Phumlani Pikoli, young sharp literary mind gone too soon

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

While it is not clear what befell young author and multi-media journalist Phumlani Pikoli, who was found dead by his parents in a Johannesburg apartment belonging to his brother on Sunday morning, one thing is clear though, and that is that South Africa has lost a literary mind whose literary pursuits were bound to soar sooner than later. But because tragedy struck, snuffing out a young life who had so much going for him in the literary world, we cannot do so much more than mourning with his grieving family. The young Pikoli was reportedly found by his worried parents on Sunday, April, 11, 2021, when they had to drive from their Pretoria home to Johannesburg where they found him, dead, alone in his brother’s flat who had asked him to house keep while he was away.

I first met Pikoli in 2018 when I interviewed him after he had just published his first anthology of short stories titled The Fatuous State of Severity. He subsequently published his debut award winning novel Born Freeloaders in 2019.

When I interviewed the young writer in the boardroom of his publisher Pan MacMillan South Africa in Houghton, I was struck by his sharpness of mind and clarity about his writing.

Not sure at this stage what really happened to this sharp literary mind in that apartment, but what i know is that he had a history of psychological problems that at one stage led him to be admitted to a clinic. He did not hide this part of his mental complications as all that is in his debut book, part of which he wrote while he was receiving therapy.

And with Pikoli’s demise, the South African literary landscape has become poorer as he was destined for big things in the world of words.

After that first meeting I subsequently met him at a number of places, where we could hang out enjoying drinks, such as Xai Xai in Melville and Kitcheners in Braamfontein. I also attended the launch of both his books in Rosebank as well as attending a multi-media exhibition in which he collaborated with a visual artists to explore the complex issue of mental health.

Though he had a complicated history with mental health young Pikoli seemed to have been on top of that issue and seemed to be enjoying life around Johannesburg’s popular pubs and coffee shop.

And when he published his second book in 2019, just like his debut book, I liked it too, and I saw a young South African writer on a literary rise as he was able to explore further contemporary issues facing young South Africans born in middle class black families in a post apartheid South Africa.

Often these young people they face certain challenges of identity as they have to deal with  the complexity of  having to make yourself comfortable in two contrasting situations, such as at one time being in a township with cousins whose lives are mired in poverty and the next time you are in a comfortable set up in suburbia. Pikoli’s literature explored fully these contradictions in both his books and that made him to be an outstanding writer who understood the issues his generation faced. For example in his first book, the young Pikoli in one of his short stories in that book, he zoomed in on an incident that happened in Cape Town in recent years, and which divided South Africans along racial lines.

In 2016, many South Africans and people in other countries opened their hearts and wallets after a Cape Town waitress was reduced to tears when a student activist bullied her. After dining, instead of paying a tip — which is not an obligation, but an appreciation of good service — Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, who led a campaign to remove a Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University in England, wrote on the bill: ‘We will give a tip when you return the land.” Qwabe wrote about the incident on his Facebook page, the post went viral and, in response, hundreds of well-wishers donated more than R150,000 to white waitress Ashleigh Schultz, who was working two jobs since becoming a breadwinner after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Although people of all races donated money, some asked questions that in many ways demonstrated the complex race issues in the country. Would a black waitress subjected to race-baiting receive the same amount of support? Many asked.

Pikoli took up that story and creatively created his own story within a story in his first book, which raised the same issues that were raised by that particular incident.

In his second book, the young Pikoli delved deeply into how the children of especially black political elites tend to seemingly, unfairly benefit from the struggle history of their parents to the exclusion of others who too deserve to be considered equitably when opportunities avail themselves in business as well as in the public sector. It clearly took not only a smart mind, but a brave one to critique credibly this kind of phenomenon which is increasingly becoming so common to the extent that we think it is normal these days.

And quite encouragingly his parents Advocate Vusi Pikoli, the former Director of Public Prosecutions of South Africa, and his mother were intimately involved in nurturing Phumlani’s  emerging literary talent as I always met them at both the book launches  and the multi-media exhibition.

The irony is not lost that this young talent died after publishing only two books at the tender age of 33, almost the same age that another promising literary talent K. Sello Duiker died tragically through his own hand. He too had just published two critically acclaimed books. 

The young Pikoli in 2020 went on to win for his second novel Born Freeloaders at the South African Literary Awards (SALA) the K. Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award.

Pikoli’s novel follows a group of friends born on the cusp of South African democracy examining their uneasy awareness of their privilege and the heightened sense of discomfort at their inability to change the world they were born into. Pikoli himself was born in Zimbabwe in 1988 to his then exiled parents, father Vusi and mother Girlie Pikoli. He came to South Africa with his parents when he was barely two, and studied film  at the University of Cape Town, but ended up as a multi-media journalist and critically acclaimed author of two books. May Phumlani’s soul rest in peace.

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