Modikwe Dikobe was born in Seabe, in what is today Mpumalanga, in 1913. He worked as a hawker, domestic worker and nightwatchman, and also became a leader in the squatter movements of the 1940s. He wrote poetry and a novel, Marabi Dance. Marabi is a form of South African jazz that developed in the 1920s and 1930s. It may have been named after Marabastad, a multicultural township in Pretoria. The music developed in places like shebeens, and what were called ‘slumyards’ – areas of rented rooms and backyard shacks in the cities which were home to a mixed, but mostly black, working class population.
The novel is set in the slumyards of the 1930s. This gives a picture of black urban life just before Apartheid. While there was already plenty of racial injustice, segregationist laws and pass raids, it shows a brief moment when there were more ways in which black people could live in the city while avoiding government control. The novel is about a young girl who is caught between the traditional lifestyle of her parents, and the urban life of parties, boys and Marabi music. The extract you will find here shows one of the main causes of mass urbanisation: African women moving to the cities looking for their husbands who had gone to work and never returned, or perhaps running away in the hope of greater freedom from male authority than in the countryside. Once in the city, they often made a place for themselves in the informal economy by brewing beer, doing laundry, or the like.
Author: Modikwe Dikobe
How Ma-Ndlovu became a Marabi queen was as follows.
Ma-Ndlovu had come from Zululand in search of her young husband Vuzi who had left her when she was three months pregnant. She had borne him a baby girl and waited three years before venturing venturing Taking on a task with a dangerous or uncertain outcome. to look for him. She had heard that he was living with another woman at Prospect Township and she arrived with her daughter at the station early one afternoon. She hired a ricksha ricksha A two-wheeled cart pulled by a person. to take her to a house in the township. After paying the ricksha puller, she pleaded with him to wait until she had been admitted admitted Let in. to the house.
She went to the door and knocked. “Ngena – come in,” answered a voice from inside.
Ma-Ndlovu hesitated hesitated Paused before doing something, possibly because of uncertainty. and tightly fastened fastened Tied. the cloth that tied her baby to her back. A woman came to the door and told her to come inside instead of waiting outside like a witch hypnotized hypnotized Put into a trance; controlled. by medicines. She went in and waited to be greeted.
“Hau mfazi, you come into my house and do not greet me!”
Ma-Ndlovu explained that she was a Zulu and it was not her custom to greet first.
At this a man stepped in without knocking and sat on a hard bench near the bed.
“Baba, Baba,” cried the child of the house.
“Go to your father,” said the woman to the child.
He took the child from her and placed it on his lap. The child kissed its father and began searching his pockets for sweets.
fumbled To feel or grope about clumsily.
“Baba, ape ama sweet.”
The man fumbled from one pocket to another and produced a brown paper packet.
Only then Vuzi Madonda recognised his first wife. He was stunned and greeted her in a feeble voice: “Sakubona Ma-Ndlovu.”
“Sakubona Baba ica Tandi – Greetings, father of Tandi.”
The woman of the house breathed heavily and stared in puzzlement puzzlement Confusion. at her husband and the strange woman.
“Ma-Khumalo!” the man said to her, “this woman is my wife from Zululand.” The look on Ma-Khumalo’s face changed from curiosity to anger, from anger to bewilderment. bewilderment Confusion. From the movement of her thick lips she appeared to be muttering something but it was impossible to hear what she was saying. Then she walked across to Vuzi, picked up her child and left the room without saying a word.
Vuzi and Ma-Ndlovu sat watching each other unspeaking until the silence was broken by a complaint from Tandi.
“Why have you come here without telling me?” demanded Vuzi.
“How could I tell you when you have not been writing or sending money?”
The man left the house and returned a little later with a loaf of bread and a bottle of cool drink and gave them to his wife. She broke the bread with her hands and handed a big piece to the child and let it drink from the bottle. When the child had done with the bottle, she took it and drank from it herself.
“I must find you a place to sleep,” said Vuzi. He left the room and was heard speaking to a neighbour who lived a few doors away. A few minutes later this woman entered the room and greeted Ma-Ndlovu.
“Come with me, mfazi.” Ma-Ndlovu followed the neighbour in silence.
When they had entered her room, she asked if they had eaten. On hearing what they had had, she brought a plate of hard porridge and meat and looked on while they ate.
Ma-Khumalo returned to Vuzi’s house after an hour’s absence with two men and several women. The men carried sticks and the women wore heavy rugs over their heads.
“Madonda, we have come to inquire why you have brought another woman into this house.” The voice was that of one of the men.
“The woman who has come tonight,” answered Madonda, “is my wife from Zululand. I told Ma-Khumalo that I had a wife at home. I have not chased Ma-Khumalo out.”
“You are a liar!” snapped Ma-Khumalo and threatened to land a blow on Madonda’s head.
“Madoda,” Madonda appealed to the men, “if you cannot control this woman, please get out and take her away with you before I smash your heads to bits!” He got up from his chair and brandished brandished Waved in anger, or as a threat. three sticks which he seized from the table. Ma-Khumalo, knowing his temper and courage, entreated entreated Ask someone sincerely or anxiously. him to be calm.
“Hau Baba! Hau Baba,” she implored. implored Begged.
“Puma! Puma! Out!” cried Madonda in a fury.
The women pleaded with the men to leave, and tried to explain that Ma-Khumalo did not know that the woman was his wife from Zululand.
“She will not object to her remaining in the house.”
Ma-Ndlovu and her hostess in the nearby room heard all that was said in the House.
‘Umadoda ezi nja – men are dogs,’ said her hostess. Ma-Ndlovu nodded and smiled.
The women tried as best they could to live together as wives of the one man. They cooked alternately and washed for him, but Ma-Khumalo made it impossible for Ma-Ndlovu to share a bed with him. She told her friends that Ma-Ndlovu, a “nodindwa”, which means a prostitute, would never sleep with Madonda. Whenever Ma-Ndlovu went out in the evening and Madonda followed, she also came out and demanded to know what they were about so late at night.
After many months of living together, Ma-Ndlovu learnt some of the ways in which the location women made money without the knowledge of their husbands. Instead of being gloomy gloomy Sad and depressed. and unhappy she became radiant radiant Bright with joy and hope. and bright, and her husband became jealous and threatened to send her back home. But Ma-Ndlovu took no heed took no heed Paid no attention to. of his threats. One evening when Madonda returned from work he found that Ma-Ndlovu and the child were not at home. He inquired from Ma-Khumalo where she had gone to.
“I don’t know what she does. You paid a lot of cattle for her and for me you paid nothing! Ha-ha! Your good wife of the kraal! We of the towns are bad and prostitutes! Go and find her yourself.”
Madonda asked the woman with whom Ma-Ndlovu had spent the first days of her arrival if she knew where she had gone.
“She said she had been promised work somewhere in the mine quarters and that she was going to take the work even if she was not well paid. She would not be treated like a virgin by her own husband from whom she had learned to be a woman. She said you could remain with your town wife.”
So Ma-Ndlovu worked in the mine quarters and sold beer in the evening in the mine dumps. It was here that she met a Portuguese East African Portuguese East African Mozambican. mine worker and made love to him. She introduced him to her employer as her husband. On some occasions, Alberto came to sleep on the premises and worked in the garden at the weekends and helped to clean the windows. He accompanied her to the mine dumps to sell beer and stood guard against any untoward untoward Troublesome, unexpected. events. They returned late in the evening to count the money they made and hid it under the mattress. Alberto gave his monthly wages and brought the child Tandi dresses from the concession store.
Ma-Ndlovu’s employers loved Tandi and taught her to speak English and Afrikaans. After a few months’ practice, she could speak better than her mother. “Ma, kom hier,” she would summon her in Afrikaans: “I don’t like jam,” she would say.
They both saved money in the Post Office and sent money home to their parents when they felt it was necessary.
“Hau! Nge fumene indoda – I have found a man,” Ma-Ndlovu boasted to other women.
A few months later the mine closed, and Mr and Mrs Reenen and their children were very sorry to part with Tandi and her mother. They bought dolls and dresses, and shoes and a picture book. Alberto went to look for a room in Prospect Township and when he found one he moved his ‘wife’ and ‘child’ to their new location home. Their room was a few streets away from Madonda’s house and Ma-Ndlovu made up her mind that she would never allow him to interfere with her new husband. Alberto had made many friends on the mines and they would come to her aid if any trouble arose.
“Ama-Russia asoku lungisa – the Russians Russians A gang made up of migrant Sotho men, mostly mine-workers. will fix him!” Alberto told her.
The blanketed men from Basutoland were her beer customers and the Shangaans from her husband’s home brought her wine rations and called her “Mama”.
Fah-fee A gambling game. Chinaman This is a racist term. commissions Money earned by making a sale.
Alberto’s contract of service with the mines expired. If he wished, he could renew the contract for a further three years, as he had done in the past, or leave the mines and continue as a Fah-fee runner for a Chinaman. He made easy money from his commissions, and a promise of a weekly allowance from the Chinaman enabled him to refuse a fourth contract with the mines. His new employer had him registered with the Pass Office as a domestic worker. He learned the art of dealing with the police and discovered how to slip through their cordons. cordons Lines or circles of people (like police) blocking access to an area. If he was caught, Mr Pin would bail him out or pay a fine so as to avoid a court hearing.
Alberto and Ma-Ndlovu became popular through selling beer and running Marabi Dances and Fah-fee games. They were respected by many as wealthy and peaceful people.
- Why did Ma-Ndlovu go to the city? What did she find there?
- How did women survive the city? What jobs did they take on?
- Ma-Ndlovu is supposed to be dependent on men, and waiting patiently at home.
- How does she change as a person? How does she challenge this expectation?
- How does she become wealthy and powerful?
- What allows Alberto to stop working on the mines? Do you think most people had this choice?
- The writer describes Ma-Ndlovu and Alberto as respectable and wealthy. Think about how they made a living – how do you think the government would have seen them? Why do you think the government would have seen them like this?
- The story is set in the 1930s, before Apartheid was officially established. What parts of Apartheid are present in the story? Can you find any things that are different to how they would have been under Apartheid?