Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Big Man Problem

The Big Man Problem
‘Grandpa,’ asked Thoko, ‘What’s the Big Man Problem? My Civics teacher says that we have the Big Man Problem.’
‘My mother,’ said Lindiwe, ‘says that all men are a problem. So I suppose the bigger the man the bigger the problem.’
As we were talking the waiter came to take the order. ‘We girls will have two fanta and two large slices of chocolate gateau,’ said Thoko, ‘and Grandpa will have a double brandy with ice.’
Then turning to me she said ‘Lindiwe and I will go and have a swim for half an hour, and that will give you time to think about the Big Man Problem, and to give the waiter time get the drinks.’
‘He won’t need half an hour,’ I protested.
‘Oh yes he will,’ laughed Thoko. ‘This is the Cresta Hotel and you are an old Grandpa. You’ll both need half an hour.’
Sure enough, when they came back from their swim the drinks and cake had just arrived. ‘OK Grandpa,’ said Thoko sternly, ‘you’ve had plenty of time to think about it, so what’s the answer?’
‘Once upon a time, a long time ago in the Land of Zed,’ I began, ‘the people chose a man called Munshumfwa to be their president.’
‘So what was his job as president?’ asked Lindiwe.
‘Have you forgotten your Civics,’ spluttered Thoko, as some fanta went up her nose. ‘A president has to look after his people, according to their demands, as expressed in the Councils and especially in Parliament.’
‘That’s where the problem began,’ I explained. ‘Before long Munshumfwa started to tell the Councils and Parliament what was best for the people.’
‘He got too big for his boots,’ said Lindiwe.
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘He began to think he was more important than everybody else. If he found them standing, he would say Only the President stands up, you all sit down and listen. But if he found them all sitting down, he would say How can you sit down, stand up for your President!
‘In the end he was in charge of everything,’ suggested Thoko.
‘Exactly,’ I agreed. ‘Instead of him looking after the people, it was the people’s job to look after him. He became known as the Big Man, because he was the boss of everything. He appointed people to all the top positions, and if they didn’t obey his every word then he sacked them. Instead of parliament making the law, his word was law. He was supposed to serve the people, but they had to kneel before him. He was the Big Man.’
‘So they voted him out?’ suggested Thoko.
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘They picked a tiny little bus conductor called Kafupi, who they thought was harmless and could never grow into a Big Man. But soon he began to wear very high heels, and after ten years he had become more dictatorial than Munshumfwa.’
‘So who did they choose next?’
‘To avoid a Big Man, they chose a Big Elephant called Muwelewele. This turned out worse, because an elephant has a terrible temper. When he got into a rage even his lackeys couldn’t understand what he was spluttering about, and sometimes he accidentally trod on them.’
‘So what next?’
‘To avoid a Big Man they chose a little pig.’
‘And did that work?’
‘Worse. He stole the people’s food and became very big indeed, and despite his huge belly he learnt to walk on two legs.’
‘He became a Big Man!’
‘And giving orders to everybody! With this one, even his lackeys couldn’t follow his orders because what came out of his mouth were fine words, but what came out of his rear end was foul gas. If the mouth said I shall abolish corruption, his rear said by banning the word. When the mouth said Freedom of speech, the rear end said provided you don’t criticize me. If the mouth said Freedom of assembly the rear end said with my permission. When the mouth said Free and fair elections the rear end said I shall count the votes myself.
‘Where are you going with all this?’ said Thoko irritably. ‘You’re supposed to be explaining the problem, but it seems to be getting more complicated.’
‘But what do you think?’ I asked. ‘Is there some simple underlying cause?’
‘The problem,’ said Thoko, ‘is that presidents keep turning into Big Men.’
‘No,’ said Lindiwe. ‘The problem is that the lackeys do as they are told instead of refusing. Instead of advising the Big Man that his instructions are illegal, they say The Big Man has spoken. So they turn him into a Big Man who thinks he can do anything, and becomes a monster.’
‘So it’s us, the people, who have created these terrible monsters,’ said Thoko.
‘So there’s your Civics lesson for today.’ I said, as I leaned forward towards her gateau. ‘Do you mind if I finish this bit?’
‘Keep your greedy fingers out of my cake!’ she squealed. ‘As a Grandpa, your job is to provide us with cake, not to take it for yourself. We don’t want you turning into a Big Man.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gone to the Dogs

Gone to the Dogs
I was sitting on the veranda when round the corner staggered Aunty Cathy, flopping into a canvas chair in a cloud of dust. ‘Another funeral?’ I asked.
‘It’ll be my funeral next,’ she gasped.
‘Don’t say that,’ I laughed. ‘I shall need you to arrange mine. I’ll go and make a pot of tea, and you can tell me all about it.’
‘So what’s been happening?’ I asked, as I came back with a pot of tea and a glass of brandy for myself. ‘You look as if you’ve just escaped from the ruins of Benghazi.’
‘The ruins of Chilenje,’ she corrected me. ‘The place is now more like a war zone.’
‘What’s happening?’ I asked. ‘I thought you said everything would be alright with the takeover by the new Godfather, what’s his name?’
‘Round Belly,’ sighed Cathy. ‘Yes, we thought we’d be alright with him. Such a jolly fellow, always laughing and cracking jokes and inviting people for free beer, we really thought he’d look after us.’
‘Ha!’ I laughed. ‘A Godfather is always a Godfather. They just run protection rackets and collect the proceeds! You got what you asked for!’
‘It’s alright for you, living in Kalakiland. But in the Land of Zed we have to live in the world of reality, not the world of wishful thinking. Things were really bad when Round Belly offered us his protection.’
‘How bad?’
‘Every morning after waking up, the first thing you’d do would be to go to the sitting room and check if the TV was still there, then to the kitchen to see if the pots and pans were still there.’
‘Don’t your yards have walls and gates?’
‘One morning I woke up to find the gates had been stolen.’
‘So what was Round Belly’s solution to the problem?’
‘He said he’d employ patrol dogs to frighten the thieves away. Each household would pay him ten pins a month and all would be well.’
‘But it didn’t work?’
‘Before long, with all those ten pins, he’d built himself a double story house and bought a Merc.’
‘But did you get protection?’
‘We were terrorized by his dogs! They would come into the house and eat all the food. Soon the people were starving.’
‘But you still had your TV!’
‘Yes, but that was a mixed blessing. Every night on TV we had to watch stories of how Godfather Round Belly had saved the people of Chilenje, and how happy we were with the Godfather of the Nation.’
‘So why didn’t you protest?’
‘Some people tried to hold a meeting at Libala Football Field, but the dogs attacked them. Some lost legs, others had their bellies ripped open, and several died. The survivors were arrested for assault.’
‘They tried to hit back at the dogs.’
‘And did Round Belly know about all this?’
‘That was the thing. Nobody believed that such a nice jovial fellow as Round Belly could be behind it. Even me, I thought the problem was just that he had employed wrong people. For instance, a known criminal called William Bandit had been put in charge of the dogs.’
‘Perhaps Round Belly was also surrounded by wrong advisors?’
‘Exactly. That was just what people were saying. They didn’t tell him what was really going on, but what he wanted to hear. And he had a notorious crooked lawyer, called Red Lips, who used to whisper poison into his ear.’
‘Why didn’t you go and see him? Talk to him? Advise him?’
‘We did. We went to his big mansion, and he was absolutely charming. A real nice fellow. He showed us some of his dogs. Poodles and Labradors, which were playing with this children. He said his dogs were harmless, and these vicious dogs which were terrorizing us must have come from Chibolya. He had always been an activist for peace, and couldn’t stand violence in any form. He promised us that he would deal with the people that were trying to tarnish his name. Then gave us a nice braii of T-bone steak and beer, after which we all shook hands and left in high spirits.’
‘You were convinced?’
‘Oh yes. He seemed a very nice man.’
‘And did things get better?’
‘Things got worse. The next thing was that he gave away land to foreigners to set up factories. One factory for making coffins and headstones and another for making tea cups out of human skulls, which are very popular in Ching Chang.’
‘So more employment! That was good!’
‘That was worse. The workers were paid only four hundred pins a month. Their wives and daughters had to go on the street to support them.’
‘Then why didn’t the workers protest?’
‘They did. Most of them were killed by the dogs. The survivors were arrested for protesting without a permit.’
‘So did you still believe that Round Belly was really a very nice man?’
‘Yesterday morning I confided to my neighbour that I was beginning to think that Round Belly actually knew about all these things. That perhaps he was the one behind everything.’
‘And did she agree?’
‘She didn’t say anything. But last night a bulldozer came and flattened my house. That’s why I’ve come to take refuge in Kalakiland.’
‘What!’ I gasped. ‘You must report all this to the Human Rights Commission!’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she sneered, ‘They went to the dogs years ago!’

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Election Petition
I remember the day very well. It was Thursday 13th September in the year 2013, and the Supreme Court was convened for yet another day, listening to a petition from the Mad Militia Delinquency claiming that the General Election of August 2011 had not been free and fair. Beside me sat my old friend Dr Mankhwala Sangoma.
Addressing the court was a lawyer wearing an empty black suit and a wig made from a horse’s bottom. He rocked back and forth on his feet as he addressed the Chief Injustice. Inside the empty suit lay the stinking remains of the dreaded Red-Lipped Snake.
‘M’Lord,’ the Red-Lipped Snake was saying, ‘I have presented incontrovertible evidence to this court that the MMD spent billions of taxpayers money bribing voters with bags of sugar, in a desperate attempt to prevent our legitimate government being overthrown by subversive elements within the Psychiatric Fiasco, otherwise known as Pabwato.’
The Chief Injustice, who had apparently been asleep until this point, opened one eye at the mention of the word bribe, a topic in which he had a well known private interest.
‘Yes, M’Lord,’ hissed the snake, encouraged by this sign of interest from the Chief Injustice, ‘we have always been willing to pay handsomely to any patriot who is brave enough to stand up to the subversive behaviour of Pabwato.’
‘Hurray!’ shouted the crowd from the floor of the court. ‘The Chief Injustice needs a bag of dollars, not a bag of sugar!’
‘Silence in court,’ shouted the Chief Injustice, as the crowd rolled around on the floor laughing. ‘How can the MMD ask me to nullify the election on account of rampant bribery, when – on their own admission – it was the MMD doing the bribing?’
A sneer now distorted the ugly red lips of the snake. ‘M’Lord,’ he said, bowing in mock humility, ‘may I refer you to the judgement in the petition brought by Mr MMD Mufumbushi after the Mufondo by-election of 2010, where MMD complained that he lost the election because he brought in ten busloads of thugs to terrorise the entire electorate. Judge Musoposopo ruled in favour of MMD, saying the by-election had not been free and fair because of MMD thuggery, and therefore annulled the election result.’
‘I am obliged to my learned colleague for such an amusing story,’ replied the Chief Injustice, now rousing himself from his slumber. ‘And may I prevail upon my learned colleague to go even further, and advise the court by giving us some hint of the relevance of this parable to the present proceedings.’
‘I just thought that the court might recognize a legal precedent,’ said the Red-lipped Snake, his face twisted with sarcasm, ‘that a losing candidate may have an election result overturned on ground of election malpractice, even though he was the one guilty of the malpractice.’
Now the Chief Injustice rubbed his hands together and licked his lips with undisguised glee. ‘I must congratulate my learned friend on finding such a precedent. But unfortunately I have to advise him that he has entirely misunderstood the precedent. What the precedent actually tells us is that a losing candidate may expect a favourable judgment if he is a member of the ruling party. But since your client is the president of a party which is no longer the ruling party, your precedent actually means that you will need evidence that the other party cheated.’
‘Well if that’s the case,’ answered the Snake, his red lips curling in derision, ‘I have plenty of evidence that Pabwato won by dubious means. For example, when we gave the voters bags of mealie-meal to vote for us, Pabwato told them to accept the bribe but vote PF. This was a clear breach of the Law of Contract.
‘Also, knowing that we were buying voters cards, Pabwato printed fake cards for us to buy, therefore breaking the Law on Counterfeiting and also the Law on Trade Description.
‘And when we bought mobile polling stations from China, and hid them where only our party members could find them, the devious Pabwato employed a Global Positioning Satellite to locate the polling stations, thereby contravening the Official Secrets Act and endangering the security of the government…’
‘From what I have heard,’ said the Chief Injustice, ‘it seems that you have established a prima facie case against the MMD for election rigging. I adjourn this hearing until Thursday next week, when I shall consider whether to commit the former president of the MMD to the International Court of Justice in...’
But as he spoke, into the room ambled a burly figure in a big blue shirt and a John Wayne hat, followed by a mob of thugs who hit out at the crowd with their knobkerries.
‘It’s Nyamasoya and his thugs,’ I whispered to Sangoma.
Nyamasoya walked up to the judge, caught him by the scruff of the neck, lifted him up, and then threw him into the middle of the gang of thugs.
‘On the contrary,’ announced Nyamasoya, ‘next week we shall hear the case of Mr Pong Mponga, who is accused of stealing a teaspoon from Arakan Barracks in July 2005, thereby misusing his position as Minister of Defence.’
‘Ha Ha,’ I laughed, ‘wasn’t it a splendid idea of President Cycle Mata to commit all the previous government to Chainama!’
‘It was the right thing to do,’ agreed Mankhwala. ‘As the Chief Psychiatrist, I know how to keep them busy. Their form of madness is quite harmless and entertaining if kept within the confines of a lunatic asylum. But if they are let loose on the general population they can cause havoc!’

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


The Tower
The people of Zed were mighty puzzled. Right in the middle of town there was a big new building going up, but nobody knew what is was, or what it was going to be.
The first thing that happened was that the whole area was surrounded by a high wall, which was painted black. Then the huge lorries started going in. They went in full of bricks, but came out full of soil. The rumour went round that the building was beginning with six underground floors of torture chambers for the enemies of the government.
After three years a massive structure began to rise above the level of the wall. Was it a prison? A military base? A new headquarters for the Party Militia? Nobody knew.
Up and up it went After another three years it was thirty stories high, bigger than anything else in town. Some people said it was to be the new headquarters for Muammar Ghaddafi, who has just escaped from Libya, and was rumoured to have bought the Republic of Zed for sixty billion dollars.
And another strange thing. The building wasn’t straight. It was winding up into the sky like a crooked snake. For some people this was a sure sign that it was being built by the government, which was notoriously crooked, and couldn’t do anything straight.
But others said that it was foolish to wonder about the purpose of the building, since the government had never had any purpose. It was just being built to enrich government ministers, who always got a ten percent cut on building contracts. And it was crooked because it was being built by crooked contractors who were saving on the cement, using cheap girders, and had never heard of spirit levels.
Finally, after eight years, it was finished, all hundred stories of it, completely coated in black glass, and winding up into the sky like a crooked black snake. The poor citizens of Zed, whose money had been used to build this monstrosity, looked at it with silent rage. Protest was impossible, because protests were met with bullets. And rumour had it that the Crooked Black Tower was specially designed for government snipers.
But now that the building was finished, the truth was finally revealed. The Crooked Black tower had been built in the image of the Crooked Chief Minister, the dreaded Red-lipped Snake, who now stood up in parliament and explained everything. ‘Mr Speaker,’ he said, ‘many of you have been wondering about the huge black tower which the President has generously built for his citizens. This is to be called Constitution Tower, because it embodies the new Constitution which the President is bequeathing to his people.
‘I am pleased to announce that all the institutions of government will now move to the new Constitution, which has been cleverly designed to reveal the new shape of government. On the top floor will be the Presidential Suite, so that the President, who is appointed by God, and is advised by God, can be closer to God.’
‘How will he reach the top floor?’ asked a cheeky fellow on the back bench.
‘The President will use the landing strip on the roof,’ answered the Red-lipped Snake, ‘so that he can fly directly from there to other countries.
‘On the next floor down will be myself as Chief Minister, to take all administrative decisions, since the President will either be talking to God or otherwise out of the country.
‘On the next floor down will be the Ministry of Law, employed to revise the law on a daily basis, in line with the President’s latest whim, as interpreted by myself.’
‘Then what will happen to parliament?’ asked the same cheeky voice.
‘That will be replaced by a rubber stamp,’ declared the Red-lipped Snake.
‘And will that rubber stamp be in parliament?’
‘Certainly not,’ snorted the Red-lipped Snake. ‘It will be on my desk. And on the floor below mine will be the Director of Prosecutions, who will take directions from me on who should be charged with which offence, and who should be given a nolle prosequi, and so on. On the floor below Prosecutions will be the offices of the judiciary.’
‘But won’t they need courts?’
‘In the new simplified Constitution, the Director of Prosecutions will also give the judges instructions on required verdicts and length of sentences. By dispensing with the need to hear evidence, the need for courts automatically falls away.’
‘What about the anti-corruption institutions?’
‘They will work on the floor below the Shushushu, and continue to take instructions from the Shushushu on which enemies of the government should be…
As he was talking there was an almighty thunder of rumbling and crashing, as the walls of parliament shook and the debating chamber filled with dust. The Great Crooked Tower had collapsed, falling vertically into its own basement.
As the news spread, somebody laughed. And then somebody else laughed. And then the whole nation laughed and laughed. They laughed for days. And after that, whenever the Red-lipped Snake appeared in public, people started laughing again. Just one glance at the Crooked Snake and they would remember the Crooked Constitution, and they would fall down on the ground and laugh helplessly.
And, I can hear you asking, did the Red-lipped Snake resign? No, he did not. For in the strange Republic of Zed, there was no word for ‘resign’ in the dictionary.