WHEN A MAN CRIES - SIPHIWO MAHALA
Reviewed by Abner Nyamende, University of Cape Town
When a Man Cries portrays life in the township and all the ups and downs of the people who live in a township. Themba, the main character in the story, is the victim of social degeneration. He has been an unwanted baby who was conceived by accident. By chance he survives his mother’s attempted abortion. His parents have lived in a shack at an informal section of Sekunjalo, and they both die in a fire when their shack burns down. His uncle, a businessman, is shot and killed by an unkown assailant. It later transpires that his aunt has conspired with her lover to have her husband, Themba’s uncle, killed. Then Themba has sex with his aunt, Gladys, and in the act she conceives a baby. Aunt Gladys and her lover go to prison for the murder of Themba’s uncle. At the height of his career Themba has sex with a school girl named Nosipho, not knowing that this is his daughter, Aunt Gladys’s child. Miss Thandi Maduna lays a charge of sexual harrassment against Themba and the latter is demoted from acting principal to an ordinary teacher. Themba is rivalled by the mayor of Makana in seeking the favours of a beautiful woman employed by the Town Council and he loses even though he has already paid half the rent for her. All these events and conditions portray a community with disintegrated value systems. Themba plays his role at the centre of all this degeneration.
Themba’s life is surrounded by incidents that portray a diseased community, a community that has lost its moral backbone and one that wallows in poverty and degeneration. Even at the height of his success Themba is followed by the low morals of his community which cause his ultimate downfall. By the end of the story we realise that Themba cannot be redeemed from the general moral degeneration as the symptoms of this degeneration are evident in his whole personality. For example, confessing his attraction for Dolly, he rationalises:
I am a married man but I can’t restrict my eyes from appreciating the beauty of nature when they see it. It’s a problem, I know. Maybe it’s not my problem. Perhaps it’s a gender problem. A manhood problem, that’s probably what it is. Any man who says he never gets attracted to a beautiful woman is a liar. We all do, but most of the time we suppress our feelings.
This story does not have a consistent plot and large chunks of the story can be cut out without the progression in the remainder of the story being affected at all. For example, we can remove Zakes and the episode of the purchase of a car in Port Elizabeth without in any way disrupting the story. We can also cut out the death and burial of Themba’s parents without affecting the story. As the titles of the chapters indicate, in this story we follow the progress of Themba from a disadvantaged farm boy to a principal of a school before his downfall.
In his attempt to reflect a morally broken down community, the writer concentrates on demonstrating the false values of the community of Sekunjalo. The heroes of the struggle for freedom, like Skade and Bongani Vabaza, are portrayed as liars and power mongers. Furthermore, teachers, like the hero of the novel himself, are portrayed as corrupt and opportunistic. Because of this emphasis on false values the novel lacks depth and credibility.
In the community portrayed in this novel corrupt characters like Bongani Vabaza, the mayor of Makana Municipality, get away with their wrongful deeds and they do not receive a serious punishment even when punishment is meted out to them. Instead there seems to be perpetual competition for all the wrong reasons. For example, when the mayor wins the favours of Dolly, Themba comments: “Bongani Vabaza appeared to be the winner because he had the authority and the money, but that did not make me a loser” (p.83). The fact that both Themba and the mayor are doing something immoral and corrupt does not seem to count here. Instead their misguided competition is portrayed as an act of virtue. Former freedom fighters like Skade are power hungry and this seems to be the norm in this community. All these characters are not punished for their immoral behaviour.
Coming back to the title of the novel, it is not clear what exactly makes Themba cry in this story. We are not sure whether he cries at Nosipho’s funeral because until that day he had not known that Nosipho was his daughter. Or perhaps he cries because he has had sex with his aunt and later his daughter? Also when he begs his wife to return to him he again cries. What is emphasised is the volume of tears and not the depth of emotion. While the title says When a Man Cries, we fail to see what makes Themba cry at this stage when he has successfully held back his tears in the face of very sad incidents in his life before. While Themba cries before his wife we are conscious of the fact that he has not submitted himself for an HIV test which was a condition laid down by his wife when she left him. She, too, does not mention this condition anymore, but instead praises her husband for being brave enough to acknowledge paternity for Nosipho. By the end of the story we are not certain whether Thuli (Themba’s wife) withdraws her condition that Themba should test for HIV first if he wishes to live with her and her children. We are alarmed by the fact that Thuli is about to forgive her husband and all his transgressions will go unpunished. Just by shedding tears it seems that he will get his life back, and yet there is no guarantee that he will not go back to his old ways. Except for admitting that Nosipho is his daughter, Themba’s speech at the funeral makes little sense.
That Aunt Gladys can be pregnant and even give birth to a child and this is not known by some of her relatives, including Themba, who live in the same area as herself, lacks credibility. There is, indeed, no reason why Themba should have missed out on the story of Aunt Gladys’s pregnancy. Furthermore, we are prevented by the writer from knowing exactly what Nosipho wanted to say to Themba. It is not explained why she does not write down what she wants to say to Themba if the latter does not want to see her. Also the fact that those who know Nosipho’s parentage should manage to keep it a secret lacks credibility.
On the whole this novel lacks sincerity and the author creates an image of a desperate community that has completely lost its moral bearings. Even success is viewed by the characters as an opportunity to exercise corruption and infidelity. The reality is that people can be very poor in the townships and informal settlements and they may live with crime, but most of their leaders are serious goal-directed people who work hard to draw their communities out of poverty and misery. Inevitably one finds corrupt and opportunistic leaders in every community but these operate against a background of upright values. In Mahala’s novel everyone operates against a background of corroded values. People like Miss Maduna and Miss Rhasana, who stand for good social values, are portrayed in this novel as exceptions to the rule. As a result they are seen as enemies by Themba, the main character. As a first novel, there is a potential for a good novel here. But there is plenty of ground for improvement on the part of the writer.