It’s been over 10 years (I think) since I had a face-to-face encounter with Mkhuseli Khusta Jack – we first met when he was leading the PE Youth Congress (Peyco) in the 1980s and I was a journalism student; our paths crossed regularly in the years since then, in community, business and political arenas.
So, I was honoured to be asked – on behalf of the Daily Dispatch – to engage in a question-and-answer session with the Port Elizabeth activist and businessman at the East London launch of his autobiography, To survive and succeed – from farm boy to businessman.
I looked forward to the opportunity, even as I tried to remember exactly which of his buttons were easy to press and which would be off-limits.
The organisers need not have bothered about an interviewer or a facilitator. Khusta did not answer any of my questions. He is as ungovernable as ever!
To be fair, he knows best the questions that flow from a close reading of his book and certainly has all the answers. I still hold it significant that I was able to participate in the launch. This is an important book and I suggest that it should form part of the history syllabus taught in our schools.
To Survive and Succeed is an honest, downto-earth and compelling memoir, tracing Jack’s life path from his birth in 1957.
There is some dispute between the church and state records regarding the actual date of his birth; church records indicate May 30, but the state has claimed his birthday as May 31, ironically a day which, in later years, would spark repeated protests from black and progressive white South Africans when it became the day the National Party declared South Africa to be a republic in 1961.
But Jack’s is more than a single journey. And it encompasses much more than one person’s life.
In the process of relating his personal journey, Jack takes us through some of the critical, dark markers of our national and provincial history, beginning in the 1960s, through the 1970s and 1980s, and brings us to the tentative unfolding of moves towards a democratic dispensation.
No book can purport to be the definitive, in-depth record of the history of our country, neither does this one.
The broad sweep through key events, processes and ideas of the decades preceding our democratic turn, allows for a fresh sense of the drama Jack’s generation lived through. And for younger generations of South Africans, it is an opportunity to learn some of these stories for the first time.
This is a considerably important record, given the ease with which many South Africans repeatedly adopt ahistorical slurs to try to win an advantage over a political opponent or pull the wool over the eyes of followers.
The claims that Nelson Mandela’s “sold us out” through the negotiation process are a case in point which Jack highlights, even if we must concede that Codesa did not deliver as much as we would wish it had for black South Africans.
At one level, Jack’s book is a journey through the physical spaces and places he has lived and from which he has been forced to move at various times of his life. It starts from the Gamtoos River Valley, traverses our province and country and goes out into the world, before coming again to the Kouga district, where Jack’s family still awaits a decision on their claim for the land on which they once lived.
Of course, it is a personal and shared journey through the political hotspots, the contested ideologies, the tough eras of our country’s recent past.
The consumer boycott which the ungovernable Jack led in Port Elizabeth – earning the ire of white businesspeople and apartheid securocrats – is among the most significant of those events. It deals with the horrors of police detention and killings, taking us to the sites of torture and incarceration the security branch used, from Baakens Street and Sanlam to Fort Brown and Modderbee B.
And it reflects the deaths of some of Jack’s closest comrades – Siphiwo Mtimkulu and Topsy Madaka among them – at the hands of apartheid death squads along the way.
Jack’s is also an economic journey – from being a child labourer on a Gamtoos farm through to eventually starting his own businesses.
In-between, it encompasses brickmaking, construction, food processing, the motor industry, and big failures of entrepreneurship, a venture into producing baby’s nappies among them.
He points out that black South African entrepreneurs “are not the best models of successful business”.
There are psycho-socio-spiritual journeys to places of refuge in reality and in the mind where reflection becomes possible, in the church – conflictual – and through family – large, messy, complicated and as challenging as any other family’s, yet making it possible to find love, marriage and to nurture his own family.
And through all these journeys weaves the main sub-theme to the book – his intense, unquenchable desire for education, and the twists and turns of the journey to achieve that objective, from Humansdorp to New Brighton, Mdantsane to Sussex.
He never flinches from telling it like it was, like it still is.
In any society, the matter of history is always a tense one. Yet it is a necessary engagement if society is to make sense of – and peace with – its past. We cannot evolve, become different if not better human beings, take measures to avoid making the same mistakes all over again, unless we look back at where we’ve been.
Telling and re-telling the histories of South Africa will of necessity be a fraught experience, given how broken and divided a society we are. But it is essential. And Khusta Jack’s book shows us how it can be done.