A Port Elizabeth Woolworths Foods store at the Access Park store in Buffelsfontein road. Picture Eugene Coetzee/The Herald
A Port Elizabeth Woolworths Foods store at the Access Park store in Buffelsfontein road. Picture Eugene Coetzee/The Herald

Picture the scene. A small bedroom, clothes strewn over the floor. A cracked mirror hangs askew on the wall, and a naked lightbulb dangles above an unmade bed. At the foot of the bed sits a slovenly man with a shock of uncombed hair, staring at the window. On the windowsill stands a chicken, staring back. The caption reads: "The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression."

I was irresistibly reminded of this classic Gary Larson cartoon when the Great Chicken Wars erupted in the third week of lockdown. People who had heroically soldiered on for the first few weeks, eking out a miserable existence with precooked meals, the odd Lindt chocolate ball and the dregs of their wine cellar were suddenly asked to make yet another Great Sacrifice. No preroasted rotisserie chicken from Woolworths!

Yes, in a fit of pique the government, in the person of trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel, announced that the fast-food sections in supermarkets are basically the same as fast-food restaurants, and so they have to be closed for the rest of lockdown.

For foreign readers of this column, let me explain what Woolworths is. If you’re a European, the closest reference is probably the masonic lodges of the Freemasons. Like the Freemasons, members of Woolworths are a secretive bunch, who congregate in their temples to worship a mysterious god whose earthly manifestation is a small, oily chicken.

As with the Freemasons, membership of this secret society is by invite only. All members carry a small black card with an ominous "W" embossed on it, and congregate daily or weekly — depending on how devout they are — to exchange virtual specie for extraordinarily well-packaged sacramental vittles.

As with most of these secret organisations — the Catholic church comes to mind — modernisation is taking its toll as Woolies struggles to appeal to a broader base. There was a recent outcry on Twitter when @Phume22, who appears to be one of the elders of the sect, lamented the intrusion of the unclean masses in a tweet: "These new Woolies shoppers are annoying … Initially, Woolworths was a high-end food retailer."

Another user who, like the better class of mononymous Brazilian soccer player, goes simply by the name "@Eusebius", appeared to mock the Woolworths cultists when he tweeted: "Bad news, middle-class fam ha! I just spoke to Cogta [the department of co-operative governance & traditional affairs] … the cooked food, like Woolies chicken, you have been buying should NOT be sold by these outlets :-)."

There was an immediate, violent reaction to this tweet, apparently based on the fact that the trigger word "ha" was used.

Dean Macpherson, the DA’s spokesperson for trade and idiocy, and proud 2020 holder of the coveted DA "Staunch Defender of the Poor When it Suits Us" award, tweeted: "Sad to see someone celebrating some type of victory against the middle class at the expense of chicken farmers and workers."

His fellow DA MP — the always restrained Ghaleb Cachalia — called it "sickening triumphalism".

Noted lawyer Richard Spoor (who actually is a defender of the poor, unlike the rest of the cast in this carnival of fools) formally requested that @Eusebius "try not to be such a c**t", which another user helpfully translated into Afrikaans as "Hy is ’n p**s".

If a simple "ha", exacerbated by the slap in the smiley face that is a grinning emoji, can create such anger, you can imagine the vitriol that greeted the fact of the actual chicken banning.

When Unathi Kwaza, a member of an offshoot animal-worshipping cult, the Purple Cows, heard that she couldn’t have her roast chicken and/or eat it any more, she took up the virtual cudgels on behalf of the oppressed of the world and tweeted a dire warning. Hinting at the extreme violence of this chicken oppression, so eerily reminiscent — I think we can all agree — of the great Stalinist purges of the 1930s, she warned: "Socialist state will do everything in their power to beat us into submission. Woolworths chicken is a takeaway. Whenever I feel hungry at the mall, it’s the only thing available to eat."

Making an intuitive, entirely logical leap, Kwaza also pointed out that, now that he’s shown the depraved depths of his anti-chicken agenda, President Cyril Ramaphosa (who, let’s face it, is suspiciously fond of buffalo) "will go down as the worst president this country every saw. Evil!" And then she rather neatly underlines the depth of his evil with two frowny emojis wearing surgical masks.

I for one think she’s being jolly restrained here. There’s a case to be made that Ramaphosa is in fact THE WORST AND MOST EVIL PRESIDENT IN THE WORLD! Not even Adolf Hitler was evil enough to take away takeaway rotisserie chicken. Oh, why can’t we have a decisive president like Donald Trump, who is willing to make the necessary sacrifice of thousands of lives to get his beloved KFC open again!

Quite why the innocent roast chicken has become the catalyst for revolutionary fervour from the LOL class is intriguing. That’s "libertarians of leisure", by the way, not "laugh out loud". Oh, wait, it’s both obviously, given the risible nature of their intellect.

But seriously — why the chicken? There have been other great revolutions based on foodstuffs. One thinks of the Boston Tea Party, which led to the revolution that freed Americans from the yoke of the monarchy, and ultimately birthed today’s joke of a moronarchy. And the French Revolution, in part caused by the unavailability of affordable bread.

Before the lockdown, South Africans were munching through about 28-million chickens a week, but the poster chicken for these wasn’t your Woolworths free-range chicken, strutting around with its beak in the air and demanding to see the rooster. So why, to paraphrase the title of a Gary Larson book, are the chicken revolutionaries restless?

A charitable reading of their absurd responses is that they’re using the noble roast chicken as a symbol to stand in for all the deprivations inflicted upon us by an uncaring and haphazard government. And as a symbol, chicken should be one that speaks to all South Africans across the spectrum.

There is a legitimate argument to be made against the banning of precooked food, and more sober minds have made it. Alas, because they’re focusing on Woolworths chicken, and also because they appear to be deranged, our cooped-up revolutionaries are yet again driving South Africans into crudely divided camps.

The kernel of the critique of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is broadly justified. We do have to be very cautious about how we allow power to shift from the people to the politicians, and we do have to be ready to claw back our constitutional freedoms when this is all over.

But the way to achieve this is not to buy into the hysterical cawing of our alarmist chicken revolutionaries, who, let’s be frank, are just using this crisis to move their agendas up the pecking order.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.