Way Back Home
There is an undercurrent of disillusionment running through South African life at the moment. You can sense it in the newspaper editorials daily bristling with outrage at governmental failures and corruption, in the artworks of Ayanda Mabulu and Brent Murray and in the musical polemics of Simphiwe Dana. So too in Niq Mhlongo’s third novel, Way Back Home. It’s a disillusionment borne out of the perceived betrayal of everything 27 April 1994 stood for by those at the helm of our society.
Kimathi Fezile Tito, the amoral man at the centre of Mhlongo’s novel, is the archetype of a tenderpreneur – a parasitic class of business people who have built their vast wealth on the back of corruptly awarded government contracts. He always wears two watches, a Breitling and a Rolex, and drives expensive cars and drinks glasses of Johnny Walker Blue at R600-a-tot. Together with his former comrades they have all but secured a multi-million rand tender from the department of Public Works because they have a man on the panel. In short, life couldn’t get any better.
However, beneath the flamboyant exterior is a deeply troubled man going through a multitude of problems, albeit most of his own making. He is estranged from his wife and daughter, Anele and Zanu, but what troubles him the most – and this drives the narrative – is that he’s started seeing ghosts, vivid imaginings of a woman from his past. As a solider for The Movement in Angola during the late 80s, Kimathi committed atrocities he had repressed until the woman comes to him demanding atonement.
“Your past deeds are so shameful that only by forgetting have you been able to live with them” she says to him.
From then on Kimathi loses his sure hold on life as inexplicable events start happening. His best friend from exile, and the man with the decision-making power to award the multi-million rand tender, dies under mysterious circumstances.
After collapsing twice, and both times winding up in hospital for a stretch of days, a doctor suggests that Kimathi goes to a therapist because he is suffering “from the aftereffects of some kind of past trauma”. He rejects the idea and instead opts to go and a see a sangoma who instructs him to go back to Angola and face up to his past.
The action in Way Back Home unfolds in two different time zones, between Angola in the late eighties and present day South Africa and the two narrative strands dovetail at the end. It’s a good read and one that’s in step with the sentiment of the times. However, Way Back Home is also a radical departure from Mhlongo’s other novels, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears. Although those books dealt with equally weighty subjects they were memorable because of Mhlongo’s gift for humour writing. Way Back Home is no doubt an important addition to South African literature but I wished at times that Mhlongo had made us laugh more.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2013