Tag Archives: Soweto

The Yearning by Mohale Moshego

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the-yearning

There are many young black people caught between a world of achievement, consumerism, fast-living and the world of their ancestors. There is a yearning to add meaning to life, to tap into the old ways and find a spiritual home. Western values dominate and the party is not stopping. Whispers from the shadows of a whirlwind life insinuate into the subconscious; memories and dreams and snatches of a different culture make their presence felt.

This subconscious struggle between the spiritual and material worlds is skilfully laid bare in The Yearning. The protagonist, Marubini, Maru or Rubi to her friends, works in the marketing department of one of the oldest Cape wine farms in the country. The narrative shifts between memories of her childhood and snippets of her current life. The diction shifts with the context, in that the adult Rubi uses slang and contemporary speak while the narration of her childhood memories are more formal. Both are sprinkled with isiZulu and Sepedi and sometimes Afrikaans which adds colour and texture to the novel. One of the delights of this novel is the writer’s use of language, such as her description of Marubini’s physical sensations when she is feeling turned on by her lover;

There is a visitor making her way to me, and I can’t wait. She packs her bag at my stomach and slowly slides down to where she knows she needs to be. She pulls the rope and the bell in my heart starts ringing, beating faster and faster. The visitor starts unpacking her bags and I smile with anticipation.

As is often the case with daughters and mothers, Maru’s relationship with her mother is a little fraught; her mother still lives in Soweto, where she grew up, and places many demands on her. She expects her to drop everything and visit home for a family wedding and does not seem to understand the pressures of Maru’s job. Maru pays for her brother’s expensive boarding school but her mother still thinks she is selfish if she does not prioritise family affairs. She misses her father who she says she loved “before and after he became a snake”. This type of remark gives the reader clues that there is something special about her father but it is only revealed later. This device adds to the dramatic effect of the novel.

Maru begins to have strange episodes; dizzy spells, nausea and the sound of children singing in her head, in Sesotho, to the tune of Frere Jacques. This continues while she is presenting to sales reps about the new emerging market. Later at home she experiences strange sensations, glimpses of another place, other voices penetrating her consciousness until she awakes in hospital. The doctor suspects a seizure but she begins to question her own sanity. She knows there are secrets in her past but she cannot grasp them.

Her mother “is MoPedi and her father is umZulu”, so there are trust issues between the different sets of grandparents. Both are very  important in her life and care for her when her mother is not able. Although she is seeing a psychologist to assist with her strange episodes, it will be her family who are best able to help her heal.

As the parallel stories of childhood and adulthood unfold, the pieces eventually come together and much, but not all, is explained. Healing cannot occur without memory and love cannot flourish if aspects of self are denied. During the narrative there are memorable scenes that will remain with you long after you have closed the book. Whether describing racism in the workplace or sacred rituals, the novel is candid, convincing and a beautiful read.

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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.

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.