The South African storm season and Zimbabwe
by Stephen Chan
[ places - december 07 ]
Virgin Atlantic: London to Johannesburg, 4 October 2007
This time not cattle class, but in comfortable cattle pens. Which bearded whiz kid dreamt up these slanted cubicles and called them business class? Designed an airport lounge to look like a nightclub, and made blue light shine in every toilet? I piss over France to blue light, and all the gold that rains on Paris was God's cool light as the aching bladder let it out - the flight two hours late in taking off and all of us confined to cubicle and practising yogic control of our lower abdomens.
I'm sure that Chinese Monkey sprayed forth while cloud-soaring. Giggled at fertilised villages below. Spring onions and radishes sprouted upwards in his wake. Carp ponds turned gold then back to blue - the Emperor's agricultural policy hailed as a great success.
But wheat no longer grows in Zimbabwe - nor enough maize. I start to decline the television interviews. Why add to endless gloom? Why not sip whiskey on this late-bound flight? Imagine Toulouse below. Make bad English puns. What else have they to lose? Read Goethe - Faust too casually translated. The professor bargaining with devils in vernacular. Well, fuck me all over Mephistopheles - a soul-man come to fetch my soul. No - when I land I will receive delegations of those who fled Zimbabwe and left all they had, to appear one day in the City of Gold and understand, even those who once owned limousines, they are illegal vagabonds and poor forever.
There are different ways to decline. There is a declension, or ten. In my cattle pen I cannot access the news. How many of the 3,000 trapped miners have been winched to the surface from their deep vein? I know the Johannesburg headlines will be full of nothing else when I land. In a small slow cage, people will be in small groups, the cable being frayed, inching upwards - dreaming every inch of surface. I have awoken from sleep. Few others stir in their cubicles. I dream of surface. I see Harare on the edge of the map, then it is obliterated by a blue sign that says 2½ hours to go. I shall be asking questions very soon about how many more months before Mugabe has to go. The driver will ask me politely if he should turn the radio off, and I shall ask him to keep it on. There will be endless phone-ins complaining about the illegal Zimbabweans on South African soil. Probably three million - though probably none in the mines, the union ticket being harder to get than braving razor wire and dogs at the border, the crocodiles in the Limpopo River. All the way to the Grace Hotel I shall hear an immigration debate that will make the Daily Mail in England seem tepid. People have started to comb their hair around me. There's still an hour before breakfast. I breathe on my interactive screen and the map of the world changes. I stare hard at Harare, and the screen stares resolutely and fixedly back.
But now the map shows we have bypassed Harare, the plane clinging to the Botswana side of the border. The Kalahari's where we fly and great clouds blossom in the morning. There's a flock of Chinese Monkeys giggling on the clouds. Mephistopheles is leading Faust a magic dance as, in the lands below me, alongside me, homing in on me, he has led great leaders that same dance to perdition. It is one hour to landing and it is time to assume the air of a man without illusions - and cloak from sight the man who burns with hope.
Virgin Atlantic: Johannesburg to London, 8 October 2007
The Grace Hotel is sometimes full of elderly American tourists, attracted by Vogue Traveller's description of its old world charm, and the claim - without obvious foundation but much pretence - it has one of the world's top 100 restaurants. It has good service, certainly; but the lifts and the computers are too slow, the adjacent shopping mall over-priced, and there are no bidets in the bathrooms.
In a room lined with old and valuable bottles of wine, we sat and discussed the next epoch of Zimbabwe. The food made me sick - perhaps the antiquity of the wine. How the future is born amidst the faded auras of the past... my grandmother explained that to me once... and I say it is faded, faded, and the future that we map is a radiant vision. Perhaps a mirage across the storm-ridden Johannesburg skies.
He said it was done on a house-boat on the lake - negotiations followed by drink, and drink followed by more negotiations - until, he said smiling, they loved one another. At a certain point he left them and read books in his room as they, loudly now, almost joyfully, convivially, hammered out the concessions and compromises.
The world is hammered out within rooms of wine. Outside the lightning flashes. God's flood rains down on the Grace. God's Grace is this liquid negotiation. But will He control the deluge? Noah at least got drunk after the flood - and it will take a people very proud of wisdom to forgive the years talked away so near the dam of pent-up waters.
An hour to landing. All the great European cities parade on the screen. It cuts to how far we have come. A direct line up Africa. It will be time for a briefly simple life. Around me people struggle to wake, to manipulate their breakfast trays, and everyone is working out tactics for reaching the washrooms and toilets. You've got to be practised at this. I smugly sit, having beaten them all at everything. Small sicknesses clawed at me all the way from London. My nose leaked red every day on the Johannesburg plateau. Every wine they served me had been over-burdened with age, textures too thick, and their consequences too heavy. I didn't sleep well and my mind was consumed by the games of patience that must be played on such visits. I am over France. A Silver Surfer glides across my screen.