Mtutuzeli Matshoba was born shortly after the National Party was elected to power in South Africa. He said that he became a writer in order to reflect “life on my side of the fence . . . So that I may say: ‘These were the events which shaped the Steve Bikos and Solomon Mahlangus and the many others [activists] who came before and after them.’” The following is his first published story, in 1978.
My Friend, the Outcast
His name is Vusi. For his whole life he has lived with us at our location [a segregated township for Africans]. I have known him ever since I started to notice that there were other people in the world besides those whom I saw at [my] home. We made trains with mealie [corn] cobs together when we were small; we hunted the . . . little birds of the highveld on the mining land where we were not allowed . . . we learnt to swim in the Klip rivulet together when it had rained and the water was deep enough . . . we played 'chailence' soccer with a tennis ball against boys from the other streets, together. He quit school first and sold apples and sweets on the trains while I went to school . . .
Roughly, here is the story of my friend.
Last month [very early] on a Wednesday morning . . . there was a loud knock, that rattled the dishes in the cupboard . . . at the front door of Vusi's home. . . . [H]e realized that it was the unmistakable knock of the police that had jolted him from sleep. While he reached for his trousers on the small bench near the bed, he tried to remember what he had done wrong. ‘A guy’s mere existence is a crime in this cursed world. You break the law without being aware of it, no matter how you try not to,' he thought.
Vusi's mother appeared from behind a tattered curtain which was meant to give a little privacy to her bedroom. All seventy-five years of her, woken up unceremoniously at ungodly hours. 'Hawu, my children, what has made you pay us a visit at this early hour?' she asked slowly, in the manner of the ancient.
The dignity of old age overcame some of the visitors' braggadocio. 'It is abakhulu [white men] who have sent us, magogo [grandmother]. Are you the registered tenant of this house?'
The old woman nodded.
'It's you that's wanted then. Come with us to the office.'
'Is it trouble, my children?'
'We don't know. Our duty was just to bring the owner of the house in.’ . . .
At last she was sitting on the bench before one of the superintendents, a middle-aged man with a beaky nose, thin down-turned lips, a pale pinkish, leathery, veined complexion and impersonal grey eyes. . . .
'Ja, ouma. Wat kan ek doen vir jou?'
Mrs. Nyembezi tried her best to comprehend what was said.
'Jong! You can't even speak Afrikaans?' the white man went on. . . . 'Why don't you pay rent, jong?' And the clerk translated.
'But . . . but, my child, I pay. I've never missed paying. We'd rather go with empty stomachs at home than fail to pay. And I keep all the receipts.’ . . .
'You want to say I'm lying ouma? It says here you are in arrears to the amount of one hundred rand with your rent, maan! . . . I want that money paid as quickly as possible. Otherwise you go back to the bantustan you came from and your son gets a room in a hostel’ [a bleak dormitory for single African men] . . .
'Thank you very much, nkosi. We'll raise the money and pay.' It was like saying she would get a duck and make it lay eggs of gold for her.
* * *
Someone had told [Vusi’s sister] that what was happening to them was what had happened to her[:] . . . A person with money goes to the superintendents and tells them that he needs a house badly. [The superintendent asks for a bribe to get the man a house, then asks the man,] ‘How much can you afford?’
'Three hundred,' answers the prospective buyer, the thought of what would happen to those who lived in the house never having entered the minds of both men.
'You have a house.'
* * *
[Vusi and his mother were ordered to return to the superintendent’s office. A]s soon as he and his mother came . . . all hell broke loose. They were told in the crudest terms that . . . the board had no choice but to repossess its house and give it to another person . . .
They were now homeless.
[When they arrived at their home to pack their belongings,] Beak Nose and Lion Face [two white men] . . . arrived in the van. There were three black men in overalls with them. . . . Beak Nose and Lion Face barged into the house without knocking. There was no need to knock. . . .
They got to work like mules and soon everything down to the last rag was in the street. When they finished, Beak Nose demanded the keys and the house was locked. The officials got into the front of the van and the three black men behind. With screeching tyres they were gone from sight.
The people, who had all along watched from a distance, converged upon Vusi’s mother to ask what was wrong although they had already guessed. They came with shawls draped over their shoulders as if someone had died and they were joining the bereaved in mourning. They did the only thing they could to show that they were grieved at losing a long-time neighbor that way. They collected fifteen rand [a few dollars] . . .
- Summarize the story in your own words. What is the impact of beginning with an affectionate telling of the friendship between the two boys before the turning to the story about housing?
- What insights does this story offer about day-to-day life under apartheid? Where do you see instances of humiliation, or attempted humiliation? Where are instances of kindness and respect? Do the examples of respect or kindness cross race? Have you ever been humiliated? What does it feel like to be humiliated, especially by a person with power over you?
- Consider why the Africans in this story—and in South Africa more widely—would work to enforce apartheid. Then discuss how Africans were used by the government to help maintain apartheid.