Redi Tlhabi: Loving a tsotsi

I’ve been in a studio at Primedia’s Sandton offices for the past hour. Redi Tlhabi is behind the mike, hosting her Radio 702 talk show. Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi calls in to discuss the one-dose antiretroviral pill currently being implemented in public hospitals. Tlhabi chats to listeners about hiccups in the disability grant system, and the dangers of antibiotic-resistant superbugs (she exhorts listeners to wash their hands). And, in between all this, she’s writing emails, checking Twitter and glancing at SMSes – not that you’d be able to tell from her poised, slightly stern performance.

When the show ends, she clears the table of her Louis Vuitton handbag (which had garnered a worryingly admiring shout-out from chatty traffic reader Aki Anastasiou). I sit down next to her. We have just less than an hour – and even that has been something of a struggle to pin down. But perhaps that’s not surprising considering that when the “ON AIR” light flicks off, she still has to find time to pen her weekly Sunday Times column, present a current affairs show for Al Jazeera English and promote her new book, Endings & Beginnings.

It is the latter that I’m here to discuss. I place it down in front of me. Against the corporate sheen, its dog-eared pages are the only allusion in sight to the Orlando East township it is set in. 

Endings and Beginnings never started out as a book. It began as a wrestling, a searching for truth. At its heart is the late Mabegzo, Tlhabi’s childhood friend: a charming, handsome and kind man. A man who was a gangster, a rapist, a killer. 

“This was just a personal journey,” Tlhabi tells me. “It was just me going back to my childhood and trying to understand a figure that has haunted me – a figure I continue to see in the many stories of brokenness, of crime and violence against women. Every day that I read a newspaper about rape, murder, crime, I thought about him. I thought, ‘Who are these people doing this and how does it happen that somebody I knew and loved could be that kind of person? Why didn’t he allow his good and positive side – the side he shared with me – to prosper?” 

Mabegzo had been killed by his criminal friends only a few months after she had met him. And yet years later she still couldn’t shake him off. “As I grew older and realised that I was living in a country that is hostile to women, I was tortured myself – I thought how can you have such strong views about rape and sexual violence and yet at the same time have affection for a person who perpetrated those crimes?”

Somehow Tlhabi needed to soothe this internal struggle. She needed to give herself permission to remember him with love and affection. “I could only do that after understanding his background,” she says. In 2004 she began interviewing Mabegzo’s family and friends in Orlando East, the neighbourhood in sprawling Soweto where she grew up. After her visits, she would arrive at home late at night and try to arrange the notes she had made. “They were just chaotic so I thought let me put them on the computer and write it out properly. And the document just became bigger and bigger.”

Tlhabi had received overtures from publishers who wanted her to write about media or politics. This didn’t interest her. Instead, she was working on a book about her father’s death; it would involve searching for his killers – an investigation she didn’t feel ready yet to complete. She mentioned the notes about Mabegzo’s background almost as an aside to a publisher, who got really excited about its potential to become a book. And so it was born – almost by chance.

*

Tlhabi met Mabegzo for the first time when she was 11 – two years after her dad had died. She was well aware of the gangster’s notoriety but didn’t know what he looked like. So while others ran away in the street, she stood her ground and stared up at him with polite equanimity. This is probably what saved her, she says.

“There was no fear or judgment; I didn’t shake. I think he enjoyed it when people did that so I think a part of him was fascinated by this kid who was looking at him in the eye and responding to everything. For a moment I was deaf to the world – I was focusing on him. So I suspect I gave him respect. I suspect by not knowing who he was, I treated him like I would any other good-looking man.”

Mabegzo would often accompany her on the walk home from school. They would talk; their bond grew. Why? She felt he sensed her own brokenness over her father’s death. Having been raised by his grandmother, his own void mirrored hers.

I ask Tlhabi what drew her to him. “There was an attraction – it was very intense,” she says. “I wouldn’t say sexual, but I was drawn to him. And I hadn’t had any affection from a man in close to two years since my father had died.” She feels her receptiveness was due to being reminded “of the kind of care that I had been missing” after her father’s death. “Mabegzo came along and gave me those things. He was warm and kind and I had experienced warmth and kindness from my friends and teachers but coming from a man it had a different meaning.”

The adults surrounding her had told her “your father’s gone, don’t cry” – making it feel like she had to be silent. Mabegzo, she says, was the first adult to take her seriously – listening and probing.  “I liked to be taken seriously. I just felt people who were giggling and laughing were wasting time – life is serious and we must deal with it – there are just too many things that are wrong.”

Her seriousness is what helped her “grasp and retain information and memory”. “Because I took everything seriously, it made a bigger impact. You remember that which is important.” 

While working on the book, she also spent a lot of time Orlando East, revisiting her old house and school and other locations from her childhood. “I felt that being physically there would awaken the ghosts and the emotions and everything else that I needed in order to put this together.”

*

Tlhabi says the response to the book has been “phenomenal”. “People have started talking to me about their own experiences. I’ve had people from townships saying ‘I remember jackrolling and girls being raped’… There’s been a lot of collective reliving of what was really a dysfunctional society.”

While she was growing up, she says girls were told, “Just dust yourself off and move on – this is what happens to women.” It didn’t help that men were being brought up to believe that “whether educated, uneducated, you can have what you want – the world’s your oyster and women are commodities,” she says. “At some point I think the adults lost the authority and the power to discipline boys – they felt they needed to discipline girls more” to protect them and force them to remain vigilant. But Tlhabi feels this simply legitimised male sexual misconduct, placing the responsibility to avoid sexual assault squarely on women. “It’s sickening – we don’t rape ourselves, but we must take responsibility for the fact that we get raped,” she says.

The book recounts women who stridently sided with male family members accused of rape – effectively entrenching patriarchal oppression. What made Tlhabi’s views so radically different? 

“My dad,” she replies simply. She and her brother “were never treated differently” – the latter was expected to cook and “get on his knees and scrub the floor”. Before he died, Tlhabi’s father would cook and clean his wife’s clothes while the then nurse was sleeping after her night shifts. “My dad wearing an apron and fiddling by the stove was so normal in my house. And I didn’t realise the other fathers were not doing that. It’s only when I was older when I realised that, actually, my dad was weird.”

Orlando East’s casually misogynistic milieu, in which taunting and harassment of girls were commonplace, also helped to foment Tlhabi’s views.  “The insults and the way boys treated us hurt so much. That was the seed for the anger and the rage I would feel,” she says. She saw some women accepting marginalisation and sexism as a way of life because it was so rampant. She couldn’t do the same. “As a child, I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk feminist ideology but I had the heart to know what hurts and what doesn’t. And because it hurt I embraced the opposite of it – I rejected it.”

And so although this book is about Tlhabi’s childhood, in many ways it is fiercely intertwined with her role as a journalist – because it is her anger and her desire for change that has influenced the way she approaches her career.

“I don’t have this dispassionate interaction and distance with the topics that I deal with: they are aimed at raising the problem and making people accountable,” she says. Her role places her in “a very powerful position because you can talk about everything and anything. You can actually change the direction and the psyche of a nation based on the information that is out there,” she says.

The activist passion that shines through her journalism has brought her face to face with convicted rapists and murderers. Every time she interviews a prisoner locked up for a violent crime, she always asks about his family and this is “always [just] the grandmother or mother” – the father is absent. “That doesn’t mean that children who are well-raised don’t fall into the trap [of violent crime], but the chances of that happening are lower,” she says.  Those that have suffered parental neglect “have questions about their identity; they have questions about ‘why was I not loved enough for my mother or my father to hang around?’” she says.

Now that the book has been written she hopes it will encourage readers to consider the factors that contributed to making Mabegzo who he was – the separation from his mother at an early age, being constantly branded “a rape child” by the community, and the way that being brought up solely by his grandmother was just not enough. “I don’t like to preach about what we should and shouldn’t do but … we need to be careful of the things we say to children because people are not born monsters – they become monsters. What are the things that we do as societies, as families, as teachers that raise these monsters? We need to start thinking about empowering families and teaching different family values in order to save children.”

Tlhabi believes a lack of education also helps to foster criminality. “A lot of those Mabegzos that I’ve interviewed, even if they had parents, dropped out of school”. She says the education system has often failed those with learning problems, with some struggling students “told all the time ‘we can’t teach you – you’re stupid’” – cultivating a sense of rootlessness and a need to rebel. “I didn’t meet any graduates or anyone who had a great relationship with their parents who were committing crimes,” she says. 

And yet how could a man who had been so scarred by the gang rape of his mother do the same thing? Did he view rape casually? Tlhabi suggests the opposite. For Mabegzo, “Rape was a big thing – that is why he was committing this crime because it was huge. Because it had hurt him and it had hurt his mother, he saw it as a weapon and a way of hitting back at society so as to say, ‘Those people who have disempowered me by raping my mom and making me a product of rape, I will show that I have power.’” He saw his mother’s rapists as powerful people even though he hated them. “[Rape]’s what gave him the power and the validation that he lacked all his life,” she says.

*

Tlhabi describes the response to the book as “phenomenal”. “I’ve been fulfilled by the feedback of people saying, ‘I’m developing more compassion, I’m more aware of the importance of raising children, reinforcing positive stereotypes so that they don’t turn into that person.’”

How can we combat gender-based violence? I ask. Tlhabi suggests that instead of castrating rapists as some ministers have suggested, SA’s laws – which “can’t get any tougher” – should simply be properly applied and there should be real consequences when an alleged rapist’s bail conditions are violated, for example.

As someone who led a protest to the Noord Street taxi rank in 2008 after female commuters were harassed for wearing miniskirts, she says, “I’m just tired of marches now. There’s something wrong if five years down the line the way I speak out against rape is to stage another march – we’ve got to move forward now.”

Tlhabi is “moving forward” through facilitating gender workshops in townships like Alexandra and Diepsloot. Conducting these are rehabilitated rapists whom she hopes will encourage their fellow men to not abuse women.

Tlhabi believes that education – from primary school onwards – is a vital weapon against gender-based violence.  “We don’t just need teachers – we need experts in gender relations to help put together a gender-friendly curriculum … that teaches children something about their place in society and their responsibility towards each other so that boys don’t see women as a threat and girls don’t see guys as a threat.”

Our time is almost up. We snap back from the muddy streets of Soweto, 1989, into the present. But not entirely. With a girlish glint, Tlhabi recalls standing as a child in front of the mirror, holding a deodorant as she pretends to interview someone. Decades later, whether it’s fighting for women’s rights or exposing corruption, this same enthusiasm remains undimmed. “I’m curious about the world around me; I find it very exciting,” she says with smile, before packing up to head off to her next appointment.

Endings & Beginnings was published by Jacana Media.

This article was first published in the May 2013 edition of Wanted magazine.

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