Lewis NKosi teaches English at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. His publications include a critical work, Tasks and Masks, and a novel, Mating Birds. Read more work by Lewis Nkosi published in Weber Studies: Vol. 11.2 (interview), Vol. 11.2 (one-act play).
* This excerpt is from the novel Underground People concerning the career of an "ivory-tower" intellectual and schoolteacher sent underground by the Liberation Movement of South Africa to mastermind an uprising by the rural population during the early 1960s to 80s.
At first Cornelius had suspected a joke. From the beginning the messenger whom the Committee had chosen to deliver this message had acted in a manner calculated to raise all kinds of suspicion. The man who laughed a lot at his own jokes looked more like a fugitive from the law than a political operator. He never sat still for more than a minute at a time. When Cornelius had tried to show him a seat near the center of the room the visitor had declined the offer, preferring a shadowy corner of the small lounge where he could clearly see Cornelius's face but Cornelius could not see his. Throughout the conversation with Cornelius the man was careful to keep his face in shadow except when he leaped up from time to time to peer anxiously through the window as though he feared a trap. From some of his rambling conversation Cornelius gathered an impression of a sad, much-travelled man, who had seen and done a great many things; but somehow, to Cornelius's surprise, his manner of delivery belied his melancholy aspect. His voice was young, gay, vivacious: one might even have said enthusiastic. It had a light, bland, playful quality, a little hoarse but for all that, eager and chirpy and full of energy, the kind his general aspect seemed to lack. A decrepit little man was what Cornelius thought of him, a small African wearing a faded dark suit of an uncertain cut and a homburg hat a size too big for his diminutive head. After a while, Cornelius had suspected the visitor of being from the Secret Police.
The man who introduced himself simply as "Comrade X" had an elusive quality about him that immediately provoked doubts; he had no name, no address, no past, no distinctive identity save this anonymous, much-scarred rat-like face and a head too small, Cornelius thought wryly, for an honest man. Above all, the man talked an awful lot! His visitor babbled on; epigrams, quotable quotes, trite ideas dressed up as new; names, Dingane, Cetshwayo, Moshoeshoe, Marx, Lenin, Churchill and Roosevelt; they all poured forth from him in a bewildering stream of seemingly incoherent nonsense. And yet! And yet, Cornelius thought, he could discern in this lunatic endless outpouring the glimmer of an idea, potent, dangerous, and liberating all at once.
"Che!" the man told Cornelius at one stage. "A great revolutionary! A brave man, and, I am given to understand, a good lover. Everything you could possibly need in a comrade, but unfortunately not good enough for us! His theories? For us they're useless! No, worse than useless, they're dangerous!"
The man sighed and looked away. There was a long pause before he began once more: "The peasants, Comrade Molapo, are stupid, conservative—they prefer bread and butter to freedom. We cannot leave the business of revolution to the shaky hand of the peasantry. Again and again they will betray us. In our situation the peasants are the most counter-revolutionary class!"
The man talked on, mostly nonsense but nonsense, Cornelius noted, that was sometimes fused with something like revolutionary poetry. Every now and again the visitor lit a fuse of burning random truth! The man chain-smoked, he was miserably racked by coughs, he spat on the floor and wiped the spittle by stamping on it, shuffling his foot upon the wet spot as though he were testing the surface of the ice before skating. From the manner of his delivery Cornelius suspected the man of a keen sense of humor or at least a well-developed sense of irony.
"So many of us," the emissary said, smiling broadly at Cornelius, "have been privileged to listen to you talking at meetings, Comrade Molapo!" Again his lungs were racked by spasms of coughing. As if to show his contempt for his own poor health he went on to light the next cigarette. In the gloom of the room the matchstick flared, and temporarily the man's face was lit up in the glare, showing gaunt features, high cheekbones that were almost devoid of flesh, and sharp, penetrating eyes that seemed to look through everything. "I believe I'm right when I say there are very few young men who know how to hold an audience in the palm of their hand as you, Comrade Molapo. A great gift that, Comrade, I can assure you. I myself could never hold an audience's attention for longer than five minutes. That was my handicap. My great failure as a political worker. My talent, if I have any talent to speak of, is backroom planning. That's why you have never heard of me. People like us, Comrade Molapo, have had to learn by long and painful experience to forego the limelight. To be self-effacing."
Cornelius, who thought he detected sarcasm behind the other's self-deprecating manner, wished the stranger would quickly come to the point. That afternoon he had an important meeting to attend; then there was the Parktown Poetry Association Workshop to which Margot Silverman, a former classmate at Wits, had invited him to give a brief talk on the "Cross-Currents Between Native Poetry and Native Music"; and though Cornelius did not expect a bunch of Parktown liberals to know very much about African cultural traditions, there was always a small chance that some old Jewish scholar, mouth twitching and almost blind with protracted research, would come loaded with the kind of information that Cornelius had never managed to get hold of. Discussion would then follow. Questions would be asked. There was no harm in looking up a few sources.
"I suppose you're not very religious yourself?" the man asked, cutting through Cornelius's reverie. Cornelius was slightly taken aback by the question. What could this stranger who for the most part talked of 'revolution' have to do with religion? The man must have noted the expression of perplexity on Cornelius's face for he quickly explained: "Believe me, Comrade, I ask with the most innocent of intentions. A simple curiosity, you might say. I myself believe in God when things are exceptionally bad! After all, if He's not there there's no harm done, is there? There are times, of course, when things go very badly, as you'll soon learn during your mission to Tabanyane."
Cornelius tried to protest that he knew nothing of the mission to which the stranger was alluding but the other didn't let him speak. He immediately coughed, spat, then wiped his mouth with a gaudy red handkerchief which he produced from the depths of the side pocket of his shiny, conscientiously pressed dark pants.
"If I may say so, I speak from some limited experience of these matters. Operations of that sort are difficult to handle; skill with weapons, I need not explain, is no guarantee of easy victories. As you may imagine, there are always people to give orders to, certain jobs to be delegated to other shakier, clumsier hands; above all, there are always prideful hearts to massage at the end of the day. In the wilderness, faced with the intractable laws of natural development, attempting to manipulate the course of events with regard to Time and Destiny—you'll no doubt recall Marx's very perceptive remark to the effect that we do not make history just any way we want—some kind of belief then becomes necessary. Marxism, a belief in History, a faith in a god so long as He is on your side! Admittedly, it takes a certain innocence…!"
Abruptly, he stood up without finishing the sentence; quickly he crossed the floor to the window where he peered cautiously from behind a curtain; and satisfied with the lay of the world outside, he returned to his seat, smiling self-consciously at Cornelius. Impatient but still courteous, Cornelius said: "I wonder, Comrade, if we might discuss the object of your visit?" The man seemed disappointed in Cornelius. For a minute he stared uncomprehendingly, then suddenly he spoke again, flatly, without enthusiasm, almost sounding bored with what he had to say. "Oh, that? Of course, you must wish to know what the Movement expects of you. Naturally, I realize you must be impatient. There's nothing much to tell, you know. I was simply asked to inform you of the Central Committee's decision—but I put it badly! I was asked to convey to you the Committee's great and everlasting faith in your capacity to carry out the Tabanyane mission, and to express the hope that you'll grasp at this opportunity to serve your people at its great turning point in history."
Cornelius waited for the man to explain but the other suddenly laughed and coughed simultaneously. His breath was wheezing out of him, his eyes watering. "History will not forgive us," he recited from memory, quoting from one of Cornelius's many speeches on the subject, "if we should fold our hands and do nothing to assist a section of our people which is most cruelly suppressed at this moment!"
Again the man laughed good-humouredly at Cornelius. "As you yourself have so often put it, Comrade Molapo, we cannot abandon the Tabanyane people to the tender mercies of the South African Government. The Committee, I think, agrees and I'm sure you'll be gratified to know we are at the point of linking arms with our revolutionary brothers and sisters in Tabanyane! With your assistance as go-between, with your direction as the man on the spot, I have no doubt"
Again coughing interrupted him; he paused but with his customary recklessness he immediately lit another cigarette. Cornelius was about to ask who decided and why they had decided he was the most suitable candidate when the man suddenly fished out a piece of soiled, wrinkled paper from another side pocket of his coat and smoothed it out first before writing some squiggly lines for Cornelius. "As you know, since being banned our Movement has decided to go underground. And you, Comrade, without a doubt, have become the most important member of the 'Underground People'! In consequence I am requested to inform you that for any further explanation as to the execution of your mission you are to call at this secret address at your earliest convenience!"
After this announcement, delivered in a grave but quiet tone of voice, the emissary suddenly reverted to his former rhetorical style. "Never let it be said," he resumed with his eyes shut, once again quoting from one of Cornelius's most successful platform speeches, "I repeat, let it never be said that we did not step forward when History summoned us to the barricades! Believe me, Comrade, in my innermost heart I wish I had the same opportunity as is now being handed to you to serve at the Altar of History, truly to be a servant of the people at this most critical time!"
Cornelius was about to interrupt, to protest, when the man, this weird apparition which had come out of nowhere, was suddenly gone without so much as a "Goodbye!" leaving Cornelius staring dumbfounded at the open door and at the piece of paper in his hand.