Maverick Citizen Short Story
Today, Maverick Citizen is privileged to publish and launch a humorous short story by Andy 'The Admiral' Kasrils that allows us to look at our recent experiences of the Covid-19 lockdown through the lens of political satire.
As the horror and tragedy of the Covid-19 crisis engulfs us we hope this story will shine a light on South Africa’s response that helps us to understand and reimagine the tragedy, the absurdity and the possibilities of Covid-19 and by doing so will inspire activism and energy to stand up for the common good – as all great literature should do. We are grateful to Carlos Amato for providing the artwork with barely a few days notice. Enjoy.
Mark Heywood, Editor of Maverick Citizen
’Twas some nights after lockdown, and outside the townhouse and inside the shacks, not a creature was stirring, not even the rats. And when the frozen meat was thawed and cooked, the last black label whisky sipped, the black label quarts drunk, the maize meal sacks ripped, the tins, the packs, the cans consumed, everybody thought; what if there was no more food?
“It’s like The War Of The Worlds.”
“Yeah, did you see that fight in Checkers yesterday? ‘The counter-queue coup’. I’ll forward it to you.”
“No, like the book. HG wrote it as revenge on his own people; ‘You see British Empire, this is what it feels like to be colonised.’ Gave them a nightmare taste of their own medicine.”
“I saw the film, so you’re saying the aliens are like Iraq invading the USA?”
“The film’s a 9/11 nightmare, but also a war between other worlds. The class worlds. That’s what I’m getting at. Tom Cruise is a dockworker so when the crane-sized alien snatches his daughter, it’s the kind of fever dream a crane operator at the wharf would have.”
Kirsten worked the hand grinder, listening with a wry smile. Presley sensed she was sceptical but persisted, “Listen. His ex-wife has married a wealthy guy, so now his 10-year-old daughter feeds him health food and shows him all the boujee morals of life. She tames the working man with hummus and a splinter. He doesn’t save the world, just reconciles with divorce and saves his family. What kind of hero is that?”
Kirsten smiled scrunching and twisting a piece of paper, “You haven’t been to the shops once since lockdown. It’s always me. My hands are a dry mess from all the sanitizer.”
“Bacteria saves the world, the Martians die because they got no immunity. Germs are the hero. Coronavirus is germs. So what are you saying Presley?”
“I’m saying, right now coronavirus is killing the aliens.”
“You saying all these people dying of Covivi are aliens? We’re in a global tragedy and you blame ET? You need to get off WhatsApp now.”
“I’m talking about the aliens that have colonised our minds Kirsten,” said Presley with a hint of agitation.
“Right Prez, maybe this will help free you. Smoke them out.” She emptied the grinder into the pipe Presley was holding. He raised a braai trigger-lighter to the bowl and clicked it a few times.
“Listen, I’m saying our minds are occupied by all these desires, where do they come from?” Click. “Adverts, products, media, junk entertainment.” Click. “The commercial imagination of the world, telling us what to desire, for profit, so I’m saying it’s alien to us. Get it?” Click. Click. He gave up clicking and tossed the lighter.
“But all that glitter is classified non-essential now. So it’s official, the fabulous life we desire is non-essential. Luxury goods, people behaving like brands, companies faking eco-friendliness, everyone pretending to care while they make money. You been to the shops lately? Reality check. It’s everyone for themselves out there, there’s queues and gaps in the shelves, now even the rich are thinking what if there was no more food?”
Kirsten smiled scrunching and twisting a piece of paper, “You haven’t been to the shops once since lockdown. It’s always me. My hands are a dry mess from all the sanitizer.”
Presley was getting worked up now. “You’re missing the point, I’m saying; I don’t want to live a non-essential life anymore.”
“Great, so you’re doing the next shopping run?”
“I told you I’m not leaving the house!” shouted Presley as Kirsten lit the paper from their fireplace.
“Whatever you say, you’re The Prez.”
“And I want an essential life!” he snarled, ignoring her jibe as she held the flame to the pipe bowl for him, then he noticed which paper she had used, “Oh Kirsten, that’s for my Freedom Charter assignment, just because I won’t go shopping in lockdown?”
She pulled a goofy face at Presley, he shook his head and took the angriest and longest draw she’d ever seen, on that pipe. The water bubbled and boiled violently, and soon his face was swelling like a hot-air balloon as he held his breath for the requisite thirty seconds before release.
“Burn baby burn,” said Kirsten, as two milky smoke plumes charged from Presley’s nostrils striking his lap, breaking into a deep rolling rising haze, through which he exhaled a large blanket mass of pea-soup thick cloud. As she watched Presley’s figure disappear into the smoke she thought of the hookah smoking caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland changing into a butterfly and smiled like a Cheshire cat. But then the coughing started.
Presley’s coughs tore at the smoke like an Olympic fencer going for gold. But the fog was so thick the resulting wafts merely stirred the swirling smoke this way and that and it was only after ten heavy coughs or so that Presley was partially visible again. He emerged in an uncontrollable fit, hacking puffs of smoke through the grey shroud like a dragon. Convulsing, he grasped desperately for the nearest bottle to swig some relief, forgetting it was their pineapple firewater, homemade on account that the two stoners hadn’t stockpiled any alcohol for lockdown, he gulped, choked on the firewater and howled, his anguished cry joining the 7pm vuvuzela cacophony striking up in the neighbourhood. Horns, cowbells, pans, clapping, high-pitched ululating and a didgeridoo wailed all around as Kirsten led her coughing and spluttering bae out of the genetically modified mist and into the fresh night air of their Orange Grove stoep.
After several minutes of slow breathing and multiple attempts at throat and chest clearing, Presley turned to Kirsten with dry tears around his eyes and squeaked, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The Mayhem Symphony in every key flat ended as they walked. Somewhere in the distance the last screech from a plastic penny whistle sent an eerie echo after them. The streets were empty but they could sense the houses were full. It felt ominous. Like everyone was hiding inside waiting to shout ‘surprise’, meanwhile the ‘birthday boy’ walking up the path was the Grim Reaper. Their illegal walk suddenly felt risky and the ‘Stilton Recliner’ marijuana strain they had smoked spiked their paranoia. In an effort to keep calm, Presley searched for something familiar he could hold on to, to ground them, and so recited his thoughts on what he called the Orange Grove Triangle.
“You see, walking here from 7th Street, Louis Botha suddenly appears diagonally on the right, and then you realise, the whole area on that side is a series of triangular blocks, depending on whether you imagine the roads break them or not. There’s an equilateral block there, but if we take a right here, in the middle of it all, this alley bisects an isosceles…”
His words fell away as they turned upon a motley group of masked people queuing in the moonlit alleyway. Presley pulled his red neckerchief up over his nose and mouth. Kirsten put on her mask, which was a burnt orange, vinyl textured number that protruded outwards like a beak. And so the Bandit and the Duck joined the queue without knowing what it was they were actually queuing for. Within a few silent moments their temperatures were checked and hands sprayed by a doorman, whose head was completely wrapped in a desert scarf.
Everything was sanitised at each handover point and they got sterilised medical drip tubes to use as straws that slipped under their masks.
“Cool eye-slit,” said Kirsten, rubbing the goo into her palms.
“Miss Rona is about to begin,” was the muffled reply as the doorman ushered them into a courtyard covered by weathered, corrugated plastic roofing.
“The courtyard is a triangle, Prez,” exclaimed Kirsten.
Presley looked and smiled. “Not exactly, one side is arced, but I can safely say that at the centre of the Orange Grove Triangle is a square shaped like a cheese triangle, they should call this place The Laughing Cow.”
They laughed, Kirsten mooed, and they lightened up further at the arrival of Miss Rona, a pole dancer wearing a matching African fabric mask, gloves, bra and thong ensemble. She writhed to the sounds of ‘Akulaleki’ in the smokiest bar they’d ever seen. Customers smoked shishas, and in an effort to dress up in the time of Covivi, sported a variety of exotic and colourful masks, a group even sported latex party masks, amongst them, superheroes, world leaders, and a couple of aliens. Presley and Kirsten guessed it was an illicit lockdown birthday outing.
“It’s like that bar in the first Star Wars film,” said Presley.
“Maybe Miss Rona has three breasts,” said Kirsten.
They ordered two R150 draught beers from a waiter in a Congolese mask that had no mouth. He fetched them from a barman wearing surgical scrubs, a surgical hat, elbow length washing-up gloves, a diver’s mask and snorkel. Everything was sanitised at each handover point and they got sterilised medical drip tubes to use as straws that slipped under their masks. This impressed Presley and Kirsten though their beers did have a faint bubble gum taste.
“You see, Covivi forces historical thinking, people compare the social conditions of previous plagues to today’s in their minds. Government is aware and has even herded the homeless into barns as a result. These are clues in this case, to the future, to equality,” said Presley.
“So you want communism like China?” replied Kirsten, blowing bubbles in the beer with her tube.
“China isn’t communist anymore, did you see that Netflix documentary about the Chinese factory in America? It shows that not only is China capitalist, but its version of the system works better without the American religious element,” said Presley.
“Which religion is that?” asked Kirsten.
“Democracy,” said Presley, sipping his beer. “The two biggest economies in the world, American capitalism, with democracy licensing exploitation, and the Chinese version without democracy that exploits even better. That’s why the Obamas promote that documentary, they’re all about politically correct exploitation. What Obama calls: ‘inclusive capitalism’. But of course there’s no such thing, someone is always left out. When Obama came here he warned us that…” Presley tapped his smartphone, “…developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good? …But the efficiency that’s offered by an autocrat, that’s a false promise. Don’t take that one, because it leads invariably to more consolidation of wealth at the top and power at the top,” recited Presley. “He got applause for that, meanwhile he’s onstage with our billionaire president and no one can see the irony. His argument was that after liberation struggle, free-market capitalism is the way to freedom. But he went overboard with the syrup trying to link Madiba’s life with his own agenda for ethical capitalism. Preaching that love must be our ‘North Star’. You know he meant the slaves in America escaping the South, looking for the North Star in the Big Dipper to guide them to freedom.”
“That’s cool,” said Kirsten.
“Yes it is, but we’re south of the equator, we can’t see the North Star. We’ve got the Southern Cross in our sky. So how about we navigate to freedom using our own constellation?” asked Presley.
“I like it, we find a new angle,” grinned Kirsten raising her beer. “Here’s my compass! Where to?”
“1994. When we fell in line with the victors of the cold war of the worlds. It’s time we revisit the map that was rolled up back then.”
“The charter flight to freedom,” nodded Kirsten.
“Yes, we use our return tickets. Then we transit in ’94 and fly to a better future. We’re being primed for something like America’s ‘New Deal’ funded by ‘Marshall Plan’ type loans and debts after Rona. Good intention, but in reality just a cabin upgrade on the Titanic. Austerity class. No, there’s a chance here for something new, and I know what it is,” started Presley.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you triangulate our current position,” slurred a lone drinker sitting at the table next to them. He wore a shabby suit and grubby cheesecloth mask which looked like a bandage over his mouth. He slurred so loudly it became damp.
“Say it don’t spray it!” cried Kirsten, noting to herself that maybe the alcohol ban is a good thing after all, because people spit their words after a drink. And this guy must drink and spit a lot because the cloth over his mouth was yellowing, it looked like he’d peeled it off King Ramesses.
The man pulled up a chair, clutching a 2 litre red wine box with drip tube inserted. He sat hunching over it, sucking up a glass worth in one go, “People don’t read maps anymore, they have GPS. Do you have coordinates to this future of yours?” Red splats appeared through the yellowing bandage mask as he spoke.
The sight was too much for Kirsten, who snapped, “You look like a vampire mated The Mummy.”
“I feel more like a horse drinking from this feedbag,” slurred the stranger, inhaling another glass worth of red through his splattered crepe bandage, “but this place is the only trough I could find. What I’m saying is with Rona no one knows what the future is anymore. There’s a big suggestion inbox open right now at Government and if you make half the sense you do when I’m sober you should be heard. That is, if unlike every other two-bit pundit right now, you actually have a different future in mind?”
Presley replied, “The reason they can’t think of a better future is because money blocks the imagination. The only way to real freedom is by changing the concept of wealth altogether. Did you ever read Fredric Jameson’s daring essay on utopia and the universal army? Well I’ve got an Mzansi spin on it that takes us all the way there…”
“Save it for the politicians,” yawned the stranger, then boasted “you’re lucky I’m connected, I’ll get your grand plan to them. Tell me it.”
“So you can go sell it at the scrapyard with your other junk?” laughed Kirsten.
“Ideas can be recycled too, isn’t that your point?” croaked the stranger.
“They wouldn’t listen to us anyway, they just want normal business resumed,” said Presley, “it’s like that old tale, The Masque of the Red Death, when the prince hides inside his castle to avoid the plague and holds a masked ball in lockdown with all the nobles, they plan to wait it out till the pandemic is over, but then an uninvited guest arrives…”
“Hold on,” interrupted the stranger gruffly, “The President listens to taxi drivers so why not you?”
“Because when he’s done with our thugs, he’s busy on the phone to President Thug, or whoever it is wearing that Trump mask,” chuckled Kirsten.
“He’s not on the phone to Trump, he’s on the phone to me, tonight!” slurped the stranger, his straw rattling in the wine box.
“Rubbish,” hissed Kirsten.
“Oh yes he is,” burped the stranger.
“Oh no he isn’t,” lilted Kirsten.
Their pantomime was interrupted by the arrival of a classier act; the amazing Miss Rona worm-dancing towards them in perfect time to the music and in one continuous motion rolling over, jumping up, and landing with a stamp performing a flawless twerk.
“I’ve seen better,” exhaled the stranger, chewing on his drip tube. Presley caught the warm scent of regurgitated plonk from the stranger’s direction and was wondering whether the virus could survive on an alcoholic’s saliva when to everyone’s astonishment, Miss Rona suddenly whipped off her bra. The music stopped dead. Underneath was a camouflage-print sports bra with SANDF printed across the front. She pointed to it shouting, “This is a bust!”
Pandemonium reigned as patrons and staff rushed for the exit. Then Presley, still sucking his beer, noticed it was patrons chasing staff, and staff tackling other patrons. In one corner the superheroes and world leaders were battling furiously. Superman grabbed Spiderman, who was then ‘haymaker’ punched by Wonder Woman. DC vs Marvel, Trump vs Hillary Clinton, Zuma vs Zille, same cartoon different characters thought Presley. He saw some ‘Men In Black’ pounce on the alien masks and Superman, that made sense because Superman is an alien, thought Presley, but where did they pounce from? Then it dawned on him; they were real Men In Black. This entire shebeen operation was a sting operation. An alcoholic honey trap. As it turned out, there were only twelve other genuine customers at The Laughing Cow. That meant thirty of the thirsties were undercover operatives. Impressive budget, thought Presley. Miss Rona, it turned out, was the mastermind. The ‘doorman’ hailed her as they rounded up the culprits boasting that, ‘Captain Lockdown’ as she was known, had only started dance classes at the SANDF Clandestine Academy a week before the national state of disaster announcement. But if you have passion nothing can hold you back and she was living proof of that.
“Your worm dance was a squirm dance and your twerk needs work. Keep practising,” hiccuped the masked stranger, searching his shabby jacket pockets, and finally flashing a wallet at Captain Lockdown. “I think you’ll find I’m an essential drinker,” he added with authority. She studied it, barely disguising her disappointment that there would be no arrest, and grudgingly saluted, eyeing Presley and Kirsten.
“What about the Bandit and the Duck?” she asked curtly.
“They’re also GCIS. Who’s the snorkel at the bar?” the stranger replied.
“Navy. Him and the dishwasher are here observing. They’re conducting a similar operation at a gay sailors bar in the Western Cape next week.”
“Must be fellow students at your pole dancing class. Is their twerk up to standard?”
“That information is classified,” huffed Captain Lockdown, turning her attention to the unfortunates lined up for arrest. “Ja, you sneaked out looking for bars, now you’re going to sleep behind bars.”
Presley and Kirsten were too distracted by Captain Lockdown’s arrest technique to notice their mysterious companion and saviour was at a far table slipping his drip tube into an abandoned bottle of cane spirit. He made a mask-muffled whistle at them, departing with the bottle. And faster than you can say: ‘This is all a big mistake Officer, I thought this place was the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund and I came here to donate’ they were sitting in the comfy leather back seat of the stranger’s sleek, air-conditioned, chauffeur driven black sedan, speeding silently down a desolate Louis Botha Avenue.
“Still doubt me?” chimed the stranger, flipping open a laptop as the sedan ramped onto the M1 picking up even more speed. As the computer lit up Kirsten noticed dry spit marks all over the screen. This drinker must do a lot of talking at the laptop, she thought, the spit marks probably contain enough different liquors to mix a long island iced tea-and-wine cocktail jug for an ant. To neutralise the potential biohazard, she spritzed the screen several times with her pocket sanitiser, wiping it with a tissue, much to the stranger’s annoyance. This revealed a brightened screen with a gallery of online chat windows. A conference was underway. Most of the faces were visible, those seated in groups wore masks.
“What is this?” asked Presley.
“Covideo” replied the stranger.
“Not the app, I mean the meeting.”
“Welcome my friends, to a sitting of the 7 Colours Plate,” he tapped a few keys, adding “I hope you have good table manners.”
You’re a fine one to talk, thought Presley, asking instead, “What is the 7 Colours Plate?”
“I told you I’m connected but you listened with your mouth,” said the stranger. Glancing at Kirsten, he tapped the keyboard again, adding coolly, “The 7 Colours Plate is a secret government committee convened by the President to navigate the coming economic meltdown. The symbolism of the 7 colours is an attempt to link the idea of the rainbow, as in nation, with the soul of the nation, it’s Sunday lunch. What you said at the tavern intrigued me, we also seek the nation’s lost spirit. As you can see from the icons on each window, the 7 key members are the ingredients of the plate, look, Creamed Spinach is speaking.”
Democracy favours the educated, wealthy classes, whose motivation is preservation of the current system. Many in the lower classes are unaware of the nature of their oppression.
Kirsten was wide eyed. “Isn’t that the Minister of Agriculture?”
“Yes, some of the 7 are Ministers, there’s a DG, an economist, scientists, and the President is the chief ingredient, he’s The Beef.”
“Because he wanted the bull icon, everyone knows he breeds Ankole,” said Presley.
“Check the size of the horns, I bet he’s got an impressive vuvuzela,” chuckled Kirsten studying the screen in awe.
Presley pointed to a chat window, “That looks like the Minister of Police behind that mask, what’s his 7 colours icon, I can’t make it out?”
“He’s the Stiff Pap. Hold on, I’m being signalled,” cawed the stranger, tapping up the volume as the Stiff Pap gestured aggressively.
“Who has Salt brought to the High Table? Are you drunk again Salt?” demanded Stiff Pap.
“I’m sober as Sunday at Regina Mundi,” replied the stranger innocently, holding the bottle of cane between his knees. They couldn’t see that.
“Then what’s your excuse this time Salt?” questioned Pap.
The stranger, or Salt as he was now called, cackled, “I apologise, but I am The Salt. I was placed here to season this dish before it’s served to the masses. To make it palatable. That is my role at The High Table and I believe these I met on the way to the Live Feed can help, as condiments,” then he hiccuped.
“He’s drunk!” barked the Beetroot, whose face was purple behind his Gucci fabric mask, “And three in the back seat, you’re contravening my rules of public transportation,”
“You see that’s your problem right there, the rules.” interrupted Presley.
“Typical, Salt makes everyone thirsty, then brings them to complain about our lockdown drinking regulations,” started Chakalaka, but Presley cut her mid flow.
“No Chakalaka, I’m saying your measures don’t go far enough!”
“And how far should they go?” she asked with contempt.
“The Rona forced the lockdown. But you couldn’t lock down and leave the homeless locked out. You had to look legitimate. Relocating them from fresh-airbnb to indoor camping was excellent work. But meanwhile the virus has mutated the economy. The economic results of lockdown will cause greater death and hardship than Rona, so the two are inseparable. Therefore, you must extend the emergency measures while we work on a vaccine to cure our people of this deadly economic pandemic. In the case of homelessness we simply go further and declare it illegal.”
“And arrest them all?” asked Chakalaka sarcastically.
“No. Recruit them all!” proclaimed Presley.
“What?” exclaimed the Green Salad in unison.
“As of tomorrow they are all soldiers in the ‘Mzansi Army of the Sovereign Kasi’,” Salt and Kirsten turned to Presley in surprise, “The ‘MASK!'” he finished triumphantly.
“Ridiculous, we have an army already,” said Beetroot sternly.
“The SANDF can keep their jobs, the MASK performs a different role. Whilst medical tracers follow chains of people infected by The Rona to map it, the MASK meticulously track and trace chains in the entire population infected by poverty. Our mapping survey and literacy campaign quantifies the exact number of people dead, dying, or suffering a hand-to-mouth existence due to the very structure of our socio-economic system. Once we isolate the genetic sequence of this systemic virus, we wash our hands of it, whilst singing Nkosi Sikalel’ iAfrica twice, then apply what you might call, socialist distancing,” he waited for a laugh but didn’t get one, adding, “then we hold a national referendum on writing a sequel to the Freedom Charter.”
“Are you crazy? The Freedom Charter doesn’t need a part two! And we have the constitution! I penned it myself with Roelf. It’s strong.” declared The Beef.
“Yes we have the constitution of an ox,” replied Presley respectfully, “And it’s safe, this is an extension of the state of disaster regulations. You see, we freed ourselves from racist apartheid into a world governed by economic apartheid, a very different freedom to that imagined by the Congress Alliance in their radical charter. The mission of the MASK is to find a vaccine for the current novel apartheid virus.”
“And you’ll give that job to the homeless?” inquired The Beef in a serious tone.
“Not just the homeless, inequality is everyone’s responsibility, so all South African’s between the ages of 18 and 55 years will be conscripted to the MASK, except those working for state organs, though they will be given the option to retire and join the people’s army if they wish. Hunger, unemployment, homelessness and illiteracy quarantined and recovering in one gesture. Not to mention the accompanying benefits, for example, it cures the psychological guilt plaguing the wealthy classes. The benevolent charity they have given the poor so far is unfortunately tantamount to dispensing a dose of Grand-Pa powders to a Rona patient on a ventilator,” continued Presley, in his element now.
“This is preposterous, you’re taking over people’s lives!” cried the Chakalaka.
“Quite the opposite. The army functions from 7am till 12.30pm, lunchtime. Then we all knock off. The rest of the day is yours to use as you wish. Artistic expression is encouraged in the afternoons as it is counterpart to the literacy drive,” said Presley.
Addressing the table in a warm, sweet tone, the Mashed Butternut said, “Surely democracy can handle this once lockdown is over.”
Kirsten nudged Presley, nodding at the car windows, they had some time ago exited the freeway into Pretoria and were now heading up the hill towards the Union Buildings, Presley continued, “Democracy favours the educated, wealthy classes, whose motivation is preservation of the current system. Many in the lower classes are unaware of the nature of their oppression. The MASK’s literacy drive demands every South African is literate in three national languages. And that a level of literary sophistication is achieved whereby every citizen regardless of race or class is able to ascertain and critique different ideological themes within any given text. The MASK identifies a community member in every locality as a national indicator, a ‘litmus test’ if you like. Once the MASK determines that every local ‘Comrade Litmus’ has achieved its analytical level of development we proceed to the referendum. Then it will be a fair referendum. Granted, this may take a little time.”
“Years! What happens to the country during all this?” laughed The Beef.
Presley continued unfazed as the car stopped below the floodlit Union Buildings, “Well, the whole country is conscripted, including the land, which temporarily solves the land question, and the economy. All production serves the army. Everyone gets three army meals a day, a stipend and free military healthcare. Those without homes or deployed elsewhere live in barracks, which the army builds. All job deployment will be designated by the MASK’s national psychological evaluation officers who number in the tens of thousands and determine both the best career paths for our soldiers, and counsel them for the troubling psychological after-effects of the current system, from bi-polar depression to narcissism and the various consumer addictions.”
“Sounds like brainwashing,” remarked the Stiff Pap.
They were out the car now and into the bowels of the building. Salt balanced the laptop upright as the three headed up a sandstone stairwell, his cane bottle left forgotten in the car, so transfixed was he by Presley’s proposal. “On the contrary, it’s vital therapy from the symptoms of the economic plague. Take the Artists Corps for example, its largest numbers in the early years are expected to be those in the Frustrated Artists Battalion. Counselling them will require addressing all the delusions the current system causes, the allure to be a so-called creative in the first place, the false aspirations, the ego in an individualistic society, the systemic reasons causing lack of inspiration or success, even the concept of success itself. This will be a particularly challenging therapy for the rappers.”
“Army artists?” laughed the Potato Salad as Presley and Kirsten followed Salt through a cloistered corridor, now in the belly of the building.
“Yes, with explicit orders to, whenever desired, create artworks that openly challenge the existence of the MASK itself. There is no democracy in the army but all debate is welcomed, provided that big issues are only raised in the form of an artwork. And will only be responded to with an artwork. This goes hand in hand with developing an equal intellectual culture in the population as we approach referendum. If I have an issue with the high command I raise it, say, in the form of slam-poetry or a painting… it’s then critiqued for both subject matter and artistic technique. Then replied to with an opera.”
“It’s a plot!” shouted Pap, “they want to make us irrelevant!”
Presley replied, “You make a point about dual power Stiff Pap, but could you express it in the form of a statue? I suspect if you could we’d be ready to construct a society that will be exemplary and a first in world history.”
“I’ll topple you like a statue!” said Stiff Pap coldly, “you just want this army of yours to seize the land.”
“The MASK has temporary tenure. The referendum decides whether to end private land ownership altogether. That the land be owned by all, and therefore by none. That no one may claim an individual slice of our sweet soil. To put that in terms of the 7 Colours Plate, I regretfully announce that dessert has been abolished.”
“This madness is a coup!” bellowed the Beetroot.
As Salt unlocked a heavy wooden door, and the trio entered his GCIS office, fittingly, in the semi-circular mouth of the building, Chakalaka said, “Look, they’re here, in the amphitheatre, were they screened for Covivi?”
“Our temperatures were taken where we met,” rasped Salt nervously.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s drunkenly bringing terrorists to infect us, dancing the Macarona all the way into our building,” chided Stiff Pap, switching off his screen.
Creamed Spinach added, ”Besides which, the bureaucracy in this hare-brained scheme is immense, how do you even begin?”
“Immediately. It’s an extension of the national state of disaster so it’s called lockdown alert level 6,” replied Presley.
“There’s only 5 levels!” shouted the Beetroot.
“You said that about load shedding too, then you added 4 more stages. We do the same, referendum happens at alert level 9. The referendum proposes writing a sequel clause to the Freedom Charter, then instituting the entire charter. The building of a free society where no form of apartheid exists, visible or invisible, according to race, religious or class status. That is if class even exists any more at that point.”
“And if the referendum decides not to?” asked The Beef.
“With such authentic ubuntu discovered by the population? Unimaginable they’d refuse, but if so, then we remove the MASK and return to old fashioned global capitalism. A Luta Continua. At least no one will have gone hungry in the meantime. And we’ll have the best theatre scene on the planet.”
Salt turned to Kirsten excitedly saying, “Can you imagine the global excitement when we table motions at the UN?”
“We’ll be downgraded!” cried the Potato Salad.
“We’re on junk status anyway. How much lower can we go?” said Presley.
The Beef asked, “What is the next stage down from junk?”
“Landfill status Mr President,” replied Potato Salad matter-of-factly.
Presley lifted the laptop talking straight to the camera, “Rona exposes that society puts business above health, profit over people, and the magnetic forces of capital hold them in place with no real choices in life because they have to eat. As we put on our masks, society’s falls away revealing the world as an unmasked ball. Once in a millennia the planet’s magnetic poles reverse, changing our social bearings requires much less energy than that. All racist, sexist, and class exploitation has economic motives at root. Everyone’s fighting for a piece of the cake, remove the cake altogether and, in the words of Bob Marley, ‘soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary’, The Mzansi Army of the Sovereign Kasi will cure our nation, It’s time to decide which meat you are on the 7 Colours Plate Mr President, beef or chicken?”
The Beef nodded, “Bulls-eye! Comrade Salt, draw up a motivation for this MASK with, sorry I didn’t catch the relish’s names?”
“I’m Kirsten and this is,” she announced proudly, “The Prez.”
“Nice to meet you The Prez, I’m also The Prez.” quipped The Beef, “Comrade Salt, how soon can you deliver a detailed plan for the MASK?”
Salt said, “Immediately Comrade Beef, and on a personal note, I have always loved the land, I’m rural by birth, but 10 years of the previous administration, the downturn, the lack of leadership, the corruption, the tribalism, the racism, the inequality, it drove me to drink, my soul turned to junk, it needs recycling back at the soil, I want to grow this new menu…”
Presley cut in,“You know Beef, The MASK will need a General for the Gauteng Sunflower, Cabbage and Pickling Onions Brigade.”
“We have one already, he’s the salt of the earth,” started Beef with a smile. As he spoke Salt’s stature changed, his shoulders straightened and eyes brightened, Presley recognised something in him at that moment and intuited it as the spirit that accompanies a ‘raison d’etre’, but then The Beef finished dryly, “Salt will present the motivation for the MASK in the form of a Gumboots Dance at 7pm tomorrow evening.” and then burst into laughter.
And with that the 7 Colours Plate and entire High Table joined the laughter, more laughter than natural because it was The Beef making a joke. Salt closed his eyes as the ridicule washed over him.
“Don’t come here drunk again Salt,” chirped the Beetroot, “or we’ll swap you for Aromat!”
Beef added, “Most entertaining Comrade Salt but we cannot waste the time of the 7 Colours Plate in this national emergency. I declare this course over, let’s move to dessert, good night all,” and started unbuttoning his lapel microphone.
Salt shouted vainly, “Swap Pap and Beetroot for Samp and Dumplings,” but no one was listening anymore, they were casually talking amongst themselves, analysing the feast.
“These ideas are the psychological effects of lockdown, cabin fever, look what it’s done to their mental health, this is why we must end lockdown and get people circulating money again,” said some.
Salt muttered, “Strange, they haven’t switched off the Live Feed yet,” when there was a huge thud at his office door.
“It’s a trick!” screamed Kirsten, “they were keeping us talking.”
The door broke off at its hinges, landing with a crash and there stood a team in PPE suits with Stiff Pap behind, shouting at his smartphone, “I’ve found the Trojan Horse, here to infect us with Rona,” which screened simultaneously on Salt’s laptop. Presley and Kirsten’s eyes darted to the screen as Pap roared, “Sanitize them!”
The 7 Colours Plate watched live as the PPE suits rushed into the room, one brandishing a jet hose connected to a backpack. “That’s not sanitizer, it’s a bio-weapon!” cried Salt, attempting to block the PPE suits as a fountain of liquid sprayed over him.
Salt coughed, “It’s instant coronavirus,” then spluttered, “Papyrus!” and collapsed.
As Presley and Kirsten were bundled to the ground, Presley shouted at the laptop, “Do you know what it is to go to bed hungry?” to which Stiff Pap yelled, “He’s just a bellyful of bad ideas, I bet he’s not even real behind that red handkerchief, unmask him!”
As he was unmasked and sprayed with unknown liquid, Presley saw them tear off Salt’s bandage mask and went totally numb, is that what I am? he thought, a collection of bad ideas, an invisible man because my coordinates lie elsewhere? Then he noticed the PPE suits falling backwards, Pap had turned and was running away down the corridor, from what? thought Presley as he looked around but saw only the room, not himself, he was no longer there, and everyone else was dead, wait, he ran from me! Maybe Pap was onto something? Am I like the uninvited guest at the prince’s ball in the Masque of Red Death story, unmasked as death itself, claiming everybody? I, the red ideas unmasked in the state castle, reckoning with the system? Am I a metaphor, nothing more than a hastily sketched character in some artwork of the future created to raise an issue in the MASK army, read at this very instant by someone in a free world? But then his train of thought was interrupted by the pain. Real pain like a knife in the chest. They poisoned me, he thought, that spray, I can’t breathe, I’m dying of The Rona, and he started coughing and throwing up, and at the end he recognised the taste of death, for he knew it already. Death tasted like pineapple firewater.
The first thing Presley saw when he revived on his Orange Grove stoep were two medics in PPE suits, he nearly jumped out of his skin. Kirsten calmed him down and they were kissing in no time. She explained that his marijuana and pineapple firewater induced coughing fit was so intense that before passing out he had silenced the 7pm vuvuzela cacophony and sent the neighbourhood WhatsApp group into panic thinking they heard somebody dying violently of Rona in their street. Emergency medics had been dispatched and tested him for The Rona while he was out cold. Kirsten then gave him the triple good news that he had tested negative, that it had been announced lockdown regulations were easing, and that while he was out, global TV news was abuzz with reports that the same corporation who owned the agricultural patent rights for the Stilton Recliner cannabis strain had patented a vaccine for COVID-19. The world was saved.
Some weeks later Presley was wheeling his dustbin outside when he saw his neighbours bin lying sideways on the street. A shabby man was kneeling on the ground, half inside the bin, pulling rubbish out of it. As he surfaced clutching a torn bin bag, Presley saw that it was Comrade Salt, he knew he’d seen him somewhere before, and now recognised him as one of the local waste pickers. Salt was rummaging through the dustbin in haste, trying to beat the dustmen to the bin just as they arrived. When his neighbour appeared screaming blue murder at the waste picker for making a mess of his bin, Presley momentarily forgot himself and shouted back above the din of the waste truck, “Have some respect, he was nearly General of the Cabbage and Pickled Onions Brigade!” DM/MC/ ML
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