South African novelist Niq Mhlongo has been hailed as a spokesperson for the country’s kwaito generation – the so-called born-frees. But in his new book Way Back Home he proves himself as interested in the past as he is the present. Here he grapples with ontology and alternates gritty realism with magic realism; the result is an elegy in prose at once biting and compassionate, with no small amount of rot and violence and ghosts. Get a taste in this excerpt.
Two days before their Public Works tender presentation, Kimathi and Sechaba arranged to meet Ganyani at the Hyatt Hotel again. Kimathi had fully recovered. The prospect of winning the tender encouraged them to buy the overpriced whisky tots at the hotel without the fear of running out of cash. They were also eager to declare their mutual loyalties and drown any differences in alcohol. Ganyani’s presentation was also scheduled for two days’ time, immediately after that of Mandulo. His new business partners, a German-owned company called DMM, had booked him at the Sandton Hilton for four days. Kimathi and Sechaba had asked to meet him in the hope of convincing him to rejoin their venture. They were sitting at the far corner of the hotel bar drinking whisky as they discussed business. George had not been invited.
“It’s never too late to reconsider, comrade,” Sechaba said as he put down his double tot of Johnnie Walker Blue. “We’ve come very far together.”
“I know. But why should I bet on a limping horse, knowing exactly that it’s not going to finish the race, comrades,” asked Ganyani, moving his eyes between Kimathi and Sechaba. “I can’t do that, not even when I know the owner of the horse. No hard feelings, comrades, but this is a business decision.”
Sechaba’s smooth brows became furrowed. He had expected that they would easily convince Ganyani if they became nostalgic.
“But you have to show your loyalty to the struggle and your comrades,” Kimathi persisted. “Do it for Comrade Ludwe, if not for us.”
Ganyani laughed politely and snapped his fingers. He ran his tongue along the inner wall of one cheek to remove some food particles. “There is no loyalty and honour amongst the thieves and murderers, comrade.” He paused and looked Kimathi in the eye. “We are all in this to make money, not so?”
“In point of fact, we are doing this for the betterment of our people’s lives,” said Kimathi, “and that is why the masses love to be governed by us.”
“Don’t tell me about the masses.” Ganyani paused and lifted his glass, and then continued without taking a sip, “They are a useless bunch of lazy monkeys who still vote for us even when we embezzle their tax monies, even when we only employ our friends and relatives, even when we use their taxes to buy expensive houses and cars and sleep with their wives.” He took a swig. “Come election day, the masses will still vote for us. So don’t tell me about the masses.”
There was a moment of silence as Ganyani put his empty glass down and belched loudly.
“We have come a long way, comrade,” said Sechaba, looking straight into Ganyani’s drunken eyes.
“Well, Comrade Sech, I think you have already learned that in politics and business there are no eternal friends,” said Ganyani, massaging his empty glass and slurring his words, sounding like a drunk. “I also learnt it the hard way myself when you guys offered me that pathetic seven per cent during our negotiations. And, like they say, if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps he is hearing a different drummer. I went to the other drummer and he showed me respect.”
“But comrade, think of our Elim days,” said Sechaba as Ganyani put down his glass. “You’ll understand that the drummer you’re hearing is a fake, not a friendly one.”
There was a ring of nostalgia in Sechaba’s voice when he talked about Elim. He had left the country for exile with Ganyani in 1984. At that time, Ganyani was a teacher at Shirley Primary School in Elim, a village outside Makhado in Limpopo Province. Shirley school was said to be the same institution that Frelimo leader Eduardo Mondlane taught in after completing his teacher’s course at nearby Lemana College. Ganyani used to boast to Sechaba that he had been influenced by Mondlane.
Sechaba and Ganyani had known each other from an NGO called the Akani Rural Development Association, which was a hideout for guerrillas and a recruitment point for The Movement’s new military underground fighters. Sechaba had come from Zamdele Township near Sasolburg as a new recruit. The Movement’s underground commanders had posted him to Akani for four months. The two became friends while training at Akani’s underground military centre, which was in the Magangeni bush near Lemana College. After four months, Sechaba and Ganyani were transported to Mozambique via Komatipoort. They were then sent to Lusaka at the beginning of 1985. From Lusaka, the two were posted to different camps. Sechaba was sent to Malange in southern Angola whereas Ganyani found himself in Mafukuzela and Amilcar Cabral camps, near Luanda. After his return from exile in 1991, Ganyani had turned himself into a successful businessman and had sponsored the Vonani Society for the Blind, based in his home village of Elim. Ganyani had introduced Sechaba to Kimathi at a business conference in Midrand a few years before.
At that moment, Ganyani saw the waiter standing by the table at the corner. He snapped his fingers at him, and the waiter approached their table.
“Look at my glass. It has been empty for the last ten minutes. Do I have to fill in a form just to order a double tot of Johnnie Walker Blue?” he asked.
The waiter shook his head.
“And bring a separate glass of ice with that,” Ganyani ordered.
Sechaba and Kimathi also placed their orders. When the waiter had gone, Ganyani lit a cigarette. He took three drags, letting the ash grow on the cigarette before flicking it into the glass ashtray.
“My aim is to make Elim a heritage route,” said Ganyani seriously. He took another long drag from his cigarette, and blew thick plumes of smoke that swirled in the space between them. The smoke took a long time to die. “The freedom fighters trained there, and also Mondlane. The first president of Frelimo studied at Lemana and taught there for a while. The world must know this important information.”
“Are you serious, comrade?” asked Sechaba, not sounding convinced.
Kimathi started to laugh derisively. At that moment, the waiter placed their drinks on the table. Ganyani ignored Kimathi and dropped two ice cubes into his glass. He lowered his nose to the rim of his glass and breathed in the whisky smell before taking a sip. His eyes were closed as he drank, and he had a satisfied childlike smile on his face. Kimathi scrutinised him.
“Comrade, I think you must cut the umbilical cord that binds you to that stagnant place of yours if you want to succeed in life,” said Kimathi dismissively. “Do you really think the government, or anyone for that matter, will be willing to sponsor you to make that dull place of yours a heritage centre?”
“I’m trying to give back to my community, that’s all,” answered Ganyani, and there was ire in his voice. “If what I’m doing for my community sounds stupid to you, then you have no right to disapprove. It is my community that moulded me.”
“Sometimes pride can be a deadly sin, comrade,” cautioned Kimathi. “Just be careful about it.”
“I know exactly who I am now, and where I stand in the world,” insisted Ganyani. “I want to win so that I can make a difference in the world and my community. In this world, money talks, money saves and money makes us free. I can’t win with you guys. I’m really sorry, but it’s the truth.”
“We shall see about that,” said Kimathi with obvious disappointment in his voice.
“For your information, comrades, the council has adopted the report and will follow all the advice. What you don’t know is that when he died, Comrade Ludwe was under investigation.” Ganyani paused and looked at their reaction. “Disciplinary action has already been taken against some executive members of his department.” He paused again, and continued, “I wouldn’t bank on knowing him if I were you. That would be counting the chickens before the eggs are hatched.”
“How do you know all this?” asked Kimathi, sounding surprised.
“All I can tell you at this stage is that there was a ten-person commission appointed to investigate the allegations against his department.” Ganyani took a sip and brought the glass down on the table. “Some people were found guilty of spending on non-core items which add little or no value to service delivery.”
“What are those?” enquired Sechaba, his face tight with anxiety.
“Things like the purchasing of calendars, catering, promotional items, sponsorships and expensive overseas trips. Do you remember, comrades, that Ludwe was in Italy some six months ago with his wife and kids?” Ganyani didn’t wait for them to answer as he continued, “Apparently he used the taxpayer’s money for that personal trip.”
“Where did you get all of that?” inquired Sechaba.
“Every wall has an ear, Comrade Sech.” He paused and twirled the ice in his glass before finishing it up. “It has also been discovered that he appointed six of his friends and relatives to well-paid positions within the department.”
“The only way that people could spread such malicious rumours is that they know Comrade Ludwe won’t be able to defend himself. He’s dead,” remarked Kimathi angrily.
By this time Ganyani consulted his watch – Montblanc, with a black leather strap – and rose from his chair. It was nearly half past nine in the evening.
“I’m sorry, comrades, I have to go. I have an important meeting tomorrow morning,” he said, trying hard not to slur his words. “I guess we’ll see each other soon, and thank you for the good whisky. The round is on you, comrades, and it’s for the valuable information that I have just given you about your unlikelihood to win this tender.”
“You are betraying us, comrade,” said Sechaba, staring at him. “That’s not the way to treat your friends.”
“No, comrade, I’ve given you my reasons for not backing your bid,” said Ganyani, looking straight into Sechaba’s face without flinching. “You cannot call that a betrayal. And I have also given you inside information so that you will be prepared when those two ugly guys come knocking on your door.”
“What guys are you talking about now?” asked Kimathi, looking at Ganyani with great suspicion. “Are we under some kind of investigation that we are not aware of?”
“No comrades. All I’m saying is that when those two ugly men – trouble and misery – come knocking on your door, you can’t turn them away by merely saying that you do not have chairs for them to sit in your dining room,” said Ganyani, leaning towards Kimathi. “If you do, that will be stupid of you because they will tell you that they have brought their own.”
The remark angered Kimathi, at least partly because he knew it was true. Ganyani tossed his car keys in the air and caught them. As he walked towards the door, Kimathi lifted his glass of whisky. Halfway to his mouth, his hand shook and the whisky sloshed. He put it down without taking a sip. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. He looked despondent, and Ganyani’s words kept echoing in his head like a drunkard’s song in an empty shebeen. He blamed himself for imagining that he could get Ganyani to change his mind and rejoin the team.
“If Comrade Ganyani can do this to us, then I’m convinced that our struggle has been sold to the highest capitalist bidder,” said Kimathi, plucking a cigar from the pocket of his jacket.