Writing our own horror

First published in an edition of The Star dated Tuesday, August 11 2020, p13.

“AND Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Some readers of a literary bent may be familiar with the last line of a classic short story.

The 19th century American fantasy writer, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote the famous story about plague, power and corruption in The Masque of the Red Death. Set during an otherwise fictionalised period of bubonic plague, it depicts a corrupt ruling elite holed up in a castle partying while all around them people died. Sound familiar?

As the truth comes out about the extent of public service corruption during the Covid-19 outbreak, one might imagine that we are living in a 21st century version of a Poe nightmare.

The official discourse calls us to isolate, put our normal lives (and in many cases livelihoods) on hold, and sacrifice such simple pleasures as tobacco and alcohol for the “common good”.

In return, we are promised accelerated health care and extended welfare for those impoverished by the lockdown.

The truth is less pretty. The public health system is such a mess that it is unlikely to be ready to deal with the massive infection rate. Beyond this, however, the health-care system has been looted by officials who seem immune from prosecution.

Covid-19 seems to have accelerated throughout the emergency financial measures to deal with the crisis. Every day we hear of more scandals, more crooked and corrupt tenders, more politicians and their families implicated.

While civil liberties have been restricted (or abolished in certain areas), there seems to be a double standard summed up in that old saying:

Don’t do as we do, do as we tell you. Beyond that there is a double standard in how lockdown is enforced, how state resources, particularly policing and security, are mobilised.

Instead of investigating and locking up corrupt officials, police hunt those in the illegal tobacco trade – and violate the privacy of smokers.

This trade has ironically been boosted by the state’s folly in banning legitimate tax-generating tobacco sales for dubious reasons. The health claims about smoking and Covid-19 are inconclusive; the anti-smoking fanaticism of some Cabinet ministers is not.

There are also indications that some high-ranking government officials have ties to the illegal tobacco trade.

We are brilliant at commissions, but lousy at sending criminals to jail.

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently promised the nation that there would be zero tolerance for corruption. In some countries this would mean mass arrests, quick trials and – in some cases – summary execution. But here? No one I know is holding their breath.

We see a ruling party falling apart as factions struggle for control, a factionalism that reaches as high as the Cabinet and a president who comes across as a lame duck.

In a time where strong leadership is needed, the impression we have is of a leader who does everything by appeasing his Cabinet, instead of firing the incompetent, the politically-embarrassing and the obnoxious.

This is a political horror story, a story of a state failing at the moment where it must not fail. It reminds us that horror is not always some supernatural experience of ghosts, vampires and man-eating zombies.

In Poe’s Red Death, the plague wipes out the vile elite. Reality is not as tidy – or as poetically just – as fiction.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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