Domesticated Terrors

Drum magazine, circa 1951. Henry Nxumalo writes a piece called “The Birth of a Tsotsi”. It is about a young boy of precarious circumstances who takes a wrong turning. Against a backdrop where uncertain material circumstances jostle with the desire for upward mobility, he turns to crime. The story is set to become a familiar one within the pages of Drum. Indeed, the tsotsi will lodge an insistent claim on the imagination of the public through the stories Drum publishes.

These stories combined the scato-scopic and the literary with an enthusiasm scarcely seen up to that point. Over the course of the next decade, the township gangster and his life became a steady consumable in the pages of Drum and the writings of those who would later be dubbed the Sophiatown set. Responding to the enthusiasm of their readers, these stories gradually became typecasts. The rise to prominence of the poor would-be-gangster; the display of expensive clothes; the flashy American cars; the acquisition of the seductive gangster-moll: a set of bricks which came to define how we imagined urban Black gangsterism.

It comes close to being a generalisation when one states that the South African readership has always maintained a peculiar revulsion-fascination relationship with the gangster. On the one hand, he is ideologically vile because his violence is all too often inflicted on his own community. On the other hand, he lives outside the rules and prohibitions of society in creative ways that inspire the admiration common to all outlaws. The gangster also legitimates the township’s status as an established space, his big-city identity lending credence to the area’s definition of itself as “alive”, and adding resistance to attacks on its right to exist: if he is a hoodlum, then at least he is our hoodlum.

Can Themba, another Drum staff writer during the same period, described himself as an “intellectual tsotsi”, and the tag emphasises the close bond between the writer and the “tsotsi” as the latter came to prominence. The work of Drum writers went some way towards justifying the gangster to the reading audience, finding within his being resources which we otherwise wouldn’t. The fictional tsotsi was to be presented as harbouring hidden depths, so that we would not judge him too harshly. If the violence these social maladjusts exhibit has always been an implicit admission of impotence, then it has also always been a striking out against the castrating, restricting authority of a white government. Such violence also had a Lacan-esque suicidal element to it: the young gangster’s aggressive pursuit of power and glory is aimed at killing his former self, the powerless self. In a society where life was encircled by illegality, the tsotsi was as worthy a figure of attention as Robin Hood.

Somewhere along the line, the township gangster stories made their way into the cinematic realm. Film is an excellent medium for a genre that is as much about the act of showing as it is about what is being shown. Coming full circle, the film industry has done a good flick at bringing us the township gangster, who originally styled himself on the hero-villains of American gangster movies. A versatile figure, the township gangster now shed his brogues and Bogarts for a more contemporary wardrobe. The large American cars became German. He dallied with political movements in the 1980s. He took on a nightmarish guise in the township dramas that resonated through the 1990s.  He indulged in crime on a grand scale, becoming a slumlord and rubbing shoulders with white society in the 2000s.

Crucial to the image of the fictional township gangster is his veracity, his ability to conform to our idea of what such an individual would behave and look like. The success of fictional township gangsters rests on their fidelity to a Baudrillardian hyperreal. They are captioned advertisements for the fear and vulnerability common to precarious spaces, opaque surfaces whose interiority is refracted through carefully ordered evocation. The transition from paper to celluloid couldn’t be more seamless. In a literary society where the buzz-word has long been “accessibility”, township gangsters are ultimately accessible characters.

Switch to the transient “Now” moment.  Our fascination with these symbols of our precarity remains. At the close of a decade which has seen umpteen novels and just as many films on the lives of the township maladjust, Sifiso Mzobe has written a novel called Young Blood, which I’m currently reading. It is a book whose protagonist, Sipho, is young, free and marginal. Finding himself at odds with school, Sipho drops out and tends to ailing cars at his father’s workshop. From there, it is a desultory hop for him to become embroiled in a world of crime, gangsters and drugs. And there are some surprises: the action shifts from the perennial favourite site of the township gangster narrative, Joburg, to Durban. And unlike the necessarily Orphic township gangsters of old, Sipho is able to return from the depths of Hades. In truly cinematic fashion, he manages to arrest his self-destructive behaviour before it is too late. There are parallels with the oft-cited Kwaito musician Zola, who lived a life of crime before reforming, only to draw acclaim for playing fictional representations of the life he left behind.

One could be uncharitable, churlish even, and point out that one has seen this before. It wasn’t a new idea when Oliver Schmitz made “Hijack Stories” in 2000, and it certainly wasn’t new when “Mapantsula” (a movie that rides the repeat circuit on MNet-Africa these days) looked at it. One could take aim at the way these movies present a synecdochal version of life in the townships, sexed up, jazzed up, and the rest of it. If the basic idea has been worn through to the point where there is a distinct sheen of overuse, then Mzobe’s novel reheats the typecast rather elegantly. Like most of the Black urban fiction seeping out into the ether these days, the story is edgy and portentous. It is defined by the sights, sounds and smells of township life. The reader is dropped into the ostensible everyday of the would-be gangster, to luxuriate in the tactile pleasures of BMW sports cars, the fleshy shebeen queen, the vibrant chisa nyama, and to gawk at the pandemic markers of the ghetto-fabulous township. But Mzobe makes the most of his material: his settings are vividly depicted, and the paint-by-number panels of sex, speed and violence are at least rendered neatly. There is the requisite texture of characterization to the protagonist, although Mzobe is not above resorting to easy caricature to fill out his other characters.  There is the right contrast of the things we should be horrified by (the disembowelling of a taxi driver by a gang of which Can Themba would have been proud) and things that titillate us (the lush evocations of township life).

Some of the reviews of this novel that are floating out there have sounded dismal warnings about ethnography and other problems regarding who is being written for. We’ve had a good decade and more of worrisome conferences about the politics of publishing and the dilemma of the audience in South African writing. It may be time to retire this observation. In any event, my aim is not to review the work, but to get at the thinking behind the enduring popularity of the township gangster: Mzobe’s book, and its array of plaudits, suggests that the idea continues to hold a significant potency.

Why should this be so? One way of looking at the matter might propose that we’re in thrall to accessible self-reference. Few people read Can Themba anymore because everything we think we need to know about that period is summed up by symbols: it’s why Kwela Tebza (and before them, Mafikizolo) are so popular, and why our culture generally favours movies, with their visual representation, above lengthy textual exposition. The success of a book like Mzobe’s rests on its recognition: we’ve internalized Zola’s rags to riches storyline as one of our culture’s own. It, along with the various televised/cinematic representations that accompany it, have all been encoded in the same register, a comforting set of heavily visual cue cards which we find comforting.

So we’re a visual culture, and a visual culture will invariably bring with it a style fetish. It is how we recognize ourselves: glimpse a beautiful woman in morbidly red lipstick absently strumming on a bass guitar, and you know you’re in the New-Romantic 1980s. Panpipes and zoot suits and Dolly Rathebe place you in Sophiatown. So, obviously, invoking conflicted young Black men spinning their iconic BMWs (the cast-offs from an 80s/90s Yuppie class their parents were barred from joining), blasting Kwaito and living on the outskirts of legality, lets an audience know which literary avenue they’ve alighted on. As an illusion based on a referent whose original referent is itself filmic, the glossy-grubby lure of the township tsotsi is hard to resist.

We have, as David Foster Wallace opined in his essay Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young, an innate predilection for the visual. This combines with our sense of vulnerability, a sense that has remained present even as the spaces which constitute South Africa have changed. It was a commonplace a decade ago that the walls we built to protect our suburbs closed us off as much as they closed out the undesirable elements by which we were so fascinated and disgusted. The other side of the wall, the side on which the hoodlum lurks, is a blank canvas that easily lends itself to our imagination’s projection booth. Simply put, we live inside our fictions.

But that’s not the whole story. We’ve witnessed the ever-heightening popularity of crime fiction in this country, where obscene violence is transformed into something that can be contained by the pages of the novel. We have observed how newspaper reports of criminal terror have lost their symbolic relation to reality, taking on phantasmatic proportions. Think of what it means when someone declares that they find the newspapers “unreadable” these days. In each of these forms there lurk villains less domesticated than the township gangster, in guises infinitely more complex than the wild thug speeding about in his stolen BMW. Their violence is not confined to spaces that permit us, after we have recovered from our shock and horror, to say “at least it wasn’t me. It didn't happen to me. I’m still here.” The new terrors are less routinely expected, their violence less familiar and thus less forgivable than the township gangster’s.

These new gangsters appear like thunderless lightning. We do not usually write stories explaining their origins. They provoke not just a visceral fear, but an atavistic one too, as if we’re all too aware that the danger comes, not from amongst ourselves, but from a dreadful hammerspace. It is a fear Javier Marias alludes to in his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, one which there is no chance of us absorbing, incorporating, adapting to or finding bearable. These new forms of violence are irretrievably in the realm of the nightmare because they are unexpected, and because they seem so out of proportion (as evidenced by the screaming newspaper storylines) to that required to subdue and rob a cash-in-transit van, or a farm.

The occasional rearticulations of the township gangster are all the more curious, then. What do they tell us about ourselves? The answer to that question cannot be rooted out at the level of the content itself: we know the story by now – it contains nothing we don’t already know. Perhaps a more useful way of framing the question is to ask what it tells us about the story we tell about ourselves. It’s one of those trite pop-theory statements, but humans are narrative animals. We like the order of a pre-cast “and then...” teleology: it entertains and engages us without demanding too much in return. It provides us with the ever-heartening promise of redemption, of the renunciation of the fear that bedevils us. And, crucially, it is familiar. We know that this story, while it may have us clutching at our bedclothes, will culminate, as all dream/nightmares do.

The sense that we have control over our narratives is important. I noticed this when, taking the elevator to the ground floor from the fifth floor offices where I work, impatient people kept on jabbing the “Close” button on the elevator panel. This button does nothing to speed up our journey: the door closes and the elevator departs in exactly the same time whether you do or do not push the button. But the sense of participation is important. That’s why we have stories about township gangsters like Mzobe’s. Our sense of mastery over them is complete: they bring with them nostalgia for a time that was, whatever its faults, simpler than the one we live in now.

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trent says:

Great article man!