Has South Africa found its modern voice of the people, its cutting-edge bard of the townships?
Niq Mhlongo, the young Soweto-born writer, made a splash with his debut novel Dog Eat Dog; it was published in South Africa, in 2004, and now Ohio University Press has reissued it in the U.S. as part of its Modern African Writing series. Amidst the clamor for fresh and authentic voices to capture the “new” South Africa from the point of view of the African majority, the search was on for those who could expand on the vision of Gordimer, Coetzee, and others such as Damon Galgut (The Good Doctor), Achmat Dangor (Bitter Fruit), and Ivan Vladislavic (Portrait with Keys).
But where were the black South African writers? The New York Times wanted to know, back in 2002, when the paper published a feature on the nation’s new literary landscape. There were a few, according to the Times. One was Zakes Mda, a prolific playwright and novelist, whose books range from complex historical sagas to more whimsical takes on contemporary South Africa. There was also Phaswane Mpe, whose Welcome to Our Hillbrow (Ohio University Press, 2011) was stylistically and thematically groundbreaking: a choral celebration of the lives of the infamous Johannesburg neighborhood that had come to embody much of the violence and disenchantment that was threatening to engulf the country.
With that, the list seemed to peter out. Yet just a few years later, the Times anointed Niq Mhlongo as something of a spokesperson for the country’s so-called kwaito (or hip-hop) generation. In a 2006 Times Magazine profile, the then thirty-three-year-old author was heralded as “one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa’s postapartheid literary scene.” Now, with the American publication of Dog Eat Dog, together with his second novel, After Tears (Ohio University Press, 2011), we can judge for ourselves: Has South Africa found its modern voice of the people, its cutting-edge bard of the townships?
The answer is not a resounding yes. But perhaps expectations have been set too high. (and the search for a single emblematic voice, by the Times and others, flawed from the start). Mhlongo is, indeed, a rollicking and provocative witness to the demands of navigating modern South Africa. His novels deliver a breezy rush through the fraught daily challenges of a society in transition, where the power balance has been upturned but deep racial memory still complicates things. Who is now in charge of the college bursar’s office, for example, and what is the best way to hoodwink her out of more scholarship money? Where’s the choicest spot to open a can of lager in the streets of “Jo’burg” and not get busted by the cops? Or, where do you go if you’ve suddenly come down with a case of the clap?
Mhlongo’s novel revolves around the escapades of a college student, nicknamed Dingz, who’s in danger of being thrown out of school and forced back to the family compound in Soweto. At times, the book smacks of a sort-of South African TV soap, thick with sexual drama and social ambition served up over chatty debates about race, music, hooking-up, and the ANC.
What gives Dog Eat Dog its real poignancy, however, is the historical backdrop. The year is 1994—Mandela is out of prison and South Africa is poised for its first free elections. “It was a queue of limitless hope,” Dingz rhapsodizes about the scene outside his polling station. “The call to vote had drawn people from all walks of life. There were teachers and pupils, lecturers and students, sex hawkers and street vendors . . . . It was the moment that most of us had been waiting for years to experience.” There are other sharply drawn set pieces as well—of the all-night block party after Mandela’s victory, held under “the murky sky of Soweto, God’s worst ghetto”; of boozy banter about college life and the “dog eat dog” real world beyond the campus; about the “season of change when everyone was trying hard to disown apartheid” and yet, according to Dingz, you still had to “master the art of lying in order to survive.”
If all of this hardly adds up to the most powerful or original portrait from inside South Africa, it is revealing in its own way. Here is a full-throated romp through Soweto and Johannesburg today, with kwaito music blaring, a mélange of African languages floating through the air, and a toxic mix of promise and disappointment infecting everything. “Ag man, away with politics,” sighs one of Dingz’s friends, scoffing at Mandela’s latest gesture of reconciliation. Clearly, Dingz’s circle has grown weary of talk of the struggle and its transcendent language. Their sights are set on more immediate concerns, like their own graduation and success. Is it too soon to start talking of a South African “Me” generation? And could Mhlongo become one of its leading voices, too?