Jozi: A Novel : a glimpse through a scratched looking glass

| Joshua Maserow

Jozi: a novel is the debut of Swaziland-born journalist, lecturer and editor, Perfect Hlongwane. It is a gut-wrenching tale of loss, anger, love and death in the new South Africa.

This slim book, just 95 pages, pieces together the observations of a set of recurring characters. It’s more like a collection of gritty photographic stills than a novel. The powerful images of downtown Johannesburg in political and urban transition reveal a place where HIV, affirmative action, mob justice, xenophobia, service delivery failure, and the slow progress towards social justice must be confronted by the people who live there.

Frank, an unknown story-teller, gives a birds-eye-view of his troubled life. He has a psychological disorder. Through his eyes we see the failings of his highly talented, young, promising and educated friends. They fall prey alcoholism, illness or violent death through wayward decisions in a city which sets them up for failure. In an evil way, Jozi moves the goalposts further and further from their sights.

Senzo is the first of Frank’s friends we meet. He is an alcoholic and unemployed. He hides his HIV status from the foreign women he beds.

Another of Frank’s crew, the poet, is a chilling portrait of ambition doomed to failure by a money-focused value system that has no time for artistic virtues. The poet eventually disappears without a trace save for a short text speaking of horror, hopelessness and humiliation.

Hlongwane has a rare ability to make themes become characters. For example HIV/AIDS takes on the characteristics of a living, breathing person.

Sipho, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe cadre, dies suddenly of HIV/AIDS related complications and Buhle incorrectly accuses her boyfriend Duma, Frank’s stormy and wiry friend, of passing on HIV/AIDS to her. This accusation ruins his life.

Jozi: a novel is full of moral complexity. For example, Frank trips a bag-snatcher trying to get away from the scene of the crime. After the thief falls, the mob descend on him, beating him to death. In one and the same moment, Frank prevents a robbery, but sets the stage for a murder.

Jozi: a novel is a valuable contribution to the group of voices from Ivan Vladislavic to Phaswane Mphe. It is about the never-ending tragedy and resilience of people from all over the continent. Jo’burg is a place of great opportunity, and joy, and sometimes a place that will “eat you up”.

Despite all the death and destruction, Jozi: a novel shows the toughness and persistence of hope “wanting to badly live”. It is a “useful tragedy”, offering lessons to improve life.

Jozi: a novel is published by University of Kwazulu-Natal Press.

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TOPICS:  Arts and culture

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