Life after the white envelope

Sometimes I like to think I’ve learned one lesson that Moby-Dick, the great novel of the American renaissance (aka “the Wild West”), offers us here in our African renaissance (aka “the Wild South”).

The “universal thump”, as the narrator calls it, will smack us as and when it does; if we object or return the blow, we’ll become like Ahab, the impotent, peg-leg, mad captain, attacking his giant, blind, brainless, soulless white lump of all-consuming blubber with a penknife.

To credit the white lump of whale, which must in present-day South Africa stand for the corporation, or the university, or the state, with a calculating intellect, the lesson goes, is to impute to it what is simply not there. It is a machine. It acts by rules it doesn’t fully grasp, and often acts only by impulse.

And it has only one primary objective: survival. To fight it is to make it the mirror image of your own anger and “to burst [your] hot heart’s shell upon it”. Leave off your quixotic ramblings then, I say to myself, the white lump will rot away in its own time, from the inside. Look up, some vultures are already circling.

But what if, like poor disobedient Jonah, you find yourself in the belly of the white beast (in my case the university), grown too comfortable with its strange smell, the half-familiar sounds of its language, the grey labyrinth of its walls and the stomping rhythm of its innards, so that you begin to presume, naively, to have slithered into your place mostly unnoticed and, despite your disease, burrow in?

And what if one unexpected day you are instructed to reapply to keep your small place in the belly? The beast is struggling to find food to feed all who live off it, the sea is gorged out. In the beast, “what if” is always possible.

So one day I am summoned to Section 189 of the labyrinth, its engine room, given a white envelope, patted on the back by the man in grey, who smiles avuncularly.

I read the letter, then sit down on the grey floor to read it again, and again. “Your application for employment is unsuccessful,” it says. After 15 years? But I thought the beast liked me! I cared so well for its babies.

Who will care for them now? Who will teach them to say “I prefer not to”? Who will warn them of the wiles of the labyrinth? At my back I think I hear hyena laughter, but before I can look the great mouth has opened and I have been spat out where the waves of a strange and foreign shore beat against me.

I wander the streets of the city. Isn’t this my city? But it looks so different. Unreal City, as though I’m seeing it for the first time. There are the equals and the unequals. I see I am an unequal. I see that I must not look certain people in the eye. But look, here comes one I remember. Did he not always wear suits and look immaculate? We speak briefly on a dirty pavement. His beard is untrimmed, his T-shirt is torn, his once-trim belly is bloated, his hand shakes. He laughs: “At least I’m painting again”. And there’s another, and another. I had not thought the beast had undone so many.

“He didn’t even know who I was,” says a tearful one to me, about getting her letter from Greysuit. And here’s one who used to be in the Aandag Brigade. “Why you?” I ask. He is at a loss.

“I was not one of them, not really”. A few months later he is dead. And here’s another. “Weren’t you the best teacher of the language of the majority? Don’t they need you badly?” “I was the wrong colour.”

And another, a dark one comes by. “And you, why you?” “I was the wrong age,” she says. “And a package, did the beast give you a package?” “No, after 25 years it doesn’t give packages.”

And here’s another, in limbo, speechless from a stroke. We all leave each other then, and don’t look back. I know what we’re thinking though. “I am happy, free of the beast at last, one of the lucky ones. And besides, you never know what adventure waits around the corner.” So we walk alone, but secretly scan the horizon for a new water spout, look for the next beast to crawl into. And just in case I find it, here in my pocket “my squat pen rests; snug as a gun”.

Kevin Goddard was retrenched from an Eastern Cape university in 2006 because of the merger

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