A country’s soul is captured by bloated elites. Its heart—ripped by race-mongers. Con-men and pastors are in on the land’s pillage. There’s no turning back. Enter a council of elders from a future-past led by women magic-makers speaking an extinct language.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!
It had been raining for months on end before the discovery of the thing. Rain that never felt the need to pause and let the world breathe, only fluctuating in scale from day to day: a flood today, a trickle tomorrow. Something the citizens of Z’aniaa, pointedly in Van Riebeeck’s Town in the southwestern district, had never experienced before.
It was during this strange rain 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 2:30 a.m. for his ritual prayer, a conversation with both the god-o’-heavens and, yes, sulky oceans, lord of the southwestern district’s easterly winds—and also with his ancestors, entities who occupied exalted space in both his soul and the spiritual cosmos of his people. On that day at 3 a.m., as per his weekly Thursday routine, ol’ Xuks left his bush abode, a ramshackle shelter made of fallen tree trunks and zinc sheets 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 ol’ Xuks had never worn a timepiece on his wrist, ever!
Above him, the sky turned an ominous deep blue. There were 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 half an hour, eyes shut tightly, writhing, his entire body boneless and as fluid as a salamander. 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—and the low and greedy—a man who knew all about the walking excrement that sometimes passed 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, issuing out of the thing, some sort of combination of mangled Nguni, Dutch and English.
‘But we thought there was only one job, the cleansing of racism,’ came a soft, deliberate murmur, also from the box, and in the same language. ‘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 Riebeeck’s Kraal, at 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.’
The booming voice resumed: ‘How do you … ?’ It was debating one they refer to as Natana Ole Kerewa (the one who carries a rainbow variety of lightning in her pouch), also known as ‘Mma Maxeke’, before trailing off.
‘… How do you divine we should deal with this greed?’ it resumed. ‘The lies, callousness of the soul? This, this … low-burning fratricide within our people?’ The owner of the voice was now on fire. ‘What do you say about the poverty suffocating our children’s children? The blood-dripping criminality? 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 felt perhaps we should give those nasty pieces of work one more inch of rope to hang themselves with. Just one more inch.’
Words grew wings.
In a heartbeat everyone was in on the secret: Ol’ Xuks had had a ‘vision’. Ol’ Xuks had discovered the thing. The thing, whisperers uttered ever so-cautiously, was a contraption stranger than anything anyone had ever seen. 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 ol’ 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 ol’ Xuks had brought.
Present in the station commander’s office were what local street deference would have as men and women of ‘credentials’. Among them sat the premier of the southwestern district, simply known as Muh-Dame Chief, Van Riebeeck Town’s mayor, Poppie Buitekant, and the municipality’s feared top-cop sleuth Piet Kakvatnie, along with a few historians, linguists, and psychiatrists from out of town.
Following hours of attempts by the linguists, not to mention frenzied rituals by two invited amagqhira, to decode the language spoken by the voices issuing from the thing, one of the two amagqhira finally managed to access the ancestral wisdom to 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 council of healers and lawmen and women known as the Noontjomane. Later generations speculated the Mhlongos from the southernmost part of the coastal district, known as ‘o-Njomane’, were the ancient oracles’ descendants.
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 on the original language.
But who were these people? What did they mean by ‘cleansing’? Who sent them? Word spread fast in Van Riebeeck’s Town. Soon everyone in the southwestern district was asking themselves and their neighbours: Do these voices have anything at all to do with the three-month mud-red and purple rains?
Agreeing that ol’ 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 from again.
It was soon after that the town was ruthlessly picked apart. A lethal band of red-faced marauders swooped into Van Riebeeck’s Town. They were humanoid-shaped creatures, though no one could universally agree on 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 their feet never seemed to touch the ground.
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?—people-creatures had 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, targeted at the homes of the wealthy, Van Riebeeck’s Town’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.
A wide sweep of perpetrators of social ills: drug-traffickers, pill-poppers, government-tender skelms, shady imams and shadier amagqhira. Child-perving pastors and paedophiles were strangled, sliced apart, clawed to death, eyes gouged out.
The slimy characters always at the nucleus of 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 citizens recalled there had been a warning. The Sunday preceding the calamity, Van Riebeeck’s Town’s streets were strewn with pamphlets inscribed with writings. 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:
We deplore your values.
Racism is the worst of plagues and ills. Cease and desist.
Human trafficking, ukuthwala and tribalism
… just as abhorrent.
We will be back.
A week later—that is, the week ending the thirteenth month of a rather unprecedented year, a year with fifteen months instead of the usual twelve—everyone was looking forward to a set of major celebrations across greater Z’aniaa.
It had been twenty-five years 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 twenty-five years later and three presidents down the line Z’aniaa was in a carnival-esque, if blade-edgy (not least because of the carnage in Van Riebeeck’s Town) 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.
Accordingly, national bashes, road trips, proudly-natively referred to as imicimbi, were set to take place on the very year of the twenty-fifth 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.
This is how far down the pole-dancingly greasy ladder the once-beacon-of-the-world nation had sunk: news in the ever-hysterical press had started circulating that security guards at Sayedwa 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 oysters and cognac, said, ‘Ah, but that’s good for the economy,’ while the managers of small to medium-sized businesses 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?
Such was the environment in which the red-faced fiends and their mothership docked next.
The moment of Nyooku’s reckoning arrived just as Umcimbi came hurtling into town: Umcimbi, the mother of all state-sponsored bashes.
For a while the masses had temporarily cooled off. 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 among the ‘have-nots’ quick to burn tyres or moon the cameras to communicate their disgust, everyone seemed to have bigger preoccupations swirling about their heads.
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, were clad in T-shirts and kanga wraps broadcasting the many grinning faces of the Brother Leader, Z’aniaa’s longest-serving strongman, a village man, loved and reviled for his laughter.
The bash was a spectacle. More than five hundred cattle were slaughtered. A dazzling selection of meat, including—oh, the international news media couldn’t resist it!—elephant. Traditional brew flowed. Theatrical dance combos 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 choreography.
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, the presiding 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 white man’s fire.
It would prove to be their last supper.
‘K-R-I-S-T-OOOO, o’ ho-ho-ho-ho,’ a piercing scream, followed by one, two, three and then a whole host of human wails, issued out of Ga-A-Buwi’s compound.
It was just after the rooster’s third crow. The dawn was rather dewy. A group of elderly women from the highly regarded ZCC (the Minister of Home Affairs’s side ‘empowerment’ racket, Zanempilo 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 lay face down on a Persian rug, limbs splayed haphazardly, his girth blocking the passage connecting the main lounge to the indoor pool of his gigantic 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: Hundreds of men and women, Brother Leader not exempt, either slumped dead in their chairs, heads drooping, 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. It was 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 6.30 a.m. the morning after the great bash when the news broke. The president and his private guests, numbering 250, were ‘allegedly’ gassed.
Could it be the red-faced strangers who had ‘cleaned’ up Van Riebeeck’s Town, down south Z’aniaa, just the week 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 that ‘dreamer’ Mutwa had long warned the nation about?
Soon pamphlets, just like those that rained on Van Riebeeck’s Town’s streets, appeared on Nyooku’s highways, back alleys and corners. But this time around—only scrawls of an undecipherable ancient script filled the page.
The restless staff at Nondaba FM, supported by the caretaker military gents at the national barracks, pleaded with the nation, asking 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, her voice hesitant, drawn, out of breath, as though gasping for air.
‘What’s your Naaf saying?’ the impatient radio anchor demanded, at which vibrating cacophonous voices spilled out from the woman’s mouth.
Suddenly she broke into, jerky, robot-like movements. It started slow until it became a full on trance, akin to the spirit-whirling members of Mother Ann Lee’s Shakers sect of New Lebanon.
This, the terrified on-air anchor thought, is what uMakhulu meant when she regaled them about tales of mystical women who possessed the gift to see voices and hear visions.
Right then, just as her body went into involuntary spasms, it immediately stopped, down to a standstill.
‘Please, ma’am, are you aware …’
The voices came, shrieking, as spasms spread once again throughout her body:
‘This doesn’t sound promising,’ the anchor cut in. ‘What does the rest say?’
The Noontjomane woman sobbed.
- Bongani Madondo is Contributing Editor. His collection of essays, Sigh, the Beloved Country, was recently shortlisted for the UJ Prize for English Writing, Main Prize. He writes on music, photography, poetry, and politics.
© Bongani Madondo, 2017