I remember the day Nelson Mandela returned, exactly thirty 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 side streets. Then, they were in the roads and in the freeways. Each appearing as though they had always been 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 right next to a Holy Pentecostal church in Zondi, Soweto, and stretched three metres wide. It was responsible for the disappearance of twenty-five children in twelve events over three years.
I remember growing up in Zondi. In fact, I remember the day my parents dropped me off in Zondi to be raised by my grandmother while my parents got their degrees and diplomas. I was two. It must have been some Sunday in ’95, ’96. I know this because I remember oWesile walking home, their bibles tucked tightly under the arm so their flaking leatherbound covers and blood-red pages were visible to the world against all of the brown of the pale dirt, the brown-grey of the walls and the sky of dust, colourless from the bits of mine dump blowing in the wind. They’re in the house and letting me play in the back rooms with an off-white telephone that’s either broken or a reminder that I am not yet a part of this world. The room is small and it smells like warm blankets, mothballs andPledge. The double bed has a pastel green duvet with white lacing at the frill.
Tililing tililing: Hello! – Can I please talk to Mr Simphiwe? – It’s Sicelo! – Hello Simphiwe – I’m fine, how are you? – Okay, ba-bye! – Tililing tililing….
I don’t remember, but I think I went back to ask when were we leaving, throwing the lipids of my legs to the same rhythm of my full cheeks and globe eyes, across the lawn of dust, up onto the blood-red stoep and into the kitchen, but they’re not there. Not sitting and standing on the linoleum tiled floor, around the chipboard table sandwiched in a plastic vignette of candy-red apples and yellow flowers against a white backdrop and on aluminium pipe legs. Not in the living room with its carpet made of grey and black square rugs, or on the dusty brown couches with thick, hand-carved wooden arms and legs you apparently had to polish every Sunday or the very meaning of life would cease to hold any truth.
I know this trick and try to run back to beat them to the punch. They are outside, ten paces from the gate already, clasping each other in the kind of desperately quiet, breathless hurry, the kind you have to beg your legs please to maintain. Gogo Vos holds me back as I wriggle my sweet porridge arms, trying to get free while my mother looks back at me, holding the dagger firmly in her chest. The gate is made of the same wire as the fence, and the latch is a nail bent perpendicular. I can open it myself even, I can already walk even, I can already even ask to not be left behind yet this isn’t convincing anybody. They left me here! This is the earliest thing I can remember of being alive.
Every Sunday, Gogo and I would watch oWesile making their ways back home. I would always remark on how properly they wore their uniforms, something impressive and fixed about the waistband, clean and black, creaseless and discreet – like devotion. It seemed to me, in the primordial soup of those years, before language, before lying, before Zuma, before “well-meaning South Africans” and before the holes were holes, that everybody believed in God. If you didn’t go to the Methodist Church on Sundays then you went to the ZCC or were Seventh Day Adventist, or a Jehovah’s Witness, a Roman Catholic – there was even a Black Jew on our street. If your family didn’t have roots in the church then you went to Grace or some hot new prosperity gospel that was making everybody faint on television. Only White people didn’t believe in God and if you didn’t believe in God then you were denying being Black.
We prayed before we ate but we never went to church much, Gogo and I. Sometimes we’d go to the Holy Pentecostal Church a taxi away even though there was one at the end of our street, next to the colossal concrete cylinders stacked in a pyramid on the hip of the intersection. Gogo would take us after priming with polish the blood-red stoep on which nobody was ever allowed to walk unless they did. We didn’t wear the uniforms, we weren’t baptised, we were family of the bride, family of the deceased. Just trying to have some Easter.
My favourite hymn was “Tsotlhe Tsotlhe”.
Tsotlhe, tsotlhe Tsotlhe diyentswe ke uena Modimo, Re a ho boka
It made me feel safe; like I was experiencing God’s plan and purpose in my life and not flailing in space. In the beaching wave of the chorus, all of my anxiety and shame and fear was washed away. I watched and listened to Gogo sing that song like it held all of the truth, all of the questions and all of the answers. It was already done. God did it. I sat next to my grandmother who gave me Cadbury Eclairsfor every ten minutes I sat still which meant that after four Eclairs I would get up and go play with the babies at the back of the church. I would drag my tiny, puffy denim jeans against the varnish, pushing lightly coloured, wooden blocks in zigzags, eating sopping wet Cheese Puffs the babies would share with me while the sermon got more and more bloated with the name of Jesus, flies and amen, amen, amen.
uMandela ubuyile Bazalwane!
uThixo uyivile imithandazo yethu
uNkulunkulu uyizwile imithandazo yethu
Modimo o utlwile dithapelo tsa rona
Nelson Mandela has returned [from prison]
But freedom will not rain down like manna, still, we must make freedom now that we have destroyed slavery
Empa tokoloho e ke ke ea na, leha ho le joalo re tlamehile ho etsa tokoloho joale kaha re sentse bokhoba
Kodwa ayizukunetha inkululeko, kufuneka senze inkululeko ngoku sibutshabalalisile ubukhoboka
Ooooo-yinde lendlela esiyihambayo
Ooooo-yinde lendlela esiyihambayo
Watsho uMandela kubalandeli bakhe
S’ohlangana ngoFreedom Day!
Gogo had a friend from around who owned her own shebeen, right in her garage. Her bottom lip was as pink as the inside of your cheek and she walked folded over her left leg, her waist wrapped in a colourless old towel, the same colourless of the doek she let lay on her head. Sometimes she would bring oranges or mielie meal for us. I didn’t like her – she spat when she spoke and her breath smelt like a bottle of orange juice after it’s been in the sun too long. She looked like she was being held together with straps of leather and bandages, what with her four teeth pointing every which way, her eyes wrinkled and warping unevenly. They would sit at the back, right on the blood-red stoep, smoking and drinking, talking and laughing like their dead husbands were asking for them back, devilishly, right into the night.
Other nights Gogo would cook pap or porridge on the paraffin stove and feed me through gag reflexes and tears, as though I was a bucket being filled with cement. If it was love, her love was thorough and unconcerned. Like, the way she pushed Vaseline into my skin, sitting on her lap after making the navy blue plastic tub of lukewarm water turn cloudy with a brick of green Sunlight soap.
I was four when they came to fetch me, my mom and dad, that’s when we moved to Bruma. That’s when Mandela finally saved us. In 1997. Of course, he did not save us all, but I remember the day we crossed the mine dumps separating Zondi, Ndofaya, Orlando West, Phomolong and Katlehong from Rosebank, Houghton, Bruma, Kensington and Bedfordview. Uncle Mbongeni had a flatbed lorry that usually carried coal through the townships, exchanging it in woven plastic bags for scraps of food, secondhand clothes and promises but, that day, it was cleaned up because we were leaving the wastelands. Our two large suitcases, about five refuse bags and a room divider ous’ Pozzo gifted us, my toothbrush with the tiny plastic cap in the shape of a bear to protect the bristles, my jersey, my socks, my pillow, my teddy (Teddy Jakes), my special bowl and spoon, rolls of tissue paper and a double bed we all would share for a while. My mom and my dad, all of us, off we went.
Off, off to Bruma, with its tall trees and rose bushes, marigolds, lavender, bougainvillea and lilies. The heaven of blue sky was so sweet I thought we were in a Verimark commercial after buying the Floorwiz Pro!
All the while, the holes started infecting the township schoolyards and assembly blocks and Blacks fell like tongues ululating. Service delivery has always been a problem in the townships. iANC hayisafani. By the mid-thirties, they ran unabated and holes the size of soccer pitches emerged in Khayelitsha. Entire informal settlements were un-thered 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 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 plastic film compartments in mix-matched chaos. Black people fell.
When Madiba died, in 2013, we were home. There had been leaked reports that his lungs had suffered a prolonged respiratory infection and that Nelson Mandela was going to die. What does a galaxy do when its defining star is about to die? I had a dream. In the dream, with her hands busy and her lips pursed tightly together, my mother is in the garden, preparing for a cleansing ritual she needs to perform on me. She is collecting sprigs of rosemary to add to the salt in the bathwater for me to wash in so that I will be protected when I go into the dark and inconsolable space that is waiting at the door for me. Cigarette smoke lingers through the air. I notice that the bucket she is carrying the rosemary with also has aloe vera leaves in it. When I awoke, my mother was in my room:
“Madiba o re lahlile.”
“O re lahlile. Nelson Mandela is dead.”
Since he passed away, thirty years ago, we have convulsed in a breathlessness of meanings to make of this vast and violent place. 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 moon. A syrupy dream became them as they gorged themselves in critical orgies over the Constitution.
“Hau, no Bobbejaan, listen! I was there on Thursday by O. R. Tambo. We were delivering coal. People were coming with taxis, bikes, trains, trucks, others on foot. There were many people, Bobbejaan. They were singing and crying and laughing and dancing and sweating and this other woman was shouting, ‘Madiba, give me bread for my baby.’ The other one, ‘Madiba, my son is in detention.’ The other man, ‘Madiba, give me a special permit to work in Johannesburg city.’ The little girl, standing next to me, ‘Madiba, give me a lollipop.’ The big fat Zulu – the driver from Zola hostel, ‘Madiba, give me a Chevrolet!’ And me, I was there too.”
Mbongeni calls me Bobbejaan. He moved into the maids’ quarters while he was at Wits to be on this side of the mine dumps while he studied engineering. His friends call him Smokey because, well, he smokes a lot of weed. This was the first time he had ever mentioned anything remotely even towards the notion of selling his coal for money. I had always assumed he gave it out freely, from the goodness of his heart to Black people.
“And wena? What did you ask too?” Smokey is always telling stories. He tells stories at those big gala dinner events in honour of the Constitution, which is how I thought he made the money he contributed to home when he did.
“Aaaah, mina? Boy, wena you think of me how? Hmm? Mina, mfana nginja, ntwana I even stood there on the runway when he looked at me, straight square so – point-blank range in the eyes. Mina mfana ngiwubonda mina, mfana I don’t crack. Cool and calm under pressure! Mfana phela mina you must remember ngangidlalel‘ iOrlando Pirates mina, ntwana, Up the Bucks. Bangibiza ‘Last Defence’, Aich!”
We laughed as he made like he was dribbling a ball, running through the garden whistling his own encouragement. But I know what Smokey couldn’t ask Madiba for. It’s the only thing all of us ever dream of. It is the only question and all of its answers. The only thing and everything. The holes.
We had hoped that, when Nelson Mandela returned, he would reach down into our holes and pull us out. Pull my father out. Pull my aunt out. Pull the flour, milk and eggs out. Pull my grandmother 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 at O. R. Tambo International Airport.
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 his country, 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-old 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 hole like a cotton ball.
“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 ANC had erected at the site.
The Langlaagte mine dumps were the first to be depleted. There were depressions near the base, as though the dump was afraid to let its full weight rest on the ground and held itself up by its tippy-toes which dimpled the earth like a golf ball. The dimples were 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, his frail body seeming not to notice the vigour and tenacity of the work it was doing. Madiba wore a full navy suit as his red tie flew in the wind over his shoulder. He practically dug the depression with that broom.
It did not take long to be clear, while it did take long to be perfectly certain. As the dust was picked up and moved away, it was human remains that were revealed. 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 had absorbed the toxins that seeped down through the mine dumps on top of them. Madiba stumbled backwards at the lip of the grave and fell too.
A forever negotiated itself into the moment Madiba fell. Inside of it, I was falling so rapidly through a hole that my brain surrendered its faculties and sang muffled hymns to the descent. Rosemary sprigs and aloe vera leaves rained in place beside me and I began to see clearly. I was not falling but cocooned in a crack in the world. I was not falling, but the world was haunting me, spinning so violently that it was stripping the fabric of my clothes of the time it took to make them, stripping my hair of the coils of space they wrapped and even stripped my lungs of words to think it all. Its tenses and grammars married me the way bees wed flowers, like it had all of the time in the world to have me, and once it had me, it was gone. Madiba was done falling.
They say he died, again, of grief on the spot. The Holy project was never completed. The commission recommended reparations and employment for those who had lost loved ones to holes under very strict and detailed requirements. There have been new reports that holes have begun appearing in rural landscapes, in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, perfectly consuming entire rondavels. More than that, I found a small hole beneath my bed just a few days ago. It appeared as though it had always been there, with black and brown wrought iron at the verge of a perfectly cylindrical void, about half my height in diameter. A void housed in an iron cylinder.
What I have sent down has found no end to the nothingness that sags inside of there, like a dream deferred. I think I am meant to enter it, again. Unless, of course, Mandela returns again.
Who art over Mandela Bridge
Hallowed be thy Foundation
Asisebenzi, Madiba, Siyawa/ We do not have jobs, Madiba, we are falling. 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