The South-African Author Niq Mhlongo has just published « Way Back home ». Portrait.
With his colourful floppy hat, large smile and soft-spoken voice, Niq Mhlongo barely looks like a revolutionary. Yet over three audacious novels that dare to tackle South Africa’s most pressing issues, the Soweto-born writer has become one of the boldest voices on his country’s literary scene. Mhlongo’s prose is all but vindictive though. Sparkled with humour and catchy scenes, it usually stages nonchalant characters who are never afraid to advance their cause by taking liberties with the rules, the truth or the law. Thrown into a ruthless world of ever changing moral standards, they play the system for better and for worse. As he unfolds the action, Mhlongo astutely lets them get tangled up in their contradictions, offering in passing a fascinating perspective on the social laboratory that is contemporary South Africa.
Mhlongo has steadily broadened his ambitions over the past decade, both in the themes he approaches and the styles he displays. Born in 1973, he was too young to actively take part in the struggle against apartheid, but too old not to know how living under oppression was like. His literary coming of age was marked by the Mandela’s presidency: a time of great possibility, the period was also marked by a deep uncertainty. Mhlongo widely reflects on this in « Dog Eat Dog » (2004), his first and arguably most autobiographical novel.
« Dog Eat Dog » stages Dingamanzi « Dingz » Njomane, a canny young student who, like Mhlongo himself, comes from an over-extended family of Africa’s biggest township. The novel is set in 1994, the very year of the first democratic elections in South Africa, and things are moving fast in the country. Smart and ambitious – if shamelessly procrastinating – Dingz never hesitates to play the card of racial prejudice to enhance his condition. Mhlongo brilliantly succeeds in pulling hilarious scenes from this sensitive topic.
When Dingz receives a letter of his university informing him that he does not meet the criteria for a bursary, he decides to take a direct approach. Storming into the office of the bursary committee, he makes his way through two outraged secretaries who commit the mistake of questioning his education and of underestimating his bad faith. « You see! That’s what I do not appreciate », I said, feigning horror ( ) Saying that my behaviour is apish. That is like saying that I was socialised with apes and I should be living in the mountain or the zoo » he moans in front of the bigwig he came to see. And later, when he finally obtains a bursary after exaggerating his circumstances: « I was not ashamed that I lied. Living in this South Africa of ours, you have to master the art of lying in order to survive. »
Where « Dog Eat Dog » offers a candid depiction of a South Africa still lost in its democratic transition, « After Tears » (2007), Niq Mhlongo’s second novel, casts a crude light on the country’s missed opportunities. Here the careless Dingz makes way to Bafana « Advo » Kuzwayo, a student who flunked out of law school and does not dare to tell his Soweto family of his failure. To a certain extent, Advo embodies the anxieties of the South African « born free » generation. In a context where racial barriers have been removed, families assume that nothing opposes to their children’s success – and that they will finally taste the life of wealth they have been longing for.
The novel is also a faithful portrait of the country’s sluggish transformation, where the poor stubbornly remain poor and the economic divide constitutes another form of apartheid. « If you’re black and you failed to get rich in the first year of our democracy, when Tata Mandela came to power, you must forget it, my bra » a friend of Advo remarks bluntly. « The gravy train has already passed you by and, like me, you’ll live in poverty until your beard turns grey. The bridge between the stinking rich and the poor has been demolished. That is the harsh reality of our democracy. »
Post-apartheid writing has been marked by an explosion of literary endeavours that the « South African fiction » label hardly brings together. Previously united by the struggle, South African literature has fragmented into a series of niches and few books create a national conversation. On the top of that, the urge for a black voice to emerge and tell « the other part of the story », that is the experience of the vast majority of previously disenfranchised South African, has been tremendous.
Acting in the same fashion as Advo’s family in « After Tears », journalists and critics have on several occasions been carried away by writers in which they saw the black response to literary heavyweights of the likes of Gordimer and Coetzee. Talented novelist K. Sello Duiker, author of the beautiful « The Quiet Violence of Dreams » amongst other works, famously bowed to that pressure. His suicide in 2005 at the age of 30 is still seen as a direct consequence of the immense expectations he was subjected to.
Niq Mhlongo is fully aware of the danger of being put on a pedestal. Once dubbed by commentators the « voice of the Kwaito generation » (from the musical genre that constitutes the South African answer to hip-hop), he was not impressed. « This sometimes is a bit harmful to my performance » he confided to the New-York Times, « because I always have to behave in a certain way, or write in a certain way that is associated with this generation. » Yet Mhlongo’s latest novel « Way Back Home » which was just published in South Africa, might well sign his enthronement as the long sought-after « black voice » of the post-apartheid era.
Pursuing his truth-seeking endeavour, Mhlongo dares to tackle in « Way Back Home » a defining issue of contemporary South Africa: the corruption and graft of the ruling class. Kimathi Fezile Tito, his central character, personifies the freedom fighter turned into a greedy « tenderpreneur » who uses his connections and political leverage to let money flow. An absent father, alcoholic and sex-maniac, Kimathi makes for the perfect villain; but his fate will ring bells to those familiar with the South African news.
This uncompromising depiction of a political system rotten to the core by past revolutionaries trampling on their former principles is very courageous of Mhlongo. A black writer at work in a country where people of his colour are supposed to remain eternally thankful to the party in power for having restored their rights, he will undoubtedly attract harsh critics with « Way Back Home ». But it is precisely this capacity to play with taboos that makes of Mhlongo a genuine revolutionary, one with a floppy hat and a large smile.
///Article N° : 11467