BOOK REVIEW: Writers’ tales trace brave lives that beat the odds
Power FM presenter Rappetti and communication strategist Nhlapo paint vivid pictures of past in memoirs, writes Rehana Rossouw
At a time when racial identity is hardening in some communities and lies are being spread abroad about a racial genocide, it is a delight to encounter two brilliant writers who, like millions of South Africans, hold multiple identities and have shed some with the force of their will.
Power FM presenter Iman Rappetti paints potent pictures of her past with brutal honesty and sweet affection as she reflects on the forces that shaped her.
Her "wounding years" came at the start of her life, when she lived with her family in an outbuilding in Reservoir Hills, Durban, following her father’s excommunication from his wealthy family as punishment for marrying a coloured woman. Her grandmother, who complained constantly about Rappetti’s unruly curly hair, called her Venesha.
Her eldest brother, Anthony, known as Prakash by the Indian half of the family, was left behind when Rappetti (a home affairs official misspelled Rapiti) moved with the rest of her family to Phoenix. She was known to all there as Vanessa and went to services at the Living Waters Full Gospel Church.
The two halves of her family duelled over her father’s coffin at his funeral — "all that was missing was that toe-tapping banjo soundtrack that typically accompanies a saloon brawl in a Western" — as one half insisted he be cremated and the other half resisted.
Because she was not fully a member of the coloured community where she spent her youth, and definitely not one of "God’s Favourites" (people with the right hair and skin), Rappetti brings an outcast’s eye to the fine details that determine rank in a neighbourhood with nothing much and the result is stomach-clenching hilarity.
Her marriage was almost as dramatic as her father’s funeral. She and her boyfriend, Earl, converted to Islam and her name changed again, to Iman. Her outlook on life changed too.
Her media career started in Iran, after she discovered to her horror that no matter how much religious law she studied, the only person she could assist when she became a female Islamic jurist was herself — because she is a woman. So instead, she hosted a television current affairs programme.
Rappetti’s description of a husband’s treatment of her chador-wearing neighbour is probably one that all her readers will dine out on for years. She doesn’t describe it as the final straw, but she left Islam and her husband and transformed again.
Her writing is drop-dead gorgeous, but some of her sentences are so rich that they sag under the weight of her poetic words. Her tone is mostly that of an intimate conversation — it is as though she is seated on a couch next to a reader relating her incredible life story.
And yet. Despite surviving several trials and tribulations, Rappetti describes how she "dies a little more" every time she encounters people who "wear the crimes of others on their bodies or deep within their psyches" — when as a journalist she examines the lives of people who live "inside a sewer-lined periphery of freedom".
In her autobiography, journalist and communication strategist Thuli Nhlapo’s tone has no trace of self-pity despite the brutality meted out by relatives on her tiny body. She was seven years old when she realised that no one called her by her real name, Khabonina.
Her relatives called her Mabovana, a reference to her light-skinned complexion, a yellow thing, or Boesman. The realisation came when a cousin beat her brutally in an effort to discover whether a Boesman child had the same colour blood as the rest of the family.
Nhlapo was born in Ga-Rankuwa and raised in a yard with four houses ruled with an iron fist by her paternal grandmother. The family wasn’t poor, despite the aunties who had many children and little work. But when there were any treats to hand out, she was shunned.
She was determined to pass matric well and study further to build her own life, and by the age of 15 could read and write four languages. She was educated in isiZulu in her matric year, despite never having spoken the language before. Now she can speak, read and write 11 South African languages
Nhlapo’s stepfather made it clear she was not his blood and her mother raised no objections when her siblings were favoured and she was treated like dirt. Throughout her childhood, Nhlapo’s mother constantly reminded her that she cried daily when she was pregnant with her, but refused to say why.
In the 1980s, her family moved to a small village on the border between Mpumalanga and Swaziland and she recalls "smiling for the first time without being afraid that someone was going to punch me".
But as soon as she had settled into a new school and a new culture, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother with no explanation.
The old woman had several grandchildren to feed on her meagre pension and Nhlapo learnt entrepreneurial skills to keep hunger at bay.
She was determined to pass matric well and study further to build her own life, and by the age of 15 could read and write four languages. She was educated in isiZulu in her matric year, despite never having spoken the language before. Now she can speak, read and write 11 South African languages.
As she struggled to complete her education, Nhlapo was passed from one relative to another and tossed out onto the street for the smallest infractions. She persevered, completed her education, found work and became a professional. But when she was finally comfortable and financially secure, her health deteriorated mysteriously.
She was taken to traditional healers by a succession of concerned friends. All had the same message: her ancestors were attempting contact. But without knowing who her father was, she could not respond. Nhlapo set off on a quest to discover who her father was, had a surprising encounter with an Afrikaner man who claimed her despite the fact that he wasn’t blood and finally discovered the shocking truth — her real father had been hiding in plain sight all of her life.
Free from the chains of apartheid, both writers blossomed into leaders in the media and their books are guides towards a future SA in which people break down the invisible boundaries between races.
Disclosure: I have worked with Rappetti and Nhlapo. I thought I knew them, but it turns out I knew little of their struggles and achievements. I’m gobsmacked and gagging for more.