God gave Noah the rainbow sign:
No more water, the fire next time!
– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963
It had been raining for months on end before the discovery of the “thing”.
Rain that never felt the need to breathe, only fluctuating in scale from day to day: a flood today, a trickle tomorrow. Something the citizens of Z’aniaa, pointedly in Van Riebeck’s Town in the southwestern district, had never experienced before. It was after this strange rain experience that the lonesome healer, ol’ Xuks (short for Xaxuks), scion of San cosmologists and bones men, found the “thing”.
He was almost always up by 2:30am for his ritual prayer, a conversation with both god of heavens and, yes, sulky oceans, lord of the southwestern district’s easterly winds – and also with his ancestors, entities who occupied the same exalted space in both his soul and the spiritual cosmos of his people.
On that day at 3am, as per his weekly Thursday routine, ol’ Xuks left his bush abode, a ramshackle shelter made of fallen tree trunks and detritus of zinc some kilometres away from the mountain. He was headed towards the hill in search of new herbs.
His precise sense of timing was a wonder on its own since Xuks had never worn a timepiece on his wrist, ever!
It was around 5am when, out of nowhere, rain clouds gathered and the sky turned an ominous deep blue followed by three massive blue-yellow flashes and tweeee-baaam! – like a nifty boxer’s two-punch attack on an off-guard opponent, the lightning struck.
The old man lay on the ground for less than half an hour, eyes tightly shut, writhing, his entire body boneless and as fluid as a reptile. What caught him off guard when he recovered both his memory and his body was the sight of a box the size of his rucksack, wrapped with tightly fastened strips of tree bark.
Questions flooded his mind.
A man of both the high plains of the southwestern district and mystic rivers, whose banks he grew up on, a man whose herbs were sought by the high and mighty, the low and the greedy, a man who experienced the pits and excrement passing for human beings, he thought to himself, nee man, this is just a dream.
“One more cleansing job and we are done,” a booming voice spoke in a weird dialect, issued out of the “thing” in some sort of combination of mangled Nguni, Dutch and English.
“But we thought there’s only one job, the cleansing-off of racism,” came a soft, deliberate murmur. “Let it not be said, Wise One Tiyongo, that we are turning a blind eye to other vile manifestations of the rot – corruption, nepotism, drug addiction, religious intolerance – but oh Wise One, we were made to believe that our priority here, in Van Riebeck’s Kraal, the southwestern tip of Z’aniaa, is race. And if that is so, then that’s what we should focus on. Nip it in the bud before the sickness spreads all over Z’aniaa.”
The booming voice returned: “How do you, Mma Maxeke, with due respect, propose we should deal with this greed? The lies, blood spilling, conceit, low-burning genocide and fratricide within our people? What do you have to say about the slimy offices they refer to as corporate towers?”
The owner of the voice was on fire.
“What do you say about the poverty suffocating our children’s children? The blood-dripping criminality in the fishing business? Unrestored land? Stolen beaches?”
“But my elder,” the softer voice emerged, “your tongue reeks of filth as you mention all the man-made dirt. We hear you, Wise One. We just felt perhaps we should give those nasty pieces of work and what they call the government one more inch of rope to hang themselves with. Just one more inch.”
Word spread quickly that ol’ Xuks had had a “vision” and discovered a strange contraption – no one really knew what to make of it other than to refer to it as the “thing”. Rumour had it that his “vision” had dire implications for the entire southwestern region, the coastal playground of the rich and the indifferent.
Hardly a week after the birds of rumour soared wide and far, carrying hush-hush gossip about “the vision” and the “thing” in their flapping wings, officers from the police station at Bounty Bay came to fetch Xuks from his isolated abode for questioning.
The people gathered in the station commander’s office in the Bounty Bay cop shop sat stunned, listening to the voices emerging from the “thing” Xuks had brought.
Present in the station commander’s office were what local street deference referred to as men and women of “credentials”. Among them sat the premier of the southwestern district, simply known as Muh-Dame Chief, Van Riebeck’s mayor, Poppie Buitekant, and the municipality’s feared top-cop sleuth Piet Kakvatnie, along with a few historians, linguists and psychiatrists from outta town.
Following hours of attempts by the linguists, not to mention frenzied rituals by two invited qhiras (traditional healers), to decode the language spoken by the voices issuing from the “thing”, one of the qhiras finally managed to access the voices in his head that promptly helped him decrypt the weird lingo.
“Naaf,” he spat.
Naaf, one of the linguists confirmed, was an antiquated !Qua dialect spoken by a much-feared breakaway group of San and Bantu, populated by a highly gifted bands of healers and lawmen and women known as the Naafi.
That version from the “thing” – which the historians eventually pegged as some sort of ancient tape machine from a tribe of strange- looking merchants from beyond the Atlantic that appeared in the region many moons ago – seemed to be a modern variation of the original language.
But who were these people? What did they mean by “cleansing?” Who sent them? Word spread fast in Van Riebeck’s Town. Soon everyone in the Cape was asking themselves and their neighbours: Do these voices have anything at all to do with the three-month mud-red and purple rains?
On agreeing that Xuks himself was neither criminally liable nor the medium of any omens, good or bad, the authorities decided to let him go and, on that night, the old man skipped town, never to be heard of again.
It was later that the town was ruthlessly picked apart. A lethal band of marauders swooped right into the power fabric of Van Riebeck. They were humanoid-shaped creatures, though no one could universally agree exactly how they looked.
They appeared to be blood and flesh people. Their jaw-breaking, groin-melting kicks, felt human, if a tad steely, even if they never seemed to touch the ground.
But what everyone spoke about was just how lethal, almost scientifically so, these assassins were.
That night the main police stations were attacked and residents noticed smoke followed by humongous balls of blue-green fire leaping under the dark skies.
Word soon slipped out that these – were they some kind of aliens? – burned all that the fleeing law and (dis)order officers had left behind: armaments, false and neglected dockets, loot illegally confiscated from criminals.
Immediately after came more attacks, this time on the homes of the wealthy, Van Riebeck’s privileged, mostly drawn from the same Euro-caste. They spared nothing: people and their pets and possessions were decimated.
It was a systematic operation, as though the “cleansers” were ticking off their targets with a slash of red on some imaginary paper sheet.
All kinds of perpetrators of social ills: drug-traffickers, pill-poppers, government-tender skelms, shady imams and shadier qhiras. Child-perving pastors and paedophiles were strangled, sliced apart, clawed to death, eyes gouged out.
But the politicians and those in
the state institutions, populated as they were by networks of warring, looting, wheeling-and-dealing human-vampires, were the ones
who seemed to have aroused the most passionate wrath of the red-faced ones.
It was only on looking back that the denizens recalled there had been a warning. The Sunday preceding the calamity, Van Riebeck’s streets were strewn with pamphlets inscribed with writings.
We deplore your values.
Racism is the worst of plagues and ills. Cease and desist.
Human trafficking, ukuthwala and tribalism … just as bad.
We will be back.
The pamphlet was signed “AAA” with a substance that felt like sticky blood droplets mixed with deep purple ink. The whole thing carried the veneer of a blood-seal stamp.
A week later, that is the week ending the 13th month of a rather unprecedented year of 2015, a year with 15 instead of the usual 12 months, had long been slated for a set of major celebrations across the greater Z’aniaa.
It had been 25 years that February since Friedrich Snitch, the then leader of the “New Nationalists” took his party, his party’s archenemies, the international donor community and international investors – and pertinently the millions of harassed and edgy native Z’aniaans – by surprise.
On that etched-in-memory February 2, Snitch announced the unbanning of all “Terries” and the release from jail of the biggest “Terry” of them all, worshipfully known as “The One”. Back then you could hear the jaws dropping all over the world’s capitals. Ah, Z’aniaa! Free at last!
So you can imagine that 25 years later and three presidents down the line Z’aniaa was in a carnivalesque, if blade-edgy, mood.
No place symbolised the headiness in the air more than people in the northern municipality of Nyooku, Z’aniaa’s biggest, most moneyed and restless metropolis.
The country was fresh from its fifth national elections and one more time the Poople’s Party had triumphed, if for a bit of scraping here and there.
To celebrate, national bashes, road trips, proudly-natively referred to as imicimbi, were set to take place on the very year of the 25th anniversary of Snitch’s historical announcement, known as “the Miracle”.
The country was awash with songs of freedom, even as it perched on its last legs before the expected, eventual slippage into the irretrievable cesspool of maladies all of Africa had been sucked into.
This is how low the greasy pole-dancing ladder, the once beacon of the world, had sunk: news in the ever hysterical press had started circulating that security guards at Sawethu hospital’s morgue were involved in a roaring trade in corpses. The currency was in free fall. Cynical speculators from Fleece Street, tummies bloated by long oyster and cognac lunches, said: “Ah, but that’s good for the economy,” while down in Z’aniaa, the managers of small to medium-sized companies howled to the job-seeking masses: “Voetsek, go to your people’s palace in Mpandlane. Off you go and join the soup-kitchen queues there.”
How’d they expect these folks to head to Mpandlane? Located in Kwa-Shaka South Coast, way past Umkomaas. Most of them couldn’t, for the love of Moses, rub two pennies together to make it there. And yet everyone – “doesn’t matter if you are black or white”, so went a popular ditty’s refrain – in Nyooku was caught up in the rat race. Who doesn’t want to be a millionaire?
Such was the environment in which the red-faced fiends and their mothership docked next.
The moment of Nyooku’s reckoning arrived just as the mother of all bashes came hurtling into town.
For a moment the masses had temporarily cooled off their daily rants. Rants against the establishment and its leeches, whites, coconuts. Rants against government’s procurement policies, township schools, teenage pregnancies, sugar-daddy teachers, nyaope.
Even those quick to burn tyres or moon the cameras to communicate their gatvol-ness seemed to have bigger preoccupations swirling about their heads: Umcimbi, the mother of all state-sponsored bashes.
Buses roared through the streets, packed with villagers and townsfolk blaring vuvuzelas as they banged on the sides in unison. Nyooku’s thoroughfares went wild with colour. Ululating elderly women and their men, the skepsels – though the youths were recognisably less so – were clad in T-shirts and kanga wraps broadcasting the many grinning
faces of Brother Leader, Z’aniaa’s longest-serving strongman, a village man, loved and reviled for his laughter.
The bash was a spectacle. More than 5?00 cattle were slaughtered. A dazzling selection of meat, including – oh, the international news media couldn’t resist it! – elephant meat. Traditional brew flowed. Ethnic theatrical dance combos that were vying for the first prize – a white Brahman ox – entertained the masses. Athletic young men with washboard tummies and rippling muscles, and young women with rubbery waists, leapt in the air in gravity-defying, choreographed moves.
On the last day of the celebrations, while the masses were still drunk with the immensity of the occasion, some temporarily jettisoning their rage against the Poople’s Party, Brother Leader and his politburo quietly exited the stage through a rear passage that led out of the venue.
Out of sight and out of earshot of the cacophonous din, they repaired to a private spread owned by Toe-Toe Ga-A-Buwi, one of Brother Leader’s silent backers.
At his mansion the partying continued. Soon everyone was poep-dronk, wasted from the kilolitres of the white man’s fire.
It would prove to be their last supper.
‘Kristuu!” a piercing scream, followed by one, two, three and then a whole lot of human wails, issued out of Ga-A-Buwi’s compound.
It was just after the rooster’s third crow, on a rather dewy morning when a group of elderly women from the highly regarded ZCC (the minister of whingeing affairs’s side “empowerment” racket, Zenempilo Cleaning Co) walked into what would be an unforgettable sight, a tale that would be breathlessly retold for generations to come.
Ga-A-Buwi himself was lying face down on a Persian rug, limbs splayed haphazardly, his girth blocking the passage to the main lounge, which led to the indoor pool of his R50-million spread.
In and around the string of kitchens and open-spaced entertainment rooms that gave an opera-house feel to the mansion, a nightmarish sight emerged in front of the ZCC’s staff.
Hundreds of men and women, Brother Leader not exempt, were either slumped dead in their chairs, heads willowy, or piled atop each other.
A few seemed to have keeled over tables in one swoop, heads buried in large bowls of still untouched chocolate soufflé, golf ball-sized berries, and other mainya-i-nya.
All were stone-cold dead. As icy as a vengeful winter’s night.
One woman fainted at the sight while another’s howls pierced the early morning silence.
Half an hour later, after forensics and the top-notch medicos had swooped in and some army heavies had ring-fenced the scene, gossip started leaking through the barbed wire.
“Food poisoning. Massive food poisoning,” some whispered.
“Nix. Can’t be.”
“This was something more sinister. Something you could not wish on your worst enemy. This is something supernatural,” the women heard other official-looking types mutter.
“Better wait for the post-morts.”
It was exactly at 6.30am, the morning after the great bash, that the news broke. The president and his private guests, numbering 250, were “allegedly” gassed up.
Could it be the red-faced strangers that had “cleaned” up Van Riebeck Town, down south Z’aniaa, just weeks before?
Surely it couldn’t be the work of some stupid, small-time entrepreneur shafted out of a few million greenbacks by the conniving, slimy lot in the Brother Leader’s circle. Nah. This had the touch of some evil, magical genius.
Questions cluttered the air.
Are the people who did this on the side of the long-deceived masses? Is this the work of an alien sect the eccentric Credo Mutwa had long warned the nation about? It would not be long before their modus operandi emerged.
Soon pamphlets, just like those that rained on Van Riebeck’s streets after the rot’s “cleansing”, appeared on Nyooku’s highways, back alleys and corners.
But this time around only scrawls of an undecipherable ancient script filled the page.
It didn’t take that long for the answer to emerge.
The restless staff at Nondaba Radio, supported by the caretaker military gents at the national barracks who pleaded with the nation, asked everyone for help.
They launched a live on–air manhunt for anyone who could decode the strange texts.
Their cries for help were soon answered: an elderly woman was brought to the station late at night. It was said she “sees things”.
At midnight, millions had tuned in as the frail voice told the nation that the language was Naaf. “It is written in the language of my forebears,” she said.
“What’s your Naaf saying?” the impatient radio anchor demanded, and a vibrating collection of voices spilled out from the woman’s mouth.
The woman began to shake violently.
“Please, m’am, are you aware …”
The voices came, shrieking, as spasms spread throughout her body: “The leadership of Z’aniaa has sinned enough, the country has sold the dreams of our revolution and made mockery of the sacrificed blood of our children.”
“This doesn’t sound promising,” the anchor cut in. “What does the rest say?”
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,” the Naafia woman wailed. “No more water, the fire next time!”
Bongani Madondo is an author and social critic. His work-in-progress Sigh the Beloved Country is a collection of essays on faith, society and new money culture