Campus protests are business as usual at the big hole

bigholeVanguard. A brave new world. Unprecedented violence. New lows of hooliganism.

If the rhetoric from both camps is anything to go by, the protests curdling South African universities are something entirely new. Even the campuses, familiar landmarks until recently, have been reimagined as entirely new spaces:  enclaves on a new frontier, uncharted, open for capture by competing forces.

I’m sure that the last few weeks have been appallingly stressful for students and staff, with many plunged into situations and dilemmas they’ve never faced before. But as an outsider following the deluge of reports and tweets from the front lines, I must confess that much of it has looked strangely familiar. Instead of glimpsing terra incognita, I’ve simply seen our national crises and complexes acted out in microcosm.

For example: both the yawning chasm between rich and poor and the nasty tendency to tell the poor that they simply need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are present in the monstrous catch-22 faced by so many students. With youth unemployment at well over 60% and with no German-style vocational training available, they’ve been told that a degree is their only hope to earn money — but they don‘t have enough money to pay for a degree.

The parallels go on.

As our national conversations become more polarised and wrathful, I’ve seen budding despots “no-platform” people from speaking on campuses, refusing to listen to different views simply because they are different. And, as is often the case when dictators start flexing their muscles, I’ve seen blossoming thinkers try to keep intellectual and political spaces open, holding complicated, contradictory ideas in balance.

As the politicians continue to be paid vast sums for passing the buck, I’ve seen young apprentice politicians — the cabinet of 2040 — learning the dismal tricks of their trade. I’ve seen them test the power of angry, empty words; of directing righteous anger against the wrong targets.

The great politician has a genius for getting other people to make sacrifices that will advance his or her own career, and I’ve watched this handful of ministers-in-the-making bring other students’ lives to a standstill while surging to the front of the queue themselves, pushing into pole position for long and lucrative careers in government.

And finally, as big, organised money gets on with the business of making more money, I’ve watched moneyed students buying the space they need to get on with their work.

major lawsuits, even class actions, aren’t far off

(For now, the money is keeping calm and carrying on. But I suspect that major lawsuits, even class actions, aren’t far off. Money doesn’t like its reproductive functions being messed with.)

Beyond the campuses, the response to the protests has also been business as usual.

We’ve continued our endless fascination with tertiary education, blind as ever to the utter devastation in our primary and secondary schools that continues to grind our potential into the mud. We’ve retreated into extreme positions, branding the students as violent, entitled hooligans or as revolutionary geniuses who are our only hope for the future. We’ve been properly sucked into an “us good, them bad” position. In short, pretty much your average day in South Africa.

I’m not qualified to offer the tiniest shred of advice to students or academics on how to end this impasse or on where to find the cash or on what to do with it. But I do know that the current discussion — in which the universities are somewhere over there on the outskirts of town and the students are good or bad and that someone will do something and then we can all go back to complaining about Jacob Zuma — is not going anywhere.

That’s because the universities aren’t over there. They’re right here. The students are us. They’re a strand in the fabric of our society, and if they’re unravelling, then it suggests that the whole thing has already started looking a bit ropey.

Some are claiming that the burning of books, art and buildings is the first step in the implosion of our society. But I suspect they might be confusing cause and effect, and living under the misapprehension that, despite the odd hiccup here and there, South Africa is pootling along more or less in the right direction. Which is, of course, not the case.

This country is profoundly dysfunctional. That’s because it‘s not really a country. South Africa is an abandoned mine. Sure, there are livings to be made around the edges of the great, gaping hole, but it was always an exploitative venture with a finite lifespan, and now that the original exploiters have made their piles and buggered off, the place’s fundamental raison d’être is vague. We’re drifting, because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be now.

The students won’t show us the way forward. But they are showing us where we are, right now. And, grim as it seems, that’s a start.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

And now for the weather report


My grandfather was a quiet man.

An old knee injury and worsening deafness had made him withdraw to an armchair where he would read the newspaper, and although he was always glad to see his grandchildren, we sensed that we should not be too boisterous around the silent, dim house.

Still, he didn’t impose on the people around him. If my wild-spirited grandmother had started a game that degenerated into giggles, my grandfather would simply retreat rather than be gruff. If he listened to the radio he would keep the volume low, pressing his good ear to it instead of turning it up. If he needed space, he got up slowly and found it.

And yet, we knew, there was a moment, once a day, when we should be absolutely silent, and when my grandfather was fully in command of the house.

It usually happened at the end of lunch, although it’s possible that lunch had been planned to end at this precise moment. As my grandmother herded uneaten peas off plates, my grandfather would reach for his radio. A hiss, resolving into silence — and then three pips: the news was beginning.

The newsreaders chopped and changed, but all had the clipped diction and politely interested tone of the prewar BBC, that distinctively theatrical voice that provides the soundtrack to most of Western 20th-century history.

These days, anchor-people are trained to emote. Their faces become stern as they break bad news, and then brighten and soften when they move on to an insert about a corgi that saved a squirrel from a drain.

No such human frailty was tolerated on the BBC, or on the old SABC. The tone remained resolutely uniform, whether reporting on the Nazi invasion of Poland or the winner of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Certain words linger from that time. In the mid-1980s, most bulletins featured euphemistic accounts of killing: “Swapo terrorists” were being “ambushed” in vast numbers. There was also the Inkatha Freedom Party’s leader, “Chief Mango-soothoo Boo-thill-easy”, who was regularly presented as proof that black people could be taught to behave. Every so often PW Botha would drop by, explaining why they would release “Nyalsin Mundeller” as soon as he renounced communism and promised not to seduce every white woman in the land with his killer dimples.

My grandfather would listen to all of this nonsense, eyes closed, impatient. And then, at last, he’d grab the radio and turn the volume all the way up. It was time. The moment he’d been waiting for all morning. The weather report.

A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows

It would boom through the house. Low-pressure cells resounded down the corridor. Patches of cloud howled above our heads. A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows. Nobody was allowed to speak. The weather, it turned out, was the most important news in the world.

I could never understand adults’ preoccupation with the weather. It seemed like a terrible waste of their freedoms. They were allowed to swear and talk about sex but instead they chatted about the impending cold front. They were allowed to watch whatever they wanted on TV but they chose to watch the weather forecast.

As I got older, it seemed increasingly bizarre. The news would sweep from geopolitics to new medical breakthroughs; plunge into human tragedies or soar alongside triumphs – and then it all ended with a short discussion of whether the wind was going to blow from the left or the right.

These days, however, I think I’m starting to feel the allure of the weather report. And I’m beginning to suspect that its appeal has almost nothing to do with the specifics of precipitation.

I don’t think my grandfather wanted to know that it was going to rain the day after tomorrow: he hardly ever left the house, and the suit and hat he wore most of the time suggested that he wasn’t planning to change his habits even if it did rain.

Rather, I think he was listening for the same reason that I like seeing a cold front sweep in a great arc towards Cape Town: to experience the gentle pleasure that comes from feeling very, very, small; of seeing yourself, clearly, as a glorified orangutan searching for a good banana leaf to crouch under until the rain passes.

You’ve probably felt it yourself: that almost sorrowful satisfaction that comes from standing in front of a vast landscape or seascape or skyscape; of being reminded that you’re a speck, and of understanding that that’s OK.

Because behind that 20% chance of showers is a 100% certainty that the sun will rise, the wind will blow, and yet another band of weather will roll in off the Atlantic. An average day, any time in the past hundred-million years. And that’s just fine.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

To boldy go where no pancake has flown before


Fifty years ago, the Starship Enterprise slid out of space-dock on her maiden voyage, carrying the hopes of humanity into the deep reaches of uncharted television.

She was a sight to behold, cruising through the infinite sky like a pelican designed by Mies van der Rohe. Her on-going mission: to seek out new life, and slightly different configurations of fibreglass rocks for landing parties to hide behind. And so she flew on and on, and every week her crew would discover new civilisations, new philosophical questions, and new ways for William Shatner to string sentences together.

In the US, the anniversary of Star Trek was marked with an outpouring of love for the series and all it stood for. Its cultural achievements were celebrated – the famous interracial kiss, the resolute injection of idealism into an increasingly cynical society – and its stars adored anew.

In South Africa, however, the celebrations were, like Shatner’s ability to pronounce the k-sound at the end of “Spock”, non-existent. In 1966 the Enterprise could reach the Delta Quadrant but it couldn’t reach South Africa. We were in the outer darkness, because the alien life forms that ruled us believed that televisions were Satan’s colonoscopy, and would only relent 10 years later.

I don’t know how many die-hard fans there are in South Africa (I was too scared to Google “Trekkie” and “South Africa” in case I saw people re-enacting the Great Trek) but I do know that, despite us being light years away from everything, Star Trek left an indelible mark on hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Well, less of a mark than a scar. OK, not a scar, because that implies healing. So maybe more of a deep soul-wound. The kind left by Under the Mountain. And no, I’m not going to elaborate on that, because the less said about that childhood-poisoning dread-fest, the better.

You know what I’m talking about because it still haunts your dreams. Almost 30 years later, you still glance at the ceiling of any room you walk into. Because they could be out there.

The demented flying face-sucking pancakes.

Nobody I know watched the original Star Trek. I didn’t. And yet somehow, almost supernaturally, everybody saw that one episode. (For a flashback, click here.)

How? Did the SABC buy it in 1976 and air it as some sort of educational video? Did they preface it with a short lecture from Elize Botha in which she explained that the pancakes represented the forces of black revolution, lurking in the ventilation ducts of Lusaka, waiting to fly through the air with a fearful farting sound before suffocating the flower of white youth?

There was something deeply horrifying about the flying fart-flapjacks, but then again, it didn’t take much to be memorable in the early days of South African television. In the science-fiction genre the only competition was Mannemarak, a puppet who lived in a lunar lander and watched films about how to pasteurise milk. Wait, no, that was Miena Moe, the spokescow of the South African dairy industry.

And as for plot and pacing, well, entire episodes of Heidi could consist of a single shot of Heidi running, an Alpine path rolling endlessly past under her flying clogs, her horizontal figure-eight mouth yelling “Pieter! Pieter! Wag! Ek kom! Pieter! Wag! Pieter! Pieter! Ek kom! Wag! Pieter! Pieter!”

Reading the outpouring of nostalgia and affection around Star Trek’s anniversary, I found myself mourning the end of the culturally unifying TV show, that one grand saga we’d all sit down in front of at the same time every week; that gave us something in common with strangers and allowed a kind of cultural shorthand. Even when you spoke different languages, you both know what “JR Ewing” meant.

Nowadays, I told myself, television watching has become a Balkanised, isolated experience, where hermits seek out niche shows and binge-watch them, only sharing their latest obsession with a few close friends.

But then I realised this was nonsense, because of course we’ve been split into television tribes since the beginning. There were those who were allowed to watch V, and those who only heard about it the next day, trying to imagine what it would look like to see an alien eating a rat. (Remember?) Some laughed at Night Court. I found it a claustrophobic thing that always felt like a dream you might have in the first stages of a fever.

No, people have always liked what they like, and found ways to gorge on it. Still, I can’t help wondering: will Game of Thrones or True Detective be celebrated in 50 years? Probably not. Because some shows go boldly where no others have gone before. Some are loved because of the spirit they represent rather than the stories they tell. Well, loved and feared. Those pancakes, man…


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

So bad it’s good

air-guitarListen, you’ve got to follow your bliss. I’m just saying, when the guy in the black trench coat snatched up a microphone stand and started miming a wailing guitar solo, it was time to leave.

It wasn’t the mime, per se. I have no problem, for example, with air-guitar. Writhing around as you play an imaginary electric guitar is a clear and brave commitment to fantasy, much like paying tax in South Africa and imagining that the money is going to the rural Eastern Cape rather than to a secret bank account in Dubai.

But when he picked up that stand and started lashing it with his fingers we could no longer pretend that the party was going well.

Then again, the party had been billed as a nostalgic trip back to the shoulder-pads and synth beats of the 1980s, so it was probably doomed from the outset.

The organisers had tried to evoke some familiar 1980s tropes, and, to be fair, they’d got a few things right – the white people sat at the opposite side of the room from the black people, and the place seemed incredibly far away from the rest of the world. But mostly it just felt like the last half-hour of the Christmas party of a small company that is about to go bankrupt in the new year.

We’d tried to get into the spirit of things, offering ironic cheers when the leathery DJ played Rick Astley, but it was heavy going. After an hour, the black people shuffled out with politely disgusted expressions. After two, we picked up the Rubik’s Cubes that had been left lying around as authentic 1980s décor and quickly became despondent and angry as we failed to line up even one row of colours. Nobody wants to have their intellectual limitations thrust at them while listening to Jason Donovan in a cavernous black room that smells of stale beer and surrender.

Perhaps fearing that he was losing us, the DJ retreated into his professional comfort zone, and, with almost visible relief, started playing hard rock from the 1990s.

As if by magic, the far wall, which I had thought was an enormous black curtain, revealed itself to be half a dozen young men, emerging in folds of gothic blackness like Transylvanian bats obeying the whispers of an undead count. Moments later, one of the pimply bats bounded up onto the stage, and was making the mic stand wail. Which is where you arrived, and where I started planning my exit.

two of them held up iPads and started filming

Again, I must insist it wasn’t the fantasy that bothered me, or even the use of a prop. After all, let he who has never picked up a long metal stick and used it to play a careful forward defensive or raised it and cried “En garde!” cast the first aspersion. No, it wasn’t the pretence. It was the pedantry of it. Because as we watched him play a wailing guitar solo on the stand, we realised that he was taking it incredibly seriously. And so were the people watching him. So seriously, in fact, that two of them held up iPads and started filming him as he bent over the rod, making absolutely sure he pressed his fingers onto the correct invisible fret as he plucked the right nonexistent string.

We slid out of there a little later, leaving the children of the night to their thrashing and raised rock ‘n’ roll fists. We agreed it was pretty much the least successful party we’d ever seen, and we’d seen both COPE and Agang.

In the following days, however, I found myself starting to feel more kindly towards the dismal evening, until, a week later, I could even believe that I’d had fun.

It seemed a strange about-turn to make. After all, the party had been terrible. The music, the décor, the food-like substances strewn across the trestle tables: all had been bad.

And then I realised: that’s why I’d enjoyed it. It hadn’t just been bad. It had been authentically, unselfconsciously bad. Which had made it rather wonderful.

We’re not allowed to be bad at having fun any more. The advertising industry and its high priests in pop culture have forbidden it. Gatherings must be gilded and glistening, defined not by who’s there but by who didn’t make the cut. Spontaneity must run on a marketing schedule. Fun must be Photoshopped.

The right car, the right clothes, the right friends, the right thoughts: when it comes to seeking pleasure, the free market is a totalitarian regime. You’re either on trend or you’re ironically off it, which means you’re on it anyway.

But a bad party, where awkwardness bumps up against shyness and spills over into clumsy exhibitionism; where people’s oddness is affirmed and their quirks displayed on a stage; well, I find that rather consoling.

So make it wail, mic-stand hero. Make it wail.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

The Freedom Charter – Rebooted!


We, the Connected People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: screw you.

We know we once said that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, but that’s obviously a ridiculously naive position, so from here on South Africa belongs to anyone with enough non-sequential, unmarked dollars in a brown paper bag.

To help you understand your place, here are some important principles to remember:

The people shall govern. From Dubai.

All national groups shall have equal rights – unless their rights get in the way of our rights, in which case you’ll find that some rights are more important than others. This discovery is calling “marikana-ing”, derived from the verb “marikana”, “to remind the public about whose rights matter and whose don’t”.

The people shall share the country’s wealth. Mostly people who live in Dubai, or whose last name is Zuma. Mines and SABC soaps don’t come cheap, you know.

The land shall be shared among those who work it. And since our National Executive Committee has been giving this land a proper working-over for the last few years, we think it’s only fair that it be shared between us. (If you disagree, please see “marikana-ing”.)

All shall be equal before the law. Except for those who don’t ever have to come before the law because they know where the bodies are buried. Also this obviously excludes rich people. But if you’re poor or don’t know the dialing code for Saharanpur, India, the law will take its course, all over your face.

All shall enjoy equal human rights. Except, obviously, poor people. Because, honestly, screw them. Also, please see “marikana-ing”.

There shall be work and security. But mostly work in security. Signal jammers and email-readers are a major growth industry in our South Africa. Also, those iron gates at Nkandla and Saxonwold aren’t going to patrol themselves, you know.

The doors of learning and of culture shall be opened. By a government messenger, arriving at 3.15pm for his 11am meeting, to tell the Vice-Chancellors that they’re getting fokkol from  Treasury because we blew it all on Dudu over at SAA.

There shall be houses, security and comfort. Hell yes. So many houses. So much security. And so, so much comfort.

There shall be peace and friendship. Actually, on second thoughts, no, there probably won’t. Because those 25-year-old “military veterans” are itching to earn some combat medals, and elections are so goddamn unpredictable.

Adopted by an untouchable cabal, printed on buffalo-skin (thanks, Cyril) and signed in Veuve Clicquot.

Zuma, our leader, ordained by God


There’s an elderly hustler who works at my local shopping centre.

Around closing time, as the last shoppers leave, he lingers in the parking garage, anxiously pressing a cellphone to his ear.

The moment you’re close enough, he launches his pitch.

“What?” he stammers into the phone. “Oh dear! I…I don’t know what to do! My wife was supposed to fetch me but now they haven’t paid her pension and there’s no money and…No, I don’t know what to do!”

He looks around, desperate and alone, a man without options but too proud to ask for help.

If it’s the first time you’ve seen it, it’s completely irresistible. You’d have to be a monster not to plunge your hand into your wallet and thrust cash at him. And when you do, it gets even more convincing. He squirms, looking very uncomfortable, reluctant to take the money. You insist. He accepts. But only because you insisted.

This week he was there again, his voice becoming tremulous as he heard the bad news on his phone for the thirtieth time that evening. Oh dear! What should he do? As I reached him I suggested he find some new material, but perhaps the person on the phone was talking very loudly because he didn’t seem to hear me, instead turning his gaze towards the next shopper coming up the walkway.

It reminded me of the other small-time con artists I’ve encountered, each hustling away, wringing a small living out of the credulous and the kind; and I wondered about how many people fall for the same sob story twice. And that made me think about the much more successful hustlers we read about every day; the charlatans who’ve cooked up such convincing pitches that we don’t only give them money but also titles like “Honourable Member” or “Mr President”.

The moment that old man approached me a second time, I saw our first meeting clearly and understood that I shouldn’t believe a word he said to me in future. And yet what about the Honourable Members and Mr President? I understand how easy it is to fall for a good hustle, but to be swindled a second time? And a third? A fourth?

How do you read about the Arms Deal, Nkandla, Marikana, the Guptas, the barely disguised capture of the Treasury (to name only those crimes that stand out from an ever-lengthening catalogue of theft and misrule), and still give the con man your sympathy?

Perhaps one answer is faith.

This week I was contacted by someone called Mark. He was objecting to a column I’d written in this newspaper, in which I’d wondered what it would take for the president to be forced to resign.

Mark started off bemoaning the current state of the party. “The ANC, our liberators, are allowing [Zuma] to destroy their legacy,” wrote Mark. This destruction, he added, was “so sad”.

It was pretty standard stuff, but then things took a turn for the surreal. An increasingly angry Mark warned me not to speak disrespectfully of Zuma. Why? Because Zuma “remains our leader, for now, ordained by God”.

He went on to remind me that while this was a free country, I should watch my “impertinent” tone because it wasn’t going “unnoticed”. So apparently I’m going on a list somewhere, drawn up by some sort of Stalinist Santa who’s going to put a lump of coal in my stocking unless Eskom has already burnt all the coal.

Not that I dwelled on those veiled threats. I was still fascinated by the first part, where an ANC supporter had just told me that Zuma was destroying the party but one shouldn’t object because God had put him there. In short: it was God’s will that the ANC be destroyed, but the ANC is good, but God is good, but the ANC is good, but…Head explodes.

I hope this is an extreme and rare position and that the ANC’s remaining supporters do not find themselves trapped in this abusive relationship of cosmic proportions. But I do find myself wondering: what role does faith play in keeping our national Ponzi scheme propped up?

Faith is belief without evidence, or without accepting evidence. You’ve seen the con man’s shtick for a second time. You have evidence that he’s a fraud. But you discount the evidence, because you’ve decided to believe, despite everything.

And so you ignore the evidence of your eyes; you ignore Nkandla, Marikana and the Guptas; and you decide that the con man isn’t a con man. You decide he’s a good bloke who genuinely needs you.

Of course, you’re half-right. He does need you. Without your faith, he’d have to work for a living.

People have their reasons for believing. I get that. But if it all boils down to faith then God help us all.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Fake it ’til they ask you to leave


From the street, the place had looked modest. The paint was stained and blistered by damp. A tree pressed ominously and expensively against the ageing plaster. In retrospect, it was an easy mistake to make.

Even when I knocked on the front door, next to the “On Show” board, there was no hint of what I was about to walk into.

But then the door opened, and I saw the estate agent’s teeth, and I realised I was in terrible, terrible trouble.

They weren’t just teeth. They were…lord, how to describe that moment when her lips pulled back to reveal the vast steppes of her immaculate dentistry? Imagine a keyboard, without the black notes. Of a church organ. In Saint Peter’s. Just row upon row, hundreds, possibly thousands, of perfectly even, blindingly white incisors.

“Welcome!” she said, and the teeth caught the light, flayed it, and nailed its corpse to the wall.

There’s that moment in the spy movie where a desperate man finds himself in a bar in Berlin at midnight, anxiously sucking on a cigarette, waiting for his contact to show. The only other person in the place is the barkeep, drying a glass. And then the desperate man notices that the glass has been dry for the last 10 minutes, and the barkeep is avoiding eye contact…

Right there, he understands that he’d been betrayed; that he needs to get out right now; but which way? Make a lunge for the back door or dive out of the window?

Those were my options, too, but I was wearing my good jersey, so diving through glass was out of the question, and the back door was blocked by a couple of house-hunters, cooing over the potential for installing a ball pond.

How had it all gone so wrong so quickly? I had wanted to spend a few minutes wandering around a small, shabby-genteel house, politely skirting shabby-genteel voyeurs who also had no intention of putting in an offer, before giving a fake name to a bored and demoralised agent and wandering out.

But I had been deceived. The sad exterior had told me I was on safe, familiar territory, but the teeth showed me that I was hopelessly out of my depth.

they wanted nine billion million and seventy hundred thousand

“They’re looking for cash,” the agent said to me. I wanted to reply, “Aren’t we all?” but just then I lost the ability to speak because she was handing me a brochure, the whole front of which was covered with zeroes: they wanted nine billion million and seventy hundred thousand for the house.

At least, that’s what it looked like out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t looking directly at the brochure, because I had realised the only way I was going to survive this was to pretend to be very, very rich. And the rich never look at the price. Sometimes they have it brought to them on a small velvet cushion. Sometimes it is whispered to them in Italian by a beautifully groomed manservant. But they do not look.

“Very good,” I murmured, and clicked my heels together in the manner of a Prussian war criminal knocking the mud off his polo boots.

“It’s obviously beautifully restored,” she said.

“Obviously,” I replied, poking at a floorboard with my foot. “Yes. Good. The floorboards are…on the floor. Yes.”

Her smile became wider and brighter, as if she’d just unsheathed an extra 50 teeth out of her jaw.

She’d seen through me.

I felt the blood drain from my face (although, to be honest, going even whiter probably counted in my favour just then). It was now or never. I had one last chance to trick her into believing I was loaded before the smile turned cold and she ordered me and my Standard Bank PlusPlan to get the hell out.

How would a trust-fund baby respond? What was it like to have – I glanced at the brochure – six million, in cash, to hand over for a rather threadbare little house? Also, was my jersey betraying me? It was lovely, very red and warm, but do the rich even wear wool? Don’t they prefer alpaca, or felt made of the pubic hair of CEOs of the corporations they’ve bought and stripped?

The rich also tend not to have books in their homes. Should I complement her on the way in which the solitary bookshelf was being used to store some Carrol Boyes ladles and an Audi cap? Perhaps I should –

“Okay!” she said brightly, and opened the door for me.

I’d forgotten the most important trait of the rich.

They don’t hesitate.

I’d revealed a nanosecond of introspection, and I was done.

“I’ll let you know if something else comes along,” she said. But she never took my details. Not even the fake ones.


First published in The Times