Tag Archives: corruption

After Tears by Niq Mhlongo

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after-tears

Niq Mhlongo has a wonderful knack of writing about important themes with a light hand and wicked wit. After Tears is no exception; I find myself switching between laughing out loud, wringing my hands, hurting and being appalled. He is not afraid to show the worst of people yet this is done with an affectionate touch as well as insight into the context of their actions.

Bafana, the ostensible protagonist of the novel, returns from Cape Town in November 1999, without having passed his law degree. He is met at Park Station, Johannesburg, by his uncle and three friends. Before he is able to divulge the bad news, Uncle Nyawana or Jabu, who calls him Advo, is already attempting to trade on his future success, a fait accomplit as far as Uncle is concerned. Bafana also fails to be honest with his mother and tells her the results have been withheld due to non-payment. She decides to sell their house to pay the fees and Bafana is stuck in his lie. Throughout the rest of the novel, this action sinks him into an ever-deepening hole from which he cannot extricate himself without further lies.

Despite Bafana’s actions driving the narrative, I refer to him as the ostensible protagonist, because he has so little agency. His role in the novel is as a foil to the other characters. He is merely buffeted about by the decisions that others make. The uncle and his three friends, dominate the novel. They are brilliantly characterised both in descriptions and through their dialogue. The funniest thing is that Uncle has a dog called Verwoerd who he regularly tells to ‘voetsek’,  a stroke of genius. He has one leg because he was pushed off a train when trying to steal a woman’s money and he plays fah-fee, using dreams to determine which numbers to play. His three friends, Zero, PP and Dilika are respectively a taxi driver, a carjacker and a teacher. If you want to understand what rape culture is, these four men typify it. According to Zero, “there’s a minimum of five chicks for every dick in Soweto”. Their reprehensible behaviour is counterpointed by Bafana’s Mama and her friend, Zinhle, who do their best to curtail them. Mama warned Bafana that “in Zero and PP’s universe, a man was a man according to the number of ladies he was dating.”

Although it is shocking to read about the way women are objectified, abused and disrespected, it is important that topics which are not often spoken about openly, are exposed in this novel. There are many women that have to endure this treatment, some who do not even realise it is wrong.

Another theme in the novel, is the fraught housing situation. John Sekoto visits Mama to inform her that he is laying claim to the house as he is the rightful owner. This creates a furore in the family especially as Mama is trying to persuade the other family members to allow her to sell. This reveals the different family traditions as elders have to be consulted but also exposes some RDP housing scams.

Soweto is brought to life by the characters and their daily lives. The reader rollicks from Christmas to New Year festivities until brought back to earth by a funeral. These events are vividly represented and add to the sense of authenticity engendered by the writer’s intimate knowledge of ekasi life. The older men often reference apartheid laws and conventions with cynical humour. At the ‘after tears’, PP complains that AVBOB is chosen as the funeral service; when Bafana says he thinks they have handled it well, PP explains:

Look at the name AVBOB itself. You know what it stands for? The name is an abbreviation for Almal Vrek Behalwe Ons Boere. These Afrikaners are here in the township to continue what they have been doing for centuries: killing abodarkie. The only difference is that these days they’re making a huge profit out of it because they kill you today and bury you tomorrow.”

Everyone laughs; it is funny and it expresses things that are truths to them. The corruption in which so many are steeped is linked to the way people had to survive under apartheid. This point is not hammered home but the link is clear.

These are real people muddling through life as best they can; in this novel the dichotomy of family life reminds us that the ones we love are not always saints, that life in Soweto is tough but vibrant and that though humour is often laced with uncomfortable truths, laughter is the best medicine.

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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Tram 83

Tram 83 is an experience; visceral, frantic, pulsating. It’s like nothing you have ever read before. The novel is set in the Congo in a mining and trading town, loosely based on Lubambashi. The town is a City-State to which rebels had retreated, seceding from the rest of the country, known as the Back-Country.

Requiem and Lucien have not seen each other for 10 years; Requiem waits at Northern Station for Lucien to arrive from the Back-Country.  Northern Station, scene of clashes between miners and students, is “the station whose unfinished metal structure brought to mind the figure of Henry Morton Stanley”. This phrase is repeated often though usually abbreviated to “the station whose metal structure…” Repetition is used throughout the novel to good effect. It helps create the eclectic atmosphere with its ongoing rhythm as well as the sense of life in this place being ‘on repeat’.

Tram 83 is the nightclub where everything happens; a place where patrons leave their empties on the table to prove the number of drinks they had ordered (so the waitresses don’t overcharge them); a place teeming with single mamas (between 20 and 40) and their “massive melon breasts”, baby chicks (girls under sixteen), child soldiers, drug dealers and for-profit tourists. The opening gambit when trying to lure a man is, “Do you have the time?” This refrain punctuates and interrupts the text at regular intervals.

Every chapter begins with an epigraph in block capitals which is a vague, often ironic clue, to the chapter’s theme. This one at the beginning of Chapter 9 is a good example of Fiston Mujila’s inimical writing style:

TRAM 83: BY DAY AS BY NIGHT, ETERNAL IN ITS SPLENDOUR OF A PARADISE GOING TO HELL IN A HANDCART, WITH THE CRUMMIEST CUSTOMERS AND THOSE WHO CHUCK THEIR FORTUNE OUT THE WINDOW, SYMBOL OF A SOCIETY IN PERFECT HARMONY, INTERMIXED, INTERMINGLED, CARTE BLANCHE TO MENDELIAN CROSS-BREEDING, FORCED INFATUATIONS, PREMATURE EJACULATIONS

The City-State is a dissolute society where the one person, Lucien, who refuses to indulge in the corrupt behaviours that are the norm, comes across as the one who is in the wrong. Requiem is Lucien’s friend but he hates him and undermines him at every turn. They have been estranged for 10 years and Requiem has become cynical and disillusioned. To him, “…they were just two life forms adrift in a city become a state by force of Kalashnikovs.”

Requiem has become a wheeler dealer moving from delivering merchandise, robbing mines, blackmailing officials and screwing whoever he can. Lucien is a writer who was forced to burn his own manuscript and he is frantically trying to reconstruct it. He is encouraged by meeting Swiss drifter Ferdinand Malingeau, who promises to stage a reading of Lucien’s work at Tram 83; this is ludicrous as it is the most inappropriate setting for such intellectual material. In this theatre of the absurd, anything can and does happen.

Lucien dreams as dreams should be – illogical, incoherent, people change into something else, one minute on a stage, and the next minute on a boat leaving a misty port. Dreams are a commonly used device in many novels but often they are too obviously used to advance the storyline and are remembered too clearly.

Lucien describes Requiem by a list of different aliases that is one page long. He is “Requiem for a New World alias Local Boy alias Man and His Destiny alias Al Pacino alias…etc. The writer uses this device throughout the novel. There are paragraphs of lists that describe a thing or a thought or a place; the mere juxtaposition of certain words made me laugh out loud. In this way, the novel simultaneously digs at politics and corruption and makes you laugh. Threading through, underneath and over the action is jazz – “the music of those who built this beautiful, broken world”.

What makes this book brilliant, other than the disconnected nihilistic characters is the writing. It is fast, furious, hectic, and eclectic; a bit like music or dance. Some of the time I do not understand the allusions and references but, like watching a dance piece or listening to instrumental music, understanding and meaning exist at a level beneath (or is it above?) that of language. Unmissable and unique.

A Killing in the Sun by Dilman Dila

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A Killing in the Sun

This short story collection by Ugandan writer, Dilman Dila, is sheer entertainment with a thick seam of seriousness. Speculative fiction, in several of its forms, is deployed to shine a refreshing perspective on  age-old themes of corruption, power struggles, western exploitation and civil wars in Africa. Aliens, zombies, magical realism and futuristic technologies skitter through the stories, reminding us that despite the trappings, there is nothing new under the sun.

The Leafy Man  is eerily topical in a time of Zika fears and conflicting stories of unintended consequences of pesticide use; a whole village is decimated. Only Japia, traditional healer, holds the key and it lies with oranges.

The Healer is a story of two tribes that hate each other based on the usual arbitrary reasons. The Twa were enslaved by the Cuku but only Benge, the healer remained free. He hides himself using magic and the leaders of the Cuku visit him in secret. A boy goes missing and the hunt is on. Benge uses his juju,  and with the help of Acii, a young girl who can turn herself into a parrot or a  Marabou stork. This story conjures up genocides all over the world with its  exploitation of  superstitious beliefs and the power struggles between leaders.

Itanda Bridge is the scene of a disaster and the militia turn to Obil, a diver, to help them solve the riddle of how three vehicles had crashed off the bridge and disappeared. He is forced to help knowing he may die in the process. There is poignancy too when he contemplates what clothes to wear when he is plucked from his home. What lies beneath the water is startling.

A Killing in the Sun is the story of a court martial that cannot begin until the doctor arrives. Mande stands in the sun contemplating death though hoping for life as the reasons for his sentence flash through his mind. Civil war, rebel gangs and militia destroyed his life long before this moment arrives and all the while the sun beats down relentlessly.

In The Doctor’s Truck, a ghost occupies Okot’s truck and kills a child. A mob blames the doctor until a mzungu (white person) comes to his rescue and offers the assistance of an exorcist.

Lights on Water, a sad yet touching story in which a father tries to reach out to his daughter. She has been indoctrinated into believing that her skin colour, tawny brown instead of sooty black like everyone else, makes her an outcast. He has access to the natural world in his job as a painter who paints demons at the request of the Emperor and he smuggles her into his spaceship to show her the truth.

A Wife and a Slave reveals more indoctrination, this time an Emperor who wants all Africans to return to ‘what was supposed to be life in Africa before the Europeans came’. Sex was only allowed for procreation and wives had to treat their husbands as lord and master, bowing down before them and obeying their every command, except if they want sex. Any adherence to anything white whether music, books or names is regarded with suspicion, shows the African mind is still enslaved and requires re-education. A fugitive white escapee disrupts everything. Tyranny of one kind simply replaces tyranny of another; leaders have rules based on manipulations and mass brain-washing. 1984 meets Heart of Darkness? this is one of my favourites.

In The Yellow People,  meet a serial killer with a difference; Dunningan encounters an old man with no thumbs dressed in a strange yellow costume buying insecticide and he fears he will be found out.Societies with weak law and order and high levels of corruption are  a magnet to the evil of this world which is why he lives here.

Okello’s Honeymoon, a tale of two men who fall in love with zombies, thus risking their very existence. This is a warning tale regarding womanly wiles disguised in other-worldly attire.

A Bloodline of Blades – a man’s gift is his music, as an assassin by trade it was the only way to attract a wife and he wanted to pass this gift on to his son. His son is ashamed of this and aspires only to be an assassin and rejects his father’s gift. This story is really about loyalty and family bonds as both father and son secretly try to save each other.

The beauty of these stories is that each in their own way shows a human side, of people who love, hate, fear and yearn. Dila’s wonderful imagination lifts this collection into  an alien yet familiar space, where the ‘other’ is lampooned in a fantastical way.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah

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The Beautyful Ones

This novel was published in 1968, shortly after the coup in Ghana in which Nkrumah’s government was overthrown. The unnamed protagonist is disillusioned and disappointed at the endemic corruption after independence had promised so much. He refuses to engage in corrupt practices so falls further and further behind in the game of life. Parallels with our situation in South Africa are inescapable where a very high percentage of the population live in poverty. Apartheid is dead but its structures live on and the government seems unwilling to tackle this head-on.

The novel is bleak and depressing as well as being quite a grind because of the denseness of the language and the minute details that are painstakingly described. Despite this, it is an important and beautifully written text. The stench of decay is palpable to the degree that you will block your nose while reading. Excrement is both a metaphor for the stink and mess of corruption and a fact of life. Nothing is as much an indicator of poverty like access to flushing toilets. The communal latrine outside the man’s home features in many different situations.

The man also has to bear scorn from his own family who cannot understand why he will not jump on the bandwagon; he has to bear the resentment on their faces when he comes home every day and therefore often escapes to Teacher, his confidante, who does not engage in life at all but lies on his bed, naked, in a darkened room. His nakedness speaks of someone who has nothing to hide in stark contrast to Koomson, his childhood friend, who is portly and overdressed. Koomson is part of the government and lives in a fancy apartment with a snooty wife and Westernised children. It is a strange phenomenon that when a person is true to themselves and goes against the grain of society, that person is seen as the immoral one or as the uncooperative, rude one who is making everything in life difficult.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. A simple touch of the banister by the man leads to a detailed description of its genesis, why it feels so repulsive, the people who had held on to it and what they had been doing with their hands before holding on to it. It is visceral and tactile;  a remarkably skilled use of language. One of the most evocative images in the book is the chichidodo bird; this is a bird that “hates excrement with all its soul. But the chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory.” A Ghanaian mythical bird denoting a typical Catch-22 situation before anyone had even heard of Catch-22. The man’s wife, Oyo, says he himself is the chichidodo when he speaks of the life of his friend as having more “rottenness in it than the slime at the bottom of a garbage dump.”

The element of Afro-pessimism in the novel is undeniable as he asks, “How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders?…we were ready here for big and beautiful things, but what we had was our own black men hugging new paunches scrambling to ask the white man to welcome them onto our backs.” Looking back from 2016, we can see that this is not only an African problem; politicians are corrupt the whole world over. However it is exacerbated in Africa because of colonialism-created poverty. In my opinion, this reinforces the need for the decolonisation project; then and now.

The deliberate mis-spelling of the title is another intriguing question; is the distortion of beauty in Africa by corrupt practices represented by the subversion of the spelling? is it a recognition that the cycle will repeat itself until there is re-birth? is it a subversion of the English language itself because of its association with the previous oppressors as well as the black elite who aspire to whiteness? Read it and decide for yourself.