Zakes Mda Tells African Stories that Resonate and Grow Stronger with Time

CION_Maqoma_0235Summertime and the living is easy. DIANE DE BEER kicks off this season of reading and catching up with all those books that were put aside during the year. She starts her holiday reading with two award-winning novels by the erudite Zakes Mda: one old, one new-ish, but both will take you into a world where you can lose yourself – while learning more about our people and this place:




Earlier this year, before I had the luxury of this blog, I had the chance to see the sublime Gregory Maqoma’s Cion at The Market – and very little has surpassed that experience this year.

He explains the creation thus: “I am drawn to Zakes Mda’s character Toloki the professional mourner from his beloved Ways of Dying as he further uncovers in his book Cion the story of the runaway slaves. In my interpretation, Toloki rediscovers death in a modern context, inspired by the universal events that lead to death, not as a natural phenomenon but by decisions of others over the other. We mourn death by creating death. The universe of greed, power, religion has led us to be professional mourners who transform the horror of death and the pain of mourning into a narrative that questions what seems to be normalised and far more brutal in how we experience death and immigration. I am creating this work as a lament, a requiem required to awaken a part of us, the connection to the departed souls.”

Nothing prepares you for the performance by Maqoma who has gathered a group of dancers, musicians and singers who mourn death in a way that both embraces and expunges the horrors of this world.

From the design to the dance to the magnificent music and singing, Maqoma transports you to a place of healing by tearing the horror apart step for step, note by note.

If you ever see Cion is being performed anywhere, don’t hesitate, just go. It’s world class and feeds the soul.



What he left me with, amongst other things, is a realisation that I had never read Ways of Dying, but I had put the book aside for just this kind of timing. Telling the story of Toloki, the professional mourner that so inspired Maqoma, Mda has created something that deeply touches the soul – on every level.

Toloki is a man who spends his life mourning the lives of others while trying to define a life of his own. It’s a story of sadness, of seeing yourself through the eyes of others, but living with a purpose that keeps you going as you bring some reason for hope to the lives of others.

“Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living,” says Toloki capturing the essence of this haunting tale.

Then Mda highlighted his year when running off with the Sunday Times fiction award for Little Suns (Umuzi) which meant I could simply stick to this amazing author having delved into his past writing and now encouraging him to delve into his family’s past.

It is a love story embedded in a history lesson of sorts. While he seemingly writes about a lame and frail Malangana who searches for his beloved Mthwakazi, Mda writes a searing revision of the past as it was told by the strongmen of that time.

What can you expect from history when the vanquished were not allowed a voice?

He is scathing in his account of colonialism (as he should be), discovering this intriguing tale as he set out to investigate his own roots.

The story is as intriguing as the writing and the characters who take you on this wild ride.

And if you have been hooked, which is a high probability, you might as well close off this chapter with the illuminating Heart of Redness, from a writer who always has the African soul at heart.