Niq Mhlongo discusses Way Back Home, 14 March 2014, Woordfees, Stellenbosch.
In my continuing quest to better understand the function of the supernatural in contemporary South African literature and discourse, I take my seat in the Erfurthuis, where author Niq Mhlongo will be in conversation with publisher James Woodhouse.
As the NB rep hands out PR material – a cut-out sketch of Niq Mhlongo impaled on a sosatie skewer – I hear her repeatedly explain: “Dis Niq Mhlongo, tannie, die skrywer wat volgende aan die woord is.” I also overhear one of the organisers say that some of the chairs can be used for a parallel event, as there were only eight bookings. By the time we start, I count around twenty people in the audience, which is a pity, since this was one of the few events on the Woordfees program that to my mind was likely to appeal to a more heterogeneous audience, as well as address some of the wider socio-political issues that pertain directly to South Africa.
Niq is here to discuss his most recent novel, Way Back Home (Kwela, 2013), a “caustic critique of South Africa’s political elite”. The protagonist, Kimathi Tito, is a “soldier of the South African revolution” who has accumulated wealth and gained influence in the new democracy. But repressed memories of his actions in an Angolan training camp are beginning to surface, and along with this psychological haunting, he is also afflicted by a spiritual haunting, as the ghost of a young woman begins to appear to him regularly.
James jokes that as publishers they were looking for “new” South African literature, dealing with post-apartheid issues, and he had been adamant to steer away from novels about apartheid, when Niq came and presented this manuscript for a novel which is, essentially, about apartheid. Niq tells us that although this is his third novel, the story had been at the back of his mind for a long time. When he was a child growing up in Soweto, he had often heard stories of the ghost of a young woman who haunts the street where she was killed, seeking revenge. As a young man, he and his friends were wary of chatting up and sleeping with strange women. “In African story-telling tradition, stories are not just to entertain, they also teach a lesson,” he explains. On the one hand, then, the story was a didactic tale, intended to dissuade the young men from picking up strange women. However, the story also points to a fundamental aspect of African tradition: for death to be complete, the ancestors have to be appeased. If a family does not claim the body of the deceased and enact the correct rites, the soul of the dead cannot join the ancestors, and so remains to haunt the living and avenge itself upon those who caused the death.
“The ghosts of the current dispensation have not been properly addressed,” suggests Niq, “and so these ghosts are coming back to haunt the leaders”. In order to heal, we have to admit our past mistakes, and Niq alludes to the fact that the ANC’s own violent perpetrations during apartheid were never addressed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and so “the healing is incomplete”. Repeatedly, he comes back to the idea that we are both victims and perpetrators at the same time. The current government “sits with a haunting,” they are suppressing that which is haunting them because they refuse to be held accountable. Instead, he says, they insist on playing victim, and won’t acknowledge their own role as perpetrators. Thus they are haunted by their actions in exile, and the process of repression – in the form of propaganda – has become very expensive.
James remarks that those who went into exile were not always in exile for political reasons. Niq concurs, and elaborates, telling us of a man he knew who went into exile because he impregnated a woman whom he didn’t want to marry. He also mentions that he knew several tsotsis in Alexandra – hardcore criminals – who went into exile. He underscores the fact that, while there were many true political exiles, exile also attracted those who were there for other, less noble reasons.
James asks whether Niq envisions a post- Jacob Zuma space that is more positive, and Niq responds with the surprising claim that, in his opinion, the most positive thing that has happened in South Africa has been Zuma becoming president. As the audience titters, he elaborates: Zuma has made people more politically aware, we see new political parties being formed, and people want to vote. The ANC’s hold on power is being challenged, and therefore we are seeing the beginnings of a true multi-party democracy. Black people no longer vote for the ANC because it is a black party, they are thinking more carefully about who they will vote for, and for this reason, Zuma is the best thing that has happened to SA.
James mentions that Niq's daughter is twenty-one, eliciting gasps of astonishment from several ladies in the audience, who refuse to believe that he is old enough to have an adult daughter. Niq admits that he is in his early forties, and someone jokes: “the ghost story didn't work.” James asks Niq whether he knows how his daughter will vote, and Mhlongo wryly says that he “doesn’t like” his daughter very much at the moment, as she wants to vote for Helen Zille. He says that when he voted in ’94, he just wanted to see a black face in government, he didn’t care about the party. But his daughter wants to vote for the party who will do the best for her, she doesn’t see colour. He then tells us that he has a young nephew who is “too much into Malema”, and regales the audience with an amusing anecdote of the fight for the remote that ensues between the two beret-wearing cousins whenever a political speech comes on television.
“While researching the book, you spent a lot of time talking to and drinking whisky with people in the ANC,” James reminds him. “Yes,” quips Niq, “I wrote some bad stuff about them, so I'm very glad that they don’t read.” Asked about the impending split in the ANC, Niq laughs out loud, saying that it has already split. He predicts that the ANC will continue to rule, but will lose much power, including the Gauteng majority. “The new ANC [national candidate] list is a list of thieves, ” he adds, “they are people with dark shades following them. They are haunted by shadows.”
With Mandela gone, do people feel that they still have to vote for the ANC? In response to this question, Mhlongo quotes Nietzsche: “God is dead, man is free.” Citing various recent examples of corruption in the ANC, he suggests that through his silence, Mandela was tacitly condoning this corrupt behaviour. He believes that, now that Mandela is no longer there, people feel free to make their own choices and will no longer vote for the ANC simply out of loyalty to Mandela.
James takes the opportunity to raise the question of Niq's next novel, mentioning that it is about Mandela. Niq qualifies, saying that the novel was inspired by a township myth about Mandela: according to this myth, the real Mandela had died long ago, and the Mandela that was released from prison was, in fact, a clone, created by the white people. The new novel, he explains, plays on this myth.
The floor is open for questions, and someone asks Niq if he writes in his home language. Yes, he replies, he went to school in English, and his English is a bastard English. It is possible to read all eleven SA languages in one of his books – he thought that he had written his books in English, but he realised that it is not the language of the English in which he writes, but rather in the English of South Africa, and of black people. With a mother who is a Shangaan, and a father who is a Zulu, he grew up speaking a mixture of languages he jokingly calls “zutho”. He therefore doesn’t have one specific language. Rather, he mixes languages, and is very aware of the fluidity of language.
I ask him to clarify how he envisions the kind of ritual that might lay the ghosts of the current dispensation to rest: a western, juridical investigation, something like the TRC; or a ritual more in line with traditional African knowledge systems? Niq replies that knowing where the bodies lie helps with psychological healing. Again, he draws on the TRC for example, noting that once perpetrators admitted that they had in fact killed a missing person, the families could go to the place where the person had died, and perform the necessary rituals that would lay the spirit of the deceased to rest. The ancestral ritual and cleansing are private events that are enabled by the making public of the circumstances of the death. Once these rituals are completed, the deceased can become an ancestor, who is benevolent to the living, rather than a spirit who does not have a home, who is angry. When the spirit has a home, and is reconnected with its ancestors, then the living can also be at peace. Ultimately, for the ANC to be at peace, they need to allow the families the opportunity to lay their dead to rest, by making public the final resting places of the bodies.