The Madonna of Excelsior
is a 2005 novel by South African author Zakes Mda. Made up of a series of vignettes, the novel centers on two important moments in South African history: the 1971 Excelsior miscegenation case and the extreme political tensions just before apartheid. Mda looks at these events through the perspectives of a mixed-race family, one of whom, Niki, is one of the “Excelsior 19.” The Excelsior 19 refers to the group of people who were exploited as political scapegoats for breaking South Africa’s Immorality Act, which prohibited sex between black and white citizens. Mda shows how the outcome of the Excelsior case reinforced the apartheid laws that continued to endow the state with segregation powers for decades. The novel is a significant political literary work in South Africa and abroad, showing how racist and repressive social norms, if tolerated for long, inevitably become codified in policy and incorporated into a nation’s legacy.
The novel begins in Excelsior, Free State, just as the nineteen “criminals” are identified and cases are brought against them. All of them know each other, yet they pretend they are unfamiliar with each other, fearing that any additional information about their lives will be exploited to further strengthen the unjust case against them. The novel’s characters have many competing motivations, but none is so powerful as the specter of racial discrimination that looms over everyone and more or less determines their fates.
Niki’s family has always lived off the land, as have the rest of the Excelsior 19. Recently, she has made a living modeling for a pastor, Father Claerhout, who is at work on an “artistic study” of the human body. The town is abundantly aware that Father Claerhout uses this excuse to hire prostitutes. Though he hopes only to pull them out of poverty and sex trafficking, his ambition falls short. Moreover, the route to his home is through country paths where passers-by hurl insults at the models.
After Niki, a black woman, gives birth to a son who is half white, she is arrested on behalf of him because his existence violates the apartheid laws. She is incarcerated for a period, then resumes her visits to Father Claerhout after her release. She starts to analyze the men who harass her on her journey to the priest’s house differently, realizing that they resent her because they can never exploit her. After this epiphany, she relishes their desperate attention. Her feeling of triumph is only momentary, however: one day, a white man detains and rapes her after comparing her to an object.
After a few years pass, Niki has a second boy named Viliki. Her children grow up, beginning to grasp the structural violence and oppression of their home. Viliki is interested in politics and matures into an activist. As an adult, he fights in the African resistance. When Niki is in old age, she spends much of her time reflecting on her past. She understands that the way she was treated and the types of social and economic opportunities she gained were always contingent on her race and whom she loved. Even when apartheid ends, its burden is barely lifted off anyone’s shoulders. Structural violence and segregation persist throughout South Africa. Moreover, there are no real assurances that Niki’s family, or any other black or mixed-race citizens, will be able to flourish. The people of South Africa understand that their past experiences of oppression will always be integral to their identities, regardless of how political rhetoric changes or justice evolves.
At the end of the novel, Viliki and his sister, Popi, have become political figures in a newly democratized South Africa. With no political precedent for understanding how to use their newfound power, they feel both precarious and hopeful. Viliki painfully realizes that it will not be easy to represent or understand South Africa’s new voice and spirit. Nevertheless, the protagonist and her family are not alone in their struggle, feeling solidarity in their shared past.