Three years after Niq Mhlongo was born in 1973, a massive uprising of black students would begin in Soweto, the Johannesburg Township of his birth, ultimately paving the way for the overthrow of white rule in the country. A member of the “born free” generation who was too young to have actively taken part in the struggle but too old not to know what life under oppression was like, Mhlongo came of age during the post-apartheid years. He brilliantly portrays this period full of paradoxes in his three novels Dog Eat Dog, After Tears and the just published “Way Back Home” (all three by Kwela Books), in which he explores modern day South Africa by new means.
Where Dog Eat Dog and After Tears staged characters struggling to find their place and fully grasp the possibilities of the new, post-racial era; Mhlongo’s new novel proposes instead a vision from the top of the ladder. The book’s central character is Kimathi Fezile Tito, born in exile in Tanzania during the worst years of apartheid, son of a freedom fighter and himself soldier of the revolution. Kimathi’s years in combat fatigue are far away though, and he now prefers to dress in the Prada suits that best reflect his new status. A past comrade who uses his connections to flourish as a “tenderpreneur”, Kimathi embodies the new South African ruling class’ evils.
In a novel that reads as a merciless critic of this caste, Mhlongo shows how the ideals of the liberation struggle have been sold by a handful of plutocrats. “Don’t tell me about the masses” a protagonist callously explains. “They are a useless bunch of lazy monkeys who still vote for us even when we embezzle their tax monies, even when we employ our friends and relatives, even when we use their taxes to buy expensive houses and cars and sleep with their wives.” Plunging his characters into fictional schemes that often remind of real headlines, Mhlongo excels in laying bare the filth of his country’s sorry elite.
A Haunting Past
In a typical construction, “Way Back Home” intermingle elements of Kimathi’s past as a soldier in the Angolan bush with his present situation in contemporary Johannesburg. The novel opens in the mysterious Amilcar Cabral camp. The year is 1988 and a brutal cross-examination of a prisoner having seemingly plotted against the South African liberation movement is underway. Facts and motives are unclear at this stage, but the sheer violence of the torture inflicted on the captive makes clear that, whatever he could have done, his torturers are no better. The reader is then suddenly propelled in a bedroom. It’s eleven o’clock on a sunny Sunday morning and Kimathi wakes up from a night of booze with suit, shoes and tie still on. Was all this just a nightmare?
The rhythm is given by Mhlongo’s talent for cutting scenes, often leaving his characters in the middle of the action to turn to another part of the story. It soon becomes clear that “comrade” Kimathi’s past as a courageous son of the revolution is partly fantasied and that he is haunted by earlier deeds. Obsessed by a huge tender he tries to clinch on, Kimathi refuses to see the signs that come to him in the form of dreams and spirit apparitions. As he hopes to find refuge in his usual treats – curvy prostitutes, vintage whiskey and flashy cars – he is slowly forced to confront his past. Yet “blood doesn’t wash off easily” as one of his friend observes, and “the filth of crime and corruption can never be erased”.
Mhlongo offers here an unvarnished depiction of today’s South Africa. Pointing at the country’s corrupt leaders, the writer shows that the legacy of democratic transition is at risk in the so-called “Rainbow Nation”. He does so in a powerful style that, in spite of all the novel’s deep-rooted messages, makes of “Way Back Home” a thrilling read.