Niq Mhlongo is an enormously talented writer from Soweto. I read two of his books, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears, over a few days at Christmas 2013 during a visit to my parent’s house in South Africa.
Dog Eat Dog tells the story of Dingz Njomane,
a young man caught between his township upbringing and university life. Living the carefree life of a student in the young post-Apartheid South Africa, he neglects his studies to such an extent that he finds himself about to be kicked out of the university.
Of course we all came there for different reasons.Our Big Brothers had promised beautiful things to those who lived a life of poverty, and I guess that the two homeless gentlemen ahead of me came to vote because of the promise of proper housing and employment. Some came to vote because of the promise of welfare grants, some because of the promise of free medical care; pensioners had come because of a promise of an increase in their grants so that it equalled that of their white counterparts. I was standing in that queue because we had been promised access to a better education.
Dog Eat Dog
It is 1994. The New South Africa has dawned. Apartheid has fallen and young black people like Dingz can see a bright future unfolding ahead of them. Dingz is living the dream, attending university and sleeping in proper accommodation at the YMCA where he can rely on regular meals and a dry roof for the first time in his life. The only problem is that he has an enormous talent for getting himself into trouble with anybody and everybody. The police, university administration, women, and his dirt-poor family – he comes unstuck early and often. Can his clever brain and quick tongue allow himself to tread the fine line between making a new life for himself and becoming just another unemployed, unemployable township burnout with a drinking problem? Read Dog Eat Dog to find out…
That was it. I had enough of Cape Town. The cold Atlantic Ocean, the white sand beaches. Table Mountain, the Waterfront, everything I had once found so beautiful about the city, had suddenly turned ugly. I decided right there, in front of the notice board, to go back and pack my belongings and leave for good. The compass in my mind was pointing north, back to Johannesburg, my landlocked city, and Soweto. I was sure that if I stayed in Cape Town for one more day I would go mad. The four years that I had spent there […] had come to nil. My fate had been decided. I wasn’t fit to become an advocate the following year. I was a failure.
In After Tears, Bafana Kuzwayo is a man with a problem.
He has flunked out of his law degree and has to return to the township where his family expects him to be a high-powered, high-earning lawyer. Unable to pluck up the courage to tell the truth, Bafana digs himself into an almighty hole trying to juggle family expectations, money worries, and social challenges. It is 1999. Bafana has just arrived back at his mother’s township dwelling in Chiawelo, Soweto. Bafana attempts to reintegrate his life into the crazy world of the township. We meet his extended friends and family: his pregnant mother, an orphan cousin whose mother died of AIDS, a crazy crippled uncle , a notorious carjacker, a lecherous minibus taxi driver and an alcoholic ex-teacher. His mother expects him to have graduated as a lawyer and immediately start earning a huge salary to support her. Bafana lies to her, telling her that he has passed his degree, but the university won’t let him graduate until he pays his overdue tuition fees. This backfires completely when it compels his mother to sell her township house to come up with the fees, expecting Bafana’s lawyer salary to sort them out when he can get a job. Bafana resorts to falsifying his degree so he can work as an advocate. This turn of events makes him fall in with some bad people, and his life unravels as he struggles to maintain the lie.
Mama came to Chi early the next morning so that I could help her count the profits of the previous day’s stokvel. She had hidden the money we had made under my bed, and by the time she arrived, I managed to steal about R150 from the bag.
This book is a blast. I grew up as middle class white boy in small town South Africa during the same time as this book is set. The contrast between my early years and Bafana’s couldn’t be more different. Life in the township is cheap, and its a constant struggle to just survive. The book is written in a fast, witty style that mixes English with a generous helping of township-slang. There is a nice glossary at the back of the book that helps to translate the hilarious township phrases.
You can read about the history of Soweto. Includes a gallery and various links to interesting topics of the role of Soweto in the history of South Africa.