Beware! English is not my first language! 😉
Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo is a novel about change. It was first published in 2004, but the events take place in 1994 in South Africa during the days of the first free election that was won by the ANC with President Nelson Mandela as a result. Main character and first-person narrator is the young student Dingz, who grew up in one of the townships of Soweto (Johannesburg).
Mhlongo does not really use a dramaturgy, there is no common theme in a classical structure – he delivers episodic insights into the everyday life of the young man, his friends, but also into the society of South Africa. It mostly reminded me on the German novel Als wir träumten by Clemens Meyer, which tells the stories of several young people in Eastern Germany before and after the German reunification in 1990. Like Meyer Mhlongo describes in flashbacks episodes from the old system, for example how young South Africans had to suffer the harassment by the apartheid regime’s police forces.
But in this story protagonist Dingz (I think his Christian name is Peter) does not come along as an appealing figure. At least not according to German beliefs and standards.
„Living in this South Africa of ours, you have to master the art of lying to survive“, explains Dingz.
And lies from the beginning, about the application for a scholarship; he lies to come up with an excuse for missing an exam, cause he partied to much; but also when he get caught by the police drinking in public, or to his girlfriend.
In a corrupted system that has pervaded the society of the country on all levels, only those who adapt to this system of lies and corruption can receive justice. The honest ones will bite the dust. And if such a system of lies has turned to be common, the lie becomes habit and will be used in a knee-jerked reaction even when not necessary. For Dingz gets himself in trouble a few times by unnecessary lies, lest the readers asks himself how Dingz could be so stupid. But on the other side he is a teenager, who are known for occasionally irrational behavior .
Dingz explains his selfishness with the following quote:
The overwhelming pressure of the environment in which we live makes people pursue their own pleasure at whatever cost.
Over decades the black majority – that does not form a homogenous group, but is a mixture of different cultures with a huge variety of languages – has been brutally oppressed by a white minority. And now after the end of apartheid and the rogue regime understandable expectations grow, for being the ones in charge and the right to enjoy live, and for a right to own the future.
The tragedy of all that lies in the fact that the socially difficult situation has not changed for most of the people. Dingz and his family still lives in one of the townships of Soweto, and now studying at a former strict white college, seems more like a fig leaf that the white upper class put as a veil over the flaw of discrimination. Cause Dingz does not have the money to pay for the college and a scholarship can only be reached by lying.
Life in Soweto, as Mhlongo describes it, contains a lot of vitality and improvements, but also a lot of violence. Even a simple ride in a mini-bus can turn out into a dangerous affair, with the bus driver as an regular source of danger. In decades of suppression a terrible potential for violence has swelled under the surface that can explode anytime in short but brutal acts of violence.
Dingz and his friends seem to have arranged themselves with this lurking violence, by developing exit strategies that unfortunately do not work all the time. Despite all this potential mayhem, they do go out regularly, they drink a lot, and they talk a lot about women and sex as well as about the country’s political and social situation. Partly those conversations appear to be a little to academically, as if the author tried to put a lot of information in it, but due to a (often vulgar) humor, he is able to keep them entertaining.
For someone who is very interested in the English language in all its varieties, this novel is with all the South African slang, the Afrikaans expressions as well as many words from languages like Zulu, Siswati, or Sotho and slang from Soweto, this novel is a treasure chest.
Many readers need a main character to identify with or with whom they can at least sympathize . I am none of these. Dingz does a lot stuff I do not like, that makes him seem unsympathetic. But many of his decisions are shaped by the environment (coming from a poor background, apartheid-regime, police-harassment, racism, institutionalized discrimination and so on). He is an ambivalent protagonist, who gives the reader an insight into South Africa shortly after the end of apartheid. It is not a thrilling but fascinating and entertaining novel by a young South African writer.