Published by Kwela Books in 2010, Men of the South is a remarkable novel, one which you can read over and over again because the prose is simply addictive! And it’s not just the prose that captivates, the sensitive issues covered in a humorous manner makes it even more fascinating. The reader will love the characters portrayed, laugh with them, and sympathize when they are sad. The story is set in South Africa, during and after the apartheid era. There are three major issues covered, each narrated by three different men; in such a way that each could make for an independent short story, but if connected together can make one great novel.
Mfundo Dlamini and Mzilikazi have been best friends since childhood. Mfundo lives with his girlfriend, Slindile, a medical doctor and they have a daughter. What had began as a great relationship is now strained, because Mfundo lost his job. To his family and friends, he is not a real man any more- But he asks, ‘Is a man judged by a pay cheque or by his deeds?” he seems content in being a ‘househusband’- he prefers staying home, cleaning, cooking, taking care of his daughter and composing music (his passion) in his free time. He doesn’t understand why stay-at-home moms are said to work harder than their employed spouses, yet stay home men are considered lazy or not real men. His girlfriend is making enough money to take care of all bills; he in turn is doing all the housework and babysitting. Surely isn’t that a fair deal? All valid arguments, right? But I think it all comes down to society’s expectations- in a family, men should always be the providers. Shows that even in our fight for equal rights, some things will never change.
Mzilikazi has a secret, he is not straight. Nobody knows it, not even his best friends Mfundo and Slindili. He even got married and had children. It is not like he’s ashamed to come out and say he is, but he knows in his society, he will only be ridiculed. Homosexuality is not tolerated in most African countries. It is therefore no wonder that Mfundo is utterly shocked when he finds out. “Sometimes you think you know a person better than you know yourself-or at least as well as yourself-and then one thing happens and you realize: perhaps you know nothing”. But once the secret is revealed, he is relieved, annuls his marriage (his wife’s request) and moves to Cape Town just so his father never finds out.
Tinaye’s story is quiet different- he is a Zimbabwean immigrant working in an International NGO in South Africa. He is paid way below what the contract stipulated. He can’t get a pay rise because he should be grateful he got a job (and a working permit) in the first place. Most immigrants are working for much less and in jobs below their qualifications. They are loathed by most people- they think immigrants have taken the jobs meant for brothers (South Africans). Mfundo quotes Don Mattera the poet: “There is no hurt, quite like being, unwanted, among one’s own land”. The choices Tinaye makes show that Immigrants have limited choices in the countries they flee to. How his story connects to the other two is a puzzle that gets solved as one reads on till the end.
Men of the South is a great read that explores the sensitive issues of unemployment, homosexuality and immigration – all subjects that impact modern day societies and affect the ways in which we relate with our families, friends and what society expects of us. The novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2011.
Zukiswa Wanner was born in Lusaka, Zambia to an exiled father and Zimbabwean mother. She went to school in Zimbabwe and studied Journalism at Hawai’i Pacific University. She now lives in Nairobi, Kenya.