The burden of womanhood in ‘Dancing in the Dust’


Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store

Men go for long periods in the mines, occasionally coming back to their families which shreds the familial fabric expected to mould the communal and national consciousness.

“Dancing in the Dust” (2002) by Kagiso Lesego Molope, published by Oxford University Press Southern Africa (Pvt) Limited, purveys among a plethora of thematic concerns, the struggles that women endure in an oppressive, uncompromising and intolerant world, which derives excitement from the squalid and mundane.

Told in the first person singular narrative voice, the story captures the fears of a 13-year-old girl, Tihelo, whose only defence against the vagaries of human folly is her zeal for life, regardless of the many hurdles that are strewn her path in an attempt to scupper her people’s aspirations in apartheid South Africa of the 1980s.

Hope for the people of colour is scuttled, and dreams are set ablaze in a brutal maze devoid of feeling and restraint; and in this madness women and children suffer the most. As a bildungsroman, the book unravels the darkness of Man’s heart through the eyes of a child whose dream to become a journalist wobbles to the horizon each sunset, yet her resilience soars with the rising sun.

All around her, Tihelo sees suffering, death and pain as the White man’s oppressive machinery takes aim at the Black man’s abode.

Her mother, Kgomotso and sister, Keitumetse are her only family, who like others of the fairer sex, are burdened by their sex. As a domestic worker, her mother wakes up every morning to catch, along with scores of others, the 5.30am train that will take them to White suburbs where they will toil the entire day for them to fend for their families. Most of the women are either widowed, or abandoned in one way or the other, not that it may be blamed entirely on their husbands, but largely on lack of bankable opportunities for Africans.

The heroine pines: “They were all illegal immigrants in their own country. Every morning they would travel about an hour away to be in a different country, on a different territory, and would have to carry the right papers to show that they were not illegally crossing borders, looking for work in what another man had declared his own land.”

Ironically, the land they now work on as immigrants is theirs by birth, yet another man, an alien gangster from where the sun sets, believes it to be his by might. He beats them to a pulp if he feels like it.

The menial jobs available to the people of colour in mines and White suburbs rob them of quality time with their families.

Men go for long periods in the mines, occasionally coming back to their families which shreds the familial fabric expected to mould the communal and national consciousness. Because of the dangers that always lurk in the mines and other occupational fronts available to Africans, many a man perish, leaving behind abattoirs of bleeding hearts and strangled hope, as is also the case with the narrator’s mother, who has to single-handedly fend for her two daughters after her husband’s disappearance into the mire and soot of the colonial holocaust.

At 13, the heroine realises the burdensome nature of womanhood, through her analyses of single parenthood, and the way society chides at it. She debunks the notion that a household without a male voice spells doom on the children, especially so if they are girls.

Through Ausi Martha, who is abandoned by her husband for another woman, yet remaining etched on to the dream that he would come back, Tihelo resolves that a woman’s aspirations should not be tied to her sex; and that she should not be apologetic to the same societal whims that shame her.

She intimates thus: “We grow up watching our mothers slide through distress, and that is how we are able to face it ourselves. When I was a little girl I would cry from physical pain because my mother would never cry from her own physical pain, and because she would easily take care of mine . . . I could never have faced my fear and humiliation if I had allowed myself to watch my mother be consumed by her own.”

Opportunities for herself and her people, the protagonist reasons, lay in emancipation through the White man’s education, hence the need to pursue it become pertinent.

But is the same educational system not skewed against the people of colour? Who decides what is good for the African, the White man?

She decides that as long as it opens doors for her as a journalist, she will be able to tell the world the story of her people’s travails, and at the same time release herself from the claustrophobia of township existence which her lot is condemned to, even though she is aware that the history she learns at school expunges her people’s.

Tihelo, like all children born on the wrong side of the colour bar, is weighed down by an array of challenges.

Firstly, her childhood friends, Thato and Tshepo, are consumed by the raging tornado of segregatory laws, albeit in different ways.

Thato’s parents are on a better pedestal because of their middle class status; her mother is a nurse and her father owns a small shop up the hill. Unlike the narrator, Thato is poised for escape from the slums because her parents can afford to send her to a once “Whites only” high school which has been opened up to other races with the means to sustain the exorbitant fees. Hence, as their dreams are hoist on different wavelengths, so does their friendship wane.

The 14-year-old Tshepo, on the other hand, notwithstanding his tender age, is consumed in the politics that shape the African’s destiny.

Inspired by his brother Mohau, who is a student leader and revolutionary, Tshepo joins the comrades.

Secondly, the heroine is burdened by her sister’s pregnancy and how she feels it would condemn her to the slums of their birth.

Thirdly, she frets about her skin colour; she is light-skinned unlike her mother, sister and other children in her community.

As events play out, Tihelo at 14 joins the ANC student movement, the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). With the police vans and hippos intimidatingly patrolling the townships, students who feel hard done by the unfolding closures of schools, are inspired by their fear to take the police head on. They demand the release of their fellow comrades, and an end to political atrocities.

Reminiscent of the 1976 massacre of students and the Sharpeville bloodbath of 1960, the police callously open fire into the protesting students in yet another gory stunner. Tihelo’s SASO comrades Thabang, Dikeledi, Peter and scores of others are massacred.

The resultant police round-up, nets among others, the protagonist, her mother and sister who is still recovering from a near fatal abortion at the behest of her young sister (Tihelo) who got a concoction from a classmate, Lebo, to help her “regain her periods”.

The women are dehumanised through body searches in their nudity, and rape. They carry their silent shame back to their communities, where the wounds are opened anew as the society shares their humiliation, and the oppressive apparatus remains in place.

Meanwhile, Mohau and Tshepo are in exile, Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu are incarcerated and Steve Biko is assassinated. Tihelo who shrewdly escapes rape, but is detained for six months, is hospitalised because of the trauma and torture she goes through at the hands of the police.

Subsequently, the puzzle of her glaringly light skin is unlocked through Mma Kleintjie and Ausi Martha. Now 15, she learns that she is coloured, that her mother Diana, a white woman was barred by the law to marry a black man; that her father Setshiro died in prison for falling in love across the bar; and that her Mama is her father’s sister who raised her as her daughter along with Keitumetse, since she was a day old, because her white grandparents disowned her.

With her Mama’s blessings, she writes Diana who now lives in Canada, a letter, which she hopes to post. Such is the burden that women carry as they fight running battles from within and without.

Share This: