I arrive at Fugard Annex 1 cradling a tumbler of red wine and find an empty seat on the second last row at the back. On stage is the host, Ferial Haffajee (editor of City Press), with her guest Maria Phalime, to talk about her memoir: Postmortem, The Doctor Who Walked Away.
The room is adequately packed, save for a few seats. A significant number of student doctors are in attendance. The conversation oscillates between the material conditions in state hospitals — the lack of resources to attend to the chaos of disease and wounds and infection — and the socio-economic factors that yield such a chaotic state of affairs.
Maria speaks with authority on her subject and in between the harrowing stories of trauma, fatigue and disillusion she betrays an uncanny sense of humour in the face of it all. Her debut book has won the inaugural City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award. In the book what we’re accustomed to in statistics and cold empirical facts is distilled into human stories of the stakeholders in the public healthcare system. She speaks of the need to transform the public healthcare sector, as well as the need for doctors to speak up about the dreadful conditions within which they work.
When she speaks of her years in medicine a smile creases on her face. You’d be forgiven to think she was telling a love story. In her words a firm gentleness, unlike that of my own mother, is apparent when she retells her story and experience and in the grim anecdotes she tells about the people (doctors and patients) she encountered during her four years in medicine.
When her session is over I make my way to the book-signing room where I pick up Phalime’s book, as well as Sixolile Mbalo’s Dear bullet: Or A Letter to my Shooter and Malaika Wa Azania’s Memoirs of a Born Free.
Reading the opening pages of Mbalo’s book before going to bed doesn’t quite prepare me for the following day’s session with her and fellow author, Ekow Duker. Sindiwe Magoma hosts the session and translates to English Mbalo’s isiXhosa. Here, I must commend her on her precise translation of isiXhosa to English. Nothing is lost in translation as Mbalo shares her ordeal as if picking a scab that hasn’t quite healed. The silence in the room quivers with the trembling in her voice as though she would at any given moment break into a terrifying whimper. But she doesn’t. Instead she speaks of bravery and a need for society to protect women from rape. She implores us to understand that life doesn’t end after you’ve been raped, that she is living proof of her assertion. “I’m also writing the story of other women who have been raped,” she says about her book.
It is not the uneasy heaviness of the silence that engulfs us as Mbalo speaks or her trembling voice that slaps me into sobriety, it’s the lack of attendance. For a country whose women are violently subjected to rape and abuse nearly every second of every minute you’d hope that when the opportunity arose for us to talk about violence against women a strong presence from all faces of society would show up ready to speak. Sadly, this isn’t the case.
The handful of people in the room sits forlornly as we listen in on the talk on stage — be it at an academic distance. When the Q&A section of the talk is underway only two hands go up — a contrast to the previous night’s talk with Phalime, which was well-attended and showed greater interaction.
Duker sits quietly while Sixolile speaks. His book — Dying in New York — written from a first person perspective by Lerato, the female protagonist, also deals with rape and abuse as its central themes.
Speaking of Duker’s book Magoma points out that, like Lerato’s mother in the book, we (society) are looking on, abused, stunned into silence and not speaking out about rape and abuse. In a sense, our collective silence makes us reluctant accomplices to the crimes perpetrated by those who are our friends, family members and close relatives. “We get more upset when Bafana Bafana loses,” Magoma says, “than we do when a woman is raped”.
After picking up Duker’s novel and having both books singed by the authors I make my way home with an uncomfortable lump in my throat. I think of all that was said in the session. I think of my two-year-old daughter and my girlfriend; I think of my mother and sister; I think of Mbalo and the quivering in her voice. I try to imagine the bravery it took for her to visit her perpetrator in prison to find closure. I think of my tacit complicity with her perpetrator. I think of the many empty seats in the room.