Fish tales and faded hope on the famished road to Mangaung

He rose up on his dying bed
And asked for fish
His wife looked it up in her dream book
And played it

I am busy trying to figure out the meaning of this poem when the man next to me says "Enough with that book. Here. Have a drink." It is a long journey to Mangaung, he tells me. I accept his offer, for indeed man can't live on words alone, even though they are such a joy.

It is an accident what happened. I was not supposed to be here on this minibus taxi in mid-October. But what can one do when inflation springs a surprise on one? A week ago, I went to Park Station in Johannesburg, and I asked what the bus ticket cost to Bloemfontein in Mangaung. A figure was given to me, and I duly drew up a budget. But when the day came for me to leave a different figure was given to me. Hau!

Which is why I am here, in this minibus taxi, and being offered a whisky and soda. And so I drink, wondering how a fish could be played. But I am not given a chance to properly ponder this question, for the man starts pounding me with questions: What is my name? Where am I going? Who is my father? At this last question I laugh, for I am suddenly reminded of the boy on a swing in Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali's poem, who asks his mother: When will I wear long trousers? Why was my father jailed? Will he come back?

And why should this man ask me who my father is? I turn to ask him who he is. Aw, a funny thing transpires! He is the father of Kgotso, he tells me. The father of Kgotso! And Kgotso happens to be my other name. So in other words he is my father, would you believe it? And like a father he treats me throughout the journey, making sure I have a meaty snack to go with the drink.

(Photo: Charle Lombard)

You are reading a book and you have a laptop with you. You must be on some kind of a mission, he says. I concede that he has my number. Although mine is a fairly innocuous mission, if we can call it that.

I tell him that I am on this journey in an attempt to see how it will be for the people who will be going to Mangaung in December – those who will be travelling by bus, by taxi, not by Land Rover or Mercedes-Benz – to decide for the whole nation, who our president will be in 2014.

He is intrigued. Genuinely so. Why am I interested in such a thing, he asks. Well, because I am, I say. But why? Well, because it is of great significance what is going to happen in Mangaung in December. But how so? Because what will happen there will affect all of us in South Africa. He nods like a schoolboy being made to understand that when you are on the moon, you look up to the Earth and not down. He nods and nods and says: Oh, I see.

Matter of liking politics
As the minibus taxi goes this way and that way at a breakneck speed that I try to keep out of my mind, he turns to me and says: You know, I have never voted in my life. Never ever. Even in 1994? Never. Don't know politics. Don't like politics. So I don't vote. But voting is not a matter of liking politics, I tell him.

Then it becomes my turn to be the father to the father of Kgotso. I explain how the vote was, for many years, denied to black people. I tell him of the historical significance of 1994. I tell him that it is a patriotic duty to vote, even if you vote for the so-called Democratic Alliance.

He listens, and then he asks if it would be okay to vote for the Pan African Congress. I say, why not? It is a party participating in the democratic processes of this country. It fought for our liberation. Much as the African National Congress did. And the United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Indian Congress.

(Photo: Charle Lombard)

In Botshabelo, outside Bloemfontein, he bids me farewell. He kisses me on the forehead, and whispers that next time when there are national elections, he will vote. The significance of this journey and our talk is not lost on either of us. He asked for fish. Will the ANC grant him his request? But how do you play fish?

In Bloemfontein, the minibus taxi leaves me at the train station. It leaves me there in the literal sense of leaving. Here. You have arrived.

A friend is supposed to meet me. He is a friend, yet he does not answer his phone when I call. He had been involved with the former premier of the Free State province – a politician – so maybe he has learned the politician's tricks from her. Anyway. I refuse to despair. What's to be gained from that?

How do you play fish?
Instead I go into the main hall of the station, and what I see there reminds me of a poem called Amagoduka, which is Zulu for migrant workers. Except that these people are not, or do not appear to me to be migrant workers. Yet one never knows. "The air hung, the pall of choking odour / rotten meat, tobacco and sour beer /…Amagoduka sat on bare floor," the poem goes.

But these people: men, women and children, are not sitting, they are sleeping. Is this why the gentleman from the minibus taxi does not vote? Is it because of this change that is not happening that he does not bother to vote? How do you play fish?

I call my friend again, and he finally answers and tells me he will be here now now. I wait.

How do you play fish? And why do you give a man an axe when he asks for wood? These are some of the questions the ANC will have to grapple with right here where the movement was formed back in 1912 at the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church which, I later learn, is not only still intact but has been renovated and is now state property.  

It is here in this town that the South African Native National Congress met on January 8 1912 and elected, in absentia, John Langalibalele Dube as the first president of a movement that would later come to be known as the ANC. It was a unanimous decision, and that culture of electing a president would go on and on until former president Thabo Mbeki was recalled by his party in 2008. Now the core business of the ruling party, it seems, is about succession races. Kgalema Motlanthe or Jacob Zuma. Zuma or Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale or Motlanthe. How the times have changed!

My friend's home in Rocklands, which is about three minutes' drive from the centre of Bloemfontein, is a modest affair, yet it is beautifully appointed.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are about to duel in their first debate. My friend is rooting for Obama, and I don't understand why. What has he done for black Americans? What has he done for Africa? Should he have done anything at all for black Americans or Africa?

Crying shame
Romney KOs Obama. I did not witness it, but that's what my friend tells me in the morning. But is it worth tuppence that one beat the other and why? Who gives a tinker's cuss? We have our own succession to worry about.

The next day, at a restaurant called Picnic near the Bloemfontein Rose Gardens, the place where they used to have the Mangaung African Cultural Festival, I ask the manager how he expects business to be in December. He looks puzzled. So I say December, December. The ANC conference?! Oh, he says. Is that what's going to be happening?

You see now. People are interested in who is going to win between Obama and Romney. Yet they do not even know what's about to hit them, in their own backyard, in two months' time. It's a crying shame.

He tells me his name is Nico Botes. He specialises in bread, does our Nico. Unfortunately I am not in the mood for ciabatta or seed loaf. So I order something else and I think. I am worried. Have there been no preparations, no consultations with the people about what will strike them at the end of December?

I phone Qondile Khedama, the spokesperson for the municipality of Mangaung, about preparations for the big event.

"The year 2010 taught us a lot about managing big occasions," Khedama assures me, referring to the 2010 Fifa Football World Cup, that event that promised to be an economic miracle for the nation.

He tells me about "section four" events that involve the "security cluster" and that they are well prepared for 20000 visitors, including ANC delegates and journalists and supporters of different factions within the ruling party. He tells me hotels are booked to "maximum capacity" and that in the townships like Botshabelo, individuals are will host people in their homes.

Continued deception
"You must remember that we also had what we call the township experience during the World Cup, which was run by the Mangaung tourism unit," he says. "All that intelligence gathered then will be put to good use when the ANC comes here for its conference."

Mangaung is ready for the conference, Khedama declares. Even if it turns out to be a Mangaung, meaning more lies to the nation. But those are not Khedama's words. They are of this writer, who is tired of the continued deception of the voting black majority by a party that claims to love them.  

I head off to Sports Bar in Batho. I go there because if you want to know anything about a place, it is best to start at a bar or a pub or a tavern. There you will learn of its smells and sounds and the nature of laughter and the impudence of urchins.

I meet an old man named Charles. He is having a beer, but he looks hungry, like the road in Ben Okri's novel, The Famished Road, which was once a river, but is now dry and a road. So I decide to sit with him, and offer to buy him meat so we can roast it and talk about whatever whatever.

You should have been there to see the pure laughter in his eyes. Who is this person who comes here and offers me, a complete stranger, meat to eat? But then we get along swimmingly, like a house on fire.

I ask him what he thinks about the coming ANC conference. He declares ignorance. Like the man in the minibus taxi, he says politics is not his thing but then he says some good things about the ruling party, and that includes what the writer Jacob Dlamini, in his Native Nostalgia, correctly diagnosed as the politics of toilets and potable water and RDP houses. Dlamini says in his book that that seems to be the main preoccupation of the ruling party, and Charles agrees.

But how do you play fish?
How many times, for instance, do you hear President Zuma talk of how many houses the ANC has built? And he is not talking of proper houses. He merely waffles on about what the poet, Wally Serote, calls comic houses.

At some point during my conversation with Charles, I realise that I need airtime. So I ask one of the workers at this place, Lesedi, to help me. When she comes back, I tell her that Charles and I have been talking about the upcoming ANC conference. Does she know about it? She looks at me as if I have asked her if she knows about Sputnik.

But how do you play fish?

Well, you just play it. You look it up in a dream book. And in that dream book you will find a number, and you just play the number. In the townships, it is called umchina or fafi. You dream, and you play the number. Fish. White woman. A cripple. You look it up, and you play the number. You win if the gods are with you. You lose if you have neglected your gods; to slaughter for them and brew beer so that they can drink and not die another death of thirst. And so the man rises from his death bed and says fish. This is a poem, by the way, by Langston Hughes, and it is called Hope. Do you see the symbolism in that? Hope. That is what the poem is called. Who would dare to bet against hope? Because that is how fish is played!

We lie to ourselves and say things can't go on like this. But they do, as does the lie that never again will school children learn under trees. In Batho I saw things still go on as before, as they do in many other parts of our country.  Is this why the father Kgotso refused to vote all this time? I can't help but wonder.

In my despair I phoned Ata Mkhwanazi, a veteran of the oldest liberation movement on the continent and a former Robben Islander.

Engaging ordinary man on the street
"After we have emerged from an era of darkness, I find it strange that people do not care," Mkhwanazi says. "But perhaps it is in the lack of education in general and political education in particular. Don't people know what happened to us after 1652? And in 1994 we emerged from the ashes of ruins. Does that mean nothing to our people? Is that a milestone that signifies nothing?

"Yet also the blame must be put to the door of our movement. How often do we engage with the ordinary man on the street? You see the problem is that we had a bus. That bus was driven by Nelson Mandela. Then it broke down somewhere along the road, and nobody has been able to fix it since then. Not Mbeki. Not Zuma, whom we trusted.

"And now some among us are putting their faith in Motlanthe.

"We hope he will kgalema, as his name implies. Kgalema means to reprimand, to bring order; to say to people this is not the way, and that that is the way.

"We hope he will do that, because the man we had trusted with that task has not done that, and we need to see the way. We need to move out of this darkness and into the light.

"That is what we hope Mangaung will do for us, and our man, for some among us, is Motlanthe. We are hoping for the way, and the light."  

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