Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 14 March 2013

The road to the house of shame

Nkandla is a tale that comes too late in Africa’s history to serve any purpose. It is not a cautionary tale. Instead, it is embarrassingly out of tune with where the continent is going. But then again so are the Secrecy Bill, the resurrection of the National Key Points Act, and many other attempts by those in power to rule in a manner contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. This week I offer an allegory. If some insist that we cannot speak truthfully about matters of state, let us speak of rabbits and hares and foxes. Perhaps then we can begin to say what we mean in our beloved country.

Many years ago foxes arrived in the Great Valley. They brought with them small gold discs that they called coins. Where the rabbits had until that point engaged in bartering and trading for succulent leaves and dry straw on which to sleep, the foxes had invented these shiny objects whose worth became a proxy for many things.

Soon the foxes demanded that every homestead occupied by rabbits should give them some of these coins – they called it a hole tax. And when the rabbits asked where they might find these coins, they were told by the foxes that if they worked for them, they would be rewarded with coins. Initially the rabbits thought the idea was absurd – to exchange their labour for something that was of no value to them, only to turn around and give that object back to its original owner?

The rabbits laughed. But the foxes had lashes and force, and soon the rabbits were convinced of the logic of the coin.

Slowly, over many lifetimes, the rabbits began to forget that once there had been a time before money; a time when their own value systems prevailed. And soon mansions were built for the foxes that were beyond the rabbits’ wildest imaginings.

Brave rabbits fought and many died to protest the injustices that swept across the Great Valley during this time. And when the war had been won, the hero rabbits stood before the people and swore oaths of allegiance to the Great Valley. The Time of Liberation had begun.

But very quickly the Liberators began to behave like the foxes who had come before them. And although they now occupied the fox homes built before the Time of Liberation – mansions that had been beyond their wildest imaginings – they now spoke of the need for the real revolution. In the meantime they authorised vast sums of coins to be used for parties to commemorate the battles they had fought and won in the time before the Liberation. The lumpen rabbits attended, they sat in the hot sun, while beautiful tents shaded the Liberators. Talking all day long was tiring work.

After many years of Liberation, the lumpen rabbits noticed that the talking drums that had awoken them with news of the Valley for as long as they had existed, had grown faint. They wrote a letter to the Propaganda Liberator to enquire about the drums but they never heard back from him. But when some of the rabbits were found to have crossed the great plain in search of the drummers, the Drum Silence Decree was issued, making it illegal for a drum to be played within 50km of where the rabbits lived and introducing passes for those wishing to travel further than 40km.

While there were some suspicions about why the drum decree had been issued, the Liberators continued to speak sweet words that the lumpen rabbits still wanted to believe. Indeed, when tragedy struck one of the lumpens, the Liberators would be the first to arrive – singing and crying with songs from a long-ago past. The music of the Liberators was good. But in time the lumpens began to see that the songs were now a lie. Some among the lumpens were beginning to get angry. But the drumbeats were very far away, and in the absence of their news, the songs of the liberators drowned out the murmurs of upset lumpens.

Although it was successful for a time, the Drum Silence Decree eventually led to bitterness. The lumpen rabbits became poor in a way that had the effect of strangling their dreams – they no longer had hope for the dignity of their bunnies. And soon the lumpens began to curse the Liberators. They needed them desperately – after all the stale leaves that they were now reduced to getting at the end of each month from the Liberation State were their lifeline – but they no longer loved them.

And then there came a day when the Truth stood up in front of them like a cat on its two hind legs. The lumpen rabbits had been told of a house beyond their wildest imaginings that had been built with their coins.

And so they came from all corners of the land, hopping many hops to behold it with their own eyes.

The rabbits knew the smell of freedom’s carcass; after all, the remains of Liberation had begun to stink. So the road to the house that was beyond their wildest imaginings had been easy to find. They had simply followed their twitching noses.

And when they saw it, their anger grew beyond measure. The house was not a riddle, nor was it a rhyme. It was a simple astounding fact, splayed before them across hills as old as their lumpen suffering. It glistened like a jewel in the mud. This house did not pretend to belong to someone else. The house was in the village of the Chief Liberator’s birth; it was a braggart’s crown.

Over one million lumpen rabbits stood there in shock. The house looked like one they had heard of which was built by a Big Hare of yesteryear. They had shaken their heads many years ago when they had heard news of this hare’s greed. He had built a basilica larger than St Peter’s in Rome. It boasted a stained glass window depicting himself kneeling before Jesus. To his everlasting shame, the pope had arrived in the Big Hare’s jungle village and consecrated this shrine, stamping the dignity of the Church on the Big Hare’s crimes.

Another Hare from those long ago days, had built a runway large enough to land a Concorde in his village. Even the rabbits of his village, who he had worked so hard to impress in his long and miserable reign, had spit on his grave when he died.

The lumpen rabbits knew of the misdeeds of the Grand Hares of Liberation in other valleys. But they also knew that these types of liberators were mostly dead and gone. The rabbits in these distant lands despised the memories of these thieves and so their names had become a symbol of a period in history beyond which the rabbit world had moved. Thus, because of the progress of history, and other matters, the lumpen rabbits were shocked at the ostentation of the house on the hill.

A silence descended upon them. The force of their rage was great, but their shame was greater. They could not believe that they had allowed themselves to tolerate excesses of this scale.

And so there arose a great wail from among them. It was the sound of memory, a keening that was testament to a remembering for the ages. Standing before the house, they suddenly remembered what had been forgotten. They remembered a time before the coin, before bitterness and hopeless rage. They knew instinctively that they could no longer rely on the Liberators. And so, as though they were a single rabbit rather than a million, they turned their backs to the house on the hill. They formed a circle and looked to themselves. That was the day the rabbits decided to begin again.

After the March on the Hill, the rabbits were never the same. They passed two new laws immediately.

The first was called the Law of the Drums and it became inviolable. It stated that any leader who sought to move or silence the drums would be relieved of his duties with immediate effect. The second act was that the coins be put to use to improve the holes of the rabbits, to provide them all with enough carrots and lettuce and beautiful straw, to give all rabbits a life that is decent. Because, as they asked themselves that day in the circle, who needs mansions beyond the wildest imaginings?

And so it was that peace and prosperity won the day in the land of the rabbits. DM



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