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My Father My Monster
Title: My Father My Monster
Publisher: Jacana Media
Author: McIntosh Polela
My Father My Monster is a story of pain, child abuse and murder. This is a true story – the memoirs of South African television journalist Dr McIntosh Polela.
Polela is the only man I know who changed his last name three times 40 years ago. First it was Shezi, his mother’s surname. Towards the end of his high school years, and as part of coping with the trauma caused by his own father, he controversially decided to use his father’s surname, Nzimande. In the last few years, after his father refused to repent, he gave up his father’s surname and decided to name himself after the river…Polela.
The story begins when Polela was five years old. Polela and his sister Zinhle were simply packed up and taken on a bus to Underberg, just a two-hour drive from South Africa’s east coast, a small town nestled beneath the majestic mountain range known as the Drakensberg for its jagged outcrops that resemble a dragon’s back. They settled in a small village called Pevensey. No one told them the reason for the move or explained why Delisile Edista Shezi their mother was not with them.
The first sign that all was not well in the new home was the state of the homestead. The hut she was introduced to was made of wattle and daub with a thatched roof. He smelled of wood smoke, musty grass, dried cow dung, and dried flour. The floor was made of dried dung, but unlike their previous nanny’s house, it was cracked, dusty, and littered with leftover food, discarded bones, and fallen thatch. It was a far cry from their Durban home, which had proper modern furniture, a loving mother and an immaculate lawn. The second shock was that all their clean ‘new’ clothes were distributed among the children of the homestead. And soon Polela learned about the division of labor – herding cattle every day was just one new task. He had never met cattle before.
Polela’s first day at herding wasn’t really the welcome he’d hoped for. The boys played a cruel prank on him. They told him about a special egg called iqanda lenjelwane. They said that the rare creature dug a small hole and then carefully laid an egg in it. However, finding the egg required a quick raid on the nest before the egg disappeared as if by magic. He was told to dig at the spot where a special egg had been laid. To his surprise, he found fresh, smelly human poo—and the boy was rolling on the grass laughing at his expense.
One day, when he was at home with the other boys and the elders were gone, the real nightmare began. It all started innocently, as Polela recalls – he and his sister were told to play a special game – marching like soldiers. Things quickly turned sour. They started beating Zinhle whenever her march was not good enough from their point of view. The march went on and on, as did the smacking. It stopped being funny. The tears started for the two. The teasing and beating escalated into something more sadistic. Zinhle was told to sit on a large wooden bench. Because her legs weren’t long enough and her legs were dangling in the air. They instructed her to keep moving her legs up and down so that the bottom of her things hit the bench with each movement. She had to keep going until the skin on her things turned red and still they wouldn’t let her stop. Polela was forced to watch her own little sister being abused. The tormentors quickly upped the game; they shoved Zinhle toward a red-hot stove burning wood. From physical abuse to psychological warfare. “When they weren’t abusing us physically, they liked to tell us scary stories,” says Polela.
As the whole drama ended, no one mentioned his mother and father. However, as he grew up, he got a hint that his father had actually killed his mother. So mom didn’t come back after all. He began to plan his revenge; he learned to make homemade weapons. Some were sold by the ANC, which had fierce violent clashes with the IFP in the 1990s. However, he kept only one thing – to use when shooting his father. The young man was so consumed by hatred and anger that it affected many aspects of his life.
Until a chance encounter with a nun named Sister Von Ohr. At that time, young Polela left school. He was a nomad. This meeting changed Polela’s life. The nurse negotiated for him to go back to school and from there so many angels of mercy raised him into a real man. Zinhle was earlier given a lifeline by the second group of nuns who adopted her.
After years of advice and discussions, Polela finally met her father. The father refused to confess to his heinous act. Polela forgave him anyway and so many people who had troubled him and his sister.
The book is a crushing account of a boy whose childhood was stolen by a monster, his own father. The story reads like a horror movie, except that it has a happy ending, at least for Polel and his sister. It’s an impressive and fast-paced barrage of details, dreams, prayers for survival told with such dry and clear precision that it recalls JM Coetzee’s prose, Alan Paton’s themes of redemption and more. It brings the human capacity for pain, survival and forgiveness. It is an important manuscript in a country still searching for its place in the sun after years of apartheid. They say it’s possible, if you can dream it, you can achieve it.
Polela is now the spokesman for South Africa’s elite police force, the Hawks. He holds an MA from the London School of Economics. Zinhle has completed her studies and is now happily married. Polela’s father is still the monster that plagues his new family; he has reached the point of no return.
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