“This is my attempt to archive your story, if only for the fact that it matters to me, your son.” With these words, author and former journalist Rofhiwa Maneta paints a portrait of his father, written as a combination of biography, journalism and creative non-fiction. With several self-released titles under his belt, Maneta is in great shape. A man, a fire, a corpsepublished by Blackbird Books, is his best work to date.
During his distinctive creative journey, which includes short stories, essays, books and arts journalism, Maneta has honed a hard-hitting and compelling style in which simplicity always maintains a thoughtful beauty. Through writings on music, black experiences, television and more, a pervasive theme of fatherhood can be traced in his work, explored in depth in the reflective essays of Your father, the leader of hip-hop.
According to his own account in this book, Maneta spent a lot of time consuming true crime literature and television, as well as the work of crime reporters David Simon and Jack Olsen, who was heralded as the “dean of true crime”.
Accordingly, the book weaves in references to books such as Truman Capote’s so-called “non-fiction novel”. In cold blood and Emma Copley Eisenberg The Third Rainbow Girland TV shows, including Netflix documentary series real detective (which was inspired by HBO real detective fiction series) and iconic crime drama Thread. His in-depth knowledge of the history and evolution of the genre informs his cautious approach.
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Without being gratuitous or bloody, A man, a fire, a corpse details the high-profile violent crimes that Maneta’s father investigated during his career as a detective. The aim is to tell the facts of the case, acknowledge the humanity of the victims and their loved ones, and have a constructive conversation about the violence in South Africa.
Over 227 pages, Maneta patiently describes his father’s entry into the police force, his most important cases and the one that sticks in his mind to this day: the 2004 murder of 2-year-old Linda Kameru at the hands of his mother, actress Brenda. Lovelacia Kameru, in the name of casting out the devil. Maneta also points to the disappointments of his father’s job, which has gone largely unrecognized, and the consequences for his family of having a dedicated policeman as a father.
Maneta’s father recently retired after 34 years of service, a moment Maneta describes in an interview citing his mother’s words: “I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Born in 1960 in the village of Tshaulu near Thohoyandou, Limpopo, Amos Maneta was “poor in every sense of the word”, writes his son. He had dreams for his life, like everyone else, but they were thwarted by his environment and the apartheid regime, which limited the job choices available to black people.
After arriving in Johannesburg 26 years later, Maneta was refused a job interview as an administrative clerk. It was a defining moment, marking his entry into police work, which he, as a devout Christian, describes as a calling. Rofhiwa Maneta, however, cleverly juxtaposes this with her own skepticism as an atheist. Where his father attributes never having to discharge his service pistol to “Jesus is fire,” Maneta attributes “serendipity.” Where his father attributes his protection from damage on the pitch to God, Maneta attributes it to luck.
Throughout his career, Detective Amos Maneta has relentlessly pursued justice for the victims of the crimes he investigated, constantly putting his life on the line to maintain a standard beyond what was expected of him. Rofhiwa Maneta describes the effect on his family, using the moon as a literary tool. “As a child you can’t really tell the distinction that you haven’t seen your dad for 2pm, but you know the last time you saw him the moon was out. And so the moon was a constant,” he says.
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In Amos Maneta’s almost obsessive relationship with his work, the reader becomes aware of the contrast with the perception of South African police officers. Complacency, apathy, laziness, contempt and demotivation are just some of the descriptors often used to describe members of the police service and the general public distrust and weariness of the way they carry out their duties – all contained within the context of global police violence.
What Rofhiwa Maneta does well is balancing the tension between the perception of the police in the real world and the challenges police officers face on a daily basis, undefeated by the potential biases he has towards his father.
Globally, police violence has come under intense scrutiny, as movements around the world shine a light on oppressive and deadly brutality. There have been continued calls from the public, academics and activists to abolish and defund the police, rejecting the idea of reform. Derecka Purnell Review Becoming abolitionists: police, protests and the pursuit of Freedom, Christopher McMichael writes, “Rather than restraining police violence and ensuring accountability, reform efforts often legitimize state abuses. Similarly, Geo Maher A world without police and Violent Order: Essays on the Nature of the Police, edited by David Correia and Tyler Wall, detail “emancipatory alternatives” to public safety by suggesting that a system whose roots are in 18th century slave patrols cannot change for those it claims to serve.
This is the macro context in which Maneta writes. Her story, without ignoring it, is relational – she thinks about the effect of this work in the intimate context of a family and a fatherhood.
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Amos Maneta started working for the South African police in 1986, at the height of apartheid. Although the book does not describe his treatment by his white colleagues, it highlights how the 1980s were the worst time to be a police officer. “At the time, the country was in the grip of a state of emergency. Everything was burning. Policemen were hunted down and shot because they were considered part of the apartheid system,” writes Rofhiwa Maneta. What is clear is that black police officers at the time were at odds with their own communities because of their jobs, with the strain of those same jobs nonetheless providing secure employment.
As far as all the hard work, diligence and late nights go, Amos Maneta has never quite risen through the ranks to take on a high profile role. His dream of becoming a brigadier was thwarted, according to his son, because he was a black person in a system intended to privilege white people in a way that can lead to visceral disappointment for the reader. Numerous media profiles and interviews, being loved by the community of Naledi, Soweto, and an impressive conviction rate seemed to matter little to his superiors.
The man behind the officer
With Maneta now retired, old habits die hard. “You don’t do the job he did and you just switch off on the day you retire,” says Rofhiwa Maneta. “In his circumspect way, he is always obsessed with security. I’m 31 this year and my dad still insists I tell him when I go to bed every day, which he’s done since we were kids. It’s him for the rest of his life.
At the beginning of the book, a friend jokes that Maneta was almost like him and the rest of the young men in the township – forced to grow up without a father. Throughout the book, there is a pervasive sense of impending danger. And in many cases, the danger is real. The chapters reveal numerous threats to Amos Maneta’s life, including an assassination attempt orchestrated by Barney Kwati, whom he had put behind bars.
But spending more time with his father now, Rofhiwa Maneta is rediscovering parts of him that weren’t immediately apparent during his years as a police officer. “He’s a lot softer right now. He’s a grandfather in his sixties and much clumsier too. His mind isn’t preoccupied with solving a murder, so he can just be human.
While the intention was to explore fatherhood hand in hand with his father’s career, Maneta admits he could have done more in this regard. “If I were to rewrite this book, I would have actually focused a bit more on him as a father. It doesn’t really feel like he’s a huge football fan or likes gardening, which he does every day,” he says.
Two years in writing, A man, a fire, a corpse stands out from the myriad of biographical books on the police, crime and violence in South Africa. Using his sharp journalistic skills, exercising his ability to humanize victims of crime and murder without sensational gore, balancing the tensions between having a dedicated police officer as a father and simultaneously criticizing the police as an oppressive system at odds with the communities it claims serve, Maneta offers a thoughtful offering from a fresh angle. It is not often that one is moved by a book with such a subject, which testifies to the convincing pen of Maneta.