A Writer’s Lot
by Zukiswa Wanner
So here I am in Sun City. I could tell you about all of them in my sleep but, I won’t. Well not a lot. I would rather tell you about the guy who landed me here.
It always began with emails.
“Dear Mr. Dube,
I am a journalist from the New York Times/Times/Newsweek/Le Monde/The Guardian” etcetera etcetera. Then there are the flattering platitudes about how the journalist loves my first work of fiction, Township Stories. And then, inevitably it ends, “I will be in Johannesburg from ____________ to ____________ and would love to interview you as one of the literary torchbearers in post-apartheid South Africa.”
Sometimes it would be a male journalist. Most of the time she would be a female, trying to understand how I survived ‘growing up under apartheid’ and trying to show me and the rest of their readers in the Global North just how liberal they are. “There is this absolutely awesome South African writer, Sifiso Dube, you should read him.” Trying to sound more knowledgeable than the people around them at a dinner party. When it was a female journalist, I would fuck. It seemed inevitable – the price I paid, or the prize I received, depending really on how good the sex was, for fame.
And that’s just it, Joe. When I set out to write Township Stories, I was a township boy, a Wits dropout who never imagined the book would get as big as it has. Of course it is every writer’s fantasy to be published, but at the most, I thought it might be read in Cape Town. Never thought it would go international, let alone be translated in all the major UN languages. Eish. It was a boost to a man’s ego.
But then, amajita see you emapepeni, on TV, hear you on radio and they think wena u grootman. They don’t understand that at this point in time, five months after your book has been published, you have not got your first royalty cheque yet. If you are lucky, as I was, you immediately get some freelance gigs with some papers reviewing books because suddenly the fuckers who would never have employed you to be a receptionist, think you are the Man. You get a little change in your pocket and you know what? You find yourself playing the part of the big man that your boys think you are.
I can’t tell majimbos kuti just because they saw me on TV. yesterday, the hundred rand that I have in my pocket is the last money I have and so, I buy a round or two, then I feign tiredness and walk to Carlton Centre to take one of those illegal taxis that have ten of you in a six-seater for ten rand each to ferry you a elokshin. Although, of course, in keeping up with my supposed status, I have been renting a cottage in hip Melville since I became famous but when it’s late and I am in Newtown (the artists’ haven), I always find myself traveling to my mother’s house in Pimville. It’s cheaper than the sixty rand I would have to pay otherwise.
The better part of the fame, of course, are amacherrie who suddenly want to know you. Particularly the reading Model C types who would never have looked at you twice when you passed them. You see them come up to you and say, “I just wanted to say Sifiso (this type never ghettoize your name and call you Fistos), your book really moved me,” before they give you some lame excuse to give you their number. Before you know it, you find yourself screwing this hot woman who you never thought you could have in your wildest dreams. Soon you get tired of them though because they always want to be the protagonist in your next book/novella/short story or, at the least, that you should dedicate your next book to them. Because of the literary groupies and the number of women I have shagged since my book came out, I have begun to think of myself as the thinking groupie’s kwaito star. I am sure I get as much play with women as any kwaito singer you could name, only with me I am actually getting intelligent women not the video hos.
But back to the international journalists.
What I did not bargain for was the intellectual exploitation I would get from them. Sonny! At first I dug it. What better way to publicise my book? Write a short story for us, do an interview But eventually I saw through it.
I was being exploited. They would do interviews and earn megabucks selling the story of who they think I am. They would ask me for a short story, and I, bloody excitable fool that I was, excited that I was getting an international platform, would write it and never ask for payment, or when I got payment, it would be measly while they got rich off the sweat of my brow – or mind. They would come and ask me for no pay, “can you give us a tour to Soweto?” and I would do it, man. Do it thinking it was part of the interview and would help my stature but I would not get a penny for my time – well, save for the free drinks when I meet a kindred spirit in alcohol in the form of a journo. I am a writer first, above all else, of course. But what these international journalists do not understand (and never enquire about) is that, unlike my European counterparts, the South African government department responsible for art does not pay writers (or any other artists in general) to do what they are good at. So, if I am not freelancing and I am still six months away from my royalty cheque, I do not eat. (And talking about royalty cheques, publishers really have a talent for screwing first time writers in the arse. When my publisher told me my book was going for a reprint after just three months I was ecstatic. Three months later when I received my first royalty cheque, I cried. I am considering asking some parliamentarian to write a constitutional amendment so that the definition of rape can include what publishers do to writers’ intellectual property by way of books. Some of these motherfuckers should be rotting in jail for such gross violation of my drinking money)
But I digress. So three months ago I get an email from a journalist for some Scandinavian paper. He tells me he is coming to South Africa, would like to do an interview with me wara wara and I should give him a tour of Soweto because he has ‘always followed South African politics, Mandela is my role model, and I think it’s a shame what happened to your people with the forced removals in Sophiatown. I am also impressed with the way you bring the South African township to reality and would love to get a tour of Soweto with you.’ I respond and say, ‘yeah. I can do that.’
Of course, I start laughing after reading the email because I think to myself ‘damn these motherfuckers. Why do they always have to exhort Mandela’s name in all things South African?’ and of course I am equally amused by the whole Sophiatown bullshit. Goddammit, it was twenty years before I was born!
But alright. I tell myself this punk has to pay me. I am done with being a free tour guide for these Western journalists. You want a tour of Soweto, go to Gauteng Tourism Authority and get a tour and pay for it with everyone else, otherwise – pay me, motherfucker, pay me! These fools don’t understand that I have two children to look after and I don’t have a steady income. And yes, before you ask, the children have two different mothers. One was an honest-to-the-gods-and-ancestors mistake and the other one, well, I think the bitch just wanted to trap me because she saw I was going places. But I do my bit you know. When I have a clipper here, I will drink sixty percent and divide the remains between the two children. I try to be a good father. I think I am a better father than most.
Anyway back to this Scandinavian journo, Marcus, who has landed me in this place. He arrives in Johannesburg and we agree to meet. He has a rented car. I ask him how much he is going to pay me for the tour in a jocular tone (though I am serious as the proverbial heart attack). He tells me he can’t pay me anything except for food and drinks incurred during the course of our journey because he has no money. He has a beautiful Konica camera though so I get on my cell to my boys ekasi and tell them all about it.
“We’ll pass by The Rock around eleven in the evening.” I tell them in tsotsitaal with the victim looking on uncomprehendingly and smiling foolishly in the way of an ethnographer who attempts to be comfortable with any and all different surroundings. And there and then, my boys and I have set into motion a plan to relieve him of all the money he claims not to have. I was sick and tired of starving while these punks stayed in five star hotels all under pretext of coming to interview me while not even caring whether I had a five cent piece (yeah that one. Y’know the one that Trevor Manuel and Tito claim is still legal tender but the taxi drivers won’t take?). Tonight, or that night, was going to be the day of reckoning. I asked him to pick me up at six.
He seemed a little doubtful.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we traveled during the day?” Marcus asked with a little uncertainty in his voice.
I shrugged and gave him the if-you-are-too-chicken speech, “Soweto actually comes alive after seven because everyone works during the day but if you would rather go during the day…” I left the sentence hanging while shrugging my shoulders again.
He jumped to bait like I knew he would, wanting to show me the face of a fearless white man. See, we were two men. A black African man and a white European man and he thought he could read my mind. That white people are too scared to confront black people in their own backyard. He feared, because he had read it in my book, that as a black man I thought that he would not be able to hang, that he was a victim of the swaart gevaar tactics as espoused by the white South African expatriates that may have run to his country.
“No it’s cool, we go in the evening. I pick you at six yeah?” he answered trying to sound cool with deeply accented English (although of course, the same could be said for me when I speak by the Anglo-Saxons).
Marcus arrived at six on the dot. I wondered whether he had never heard of African time. I was not dressed yet although I had showered. He waited while I picked some clothes that would not make him feel too intimidated but that would make me fit in when I got back to the hood.
I took him on a circuitous route via Soweto Highway. We made a stop for dinner at Nambitha just so that he could see a few white people on tour buses and not feel too out of place. He was drinking Black Labels as per my advice. After dinner, we hung out at a few shebeens. He drank some more while I sipped slowly as I got in conversation with people around me. By the time we got to The Rock at eleven, he was sloshed and driving erratically. I on the other hand, was still alright. I had been downing Castle Lites – guess SABMiller were right when they said that’s the one to have ‘when having more than one’. As we pulled in at The Rock, my boys came by with some toy guns probably taken from their children at home.
“White man. And you, cheese boy, give us your wallet or we shoot.”
Marcus, in his drunken haze asks, “Are we being robbed?”
I nod my head and say, “Better do as they say otherwise they will kill us.”
I hand over my wallet and my cellphone to one of my boys and then in fear, Marcus does the same.
He looks at me and questions, “I thought you said we would be alright.” He is disillusioned. He thought he was traveling with one of the township legends and here he is robbed of all his euros and his Konica camera.
I shake my head and say, “Eish, who knew? I am so sorry Marcus. I have come here so many times and this has never happened. In fact, just last week I was here with X of Times magazine.’” I say name dropping. “But you know what, to be safe, we’ll have to go to a police station in Melville or in town because if we use one this side, when we come out of the police station, some other crooks may have taken your tyres.”
The reality hits him. Hard. He sobers up. And he is on a fast track to town. I direct him to John Vorster Square .
I should not have of course. I was a fool to do that. Every South African knows that the police are only vigilant when the victim is white and ultra vigilant when the victim is a white tourist. The police may just be fools with matric but they know where their government’s foreign aid comes from. Not too long after, one of my boys was caught by an undercover policeman who he thought was a Nigerian, trying to sell Marcus’ passport. Just what idiot would do that? Marcus’ wallet had two thousand euros in traveller’s cheques and some change. With my passport, I could have changed that at the nearest bank as a gift and the three of us would have had many booze-induced sleeps but no, the retard had to get greedy. And then, as if that were not bad enough, this takalani, when he got caught, spewed all the beans and identified me as the mastermind. This, before I had even changed the euros. One wonders: is there no honour among thieves any more?
The good news of course is that, the day after the robbery, my two partners had come to give me the traveller’s cheques to change. I am the only one who knows where they are.
In a year’s time, when I get out of Sun City, I am going to change those euros. I hope to high heavens the rand isn’t too powerful by then. Meanwhile, I write my stories and look over my shoulder hoping that none of the 26 Gang decide to make me their bitch.
I have a feeling, when I get out, that any book I write will be a bestseller – this place has given me plenty of ideas – and besides, South Africa, and the world, love former jailbirds. Isn’t that what Mandela is all about?
I sit in Sun City, write, and bide my time.