“Excelsior has become the best-known town in the world this week,” says a reporter in Zakes Mda’s latest novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, “the small farming community—population seven hundred—was rocked a few weeks ago when some of its prominent citizens were arrested with their black maids (nineteen of them) for contravening the Immorality Act.” The “criminal” acts mentioned here were fashioned upon real-life events that occurred in rural South Africa in the 1970’s. Some of the most prominent White Afrikaners were involved in the case. Now many years later Mda, one of South Africa’s most talented novelists, explores the lasting effects of miscegenation, especially in a society which is slowly adjusting to new-found freedoms.
Set in a small town in rural South Africa, The Madonna of Excelsior serves up snapshots during two important time frames: the period just around 1971 when the Excelsior miscegenation case rocked the nation, and the period right around the abolition of apartheid.
Niki is one of the Excelsior 19 and the “Madonna of Excelsior.” Popi is her daughter, a product of Niki’s sexual encounters with a white man. Viliki is Popi’s son from her marriage to a black South African, Pule. Each one of these principal characters is weighed down by baggage intimately linked with race. Niki cannot forget the trauma of being raped by white men, and then of being deserted by her husband, Pule, who leaves forever to pursue his fortunes in a mining town. Viliki is forever scarred by this abandonment and takes to underground political groups to deliver his version of a new South Africa where equality between its citizens would be the rule of law. Of all, Popi is the one who visibly carries the biggest burden. Her mixed race status is the target of endless taunts growing up, and she can never fit in anywhere.
Mda has done a wonderful job in drawing out detailed character studies for all the town’s residents, including the white Afrikaners. To his credit, the whites are not portrayed as all evil all the time but as human beings who cannot comprehend sometimes quite how to abandon decades of mental racial conditioning. When the end of apartheid finally seems near, both Popi and Viliki are elected as council members to the local government. Sadly, there are divisions and then there are divisions. The blacks cannot maintain a united front, and a powerful local black leader accuses Viliki of abandoning his origins and of selling out to the white Afrikaner. The new South Africa, we realize, is more complicated than we could imagine. Eventually both Viliki and Popi quit politics to pursue their own private endeavors.
Mda brilliantly captures the listlessness brought about by the new age where nobody quite knows what to make of new rules and new boundaries. At one point in the novel, Popi says, “At least as a coloured person I can complain that in the old apartheid days I was not white enough and now in the new dispensation, I am not black enough.” Even Viliki is now a rebel without a cause pining away for the days when he actually had something to rebel against.
This new society might seem better, more liberating, but it turns out that old policies are simply remolded into the new framework:
“There was a long queue at the bank. The strange thing was that there was only one queue. Not two, as was the case not so long ago: a slow long queue for blacks and a quick short one for whites. One queue now, for all the colours of the rainbow. Another strange thing was that the white customers did not join the queue. They walked straight to the teller, who would immediately stop serving the black customer to attend to the white one.”
There are so many mixed emotions felt after decades of apartheid have officially ended; attitudes take longer to readjust. Mda’s important novel beautifully illustrates that there can be no closure without reconciliation. As young Popi says in the story, “Even a child could not forgive someone who had not asked to be forgiven. Who had shown no remorse.”