Feb 6, 2013

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo – A Review


July 2012, Fiction
Ohio University Press, 224 pages (Originally published by Kwela Book, 2004)
 ISBN-13: 978-0821419946, Available on Amazon

Dog Eat Dog is the brash debut novel by young South African writer, Niq Mhlongo. It’s a first-person story set in 1994, the year of South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections. This historic event is a major counter point in the book, “the moment that most of us had been waiting for years to experience."

Dingamanzi ‘Dingz’ Njomane, the protagonist, is a street smart kid from Johannesburg straddling two worlds – one familiar to him, living in the impoverished townships and the new, as a student at the University of Witwatersrand. The story opens with a reflection of Dingz’s frustration at receiving yet another “letter of regret” from the University Bursary Committee.  

As he’s faced with the possibility of not attending university due to the lack of financial aid, Dingz bullies his way into the bursary office and demands an audience with the person in charge. He’s tired of being ‘fobbed off’ by bureaucrats and exaggerates his family’s plight to make his case more sympathetic. In his words, “I was not ashamed that I lied. Living in this South Africa of ours you have to master the art of lying in order to survive.”

What follows is a first-hand view of Dingz’s life; his interactions with friends, classmates, and authority figures. Dingz and others are learning to capitalise on the new world order, where they can be ‘dogs’ eating other ‘dogs.’ While at the same, old structures stubbornly remain in place, like the white students in university whose affluence and family connections make it easier to get excused from exams, and to be less stressed about finances.

Dingz’s carefree and often reckless attitude makes for an entertaining read but at times I couldn’t help but cringe at some of his antics, like the elaborate scheme he hatches to obtain an aegrotat (certificate excusing a student's absence from school for reasons of illness). I had to keep reminding myself that he is a 19 year old university student, and as such his immaturity isn’t far-fetched. He and his friends are trying to navigate adulthood as the world around them is in flux, with rules of the game constantly changing.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t prepared for this book. When I picked it up I was fully aware of the fact that it was set in South Africa’s 1994 and would deal with the long term effects of apartheid and so forth. However, reading almost nonchalant descriptions of the notorious Apartheid police and how they harassed the black population jarred me, as did the demeaning vulgarity. Not that I was unfamiliar with the history but because it’s not something I confront on a regular basis and is not a part of my past.

The subtle elements of racism and xenophobia in the backdrop are a chilling reminder of where South Africa has been and the forces that still exist. This is a highly readable book; certainly not for the faint at heart or anyone looking for a light read. 

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