Title: Young Blood
Author: Sifiso Mzobe
Publisher: Kwela Books
Young Blood is Sifiso Mzobe’s ambitious debut novel, which is set mainly in Umlazi township, Durban. It is narrated by its male protagonist, Sipho, a 17-year-old tenth-grader who drops out of school. Explaining his decision he says, “There was absolutely nothing for me in school ... Nothing in school made sense, and nothing had since grade one” (7).
Despite his frank admission of being academically challenged, Sipho’s articulacy and the cool manner in which he relates his life story belies this declaration. Young Blood, as its title suggests, is a story of how an immature 17-year-old cascades into the world of drugs, car-hijacking, a life of debauchery and blood-chilling murders as soon as he drops out of school.
But it is also a story of escape. Sipho survives to tell his story. He stops short of falling over the cliff of his precipitous and doomed journey of crime. In a deeply ironic manner, it is his brief encounter with the horrors of crime which gives Sipho “a chance to build something, [a] chance to break the cycle of nothingness” (101).
The setting of the novel in a black South African township enables Mzobe to create anticipation and suspense due to the mixed and often stereotypical perceptions of this space by people of different economic, racial, social and cultural backgrounds. This setting gives Mzobe the possibility of an eclectic readership. Insiders, township dwellers, will likely read the novel because they want to see how Mzobe depicts “their space”. Outsiders – those who encounter the township only through the media – are likely to have ethnographers’ interests in Mzobe’s novel. As it turns out, Mzobe rides on this assured wave of readership without really fully satisfying either camp. As a tale for insiders, the narrative lacks the descriptive power that often makes a commonplace story soar into the sublime. As a story for outsiders, the novel falters in the freshness that a story often attains due to the author’s ability to cast a penetrative gaze and turn stereotypes inside out.
Mzobe’s novel is indicative of the current trends in the South African literary scene which are characterised by attempts to transcend both the apartheid logic and transition mentality that dominated all facets of people’s lives during the first decade of democracy. It is a novel that tries to grapple with the “present” without recourse to some grand political narrative. Due to its wide thematic concerns, Mzobe’s novel attempts to embrace multiple literary genres. It at once reads as a popular crime thriller, a Bildungsroman, fictitious autobiography, an ethnographic take on the post-apartheid township life, and also as a moralising tract about the futility of crime and the importance of education. Among other things, this undecided nature and didacticism of the novel are likely to tax the patience of “sophisticated” readers.
Mzobe’s characters remain fairly underdeveloped and unconvincing. Even the main characters, such as Sipho, the narrator, fail to really live on the page, due largely to Mzobe’s attempt to attribute unlikely feats and moments of profound recognition in a space of two months to a 17-year-old teenager. Similarly, Musa’s rise in the criminal world is too mechanically engineered and melodramatic. Musa is Sipho’s friend, former school mate and a onetime urchin of the Power informal settlement near Umlazi, who, despite being “an all-rounder [and] good at everything” (35), chooses to “excel at shoplifting” (35) and eventually graduates into hardcore criminality. The narrator’s parents, who are depicted as fairly hardworking and decent people, are also never really made to come alive as characters. Mama Mkhize, the supposedly archetypal shebeen queen, is never fully developed beyond a tentative and halting few paragraphs. Mdala and Sibani, the prototype “mafia” leaders, remain exactly that, and one never experiences them as people of flesh and blood. For these two characters, this lack of character development is foregrounded at the level of their dress code and speech. The narrator observes, “Sibani and Mdala were similar – formal dress code and zero slang in speech” (74).
Although Mzobe’s language is not necessarily sophisticated, there are moments when his expression is compelling, eloquent, simple and direct. A case in point is when Sipho, the narrator, visits Musa in his newly acquired home in the “suburbs”. Comparing the townships with the suburbs he observes: “The air you breathe changes in the suburbs. There are more trees than houses, more space than you can imagine. The silence is healthy, the peace of mind a priceless asset” (46). This observation, which highlights the huge inequalities still characteristic of post-apartheid South Africa, defamiliarises the familiar for the suburb-dweller who may take his or her spatial and other privileges for granted. On another occasion, the narrator highlights the corruption that has become one of the defining features of democratic South Africa with the same nonchalant tone and direct manner. He says, “When my cash stash reached R1 500, I bought a driver’s licence in B Section” (59). Another example of this simple yet elegant expression is in the deeply sentimental moment of recognition registered in the following words: “If there was a moment I could point to and say, this is when I left childhood behind, Vusi’s phone call was that moment” (107).
A simplistic and reductionist view of Mzobe’s novel is to read it as a meditation on the value of education, especially in its functionalist way as an instrument of removing young people from the streets, from criminal activities and other dangers of the adult world, and make them productive citizens. For example, the novel has a number of clichés such as Nana’s rebuke of Sipho, her boyfriend: “Of all the things you can do, stealing is the most stupid. Thieves always get caught” (182). Despite this, reading Young Blood simply as moralising didacticism is to read it too narrowly. I recommend this novel to all those who are fascinated by the mosaic South African literary scene that is starting to emerge, to read it for themselves in order to pick up the many issues that this fast read raises.