Tuesday, 11 December 2018

No 72 - Unravelled: Makhanda in 2019?


"The End of the Edge of Town" (c) Dan Wylie
Jesse van der Vleis slouched out of the alley behind the block of flats known as The Hub, scuttled along shadowed African Street and ducked into the entrance to Peppergrove Mall.  He was taking a risk, doing this on his own, but he had his father’s old 30.03 hunting rifle and a knife at his belt, and dusk was as good a time as any to get out of town. And maybe there was something left to scavenge that he could carry out to his family’s smallholding on the edge of the suburbs.
            The food outlets either side of the mall gate were dark and gutted, early targets of the hungry. Likewise the ATMs in their alcove, though no amount of cash was likely to help you get anything you really needed now. Some shops had been left alone, like the little laundromat and the gift shop on the corner, though the pharmacy on Jesse’s left had been broken into and partially looted.
            His main aim was to root around the back of the supermarket – though that had been everyone’s else’s idea, too, and he had little expectation of finding anything. The big doors at the entrance had been ripped aside, the interior was a black maw, the rows of grey shelves emptied of all edibles and essentials. A few remaining shopping-trolleys lay tipped on their sides, and battered cardboard boxes were piled at the largely untouched magazine racks.
            He kicked at a box in passing, more in frustration than hope. The box yelped. He turned it over with his boot: a tiny grey-striped kitten hissed at him as he bent to look. He picked it up, manky and mewling, by the skin of its scruff. Hardly enough for more than a mouthful, if he were to cook it. Shocking: he actually thought that. On the other hand, if he kept it, what could he feed it? He should probably just stamp on its skull and be done. But there was something plaintive and appealing even in the little creature’s feral spitting, and he elected to stuff it into one of his capacious jacket pockets for now.
            Even the animal-food shelves had been pretty thoroughly stripped – people were eating even Husky and Whiskas, especially the canned stuff –  but he did find a couple of broken bags of cat-biscuit spilled on the floor, and he scraped a dozen handfuls into a twist of packaging and tucked that into the other jacket pocket.
            As he had suspected, there was nothing else left of value, unless you needed a Verimark mop or a double adaptor. Only if you owned one of the half-dozen generators that were still functional and you’d smuggled in enough diesel before the roads were completely cut off. Certainly nothing to take even the edge off his niggling hunger.
            Boots crunching on broken glass and a yell brought him up short: security guard, shit.
            “Oh, Xolani, injani!” he said lightly. Fortunately this was a man he’d known from his time on the university campus. “What a mess, hey!”
            Xolani looked a little suspicious, but escorted him languidly to the entrance; after all, there was nothing much left to secure.
            “How are things up in the township?” he asked the guard.
            Xolani shook his head sadly. “Like here, but worse. The tornado destroyed many homes. Many people have left, they have gone to relatives in King or Transkei, anywhere. Some stay. We survive, you know.” He laughed wryly.
            Of course, ironically, the poor were in some ways best equipped to deal with hardship. The rich felt deprivation most keenly; but township dwellers had in many cases lived without water and electricity for years on end. Despite all the warning signs – several years of water supply issues, Eskom’s death spiral and rolling blackouts which had already begun in 2018, the municipality’s increasing indebtedness and incapacity, the escalating breakages in sewage lines and road surfaces – the richer side of town had proven complacent. Very few had installed rain-tanks of any capacity, or ever bothered to save water much at all; even fewer had installed electrical backups like inverters or solar panels or generators. Even among those, who had thought to lay in more than a week’s supply of water or fuel?
            Jesse cocked an eye at the turbulent overcast sky. “Just a fortnight of storms –“ he clicked his fingers. “And maybe more rain coming, huh?”
            “It all happened so quickly,” Xolani agreed. “But a long, long time to fix up.”
            “I must get home.”
            “Sure, there are bad people move around here at night.” As they spoke, indeed, a clutch of ragged-looking men was emerging from the corners where the Wimpy had been, looking vaguely predatory. Xolani shouted at them; Jesse unslung his rifle, trying to look menacing. The group moved away with that slouching, not-quite-casual pace of habitual opportunists.
            Jesse took a quick scan of the shops on the south side of the mall: the medical lab, the bookshop, the travel and estate agents, the mini-casino – all untouched, though it looked like someone had had an opportunistic go at the MTN outlet. Not that cellphones were much use now, smartphones needing daily recharging and no power to do it, except for a few.
            In truth, almost all looting had happened only in the second week, and been directed at food outlets which had cranked up their prices in response to the sudden shortages. The first week – once it became clear that the PE highway had been washed away (again), the coastal roads and the Port Alfred road bridges flooded, and that resupply wasn’t likely to be quick or sufficient – was just a frenzy of panic buying. The retailers had been slow to ration, so some households went off with weeks’ supplies, leaving most others with nothing. Then the black marketeering had kicked in, raising prices and tempers accordingly.
            Now there was no more than a trickle coming in, trucks having to be diverted onto the Bedford and Fort Beaufort roads, both of them deteriorating into near-impassable conditions in the continuous rain. Gangs had targeted at least a couple of convoys, making suppliers chary of sending more.
            Jesse slunk past the drive-in fastfood joint – shut, too few having fuel enough to drive anywhere – and then past the fresh-water supplier, who had done a roaring trade for a week or so before also being forced to close – and walked through the short alley leading onto New Street. The street was empty, deeply pitted with potholes of long standing, and in a couple of places slick with reeking sewage – another problem years in the making but now critical with the flooding of the antiquated and neglected piping.
"The Scavengers" (c) Dan Wylie
At the corner of Somerset Street an army truck was parked with some soldiers lolling about; Jesse was somewhat reassured by their presence, though the military, while keeping a lid on looting in the CBD, had not been able, or hadn’t tried, to curb break-ins in the many abandoned houses in the ‘leafy suburbs’ – and some had, it was rumoured, been implicated in commandeering food supplies on the access roads, or charging informal tolls on people trying to leave. But there was little verifiable news, in the absence of which rumours flourished and fluttered about like bats.
            Jesse sloped past the soldiers, hoping to be ignored, but one hailed him and summoned him over. A sergeant. “Do you have a licence for that weapon, boss?”
            “I do,” Jesse said, but made no move to produce it. Was this guy going to be so officious, now in this time of chaos?
            Apparently not. “What is that in your pocket?” Jesse had momentarily forgotten about his little cargo, which had fallen silent. He grinned, “A dead cat. Supper.”
            The sergeant just nodded, turning the corners of his mouth down, as if to say, That’s what it has come to, and waved him on.
            Jesse kicked his way through a heap of posters left over from the election earlier in the year – smiling Cyril, poor man, won the vote but remained trapped between socialistic revolutionaries and conservative businessmen, unable to generate the investor confidence needed to crank the economy out of overwhelming unemployment and indebtedness, unable to replace the tens of thousands of incompetent civil servants parasitic on a shrinking tax base. The unravelling of Makhanda was just the sharp end of groundswell problems. No resilience; no recovery plans. And now the fury of global warming.
            He moved on past the university. Though in theory it was the middle of the fourth term the campus was darkened and empty. After the first week of storms, the flooding of the dams, the breakdown of the water pumps (again), the blowing of the electricity supply right across the district (again), parents pulled so many of their kids out of both university and schools in such numbers that almost all the schools decided to close. Only a few hostels remained open for those who hadn’t got out before the fuel ran out. A couple survived on the rationed power eked out by the three undamaged wind turbines on the edge of town, but almost all that was reserved for the hospital, the police station – and, it was said, certain officials.
            Which meant, Jesse mused, the economic heart had been ripped out of the community.
            Not to mention his own career as a fourth-year anthropology student; he had no idea when or if he would sit his finals, or would have to raise funds for another whole year, or what. A bit like the 2016 disturbances, which he’d lived through, the ripple effects were potentially huge. Now he was actively contemplating how to live on as a kind of modern hunter-gatherer – just like the allegedly ancient cultures he had been rather distractedly studying!
            For some reason the area of the Drostdy Arch and the corner of High Street had attracted garbage-dumping over the last two weeks, since the municipality had stopped collecting it. One good thing about all the rain was it had put out the fire at the landfill site to the north of town, which had burned almost continuously throughout the preceding months of severe drought. Citizens had briefly tried to fill the collection gap, but without fuel, these efforts had faded. Indeed, there had been any number of wonderful initiatives to band together, to help those whose shacks had been washed away or blown to bits by the gale-force winds, to share what they had. Ironic, Jesse thought, that those who generously shared, ran out of food or water or patience faster than the selfish hoarders and the aggressive exploiters, like the taxi operators who had temporarily made a killing charging exorbitant fees to transport people out of town.
"Trash City" (c) Dan Wylie
A few people were scratching through the stinking garbage, though Jesse didn’t think they’d find much beyond rats and disease (there were already reports of dysentery, a threat of cholera). Maybe he should try to catch a rat for the kitten. He put his hand in his pocket and the animal squeaked and spat and dug its tiny teeth feebly into his thumb. He swore; he could get tetanus from this damned thing. Maybe he should chuck it in the garbage where it would just have to fend for itself, like everybody else.
He had to admire its spunk, though. Maybe he could train it to hunt for him. After all, how long was it going to take to bring things right? Even in the richly resourced US, it took weeks sometimes to get the power back on after an ice storm or whatever. This was more like Haiti after the hurricane: two years later, people still living without the ‘basics’. But if they were still living, he pondered as he started to stride along Somerset Street, how basic were in fact those basics? One had to entertain the possibility that the entire turn of global technological so-called civilisation had always been on a hiding to nowhere, that in fact the hardscrabble lifestyle of the ‘impoverished’ was ultimately the only sustainable one.
He could, in theory, hunt. But what happened when his bullets ran out? What if he couldn’t just order more over Gumtree? A rumbling interrupted his thoughts: a pantechnicon, followed by a fuel bowser, escorted by two army trucks, lurched and ground past him, doubtless headed for the big Shoprite parking lot, where there was some chance of distributing what there was without violence. Jesse briefly considered trotting after them, but he figured that by the time he got there nothing would be left; he quailed at the thought of the inevitable riot of desperation. Maybe he could shoot a pigeon or something.
So he headed the opposite way, turning right where the robots leaned, defunct now for a few months already, and headed for his farm home just outside town. The last of the sunset lay in a crimson shawl beneath heavy grey clouds threatening further storms; a solitary wind turbine stood on the gaunt ridge, its vanes buckled and locked. His stride began to fall into a rhythm. In his pocket the kitten was so still he wondered it was dead. But he did not want to find out – not just yet.
"Who will be left?" (c) Dan Wylie


(This is fiction. Any resemblance to people living, past or future, is unintentional.)

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