Something with a siren was approaching fast, racing down the highway that curls into the top of Cape Town’s city bowl.
For a moment I wondered if it was an ambulance, shrilly announcing that someone’s Sunday afternoon had started very badly; but a moment later all was revealed as a cluster of muscular black SUVs surged around a corner into view. A blue-light convoy: someone in government was late for something.
The vehicles bunched together like a phalanx of obese dung beetles jealously guarding a piece of shit somewhere in their midst. Startled motorists slowed, trying to find a safe place to pull to one side, and got angry bleeps from sirens for their trouble. One last taxpayer swerved out of their way, and the freeway was clear: the dung beetles scurried onto an exit and were gone.
I don’t know who was being rushed into the city, or why. Perhaps it was Number 1, delayed by a last-minute number two, coming to the jazz festival. Perhaps it was simply some cabinet minister trundling down to Woolies. But the names and positions don’t matter. We know who was in that bullet-proof, censure-proof car, because we’ve known him for 5 000 years.
He was the high priest of the temple, rattling past our hovel in his gilded chariot. He was the centurion, pushing us back with the butt of his spear as his column passed. He was the bishop in his carriage, glaring at us in our fields and closing his window against the stench of real life. He was the emperor’s prefect, the people’s commissar. He is that man born with the instincts of a highwayman but the cunning of a merchant, who one day asks himself a life-changing question: why point a gun at one person to take one gold coin when you can point a constitution at a million people and take a million gold coins?
I am not suggesting that all politicians are thieves. Far from it: many politicians are much too incompetent to steal anything other than the limelight. But I do have serious doubts about the soul of anyone who thinks a column of black, gleaming, unmarked cars – a CIA rendition convoy – is an appropriate means of transport in a democracy.
Perhaps that is why we continue to call them “blue-light” convoys. Perhaps we sense in them the naked aggression of the warlord and so we reassure ourselves by focusing on their police-like lights as familiar symbols of law and order. But bulletproof SUVs pushing motorists aside have nothing to do with law and order, and everything to do with power.
The lights are disingenuous; the sirens annoying; but it is the black mirror surface of the vehicles that betrays the true nature of these convoys. They are not black by accident. It wasn’t a toss-up in the car dealer’s showroom between beige, green and black. State vehicles are black because it is the colour of security and of secrecy. It lies at the heart of the aesthetics of the military-industrial state.
Fascists in the 20th century understood the power of claiming an aesthetic link to the perceived glories of ancient Greece and Rome. As they descended into barbarism, their symbols and buildings spoke of reason, order and discipline. The glistening, anonymous black car serves the same function. When we see it race past, it draws our eyes and memories back down a line of similar black, anonymous cars, occupied by untouchable people.
It speaks of American administrators being hurried through the gates of the Green Zone; of Soviet politburo veterans in heavy limousines gliding through the snow; of generalissimos in Belgrade and Caracas and Kinshasa waving to rented crowds; of rows of screaming Rhine maidens reflected in the polished doors of an open-topped Mercedes, saluting the Führer; right back to archdukes and emperors in Rolls-Royces, puttering past their serfs. Yes, the black limousine carries our leaders, but it also carries 100 years of collective memories; of domination of the many by the few.
The security state has tried to convince us that this is the only way for power to travel, but it is wrong. Pope Francis has dispensed with the bulletproof Popemobile of his predecessors. José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, famously drives a Volkswagen Beetle. In these simple acts of modesty, both reveal their humanity. They remind us that if you are gentle and mean no harm then you tend to trust that others will not harm you. But if your preferred means of transport speaks only of nameless officials accountable to shadowy apparatchiks, of raw, unrestricted power, then we are right to fear you. And perhaps, one day, you will be right to fear us.
Yes, we’ve known the man in that convoy for 5 000 years. And he is a plague on good people.
First published in The Times and TimesLive