A portrait of the peri-urban: Review of Niq Mhlongo’s “Soweto Under the Apricot Tree” – Thulani Angoma-Mzini

In his award-winning collection of short stories Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, NiqMhlongo has collaged a portrait of the peri-urban and an assortment of characters in quirky stories that explore a variety of topics; from paternity to xenophobia, revolutionary politics and aspirations all the way to vigilantism. And the curious case of one dead cat.

‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is about the tension that builds between two neighbours from the death of a cat. The feline strikes a colonial terror on Ousi Maria, the domestic help of the Phala household. One fateful day his bullying sauntering lands him in cold water and he drowns in the swimming pool. Then ensues the tussle between African culture, with its non-filial connection to domestic pets, and Western culture with its adoptive embrace of the cat and the dog. The story juxtaposes the beliefs of one race against another as neighbours struggle to mend fences.

Mhlongo is interested in the substitution of African beliefs and practices for Christian faith and liturgy. In ‘My Father’s Eyes’ a woman is shocked when her Christian husband consults a traditional healer to establish the cause of their daughter’s cerebral palsy.

”I really don’t understand why we black people have to slaughter goats and cows to ask ancestors for …things that are beyond us by nature,” reflects a mother to a son-in-law about her granddaughter.

“…some things about tradition…Christianity cannot solve,”rebuts the son-in-law.  

The contemplation of tradition also features in the story ‘Avalon’, named after a popular cemetery in Soweto which is the scene for the philosophical reflections on race and politics. Bra Makhenzo, a local political enthusiast and faux business man who floats around the township in his BMW 5 series while drowning in debt, reflects:

“…white people don’t waste money like us black people when it comes to death and burial…when one of them dies today, they bury or burn you tomorrow”

The unnamed narrator of the story gives a blunt reply: “But we’re not white”

Reading Mhlongo’s stories is like discovering a Russian doll. You’ll think of it merely as a quaint ornament, until you realise that there’s another version inside, and another inside that – each layer and its detail coming from a seemingly impossible place. The titular story “Soweto under the apricot tree” presents an example. Sipho, the narrator, sits with his friend Siya and a few elders in the aftermath of a successful tombstone unveiling. Mhlongo starts the story with an innocuous lesson on the history of the apricot, peach and plum trees in apartheid era Soweto. The story meanders on random detail, then out of the blue,

Uncle Bhodloza’s eyes turn to Siya. “You see that branch where the pigeons have just settled? That’s where your father committed suicide

From here details of 70’s township criminals and their exploits expand into the disclosure of a family secret that leaves Sipho confounded:

“Overwhelmed by these family secrets, I decide to go inside the house…Were my mother’s marriage and my birth really just accidents of apartheid?”

The story ends as abruptly as finding the last piece in a Matryoshka doll. Not in any cliff hanger kind of way, but in the quotidian way that you realise the setting sun has suddenly disappeared and it’s dark outside.

Mhlongo is a story teller bar none. Everything he lacks in brevity is made up for in the adventure he captures.

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