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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.