A Black man is shot and seriously wounded. The unconscious man is rushed to hospital where a white doctor declares him dead. The body is transported to the mortuary where it is stored in a fridge, awaiting identification by the next of kin.
A few hours later, the “dead” man wakes up. He screams and bangs on the walls of his icy cubicle, demanding release. A mortuary worker, also black, responds to him in a hushed voice: “Shhhh! Be quiet! The good doctor said you’re dead.”
This is one of the stories, I am told, that deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is fond of relating when he addresses audiences.
Although the tale is told to illustrate how “the West imposes its version of reality” on developing countries, it is safe to assume that the former Roman Catholic priest finds similarities between his own life and that of the shot man.
’Important Sections’ are back in power again, but Haiti is a country where elected presidents become deposed and then elected again.
Not only has he had many close shaves with death, apparently surviving nine attempts on his life in the mid-1980s, but his political career has been declared over at least once before, only for him to rise and regain his position as president of Haiti.
Speaking this week from the Diplomatic Guesthouse in Waterkloof, Pretoria East, the 51-year-old makes it clear he has not given up his ambition of returning to his impoverished island homeland to finish his term in office.
“Those who elected me are dying for wanting me back. That is what they are calling for because they feel it is unfair for their votes to be violated in the manner in which they have been.”
Aristide, whose term as president would have expired in 2006, was dethroned in February after countrywide unrest marred the Caribbean republic’s celebrations of 200 years of independence from France.
Meeting the short, slim politician in person for the first time on Thursday, I was struck by how his private personality differs from his public image.
His nickname, Titid - which is Kreyol for “Little Aristide” - seems a fitting description of the diminutive leader. But his softly spoken demeanour belies what history tells us of him. This is the charismatic priest whose radical sermons and famous slogan “Va-t’en Satan!” - “Be gone, Satan!” - inspired a mass movement to drive dictator Jean-Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier out of power.
While a philosophy student at the State University of Haiti in the late 1970s, Aristide was so deeply influenced by the writings of Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff that he decided to become a priest.
Having been raised in a relatively poor family, Aristide found Boff’s pro-poor rhetoric appealing. Ironically, it was his propagation of views similar to Boff’s that resulted in his being expelled from the Salesian Order in 1988.
Dressed in a navy-blue suit, white shirt and red tie, Aristide looks nothing like the “defrocked priest turned tyrant millionaire” the Paris-based Libération newspaper wrote of earlier this year.
Nor does he seem to fit the “demagogic populist” label that left-wing Haitian intellectual Christopher Wargny assigned him earlier this year.
In fact, Titid cuts a benign figure, highly unlikely to be involved in behind-the-scenes plots to unseat the United Nation’s backed interim government in Haiti.
But appearances can be deceiving. So I ask him if there is any truth in interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s claims that he is behind the wave of violence in Port-au-Prince, the capital city.
“Ngesikhathi esenkingeni waqamba amanga. Unolimi olubi. Ukhuluma ngamlomo mibili.” He answers, to my surprise, in broken Zulu, saying Latortue speaks with a forked tongue. He lies to save his own skin because his government has failed to maintain stability in the country, says Aristide.
Since arriving in South Africa at the end of May with their two young daughters, Aristide and his Haitian-American lawyer wife, Mildred Trouillot, have enthusiastically taken to learning Zulu.
Although his syntax still needs work, his perfect pronunciation of difficult “clicking” words such as “qamba” and “cishe” would shame the vast majority of Sowetans.
Besides his mother tongue French and its Caribbean variant, Kreyol, Aristide also speaks Hebrew, Italian and Spanish fluently. Academically-trained in philosophy, psychology and theology, the ousted leader says his knowledge of these languages has deepened his understanding of his fields of study.
Recently appointed a researcher at the University of South Africa amid great controversy, Aristide is now studying the similarities between some of the traditional practices of South Africa and Haiti.
His main area of focus is the Zulu practice of ukubuyisa, a ritual where a dead person’s spirit is welcomed home. This practice is also prevalent in Haiti, an island where most of the citizens are descendants of African slaves.
Though he speaks passionately about the “privilege” of being “among brothers and sisters” and experiencing “the miracle of the rainbow nation”, it is clear Aristide’s heart is in Haiti.
Since he was overthrown eight months ago, he tells me, 8000 Haitians have been killed by gangs “of convicted killers” who enjoy the “support” of Latortue’s government. He quotes a number of reports by sympathetic international organisations, such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which partially blames the interim government for the recent spate of violence.
But what about reports that Aristide’s own supporters in Port-au-Prince were responsible for the beheading of a number of policemen in the city? “If there are criminals who behead police and claim they are my supporters, I say no. Those who really support me know that I will never accept violence. There is a huge difference between criminals who pretend to be Lavallas [his political party] and genuine members calling for their views to be heard,” he says.
He prefers the South African “model” of dialogue, he says.
Many of Aristide’s critics in Haiti and abroad blame him for the chaos that has engulfed the country for the past 10 months. They say his “autocratic style” of leadership alienated “important sections” of society and, because there were no other avenues for his political rivals to express their dissatisfaction, they were forced to resort to violence.
But Aristide sees things differently.
The problem, he says, dates back to 1804, when Haitian slaves successfully defeated their French colonial rulers and established the first black republic. “They never wanted black people to be a reference for freedom, that is the issue. It is a racist issue. That is why, when we had our first 100 years of independence celebrations in 1904, they boycotted the celebrations. They did the same this year.”
Aristide is particularly incensed by France’s refusal to repay the 90-million francs Haiti paid in the 19th century for the “loss” of its slaves.
Late last year, Aristide claimed the debt was now worth $21-billion. Some believe it was this that led to his downfall.
An angry French President Jacques Chirac was quoted in the Miami Herald in December last year warning: “Before bringing up claims of this nature, I cannot stress enough to the authorities of Haiti the need to be very vigilant about - how should I put it - the nature of their actions and their regime.”
Two months later, Aristide was out of power.
Despite this, Aristide believes that talks between his party, his internal political enemies, and the governments of France, the US, Canada and the United Nations could lead to lasting peace.
Although insisting on his constitutional right to be president until 2006, he hints at a “political compromise” that would be acceptable to all.
While waiting in hope that such talks will take place some day, Aristide is enjoying the company of his close ally and friend, President Thabo Mbeki, whom he admires for “his intelligence and courage”.
And the feeling is mutual. Mbeki was the only world leader to attend Aristide’s controversial 200-year independence celebrations in Haiti on New Year’s Eve.
But Aristide’s admiration for Mbeki must stem from the realisation that he and others in the African Union are perhaps the only world leaders who do not see Aristide as a political dead man walking.