Book Review: Siza Mtimkulu reviews ‘Malume’s Painting’

Malume’s Painting is about the Soweto student revolution that took place on 16 June 1976, told through a portrait of the legendary photograph by Sam Nzima about that watershed event.

Book Review written by Siza Mtimkulu

Title: Malume’s Painting
Author: Sandile Memela

Malume’s Painting is about the Soweto student revolution that took place on 16 June 1976, told through a portrait of the legendary photograph by Sam Nzima about that watershed event. It features a young boy, Hector Peterson, being carried by a Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole running frantically alongside them. Hector was among the first victims of brutal police shootings on this historic day, where many young lives were also lost through unjustified arrests and mysterious disappearances, with some of the youth ending up in exile.

The flare-up by the students was in response to an attempt by Bantu Education – the apartheid education system specifically designed to control Black people – to force Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. Afrikaans was a language generally perceived by Blacks as the language of the oppressor, therefore, imposing it as the medium of instruction had touched a nerve.

Malume’s Painting is narrated in tiers by the painter’s niece who is left alone with her younger brother Zweli, while their mother has gone to a funeral in the township. As they sit bored in their suburban home, contemplating how to keep themselves occupied, their malume (uncle in Zulu) who was meant to have gone with their mother, finally arrives. He is full of excuses for his lateness, claiming he did not have to attend the funeral after all, as he had already paid his respects to the bereaved family during the week. This is reminiscent of typical family life in South African townships, where just about every family has its own malume character who is a free spirit.

As he enters the house, the first thing he does is fiddle with the TV remote, and then shoots straight to the alcohol cabinet to look for something to drink. But the strong willed niece will not have any of this irresponsible behaviour, and finds it fitting to reprimand him. “You have no right to change TV channels, help yourself to mother’s drinks and do as you like,” she explodes. “You must wait for mama! This is her house!” A tense exchange of words between the two ensues. Meanwhile little Zweli sits quietly on the couch, baffled by what is going on.

Malume suddenly remembers his position as the adult and decides to call his niece to order by giving her a lecture on treating her family with honor. She surprisingly, humbly listens and succumbs to his authority. This works in malume’s favour and he sees it as an opportunity to relax and bond with the children by telling them stories about life. “Look at us, we are one united family”, he says, trying to get their attention and sipping his alcoholic drink from a glass. There is now calm in the house as the two youngsters attentively listen to malume and his intriguing stories.

As the story progresses, it transpires that malume is actually the artist who crafted the painting with Hector Peterson and is also an alumnus of the 1976 student uprising who spent many years in exile. He tells them about the history of the painting, which is hanging on the living room wall, and what led to the 1976 Soweto student uprising. He had given it to his sister a while back as a birthday present. Malume has tendencies of being flippant, but there is a side to him that shows good character and wisdom. As he speaks, the children can sense that and they appreciate him for it.

Malume’s Painting is a reminder to South Africans, of how the youth of 1976 played a pivotal role in the country’s liberation struggle which led to the ultimate collapse of apartheid – a government system that was racially biased against darker skinned people, particularly Blacks.

This is a significant story about South African history deserving to be told over and over again, especially to the children so that they stay in touch with their country’s history and appreciate their heritage. In an effort to emphasize the importance of family values and knowing one’s own history, one of the key things malume says is: “Know who you are and where you come from to be a better person”. Other valuable things he sys leave the two youngsters wanting to learn more about life. This helped them discover the mature side of their uncle Bhekisizwe, which they never knew, and made them appreciate him more as a great storyteller.

Being a product of the June 16, 1976 students uprising myself, Malume’s Painting transported me back to that fateful Wednesday morning, as a matriculant at Orlando West High, when I was battling with Afrikaans Paper 1in the mid-year matric exams. This was the school the Soweto student march had progressed to when the police first opened fire. That day will forever be etched in my memory for witnessing the bravery displayed by myself and other school children, by standing up to gun shots with stones, in a bid to make a statement to the apartheid Bantu Education system.

The book also captures aspects of humanity that are critical in building good character in children, to prepare them for life’s rigours as they ponder the meaning of life based on malume’s life journey and the many questions they have after reading it. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Malume’s Painting a 9 for recommendation as library material in South African school libraries.

For book orders you may contact CEM Publishers or the author Sandile Memela, directly.

Siza Mtimkulu is an accomplished writer and editor. She is currently the managing director at Legacy Foundation, a non-profit organization that publishes foundation phase books about the history of South Africa, with a focus on liberation struggle icons. Recently, the foundation launched Madiba Colouring Book, a children’s book about the life story of South Africa’s first democratic President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, in partnership with Department of Basic Education. The colouring book is targeting grades 2 and 3 in South Africa.