Meet the winners of the ‘My Father’ writing competition

02 August 2021 - 10:12 By Fundza
FunDza's 'My Father' writing competition received nearly 1,500 entries.
FunDza's 'My Father' writing competition received nearly 1,500 entries.
Image: Mark Lewis

Published in The Sowetan (29/07/2021)

What does the word “father” mean to you? That’s what the FunDza Literacy Trust asked young writers across the country for their latest essay competition, run in conjunction with the Heartlines’ “Fathers Matter” campaign.

FunDza received more than 1,475 entries for the three categories of Senior (ages 24-30), Intermediate (ages 18-23), and Junior (ages 13-17). There were many different stories about fantastic fathers across the country who are their children’s superheroes, protectors and cheerleaders. The essays described fathers trying to educate their children about the joys of jazz (often unsuccessfully), fathers watching their children’s soccer games, buying them sweets, helping with their homework, playing monopoly and other games, cooking for the family, and supporting young people through depression and failure. Some pieces were eulogies to fathers who had passed away, and described bittersweet memories of the fathers who live on in the writers’ hearts.

There were also heartbreaking stories about absent fathers, abusive fathers and fathers who could “not be separated from the bottle”. These accounts described the pain the writers went through, the loss, the envy of classmates who could talk about what their fathers had done with them on the weekend. But there were also essays about men who had stepped into the role of father, and had guided and loved other children as their own.

One of the runner-up essays was titled “I was raised by many fathers except mine” and included the paragraph: “I have more than one father. The postman who brings the letters once a week he is my father, the bus driver who takes me to school every day he is my father, our neighbour Mr Mudau who always needs my help recharging his airtime voucher he is my father, the security guard at our local supermarket he is also my father. They have been there for me when I needed them the most, they showed me what being a father is.”

As one of the judges commented: “The essays made us laugh and cry (literally). It was hard to choose the winners  because our hearts went out to all the writers who shared their moving stories.”

It was a competition, and winners had to be chosen. Each winner receives R1,500 in cash and a goodie bag of T-shirts, books and treats.

The winning entries and the entries of the six runners-up and other commended pieces have been published on FunDza’s site – data-free on all SA networks.

To read them go to

Senior winner: Athenkosi Cetyana
A Man Of Not So Many Words

It is a cold and sombre winter Saturday morning and the paraffin in the heater is almost through. We are all shivering from the wind blowing through the corrugated iron roof. After all, shacks are not made for winter let alone for human beings – but we are hopeful because our father is out there combating the rain for a litre of paraffin – just to keep us all warm.

Senior winner Athenkosi Cetyana.
Senior winner Athenkosi Cetyana.
Image: Supplied

This is one of my earliest memories of my father.

Later on in the evening, I remember him playing the news on the radio while watching the news on the TV on mute. When asked by mother why he did so, he’d religiously reply, “Nkosikazi, iindaba zeli lizwe zibalulekile kaloku”, which emphatically expressed his passion for our country’s politics. My father, in my eyes, is a political science scholar who did not have the privilege to attend school. Forced by his circumstances as a young boy, born and bred in the rural villages of Cofimvaba, Eastern Cape, he had to leave home at an early age to go find work in the gold and mineral mines of Johannesburg.

When I look at my father’s hardened, semi-cracked black skin, I am reminded of all the sacrifices he made for us, his family. His skin, a map of all sorts of contradiction, of how softness and hardship can coexist in harmony in one’s body, informing his beauty. When I look at him, I am also reminded of all the times I ran away from a hiding. “You better run, you stout boy, and I better not catch you,” he would shout as I outran his tired, frail legs.

When I think of my old man, I remember not wanting to go home for the longest time, trying to postpone the inevitable because I had never failed before then. This was my first year in university and I had always been the student who passed with flying colours. University became the first entity to teach me about failure. However, my father was the first human being to teach me about how it is I learn. I have been able to muster my courage and approach my life because of the gift that was bestowed upon me by my father’s words.

“You always get it right the second time, my son. It is just how you are. Don’t be afraid to try again when you fall.”

My father, a man of not so many words, uttered those words when I needed them most. These words echo in my subconscious in perpetuity. It is these words that sit with me whenever I am met with struggle and moments of failure, or sitting in moments of anxiety and self-doubt. When I imagine the word “father”, I imagine a presence, one not only limited to being there physically and bringing home bread for the family to eat, but a [psychological] presence that sits with my personhood as an adult. I have been prepared for life by those simple, few words.

My father, a man of not so many words, is the embodiment of all that is worth smiling about in this world. I am proud to echo these words back to him.

Cetyana commented on his win: “This comes at an important hour in my journey as an artist and a human being. I’d had a writer’s block for a while prior to this competition, so I am grateful for the win because it restores my creativity and affirms the work I’ve been doing. It truly is meaningful and I am more grateful to the FunDza team for deeming this story worth publishing. This win is dedicated to my old man.”

Intermediate winner: Lamla Bam
Bastard of Bhacaland

“Your father says his wife has died,” my mother reported. I knew her sad eyes were an attempt at common decency. Behind the veil of supposed empathy lay a tornado of excitement. I am her daughter and know her like I know myself. I managed to quickly get her off this fake sympathy into excited giggles shared with a cup of coffee.

Intermediate winner Lamla Bam.
Intermediate winner Lamla Bam.
Image: Supplied

“I can finally go home. The bastard of Bhacaland can finally go home!”

My father once told me in a call that my dear mother was aware he had a wife in the former Transkei but Alexandra, Johannesburg, in the late 1980s was a place where “migrant” workers from the bantu homesteads could not live with their wives. So the men fell in love with beautiful maidens who had come to work as domestic workers in Sandton, and the rest is history.

I was born a sin in 1998 and until a concerned wife deep in the belly of the Transkei started realising her husband sent too little money home, I had a father in my life.

It was a sunny day and a photo of Joe Slovo, the heroic communist, hung above the pillows where the three of us were lying, listening to Lucky Dube and laughing like doves in a nest. A father, a mother and Sunshine. My father calls me Sunshine. The angry wife beat my mother off her husband with a stick and called her a “township whore”.

Later, I would grow up with an aunt in my own mother’s home town in the Transkei. When I asked of my father, I was dissuaded from contacting him as “women from Bhacaland in Mount Frere poison children born out of wedlock”. That is why 19 years later – when my father called to tell my mother and I that his wife had died – we were elated.

That is because we are foolishly hopeful women. I waited for my father in Mount Frere, next to the stand where another aunt of mine sells fruit, for days.

I was 21 and he had promised to meet me there and we would take a car to his village where I would meet my half brothers and sisters. For weeks, I went back to my aunt’s house dejected until the end of the December holidays when he suddenly told me he had gone back to Johannesburg.

He had dodged me. He had run away from the Sun.

When I got back to Port Elizabeth, where I studied, I counted my blessings and moved on. I thought of my many aunts and cousins. My tribe who had raised me. And I was contented. I know my people love me.

I think of my father as an elusive dream. Silk escaping my hands never to be caught again.

When hearing she won the competition, Bam responded: “I chanced upon this competition when I applied to be a volunteer, teaching children reading skills on “YouthPotentialSA”. They mentioned it to me during our e-mail communication and I jumped at the opportunity. I doubted I would win so I had even forgotten I entered. Ha Ha. This means a lot to me in that the money will be helpful as I am unemployed. I will use it to buy a coding course on Udemy. Winning also gives me a tiny confidence that perhaps there is a future for me as a writer. Thank you Fundza!”

Junior winner: Mwewa Beatrice Ng’andu
The firefighter of my troubles

Here we are! Do you see that little brick house down the road, the one with the old thatch roof and the umber-streaked curtains? That’s it. Were you expecting something grand? Something, luxurious?

Junior winner Mwewa Beatrice Ng’andu.
Junior winner Mwewa Beatrice Ng’andu.
Image: Supplied

I remember those curtains being a hypnotising white, only because Mum would not allow us to touch them. I also remember the nights Mum would start a small fire on the braai stand on the veranda during load-shedding.

My sisters and I would sit near the fire and play Monopoly. “Iwe!” Adanna would shout, signalling that it was my turn to roll the dice.

I was distracted by the way the flames danced across her face and how they marched on the pearly white curtains, leaping from wall to wall as if they were performing some sacrifice. In a way they had sacrificed us to the hardships of life, as Dad always said: “There’s no time to wallow in ash and other sorrows. You must work smart, and not hard, if you want to be successful.”

With that, I shook the dice in my small palm, then blew into it, praying for at least a four, maybe I could buy Victoria & Alfred Waterfront or Table Mountain. These are only a few of the many places Dad has seen.

Three pairs of trousers, double the amount of shirts and five pairs of socks rolled into the tiny crevices. That is how he taught me to pack. I did not always understand why he had to travel so far for work, but I understood that to love your children is to sacrifice for them in whatever ways are necessary.

When he was gone, missing the thought of him was how we grew up.

There was a photograph of him, hidden in the corner of a black shoebox, smiling like an idiot. 1979. I wanted to call him softly, to see if he could step out of the dusty film and tell me what made his gorgeous, umber eyes light up like that.

In those times, I longed for his animated stories of all the scars he happened to obtain from war, only for grandma to inform us that they are from a horrible fall from the mango tree in her backyard. The older I get, the more I realise how blissful everything was until I stepped into what he called “the real world” that quickly flung shrapnel into my dreams.

However, my father’s comforting words always seemed to spill out slowly, as if the truth can take its time. In those two minutes of fatherly advice, I could not and can never be touched because he is the firefighter of my troubles, the light when I cannot see my path.

Ng’andu said about her win: “[This] means the world to me as I would love to further improve my writing skills and I will be saving the cash prize.”