Who art over Mandela Bridge
Hallowed be thy Foundation
Asisebenzi, Madiba, Siyawa. The past is a dangerous place, the present is dissolving with anxieties and the future is barren. We convulse in a breathlessness of meanings to make of this vast and violent place. Have you forsaken us?
Who can we shoot to end this falling nightmare? If it is a matter of violence, Mama, violence has found us. It has found us hiding in the closet, it has found us at the buckle end of a belt, at the taxi rank, at the police station, at the post office, in our bedrooms, Mama violence has found us in the air that drifts onto the kitchen table and between our sheets from the Laanglagte mine dumps, so, who can we shoot?
Is it ourselves?
Madiba, you said you would return to liberate us from the ANC when the ANC did to us what the Apartheid government did to you, well, Tata, the universities are sellouts. The Russians came and told us they are not Black and we have sacrificed all of our cattle to prepare for you, bawo, to find us faithful waiting here.
We have been waiting for you, here.
For thine is Nelson Mandela Square
Your boutique hotel in Houghton
And the name of the next international civil society coalition for human rights
I remember the day Nelson Mandela returned, exactly 30 years after his death. On that day, a hole emerged and swallowed the entire township of Alexandra in a single moment. We had started noticing the holes when they were much smaller, when children were falling in them. Every so often, you would see a news report that another child had fallen and was gone. A hole had taken them.
This one headline read: “Four children fall in hole in Nyanga.”
Four? How can that happen? Holes are not new things. We worked them in the mines, in the Passbooks, in the NSFAS applications, in the vaccine passports, in the wastelands, in the pit latrines, in the shadow of the mine dumps … What kind of hole was this that could swallow four children in a single event?
That was the sort of thing that could happen to you because you were black. A hole could just take you. And if not this hole, then, another kind of hole would. At that time, we had reached an unemployment rate of 60% nationally or 85% in the expanded definition. South Africa had fallen into a labour desert. We had reached the end of history.
The holes themselves resemble manholes whose covers were stolen for their recycling value, with black and browning wrought iron at the verge of perfectly circular voids. Voids housed in iron cylinders. They first started appearing in the pavements and in side streets. Then they were in the roads and in the freeways. Each appearing as though they were always there. We didn’t think much of them then, children are children, they don’t know the difference between sources of excitement and sources of fear, you know. The holes knew. They varied in size from about the height of a newborn to a large teenager in diameter. In 2024, the biggest one sat at an intersection in Zondi, Soweto, and stretched three meters wide. It was responsible for the disappearance of 25 children in 12 events over three years.
They then started infecting the township schoolyards and assembly blocks. By the
mid-30s, they ran unabated and holes the size of soccer pitches emerged in Khayelitsha. Entire informal settlements were unthered in a gasp. They came from nowhere and they went to nowhere. What we sent down found no end to the nothingness that sagged like a dream deferred. You can’t hear your own thoughts falling in them.
When you had lost a loved one to a hole, you did not say they were dead, you simply said ukuthi uyawa. You fall for good when you fall in a hole. There were stories that, when the air was cold and still and the moon’s amber glow was dim, you could hear the falling laughing or screaming or pleading in what sounded like sand dunes singing the wind. Black people fell and fell and fell into oblivion. Entire communities, falling together. The dogs and the grannies and the children and the queers, the bicycles and the activists and rapists and lecturers and Nyaope addicts, families falling with the room divider and chicken and Stop Nonsense and photo albums flailing their lives out from the plastic film compartments in mix-matched chaos. Black people fell.
We had hoped that he would reach down into our holes and pull us out when Nelson Mandela returned. Pull my father out. Pull my aunt out. Pull our home out. Pull the flour, milk and eggs out. Pull my grandfather out. Pull our families and lives and stories and memories and histories and futures out, Tata. That’s not what happened when he returned in a daze of dazzling light, lowered together with Winnie on a bed of archangels and celestial clouds. It was unclear whether he had come for us or the other people whose suburbs and lives had become entombed in a thicket of purple Jacaranda trees.
While holes dissolved the townships, the suburbs dissolved differently. The unnatural forests that once lined their streets in a blossoming, purple dream of democracy and human rights now eclipsed their sun and their moon. A syrupy dream became them as they gorged themselves in critical orgies over the constitution.
First, he visited his homes in Houghton and saw Sanctuary Mandela, the old boutique hotel preserving his legacy and heritage. Then he demanded a report from parliament on the state of the nation and opened the Holy Commission of Enquiry into the Holes Vanquishing Abantu. Nobody was certain whether he intended the pun or was too dignified to acknowledge it, the way nobody was certain whether he acknowledged the 666 in the “466/64” HIV/Aids campaign. Over the next three weeks that December of 2043, he went on an expedited diplomatic tour, visiting the heads of states of the world's wealthiest countries, advocating for a plan to defeat the holes.
When he came back to South Africa, he took his seat at his office at his Foundation. He then started on the ambitious project to fill the holes with the tailings of mine dumps. It was a colossal campaign of engineering and physics to plug the holes flat and plant commemorative gardens in the dirt where the holes once were. As fierce criticism erupted over the Holy plan, Nelson Mandela gave this quote:
“One cannot remove a hole, whether they be in the ground, history, memory or identity, by picking it up and putting it somewhere else. Instead, you defeat a hole by suffocating it.”
This became a viral message on the internet as the Jacaranda nests raptured in aubergine, amethyst and even vermillion in some communities as they debated its meaning, wisdom and import. The Holy project was off to a good start. As much as we grieved the loss of our loved ones who continue, even now, to fall, we were made to understand that this thing was complicated and difficult.
The big hole in Alexandra was the first to be plugged. The mine tailings were like decades stale flour you put on top of the fridge while you clean the counter and just forget it there, part of the furniture; white dirt tainted yellow with sulfur and lead mixed with mortar and quickly poured over the whole like a cotton swab.
“Nelson Mandela Holy Memorial Park” reads a sign as large as a billboard. Of course, nobody could tell it was so large given the even larger statue of Madiba the government had erected at the site.
The Langlaagte mine dumps were the first to be depleted. There was a depression near the base, as though the dump had let its full weight rest on the ground which slowly gave way like a leather couch. As they dug the dump, they noticed uniform, rectangular cavities in the earth at ground level, about the height of an adult mineworker in length. This was when the blood stopped galloping and boiled in place.
Madiba personally visited the site to discern our worst fears from our horrors. With a broom in his hands, Madiba swept one of the cavities, slowly revealing human remains. They were not done dying and still had skin aged into a plastic film over the arches of their cheekbones and hips. Where the skin gave way, there was the discoloured bone of disconsolate red and rusted yellow. Their bodies absorbed the toxins that seeped down through the mine dumps on top of them. Madiba stumbled backwards at the levy of the grave and fell too.
They say he died, again, of grief on the spot. The Holy project was never completed. The commission recommended reparations and labour for those who had lost loved ones to holes under very strict and detailed conditions. There are reports that holes have begun appearing in rural landscapes, in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, perfectly consuming entire rondavels. Maybe we will all fall and that will just be the end of it.
This fictional account of Madiba's return was written by Kneo Mokgopa in September 2021.