“There is not one but many silences”: Responses to Inxeba (the wound)

To say that the movie, Inxeba (the wound) is controversial is to put in mildly. I have written about my experience of seeing the film, and how moved I was by the movie. The film has resurfaced the conversation about Xhosa initiation rites. I say “resurfaced” because the conversation about Xhosa initiation tradition is an ongoing conversation. Both Thando Mgqolozana, one of the writers of Inxeba, and Nakhane, one of the actors in the movie, wrote about the initiation process or some aspects of it in their respective books. Thando Mgqolozana wrote A Man Who Is Not a Man and Nakhane wrote Piggy Boy Blues. So Inxeba, the movie, uses a different medium to contribute to an ongoing conversation about different initiation experiences.

Majola’s album Boet/Sissy is also part of this ongoing conversation. In Boet/Sissy Majola sings about life as a queer Xhosa man. I wrote a review of the album as I was also moved by Majola’s work. It is worth repeating partly what I wrote on the review of the song Mountain View, where Majola sings about falling in love on the mountain:

“The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid gloves. In the song, Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate on the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.”

What I want to demonstrate here is that there are some Xhosa men, particularly queer Xhosa men who have been vocal and engaging in a conversation about Xhosa initiation rites. Mgqolozana, Nakhane, and Majola have all produced work that speaks to Xhosa initiation rites. These creative works highlight the different experiences of boys journeying to manhood. Inxeba is a wonderful contribution to this ongoing conversation.

Before I watched the movie, I had seen on social media and newspapers that there were people, particularly Xhosa men who were against the movie. Many have been upset because the movie exposes Xhosa initiation rites “secrets.”

Nakhane has received death threats over the movie. As people living in a democratic South Africa, people are allowed not to like the movie and express disagreement over it, but death threats over the movie are alarming. Ironically, the death threats towards Touré reveals the very toxic Xhosa masculinity that is on display in the movie. The violence that Touré is being threatened with is linked to the violence that often accompanies the making of Xhosa men. You have to appreciate the fucked-up-ness of our society where death threats are so nonchalantly issued and treated as normal when you disagree with someone.

Even the Xhosa King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu has weighed in on the “debate” over the movie calling for a boycott of the movie. It is hard to imagine that King Sigcawu has seen the movie yet because he is in the Eastern Cape and the movie has had limited screenings, and none of them were in the Eastern Cape. This means that the King has not seen the movie, but he is calling for a boycott of the movie.

According to the Times, the Xhosa King and other traditional leaders will submit a complaint to the Film and Publication Board and National Heritage Council about the film, apparently, the film is “too graphic.” As someone who has seen the movie, I wonder which part of the movie is “too graphic”? Is it the bum sex scene? Is it the circumcision scene? Or is it the scene at the end of the movie?

According to the Times, the King has said that the movie will instigate “the wrath of ancestors. Attacking and insulting this custom is an attack to our ancestors.” This is interesting because the King does not seem to wonder about the “wrath of the ancestors” when queer Xhosa boys are physically and sexually assaulted when they go through initiation. Where is the talk of the “wrath of the ancestors” when Xhosa boys come back from the mountains in body bags. I am sorry King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu but the “wrath of your the ancestors” is very selective, not to mention condones homophobic violence.

I find that the outrage over the movie is outward looking. People are preoccupied about how we, Xhosa people, will look to the “outside” world. Yet, the call of this movie is for us, Xhosa people, to look at ourselves. It is a call to maybe rethink some aspects of our culture.  It is a call to think about – what does the things we do do? While it is important that we respect and take pride in our Xhosa customs and traditions, we can’t do so blindly. As people, we need to question and call out harmful practices, even if they have a long lineage.

The responses calling for the boycott of the movie, and the death threats on Nakhene’s life, is all about silencing. The responses are about having control over the narrative surrounding initiation practices. The initiation process is shrouded in secrecy. It is mythologized. One is forbidden to talk about it in fear that “secrets” will be revealed. As Xhosa men, we are held to ransom with the silence. The silence is powerful. At times the silence enables destruction. The silences surrounding the initiation process reminds me of Michel Foucault, who wrote:

“Silence itself–the thing one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers–is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.  There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case.  There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” (The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, p. 27).

Indeed, there are many silences surrounding the Xhosa initiation process and Inxeba breaks some of that silence. We need to pay attention to the silences that exist between all the things that are said about the process of making Xhosa men. In the loud elevation of pride in tradition, there is the silencing of the horrific aspects of our cultural traditions. In the blind and vigorous holding on to “Xhosaness”, there is the silence on the destruction of young people’s lives. While there is noise about preparing men for heterosexual manhood, there is silence about homosexual desires. There is silence over the production of misogyny in the initiation process. There is silence over the botched circumcisions that are reported on every “circumcision season.” There are silences about the particularity of the initiation experience for queer Xhosa boys.

Instead of calling for a boycott of the movie, we should really take this opportunity as a space for conversation. The movie is a conversation starter for us to engage with each other, and not just about same-sex love between Xhosa men, but the initiation process itself. We should see this movie as a mirror held up to our faces so that we, as Xhosa people, can look at ourselves. Future generations of Xhosa people, specifically Xhosa boys will be grateful that this moment happened.

Boet/Sissy – Black. Queer. Xhosa.

I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.

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In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.

After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi   restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.

The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.

The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid gloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.

The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.

Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”

Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.

Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.

In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”

After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.

Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.

In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.

The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.

The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for it.

 

Reflections: This Book Betrays My Brother

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Author: Kagiso Lesego Molope

I love the tittle of this book. And after reading the book you realise even more how smart titled this book is. This book was published in 2012 but I only read it this year after my friend Siphokazi posted a quote from the book on Facebook. I was intrigued by the quote and decided to buy the book. The quote:

 “First of all, any album worth listening to is released in December, and the songs often mention the time of the year. In northern countries songs are about summertime, but here you will hear “December.” One of the most popular songs the year before I left home for varsity starts with: ‘Hello! Hello, December!’”

When I read this I knew immediately what the author was talking about. I knew I had to get this book because it already referenced a part of my life with fond memories of dancing to TKZee. I was a senior in primary school, getting ready for high school, when Halloween by TKZee came out. It was the biggest Kwaito album of all time, and it remains a staple for dance floors across South African townships. I used to spend December holidays with my cousins in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth and the December Halloween came out was one of the best Decembers of my life.

So it is through Siphokazi that I come to this book. After reading This Book Betrays My Brother I remember thinking what a South African story. This is a story about how gender operates in South African communities. It is evident in the way Kagiso Lesego Molope lays out the story how she has been paying attention to the ubiquitous-ness, the taken for granted, and ultimately the destructive nature of a misogynistic culture like the one we have in South Africa. The detailing of the seemingly innocent ways boys are praised and girls are cautioned is revealing.

This is a story a sister tells about her brother who she idolises but then she is witness to a darker side of him. What Kagiso Lesego Molope accomplishes in this beautiful yet heart-wrenching novel is the detailing of the familial and societal structures that create her brother – Basimane – the man and the things he is capable of. The book opens with the details of Basimane’s birth that was so monumental it crossed country borders. His birth was like the coming of Jesus and then he was treated like a king throughout his life and Naledi his sister, who is the narrator, is basically invisible in his shadow.

The politics of social mobility in this book speak to the ambivalent place that some black South Africans find themselves. Naledi and Basimane and their family move out of the poor section of the location into the more middle class section but Basimane more than anyone else in the family retains strong affiliation with the “real” township to the dismay of his mother. The fissures that class creates amongst black South Africans are not adequately dealt with in everyday conversation and it is also absent in fiction. When black families move out of the township there are all kinds changes that need to be negotiated from new neighbours to the new relationship one has with the township one comes from and the people in it.

A very strong thread in this book is that the people we know and love are capable of some horrible things. It is really difficult to call to order family members for their wrongdoing. How does one call out a family member for doing something wrong to someone else who is not a family member without being seen as betraying the family? How does one hold an esteemed family member accountable when they have inflicted pain on someone who is not family, and you know the family member is wrong? These are questions I grappled with growing up when I would witness my uncles cheating on their girlfriends. It would be taken for granted that I would be loyal to my uncle and say nothing. I was both being socialised into the world of men and also learning about family loyalty; that you protect family even when they are in the wrong.

As an only child the brother and sister relationship between Basimane and Naledi and the loyalties that are expected of this relationship fascinated me. As Naledi grows older and she starts to experience the world as a young woman, she starts to see her brother in a different light and that dark incident one afternoon changes her view of her brother. This book makes you question how well you think you know your siblings and what they are capable of.

In the end it is Naledi who carries the guilt of what her brother does. The brother moves on while his family and his community protect him. He is unscathed by his own bad actions. In fact Basimane is defended by his family and by his community without really engaging the fact that he might be guilty of wrongdoing.

The author calls to attention the ways in which families and society nurture boys. This book calls into question the expectations we have of young men like Basimane. This book unveils the built in nature of the unequal gender system in operation in our communities; a system where women are already disadvantaged by the mere fact of being born women. This built in system of protecting male privilege at the expense of women is captured in laugh-it-off phrases like “boys will be boys” which endorse destructive behaviour. This is a South African story that exposes our troubled gender relations. This is a story that left me feeling like we have a lot of work to do in undoing gender. We have come a long away particularly with legislating gender equality, but we are far away from making constitutional gender equality a reality in women’s everyday lives.