Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo

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Niq Mhlongo just published a collection of interlinked short stories, called Affluenza. Danyela Demir interviewed him at the recent Time of the Writer Festival and it intrigued me. His use of the word affluenza apparently appeared first in his debut novel, Dog Eat Dog, published in 2004 and set in 1994. I determined I must read this first. What a book! what a protagonist.

Dingz has finally made it to Wits after writing matric twice to achieve university entrance marks. His funding has been turned down and he is not taking it lying down. It is 1994 and the day of South Africa’s first democratic elections is around the corner. Dingz creates a commotion at the Financial Aid Office but he has performed some research so, despite trying to stonewall him, they are forced to attend to him. This episode plunges the reader into the mind of Dingz. He is aggressive and short-tempered but sharp too. He is frustrating because he does some very stupid things, like drinking in public and then having a run-in with the police. He lurches from one crisis to another and one party to another; a typical student thrust into a new world, rebellious, hating petty rules yet wanting to get ahead and get his degree.

Reflections on his father and the times during apartheid when his family’s home was regularly invaded by violent, brutal policemen intersperse the narrative. No matter how often I read of incidents such as these, they never fail to stab me in the heart. Dingz also encounters rich, white students for the first time and the contrast between the ease of life for them, where the injury to a dog receives more medical attention than any of his family or friends could dream of, is a bitter shock. These encounters are interesting because of the contrast between the way the black students talk about white people in their absence and the way they speak to white people in their presence is stark. I love the hard-hitting honesty.

Despite the seriousness of the topics, this novel is not a depressing tale of woe. It is written with humour and irony. It is vibrant, loud and colourful with smatterings of tsotsitaal (the vernacular spoken in Soweto where so many languages collide). The scene in the train to Orlando West where a preacher uses the opportunity to try and convert commuters is really funny. The writer has a wonderful knack of creating atmosphere through the use of dialogue and songs. Music accompanies everything, with lyrics included.

Even though it is now 12 years old, this novel is still highly relevant. If #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall came as a surprise, this novel will make you wonder why it took so long.

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