A black boy with blue eyes

Introducing the South African writer, K. Sello Duiker's novel 'Thirteen Cents' to US audiences.

Sea Point, a suburb close to central Cape Town. Image by Jbdodane, via Flickr CC.

K. Sello Duiker’s short novel, Thirteen Cents is simultaneously gruesome, violent, deeply disturbing, whimsical, and beautiful. Ohio University Press has just released the post-apartheid novelist’s debut book in the US as part of its Modern African Writing series. The book itself won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book Africa Region, back in 2001, when it was first published in South Africa. K. Sello Duiker is one of a generation of the first predominantly urban and black novelists to churn out fiction dealing with realities of a newly post-apartheid South Africa. Of this generation, Duiker and Phaswane Mpe (whose short novel, Welcome To Our Hillbrow is now considered to be one of the great works of contemporary South African literature) are perhaps the most beloved and well known. The two iconic authors both published their celebrated novels within one year of each other and both died tragically within a month of one another. K. Sello Duiker took his own life in January of 2005 following a nervous breakdown.

Thirteen Cents is not a happy story, following the twelve-year-old Azure, a black boy with blue eyes (which are a source of constant trouble) who lives on the streets of central Cape Town. Told from the Azure’s perspective, Duiker weaves a narrative that lays bare the violence, exploitation, racial and sexual politics found just under the surface of South African society. The boy harbors a profound distrust for all adults and for good reason, as every adult we encounter through Azure is ultimately only interested in exploiting him – for sex, for money, for power and ego. This is a story about and for a generation of South African youth struggling to make sense of a world that is supposed to hold new and boundless opportunities for them, when in reality the situation appears to be quite the opposite. It is meant to tear the blinders of the rhetoric of a ‘New South Africa’ and ‘Rainbow Nation’ from readers’ eyes. In a letter to his Dutch publishers, Duiker once wrote:

In a South African context I was writing for people between 23 and 30 years of age – people in my age group, because our generation is confronted with different changes happening around us, and I wanted to communicate something of the pressures and contradictions around us. I think the book is not politically correct although it is a sensitive account of what I think is happening in South Africa right now. It’s a young black man’s view of what is happening – it explores youth culture and what it means to be young.

Thirteen Cents is a graphic and tremendously difficult read, but an important one for those interested in contemporary South African literature. It is also a novel written by and for South Africans, so non-South African readers may struggle with parts of it, especially some of the language and cultural references used. Despite the fact that the book contains a glossary, Sello Duiker employs Afrikaans and vernacular phrases regularly, many of which are not translated in the glossary. Nonetheless, it is absolutely a worthwhile read and the same can be said for his second book, The Quiet Violence of Dreams.


Further Reading

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The meanings of Heath Streak

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The magic man

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How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.