Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2020

The Heart of Redness, by Zakes Mda

My recent reading of Return Ticket by Jon Doust triggered my impulse to pick up The Heart of Redness, a celebrated novel by South African novelist Zakes Mda.  In Doust’s novel, South Africa in the apartheid years is vividly depicted, and the narrator exemplifies the psychological disconnect experienced when living in a society that is fundamentally immoral.  Life as a privileged white man becomes unendurable, and he leaves, because he can.  But what if it’s not possible to leave, and if one feels a moral obligation to make a difference, even if it’s risky? People struggle with this dilemma all over the world, in regimes from the Middle East to Latin America to newly nationalist places in Europe, and yes, in Australia too, if one feels anguished about Indigenous issues or the treatment of refugees or the inaction on climate change.

Zakes Mda’s novel is set in two time frames.  It begins in the very early years of majority government in South Africa when the country was bedevilled by transition issues and the collapse of unrealistic expectations for greater equity.  But it also harks back to the 19th century when a fatal prophecy that sparked a failed independence movement and widespread starvation, led to a rift between the Believers and Unbelievers, which persists in the present day as a rift between pro- and anti-development forces in a rural community called Qolorha.  Wikipedia sums it up like this:

The Heart of Redness, Mda’s third novel, is inspired by the history of Nongqawuse, a Xhosa prophetess whose prophecies catalyzed the Cattle Killing of 1856–1857. Xhosa culture split between Believers and Unbelievers, adding to existing social strain, famine and social breakdown. It is believed that 20,000 people died of starvation during that time. In the novel, Mda continually shifts back and forth between the present day and the time of Nongqawuse to show the complex interplay between history and myth. He dramatizes the uncertain future of a culture whose troubled relationship with the colonizing force of Empire, as well as their own civil factions, threatens to extinguish their home of Qolorha-by-Sea. (Wikipedia, Zakes Mda page, viewed 27/1/20)

As 1001 Books says:

In the mid 1850s during the devastation of the British ‘scorched earth’ policies, the prophetess Nigqawuse claimed to have been visited by her ancestors who promised that if the Xhoas killed their cattle and burned their crops, the British would be defeated.  Thus began an extraordinary episode in which the Xhosa were split between the Believers, those who were determined to follow the prophesies and destroy their means of survival, and those that would not.

Mda brings this story together with a modern tale of a return to contemporary South Africa, where the promises of deliverance are now through tourism and development and the destruction of heritage rather than cattle and crops.  (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p. 897)

The central character Camagu has, like Zakes Mda himself at the time of writing this novel, returned from years living abroad. As a stranger, he is able to observe events while trying not to become embroiled in the factions. Amongst the villagers, some respect his learning and his knowledge of a wider world while others despise him for abandoning his traditions and not understanding what life is really like in rural South Africa. His own personal conflicts are exemplified by his attraction to the impressive but emotionally distant Xoliswa Ximaya, just promoted to the position of principal at the high school but with ambitions to become a bureaucrat in the education ministry, and to the wild, wilful and sensual Qukezwa, who works as a cleaner at the Vulindlela Trading Store.

The conflict in the community is about the proposal to develop a casino and water playground for tourists.  The Unbelievers support this because there is the promise of jobs, and the lure of bringing ‘civilisation’ to a village that has only just got a proper water supply but still lacks electricity.  The Believers object to it because they want their traditions to continue, and they suspect that the only jobs will be the menial jobs that no one else will do.  Already they are the cleaners and the child minders at the village’s one hotel, and they don’t want more of that.  They also suspect that once the water playground is operational, they will excluded from the beach where seafood forms part of the food supply.

A play on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the title is a reference to the ‘redness’ which symbolises the colourful Xhosa traditional dress. The women use red ochre to dye the materials used, and designs feature intricate beadwork.  You can see examples here but also some drop-dead gorgeous modern interpretations here.  (They feature other bold colours but the texture of the fabric is still stiffened somehow and stripes are integral to the patterns used.)  As in Orhan Pamuk’s fiction, characters in The Heart of Redness are trapped in a dichotomy between traditionalism and modernity even in their choice of clothing: whatever is chosen places the wearer in opposition to one side or the other.  So Mda contrasts the clothing of the Unbelievers for whom progress and development means suits and ties for men, and subdued coverings for women such as Xoliswa Ximaya, while a Believer such as Qukezwa flaunts her body and happily rides bareback and bare-bodied.  Bhonco’s wife who has long conformed to the values of her Unbeliever husband strikes a blow not only for feminism when she reverts to wearing red because she likes it, but also as a symbol that supporting progress and development doesn’t have to mean parting with traditions that are valued.

There are droll moments throughout the novel.  Not knowing that he has been living and working in the US for 30 years, Xoliswa Ximaya has taken on the role of educating Camagu when he says that he is on his way there to get work:

She informs him that he will be happy in that wonderful country.  She herself has lived there, empowering herself with the skill of teaching English as a second-language.  It is a fairy-tale country, with beautiful people.  People like Dolly Parton and Eddie Murphy.  It is a vast country that is highly technological.


She goes on to explain that a subway is a train that moves underground.  Very much unlike the Johannesburg-East London train which crudely moves above the ground where every moron can see it.

Before Camagu leaves he must remind her to give him a few pointers on how to survive in America, she adds with a flourish.


‘For how long were you in America?’ he asks.

‘Six months! I was at a college in Athens , Ohio.’

‘Athens, like in Greece!’ adds a woman who was earlier introduced as Vathiswa.  She is sitting next to Xoliswa Ximaya, and is obviously her great fan.  Camagu has no heart to tell her that Athens is a college town that is even smaller than the nearby town of Butterworth*.  (p.65)

Alas for Xoliswa Ximaya, finding out in front of all her admirers that her boasting is wasted on Camagu, is not the only humiliation she experiences.

Handicapped by the villagers thinking he has not been circumcised and is therefore ‘not a man’, Camagu’s role is to share his knowledge of the bigger picture with the villagers.  His experience is that the corporate world did not want qualified blacks:

They preferred the inexperienced ones who were only too happy to be placed in some glass affirmative-action office where they were displayed as paragons of empowerment.  No one cared if they got to grips with their jobs or not.  All the better for the old guard if they did not.  That safeguarded the old guard’s position.  The mentor would always be hovering around as a consultant — for even bigger rewards.  The problem with bureaucrats of Camagu’s ilk was that they efficiently did the job themselves, depriving consultants of their livelihood.

The beautiful men and women in glass displays did not like the Camagus of this world.  They were a threat to their luxury German sedans, housing allowances, and expense accounts. (p.30)

At the village meeting to decide on alternatives to the casino project, he makes his position clear:

At these meetings with political big shots, he never forgets to remind them that all the black empowerment groups in Johannesburg and other big cities empower only the chosen few.  They do not create employment for the people.  Instead, whenever these big companies are taken over by these groups, there follows what is euphemistically called rightsizing in order to maximise profits.  Thousands of workers are retrenched. These black empowerment groups do not empower workers by creating jobs for them.  Instead they lose jobs.

It is the same with the company that wants to turn Qolorha into a holiday haven.  Only a chosen few will benefit: the party and the trade union bosses who are directors.  They live in their mansions in Johannesburg and have nothing to do with the village.  The villagers will actually lose more than they will gain from the few jobs that will be created.  Very little of the money that is made here will circulate in the village.  (p.238-9)

This is the same issue explored in Marianne Dickie’s fiction: in Troppo, (2016) the Indonesian villagers were hostile to the entrepreneurial interlopers who hired foreigners at the expense of the locals, and in Red Can Origami (2019), the novel explored the tensions around mining for uranium on traditional lands in the Kimberley.  Further afield, Ak Welsapar covered the same theme of inappropriate development in Turkmenistan under the USSR in The Tale of Aypi. It is a problem worldwide.

The ending is ambiguous, as it has to be, but after so many pages of argument and counter-argument, it’s a bit frustrating for the reader.  Declaring a site World Heritage isn’t a solution that can be replicated everywhere, and it’s clear that the threat of the casino hasn’t gone away.  (After all, here in Australia, you only need to look at development in National Parks in Queensland to see just how meaningless environmental protections can be.  And there’s no sign that World Heritage status is much use when it comes to protecting the Great Barrier Reef).  The task of reinventing South Africa as a fair and just society is a mammoth one indeed.

The Heart of Redness won the now defunct Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa in 2001.

*The population of Athens Ohio was less than 21,000 in 2000; Butterworth in the eastern Cape had a population of 45,000+ in 2001.

PS I have previously read Zakes Mda’s debut novel Ways of Dying (1995). It is less artfully constructed, and despite its grim theme, a more optimistic book which celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.  See my review here. 

Author: Zakes Mda
Title: The Heart of Redness
Cover design: Sarah Delson; cover illustration by Ruby Gutterrez
Publisher: Picador, 2000
ISBN: 9780312421748, pbk., 277 pages
Source: personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Heart of Redness

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