Brent Meersman

Excerpts

It was still dark, the dawn light no brighter yet than on a night with a full moon. A number of vagrants slept against Parliament’s perimeter wall, curled up on the cobblestones or lying splayed out on the public benches, under the grand statue of General Louis Botha astride his horse, the flags flapping above them. Some of these homeless people had slept there for years and had their regular places. There were even squabbles between neighbouring benches about noise at unreasonable hours, which the sentry from time to time had to put down.

Joel walked straight through the gate, passing the guard post. At least twice a week, the policeman on duty would be slouched in his seat fast asleep. Joel had given up making a fuss about the lax security. Throughout recess, Joel had – rather cheekily – parked his car at the gates to Tuynhuys, the President’s official residence. No one ever objected.

Joel enjoyed passing beneath the great colonnaded façade of Parliament far better than arriving at some corporate office tower. The Social Democrats’ offices were in the old, brownstone Marks Building, which unlike the new wing, kept an air of historical charm, as if a long line of legislators and historical figures were still peering over one’s shoulder. A pity they had mostly been such shits, he thought. When the first Parliament of the new South Africa sat for the first time, it had felt as if Parliament had been rescued as a house of ideals and debate. Any past to live up to was largely imagined – Parliament had been in the clutches of a long line of robber barons, randlords, and broederbond thugs. If the architecture of that building did enshrine any ideals, it was the rules of debate and fairness, the rights conferred on parliamentary office, and the freedom to exercise those rights. It was the indispensable, if ailing, forum for South Africa’s democracy, meant to hold the executive to account and to rise above party politics when necessary for the good of the country.

Page 106

“On behalf of national, provincial and local government,” the MEC for economic development, in a bright green dress with a gold sash, read her speech slowly: “I would like to take this opportunity to express my grave thanks for the inputs and submissions we have received from our various strategic stakeholders, and the positive engagement we enjoyed through the various channels in government, business, the private sector, public private partnerships, civil society, the media, international community, donor agencies.”

The short MEC was barely able to see over the podium and craned her neck to reach the microphone. Joel thought she might have been standing on tiptoes; she seemed so unbalanced. Gusts of wind kept blasting the microphone, and the wooden podium rocked, further muffling her speech.

“She must have a master’s degree in government speak,” sneered Peter Joules.

“She’s one of yours, not mine, thank God,” said Joel.

Joules, an old friend and a leading creative director for a global advertising agency, was now working on the ANC account.

“You’ll understand, Joel, I can’t really be seen talking to you until after the campaign’s over,” said Peter.

The MEC droned on: “Going forward, there is still insufficient sensitisation around broad based representivity. If we wish to fast-track delivery at the implementation level, and be transformation sensitive, then we must employ gender mainstreaming to capacitate our people and entrench . . .”

Joel wondered what the MEC thought she meant.

“I’m sure your agency will get a lot more government work after this,” said Joel. “But does the blackness of your heart qualify you for BEE?”

“The ANC is our client, not the government.”

“You really are the prince of spin,” said Joel. “They’ve become incapable of telling the difference between party and government, just like the old Nats.” From Peter’s face, Joel realised it had never occurred to Peter that what he was doing might be corrupt.

“This is why,” the MEC continued, “we held around the country, on a consultative basis, multifunctional workshops to integrate the budgeting processes in order to achieve the throughputs we urgently desire. In the main, I would like to say, that the impressive spirit of volunteerism among our peoples . . .”

“Well done on getting your election slogan into the state of the nation and the budget speech. I counted. Four times.”

“Five. All incumbent governments use their leverage.”

“And you have the slogan emblazoned on the covers of every government report and policy document.”

“It’s simply about getting more bang for my client’s buck.”

“Yes, we can’t afford to keep hospital beds, but you’ve got every government department spending millions to tell the people how much they care about them.”

“Thus in conclusion government is committed to working hand in hand as we continue to build a united, diverse, free, non-racist, non-sexist, multi-lingual South Africa. I thank you,” the MEC finally came to the end of her speech.

“She actually made that last part sound convincing,” said Peter.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” said Joel, without humour.

“We don’t all have it as easy as you. Without good spin and gesture politics, where would we be – riots in the streets?”

“The more chic your marketing, the more it sticks in my throat. It seems to me this government’s first concern is how will it look and how do we sell it? Actually doing something is secondary.”

“All masses need opium, Joel. We have to give them something.”

Page 150

SAA Flight JHB to Polokwane

Days to election: 42

 The quickest connection to Polokwane through Johannesburg from Cape Town was the lunch-hour flight, but that would mean arriving too late. Charlene took the morning flight, which meant an extra two hours in airports and the day eaten up in transit. She could use the time to go over Joel’s reports.

Numerous passengers boarding the plane recognised her as they shuffled past down the aisle. Kennedy was on her cell. “Liz, I don’t want anymore of these bloody e-tickets. Every time it’s IDs and a whole business to be checked in. They stand there writing a book on their computers and they want credit cards and agh no man. I want proper tickets.” She ended the call by abruptly hanging up.

The purser, a camp young coloured man, tapped her on the shoulder. “Charlene, I have seats left in business. I can move you up.” He winked.

“No that’s alright thanks.”

Valentine, sitting beside her, sighed, disappointed.

“What are you reading magazines for? Don’t you have work? You are secretary general, you know.”

Kennedy hated being trapped like this; there was so much to do. Everything would irritate her now, even the seat fabric. Valentine reluctantly slipped the Sawubona back into the seat-pocket.

“Here,” she said, handing him a schedule. “Count how many flights between now and election day and how many travel vouchers I’ve got left. That’s enough work for your last remaining brain cell.”

“Yes, Honourable Kennedy.”

The aircraft gave that terrible shudder it always gives in that critical moment it leaves the tarmac. It climbed more steeply than normal. That’s how her life was, thought Charlene, like a space rocket that burns up almost all its fuel to get a few feet off the ground. But once it escapes gravity and is in orbit, the rest is effortless. Hopefully, things would get easier.

The incident with the President’s jet seemed to have helped the ANC’s campaign. People were afraid. If it had been any other jet, nobody would have blinked an eye; turbine blade maintenance failures were common, but usually caught on inspection. But rumours persisted

From the porthole, Charlene could see the giant footprint of Johannesburg stretching out below her. She wondered what the President thought about when he looked out from the splendour of his seat on Inkwazi as it flew over this massive city. Did he look at it with pride? Did he see it as a reflection of the immense control he commanded as the man in charge of the most powerful country in Africa? Or did he pensively chew his bottom lip, as one first sees the blue swimming pools dotted in every backyard, and then beyond the suburbs, the great turbulent sea of shacks and single storey dwellings stretching to the west?

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