We Are Not So Different After All by Khulekani Magubane

Journalist Khulekane Magubane is no stranger to the literary scene.  He has written and published over a dozen books (novels, short stories and poetry) for young readers. Racer Rats & Rubbish Bins (2012), his latest achievement, is a 96-page, rather ‘dark’ philosophical satire written in the form of a literary fable (where rats are really human beings) – an allegorical tale exploring the human ‘Rat Race’: the fight for physical survival… The existential theme is universal, but the context of Magubane’s allegory is recognizably South African and the implications are decidedly local.

Essentially, the allegory tells the tale of Rapula, a young ‘Racer Rat’, who is born into a very conservative social network, where traditions are rigorously maintained and all forms of questioning of ones given “lot in life” is seriously frowned upon.  In the course of the story, circumstances conspire to hurl Rapula into a totally alien set of social and material contexts which opens his mind to a very different way of being in the world.  Although some of these ‘lifestyle alternatives’ appear preferable in many ways to the ill-fated life of a ‘Racer Rat’ , the final (rather cynical) message of the book is that despite our social origins or our final social destinations, our individual destinies in the ‘rat race of life’ are not so different after all…

As the story unfolds, the reader is introduced to three representative social classes easily recognizable in South Africa.  Firstly, the ‘Racer Rats’ (class-focus of this story and class-identity of our hero, Rapula): this is your rural and township working classes, who lead extremely hard (yet simple) lives in which a strong family and community ethos prevails and traditional values and practices are religiously maintained in the face of radical change in the surrounding world.  ‘Racer Rats’ are described in the story as “humble, hardworking and respectful”; they adhere to socially-prescribed rules and routines, and gender roles.  The naked ‘struggle to survive’ is highlighted at this level of existence, in a pervasive atmosphere of material scarcity and lack.  The psychological outlook is uncompromisingly conservative.  ‘Racer Rats’ take great pride in their strong ‘work ethic’ – this is the source of their essential dignity.

In Magubane’s fable, the ‘Racer Rats’ live in the backyard of a shebeen and their sole socially-prescribed role and “purpose in life” is to “chase (after) rubbish” – specifically after the rubbish truck that comes by once a week to collect garbage – and ‘stash away’ as much garbage as possible for the ‘Racer Rat’ community (until the truck again does it’s rounds).  When Rapula (a fearful, naïve, introverted – but also rather proud and prejudiced – young ‘Racer Rat’) gets carried away accidentally in one of these trucks, along with his doting younger sister, Ronan (who, by contrast, is daring, extraverted and rebellious) they find themselves lost in the middle of a city, miles away from ‘home’ for the very first time in their lives.

Here they encounter ‘Sewer Rats’; these are your urban working and middle classes, governed by a more mercenary, capitalistic outlook on life while being essentially focused on enhancing personal enjoyment and pleasure.  They meet Bobo (working-class) who is ‘streetwise’ and lives in the sewer but possesses a more cosmopolitan outlook on life and Susanne, a fat, sassy, middle-class socialite who loves to entertain and lives a comfortable life near a restaurant.  Both Bobo and Susanne attempt to help Rapula and Ronan in the course of their feeble attempts to return back home, but not before Rapula encounters Steward…

Steward is a “Lab Rat’; he intrudes himself as a “scientist” and the reader will quickly recognize in him the qualities of ‘idealistic dreamer’.  He speaks rhetorically of higher ideals, his personal Dream, and of freedom – glibly quoting the popular South African aphorism “Education is the Key to Success” as the universal cure for all social ills… “Look what science has done for the world!” he enthuses to an uncomprehending Rapula.  He is clever, verbose and persuasive; he convinces Rapula to return and stay with him in his cage at the Laboratory (where his ‘owner’ performs scientific experiments on them both) until he can devise a ‘strategy’ to find Ronan (who has gone missing) and get them both back home safely.  This rat represents your newly-educated middle class – clever but deluded and (in turn) deluding others: more talk than action in the real world…

Sorely disillusioned, Rapula soon comes to realize than no rat is more (or less) ‘free’ than any other rat in the ‘race for survival’.  Steward has no understanding of what it means to “chase rubbish” (he leads a contemplative, sedentary lifestyle); Rapula has no understanding of what it means to “have a Dream” (there is no time for that ‘luxury’ in a ‘Racer Rat’s’ busy life) – and yet both of them still have to survive!

Steward’s solution is to become an experimental ‘guinea pig’ in return for food and a ‘roof over his head’ (and as a result of all the experiments performed on him pays the heavy price of being sickly all the time, with an illness that Rapula – as a ‘Racer Rat’ – has never even heard of).

Rapula, on the other hand – who prides himself on having a strong work ethic and for asking for so little from life – can console himself only with the fact that he (at least) will die with some dignity.  Perhaps we are all prisoners (he muses) and the only freedom we have is to choose our prisons… That being the case, Rapula opts for the simplicity (and greater honesty) of his original ‘Racer Rat’ lifestyle, but the final tragedy of the tale is that he and Ronan never make it back home…

Philosophically-speaking, the choice of rats to symbolize human beings in this fable is somewhat disturbing, that is, in terms of the ontological question: what does it mean to be Human?  Rats are highly intelligent and sociable creatures, with sophisticated social networks, but they live almost exclusively to eat and procreate; they are fundamentally scavengers of the most basic elements necessary to maintain physiological life which (in this fable) is sourced from rubbish bins….  Equating this to the human condition in general (and to material conditions in South Africa in particular) the allegory insinuates a materialistic bias at the very heart of human nature, which effectively negates all higher, more altruistic drives.  Furthermore, (given the economic context of this tale) the metaphorical emphasis on ‘rubbish bins’ is all too painfully real…

However, this negative (rather cynical) ontological viewpoint is partly redeemed in the closing chapter of the fable when Rapula, recognizing the common fate of all rats in the universal ‘race for survival’ acknowledges also a common identity with Bobo and Susanne (‘Sewer Rats’) and even Steward (‘Lab Rat’) which is more essential and binding than their differences.  This recognition humbles him and (at the last minute) moves him to altruistically sacrifice his own life for his small group of disparate friends, who have become (for him) now a ‘family’ transcending superficial class differences. 

In the final “bittersweet” chapter of the book, their mutual enemy (the indifference of Death in the form of a gluttonous house-cat) finally devours the willing sacrificial, hero-victim, Rapula, who acts as a ‘decoy’ while his  newfound family escapes to run the ‘rat race’ for just a little while longer…

Racer Rats & Rubbish Bins lays bare a shocking metaphor for life, one in which we, as human beings, both ‘eat’ and ‘are eaten’…  (What we live by, others have discarded; what we discard, others live by… We live off others and others live off of us… We are not separate from each other, nor are we as different from each other as we would like to believe …).

This book makes the reader ask: What kind of a rat am I? This book will definitely get you thinking!  It is a ‘light’ read with a ‘weighty’ theme… go out, buy it, and read it now!

Racer Rats and Rubbish Bins (2012) is published by Umsinsi Press.  It is available from Exclusive Books (Pavilion, Westville).

Book Reviewer: Quanta Henson

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