Fiction Friday | 'Joburg Noir' edited by Niq Mhlongo
‘This place is labelled the city of gold, Jozi, Maboneng. There is indeed a constant rush, the winner takes it all, and a “survival of the fittest” mentality driving the hunger and competitive spirit of those born here, and equally seen in the eyes of the immigrants; legal and illegal alike. Dreams not realised have left most of the once-eager hopefuls desolate, seeking shelter under bridges and abandoned city buildings… Oh Yeoville, Yeoville man, now this was a whole different world on its own … the culture, the music, the DJs and live bands, the food and the hangout places’ – Gloria Bosman, ‘A Little Something from the Pot’
Joburg Noir is a collection of writings about memories, legends, loss, jokes, stories, myths and experiences by twenty-two gifted and versatile authors in South Africa. It makes the reader experience present-day Johannesburg as if one were in the past. The stories seek to understand, reconstruct, reinvent and recover this city space of loss, joy, deprivation, resistance and possibility by revealing its complex dynamics. They are funny, shocking, violent, absurd, strangely tender and memorable.
Their lasting resonance lies in the fact that they invoke the joys and traumas of the past and present, making the two to co-exist and interlock. After reading this uncompromising and gritty anthology, the reader is bound to feel like a time-traveller who has voyaged into a magical alternate city and a reality that was either misnamed or not named at all. The intention is to help the readers to delve into their own memories in search of pictures of their sweet childhood and fractured identities.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Niq Mhlongo is the award-winning author of three novels and two collections of short stories, the latest of which is titled Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree. In 2019 he edited a bestselling collection of essays called Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu?
Man of God
To this day, I still cannot explain how I ended up on the front pages of the tabloids together with a decapitated bishop. Who would have thought Busi could do such a thing, kill a bishop?
It’s been eight years, but a wave of emotions engulfs me whenever I look back. The scenes in my head are still out of sequence, but I’ll try to put them in the right order. For your sake and mine. Here goes.
The Sunday we first met the bishop, Busi and I were greeted by an usher with a condescending grin. His black and white uniform gave him the appearance of an overfed penguin. For an obviously wealthy church, the dress code of the ushers left a lot to be desired.
I suppose what mattered most was their attitude towards God and the Bishop. They called him Man of God or Daddy.
Busi and I had arrived a full hour before the 10am service. Mabel, Busi’s friend, had warned us not to be fooled by the size of the Incredible Miracles Church (IMC) Cathedral in Tembisa.
‘On Sundays there isn’t even standing room,’ she’d said. And sure enough, the church was so packed, we could hardly see the Man of God from where we were seated.
I was annoyed and sweaty by the time we were called up to go on stage to receive the blessing we had come for. ‘Do not, I repeat, do not look the Man of God in the eye when he’s praying for you.’ Our usher, The Penguin, gave us this instruction through clenched teeth before we were herded off towards the stage.
Five childless years had led us to the bishop’s church. All we had to do was walk up to the stage and allow the Man of God to pray for us, and, according to Mabel, ‘Your offspring will outnumber those of Abraham.’ I had laughed out loud when she said that Abraham bit, but my wife had reached a stage where she would try anything to become a mother.
Little did I know that by agreeing to get prayed for by the Man of God, I would be opening the door to the devil himself.
Mabel caught up with me after the church service at a nearby eatery, aptly named Busy Corner. I was alone. Busi had been taken from my side during the prayer as my eyes were closed and I had chosen to wait for her here. Mabel didn’t seem to mind that the place served alcohol, even after the Man of God had condemned the evil of drinks that come in green bottles. I had held back on ordering a beer because Mabel had called before coming to meet me.
‘Busi and the other lady will get more prayers outside the Cathedral from the Man himself,’ Mabel said. ‘The Man of God does that under the direction of the spirit.’
Busi joined us an hour later, but she refused to discuss what had gone on back there.
‘Besides,’ my wife said, ‘we can’t discuss church business in a place like this.’
On my way to the bathroom, I went past the bar and ordered a double whisky, which I drank in a corner by myself. I was unsettled. My wife seemed unsettled too, but I doubted our anxieties sprang from the same source.
‘Think of the Man of God when you visit the garden tonight,’ Mabel shouted through her car window as we drove off.
We both laughed uproariously at the thought of us having the bishop in mind during our bedroom activities.
‘Visiting the garden’ was the Man of God’s not-so-subtle way of referring to sex during his sermon. It all seemed daft that an adult praying for a couple to conceive didn’t want to use the word sex. I tried hard to keep the smirk off my face during the sermon.
But lo and behold, it did turn out to be impossible to keep the Man of God off my mind that evening when Busi and I visited the garden. And I could picture Mabel’s eyes rolling as if to say, ‘I told you so.’
Immediately after her one-on-one session with the Man of God that Sunday, Busi became very active in the church. This meant that not a day would pass when Daddy wasn’t mentioned in our house. My wife’s sudden ‘discovery’ of God also blew holes in our budget, because she drove from our home in Rosebank to Tembisa four times a week for various ‘ministry’ activities.
It seemed like I couldn’t avoid the Man of God even if I wanted to. Like God himself, he was omnipresent in my life.
‘Stop complaining about Daddy. Do you want to go back to the fertility clinic or my mother’s medicine man?’
That’s all Busi had to say to silence my protestations. I had no desire to return to either of those places. Those experiences had scarred us both in different ways.
The fertility clinic is on Grayston Drive, and on our very first day there we both noticed that even the security guards had an offish demeanour. The receptionist and everyone inside spoke in hushed tones, and they stared if you dared to talk normally.
I had heard of men who despised scheduled sex sessions with their wives, and a week after visiting the clinic I understood why. To summarise the whole thing – it’s a long story − I would say it was the ‘it’s now or never’ expectation that went with every scheduled sex session we had. With each thrust and move it was as though everything had to be perfect for us to have a baby.
But I don’t think Busi and I wanted a baby as much as her mother did. It was for her social standing. She admitted as much to me one afternoon when I had returned home early from work.
‘Vusi my boy, are you still failing to impregnate my daughter three years into marriage? And don’t you dare claim it is her fault. Never my boy! She comes from a long line of certified child bearers. Half of Soweto and Tembisa come from here.’ She pointed to her stomach as she said that.
I could have pointed out that Busi was an only child, but I wasn’t going to wrestle with pigs.
Busi came through the door at that moment and asked, ‘Has she told you already?’
‘Tell him yourself; he’s your husband!’ her mother retorted.
It turned out that my mother-in-law had arranged for us to be seen to by her medicine man.
‘All fully paid for!’ she gloated, as if money would be my biggest objection. And that’s how my wife and I ended up butt-naked at midnight in some dingy hostel room in Dube. The old man was ordering us to show him how we made babies, ‘Because,’ he said, ‘one can’t take such things for granted.’
Our saving grace was that Busi was the first to storm out of that place, leaving her clothes behind. We uttered our first words as we negotiated the last stretch of Chris Hani Road just before joining the freeway.
‘Are those cops?’ Busi asked as two torches flickered in the midnight darkness directing us to stop. The panic in her voice made me realise that I had forgotten we were both naked.
The overweight Afrikaner policemen who had stopped us waved us on with a look of disgust. I could not tell if the other cops had seen us. Glancing across at my wife, I realised she had been crying for a while.
‘I’m done trying.’
There was a finality in her words; and I knew she meant it.
So, when Mabel again insisted on us going to her church, I didn’t put up much of a fight. And exactly six months to the day from our first visit, Busi called me crying on the phone. I dropped everything and rushed through midday traffic to Rosebank. My wife met me at the door with four pregnancy test kits held high in her hands.
Sobbing, she lifted each of the test kits up to my face.
The fourth time I asked, ‘It’s not quadruplets, is it?’
Busi laughed so hard, we ended up collapsed together in a heap on the floor. And as though to welcome the newly growing baby in the womb, we ended up making love passionately, furiously – and thankfully.
It was a Monday. By Sunday, when we took the half hour drive to the southern edge of Tembisa to the imposing IMC Cathedral, Busi had been there four times already during the week. I suppose it was to be expected. We were grateful for our blessing. Which was why we settled on the name Blessing for our unborn child.
The most striking thing that Sunday was the attention we received. The Penguin directed us up to the stage. There was another couple seated on the four chairs set close to the Man of God’s thronelike one. The atmosphere that morning was jubilant, unusually so. Throngs of people kept making their way to the stage to drop off wads of cash into the buckets, closely guarded by four armed men. It was a service to say ‘thanks to The Man of God’,
Mabel had told us, but I had a feeling my wife already knew.
The service then reached the point when the couple next to us had to take to the mic and give their testimony. It turned out that none of their previous seven pregnancies had proceeded past six months, and now they were in their eighth month because of ‘this man’s power’.
I panicked when I realised that we would also have to give a speech, but there was no need. Busi had the whole Cathedral eating out of the palm of her hand.
So much so, even I got over my uneasiness about her starting every sentence with Daddy.
As she spoke, I got the sense I had missed a significant period of my wife’s life since we had become regulars at IMC. My work had kept me busy, sure, but it didn’t help that I had revived an old relationship with an ex-girlfriend from high school. I hadn’t seen her in years until she had started working as a legal consultant in the building right next to where I worked.
Busi and I had been together for ten years – and I know it sounds like I’m making excuses, I’m not – but the last two years had exacted their toll.
I did, however, cool down on my extramarital activities during Busi’s pregnancy, which turned out to be a difficult one with lots of complications. She developed pregnancy-related diabetes and was admitted at Mulbarton Hospital in the south of Joburg. This was a bit far from home, but Mabel had told us that the gynae there was the best in Johannesburg.
When I opened the door to my wife’s private hospital room, I was startled to find the Man of God sitting at her bedside. He had the look of a man who was more than a spiritual leader to a patient. He murmured something and then left the room. I called Mabel after leaving the hospital. It turned out she had been expecting my call, and we agreed to meet.
‘I didn’t call you because I felt guilty. I brought you guys to IMC. I thought you’d blame me for Busi’s behaviour. It’s one thing to be grateful for his power of prayer, but it’s quite another to skip work to be at church…’ Mabel teared up as she said this.
‘Busi’s behaviour?’ I asked.
‘Vusi, you’re as much to blame for this as she is. When she found out about your office affair, it destroyed her self-worth. That’s why that creep could…’ She trailed off.
I didn’t try to defend myself. The shock of discovering that Busi knew about my infidelity all along was tempered by my need to know what Mabel was struggling to convey. I wanted to find out about what the Man of God had done to my wife, my family. Did I even still have a family?
‘I don’t really know what happened, Vusi. When I found out Busi was skipping work to go to the cathedral, it was too late. She was in way too deep. Then this one Wednesday, my husband had planned a surprise outing for us. Nothing much, just a picnic at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden. I noticed a Rolls-Royce with an IMC sticker in the parking lot but didn’t think anything of it as we hiked up the mountain.’
Mabel was in a state. I hadn’t even realised she was drinking until she paused to order another whisky. Clearly there was more to this story.
‘My husband had picked a terrible day for a picnic. We’d been up on the mountain for only half an hour when it started raining. We couldn’t even finish doing what we were doing under that tree,’ she said shyly.
‘The rain flushed out three other couples from the bushes surrounding the little park on the mountain. Busi came out from behind some rocky bush with the Man of God. They were trying to take cover from the rain, so they didn’t see us. I felt sick immediately. I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t even muster the courage to come and tell you…’
The following day, Mabel drove from her workplace in Sandton to Tembisa to confront the Man of God, but she didn’t even get past the reception area. She wasn’t allowed in to see him. She decided to wait for him in the parking lot. She had no idea what she would say to him.
But then she saw Busi and decided to confront her instead.
‘Busi took me inside the restricted parts of the Cathedral,’ Mabel said. ‘I expected us to go to a boardroom or office, but she took me to her room. It was as good as any five-star hotel room, you know, except for the mural of the Man of God covering one of the walls. I didn’t have to ask Busi anything. She just started talking. Your journey trying to conceive had destroyed her. She told me she had also discovered that you had impregnated someone at varsity. So right from the beginning she knew she was the problem. By the time you guys came to IMC, she was finished emotionally. Your affair was not the cause, but it opened the door for that predator to pounce…’
So many things started falling into place. A month after our first visit to the IMC, I had gone away for a week on an assignment for the newspaper. I was meant to be back Friday evening, but I returned earlier than expected. I could tell something was off but didn’t know what. The house didn’t feel lived in, and when Busi came in at midday, she didn’t seem her normal self.
Mabel confirmed that whenever I was out of town, Busi stayed over at the Cathedral.
I was distraught and didn’t want to hear more. I stood up to leave, but Mabel held on to my hand.
‘What about Blessing?’
I must have been shouting because two waiters moved in to restrain me. I left without hearing what Mabel had to say about
Blessing. I needed to talk to Busi. And, as if on cue, a message from Busi lit up my phone screen: ‘Just admitted again. Zamokuhle Hospital.’
I was informed at reception that my wife had gone to theatre for an emergency C-section. The baby would be arriving a month early. I went into the waiting room next to the maternity ward. The person I noticed first was The Penguin. I only noticed the Man of God after he’d concluded his phone call and turned towards me. He looked at me with scorn, then nodded sideways at The Penguin to move out of the room.
‘You thought I was going to forget the report you did on my church twelve years ago?’
I was taken aback. I couldn’t really recall the article he was talking about, mostly because I was still an intern then. I remember doing all sorts of articles on shady churches that had cropped up all over Jozi in those days.
‘You never thought you’d come looking for help from me?’
My head was spinning. I decided to step out of the waiting room.
The Penguin grinned at me as I left the waiting room, and said: ‘Who’s laughing now? You said the Man of God was a charlatan. That he made people eat snakes and grass. That he had no real power. Who’s laughing now? Who’s your Daddy?’
It was that last annoying question that made me realise what Mabel had earlier tried to tell me. Blessing was probably not my child. I left the hospital without leaving the bag for Busi and the baby. I had been carrying the bag around as a proud father-to-be.
I moved out of our home that same evening. In my drunk state I didn’t even think twice about arriving at my high school sweetheart’s doorstep unannounced. I didn’t realise that I had been crying on my way there, and she had enough sense not to ask me anything right away.
The next day I skipped work and headed to the Johannesburg Public Library. They have a newspaper archive on microfiche that goes all the way back to the 1950s. It was easy finding the articles I had written twelve years ago. It turns out that when I joined the paper, the investigation into dodgy churches was nearing its end. It had been running for a while by then. I had investigated a start-up church and found that it had lied about its miraculous healings. It paid healthy people to pretend to be healed. The article called it Everyday Miracles Church. There was a tight security ring around its leader, and I never got to meet him. The leader had allegedly impregnated over fifteen teenage girls and other unmarried women in the congregation. The church had shut down after the exposé.
Mabel later confirmed that EMC had resurfaced as IMC. The Man of God had been planning his revenge for years, and I had no energy to fight him. He had won. After being discharged from the hospital, Busi moved in with him at the Cathedral.
Eight months after Blessing’s birth, I received a call from Busi out of the blue.
‘Vusi, please meet me at Entrance 3 of Sandton Mall, at 3pm. It’s urgent, I’ll explain everything when we meet.’
It was really with the hope of meeting Blessing that I agreed. A part of me still yearned to be part of the child’s life, even though I couldn’t be sure if he was my son. Busi was already there when I arrived. I parked right next to her car, and before I could get out, she came across to my car, baby car seat in hand. She opened the backdoor and put the car seat securely in place. Blessing was asleep.
She asked me to open my boot, and she transferred some things from her car into mine. Afterwards, she asked me to get out of my car. She said she had a present for me in the boot of her car. I did as she asked. I wasn’t ready for the grotesque sight that greeted me when I opened the boot. The head of the Man of God staring back at me. I couldn’t talk…
‘There’s a letter for you in Blessing’s bag. Read it. Take care of our son,’ Busi said after I had gathered myself. With that she drove off.
The next time I saw her was when her picture was published alongside mine on the front page of the Daily Sun. Of course, those tabloid scoundrels couldn’t resist also publishing a picture of the bishop’s severed head. Busi had gassed herself to death in the parking lot of the Cathedral.
The letter is all I have to give my son once he’s old enough to understand:
My Dear Vusi,
I know there are a thousand questions going through your mind right now. Unfortunately, I can only provide a few answers. What went wrong? I can’t say for sure. I do know that this despicable man held a grudge against you for many years. I only discovered this after he had lured me into the centre of his spider’s web. When I found out about your affair during our struggle to conceive, it destroyed me. I have never doubted at all that Blessing is your son, but how could I even want to come back to you after all I had done? I have enclosed the paternity test. I killed this depraved man, so our Blessing can have a chance at a normal life. He cannot have that with either myself or this man alive. Take care of our Blessing.
Love you, always
- Extract provided by Jacana Media