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.