BOOK REVIEW: Quirky travelogue on life in an upside-down land
Travel writer Sihle Khumalo goes looking for the heart of the state of the nation
Rainbow Nation My Zulu Arse
Sihle Khumalo Umuzi
Penguin Random House
In Rainbow Nation My Zulu Arse travel writer Sihle Khumalo casts his gaze on our rainbow nation and it’s a zoom through our country that is funny and thought-provoking.
The first leg of the journey begins at a cracking pace. And it continues that way. Taking his wife and two children they visit areas of political, historical interest such as Sharpeville and Boipatong. He writes: “Leaving Boipatong, I spotted youngsters sitting on verandas and pavements sharing 750ml beer bottles. I checked the time. It was 09:54” — and such details of the social fabric of life in SA today pepper Khumalo’s story. Woven through his visit is an account of the Boipatong Massacre that occurred in 1993.
The solo journey begins the next morning with a drive to Limpopo. Khumalo’s warm and quirky humour is revealed in his hunt for (affordable) accommodation.
At the backpackers where he has booked for the night he finds the gate locked. A conversation with a man on a cellphone — in both English and Afrikaans — reveals that he must wait for the gate to be opened by another man who may or may not have gone to a shebeen.
This is all recounted in Khumalo’s wry voice, which had me smiling throughout the travelogue, and leads him eventually to another place for the night. For Khumalo is on a budget, which leads him to comment, in an aside, that he would like to visit Mapungubwe National Park. But one has to budget carefully, he says. “For example, you have to fork out R2,000 for a cottage. How do they expect a previously-and-still-disadvantaged individual like me to visit such places?”
In KwaZulu-Natal Khumalo visits the Blood River heritage site (where the Battle of Blood River took place) and Ncume Museum, which is actually two museums, one public, one private. One explains events from an Afrikaner perspective, one from a Zulu perspective. It’s a vigorous nod to the divisions of our past.
He also visits a number of grave sites along the journey. This KwaZulu-Natal leg finds him exploring a Boer mass grave on KwaMatiwane Hill where Piet Retief and others had been killed, to Albert Luthuli’s grave, to King Shaka’s grave.
Khumalo laments that so many Zulu women are unheralded in its history. The fact that the grave of Shaka’s mother, Nandi, is a small timber plate with “Nandi’s grave” handwritten on it, emphasises this point.
Khumalo’s journey through the Free State leaves him philosophically pondering the idea that South Africans should be called "The Pretenders", a reference to the fact that “black South Africans are expected to live as if they were invented in a laboratory and have no history”.
In Bloemfontein he visits the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church where in 1912 a conference that led to the formation of the precursor of the ANC was held. He is shocked. He is not allowed to take photographs. No wonder. There is nothing to suggest the vital history that took place here; instead there is only memorabilia from sporting teams that have played through the years. He’s left angrily contemplative, asking if the ANC cannot take care of its own history, “why are we expecting it to deliver on other issues?”
In the Eastern Cape, Khumalo once more goes off the beaten track, exploring small inland towns. And, of course, he visits Qunu, where Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born and grew up. He visits the Nelson Mandela Museum, with its replica of Mandela’s Robben Island cell, with its views across Qunu valley. He detours to the Steve Biko Centre, while providing a history of Biko’s life and death, and then visits Biko’s graveside too. This is as a much a travelogue as a journey through SA’s past, both immediate and more distant.
The next chapter is wryly titled, The Republic of the Western Cape, in which the beauty of the Cape beguiles.
In the vast Northern Cape, Khumalo takes in the stars in Sutherland, drives huge distances and gives a sense of the vastness of this unpopulated region. He ponders the raw deal that the Khoisan community were offered under the new democracy in 1994. A visit to the white enclave of Orania is included – another stark reminder of our country’s divisions.
In the North West, he is struck by how badly named we are as a country, with SA being merely a geographical moniker. He suggests some alternatives, such as taking a new name from geographical landmarks such as the Orange River or the Kalahari Desert. And his humour is in full tilt here as he segues into what we could then name ourselves. We could be Orrimba, he says but we will then be called, “Orrimbians. Admittedly, it sounds like beings from another solar system”.
Khumalo’s journey is colourful indeed. Packed with research and history, he masterfully captures the complexities of our country today. You might not agree with some of his salty opinions, but they are all worth thinking about. And he gave me an appetite for further exploration of this vast, funny, sometimes upside place we call home.