Phila felt someone take a stronger hold on him, making him stand. He was about to protest, thinking it was just Maqoma, when he realised they were legion: brown, yellow, white faces — all of them looking at him in anticipation. He was confused as to what to say or do. He felt his knees buckle. Then Maqoma was there, extending a hand to him, and Phila stood up, firm and tall. The courtroom was filled with the dead, men and women, all silently cheering Phila on with eagerness in their eyes. Phila knew none of these people; yet he knew every one of them.
Something forceful moved through Phila, burning like coal on his lips. He fought the flicker of panic when he sensed this might be the last time he spoke as a free man, or even alive, in front of an audience. When he spoke, his voice was not his own.
“Let it never be said,” he began, pausing as the packed courtroom gasped audibly. “Let it never be said that words were extinguished in my mouth when the need arose.” Some people slapped their hands over their mouths in disbelief. They never expected a kaffir to address a white man’s court of law with such familiarity, let alone with anger in his voice and fire in his eyes.
“I, sir, will try to invite you into the assembly under my skull, even if it costs me my life. I have cherished the idea of a free society, of universal justice, fighting against both white and black domination. All my life I’ve been against the notion of power serving only the needs of the strong, and condemning the weak and the poor. I’ve lived my life hard as an axe and kind as the rain. There’s nothing I will be sorry to leave behind here when I depart. You fertilise your language with hypocrisy and call it civilisation. I’ve often found many savages under the cloth of your civilisation. You tell me that we were free to choose, yet we’re not allowed to choose against the choices your government makes for us. Let your words be your judge.
“The only freedom we ever had, since the white man came to our land, was that of submission, perdition or resistance. I chose resistance! I chose to face the fire of your cannons knowing very well it would bring me to perdition or complete freedom.
“I grew up before the pestilence of white people coming to our land. Then our land was out-gloried only by the stars. There was an implausibility of wildebeest and a dazzle of zebras everywhere. Hardly 50 full cycles since you came all these have disappeared from our land. And you insist yours are civilised ways, though you are not able to coexist with anything, not with animals or people who don’t look like you, without wishing to exterminate them.
“My memory might be slightly dimmed by time; it is now old as the hills. But I remember in my youth roaming freely on our land without fear of white people’s papers, guns and cannons. That is etched on my mind and will not be extinguished until I gain it again. It seems now it has brought me to my early grave.
“Strange you should call stony, non-arable land ‘protectorates’. I’ll never accept your protection, even if it bought me five lives in your robe-wearing, sheep-eating days. You may think in your mind that this will end here, with my silence and permanent exile, but it shall not.
“The spirit of the Xhosa people is indomitable, incorrigible and independent. It will rise again, perhaps not in my lifetime, which you’re determined to shorten, but, like a flooding river on its way to the sea, it will rise. The Xhosa people can never be bondsmen forever. It is against their nature. We’re more than proud people. We’re the native spirit of this land. Without us this land loses its soul, and with us in bondage the land is in shackles.
“Do what your pink mind prefers with me, but know you shall never silence me. The spirit of Phalo, passing through these veins, will be reborn in every black man’s heart. Will you close the wombs of our women? Unless you can manage that, you’re fighting a losing battle. I shall rise again, this time more powerful and multitudinous, because I shall live in each and every black person you murder by your unjust laws of greed; every black person who inhabits this land. And then this land will erupt. The plots you cut by cunning among yourselves shall go back to the rightful owners of the land. The houses you build shall be the inheritance of the children of this land. Our bones you whiten shall fertilise the rage that will rise against your injustices.”
There was a move from the side of the courtroom, soldiers lining up. Phila stopped them with a look of daggers. “You have poisoned our atmosphere with the spirit of greed and harsh opportunism — what you call enterprise. But this is not the last you will hear from the House of Phalo. Isolate or kill me all you want, but it shall be significant when I’m laid underground …” The redcoats came to shackle them and take them back to prison before he could finish.
The Broken River Tent (Blackbird Books, 2018) won the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize in December 2019. It has just been reprinted.