Praised in South Africa as one of the most stunning début novels in decades, Sifiso Mzobe’s “Young Blood” is a page-turner that subtly mixes a crime fiction plot, hard-headed characters and latent social comment. Published by Kwela Books in 2010, the book won the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Award for best fiction – a rare honour for a first-time novelist in his early thirties. Booze, sex, drugs, stolen cars and easy money: “Young Blood” is a gangster story set in Umlazi, Durban’s biggest township. Using the traditional codes of the genre, with though style and no space for breath-taking, Mzobe skilfully raises the tension by cornering his main character Sipho between his personal values, the allegiance to his mentor and the law. A totally unexpected finale ultimately emerges from these foundations, transforming forever the wannabe Scarface without sparing South African society’s propensity to greed, violence and corruption.
“There was absolutely nothing for me in school. My reports were collections of F-’s. I was a master mumbler in class.” The book starts with Sipho’s decision to drop school and become a “young blood”, a teenager willing to face “real life” responsibilities. Fascinated by cars, the 17-year-old first plans to make some money by helping his father with his backyard mechanics business – a rare chance in the township, for many kids have never seen their father. But Sipho soon understands that he is never going to make enough money to get the life-style he dreams of. His childhood friend Musa’s return from Johannesburg with branded clothes “and a car considered the Holy Grail of BMW’s” is the triggering factor of his drifting into crime. Musa quickly proposes Sipho an association in a car-stealing scheme, where his knowledge of mechanics and formidable driving proficiency work wonders.
Sipho then follows a perfectly tailored tale of social ascent and criminal carelessness. Gaining the self-confidence that his school reports had never granted, he starts to collect curvy girls and easy money. Despite the love and respect he still feels for his parents, his familial ties inexorably loosen – a visit to the family’s traditional healer serves as the perfect metaphor for incomprehension, the teenager taking the ancestor’s protection granted by the old man as an encouragement to carry on with crime. Sipho’s last remaining boundary to reality is Nana, his “official” girl-friend that persists to love him despite her growing doubts about his endless collection of posh cars and the insistent gossips on the young man’s criminal activities. But the gangster tale will take an abrupt end for Sipho, his golden carriage soon turning into a sweet-and-sour pumpkin.
Beside its convincing construction, cherry-topped by a conclusion that reads like a thriller climax, the book’s main charm lies probably in the comprehensive insight it gives into township life. With much talent and plenty of small details, Mzobe gives his readers the taste, the color and the smell of Umlazi. At dawn rises “the usual morning cloud of dust”, when the shanty-town women sweep their dusty yards in unison. At night come the crazy parties, where stolen cars “turn the street to pages, with tyres as black-inked pens.” In between, the reader gets to understand the greedy, materialistic dreams of some of the township’s teens – which is perhaps the only regret this pulsating novel will leave him with.