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Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Niq Mhlongo’s Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree

If the apricot trees of Soweto could talk, what stories would they tell? This short story collection provides an imaginative answer as it captures the vibrancy of the township and surrounds.

Told with satirical flair, life and death intertwine in these tales where funerals and the ancestors feature strongly; where cemeteries are places to show off a new car and catch up on gossip.

Take a seat under the apricot tree and be enthralled by tales both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Niq Mhlongo was born in 1973 in Soweto. He has a BA from the University of the Witwatersrand, with majors in African Literature and Political Studies. His first novel, Dog Eat Dog, was published by Kwela in 2004 and was translated into Spanish under the title Perro Come Perro in 2006. This Spanish edition was awarded the Mar de Letras prize.

Besides writing novels and short stories, Niq has written a screenplay for the animated children’s TV series Magic Cellar and scripts for a comic magazine called Mshana, the first issue of which appeared in February 2007. After Tears is his second novel.

Read an abridged extract from the story “Turbulence”:

“Are you EFF or ANC?” she asks doubtfully, as if afraid to over­ step the bounds of our friendship.

“Neither really, but I support most of what the EFF says about sharing our beautiful land. I also support most of what the ANC has done to this country. I’m in between, if you like.”

Her face breaks into a forced smile. Our overhead lights are off, and I can only see the whites of her eyes. She bends over and looks like she is gasping for breath. She clears her throat with a few drops of water from her plastic bottle.

“That’s why I’m going to Perth. First, I will stop at my daughter Tanya’s place in Abergavenny, in Wales. She is married there to a nice Welshman. Maybe one can find happiness in those distant places of Wales and Australia, away from what I used to call home. Since this ANC took over, the white people in South Africa have no other refuge, but they are a target of some blacks. There are a lot of good black people. But there is no protection from the ruling party for white people. Look at the farmers that are being killed every day.”

“You think so. But all this is a legacy of apartheid. It was a sys­tem of violent oppression and dispossession. At least you have a place to run to, and you’re welcome in Europe because you’re white. I can’t go to Zimbabwe or Mozambique, unfortunately, because they are worse than South Africa. Unlike you, Europe cannot accept me. I’m stuck with Zuma and Malema.”

“The problem is that this ANC government is rewarding their cronies with tenders. This has become a shortcut to power and money. There are no opportunities for capable and qualified people. The government has made hardworking black people lazy and over­reliant on social grants. It is bad. It’s just like the land issue. Everyone wants land in the urban areas. But there is so much land in the rural areas. Land is land. People must understand that the only open land that is left in South Africa exists in rural areas, but no one wants that. That is the nature of our stupidity and incompetence. And it is perpetrated by the stupid ANC government.”

I let her speak without interrupting while I fortify myself with my gin and tonic. She smiles such a kindly smile, as if she thinks she is an old friend of mine. I nod sleepily. The time is ten past eleven. The person in front of me is snoring loudly. The turbulence worsens. Outside, it is thundering so hard that everyone stops talking. The overhead lights go on and off a few times and the monitor screens flicker. The smell from the toilet perfume thickens and blocks my nose.

Elsabe blows her nose several times. We have to hold on to our drinks so that they don’t fall off the tray tables. We are silent as though by prearrangement. The turbulence stops after some twenty minutes, and Elsabe starts talking again.

“But liberation movements are dying out,” she says. “Look at what happened to Kaunda’s party in Zambia.”

“Not necessarily. What about Frelimo in Mozambique, MPLA in Angola and Zanu in Zimbabwe?” I ask with an ingenuous smile. “They’re still there.”

“Well, I guess some are still there,” she says reluctantly. “But I think they are running dictatorship regimes.”

“But South Africa is a democratic country under the ANC,” I say, taking a sip. “Anyway, I hope you enjoy your new home in Perth.”

“I don’t know. But I’ve heard there is tranquillity and limitless peace there. I hope it’s not a lie.”

She pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. It’s two in the morning and the darkness looks impenetrable outside the win­dow as I open the blind a little to check. The universe seems a very dark place out there. Next to Elsabe, John Lennon dozes off, wakes up, and dozes off again. At one point, he wakes up dizzily for few minutes and raises his nose as if he is smelling coffee. He shakes his head and closes his eyes again. His shoulders droop and his arms flop loosely at his side. A string of thick ropy saliva runs from the corner of his mouth. He runs his tongue over his mouth and teeth and almost spits. Apparently, he realises just in time that he is still on the plane and not in the comfort of his own home.

“This Black Economic Empowerment thing has given black people false desires and greed.”

“We’re all corrupt, after all,” I say, feeling really tired. “Maybe the only difference is that white corruption was done moderately and hidden with great tact.”

“South Africa has become one big corruption ­and crime movie,” she shrugs. “Our country is moving down the path of destruction just because of the ANC. Just look at our junk status credit rating. Most youths are forced to become career criminals in the town ships and cities because of the huge unemployment rate, all caused by the ANC.”

“The main thing is not to lose our bearings.”

“They are so corrupt. And because of the lack of employment and poverty, youths are schooled more in crime than anything else. They are illiterate, so they have to work their way from swindle to swindle to make ends meet.”

Another bout of heavy turbulence starts. My toes curl in my shoes and I grip the headrest of the seat in front. I close my eyes and silently prepare myself for the death that I think nothing will defer beyond an hour if the turbulence continues. On my head, I can feel the tuft of my Afro shivering and shaking. The skin beneath it feels warm. At times I can’t feel my legs. Elsabe holds on to the armrest between our two chairs. John Lennon is fast asleep, but small beads of sweat cover his beard like dew.

The turbulence lasts for about twenty-five minutes this time. Then the seatbelt sign ahead turns green and the plane moves smoothly again. Without a word, Elsabe opens the small hand­ bag that she put in the seat pocket in front of her. Her lungs seem to be working with increasing difficulty. She takes a small bottle of pills and a water bottle to the toilet. To pass, she has to wake John Lennon, who gets up grudgingly. Elsabe winces, as if she has knocked her foot against something. She walks slowly to the toilet, as if her legs have become heavier.

Most people are asleep, but there are a few TV monitors still playing movies. Some people have blankets wrapped around them. As John Lennon sits down again, I decide I will fake being asleep when Elsabe comes back. I drink up my gin and tonic and close my eyes. But I realise that I have been looking forward to a movie all night and I won’t be able to sleep without watching at least a little bit. I search through the list, and settle on Tell Me Sweet Something. Not long into the movie my eyes keep closing on their own. I’m drifting in and out of sleep, missing scenes here and there.

I wake up at about three-­thirty, realising that sleep has finally won without my finishing the movie. Elsabe is still not back. She has left her small handbag half open under the seat. I peer inside and see a few pounds and many Australian dollars – rolls of fifties and hundreds. It is just lying there, open for the taking. Would she even miss some of it? I could take a roll of notes, I debate with myself. Payment for having had to listen to her the whole flight. Of course I’m going back to Glasgow broke. But what if it is a trap? What if there are cameras inside the plane? What if the John Lennon guy is not asleep at all, and is just waiting for me to do it? What if the money is marked somehow? And where is Elsabe? Had she returned and gone to the toilet again while I was asleep? Surely I would have woken up if that were the case. Anyway, she could return at any moment.

I open the window blind a bit and stare at the darkness out­side. All I can see is the flickering red light on the tip of the wing. The silence in the plane is like that of the dead. Many people are still claimed by the world of sleep.

A wave of sleep tries to woo me too, and it lifts me to the edge of unconsciousness. I can feel it as it drops me slowly back and lifts me again. I finally fall asleep. I have a strange dream of Elsabe as a homeless person along Empire Road in Johannesburg. It is during the time of the local elections, and as I’m passing by in a taxi I see her carrying a placard with the words Give me R100 or I will vote for the ANC and Zuma to rule over us again.

Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree

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