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BOOK REVIEW: The Broken River Tent, by Mphuthumi Ntabeni


We live in a time when some white people deny that apartheid was a crime against humanity. In the midst of such clear and utter madness, fiction, not history – jerks us back into reality – to remind us that not only was apartheid a crime against humanity, but this country and the economy of the world is built on a murderous civilization that enslaved people the world over and in the main, dispossessed them of their land.

The Broken River Tent is one such book – it is a left-hand slap on the face of a slumbering democratic nation and a jab on the gut of a nation that seems to slowly wake up to the reality of its current dispossession and dire situation. The Broken River Tent is a medley of historical fiction, psychological drama (for lack of a better genre or classification) and the story of imagination. It is a journey of questions, existential debates and musings. It is a philosophical conversation between ancient Xhosa wisdom and the vanity of the modern democratic society of South Africa.
It is a conversation between the past, casting aspersions on the present while making well-defined proclamations about the future – for by living in the now, we are actively creating the past, experiencing the future. In this book Ntabeni succeeds in revealing many of his deeply thought-out philosophies that indicate the depth of not only his academic knowledge, but true intelligence that runs deep in his people. He also succeeds in what he called “mining the aesthetic rigour of history” – and not just so that he can polish the turd that is history, but so that we can ask deep questions about history itself.
Ntabeni uses fiction to traverse the physical and the metaphysical – to confront the past with his character’s present. He interrogates the idea of psychological sanity by placing a historical figure who died two centuries ago in the present timeline of South Africa’s democratic madness.
This forces his main character to question his own sanity and the sanity of his generation and country. Ntabeni’s interlocutory disposition of the land question is prominent in this book. His Maqoma – that true son of amaXhosa did not just jump out of the ancient moth-eaten pages of history. Instead he waltzes – or ukugida – into the young Phila’s life to provide him with direction, spiritual connection, traditional wisdom, and to root him back to the historical landscape of his forefathers. Ntabeni is not cursory about the politics of land dispossession of black Africans.
In fact, he is not shy to centralize the issue that is relevant today as it was 400 years ago when colonialism hit our shores. He is deliberately political and provocative about the land question. I am disheartened by the use of Latin and German in this otherwise perfect blend of history, drama, fact, fiction, fantasy, mythology and prose as if Ntabeni is over-hammering his intellect into the heads of mere mortals.
Ntabeni is the new age author with the correct dose of intellectual acuity and traditional rigour and the correct Afro-politics in his brilliant mind. This book is a perfect account of the great lineages and houses of Phalo, of Rharhabe, of Ngcikana, of Sandile, of Ndlambe, of Hintsa, of Gcaleka and the fascinating intrigues of abaThembu, amaMfengu and amaXhosa. I did not feel betrayed by the highly-learned and often precise language of the author. Well done. pjm

A Broken River Tent, by Mputhumi Ntabeni (Blackbird, 2018) won UJ Debut Prize.
ISBN 978-1-928337-45-4.
Retails at R195 at www.jacana.co.za or Exclusive Books.

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