The presidential phone call that never was

This telephone call never took place. But this does not mean it is impossible that it could have been made under different circumstances or in a different time. It also does not mean that it cannot be imagined, dangerous as that might seem or be. The dramatic personae can be traced to living and known individuals, not necessarily in the documentary sense. 

Let’s assume the conversation happens in a country in the south of Africa, maybe in a winter season during a global pandemic of a respiratory nature. Let it also be imagined or confirmed that such an imaginary phone call might happen during a crude and unfortunate insurrection, some social skirmishes and rampant looting broadcast and published in local and international news. 

The caller is a sitting president or someone holding similar high office, and the receiver is a prisoner of equal high standing, loved and respected, but also hated by some as it happens with human beings. 

The president makes the call at 16 minutes after midnight, having arranged over days that the call be scheduled and be kept confidential, that it be recorded for historic considerations. Nothing untoward is anticipated in the call, except that it happened during a turbulent time, if it happened at all. 

The President

My warmest greetings J, and a pleasant evening to you. I meant to call you earlier, in the past three weeks to be exact, but my official obligations and travels have kept me too busy to have a proper time window to make this call, which requires a measure of sensitivity, dignity and respect. 

I know and understand recent legal outcomes have not favoured you personally and have, predictably, placed some strain on relations within our movement. I am not calling as a comrade or a head of state, but as a fellow human being and brother. How are you keeping?

JGZ

Thank you for your call, Mr President and for indeed thinking of me in these difficult times. As you are aware, I have been rather occupied in recent months and years to put in perspective my version of recent events in our movement and in the courts. 

I have clearly not been successful, seeing that your call reaches me here, in a place I would rather not be. I imagine you are well aware of my views, for I have never withheld my personal feelings whenever I believed there to be misunderstandings between myself and the courts, including differences of opinion with my comrades. 

I am as well as a 79-year-old might be, I am homesick, but meant it when I said I was prepared to be imprisoned for my beliefs, to ensure I express my thoughts and feelings as a matter of principle. 

The President

I respect you enough to state that I am disturbed by recent developments in our country, and am brave and principled enough to not pretend that we see eye to eye on every issue. On a human level, it does perturb me that issues have spiralled out of control. 

One wishes for calmer and more joyous outcomes, but that would be inconsistent with the higher mandates given to us by our electorate, our institutions and constitution. It would also be naive of me to pre-empt and assume what your feelings were or could have been about matters ventilated in the commission and to some extent the apex court.

JGZ

I understand your predicament, having been there myself. I am not and have never been an outlaw and cannot expect you to break the law by interfering with work entrusted to our institutions. I know the terrain quite well, and don’t envy you as to the amount of fires you have to put out. 

I watched you on television during the family meeting. You look tired, Mr President. I know you are working hard, for the good of the country, and only wish my resignation had brought calmer and more productive outcomes in the internal affairs of our movement and government. 

But I am an optimist, and believe that the movement will self-correct at an opportune time.

The President

I meant to commend you for the difficult and possibly embarrassing decision you took to comply with a verdict of our courts — even though you have stated publicly that you disagree with the process. It takes a mature person to disregard their personal feelings in the manner you have, even though I know and would understand if you harbour some anger and bitterness. 

The problem and power of the law is that it can be lacking in sentimentality, be rigid and dismissive of nuance. 

Mine is a difficult position of having to uphold the rule of law, and to defend the Republic and I know you understand that I cannot be seen to involve myself in decisions and sentiments, publicly or privately, that cast doubt on the integrity of our government. This is with the full understanding, sensitivity and empathy that what we have is you fighting for your life and your dignity, for your freedom, and no one should take that lightly, particularly given your contributions and personal sacrifices for our democratic project.

JGZ

I joked with the arresting officer, a calm, dignified and very respectful lady, that I hoped the correctional services people had kept my prison overalls.

The President

Someone read that to me in one of the Sunday broadsheets, and it saddened me greatly. Anyway, I thought I should not wait too long before I got in touch with you, having checked with our legal and protocol people if it was permissible to extend a personal word of support without government intentions being distorted and misunderstood.

JGZ

I appreciate the gesture, Mr President. I am not predisposed to conflict as you are aware. I much prefer matters to be discussed, respectfully and without fear, in the same spirit and vigour that helped us overthrow apartheid. I believe my attorneys are working with our courts and I am hoping that we will soon know what direction the wind will blow. 

My only discomfort is that I am not 16 anymore, and wish that the young and ambitious keep in mind that the world looks very different from where I stand. Can you imagine not being able to wind down your life, to embrace your twilight years, for some personal time and quietude?

The President

Well, I am right behind you on that one, Mr President. I am not exactly a spring chicken myself, the reason you might be noticing some fatigue in the recent television address is because of the extraordinarily long hours one has to keep. The pandemic has been ravaging our people at alarming numbers. The recent civil unrest, too. But I am confident that this too will pass, nothing lasts forever.

JGZ

I agree. I wish we could discuss these matters further, but I understand you do not have the luxury of time. I also do not want to create perceptions of favouritism here, this being a regulated and sensitive environment. But thank you so much for your call, and for thinking of me. 

The President 

I understand. Let us not be long winded then, and talk another time in a more comfortable and hopefully calmer environment. There are other disturbing matters I cannot discuss, certainly not on the phone, worrisome developments emanating from recent intelligence. I cannot take unilateral decisions as you might be aware, and hope to ventilate these developments in the appropriate forums in the movement. Good night, Mr President. 

JGZ

Good night, Comrade President. 

Click. 

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Nthikeng Mohlele
Nthikeng Mohlele
Nthikeng Mohlele is a South African novelist whose novels include Michael K (Picador Africa, 2018),a rewriting of J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K.

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