Book review: Thwala unpacks hard hitting realities of the past

THWALA, written by Shaw Park Primary teacher, Eve Clayton, unpacks the practice of ukuthwala – the forced marriage of young women and girls in the Xhosa culture.

The novel, a fictional story, is set in the 1990s when South Africa was in in the throes of unshackling itself from the oppressive grip of apartheid. The novel tells a story of a white famer who seduced his black labourer’s 16-year-old daughter and got her pregnant.

The farmer, Andrew Christy (Ncoko), is married with two daughters and faces an intense loneliness as his wife and daughters choose to stay in town and only return to the farm on the weekend. Andrew struggles with the loneliness and eventually succumbs to his lust for the beautiful and seductive young girl, Nosuthu, the daughter of his foreman and domestic worker.

When the pregnancy is revealed, fear of the consequences of birthing a child that is half black and half white grips her parents who stand to lose their livelihoods and stance within their village. Scared and confused, Nosuthu’s parents, Khanya and Zanobuhle visit the sangoma, Tshuka, who advised the parents that the umlungu’s child must live. The sangoma uses the belief and the fear of angered ancestors to finalise the decisions and instruct Khanya and Zanobuhle to arrange a marriage for the girl and to get payment from Andrew.

In an effort to avoid the disgrace of impregnating a young black girl, Andrew agrees to the terms set forth by the sangoma and to pay for the marriage to Phelapi, a lazy, abusive man with a tendency to reach for the bottle. He was the only suitable potential husband who would accept Nosuthu in her state.

Nosuthu is vehemently against marrying Phelapi and in rebellion fell into a protest of silence, withdrawing and ignoring everyone who came near her. A passage from the book reads: “There could be no pretending that this was a love match, or even a marriage of convenience. Nosuthu’s behaviour announced to the world that the marriage was one of unpleasant necessity, and everyone knew it. It seemed likely the old custom of ukuthwala would have to be employed where the husband kidnapped the bride, and he and his family convinced her that the marriage would be a good idea.

“’Help me!’ she screamed again, into the wide and shocked eyes of the little girls and boys as they watched transfixed in silence, as if they were some kind of animal being dragged to the slaughter. ‘No one will come, you stupid girl! They know you are my wife,’ Phelapi hissed. But he was wrong; Miriam came running back with the child, but stopped a short distance away. She knew immediately that she was witnessing the thwala. Her eyes were distressed, and she felt she could not bear to watch as her brother kidnapped the young woman with unnecessary force.”

Nosuthu survives her thwala and moves to Cape Town. Her and Andrew’s son, Mandla, becomes a significant character in the story, despite his troubled upbringing. An in-depth character is revealed through the boy and he eventually finds some success with soccer.

Eve Clayton can be contacted on 081 3794682/