Down and out in an alien Jozi


Down and out in an alien Jozi

DIANE DE BEER read Niq Mhlongo's explosive new book about a city of broken dreams.


OF all the fights I had in the past with Aza, this was the most bitter and painful one. I could not take it any longer. I knew I had to leave her before I did anything stupid and used my anger as an excuse.

If that is the first sentence of the book you are about to engage with, you know you have bumped into someone who is on the edge of a precipice — and that you are about to find out which way he chooses to leap.

But nothing prepares you for the patience and passion Mangi has had to draw on to hang on to a woman he regards as the love of his life. After that devastating opening sentence, he goes on to tell you about his life with his dream woman. And it’s difficult to understand what kept him clinging to what seems like an existence dominated by servitude.

Yet this is a man who finds himself in a fight without any of the required weapons. This is how he experiences the battle:

The sudden impact of her words, as they clattered into my consciousness like a bullet through the heart, made me shudder. My first instinct was to bow to her and apologise. Instead I gave her a cool look, not hostile but not friendly either.

And from that point on, his life unravels at a pace that would bring anyone to their knees. In short succession Mangi finds himself helpless, homeless and hopeless in a city he once called home. He has no idea what is about to overtake his life as he is flung into a world that was surely meant for other, lesser souls.

This city, Joburg City, Johassieburg, Jozi, eGoli. Whatever I called it, it used to be mine. But now it had become elusive, mysterious, and above all, a place of utter alienation.

And this is where the story takes a sharp left, as Niq Mhlongo takes us on a fascinating odyssey through what was to many the heart of this city, a place most of us know still exists but, in its decay, many pay little attention to, because it’s not our destiny, not in a million years.

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For Mangi, life as he knew it abruptly ceases to exist as he is forced to deal in a reality he had always ignored — until he couldn’t.

He is forced to face the city if he wants to survive. And from the reader’s perspective, Mhlongo explores a shadow side of life no one is taught to navigate. If you find yourself there — surviving under a bridge as cars pass by as if from another world — you have no choice. It’s about basic survival as you struggle for your next meal, sometimes your next breath.

 “Welcome to our city of broken dreams. Come and join us,” is how the author captures that excruciating moment.

Mhlongo is an extraordinary writer. He takes you where you don’t want to go but you can’t turn away. What would you do if life as you knew it suddenly disappeared? How would you find your way, and who would you turn to if shame had such a grip on your every thought that you couldn’t think of a sympathetic soul? What you want to do is disappear from the face of the earth. At that moment.

By afternoon I became calmer, but still time refused to move. Every second was a century, every hour an age. Numb with exhaustion and hunger, I felt like an outcast from life's big feast.

It’s a story that deals with life at its harshest yet keeps you rooting for the fallen warrior as you follow his devastating descent. “I sensed I had become a dangerous and bothersome existence to people.”

Can anyone honestly say that they haven’t disregarded those troubled if troublesome city dwellers, even for a moment?

City poverty had created a new kind of human being … It was the kind who lived like outcasts under a bridge and I was about to join them.

Imagine the life to which he has been condemned. That’s the city you are about to encounter when reading the explosive The City Is Mine. Many South Africans have forgotten that city centres exist. These are places they never have to face, are too scared to enter yet speak about with authority when they pop up in conversation.

Yet there are lives happening in those neglected spaces that so many of us simply ignore. And, in some instances, it’s not always the lives of others. These are fellow travellers in a world where some of us have it much easier than others without giving it a second thought.

But that’s what makes a writer stand out. When he scratches around in a world we are all familiar with yet never want to deal with or even think about. Still, it is there, and often it is what it is because of our neglect and refusal to acknowledge that not everyone can climb to the top of the totem pole.

For some, or even, I sadly suspect, for most, life is about survival. Every day is a struggle, which becomes much more urgent if it is something that happens to you quite haphazardly, as in Mangi’s case. It happened in an instant, but there are signs of the disintegration as he clings to something that, it is obvious to everyone else, he should have let go of a long time ago. Now it isn’t really his choice and he’s not sure how to play this game of what has become his life.

Who would have thought that turning his back in anger on the woman of his dreams, something we as readers were rooting for, would have such a devastating outcome? It was the right thing for him to do but he couldn’t see it. Which makes the climb back that much tougher.

The City Is Mine by Niq Mhlongo was published by Kwela and costs R310 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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