Social issues dominate Mgqolozana’s reception as a writer

EVENT: Thando Mgqolozana – A Man Who is Not a Man (Saturday, 24 September; The Fugard Studio)


Thando Mgqolozana, author of A Man who is not a Man, talks

The man sitting on the stage in the Fugard studio on Saturday did not appear to be the same Thando Mgqolozana who introduced his novel A Man Who is Not a Man at the Time of the Writer Festival in March last year. From being slightly shy and downplaying his achievement, he has come to be very assertive about his status as a writer and “social commentator”.

The story is about a young man’s botched circumcision, and of the failure of his father and elders to adequately care for him. Mgqolozana summarised this as his thesis: “[T]he people who are supposed to be custodians are not taking responsibility.” The novel has brought greater visibility about what has previously been a very secret issue. Mgqolozana has become something of an activist for the cause of victims of botched circumcisions, particularly those who are refused status as “real men”, or who “disappear” altogether.

It comes as no surprise that Mgqolozana and Siphiwo Mahala, author of When a Man Cries, reflect on the ways in which “manhood” is produced and conferred. It is clear from their discussion that the rite of passage is important for men’s identity, and should not easily be dismissed. But Mgqolozana posits that “the rite of passage can surely be achieved through other means”. For instance, if it is true that “as a man, you don’t give up”, then life experience could produce the same quality of endurance and tenacity as the circumcision ritual. He asked, “What is the difference between a circumcised man and someone of the same age who isn’t? What sets them aside?” Mgqolozana is trying to make a case for men to be recognised “as men” according to more diverse criteria, so that those who have experienced ostracism due to “failed” rituals can find acceptance in their communities. One wonders, however, if the need to perpetually prove manhood is not at the root of more problems than just this one.

For those who have been following the issue of circumcision in South Africa, the interview did not yield any new insights. Mahala took great pains to focus the discussion on the literary aspects of the texts. He asserted that it is “aesthetically strong”, “rich in metaphor”, and commented on Mgqolozana’s “ability to deploy humour even at the most troubled times”. He attempted to guide the conversation toward a focus on characterisation in the text, but it often seemed to escape into the realm of social issues. For instance, when Mgqolozana discussed the father figure and explained that “what’s lacking from the father is love and care”, the conversation quickly veered towards the topic of failed leadership. Interestingly, Mgqolozana mentioned that in over forty reviews he has received no negative feedback, and suggested that the lack of criticism made him uncertain about his status as a writer. It would seem as though the insistence on trying to foreground “textual” aspects of the work may have been in reaction to the novel’s reception, which primarily focuses on its significance as a cultural commentary.