Sam Mathe pays a riveting tribute to his friend, scribe Saint P Molakeng

The man his colleagues, acquaintances, protègès and casual friends knew as Papa Saint Molakeng, Saint P Molakeng or Tshokolo Molakeng was in fact Shadrack Molakeng to me. That’s how he introduced himself to me in 1987 when we met in a dining hall of the YMCA in Braamfontein. We were both eighteen and students at Wits University. We were reluctant residents in this soulless Christian establishment that was run alongside Salvation Army lines. University residences were full and this was the best alternative accommodation close to campus.  

Tshokolo Wa Molakeng was a byline he settled on when he wrote articles as a ‘rookie’ at the Weekly Mail (now the Mail and Guardian) where he started as a cadet with the likes of Mondli Makhanya and Sechaba Nkosi. This was in 1990 after he had decided to abandon his law studies for a career in journalism. I have put the word rookie in quotes because at that stage he was already an experienced writer of sorts in the world of journalism. 

He contributed letters to the editor sections newspapers like the Sowetan and City Press. He was barely seventeen when he caught the attention of the late great  Aggrey Klaaste, the man whose penmanship he idolised unreservedly. Shadrack was hard to please even at such a young age and counted few models among that generation of golden scribes. 

He was still in matric when he got it into his head to write a letter to the Sowetan editor complaining about his tendency to use vocabulary that required one to consult an Oxford Dictionary. In response Klaaste dedicated his next column, “On The Line”, to the schoolboy upstart who dared to question his writing style. He defended his penchant for big words by saying he was challenging readers to improve their vocabulary. They should stop feeling sorry for being products of an inferior education system and read broadly. 

Klaaste then pointed out the hypocrisy in the young writer’s complaint. He too was suffering from the big-word syndrome. The pot was calling the kettle black. And so the joke was on Shadrack Molakeng. Being a subject of revered column by a celebrated writer was not the end of the story though. Klaaste subsequently  invited him to his house in Dobsonville, Soweto. It was a big deal – a country boy from a deep rural village in Hammanskraal being invited to Johannesburg by the editor of the  country’s biggest daily. 

He said he was particularly impressed by the fact that despite his national profile, Klaaste had a common touch – a people’s person.  Percy Qoboza was another one he worshipped. When the City Press editor died in 1988, he wrote a moving tribute which was published in the letters’ section of the paper. Until he met me, Shadrack’s letters to the editor were handwritten affairs. I was probably the only first-year student who owned a typewriter, an elegant portable thing at a time when PCs and laptops were not yet a reality in the industry. 

How he used to get on my nerves whenever he knocked on my door to borrow to borrow my treasured possession. But the ordeal didn’t last long. Aggrey Klaaste gave him one – a newsroom beast that had seen better days but was still in good condition. It came in handy when he started contributing to Frontline magazine, his first serious venture into journalism. The editor, Denis Beckett was probably impressed by his racy and irreverent prose even at such a young age. There was Nomavenda Mathiane, a fine and brave wordsmith who astounded us when she took on an unlikely opponent in Winnie Mandela.

She published an unflattering piece about her bodyguard, Jerry Richardson and the activities of the Mandela Football Club. Denis became our mentor but I believe that I was the one who needed the constant coaching. Shadrack seemed to be on top of his game at the time when I was still grappling with writing academic essays. Journalistic writing was another beast that still needed taming. But Shadrack’s copy was a marvel to read. One of his contributions to Frontline was a piece on student protests on campus. Insightful and irreverent, it was a gem. He wrote about his sangoma mother whose clients included right-wing farmers of Ventersdorp, Eugene Terreblanche country. He waxed poetically about streetwise taxi drivers who wooed beautiful female passengers with romantic R&B ballads. 

I stand to be corrected but I don’t think he took English As A Second Language as one of his courses. In the wisdom of the university authorities, it was a necessary transition subject for non-native speakers of the language. Black students were a minority on campus but a majority in this course with a few from countries like Greece, Portugal, Taiwan and Poland. It was a dreadful course and certainly the least favourite subject. Shadrack was into elite subjects such as Latin and English – the world of impossible guys like Shakespeare, Milton, George Elliot and others.

Needless to say, he excelled in English classical literature but his heart was into African writers – from Cyprian Ekwensi and Ayi Kwei Armah to Ngugi Wa Thiongo. He loved Drum writers but was particularly fond of Bloke Modisane’s Blame Me On History because he said the writer knew how to use semi-colons. That was the future sub-editor in him talking. And talking about sub-editors, they were his nemeses, talentless practitioners who were out to spoil excellent copy with unnecessary changes. But there were exceptions. Chantal Taylor at True Love was one of the exceptions. He adored her and spoke glowingly about her sub-editing skills. He thought Can Themba was a peerless short storyteller until he discovered Moteane Melamu whose humorous township tales and its Dickensian characters amused him no end. His favourite was “The Bullfighter” – starring the comical Shorty and his wife, Lisa. 

We lived, ate and breathed journalism and of course literature. Even when we were still students he was already familiar with the grown-up world of literary events such as poetry reading sessions and book launches. That’s where we met the likes of Mothobi Mutloatse, Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Andries Oliphant and Chris van Wyk. Most of the African writing and archived journalistic pieces we read was in the Africana section of the William Cullen Library on East Campus. There was a CNA outlet on the corner of Jorrisen Street and Jan Smuts Avenue. 

That’s where we would go to check out new titles. Here we discovered gems like Who’s Really Who in South Africa by Gus Silber and Hillary Prendini Toffoli. We laughed ourselves silly as we read some of the entries. It was hilarious and irreverent stuff. We derived tearfuls of mirth and laughter in anything and anyone. One evening at the Wits Great Hall we even laughed at Govan Mbeki, much to the chagrin of the prim-and-proper white audiences who were predominantly members of the academic community.

Our laughter was provoked by the fact that the recently released Robben Islander prefaced his speech with a William Shakespeare quote from Richard III. We associated such stuff with high school debates and were in fact disappointed that he didn’t quote Marx, Lenin or Mao. We didn’t expect a hardened Communist like him to quote The Bard. So we laughed. This was before the diabetes, but even the life of insulin and needles didn’t stop the laughter. His was usually the mocking kind. We enjoyed laughter especially if it was at someone’s expense. 

It happened in 1991. He had just left Weekly Mail and was working at True Love. We were sharing a flat in Berea at the time. I was away for the weekend when it happened and returned to be told that he had collapsed and subsequently admitted to Hillbrow Hospital. It was shocking to see him in such a helpless state, his seemingly lifeless body connected to drips and his head covered with an oxygen mask. It was a disturbing development. 

He was not even 25 yet and something so terrible was happening to him. How was he going to adhere to proper diet and cope with daily injections of insulin? I wondered. But somehow he managed. For thirty years this dreadful disease was his unwelcome companion and constant reminder of his mortality. Some of his colleagues were wonderful with their support. I particularly remember Millicent Mseleku and Bessie Tugwana visiting the flat to check him after he was discharged from hospital. They expressed genuine concern in a motherly way. I have no doubt that it was due to their moral support, wise counsel and encouragement that he was able to cope with this evil condition.

That flat on O’Reilly Road and Tudhope Avenue brings back so many fond memories. At some stage we lived on the sixth floor at number 616. He nicknamed it “Sweet Sixteen” on account of our youthfulness and zest for life. We enjoyed Scrabble and argued over some of the unusual words. His old dog-eared Concise Oxford Dictionary had the final say when such disputes arose. There were weekend parties with “friends” and hangers-on who came for the booze. He was generous to a fault in that regard. 

One day we hosted a journalist who was already a seasoned hack. For some reason our guest wouldn’t leave after a week of enjoying free food and drinks. His seniority made it impossible for us to tell him that he had overstayed his welcome. After thinking long and hard about the problem, Shadrack decided to give him the silent treatment. That worked and the guy left.  

The Drum writers seemed like a distant memory of our university days. They were no longer a fascination at this stage. As I have indicated there was Moteane Melamu. He was also into James Hadley Chase. I thought he was a Johnny come lately in this regard and didn’t share his enthusiasm for the king of pulp fiction whom I associated with my high school days. Perhaps my attitude was informed by the literary snob in me. That’s what he said about me. He called me Mphahlele with an irreverent or affectionate tone depending on his moods  at the time. Eskia Mphahlele was not one of his favourite writers.   

He said his prose was dry because he didn’t drink. That was said tongue-in-cheek. Among all these writers, I must say that Harlan Ellison was the one who profoundly shaped his outlook on literary matters. Some of the gems of wisdom from the mercurial American writer that he took to heart included this one, “If you want to be the writer that you confront thirty years later without shame, then learn to ignore your readers. They mean well, and for the most part they are terrific people. But they know what they like from you, and if they have their way they will demand it again and again – as reflected in the demands of the market and the editors and the reviews – and thirty years down the pike you will find you have written the same book eleven times.  So thank your readers and the critics who praise you, and then ignore them. Write for the most intelligent, wittiest, wisest audience in the universe: write to please yourself.”

He wrote to please himself and became disillusioned with the journalism fraternity that he regarded as parochial and simply mediocre for his liking and sanity. He actually abandoned the craft many years ago even though he would occasionally contribute the odd piece when the spirit moved him. But he lost the zest for what was essentially his passion. And it hurt. The Saint part of his identity evolved from the initials Shadrack Tshokolo (ST). The latter, according to his elder brother, is not a genuine Sesotho name but an adaptation of the Afrikaans word ‘sukkel‘ (struggle) and not worthy of a name for an African man, particularly a proud Motlokwa.

But Shadrack thought it was an apt name for a human journey full of difficulties and all sorts of challenges. He’s now a true saint in the celestial newsroom whose paper is edited by Aggrey Klaaste, his first mentor and idol. He was Papa because he was fond of his boys. At the time when he was diagnosed of diabetes he was just a carefree young man who was enjoying life. But he knew that one day he would become a father and husband. He told me that he had dreamt of a wife and children. But, he added, he was leaving them behind as he was going to another world. 

My deepest sympathies to them, members of his extended family and friends. He was a kindred spirit and an intellectual sparing partner who loved a debate. 

And just like me, he was a stubborn and passionate son of a gun who loved an argument especially during those sessions when the waters of immortality were flowing.