American poet and author, Langston Hughes, once wrote: “[O]ne definition of a great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”.
This is what preoccupied me as I read through the pages of Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, The Reactive. Set in Cape Town in the early 2000s, the story is delivered in the first person by Lindanathi, the principal protagonist, who has injected himself with the HI-virus.
In rhythmic prose and with striking lyricism, Ntshanga whisks us into the world of Lindanathi and his two accomplices – Ruan and Cecelia – where drugs, legal and illegal, subsume the three characters’ lives. The three friends maintain their drug habit by selling Lindanathi’s ARVs to the – presumably – startling number of people who are infected with HIV with no foreseeable rehabilitation. The novel plays out during the tragic farce of AIDS denialism by the then government of President Thabo Mbeki which provides a background that makes for pungent socio-political commentary on the anatomy of the post-apartheid state.
However, the writer does not labour this fact. Death’s presence lingers almost negligibly in the text as it does in life, for one must get on with the business of living if one is to get anything done before “he takes his death.”
In the book, Lindanathi occupies a space that has come to define the emergent post-apartheid black middle class youth. Model C schooling, with its accompanying cultural capital and advantages, allows its graduates – of which Lindanathi is one – to traverse the cultural landscape with terrible ease, comfortable in the leafy southern suburbs of Cape Town and the devastating poverty of Du Noon, where the protagonist’s uncle lives in a container with his second wife.
The narrative swings seamlessly from traditional storytelling to that of the modernist tradition of stream-of-conscious as demonstrated by writers such as William Faulkner and the enfant terrible of Zimbabwean late 70s – 80s literary scene – Dambuzo Marechera.
In Masande Ntshanga one finds an erudite writer of exceptional talent, a critical new voice in the contemporary post-apartheid literary scene. His 2013 short story “Space” earned him the Pen International/New Voices Award. In a recent interview, the author brushes off the suggestion that the book is autobiographical, positing instead that “if it’s autobiographical, it’s autobiographical as a chronicle of my thinking, of how my opinions of things have changed and shifted.”
Ardent readers of South African fiction will remember Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow – a novel which also deals with mortality and HIV among its troubling themes. Ntshanga, in his debut offering, joins the tradition of young writers, such as Mpe and K Sello Duiker whose works, principally, dealt with what it means to be young in a country waking up from an apartheid hangover, desperate to re-imagine itself through its fiction.
Lindanathi, to be sure, is the product of his country and in this text, Ntshanga not only reproduces his subjectivity, but does so with disquieting distance; a listlessness which is telling, perhaps, since the country at the time (and even now) treated its youth with apparent disdain, if not resentment. During the Mbeki years and now – with the flagrant corruption of the State in its current form – startling statistics of youth unemployment are attended with the least urgency.
The State, it seems, continues to deny the youth a lifeline. And sooner, than later, the youth will have to react.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.