Kwela Books, Cape Town (2007)
Niq Mhlongo’s After Tears follows three years after the publication of his debut novel, Dog Eat Dog (2004). The main character, Bafana Kuzwayo, is a University of Cape Town student who discovers on November 22, 1999 that he has flunked almost all of his final-year law degree courses and decides to leave Cape Town for Soweto. Thus the action moves swiftly to Soweto’s Chiawelo township, colloquially called Chi in the novel, much as Soweto is called Msawawa. This nomenclature warns an unwary reader quite early that the linguistic register used here is distinctly South African, and it is sustained throughout.
If it is with a sense of failure that Bafana goes home, the spirits of the welcoming party made up of Uncle Nyawana (aka Jabulani) and his friends, Diliza, Pelepele (aka PP) and Zero, are extremely high. The tension lies precisely in the fact that Bafana has not told anyone of his lack of success. This implies that, from the moment he sets foot in Johannesburg, his family and community expect him to start practising as an advocate. Uncle Nyawana has taken to calling him Advo because of his newly-acquired status and expects him to help him sue Transnet as he lost his leg in a train accident years ago. In the drive home, Nyawana is already making it plain that he has high hopes for Bafana: “'This year of coming two gees belongs to us, me and you Advo,' he whispered into my ear. His ears were bloodshot. 'We’ll be fucking rich. You’ll be an advocate and together we’ll sue Transnet for my lost leg, my laaitie … Our days as part of the poor walking class of Mzansi will soon over'” (13-14). Diliza, meanwhile, wishes Bafana to sue the Department of Education for "unfair dismissal"! In this web of subterfuge and deception, it is Verwoerd, Nyawana’s dog, who sniffs Bafana out and barks at him when they reach home!
As the story unfolds, Bafana decides to lie to his mother, Rea. He claims that while he has passed, UCT is withholding his results since he owes fees to the tune of R22 000. Undaunted, Rea decides the family township home must go in a sale that she initiates by placing an advertisement in the Sowetan, this without initially informing Nyawana or Uncle Guava (aka Nkosana), who at the time of narration is incarcerated in "Sun City" (Johannesburg Prison) for arson. She makes it clear that such a solution is for his benefit: “This house means nothing to the kind of money that you’ll be earning once you become an advocate. You can buy thousands of these houses in just one year” (25). Both uncles have RDP houses which they are sub-letting and which they obtained illegally, while she lives in the suburb of Naturena. Caught in a web of appearances and lies, Bafana agrees to go along with the scheme, even though his overwhelming sense of guilt and thus morality threatens to derail his dream of success by any and all means.
Set in the township, the story, as seen through the eyes of Bafana as narrator, begins to introduce the local flavours of the place in the form of idiosyncratic characters such as the over-sexed Zero, a taxi driver for Pelepele and a bywoner at Bafana’s family home. Pelepele is a feared carjacker and notorious womaniser whose business empire is the result of a bank robbery which he had done years ago. His description is as vivid as it is arresting. There is also Mfundisi (Pastor) Mthembu, the only unambiguous character in the text. But it is through Nyawana (derogatory name for someone with a stump of a leg) that Mhlongo cleverly allows the narrator insights into the township ethos.
The dialogue, while written in English, is interspersed with street language (an extensive glossary is provided). It is this patois that carries the novel in which lying and cheating are major thematic concerns as the struggle to escape poverty is waged with little regard to morals.
Before the term township was extensively used, the standard descriptor of such dormitory suburbs was location, which survives today in the form of the designer label, Loxion Kulc?a.[i] What the novel captures vividly is the question of dis-location in these ostensible "locations". Dislocation ranges from and results in economic dependency, lack of political representation and dysfunctional families that disintegrate under pressures of life. Discussions range from HIV/AIDS, the now standard xenophobia, black economic empowerment, implications of political change, religion, government plans for prepaid water and electricity and resistance to such plans, infidelity, philandering, and attempts to get by. Lying, it turns out, is part of the Kuzwayo DNA. The deceased family patriarch, Mr S’busiso Kuzwayo, once worked for the City Council and in this way was instrumental in swindling many old residents out of their homes, or in helping them acquire these homes. This comes to light when, having seen the advertisement to sell House 9183 Chiawelo Section two, an old man, Mr John Sekoto, announces that it was his and shows an old residential permit for it.
Bafana, in the meantime, accepts money from Rea and sets himself up as an attorney-at-law in the township after obtaining a dubious but authentic-looking certificate from Yomi, an inner-city entrepreneur of Nigerian extraction. Bafana’s deceased aunt is said to have died form a bad blood transfusion and not AIDS-related complications, despite her son, Yuri, being HIV-positive. And it was in defence of her honour that Uncle Guava torched the neighbour’s house because they spread "malicious rumours". This inability to face up to the truth undermines the family and leads to its scattering at the end.
The book is not without flaws. Though Bafana takes easily to being a trickster, it is rather hard to believe he is a Kasi boy born and bred; he is irritatingly naïve and has no street smarts at all. He seems to learn nothing even as he sits and listens to township gossip. Rea’s constant appearances mock the reader, as she is supposed to be working but comes and goes with unruffled ease. Mhlongo, too, tends to push weighty insights into his non-intellectual characters, and the insistent manner of some characters’ way of speaking becomes monotonous after a while. Also, because of its journal-like chapters, with dates at the top, the texture lacks elaboration in places, dispelling depth for descriptiveness and brevity.
These points aside, an important point about After Tears (which ostensibly refers to the partying that goes on after the death of a family member of friend but might also be a metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa) is the intermingling of languages in an attempt to become a multilingual novel. This is brave experimentation. In an essay, Njabulo S Ndebele recognises that an individual whose linguistic experience as a South African has grown in, and been influenced by, the intersection of three or four communities whose languages one might speak, read and write, is forced to confront the task of exploring artistic possibilities resident at that intersection.[ii] By his own admission, Mhlongo speaks almost half of every language found in the township of Soweto such that the English he writes is a mixture of a few languages.[iii] Experimentation, then, far from being a frivolous exercise, is "self-conscious and programmatic", concerned with reflexivity and cultural struggle as these are encoded in black fiction. What we find, then, in Mhlongo is an attempt to develop a transformative fictional practice answering to the specific situation of black South African subjectivity under the conditions of modernity defined in part by the apartheid city. In a sense, such experimentation is both "task" and "mask", one that enables the critique we might associate with realism but which also announces an epistemological invigoration and subject construction.[iv] Mothobi Mutloatse’s words that "no black writer can afford the luxury of isolation from his immediate audience"[v] ring true for After Tears. It is a fine novel by a natural storyteller who allows his tale to unfold with the minimum of disruptions.
Attwell, David. Rewriting Modernity: Studies in Black South African Literary History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.
Ndebele, Njabulo S. "An Encounter with my Roots: vexing questions of language, identity and Culture". Fine Lines from the Box: further thoughts about our country. Sam Raditlhalo (comp). Cape Town: Umuzi, 2007.
Mutloatse, Mothobi (ed). "Introduction". Forced Landing: Africa South: Contemporary Writings. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1980.
Roberts, Oliver. "It's a family affair". Sunday Times Lifestyle. November 4, 2007.