The adventures of a Jozi hobosexual

Niq Mhlongo explores the gritty streets of Joburg and the pursuit of gold at the end of its grimy rainbow

30 June 2024 - 00:00 By Thango Ntwasa
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'The City is Mine: A Novel' by Niq Mhlongo.
'The City is Mine: A Novel' by Niq Mhlongo.
Image: Supplied

The City is Mine: A Novel

***** (5 stars)
Niq Mhlongo

A few years ago, as a contributing columnist for the Sowetan newspaper, I wrote an entry about The Dolly Trope: a character trait found in South African literature and media. The term is inspired by a song by local musical icon Ringo Madlingozi.

In his 2007 track, he details the descent of a young woman named Dolly who leaves her village for the bright lights of Johannesburg, but instead of prosperity she gets swept into its unforgivable underbelly. This can be seen in different forms of media that aims to demonise young black women, in particular, who try to ascend the cut-throat world of an urban environment. 

What I found lacking was a similar retelling of this along with the “Jimmy comes to Joburg” approach taken with men. However, Niq Mhlongo’s long-awaited novel The City is Mine: A Novel does this and more.

We follow Mangi, a young salesman on the rise, whose life gets turned upside down after he loses his job and his relationship with his acerbic fiancée Aza ends. Don’t let the colourful cover fool you, the book is dark and dominated by Mangi’s descent into living on the dirty streets of Joburg all while holding onto a vague hope that he is somehow going to make it. 

While Mhlongo has a blunt way of writing, which is appropriate in this telling as it mimics the austere mood of what life in Joburg feels like. It also helps us understand Mangi’s point of view. Mhlongo approaches his writing from the first person as observational and often trite.

Mangi withholds much information from the reader, with showing slivers of emotion when he learns Aza has been deceitful.

Niq Mhlongo.
Niq Mhlongo.
Image: Alet Pretorius

At the beginning of his homelessness, he desperately tries to sweet talk his way back into her life. The end of their relationship also mirrors his emotional negligence as we learn later on that Aza is not just a control freak but a woman with her own mental health struggles — he is quick to abandon her when he learns about it. Through playing the “nice guy”, Mangi now deludes women into being his sugar mommy so he can have the comfortable city life many dream of.

We are also witness to Mangi’s hobosexual tendencies. Hobosexual refers to a person (often a man) who will enter a relationship purely for accommodation and financial gain. All set in the real and familiar environments in Joburg — from Yeoville to Linden — Mangi shines best when he is most curious about the world he has thrown himself into. However, these honest moments reveal how daft Mangi is about the gravity of his homelessness as he continues to seek reprieve and approval from the women who are willing to take care of him. However, Mangi falls head over heels for sex worker Boni. Mhlongo dives deeper into Mangi’s delusions by making us understand how he is driven purely by a need to be loved.

The façade of success dominates the pages of the book as Mangi and many of the people he comes across battle with their separate identities and notions of a home away from the homesteads and townships. While calling Braamfontein Cemetery home, he gets involved in a number of white-collar crimes that see him dress the part to fool many. In a moment of hypocrisy, he scams his way to the next meal but can't see the similarities between him and his homeless friends. He pays a high price after stealing shoes from a masjid.

The City is Mine takes a break from South African fiction’s fetish of demonising and punishing village women for having aspirations of making their own path in the city. Instead, it puts a spotlight on the men who are often behind the skulduggery that has come to define the grimy underbelly of the City of Gold. The book is a great one to dive into if you loved his city slickers For You, I’d Steal a Goat and Joburg Noir.

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