Morality in parentheses: Coming of age in a township

EVENT: A Young Blood to Watch: Sifiso Mzobe (Friday, 23 September; Fugard Theatre)


Sifiso Mzobe, 2011 Sunday Times award winner, discusses his acclaimed debut, Young Blood, with Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Harding.

Sifiso Mzobe is a man who has learnt to slip between worlds. He speaks the language of highbrow literary festivals, and he speaks the language of his township, Umlazi. As he chats to Pulitzer winner Paul Harding about his prizewinning novel, Young Blood, I can’t help feeling that every utterance is an exercise in translation.

He starts by explaining that for young men in the township, stealing a car is a rite of passage. In writing this novel, he wanted to show how easy the journey “from innocence to crime” can be. Sifiso emphasises that he wrote what he knows, aware that “the secrets” of the township are available to him from within. This immediately positions his audience as “without”, a relationship that he later reiterates: “In South Africa, we don’t really know each other.” Sifiso cites this as his principal reason for writing his story. He says that he “wanted to show other people how they, [in the township] live”.

YOUNG BLOOD: Sifiso Mzobe explains how South Africa's 'two worlds' don't speak the same language, figuratively and literally

By “other people”, I suppose he means the educated elite most likely to attend book festivals, yet his words are cautious and delivered with a generosity that put me at ease. Sifiso doesn’t position himself as a black writer per se, but rather as a writer from the township. He seems to be negotiating between spaces, creating tentative connections in a way that is challenging and creative, but neither sentimental nor naïve.

For the most part, the discussion stays within the safe territory of literary discourse. For instance, Paul presses the issue of genre, and whether Young Blood is literary fiction or crime thriller. Sifiso responds with the not unimportant point that sales benefit if the novel is classified as crime thriller, even though krimi fans have found the label not sufficiently comprehensive. He agrees with this perspective, saying that although there is crime in the novel, “a book can be a lot of things”. As Paul points out, Sifiso’s work is not as formulaic as genre novels; moreover, the focus is on character more than plot. Harding uses an analogy from photography – a close “depth of field” – in which the object in the foreground is sharply focused and the background is blurred. This feature of the novel, in which the South African reader is “required to fill in background context”, strikes me as uncommon in the South African literary landscape.

Sifiso is aware that the local market “reads about violence every day”, and therefore does not want to foreground it, potentially scaring off readers. Paul notes that the handling of violence in Young Blood is far from gratuitous, as it happens very quickly, and is extremely economical. Sifiso says this was his intention: that he wanted to render the humanity of his characters, and that depictions of gratuitous violence could risk becoming exactly that which is so dehumanising.

A major thread throughout the event is the question of if, or how, Young Blood is a cautionary tale. The intention of a moral lesson is surprising, coming from someone who is evidently the antithesis of self-righteousness, and who at every opportunity explains and justifies what constitutes “criminal” behaviour. Nevertheless, he repeatedly emphasises that he wanted both to represent the township, and to write a cautionary or moral tale. While he still believes that the main goal is to entertain, he adds that the most effective way of including a moral lesson is to limit it: “You have to put morality in brackets”.

What I find most interesting is how his two very clear reasons for writing the novel create a dialectic of two kinds of morality. For township readers (who, incidentally, “really loved the novel”), his caution is against stealing, substance abuse, violence; but then another kind of morality travels a different trajectory towards “other people”  – those who have not encountered the township firsthand. Merely reading the novel continues to pose the problem of distance and consequent voyeurism. Those people, presumably most of the audience at the festival, are challenged by the novel to move from our position of judgment. What emerges is a dialogue between these two positions, with Sifiso acting as translator.


Jen Tully says:

Not sure what these comments are really referring to as I am not an academic, but I think you write a great report Denise. You certainly made me think philosophically again about the distance between the privileged (lower middle class and middle class qualify I think)South African collective experience,my definition of morality and that of this man who comes from a very different reality. For making this old housewife ‘think’ is quite an achievement!!!

Leon de Kock says:

From the Editorial collective: Denise’s original copy read “close depth of field”. Somewhere along the line the word “close” was replaced with “high”. That somewhat changes the picture, doesn’t it? We have changed it back to “close depth of field”.

Denise says:

Hi Robert. Thanks for reading my article! I hope you enjoyed the rest of it?

Yes you’re quite right. Somewhere in the hurried process of reporting, editing, and online publishing errors like these happen.

It’s not a book, after all!

Robert says:

“A high ‘depth of field’ – in which the object in the foreground is sharply focused and the background is blurred.”

You (or perhaps the quoted source?) need to fact-check. It is a small or shallow depth of field that produces this effect.