You can see it on their faces when they slip out of the cockpit and quickly pull the door shut behind them.
The pilot has died.
And there’s no co-pilot, because the recently departed was an arrogant dickhead who insisted on working alone.
Worse, the plane is starting to lose altitude.
As you watch the drinks trolley lurch past, you curse your apathy. How did you let it get to this point? After all, you knew that this was going to happen sooner rather than later. They guy had been at the controls non-stop since 1994, and recently he’d been in horrible shape: bloated, flatulent, losing feeling in his extremities, increasingly paranoid. When he fired Chief Engineer Mbeki in 2007 you all agreed that the signs weren’t good, and yet you kept him in the pilot’s seat year after year. Why?
Perhaps there were a few extenuating circumstances. A lot of you remember what the plane used to be like before 1994 – a quiet, almost entirely empty flight that had only three destinations: white supremacy, economic collapse, and the holiday resort of Fantasyland 1952. No matter how bumpy it’s been since then you’ve always reassured yourselves that it’s way better than how things used to be.
Mainly, though, you and the rest of the passengers haven’t demanded a change of pilot because you’re all too busy tightening your seatbelts and riding out the turbulence. If we can just get through the next five minutes, you tell yourself. And then the next five minutes. And the next. And before you know it, Jacob Zuma has been president for seven years.
Now, as you see the horizon tilt in your window and the cabin crew start to whimper, you realise how deep in denial you’ve been. For years you’ve assumed that if something goes badly wrong, trained professionals will spring into action, pushing buttons and cranking handles like in those World War Two movies where they land a plane with no wings or engines and everyone walks off with a picturesque graze on their forehead.
You’ve told yourself that well-established countries with stock exchanges, universities, botanical gardens and video rental shops don’t just go into free-fall. Except for Venezuela, of course. But we’re not Venezuela because we don’t have an inept, anti-business government overspending on an obese civil service while blaming its mounting failures on a third force and – oh shit.
“Bloody pilot! This aeroplane is an instrument of white capital…”
You look around, hoping to see someone in a uniform stand up and march up the aisle. You want to shout, “Shouldn’t we ask if there’s a pilot on the plane?” but you don’t want to alarm anyone. In any case, you’re still pretty sure that someone will do something. But instead all you can see is passengers getting grumpy.
Up in First Class, a blonde woman in a blue T-shirt is hammering away at Twitter: “If I’d been flying this plane this would never have happened!” Across the aisle, a portly gent in a red beret is yelling, “Bloody pilot! This aeroplane is an instrument of white capital and we should never have been on it in the first place, so once it has crashed we will occupy it!”
I’m not sure when our pilot popped his clogs. Perhaps it was Polokwane or Marikana. Maybe it was White Shirts pushing MPs out of parliament, or the planned media tribunal, or riot police throwing stun grenades at students.
Maybe, comically, it was when he told the country he didn’t have money for students and then promptly announced plans to spend R4-billion on a private jet.
Whenever it was, though, I do know that he’s snuffed it. This government is dead. It will nudge the controls this way and that as it gets dragged out of the cockpit, but, right now, there is nobody flying the plane.
That’s worrying, of course, but not as worrying as what’s happening right now. Because instead of asking if there’s a pilot on board, we’re arguing over where, when and how the pilot died. And we’re not examining the claims by the DA and the EFF that they know what to do. Yes, the DA has clocked up some hours in gliders over the Cape Winelands, and the EFF has launched a couple of impressive rockets in Johannesburg, but fly a fully laden airliner? Where’s the flight plan? Actually, screw the flight plan: at this point we’ll take any plan that looks technically sound and isn’t just the usual pissing contest.
The fact is we don’t have a clue if anyone in South Africa knows how to run it. All we have is the old belief that someone will do something. Call it hope. Call it denial. But at some point we’re going to learn the truth. And when it happens, our seatbelts better be fastened.