The Contrary President

556999104aa21852660039b9“The difference between just another story and a very good story,” Vetfaan says, “is what you don’t tell. I mean, telling everything takes away the fun, doesn’t it?”

Gertruida eyes him suspiciously, wondering what he’s up to now. Ever since they stopped speculating about The Diary, Vetfaan seems determined to stop talking in mid-sentence, letting them guess what he was about to say. Although never mentioning the curious case of Spook Visage, it does appear that the gaps in that story fascinated the burly farmer so much that he wants to copy the technique.

“Look, it’s like our best story-teller ever, our beloved president. Man, he must be the chairman of the Half-truth Society! He can dance around the obvious things he has to say and leave you to piece together what he actually wasn’t telling you. And – mostly – he’ll allow you to get to the wrong conclusion, go heh-heh-heh while he pushes his glasses higher on his noble nose and then say he never said something you’re sure you heard.”

“Nah, Vetfan. You wouldn’t like his job. As an esteemed leader of one of Africa’s foremost countries, he has huge responsibilities. He can’t be bothered by mere trivia all day, every day?  And, let me remind you, when a man has many wives and more than 20 kids, it surely leaves very little time for affairs of state. Add to that the dancing lessons, the extensive livestock he has to take care of at Nkandla and cleaning that pool, and what do you get?” Kleinpiet pauses dramatically, waiting for the answer. With none forthcoming, he sighs and continues: “You get an overburdened and underfunded chap who simply doesn’t have the time to spell out every little detail about every little thing that happens in his life. No, there can be no more dangerous a president than one who takes his time with explanations. That’d mean he’s hiding something.”

“That’s the Presidential Corollary,  Kleinpiet. The quantity of words is inversely related to the quality of truths. That leads you to the Parliamentary Conundrum, which states that the quality of truth is again indirectly related to the number of protest actions.” Gertruida arches a cynical eyebrow, challenging the group to disagree. They don’t, of course. “That implies that a president who is frugal with words, is generous with the truth.  I think that puts us in the pound seats.”

“Come on!” Servaas gets up suddenly. “You guys are just pulling my socks! What is this? The, er, um, Support His Integrity Troupe?  Everybody’s clamouring for his head these days, and you guys are singing his praises?”

“That’s Rule Number One they teach in Presidential School, Servaas, and it’s a worldwide inevitability. You hold an election. Somebody has to win – usually the chap that made the most promises. He gets sworn in and everybody jumps around, cheering their new champion. Now, of course, he has to deliver on his promises…which he can’t. Logically, he then starts ducking and diving, but by the time his term nears the end, everybody’s fed up with him. It happens with all presidents, even Obama.” As usual, when Gertruida gets going, it’s hard to stop her. “Except, of course, José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica Cordano of Uruguay.”

“Never heard of him.” Vetfaan isn’t really interested, but he can’t help raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Pepe, my friend, is seven years older than Zuma. He was jailed longer than Zuma for fighting against an unjust government. And like Zuma, he became president in 2009. That’s where the similarities stop.”

She paces up and down the counter as she lectures them on the man dubbed the ‘Humblest president in the world’. “He addressed the United Nations in a memorable speech in 2013, calling for  ‘a return to simplicity, with lives founded on human relationships, love, friendship, adventure, solidarity and family, instead of lives shackled to the economy and the markets’. He received a modest salary, of which he donated 90% to charity. Oh, his only possession, apparently, is the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

“Strangely, he is married – very happily – to only one woman and he has no children. When offered a million dollars for his car, he said he’d donate the money to the needy.

“Then in March this year, his term in office ended. He refused the use of the luxurious presidential palace or even just its attending staff and retired to the small farm his wife owns – where they grow chrysanthemums which they sell for a living. His security arrangements? A three-legged dog called Manuela.

“There’s a quote – one of many – I love from this man. He said: ‘I’m not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live… My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I’m the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress.’ No wonder he’s such a loved and revered man in his country.”

Vetfaan sighs, nods, and takes a sip of peach brandy. “He’s lucky to have been born in Uruguay. His style wouldn’t have worked here…not at all. Any politician around here driving about in an old Beetle would have been as successful as that American dentist trying to sell conservation. No, we won’t be fooled by poverty; being currently disadvantaged isn’t in fashion.”

The discussion peters out and the group falls silent. They refrain from saying the obvious, which is the point of a very good story, not so?

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