(2002. Cape Town. Oxford University Press)


The Immorality Act of 1927, which prohibited sex between Blacks and Whites, was amended in 1950 to prohibit sex between Whites and all non-Whites. Zakes Mda bases his novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, on the 1971 case in which 19 people from Excelsior were charged under the Immorality Act. He traces the lives of Niki, one of the accused, and her children Viliki and Popi, and the effects of the ‘illicit’ activities on their lives and those of the people around them.


Niki, the Madonna of Excelsior, lives in Mahlaswetsa, the black township of Excelsior. She and several other women fall prey to circumstances of poverty and become involved with white men from Excelsior. When the women give birth to white babies, fourteen of them are arrested and put on trial with five white men. But the case comes to nothing; the Minister of Justice withdraws the charges. And there are no fathers of the white babies of black women. This attempt to wipe out the whole event and pretend it never happened may have succeeded in the rest of the country but in Excelsior it lives on in the shame that families both black and white feel, in the many ‘coloured’ children walking the streets, in the unacknowledged connections that they represent. And especially in Popi’s hatred of herself. People call her ‘boesman” and she is ashamed of her blonde hair, blue eyes and hairy legs. She has a white half-brother whom she does not acknowledge and clings to the memory of her black father.

The novel takes the reader through the seventies, through years of struggle and into the new South Africa. But the new South Africa does not bring the freedom that they had hoped for and when Viliki and Popi abandon politics and the pursuit of wealth, they find real freedom and happiness.


The novel has a chorus of narrators; people of Mahlaswetsa who observe and comment.

Each chapter begins with a description of a painting and its vibrant colours, textures and subjects provide a commentary on the lives of the people and the situation. These colours add a different dimension and are a contrast to the concern with skin colour. Despite the suffering that the pictures portray, there is life. But at the end, in the context of the new South Arica, there are no pictures, only black and white drawings. Is it an indication that racism has grown even stronger?