Siphiwo Mahala

Essay: Diary of a Hangman by Siphiwo Mahala

Writer and Imbiza Journal founder/editor Siphiwo Mahala has put out an essay on the ongoing turmoil brought about by the abuse allegations against writer and Abantu Book Festival Thando Mgqolozana. We reproduce it here in full.

“Julius Caesar staggers towards his friend, appealing to him, but Brutus stabs him. Unbelieving, Caesar says, ‘Et tu Brute? Then fall, Caesar.’ They are the last words he utters.”

What made the last stab wound so severe to Julius Caesar was not the depth of the wound, but the severity caused by the hand that held the dagger – his own friend – Brutus. It is 2021 in South Africa, and a real life incident imitates this Shakespearean melodrama:

Friday, 20 August

I’m completing office work so that I can start focusing on my manuscript. I’ve paced myself in such a way that I’ll be done by midday on Sunday. I’ll print the manuscript on Monday and courier it to the editor.

I get a random WhatsApp message from my brother’s wife. She’s thanking me for the role that I played in their lives. This is rather strange as we haven’t spoken in months. I reply and ask that we talk on Sunday afternoon. We agree on 14h00 sharp!

Saturday, 21 August

I’m still working, phone put away. I’m on course to meet my deadline. I take a break, drink some water, and look at my phone. There are several missed calls, including one from my brother. A torrent of WhatsApp messages come through as I activate wifi. I open the WhatsApp messages, there are several screenshots from twitter, including a link to the original source. It is my brother’s wife, she tweeted accusing him of physical abuse.

I sink into the sofa. I’m trembling. I start sweating. My heart beats vigorously against my chest. Several people call, but I don’t have the energy to pick up the phone. The twitter post happened about an hour ago, trying to call them now is hopeless. Sunday at 14:00 is too far. This could be the reason my sister was reaching out to me but I was too preoccupied with my writing. I go back to her message, she mentions “the grief, the pain, the dips and the highs.” Why didn’t I pick up that something was not right?

I failed her. I’m angry. I’m full of regret. I hate myself for not having paid attention. I’m in a terrible mental state. There’s no point of talking to anybody now. Forget about the manuscript. I just want to be sane. I try to sleep, but my mind is fully awake.

Sunday, 22 August

I’ve been trying to write, but I’m functioning at 10% of my mental capacity. Newspapers are delivered at 5am, and I try to read them for distraction. Nothing. I’m thinking about 14h00. I check social media, everybody is talking about my brother, I quit immediately.

It seems like 14h00 cannot come soon enough. At about 12h00 I send a text, asking if we are still on for 14h00. She responds in the affirmative. I can’t focus on anything. I can’t finish reading a single article in the newspapers. I pace up and down the house. The lastborn wants to play, but daddy is not in the mood.

The appointed time arrives. I call her and I cut to the chase. I tell her this is no longer a catching up call, I want to know if she and the child are safe. She assures me that all is well, despite the recent incident. I’m not convinced. Who made you pull down the tweets, I ask? No one, I was not pressured by anybody. I removed them at my own volition.

What was the trigger, I ask? She explains the backstory. How would you like me to help? All is fine, she assures me. At this stage I feel there is not much I can do to help. Only professional intervention or a meeting between the two could make a difference. Are you gonna see my brother at all, I ask? Yes, I’ll be picking up the child from him after this call. Do you think you’ll get a chance to talk to him? I have no problem talking to him, she says.

About three hours later I send a message, did you guys talk? No, we couldn’t because there were guests in the house, she replies. Are you gonna talk to him, she throws the ball back to me? I explain that I was hoping they would talk, but now that they didn’t, I promise to sleep over it. Please don’t turn your back on him, she pleads with me.   

Monday, 22 August

I’m busy at work, but my mind keeps wandering. I haven’t spoken to Thando Mgqolozana (my brother) in a very long time. I send a message to check how my sister is doing. She says she’s getting better. I tell her I’m gonna talk to my brother as she had asked. Next I call my brother, he doesn’t answer. I send a message, asking him to call me back.

After a while he returns my call. Why did it take so long for you to call, he asks? I had to be mentally prepared, this is what I tell him, among other things. He gives me the back story from his perspective. Are you going to issue a statement, I ask? He is non-committal.

I feel myself sinking deep into depression. I tell my wife how I’m feeling, and she tells me to take it easy. It’s too late to make an appointment with the doctor now, but we’ll consult in the morning. I check social media, friends, foes and former friends are asking questions, but my brother is missing in action. I haven’t posted on social media since Saturday.

I tell my wife that I’m gonna update my Facebook so people know that something is being done. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea. I tell her I am acting in the interests of the family, particularly the alleged survivor who specifically asked me not to turn my back on them. Everyone needs to know that she is fine. I update my status, where I indicate that I’m talking to the couple. I explain that “my focus has been the wellbeing of the couple together with their child, who is still a minor.” In less than 10 minutes a fellow scribe and activist calls, remove that status! I’m confused, but I say I’ll delete, then we can talk.

After removing it I call her and ask why did I have to delete. There’s gonna be a huge backlash on this. I don’t understand. I’m stating my reality and I know there will always be divergent views and I can deal with that, but why a hostile backlash. She explains that people are angry, and this is not the kind of content they want to hear at this stage. I have many reasons to object; I am unapologetic about looking after the wellbeing of the family as a whole; but I know hers is a genuine concern. Then I ask myself: do you have the time and emotional capacity to engage on a social media debate over this issue? Certainly not. I send her a message and thank her for insisting that I remove the post.

I call my sister. I call my brother. They are both hanging by the thread. This is not good for my nerves. I ignore calls from friends. Now stress has reached dangerous proportions.

Tuesday, 23 August

Í manage to sleep more than two hours for the first time since Friday. At 3h30am I’m reading my manuscript. At 7h00am I take my daughter to school. We laugh, we sing and we argue with the radio all the way. It’s a better day. But I’m not taking chances, I’m going to see a doctor. He tells me to stay home, keep away from things that bring stress and go back to running (it’s been suspended as I’m working on the manuscript). I laugh at him, because I’m feeling great. He gives me several days of sick leave.

In the afternoon, on my way to picking up my daughter, a driver almost hits my car on the side and then he hoots angrily. I hit the brakes, lower the window. Before I could say anything, the passenger probably realising that they were on the wrong, raises his clutched hands apologetically. I give them thumbs up and drive off. I tell my wife about the incident, she says you getting involved in a road rage? Akukho right (you are not well)!

Wednesday, 24 August

My brother still hasn’t said anything. The tweets were deleted. There is no official statement from him. I have an important event in three days. I have done zero marketing for the event. I reach out to my brother, I can’t get hold of him. I reach out to his associate, no luck. I try him again without success. I send a WhatsApp text. No response. I’m getting anxious. I reach out to another friend, he’s not feeling well. Stress. I call a friend on her two numbers, they both go straight to voice mail. I send a WhatsApp text, no response.

The literary landscape is in turmoil. We have decided to postpone our event. Now, how do we craft the statement? I’m adamant that we won’t use the tired and nebulous phrase of “due to unforeseen circumstances”. Our stance must be clear – We condemn Gender Based Violence (GBV). I’m confident about articulating this position, especially because it involves someone very close to me. I have both the moral and ethical obligation to be unambiguous in my stance. I am aware of the psychological damage it will cause to me, to my sister the alleged survivor, and to my brother the alleged perpetrator. I am about deliver the fatal blow to my brother. I’m assuming the role of Brutus. It hurts even more.  

Now I have written a statement, it took only 20 minutes. I need to talk to someone. Anyone. I’m pacing up and down the house. I sit in the car. I get out. I put on my running gear, I hit the road, try a new route. I’m running and thinking. My mind goes back to that first phone call I made to him after reading his manuscript early in 2009. How I fell in love with his mind; his immeasurable compassion. I’m running, I’m crying, I’m sitting on the road side. I’ve lost energy. I walk, I get lost, I finally find my way back home. My last born asks why I took too long. Her mother says she was getting anxious. I’m here, I say.

I call the family and tell them about the statement that I’m about to issue. They understand but are devastated. I release the statement. Take a shower. Now I’m scared to touch my phone. We have dinner. My daughter asks, why uqumbile? I deny, but she insists that I was frowning while looking into space. I dismiss her and flash a grin.

I gather courage to browse my phone and there is a flurry of messages coming through. Many are commending me for taking such a principled stance especially on a matter that involves someone that I dearly love; others are accusing me that by postponing the event I am protecting my brother. I try to engage; but my mental health is at a huge risk now.

I check on my brother’s wife, she says she’s doing fine. I don’t know what to believe. I’m not in a good state myself, so I can’t be a good judge of character. Under normal circumstances, I would tell just from her voice that she’s not okay, even when her lips are saying the opposite. It is the worst day of the week. I take medication and try to sleep.

My phone rings. It’s my brother and some friends. I get up and go to the car so we could talk. He’s seen the statement. He is despondent; feeling betrayed. He is distraught that I could put his name in the same sentence as GBV. I try to explain that the information that is in the public domain is that he had deliberately physically harmed a woman, that’s what am reacting to. My statement is a matter of principle, one that he himself espouses. I am denouncing the act he is alleged to have committed. I don’t think I’m making any sense.

But if anyone knows the story, it is you, he says sternly. I take a momentary pause, and heave a deep sigh. Who do you stand for on this matter, he asks? I stand for the truth, I say. But you know the backstory. In a low voice I say, the story is yours to tell. It would’ve been great for the two of you to make a public statement.  Take us into your confidence. It’s been four days now; speculation is rife, new accusations are emerging. Some of the original tweets are totally misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted. Your continued silence leaves people with no choice but to speculate and draw conclusions.

We talk for over an hour. Our conversation is as unsatisfactory to him as it is to me. My only solace is that I have stated my truth, even if it turns me into my brother’s hangman. I drug myself to sleep…





3 responses to “Essay: Diary of a Hangman by Siphiwo Mahala”

  1. […] I feel myself sinking deep into depression. I tell my wife how I’m feeling, and she tells me to take it easy. It’s too late to make an appointment with the doctor now, but we’ll consult in the morning. I check social media, friends, foes and former friends are asking questions, but my brother is missing in action. I haven’t posted on social media since Saturday.”  Read full statement. […]

  2. Sydney Langelihle Sibiya avatar
    Sydney Langelihle Sibiya

    Thank you for your input, Sphiwo, and for your engagement with and support to both Thabisa and Thando. You are in a much better position than most of us as we have no back story to rely on to assist us to make sense of all that has been reported. We are hurting and perplexed. We do not seek to crucify Thando, but we think that we deserve to know the truth, for both the couple’s sake and ours. And we, especially as men in South Africa, have a responsibility to express an apinion, but it would be better if our opinion were informed by objective facts. By seeking the truth from him we do not imply that we are better men or better human beings than he is, but we seek understanding so that we may, as individuals and as a community, learn, understand, heal, chastise, offer suport, and grow individually and collectively. You are correct that it is Thando’s duty to tell his side of the story to us. The message and information on his video was grossly unsatisfactory. On my part at least, the motivation for information has nothing to do with the cancel culture, voyeurism, or a sadist inclinition to kick a person when they are down, but it is based on the considerations mentioned above, the recognition that the matter of GBV is a societal matter that is bigger than all of us, and the sincere belief that, those of us who have voices have a leadership responsibility thrust on us to provide leadership and pronounce on moral issues of national importance, especially at times like these when there is a degeneration and paucity of political leadership in the country. Moral positions and pronouncements frequently require to be formulated and articulated in the absence of full factual informaton and ahead of legal positions and adjudication, if they they are to be classified as moral.

  3. Philani Nongogo avatar
    Philani Nongogo

    I couldn’t have said it better Sydney my brother. This matter is so painful, it cut too deep. I also wish I could hear more of this back story to reason appropriately. I don’t remember the last time I felt this low, this defeated, this numb, this confused, this pained.

    Thank you though Siphiwo Mahala for this piece. It does assist to see some picture.

    I send love and support to both Thabisa and Thando…in fact, it’s the first time I get to think deep about these guy’s names… so much love and joy the parents apparently wished for them ❣️

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