Raphael TenthaniIf you tremble

with indignation

at every injustice

then you are a comrade of mine

Ernesto Che Guevara

 

Let me tell you a tale of two countries rolled into one.

Villager John has been knocking on doors of the rich in his village looking for piece-work without much luck.

“Times are hard,” the rich man Mr. Sato tells Villager John. “I have no work for you.”

He walks on, Villager John, knocking on this door and the next.

What must I do? Wonders Villager John.

His feet are sore, Villager John, thanks to the hours of walking. He left home at dawn; it is now approaching dusk.

He starts going back, Villager John, to the hovel he calls home wondering what to tell his wife and kids.

Then, as he passes the rich man Mr. Sato’s compound, Villager John hears some noises.

Out of curiosity, Villager John goes to check.

A goat is tethered to a pole.

Maybe the herd-boy has forgotten to take it back to its pen, Villager John thinks.

A fleeting thought goes through his mind. He looks around, Villager John, nobody is in sight. God forgive me, he prays silently.

He fishes out the knife he always carries with him and cuts the rope. He musters all his energy and carries the goat and starts running away with it.

But the goat bleats and alerts the rich man Mr. Sato’s compound. Villager John twists the goat’s neck and runs as fast as he can.

At his hovel, Villager John quickly skins the goat and his family has braai all night long, their first taste of meat since the last Christmas, and their first semblance of a proper meal in months.

But, as he was running away from the rich man Mr. Sato’s compound, Villager John did not realise that his ‘Jesus’ (sandals made from used tyres) had come off.

“I know it’s his for he came looking for ganyu at my place, Your Honour,” the rich man Mr. Sato tells the magistrate.

“Besides,” testifies the rich man Mr. Sato’s herd-boy, “we confiscated this goat hide from his compound.”

So Villager John is quickly convicted; he is sentenced to three years imprisonment with hard labour for theft.

Life is tough in prison; food is scarce, the hard labour is real hard. A room meant for four inmates has 20. Villager John, being the villager he is, is cheated of the already scarce food by town crooks. When he can take it no more, he picks fights with the crooks.

“We cannot consider Villager John for good behaviour for he picked lots of fights,” the Chief Warden tells the delegation from the Ministry of Home Affairs which is visiting the penitentiary to look for prisoners to be included on the President’s Independent Day pardon list.

Half-way through his jail term, Villager John gets sick. The warden responsible for the clinic positively diagnoses tuberculosis but only prescribes Aspirin for him.

“There are not enough drugs in hospitals to waste on criminals like you,” says the warden.

It is until he becomes so emanciated he can hardly walk when a decision is made to take Villager John to the government hospital.

But it is too late to save him; Villager John dies two days later, chained to his bed.

Meanwhile, in the city Madame – a top government official, is playing monopoly with public funds. She and her colleagues have just discovered the payment system can be dribbled.

Madame dreams of having a ‘half’ State House.

But her husband laughs. “But, Make Thoko, we already have a big, spacious government house; why should we need a ‘State House’? Besides, we have that one house we are letting out to the British ambassador; once we retire in ten years’ time, we will claim it back.”

“Listen and listen good, Bambo a Thoko,” Madame tells her husband. “You know the new payment system in government is so porous we can skim billions from it. Everyone is doing it.”

“But, being controlling officer in your ministry, any theft can be easily be traced back to you.”

“Don’t be stupid, Bambo a Thoko,” she admonishes her husband. “I raise a voucher, I tell someone to sign for it, I raise a cheque in favour of our company. I’ll be the one to approve payment when the bank calls, Bambo a Thoko. Since the voucher will be in order nobody will know we didn’t supply any goods or services to government, pure and simple!”

And so her dream ‘State House’ project is actualised; building materials are all imported – furniture from China, chandeliers from Italy, rugs from Iran.

Within six months, Madame has her ‘half’ State House.

Not so blind justice

But, as she and other government officials continue playing monopoly with the public money, somebody slips up and the whole skimming scheme unravels.

Madame is arrested; the Auditor General traces that she skimmed about US $1 million from the government payment system.

“One of your five houses is already worth US $200,000,” her lawyer advises her. “Plead guilty quickly and offer one house; it will cover the money you stole. Restitution is the best mitigating factor.”

“But won’t they forfeit my little State House?”

“Why? Government’s interest is to get back the money you actually stole. How much profits you made from the money you stole government is not interested.”

And so Madame pleads guilty to the simple charge of theft.

“She showed remorse by pleading guilty and, therefore, did not waste court’s time,” the judge rules.  

Caressing his goatee, Justice Two-boy adds: “Besides, she paid back all the money she stole.”

But the judge does not want to be taken as a sissy.

“But, that notwithstanding,” he says, “stealing government money is serious, so I have no choice but to give her a custodial sentence of three years,” he declares.

But her lawyer already anticipated – read negotiated – this and has already talked to his friends in the prisons department.

“You know what, Dick,” the lawyer whispers to Chief Warden Dick, “don’t be too hard on Madame; she only stole government money, whose money is that anyway?”

Dick grins. “You’re my friend…But you know this stingy government has just increased the peanuts we call salary by only 24 percent.”

“Don’t worry, Dick…”

So Dick cleans up the prison’s ‘sick bay’ for Madame. A mattress, that can be expanded to the user’s preference, is smuggled into the ‘sick bay’.

Warden Dick brings into the ‘sick bay’ stuff that, as per procedure, were taken away from Madame – a purse, shoes and a belt. Madame takes out a few wads of bank-notes from the purse and hands them over to Dick.

“I am sorry, Madame,” says Dick sheepishly as he struggles to make the wads of cash fit in his back pocket, “today you’ll have to do without a bath. But we will make arrangements where you’ll be having your bath.”

After a week, Madame feigns a bout of hypertension and Warden Dick recommends the country’s top-notch private clinic.

“Even prisoners have rights,” he tells a curious junior warden who reminds Warden Dick of a prisoner named Villager John who was sent to a poorly-equipped government facility. “Remember, we’re here not to punish, but reform offenders.”

So Madame spends the first year of her incarceration between the prison and the private clinic, taking baths and meals at a nearby hotel in between.

“She can’t take your m’gaiwa with beans,” the doctor writes in his medical report. “We’re a signatory of various conventions on the rights of people, including prisoners, remember?”

And, because most prisoners soil their behaviour records with fights over food, Madame’s behaviour record is clean. So, less than half-way into her sentence, Home Affairs officials assess her record.

“The committee recommends that the President considers Madame for Independence Day pardon list for good behaviour,” writes the committee.

So, while Villager John is six feet under half-way into his sentence due to harsh prison conditions, Madame lives happily ever after while reclining on her divan on the upper floor of her ‘half’ State House half-way into her sentence.

Thus ends the tale of a country where there is one justice for the ‘haves’ and another for the ‘have-nots’.

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