Set in South Africa, a teenager finds hierarchies can be subverted if one has the skills to carve out a niche.Literature Review
Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood is situated in Umlazi township in Durban, South Africa and takes the readers on a vertiginous journey through a world of drugs, crime and violence. Narrated via the eyes of a seventeen-year-old boy named Sipho, the storyline simultaneously elucidates the seduction of quick upward social mobility and foreground the disparity between the Black towns of Durban and its former white suburban spaces. The liminal zone between these towns and suburbia holds myriad opportunities in a society where social hierarchies of physical and cultural capital can be blurred if one apparently has the skillset to carve out a niche.
When Sipho proclaims the futility of going to school and dropping out on turning seventeen, “[t]here was absolutely nothing for me in school. My reports were collections of F’s,” the immediacy of the first-person narrative structure and the urgency of his plea almost manage to persuade the readers regarding the rationale behind his choice that would have otherwise come across as outrageous and utterly foolish.
Though certainly not reveling in the lap of luxury, Sipho is not on the brink of poverty either. The usual cliché of a dysfunctional family life has been carefully avoided by the author as there is a glaring absence of an alcoholic and abusive father and a visibly oppressed and absent mother. Au contraire, his parents are employed, make a modest living and share a very healthy rapport with each other and the children, Sipho and his younger sister.
Mzobe painstakingly shows that one need not have suffered psychological abuse in the familial space nor should unbearable impoverishment be the only cause for a teenager to be lured towards the "dark side." Peer pressure, buttressed by the infinite opportunities promised by the entanglements between townships and suburbs, prove sufficient to lead an impressionable teenager astray in a society where economic imperatives decide where power lies. Moreover, Sipho is surrounded by varied manifestations of crime – his father had tried his hand at making easy money the wrong way in the past, his uncle Stan performed spectacularly in the drug business, and the town where he lives is notorious for car stealing, thereby making crime and the codes of criminal brotherhood an integral aspect of his mundane existence and cultural consciousness.
Referring to his friend and the predominant source of inspiration, Musa, he remarks, “His return from Joburg – dressed fresh in Versace, in a car considered the holy grail of BMWs in the township – was drenched in a glorious ‘I have made it’ glow.” Consequently, fascinated by the possibilities of making quick money, Sipho is drawn towards the life of crime that he navigates in all its glamour – drugs, fancy cars, expensive liquor; and horror when Vusi, a friend of his, loses his life in a deal gone awry and Musa’s quick assent also culminates in a terrible tragedy.
The plotline juxtaposes two diametrically opposite options to rise in this society characterized by flux – lucrative gangsterism or successful completion of one’s education and gradual assimilation into the upper echelons of society. Given Sipho’s dramatic journey and disillusionment with the world of crime, eventually the latter option is upheld as the most suitable opportunity for personal and professional advancement. When he decides to join a technical college, Sipho remarks in a very self-aware manner, “My mind never again drifted in class. They teach about things of interest to me, I told myself. But, in retrospect, I know that I concentrated in class because of everything I saw in the year that I turned seventeen.”
The novel does not radically interrogate the existing socio-cultural and economic milieu of Sipho’s society, but in the guise of a cautionary tale, delineates the self-destruction inherent in the pursuit of crime and easy money without passing explicit didactic commentary on the criminals by "othering" them as innately sinful and incapable of choosing an alternative lifestyle.
Besides the usual difficulties involved in trying to extract a straightforward moral framework from a complex narrative, the protagonists in Young Blood exist in a fluid space. They are constantly in motion in their high speed swanky cars as they glide through Durban in all its socio-cultural contradictions, consorting with sexually available young girls who mostly seem (with the exception is Sipho’s girlfriend, Nana) to be a fleeting presence in the storyline. Mzobe is not just tracing the characters’ arcs in his novel. He is putting forth the discursive bubble they inhabit in all its complexity, and he almost never steps outside of it. He is always ventriloquizing, thereby making the plotline both artfully simple and intricate, as far as the spectrum of interpretations are concerned.