[Fiction Issue] ‘About guilt, if you spoke about guilt, there was no doubt’—Read an excerpt from Imraan Coovadia’s work in progress, An Enemy of the People

The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from An Enemy of the People, a work-in-progress by Imraan Coovadia.

So here too there was fighting in store for me.
Gandhi, arriving in South Africa, 24 May 1893.

Chapter One: The Firebug

About guilt, if you spoke about guilt, there was no doubt. Appolis had hauled two canisters of petrol from the garage to the entrance of the transport depot. He had recorded each step of the journey on Instagram. Seven buses at the depot had been burned in the protest which he had led against rising ticket prices. The iron frames, like dinosaur skeletons, lay side by side, washed by the rain which came over the mountain.

The next day Appolis filmed his speech at the university, demanding the removal of colonial books and paintings and the destruction of colonial statues. Videos of his speech were uploaded to TikTok in fifteen second segments, indistinct sounds of fighting in the background. The guards’ cubicle had been set alight, forcing out the occupants who then had tyres set on their necks. Protestors streamed into the library and brought out the offending objects, cut the books and paintings to pieces in front of their adoring telephones. The casualties didn’t get similar attention. Five guards treated for inhalation. Two had internal injuries. One had been struck on the head with a brick and temporarily lost the use of his legs.

Appolis was the central figure on the third day of disturbances. Dozens of fires were started in the forest, the stone pines hissing as they caught light. Starlings swirling overhead. Nails scattered on the roads to stop police and fire vehicles. Alarms ringing in the lecture theatres. At the barricades students and well-wishers made petrol bombs, cheerful production lines which started with empty Sprite bottles and containers of methylated spirits. Nobody tried to hide from the cameras.

The action continued later in the day at the biology building. Its doors were broken down and hundreds of young men and women, carrying sticks and knives, ran through the hive of laboratories. They found their way to the fifth floor. The containment zone, restricted to a handful of researchers and technicians. Appolis had posted videos from inside the building in real time. The occupiers using their cellphones as torches in the dark corridors, forcing the doors between the secure compartments.

In one photograph Appolis placed his hands proudly in an incubator, stacked with trays of hens’ eggs, brooding in violet light. Each egg carried a variant of a tropical virus although the fact was never reported and it had never been stated in public whether the virus in question was Marburg, Ebola, Lassa fever, or a cache of smallpox. Nor had it been said that the technicians, trying to clear up on a subsequent day, found the air-tight seals broken on a number of incubators. The health department requested clinics and emergency rooms to watch for a spike in fevers, meningitis, or catastrophic bleeding.

Appolis had been the hero again. When the police finally arrived, an hour and a half late, he had held them at the entrance with a hammer in one hand, the lid of a dustbin in the other, whirling and singing and unafraid in a circle of joyful violence. Achilles, Ajax, or Ulysses. Legend. The protestors on the upper floors threw firebombs until the policemen advanced under cover of their shields. They disarmed Appolis, carried him into the back of a police van before wearily clearing the building. Hand to hand fighting on the staircase and then through the laboratories, beside the incubators and spectrographs, until the last of them had been removed. Still singing. Broken noses and minor injuries on both sides. TikTok stories were legion.

The beautiful souls made their move. Ché Govind Subramanian had come to campus, along with his own followers and graduate students, to record the evidence of police brutality, which, according to him, was worse today than under the previous regime. Ché Subramanian was a dance teacher at the Institute of Movement, renowned in his field, a man with delicate features and a thin, powerful, shaven body, dark and handsome. Reminded Mac of an otter in a silk shirt when he had been at their house. Friend of a friend of Mac’s wife Tejal, who was magically connected to every beautiful soul below the Orange River.

To prevent the police vans from leaving Subramanian and his students lay themselves behind the wheels and along the roads. Bearing witness with their cellphones held up like periscopes, in case the police made a wrong move. It took another hour and three quarters to haul them out of the way, the policemen bearing them like sacks of grain. Subramanian’s shirt was torn. He kept wearing it to dinner parties and gallery openings, was said to be weaving the remaining silk into a tapestry against universal oppression.

Mac’s wife Tejal had been retained to act for Appolis. The call came from the proprietor of a newspaper, someone with no obvious connection to the case, who had Chinese money at his disposal, a Chinese investment vehicle which was being used to take control of community radio stations and tabloids. Mac worried that Tejal was being drawn into a spiderweb, woven for someone’s or more than one person’s dark purpose. He helped her and their au pair sift through the recordings and promises of arson which had Appolis posted to TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the four Muses, and which might be used against him. It was a headache, because both the client and his benefactor claimed Appolis was innocent. Mac insisted on accompanying his wife to the bail hearing.

On Monday Appolis was brought in front of the magistrate. He looked tired when he removed his sunglasses at the magistrate’s request, revealing an attractive, open countenance, heavily freckled under the eyes. Long red trousers and a shirt open a few buttons, a tall man, must be twenty five, twenty six. Vibrating energy, as if he was about to tapdance. Someone who could lead. Not what you expected from a book-burner.

The room on the third floor of the courthouse had high ceilings. Left-over grandeur from a different era of punishments. There were benches like in a church, empty apart from some supporters of the defendant who occupied the back row, reading their telephones. Through the windows you could see the icy rain. Falling slant. Cold indoors, in any government building, between June and August.

Tejal had prepared until late at night. She went through the considerations supporting her client’s right to bail, counting them on her fingers in her usual way. Appolis had no prior record. He was engaged in the community, cared about people who couldn’t afford to travel by taxi. In the right context the burning of the buses could be seen as a political action. Her client was willing to negotiate a solution acceptable to all the relevant stakeholders. She was doing well. The Appolis supporters in the back row clucked supportively.

Mac admired his wife from a distance. Her hair was a mass of black and white curls, like grapeleaves, gathered above her neck in a bun, so familiar he imagined he could draw every hair from memory. She was stouter than before, spoke slower. The effect was to lend her greater authority in court. A bishop or even the queen, rising benignly over the smaller pieces. Years ago Tejal had made a very different impression. Her expression, more often than not, as he remembered it at any rate, had been one of happy mischief. The right kind of freedom. She was more sedate. But the alteration was not unwelcome. Everything flowed and changed its shape.

The magistrate showed no interest in the presentation. Concerned with the cup of tea which was brought to him by an attendant, the string revealing that the bag had not been removed. He drunk it down, pondered his notes, stretched his legs as if he was wringing out a sheet. A man who had retired from existence.

The conclusion came in a quarter of an hour. Bail was waived. The accused was set free on condition he refrain from public disorder and making inflammatory statements. He needed to return to face the charges, to be sure. But this date with destiny could be years in the future, assuming the prosecutor chose to proceed, assuming in the second place that the docket didn’t disappear from the court system.

Considering Tejal’s point of view, considering the evidence, the outcome was an accomplishment. It would only increase her reputation. Good black lawyer. All the same her victory was sweet and sour for Mac. No valid reason to destroy paintings, injure the guards, and, by the way, expose the continent to smallpox and Lassa fever. What good ever came of executions and burnings? It was the magistrate’s fault. He should know the meaning of punishment, which was equality, didn’t care to hold Appolis to the same rules as everybody else.

Mac tried to explain his views when the courtroom cleared.

‘My job is to present his case. My only part in the system.’ Tejal squared off the documents on the desk, ran her nail along each folder. ‘I don’t draw any conclusions about justice.’

‘Then who does?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘Let’s save the discussion until later.’

Mac kept quiet while Tejal had a short conversation with the clerk. He was chastened. His wife insisted on things being done in the proper order, using the correct terminology, at the appropriate place and time. She disliked it intensely when he went in his own direction. Not only Tejal, by the way. Mac had worked as a consultant for government for seven years. Seven lean years in which the Minister, who ran the department, had, in certain respects, become as near to his heart as Tejal. Both were sticklers for process, found fault with him. They weren’t unkind. Neither seemed to realise he might be hurt when they rebuked him.


  • Imraan Coovadia is the author of a number of novels, including High Low In-between and Tales of the Metric System, as well as works of non-fiction, most recently Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela and The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past. He has contributed to many publications in South Africa and overseas and has won awards including the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the University of Johannesburg Prize, the M-Net Prize, the National Institute for the Humanities Fiction Prize, and a South African Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He directs the writing programme at the University of Cape Town.

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