The rise and fall of an African novelist

By questioning black masculinity in post-apartheid South Africa, Thando Mgqolozana became one of the most impactful writers of his time. But then he got accused of the same thing he opposed.

The Abantu Book Festival via Twitter.

If becoming a feminist ally is a process, then South African novelist Thando Mgqolozana was its genuine expression. He was a consistent feminist man who committed his art to aid the argument that African men must reckon with their problematic assumptions about masculinity or continue to inhabit an environment that denies them their humanity. He’s not the man we should be reminded of the realities of being a woman in a country that records more than 100 cases of sexual offenses daily. Or explaining the principle of believing the victim. But here we are.

Relying on exposure from his proximity to popular Southern African feminist voices such as Pumla Dineo-Qola and Lebo Mashile—Mashile once described Mgqolozana as “the best male feminist writer writing right now,”—Mgqolozana fronted (not to be confused with pioneering) an idea of an insurgent African masculinity that rejects patriarchal socialization in unambiguous ways. To this cause, Mgqolozana offered himself and his art as an example of the possibilities of his social experiment. He encouraged men to commit social suicide and appeared to adhere to this idea to the letter. Even as he stood accused of abuse, Mgqolozana boasted of crying, but feminists would quickly point out that there’s nothing newsworthy about a man accused of abuse crying. Whenever a cis-heterosexual male celebrity expresses genuine human emotion, it makes the news part of the problem. We are a society that essentially rewards fish for swimming.

But how we react to black male vulnerability reflects just how little the needle has moved in South Africa despite years of feminist agitation and efforts by popular figures like Mgqolozana to flip the cultural script. Just as adherents of neoliberal capitalism continue to find ways to make it relevant and inevitable in the South African socioeconomic context; those who continue to benefit from patriarchy as a system continue to find new ways to entrench it in the South African sociocultural context. Religious institutions and cultural practices like initiation (ulwaluko), which Mgqolozana has contributed to reckoning with how it shapes African masculinities, have been the most effective tools for ensuring that patriarchy endures as a guiding social principle in South African communities. We owe our shock to men expressing emotion to the effectiveness of these institutions. But social media conversation about patriarchy and how it finds expression at both an interpersonal and communal level can fool one into thinking that there’s a reckoning in South Africa; that we are finally doing what writer Mmatshilo Motsei calls “our work” and dealing with patriarchal violence as a lived reality of South African women and not a feminist witch-hunt (as male chauvinists insist). But numbers tell a different story.

If there were gains made by years of community activism and feminist agitation, those gains now appear meager, if not nonexistent. South Africa now records GBV numbers consistent with that of a country at war. In the first quarter of 2023, the country recorded 6,289 murders; more than 1,000 of those murdered were women and children. Civil society organizations have called it losing the war, but feminists often state that official statistics alone don’t tell the whole story. The incompetence of South Africa’s criminal justice system, which Minister of Police Bheki Cele regularly acknowledges, discourages victims and their families from reporting their ordeals, meaning that a lot more women are abused and murdered, and their cases are not recorded.

The shocking rise in violent crimes, especially when directed toward women, has not inspired the state to coherently communicate and speedily implement its policies to combat femicide; part of that incoherence concerns addressing issues in isolation. Experts and feminists have long argued that femicide and gender-based violence cannot be addressed in isolation from South Africa’s other social ills, inequality being the most urgent of those since it anchors almost every social problem in the country. As a factor that fuels femicide, inequality finds expression in economic vulnerability, limited employment opportunities, and wage disparities. Although class lines can be blurry when reckoning with the phenomenon of femicide, a careful reading of the statistics will show that a higher number of the victims are poor and working-class women. “Economic vulnerability is a huge factor in gender-based violence and femicide. The failure to address access to education and employment opportunities contradicts state policies meant to combat gender-based violence and femicide,” says Dr. Nadine Lake, the Director of the Gender Studies Program in the Centre for Gender and African Studies at the University of the Free State.

Shallow feminisms

It is in the context of rising femicide statistics, a state struggling to address the crisis of femicide and a culture that perpetuates patriarchy that a figure of Mgqolozana’s stature was a welcome sight. He embodied the possibilities of feminism in a country at war with its women, queer communities, and children. Mgqolozana’s circle reflected how successful his insurgency against patriarchal expressions of African masculinities was. Through his Abantu Book Festival and the publication of A Man Who Is Not A Man (2009), arguably the most important post-apartheid novel, he courted some of the continent’s most prominent feminist voices from Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy to Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie. But one gets a sense that Mgqolozana felt a tinge of betrayal at how quickly some of those feminist voices condemned his alleged abuse and distanced themselves from him.“He is despondent, feeling betrayed. He is distraught that I could put his name in the same sentence as GBV.” Siphiwo Mahala, then Mgqolozana’s friend, wrote in a statement.

In August 2021, in a series of tweets, Mgqolozana’s then-wife (name redacted for obvious reasons) accused the novelist of abuse. The reaction was swift and global. Nearly every platform that had previously hosted or promoted Mgqolozana was quick to condemn him, and Mahala described it as “a literary landscape in turmoil.” But it was not necessarily accusations of abuse that sank him, though that should have been enough; it was more his reaction to the accusations that was telling. He seemed bewildered that anyone would believe accusations of abuse about him, yet he strangely encouraged everyone to believe his wife. Mgqolozana’s reaction was a reminder that men often engage with feminism for the promise of its end goal and not the ongoing messy process of undoing a system they are complicit in. Or what feminists liken to a war in the South African context. We demand absolution from feminism but not rigor; we want feminism to quietly wash us off our patriarchal sins without stepping on what comes off the wash. This is why we see believing the victim as a witch hunt, not a feminist tactic that responds to a criminal justice system that too often re-victimizes women.

We adjust our politics and analytic tools as our material conditions demand. We may begin to be convinced that class or economic vulnerability is a primary contradiction of South African society, but come to appreciate race as the ground on which economic vulnerability plays out. Mgqolozana began his cause as a feminist; feminism helped him see the malice of patriarchy and how violently South African men express it. But as he sits cast out by the same feminist circles and the gospel he swore by, one is bound to ask how much of his politics have been affected by public reaction to his troubles. Does he see the limits of feminism as an analytical tool? Because preaching feminism and upending patriarchy is one thing, staying the course when your life resembles that same patriarchal incoherence is another. When accusations of abuse first surfaced Mgqolozana reiterated his commitment to fighting gender-based violence: “I will not waiver,” he said in a statement. When I contacted Mgqolozana, I was curious about how much of what has happened has affected how he sees the world now.

“I don’t see the point in participating in a process that seeks to critique me and possibly lie about me,” Mgqolozana says in response to some of my questions but later warms to a discussion about the country’s literary scene. Particularly the impact on his beloved Abantu Book Festival, which faced calls for a boycott from many people who once saw it as a progressive, safe space.

But if it’s grace Mgqolozana was hoping for, then he doesn’t understand the basic tenet of what he’s been championing all these years. He is what happens when a theory is embraced without committing to its radical demands. The women who upheld Mgqolozana as a beacon of feminist possibilities are in a war in which they are socially, culturally, and economically outnumbered. Of course, they would be the first to throw him to the wind on the news of an alleged abuse. Any genuine feminist ally would appreciate this.

Theory without praxis

Mgqolozana isn’t the first South African cis-heterosexual male celebrity figure to claim feminism as a guiding principle yet fail to honor its basic tenets. In the 2000s, the rapper Tumi Molekane (Stogie-T) was one the most visible black male celebrity figures who claimed feminism. Like Mgqolozana, Molekane surrounded himself with prominent feminists, such as Lebo Mashile. Those voices allowed him to make music that made it possible for him to claim feminism with no reservations. That was until the release of images for the lead single (In Defense of My Art) to his 2015 project Return of the King, which depicted two women on their knees being held on leashes by Molekane. You didn’t have to read feminist theory to see the misogyny of Molekane’s cover art, which he defended as telling the story of the violence he grew up with. But if Molekane appreciated the reality of being a woman in South Africa and a rigorous reading of the theory he claimed as a guide, then a swift withdrawal of the images and an acknowledgment of the harm caused should have been forthcoming. But instead, he proceeded to mansplain about the subjectivity of his art.

The difference between Molekane and Mgqolozana is that Mgqolozana’s contributions are more tangible and overt. He’s not a rapper trying to make decent behavior look cool—where Molakene claimed education and individual betterment, Mgqolozana declared war. At the very least, he was willing to confront the cultural structures that fuel the misogyny that manifests in femicide. But unlike many South African male celebrities who have been accused of abuse, such as rapper Smiso Zwane (OkMalumKoolKat) and African new age folk star Sjava (Jabulani Hadebe), Mgqolozana has not courted the hordes of men using misogyny to defend him. To most patriarchal men, Mgqolozana is a traitor. His great sin isn’t that he was accused of abuse, but that he was willing to upend the same system and culture that enables men to abuse women in the first place. Another point that should’ve been fairly easy for Mgqolozana to appreciate is that, like most systems of oppression, patriarchy isn’t static; it is an ongoing event, and anyone who challenges its beneficiaries is guaranteed to burn at the cross. South Africa is a place where patriarchy has come to shape life so much that we assume it’s part of cultural traditions.

Southern Africa’s most consequential novelist

Indian writer Arundhati Roy once wrote, “revolutions can and often begin with reading.” It was with his writing and later with the reading that writing that Mgqolozana hoped a revolution would be initiated. In 2009, an unknown Mgqolozana quietly published A Man Who is Not a Man (UKZN Press) about a man reckoning with the expectation of tradition and the dictates of patriarchy as a system that undergirds much of what that tradition has come to expect and demand of him. It is one of the few Southern African novels that attempts to capture the complex predicaments of a tradition that has been so central to defining African masculinity in South Africa. But Mgqolozana couldn’t have known that his exploration of the subject of ulwaluko would come to make his debut one of the most controversial South African novels and catapult him to become arguably the most impactful writer of his time.

It was a book that was hardly read by anyone. But those who knew the cultural landscape could see Mgqolozana pressed the button few had been willing to push. Anticipating backlash, Diane Awerbuck wrote in the Sunday Times that “Mgqolozana will be vilified for this book.” It has become a norm in South Africa for anyone who depicts the practice of ulwaluko, even with the greatest of care to find themselves on the receiving end of a chauvinist outcry. Most don’t think the practice deserves complexity or even a compelling narrative and often see the depictions of the practice in popular culture as an exploitation of African culture. That ulwaluko is a genuine practice has never been in question. The application and relevance of some of the measures that have come to define the practice warrants robust interrogation. In whose interest is it that a young black man must lose his life because incorporating more modern procedures into the initiation process would dilute the experience? Or, as Mgqolozana has asked: how useful is the practice in a modern context?

South Africa’s literacy crisis and an incoherent state policy to promote indigenous languages meant that it would take nearly a decade and the publication of two more novels, Hear Me Alone (Jacana 2011) and Unimportance (Jacana 2014), before the impact of the debut novel could be felt. When I made the point during our conversation about the country’s literary challenges, Mgqolozana was at pains to dispute that they had delayed the impact of his novel.“There are other issues, but I don’t think people are illiterate as is often suggested,” he says.

Ironically, the inaccessibility of English as a language and the lack of translation to indigenous languages meant that traditional elites who often weaponized criticism of the practice of ulwaluko could, for a time, ignore the novel’s potential. But, over time, the novel made an inevitable resurgence as the seminal study of black masculinities in post-apartheid South Africa.

But it was by serving as an inspiration for John Trengove’s critically acclaimed 2017 film Inxeba that the fear of vilification that haunted the novel and its writer for so long would come true. After its release, the film’s lead actor and musician, Nakhane Toure, and some of the cast had to go into hiding after threats of violence. Their crime? Agreeing to play the visual embodiment of characters first conceived by Mgqolozana. But the film and its controversy only helped bring Mgqolozana’s writing to a wider audience, with UK-based publisher Cassava Republic reissuing an international edition of A Man Who is Not a Man in 2020.

A decolonial crusader

Just as he hoped to revolutionize social relations, Mgqolozana, a writer, looked around South Africa’s literary scene and was blinded by the whiteness of its institutions. It was through that blinding whiteness that he sought to decolonize the industry. Local writers had protested the whiteness of the industry for years but struggled to back their critiques with any programs or organizational efforts that would, at the very least, force a consideration for some change from the power brokers. But all that changed in 2015 when an annoyed Mgqolozana, sitting at a packed Franschhoek Literary Festival venue, announced that he would no longer be participating in what he saw as white literary festivals.

At the core of Mgqolozana’s grievance are black invisibility and ethnic tourism. He felt he was being read not as a literary talent but as an anthropological subject; his books were being read to satisfy the ethnic and racial curiosities of South Africa’s white middle-class audiences. Having announced his intentions to never set foot in another “white” festival—Mgqolozana led a horde of progressive voices out of some of the country’s coveted literary platforms and launched the Abantu Book Festival, a platform he hoped would be antithetical to the overwhelming whiteness of the country’s more established festivals. In 2016, the first Abantu Book Festival was staged, and its impact was instant. With Abantu, the apex of Mgqolozana’s influence is vivid; some of the most important feminist voices flocked to the festival. It became the most important literary event in Southern Africa. But with its founder accused of GBV, Abantu’s potential and legacy were undone in a single night.

When I ask Mgqolozana about the collapse of Abantu, or more specifically, being dumped by the many progressives who saw the festival as a safe space, he sounds surprised by the suggestion. In his view, Abantu has not collapsed but transitioned to a more complex cultural organization, and if he were to concede to failure, it certainly would not be because of accusations of abuse but because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be true that the factors contributing to Abantu not being staged are technical and complex and have nothing to do with Mgqolozana’s problems. But to suggest that accusations of abuse have not affected the festival’s potential and how we’ve come to view Mgqolozana is disingenuous.

In a different world, where Mqgolozana appreciated what so many of the ideas he championed and allied with looked like in practice, he would offer himself as an example of what happens when radical theory is poorly applied. That theory is feminism, particularly the belief that men can transform and force themselves to question and unlearn some of the patriarchal assumptions they’ve come to imbibe with a genuine reading and application. But black feminists have always cautioned against a feminism that doesn’t reckon with patriarchy as a system that anchors much of the violence and abuse South African women experience. Mgqolozana expresses both the possibilities and limits of men’s genuine engagement with feminism.

Further Reading