Themba Limba is very concerned with being a man. Yet he has warped ideas of what being a man means. Warped, yes, but typical of a man who does not examine or acknowledge his male privilege. He believes he should always get his own way with women and he should always have power over women. According to Themba, “a man who is outwitted by a woman not only dishonours himself, but also denigrates the dignity of manhood.” He announces in the first paragraph that that he “betrayed the very manhood that he worked for so diligently” by crying. When a Man Cries is the story of Themba learning what real manhood is all about.
It is set in the Makana district near Grahamstown, mainly in the Sekunjalo township, which has a formal part and an informal part, previously known as a squatter camp. The writer re- creates township life so vividly; its indignities and its glories; its teenagers and gangs, its elders and shebeen owners. It is from the small details that one gains a sense of the realities of daily life; his mother is not able to have a cup of tea if his father has a visitor as they only have two cups; she uses a primus stove to boil water.
Throughout the novel, the language is lyrical and inventive. The use of Xhosa terms expressed in English adds richness and a sense of the culture, such as when his father addresses his mother as “Themba’s mother”. His Aunt Gladys seduces Themba and in the throes of emotion, he discovers she is responsible for the death of his uncle. The description of the sexual encounter is evocative yet amusing as he alludes to the “pleasures of her underwaist bliss” and yet feels guilty at “devouring the sacred territory that belonged to his dead uncle”.
Themba relates many incidents as he reflects on his life in an attempt to understand why he is at such a low point. It becomes clear to the reader that his character is weak. There are many examples of this; he runs away abandoning his girlfriend when a gang confronts them; he allows his brother Zakes to browbeat him into buying an unsuitable car when he wants a family car; he lies to a woman at university about his relationship with Thuli, with whom he has fathered a child. Despite these failings, he becomes a teacher and is appointed acting principal of the school when his brother Zakes, persuades the female principal, of fourteen years standing, that he would marry her and take her to Johannesburg. (I found this a little far-fetched; after all, would a mature woman really give up a secure job on a promise?)
The one person who gets close to keeping Themba grounded is Jongilanga; a close friend and age-mate of his father. He is a wonderful character, known to all as the “well of words that never runs dry”. His knowledge of history, his lectures and his sermons are all delivered in sonorous, measured speech. He believes in Themba and proposes that he should represent the community on the City Council. Through this Themba is exposed to the corruption by former members of the armed struggle, yet his criticism has a hollow ring as his own actions are not beyond reproach. Even when Themba is at his lowest, Jongilanga lends him support and reminds him that he is a son of the AmaMpandla clan. Nevertheless, Themba abuses the power that is so important to him by taking advantage of schoolgirls. This, in time, leads to his demise. A strong woman teacher, Thandi Meduna, refuses to succumb to his pressure for sexual favours and puts him in his place.
In Themba Limba, the writer has created a convincing character representing the worst of men and the best of men. He is sexist, chauvinistic, exploitative and abusive yet eventually he has insight into his misdeeds and suffers severe consequences. It is a story that reflects a sad reality in South Africa where those in a position of power prey on the vulnerable. It is worth reading not only for the story but also for the wonderful writing style. I believe it has been translated into isiXhosa as Yakhal’ Indoda which is good to know if isiXhosa is your first language.