Author: Niq Mhlongo
Title: For you, I’d Steal a Goat- Short Stories
Publishers: Kwela (2022)
For many living in South Africa life is similar to participating in a life-long version of the TV game show Survivor. Alienated from the economic mainland, some may feel like they are living on an island, forced to provide food, fire and shelter for themselves. A well-written ten short story collection, For You I’d Steal a Goat is about survival as Niq Mhlongo described his latest offering during the virtual book launch hosted by Lorraine Sithole in May 2022.
Niq Mhlongo has undoubtedly become a household brand in the literary spaces as an editor of anthologies such as the award-winning Joburg Noir (2020) and author of four novels including After Tears (2007) and short story collections such as Affluenza (2014) and Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree (2018). This third short story collection takes the reader through captivating characters crafting survival strategies to navigate social complexities. Miles away from typical stories leaving the reader further hopeless; the author gave his characters unshakable resolve and resilience. We see displaced communities out-lasting erasure and oppression. An artist attempts to appease ancestors by stealing and then slaughtering a goat. Law enforcement and a desperate family outplaying corrupted power figures; and strong black women out-witting toxic patriarchy entrenched in African culture. The majority of the stories are set in current South Africa with a dash of German experience amid COVID-19 pandemic context. Mhlongo’s pen mightily interrogates if economic circumstances have changed for the black majority by tackling the infamous political rhetoric of poverty, inequalities and unemployment.
How far or little we have come
As much as many have toiled to dismantle the oppressive system of yesteryears, have our leaders done enough for its electorate to be really liberated, economically and otherwise? Has the current political dispensation used a human-centric approach to truly cater for its citizen’s needs? Displaced for instance was a frustrating reminder of how far or little we have travelled as a country. This piece shows how tight bonds between family structures were severely disrupted due to the forced removals of Sophiatown in 1955. Resettled in then uninhabited areas such as Soweto, a farm of townships was created where the white supremacist system harvested black labour. Black communities struggled to taste the fruits of their sweat and tears, if they eventually succeeded, the taste left a bitter, dusty rampage on the tongue. “Anyone who has ever struggled under apartheid brutality knows how extremely expensive it is to be black in this country” speaks one of the characters. Despite having new political leaders in a state-captured country, with peanut salaries supporting increased household spending – has much changed for black communities in 2022?
Fireplace further poked at this notion of whether the current political leaders are living up to the “people shall govern” promise. Also published in the award-winning Hauntings (2021), Fireplace was my favourite piece in this collection. Not because I laughed my belly off from the witty antics of MEC Comrade Leadership Mgobhozi’s character but also due to the glimpse the story gives into the coldness of politicians. The entitlement and arrogance of politicians concerned with self-enrichment justified with crooked political-philosophical views had me burning with fury as I read the story. The author explored the contest between this corrupted political rationale by our government representatives versus ethical reasoning alongside legal prescription through Dumi’s character as a law enforcer. “The unemployed masses who vote for the Movement do so to make a living. Those who rule the masses like you steal for a living” Dumi stated. To which Comrade Leadership Mgobhozi brazenly responded “Don’t tell me about voters. Those people are like ants. All they ever do is live for their work and pay tax for us politicians to buy new shoes that we wear to trample on them”. Following the State Capture Report findings by the Zondo Commission and recent alleged corruption by our president Cyril Ramaphosa- what Comrade Mgobhozi terms “corrupthied”, this story sparks raw truth to readers who wondered what happens behind closed doors of our political leaders.
If one takes a step back to observe how black communities treat each other, one may sometimes be shocked at the contradictions and bitterness that exist. Of course, it can be argued that these tensions are man-made, the cruel after-effects of years of alienation and segregation from the world, but when do we stop sabotaging our own development and economic prosperity. In a community filled with unemployment and impoverishment, criminal activities, prompted by substance abuse definitely thrive. However, who is to say that these issues must exclusively be put on foreign national’s doorstep? Ghost Town highlights the unnecessary notion of Afrophobia where, urged by baseless group-think arguments, foreign national’s spaza shops are looted and burnt. “They sell drugs to our young people. Like my brother- he is using cheap drugs because of them. Our streets are full of criminals because of that lot. They must go back to their home. Go back to where they came from” said one of the characters. Such inciting ill-famed words shoot from many disenfranchised mouths of South Africans, particularly in townships and informal settlements. Through this piece, the author essentially questions # OperationDudula’s stance on foreign national’s contribution to South Africa. He questions the ignorance towards the positive contributions made by foreign nationals while aligning this story to Fireplace’s character- Comrade Leadership Mgobhozi’s – on lack of accountability by our political leaders. It also made me question if local and foreign community leaders can’t find better collaborations through social and entrepreneurial initiatives to promote community development? As a nation have we not learned to embrace ourselves and other ethnicities instead of still promoting segregating mentality even toward fellow Africans?
Additional to political hindrances, there are still socio-cultural sabotaging tendencies that the book also looks at. The Stalker and In-Laws grill the toxic and rigid patriarchal constructs and question whether it can’t be modernized and adaptable. A possible triggering story to some female readers, Woman to Woman particularly is a sad story highlighting the infidelity women have to endure. A troubling element one contended with was how male friends instead of condemning infidelity, rather play a significant role in protecting and perpetuating cheating behaviour amongst married men. The piece digs at what drives a married man to break apart a happy family structure, leaving heartache and resentment, yet arrogantly turning around to seek forgiveness. Are we as men not sabotaging ourselves? My Lover’s Secret also shows how archaic cultural traditions could be sabotaging one’s happiness in modern society. Entrenched in patriarchal traditions this story highlights how single black women are pressured by family to get married. “I hate it when fellow women participate in patriarchal nonsense that oppresses their own…women should not define themselves by marriage or a male partner”. Essentially these few stories are a meditation on whether patriarchy doesn’t sabotage the journey towards better redefinitions of marriages and sexual orientations.
Homage to strong black women
As an overall collection, For You, I’d Steal a Goat has strong female characters challenging patriarchal notions. Achieving a sensitive tone for the characters by a male author could thus pose challenges. During the virtual book launch, Mhlongo expressed that in addition to having a great editor and having discussions with everyday people he read a lot of feminist literature as part of his writing process. Raised by women most of his life after his father passed in the 1980s, the author said this book is a heartfelt homage to women in his life. Furthermore, through characters like Amahle; Boipelo; Marang and Kele, the book speaks to the current context of Gender-Based Violence- #GBV and the broader unfairness of patriarchy. As a man, these stories took my mind to unknown-yet familiar- worlds filled with reflections on my actions towards the women in my life. A reflection on how I could be a better husband to my wife and a better father for my son growing up in a hostile world for women.
My sentiments were parallel to Sithole’s on the level of control Mhlongo has displayed in this latest collection. With a mixture of character-driven and theme-based stories, this collection is an exceptionally simple yet heart-hitting showcase in the art of short story writing. For you, I’d Steal a Goat makes a great contribution to this genre reminiscent of Nthikeng Mohlele’s The Discovery of Love (2021); Sifiso Mzobe’s Searching for Simphiwe (2020) and Fred Khumalo’s Talk of the Town (2019).
Owing to the interweaving timely themes in this collection a readers could hear the different characters in each of the ten short stories having a nuanced conversation about patriarchy, African spirituality, family expectations and various definitions of survival. Unlike any reality TV show, For you I’d Steal a Goat is shaping new possibilities for the survival of real-life heroes, tested every day to swim, run and solve socio-economic puzzles with limited time. If indeed life is a walk on the beach on some far away remote island, then for the black majority it’s a walk on hot sand filled with broken beer bottles and decaying dreams. It’s a jog with multi-generational traumas, chasing sunsets on rumbling stomachs.
Rolland Simpi Motaung