Mandla Langa: The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Picador 2008)

chameleon When I attended the reading of The Lost Colours of the Chameleon by Mandla Langa at Xarra Books in November last year the author read from a passage where two of the protagonists in the novel get into a fist fight.

I would have liked to ask why he chose that particular passage but I have a natural aversion to asking questions at events such as book readings. People tend to ask the most inane questions or worse, try to show how smart they are. In any case, when I read the book I could guess why he chose the passage.

The fight involves two high school boys: Abioseh Gondo whose father, known as the Colonel, is the ruler of the island nation of Bangula and his opponent is Baluba Jambo.

In many ways the fight sets the scene for events that unfold later in the narrative. Abioseh, who later becomes the ruler of Bangula at his mother’s instigation, shows a complete inability to take responsibility for events in his life. He is pressured into the fight by his friends Hieronymus Jerome and David Kone. He is neither particularly good nor particularly bad at anything. This basic flaw becomes a defining feature of his rule in Bangula, deferring all decision-making to his mother, to his ministers and relies on second-hand information of advisors.

On the other hand Baluba Jambo the son of an undertaker is strident and confident. It is he who draws first blood in the fight with Abioseh confident in his swift victory. That the fight ends in a stalemate is a result not so much of Abioseh’s fighting prowess but of Baluba’s own over-inflated sense of confidence.

The school ground fight also sets the tone for the contest of power on a national scale when as adults Abioseh is the ruler and Baluba the financier of a rebel movement intent on overthrowing Abioseh.

Abioseh’s rule of Bangula is brutal even though he himself is a benign personality. His childhood friend Hiero also the head of security deals with opposition ruthlessly and shield Abioseh from the full knowledge of what is going on in the country. And even though the people of Bangula are dying by the thousands due to an incurable blood disease Abioseh is oblivious to their plight. Sound familiar? And that’s not where the similarities with the South African situation end.

Bangula from the outside looks the picture of prosperity while internally there is widespread poverty and growing public dissatisfaction with Abioseh’s rule as well as an internal power struggle within the ruling elite. There are simmering racial tensions between the dark-skinned natives and the light-skinned creoles who are more privileged and former collaborators with the slave owners.

The novel is richly layered. Mandla Langa is able to sustain several narratives at the same time. He interweaves the lives of various characters and how their lives have impact on the politics of Bangula. It is a brilliant analysis of the inherent dangers of power.

I would guess Mandla Langa has intimate knowledge of the ANC having served in the organisation in various positions. One cannot help but wonder in what way the present struggles within the ANC have influenced this novel. Whatever the case, the novel is a compelling piece of writing. It should be required reading for all politicians on the African continent.

Simba Sambo