“What is your name?” the man asks. It’s a strange question. I’ve ventured out of my apartment – mostly for the fresh air but also to get tonight’s dinner (two packs of Durban Curry flavoured noodles and a can of Iron Brew). I deliberately take the longest route possible – down Sokhupe Street, a sharp left into the adjoining Mohajane Street, before meandering past the narrow road that leads to the local Pick n Pay. He’s not an old man but his skin is weathered with wrinkles and unsightly blemishes. A half-eaten sandwich is dancing in between his right hand, an old black leather bible occupies the other. A grave look is steam-pressed across his features.
There’s more foot traffic than there’s been in the past two weeks. When the President lifted Lockdown after 62 days, there hadn’t been the immediate resumption of activity that social theorists imagined. Instead, most people stayed confined to their houses, unwilling to go back into public too eagerly. To my right, tacked onto a row of street lamps, flanking the main road, were a barrage of newspaper headlines announcing the end of Lockdown and the return to life as we once knew it. “Economy bled R130 billion during Lockdown” announced The Sowetan. “Get God on the phone!” read a headline from Daily Sun. “IPID investigating 77 Lockdown murders” said another, from Mail & Guardian.
The surroundings seemed to mirror the national mood (if not the entire world’s). The dogs rooted through the garbage with renewed purpose and people walked over the cracked sidewalks with vacant expressions underneath their cloth masks. It wasn’t so much Apocalypse Now as it was apocalypse now now. The world was ending. Soon. Just not soon enough. But business was business and, for those in the business of laundering hope, now was the best time to get the Word of God across.
“You’re talking to me?” I ask without the question mark. “Yes, you. God has a word for you, my brother.” “What’s the word?” Immediately, the man is animated into preacher mode. He grabs hold of my shoulder, inching my body closer to his and tells me, “The germ is still in the atmosphere.” Huh? He goes on. “God has impressed upon me that the germ is still making its way around the country, but you are immune to it. The germ is not your portion.” “Amen!” I respond, willing him on. “But!” he interjects. “you are suffering from a poverty of the spirit. This poverty,” he continues, “translates into the material realm as well. Because you are poor in spirit, your financial life is in shambles. There’s a dark cloud hanging over your finances ... a curse.”
He isn’t wrong. Last night, just before I drained the last of my Russian Bear into my coffee mug – one of the only pieces of cutlery I own – Kabza, my landlord, texted to say I had 24 hours to make the rent or I was out. I’d been late for the month. Which wouldn’t be much of a problem except I was late the previous month … and the month before that … and the month before that, too. His method of rent collection always bordered on ornate Mafioso theatre.
Every month that I missed payment, he’d come to my apartment with a R5 coin and tell me to pick heads or tails. “Heads,” he’d say, “and I beat the shit out of you for taking me for a poes. Tales and I give you the last chance. Fair?” Fair. Except the one time I called “tails” and the coin landed in my favour, he pulled out a pair of plastic knuckle dusters with the words “last” “chance” written on the left and right knuckles. “You called it. Last chance it is.”
The old man’s voice anchors me back into the present. “Let me ask you something; you have multiple debts, don’t you?” I nod and tell him I’ve just missed rent again and Mr Price keeps hounding my ass for an unsettled bill. “You see! The veil! You have been cursed, my brother. But poverty is not your portion!” “Amen!” He hands me a pamphlet that reads: “Revival of the Fittest” and tells me to come to the Universal Church of God on Sunday.
“We’re calling the sons of God back into the kingdom. All the spirits hovering around your finances, around your spiritual life, God will get rid of them my brother.” I nod, hand him a forlorn R10 note and whisper, “They don’t make suffering like they used to.”
The walk back to my flat feels shorter. It always does. I slide open the burglar bar that leads to my apartment and the smell of warm, stale air rushes into my nostrils. I head into the kitchen and find my landlord waiting for me. “You’re late on rent again. It’s the 15th of June. When am I getting my money?” “Poverty is not my portion!” “What the hell are you on about?” Kabza hisses through clenched teeth. “The germ,” I shout, making gestures with my hands. “The germ is not my portion ... in the name of Jesus. In the name …”
He’s out of the apartment before I can finish my proclamation. I survey my surroundings. I walk toward my lounge window, the wooden floor creaking under the pressure of my weight. The distance from the kitchen counter to the window, is about five paces if I have to guess but, I walk twice that amount. The floor is strewn with soiled laundry, magazines, cigarette butts, a puddle of last night’s vomit and a plastic full of used condoms.
I tiptoe carefully around each item, assessing the floor for space to walk on. During Lockdown I’ve been lonely, but never alone. Every other day, Lerato – an AFDA student five apartments away from mine – has come over with a blunt in one hand and a lunch-box full of leftovers in the other. I’ve rarely had anything to offer except vodka and a stable Wi-Fi connection. We’re an ill-fit and, under normal circumstances, she would have never suspended her standards long and low enough, to make the repeated trips to my sparsely-furnished apartment.
She’s short with box-braids that frame a face full of acne and the belief that we can make the world more equitable if we all subscribe to that woke shit that’s been all over Twitter. I am, for the most part, a bum: a journalism graduate.
Before Lockdown I made rent by working the till at a nearby Levis store on weekends. Her visits always take on the same pattern. First she’ll comment about the smell. “Your apartment smells like shit, hey.” I respond by shuffling what is in my immediate orbit into a black rubbish bag, before throwing it into my wardrobe, out-of-view. We light up her roach, smoke it, and play whatever is trending on Netflix.
A few moments later, I’ll feel her nails digging into my back and the warmth of her hot and hurried moaning against my face. I crack the window open and assess the religious tract one more time. “Tomorrow’s wonderful world: an inside view! God is building a new world. One without sickness or disease. Imagine if you –”
My apartment’s door swings open. Kabza walks in with a heavyset man with biceps the size of wrecking balls. “Kabza!” I shout. “I’ll get your money, man. It’s just –” A flurry of punches follow in quick succession. Kabza pulls me up by the scruff of my collar. “You motherfucker! No more excuses,” he says, a rainbow of spittle punctuating his every sentence. “Ungijwayela amasimba. (You’re full of shit) Today, you’re out.”
They throw what they can out of the window and hurl everything else into the communal dustbins. I head downstairs, municipal bin liners in hand, to salvage what I can. My phone vibrates in my jean pocket. It’s an SMS: Our records indicate that your Mr Price account is in arrears with R793,20. Please pay immediately to avoid being blacklist immediately to avoid being blacklisted.
* Rofhiwa Maneta is a Johannesburg-based writer and journalist.
* Sentenced to Lockdown, regarded as "nonessential", 30 South African writers get together in a virtual Corona Collective, to pen Lockdown Extended, trying to make sense of a world, held hostage by a virus. Powerfully visceral, this gem includes a diverse list of South Africa's most celebrated writers, brilliantly capturing the effects of a global pandemic.
Epub ISBN: 9781928421245
Publisher: Melinda Ferguson Books
Date Released: June 2020
Price (incl. VAT):R 140.00