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Terrible women in literature

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Over the ages, there has been some terrible women in literature written by male writers. In literary studies, these terrible women are sometimes called female villains. This villain may masquerade as the subservient wife, the selfless mother, or the well-behaved daughter, but she strikes back, too when she has to.

Often, the terrible woman embodies some sort of twisted femininity. Sometimes, she’s a man’s worst nightmare or a freak whose obsessions have simply run away from her. It is not specifically known why especially male writers usually employ these female villains. Asked if there is a difference in which male and female African writers handle female characters, Penina Muhando, a prominent

Tanzanian woman playwright says: “I have a general feeling that men writers are much more careless when it comes to portraying women. I feel that they do reflect their behaviour towards the women in their own lives. I am not saying, however, that all women writers are conscious or that they write about women more positively. But I think that the negative orientation of the male writer comes out much more clearly.”

William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth from the play Macbeth quickly comes to mind. As the wife of the play’s tragic hero, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing King Duncan after which she becomes queen of Scotland and her husband, King of Scotland.

Just as soon as Macbeth becomes a murderous tyrant, Lady Macbeth is driven to madness by guilt over their crime, and commits suicide offstage. Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to murder King Duncan for the throne. Lady Macbeth makes her first appearance late in scene five of the first act, when she learns in a letter from her husband that three witches have prophesied her husband’s future as King.

Lady Macbeth says that she is aware that Macbeth is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” Her words are often chilling. Later, goading the hesitant Macbeth, she insists that, if she had sworn to do it, she wouldn’t have hesitated to take her own baby “while it was smiling in my face” and to “Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,/ And dash’d the brains out.”

In her plans to help propel her husband to the throne, Lady Macbeth even prays to dark forces to help her to go against the natural womanly weaknesses within her: “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty!”

Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to “unsex” her because she does not want to act or think like a stereotypical woman of Shakespeare’s time.

This is her vivid way of asking to be stripped of feminine weakness and be invested with masculine resolve. She imagines herself as a vessel which may be emptied out and refilled “from the crown to the toe.” She wants to be tough and strong, aggressive and unyielding: qualities associated with men rather than women.

At some point in the play, all her scheming and constant encouragement of her husband to murder the King renders her mad and she ends up walking and talking in her sleep. Lady Macbeth is horrified and wracked with guilt, which drives her to kill herself.

In her last appearance in the play, she sleepwalks in profound torment, and hallucinates that her hands are stained with the blood of Duncan and Macduff’s families, scrubbing furiously in a vain attempt to “clean” them. This lady crosses the line, commits horrible deeds and she cannot contain her sanity. She is a typical terrible woman of literature.

In H. Rider Haggard’s novel, King Solomon’s Mines, there is a terrible old woman called Gagool. She is the wise woman of the Kukuanas, but her present function seems to be more an inciter of terror than a bringer of wisdom. She orchestrates Twala’s usurpation of the throne and maintains his power through the agency of her witch-finders, who locate men and women who show an opposition to Twala and have them executed.

Gagool is described thus: “…the ancient woman, Gagool, rose from her crouching position, and supporting herself with a stick, staggered off into the open space. It was an extraordinary sight to see this frightful vulture-headed old creature, bent nearly double with extreme age, gather strength by degrees, until at last she rushed about almost as actively as her ill-omened pupils.

To and fro she ran, chanting to herself, till suddenly she made a dash at a tall man standing in front of one of the regiments, and touched him. As she did this a sort of groan went up from the regiment which evidently he commanded… She unleashes her witch hunters, crying out “/Begin! begin!/” piped Gagool, in her thin piercing voice; “the hyænas are hungry, they howl for food. /Begin! begin!/”

From the point when the three white men in Umbopa’s company arrive in Kukuanaland, up until the end, Gagool, the African priestess, is aware that the men are up to no good. She is clearly hostile to their presence and more than once, recommends their immediate execution.

When they force her to go and show them the treasures in the cave, she tries to kill the intruders by causing the great rock in the cave to fall on them but the rock crushes her instead. When Gagool finally dies, the reader feels that the powers of evil have been conquered.

In King Solomon’s Mines, three white men; Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good have to find Henry’s renegade brother, Neville, in the interior of Africa, by all means. Neville is believed to have gone to Kukuanaland in the interior.

He disappeared whilst searching for the legendary King Solomon’s Mines. But, the journey to Kukuanaland is almost impossible because there is a desert to be crossed first and the Kukuanas do not allow strangers in their country.

In Richard Wright’s novel, Black Boy, Richard’s grandmother is a terrible woman all the way. It appears that Grandmother is permanently angry with the world. This is seen through her savage blows at young Richard at the slightest provocation.

One day, for example, Grandmother misses Richard with a blow and the inertia from it, fatally downs her. Richard had childishly requested that she wipes his anus as she is bathing him! He also tells her that when she is done she could kiss him “back there.”

That unfortunate request reminds grandmother of slavery and her own unfortunate conditions during the slavery days. Grandmother has a kind of permanent grudge against the post-slavery American system that ranks her amongst the blacks when she is near white. Granny is the child of slaves. Due to her partially white ancestry, she looks somewhat white.

In the American system, anyone with a drop of black blood is considered black. The dialogue between Richard and her mother about Granny’s colour is both amusing and telling. She is clearly in Frederick Douglas dilemma where one’s white father rapes a slave but does not claim the child into masterhood. In her helplessness, grandmother throws herself into Christianity. Ironically she thinks that Richard is inherently sinful.

Black Boy is a memoir by the great African-American author, Richard Wright, detailing his own upbringing. Wright describes his youth in the South: Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and his eventual move North to Chicago, where he establishes his writing career.

Richard wright’s Black Boy is important to students of African-American literature and history as it picks the former American slave narratives story from where slave time narratives like that of Frederick Douglas leaves it. That makes Black Boy one of the key novels about black people’s series of predicaments after slavery and emancipation in the US.

The nameless mother in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger is another terrible woman of literature. When father is away driving long distance lorries, the children watch mother copulating with other various men because they sleep in the same room. These men jump into the house through the window in the dead of the night.

When the more elderly of her sons, Peter tries to intervene, a man hits him with a back hander, without getting off mother. The sounds of their sex fills up the room! When the father returns, mother behaves as if nothing has happened. But the boys just remain quiet.

At some point, the mother who is also very violent, gives the son some sex tutorials on how to take a woman to bed. She is angry that the boy is spoiling the sheets through his wet dreams. She goes on and on, describing to her horrified son how easy it is to take a woman to bed.

The novella, House of Hunger, is about an extremely sensitive young black man growing up in Rhodesia with its racist laws and its oppression that gave black folk very limited space. It is also a story about the fragmentation of the family unit and the individual.

It is about the struggle for physical and spiritual spaces. That is why, maybe, the word ‘house’ is used in various ways. House means the physical home and its troubles. It also stands for the mind of the individual as that space with turmoil. Finally ‘house’ could stand for troubled Rhodesia which is permanently in the background to this story.

Another unusual and terrible female character from literature is Miss Havisham in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations (1861). She is a wealthy spinster, once jilted at the altar, who insists on wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life. She lives in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter, Estella.

The mad, vengeful Miss Havisham, is defined by a single tragic event: her jilting by Compeyson on what was to have been their wedding day. From that moment forth, Miss Havisham is determined never to move beyond her heartbreak. Miss Havisham is an example of single-minded vengeance pursued destructively:

She stops all the clocks in Satis House at twenty minutes to nine, the moment when she first learned that Compeyson was gone, and she wears only one shoe, because when she learned of his betrayal, she had not yet put on the other shoe. With a kind of manic, obsessive cruelty, Miss Havisham adopts Estella and raises her as a weapon to achieve her own revenge on men.

Miss Havisham is an example of single-minded vengeance pursued destructively: both Miss Havisham and the people in her life suffer greatly because of her quest for revenge. Miss Havisham is completely unable to see that her actions are hurtful to Pip and Estella.

Miss Havisham enjoys training Estella to confuse, charm, and rebuff Pip, viewing him as a representative of men in general. Miss Havisham seeks to have her own heartbreak avenged by Estella’s breaking hearts.

She is redeemed at the end of the novel when she realises that she has caused Pip’s heart to be broken in the same manner as her own; rather than achieving any kind of personal revenge, she has only caused more pain. Miss Havisham immediately begs Pip for forgiveness, reinforcing the novel’s theme that bad behaviour can be redeemed by contrition and sympathy.

Great Expectations is the story of Pip, an orphan boy adopted by a blacksmith’s family, who has good luck and great expectations, and then loses both his luck and expectations. Through this rise and fall, however, Pip learns how to find happiness. He learns the meaning of friendship and the meaning of love and, of course, becomes a better person for it.

The well-known novel opens with the narrator, Pip, who introduces himself and describes a much younger Pip staring at the gravestones of his parents. This tiny, shivering bundle of a boy is suddenly terrified by a man dressed in a prison uniform. The man tells Pip that if he wants to live, he’ll go down to his house and bring him back some food and a file for the shackle on his leg.

The terrible women in male writers’ novels, perhaps, reflect the conscious and unconscious struggles that go on between men and women since creation. These women are charming and frightening. But what is clear is that they have provoked some women writers to set out to write novels with the alternative woman.

Memory Chirere

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Insight

Satire: Part Two

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I am turning now to Juvenalian satire—dark, angry, bitter humour—and with examples that have to do with world politics. I’ll start with the British satirical fortnightly magazine, Private Eye, which was edited for many years by the brilliant humourist Peter Cook. This carries plenty of examples of Horatian satire (tolerant and gently amused), such as a regular item titled “Great Sporting Insights”, which picks up idiotic remarks made by sports commentators.

I’ve written on this before in a piece I called “Football and me”, but here are two recent clangers, on the Winter Olympics.

“After yesterday’s drama, today is the turn of the men in the women’s snowboard event.” And (and this one leaves one puzzling, what on earth did the commentator mean to say?) “I think athletes are like people.” But a lot of Private Eye is much darker.

For example, as we come out of Covid (more-or-less) but with the ghastly, the brutal invasion of Ukraine then in its early stages, there was a cartoon showing the four horsemen of the apocalypse—skeletal figures on skeleton horses—peering down at Planet Earth.

One of them is slumped forward in his saddle and the team leader is saying: “Look, Pestilence is exhausted. War, why don’t you pop down there and have a go?” That’s a fine example of Juvenalian satire—dark, bitter and angry. It made me laugh and then shiver.

Private Eye is famous for its covers. There is even a book reproducing over a hundred of these. The cover of each issue features a real-life photo depicting some topical event, with a made-up headline and/or thought or speech balloons.

My all-time favourite appeared during the apartheid era in South Africa. The photo showed two Zulu warriors, dressed in leopard skins and carrying spears and shields, leaping high in the air in absolute joy. The headline read: “President Verwoerd assassinated. A nation mourns.”

These covers work through the juxtaposition of the headline and/or speech balloons with the photo. In the above example there is a disjunction between the photo and the words. Turning to the present and the atrocious attacks carried out by Russia on Ukraine, Private Eye devoted the bulk of a whole issue to that event, and here the cover works in a different way, with the words giving a twist to the image in the photo.

Here was the monstrous Putin consulting with two of his generals. As always, Putin is sitting at the head of a gigantic desk (I’d estimate around six metres long) and the generals are just visible sitting at the other end.

There are speech balloons: from one general “Victory is as near as he is” and from the other “Oh no! It’s Vlad the Insaner” (Putin’s first name is Vladimir and the comment refers to Vlad the Impaler, ruler of Wallachia, Roumania, in the fifteenth century, who was the inspiration for the fictional character Dracula).

Putin’s speech bubble reads: “If anyone calls me a mad mass-murderer, I’ll blow up the world.” The headline reads: “Ukraine War: Is Putin losing it?” which works on a double meaning, losing the war and/or losing his mind. The cover as a whole brilliantly sums up the insanity and brutality of what Russia has been doing.

Before I return (next week) to the subject of satire, I’d like to pick up on my reference to Vlad the Impaler and to say something about the novel Dracula and the various films made of this. The novel, published in 1897, is by the Irish author Bram Stoker, who was a theatre manager as well as a writer, and it’s a kind of hybrid between serious fiction and a popular horror story.

There have been numerous film versions from the USA and the UK, as well as a German film loosely based on it and titled Nosferatu, which is one of the masterpieces of early (silent) cinema.

The American and British films are more-or-less enjoyable as horror flicks, but pretty silly. One of them includes one of my favourite ludicrous film moments. At a point, when the community is being terrorised by a vampire, the police enter Dracula’s house and interrogate his servant, who lives in a state of constant dread of his master.

They ask him “Does the name Dracula mean anything to you?” and he practically jumps in the air, shudders, covers his face and moans pitifully and then says “No, never heard the name before.” They don’t make them like that anymore.
To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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South Africa: How did Ramaphosa get so rich?

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Once upon a time (about four years ago) Cyril Ramaphosa was seen as South Africa’s last, best hope. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the leadership of the country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) had passed from the wise and heroic Nelson Mandela to the intellectual but ineffectual Thabo Mbeki and then to the corrupt and ignorant Jacob Zuma.

But in 2018 the fractured and demoralised ANC pulled itself together, remembered its purpose, and replaced Zuma as president with Ramaphosa. Hope soared: Ramaphosa had a long record of activism in the struggle against apartheid, he was a former trade union leader, and he was so rich that he didn’t need to be corrupt.

He was the ideal candidate. For a while it went well. The economy didn’t grow much and unemployment stayed very high, but Zuma’s chief cronies fled abroad, others were charged with various crimes, and even Zuma wound up in jail.

Ramaphosa was at least trying to clean up the mess — but then, two years ago, there was a burglary at his wildlife game farm in the Limpopo province. Nobody heard about it at the time, because Ramaphosa didn’t mention it publicly.

That’s understandable, because the burglars allegedly found US$4 million (M64 million) in cash hidden in cushions on his sofa. That’s not a good look for a president whose USP (unique selling point) is fighting corruption, so no report was made to the police. Ramaphosa just swallowed the loss.

That’s not as crazy as it sounds: Ramaphosa is one of the richest men in South Africa, and US$4 million is less than one percent of his wealth. He could just be trying not to draw attention to it — but then, early this month, Arthur Fraser, former head of South Africa’s intelligence agency, lodged a criminal complaint with the police about the affair.

Fraser said that Ramaphosa’s “presidential protection unit” (bodyguards) had tracked down the burglars, kidnapped and interrogated them, and then bribed them to keep quiet about the cash. Maybe Ramaphosa was just trying to protect his reputation as a man of the people, but even so he would have been breaking the law. And then Fraser outed him.

The news is now out all over town, and by this week Ramaphosa was under attack from all sides.

“Criminals do not report crimes when the proceeds of their crimes are stolen,” as Julius Malema, leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, put it, and a great many other people in Parliament and in the street took the same view.

This comes at just the wrong time for Ramaphosa, who faces a leadership challenge in the ANC in December. His anti-corruption campaign within the party has not prospered, and Zuma’s supporters staged riots that killed hundreds when he was jailed.

Now Zuma’s out of jail, and Ramaphosa is tarred with the same corruption brush himself. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this story. Arthur Fraser, the former spy chief who brought the complaint against Ramaphosa, is a close ally of Zuma’s.

The South African president does hold regular cash auctions of his prized Ankole cattle and various game animals at his farm, but why would he hide the cash in pillows? Tax avoidance? This is a man who has sat on literally dozens of boards and is allegedly worth US$450 million (M7.2 billion).

If he wants to avoid taxes, he has lawyers aplenty; he doesn’t need sofa cushions. The whole “burglary” operation, and especially the source and the timing of the “complaint”, smells like a political sting.

Nevertheless, Ramaphosa is in deep trouble. The real object of the sting would have been to highlight Ramaphosa’s great and unexplained wealth.

He probably didn’t break the law to get it, like Zuma did, but he didn’t inherit it and he didn’t earn it by hard work. He just got paid huge sums to sit on boards, and invested the proceeds wisely.

Ramaphosa got on those boards as part of the ANC-sponsored “Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)” programme, one of whose purposes was to provide a reliable, low-profile income stream for its political work. Most of its supporters were very poor, but the chosen “BEE” appointees were expected to donate much of their large incomes to the ANC.

It’s less lurid than Zuma’s route to great wealth via partnership with Indian “entrepreneurs” in a project of “state capture”, but both men’s riches come from their ties to the ANC. To the average voter in Alexandra township, the two men will look exactly the same.

That is why the ANC will probably lose its majority in Parliament in the 2024 election, after 30 years in power. High time, really, even though nobody knows what’s coming out of the box next.

• Gwynne Dyer is a historian and independent journalist, has published several books and has had his articles widely syndicated for many years. He is also available for university and corporate speaking engagements.

Gwynne Dyer

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Insight

Send LMPS to Ukraine

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Lesotho is currently experiencing an increase in the cases of police brutality. More than 80 cases of police criminal offences have been reported in the past four years. Unfortunately, the police bosses are not doing enough to address these challenges or this has given the public an impression that they are not doing anything about these cases.

I understand we come from background of military rule. But after 29 years of democratic rule, we are still struggling to ensure that we have a police service that upholds democratic tenets. We have been forced to accept that what we have is not a police service but an army that should be sent to Mozambique or Ukraine to fight.

Soldiers kill each other in war and that is normal. In war people count dead bodies. Our parliament must resolve to send the police to Ukraine since they are very good at killing people. We have been counting dead bodies in police custody for the past five years. It appears to me that the police are simply above the law.

Lesotho has been very inconsistent on matters that affect citizens. We have a police service that does not hesitate to pull the trigger and mow down citizens. The police were ruthless when they were called to intervene in the students protest at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) on June 16, 2022. Their barbaric behaviour saw one student killed in cold blood.

The students were protesting over a decision to slash their stipends. What I cannot understand, though, is why matters were allowed to get to that level by the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS).
There is something clearly wrong with that institution.

There was absolutely no need for the NMDS to breach their contract with students. Moreover, there was no need for police to resort to brutal force to put down the students’ demonstration.

I still cannot understand how our blood-thirsty police operate. I cannot understand what could possess them to use so much force against unarmed students. In all this, I stand with students. The police should stop shooting our children. The NMDS must give students their full package.

Last Friday, a day after their callous murder of a student, the thugs reported for duty as if nothing had happened. Under the leadership of Holomo Molibeli chances are these rogue police officers will get away with murder! But that should not be allowed to happen. These rogue police officers must be held responsible.

Before Molibeli became the Commissioner of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), the police already had certain powers over civilians. They could arrest civilians, stop them in the streets and search them. They are still allowed to retain some of our personal information on their own computer databases – and they can still access details held by other organisations on request.

They can access details of our phone records and our phone calls and emails may be intercepted. Sometimes, the police are permitted to detain us in custody – for up to 48 hours. They can determine the length and conditions of bail while they carry out an investigation; and in some cases, they can caution or charge us with a criminal offence.

In addition to all that, officers have equipment – handcuffs, batons, CS spray, Tasers, firearms – that can be deployed with deadly effect, when they deem it necessary to do so. I therefore do not understand why Commissioner Molibeli allowed these police officers to carry live ammunition to a students’ protest. That is why I am saying they should be taken to war.

It would be surprising, despite the numerous safeguards that are in place to prevent abuse, if, on occasion at Roma, the police officers did not overstep their powers. In my opinion the police are employed to stop crime and make citizens feel safe but when police officers become perpetrators of the same crimes they are supposed to prevent, they become no better than rapists, robbers, murderers and other miscreants that society has ejected and locked away.

Suspects often experience extreme violence and cruelty, including being suffocated, when under police investigations. A plastic bag might be put over his or her head, restricting his or her breathing, and a tube down the throat or a strangulation may also be used.

Suspects are brutally beaten even when they were not resisting arrest and the level of force used by the police appears to be disproportional to the circumstances in which suspects have to be restrained.

The use of violence by the police has implications not just in terms of an individuals’ pain and suffering or the workings of the criminal justice system, but it also causes a social problem that ripples throughout society. The other day we witnessed two men being burned alive on a video at Ha Matala.

The use of force has become a ritual within the police because it is accepted as an effective strategy to solve problems and the victim’s suffering and pain run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the law, as the victim becomes isolated at a time when he/she is in need of the law’s protection.

It appears that there is something wrong with the police training programme. I was shocked when the training recruits at the PTC who came out a few months ago during the festive season were caught on camera beating poor civilians.

I strongly feel that the perpetuation of police brutality is rooted in the lack of comprehensive training to equip members of the LMPS with skills and strategies in dealing with challenges such as suspects’ lack of compliance and dealing with riots.

Police training is lacking in two areas, namely interviewing skills and a legal approach to restraining a suspect. I am convinced that the trainings that the police get do not speak to the challenges that they encounter when executing their duties on the street.

In conclusion, the scourge of police brutality that still plagues our communities is clearly not an old or new phenomenon, as it appears to be firmly embedded in a police culture that persists in embracing force and violence as its operational tools.

We must do away with the current police service and send them to a war situation, where they can practice force and violence. If we fail to send them to Ukraine then the Commissioner must be fired together with most senior officers in management and we must restructure and professionalise the LMPS.

Ramahooana Matlosa

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