The Nation (Nigeria)
An afternoon with the Crocodile (A Moegoe comes to Jo’burg)
LLESS than thirty years ago, South Africa was a jungle of bestial tyranny with its desperate and disoriented majority populace cowering under the hammer of apartheid. It is a tremendous irony that in two decades, the same nation would come to represent the better face of Africa while most of the countries in the forefront of the struggle for its liberation have gone into quiet liquidation or are awaiting receivership. It is a teachable moment for all humble students of history.
For some of us who were visiting South Africa for the first time, there was a distressing and humiliating sub-text to the glittering spectacle. Many of us had wilfully delayed the traumatic shock of the first encounter. When reports of the miraculous transition began filtering in, we dismissed them as a cruel hoax. No country could achieve such a dramatic political and ideological transformation within so short a time, we concluded. But what unfolded next was a sizzling and riveting feast out of magical realism.
As our plane banked and dipped steeply on approach to landing at the Johannesburg’s Oliver Thambo airport, there was something eerie if not surreal about the whole thing. It was not just the freezing cold. Neither could it be the impressively lit network of jumbo runways. It was the overall ambience. This was not a glorified airstrip nestling in some primitive African jungle. This was a First World airport in a Third World setting. It was all so disconcerting and disorienting.
The body is not accustomed to this degree of cold in mid-june. Your body rhythm is accustomed to flying northwards this time of the year to be met a few hours later by the early dawn of summer and the green, green grass of England. But this time around, you flew southwards at night and after six hours, it was dark, cold and wintry. It was actually mid-winter. And they say we are still in Africa. Winter in Africa? What an abysmal anomaly! But it is winter indeed and the magnificent airport is not a mirage either. Welcome to Johannesburg. Welcome to South Africa.
The fireworks began right there at the immigration, ahead of custom clearance. This was the first sign that it was not going to be business as usual.
“Where is your immunisation card?” the female immigration official bawled at one.
“The South African embassy in Lagos failed to return it”, snooper calmly submitted.
“There is no way we can confirm that”, she grouched, eyeing snooper with suspicion.
“But there is no way your embassy will issue a visa without the card”, snooper sweetly insisted.
“I know, but”, the lady began and teed off abruptly. She got up to converse in a strange tongue with a superior and soon returned with a threatening scowl.
“Are you sending me back to Lagos?
Snooper asked in alarm.
“No, we are sending you to the clinic”, she quipped and cut snooper short. The clinic? Echoes of Stalinist psychiatric re-education! You go into that one as a refusenik and come out as human refuse. Mercifully, it has not got to that point in South Africa. In the clinic, you are given a sharp jab and you must give them ninety dollars in gratitude.
And so in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, snooper, was unleashed on South Africa like a detoxified dog. Perhaps it was the giddy disorientation of finding yourself in the First World while you are supposed to be in the Third, or the spectacular panorama of suburbia Johannesburg, snooper suddenly found himself levitating. On second thought, it might well be the after effects of the vicious, anti-flu jab, but the head now swelled to gargantuan proportions.
By midday, snooper was positively hallucinating. The glitz and glamour of Johannesburg, the oriental splendour of the newly commissioned Radisson Hotel, finally combined with a feverish ache to unlatch the gateway to delirium. This is the realm of super-stress where the mind temporarily dissociates itself from the body.
What finally did it for snooper will remain a mystery. Perhaps it was an email from Olatunji Dare, the distinguished Nigerian columnist, asking snooper to avail his palate of the palatial possibilities of crocodile meat while still in South Africa.
All of a sudden, snooper found himself trapped inside the futuristic lift of the hotel with a huge bear of a man with a stern no-nonsense visage clutching an old umbrella which obviously doubled as an assault weapon. The Great White Hope took one look at snooper and let forth a wild growl of disgust and distaste. This must be the great Baas himself from the old heartland of apartheid.
And yet there was something faintly familiar about this crusty contrarian. He was a figure torn out of the pages of turbulent history. Snooper immediately connected. This was Pieter W. Botha himself, former president of South Africa, great apostle and actualiser of apartheid, the man who had a zero tolerance for racial tolerance. His turbulent career had ended in great misery and disappointment.
Distraught at the very thought of the demise of apartheid on which he had built a remarkable rabblerousing career, the great crocodile had banished himself into the wilderness of a no man’s Siberia appropriately named
Wilderness to sulk at the historic treachery. His implacable ghost was known to haunt his old house after it was bought by a Black businessman. For Botha, a.k.a Die groot Krokodil, this must have been the ultimate perfidy.
“Mr P.W Botha, I presume?” snooper opened proceeding very warily.
“That is a stupid presumption”, the old man growled like a bear at bay.
Snooper lurched forward, taken aback by the vehemence and ferocity of the response.
“Take it easy, now”, snooper responded tamely. By this time, the old crocodile had begun cradling his unsightly umbrella even as he surveyed snooper’s skull with clear, homicidal malice.
“You must be an idiot, a very stupid man. Where are you from?” the crocodile screamed at snooper unable to contain his rage at such impudence.
“I am from Nigeria”, snooper responded.
“I thought as much. Your people are full of unmerited arrogance. But see the mess you have made of the north”, the old man thundered with a scorning glare.
“But I am not from the north”,
snooper protested vigorously.
“Stupid man. Domkop ( an idiot in
Afrikaans) I mean Africa north of South Africa”, the crocodile snapped.
“Mr Botha, see the mess your people made of native Africans”, snooper shot back rather belatedly. The old man was taken aback by the temerity.
“Hou jou bek” (Shut up your animal mouth in Afrikaans), the crocodile exploded. “Our people faced special challenges. The Zulus were tearing out our balls and frying them for dinner. Seven thousand voortrekkers perished in one day. The Brits wanted to expunge us. We were trapped between the sea and the mountains. So what do you want us to do—lie down and die like sheep? We did what we have to do”.
“But the horror, the horror!” snooper moaned rather disjointedly.
“You are a foolish man. The second name of history is horror. Everybody has been enslaving everyone else since the dawn of history. The Romans did it, there was no problem. Then the British, and then the Americans and even the Zulus here. It was when it was our turn that the idiots started talking about human rights. How I hate the Yankees and the perfidious Albions”, the old man lamented.
“You should still have gone to the
Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal”, snooper noted.
“I am not a bloody hypocrite. The truth is there was nothing to reconcile. And to tell you the real truth I can’t bear the smell of those hotties”, the crocodile snarled.
“You should have been guided by the noble example of Mandela who suffered so grievously but was willing to forget and forgive”, snooper observed.
“I am not Nelson Mandela. Mandela was trained to be a king. I was brought up to do a job. Actually, I like Nelson a lot. The Blackman has a great capacity to forgive. My theory of history is this. Let the ruthless Whiteman build the infrastructure and let the Blackman come and rule with his compassion, his justice and sense of fairness. That is the miracle you are witnessing”, the old man noted as his harsh features softened.
“Mr Botha, how can the rest of Africa catch up with South Africa?” snooper inquired.
“You are a bloody moegoe ( Afrikaans for idiot). I have just told you. Try Bot”, the crocodile answered with a fiendish giggle.
“Bot? Mr Botha? Oh no, not you again!!” snooper screamed.
“Idiot, I mean B.O.T, which is build, operate and transfer after five hundred years!!”
A heavy hand clammed snooper. It was our friend, the retired Nigerian ambassador. Snooper has been snoring on the plush sofa. From the twenty third floor of the Radisson Johannesburg, the city of gold and grief was a spectacular sight to behold. Welcome to South Africa.