THE PRESIDENT

by Allan Kolski Horwitz

 


 

After many years of unchallenged power, the President - intermittently, haltingly, often incoherently - begins to question himself; begins to examine his tribe's relationship with other tribes in their country. Particularly the ones who had opposed him at the start of his rule; the ones who had resisted his coup and organised demonstrations in the capital, and when their protests had failed to persuade him to respect the election results, had caused diplomatic petitions to be circulated all over the continent, and forced the United Nations to pass resolutions of censure. But he had stood firm, called their bluff. And when these resolutions were shown to be ineffectual (they had not moved him to renounce his illegal action in favour of the elected candidate who was from another tribe, nor motivated him to hold fresh 'free and fair' elections), these other tribes had taken up arms and challenged his army. And though their rebellion had been well supported, so much so that the country was effectively partitioned, he had not shrunk from pacifying them, leading to months of all out war when nothing seemed to work except the methods that in his youth he had attacked the old imperial powers and the corrupt military juntas of other countries for using . . .

But now, thirty years down the line, all those ancient doings should have been entirely washed under his belt, and under the splendid new bridge built over the brown river on whose banks the old colonial city had been hacked out of the jungle (the stylish and imposing bridge designed by a new generation of engineers from the old empire which had been - as was to have been expected - named after him by the Party). For now, of course, the President is absolutely entrenched and opposition to his rule is a figment of memory, a fiction. And the President, like all his subjects, cannot truly recall that time so that these reflections (on the manner of his having come to power and the resultant abuses) occur in a disorganized, rambling manner, generally when he is alone, often in the early hours when indigestion has forced him awake, or his wife (or the mistress he has chosen for that night) has unknowingly rolled onto him, breaking his sleep.

Ah, sleep, always precarious . . . How can presidents easily close their eyes and slip into dreams? So it is that these thoughts of his corruption gnaw away at him in a desultory and fanciful way given the great odds against remembering, given the obstinate and obtuse historical haze.

Then one afternoon, while a servant is wheeling in a trolley with delicacies, and he, in his capacity as governor of the Central Bank, is about to sign a report on the economic prospects for the coming quarter (a report prepared by a foreign expert on beh alf of a multi-national corporation interested in 'developing' various mineral resources), rationalisations and denial can no longer sustain him. He admits to himself that for thirty years he and his tribe have exploited the defeated, seized their land, displaced them from the civil service, shut them out of schools and universities and forced them into the most menial, low paying jobs.

And from this day, though the President sits at his desk appearing affable and collected, he is possessed by guilt and remorse: how could he have betrayed the ideals of his youth, the very motives that had pushed him into political struggle: the vision of justice? And the inner conflict causes him to gradually lose composure, so that his control of the country wavers, as does his ability to tolerate those around him. For each day he has to witness (and stomach) the arrogance and duplicity of his fellow tribal politicians, generals, government officials and businessmen; all of them, none less than himself, having handsomely benefited by wielding the levers of patronage. He has to sit in meetings and banquets, receptions and other ceremonies, laughing and conniving with them. And then, once the nerve-wracking day is over, he has to face the night.

Every night he dreams he is in a hospital. And there in that hospital he ministers to the downtrodden and diseased of the most oppressed tribe. He washes and cleans their sick and destitute, empties their bedpans, patiently feeds them when they are too weak to do so themselves, sings lullabies to comfort their dying children. Night after night he makes amends for his past crimes and those of his tribe. But every morning, instead of waking refreshed and purified by these acts of piety and contrition, he feels more unsettled. And sitting up in his capacious bed, still warm and languid, sated on the voluptuous woman beside him, blinking in the well tempered light of his luxurious bedroom, he struggles to admit that the reason for his discomfort is seemingly trivial, and yet so humiliating. For every night the dream ends with the same climax: In the bed at the end of the ward, near the door that leads out onto a scummy red concrete stoep, lies an old woman who refuses to allow him to touch her. He wants to serve her, to wash and perfume her, but every night she spurns him. And to inflict even greater distress, as he approaches her bed, her scream, warning him to stay away, shocks him awake; a jagged scream impregnated with insult that he can no longer bear so that he fears falling asleep.

Revolted by the behaviour of his tribespeople, wracked at night by the dying woman's rejection, the President sinks into depression. He becomes obsessed with his country's suffering: the disintegrating hospitals and schools, the potted roads and dilapidated buildings, the starving children in the urban slums. But he knows that to carry out the necessary changes will necessitate a dramatic upheaval - his past cronies will think him insane, and mock him. And should he have the audacity to challenge them, and hold them to account, they will rise up against him with the backing of the generals, one of whose number will be appointed the new leader once he is either killed or driven into exile.

Months pass, each more disturbing. But, finally, the President calls a special sitting of parliament (despite 'one party' rule the institution enjoys a certain status and is partially successfully in creating the illusion of democracy), and instructs the state media to report that an important proclamation is to be made. On the appointed day he arrives with the usual cavalcades and military parades. And once the assembled functionaries have eased back into their seats, he informs them of his annulment of all discriminatory and oppressive legislation (particularly those laws that have kept the other tribes' hostage) and announces that he is setting up a special fund to pay the wronged, reparations. And while the parliament sits in stunned silence, he adds that all political prisoners are to be freed and that he will summon a further special sitting to endorse a new constitution. His concluding statement is that new elections, to be supervised by the continental organisation of unity, will be held within six months, and that as soon as the results have been ratified he intends to step down as president. Then he leaves the chamber and returns to his palace. Thereafter, when the news is broadcast, the country goes into shock.

The leaders of the oppressed tribes unreservedly hail him as a righteous man and grant him pardon for the crimes of the past, celebrations are held in all their towns and villages. The outside world, too, applauds; the international media file adulatory reports. But the President's tribal leaders, appalled by this abrupt and abject surrender of their privileges, condemn him as a traitor, and the army, expecting a purge once the new human rights respecting government is elected, begins to mobilise.

The President convenes another parliamentary session, praying that he will find allies while the process of implementing the planned election takes hold. But he is confronted by a united threat: step down immediately in favour of another tribal personality or face assassination. He looks beyond the ruling party but the other tribes have no strength; their organisations, long banned, cannot hope to mobilise support quickly enough. Then what of the broad masses of his own tribe? They have not benefited from nepotism to the same degree as the elite. Their lives are, in most cases, also blighted: will they not welcome a new, more just form of government? Surely they are his best hope? But how is he to gauge their feelings?

Dressed in casual, even shabby clothes, he leaves the presidential palace and wanders through the city, listens to the conversations of the streets and marketplaces, the taxi ranks, the football stadiums and the bars. The discussions are vociferous - his announcements have inflamed the country. He hears himself alternately congratulated and derided, but overall there is powerful endorsement and appreciation of his wisdom and courage. Almost in a trance, moving from one suburb to another, the President soaks up this direct, honest contact. And at night, reaching the outskirts of the city, he enters the most dangerous area a shantytown, a settlement of the abandoned, those most ravaged by disease and hopelessness. He sits down with a group of men drinking cheap beer in a shack. They do not disappoint him there is unanimous approval of his actions, toasts are raised to him, hope expressed for a sublime future.

Past midnight, now exhausted, but finally at peace, he lies down by the side of a road and falls asleep. And he dreams again of the hospital. But this time, not only the old, dying woman at the end of the ward will not accept him - none of the sick will allow him to touch them; they all now reject and taunt him. He wakes, shocked by this reversal. The dream is inexplicable, perverse. After all, he has taken the ultimate step, shown his repentance in the most direct and meaningful way, so much so that he is now a pariah in his own class and community. Why then in the dream is he still plagued by the consequences of evil, by unresolved historic injustice? And why is his rejection so complete that the symbolic if phantom sick, who so much need help, and who were formerly so appreciative of his efforts, now try to eject him from the hospital? Tens of sweaty hands clambering to push him out . . .

He lies awake for hours by the roadside, racked by incomprehension and a sense of betrayal, dogged by the fear that it is, in fact, impossible to achieve redemption. And then, while he lies in this dazed state, a young thug, of whom there are many in this shantytown, strikes him on the head, stabs him in the chest and steals his shirt, his shoes and the few coins he has in his pockets. The President cries out for help but people pass him by. What is he to do? He is weak from his wounds and cannot walk unaided. A day of agony passes. Then, at last, just before sunset, a beggar, showing pity for his wretched condition, takes him to a nearby hospital.

At first the President is not identified. Distraught, haggard from lack of sleep, his face distorted by pain, he is, indeed, unrecognisable as the suave, if corpulent figure the world was accustomed to. The nurses admit him without comment and provide him with a small cot in the corner of a ward. But that night one of the patients recognises him. The man is from his tribe and his reaction is one of great anger. He calls the other patients, demands of the nurses that the President be expelled from the hospital: he must pay for his treachery. The mob drags him from his cot.

The President shields his face, but their blows rain down mercilessly till a great cry rises up from a bed at the end of the ward.

"Leave him! He is a light! Leave him! Leave the just man!"

And the cry is so piercing, so urgent and forceful, that even as the enraged patients are about to deliver their last fatal hits, they back off.

The President looks up, touches his battered face. He is still alive! He staggers to his feet and approaches the bed from where the cry had come. A shapeless mass lies shrouded by a dirty sheet. A dry, wizened hand reaches out. He puts the hand to his lips and kisses it. The hand squeezes his, then slowly withdraws

"Thank you, thank you," he says. Then adds, "Please, may I see your face so that I may never forget who it was that saved me."

At first there is no response, but slowly the coarse fabric is lifted, and in the faint light he sees that his saviour is the dying woman from his dreams, she who had refused to let him touch her. He starts, overwhelmed with surprise and gratitude. And then, as he again stammers his thanks, she rises from her bed, and though in agony herself, lifts a basin of water and begins to wash his wounds.


 

(First appeared in Out of the Wreckage, published by Botsotso)


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