[BOOK EXTRACT] Khwezi: the remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo

In 2006 Jacob Zuma was on trial for the rape of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known as Khwezi. In the aftermath of the trial, which saw Zuma acquitted, Khwezi was vilified by his many supporters and forced to take refuge outside of South Africa. Ten years later, Khwezi passed away… But not before she had slipped back into South Africa and started work with Redi Tlhabi on a book about her life.

Then, she changed the topic and left me a series of voice messages. I have listened to them regularly since her death. They break my heart every time. It is strange how we interpret words. When I first listened to the messages, they did not seem like a cry for help – just Fez talking as she usually did about how she felt. Now that she is gone, they have taken on a different meaning, a poignancy. I replay her words, detailing how overcome she was by pain, how she could not decide what to do with her life but that ‘that decision will take care of itself’. She was often overwhelmed by life, but would quickly bounce back, saying, ‘Anyway dear, I will take it one fool at a time.’ This time, she said, ‘I will just go with the flow.’

And then she got serious, describing her condition. ‘I am not feeling so hot. It’s just … um. I think I am just still going through a rough patch and I must go with it, go with the flow. I don’t know what is going on.’

I expected that, in typical Fezekile fashion, she would describe, in detail, everything that was happening to her, everything she was feeling. I assumed she was only talking about her emotional state. Even though she had been off her ARVs for a while, it did not occur to me that the physical deterioration had started. Apart from a case of shingles earlier in the year, the first time she had ever suffered from an HIV-related illness, she seemed to be in relatively good health. She was religious about her vegan diet, supplements and meditation, but clearly something was missing.

She proceeded to inform me that she had been in bed for more than a week because her left leg was swollen. But that she was trying to move her body, because ‘My dear friend says it is important that I elevate my leg but also keep my body moving, and my heart moving. She has given me this exercise. Some yoga stunt.’ Several times a day, with the help of her mother she would get off her bed, lie on her back on the floor, elevate her legs and push her feet against the wall.

‘It is just Ma and I in the house so getting off the bed is a challenge. I almost, almost fell on her and she is confused, doesn’t follow instructions properly, and not too strong and doesn’t quite know what we are doing. It was hilarious, actually … huuu! Almost like a circus.’ She was laughing in her voice message, but her laughter was the sound of the vanquished – as if she has come to terms with the never-ending cycle of suffering that has become her life. By this I do not mean that she had come to terms with her death, but just accepted the frequency of her chapters of drama and sadness. She still believed – at that time, at least, a week before she died – that she would get well. She was delicate, animated and self-deprecating, drawing me in so that I could almost picture her and her mom, wrestling on the floor, trying to get Fezekile back on her feet.

I asked if she needed anything, how I could help. ‘Oh dear, where do I start. It is what it is.’

I checked on her every day, especially after the message she left me in which she expressed a desperation to visit her father’s grave.

In the next message, she told me she was going to send me all her passwords. This did not seem strange to me at all, given that I was writing her book; I had become used to her innocence and trusting nature. I figured she was giving me access to some of her writings and musings.

I did not have a chance to acknowledge this message before she sent another one immediately: ‘Today I miss my father Diza. Isn’t that strange? It feels like he never left. I see him everywhere. Yet I miss him terribly. Am I weird?’

‘Not at all,’ I messaged back. ‘I have been there. I think about my father often. But my heart no longer aches. The world was dark when he left it, though … but I am living.’

‘Oh. All sounds so familiar. It just flipped over. But when I am asked how I cope with life, I say it is those foundation years. It always hurts, though. Sometimes at the most inopportune time. Even now.’

‘What is hurting you the most, when you think about him?’

‘I feel robbed dear. Just robbed. I look at the comrades and how they live, and I feel robbed. Diza would not recognise so many of them.’

‘Which ones in particular?’

‘Ah, the looters, the corrupt, the arrogant, the rapists.’

We don’t speak for a couple of hours; then, in the evening, she asks me, ‘Have you ever wondered how a man becomes a rapist? Do you think they wake up and decide, today, I am going to be an arsehole to a woman? I mean, are they born rapists, do they become rapists, do they think about it or, you know, spur of the moment? That’s been on my mind. What do you think, dear?’

On 2 October, she left me a voice message that she was coming to Johannesburg on the fifth. She was breathing heavily, her pauses just too long between each word. ‘I am just sick and tired and I do not know what is next.

Anyway there is something in Joburg, on the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, this holistic healing thing. Ummm, anyway dear, I don’t know how I am going to get on an aeroplane.’ She had told me that her leg was swollen ‘from [her] bum to [her] toe’. She took a deep breath. ‘But it is important that I go. And Auntie Bunie believes that I, I’ll be better when I get there. So, let’s see, it is in two parts. The spiritual and the physical.’