Mphuthumi Ntabeni: Broken River Tent


Written about the life and times of Maqoma, the Xhosa chief who was at the forefront of fighting British colonialism in the Eastern Cape during the nineteenth century. The story is told through the eyes of a young South African, Phila, who suffers from what he calls triple ‘N’ condition – neurasthenia, narcolepsy and cultural ne plus ultra. It is touted as an entrancing novel that marries imagination with history in a foray into the rapidly growing genre of historical fiction.

Phila, who returns from his architectural studies in Germany has to learn to rediscover home. This is done through Maqoma’s historical telling, as they both visit places of biographical relevance to both their lives. It is told in a sequence of interconnected events. As a book of historical literature, it flirts between the borders of fact and fiction, even rattles a historical cage or two.

This layered story traverses multiple locations and time periods, flitting from the Eastern Cape, Robben Island and contemporary South Africa. Using the voice of a people traditionally marginalised, it offers a historical perspective from those deeply affected by the Frontier Wars while battling with modern-day legacies stemming from this hosiery of subjugation.

Mputhumi Ntabeni has previously claimed not to be a writer in terms of a career, but his extensive work in writing The Broken River Tent is evidence to contrary.

Although difficult and flawed, the two characters easily generate empathy. Phila is well educated, sophisticated but emotionally immature while Maqoma comes from beyond the grave as the ancestor to bring historical perspective and wisdom.

Exploring themes of mental health, religion and estrangement. Mphuthumi is at his finest demonstrating why this book is a national award winner.

He sat down for a long-awaited conversation with Dr Alma-Nalisha Cele to discuss the book, the themes and all the characters. The conversation is filled with deep reflection of the importance of historical fiction.

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