The importance of reading ‘Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezeka Ntsukela Kuzwayo’

The Jacob Zuma years were especially damaging for re-introducing South Africans to political leaders who did not fear shame.

Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.

South Africa has a long history of shamelessness. British colonial rule was shameless. Cecil John Rhodes was shameless. The freed black man and British physician who took Saartje Baartman from the Cape Colony to England and paraded her across Europe, were shameless, as were the crowds who bustled in to gape at her. The Apartheid regime was shameless, as were the white politicians who walked away in 1994 without accounting for their sins.

When Apartheid ended, black people in South Africa were convinced we had seen the end of state-sanctioned shamelessness. Never again would we see our skin color used as the basis of our oppression and persecution by a government. We knew the effects of racism would continue to mark our daily lives, yet we also imagined that each successive president and cabinet would move us further away from the impunity of the past. We imagined a future where leaders would behave according to a moral compass we recognized.

The Jacob Zuma years were terrible by many measures, but they were especially damaging because they re-introduced South Africans to political leaders who did not fear shame. Whereas the Apartheid regime always had exemplars of the kind of leadership South Africans never wanted to see again, under Zuma the excesses of the past became positive benchmarks. When the public complained about corruption they were reminded by Zuma’s defenders, that Apartheid leaders had been more corrupt. Somehow, a new class of politicians emerged, who believed the depravities of the past served as an excuse — a marker that made every other sin acceptable because they could never rival the monstrosities that had gone before them.

Under these circumstances, the public grew more belligerent about corruption and Zuma and his people exploited the legacy of racism and so we found ourselves at loggerheads. Suddenly, the narrative of black corruption and white saviors was firmly entrenched. Women — our bodies, our rights, our opinions — were simply non-starters.  Politics was about money, not people, and certainly not about women.

With the release of Redi Tlhabi’s book, Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, in October last year, for the first time in a long time, I began to believe that the citizenship of women, and of black women in particular, had a place in the mainstream conversation about politics and power in this country. Tlhabi’s is not the first book to tell the story of the crimes against Khwezi. It is the first however, that has done so in a manner that speaks directly to the heart of the mainstream body politic. It is also the first book of its nature that many politicians will have at least contemplated picking up. It is the first book about Khwezi they will be confronted with in the airport lounges and in the laps of fellow travelers, and in the coffee shops and the offices they frequent. It is the first book about Khwezi that set alight the radio call-in shows they use to monitor the “mood” of the nation.

This book shames Zuma in a way he has not been shamed before: on a wider scale and in front of a far wider audience. Zuma has been told his actions were shameful in many ways and by different women leaders and activists. Yet, the record numbers of people buying the book, the re-prints, the television interviews and the countless conversations amongst young women were not been old enough to understand the court proceedings a decade ago, made it clear that this dressing down would humiliate him.

Some people have suggested Tlhabi’s book lands at a time when our society is ready to hear a message repeatedly conveyed by women for many decades. This may be partially correct, but it is also the case that Tlhabi’s book shamed Zuma at a moment when decisions were being made about his fate. In so doing, Khwezi re-imagines women as a crucial set of rights-holders and citizens whose position and views are essential to the future of the country.

As the radio host and columnist Eusebius McKaiser noted in a recent interview, in the same manner that the journalist Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers, played an important role in bringing Zuma down, there is no question Khwezi played an equally pivotal role in sealing Zuma’s fate. In this sense, the book offers a powerful counter-narrative to the damaging message of impunity reintroduced by Zuma and the post-Apartheid ANC. Riding on the efforts of Rape: A South African nightmare, by Wits University Professor Pumla Gqola, and the Kanga and the Kangaroo by poet and activist Mmatshilo Motsei, and operating in a moment in which Tlhabi’s book says — to an audience far bigger than the deeply committed but small group of activists who can typically be counted upon to care — that the perpetrators of violence will not be rewarded forever. In her lifetime, Fezekile was never vindicated, but a few short months after her death, the man who had shaped the trajectory of her life was finally removed from power. Fezekile’s journey was a testament to the truth we have always known, which is that the mighty owe the weak explanations. In the South Africa we are building we cannot lose sight of this for too long.

Everything about the new society we were seeking to build before Zuma dominated the political scene was geared towards accountability. We had been a country founded on the basis of the sustained brutality of Europeans seeking to subdue black people. In South Africa, black people had been taught the perpetrators of violence would always be rewarded and the victims would be punished in perpetuity. The mighty owed the weak no explanations, let alone any justice.

After 1994, that was supposed to change. At a macro-level, the end of Apartheid signaled the end of discriminatory laws. On the micro-level the daily abuses and indignities continued. There were legion state entities established in anticipation of this fact: commissions and hotlines and departments with officers whose time was spent responding to and investigating and monitoring human rights abuses. And because monitoring whether life was indeed better for black people was the chief mandate of the new state — because it in fact represented what was new about South Africa — the people were patient. They could see that work, however imperfect, was happening and that the work was in their favor.

When President Zuma came to power a mere 15 years into the new South Africa, he was riding on the wave of a large and frightening wave of impunity. Zuma was a pirate, a political Jack Sparrow. He oozed wit and charisma even as he trailed treachery. Like Sparrow, Zuma was industrious when it came to his building reputation. He excelled at appearing to be less dangerous than he actually was. When the time was right, he also demonstrated that he was adept at showing those who mattered just how tough he could be.

When Zuma was acquitted in the rape trial that trampled on the rights of the woman at its center, the presiding judge knocked South African women back a century. Judge Nicholson impugned the character and courage of Khwezi, and in the process, he affirmed the continuities between the old South Africa and the new one. Just as in the days of old — in the years of the state of emergency and in the years immediately before Nelson Mandela swore his oath — Judge Willem van der Merwe affirmed the principle at the heart of South Africa: The perpetrators of violence would be rewarded while the victims would be punished. The mighty owed the weak no explanations.

Where there is no justice, there can never be peace. So Fezekile had to start her life again. It was not easy. She lived in a different register and in different countries — in exile once again. But she lived, she was still walking the Earth, breathing, laughing, loving. Many women took inspiration from this. They gathered strength from her presence. They drew on her courage and they fed their own bravery to her — spooned it into her mouth on their visits and in their long hugs and with their love. It is evident in the book that it was the nourishment of other women than kept Fezekile alive. They watched Zuma, with his impunity and his chaos, and they refused to forget.

Reading the book again, I was struck by how difficult this story is to tell. Fezekile’s is not a story that is easy to understand. There is no triumphant arc, no point at which our heroine self-actualizes and finds peace. This is not to say there aren’t many accounts of happiness and inspiration in this book, quite the opposite. Still, the book is about a life that was never neat and so the book itself is jagged and has its edges.

In a #MeToo moment marked by triumph and a particular interpretation of progress in the way that so many American stories seem to want progress to look, the story of Fezekile Kuzwayo serves as a reminder that the brave do not always win. More than this, Tlhabi reminds us that brave women are often crushed under the weight of sadness; that they are often quite literally driven mad. In her final months Fezekile checks herself into a psychiatric hospital and then exhausted and broke, eventually dies. The post-script of her life,  which Tlhabi was unable to write because it hadn’t unfolded yet, offers some measure of hope however.

The title of the book cleverly frames its objective. It is immediately clear that the book is both about a powerful activist named Khwezi and a remarkable woman named Fezekile Kuzwayo. The story Tlhabi weaves is of a profoundly brave and painfully naiive activist thrust into the public domain. Tlhabi tells the story of Fezeka, who was born in exile to Judson and Beauty Kuzwayo. Judson was a member of the African National Congress, and was close to many political figures, including Jacob Zuma. Fezekile grew up in Zimbabwe and Swaziland mainly. Judson died in a car accident when she was only nine. Her life changed. She and her mother remained attached to the ANC communities in the countries where they lived, but their security was precarious, their lives marked by tragedy.

As someone who grew up in the uptown section of exile, and to whom exile bestowed privilege, I read parts of this book with one eye shut, ashamed of the aunties who did not help Fezekile when she was raped first at five then at 12 and then again in her thirties. They had mannerisms I understood too well. They were the ones who both defended men and supported women only so long as they were of a certain class.

Fezekile and her mother did not qualify fully for the kindness of these women. They were too problematic. I could almost hear the chatter of the women I grew up around in exile. I imagine what they might have said about Beauty and, by inference, Fezekile.

For many of the men, Beauty and Fezekile would not have warranted any attention, unless it was predatory. Once their comrade Judson had fallen they would have found fewer and fewer reasons to interact with either Beauty or her daughter. Comradeship was contingent on presence.  Bonds were formed between men on the basis of a narrow interpretation of the word struggle. If it had been Beauty who had died, the community would have rallied to support Judson. She was dispensable and he was not. Had he lived and she died, Fezekile might have been a far more important child.

Tlhabi paints a picture of a little girl and her mother who were abandoned but didn’t quite realize it. Perhaps Beauty understood where she stood in the eyes of many members of the community, but this is Fezekile’s story and she certainly did not see it. Fezekile thought all the exile uncles and aunties cared. She thought the police cared. She thought she was loved. This was clearly a coping mechanism — a strategy for dealing with trauma and betrayal. It served her in good stead even as it baffled those around her. Fezekile never allowed cynicism to set in, even when it was entirely appropriate. She paid the highest price for this.

The section of the book that deals with the rape trial is also rendered with Tlhabi’s trademark candour and sensitivity. She brings together Fezekile the woman and Khwezi the caricature. She outlines the injustice of her treatment at the hands of the police, the courts and the party. She depicts Fezekile as almost childlike in her understanding of the situation. Many of her actions at the time — baffling to observers who may not have understood her history or her personality — are explained. Tlhabi provides an alternative storyline — a way to understand the woman who was trapped in a maelstrom she had not fully anticipated. She outlines the many ways in which the justice system and patriarchy don’t fully see women, reminding us that Khwezi was an accidental hero — a woman who challenged a system that was stacked against her because it was simply the right thing to do.

Tlhabi’s voice is ever-present, asking questions, and probing. This is Tlhabi’s style — not simply in this book but in her public persona. South Africans are used to hearing her questions in the news and on the radio. She is a major media personality. When the person on the other end of the questions is a politician, the questions work — we are on her side. She gives voice to the common-sense questions of everyday South Africans. Tlhabi does the same in this book.

Her questions serve as a crucial literary device, as a nod to the reader – to an audience Tlhabi knows is likely to only be interested in Fezekile to the extent that she was Khwezi. For these readers, a woman sitting in the lap of police officers during her rape trial is simply incomprehensible.

Tlhabi would be doing a disservice to the mainstream audience who pick up this book if she didn’t engage this. To ignore her own bafflement and surprise is to deny her audience the opportunity to ask the same questions. And yet she is tender. She goes back time and again to those early wounds inflicted on Fezekile, to the father who was suddenly gone, to the mother who was all but absent because it was all too much, and to the ANC that failed her. Time and again the structural factors bearing down on Fezekile make their way through her irritation and her questions. Tlhabi serves as a proxy for the middle class women and the 702 listeners and the township mamas who will surely be asking, “Why did she do that?”

In the process of asking, Tlhabi pushes her readers and forces them to consider perspectives they may not otherwise consider — she insists on looking at Fezekile not as Khwezi but as the young woman who survived childhood sexual abuse, was abandoned by the ANC, and grew up in the shadow of her memories of a father she never had a chance to fully know. In the process the book becomes not simply a vehicle for hounding Jacob Zuma, it becomes a tool for educating a nation that is both obsessed with politics and is woefully under-invested in justice for women.

Tlhabi does an admirable job of making sense of a complicated life. Fezekile was raised by a community that never prioritised her. She was then thrown into a new South Africa in which she had to sink or swim. Her desire for love and acceptance leaps from every page in this book. It is evident in her effusive text messages and in her joyous singing. It is clear in her wide-ranging and deep friendships, as much as it is in her exuberance and her embrace of strangers.

Fezeka was wounded — as so many of us are. She was also in many instances, profoundly incapable of fending for herself, and distinctly incapable of seeing trouble as it walked towards her. Yet, she knew how to protect herself.

Tlhabi has been criticized for not including Fezekile’s sexual identity in the story. Her response — that Fezeka never shared this with her and that she wrote about what she was told — is profoundly important. In a South Africa in which lesbians continue to be murdered because of the threat they pose to the patriarchal order, Fezekile may have opted not to talk about the part of herself and her sexual identity that had the potential to cause her untold harm. Or she may have been waiting for the right moment. We will never know because she did not live to tell us herself.

Tlhabi the journalist would undoubtedly have known about Fezekile’s identity. Yet Tlhabi the feminist chose to write a biography that was based on a combination of research and first-person narration. There is a long history of feminist writers choosing this approach as a mechanism for letting women speak for themselves. In this instance Tlhabi was also clearly mindful that Fezekile had rarely been given any control over her narrative. The decision to allow her to choose her own storyline has had consequences. One of them is that it opens the author up to the critique that she either did not know her subject as well as she would like the reader to believe, or that she chose to silence her sexuality for whatever reason.

The work of a biographer is to make the life of her subject legible. A life cannot of course be told, it can only be interpreted. The work of the writer is to choose the arc and the threads that most clearly resonate with the time and the place — to draw lessons or themes that will mean something for those who are left behind. In this sense, Tlhabi succeeds. She does so because in spite of everything, Fezekile Kuzwayo’s truly was a remarkable life, and because messy as our collective trajectory is, South Africans are still working towards creating a society in which the perpetrators do not always win, a society in which justice takes its place in the sun.


Reading the book again, I was struck with how difficult this story is to tell. Kuzwayo’s is not a story that is easy to understand. There is no triumphant arc, no point at which our heroine self-actualizes and finds peace. This is not to say there aren’t many accounts of happiness and inspiration in this book — quite the opposite. Still, the book is about a life that was never neat and so the book itself is jagged and has its edges.

In a #MeToo moment marked by triumph and a particular interpretation of progress in the way that so many American stories seem to want progress to look, the story of Fezekile Kuzwayo serves as a reminder that the brave do not always win. More than this, Tlhabi reminds us that brave women are often crushed under the weight of sadness; that they are often quite literally driven mad. In her final months Fezeka checks herself into a psychiatric hospital and then exhausted and broke, eventually dies. The post-script of Fezeka’s life – which Tlhabi was unable to write because it hadn’t unfolded yet – offers some measure of hope however.

The title of the book cleverly frames its objective. It is immediately clear that the book is both about a powerful activist named Khwezi and a remarkable woman named Fezekile Kuzwayo. The story Tlhabi weaves is of how the activist who was thrust into the public domain was both profoundly brave and painfully naïve.

Tlhabi tells the story of Fezeka, who was born in exile to Judson and Beauty Kuzwayo. Judso was a member of the African National Congress, and was close to many political figures, including Jacob Zuma. Fezeka grew up in Zimbabwe and Swaziland mainly. Judson died in a car accident when Fezeka was only nine. Her life changed. She and her mother remained attached to the ANC communities in the countries where they lived, but their security was precarious, their lives marked by tragedy.

As someone who grew up in the uptown section of exile, and to whom exile bestowed privilege, I read parts of this book with one eye shut, ashamed of the aunties who did not help Fezeka when she was raped first at five then at twelve and then again in her thirties. They had mannerisms I understood too well. They were the ones who both defended men but also who supported women only so long as they were of a certain class.

Fezeka and her mother did not qualify fully for the kindness of these women. They were too problematic. I could almost hear the chatter of the women I grew up around in exile. I imagine what they might have said about her mother Beauty and – by inference – about Fezeka.

For many of the men, Beauty and Fezeka would not even have warranted any attention, unless it was predatory. Once their comrade Judson had fallen they would have found been fewer and fewer reasons to interact with either Beauty or her daughter. Comradeship was contingent on presence.  Bonds were formed between men on the basis of a narrow interpretation of the word struggle. If it had been Beauty who had died, the community would have rallied to support Judson. She was dispensable and he was not. Had he lived and she died, Fezeka might have been a far more important child.

Tlhabi paints a picture of a little girl and her mother who were abandoned but didn’t quite realize it. Perhaps Beauty understood where she stood in the eyes of many members of the community, but this is Fez’s story and she certainly did not see it. Fezeka thought all the exile uncles and aunties cared. She thought the police cared. She thought she was loved. This was clearly a coping mechanism – a strategy for dealing with trauma and betrayal. It served her in good stead even as if baffled those around her. Fezeka never allowed cynicism to set in, even when it was entirely appropriate. She paid the highest price for this.

The section of the book that deals with the rape trial is also rendered with Tlhabi’s trademark candour and sensitivity. Tlhabi brings together Fezeka the woman and Khwezi the caricature. She outlines the injustice of Khwezi’s treatment at the hands of the police, the courts and the party. She depicts Fezeka as almost childlike in her understanding of the situation. Many of her actions at the time – baffling to observers who may not have understood her history or her personality – are explained. Tlhabi provides an alternative storyline – a way to understand the woman who was trapped in a maelstrom she had not fully anticipated. She outlines the many ways in which the justice system and patriarchy don’t fully see women, reminding us that Khwezi was an accidental hero – a woman who challenged a system that was stacked against her because it was simply the right thing to do. 

Tlhabi’s voice is ever-present, asking questions, and probing. This is Tlhabi’s style – not simply in this book but in her public persona. South Africans are used to hearing Redi’s questions in the news and on the radio. She is a major media personality. When the person on the other end of the questions is a politician, the questions work – we are on her side. She gives voice to the common-sense questions of everyday South Africans. Tlhabi does the same in this book.

Her questions serve as a crucial literary device, as a nod to the reader – to an audience Tlhabi knows is likely to only be interested in Fezeka to the extent that she was Khwezi. For these readers, a woman sitting in the lap of police officers during her rape trial is simply incomprehensible.

Tlhabi would be doing a disservice to the mainstream audience who pick up this book if she didn’t engage this. To ignore her own bafflement and surprise is to deny her audience the opportunity to ask the same questions. And yet she is tender. She goes back time and again to those early wounds inflicted on Kuzwayo, to the father who was suddenly gone, to the mother who was all but absent because it was all too much, and to the ANC that failed her. Time and again the structural factors bearing down on Fezeka make their way through her irritation and her questions. Tlhabi serves as a proxy for the middle class women and the 702 listeners and the township mamas who will surely be asking, “Why did she do that?”

In the process of asking, Tlhabi pushes her readers and forces them to consider perspectives they may not otherwise consider – she insists on looking at Fezeka not as Khwezi but as the young woman who was abandoned by the ANC and grew up in the shadow of her memories of a father she never had a chance to fully know. In the process the book becomes not simply a vehicle for hounding Jacob Zuma, it becomes a tool for educating a nation that is both obsessed with politics and is woefully under-invested in justice for women.

Tlhabi does an admirable job of making sense of a complicated life. Fezeka was raised by a community that never prioritised her. She was then thrown into a new South Africa in which she had to sink or swim.  Her desire for love and acceptance leaps from every page in this book. It is evident in her effusive text messages and in her joyous singing. It is also clear in her wide-ranging and deep friendships, as much as it is in her exuberance and her embrace of strangers.

Fezeka was wounded – as so many of us are. She was also in many instances, profoundly incapable of fending for herself, and distinctly incapable of seeing trouble as it walked towards her. She also knew however, how to protect herself.

Tlhabi has been criticiszed for not including Fezeka’s sexuality in the story. Her response – that Fezeka never shared this with her and that she wrote about what she was told – is profoundly important. In a South Africa in which lesbians continue to be murdered because of the threat they pose to the patriarchal order, Fezeka may have opted not to talk about the part of herself and her sexual identity that had the potential to cause her untold harm. Or she may have been waiting for the right moment. We will never know because she did not live to tell us herself.

Tlhabi the journalist would undoubtedly have known about Fezeka’s identity. Yet Tlhabi the feminist chose to write a biography that was based on a combination of research and first-person narration. There is a long history of feminist writers choosing this approach as a mechanism for letting women speak for themselves. In this instance Tlhabi was also clearly mindful that Kuzwayo had rarely been given any control over her narrative. The decision to allow Kuzwayo to choose her own storyline has had consequences. One of them is that it opens the author up to the critique that she either did not know her subject as well as she would like the reader to believe, or that she chose to silence her sexuality for whatever reason.

In a society where women lose all the time, the only stories may of us want to hear are those in which the heroines win decisive victories; the ones in which they overcome impossible hardship with the kind of determination and grit of Hollywood. We don’t want to know about women who marry Zimbabwean women in order to give them a visa. We don’t want to know about the women who have many friends and much love but die anyway because they are so very tired.

The work of a biographer is to make the life of her subject legible. A life cannot of course be told, it can only be interpreted. The work of the writer is to choose the arc and the threads that most clearly resonate with the time and the place – to draw lessons or themes that will mean something for those who are left behind.

In this sense, Tlhabi succeeds. She does so because in spite of everything, Kuzwayo’s truly was a remarkable life, and because messy as our collective trajectory is, South Africans are still working towards creating a society in which the perpetrators do not always win, a society in which justice takes its place in the sun.

Further Reading

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