If you lived through this period, stories of the reformatory and black juvenile delinquents hark back to the days of Alan Paton. Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho’s novel, The Violent Gestures of Life, is set in one such stoutskool – Qalakabusha whose Nguni name meaning ‘start afresh’ is a misnomer, according to the protagonist, Gift.
The principal at this center of correction – Mr Robertson, is not as hands-on as the real life Paton, who became better known as a novelist.
The young Mukwevho writes in easy flowing language that could have found a place among the cannon of writing in Paton’s era. In Mukwhevhoese, a rumor is ‘word of the street’ and siblings endearingly refer to each other as ‘child of my mother’, a direct translation from the vernacular that enriches the English language.
Gift is doing time – a total nine months – for rape and finds himself in the company of other boys at conflict with the law. Their jailers are retributive and merely pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation. One of the boys, Sipho, ultimately dies after an assault by Mr Ndulapo in the showers
The incident fuels up Gift’s rage and determination to expose the rot in the system when he leaves Qalakabusha and realizes his dream of becoming a journalist.
The body of the work revolves around the boys being boys – behind bars. They live to eat the modest fare on offer and engage in petty acts of delinquency, like smoking contraband marijuana and fashioning knives out of welding material when they should be learning the trade. But this is also a story of dreaming big about the future and focusing on the ultimate goal.
While there are those like Bheki who are destined for a life of crime – this evinced by his being transferred to a real prison after a stabbing, there are others like Gift and Kaelo, who see their situation as a test to overcome and make something of their lives.
The Violent Gestures of Life is a story exploring the dynamics of the relationship between boys from across the tracks and their parents in particular and society in general. It is a story with the proverbial happy ending. Gift goes home to make amends with his family – stepfather, mother and sister.
This book is another voice added to the chorus that you do not stay down when you fall. Mukwevho has just found a way to make this voice heard above the din of those that came before him.
The Violent Gestures of Life was published in 2014 by UKZN Press.