You’ve probably often heard tell of the day when the Prime Monster of South Africa visited the people at Stinkhole Bantustan. Because that was an historic occasion – because of the honour of it. So I know you won’t mind hearing about it all over again. A story is a strange thing that depends on the teller. One person leaves the important bit to the end, another puts it in the middle and another will leave it out altogether. The way this one was told to me, the bit about what happened afterwards was the important bit, and it got left out. But, as I say, it depends on who is doing the telling. And it also depends on who is doing the listening.
When you’re sitting there on the bare veld of a bantustan with the cemetery behind you filling up fast, with the dust between your toes, empty stomach, no job, and the kids running around in rags, or naked, with big tummies and snotty noses, you aren’t used to invitations to state occasions with important personalities. In fact the most the people of Stinkhole ever got from a white official was a kick up the arse, a cuff on the neck or the traditional greeting: ‘Bogger off, swartgat!’ But now that the people have risen up, now that millions of people have been uprooted from their homes and thrown onto the bare veld, now that the money in South Africa’s not so good, the Prime Monster was trying to sell the independence business and a united South Africa to the West – so the photographers had to snap him talking to the independent people, didn’t they? Fraternising with smiles and howd’ye-do’s, as if we were used to eating ham and eggs for breakfast together every morning.
Of course I wasn’t there at the time. I’d have had to get special permission and a permit to enter Stinkhole Bantustan. And who’d want to go there, anyway? But I read an account of it in the newspapers and it sounded a very different story from that told me by a dapper young chap who was there that day. He was related to the Bantustan chief, so he’d got himself a nice job and was working the system.
‘It was like this,’ he told me. ‘It was a helluva great day for us. I am a clerk in the Administration. Nice job, man! Most people in Stinkhole got no money and got no job. I’m lucky, man! Most people got no water. I drink lemonade. But I’ll never forget that day – Haai! The people came from miles around to hear the Prime Monster. The Department of Works and Planning built a big wooden platform right there in the middle of a field. We shooed all the cows and demonstrators away. The mothers brought their babies, strapped on their backs. The old men came chewing their lips because there isn’t nothing else to chew in Stinkhole. The old women came in their rags with their possessions in paper bags, in case it was another removal. And of course all the cheeky Stinkhole youngsters came as well. Everybody wanted to see the big white chief – the Umkulubaas. There by the old grey tree, Chief Buthasebe was waiting in his finery to do the greeting. There was all the officials of Stinkhole baking in hot government clothes. And just when everyone was thinking “I wish I’d got money to buy a tin of water,” the big car arrived, and there was the Prime Monster. And there was me. I was there too, man – hot – in my posh wool suit, with a tie and everything.’
‘Forget about your tie and your suit, man,’ I said. ‘Get on with the story!’
‘Hang on! Hang on, man!’says the clerk. ‘I have to mention the odd detail or two so you can get the picture, OK? It was a bladdy big occasion for us, don’t you forget! There I was, opening car doors and escorting the VIPs around. I had a very important job, man! I was carrying files for this one, dodging blows from some of the white ou’s, and being careful to guide them all through the cow shit up to the platform. I was being very helpful, offering this one a compliment and that one advice. Hell, man! There was police on the perimeter and a lot of tanks – Saracens, Hippos. But we weren’t expecting trouble, so nothing fancy. What a day, man! And there I was, one of the chief most important people.
‘They come to the platform, have a round of shaky-shaky hands for the benefit of the cameras, and I see the PM quietly get his hanky out and wipe off Buthasebe’s shake. Immediately I whip out my new OK Bazaars kerchief for him. He just ignores me. Whew! What a wonderful thing power is! It’s brand new, my handkerchief – orange, white and blue for South Africa. It was a new line from OK Bazaars for the Tricameral Elections. The Administration gave them to a bunch of kids in Stinkhole to wave around and sing ‘Die Stem’ – national anthem, you know – but instead the buggers was dancing around and chanting: “Be an Indian and join the mob! Be a Coloured and get a job! If you Black – get the Sack!” I went after them, I can tell you. But only with half my heart. I mean, who needs to vote, man? I’ve got my life greased up nicely. My wages gets paid, monthly on the dot. Put it in the bank, out comes the mortgage money – pop! Out comes the furniture standing order – zip! Out comes the little ones’s school fees – whoosh! – all automatic. And there’s plenty left in the bank to buy burglar bars and self-defence items. Plenty left for me and the missus if you work for the Administration. Some people may not like it, but boy oh boy just look at this suit, man – Savile Row, Germiston. And these shoes – Italian, made in Boksburg. And this tie! Everything of the best.’
‘Get on with it, man,’ I said.
‘Well, first there’s the whole business of shutting up the mob. Butasebe even gets up and waves them with his stick. At last the Prime Monster rises to the microphone. Now there’s some silence, except for the SABC cameras popping all the time. And he says: “I have come to Stinkhole to tell you people you’ve got your real independence. We not having apartheid any more.” The crowd went mad, man, waving and screaming: “Masimba! Masimba!” The PM turns to us on platform and he says: “Hell, man, I didn’t know you people are so enthusiastic about me. This is the best reception I ever got in my life – here in Stinkhole. Where’s those bladdy pressmen, hey?” The security boer gives the reporters a few warnings with his sjambok to get them going.
‘Then the PM turns back to the mike and continues: “We have outgrown the outdated colonial system of paternalism. Since 1948 we been fatherly to you people, but now, because the bladdy rand’s gone to boot and the country’s become downright ungovernable, we decided you grown up now. From now on, you going to be South Africans.” “Masimba! Masimba!” everybody yelled. Man, I only said, “Bugger me!” when he said that. But that security boer gave me such a bladdy kick! Right up my new suit. No one could of even heard me. Any case he went on: “Now that millions of you people have been removed from the cities and there’s no jobs, we repealing the pass laws. Instead of passbooks you going to have identity books, OK?”
‘And the audience went crazy, man, waving and jumping about: “Masimba! Masimba!” And some clever-dick made a megaphone with his hands and shouts: “What about our leader – Mandela?” And the PM answers, cool as they come: “Mr Mandela doesn’t want to be free. I’ve told him a hundred times if he wants to be free just sign along the dotted line below the small print. I’m a humanitarian. And I ask you, what about Mr Shcharansky and Mr Sakharov, never mind our poor ole du Toit! Any case, we had to lock Nelson up, man. I mean, for Chrissake! I’ve told the South African people a million times that bloke’s dangerous. We treasoned him up in ’56 as a communist but the courts were full of liberals those days. We managed to take him out of action for four and a half years attending the trial and then they let Nelson and his mates go. So we bagged him in ’62 for permit offence. Courts only gave him five years. But we got him in ’64 – Life! And now you want him out already! No, man, the Nationalist Government is offering you real freedom and negotiation with your elected leaders – and it’s no good electing Mandela and Sisulu and those people over and over, ‘cause we not having them. You just elect your leaders and we’ll tell you when they OK. OK? We got to lock up the agitators. If we get about twenty million of the bastards behind bars, the rest of us will have a little peace. Because what we’ll get here is a bit of law ’n order.” And he smiled.
‘Once again the audience went bananas. You should ’a just seen them. Honest! They started sort of moving forward, and there must have been some impis among them because they started stamping their feet like warrior Zulus, shouting: “Masimba! Masimba!”
‘The Prime Monster was getting used to all the shouting by now and he waved them still. “I see,” he continued, “some left-wing newspapers have been having polls to see who’s in favour of Nelson Mandela. I was sad to see 86 per cent of you kaffirs (and some bloody misguided white traitors) said you were. That Mandela, he’s an agitator. He’s been giving us trouble for over forty years. And his wife too. I’m a humanitarian, Christian, God-fearing man, but when the women start being disobedient you really have your hands full.”
‘And the cameras all went click, click. And the crowd yelled and screamed: “Masimba!”
‘The cameras caught him with his arms up, arms down, leaning back, leaning forward, mouth open, eyes up – oh, every whichway. And eventually they started getting tired holding up those big videos and mikes in the heat. So the Prime Monster began to wind it up. “Look at the miners now. That Cyril Ramaphosa and his horde of two hundred thousand. And what you people want all these trade unions for anyway? We just had to detain all the leaders and try to get things back in line again. After all, we done fine without trade unions for years, and our balance of trade was just terrific. Those people in Crossroads – imagine wanting to starve in the bladdy shantytowns when you can do just as well here in the country! Those students in Duduza and Kwathema, Fort Hare, Orlando High, in Mamelodi, Alexandra High, Vlakfontein – agitators! People agitating in Cradock, Lamontville, Umlazi, Vosloorus, Natal, Cape, Transvaal and OFS. We cleared them out of the cities into the townships, then to the bantustans and from there into the jails. We want a united South Africa where everyone loves each other in pure joy. If only the world would just give us a chance. We’ve got this State of Emergency going to help all this, we got guns and teargas to win over the people.”
‘The crowd went absolutely mad, man. He’s a real orator, that guy. “Masimba! Masimba!” they screamed.
‘The Bishop was supposed to be there to end the whole thing with a prayer. But he never came to Stinkhole that day. So when the Prime Monster ends his business, he decides to do the praying himself. He downs his head, and there’s silence. Suddenly Freedom, that young demonstrator, jumps on the platform, grabs the mike and shouts:
The evil which art in South Africa
Apartheid be thy name ...
‘There was a bit of a disarray. The security boer grabs the mike from Freedom, knocks him over, and gives it back to the Prime Monster. The PM screams upwards to the kops on the perimeter: “You bloody verdompte lazy kops up there, come and get this bugger, quick! It’s another bladdy agitator!” ’
‘What happened after that?’ I asked.
‘They all went home hungry and thirsty. The cars drove off. Works and Planning zaps the wood away quick before it’s nicked. End of spectacle. End of story. Out of my hot suit. A lo-ong drink of lemonade.’
And that’s what I meant when I said it depends how it’s told and where the important bit is and whether it gets left out altogether. Because a couple of days later I got one of the pressmen to play me back the tape of that meeting. It was a bit blurred at the end because they were leaving the platform to go back to the cars. But as they went down the stairs I heard the big-wig Buthasebe say: ‘Excuse me, Prime Monster, do be careful, sir. The cows have been walking past here. Don’t step in the masimba.’