Unimportance: an extract from Thando Mgqolozana’s latest novel

Thando Mgqolozana
Thando Mgqolozana

Unimportance, Thando Mgqolozana’s latest novel was launched at the Book Lounge, Roeland Street, Cape Town on 11 April.

As with each of Mgqolozana’s novels to date, Unimportance is again very different from his previous work. This time the focus is student politics.

At the launch, Mgqolozana made the point that those in student politics don’t disappear, but enter the mainstream. He has turned his critical writer’s gaze on these assorted characters and the volumes they speak about our current political class.

The novel follows Zizi, student president, for 12 hours on the eve of his manifesto launch for the Student Representative Council elections.

Zizi has had an argument with his “cheating” girlfriend, Pamodi. Their spat turned physical and now she’s fled, possibly to lay charges at the police. Or, and he thinks even worse, she is telling others on campus what he has done. Either way, he is in fear for his political prospects.

In his hunt for Pamodi, we encounter various other colourfully painted players on the university campus. But Zizi is also on a path of self-discovery, perhaps even the realisation that politicians are not more important than the people they serve.

This is Mgqolozana’s most fluent and accessible novel to date and one hopes it will be widely read, especially on campuses.

Our current crop of political leaders don’t read literature, says Mgqolozana. He wonders what would happen if they did.


It is ten-on-the-head when my phone rings. I have been expecting alarm bells any moment from Wanga Sigila House, but until now I’ve been left in peace, as though the organisation has changed its mind about its preference for a president. When I answer the phone, I hear a familiar voice. It belongs to Vovo Malgas, the permanent administrative Secretary of the SRC, and more than any other individual, the most influential in the decisions of the SRC.

She says, “So you are not dead?”

“Excuse me, who am I speaking to?”

“It doesn’t matter. I want to ask you just one question, President-elect, and I promise I will never bother you again.”

“Is that you, Vovo?”

“Don’t ask questions, just listen.”

“Is everything okay?”

“President-elect,” – I notice she has stopped calling me “President” – “here is my question for you, and I need a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer: is it your strategy to win these elections by keeping the media and the nurses and your comrades and thousands of students waiting for you? Do you think you are that important?”

“What nurses? What’s going on?”

“You are not going to pretend you forgot.” “Forgotten what?”

“You and the other presidential candidates made a commitment to test publicly with the Vice-Chancellor today.”

“Oh shit, I forgot this.”

“The Main Hall is packed to the ribs, the media have set up, the nurses are ready, the Vice-Chancellor has issued an instruction to start in five minutes, and our President-elect is not there. Should I tell everyone you have forgotten and are pulling out, is that what you want printed in the media tomorrow? Let me ask you this: do you know that you are not yet elected?”

“Vovo, listen, calm down. I am very sorry for this, okay? I’ll be up there in a moment, please try to hold things until I arrive.”

“Where are you?”

“I am still at res. I’ve been up all night doing the speech.”

“And I am told you are ‘the cow that grazes alone’… no one has seen your speech. But then maybe you know what you are doing. After all, a man who slaughters his beast by himself should not be questioned about it.”

“Vovo, this speech is not the same as the others, my sister, you’ll see. I couldn’t give it to anyone to check. Comrades will just have to trust and believe.”

“Hehehe! Where have you ever heard of such a thing? If you were not the Chairperson of the Branch, I swear I’d be reporting you, persuading the organization to recall you immediately for ill-discipline. But you have all the power in the world, and you are making sure we all feel it.”

“My sister, please. It’s not like that. You make me sound like…”

“Like what?”

“I am not a dictator.”

“Listen, President-elect, if you’re not here in ten minutes, the show will go on.”

“I’ll be there in a moment.”

“You’d better.”

I hear raucous applause in the background at Vovo’s end. I dread hearing things about me that are not meant for my ears, but today is different, and a lot of shit is being said about me out there, which I feel I ought to hear. As I listen, I realise I hear chuckles rather than applause, and it occurs to me that she is not alone and has put me on the loudspeaker. She probably wasn’t even near her desk as she barked orders to me. The President-elect’s name probably popped up (as it frequently does), and whoever was nearest the desk was probably told to open the notebook, find Zizi with the Zs, dial, press the loudspeaker and shut up. Vovo herself, the performer that she is, was probably in the furthest corner of the office, near the wall where she has calendars of previous SRCs stuck around the face of Nelson Mandela. She was probably making faces as she spoke to me, while someone else stood over the telephone, making monkey gestures at me as others were bopping their heads laughing.

Vovo’s office is always peopled with consorts who have an unmatched appetite for scandals of sexual and other forms on this campus – and, in the absence of new such tales, for prophesying them. Whoever it was behind Vovo’s phone now thinks I am avoiding testing for HIV. But it is not true. It was our organization that proposed this idea. It is part of the Students First campaign. We believe very strongly that if these diseases are to be overcome one day, students will lead the way.

Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

Jacana Media

146 pages

ISBN 978-1-4314-0952-5

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TOPICS:  Arts and culture Politics

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