‘The University Currently Known As …’
a Novel Excerpt
The University Currently Known As …
The plaintive bleep from his instrument’s dying battery fed into Rudy’s dream of being inside an alien craft, clean and white. He unwound himself awake from his foetal position where he’d fallen asleep curled around his laptop, right arm crackling as it gingerly extended over the angled screen. Careful now. He had to move deliberately, gently, as though manoeuvring through sub-zero gravity. He didn’t want to break anything.
“I’m not afraid of going into the ground. It’s not new to the Black body to struggle … You have to fight for everything. Nothing comes easy. Nothing is given to you. Everything is a struggle … You have to accept what it means to go into that space …”
At the Red Café, Prof Erwin Cathcart ordered his usual double espresso and brownie with real pouring cream, never whipped. “Better make it an Irish this morning,” he winked to the waitron, Kairé, resplendent in one full sleeve of tattoos, spikey mini-Mohawk and ear holes gauged to at least 18 millimetres.
“Certainly Professor,” Kairé mumbled and bustled off. Very sensitive he was, to the point of vulnerability. The boy’s demeanour, Prof Cathcart reflected, had repeatedly struck him as increasingly at odds with this modern primitivist look. He wondered if there might be a paper in it: “Demeanour vs Appearance in Neo-tribal Contemporary Youth Culture”. Hmmm, too close to the perennial Bradley chestnut on Appearance vs Reality which had plagued a thousand high-school Shakespeare examinations.
Rudy shuffled blearily into the kitchen. Thin plastic curtains bearing large, faded daisies hung half-heartedly over smudged windows. He looked carefully around the room, taking in the various ensembles. There were collections of used mugs; dishes beginning to colonise counters, and clusters of aging apples and bananas blossoming bruises between kitchenware.
Water. He needed water. Then a nartjie. Then toast. Then coffee. Like a Zen monk performing his morning rites, Rudy trod gently around the empty Debonair’s boxes on the floor as he held these sacraments before him: water, nartjie, toast, coffee.
“Cadres had been arrested, and we went to regroup at purple square. When we were discussing which spaces to disrupt, someone was like – we need to move this off campus … … It was crazy … okay, let me think … let’s go back to the start … So much happened that day, I have to get it in the right order … Crisis …
“Let’s see, I got there early. Most people struggled to wake up because the Black Students Society meeting had gone on for too long the night before, and then there were others who’d been scared into actually going to class, so at first there weren’t that many of us … But those who had pitched were pretty stoked, there was a good vibe … so even though there weren’t that many woke kids out yet, we were all high-key excited. Sure, we were scared coz of the interdict, and because we knew the cops were waiting … We weren’t stupid.
“I posted a few selfies of myself at the demonstration. They said if we can get the message out it would help rally numbers. I wasn’t so much into all of that before, like – updating my feed every hour or whatever? – but this was for a good cause. And, I gotta say, I was looking pretty good in black and red, lols …
“Anyhow, I wanted to suggest we pray for the four cadres in prison, but you know, religion has been criticized a lot in the movement, so I didn’t speak up … I say ‘the movement,’ but there wasn’t really any one organisation as such. There were different personalities involved that have followings as individuals. Often, they were people who clashed with each other, but for this one thing they decided to join powers together, to work as a collective …”
While spreading the cream evenly over his brownie, Erwin sighted Adrienne stepping out onto the balcony. She was kitted out in her usual faux-ethno garb, he noted, replete in flowing ANC colours with small wooden mask earrings as accompaniment. She went for a fist-bump with Kairé, but he tried to shake her hand and it ended in a sort of awkward fist-shake. Adrienne made brief eye contact with Erwin, but then continued craning her neck about, searching for somewhere else to sit, other than with him. But the coffee shop was full for a Tuesday morning and Erwin noticed her momentarily steeling herself, breathing in, before walking towards him.
While waiting for the kettle to boil, Rudy heard singing out on Somerset Street. He pushed the plastic curtains aside and saw a crowd of mostly Black students gathering outside the Drama Department.
“What’s going on?” Candy shuffled in, bunny slippers scuffed, eyeliner from the night before smeared to one cheek, gel quietly solidifying her green hair into various directions, reminding Rudy momentarily of the cartoon explosion on that animation from CERN showing the results of two particles smashing into each other in the Large Hadron Collider.
“Looks like we’re getting the day off,” said Rudy.
Candy sighed. “So tired of these protests.”
“Yeah.” Rudy bit into a nartjie quarter, careful to also get the thin white tendrils between segments where his mom told him a lot of the Vitamin C is stored.
“I mean, honestly. They’ve said what they want to say. Who wouldn’t want free education? Means I won’t have to pay off this loan for half my fucking life, but where’s the money coming from? Jesus, they’ve been bending over blackwards trying to accommodate these people. Why don’t they arrest the fuckers who trashed the labs and flooded the radioactive basement? Let’s start with that. Grinding everything to a halt for meetings, debates, marches. Fuck’s sakes. Who voted ANC? It’s the Zuptas. Shit, it’s too early for this.”
Rudy scraped a stiffening half of pre-sliced white bread around the inside of a jar bearing the memory of peanut butter. He sipped at his scalding coffee, vague acrid reminder of the soured milk still on the edges of his nostrils when he’d emptied it into the sink.
“Well … I guess they want to show it’s serious,” he said, taking a bite of the folded toast.
“I’m also serious. Been working my ass off for six years and I just want to get this fucking degree and get out of this banana republic to a real country. Can’t they just wait ‘til next year to start this shit up?”
“Isn’t that … uhm … a bit selfish?”
“Oh please, just grow up.”
Having definitively consolidated her argument with this final rhetorical flourish, Candy swept around for her exit. Unfortunately, the trailing edge of her bathrobe caught on an empty Debonair’s box and a cluster of mugs clattered to the floor. Most of these enjoyed soft landings on a contingent of Styrofoam Steers packaging, but a single mug found its mark on the cracked tiling and scattered into seven pieces, maybe more.
“That’s your fault,” Candy declared flatly and went back to her room.
“We started singing. It felt good … real … letting everybody know that even though a minority of White supremacists were – and are – running this institution, we were not gonna be defeated … There weren’t many of us, but we had courage … the force of … I dunno … conviction … righteousness (I don’t know if I’m using that word properly) … but all of what’s right was on our side, you know? … This place has to decolonise!
“Everybody knows that all it takes is just one woman to change history … you have to stand firm … You have to let them know … They can send their apartheid era cops in to beat us; but we are not gonna give in or give up, ever. Crisis.
“My live feed of us singing started getting noticed, more and more people were pulling in, and not just locally – comments were coming from places all over the country. You should have seen the hearts soaring, and also those little angry face emojis!”
Service Report #3767 / Evidence file 3.A. (audio transcription)
Commanding Officer: Captain J. Malan.
“Got the call at 5 … Only slept a few hours. We were expecting trouble. They couldn’t send reinforcements because of the events at Fort Hare and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan. We didn’t know how big the action has gotten and we was already thin on the ground … But lucky for us, we got intelligence from the four agitators in custody. Caught them red-handed with their Molotov’s. Dankie tog, we got them in time before they lit the fuses. And then they told us about protestors shipping in from King, Pedi, Queenstown, coming in for a big showdown at the Drostdy Arch around midday … These kids were showing off. Reckon they’re scaring us, when all the time they’re giving us information.
“I was glad we didn’t send Rudy away, like Mietzie wanted to, because the other campuses are looking even worse. At least here we could hope to contain the threat, percentage-wise. At Tukkies out of fifty thousand kids they’ve got a few thousand troublemakers – that’s a number of platoons. At Wits they’re burning busses, at UCT they’re torching paintings, at Durban the whole bladdy Law library went up in smoke; but here it’s probably less than a couple hundred agitators. Out of those, maybe only a handful has actually been prepared to get violent … Still, just one person with some bricks, matches and a Molotov or two can cause moerse damages … takes just a spark to light a forest, jy weet?”
Anton Krueger has published in a wide range of literary genres, including poetry, memoir, short fiction and drama. His plays have been performed on four continents and he’s been nominated for numerous prizes in many different fields, including an FNB Vita, Naledi and the Olive Schreiner Drama award for Living in Strange Lands: The Testimony of Tsafendas (2001, 2009). The play was reworked as Strange Land for a season at the Market Theatre, 2019. Chatter, which won the PANSA Gauteng Festival of Staged Reading in October 2007. He was invited to participate in Poetry Africa in 2008, and was the runner up for the Dalro Poetry prize, for “Nine Notes on Lisbon” (2011). His radio drama Easter Island was shortlisted out of 1000 entries for the BBC World Drama award and was broadcast on SAFM in 2018. An Afrikaans radio Drama, Altyd was shortlisted for the RSG Sanlam award and broadcast in 2013. Anton’s first novel The University Currently Known As was longlisted for the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award in 2018. A new poetry collection, Everybody is a Bridge is forthcoming from Botsotso in 2023.