In which J. BROOKS SPECTOR attempts to read the future while driving a DeLorean to divine the ANC’s and the country’s possible future. And once again, it is all in the unwashed hands of some food handlers…
Five years ago, Daily Maverick was able to make use of an experimental temporal travel gate to gain a brief glimpse of what was about to occur at Mangaung. Mayonnaise was the key variable. It turns out, of course, that in so doing, we seem to have bumped into a wicked combination of Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” about knowing what and where something is, and the old, seemingly unsolvable paradox of time travel. That is the one where the intrepid time traveller goes backwards a hundred years and kills his grandfather, or, returning to the past a little closer to the present, ensures his parents never meet, let alone have the traveller as a child, thereby rendering the trip an impossibility in the first place.
The effects of the reverse are also unknowable, even if one merely observes the future. After all, knowing about future events would inevitably greatly change how one carried out one’s life, once you returned to your original position on the time-space continuum. (For example, you go forward in time by a decade, see a new technology that has transformed the world and on your return you invent it, thereby altering what you had just observed.) But, while physicists have never truly answered this conundrum conclusively, even if science-fiction authors manage to address it routinely in their writing, we thought we’d give it one more try, given the imminent events about to take place in South Africa’s politics. Knowledge is power, after all.
So, as a consequence of this itch, we rolled out our trusty DeLorean time machine, took off the big drop cloth that protected it from pigeons, replaced its nearly worn-out flux capacitor with a newer model, fixed the old on-board computer with a much newer quantum drive one, and fuelled the engine with as much as possible of a newly discovered and highly potent subatomic particle – the demon – as we could put together in the time available. The whole thing was still rather roughly engineered and so we expected a bit of a bumpy ride on our temporal journey. Still, science is all about exploring the unknown, about going where no one has gone before and all that. We packed a back seat’s worth of deli sandwiches, coffee in a good thermos flask, and some military-style, emergency iron rations, and hit the biometrically registered ignition.
It turns out that we only had enough juice to get us to the Nasrec convention centre, just a few days into the future, and then again for one more brief stop, several weeks later. Nevertheless, it was just enough to give us insights into the political events unfolding in South Africa. While our car radio was only able to give us a few snatches of radio broadcasts, we were still able to snag a newspaper each time we stopped and then toss them onto the back seat, as proof we had actually made the trip.
And so here is the evidence. The first is a fragment of the newspaper coverage of the ANC’s elective conference. Unfortunately, the entire paper did not survive the DeLorean’s fiery return, as our new refinements to the engine appear to have had some unsolved glitches in them still, not least the high heat generated by all those demons in the flux capacitor.
The salvageable story read,
“… Looking backward at events, the conference arrangements as announced by the NEC could not have foretold how events would actually have unfolded during the gathering at Nasrec. Polling data available to reporters, limited though it was, nevertheless indicated a very close race between Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ex-AU commission chair, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, for the position of president of the party. The other remaining declared candidates were much further behind. As demonstrations of the increasingly bad blood between the two leading candidates and their supporters, charges of vote rigging, influence peddling, and illicit “brown envelope” arrangements were being claimed by their respective supporters, right up to the opening gavel. Moreover, the predicted result in the contest between the two front-runners varied, depending on who was being quoted and for what purpose.
“But no one expected the events that took place the day the balloting was due to occur. As delegates went to lunch in the recess between the placing of formal nominations and the beginning of the actual balloting, something clearly had become a problem within the gathering. Dozens of delegates quickly began showing physical distress, with symptoms that included fevers, severe muscle aches, nausea, and so forth. By mid afternoon, some were also complaining of severe headaches, inflamed, stiff, painful neck tissues, visible mental confusion, loss of balance, and even, in a few cases, sudden convulsions. The spreading illness meant an entire fleet of ambulances had to be summoned to the conference to transfer the most severely afflicted patients to hospitals and clinics throughout the city, after the first aid responders at Nasrec were overwhelmed. That, of course, meant it became impossible for the actual balloting to proceed.
“Given rumoured efforts to poison the incumbent president, as had been claimed in Gayton MacKenzie’s newly published book, word-of-mouth talked about a secretive, organised campaign to destroy the party’s entire elective congress at worst, or to defeat one of the candidates, even though no one and no group was ever identified as a deliberate offender. Despite rumours, no one could plausibly point to one candidate’s supporters as the guilty party, given the wide sweep of the people affected by the outbreaks that afflicted supporters of all of the candidates. Still, the rumours persisted throughout the day and into the evening as delegates even roughed up several onlookers when it appeared they were carrying suspicious thermos flasks. They later were identified as news photographers who had been particularly well prepared with coffee.
“Meanwhile, by this time, the party’s leaders had just come back into the plenary session after their own meals in one of the special VIP and VVIP dining rooms or in nearby restaurants, as the chaos on the floor among ordinary delegates was rising to a near-hysterical crescendo. But the VIPs soon had their own episodes of physical distress as well. Numbers of those people soon began complaining of sudden losses of vision or severe gastric distress – or both simultaneously. Yet others were showing confusion or lowered consciousness, significantly decreased physical co-ordination, nausea, apparent severe intoxication, violent headaches, and even in a few cases, dramatic and terrifying seizures.
“As an emergency measure, because there really was nothing else to do, balloting was cancelled for the day since so many delegates were already in hospitals and clinics, or were en route to treatment centres. As it became clear a majority of delegates would still be unable to attend the gathering in the following days, to allow the conference to complete its work with even the notional sense of a quorum in the hall, the NEC, or at least those not under medical care themselves, felt compelled to huddle quietly, away from the main hall, to try to decide what to do and then hammer out the way forward. Sources say they were split between picking a winner from among the declared choices; or, making the incumbent president the acting party president for an additional six-month period, or until another new elective gathering could be scheduled.
“Insiders explained to reporters that the NEC had been too split among supporters of the various contenders for a clear majority to emerge – especially since the full NEC could not be convened when over half of its members were still under intensive medical care. Ultimately, the rump NEC decided to go with their second option, although as soon as word got out, it quickly provoked outrage among many delegates, and the country’s talk radio stations and its streams of social media comment were filled with an increasingly shrill, angry, outraged debate about this sudden decision.
“Television commentators covering these unexpected events were similarly nonplussed and displeased. Social critic Suetonius Fitzroi, for example, questioned this decision, saying, ‘…it represented a clear ethical failure on the part of the NEC, demonstrating the poverty of its vision, and its clear failure to uphold the promise of democratic practice as expressed in the party and the nation’s constitutions. In my view, the only real way forward must be adoption of a new way to elect party leaders by direct internal primaries and run-off elections. Absent that, the country’s international standing and its government’s domestic legitimacy will inevitably be called into severe question.’
“In the same discussion, legal scholar Patricia September had added, ‘this secretive process was simply a mirror image of the sickness now sweeping the hall. South Africa’s people deserve much better than this if the country is not to go down the path laid out by so many other failing states.’ And panel chair Fairness Ndlovu had concluded, ‘If this party ever expects to succeed with the electorate in future, its current crop of supposed leaders must hand over their power and authority to a new generation of leaders who truly respect democratic values, rather than just mouthing the words. This week, this congress is the clear loser, for this week and for this year as well.’
“The JSE lost 12% in share value the day this decision was announced within just a two-hour period, before the JSE’s overseers closed trading for the rest of the day to prevent a full-grown investor panic. Meanwhile, the rand suddenly dropped against all major currencies by equally alarming rates. And bond-trading specialists reported their buy contracts had virtually dried up by midday, as international bondholders rushed to put in sell orders for all of their sovereign debt holdings. In the face of such incipient panic, authorities similarly suspended bond trading.
“By the end of the week, despite the festive season holidays, all political parties represented in the National Assembly agreed to an emergency, urgent sitting of the nation’s Parliament to discuss the circumstances. Despite the initial demurrals by the president’s party and attempts by the Speaker to defer any precipitate action until a less frenzied time, the Democratic Alliance, in association with the Economic Freedom Front, the Freedom Front-Plus, the African Christian Democratic Party and the United Democratic Movement, proposed a motion of no confidence in the president, arguing the financial climate must be stabilised, and the confidence of the nation’s citizens must be restored, as the self-respect of the country’s politicians all demanded immediate, forceful, fundamental change….”
While the rest of this article had been charred by the damage to the DeLorean on its return to the present time, there was also another newspaper from the second stop in time a few weeks after the first one. While that paper, too, was mostly destroyed, two fragments survived.
The first said,
“…further investigation revealed that the proximate cause of the outbreak of illnesses among the ordinary delegates appeared to be an acute Listeriosis infection, tracked back to improper food handling by some last-minute, sub-contracted catering employees who had apparently added tainted water to the serving bowls of chakalaka (a savoury condiment made from diced carrots, tomatoes, onions, spices and other ingredients) that had been placed on the delegates’ dining tables – but several hours before lunch was actually available to the delegates.
“Moreover, according to medical specialists, the other symptoms among delegates were apparently traceable to a tainted special batch of private local label “Skokian” brand distilled spirits that had been prepared in honour of the conclave. Unfortunately, the recipe used had been a little too authentic with the manner of its making. It included a touch of either battery acid or some similar product that had been added to the fermentation mix to enhance its potency. Medical professionals explained to the media at a hastily called media briefing that globally, similar outbreaks have sometimes occurred among attendees of weddings on the Indian subcontinent, for example, because of similar contamination. Yet other casualties came about from their ingestion of a specially bottled wine, also in honour of the meeting, in which ethylene glycol had apparently been added in small quantities to help sweeten the taste of the beverage. Here too, medical examiners explained this occurrence was reminiscent of a tainted wine scandal that had shaken the Austrian wine industry some years earlier….”
A surviving part of a second article from this same paper explained,
“…After the vote of no confidence had passed by a large margin in Parliament despite the efforts by the then-Speaker, the now-ex-president was led out of the chamber together with his Cabinet and other supporters, and the leaders of the remaining members and their respective parties agreed that in light of the severe crises now being confronted by South Africa’s politics and economics, they would be setting up a broad church coalition government of national unity within three days. Until that time, they asked that South Africa’s people should remain calm; the government’s offices should continue to function normally; and that national and local police forces should ensure civil order was maintained. Banks were requested to put in place a temporary halt to large currency transfers abroad until calm had been restored….”
Unfortunately, while the rest of that article was missing, one final tempting fragment was also found on the floor of the DeLorean. Showing just the partial caption of a photograph, it read,
“… new president Dr Makhosi Khoza, together with members of her newly-installed Cabinet, including Dr Jonathan Jansen, the higher education minister; justice minister Thuli Madonsela; and Mcebisi Jonas, the nation’s new finance minister, over the next several days, are scheduled to meet with representatives of the World Bank, the IMF, the international ratings agencies, large international banks, and a number of leading lender and aid-granting nations in the next several days. These meetings have been convened in order to begin to repair the reputational damage that has been inflicted on South Africa by the events of the….”
But while there were still other tantalising fragments in the deeply singed back seat of the DeLorean, no more than a word or two could be read on any of them. Like South Africa, our time machine clearly needed to go back to the shop for some serious repairs. DM
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