Redi Tlhabi pulls no punches in her new book, Khwezi, says reviewer Gillian McAinsh
Broadcast journalist and author Redi Tlhabi’s new book Khwezi is not a comfortable read. It could hardly be, given that it is the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman known as Khwezi who in 2006 accused president Jacob Zuma of rape.
At times, in fact, Khwezi is harrowing but it is also important for South Africa that her story is told, particularly so for Tlhabi who feels a sense of outrage over the sexual violence raging in this country.
As the book blurb says, Fezekile was “betrayed in childhood, vilified by her country, her name reclaimed in death”.
She died in September last year and Tlhabi’s book could well have died with her but it did not. After all, Khwezi may centre on one woman but it also is relevant to the lived experiences of many others.
The author is sickened by what she calls the “violent masculinity” of rapists and those who abuse women in other ways and she is not shy to include powerful male political figures in this group.
In fact, she harshly criticises the conduct of “Malume” or all those who would be called “uncle” – regardless of biology – and who should have cared for Fezekile and who instead hurt her.
Although “Malume” Zuma – who was not then the president – was acquitted on the charge of rape, he did not deny the physical act.
Some of his supporters persecuted Fezekile after the trial – her home for example was burnt down and she and her mother fled the country for several years.
As Tlhabi writes it, Khwezi is not only Fezekile’s story nor purely a Zuma tale but also a commentary on how rape is this country’s cross-frontier war waged on women’s bodies.
Women are “supposed to live with it and put the movement before self, lie supine before the authority of the male figures in her life. Instead, she [Fezekile] disrupted the social order”, Tlhabi writes.
Tlhabi’s strong commitment to women’s rights shone through in her wonderful autobiography Endings and Beginnings and now in Khwezi she airs the issue of sexual predators who may never be found guilty in a court of law but whose actions nonetheless wreck lives.
You may – like me – find it really sad to read about a woman who died in her 40s and find not one mention of a healthy adult romantic relationship. However, when you consider she was raped at age five, 12 and 13, it is little wonder that that Fezekile grows up with a skewed sense of self and sexuality.
Fezekile also lost her father Judson Kuzwayo at a young age – she was only 10 and that loss seems to have dogged her ever since.
As a “struggle” family, the Kuzwayos spent several years in exile and yet never reaped any financial rewards for their sacrifices. To this day, her mother lives in poverty.
Does a traumatic childhood make one a liar, as Zuma’s lawyer insinuated in court in 2006?
Tlhabi does not think so and, if anything, presents Fezekile rather as more vulnerable to the abuse at the hands of others.
Khwezi is a significant South African story, written with sensitivity and passion.
Khwezi The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo by Redi Tlhabi, is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and retails for R270.