A Writer’s Lot

So here I am in Sun City. I could tell you about all of them in my sleep, but I won’t. Well, not a lot. I would rather tell you about the guy who landed me here.
It always began with emails.
Dear Mr. Dube,
I am a journalist from New York Times/ Times/ Newsweek/ Le Monde/ The Guardian” et cetera et cetera. Then there are the flattering platitudes about how the journalist loves my first work of fiction, Township Stories. And then, inevitably, it ends, “I will be in Johannesburg from ____________ to ____________ and would love to interview you as one of the literary torchbearers in post-apartheid South Africa.
Sometimes it would be a male journalist.

Most of the time, it would be a woman trying to understand how I survived ‘growing up under apartheid’ and trying to show me and the rest of their readers in the Global North just how liberal they are. “There is this amazing South African writer, Sifiso Dube, you should read him. When I first read him, I thought, this is truly South Africa’s Chinua Achebe.” Because of course, it could never be enough that I am just me, and their audience needed a reference of the only African writer they knew. When it was a female journalist, there would be sex. It seemed inevitable – the price I paid, or the prize I received, depending really on how good the sex was, for fame.
And that’s just it, Joe. When I set out to write Township Stories, I was a township boy, a Wits dropout who never imagined the book would get as big as it has. Of course it is every writer’s fantasy to be published, but at the most, I thought it might be read in Cape Town. I never imagined it would go international, let alone be translated into all the major UN languages. Eish. It was a boost to a man’s ego.
But then, amajita see me in the newspapers and on TV or hear me on the radio and they would conclude I am now a grootman. There was never understanding that five months after my first book was published, I had not received my first royalty cheque in a publishing industry that rarely gives first time writers advances. I was luckier than most of course and immediately got some freelance gigs with some newspapers reviewing books because suddenly the fuckers who would never have employed me as a receptionist decided I was now the man. With a little change in my pocket, you know what? I found myself playing the part of the big man that my boys had decided I was.
I mean, how was I to tell majimbos that just because they saw me on TV yesterday, the two hundred rand that I had in my pocket was what was left between me and poverty? How could I explain having bylines in papers and being seen on television yet being as financially embarrassed as I often found myself? And so I would buy a round, or two then feign tiredness and walk to Carlton Centre to take one of those illegal taxis that would have ten of us in a six-seater for twenty rand each to ferry us ekasi. No, I was not still staying with my mother, who do you think I was? A man with no self-respect? In keeping up with my supposed status, I had been renting a cottage in the hip Melville since I became famous, but when it was late and I was in the new artists’ ‘it’ Maboneng precinct, I always found myself travelling to my mother’s house in Pimville. It was cheaper than the fare I would otherwise have to pay.
The better part of the fame, of course, were amacherry who suddenly wanted to know me. Particularly the reading Model C types who would never have looked at me twice when I passed them. They would come up to me and say, “I just wanted to say Sifiso (this type never ghettoise your name and call you Fistos), your book really moved me. I have a cousin/uncle/ half-brother/step-brother (never brother) who is so like your protagonist” before they gave some excuse to give me their number. Generally it was the old and tired, ‘I am also a writer and I would like you to read my manuscript’ although I never got to see most of the said manuscripts. Before I knew it, I would find myself making love with this hot woman whom I never thought I could have had in my wildest dreams. Soon I got tired of them though because they always wanted to be the protagonist in my next book/ novella/ short story or, at the least, that I should dedicate my next work to them. Because of the literary groupies and the number of women I got to shag since Township Stories came out, I began to think of myself as the thinking groupies’ kwaito star. I knew I was getting as much play with women as any kwaito or house singer you could name. Only with me, I was actually getting the intelligent women not the airhead video groupies.
But back to the international journalists.
What I did not bargain for was the intellectual exploitation I would get from them. Sonny! At first, I dug it. What better way to publicise my book? Write a short story for us, do an interview — but eventually I saw through it.
I was being exploited.
They would do interviews and earn megabucks selling the story of who they thought I was. They would ask me for a short story, and I, bloody fool that I was, excited that I was getting an international platform, would write it and never ask for payment, or when I got payment, it would be measly while they got rich off the sweat of my brow — or mind.
They would come and ask me, for no pay, “can you give us a tour to Soweto?” and I would do it, man.
Do it thinking it was part of the interview and would help my stature but, I would not get a penny for my time – well, save for the free drinks when I met a kindred spirit in alcohol in the form of a journo.
I am a writer first above all else of course, but what these international journalists did not understand and never enquired about was that, unlike counterparts in certain countries, the South African government department responsible for art does not pay writers or any other artists in general to do what they are good at, so, if I was not freelancing and I was still many months away from their royalty cheque, they would rely on the kindness of family and friends to eat.And talking about royalty cheques, publishers really have a talent for screwing first time writers. When my publisher told me my book was going for a reprint after just three months, I was ecstatic. Three months later when I received my first royalty cheque, I cried. Some of these motherfuckers should be serving a bigger prison sentence than I am for their gross violation of writers’ drinking money.
But I digress.
So three months ago I get an email from a journalist for some Scandinavian paper. He tells me he is coming to South Africa, would like to do an interview with me warawara, and I should give him a tour of Soweto because he has ‘always followed South African politics, Mandela is my role model, and I think it’s a shame what happened to your people with the forced removals in Sophiatown. I am also impressed with the way you bring the South African township to reality and would love to get a tour of Soweto with you.
I was already known in his country by people who matter, and I know I should have pulled a JM Coetzee and said ‘I don’t do interviews,’ but I responded and said, “Yeah. We can meet.”
Fame is a terrible thing, Joe. It gets to a man’s head. I should have left it well alone.
Of course I started laughing after reading the email because I was thinking to myself ‘damn these motherfuckers. Why do they always exhort Mandela’s name in all things South African?’ And of course I am equally amused by the whole Sophiatown bullshit. Goddammit, it was twenty years before I was born!
I told myself that this was the punk that had to pay me. I was done with being a free tour guide for these Western journalists. If he wanted a tour of Soweto, he should have gone to Gauteng Tourism Authority and paid for it like everyone else. Since he insisted on a personalised tour with Soweto’s literary cover boy, he was going to have to pay me more than what it would cost with the tourism authority
I have two children to look after and I don’t have a steady income.
And yes, before you ask, the children have two different mothers. But I wasn’t trying to be a cliché. I really wasn’t. One was an honest-to-the-gods-and-ancestors mistake and the other one, well, I think the woman wanted to trap me because she saw I was going places. But I did my bit, you know. When I had a clipper or two, I would drink sixty percent and divide the remains between the two children. I tried to be a good father. I think I am a better father than most, which, if you know the brotherhood of fathers in my hood, or Sperm Donors as the bitter ex’s like to call us, is not saying much but it is still something.
Anyway, back to this Scandinavian journo, Marcus, who landed me in this place. He arrived in Johannesburg and we agreed to meet. He had a rented car. I asked him how much he was going to pay me for the tour in a jocular tone though I am serious as the proverbial heart attack. He told me he couldn’t pay me anything except for food and drinks incurred during the course of our journey because he had no money.
Around his throat was hanging a beautiful Leica camera though. I had taken some photography classes some years back and I knew just how much it was worth.
So I got on my cell to one of my boys’ ekasi and told them all about it.
“We’ll pass by The Rock around ten in the evening.” I told him in Tsotsitaal with the victim looking on uncomprehendingly and smiling foolishly in the way of an ethnographer who attempts to be comfortable with any and all different surroundings. There and then, my boys and I had set in motion a plan to relieve him of all the money he claimed not to have and that expensive camera. I was sick and tired of starving while these punks stayed in five star hotels all under the pretext of coming to interview me while not even caring whether I had a ten cent piece . That night was going to be the day of reckoning. I asked him to pick me up at four.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we travelled earlier during the day?” Marcus asked sounding doubtful.
“Two hours will give us sufficient time for you to be able to take some photographs while the light is there, and we can also have dinner and I have a deadline on an article.”
I did not. But he was not going to come and dictate terms to me on my territory. In any case, it would have been difficult for my boys to execute our plan in daylight.
And then just as a coup-de-grace, I gave him the if-you-are-too-chicken speech, “Soweto actually comes alive after seven because everyone works during the day, but if you would rather go during the day…” I left the sentence hanging while shrugging my shoulders again.
He jumped to bait like I knew he would, wanting to show me the face of a fearless white man. See, we were two men. A black African man and a white European man and he thought he could read my mind. That white people are too scared to confront black people in their own backyard. He feared, because he had read it in my book, that as a black man, I thought that he would not be able to hang, that he was a victim of the swart gevaar tactics as espoused by the white South African expatriates that may have run to his country.
“No, it’s cool, we go when you say. I pick you up at four, ja?” he answered trying to sound cool with his deeply accented English─although of course, the same could be said for me when I speak by some first language English speakers.
Marcus arrived at six on the dot.I was not dressed yet although I had showered. He waited while I picked some clothes that would not make him feel too intimidated, but that would make me fit in when I got back to the hood – my Pirates cap, a hoodie, a pair of jeans and of course, All-Stars on my feet.
I took him on a circuitous route via Soweto Highway which allowed him to stop and take photographs.
Welcome to Soweto sign. Click.
Soweto Towers. Click. Click.
My childhood home in Emdeni. Click. Click. Click.
8115 Vilakazi Street. “Sorry it’s already closed but maybe you can come during the day when it’s open if you contact Gauteng Tourism Authority.” It didn’t stop him. Click. Click. Click. Click.Click.
Later, we stopped for dinner at Nambitha just so that he could see a few white people and not feel too out of place. He was drinking Black Label beers as per my advice. I needed a clear head for the job ahead. I was drinking juice. I told him I was on antibiotics. After dinner, we hung out at one or two shebeens in Dube. He drank some more while I sipped slowly as I got in conversation with people around me. Having noticed that he was a little sloshed, I asked him whether he wanted to meet some black girls. He was enthusiastic – as I suspected he would be – and so I suggested we leave and head to a nightclub.
As we pulled in at The Rock, with me on the wheel, as I was more sober, my boys came by with some toy guns probably taken from their children at home.
“Mlungu, and you,” looking at me, “bloody agent. It’s time for reparations.Give us your wallets and cell phones or we shoot.”
Marcus, in his drunken haze asked, “Are we being robbed?”
I had not thought my guy Mzwakhe would have that reparations line in his vocabulary. It was all I could do not to applaud. So instead I nodded my head and said, “Better do as they say otherwise they will kill us.”
I handed over my wallet and my cell phone to one of my boys and then in fear, Marcus did the same.
“Your camera back there? Bring that too. Don’t waste time,” Mzwakhe said again sounding threatening.
I let Marcus lean back, pick it from the back seat and pass it on. All the time I keep saying, “Eish,” like I could not believe this was happening to me and I was in shock.
When they left, Marcus looked at me and asked, “I thought you said we would be alright.” He was disillusioned. He thought he was travelling with one of the township legends and here he was, robbed of all his euros and his Leica camera.
I shook my head and said, “Eish, who knew? I am so sorry Marcus. I have come here so many times and this has never happened. In fact, just last week I was here with X of New York Times,’” I said name-dropping to show how this was truly a first-time experience for me. “But you know what, to be safe, we’ll have to go to a police station in Melville or in town because if we use one this side, when we come out of the police station, some other crooks may have taken your tyres.”
“What? They would do that at a police station?” He asked disbelieving.
“Listen,” I said taking a deep breath and sighing as though this wasthe most embarrassing story I had to tell about my Soweto, “policemen in this neighbourhood are so scared of criminals this side that even they hire security companies to sign in people at the gates of their police stations.”
The reality hit him.
He seemed to have sobered up and gotten years older in the few minutes it took for us to be ‘robbed’. He slumped in his seat and I drove us to John Vorster Square.
I should not have, of course. I was a fool to do that. There may be talk of police having reformed post-apartheid, but John Vorster Square’s notoriety during the apartheid years should have been enough to make me, a black man with a sense of history, be wise enough not to go there.  Besides, every South African knows that the police are only vigilant when the victim is white and ultra vigilant when the victim is a white tourist. The police may just be fools with matric, but they know where their government’s foreign aid comes from.
Not too long after we reported the case, Mzwakhe was caught by an undercover policeman, who he thought was a Nigerian, trying to sell Marcus’ passport. Just what idiot would do that? Marcus’ wallet had two thousand euros and some change. With my passport, I could have changed that at the nearest bank as a gift and the three of us would have had many booze-induced sleeps. But no, Mzwakhe had to get greedy. And then, as if that were not bad enough, the fool, when he got caught, spewed all the beans and identified me as the mastermind. This, before I had even changed the euros. One wonders, is there no honour among thieves any more?
The good news, of course, is that, the day after the robbery, my two partners had come to give me the euros to change. I am the only one who knows where they are.
In a year’s time, when I get out of Sun City, I am going to change those euros. The way the rand has been falling against world currencies, I will be alright. Meanwhile, I write my stories and look over my shoulder hoping that none of the gangsters decides I am choice meat. I have survived three years, I may well make it out intact.
I have a feeling that when I get out, any book I write will be a bestseller — this place has given me plenty of ideas — and besides, South Africa, and the world, loves former jailbirds. Isn’t that what Mandela was all about?
I sit in Sun City.
And bide my time.
About the Author:

Zukiswa Wanner. Image Credit: Fungai Machirori
Zukiswa Wanner. Image Credit: Fungai Machirori

Zukiswa Wanner. Image Credit: Fungai Machirori
Zukiswa Wanner is the 2015 winner of South African Literary Award’s  K.Sello Duiker Award for her fourth novel, London Cape Town Joburg. Her other novels have been shortlisted for Commonwealth Best Book (Africa region) and the Herman Charles Bosman Awards. She has judged the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Fiction and is the Africa Judge for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017.
A founding member of the ReadSA initiative, until recently Wanner sat on the board of the pan-African literary initiative Writivism and is on the Advisory Board of the Ake Literary Festival. She has facilitated writing workshops in Ghana , Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Germany.

Wanner is a columnist for the continental publication New African, and Saturday Nation in Kenya and has been a guest-host for the monthly BBC Africa Book Club with Audrey Brown. She  is the 2016 Danish International Visiting Artist (DIVA).

The Madams (Oshun 2006)
Behind Every Successful Man (Kwela 2008)
Men of the South (Kwela 2010)
Jama Loves Bananas (Jacana 2012)
Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (Jacana 2013)
Refilwe (Jacana 2014)
London Cape Town Joburg (Kwela 2014)