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The wide appeal of Angela Makholwa

Left: The Blessed Girl cover. Right: Angela Makholwa. Image: Supplied

Makholwa has a flair for using humour as a device in dealing with difficult topics like violence against women and our obsession with arriving at a place in life where we can get drunk on consumerist values.

The thing that I most remember after talking with Angela Makholwa is that she made me laugh until it hurt. Her flair for using humour as a device in dealing with difficult topics comes through in her writing. Makholwa always wanted to be a writer.

“At an early age I wanted to be a journalist, a war correspondent. My mother hated the idea. She was, like, do you want to go and get yourself shot?” Regardless, Makholwa signed up to study journalism at Rhodes University and started her career as a crime reporter. 

While working as a journalist she had the idea of doing an exclusive, “behind-the-bars” interview with serial killer Moses Sithole, who raped and butchered 38 women in Atteridgeville, Boksburg and Cleveland. Sithole was sentenced to a 930-year jail term in 1997. 

He was ruthless in his brutality. He would lure his victims to outlying fields where he would beat, strip, rape and strangle them. He claimed he had been falsely arrested in 1978 at the age of 14 and had been abused and tortured by fellow inmates. Before killing his victims, he would tell them that he had been hurt and would have to hurt them in retaliation. When the police rounded on him to arrest him at his home in Benoni in 1995, he was armed with a hatchet and managed to wound a police officer before being shot and arrested. 

Makholwa was drawn to Sithole’s story, and specifically she wanted to find out “why he did what he did”. She wrote to Sithole, to no avail. Eventually, Makholwa left journalism, opened her own public relations company, leaving the story behind; eight years later, in 2002, Sithole called her. 

From the outset he was not honest. When she had written to him, Makholwa was interested only in doing a short newspaper piece. Yet, Sithole pretended that she had written to him with the intention of writing a book about his life story, possibly a narcissist endeavour to ensure that his brutality lived on through a written record. But Makholwa had always wanted to write a book. “I thought, it could not be the worst thing to write this book. Because living in South Africa, crime is something that is always with us, in our conscious and subconscious minds. And it was tempting to talk to somebody that evil – the things that he did – there’s something haunting about that, knowing that we walk among people like that. The prospect of getting into his head interested me. As frightening as it was, I was drawn to the subject matter.”

She went to visit Sithole in the C-Max section of Pretoria Central Prison. Prison visits were arranged with an inmate who would alert the prison authorities; visits lasted 45 minutes and took place in the visitors’ courtyard, a cemented park of sorts with garden chairs and tables.

He began creeping into her life in other ways – he started writing her love letters and calling her, pretending to be someone else.

Makholwa was not allowed to bring anything with her – no handbag, no cellphone. It was not easy – not only because she was dealing with someone she couldn’t trust and whose intentions were questionable, but also because she was not allowed to take along any writing materials. This meant she had to listen to Sithole’s story, remember as much as she could and then rush home to write it up before she forgot. 

After about eight months of this, working with Sithole took on a jagged edge. Her business was starting to take off, which meant she had less time for him than before, and it angered him. He began creeping into her life in other ways – he started writing her love letters and calling her, pretending to be someone else. Makholwa had given him her postal address so that he could post her his court files, and given that he was allowed to send mail he started talking more intimately and more inappropriately through the letters. “It just got really crazy very quickly,” she recalls. Makholwa tried to reassure herself that she was safe, that he was serving a life sentence. “I had that assurance, but you never know when you’re dealing with a psychopath. So I told him I can’t do it anymore.” 

She abandoned the project and put it behind her. Then, by chance, she met a publisher who told her it was an incredible story and suggested that she fictionalise it. This is how Red Ink, her first novel, came to life in 2007. Red Ink mirrors Makholwa’s encounter with Sithole. In it, Lucy Khambule, an ex-journalist, has just started her own public relations company when a serial killer, Napoleon Dingiswayo, writes to her to author a book about his life story.

After the book was published, Sithole asked for permission to receive a copy, but it was denied by the prison authorities because Makholwa’s name was on his visitors’ log.

As she approached her 30s, Makholwa wanted to write something more whimsical, something young women could relate to – the kinds of pressures they face in society; it led to the birth of The 30th Candle in 2010, a book that she found cathartic to write. 

This was followed by The Black Widow Society (2013), a dark but humorous story about a secret society of women in emotionally and physically abusive relationships who plan the murder of their husbands. 

Then came The Blessed Girl (2017), the story of Bontle Tau who uses her looks and charm to get older men to pay the bills for her designer wardrobe, her penthouse apartment and her thirst for champagne. Without giving any spoilers, the book is exceptionally clever in both its writing technique and plot – there are some twists that make you grip your armchair. 

There are many reasons you should read Makhlowa: key among them is her skill for using humour as a device for dealing with complex societal issues such as violence against women and our obsession with arriving at a place in life where we can get drunk on consumerist values. 

The Blessed Girl was inspired by the fact that Makholwa had been interacting with what she calls “blessed girls”. “I was approaching my 40s and was conscious of the fact that I did not want to have a moralistic perspective, a judgemental voice. I noticed that some of the blessed girls were dismissive of their sugar daddies. There was kind of an awareness of, a realism that they were playing the men and the men were playing them. I didn’t want them to come across as sad, hopeless women who are selling themselves short. I wanted them to have agency.” 

The Blessed Girl was published by Bloomsbury in the UK, the US and in India; it received a nod from Irish writer Marian Keyes who inboxed Makholwa on Twitter, saying: “I don’t know how you do what you do.” Keyes was chairing the Comedy Women in Print Prize and The Blessed Girl was shortlisted. Makholwa’s most recent book, Critical But Stable (2020), was also longlisted for the Sunday Times fiction prize. 

There are many reasons you should read Makhlowa: key among them is her skill for using humour as a device for dealing with complex societal issues such as violence against women and our obsession with arriving at a place in life where we can get drunk on consumerist values. 

Her words are apt: “Flashiness is off-putting, but it is something that we live with amongst the black middle class – with people who made a lot of money very quickly. I understand the temptation to say, I started at the bottom, now I’m here, and I want everyone to see. But at the same time, it just puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on people. That’s why, right now, mental health issues are such a big thing in society – it’s not the only reason, but it is one of them.” 

Makholwa’s books show a growth in her iridescent skill in putting our society under the microscopic lens of her pen. “There is always that question: is this who we are as a society? How do we question our value system and what that means for the society we are raising? How do we use humour as a coping mechanism to talk about shoddy politics, corruption, mass consumerism?” 

Her books are political – not in their content but in their intention. “I wanted to write books that went beyond racial relations – because it’s a preoccupation of ours as South Africans. I wanted to show that black people have lives that are full, beyond worrying about race relations. It is something that we deal with on a daily basis, but I wanted to go beyond that and give a different texture to who we are.” DM/ML

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