Oupa is illiterate yet he owns a shed full of books. He is adamant that his grandchildren will succeed and he impresses upon them that they must succeed, by any means necessary. Their education is of paramount importance to him. He instils the code into the boys at a young age telling them to always look after each other; to never back down when they are right; to destroy anyone who hurts one of their own. Kyle and Captain understand “the language and the rules of being a bruinou. An eye for an eye is the first and only amendment in the Coloured Constitution”. This philosophy clashes with the drive to become educated; violence answers violence and cuts down young lives. By Any Means exposes the trajectory of this cycle and its inevitable tragic consequences.
In 2000, Kyle lives with his cousins, Jimmy and Captain, in his aunt’s house in Sydenham, Durban. All Kyle wants is a contract with Liverpool FC; he is a talented footballer and has a coach/mentor who is sure he can make it. He is troubled by the violent break-up of his parents but he also believes he should “man up”. Given what had happened, he should have been receiving trauma counselling but instead he castigates himself for being a baby.
Captain also still attends school, when it suits him. His main goal is to make money to feed his family and ensure his cousins’ education is not disrupted. He swaggers through the township knowing he is respected, or rather feared. His gang, the Godfathers, all “came from poverty, and burned with the desire to escape it”. They sell drugs and act as a go-between for a bigger fish. Initially he was a member of another gang but when their leader, Tyson, was imprisoned for hijacking, Captain seized the opportunity and set up his own contract with the big fish, Lazarus. The Godfathers had been making good profits for a year and a half but Tyson was soon to be paroled and this will change everything.
Yet Captain is a complex guy; the school will not accept his donation to buy desks because they do not want to be complicit in his shady dealings. So he insists they all pitch in and help make the desks. He loves his girlfriend, Nazneen, yet she is also a possession, a territory over which he challenges any would-be trespassers. Kyle also meets a girl, Amia, who loves his intellectual side. She has issues though stemming from previous relationships and problems with her stepfather.
The dialogue is excellent in capturing the slang with its smattering of Afrikaans, Americanisms and big deal posturing. ‘Aight’ they say instead of ‘alright’, (reminding me of the gangsters in The Wire). The narrative moves from school to house party to night club to Addington Beach. As a Durbanite, I really enjoy the familiarity with the surrounds. When these guys walk down Sparks Rd, I know exactly where they are.
The action is mesmerising, driven by the dialogue and situations which will have you on the edge of your seat. Despite the inevitable tragedy that unfolds, the trajectory of events is far from predictable.
One cannot help but compare this novel to What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw because they both deal with gangsterism and drugs in the Coloured communities. They are nevertheless very different as By Any Means adopts the perspective of the gangsters themselves and is set in Durban in 2000’s while What Will People Say explores the issue from a parental perspective in the eighties. Read both.