‘Ubuqaba’ and ‘UbuGqobhoka’: Reading Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness through a Post-Developmental lens

Rachel Fenton

‘Politics and the Novel’

January 2015

Building upon the emerging critique of the Post-World War II ‘Development Project’ advanced by several post-developmental theorists, specifically – but not limited to -Arturo Escobar (1995), Wolfgang Sachs (1992) and Gustavo Esteva (1992), this essay will argue that Zakes Mda’s novel, Heart of Redness, provides a strikingly complementary stance.  Within the context of Post-Apartheid South Africa, Mda’s novel traces the diverging arguments related to the future of the nation’s ‘development’ path. This is achieved through the experience of an Americanised Southern African scholar, Camagu, and his interactions between two competing sects within a rural village. The Unbelievers, on the one hand, promote economic growth, modernisation and westernisation through the development of a casino holiday resort while, opposed to this, the Believers fear such ‘developments’ will destroy the local culture and the natural habitat of the region. Mda’s novel concludes with Camagu siding with the Believers’ argument and in fact falls in love with the chief Believer’s daughter. Therefore, in a similar way that post-development theory rejects the normative and hegemonic ‘development project’ imposed by the West upon developing states, Mda’s text highlights the importance of maintaining local South African traditions and therefore repudiates the western homogenisation of Third World peoples and points towards an alternative and autonomous development journey for South Africa.

Keywords: Zakes Mda, Progress, Post-Development, Post-Apartheid South Africa

Development is a reminder of what they are not. It is a reminder of an undesirable, undignified condition. To escape it, they need to be enslaved to others’ experiences and dreams(Esteva, 1992, p. 6)


The victory of the African National Congress “demarcated a milestone in the history of the struggle against colonialism and racism and the broadening of democracy throughout the world” (Alexander, 2003, p. 1). By the turn of the millennium, such optimism was beginning to wane; both scholarly and popular commentaries began to refer to an emerging ‘Afro-pessimism’ within the state. Development indicators demonstrated slow progress in terms of poverty alleviation and reducing socio-economic disparities (Cheru, 2001, p. 505). Moreover, the government’s “close affinity with the Washington Consensus” (Gelb, 1999)  as well as the increasing influence of the Western ‘Development Project’ over South African policy through the ascendency of several neo-liberal governmental objectives became apparent (Marais, 2001). Therefore, impact of ‘development’ on a nation composed of a myriad of ethnicities,[1] cultural values and a “number of different ways of understanding being” (Matthews, 2004, p. 380) – is particularly important.  As post-developmental thinker, Matthews asserts; “no matter how the development project is packaged, it always results in increased cultural homogenisation and, ultimately, Westernisation” (2004, p. 377).

 This essay argues that Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness – written six years after the inauguration of the ‘New South Africa’- falls within this context of disillusionment. I assert that through the narrative of the protagonist, Camagu, Mda locates himself within the Post-Development critical landscape in alignment with several prominent development critics, such as Gustavo Esteva, Wolfgang Sachs and Arturo Escobar. This article first examines the origins of the development critique within the broader context of the Post-World War II era and establishes the key arguments forwarded by post-development literature. Through an analysis of the feud between the Believers and the Unbelievers- concerning the proposed construction of a casino complex within Qolorha-by-Sea - I demonstrate that Mda parallels the critical debate encountered between post-development theorists and normative ‘westernised’ development discourse.  To highlight Mda’s preference for an alternate development path for South Africa, this essay analyses Camagu’s interactions with the competing sects and his formulation of an opinion on their diverging arguments.  The essay will discuss Camagu’s contrasting relationships with Xoliswa Ximiya (a Westernised Unbeliever) and Qukezwa Zim (a Believer) in order to illustrate the diverging perspectives of the ‘development project’. Camagu’s decision to marry Qukezwa highlights Mda’s appreciation of indigenous culture, local traditions and a grass-roots approach to development as opposed to “modernization theory and its paradigms of ‘progress” (McKinnon, 2007, p. 773). Finally, by integrating a parallel narrative - depicting the colonizers’ efforts to “do away with Ubuqaba, your heathen practices, your superstitions”¦ and become amaGqobhoko”¦civilized ones” (Mda, 2000, p. 49) within British Kaffraria– Mda further emphasises the sustaining presence of a hegemonic relationship between the West and its ex-colonies which provides further evidence of the novel’s post-developmental position.


The Formation of the Post-World War II ‘Development Project’: Origins of Post-Developmental Thought

During his presidential inaugural speech, Harry Truman stated that the “economic life” of half the world’s population was “primitive and stagnant” and these ‘underdeveloped’ countries “were a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas” (Truman, 1964). In response, he proposed a game-changing solution; “I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life” (Truman, 1964). Post-development literature has identified this singular event as a decisive moment which set into motion the hegemonic ‘Development Project’ (Escobar 1995; Sachs 1992; Esteva 1992). Indeed, Majid Rahnema states that former colonial rulers were “seeking a new system of domination, in the hope that it would allow them to maintain their presence in the ex-colonies” (1997, p. ix). Several post-development thinkers attribute Truman’s announcement to the emergence of a highly technocratic, westernised and paradigmatic development discourse which defines state ‘progress’ in terms of increased economic growth, consumerism and modernisation (Esteva, 1992; Escobar 1995). Escobar (1995) asserts that the implication of ‘development’ - perceived as a “universal truth” (Rahnema, 1997, x) - has led to severe ramifications for the developing world: 

 Many in the Third World began to think of themselves as inferior, underdeveloped, and ignorant and to doubt the value of their own culture, deciding instead to pledge allegiance to the banners of reason and progress (52).

From the early 1950s “such a will had become hegemonic at the level of the circles of power” (Escobar, 1995, 4) and gained momentum into the 1980s with the imposition of neo-liberal policy objectives onto the ‘Third World’ by the Bretton Woods Institutions. The generally accepted failures of many of their ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’[2] caused greater damage to the recipient states often worsening poverty and reinforcing socio-economic inequalities. By the 1990s, development critics began to attribute cultural homogenisation to ‘development’ which “robb[ed] people of different cultures and the opportunity to define the forms of their social life” (Esteva, 5). In reaction, post-development theorists urged localities to mobilise grassroots social movements, regain autonomy and within the context of South Africa; “conceive of different ways of addressing problems of poverty and inequity by drawing on African cultural values and perspectives” (Matthews, 2004, 381).


The ‘Development’ Debate: Bhonco, Zim and the Question of ‘Progress’

When Camagu - disillusioned by the new liberal democratic order in Johannesburg - moves to the remote Eastern Cape, he is drawn into an acrimonious debate between the Believers and the Unbelievers concerning the proposed construction of a casino and tourist complex aimed at bringing new revenue and employment to the region. Over the course of the novel, Camagu shifts stances between the two groups of Xhosa people and concludes by supporting the Believers’ desire to preserve their local traditions and pursue an alternative development model. As a scholar in communications from an American institution, Camagu firstly welcomes the ‘Development Project’ advocated by Bhonco (the elder Unbeliever) who “stands for civilization” (Mda, 2000, p. 71) and seeks modernisation and increased economic activity through a westernised perception of ‘progress’. Bhonco disapproves of ‘redness’ and perceives localised traditions as a sign of “our uncivilised state” (Mda, 2000, p. 92). Early in the novel, Camagu dismisses an alternate mode of reasoning and questions “why the Believers are so bent on opposing development that seems to be of benefit to everyone in the village?” (Mda, 2000, p. 71). At this point, Camagu defines ‘benefit’ and a conceptualisation of ‘progress’ that moves towards a “worldwide standardization of lifestyles” (Latouche, 1996, p. 3) in the pursuit of greater globalisation.

However, Mda soon exposes the contradictions within the Unbelievers’ argument in order to appeal to a post-development perspective. The Heart of Redness opens with the chief Unbeliever’s heartfelt description of the village’s surroundings stating that “He is always moved to tears by its wistful beauty” (Mda, 2000, p. 7); Of course, with the proposed modernisation of Qolorha-by-Sea this environment would be destroyed.  Although upholding a case for ‘development’ the “Cult of the Unbelievers” (Mda, 2000, p. 5) engage in numerous rituals inherited from their ancestors during the Cattle-Killings of 1856. This paradox of disbelief and spirituality is expressed through the historical narrative; “The revered Twin-Twin had elevated unbelieving to the heights of religion” (Mda, 2000, p. 5). This conflict in opinion is expressed through Bhonco’s traditionalistic attitude towards the “new-fangled fashion of building hexagons” (Mda, 2000, p. 7) by the chief Believer; “‘Okay, he stands for progress [”¦] yet he hasn’t progressed from the old-style rondavel to the modern hexagon’” (Mda, 2000, p. 94). The chief Unbeliever’s conservative attitude towards unmarried women – despite his daughter’s westernised educational background – is particularly contradictory. Remaining tied to the customs of his African community, Bhonco “insisted that no unmarried daughter of theirs would live in their own house. It was unheard of”¦” (Mda, 2000, p. 11).  In addition, when Xoliswa suggests that he receives treatment for a bee sting, Bhonco exclaims; “Education has made this girl mad [”¦] Has she forgotten that, according to tradition of the amaXhosa, bees are the messengers of the ancestors?” (Mda, 2000, p. 227). In addition, NoPetticoat demonstrates a conflicted attitude preferring traditional attire to westernised dress; “Although she is a strong Unbeliever like her husband, she is sold on the traditional fashions of the amaXhosa” (Mda, 2000, p. 71). To which Camagu supports, explaining that “the isikhakha skirt represents backwardness [”¦] but to others it represents a beautiful cultural heritage” (Mda, 2000, p. 160). By emphasising the antithetical nature of the Unbelievers, Mda dismantles the validity of their argument and exposes its flaws in support of an alternate position. Indeed, in a heated discussion with her daughter towards the novel’s close, NoPetticoat concedes that “Maybe there are indeed many different paths to progress” (Mda, 2000, p. 227).

On the other hand, the Believers build a strong case against the ‘development project’ in the same way Sachs denounces it as a “campaign to turn traditional man into modern man” (1992, p. xviii). Qukezwa’s decision to destroy foreign flora planted during the colonial era which “suffocate[s] our trees” (Mda, 2000, p. 216) is evidently post-modern in sentiment. Similar to the post-developmental stance advanced by Rahnema (1997), Mda criticises prevailing Western dominance over ex-colonies which damages traditional ways of being as well as diminishes the opportunity for local communities to ‘grow’ and ‘develop’ in their own sense of the term.  In support of this, Camagu states that “a project of this magnitude cannot be built without cutting down the forest of indigenous trees, without disturbing the bird life and without polluting the rivers” (Mda, 2000, p. 119).  Mda’s celebration of tradition is also demonstrated through Camagu’s description of a soulless Johannesburg “ruled by greed” (Mda, 2000, p. 227) therefore also reinforcing the detrimental impact of ‘development’ on South Africa:

Yet, this city swallowed him, and spewed him out a shrivelled corpse. This ungrateful city decided that he could survive only if he created ugly things that distorted life as we know it (Mda, 2000, p. 55)

Indeed, as Marais explains, Post-Apartheid South Africa was an “increasingly aberrant mix of repression and reforms, the latter geared primarily at restructuring the social and economic basis for capital accumulation” (2001, p. 3) and this dissatisfaction is reflected in the novel. In stark contrast, Camagu states that Qolorha-by-Sea “is the most beautiful place on earth” (Mda, 2000, p. 63) and he begins to devise an alternative to the ‘Development Project’. In similarity to Esteva and Prakash’s work, Grassroots Post-Modernism, that states “local autonomy is the only available antidote for the ‘Global Project’” (1998, p. 3), Camagu asserts that the residents of Qolorha-by-Sea “should be active participants in the conception of the project [”¦] then it will be their project. Then they will look after it” (Mda, 2000, p. 179). Moreover, Camagu highlights the need to understand the community’s conception of ‘progress’ as opposed to an imposed paradigm from external sources; “Perhaps the first step is to discuss the matter with the villagers, to find out what their priorities are” (Mda, 2000, p. 179). Mda’s post-development roots are further expressed in an interview preceding The Heart of Darkness where he asserts that; “Development is meaningful only if it allows for the empowerment of local communities”¦ to promote a spirit of self-reliance among the marginalized” (Mda, 1994, p. 4).


Contrasting Relationship: Camagu and his heart of ‘Redness’

Camagu’s relationships with the daughters of the competing sects raises further attention to Mda’s post-developmental position. Xoliswa Ximiya is the embodiment of ‘modernity’ who idealises the American way of life, this “fairy-tale country, with beautiful people. People like Dolly Parton and Eddie Murphy” (Mda, 2000, p. 64). Despite her highly educated position, this humorous account of the United States represents Xoliswa as a naÁ¯ve and uninformed character. Camagu’s experience of America further satirises her adulation; “‘Take everything she says with a pinch of salt [”¦] there is nothing wonderful about America. Unless you think racial prejudice and bully-boy tactics towards other countries are wonderful’” (Mda, 2000, p. 66). Xoliswa’s desire to “be away from the uncivilized bush and the hicks who want to preserve an outdated culture” (Mda, 2000, p. 88) is contrasted to the opinion of the strong-willed and uneducated daughter of Zim, Qukezwa. Nevertheless, Mda represents Qukezwa as the most astute and knowledgeable of the two daughters, so much so that “Camagu is taken aback both by her fervour and her reasoning” (Mda, 2000, p. 103). Qukezwa embraces ‘redness’ and, like many post-developmental thinkers, she is sceptical of the construction of westernised knowledge imposed as an ‘infallible truth’ on Third World states. Referring to Camagu’s and Xoliswa’s Americanised schooling, Qukezwa states that they “have been damaged by the white man’s education” (Mda, 2000, p. 104) which imposes a hegemonic type of knowledge –verging on ‘cultural imperialism’ - on South Africa. Similarly, Escobar – through a Foucauldian discourse analysis[3] - argues that the “professionalization of development” and the promotion of western ‘expertise’ has been “recast in terms of the apparently more neutral realm of science” (Escobar, 1995, p. 46) rather than as a socially constructed notion. Indeed, Qukezwa’s point is later emphasised by Camagu as he and Dalton discuss future development plans with the Believers; “They must have sounded arrogant and vain [”¦] as if they were the fountains of all wisdom. [”¦] No wonder they have no respect for so-called educated people” (Mda, 2000, p. 246).


Nongqawuseand Colonial Rule: Reflections on the ‘Development Project’

Finally, in the same way that “The Heart of Redness juxtaposes colonial bigotry against Xhosa customs and traditions” (Fincham, 2012, p. xiv) it can be argued that Mda regards that ‘development’ has become a mechanism of control similar to the dominance of the British within colonial era. In order to achieve this, Mda addresses the impact of colonialisation on the area within the historic narrative that depicts the Cattle-Killings. In efforts to ‘civilize’ the natives, The Great White Chief “vowed that he would restore law and order throughout the British Kaffraria and Xhosaland” (Mda, 2000, p. 18).  In addition, this notion of ‘taming the savage’ is reflected by the African converts; “my countrymen”¦change your evil ways [”¦] Do away with ububomvu and ubuqaba and ”¦ your heathen practices [”¦] and become UbuGqobhoka”¦civilized ones” (Mda, 2000, p. 53).However, in a deeply ironical tone, Mda notes that Sir Grey’s ‘only’ motive “was coming to and ruling the land of the amaXhosa to change the customs of the barbarous and introduce them to British civilisation” (2000, p. 85). This “wonderful gift of civilisation” (Mda, 2000, p. 85) is paralleled with the ‘gift of modernisation’ that Xoliswa and the other Unbelievers allude to. As post-developmentalist, Escobar, argues, “Representations of the Third World though development are no less pervasive and effective than their colonial counterparts” (1995, p. 15). This sentiment is similarly expressed by Camagu; “The notions of delivery and upliftment have turned our people into passive recipients of programs conceived by so-called experts” (Mda, 2000, p. 180).



This essay has argued that the binary opposition that exists between the competing sects  of the Believers and Unbelievers strongly parallels an emerging debate within development discourse, that observed between the Post-World War, Westernised ‘Development Project’ and the post-developmentalist critique. This essay has argued that Mda can be closely associated with the former development analysis. I have illustrated this by emphasising the contrast in which Mda depicts the two divergent groups; the Believers as “soft and compassionate. The clever ones, whose heads caught fast” (2000, p. 86) whereas the Unbelievers are described as the “the selfish greedy men” (2000, p. 86). I have evaluated the origins and premises of the existing critical landscape within post-development theory and sought to explain its importance in relations to Mda’s anti-modernity developmental case demonstrated within The Heart of Redness.  In order to achieve this aim, I have argued that Mda frames his critique through the interaction of the protagonist, Camagu, with the Believers and Unbelievers. Furthermore, I have provided an analysis of Camagu’s contrasting relationships with the chiefs’ daughters and his love for Qukezwa, a Believer, in order to demonstrate Mda’s preference for an alternate development plan. Finally, this argument has been substantiated by drawing a parallel between the two narratives present within the novel which emphasises the neo-colonial and hegemonic relationship between the West and the ‘New’ Post-Apartheid South Africa as experienced through the Post-WW2 ‘Development Project’.

[1]Exceptional multiculturalism led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to define post-apartheid South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’.

[2]The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) consisted of loans provided by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to developing countries. SAPs were aggressively implemented within Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s and similar neo-liberal derivations were adopted by South Africa under the ANC in the mid-1990s. However, this financial assistance was dependent on the recipient state agreeing to implement a series of  market liberalising policies such as the removal trade barriers, industry deregulation and a reducing government spending (including the provision of welfare).

[3]In his post-developmental work, Encountering Development, Arturo Escobar deconstructs the widespread development discourse of the late-20th Century. Through a distinctly post-structuralist lens, he asserts that the North-South power relations are reinforced by the imposition of Western ‘expertise’ on developing nations.   

This article forms part of the SAHO and the University of York Partnership Project


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