/ 8 April 2009

Life-sized comics

When I was a young boy, our elders used to regale us with tales of the legends that lived among them.

Like Spider-Man, Superman and Zorro in other worlds, the true identities our legends remained a mystery, but the legend of their work was always the talk of the town, wrapped mainly in admiration, coupled with mysticism.

There were people such as Vera The Ghost, who hijacked men on their way home and only let them go back the next morning. Moferefere was a legendary troublemaker, a thorn in the skins of white rulers. But my favourite legend was Phunyukabemphethe (loosely translated meaning he who escapes when cornered).

In those days when the life of a black man was cheap and always in danger, Phunyukabemphethe was the envy of most because he seemed to get the better of our rulers. When shebeens and other illegal watering holes were raided and busloads of men arrested for imbibing the white man’s drink, our Phunyukabemphethe in cuffs and all, would mysteriously uncuff himself, alight a fast-moving pick-up truck and disappear. He would even leave the cuffs behind, though whether as a boast or as a courtesy to the police, I’m not sure.

Phunyukabemphethe was known to evade heavily manned roadblocks when everyone knew that prison was a certainty for those on the wrong side of the law. Even when the black jacks — the then pseudo metro police who worked for the discredited black municipalities — raided homes in the dead of night to catch illegal dwellers, one minute Phunyukabemphethe would be fast asleep in bed and the next he would have vanished, his bed neatly made as if he’d never been there.

If he lived in this day and age, Phunyukabemphethe would not need a jar of vaseline to escape from a maximum-security prison, presuming he got himself caught in the first place. He would just walk unnoticed and the cops would be left wondering where their prisoner had gone.

Like all mythical heroes of our childhood, they have amazing longevity and are known to make a much-needed comeback, even if it is just for entertainment. Now Phunyukabemphethe has made his comeback and he has upped the tempo. Just the other day he cheated Parliament of millions of rands perfecting a fraudulent travel scheme. For years he stole public money through this scam unnoticed.

But one day he was caught. In a saga later to be known as Travelgate, he was outed. Jail beckoned. But in his true style, out of nowhere, Phunyukabemphethe escaped. The matter was not only swept under the carpet, but the debt incurred — thanks to his remarkable feats — was wiped off the slate.

Three years ago a high court judge sentenced Phunyukabemphethe to 15 years in jail for having paid large bribes to a sitting deputy president. No sooner had he arrived at his Durban prison than did Phunyukabemphethe miraculously escape to a hospital, living it up there for months on end. When officials got wind of where he was and were preparing to send him back to his cell, he escaped from the private ward to a lavish house in an exclusive suburb.

Now we hear after eight years of the legal eagles trying to pin him down for accepting bribes and being involved in unsavoury business, the charges against Phunyukabemphethe may just be dropped. He has been in and out of court, once even on a rape charge, but nothing has stuck. True to form Phunyukabemphethe has continued to escape, leaving mouths agape again and again.

Now, just to rub salt into the wounds of those who have sought to pin him down once and for all, Phunyukabemphethe is surely headed for the office of the president. Question is, will those that have persecuted him over the years escape his wrath?

Our public officials have surely become the latter-day Phunyukabemphethe. Just when we think that wayward members of the party are cornered for one misdemeanour or another, they make a dash for it. We have had premiers lying, ministers blowing thousands on festive parties, spouses of officials eating straight from the government coffers, deputy presidents flying with friends to desert holiday destinations and parliamentarians sexually misbehaving. They have all walked scot-free.

It appears to me that Phunyukabemphethe may just not be the kind of hero my elders spoke about. I have a funny feeling that when it is my turn to tell my children and grandchildren about the legend of Phunyukabemphethe, they will be so frightened they won’t want the lights to be switched off at bedtime. Scary.