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Mhlongo was born in Midway-Chiawelo, Soweto, the seventh of nine children, and raised in Soweto. His father, who died when Mhlongo was a teenager, worked as a post-office sweeper. Mhlongo was sent to Limpopo Province, the province his mother came from, to finish high school. Initially failing his matriculation exam in October 1990, Mhlongo completed his matric at Malenga High School in 1991. He studied African literature and political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, gaining a BA in 1996. In 1997 he enrolled to study law there, transferring to the University of Cape Town the following year. In 2000 he discontinued university study to write his first novel, Dog Eat Dog.
He has been called, "one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa's post-apartheid literary scene".
Mhlongo has presented his work at key African cultural venues, including the Caine Prize Workshop and the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and was a 2008 International Writing Program fellow at the University of Iowa.His work has been translated into Spanish and Italian.