by Africa Boso
I knew Zeph for only six months. In those months we only interacted on a few occasions – on the day he was introduced as the new Executive Project Leader of our over-complement department; I had been to two humdrum divisional meetings he also attended; we shared polite hellos while waiting our turns to use our rickety communal photocopying machine; and we acknowledged each other through distant hand waves while lunching with our different cliques of friends in the congested staff canteen.
That’s how and what I knew of and about the man. How I agreed to be talked into speaking as a “close friend and long-time colleague” at his funeral, still baffles me even to this day.
When Zephania Gogotya joined the bank he looked flamboyant and jovial with a spring step that propelled his bulky body. A snazzy dresser, he had a penchant for bright-coloured cotton suits and matching floral shirts. His collection of yellow and pink dressing ties earned him the apt nickname of Mafeshin, the fashionista. The Xoka Nostra, the rowdy bunch of departmental colleagues who spent more company time gossiping in the smoking area than being productive, gave him this moniker. They meant it as a secret codename, but it soon reached his ears and stuck to him like his tight designer pants. Hola Mafeshin, his acquaintances would salute him in compliment of a new suit or imported Italian shoes. Our man would swagger boastfully in appreciation.
Three months after his arrival, Mafeshin was admitted and spent lengthy spells in hospital beds than in his spacious office with a panoramic view of the Mother City. Our octogenarian departmental head, Mnumzana Makuzeni, the Nostra had aptly baptised him Mr Fossil or isinyanya, said something about Zeph suffering from a ruptured colon or inflated tonsillitis. In his schoolmaster manner, he instructed that our bedridden colleague was not to be disturbed during his hospitalisation or convalescence. No hospital visits or phone calls. His family had requested privacy, he commanded.
Our only contact with our bedridden workmate was to be through an A4-sized get-well card laden with our pretentious we-care-about-you hand-written speedy recovery messages.
In this vacuum and lack of reliable information on his condition, the internal grapevine accelerated to maximum speed. Zingisa, the self-appointed and nosy Nostra leader had all the unofficial diagnoses on our ailing colleague.
“My reliable sources have done it again,” she would begin her hearsay sessions. “They have told me the Fashionable One has few remaining days to brighten our dull lives with his dazzling Italian suits,” she would then burst into her annoying laughter while gauging her listeners’ degree of interest in her latest gossipy report.
“Tla letsona motswalle, tell us more friend, uthini umgosi, we can’t wait to hear the latest on Feshi,” Kedibone, the Nostra’s buck-toothed second-in-charge, would cheer her leader on.
“Mamela ke sana, and listen to me carefully because no-one will tell you this juicy bit. I am reliably told that the bank has ‘recalled’ our fashion model’s five-series Beemer, and the police are frantically looking for his girlfriend who has disappeared with Feshi’s bank-financed Audi Q7. That’s not all. Our esteemed friend is out of hospital, and is ‘homeless’ like Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. His upmarket Milnerton house will be going once, twice under the auctioneer’s big hammer next week. He has now returned to mum’s place in Gugulethu. Don’t be surprised to see him collecting passenger fares in the front seat of a Gugs-bound taxi,” that annoying laughter would erupt again. In this part of the Cape they call it isiqhazolo.
“Ag shame, isono sabantu, poor thing. Does this mean he will no longer invite us to his bling, weekly house parties anymore? I wonder what did he do with the hefty cost-to-company allowances the bank pumps into the wallets of executive managers like him,” interrupted BulelanikuMdalingencebazakhe, the gang’s obtuse disciple. They nicknamed her Bullet, not to shorten her identity document-filling name, but for her knack to bust any conversation with her dim-witted interjections.
“And the juicy part bahlobo is that the wings of our fly stud have been clipped by amagama amathathu, the three-letter plague. HIV is the accurate diagnosis dear friends. Colon and tonsillitis, my black foot! Kubi kakhulu, things are very bad,” Zingisa would whisper in faked concern.
I was among those who dismissed her utterances as insensitive rumour-mongering by a vindictive busybody. It was an open office secret that Zingisa had long had her designs on Zeph, but unleashed her scorn when he failed to reciprocate her one-sided affection. But when a visibly off-colour Zeph returned to work, even the most objective and rational among us had their doubts – maybe Zingisa’s hearsay is true after all.
The Zeph who returned to our department was not the Mafeshin we knew. The shadow we saw was of a gaunt man with cheekbones protruding through his taut, charcoal-black skin. The spring-heeled gait we knew was replaced by a measured shuffle which was made even slower by his now baggy pants.
These symptoms could be signs of a variety of ailments, but in my workplace, and maybe in many others, losing weight these days is a sure fire way of confirming that one unayo, he’s surely got it. The three-later plague, that is.
While rushing to the airport for an out-of-town work assignment, I caught a distant glimpse of Zeph. As his frail frame was sandwiched by a horde of colleagues who pretended to be concerned about his deteriorating condition while gunning for the prestigious title of being the “first-person-he-disclosed-his-status-to”, there was no space or moment to even share a greeting. He waved his frail and bony hand for a distant hello, and I reciprocated before hastily vanishing to join the never-ending rat race.
When I read the curt staff email announcing his death two days later, guilt assailed – you did not even find time to shake his hand before disappearing to chase your career dreams? How selfish. This guilt, I am now convinced, played a pivotal role in my agreeing to speak at Zeph’s funeral. I had protested hard, but in vain, when Mr Makuzeni phoned my hotel room to “delegate” me to stand in for him at the funeral.
“You are the best presenter in my department and you have a presence in front of an audience. I know you will easily pull this one off. You will have the mourners latching on every word you utter,” he had ordered while pretending to be asking for a favour. I protested that I knew little or nothing about the deceased, and it would be inhumane and rude to tell lies about him when he cannot defend himself. Un-African, was part of the euphuisms I rattled out as part of my reverse psychology arsenal aimed at appealing to hisAfricanist political predilection, and of course to extricate myself from fiddly assignment.
“What do you suggest we do then? Make a no-appearance? Are you aware that all his so-called friends have now disappeared? Do you know that we had to cancel Friday’s planned memorial service because no-one had shown any interest? And I doubt if there will be anyone from here attending his funeral either. You’re the most considerate person in this damn place, that’s why I was pinning my hopes on you. But maybe I was wrong,” he emotionally-blackmailed. But there was no need, the guilt was already gnawing at me.
“If I decide to go and talk at this funeral, what would I say,” I asked rhetorically knowing very well that his blackmail and my guilt had already condemned me into the pages of the funeral programme.
“That’s wonderful news nyana. I will send the bereaved family your name. They were waiting for us to confirm a name before they go to print their programmes this afternoon,” there was relief in his asthmatic voice. He called every man and woman in our office nyana or ntomb’am. His age, more than his corporate position of authority, empowered him to call us his sons and daughters.
“Mamela ke nyana, don’t worry about what to say during your funeral speech. Unlike in my day, these have become generic nowadays – if you have heard one speech, you’ve heard them all. All you have to do is to knight and praise the deceased even if you have never met them in Adam or they were well known rascals in their lifetime. Death, it appears, automatically wipes away one’s earthly sins. I am even thinking of developing and copywriting a standard funeral speech template that could be used anywhere in this country, even abroad. Think franchise. The extra income generated will take care of me when I go on my second retirement,” he was now in his legendary humourless joke mode.
But it was no joke that no-one else from our company showed up to send off Zeph to his last resting place. I was the only one, and I had to dig the last bank notes from my flat wallet to make a contribution on behalf of his absent former employers, ukuquma ihlazo as the proud citizens of Gugulethu would say.
“The problem with this disease blessed brethren, bazalwane nodade, is that it is still a lonesome journey. When you disclose your affliction, those who had confessed eternal love for you and vowed to die where you die, disappear like cockroaches avoiding an insecticide, iDoom or iBygone Green. Where are those who fleeced our dear brother’s money and other earthly materials when he could provide? Nowhere to be found. Gone bazalwane. These cockroaches have hibernated and are waiting for their next victim now that this carcass is stone-dry. Ndiyazi inyani iyaluma bantakwethu, yes, truth can be bitter indeed but I am not one to beat about the bush. Truth must be told as it will set us free. Amen! But let’s hear more testimonials about the road travelled by our fallen brother during his days on earth. His last employer will tell us how they valued his contribution. Were they also hungry vultures, scavengers who loved him only for his toil? Were they a family of unappreciative cockroaches who fed on his flesh while he was still alive? I hope not. Down with cockroaches, down! Phantsi ngamaphela phantsi! Mr Truth Nyaniso, a representative of the IFB, the Interest-Free Bank, will tell us how their relationship with our Zeph was. Woza mnumzana, the stage is yours, sir. Let’s welcome him with a verse bazalwane.”
With an intimidating grin, the preachy and radical programme director who was now foaming with heavenly excitement beckoned me to the podium. If I was seated at the back of the makeshift hall, a grey army canvass tent, I would have long disappeared before he finished his unscheduled five minute speech. But as “an important guest” I was seated in front, next to the mourning relatives and a few metres from the expensive maroon casket carrying Zeph’s lifeless body.
Important guest? I guess the wad of bank notes I donated as umkhonto on behalf of Zeph’s absent employers and colleagues, elevated me to my newfound status. The distant uncle who collected our contribution monies at the gate had told the black and white-clad ushers to find me a seat next to the “other prominent mourners” because I was “part of the extended family”.
It was therefore too late to think about vanishing. How could I dare think about running away and disappointing my new kith and kin?
As the bank’s Investor Relations Executive Manager, I had easily addressed all kinds of audiences before. Local shareholders, financial analysts, prospective international investors and consumer activists protesting about high bank charges. They all cheered after listening to my nourishing and to-the-point presentations. In fact, I was the project leader of the bank’s turn-around strategy team that came up with the bank’s new black-green-and-gold catchy logo, ubuntu-influenced vision and values, and indeed, the new name – Interest Free Bank, IFB for short or as it appears in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange listings.
But judging by my shaking knees at that moment, I knew this was going to be my toughest assignment to date. The tried and tested breathe-in-breathe-out nerve-calming exercise could not clear the flapping butterflies in my chest.
When the off-key choir finished their catchy devil-bashing hymn, all the mourning eyes immediately zoomed on me.
“Programme director, on behalf of the bank, thank you very much for this great honour – giving us time to say a few words of appreciation and condolences to the family of our departed colleague,” I paused to clear my froggy throat and to measure audience sympathy or attention. No one moved or blinked an eyelid.
“Here lies a good man we all loved so dearly. Zeph was indeed one in a million. He was well-loved and accessible to all at our office. Many of my colleagues would have loved to be here to pay their last respects, but there’s a major crisis that forced them to be at work today. They delegated me to bring all their heartfelt sympathies,” I soldiered on.
Just then, while I was struggling to find more suitable adjectives to construct a solid foundation for the lie I was masterfully trying to build, a shrilly and unsteady voice of a drunk-sounding woman broke the nerve-wrecking silence. Before the ushers could whisk her away she had managed to convey her message, loud and clear.
“Ulixoki, you are a big, black, fat liar. If you so loved and cared for him, why did you repossess his house and cars while he was on his deathbed. You promised to pay for his ARVs and hospital bills after his medical aid funds were exhausted. You never paid even for a lousy aspirin to alleviate his unending pains. But you were quick to confiscate his possessions. You, not Aids, killed him. He was making good recovery, but your unsympathetic actions stressed him and negatively impacted his CD4 count. You deserve to burn in hell, you blood-thirsty vultures. Who is going to look after his unborn child now?” she said rubbing her over-bulged pregnant stomach.
While watching the commotion that ensued, a voluntary smile escaped my dry and bile-tasting lips. I suddenly felt relief. She, Zeph’s nine months pregnant fiancee, I later discovered her name was Nontlupheko, had rescued me from completing the shaky castle of lies I was building.
“I can see that tensions are running high. And I can feel the grief. My intention for coming here was to share your pain not to worsen it. If my utterances or being here has caused any further heartache, I apologise sincerely. Programme director, I think it will be best if I stopped now. But before I leave this podium, I would like to make a pledge on behalf of my employers. The bank has pledged to provide for Zeph’s unborn child until he comes of age and completes a tertiary qualification.”
That was guilt speaking, not part of the citadel of lies I had dismally failed to complete. There was applause, a rare occurrence in these parts of the world where funeral services are still dignified rituals with no form of noise allowed.
I had bargained on persuading my boss to use our department’s unused annual corporate social investment budget to finance the impromptu pledge I had made at Zeph’s funeral. But was I wrong?
“You were out of line kwedini. Really off the mark. I sent you there for a simple task – to go and praise the dead boy, not to incur costs. The CSI budget you are referring to is meant for community projects that will generate publicity for the bank, and draw more customers who will boost our bottom line. How is taking care of a snotty infant until university going to benefit the bank?” Mr Makuzeni had barked when I related the events at the funeral.
He was right. I was off the mark by committing the bank without following set procedures and channels. But when chasing the lucrative government tenders, we had always marketed the bank as “an institution that cares about the communities it does business in”. I was therefore making that slogan a reality. Although a knee-jerk reaction, my pledge was in line with my employer’s first corporate value of “encouraging our employees to be caring ambassadors who think out of the box when doing business with our stakeholders”.
Ten years later, I am still paying for my corporate ‘mistake’. I was dismissed from the job I so loved and dedicated more than five years to. Insubordination, Mr Makuzeni’s charge sheet had read. Despite my vast experience and expertise, the reasons for my dismissal have scared away many a prospective employer who has shown interest in my impressive CV.
With my meagre spaza shop takings, I am still honouring the pledge I made at Zeph’s funeral. His son, my adopted son, Camagu livumile, is now part of my life, and the divine ones are with me all the time, indeed. A year after his birth, his mother also succumbed to the plague, leaving me as his sole guardian – a blessing I will always cherish every minute of my life.