AiW Guest: Thulani Angoma-Mzini.
In The Border Jumper (2019), Christopher Mlalazi upends the “Jim comes to Joburg” trope about the trafficking of rural dreams in a big city. Mlalazi has created a grimy, high-speed chase, shoot-‘em-up style novel written with intricacy and with a cinematographic style that belies the two dimensional format of a book. Angst reverberates in the story of Qinisela Dube, the novel’s protagonist. Frustrated with being in stasis, Qinisela embarks on a journey to Johannesburg South Africa from the home country Zimbabwe, at a time when it is reeling from ‘…fuel and food shortages… political bickering [and] the aftermath of… chaotic landgrab[s]’ (p. 128). On the other side of the crocodile infested Limpopo River that border jumpers trudge through however, there is no yellow brick road. The lustre of Johannesburg – the City of Gold or ‘Egoli’ to those initiated in the city’s goldmining history – is tarnished by the welcoming he gets; a beating from street vagrants, disdain from unhelpful locals, disregard from fellow countrymen in the new city, constant and insistent fear of the gun wielding Egoli night crawlers. His first experience in Johannesburg rearranges the furniture in Qinisela’s consciousness and shifts his motives from living to survival.
For a few weeks Qinisela resists the din of crime he encounters in his life on the streets. But it is not long before his good nature is silenced by the grumblings of a hungry stomach. He ultimately succumbs and robs an old lady outside a grocery store. At this point Qinisela is forced to confront the person he is becoming:
Was this what he had been also reduced to? A vagrant? Lord have mercy on me. This is not what I came to this city for. At home I was a near vagrant and please not here too. This is Egoli; the city of Gold, where people realise their dreams and go back home to Zimbabwe stinking rich and their skins looking soft from good living (p. 81)
From here onwards life descends into a Wild West existence of gunslinging, sex workers, hordes of cash and cowboy hats. By the end of the book, the body count is at sixteen dead; two drownings, two falls out of high-rise buildings, and twelve dead from riddling bullets.
Nothing ever stands still in Qinisela’s world. Characters are always in motion, mostly in fancy cars with peculiar colours; a purple Porsche, an emerald green E-type Jaguar, a yellow BMW. Narratives are crosshatched as characters unknowingly pass each other only to be introduced in tense circumstances later. In the book, Mlalazi explores the relations and connections between peoples of southern Africa through the intersecting of the story lines of the characters. Mbedzi, the old man who guides the border jumpers into South Africa at the beginning of the story, is father to Hlongwane, a random man who shows a smidgen of kindness to a destitute Qinisela at a Johannesburg park. Disaster, the man who transports Qinisela and crew from the border to the city centre, features towards the end of the book in a calamitous house robbery in Yeoville Johannesburg.
The interconnection between the different groups of people is a comment on the ineffectiveness of country borders in truly separating Africans. The differences are mostly imagined, characteristic of the random work undertaken by the 19th century Berlin Conference – that gathering of Europeans that surgically dissected the African continent into borders, severing umbilical cords in the process. The fantasies of the colonial project, however, persist, often filtering into the consciousness of the colonised to manifest in contemporary xenophobia. In a scene at the Johannesburg park, Qinisela meets Hlongwane. After a short interaction Qinisela walks off and Hlongwane and another man have a conversation as they watch the young man walk away:
’Kwerekwere’ [the man] said, nodding his head at Qinisela’s departing back, a look of open contempt on his face. ‘Mmh mmh. Ndebele that one’ [Hlongwane] replied shaking his head negatively. ‘He is from Zimbawe. Amakwerekwere are from Malawi and Zambia’ (p. 84)
The interaction captures the social corruption inherent in giving geographic spaces nationalistic code names.
There is also an ongoing comment on gender-based violence in the book. Mlalazi explores both the exploitation and abuse of female figures in the ‘pimps-and-hoes’ arrangements of Johannesburg sex work, together with the agency of women over their own bodies in the survival tactics necessary for life on the fringes. In a scene where Qinisela tries to ingratiate with a sex worker at a club in order to get a place to sleep for the night, he creates the persona of a reggae singer in town with a Jamaican band. Sauntering with a patois to try and cheat a young woman of due payment in the transaction comes to naught as the initially coy woman rebukes:
’Money or no fucking, Kissy Johnson,’ she cut him up. ‘You think I’m a child[…]You think I eat [your music festival] in the morning after you fuck me tired and hungry? You think I wash my cunt with reggae show after you make dirty with Rasta sperm? You think bass guitar heal nasty dreadlocked disease you give me[…]what you take me for?’ (p. 78)
While the women are strong and self-assured, Mlalazi doesn’t shy away from exposing the offensive, humiliating, and inhumane violence inflicted by men on female bodies and psyches.
Throughout, each character seems to have been sucked into a life of alternative living as a result of unavoidable systems of domination. The police are portrayed as overseers and perpetrators of abuse. Greedy rich white men get caught up in treacherous scandals that are of marginal economic benefit but fuel their ego and power. In Mlalazi’s dramatic and suspensive ending, Qinisela himself inadvertently comes by the means to try and regain a stolen conscience. Whether this works and where Qinisela lands up is left to the reader’s imagination, also leaving open The Border Jumper‘s brilliant exploration of the corrupting effect of living on the edges of society.
Thulani Angoma-Mzini is a South African wannabe creative non-fiction writer with a passion for reading and a desire to write more.
The Border Jumper is published in South Africa by Xarra Books and is available internationally and online through a number of retailers.
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Great review if a wonderfully told reality fiction.