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Lauren Beukes

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The Spark: Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.



Thando Mgqolozana writes fearlessly about topics that would burn other writer’s fingers, from botched circumcision rituals in his scathingly brilliant A Man Who Is Not A Man to an African take on the nativity in Hear Me Alone. He’s a fierce and challenging young writer and it’s great to see him move into new unexplored territory – campus.

The SparkThe Spark for Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

On Campus*

In 2002, I entered the premises of the University of the Western Cape for the first time through the Pedestrian’s Main Gate. I’d taken a taxi from Gugs and my cousin, who was more familiar with Cape Town, had told me to get off at Sex Cycle, cross the road, and buzz security at the gate. Once I was in the taxi, I told the driver where I was going and there were chuckles. Upon disembarking, I saw written on the roadside board: Sacks Circle Industrial.

I’d arrived in Cape Town from my village home the previous day and had left my bags at my cousin’s in Gugs while I went for registration. I had this overwhelming anxiety when I saw WELCOME TO THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WESTERN CAPE emblazoned above the electric gate. A security guy stood guard at the readily opened gate. When he was giving me directions to the Great Hall, a security lady came out of the security gatehouse and told him, ‘Hay’bo, you are confusing him.’

‘He’s not confused,’ he replied. ‘Are you confused, mfethu?’

I shook my head.

She said, ‘Can’t you see he’s a fresher? He won’t know the Condom Square you’re telling him about.’

He thought for a second and then said, ‘Look, mfethu,’ gesturing now, ‘when you pass this brown building, this one here, you will see a lawn on the other side. That’s Condom Square. There’ll be children rolling and kissing on the lawn. Don’t mind them. Pass Condom Square. There’s a path …’

I cannot remember the rest of it.

I didn’t remember it then. I had Sex Cycle and Condom Square in my mind. What kind of names were these? I’d find out later. The university was basically a juggle with tall, brown buildings; and that day Cape Town was so misty it was as though a steaming pot had just been opened. When I’d gotten my student card, fetched my bags from Gugs, and signed in at the Cecil Esau Residence, I felt hungry. I thought for another hour what I’d do about this situation. I decided to go and ask Gwen Ross, the lady who had welcomed me at Cecil Esau. While she was giving me directions to a campus shop she wasn’t even sure was open, a short guy popped out of the corridor and said to Gwen Ross, ‘Mama Ross, my job here is done.’ He was a short fellow but he walked like he was straddling something, and he wore his belt way above the belt line. He ignored me and waved a bunch of keys, ‘Need any more help, Mama Ross?’

‘Thank you. Won’t you please show him Daddy’s shop? He needs food.’

‘No problem,’ he said, handing the keys to Mama Ross, and then turning to me, ‘This way, my guy.’

Hamilton, the short fellow walked with me and on the way he showed me The Barn – yes, a pub with Castle Lager banners and all, on campus – and then he said, ‘This thoroughfare is called NY 1.’

‘NY 1?’

‘From the Dining Hall down there all the way to the DL Block.’

‘Are there other NYs?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Like NY 2, NY 3 …’

‘No, it’s just this one. Know what it stands for?’

‘Native Yard number 1,’ I said confidently. ‘I’m from Gugs, the streets there are grouped like this, and the streets in Mdantsane are grouped into NUs. Native Units.’

We talked about the horrifying legacy of apartheid that many were too eager to forget. Hamilton would be my comrade later when I joined the South African Students’ Congress. For the duration of my stay on campus NY 1 was a significant part of my life. I walked there every day. It was the street to which the residences opened, and then it stretched on, linking residences to lecture halls, library, Student Centre, and the admin building. The street was like a river, and its water was the students. There was always someone strolling on NY 1, and often a group of boys – or girls, at times – hovering about like vultures. Walking there required loads of confidence.

It was a true replica of the real NY 1 in Gugs.

For my novel, Unimportance, the memory of life on campus was the spark as well as the fertile backdrop to the story, with NY 1 stitching it all up together. This is an account of twelve hours in the life of Zizi, a university student and SRC presidential candidate – a position that would make him the most important person on campus. It’s the night before his presidential manifesto presentation, but as he works on his speech, a squabble with his girlfriend turns ugly, and she disappears. Now everything is at risk: his reputation and position, the election, even his freedom. For the duration of the night we follow an anxiety-stricken Zizi down NY 1, searching the campus for his missing girlfriend. The following day he walks on NY 1 to the Student Centre, where, in the presence of the entire campus population, he makes an extraordinary declaration.

How will the students vote?

Integrity is at the core of this novel, but it would seem Unimportance is also a literary intervention: I am not aware of any South African novel that is based entirely on a campus, or about student politics. The university environment, and the phenomenon of student politics, is often referenced in passing. The truth is that the university is a microcosm of society. Through the life of a once popular – and then compromised – student activist, I attempt to draw this analogy.

*The manuscript was titled On Campus, before the word unimportance grew on me. I am glad to have finally found use for it

Find Thando Mgqolozana on Facebook 

Follow @Thando_Mgqo on Twitter 

Buy the book on Amazon 


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