Princess Bembe – Caught between two worlds: Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog

TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 18. Nr.     Juni 2011

Section | Sektion: Johannesburg in Literature

Caught between two worlds: Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog

Princess Bembe (University of South Africa UNISA) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication

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The aim of this paper is to discuss the novel Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo, a young post-apartheid South African kwaito(1) generation writer. The main focus will be on how the protagonist, Dingz, who is a Wits University student navigates between his township (Soweto) and city (Johannesburg) lives. This will include, among others, aspects of his and his friends’ language use within the two starkly contradictory contexts. In other words, how he switches between English and a local township urban language variety called Is’camtho. The paper will discuss the lived spaces the protagonist finds himself in, and how he negotiates his identity through these.


Niq Mhlongo is one of post-apartheid South Africa’s younger ‘kwaito’ generation of writers. In his novel, Dog Eat Dog, Mhlongo portrays the stark contrast between urban township life and city life set against the backdrop of the 1994 elections. In his endeavour to portray the two spaces, Mhlongo’s use of language in the novel is between English and a hint of the township variety known as ‘Is’camtho’. The latter is an urban township language variety which is used predominantly by males, although there has been some evidence that females also employ it. Is’camtho serves as a marker of urban cultural identity, used to demonstrate linguistic creativity and set one apart as ‘streetwise’. In this paper, focus will be on how Mhlongo navigates between the two spaces of township (Soweto) and the city (Johannesburg), and the use of language to portray each.

Dingz, the protagonist in Dog Eat Dog, is determined to secure himself a place at the Y residence as a student of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). The novel opens with a reflection of Dingz’s frustration when he receives a ‘letter of regret’ from the University Bursay Committee. Dingz begins to think about the implications of this, and takes us back to the hardships of living in the township as compared to being at the University residence. In Chapter One, he makes a comparison between the two spaces in the following way:

Now the thought of being forced to part with the cheese life of the Y because this letter from the Bursary Committee was like a curse. It was as cruel as a man who chops off the breasts of the mother as the hungry baby tries to suck the fresh milk from them (p.8).

The ‘chese life’ that Dingz is referring to is slang for the good or comfortable life. The comparison and use of language in this excerpt is meant to illustrate to the reader, the cruelty of the University system and the implications such refusal to grant Dingz a bursary will have on his life. He uses strong, emotive language to show his frustration through the use of words such as ‘chop off the breasts’ and ‘hungry baby’, and taps into the conscience of the reader. One cannot help but sympathise with him.

Dingz is determined to go against all odds to obtatin the bursary and uses many tactics to ensure he turns his situation around. This is largely inspired by the thought and frustration he feels on thinking about the possibility of living in Soweto. This is how Dingz refers to life in the township:

There was nothing exciting for me about living the life of the unemployed and unemployable, whose days in the township fold without hope…I was tired of my uneventful township life as a whole (p.9).

In his comparison of township (Soweto) versus city life (Wits), Dingz shows how different life in the township is to that of city life. He makes a comparison in particular between living at the University residence (the Y), and living at home (Soweto). At the Y, Dingz had his own room which he shared with his room mate, Dworkin. It is at the Y where he experienced the cheese life and shared a room with Dworkin which is a much better option than living in Soweto. He makes reference to his four-bedromed home in Soweto, which he shared with his large family of twelve members, as confined and ucomfortable. At home, he had to sleep in the dining-room and this meant no privacy in such a confined space.

Dingz further refers to the contrast in lifestyle where he speaks about how at the Y, he can differentiate between his meals where he was ‘fed with cornflakes, bacon and eggs and Jungle oats’ (p.9). However, in Soweto he has to ‘queue in our local shop to buy those oily, constipating fatcakes every morning’ (p.9). Dingzs tries to portray the hardships of township life when compared to living at the Y when he refers to how at the University residence he

no longer walked the streets of the township to find funerals at which to get my weekend lunches. I no longer had to short-change my aunt by buying a fiftee rand piece of meat at our local butcher each time she sent me out with a twenty-rand note; there was no need for that pocket money anymore (pp.9-10).

According to Wafer (2009:16) ‘a sense of place is a subjective and emotional attachment an individual has with a concrete location or locale’. Even though Dingz feels a part of the township since he grew up there, it is evident in the text that his experiences there are not as pleasant as living in the city. Such a comparison in lifestyle aims to show the hardships that Dingz experiences in the township and that is why it becomes essential for him to secure a place at the Y, where according to him life is immensely better than in the township. This is why he is determined to finally obtain a bursary and, as a result, ‘stormed into the Financial Aid Office at the East Campus Senate House’ (p.11) to find an explanation for not being granted financial assistance.

Mhlongo gives Dingz a voice representative of urban township youth culture. This is evident in his use of an urban language variety known as Is’camtho. This is a variety often used by township youth which, in Dog Eat Dog, has Isizulu as a base language and incorporates words from a number of South African languages. Is’camtho is believed to be the ‘language’ of a local music genre known as ‘kwaito’ and represents township youth culture. The following is an example of Is’camtho taken from the novel:

Wola pintshi! Dunga greeted me in township lingo Heyta daar. Please come inside…(p.57)

 The words ‘wola pintshi’ (hello my friend) and ‘heyta daar’ (hi there) are a combination of neologisms and lexicon taken from local South African languages. For instance, ‘daar’ is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘there’. On p.85, the word ‘Z3’ is used as a ‘polite way of referring to HIV/AIDS. The following futher serves to illustrate the point about the use of Is’camtho in the novel:

Angazi mina. Or uyacava wena braDingz? I don’t know, do you have any ides, bra Dingz? Asked Themba, looking at me. Eintlek, udenka ukuthi uslim, ne? You think you are clever ne [right]? asked the indignant driver.
Joe. Angicavi ukuthi uring’a ngani? Man, I don’t know what you are talking about? (p.89).

Mhlongo seems to reserve the use of Is’camtho predominantly to the township context. The above excerpt is one example of this where Dingz and his friend, Themba, encounter a group of men in the township driving a taxi/microbus. The hostility is evidenced in the verbal exchange that ensues between the men and Dingz and Themba. Mhlongo captures the incident and its impact through the characters’ use of the township lingo. He succeeds in protraying the reality of the township situation through the use of Is’camtho in the novel.

The spaces that Dingz finds himself in determines his choice of language (variety). In the township context, he finds himself using Is’camtho with his friends and switches to English when in the city (at Wits). Simon (2010: 3) argues that ‘[E]very  city  is  a  gathering­place  for  cultures,  for  ideas  and  for  styles,  and  languages  are  part  of  the  mix’. Dingz and his university friends meet at the bar in Braamfontein for some drinks. They use predominantly English as the group consists of different races and cultures. This space automatically requires Dingz to consider the context and switch to English to accommodate and be accommodated by the company he finds himself in. The group engages in more informed discussions as compared to the portrayal of Dingz’s friends in the township, who focus mainly on women and parties.

It is evident from the portrayal of the two spaces of township and city that Dingz is caught in the web of identity construction versus reality. In as much as he wishes to escape the drudgery of township life, reality is that he is a part of it and it proves rather difficult to get away from it. It becomes a haunting reality that he wishes to shake off without much success since his roots are anchored there. City life in the form of Wits, on the other hand, presents the possibility of a better life filled with opportunity and peace of mind. This is clear in the stark contrast Dingz makes between township life and city life, and he finds himself nestled uncomfortably between the two. His commuting between Soweto and Wits can be seen as a navigation between his two physical spaces and hybrid identity.

O’Shaugnessy (2010: 1) says ‘[T]oday, apartheid has ended and its boundaries have been redrawn. The city that has emerged is one that very few recognise’. Since Dog Eat Dog is set against the background of the 1994 election, the portrayal of the city is more positive than in later post-apartheid works. Mhlongo creates a more attractive picture of the city in comparison to the bleak one he paints about the township. O’ Shaugnessy (2010) further argues that Johannesburg

embodies certain freedoms and opportunities–not least of which is the freedom from a past, oppressive regime. It has served as a vehicle for the formation of a black urban identity as well as serving as a symbolic and valid avenue for the reclamation of a geo-political position denied to black South Africans throughout most of the twentieth century (2010:3).

Stemming from the above quotation, one could argue that Mhlongo makes the contrast between the two spaces of township and city to demonstrate the damage that apartheid has caused. Dingz sees his life at the Y as an opportunity to break free from the constraints and hardships of township life, forced upon him by the past regime. For Dingz, the city is a vehicle for the reformulation of his black identity in a space filled with new and possibilities and opportunities. It is the ultimate key to his escape from confined and hostile spaces presented by the township.


  • Mhlongo, N. 2004. Dog Eat Dog. Cape Town: Kwela Books
  • O’Shaughnessy, E. Abbreviated PhD Thesis Proposal/ Conference paper Splinters in the Eyes’– Reading the Metropoetics of Crisis in Post-apartheid Johannesburg Fictions. Special Edition: Current Research in the Humanities (postamble), Volume 5 (2) 2010.
  • Simon, S. 2010. Cities in Translation: Some proposals on method.  Université Concordia, Canada.
  • Wafer, M. 2009. Invisible:Johannesburg Seen and Unseenan exploration of the    imaged/imagined city. MA dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,



1 kwaito= A South African urban music genre


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For quotation purposes:
Princess Bembe: Caught between two worlds: Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.
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