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So Much Left Undone: Eric Miyeni Remembers Brenda Fassie in an Excerpt from Here Comes the Snake in the Grass

Here Comes the Snake in the Grass“Brenda was like the greatest sex you ever had in too small a dose.” In this excerpt from Eric Miyeni’s new collection of essays, Here Comes the Snake in the Grass, he remembers the first time he met Brenda Fassie, a meeting during which she left him “totally flabbergasted” by grabbing his genitals.

Miyeni, now a successful actor, writer and filmmaker, came dangerously close to living on the streets in the late 1980s. It was during this time, while he was staying with a girlfriend, that he ended up at a party at Ma Brrr’s house: “she left me with the distinct impression that I had met one of the truest forces of nature”.

Read the excerpt:

* * * * * * * *

I meet Ma Brrr

It was the summer of either 1987 or ’88. All I remember is that it was soon after I had graduated from university. I had no job. I had no place to live after having been chucked out by a friend called Thomas Manganyi, then one of the top fashion models in the country. Thomas had found me stranded on the corner of Small and Jeppe streets late one afternoon, about to spend my first night ever sleeping on the streets of Johannesburg. I had been rendered homeless that very day and had not found a new place to live. I had no money. I could not think of anywhere to go for salvation. And the sun was setting fast. Without taking even a second to think, this former head prefect at my high school, with that big smile that had made him thousands of rands in Johannesburg, offered me free accommodation in his bachelor flat in Hillbrow.

Now he had thrown me out and back on the streets with a simple note left on the floor saying: “My cousin is coming to live with me. The place is too small for three people. Please leave today.” I had lived with the man for over six months without paying rent or contributing to the food bill. And whenever I had received some money from the odd modelling job he had found me, I had spent it on myself and given him nothing. The man had had enough.

My girlfriend then was a lady named Sylvia Mashinini and she and her best friend, radio host Brenda Sisane, both then working as air hostesses, took pity upon my sorry self and let me share their tiny place with them at the Meriston Hotel in Joubert Park for a while. Ironically I had met Sylvia and Brenda through Thomas. This, however, did not stop the three of us from being equally outraged by his sudden turn of attitude. Here was a man we could not believe could suddenly be so cruel and heartless. This, of course, was based solely on my account of events at the time, which, I am sure, left out my spoilt-brat behaviour.

It was through this chain of encounters that I came to meet Brenda Fassie, because not only did the fantastic Sylvia Mashinini and Brenda Sisane take me in, but they also introduced me to a group of Johannesburg activist socialites which included the cameraman Eddie Mbalo, who went on to head up the National Film and Video Foundation for many years after working with Spike Lee on the South African production leg of the film Malcolm X.

I remember us hanging out at Eddie Mbalo’s flat one night when it was discovered that there was a party somewhere in the East Rand. Nowadays, when you arrive at a black party and you see twenty cars, you know the party’s dead because it is one or two darkies to a car. Back then, twenty cars at a party meant it was rocking because it was six to ten darkies to a car. True to style, as soon as it was decided that we would all go to this party which, it was said, was definitely not one to miss, we piled up into three or four cars, at least eight to a car, and drove through the night in a reckless convoy. I recall sitting squashed up in the back seat of one of these cars, barely able to see the road ahead and swearing never to agree to a racing convoy to anywhere ever again, no matter how ‘rocking’ the party would be. The speed at which all the cars were driving was insane! The distances between the cars at that speed in the darkness of night were so short that they bordered on suicidal. I have never been in a similar convoy to anywhere again since that day. I had only joined the convoying group then because I did not want to be a party pooper. It was early days in my relationship with Sylvia: she wanted to go to the party, and I did not want to mess things up between us by appearing to be a square.

And so we drove and, by what appeared to be a miracle to me, arrived at what, unbeknown to me up to that moment, was a party hosted by Ma Brrr. By this time I was in a rather foul mood because it felt as if I had been on a failed suicide mission that I had not voluntarily signed up for. I had learnt that the feeling of cheating death wasn’t one of the most pleasant feelings for me whatsoever. I had just discovered that I was not an adrenaline junkie. Despite all this, I did my best to smile and fit in.

I cannot recollect who introduced me, but I have a vague memory of it being Eddie Mbalo, who said, flashing that ever-present, beguiling smile of his, ‘Brenda,’ with that voice which falls just short of being too high, ‘meet Eric.’ I grinned from ear to ear, trying to act as though all was well, and extended my hand, only to have Brenda Fassie reach out past it and grab my genitals hard enough for me to feel her hand over them but softly enough not to inflict pain on my balls. ‘Pleased to meet you, Eric,’ she said, looking me straight in the eye. ‘Welcome. Enjoy.’ And then she let go, leaving me totally flabbergasted.

I don’t recall seeing her at that party again. I don’t know if I drank too much, though I must have done so because I have no memory of how we got back home from there. But when I woke up, I still remembered that I had met someone who was beyond the ordinary; that I had met a phenomenon.

I never thought Brenda Fassie would remember me after that night but, years later, she would always greet me by name and have this smile dangling between the corners of her mouth as if to say, ‘We didn’t do it, you and I, I know that, but I know you. I know you quite well, actually.’

It’s hard to express how I felt about that first encounter with Brenda Fassie, except to say that she left me with the distinct impression that I had met one of the truest forces of nature. She hit everything and everybody like an earthquake before growing into a massive tsunami right before their very eyes. She was a real star, always giving a memorable performance, on and off stage, and forever engaging in a manner that stayed vivid in your mind.

I have often asked myself if I loved her, given that I admired her talent so much, given that I had encountered her in such an invasive and deeply intimate manner, albeit without choosing to, and I always find myself standing confused. I find myself thinking: So much promise, so much delivery of that promise and yet so much left undone. And then I think: Maybe she was like a quickie with a person you have longed to have sex with for a helluva long time. At the end of it you feel exhilarated and elated. After all, you achieved your goal. But soon thereafter you begin to feel that the encounter was a letdown, that you did not do your best, give your best, or even receive the best the other party had to offer. That’s when you descend into a slightly embarrassed state, realising that, in fact, the encounter was half-baked and unsatisfying.

Brenda was like the greatest sex you ever had in too small a dose. I guess that talks to the high level of giftedness she brought into the world and how much of her entire being she put into all she did, even if it was simply to shock a boy in his early twenties into waking up at her party by shaking his genitals instead of his hand. In the end, maybe I never loved Ma Brrr because I never got to know her enough to do so. However, there is no doubt that I loved her light, because it stayed with me long after she was gone. I was deeply saddened by how quickly that light went out. That, I guess, remains the only testimony to my love for all the music she left for us to listen to and thus remember her.

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