Azad Essa
Azad Essa

A pub crawl for the president

I know nothing about pubs and bars, except of course what Hollywood has taught me. This means that my idea of bars save a couple of visits with friends is really imprinted with the image of depressed sods having reconciliatory drinks before going home to the government, the all-knowing-gun-toting-barman and the college dropout barmaid serving the drinks.

So when I was asked to check out if scores of angry muscled workers in blue overalls, boots and tattoos would be gathering around a television, cursing, chanting and clunking over-filled glasses of beer as their President Jacob Zuma delivered the historic State of the Nation speech, I knew it was not going to be like the movies.

The State of the Nation address, usually delivered in Parliament on a weekday morning was moved to 19h00, with a live broadcast, presumably so the public could watch South Africa’s goons hit the red-carpet.

And who knows, perhaps people would stop the pub brawl, slip out of the brothel, and even off the treadmill to listen to our president remind us of our state.

I walked into my first bar hoping a lonely one-time stripper, Shellie, would whisper ,“What can I get you, stranger?” as I’d seduce her about real men not needing a hard drink.

But the bar I walked into had no electricity.

“The barman is over there, somewhere. He is so f****** black you won’t see him,” a trim silhouette sitting on a plastic chair chuckles as he points ahead.

The whites of roaming eyes, the shimmer of the usual suspects in glass fridges, their glamorous green and gold wrappings reflect the last moments of the sunshine filtering through the empty room.

“Howzit” I say to the bulkier silhouette across the bar.

He grunts back.

“Do you have a television here … tonight is the state of the nation addr -“

“I know what he’s going to tell us,” screams a voice behind me. “He is going to tell us how he is going to use our money to support his 52 children and his ten wives!”

“F***** the state of the nation speech!” he continues.

I order a Coke. The barman gives me a Sprite. I lift myself onto a barstool. And spin around to face the voice.

Like they do in the movies.

“This Zuma guy won’t last long. If he carries on like this, the ANC will pull an Mbeki on him. They will get rid of him,” says the mystery man sipping on a tinted bottle at a table adjacent to me.

“You know Deevi,” his voice croaks. “This country is not getting any better. Everything is in a state of corruption. In some years, Deevi, this country will be taken back by the white man; I think I better move to Botswana or Uganda.” His croaks turn into a drunken slur.

Deevi, presumably the guy opposite him, nods his head.

“Every year they have the State of the Nation speech at 10am, you know why they suddenly changed it … you know why?” he asks his tiny audience.

“How you know all this?” Deevi asks

“I read the paper, watch the news,” he replies.

He doesn’t tell us why.

A fault at a sub-station had apparently taken out the electricity in the entire area and the barman had no idea when the power would return.

My new friends were entertaining, but sitting in the dark was not going to help me much.

I bid them goodbye, jumped into my car, and raced to another suburb.

Switching on the radio to listen to the live broadcast, I am greeted with, “We seem to have lost the signal from inside parliament … ”

I chuckle at the peculiar start to my evening.

As the radio signal improves, I drive past an up-market café and notice three huge LCD screens showing a bunch of Italian men sprinting after a football.

I drop by and ask the manager if he would switch from the sports channel to the speech.

He complies, adjusts the volume slightly, but not above the middle-class din presiding over their over-priced suppers.

Zuma’s mouth moves slowly, I lip-read “job creation” and “poverty”; I look around and not a soul has even noticed the president’s presence.

“Do you want to keep watching?” the manager asks me.

Is this what the speech means to us? Lip service?

I smile. I decline. I race back to my car.

One more place, I think to myself.

Back in my vehicle, Zuma reminds us how far the nation had come, how the Mandelas sacrificed their lives for justice, that 480 000 jobs had been created through the expanded public works programme despite the fact that 900 000 jobs have been lost in the recession — 900 000 jobs that probably were not there in the first place, I cynically think to myself.

I look out my window, scanning the streets for my last place of rest.

The time is 19h30, it is not yet completely dark and the street scattered with workers and vagabonds mirror the murkiness of an awkward twilight.

A couple of junkies sit on the pavement at a street corner, their demeanour unflattering.

The coffee shop and restaurant above, also broadcasts soccer from a different league on their television screens.

En route I pass a string of busy gourmet burger and pizza joints and a bar with an enormous LCD screen facing the street flashing a fashion catwalk or music video. On air, Zuma tentatively advocates a 5-year plan to improve housing and health and decrease crime; it is as if the same worlds are ceremoniously spinning in opposite directions.

I walk into the next bar, putting on a charm not seen since the times of a young John Travolta and I order a ginger ale.

Three men sit beside me with huge glasses of gold liquid on the table-top before them.

I acknowledge their company by simultaneously raising my eyebrow, slightly nodding my head and lifting my ginger ale in their general direction.

They nod back.

“Heard they showing the State of the Nation speech tonight,” I say to all three of them.

“Tonight?” one on them replies

“Yeah, tonight. I think it’s now,” another replies.

The third guy just stares at me, dryly, sipping his beer.

I ask the bar-lady to change the channel.

“I think we’d rather stick to the sports hey,” she declines.

“I suppose we can do that,” I say to the man beside me. “Zuma is only talking about our future.”

The bar-lady laughs. The two men also laugh. The third man keeps staring.

With less than 10 minutes now left before this historic speech ends, I decide it’s time to give up.

I check the emails on my phone. Excerpts of his address were already in my inbox.

In a couple of hours there would be a plethora of write-ups, comment, analysis and usual dramatics surrounding a speech of this nature.

I watch Mancini score some goals as part of a promo for AC Milan.

I pick up my ale and join the others in drowning their sorrows.

  • Stephen Browne

    If anyone actually cared enough to listen, they also know that listening to Zuma speak is akin to having your nuts pulled through your nose.

    My initial response to the apathy present in almost everyone I know was one of anger and disappointment. In retrospect they were quite justified, and their predictions were sadly true. A terrible speech with worse content.

  • Kholekile Tshunungwa

    After struggling to find parking in downtown Cape Town, parking by the City Hall and walking up to Long Street, having to maneuver via heavy police presence and subways to make it to Long Street, we were lucky enough to end up in a bar/restaurant where they showed the speech on both the bar and restaurant TV’s. Folks there looked keen enough to watch. I was in a company of three civil servants, one who actually had a claim on the so-called 480K employment opportunities created by Zuma, and an academic. The less said about Zuma’s speech the better ! It was a hyped up damp squib and rightfully so. No amount of schedule changes, capitalization on the Madiba moment and pomp and circumstances was enough to get the nation to rally behind it before it was done, and of course the whole thing was lost on Zuma, who laboured aimlessly to finish the damn thing. To telly ou the truth, Zuma would have failed a written comprehension exam of his own speech. It was just words; empty words, some of which Zuma couldn’t even read. Can you blame people for feeling inconvenienced at having to deal with this guy ? For all I know, Zuma himself looked inconvenienced giving the damn speech. Everybody must have sighed with relief when the thing was over, especially Zuma. Me ? I was pissed. I should have been as smart as those bar patrons and done something soothing with my time.

  • paul young

    Pretty sad, sorry state of affairs. As it turned out you would have been driven to drown your soprrows had you watched Zuma’s awful address and key card recital.

  • shafinaaz

    So I can officially say that I’ve been bar-hopping through the eyes of a fellow writer :) Very well captured. Readers can so easily get the sense that apathy is a drunken soldier in our midst. And that SoN speeches are seen as more painful than administrative staff meetings. As for the ‘sitting-in-darkness’ power outage.. well.. thats the most powerful comment, yet!

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  • The Grinch

    Why didnt you just go home and watch it on your own tv?

  • Mymoena Arnold

    provocative piece azad – the simple fact of the matter is that zuma marrying whomever whenever and sowing his oh so fertile oats leaves the ordinary breadwinner paying for the upkeep and maintenance of this extra-ordinary lifestyle and lifestyle choices – hey if he wants to shag anything that passes him by so be it but why do we have to continue being his pimps and no-one even bothered to ask us if we would want to be – nor were we asked whether we would be willing to compensate all his children – as for the whole morality issue this is a relative concept and has an armchair critic special running on a regular basis – the man needs a vasectomy cos my pockets are emptying rapidly …

  • Graham Johnson

    In simple terms, I didn’t watch it because it wasn’t watchable. Slow drone to nowhere.

  • Fatima

    Hmmm, did anyone catch a shot of JZ’s t-shirt on the night? I think it must’ve read the following:
    One tequila. Two tequila. Three tequila. Flaw.

  • BMK

    Nice piece of writing, Azad!!

  • Saberah

    LoL Fatima … let us not trash away everything that Mr President says – he did make some valid points – and we are his nation… i think we owe him some sort of respect … maybe flipping our channel to SABC 2 at the next SOTN (whomever the president maybe)