The Madonna of Excelsior Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his novel The Madonna of Excelsior, based on an event that occurred in Excelsior in South Africa in 1971, Zakes Mda begins in the middle of the plot, then returns to the past to explain how the significant event occurred, and then charts the results of that event. He devotes his first short chapter to a meeting between Niki, with her blue-eyed child, Popi, and Father Frans Claerhout, a priest who paints native women amid the South African landscape. Mda often begins chapters with descriptions of the paintings of Claerhout, a kind of Flemish expressionist whom Mda had actually met. The chapter ends with Popi thinking of Claerhout's canvases and the comparison of his work to “God's own canvas.”

In the following chapter Mda presents Niki and Popi at a garden party that includes the “very cream of Excelsior society,” especially, and ironically, the men who were accused of having had sexual relations with the black women of the town. At the party, Popi and Niki see Tjaart Cronje, who is Popi's half brother. By the end of the novel Popi and Tjaart, who are separated by race and economic status, are somewhat reconciled, just as the children of the black Madonnas painted by Claerhout will represent the new South Africa.

Following this prelude, in which readers learn of the Immorality Act prohibiting sexual relations between the races, Mda returns his readers to Niki's past. By beginning that past when Niki is a teenager capable of sexual relations, Mda implies that Niki's life begins when she is treated as sexual property by the Afrikaner men. Her first sexual experience occurs when Johannes Smit, known to Niki's friends as “Hairy Buttocks” and “Limp Stick,” finally succeeds in raping her. Smit will continue to lust after Niki.

Niki marries Pule, who works in the distant South African coal mines, and has his son, Viliki. Pule sends her money, but his prolonged absences leave her alone and vulnerable. She feels that she is being raped by the eyes of the Afrikaners and is subjected to a strip search when she is suspected of stealing goods from her employer. At a cherry festival Smit makes a pass at Niki, but Stephanus Cronje helps her escape from Smit and then has sex with her. The relationship, which seems consensual, actually is not, given their unequal status, and it is hardly unique, as four other mixed-race couples join them at a barn where there is a sexual orgy (perhaps to his credit, Cronje does not share Niki with the other men). Ultimately, twelve pregnant black women and their Afrikaner partners are charged with breaking the Immorality Act.

To illustrate how miscegenation pervaded the Afrikaner power structure, Mda focuses not only on rich farmers like Cronje and Smit but also on Groot-Jan Lombard, head of the police, and on the Reverend François Bornman. In effect, government and religion implicitly sanction interracial sexual relations. Mda also focuses on the unequal treatment given to the Afrikaner men and the black women (the “Excelsior Nineteen”). While Adam de Vries successfully arranges bail for his Afrikaner clients, the black women are committed to jail until their trials. During their confinement, many of them, including Niki, give birth to mixed-race children.

Reactions to the charges also vary. Overcome with shame, Cronje commits suicide; and the Reverend Bornman, who attributes his actions to the seductive work of black women collaborating with the devil, botches his own suicide attempt, losing an eye but gaining the sympathy of his parishioners. Apparently the other Afrikaner men have no guilt or shame. Niki, fearful of Pule's reaction, attempts to make Popi into a black child by shaving her blond hair and by trying to “brown” her skin by holding her over a fire. When another series of miscegenation cases is brought to light, the charges against all the “guilty” black women are dropped. Mda suggests that when enough Afrikaner men are embarrassed, the laws are no longer enforced.

While Niki is the focus of the first half of the novel, it is Popi who is the main character of the second half, though Niki does remain the moral center of the story. For his painting of the “Blue Madonna,” which Mda describes...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)