Papa Was a Rolling Stone

By Vuyo Mzini


  • Title: I Want to See the Sun Rise
  • Author: Sam Shakong
  • Publisher: Xarra Books Ltd
  • Number of pages: 208
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Category: Autobiography

Fatherhood is tenuous. At the worst of times, a level of substantiating proof is required to know the true paternity of a child and claim fatherhood. At the best of times, the roles and responsibilities encompassed in fatherhood are merely equivalent to those of being a decent human being: being accountable to dependents; sharing the load of running a household; being a loving and caring individual. And as time has progressed and human societies have moved significantly away from gender normative practices, fathers (and mothers, to be fair) have had to redefine their roles and responsibilities. Sam Shakong’s autobiography, I Want to See the Sun Rise, is an attempt at adding to the contemporary lexicon of fatherhood. The book is equally a heart-warming depiction of Shakong’s discovery of his own parenting style and a moralising manifesto on what makes a good father.

Shakong spent his early years in apartheid-time South Africa, in a place with a peculiar address. At the time of his youth, the village of Phokwane in the Limpopo Province in northeastern South Africa could only be described relative to other seemingly more important landmarks. That is how small it was. Shakong was raised by his mother and paternal grandmother while his father went to Johannesburg to wrest a living from the city of gold. His mother passed away when Shakong was still young, from a tuberculosis that could have easily been cured had racial segregation not created borders between the people and their natural needs. In what has become a common motif in the stories of many African children, Shakong grew up in a household led by a woman. In particular, a woman one generation removed from Shakong’s own mid-1960s rural generation. These markers – the absence of a father, the gaps created by the absence of the directly preceding generation, the female authoritative presence – are all points that anchor Shakong’s arguments throughout the book.

The story is one of exile. In his secondary school years, Shakong found himself in a missionary school named Kilnerton. The school turned out to be a training ground for the new wave of apartheid resistance, endowing Shakong with his introduction to the politics of being black in South Africa. Until that point, he had engaged with race as a naturally occurring phenomenon that he observed on the fringes of his rural rearing:

…I had lived in Phokwane all my life where white people were a rare sight. You could only see them if you went to the edge of the village where a few shops were located…they generally looked overfed including their not so small women and children [with] their red faces which must have been responding to the lick of the African sun (p 36).

The South African government closed the school down in 1962, on account of it being a ‘black spot’– an unwanted mark in what was becoming a white suburban area. The school also piqued the interest of the South African security police who were on the prowl for troublemakers and those aiming to subvert the regime of the time. Shakong was part of that band of troublemakers. At this time, fortunately, the African National Congress was well organised for its comrades, with a strategy for exile into either the military wing or the intellectual wing. Being something of a ‘whiz kid’ at school, Shakong got recruited into the latter and was drafted helter-skelter into a hustle to leave the country. And so began his journey from the township of Diepkloof in Johannesburg to New York City in the Unites States of America via Botswana and Tanzania.

In the United States, he graduated from the University of Toledo, Ohio, with an undergraduate degree in sociology and later obtained his master’s degree from Adelphi University in New York. This part of his life, around 1964, intersected with the countercultural period in the United States. His interactions with famous musicians and poets, both exiled South Africans and revolutionary African Americans, sparked a bohemian vibe in the man:

I was young, volatile and adventurous…I also knew how to put my rags together to look good…I used my good eye for clothing to maximise advantage. I was always raring to go. The city was abuzz with night clubs and disco joints that were jumping at all hours of the night (p 65).

A New York apartment known as 310 was a haunt where South African icons like Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Keorapetse Kgositsile gathered. Throughout the book, Shakong partakes in some tasteful name-dropping, mentioning prominent South Africans he interacted with while in the States. And while his adventures with the ladies had a rocky beginning – American women did not take kindly to first-day declarations of love – he managed to find love in the arms of a tall, elegant and intelligent woman named Pam, who was to become the mother of his firstborn. He met Pam at one of the many high-profile parties he attended in his university days.

It was in 1970 that Shakong’s life changed and, seemingly, that his life purpose was formed. His daughter, Masai, was born in that year. The title of this autobiography, I Want to See the Sun Rise, is attributed to his daughter who, during a long haul flight to southern Africa from America (her first trip to the continent), kept Shakong and most nearby passengers up because she wanted to see the sun rise as they approached her father’s homeland. He tells in the book of the type of relationship he developed with his daughter, one of communication and negotiations, especially when it came to giving instructions and handing out discipline. He emphasises the importance of travel in broadening the mind, and how he travelled to different countries with Masai. When he got a lecturing job at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) in the mid-1970s, he relocated to Gaborone, Botswana, with Masai, who fit in well with the children of other exiled, South African academics in Botswana at the time. Shakong prides himself on having taught Masai basic Setswana language phrases that meant that she was a hit with everyone she met – this African American girl with a southern African vernacular. Shakong comments on how he had to counter the overpowering American culture and influence by introducing Masai at an early age to cultural diversity, particularly her own heritage.

The book is as much a treatise on fatherhood (as inspired by Shakong’s relationship with his daughter) as it is an autobiography. South African poet laureate, Wally Serote, writes the foreword to the book and his main observation is how Shakong demonstrates how loving and present men can be as fathers. Shakong himself hints at some resentment towards his own father, a hint that is not explained thoroughly but which one can read as referring to the absence of his father’s love and understanding. He also tells of growing up in an abusive household, describing in one scene how his father gave him a black eye. But Shakong acknowledges that his father’s life and that of many other men was complicated by the situation of their time. Limited options in terms of careers, economics and even physical movement made it hard to be the best version of themselves:

[D]ue to the conspiracy of the economic system and the power relation between Africans and Whites, my father and my uncles were never allowed the opportunity to earn enough to enable them to assume the responsibility to raise us properly…and become the honourable men and fathers they needed to be… There is no way in hell I could lead a normal life in a shack, which is a distorted, grotesque and unsafe and twisted environment for human habitation, easily contributing to the break down of the family (p 186).

It is with slight regret that he tells of how his father passed before they could really mend their relationship.

Shakong is vehement in the closing chapter of the book, titled ‘Reflections on Fatherhood’, on an array of topics about the generations of men that preceded him and those that follow him. He scorns the expectations that his father and uncles had of him, with respect to being a father and a man, when they were never around to teach him anything. At the same time, he expresses a yearning for the connectedness of having a male role model in his life. He decries the adoption of faraway role models, expressing his belief that ‘A role model must be someone in my life, not a singer, actor or celebrity, for I do not know what their values are’ (p 190). But in all of this, he places the responsibility of being a good man, a good father even, squarely on each individual man’s shoulders:

The man you become is the result of the totality of your environment rather than the mercy of the men who may or may not even be there to be your role models. You must develop an awareness that will transcend the short comings that you experienced while growing up, such as the absence of significant others like fathers and uncles (p 197).

The chapter does somewhat take away from the positive image of being a good father that he organically portrays throughout the book. The chapter turns the book from what Serote calls in his foreword ‘a gentle nudge to men in general to say, “Look at the joy of being a father!” (p iv)’ to an emphatic proselytising, reminiscent of an old man’s rant.

Nonetheless, the book is written in an upbeat tone and has the wit to induce a chuckle every now and then. And while exile made Masai’s father something of a rolling stone, the book shows that he was conscious enough to gather moss along the way, making him an exemplary father.


Photograph: ‘Father and Son, Dizi Tribe’ by Rod Waddington


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Vuyo Mzini is a South African investment analyst who is passionate about writing creative nonfiction and reading.

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