Day 97 of Covid-19 lockdown.
It’s early evening but I’m still at work, hunched over the laptop in the lounge, where I’ve spent most of the day. I’ve spent most of the week there, no face-to-face jobs, strictly phone work and emails.
Restaurants and casinos are open, but I’m in no way tempted to go for a meal, or a punt. It’s not just the fact that nobody’s going to beat the house until the casino bosses have covered up the income they lost through three and a bit months of being locked down, or the reality that I never make money gambling when I’m broke.
The mad increase in the number of new infections every day is terrifying. More and more people that I know have caught the virus. Covid gets more real, closer to home, every day, so I’m only leaving the house when I have to.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is on the screen, conducting his first online imbizo since he locked the country down. It’s also the first time he’s taken questions since he started his “fellow South Africans” thing, way back in March, so I’m keen to hear how he handles it.
There’s been a fair amount of criticism of the president for not holding question and answer sessions since the lockdown started; for leaving it up to the members of the National Coronavirus Central Command Council and cabinet to handle the interchanges with the media, often with shambolic results and contradictory messages.
Whatever happens, Ramaphosa’s bound to be way better than the minister of condolences, Nathi Mthethwa, and most of his cabinet colleagues have been in their attempts to explain the regulations in each of their sectors as we have moved between lockdown levels.
Ramaphosa’s looking a bit more relaxed, less exhausted than during his last appearance. Perhaps the president has caught up on some sleep. Perhaps he’s confident in the ability of the screening team whose job it is to weed out the nutters and the tobacco industry lobbyists; make sure it’s not Carl Niehaus chanting “we are Msholozi, and Msholozi is us” on the other end of the line.
The head of state gets going, a little hesitant at first, but after a while warms up, becomes more fluid, taking us through the past 97 days and making it clear, in a gentle way, that the virus is with us for at least the next 97, and probably for a lot longer.
Staypozi wraps up, without saying all that much. He must have been watching video footage of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, in the bid to master the art of talking for hours while saying not a whole lot. Ramaphosa didn’t giggle or start singing, so he’s clearly cherry picking what he uses from Msholozi’s playbook.
The master of ceremonies opens the line. I wonder where the minister in the presidency, Jackson Mthembu, is? This is normally his gig, emceeing for the president.
Perhaps it’s his night off.
The first caller gets through. Needless to say, it’s somebody wanting to know when the ban on cigarettes is going to be lifted. It was always gonna happen.
The president’s clearly battling to keep a straight face as he replies that the gwai ban is not permanent; that it will be lifted when we move on to another level, or perhaps to another level; that smoking cigarettes is not, in fact, a thing of the past and that one day South African smokers will, eventually, be able to buy their cigarettes legally in the Republic.
I grab the phone.
I’m keen to know when we’re going to get the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (Ters) payout we were promised by the department of labour during May. We submitted our banking forms for payment, but that was the last thing we heard about it, until Wednesday’s announcement that the system has collapsed.
I’m broke enough to ask the big lahnee for my money in front of the entire nation, get all East Belfast on him, so I punch the digits on the TV screen into my phone. I’ve never really given much of a toss about what people think, so why start now?
Perhaps if I put Ramaphosa on the spot — live on TV, radio, social media, the whole enchilada — he’ll be left with no option but to squeeze Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi to rattle some cages, get us paid.
On TV the phone rings. It keeps ringing as the callers who have got through pitch their questions, none of which deal with our long-awaited Ters payouts. It’s still ringing when the session gets wrapped up and el presidente’s head disappears from the screen.
Deflated, I cut my call.
Perhaps they’ll sort the system out and we’ll get paid without me having to embarrass the president during his next imbizo.