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Niq Mhlongo’s Affluenza embraces South Africans’ lived experiences

South Africa’s democracy has come a long way since its formative years. But twenty years on and there are still many issues which have still not been addressed. Niq Mhlongo’s book, Affluenza, looks at the realities that South African people face today. DANA DA SILVA gives her take on the collection of short stories.

Just by looking through the news, one can see that South Africans have a lot of unresolved issues from the past. The #TipGate saga brought up how land is still predominantly in the hands of white farmers, while Zapiro’s recent cartoon depicting the NPA’s Shaun Abrahams as a monkey and Mabel Jansen’s remarks on how rape is part of black men’s culture both reflect how racism is alive and well in sunny SA.

It’s obvious that South Africa still has a long way to go, but it is these issues and many others that Mhlongo faces head-on in his book, Affluenza. In this collection of short stories, he focuses on real-life themes spanning from xenophobia, HIV/AIDS, land redistribution, economic inequality and crime.

He looks at them through the eyes of the everyday South African. His characters read the Mail & Guardian in a Sandton Square restaurant, visit their neighbourhood shebeens and spend their weekends watching Chiefs vs Pirates matches. Some characters suffer from “affluenza”, where a person pretends to be rich by buying nice things while staying in a crappy apartment. Other characters get into gun fights with a land redistribution committee that tries to take away their farm and lose their children, who are killed, in the process.

The stories don’t always end off on a happy note; sometimes I questioned why I read that particular short story because it turned me into a ball of sadness. In one piece, a university student commits suicide because he finds out he’s HIV positive, and in another, a woman is killed by a leopard in the Kruger Park.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting such levels of violence when I picked up this book. But then again, this is a real image of South Africa, right? (Okay maybe not so much that leopard incident though).

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What struck me is how the themes in these short stories represent reality for some South Africans. Just looking at South Africa’s unemployment statistics, which indicate that 5.7 million people are unemployed, was enough to turn me back into that ball of sadness.

But the death and misery aren’t all there is to Affluenza. Some stories were so hilarious that I literally laughed out loud, even though I didn’t mean to. Four Blocks Away tells the story of a South African gumboot dancer visiting Washington D.C. who just wants to buy some condoms. He gets harassed by the police outside a petrol station for only wearing a bathrobe. He wins out in the end but loses out on getting any “American nookie” because his date had fallen asleep by the time he got back.

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Affluenza will fill you with a range of emotions as you read, ranging from anger and sadness to happiness. It faces head-on the realities that people go through, reflecting the good and the bad. When it comes to South African fiction, this is one book that truly reflects the state which the country is in.

Featured image by David Preston

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