Kgebetli Moele knows no fear when it comes to picking the most challenging narrators for his novels. His debut, Room 207 (2006), was straightforward enough, telling the story from the perspective of a young man trying to survive the highs and lows of Hillbrow. However, the follow-up, The Book of the Dead (2009), began as an ordinary third-person narrative, and then, in the middle switched to the most unusual first-person narrator. Quite shockingly, the storyteller who took over was no other than HIV personified. It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part that drove home the ruthlessness with which the idea of the virus operates in present-day South Africa. Moele’s latest offering is no less daring. In Untitled (2013), he writes from the perspective of Mokgethi, a seventeen year-old girl who is struggling to navigate puberty in a poverty-stricken community that seems to offer no breaks but only broken lives to young people, girls in particular.
As Untitled’s simple but effective cover signals, the novel is Mokgethi’s school notebook. But its innocent look is frighteningly deceiving. The book opens with the narrator’s attempt at expressing herself in poetry, and the striking statement at the bottom of the page which is intended as the last line of a poem: “I now pronounce myself deflowered”. But this is no story of a teenage romance which will end for the heroine with an unforgettable First Time with the Boy of Her Dreams. Instead, Untitled is a devastating chronicle of other unforgettables: the abuse and violence – emotional, psychological and physical – that girls face in South Africa.
Mokgethi and her brother Khutso grow up with their maternal family after their mother dies and their father starts another family. The father pays maintenance for the children and he very clumsily tries to establish contact with them, but he is never around when needed most, and his money disappears into the pockets of Mokgethi’s aunt and grandmother instead of being used for her education as intended. She is taken out of the private school she’d attended and her dreams of going to a top university are threatened, but the situation is never explained to her. Confused, she attempts to figure out the adults around her, but the task is simply too overwhelming. Even though she does not understand everything she witnesses, she is a keen observer and she cannot help seeing what is happening to the girls in her community.
Pheladi is raped by a taxi driver when she is eleven, and at fourteen she aborts her first child. Lebo is seduced by the local school principal into having phone sex with him before he repeatedly rapes her. Little Bonolo is raped by her class teacher when she is eleven. When she lays charges against her attacker, the police allow him to threaten her into abandoning the case: “Go ahead, open a docket – I will visit jail but you will sleep at the mortuary … I will be out in time to help dig your grave.” Tebogo dies in the toilet on a hot day, naked and bleeding, after the last of three abortions that she has had that year. MmaSetshaba is raped and married off to her rapist by her family to erase the shame cast on both families. A few cows change hands to seal the deal.
Under the circumstances, there is no escape for Mokgethi. When he rapes her the perpetrator tells Mokgethi that he loves her while she begs him repeatedly to stop hurting her. “Cry, little girls of my beloved country,” she writes, “the Bonolos, the Pheladis, the Lebos and the Dineos that have to live, are living, in communities full of men who prey on us every day.”
Mokgethi spares us no details. Unable, however, to process what she is witnessing, her traumatised voice constantly splits into first and third person: “In the part of this big world where I live, young girls are celebrated for a short time, the beautiful ones worshipped until they fall. Yes, we all do fall. I knew Mokgethi’s fall was coming, I knew. I do not know why I call it a fall, but when you have fallen the celebration stops and then you see your surroundings differently.” The layout of the novel – Mokgethi’s notebook – suggests a fragmented, unprocessed reality that is way beyond its young narrator.
And if all these horrors the girls encounter are not enough, their community’s response to them is even more terrifying. At the most basic level, the double standards for the genders are encapsulated in Mokgethi’s comment: “That is what I have seen in all parents; they like it when their sons are breaking girls’ hearts but they hate it when boys are playing with their daughters.” The male perpetrators are tolerated or at worst excused. Concepts like "statutory rape" or "paedophile", Mokgethi tells us, are “only relevant in law books and not in social reality.” The blame for what happens to these girls is always laid at their doorstep – because they “wanted it”, because they are “influencing the break-up of families and marriages” (when the perpetrators are married!). “Community, please stop turning a blind eye and blaming us,” Mokgethi pleads.
Reading Mokgethi’s notebook is heart-wrenching because it’s true. Although Untitled is a work of fiction, the author said in an interview that he based the novel on authentic stories told to him by girls and women he knows.
The real story’s title is The War on Girls. We have to stop it.
by Kgebetli Moele
Cape Town: Kwela, 2013