I stared at myself in the black screen in the approximately three seconds before it came alive. My hair was already growing. I leaned in for a closer look on the make shift mirror before it was time to go live. Bags under my eyes, the “black don’t crack” jokes that my girlfriends would make, now really a joke as I looked years older than my 21 years. I had spent months cracking codes and organising underground meetings on campus. Tonight was the night that we made our presence known.
The home of the liberal left had become a breeding ground for the techno right. Just over a hundred years since it was started, the place of learning for the comrades before us was now everything they fought against. We were now reduced to chips and sims. Academically or financially excluded became a reality in moments. Now here we were, trying to take down the scum. It’s happening tonight, whether we like it or not. I would remind them all what Uncle Ten and the others were fighting for.
I logged on to the University’s webpage and clicked on to the new chat site.
“Look, two of your lecturers are online!” screamed the pop-up at me as I signed in to the U.W.See page. That was their idea of a clever take on words. This was not the UWC that Uncle Ten spoke about.
I went straight for the discussion page. Everyone amped for the inauguration tonight?
“No,” I said out loud, groaning at the laptop. The new rector was being inaugurated tonight and the filth went into a frenzy. The entire student body was falling over themselves trying to get a piece of the new pie and influence him to their advantage. He was some new reverend, but without the Nobel Peace Prize. There were allegations of corruption, but that didn’t matter when you knew people in government, and God.
Everyone seemed as excited for the international delegation showing up too. It was turning into a glorified business meeting, with politicians claiming to care about the education system showing up to mingle with the money.
The comments were flying in thick and fast as the screen uploaded and refreshed.
-Totes, can’t wait to meet him.
-i heard he knows the Obamas.
-Fuck him. Corrupt scum. Down he will fall…
#comment removed for moderation. Admin#
#warning: abusive language will not be tolerated#
-im soooo excited. Apparently he’s the man with the plan. lol
I watched the rest of the drivel fill up the screen. I typed my own message.
-It’s going down. Atrium the place to be. Soul in Motion down at 19:30pm. Lank!!
I awaited the moderator to remove the message, but the doos didn’t catch on. Soul in Motion was our code for when we were supposed to (illegally) de-activate our souls in motion (sim) cards. We figured there would be too much activity going on in the library atrium for them to notice that we fell off the grid for a few moments. It was going down at 19:30pm.
“Name please,” said the receptionist, her back straight.
I looked at her and wondered why the bitch wasn’t nervous about getting replaced by a machine. Already the other windows at student admin were now electronic, voice activated booths which anticipated your enquiries. Mine on the other hand, required a human. Unfortunately.
“You need to go to the fourth floor,” she sighed and pointed toward the elevator with her long nail.
“The meeting is almost done, so go wait there and Mr Naidoo will be with you in a few minutes. Ok?” she asked, leaving me wondering if I was supposed to answer.
“Uhm, ok then,” I said and walked over to the lift. The fourth floor seemed like light years away. I started naming capitals in my head as the lift climbed. Gabarone, Windhoek, Maputo, Lusaka I went disjointedly all over the continent and stopped at Cairo when the lift stopped and spat me out.
“They just finished, you can go through,” said another bored receptionist whose job would be replaced by a talking robot in no time, I thought with a mix of uneasiness and satisfaction.
I walked past her and waited for a second outside the big double doors with my hand on the door handle. I took a breath and pushed as I walked in. To my surprise, there was only him. And what a sight, behind the huge polished table in the boardroom. Mr Naidoo, the current Head of Department. Like a woodsman at the end of his felled tree, only flat and polished. I watched him, trying to not give away anything as he walked towards me, his face cold and hard. He stepped right up to me, extended his hand and said: “We have to stop meeting like this” as he smiled.
He was my favourite lecturer and the least favourite of the administration. You don’t teach the kind of politics that he did, and still expect to keep tenure. Yet he managed to stay under the radar, while pissing on it at the same time, squeezing in Marx wherever he could.
“Now you know I don’t mind when you tell those snotty kids to fuck off, but I can’t keep bailing you out,” he said as he waved at me to sit down.
He flopped down next to me and he saw the anxious look on my face.
“Don’t worry” he said laughing without smiling, “they don’t listen in when we have these stupid meetings. They trust that we will report everything that we need to in our reports” he said again with the soulless laugh.
“I can’t be long, so I’ll keep it brief,” he said as he leaned into me.
“It’s tonight or never,” as he dug in his pants pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. “This is the code. 19:30 you get five minutes and then you get out”.
“Look at me,” he said as I stared at his hands with the code on the small scrap of paper. It felt weird seeing someone with paper. It seemed so out of fashion. And not for the environment. This was nothing new. Uncle Ten spoke about this when I was a boy too. Trendy activism as he called it. A bunch of local idiots trying to get foreign investors interested by bowing down and kissing their feet to prove that we are just like them, he would say and shake his head.
“Are you listening to me?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes sir, Mr Naidoo,” I said, probably coming across like my usual sarcastic self. But I understood the implications.
I left a bit shaky and went straight back to my room to change.
We were the Tokoloshe Trio, causing mayhem all over campus. Learning whatever our masters taught us so we could use it against them. I was the History major – Simphiwe, the sim scrambler. Dan was the ladies’ man, charming beyond compare, and also a computer whizz. And Marco was the muscle, sports science student yet counted prime numbers faster than any of the other maths idiots. We were different, yet had a common cause. Take down the scum. We found each other in a chat room that was closed down by the government faster than they could shut down an accusation of corruption. Dan always swore us to secrecy cause he said it was kinda gay that we met in a chat room.
I walked into my tiny rez room and they were there already, getting changed.
“Kinda gay,” I said as I walked over and slapped him on his head.
“Don’t pull a stunt like that again, you hear me?” I said.
“What the heck man!” he said, pulling up his black pants, Marco already tucking in his white shirt.
“That message you left on U.W.See? Stupid man. Stupid. Are you trying to give the game away before we even start?” I said, through clenched teeth.
Marco inched closer to break up any altercation that might start, but we didn’t have the time.
“Ol’ Sim is going soft on us,” said Dan as he used his finger to illustrate my apparently rapidly softening dick. Very original, I thought.
“Well if you must know, it wasn’t me,” he said.
“We don’t have time for this,” said Marco.
“Let’s get moving” he said. “You got to get dressed Sim. And where were you by the way?” he asked, his eyebrows scrunched together like a crooked bow. I wanted to laugh thinking about Dan always trying to convince him to clean up his appearance. Marco wouldn’t have any of it.
“Naidoo called me in,” I said, and watched them freeze, their faces going blank.
“Don’t worry, he got rid of it. But we have to be careful. We can’t keep causing shit on campus, as bad as we want to,” I said. “And especially tonight,” I said as I looked at Dan. “Be on your best behaviour. Please”
I moved past them in my room that was just big enough for all three of us standing in a crooked row parallel to my single bed, next to the desk, fridge and bookshelf. I squeezed myself close to the window and watched the sun setting across the courtyard of the other residences. I picked up my uniform.
“Lets’ go,” I said.
Naidoo got us the jobs as waiters at the inauguration. We felt like fools, dressed in black pants, white shirts and black waistcoats. Serve the snacks, have a tray of filled glasses of champagne at all times, stay busy and don’t get in the way of the guests. That was our mandate. Pretty simple, we thought. But we were here for something else. At 19:00 we were there, ready to get to work.
“Remember, stay out of the way of the VIPs, ok?” said the fat woman in charge of us, and the rest of the other seven waiters. I didn’t get her name. My mind was elsewhere.
“If I see any of you doing anything stupid,” she said as she wagged her sausage fingers at us, “I won’t hesitate to grab you off the floor” her red face and spitting lips directed at us. She could tell we were no good.
“And make sure your sims are on at all times so we can keep track of you,” she said.
“Now, it’s time. Grab a tray a tray and get going,” she said, waving the sausages at us again. “Head up, back straight and don’t make a mess. And smiiiile,” she said as we left the side room to enter the atrium in the library. There were huge new flat screens all over the atrium which displayed images of the new chancellor.
“We have to move. NOW,” I said, just loud enough for them to hear over the screaming of the crowd.
It happened faster and bigger than we had expected. The screens came down and lit up with the message “The Revolution is here. Down with the scum” as the lights went out. As soon as people started panicking, the lights flashed epileptically, sending the police and their Aitos into overdrive. They did not seem prepared for this and probably thought they had the event secured.
At 19:30 the guests filed in and schmoozed as we worked the room with the champagne, always keeping an eye on each other. We waited for him to arrive. The orchestra stopped paying and the crowd parted as the man of the moment made his entrance.
Lwazi Qomoyi, our new rector. I tried to hide my contempt for this man and just kept moving amongst the crowd, keeping my eyes down.
He came from the outside and stepped into the circular atrium, the spiral of the library above us. The ramp to the upper levels to the left, the lower levels to the right. The lower level from where we were was where the catering staff had gathered, and that was our exit.
As soon as he stepped he to the podium to make his speech, we hit the buttons on our phones at the same time and it started.
With the lights down, people went into a frenzy. They were running around, looking for some sign of security, the security guards looking for each other to figure out what to do next. We inched over to the ramp as people were screaming. Then the flat screens with our message descended down, their rotating, swiveling arms now swinging dangerously low to the crowd. The flat screens started flashing various colours. I looked back and thought that they looked pretty cool as we made our escape.
We ran down to the lower level and picked up our bags without stopping, down the corridor. Our formal black shoes echoed on the concrete floor as we ran. It was too late to stop before we saw it. Our path was supposed to be clear, but the security, finally doing something right had set up a pop-up barricade at the doorway to our escape.
“You guys see that too, right?” said Dan as we approached the doorway, the rest of our path visible through the bars. He bent down and saw that there was an electric panel that set the bars up, imprisoning us. He started punching in codes, trying to crack it before the others caught on that we were missing.
“Shit,” he said, punching the keypad.
“They weren’t joking around with this thing you guys,” he said as I spotted sweat dripping from his temples, his blond hair stuck to his head.
“Get away from there,” boomed a voice at us from our right, that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was one of the security police with his Aito, sneering at us. Before he even got a chance to try anything, Marco charged him, tackling him to the ground and gave the Aito one swift kick. Neither dog nor man saw it coming and were out cold.
“Any luck there, Dan?” I asked, my voice higher and speaking faster than usual. The sweat was now dripping off his face. That’s when I heard a cracking sound.
I looked over my shoulder and a door was opening. Not just a door, an elevator door.
“What the…” I started as the door opened. Door ex machine, I thought. Someone stepped out and if I wasn’t sober I swear I would have thought I was imagining it.
There stood Lwazi Qomoyi.
There wasn’t enough time to scoff at the shiny shoes, probably Italian suit, blue tie as the imposing figure said: “Get in. Quick.”
We waited all of three seconds before we heard the other security approaching, set off by their fallen comrade who Marco had just taken down.
“Hurry!” Qomoyi said again and we ran towards the elevator door. In the dark I could just make out that the door was painted over, the unused shaft most likely deemed unusable. A relic of the past, the old façade of the library was upgraded and built over, but not torn down. I was surprised that it was even working. But it was.
We stood in silence. The lighting in the small elevator didn’t allow us to do our usual talk-with-our-eyes routine that allowed us to pass every test that we never studied for. It was slow and seemed like it would never stop. My heart was pounding as the elevator came to a creaky halt.
It opened to a corridor, which led to a small room. Once inside, he put the light on and we saw his face in full view.
“Good work, boys,” he said.
“Now have a seat,” he said and pointed to three chairs. He pulled up his own and sat opposite us as we stared each other down. He leaned forward and looked at each of us in the eyes. He stopped at me and looked at me longer than he did at Marco and Dan.
“You look just like him. Your father would not approve,” he said, stressing the negative, breaking the silence as he stood up.
“You know he studied here, right?” he asked. “You kids think you know struggle.”
“I don’t see you struggling much, Mister,” said Dan, breaking Qomoyi’s stride.
He eyed Dan for a few seconds and started laughing and sat down again. He ignored his comment and went on.
“I knew your father and that’s how I knew you would try something like this. I’ve been watching you, my good sirs,” he said as he leaned forward.
“Fuck him? Corrupt scum?” he said, and then started laughing, enjoying his own joke as our eyes bulged.
“That was you?!” said Marco.
“Not my best work. But I know a thing or two” he said.
“Like I said, you kids aren’t the only ones who are fighting a battle. You think I enjoy seeing this place being covered with ads for Ghosts softdrinks?” he said.
“Ghost, sir. Ghost,” Dan corrected him. We all shot Dan a look and I rolled my eyes at him.
“Look,” said Qomoyi, again standing up. “I know you all want to make a change, but you have to be careful. What if you got caught?” he asked.
I sat back with my arms crossed, hardly moving since we sat down. It all ran over in my head. Could we trust him? Was he the real deal? Seemed we didn’t have a choice really.
“If you want, I can help you. But it won’t be easy” he said.
“What do you say?” he asked and stood up, his hand outstretched.
I looked at him and thought that there didn’t appear to be any other choice. It looked like we had another friend looking out for us. I wondered for a second what Uncle Ten would make of this, but decided that for now, Qomoyi could be an ally. I stood up and shook his hand, Dan and Marco looking at each other. They stood up and shook his hand too.
I sat in front of my computer screen again. After that night a week ago, we kept a low profile. I scratched my head and waited. There it was. The e-mail came at 10am, as expected. Qomoyi made good on his promise. I opened it and there was a set of codes for us to take down Internet on campus and hack the mainframe to get information for our next mission. It would be a long fight, I thought to myself. Uncle Ten spoke often about it. He always reminded me about everything he and the others did. He said a revolution would not be easy, especially not in a country like ours. I was ready, I thought. I wrote a mail to Dan and Marco: “Be ready at 8”.
I thought I’d leave the contexualising for the end. I stumbled on this story I wrote a few years ago during my Master’s course. I thought the timing was uncanny.
As South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, are in the throes of student protests, the subject matter is apt. This story was written as a sequel, albeit standalone, to Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. I thought it was funny that, in 2012, to be quirky, I demonised the then-new chancellor, and make the rector an ally. At the current protests at UWC, the new rector, Tyrone Pretorius, has fallen out of favour with protesters, while the chancellor, Thabo Makgoba, has been the peace broker.
Read my story for The Times (South Africa) and other here.
<p>Author <a href=”https://plus.google.com/102128103971030481396” target=”blank” rel=”author”>Jerome Cornelius</a></p>