You are on page 1of 15

This article was downloaded by: [University of Rhodes]

On: 30 May 2015, At: 02:03


Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered
office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

African Identities
Publication details, including instructions for authors and
subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cafi20

Dystopian dreams from South Africa:


Lauren Beukes's Moxyland and Zoo City
Cheryl Stobie

English Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg


Campus , South Africa
Published online: 21 Jun 2012.

To cite this article: Cheryl Stobie (2012) Dystopian dreams from South Africa: Lauren Beukes's
Moxyland and Zoo City , African Identities, 10:4, 367-380, DOI: 10.1080/14725843.2012.692542
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14725843.2012.692542

PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE


Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the
Content) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,
our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to
the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions
and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,
and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content
should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources
of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,
proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or
howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising
out of the use of the Content.
This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any
substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,
systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &
Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/termsand-conditions

African Identities
Vol. 10, No. 4, November 2012, 367380

RESEARCH ARTICLE
Dystopian dreams from South Africa: Lauren Beukess Moxyland and
Zoo City
Cheryl Stobie*
English Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg Campus, South Africa

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

(Received 30 September 2011; final version received 17 February 2012)


The central theoretical concept underpinning this article is Lyman Tower Sargents
notion of the critical dystopian novel, which is not nihilistic, but which disrupts easy
binarist classifications, and incorporates elements of opposition to oppression, as well
as hope for a more egalitarian future. I examine critical dystopian dreaming as
portrayed in two novels by Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City (2010), both
set in South Africa, and I connect the concerns explored within these novels to the
current mood of the South African nation. Moxyland, which employs techniques of the
dystopian, cyberpunk and slipstream, delineates a technological, materialistic
alternative society which mirrors and intensifies the structural violence of the present.
Zoo City was the recipient of the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award, a British award
presented to the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom in the
previous year. In this dystopian text, billed as a muti (or indigenous medicine) noir
novel, Beukes interestingly indigenises the concept of the animal daemon which she
adapts from Philip Pullman.
Keywords: critical dystopia; science fiction; Lauren Beukes; South African fiction

Introduction
Recently Cameroonian-born academic Achille Mbembe, who now lives and works in
South Africa, spoke at a seminar about what South Africa could have represented globally:
a non-racial democracy (2011). Mbembe reminded his audience that the broad agreement
of the freedom struggle was to build a nation transcending race. This South African
experiment had a value beyond South Africa itself, in its dream of non-racial amity and
equality. However, sadly, a polarised discourse of race is now distressingly prevalent. The
initial moment of post-apartheid euphoria has been followed by disenchantment and
melancholy. Now, although laws legislating difference have been dismantled, the ideology
underpinning them has been internalised. Instead of opening up the future in a shared
fashion, what has occurred is simply a fight among the elites for the spoils, leaving little or
nothing for the needy.
One way to recapture that foundation of hope is through socially aware writing.
Writers are story-tellers and thinkers who can lead to a mutation of thought by questioning
issues such as rights to a fair share, reciprocity and democracy. Writers can revitalise the
power of language which has been rendered stagnant by cliches, stereotypes and

*Email: stobiec@ukzn.ac.za
ISSN 1472-5843 print/ISSN 1472-5851 online
q 2012 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14725843.2012.692542
http://www.tandfonline.com

368

C. Stobie

repetitions of the past. Imaginative, creative writing could re-foreground the ethical
foundations of democracy, and provide an inspiring, fresh vision.
In my opinion Lauren Beukes, through the critical dystopias of her novels Moxyland
(2008) and Zoo City (2010), offers a view of South African society which holds up to
scrutiny the dystopia of institutionalised segregation, criminality, violence, oppression and
human rights violations which characterised the past and persists into the future. Turning
to the alternative of the near future or a parallel universe, she invites her readers to join her
in dreaming new horizons of hope.

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

Utopia, dystopia, eutopia


This article metaphorically offers some seeds of postcolonial hope by virtue,
paradoxically, of its attention to representations of dystopias, imaginary spaces in
literature which are clearly worse than contemporary society. Raffaela Baccolini and Tom
Moylan, critics in the field of utopianism, provide a useful overview of waves of literature
which emphasised either the eutopian (or better alternative society) or the dystopian (or
palpably worse alternative society) (2003, pp. 1 12). They categorise such twentiethcentury examples of the dystopian imagination as Aldous Huxleys Brave new world
(1932) and George Orwells 1984 (1949) as the classical, or canonical, form of dystopia
(Baccolini and Moylan 2003, p. 1). Such works alert readers to the potentially catastrophic
consequences of continuing on a particular path of collective behaviour. This point is
emphasised by the absolute bleakness of the endings of these texts.
In contrast, the countercultural ethos of the late 1960s and 1970s, imbued with
ecological, feminist and leftist theories, gave rise to a spate of texts which visualised
eutopian contexts, with good, but not impossibly perfect, societies. Because these texts,
exemplified by Marge Piercys Woman on the edge of time (1976), were not closed,
idealising or prescriptive, Moylan refers to them as being part of a movement he calls the
critical utopia (1986, pp. 10 11).
The Zeitgeist of the 1980s, with its ideological shift to the right and its increasing
fundamentalism, corporatisation and consumerism, sounded the death-knell of utopianism,
and there was another turn to the dystopian. Early examples of this phase include the
nihilistic cyberpunk world of William Gibsons Neuromancer (1984). Cyberpunk is a
branch of science fiction which typically features advanced technology and an alienated
denizen of societys underbelly. A subsequent phase of cyberpunk by authors such as Pat
Cadigan, and other novels by authors including Octavia E. Butler, Marge Piercy and Ursula
Le Guin, epitomise the oppositional stance of critical dystopia: a critical narrative form that
worked against the grain of the grim economic, political, and cultural climate (Baccolini
and Moylan 2003, p. 3). Fredric Jameson, who is intrigued by the trope of utopia,
memorably describes this incarnation of the dystopian as a bile [offering] a joyous counterpoison and corrosive solvent to apply to the surface of what is (1990, p. 249).
Utopian theorist, Lyman Tower Sargent, provides a useful distinction between the
concepts of dystopia and anti-utopia. For Sargent, the latter notion implies a resistance to
the very idea of utopianism, while a dystopia is a negative utopia (1994, p. 9). Building on
this, Sargent defines a critical dystopia as a non-existent society described in considerable
detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous
reader to view as worse than contemporary society but that normally includes at least one
eutopian enclave or holds out hope that the dystopia can be overcome and replaced with a
eutopia (2001, p. 222). Despite the grimness of the worlds described, critical dystopias
allow for some hope, or social dreaming within the reader; they activate the dreams and

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

African Identities

369

the nightmares that concern the ways in which groups of people arrange their lives and
which usually envision a radically different society than the one in which the dreamers
live (Sargent 1994, p. 3).
A number of techniques contribute to the effects experienced as social dreaming within
a dystopian text. The character typically becomes progressively more disaffected and
alienated, leading to a counter-narrative of politicised resistance to the hegemonic structures
of the society. While eutopias tend to be imbued with a totalising impulse, the conflicts in
critical dystopias enable social critique and the seeds of hope for a more just, progressive
society. These novels are not subjected to the tyranny of closure, but offer certain
possibilities for individuals who live beyond the mainstream. Instead of being absolutist or
pure in terms of genre, the texts are characterised by the insights of feminism,
postmodernism and postcolonialism, and offer a range of voices and a productive mix of
genres. Baccolini and Moylan note that it is the very notion of an impure genre, with
permeable borders which allow contamination from other genres, that represents resistance
to a hegemonic ideology that reduces everything to a global monoculture (2003, p. 8).
Ralph Pordzik provides insightful comments on postcolonial utopian fiction (2001a
and b), although he does not use the term critical dystopia which I find particularly
relevant. However, he notes that many writers from previously colonised countries offer
alternatives to the closed form of Western dystopianism reviled by the Caribbean author
Wilson Harris in The womb of space (1983) (Pordzik 2001a, p. 178, 2001b, p. 130), which
can be seen as comparable to what Baccolini and Moylan refer to as classical, or
canonical dystopias (2003, p. 1). Pordzik (2001a) decries the nightmarish absolutism of
Orwells classic dystopia, 1984, as he devotes attention to examples of the dystopian and
utopian in a number of South African novels published in the 1980s and early 1990s,
including Nadine Gordimers Julys people (1981) and A sport of nature (1987), J.M.
Coetzees Life and times of Michael K (1983), and Mike Nicols This day and age (1992).
Pordzik analyses his chosen texts to reveal how far they contribute to an understanding of
society that accounts for the interpenetration of cultural codes and attitudes, and
acknowledges their important function in the process of creating new perceptual
possibilities, of exploring and charting the multifarious relations between different
systems of cognition (2001a, p. 178). He shows ways in which the utopian/dystopian
project in his selected novels imagines dynamic forms of social change in the future, and
also problematises the Western focus of utopian conjecture. Instead of visualising a stable
and united national imaginary, conceived as a simple reaction to the static, racially
hierarchical ideology of apartheid, these novels give space to varied discourses, thus
privileging multiplicity and heterogeneity, seen as healthy symptoms of a body politic in
constant flux. Individual novels critique universalising power systems, such as patriarchy;
conceive of links across the African continent; include cross-cultural myths; and offer
radical alternatives to quotidian life.
The national mood in post-apartheid South Africa, and dystopian cultural
production
The period under consideration by Pordzik, the 1980s and early 1990s, was a watershed
era. It will be recalled that the 1980s in South Africa were dark days, when a mood of
despair prevailed, and the possibility of civil war was a real threat. Progressive writers
were involved in anti-apartheid discourse opposed to the draconian political regime. By
contrast, the 1990s offered up more hope, and the mood shifted to a post-apartheid mindset
in which cultural relativism was under scrutiny. As the new national imaginary was being

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

370

C. Stobie

forged it was faced with problems relating to the rights, identity and assimilation of
various cultural groups. In responding to these issues, post-apartheid utopian fiction
engages with issues of national and cultural identity obliquely, eschewing the extremes of
the rigid eutopia or the grim dystopia, and it regain[s] fictional space for a
transformational understanding of futurity (Pordzik 2001a, p. 191).
However, the 17 years of the post-apartheid era have not been uniform, and individual
works written at different times reflect the national Zeitgeist. To generalise, the years of
Nelson Mandelas presidency (1994 1999) were characterised by an optimistic mood,
resulting from relief that a bloodbath had been averted and that national consensus had
been achieved, as well as from the iconic presence of the globally revered, conciliatory,
forgiving Mandela at the helm of the country. The years of Thabo Mbekis presidency
(1999 2008) were increasingly gloomy, with an increase of public protest and paranoia
stemming from high crime and unemployment rates, lack of service delivery, a power
crisis, xenophobic attacks and Mbekis connection to Aids denialists, resulting in a lack of
effective treatment. After Jacob Zuma became president in 2009 the national mood
remained sour compared with the initial post-apartheid euphoria. Personal controversies
which have dogged Zuma include claims of corruption, racketeering, cronyism and sexual
intemperateness, while such matters as land redistribution and provision of housing are
ongoing grievances, leading to considerable disenchantment with the government despite
ongoing popular support for the African National Congress (ANC).
In twenty-first-century South Africa, authors, artists and film directors, varied in terms
of age, gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality, are engaging strongly with an established
strand of critical dystopianism in South African cultural products. Recent examples of
such products include: from the domain of the literary, K. Sello Duikers Thirteen cents
(2000) and The quiet violence of dreams (2001), Phaswane Mpes Welcome to our
Hillbrow (2001), Eben Venters Trencherman (English translation 2008), Marlene van
Niekerks Agaat (English translation 2006), Kgebetli Moele s Room 207 (2006) and
Angelina N. Sithebes Holy hill (2007); from the rapidly growing domain of crime
thrillers, which investigate the pathological body politic, work by Margie Orford, Roger
Smith and Andrew Brown; from the domain of fine art, the travelling exhibition titled
Dystopia, curated by Elfrieda Dreyer and Jacob Lebeko, that appeared in Pretoria,
Johannesburg, Manguang and Ghent from 2009 to 2011; and from the domain of film,
District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp in 2009.
Lauren Beukess two novels, Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City (2010), can be seen to
form part of this substantial tradition, and in particular to emerge from the national mood
slump of the Mbeki and Zuma eras. These two imaginative works fall much closer to the
dystopian end of the spectrum than the eutopian, and in each case the effects of various
techniques enable the reader to view the texts as central examples of critical dystopias,
with specific siting in a South African writing history and local socio-political issues. The
project of the novel can be seen against a background of general theoretical observations
applied to the concept of the critical dystopia as experienced by readers. Fredric Jameson
suggests that science fiction enables readers to see the present as history (1982, p. 151).
Tom Moylan extrapolates from this starting point to suggest that as dystopian fictions
criticise socio-political systems from the perspective of disaffected outsiders, the reader
becomes infused with a militant pessimism, and, further, the characteristically open
endings foster focused anger and radical hope (2000, pp. 155, 157). Writing in a
general literary context (and superciliously dismissive of what he calls the School of
Resentment, including such ideologues as feminists), Harold Bloom suggests that
Perhaps the ultimate motive for metaphor, or the writing and reading of figurative

African Identities

371

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

language, is the desire to be different, to be elsewhere (1994, p. 523). Ruth Levitas argues
that the role of utopia is the education of desire (1990, pp. 7 8). Ildney Cavalcanti,
writing from a feminist perspective about critical dystopias, uses Blooms point about the
desire of the reader to be transported elsewhere to note that literary eutopias can insulate
readers from social ills, whereas literary dystopias refuse such consolations and, by their
thwarting of the readers desire, these texts increase political and ethical awareness and
entrench readers initial position as desiring subjects (2003, p. 64). In addition to these
points about the effects on the reader of critical dystopian texts, Raffaela Baccolini notes
the consequences of mixed genre usage: It is precisely the use, re-vision, and
appropriation of generic fiction that constitute an oppositional writing practice and an
opening for utopian elements in [ . . . ] dystopian fiction (2000, p. 13).
Moxyland
Beukess first novel, Moxyland, is set in the near future, in Cape Town, the city which
grew on the site of the colonial encounter in the seventeenth century. The novel, which
employs techniques of the dystopian, cyberpunk and slipstream, delineates a highly
technological and materialistic alternative society which mirrors and intensifies the
structural violence of the present. The novel is narrated from the point of view of four
characters, all of whom attempt in different ways to live out their dreams and subvert the
oppressive social, political and economic forces which prevail. It illustrates the effects of
fragmentation, disconnection and ambiguity, and culminates in a shocking yet
suggestively open-ended finale.
In 2018, the present of Moxyland, an ostensibly democratic South Africa is controlled
by a powerful group of corporations, supported by a repressive police force and a collusive
government. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened compared with
todays South Africa, although race is not the grounds for this division. The urban area is
cordoned off from the Rurals, who form a shadowy underclass periodically quarantined as
a result of terrifying outbreaks of some unspecified contagious illness, which suggests
and extends present-day anxieties about HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. Medical advances are
available only to the wealthy, and long-standing political promises to provide decent
housing for those outside the security of the middle class have remained unfulfilled. One of
the characters, the activist Tendeka, sourly comments:
The taxi rockets around Hospital Bend, which used to feature an actual hospital, home to
the worlds first heart transplant, before it got turned into luxury apartments, past the nice
middle-class burbs, Obs and Rosebank and Pinelands and Langa, and into the loxion sprawl
proper. Dont be fooled by the cosy apartment blocks lining the highway, its all Potemkin
for the tourists. You just need to go a couple of blocks in to find the real deal, the tin shacks
and the old miners hostels and the converted containers now that the shipping industry
has died together with the economy. All the same shit theyve been promising to fix since
the 1955 Freedom Charter or whatever it was. And despite the border patrols, the sprawl
just keeps on spreading. You cant keep all of the Rurals out all of the time. (Beukes 2008,
p. 28)

In the city, technology is used to bombard hapless citizens with advertising in order to
provoke appetites for expensive commodities. The bulk of the population is kept happy
and controlled by means of cell-phone technology. Cell-phones are used for the transfer of
money for goods and services, and they offer access to certain areas, and special privileges
to employees of the corporations, who form a social elite who despise the civilians
denied access to their superior transport, spaces and food. But in addition to conferring
benefits, cell-phones are used by the government as a potent means of control: minor

372

C. Stobie

infractions are punished by defusing, a kind of shock treatment through the individuals
cell-phone, which results in tractable behaviour, while more serious offences are punished
by disconnection, leading to the effective obliteration of the individual. One character,
who uses the moniker skyward* online, comments on

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

corrupting govts with their own agendas, politicians on their payroll, exacerbating the
economic gaps. building social controls and access passes and electroshock pacifiers into the
very technology we need to function day to day, so youve no choice but to accept the defuser
in your phone or being barred from certain parts of the city because you dont have clearance.
(p. 96)

The four first-person narrators are a mix of different races, genders, nationalities,
backgrounds and temperaments, yet they form a group of desiring subjects who provide
grounds for identification, anger, militant pessimism and ethical judgement on the part of
the reader. Three of the four first-person narrators of Moxyland attempt to counter the
power of the corporatised state, while the fourth, a young white photographer named
Kendra, is accidentally embroiled in the protests which the others more actively
participate in. Although she is a sensitive and original creative artist, she is also needy and
vulnerable, particularly as a result of callous treatment at the hands of her male lover,
which leads to her co-optation by the lure of a corporations nano-technology that renders
her immune from injury or disease as she becomes a living bill-board, addicted to a soft
drink called Ghost.
Tendeka, a black Zimbabwean gay man, is one of the most sympathetic characters in
the novel. Although his sexuality is treated as incidental, by making him Zimbabwean
Beukes is implicitly criticising the complaint that homosexuality is unAfrican raised by
such African leaders as Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Jacob Zuma and others.
Further, Tendekas partners name, Ashraf, suggests that he comes from a Muslim
background, and Beukess choice of this name implies a subtle opposition to Islamic
homophobia. Tendeka and Ashraf have a loving relationship which is contrasted with the
more problematic relationships of the heterosexual characters. They are a committed and
caring couple who run a programme to assist street children, who belong to the underclass
without cell-phones. Tendeka has married a pregnant refugee to provide her with
citizenship, and he and Ashraf hope to adopt the baby. Paired with his sense of social
responsibility is a passionate zeal to eradicate injustice, by violent means if necessary.
Each of the characters is portrayed as flawed, and Tendekas sense of mission makes him a
risk-taker whose downfall is occasioned because of his gullible trust in the machinations of
skyward*, who is an agent provocateur.
Toby, the third main character, is a young white man with wealthy parents who have
cut him off because of his drug habit. He owns an expensive coat containing embedded
cameras which project multiple images on to its surface. As an act of urban terrorism he
can also project these images on to the advertising billboards throughout the city. Toby is
selfish, sexist and manipulative, but his insatiable desire for thrills induces him to join
Tendeka in acts of civic protest.
The fourth central character is Lerato, a young black woman who was raised in an
orphanage after her parents died of Aids, and who is an ambitious corporate employee with
computer skills which Toby and Tendeka persuade her to use as part of their protest
actions. Beukes is again raising the spectre of a great social problem in South Africa by
referring to Leratos Aidsbaby status. Her deprived childhood has made her predatory
and ruthless, and she treats a young man who is in love with her with callous indifference.
Beukes represents gender from the perspective of contemporary sophisticated urbanites
who have moved beyond simple representations of victims and perpetrators. Gender,

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

African Identities

373

sexuality, Aids and street children are all examples of human rights issues which are
embedded in the novel, without any attempt at preaching, but in such a way as to elicit an
intellectual and emotional response from the reader.
Moxyland exemplifies the twenty-first-century usage of the critical dystopia in South
African writing. One of the techniques used by Beukes which fits into the writing mode of
the critical dystopia is the use of cross-generic traffic. The overarching framework of the
dystopian is pervaded with echoes of soulless technology and the terrorising of the
individual as portrayed in 1984 and Brave new world. Yet to counterbalance the negativity
of this portrayal of society, Moxyland displays elements of later cyberpunk. In its earlier
manifestation cyberpunk was characterised by a bleakly visualised world showing the
effects of technological change on society in general and characters alienated from the
elite power base in particular, as in William Gibsons Neuromancer. However, later
cyberpunk writers, such as Pat Cadigan, offer the possibility of concerted, creative
responses to technology and its effects on human bodies, both male and female. Kendras
Ghost-branding confers benefits as well as drawbacks, and at the end of the novel when she
and Toby have sex, she unwittingly passes on her branding to him, enabling him to survive
infection with the Marburg virus. Also typical of later cyberpunk and critical dystopia,
Beukes offers the sense of multiple nodes of protest suggested by the use of four firstperson narrators in Moxyland, even though these characters are not united in a clear-cut
revolution or struggle, and even though their attempts at protest are ineffectual or defeated
because of various errors of judgement. Joining with the energy the novel attains by its use
of cyberpunk is a further range of possibilities achieved by its use of the stylistic heritage
of slipstream, a surreal and dislocating postmodernist style of writing which blurs the
boundary between speculative and literary fiction, as seen in the work of Kathy Acker.
Slipstream transcends the framework of realism in order to highlight and sardonically
attack ethically indefensible issues naturalised in everyday life. Beukes uses individual
characters to display attitudes towards such indictments on the South African nation-state
as the profusion of street children, illiteracy, Aids, unequal access to services including
medical services, and one of the highest disparities between the rich and the poor in the
world. She also points to the potential benefits as well as dangers associated with
technology, such as cell-phones, the Internet and virtual games. These dangers include
manipulation, collusion and control.
A final technique used by Beukes in Moxyland which places the novel within the
category of the critical dystopian is the open ending. The firebrand Tendeka has been
unknowingly manipulated by his online contact skyward* into organising a protest with
his street children. Toby and Kendra are in the same area. The police unleash the Marburg
virus in order to control the protest and all the dissidents. The virus can be treated if people
report to an immunity centre monitored by the police. Tendeka does not go to the
immunity centre and dies an excruciating death, the epitome of body-horror, as his internal
organs are liquefied and ooze out of his orifices. Tendeka perceives his death as the
ultimate protest against the corrupt regime which is prepared to censor, repress and kill its
own citizens, and is comforted by Tobys reassurance that he is videotaping his death and
is transmitting the video to all the billboards in the city. While Toby has indeed videotaped
Tendekas death he has not broadcast it, however.
At the end of the novel two of the four characters, Tendeka and Kendra, are dead, as
Kendra has been euthanased by her Ghost-sponsors. These deaths reveal the power of the
state and the corporations, which both act without reference to the law or human rights.
The two survivors are Lerato and Toby. Lerato has been monitored through all her illegal
online dealings, and is blackmailed not only into compliance with her corporation but also,

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

374

C. Stobie

as a highly intelligent and skilled operator, she is coerced into becoming a manipulative
agent provocateur like skyward*, thus orchestrating terrorism against the state which will
subsequently be violently quashed with the maximum publicity. Toby stands at the
crossroads of deciding what to do with the videotape of Tendekas death. He realises that
he has the power to release it either as the untimely and grotesque death of a terrorist or
as a memorial to a martyr, noting that the angle Depends on whos paying (Beukes
2008, p. 236). As Toby is the arch-opportunist, and as he heads into a whole new bright
world (p. 236), with its ironic echoes of Shakespeares and Huxleys brave new worlds,
his decision might be seen as weighted towards the portrayal of Tendeka as a terrorist. Yet,
on the other hand, he is shown as deeply disturbed even if briefly by Tendekas death,
and he also owes his life to Kendra. His survival while the more sympathetic characters
have been killed off strikes the reader as offensive and shocking; however, the text leaves
the reader without closure, thereby activating a heartfelt desire for Tobys better instincts
to prevail, even while experiencing a profound scepticism. This is the reaction of
empathic, militant pessimism which critical dystopias are wont to catalyse.
Zoo City
In April 2011 Beukess second novel, Zoo City (2010), won the 25th Arthur C. Clarke
award, the premier United Kingdom prize for science fiction. Zoo City is set in another
historically significant South African city, Johannesburg, which accumulated its wealth
from the labour of mainly black gold miners, starting in the second half of the nineteenth
century. This novel is likewise dystopian, being billed as a muti (or indigenous medicine)
noir novel. The main character is a young black woman who resides in the inner-city
Johannesburg ghetto of Zoo City (based on Hillbrow), where zoos or aposymbiots live.
As a result of a serious crime, each of these individuals has been mystically bonded with an
animal, which acts as a living marker of social transgression, and which, while it is alive,
keeps at bay the Undertow, or a force which annihilates the human. In addition, each
zoo is conferred with a psychic gift, which brings with it the possibility of hard-won
redemption. Beukes interestingly indigenises the concept of the animal daemon which she
adapts from Philip Pullman.
Johannesburg is a particularly apposite setting for Zoo City. The city contains the most
extreme contrasts in economic circumstances, ranging from the obscenely wealthy to the
desperately poor. It is known as eGoli, city of gold, where people from various countries
flock in hopes of achieving fame and fortune, or simply survival. Winston Churchill
reputedly epitomised the city as Monte Carlo on top of Sodom and Gomorrah (quoted in
Kruger 2001, p. 223). This aphorism encapsulates concepts of risk, money, crime, sexual
transgression and punishment, all of which form part of Johannesburgs aura. Hillbrow is
the intense epicentre of this network of associations. It was the place where successive
waves of immigrants found homes, and where the apartheid governments policy of racial
segregation could not be enforced. More recently it has been the centre of xenophobic
attacks by people anxious about foreigners limiting access to resources. Violence, excess
and exploitation feature in a range of stories told about this dystopian city, including
novels, plays and films, and Zoo City continues and intensifies this tradition.
The people living in the place called Zoo City are not connected or separated by such
markers as race or ethnicity. Instead, their community life is based on the great leveller of
their shared outsider status. Most of them are marked as criminals by their animal
familiars. These people are stigmatised by mainstream society, and are unable to find
accommodation elsewhere. The area is perceived as a sort of cess-pit containing the dregs

African Identities

375

of society: Murderers, rapists, junkies. Scum of the earth. In China they execute zoos on
principle. Because nothing says guilty like a spirit critter at your side (Beukes 2010,
pp. 8 9). While these creatures signify criminality they also keep their human
counterparts temporarily safe from the hell which is the Undertow:
The air pressure dips, like before a storm. A keening sound wells up soft and low, as if its
always been there, just outside the range of human hearing. It swells to howling. And then the
shadows start to drop from trees, like raindrops after a storm. The darkness pools and gathers
and seethes.

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

The Japanese believe its hungry ghosts. The Scientologists claim its the physical
manifestation of suppressive engrams. Some eyewitness reports describe teeth grinding and
ripping in the shadows. Video recordings have shown only impenetrable darkness. I prefer to
think of it as a black hole, cold and impersonal as space. Maybe we become stars on the other
side. (pp. 208 209)

The ontological shift conceived of by Beukes is global, but interpreted differently


according to local or ideological frames of reference. The Undertow is a fearful force, a
potent threat and an enforcement of justice. The conceptual underpinning of the text is thus
both planet-wide and specifically interpreted; it dreams of consequences for actions and
the possibility of some form of transcendence. The largely dystopian notion includes the
possibility of hope and redemption, placing the text firmly within the category of the
critical dystopian.
The chronotope of Zoo City is 2010, and it occupies an alternative reality to the
present. Most of the novel is recounted in first-person present-tense narration by 32-yearold Zinzi December, who is animalled because of actions when she was a drug addict
having led to the death of her brother. As a result of debts to an underworld organisation
Zinzi participates in 419 Internet scams. In addition, she uses her shavi, or gift associated
with her animal, to find lost objects. She is framed for murder and becomes implicated in
harrowing detective work tracing the girl half of mixed-gender twins who are a singing
sensation. She also uncovers the perpetrators of a string of gruesome murders.
The other main character is Zinzis lover, Benot, a Congolese refugee who is also
animalled. At the end of the novel the two work together to solve the mystery of the crimes
which have been committed, and Zinzi saves Benot from death. Finally, while he recovers
from his fearsome wounds in hospital, she sets off for Kigali to track down his wife and
three children, thereby achieving redemption by altruistically thinking of Benot and his
family. Despite the horrors of greed, exploitation, poverty and murder, the novel ends with
the solving of crimes, the punishing of some of the guilty, the re-establishment of order,
and a sense of pride in making the ethical decision for Zinzi: Its going to be the best thing
Ive done with my miserable life (Beukes 2010, p. 309). The hope offered here, despite
the dystopian setting and troubling events, makes the utopian elements of Zoo City even
stronger than in Moxyland.
As in Moxyland, Beukes employs techniques to disrupt the security of a coherent,
unified voice within Zoo City. One of the ways in which she achieves a multiplicity of
perspectives, despite the fast-paced narrative recounted by her main character, is by
weaving in supplementary chapters written by collaborators, including purported
journalistic accounts of imprisoned criminals with animal familiars, or a psychological
analysis of the Undertow. These elements add to the realistic aspects of the magical
realism of the novel. Another interesting method used by Beukes is also typical of features
of the critical dystopia: her amalgamation of different genres, in the case of this novel what
has been referred to as muti noir. By combining these two writing modalities Beukes is
tapping in to each ones capacity simultaneously to offer access to subterranean

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

376

C. Stobie

psychological and spiritual phenomena, and the hope of exercising control over ones
fate. At the same time she is amplifying the possibilities of noir beyond its original
manifestation as a Western and androcentric (if not implicitly misogynistic) form, and she
is investigating the possibilities of traditional African belief systems, explored from a
sympathetic perspective, within the framework of noir. She thus brings noir into dialogue
with postcolonialism and feminism.
Typically, noir texts are stylish, dark and cynical, featuring a private investigator
involved in a criminal underworld. The five characteristic features of noir as noted by
French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their book translated as
A panorama of American film noir 1941 1953 (2002) are: oneiric, strange, erotic,
ambivalent, and cruel. Stylistically these films are usually disrupted by flashbacks, and
display first-person narration. They focus on crime, particularly murder, in gritty urban
settings. The characters are flawed and alienated, and are frequently shown as engaged in
love affairs. Later developments of the original noir films of the 1940s and 1950s include
science fiction noir, such as Soylent green (1973) (mentioned in Zoo City), set in a
dystopian near-future world where humans are killed for food; and cyberpunk, such as
Blade Runner (1982), set in a dystopian Los Angeles and featuring replicants, organic
robots consigned to menial labour. Obviously the various genres under discussion with
relation to Moxyland and Zoo City overlap, and the impossibility of precise definitions
lends weight to Beukess own avowed dislike of labels (2011). However, it is useful to
suggest features which act as a shorthand to illuminate characteristic features of both
novels.
Although film noir is a nebulous and shifting genre, it is characterised by a sense of
pessimism, of unwanted situations and of its characters being doomed by fate. Beukes uses
these notions with relation to her central character in Zoo City. In a number of ways, Zinzi
can be seen as exhibiting the characteristics of various noir archetypes. Her character
includes elements of the vice-ridden private eye, the hapless con artist, the victim of
circumstance and the femme fatale. She is, ultimately, one of a long line of loners
wandering through a tough world that turns their highest projects into ultimate disasters
(Polan 1985, p. 77). Zoo City, the texts nickname for Hillbrow, is the dark underbelly of
an inherently corrupt world, dominated by sex, drugs and varying levels of crime.
Muti, in the sense in which it is used in Zoo City, refers literally to a substance prepared
by a sangoma, a traditional healer. This muti or medicine contains biological, zoological
and mineral components, as well as man-made products. The novel includes a scene where
Zinzi consults a sangoma for help in finding Song, the missing twin. Typical of the noir
form and her modernist perspective, Zinzi is flippant about the powers of the sangoma,
who is a conduit to the realm of the ancestors (and who previously was a wealthy actuary).
However, she moves from scepticism to a position of respect and trust, and this shift of
perspective forms a model for the suspension of disbelief required by the reader from
outside an indigenous knowledge system:
Im not really interested in sacrificing chickens or cows or witches or evil spirits or
shadows. Its very simple. Im looking for something. Vuyo said you could help me.
Something? Or someone? he asks slyly. Because this little stone over here, he rocks the
bit of quartz backwards and forwards with his thumb, says youre not being open with me.
Someone, I agree, grudgingly.
Two someones, he says, his finger darting between two practically identical bits of
amber. Is it twins? Twins are very powerful. In Zulu culture we used to kill one of the pair to
kill the bad luck.

African Identities

377

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

Can I add humans to the non-sacrifice list? But Im impressed and a little bit shaken,
and he knows it. I concede, Im sorry, baba, I meant no disrespect to you or the amadlozi.
(Beukes 2010, p. 170)

The sangoma gives Zinzi traditional muti, which, after she has ingested it, has the
effect of propelling her into a psychologically and spiritually receptive state. She is forced
into a degree of reluctant acceptance about its powers when she enters oneiric states akin
to prophetic trances which assist her to solve the mysteries confronting her. This would
seem to place her as having special powers akin to those of the sangoma, but which she
blocks because of her rationality. In addition, however, her receptivity is shown by the fact
that murdered people are able to communicate gnomically with her by email, presumably
in the hopes of having these crimes solved and being given a dignified burial, which Zinzi
is ultimately able to facilitate. Yet the term muti does not only have positive connotations
of healing. It may also be used for umthakathi or evil witchcraft, a practice which is widely
condemned. Within the novel, Beukes makes reference to the practice of muti murders,
which are performed in order to harvest body parts for potent magic. She connects this
usage to humans and to the animals attached to criminals within the novel.
The term Beukes uses for both these animals and the gifts they confer is shavi
(singular), mashavi (plural). As explained in the novel (Beukes 2010, pp. 177 178), the
word ma/shavi is Southern African, specifically used by the Shona in Zimbabwe, and
refers to homeless spirits of the dead which are seeking a living host as they have not been
able to join the ancestors. A traditional diviner can divert such a spirit to an animal host,
which is then made a scapegoat. If a human accepts a wandering spirit which needs a
home, he or she is blessed with certain skills. The novel adapts this notion by making the
animals which appear after a serious crime is committed an embodiment or Scarlet Letter
of the evil performed; however, at the same time, they offer assistance redolent of spiritual
wisdom to the transgressors. This represents a significant indigenisation of the concept of
the animal familiar as employed by Philip Pullman in his Dark Materials trilogy, which is
based on a Western, Jungian model.
Zinzi constantly has the reminder of her past sins Sloth quite literally hanging
around her neck. Throughout much of the text, he stops her indulging in the kind of selfdestructive behaviour which resulted in him coming to her in the first place. In much the
same way as the dried-out private eye returns to alcohol as his case goes cold, Zinzi returns
to the cradling arms of drugs and random sex as her job goes bad. Song, the girl for whom
Zinzi has been searching, is found instead by the characters she mostly calls by their
animals or mashavi the Maltese and the Marabou. These two thugs hired by the same
man who is paying her, exploitative and murderous music producer Odi Huron, whisk
Song away before Zinzi can establish precisely why she has run away. In spite of Sloth
then, Zinzi takes on the characteristic of the noir searcher who can find no safe space from
which he or she (but usually he) can confidently observe the problems of the rest of the
world while remaining untouched him- or herself (Polan 1985, p. 80). Scenes involving
water illustrate Zinzis complex relationship to her environment. Water is usually seen as
symbolising cleansing and purification. However, Zinzi faces violence as well as the
possibility of tracing lost valuables as she immerses herself in the repugnant deeps of the
storm water drains in the inner city. In the wealthy suburbs, when she dives into Hurons
swimming pool, she encounters a symbolically resonant albino crocodile shavi (P.W.
Botha, South African state president from 1984 1989, was known as die Groot
Krokodil, or big crocodile), as well as a number of rotting corpses and the nearly lifeless
body of her lover Benot, all of which act as a reminder of the lingering structural violence
of apartheid. However, Zinzis dive is reminiscent of the spiritually significant dive which

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

378

C. Stobie

a trainee sangoma must perform in order to access her or his hidden bag of muti; success in
this task qualifies the trainee to become a fully fledged sangoma.
In a subversion of more moralistic examples of the typical noir form, but characteristic
of postmodern adaptations of it, vice is not necessarily punished and virtue is not
externally rewarded. When Zinzi tries to save Song and her brother Sbu both of them are
killed, Benot ends up in hospital after being savaged by the crocodile, and the Maltese and
Maribou escape with their pay. This lack of success may be seen as typical of the noir
genre. However, although Zinzi is unable to prevent the deaths of the twins, she repents for
her own culpability in her brothers death, and she atones for her sins by behaving as
honourably as possible by formulating a selfless intention to inform Benots wife and
family of his whereabouts, by traversing the continent from South Africa to the
Democratic Republic of Congo. Zinzi has escaped the clutches of her underworld handler,
and she is convinced that she is acting ethically and humanely to reunite a family torn apart
by war. Although Zinzi is one more relative figure in the world, subject to all the
confusions and blindness of any one else who is living the modern condition (Polan 1985,
p. 79), her attention to her finer instincts, despite her attachment to Benot, leaves the
reader feeling hopeful that on occasion virtue can be its own reward, and that it can
resonate into the lives of others across national divides.
By her use of the cynical, sassy but vulnerable character Zinzi, Beukes showcases
elements of the noir text, but she grounds these in the particular point of view of a young
black South African woman faced with her demons and fate. This expands the possibilities
of noir, and implicitly questions its conventional use of world-weary white male
protagonists. In addition, Beukess use of the motif of muti opens up the dimension of
traditional belief systems (with the frisson of their negative side and the benison of their
positive aspect) into the generally arid emotional landscape of classic noir.
Characterisation, intertextual insertions, and the mixed genre of muti noir work together
to create an effective and challenging critical dystopia in Zoo City, leaving the reader
suffused with radical hope.
Conclusion
At the beginning of this article I referred to the viewpoint of Achille Mbembe, who rued the
missed opportunity of South Africas potential to create a non-racial and egalitarian society.
This failure fuels the present dystopian mood in South African society. However, thinkers
and writers can simultaneously criticise social shortcomings of the past and present, and
dream new visions of attainable hope. This creative paradigm is the realm of the critical
dystopian, which is not a rigid or static form, but is inflected by theories such as feminism
and postcolonialism which focus on better ways of living, encompassing societys
outsiders. Critical dystopian writing is open-ended and employs a variety of productive
techniques. Contemporary South African examples of this writing mode call into question
the assumptions of the Western model. They are opposed to master narratives, and promote
a politically charged awareness of inequity and possibility beyond the blandishments of
consumer culture, technology, addiction and violence. They illustrate the need for, and
activate the possibility of, change through the agency of desiring subjects.
In Moxyland Beukes uses multiple voices and perspectives to embody countercultural
strands and tensions. She focuses on human rights issues particular to twenty-first-century
South Africa, but she employs techniques such as intertextuality, cyberpunk, slipstream
and textual open-endedness to deepen the field of associations and spur critical thought on
the part of the reader. Zoo City explores social and psychological issues through its

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

African Identities

379

adaptation of the figure of an animal familiar, in this case signalling criminality. Zinzi is
forced to confront her submerged guilt and make expiation for her wrongdoing. Beukes
again makes use of postcolonial and feminist concepts, using polyvocality, magical
realism and her original fusion, muti noir, to expand her novel beyond narrowly Western,
androcentric models. Traditional African belief systems are given respectful credence and
symbolic power. In both Moxyland and Zoo City Beukes reveals trans-African connections
that implicitly appeal for an escape from arbitrary, confining national identities.
While both Moxyland and Zoo City can be seen as apartheid allegories, they can also
be viewed as post-apartheid stories which extrapolate the effects of apartheid beyond the
present to an imaginative realm which disorients and confronts the readers conceptions of
self and other, law-abiding citizen and criminal, sameness and difference, equality and
freedom. These issues have a particular resonance in South Africa and beyond today.
The novels do not gloss over the problems of the past or present, but offer hope through
their representations of humanity and self-sacrifice. Without ever veering into
sentimentality or eutopianism, these novels provide a test case of future dreaming from
South Africa which counters the dystopianism of Afro-pessimism.
Notes on contributor
Cheryl Stobie is an associate professor in English Studies in the discipline of English Studies at the
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. She has published widely on topics including postcolonialism,
sexuality, gender, religion and spirituality. Her current work is on the confluence of spirituality and
sexuality in literature.

References
Baccolini, R., 2000. Gender and genre in the feminist critical dystopias of Katharine Burdekin,
Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler. In: M.S. Barr, ed. Future females: the next generation:
new voices and velocities in feminist science fiction criticism. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 13 34.
Baccolini, R. and Moylan, T., 2003. Introduction: dystopia and histories. In: R. Baccolini and
T. Moylan eds. Dark horizons: science fiction and the dystopian imagination. New York and
London: Routledge, 1 12.
Beukes, L., 2008. Moxyland. Johannesburg: Jacana.
Beukes, L., 2010. Zoo City. Johannesburg: Jacana.
Beukes, L., 2011. Untitled contribution. Time of the writer seminar presentation, 14 March, Durban,
South Africa.
Blade Runner, 1982. USA: Warner Brothers, Film. Directed by Ridley Scott.
Bloom, H., 1994. The Western canon: the books and school of the ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Borde, R. and Chaumeton, E., 2002. Trans. Paul Hammond. A panorama of American film noir
1941 1953. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Originally published in French 1955.
Cavalcanti, I., 2003. The writing of utopia and the feminist critical dystopia: Suzy McKee Charnass
Holdfast Series. In: R. Baccolini and T. Moylan eds. Dark horizons: science fiction and the
dystopian imagination. New York and London: Routledge, 47 67.
Coetzee, J.M., 1983. Life and times of Michael K. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
District 9, 2009. Film. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. South Africa: Sony Pictures.
Dreyer, E., Lebeko, J., curators, 2009 2011. Dystopia art exhibition.
Duiker, K.S., 2000. Thirteen cents. Cape Town: Ink Inc.
Duiker, K.S., 2001. The quiet violence of dreams. Cape Town: Kwela.
Gibson, W., 1984. Neuromancer. London: Gollancz.
Gordimer, N., 1981. Julys people. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
Gordimer, N., 1987. A sport of nature. Cape Town: David Philip.
Harris, W., 1983. The womb of space: the cross-cultural imagination. Westport, CT and London:
Greenwood Press.
Huxley, A., 1932. Brave new world. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Downloaded by [University of Rhodes] at 02:03 30 May 2015

380

C. Stobie

Jameson, F., 1982. Progress versus utopia; or, can we imagine the future? Science fiction studies,
9 (2), 147 158.
Jameson, F., 1990. Late Marxism: Adorno, or the persistence of the dialectic. London: Verso.
Kruger, L., 2001. Theatre, crime, and the edgy city in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Theatre journal,
53 (2), 223 252.
Levitas, R., 1990. The concept of utopia. Syracuse University Press.
Mbembe, A., 2011. Untitled contribution. Time of the writer seminar session, 16 March,
Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Moele, K., 2006. Room 207. Cape Town: Kwela.
Moylan, T, 1986. Demand the impossible: science fiction and the utopian imagination. New York:
Methuen.
Moylan, T, 2000. Scraps of the untainted sky: science fiction, utopia, dystopia. Boulder,
CO: Westview.
Mpe, P., 2001. Welcome to our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.
Nicol, M., 1992. This day and age. Cape Town: David Philip.
Orwell, G., 1949. 1984. New York: Harcourt.
Piercy, M., 1976. Woman on the edge of time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Polan, D., 1985. College course file: Film noir. Journal of film and video, 37 (2), 75 83.
Pordzik, R., 2001a. Nationalism, cross-culturalism, and utopian vision in South African utopian and
dystopian writing. Research in African literatures, 32 (3), 177197.
Pordzik, R., 2001b. The quest for postcolonial utopia: a comparative introduction to the utopian
novel and the new English literatures. New York: Peter Lang.
Sargent, L.T., 1994. The three faces of utopianism revisited. Utopian studies, 5 (1), 1 37.
Sargent, L.T., 2001. US eutopias in the 1980s and 1990s: self-fashioning in a world of multiple
identities. In: P. Spinozzi, ed. Utopianism/literary utopias and the national cultural identities:
a comparative perspective. Bologna: COTEPRA/University of Bologna, 221 232.
Sithebe, A.N., 2007. Holy hill. Roggebaai: Umuzi.
Soylent green, 1973. Film. Directed by Richard Fleischer, USA: MGM.
van Niekerk, M., 2006. Agaat. Trans. Michiel Heyns. Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball.
Venter, E., 2008. Trencherman. Trans. Luke Stubbs. Cape Town: Tafelberg.