Fred Khumalo weaves an almost forgotten piece of history into a love story and plea for tolerance

13 January 2020 - 10:28 By Margaret von Klemperer
'The Longest March' by Fred Khumalo.
'The Longest March' by Fred Khumalo.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Witness (06/01/2020)

For his new novel, Fred Khumalo has taken an almost forgotten piece of SA history and woven a tale from it — a tale which is also a plea for tolerance and acceptance in our bitter contemporary society.

The history is that of a long march of 1899, the eve of the Anglo Boer war. The newspapers of the time dubbed it “Marwick’s March”, as it was ostensibly led by a Mr Marwick. The march took 7,000 Zulu mineworkers from Johannesburg back to their home province. Walking, it took them 10 days. Of course, the miners had their own leaders, but their names are largely forgotten by history, giving Khumalo space for his fiction.

There are three main characters. Nduku is thoughtful, but often conflicted. As a child in Cetshwayo’s court he was apprenticed to his herbalist father, but later converted to Christianity. His girlfriend is Philippa, a strong-minded light-skinned woman of mixed race, who can, and does, pass for white. And then there is Xhawulengweni, a big, powerful man, feared on the mines and in the new city of Johannesburg. He is a gangster, leading a powerful band of thieves who have their own plans for the marchers.

But Xhawulengweni has another reason for being on the march. He and Nkuku have history and Xhawulengweni has a desperate need for revenge. As the march proceeds across the Transvaal border and into Natal, Khumalo slowly reveals the back story of his characters, and a picture of the times they lived in. He describes Johannesburg on the eve of war as “a cesspool of clashing civilisations, churning and churning”, and shows what life was like in the embryonic City of Gold.

Khumalo uses this rich backdrop for a story that is both human and humane. He has a delightful touch, dealing with brutal subjects with humour, and has created a novel that is a love story, as well as a plea for tolerance and kindness, whether dealing with race, homosexuality or just the general day-to-day business of life.