Bongani Madondo is a South African writer who, for the better part of his life, has been tip-toeing around words in search of the perfect phrase. His family, originally from the Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa, migrated further north where they settled in an area called Hammanskraal on the outskirts of Pretoria. It’s this grounding which, in part, contributed to the writer he became.
Disillusionment with his law degree led a 23 year old Madondo to the newsroom of City Press. His pen has been in conversation with South Africa ever since, attempting — whether through profiles on big-name celebrities or dispatches as an art critic — to rigorously examine and celebrate the chaotic, dynamic, and effervescent soul of his land.
Myself, and fellow scribe Kagiso Mnisi, navigated the buzz of inner city Johannesburg and landed at the Keletla! Library (sic) — an artist-run space geared at children who go to school and sometimes live in the inner city — in order to meet the esteemed author and interview him; chiefly, about I’m Not Your Weekend Special, a book Madondo edited and contributed to about renowned South African pop star Brenda Fassie.
Madondo, somewhat of an expert on Brenda Fassie, has interviewed Fassie on several occasions before her passing in 2004. He put together a diverse pool of contributors including journalist Charl Blignaut, and Brenda Fassie’s brother, Themba. We spoke to him about his creative process, his obsession with the life of Brenda Fassie, and his contribution to the book.
The entire country is. That is why ten years later, everywhere you go, it’s almost like people are celebrating or remembering the sinking of the sheep of Mendi; or they’re remembering that day in 1994 when black people were ushered into freedom. Everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about Brenda Fassie. It has something to do with the book, but the book is part of a wider celebrations. South Africa is obsessed with Brenda; South Africa loves Brenda, intensely; and the entire African continent loves Brenda intensely! So I just felt that I need to engage with the entire country, that is why I didn’t write a straight biography.
Brenda, for me, was our girl in the mirror. When South Africa looks at itself in the mirror, it’s through the prism of Brenda Fassie, she is the filter. And when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, Brenda Fassie looks back at you. She was the worst and the best of us; she was daring, but at the same time she was highly vulnerable; she was chaotic, but at the same time she was giving. So that’s Brenda Fassie, and that’s South Africa.
South Africa is a schizophrenic country, it’s a bipolar nation. It’s great, it’s terrible; it’s highly talented, it’s wack! You don’t find middle space in South Africa; it’s not Europe, it’s not a comfortable country, at all! And so, Brenda was the best of that, the best of our reflection. And if you need to deal with South Africa you cannot, never, deal with Brenda Fassie.
On “We shall rise at dawn”, the chapter in which Bongani Madondo goes in search of Brenda’s ancestral lineage.
Everytime I talk about that, you can see [that] it almost drains me and inspires me [at the same time]. I don’t think I’ve exorcised that chapter. For me it was the most intense chapter, ever! I was inspired by a couple of people in terms of the subject of Anthropology, but I was interested in Anthro-pop.
If you read Mark Gevisser’s book on Thabo Mbeki, it goes back to The Colony. It traces the roots of Mbeki’s parents. I wanted to go deeper than that; I was inspired by Mark, but I wanted to go deeper. That’s why it goes to the 1800s. I wanted to find out ‘who’s Brenda Fassie?’ Not only where she was born and all of that — that’s basic biography. I’m interested in what you call ancestral lineage, because [it’s] disruptive, and it’s [been] disrupted.
If you know about the history of the country, you’d know that a whole lot of African people’s lives in the Southern tip of the continent were highly disrupted by several projects. Two stand out: Difaqane Wars, which the Xhosa people call imfazwe — the period of calamity. There was all this huge movement, conquering and building nations. It disrupted and re-organised itself — that’s what you call the process of nation-building; Europe has undergone that.
Later, there was the Great Trek which came through the Dutch, and the Huguenots, [then] the arrival of the white man in South Africa and his migration from the Cape Point into the interior and, through that, disorganizing and being re-organised himself. That is why a greater aspect of Afrikaner culture is African culture.
I was interested in looking at how those two would then impact on the people that we’d become later. I think that we’re the results of our history, where we come from, and I wanted to locate Brenda Fassie, within that. The Eastern Cape, which used to be called the colony, plays a critical role in the story of our lives as South Africans today; in the story of our intellectual [and] cultural development: organizing royalty, alliances, vegetation, and all of that. So I see the Eastern Cape almost like [how] the American South is to the US. I looked at it the way James Baldwin and William Faulkner looked at the American South, that without [it] there’s no present-day US. For me, the Eastern Cape and parts of Natal are that. And when we talk about [those], we’ll then talk about Lesotho; we’ll talk about the first printing press in Southern Africa which was in Lesotho, and the books by Thomas Mofolo. So we’re looking at that particular region — great Eastern Cape, parts of Lesotho, parts of Lesotho, parts of KZN (Kwa-Zulu Natal province) and parts of the Western Cape. For me, that’s the heart of South Africa.
Now, Brenda Fassie: who is Brenda Fassie? Who are the Fassie’s? What kind of surname is that? I’ve never heard of that surname anywhere else but from within Brenda’s family. So for me, there was an anomaly right there. You can’t be the only Mthembu in the entire country; or the only Mnisi; or the only Madondo; or the only Smith — there are others. But then if you look at the Fassie’s, they’re only in one family, so I was quite interested in that.
Listen, I might be wrong, but I’ve asked around. If there’s new evidence that will come to say there are Fassie’s in Kwa-Zulu Natal, or in the Eastern Cape, and they might be related or not — I’ll be interested in looking at how those things came about. But as far as I know, the Fassie family is only one. For me, I was intrigued: Who are these people?
Growing up, people used to think that Brenda Fassie [was] an African-American artist. People never located her within traditionally ‘black’ confines. Even in the voice, even in the singing, you felt like ‘who was this?’ Not only that, [but] even in the music production as well.
I made my name as a critic and a profile writer. What a critic does is to sharpen the critical faculties to dig deep. A profile writer celebrates the subject. If you put the two [together], they need to go deep, and celebrate at the same time; you can create a new form of biography. I thought let me use my training to see [whether I can] get to the heart, the soul, the blood, the very fibre. I wanted to get into the nervous system, the engine of Brenda Fassie.
I wanted to do something that is quite impossible. You can never really know a person. Why? Because even people don’t know themselves that much. I was prepared to go as far as it takes, close to my death if possible, so I went to the Eastern Cape. In and out, six months, I delved deeper and deeper: Who are the Fassie people? I couldn’t find them. Nobody knew them, at all! In fact, I was told by an older man ‘they don’t exist, they’re a figment of your imagination, you and your Johannesburg people.’
Then I asked ‘who are these people?’ He said ‘their family name is Jobeka.’
They’re not Fassie’s. Fassie was the name of Brenda’s great grandfather who, in a classical story of South African migration, which compares with the slave narrative in the US, African people were shipped from the West Coast — up to [other parts of] South Africa; up to Botswana; up to Namibia — to the US. And when they arrived in the plantation, they assumed theslavemaster’s name. A Madondo became a Whitherspoon.
The same story happened in the Eastern Cape where you had people working in the settler’s farms. The settlers took the land, they took the cattle, [and] they enslaved you to work for them. When you did, they gave you names because they couldn’t pronounce your name, and that’s how Brenda Fassie’s people got the name Fassie. It’s a matter of conjecture whether the name Fassie is the name of some Scottish/German/English farmer whom Brenda’s grandfather used to work for, or it was a nickname that Brenda’s father got from his co-workers. But when hit Cape Town during the industrialization for that era — the development of the shipping [and] fishing business in the South Coast of Cape Town — he arrived as a Fassie. And Brenda was born into that.
On the editorial process
It’s interesting for me to learn about what was going through an editor’s mind when they chose a particular set of writers and assigned them tasks. What conversations were had? Were there any boundaries set? Madondo explains how he went about gathering the pool of contributors below.
Ts'eliso Monaheng is a Lesotho-born writer with a keen interest in music. His focus is in covering emerging music scenes (mainly jazz and hip-hop) in Africa and the diaspora.
Image via Cape Town Daily Photo