Testing the Fools: Society and Maturity in Ndebele’s Fiction

Written in 1983, Njabulo Ndebele’s “Fools & Other Stories” deals with the experiences of ordinary people living under the apartheid regime. The author subtly comments on the political environment of the 1980s through the lives of average black citizens whom the apartheid system affects. Ndebele’s work can be described as literature of the victim or powerless as it is written as an appeal to the oppressor’s conscience and aims to make them aware of the forgotten lives of the ordinary. It can be argued that “The Test” is about the contest of boyhood suffering whereas “Fools” is about an adult’s realization of personal restrictions in a broader social context, yet the accuracy of these claims requires further examination.

Although “The Test” is written in third person, the story is told through Thoba’s perspective. A young boy from a privileged family, Thoba has a deep desire to experience the hardships his contemporaries undergo. Ndebele writes that “Thoba envied these boys” (p. 7) and that “… Thoba yearned to have cracked feet too” (p. 4) just like Nana’s. By using the word ‘yearned’, Ndebele suggests that this character has a strong emotional longing for this suffering. Because Thoba comes from an advantaged family, he come under scrutiny from his less fortunate peers. This boys has successful parents who have worked hard to be able to bring their children into a better class. Vusi, Mpiyakhe and Simangele mock Thoba because his sheltered lifestyle has refused him many experiences of suffering for which he so desperately longs. Mpiykakhe patronisingly says “Softies, all of you. You’re too higher-up. That’s your problem” (p. 12). However, it is later established that Mpiyakhe is also “higher-up” as he is the son of a successful man who owns a prosperous taxi service. Mpiyakhe lives in a large house, goes to a good school, eats well and is therefore also dubbed a “softie” by Thoba and the boys of Mayaba Street. It can be deduced that Mpiyakhe hates being teased and adopts the role of sufferer to attempt to hide the unavoidable fact that he is a “softie”. This attitude is proven in the line: “…he would let out steam on Thoba, trying to transfer the ridicule” (p. 13). It is suggested that he also secretly aches for the suffering of the other boys.

Furthermore, “The Test” deals with the hardships of being a boy and the desire to publicly test their limits that come with growing up. A main theme of this story is that of masculinity and all that which it comes with – competiveness, stubbornness, aggression and a warped sense of sadism and masochism. Ndebele makes many references to the boys getting into physical fights with one another, one instance seen in the line “A fight seemed inevitable…” (pg. 9). The boys use fighting to deal with their aggression as well as a way through which to determine who is stronger and therefore who is more capable to deal with their respective suffering. Apart from receiving gratification and pleasure from fighting each other, the boys also find satisfaction and enjoyment in showing each other their superiority by putting themselves through pain and suffering. An explicit example of this is when Vusi asks Simangele: “How would you like to be a horse in the rain?” (p. 14). The boys ‘one-up’ each other by saying “I bet you can never go into the rain without your shirt” (p. 14) and “Let’s see if you too can be a horse” (p. 14). The boys run through the rain half-naked and put themselves through pain and suffering in order to merely prove their physical prowess and superiority over one another. This attitude is once again proven in the line: “Weaklings, the lot of them” (p. 18) In the end of “The Test” Thoba is able to experience the hardships of the other boys. Wet, cold, in pain and sick – he is finally content. He says “There was suddenly something deeply satisfying and pleasurable about the pain” (p. 24). Thoba’s efforts of asserting his masculinity, proving his supremacy and experiencing real suffering paid off, he is at last “feeling so much alive” (p. 24). The boys produce pain on their own terms – regardless of the oppressors in their respective lives. Vusi, Simangele, Nana, Mpiyakhe and especially Thoba take control of their own lives and experiences and refuse to have other forces dictate and prescribe their suffering.

On the other hand, it can be argued that “Fools” is about an adult’s recognition of personal limitations in the broader social contest. However, many people may agree that it is not only the adult, Zamani, who comes to terms with his restrictions but also the adolescent, Zani. Both men have a desire to enact social change yet go about it differently. Zani carries around his suitcase full of books and tells the older man that “With them I do not build houses; I build the mind” (p. 141). He is also quite militaristic when it comes to spreading his ideas about social change, seen in the line written by his girlfriend: “I’ve not read a single book since I got home, as you had ordered me to” (p. 206). Ndebele, by using the word ‘ordered’, suggests that Zani made an authoritative command to Ntozakhe. The author also makes clear that Zani loves the idea of freedom and struggle but struggles with actually carrying out the social change about which he always speaks. The attitude of the teenager is seen in the lines: “What else can one talk about in this country?” (p. 175) as well as “It is so easy to make plans, and then everything comes crashing down because the proper act seems so rare” (p. 227). The 18 year old makes a point to Nosipho about how when one becomes obsessed with removing oppression, he becomes the oppressor himself. Zani is completely oblivious to the fact that he is essentially describing himself. The young adult victimizes the very people he wishes to help and reduces them to inferior positions within the struggle. Zani’s girlfriend accurately sums up this characteristic of his: “You cannot convince people of your truth by telling them of their foolishness (p. 207). There are many instances whem Zamani also embodies this tyrannical trait. It is clear to the readers that Zamani used to “beat a child until his skin peeled off” (p. 132). The power dynamic created by physically abusing a child can be compared to the relationship between Zani and the people in desperate need of social transformation. Because the teacher cannot beat the system of apartheid power relations, he joins it.

Zamani inflicts harm on others and finds pleasure in it: “He was just the kind of boy I liked to break” (p. 133). Apart from being a sadist and receiving enjoyment from other people’s pain, Zamani also shows signs of masochism, overt in the part of the story where the white Afrikaans man brutally whips Zamani. The teacher does not resist his beating yet passively accepts what he believes is his punishment for years of sinning. While the whipping was “as if [his] skin was peeling off and boiling water was being thrown over the exposed, lacerated inner flesh” (p. 225), Zamani begins to laugh. Zamani is purified by the whip and finally finds the redemption and salvation he has so long sought after. Another personal limitation both men recognize, only halfheartedly, is their difficulty in maintaining romantic and sexual relationships with women. It is clear that the adolescent boy has issues when it comes to intimacy, proven in the part of the story where Zani anxiously rambles to Zamani about how he regrets sleeping with Ntozakhe in the train. Zani reflects on the futility of love, the indignity of sex and the meaninglessness of child rearing. But perhaps the most important of points he makes is when he asks “Why did I just see in her the obstacle she might become?” (p. 170). Both Zani and Zamani view women as hurdles in the way of social and political transformation – merely objects that distract men from more urgent tasks.

Just like his younger alter ego, Zamani also objectifies women and is unable to see them as human beings. This is apparent when he rapes Mimi as he no longer views her as a girl or even as the mother of his child but only as “sorghum”, “wheat” and “corn seeds”. Zamani sees her as produce, something he can (and in this instance, must) harvest for himself. The same difficulty as Zani is seen when the teacher becomes sexually intimate with Candu, his girlfriend. He says that there is “So much corn to eat! So much harvest…” (p. 202-203), yet struggles to get an erection – “Everything is ready but for the indifferent limpness of the penis…” (p. 203). Zamani, by reducing not just one, but two, women to produce, clearly shows readers his misogynistic view of all women. Ultimately, “Fools” is not just about an adult’s recognition of his personal limitations in the broader social contest but also the teenager’s. Because Zani and Zamani are alter egos of one another, many, if not all of the issues the one deals with, applies to the other. They are very similar people and Ndebele, through these two complex characters, accurately shows how social and personal issues are able to transcend many barriers, such as age. In conclusion, the statement that “The Test” is about the contest of boyhood suffering is a correct assessment of Njabulo Ndebele’s short story. Through the characters of Thoba and the other boys of Mayaba Street, it can be deduced that it is a desire of the young boys to assert their masculinity, exhibit their aggression and essentially put each other’s limits to the test when it comes to suffering and pain.

In “Fools”, the claim that the story is about an adult’s realization of his personal restrictions is only a partially correct assessment of this complex story. Both Zani and Zamani recognize their individual limitations, especially when it comes to social transformation and relationships with women, not just the older of the two. Through analyzing these two stories, it is clear that Ndebele expertly showcases his flair for writing about the ordinary. He subtly provides commentary on apartheid by focusing on the usually overlooked lives of the very people the system affects the most.