Death Wears a Mask (second serial)


TWO DAYS LATER: Bheki, wearing his black acrylic pants, a white shirt and black shining shoes energetically took to his feet from his comfortable position in his majestic office, by South African standards at The Union Buildings in Arcadia, Pretoria. "I understand what you're saying Joel, you and I come from a long way together remember, but the truth is that I don't think such a Bill will successfully make it past parliament, not with all the loud opposition parties trying to appear like true guardians of our democracy. Douglas and Tony are not going to sit by as a Bill like that is introduced to parliament. We pride ourselves on our democracy and the Chief has indicated to me that your office was working on a strategy to establish a presidential press call, why don't we allow that to take shape, follow its course and see where it leads us?"
"Having a presidential press call is something, but being able to censure what they write will be another factor, I promise you Chief, the President didn't get all he wanted the last time he had a mouth to mouth with Mathata and some senior unpatriotic journos. You must understand that it was a compromise on Mathata and SANEF's part, something they didn't owe to this government. We can successfully bring them here, host them daily, feed them the news the way we want them to report them, but there will still be the ones who will take what we tell them to experts like Xolela and expand on that, get their own angles as opposed to what we will envisage them to write," Joel said, passively pulling some loose beard from his bushy face.
The President urged him on several occasions to shave some as it looked ruffled up, resembling a playground for nocturnal animals whenever he slept. Joel liked Bheki for his strong political insight and determination. He knew Bheki would have made an excellent political correspondent for big multinational network televisions if he never decided to become a bureaucrat, a brain drain, Joel thought. After much silence the other man in the meeting spoke, almost from a cue, "What we want is for you guys to emphasize that national security should be given the priority it deserves. We can't afford to have loose cannon unpatriotic journalists who think they can write whatever they want about our government. I understand democracy and I fought for it. For the life of me I even lost friends and have scars to show for it. But if it endangers the very freedom we sacrificed our lives and families for, democracy should step aside. Even Mandela tried to talk to these guys, but are they listening, hell no," Cassius spoke. Indeed he had a scar across his face. The other three men wondered if he was referring to it when he mentioned having scars to show.

Joel and Bheki exchanged glances. They were the only two cool-headed individuals in the Government Avenue held meeting. They considered themselves lucky that they were not answering to Cassius at Musanda in their daily official duties, otherwise they would have been branded non-patriots because of their deep-rooted beliefs in democracy and transparent governance. One person who was not shaken nor stirred by Cassius's statement was a man they only settled for his second name of Malan. Malan was explicitly intimidating, standing five foot one in his boots, never smiling and looking very much similar to a former Springbok Kobus Wiese. "Joel, I might not have been with people of your calibre in the trenches if ever you were really in real sandbagged trenches, but I must warn you that there are more elements out to harm this governments than we care to think and we need to put a stop to their bad behaviour before it becomes a habit"
"Are you doubting the President's proposed Bill on media freedom or his integrity? I helped draft that Bill and we did bear in mind that there are rights for media people these days, we can't be operating as if we are some communist government with lots of nuclear secrets to hide," Bheki was becoming impatient, he took to his feet and went for the coffeemaker. He stood closer to it, picked a paper cup, poured himself some mineral water, eyes angrily focused on the three men. He looked out, saw the national flag flying proudly, he wondered whether the three men who were driven by their dark secrets and demons understood what the flag stood for. Joel was also obviously uncomfortable but pretended to be on the same mental wavelength as the two arrogant men, he proceeded towards Bheki who avoided him by going around the table to his warmed up seat.
"Okay guys, I should understand that we are two groups of people in this room. Maybe me and Malan here are talking from a military position, or say national security, and you guys unfortunately for South Africa you are in essence journalists, and today journalists run governments. But for security reasons we can't allow guys like yourselves, your colleagues in private sector to write whatever they want. You can't come up with unfounded allegations about ministers and bureaucrats without thinking twice about the consequences, like this chap in Cape Town is doing, unashamedly chasing stories up to Bheki's door," Cassius echoed, lighting another cigarette, the tenth since they sat in Bheki's office with instructions to the receptionist not to be disturbed by anyone, except someone from the Office of the State President. The President was out of the country on official business with a big business delegation that included seventeen black empowerment IT and Mining company executives. He left Bheki behind and took someone from Government Communications and Information Services, who unconventionally and interestingly was Joel and Bheki's understudy with him on the trip.

"Tell me something guys, I’m becoming puzzled with every question I ask, who is the boss here? Don't get my question twisted because Joel, I thought you were the boss because you handle government communications, but now this young boy is making all the noise. You can influence policy, can't you?," Malan enquired without attempting to look at Joel, which he did throughout the meeting whenever he wanted to nail a point home. He didn't like journalists and didn't even attempt to hide it. Joel was a little embarrassed, Bheki was indeed good but Cassius and Malan wanted him to veto most of his decisions even when they were good and beneficial to the dialogue.
"Sure, I'm the boss, but you must understand that Bheki is the one who ends up delivering most of the stuff we come up with in my directorate which is relevant to his description, if he thinks it doesn't feel or come out good, boss or not it won't make it past Frank or Essop or even come out right. He does work for the Presidency and I do work for government, more so cabinet, the two are separate institutions if you make it a point to study how the government works. But it's important for us to bring same coherent messages," he responded, bailing himself and Bheki out. But the two men were not letting them off that easily.
"The media is not our girlfriend, we don't sleep with the media," Cassius crackled after carefully studying Joel’s response and finding no loophole to exploit.
"I know”, Joel interjected without making real eye contact.
"Then why should we brush its stupid inflated ego with massaging Bills?," Malan asked.
"The problem with you guys is that you are trying to come up with a different accounting and communication structure far removed from what the press guys used to deal with during the days of George," Bheki referred from history in a matter of factly fashion.
"Don't confuse the George era with the present. George was media-made, not Jackie, he 's self-made and owes the media nothing. To let you in for a secret, he's not even comfortable with the ICD," was Malan's protest, much to Cassius's nodding.
"But he owes his country some transparency and open governance. Monitoring is important. Isn’t it what the parliamentarians shout everyday at the assembly?," Bheki, an optimist of note said trying to get Joel's support on the issue of monitoring.
"Even if it means indecent exposure?," the question fell from Cassius whose long legs were rested on Bheki's desk. Bheki wanted to instruct him to behave himself and to respect his office but Cassius looked like the type that detested being told what to do.
"This country is a flabby whore that no one will even dare look at even if it got exposed, that's what you think. Think again, everything in the eyes of the likes of that TV anchorwoman Deborah becomes skinny and do you know what she’ll say, the government is suffering from anorexia nervosa as money is spent purchasing high tech weapons while surrounded by its own friends," Malan said with effort, poking at the two pressmen with his finger as if he was accusing them of underestimating their type in cash journalism. Joel smiled, throwing his hands up in obvious surrender. There was some ironic truth in his words since Lesotho maintained an army while a giant surrounded it.
"Don't let this boy dictate to you Chief"
"But he's not just this boy, he's his own man with his own principles"
"Does he influence government communication strategy, cabinet media releases and briefings?," Cassius desperately wanted to know. Bheki got angry and couldn't hide it any longer.
"How for the life of me you guys can talk about me in my presence as if I don't exist beats me. I share your vision of security but you can't force me to see things your way, that's diversity of opinion and last I checked it was one of the tenets of our democratic order"
"You see what I mean now. We didn't come here for his opinion. Chief, get the Bill drafted and make sure it becomes law," Malan instructed with intimidating authority. Cassius took to his feet and got ready to leave, he soon saw a trash can, threw what remained of his illuminating cigarette in it. Bheki looked worried, but the stub blew itself out.
"But it still has to go through the parliamentary portfolio committee which I don’t sit in, past the national assembly and public hearings, be adopted before the President can put his signature and make it law. I told you there is Douglas and Tony there"
"Forget parliament, forget Douglas, forget Tony, your guys are the majority there, just get your yes-men and backbenchers to rubber stamp that and let's see if national security will not improve," Malan spoke, adjusting his tie.
Joel was silent for some time. "It still has to go to the public remember? But we all know it's not about security, that's blatant suppression of information"
"That's what liberals call it, and liberals are lazy folks who talk a lot and act nothing, but you and us guys call it what, Bheki." Cassius stared at Bheki with an intention of intimidating him to a fumble.
"Gatekeeping," Bheki responded and suddenly felt good about himself. Cassius was mildly disappointed.
"I fancy you to take over Joel's job in five years time, get the job done guys. We can't operate in an environment like this, do something to simplify our work. We can't have your press guys reporting about every step we take, every move we make, and spreading that on their tabloids. We can’t afford having them present everytime Malan’s Unit makes an arrest and make our work look like soap operas. We are patriots and we hope you become the same," Cassius finished his lecture and stood by the door. "Guys I got a memorial service to attend, I'm flying out to Cape Town." he said.
"I'll come for the funeral, when is it?" Malan asked apologetically. Bheki blushed as Joel pulled one of his thousands of beard-hairs in disappointment and defeat. Cassius looked long and hard at the three men. "Saturday, see you in Cape Town on Saturday guys, I bank on your support". He walked out and closed the door.

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