers. Kindness forms the core of ubuntu and without ubuntu we are like empty vessels which only make a loud noise. Ubuntu knows no boundaries.
Over time, though, I had to become selective again as to whom I offered lifts to. I had a number of encounters, similar to the one described above, which left me dumbfounded. For instance, there was this soft-spoken gentleman who passed along the pathway a few metres from my backyard on his way to the Muromani crossroads every day. He would always greet me while I was watering the vegetables.
After ten minutes or so, I would drive past him on the road or at Muromani, pointing his thumb down to indicate that he was asking for a lift. Every time I gave him a lift, he would talk about a current affairs matter or tell me some or other fantastical story. He knew how to build suspense so I continued giving him lifts so he could always finish his stories.
However, I had to stop giving him lifts after I realised that every time I picked him up at Mavhidani, he was either staggering on the brink of drunkenness or already drunk, even carrying some bottles of Zamalek. I asked myself one question: so he has money to get himself some beer every day, but he cannot afford taxi fare?
I was also quite surprised and shocked to find that a cousin of mine commuted to and from work in town, from January to December, exclusively through getting lifts. On several occasions, I saw him covering the two-kilometre distance between the town and Mavhidani on foot, his lean body extended out of proportion by the many heavy grocery bags he was carrying. From a villager’s point of view, I could tell that on all those occasions, he carried groceries worth over R1 700.
I failed to see the logic behind walking to a hitchhiking point when you can afford to buy groceries for R1 700. I mean, the taxi fare from town to Madombidzha is only R16. Even the grandmothers and mothers gossiped about him, saying, ‘The day that he uses a taxi or bus, it’ll rain five rand coins!’
Then there was the night when I was so broke, I only had R17 in my pocket. It was a chilly, winter evening, with a soft drizzle falling on the land, when I stopped at a filling station by Mavhi dani. The fuel gauge was on reserve. I didn’t want to get stuck on the road, so I decided to use that pitiable amount on fuel – I only needed a litre to get me home. The next moment, a man I knew well and respected came to my window and knocked. I wound the window down and he curtsied as he asked me for a lift. He swore by ‘God who art in heaven’ that he had no money either. ‘Get in, brother,’ I said.
We drove in silence because I was deep in thought, as to where I would get enough money for fuel to last me for the next three days before my salary was paid. Soon, we arrived at the village and he asked to get off at Muromani. I should mention that there is a famous tavern right at the crossroads.
Once he got out, I remembered that I had bought a cooldrink some days ago and that the bottle was still in the car. I rushed into the tavern, bottle in hand, to return it for cash. As I stepped into the tavern, the homeboy who had just asked for a lift took a bottle of zwimetemete, or whisky, and a packet of ten Peter Stuyvesant from the teller, along with change of just over R100. As I approached, he was twisting open the cap. I simply proceeded to the counter, handed in the empty bottle and walked out.
Deep in my heart of hearts, I felt cheated. There was no option but to turn around and tactfully whisper into his ear that I did not understand how he could afford to buy a bottle of zwimetemete after he had told me he had no money.
His answer was sharp, ‘Brother, I need to keep my body warm. I survive on piece jobs. You are a journalist. You’ve got a real job. You earn a lot of money. You even have a car – something that some of us cannot afford.’
‘If you could just step into my shoes,’ I wanted to shout at him.
But then again, I thought, he didn’t force himself into my car. I still felt a strong urge to give him a piece of my mind, but I turned around and left, my heart torn to pieces. What does he take me for?
As I continued, asking myself many questions, my mind drifted to another morning when I had given another brother a lift. I had stopped at the mid-town filling station to fill up, since I was driving to Polokwane and had no intention of stopping anywhere on the way. This brother happened to see some banknotes in my wallet and asked for R50. It is true that I had some money on me, but it was all budgeted for something else.
When I answered that I didn’t have money, he stared at me in disbelief and insisted that he had seen the money. I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was not happy; in fact, he was offended. Perhaps, I was wrong to offer him a lift in the first place, I thought then.
During my jail term, I stayed in three different prisons, and there are many correctional officers who feel that they directly contributed towards my rehabilitation. Without a doubt, they played an important role and I know each one of them is proud of my journey to rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society. However, when they see me selling my literary publications on the streets, they always ask for signed, complimentary copies because they played an active part in my journey to freedom. To date, for every 100 copies I have taken from my publishers on consignment, at least 38 have gone to my former warders.
Apart from the responsibility I feel towards my community, my immediate family also has many expectations of me. I am the first person to have obtained a university degree in our family, and that, together with the few publications under my name, affords me much respect in our clan. Therefore, whenever there are misunderstandings or fights within the family or clan, I am called in as the mediator. I am supposed to be the wise man, the solver of all problems.
It doesn’t end there, though; whenever there are accidents or incidents which require money in order to get addressed, they say, ‘Call him. Tell him to come here! There’s a funeral again!’
There are many times when I feel like I live in a small, claustrophobic cubicle with no fresh air to breathe. Does a messiah choose to become a messiah? What if too much is expected of me? Why do I sometimes feel so heartbroken, like that man who was put up on a cross?
If only people could step into my shoes, once in a while.
After I completed my Grade 12, I wanted to further my studies. At that time the prolific author of a biblical study series, Michel Barrette, paid me a visit at the Kutama Sinthumule Correctional Centre. He wanted to find out whether I was interested in furthering my studies and I told him I was keen to explore literature.
He offered to pay for my tuition from undergraduate level through to a doctoral degree. I couldn’t believe it. This was too much, from a complete stranger. I asked him how I was going to pay him back. He expected nothing, he said, except ‘that you may do unto others what I am about to do for you, son’.
Still, there are days when I cannot help wondering where the line is between helping and being taken advantage of.
I cannot but feel guilty when I cannot give something that is being asked of me. Every time I feel too much is being asked, or even demanded of me, I remember the help that I got from so many individuals – both inside and outside prison. Then I tell myself that, maybe, this is the way that I am supposed to contribute my bit.
TSHIFHIWA GIVEN MUKWEVHO is a novelist, short story writer and journalist. He has written a collection of short stories entitled A Traumatic Revenge and a novel, The Violent Gestures of Life. He has also published a collection of poems, It Was Getting Late. Tshifhiwa is the recipient of a Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award for his children’s book, Mveledzo na Zwigevhenga. He heads Vhakololo Press, a publishing initiative, in Makhado and lives in Madombidzha village.
The book Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu is published by Jonathan Ball. It is available at selected bookstores countrywide at a recommended retail price of R260. Read more about the book on this link: