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Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda
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Dec 15, 2009

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“Profound Meaning” and “Blinding Light”:
The Derelict Characters of Mda and Wicomb

Zoë Wicomb and Zakes Mda present two characters, Jan Klinkies and Toloki, that are kept on the fringes of society in their books, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town and Ways of Dying. Jan Klinkies’s and Toloki’s apparently peripheral importance in their communities is counteracted, when Wicomb and Mda suggest their derelict characters’ actions and lifestyles are forms of undermining their oppressive environment.
Both characters play a part in their own alienation. Wicomb writes of Klinkies, “he certainly did not go to church…and no one complained” (12). Jan Klinkies is not resisting individual members of society, but rather the society as a whole. He is not resented, merely alienated. The narrator Frieda notes, “there was no malicious gossip [about him:]” (Wicomb 11). Jan Klinkies’s family, the only glimpse of community we see, takes turns visiting him and passing responsibility for him between one another. To them, he is a chore to be grumbled about.
The absent gossip of “Jan Klinkies” is pervasive in Ways of Dying. Mda’s narrator presents the missing voice in “Jan Klinkies”: “We are the all-seeing eye of village gossip” (12). The individual citizens of the communities of Toloki and Jan Klinkies are not, therefore, responsible for these characters’ eccentricities. There’s not so many individual villains, as there is a vilifying of a faceless society that works around Toloki and Jan Klinkies. Tourists “don’t pay any particular attention to [Toloki:], except of course to make sure their wallets and handbags are safe. But then that is what they do every time they see someone who does not look quite like them” (Mda 195). Wicomb and Mda develop a distinction between a privileged mainstream society, and those who do “not look quite like” the members of this society.
This subjugation in both “Jan Klinkies” and Ways of Dying is a result of labeling. The oppressive government that has expropriated Jan Klinkies’s land labels him as a non-white, and inherent in this distinction, unfit to live in developed areas. The character referred to as “That Mountain Woman” in Ways of Dying is renowned for her ability to verbally hurt other characters, often by labeling them. She calls her husband “the product of a botched abortion…a favourite label that she gave to people she did not like”, and complains that her daughter’s lover “was a koata, which meant that he was uncivilised and uncultured” (Mda 73, 84). In both cases, those who are labeled are undermined, while those who label do so to retain dominance.
Wicomb and Mda use Jan Klinkies and Toloki to question the authority of these labels. Jan Klinkies collects cans “of which you could only guess the spent contents, for all the cans were scrupulously stripped of their labels” (Wicomb 16). The cans are all “equal” – no one can guess their previous contents. A similar stripping of his label bewilders Toloki:
His thoughts are caught by the label Noria has given him. He has been called ugly and foolish all his life, to the extent that he has become used to these labels. But he has never been called beautiful before. It will take him time to get used to this new label. (Mda 151)
Instead of removing all labels like Jan Klinkies, Noria re-labels Toloki as a means of empowerment rather than repression. In either case, Wicomb and Mda suggest that the alienation of Jan Klinkies and Toloki is an inappropriate result of a systematic and arbitrary labeling.
Not only are the labels unfitting, Mda and Wicomb suggest they are directly contrary to the true values of Toloki and Jan Klinkies. The label of Rooibos tea is offensive to Jan Klinkies, depicting the Voortrekkers originally responsible for expropriating land in South Africa. Jan Klinkies boycotts the tea, and removes himself from a system that glorifies usurpation of land. Jan Klinkies also refuses to drink “Boeretroos”, protesting that “whatcomfortsaboerispoisontome” (Wicomb 17). Jan Klinkies’s eccentricity is a result of a highly intellectual protest. He is labeled and segregated, seen as a burden on his family rather than a potential leader of revolution.
Jan Klinkies tries to strip the cans, and himself, of labels, but Toloki changes his label with Noria’s encouragement. Similarly differing from Jan Klinkies, Toloki perceives “what comforts a boer” to be an opportunity to succeed within the system. To make money, he sells “boerewors” (Mda 120). He fails when his cart is stolen. In South Africa, the poor must steal from the poor, a cycle enforced by systematic oppression. Noria’s job “required her to make tea when the big bosses wanted it”, as she too tries to provide for her family through subservience. Jan Klinkies suggests that the only way to help one’s self is to shun the “boerewors”…to shun the tea-drinking that promotes the status quo of dominant and dominated.
Toloki can only contribute to his community when he takes on a profession independent of the system. Toloki tells Noria “he has a mission in the world, that of mourning for the dead” (Mda 96). Toloki’s vocation has a purpose behind it, beyond making money and becoming a part of South African class stratification. Sam Raditlhalo comments on Toloki’s shift in value amongst members of his community:
At the end, through his perseverance, Toloki is no longer seen as the communal clown. He takes up his drawing skills again, filling and decorating the squalid informal settlement with drawings of flowers. (180)
Toloki has made a contribution bettering the lives of his fellow villagers. Inhabitants of the settlement “say that the work has profound meaning…it is enough only to know that there is a meaning, and it is a profound one” (Mda 200). Toloki’s drawings touch people’s lives. The ironic profundity is even greater, coming from a derelict deemed previously “ugly and foolish”, now doing “the work of a genius” (Mda 200).
The cans of Jan Klinkies are similarly a beacon of hope in the face of oppression. The cans “send off beams of blinding light”, connoting their figurative divinity in the eyes of Frieda (Wicomb 20). Jan Klinkies and Toloki offer their cans and crayon drawings as messages to their communities, and that these symbols are generated from outcasts speaks volumes to where the heart of society belongs.
The lurking notion that these derelict characters offer a positive lesson to society is implicit in the motif of new life in death. Ways of Dying begins with “death is…our own creation”, and a marriage procession and a funeral procession meet head-on (Mda 7). If Jan Klinkies and Toloki are perceived as society’s decay, then a “birth in death” theme would support a restructuring of society out of their alleged debasing of it. Toloki’s profession is a vocation because of this idea of procreation through death: “He would be willing to train other people…so that when he dies the tradition will continue. Then he will live in the books of history” (Mda 17). Toloki becomes a professional mourner in hopes his message will be perpetuated.
Jan Klinkies assumes a birth-in-death role as well, when “he stretched his arms and planted his feet wide in a modern crucifixion pose”, recalling the Passion of Christ (Wicomb 19-20). This allusion carries the significance of a second chance; Jesus died to save humans from their sins, and Jan Klinkies sacrifices convention so that society may hopefully see its own faults.
This motif of sacrifice promotes an empowering message to a post-apartheid generation. Vuthu’s funeral is on Christmas, the symbolic birthday of Christ, and when Toloki wonders how Noria copes, he notes, “she does not carry her grief like a cross” (Mda 148). This supports a perspective shift away from the archetypal Christian imagery, and towards a strange new moral trend. Jan Klinkies, a man perceived as crazy, invokes Christ’s crucifixion but the pose is “modified”. Noria bears a tremendous burden, but “not like a cross”.
The perversion of divinity in Ways of Dying and “Jan Klinkies” consequently sanctifies the oppressed and dejected. Raditlhalo associates Toloki as a Christ-like figure in his community: “[Toloki is:] like a lamb ready to take on the sins and woes of the world” (179). Toloki drunkenly relays his version of the Passion and the narrator comments, “he invented most of the details as he went along…we couldn’t care less that his story of crucifixion did not tally exactly with the [Bible:]” (Mda 103). The narrator becomes caught up in Toloki’s speech, and an embarrassing moment becomes fleetingly revelatory. Jan Klinkies “does not seem himself at all” when he transforms from derelict to a modified Christ. Mda and Wicomb extend an amount of sanctity to Toloki and Jan Klinkies, it seems, because of their peripheral status in society.
When Toloki and Noria build Noria’s new shack, neighbors come to marvel at its wonder, at its workmanship. “No one can really say what [Toloki and Noria’s:] message is, except to observe that it is a very profound one”, and the communal narrator refers to Toloki and Noria as “the two creators” (Mda 68, 69). A motley assembly of materials from an unlikely pair becomes profound, just as Jan Klinkies’s collection of old cans emit “blinding light”. Mda and Wicomb beg the reader, and society, to look closely at these characters – at their alienation, at their labels, and ultimately, at their worth.





Works Cited
Mda, Zakes. Ways of Dying. New York: Picador USA, 2002. Print.
Raditlhalo, Sam. "Beggars' Description: 'Xala,' the Prophetic Voice and the Post-Independent African State." English in Africa 32.2 (2005): 169-84. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 Dec. 2009.
Wicomb, Zoë. "Jan Klinkies." You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town. New York: Feminist at the City University of New York, 2000. 11-20. Print.
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