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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

The RDP Project


Phil Ndlela - 2009-03-24

I

June 1997

As Advocate Moosa drove down Smith Street, the trial of the ex-homeland cops he had just defended was still fresh in his mind. “Guilty as charged,” had been the final words of Judge Oosthuizen. Moosa was 35 years old and at the peak of his profession. He had tried and won 14 murder cases in the Durban high court in a row. The latest trial had been hard fought, but no more difficult than many others he had won over the years.

He thought he had done his best. But suddenly – for perhaps the first time in his illustrious career – he wondered if it really had been enough. He replayed the trial over and over in his head. He was devastated: his clients were to spend many years in jail! Like an underground river, dark and hidden, the trial had eaten away at the very foundations of his confidence in the integrity of the criminal justice system. Right from the start his clients had insisted that this case was about “something else". But Moosa was an experienced lawyer who dealt in facts, not conspiratorial fantasies.

After the self-consuming fire had taken its toll, he had to lift himself once more for the tasks which awaited him – very mundane for a man of his calibre, he thought. Did he suffer all these years at the Nelson Mandela School of Law just to go through the painstaking legal procedures that were a prerequisite to secure a safe battleground on behalf of a client? Could he not just grab his solid black briefcase and throw on his Lucifer gown and move up and down the courtroom, asking well-calculated questions to test the screams of his legal opponents? Who are his opponents now? The state. The very thought rushed down his spine as a herald of a painful fever. What happened to him? Here he was, the once mighty Moosa, selling his soul sold to defend a bunch of delinquent police who had embarrassed the state. Wrong, yes, those police had done wrong. But what if? What if there was one moment of doubt that they could have been right? He wanted to entertain that element of doubt in himself discovering and bringing it out for all to see. Yes, the state had cheated its citizens – it had sold out to a foreign machine that served best the interests of those who sold it. Here are these men – courageous – who had dared it to fight the system. These men, to him, represented a new brand of heroes who had taken it upon themselves to fight the anarchy that has been part of the liberating package. He must join them. He must join them! And this case is the only ground where he can play out his warfare.
 
When he finally picked up his beautiful wife at Ibrahim’s restaurant he told her of his ordeal at the Durban high court. She tried her best to console him, although she knew that the whole saga would take a while to sink in, because he loved winning and had become used to it. As they drove home they talked animatedly about what race matters had meant to the black past in South Africa and how much they continued to mean in the present.

 

II

May 1995

It is a very pleasant winter morning in May. The sky is impeccably blue. The sun is bright and lovely after a whole week of drenching, unabating rain, frequent power cuts and bitterly cold weather in the township. Mother Nature seems to be at peace with herself today - a Saturday. I am pleasantly surprised by this sudden change of weather, because May is usually the coldest month in this part of the world. Bhutyi (a colleague of mine in the security police service) and I are leisurely driving a police car along the Qumza highway in Mdantsane - a sprawling black township in East London. As we drive on towards Sisa Dukashe stadium, our ultimate destination, we listen to a tape of the late “Satchmo” Armstrong’s moving rendition of “What a wonderful world”. There is a carnival atmosphere in the entire township, and as we drive past Nocream’s shebeen, we meet a huge and seemingly upbeat crowd. They are all dressed in UPPP colours, toyi-toying and chanting in unison. “Viva Msomi, viva! Amandla ngawethu! Power to the people!” This is a momentous occasion, but I don’t share the sense of euphoria that has swept across the country since Msomi’s inauguration as President. Had it not been for Khohlelesingeni’s strongly worded radio message that all security police were to be on duty this Saturday, I would have gone to spend the day with my secret flame, Mary, who works in a kitchen in Beacon Bay. For almost three weeks I have been asking myself a myriad of crucial questions that I have failed to provide answers to. Why did President Swart, a man of integrity, abdicate and capitulate to the UPPP? Why did he release Msomi along with his communist band? What would become of us loyal and committed policemen who had discharged our duties to the best of our abilities trying to ward off and stymie the communist onslaught in our country? Our efforts aimed at eradicating the communist cancer in the country had earned us an assortment of disgusting labels like “collaborators”, “sell-outs” and “oppressed oppressors” from our black communities, but we didn’t give in to this crap, we soldiered on.

As we park our car at the stadium, we were greeted by thunderous applause – the people’s poet, Andile Mbuli, is about to leave the stage after wowing the massive crowd with his anti-establishment brand of poetry.

 

III

Back to the Satchmo tape: it is a tape that I actually stole from Mary on my second visit to her room in Beacon Bay. I have taken a lot of flak from my colleagues in the police force because of this relationship – you know, all the crap about her being below my class and that I was betraying the trust that Bongi had in me. I knew very well that being involved with Mary was a huge risk, but it was a calculated one. With Mary living full-time with the white Dickson family in Beacon Bay, the chances of the hawk-eyed Bongi’s knowing about this affair were indeed very remote. Besides, I knew that there were very few decent guys from the township who had time to venture into white suburbs looking for girls. The only kind of competition or threat to my domain would probably be posed by taxi cab drivers who also seem to have an interest in white kitchens. I didn’t worry much about them, because they are usually too dirty and clumsy to warrant any self-respecting woman’s attention. In very many ways my affair with Mary gives me a sense of space and a welcome relief from the stiff competition and scramble for girls amongst young men in the township. A few days ago she had written me this note – to which I have not yet responded, because of my horrendous work schedule:

14 Woodpecker Avenue
Beacon Bay
22 May 1995

Dear Ken

For a hole months I been trying to get hold of you but to know availability. I have left six messages with your rude secretary in your office. Why not answer Ken?

I went to my doctor last wik. He says I am six wiks pregnant with your second child. Also I want to remand you that you hav not paid mentenaince for four months. I am saffaring alone Ken why? If I don’t here from you soon and very soon I am going to komit aboshin.

Okey!

Your’s

Mary.

Back to the stadium. As Bhutyi and I take our seats on the grandstand, Joy of Africa, a choral music group from Port Elizabeth, takes the stage. Everyone in the audience begins to chant: “Joy! Joy! Joy!” This is a popular choir led by a popular conductor too, I thought.

When the wild excitement had died down Mjana, the conductor, smiled, bowed, thanked the audience and led his impeccably polished and well-drilled choir in a soul-piercing rendition of “I-UPPP yi Power yabantu”. At this stage everybody kept quiet and we were all struck dumb by the choir’s high level of professionalism. They performed four exciting and immaculately presented songs and when they had finished the fourth song I thought, my God, this choir is a class act and their conductor is a phenomenon and a marvel to watch too. He seems to have perfected the art of choir conducting and you know what, he does it in style. As they were about to leave the stage and make way for the premier to address the crowd, everyone roared in unison, “We want more! We want more!” The people had spoken and something had to be done pretty fast. Nocawe Mafu-Basopu, deputy president of the UPPP Women’s League and MC for the day, hastily went to the podium. In her warm and hoarse voice she declared, “Comrades, this is a people’s government and this is a people’s choir too. The musical repertoire they have just rendered attests to that. We shall therefore oblige and give the people what they want-music. Over to you, Joy of Africa. Amandla!”

There was a tumultuous applause at the stadium as Makhaya Mjana, the brains behind this musical outfit, once again led his expertly trained disciples onto stage. As soon as the applause had died down to acceptable levels the choir burst into a soulful rendition of the piece “Bayethe Ma Africa” - a celebratory song which is a tribute to the country’s infant democracy. The crowd just seemed to love this one. They were thereafter treated to 25 minutes of traditional African dancing, colourful choreography and soulful choral music in typical Joy of Africa style. There was a deafening applause and wild excitement again as they left the stage.

At this point, Nocawe Mafu-Basopu took the mike and began: “Thank you very much, Joy of Africa, for your wonderful performance. We are immensely proud of you. Without further ado I shall now call upon my comrade, the premier, to address you. He really needs no introduction to you because you know him so well. I will, however, say a few things that are intended to remind us of his impressive track record as an UPPP cadre in this region. He led this province during the turbulent days of the African Democratic Front (ADF). This was the period when the UPPP and other progressive political formations had been arbitrarily banned by the now defunct regime. Your premier stood up and courageously led his people against the tyranny and repression of our two great titanic siblings: the security forces and the police – two oppressed oppressors who were used by the Boers against their very own black brothers and sisters of this region. Those were really hard times, comrades. Over to you comrade premier. Viva the UPPP Women’s League, viva! Power to the people. Amandla!”

There was wild excitement as soon as Nocawe had finished her introductory remarks as the crowd began toyi-toying and chanting pro-UPPP slogans. The atmosphere was electric, but the whole theatre pissed me off. I reached for my service gun, cocked it, and just as I was about to pull the trigger at those slogan-chanting communists, the hawk-eyed Bhutyi saw it all, grabbed my arm and whispered through clenched teeth, “Are you mad? What the hell are you trying to do here? Do you want these people to kill us? Ndoda, wake up to the realities of the new South Africa and flush out your Bantustan police mentality. The days of censorship and political intolerance are over!” Nhh. Shit! Reluctantly, I hastily put my gun back in its holster.

 

IV

The premier, a rather tall, dark man with a protruding tummy, shook Nocawe’s hand. Tortoise-like he went to the podium and, beaming from ear to ear, politely nodded to the applauding audience. Already sweating profusely, he hastily gulped down a whole glass of water and as he readied himself to speak, I thought: this guy is grossly overweight! He probably over-indulges in food and wine. He needs to do himself a favour and sign up in a nearby gym immediately. He should be charged for failing to look after his weight and diet! Personally, I didn’t care to be associated with a grossly overweight, clumsy-looking and communist-inspired premier.

After clearing his throat he began: “Comrades and compatriots, members of the international community here present, the Lord Mayor of East London, friends, relatives, ladies and gentlemen. I greet you all in the name of the UPPP – a political movement that has steadfastly pursued and espoused the ideal of a free, non-racial and united South Africa. Firstly we would like to thank Joy of Africa for their stellar performance. We would also like to thank them for reminding us in song of the richness, vibrancy and uniqueness of our culture – a culture that has been suppressed and relegated to the periphery for a period of over 300 years. This choir is an invaluable resource to the people of this province. We as government will make sure that it grows from strength to strength and fulfils its potential of being the country’s premier choir as well as being its cultural ambassadors …”

At this point I stopped listening and lied to Bhutyi that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home immediately. He wanted to drive me home, but I suggested that dropping me off at the highway would suffice and from there I would catch a taxi cab to NU7. Reluctantly, he agreed and took me to my preferred destination. As soon as he drove off I sped to the nearest telephone booth and called up Mary. After systematically dodging and parrying a barrage of verbal missiles that she hurled at me we finally patched up our differences and I promised to deposit some money into her savings account the next Monday. We warmly exchanged goodbyes and that was it. I then proceeded to Nocream’s shebeen, where I was later joined by Tofile, Zizi and my younger brother Khaya. After gulping down a couple of beers I told them I had to run home to attend to some urgent business.

When I got into my flat, Bongi wasn’t there. She had gone to visit her ailing brother Ginyibhulu at Cecilia Makhiwane Hospital. When she finally got home, she noticed that I wasn’t my old self. I sold her the same illness story I had initially offered Bhutyi. She wasn’t entirely satisfied, though she hid her feelings: “Darling, I can tell there is something that seems to be bugging you. Won’t you share it with me? I just hope that it is not related to our wedding plans in October. Oh, please Ken, don’t tell me that we have to defer it once again until next year. The people here are already beginning to call me a loser.”

I laughed at this and said to her, “Our wedding day, October 10, is sacrosanct, Bongi. I guarantee. Take it easy darling. I am not going to chicken out. I am just not feeling well – that’s all.”

 

V

On Tuesday of the following week all police officers were summoned to their headquarters at Bhisho. The national minister of safety and security had issued a memorandum to all police stations in the province, stating that he wanted to use this crucial meeting in order to unveil and spell out his blueprint on the latest procedures in the country’s new police force.

We were all uptight and sombre as we drove to headquarters in Bhisho. As we approached the Bhisho Stadium, I recalled that I had actually detained and tortured the national minister of safety and security for five gruelling hours at the Mdantsane prison during the turbulent 1980s in our efforts to eradicate the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU) cancer that seemed to be so pervasive and firmly entrenched in the psyche of the troublesome Eastern Cape people. He was a fiery trade unionist based at COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) House in Johannesburg and had actually come to attend a launch of the Eastern Cape branch of SAAWU at the Gompo hall in East London. He was in the company of the irrepressible, fire and brimstone-spitting Thozamile Gqwetha, a former president of SAAWU, when I napped them, clad in SAAWU T-shirts, at an impromptu police road block near the Steve Biko bridge in East London. This scoop was a result of the efficiency of our informer, Sotyelelo, whose house was burnt to ashes a couple of days after this incident. It was a gruelling session and I still remember the COSATU activist groaning in pain, but still arrogant and brave enough to yell at us, “Stop it you bastards who thrive on the blood of your brothers and sisters. When this country is free you and your white bosses will regret all this bullshit.” Would he recognise me? Would he talk of those policemen who had helped to keep white hegemony intact in the country? Would he suggest early retirement, rightsizing or budget cuts in the police force?

There was a lot of razzmatazz, pomp and ceremony as we took our seats at the massive Bhisho Stadium, which was packed to capacity with seemingly shaken and anxious-looking policemen who wanted to know what the future held for them under this former trade unionist.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” began the minister. “Please relax. I am not here to talk about gloom and doom in the police force. I am not here to talk about a funeral. I am actually here to talk about a revival in the police force. I have not come here to talk about loss of jobs and early retirement packages as some of you might have inaccurately speculated. My mission here is to talk about transformation – a buzzword in the new South Africa. We are in a new dispensation – a dispensation that has been brought about by the collaborative efforts and sacrifices of the people of this country. All our operations in the new police force will therefore have to be people-centred, open, humane and democratic in orientation. From now on we have to work in unison with our people - not against them as was the case during the previous regime’s era. We have to tear down the artificial walls that apartheid created between our people and the police. We have to vigorously harness and engage the collective skills and energies of the people’s structures – UPPP, AZAPO and SANCO, if our battle against crime and corruption is to be a success. The fight against crime is a collective effort – the police cannot go it alone. I would like to see a change of attitude in the police during my term as minister of safety and security. As police we also have an obligation to play a leading role in fostering and inculcating a just, humane and equitable human rights culture in our new democracy. Gone are the days of treating criminals as if they were objects. Gone are the days of prisoner-bashing …” The minister finished off by reiterating that prisoners had rights too, even though they may have violated and flouted certain provisions that constituted the country’s law. He thanked everyone for having turned up in large numbers and further exhorted the police to step up their efforts to combat the country’s escalating crime. He bade everyone farewell and immediately thereafter his bodyguards led him to his car – a rather elegant and bullet-proof BMW. At this point I saw several police officers shaking their heads in disgust and one of them grumbled, “I do not want to be part of this anarchy. I am handing in my letter of resignation from the police tomorrow! It seems now we have to accord criminals the same kind of respect that is reserved for martyrs. Fuck the minister and his criminal-friendly new police force.” Immediately after this I saw a group of toyi-toying policemen led by Sgt Bonile Maguma moving towards the minister’s car singing:

Uyabuza umthetho
Amapoyisa azobuya nini
uMinister akavumi
Shay’umthetho
Helele mama …

Before they could form a circle and block the minister’s way, his alert chauffeur read their intentions very well and sped off in James Bond style towards the premier’s mansion in Bhisho, and that was it.

As we approached the police car in which Bonile, Kapoyi, Gcina, Sticks and I were travelling I thought to myself, sure, the minister hasn’t taken our jobs at all, but he has certainly stripped us of the enormous power and clout that we always wielded during the old dispensation. We all felt like birds which had had their wings clipped. Powerless. Despondent. I just could not see any semblance of logic in the police service transformation crap that minister had come to sell to us. I just could not figure out how effective we were likely to be in our operations without being given the power to use our discretion and instincts as we had been trained to do. And I felt relieved to learn that I wasn’t the only cop who was scalding with fury and disillusionment with the minister’s populist blue print.

From the Bhisho Stadium we drove straight to Ezipentini, a shebeen in NU1. We asked "My Darly", the shebeen queen, to set up a table for us alone, as we had some important business to discuss, to which she readily consented.

We all felt that we had no constructive role to play in the minister’s populist and Mickey Mouse police force. Gcina suggested that we all hand in our resignation letters and use the money to buy ourselves taxi cabs. This idea was vigorously pooh-poohed. While we were still debating animatedly and weighing up our options we were suddenly joined by Nqanqanqa, Kapoyi’s girlfriend. We immediately changed the subject, welcomed her warmly and ordered four more bottles of beer from My Darly.

After three hours of heavy drinking we finally agreed to go home. While Nqanqanqa was busy buying a packet of cigarettes from My Darly we quickly agreed in whispered tones to meet at a secret venue near Fort Jackson the following day, where we would map our strategy: the blueprint that would determine our future role in the police force.

 

VI

Everyone was at the rendezvous by 7:30 pm sharp. We decided to put our resignations from the police on hold. We agreed to carry out a number of well-planned criminal activities that would embarrass the minister and his government and hopefully make them realise the folly of rendering the police force sterile within the grinding machine of democracy.

After stealing arms and ammunition from our various police stations we decided on a spate of well-thought-out and well-executed armed robberies. Our first target was the Standard Bank in Oxford Street. After two weeks of meticulously studying their security set-up we found it wanting and vulnerable and decided to pounce on them the following week. It was a clean job – we made off with a whopping 20 000 bucks in cash. We retreated to the Crow’s Nest Hotel in Port Elizabeth, where we spent a whole weekend celebrating, womanising and putting together a strategy for our next mission: the First National Bank in King William’s Town. This was our biggest haul thus far, as we made off with an amount of 111 000 bucks in broad daylight. A few days later I managed to buy Bongi an exotic wedding ring and lots of expensive jewellery. Needless to say, I never mentioned to her that I had now become a man who wore many hats – a law enforcement officer as well as a law transgressor.

Sometime later, Gcina suggested that we set up our own shebeen at NU7. Tshuwewe, Bonile’s girlfriend, and Nqanqanqa would actually run it on our behalf. They had both just finished high school and had a hard time trying to find a job. We would pay their salaries on a fortnightly basis. We all warmly embraced Gcina’s idea and vision and after this we went to speak to the two young women, who readily agreed to take up the offer. We decided to add the sale of dagga to our repertoire. Within no time the shebeen’s popularity spread like wildfire and it became one of the hottest spots in the township. The two young ladies were doing a great job. They had not betrayed our faith in them.

Three weeks later, we met at a secret venue near Berlin. We sat there for four hours over a couple of beers and occasional dagga puffs, strategising on a projected trip to Emampondweni – a dagga haven in the former Transkei. This was going to be the mother of all trips. I-trip yomhlaba! We knew that it would catapult us into the centre of the business world. Kapoyi, the brains behind this trip, knew the area quite well, having spent some years there during his elementary schooling days looking after his aunt’s goats. After a lengthy discussion we finally agreed to hire a bakkie with a canopy, because we wanted to stuff it with as many bags of dagga as possible. Sticks would go to the city the following day to try and clinch the bakkie deal and we would therefore be all set to leave for the Transkei dressed in civilian clothes the next day.

At 4:30 am the following day we left Mdantsane for Emampondweni. We were all excited about the trip and talking proudly about the monetary gains we had made since venturing into business. It really amazed us how we seemed capable of easily striking a beneficial balance between our jobs as government-paid policemen and our covert operations.

 

VII

After more than eight hours on the road, we finally reached our destination. We were met by a suspicious-looking and heavily built man whose face was as black as a coal train engine. So black was his face that it gave the illusion of being bluish. His hair was unkempt and his feet were bare. In a gruff voice that sounded like Mahlathini, leader of the Mahotela Queens group, he greeted us and we told him that we wanted two hundred bags of dagga – fast. After he told us what the price was we paid him five thousand rands in cash. At this point he wasn’t as uptight and as hostile as he had been when he received us. He took the money, thanked us and rushed to his kraal. While we were still waiting for the man, Sticks took off the registration plates off the hired bakkie and put Eastern Cape Government ones in their place. When the man finally brought the dagga bags to us we found that Kapoyi, like Sticks, had an ace up his sleeve. He sprayed the words RDP PROJECT on all the dagga bags, and after warmly bidding our host goodbye we hit the road again.

It was music all the way back home. Kapoyi kept rewinding the late Peter Tosh’s “Legalise it”. We talked animatedly of setting up a black business consortium – the first one of its kind in Mdantsane!

Driving back at night from the Transkei was rather hectic and full of problems. The roads were in bad shape and full of potholes and stray animals. Our driving was also slowed down considerably by a pervasive, thick and blinding mist, but we managed to navigate and negotiate our way back home safely.

To our surprise, as we approached Fort Jackson we encountered a police roadblock. We initially felt that there was no need to panic, since some of the police manning it would probably recognise us and allow us to drive through without searching our bakkie. We drove on and reached the roadblock.

To our horror, we discovered that all the officers manning the block were white and unknown to us! After patiently waiting for more than an hour we were finally approached by a burly white officer who politely asked us to get out of the car. At this point Bonile panicked and whispered in my ear, “Hey, S’bali sisemasimbeni.” I simply ignored him and moved on.

The police officer opened the bonnet of the bakkie, closed it and wanted to know if we had any luggage in the back of the bakkie and Sticks responded promptly, “Yes, blankets donated to the Eastern Cape’s RDP Forum by an overseas charity organisation based in the Transkei.” I looked at Kapoyi and saw that he was shivering. I had a feeling that he was contemplating dashing from the scene. But there was no way out.

“Oh, I see,” responded the white officer who seemed to be the anchor of this road block. “I hope you guys won’t mind if I just cut open one of the bags just to make sure that everything is in order – not that I don’t trust you. I won’t be long and I know how tired you must be after negotiating your way through those terrible and stray-animal-infested Transkei roads.” The officer took out a sharp knife, cut open one of the bags marked RDP PROJECT and yelled, “My God, this is dagga, not blankets!” He then proceeded to cut and inspect the rest of the bags and the results were pretty much the same. While the officer was busy inspecting the bags, Kapoyi kept whispering in my ear, “Chief, we are in shit street. Let us get out of here – fast!”

I whispered back, “To do so would be suicidal, these guys are armed to the teeth.”

The burly officer kept his composure throughout and after sealing the dagga bags, he came to us and said, “Gentlemen, please get into my car and I will drive you to the NU1 police station for further questioning.” We obliged. I felt the whole world crumble under my feet. I thought of Bongi and our wedding plans which we would have to defer once again. We were all going to spend many years in prison. Would Bongi wait for me? I thought. I saw tears rolling down Bonile’s face as he quietly muttered “Tshuwewe”, the name of his girlfriend. I was devastated. Shattered.

 

VIII

On receiving the news of our arrest, Mary took it upon herself to do something about it. She couldn’t bear the thought of her unborn child knowing that a former policeman father had turned criminal – and was imprisoned for many years to come! She had a solution. Her great aunt in the Transkei was a very powerful nyangi. She had learnt from her that in the African spiritual world there is no human problem without a solution. She immediately came up with an excuse and darted off to the rolling hills below Tsitsa River. She came back with a handbag full of muthi. She was more than prepared to endure the pain that went along with the rituals, as instructed by her great aunt. She was given an order never to tell anybody about all she had to do.

 

IX

August 1997

Mary’s sacrifice bore fruit: to his surprise, after a few weeks, Moosa received a letter informing him of an abrupt decision to review the judge’s decision due to certain legal procedures that had not been properly followed. This came as a shock to him as he was not aware of any loopholes as far as the legal proceedings had been concerned. He nevertheless took this as a second chance to prove his might. The case was taken to the high court. To his surprise, his delinquent defendants were released and received back into society – though under stringent surveillance. They were beneficiaries of a new pact between the department of welfare and police services that had recognised the awful conditions the police worked under. They were brought back to be rehabilitated – but had they accepted the "new SAPS"?