REVIEW BY: Jennifer Crocker
Endings & Beginnings is a joy of journalistic and personal discovery, written by popular radio talk show host Redi Thlabi, and it takes the reader on a remarkable journey into her past – a past that includes her troubled young childhood friend Mabegzo.
For those hesitant about well-known people’s stories about their lives there is no need to be in this case. Keep in mind that Thlabi has a sound journalistic background which she puts to excellent use as she excavates the “truth” behind the story of Mabegzo.
The story begins with the murder of Thlabi’s father when she was a little girl in Soweto. It’s a scene written with savage intensity. The horror of a young child seeing her dad’s body on the street is one that makes one gasp. And, yet the gift of Thlabi’s writing doesn’t allow this introduction to slip into sentimentality or gratuitous self-pity. It’s written in the taut style that raises this book into not just a compelling story, but a really good piece of writing.
We meet the young Thlabi as an 11-year-old girl living in Soweto. She has the benefits of a stable home, even though her dad is dead, and a mother who cares about her. Through the eyes of the author we come to see the Soweto of her childhood.
Obviously we know from the beginning of Endings & Beginnings that this is not going to be an easy read. Mabegzo is not exactly the ideal friend for a young girl. He is older than her, and has a reputation as a gangster, a rapist, and even a killer. Thlabi’s journey in this book is to look back through the shattered glass reflection of what happened when she was growing up and to try to make sense of what turned Mabegzo into the young man he became. In the process of returning to her childhood home Thlabi gives real insight into township life, insight that comes from one who lived there, and who still knows Soweto well. It’s a time where jackrolling (the raping of a young woman by a number of gangsters is common), where blood is spilled, but also where a young uncertain and teased young girl waits for a damaged young man to meet her at the corner outside her school and see her home safely.
Things end for Mabegzo, as one expects they will, in a bloody fashion on the street. His death is haunting and as a grown woman with a successful career the author returns to find out the truth about his life and death, with the caveat that we can never really know the other. Journeying back into the story of how Mabegzo became the young man he was is a convoluted trip, and Tlhabi imposes on her narrative a strict sense of making sure that she is not compromising her beliefs and worldview while uncovering the layers of the life an imperfect person. Which could not have been an easy task; it’s easy to write about good people, much harder to sift through the complexities of a life that has a dark and dangerous side. Without ever preaching she manages to share with the reader a voyage that is breathtakingly beautiful. Without setting herself up as a moral judge she succeeds in explaining her stance on life. In many ways the reader discovers as much about Thlabi as she wants us to, and while it is a book about her life, it is her life set within a particular context and she succeeds in never making herself the central character in the book: that role belongs to the truth or the version of the truth that she will settle on.
Her decision to go back into her past to try to find out about her friend and to make sense of what he became probes complex issues, how our names affect us and can influence the way we are seen. It’s a discovery of the hurtful power of thwarted love, and how in the name of shame terrible things can be done to children. It’s also the story of how Tlhabi finds out the truth about her friend through intense research and going out on a personal limb in order to understand how a human being can become dehumanised to some and yet be fully human to others.
Endings & Beginnings is a book anyone interested in the quest for truth should read. It is never preachy and is brutally honest. One is left with the feeling that Tlhabi embarked on her journey with only a shattered mirror of memory and half-truth to guide her and emerged on the other side with a full looking-glass. She remains true to her own beliefs while finding forgiveness and closure for a little boy who once had another name a name that encompassed love and who died with a name that embodied fear.
This review appeared in the Cape Times in January 2013.