Yes, but what can we do?


Yes, but what can we do?

It’s a question I’m seeing everywhere as the oxygen is sucked from our national life.

We’re feeling desperate. Almost desperate enough to do something.

I’m reading angry Facebook posts about tax boycotts and marches and petitions to the United Nations. Intelligent people are talking about emigration. Less intelligent people are Tweeting about shooting students and assassinating politicians.

Almost all of it is unwise or downright suicidal. But what do we do? Is it enough simply to vote in 2019, and, if the results are ruled free and fair, to suck it up for another five years?

This option is becoming increasingly unpopular. There is a feeling in South Africa that we are running out of time and that the usual rules and systems of democracy might need to be put aside to save the country.

That, of course, is exactly what dictators say in their first broadcast to the nation. Which is why it might be important for all of us to step back; to make a conscious decision to resist this collective anxiety and to try to find a space of relative calm and perspective. Perhaps the answer to “What can we do?” is simply to stay alert, and to try to remember some of the following.

1. Things are moving. The 24-hour news cycle and a lack of historical perspective have made us dangerously impatient with the pace of the democratic process. To the Twitter generation a week is an age. It feels as if the current cabal has been in power forever. But it hasn’t, and whatever is happening is happening fairly fast.

2. We don’t have a government, we have looters. Once you understand this, most headlines will make a lot more sense and your gloom will feel slightly more focused.

3. Hyperbole is a national sport. When you hear that a certain neighbourhood or campus has “turned into a war zone” because armed police are present and there are some bricks in the road, take a look at a picture of Aleppo. South Africa is a violent, angry country, but we’re not at war and it helps nobody to believe that we are.

4. The bar has been lowered so far that ground zero feels like progress. In our country it is now considered an act of almost Scandinavian good governance for a mayor to drive to work in a car worth less than R1-million. This is not a rational response and we need to be wary of it. Eventually the ANC is going to charge someone with corruption or appoint a qualified person into a senior job, and, because our expectations have been lowered so execrably far, it will seem that accountability Nirvana has arrived. Don’t fall for it.

5. The EFF has told us what it is: we should try to believe it. The Fighters want a nationwide shutdown in support of the students and to remove Jacob Zuma. This makes perfect sense, because, as any surgeon will tell you, the best way to save a patient on the operating table is to switch off the machines and to walk out. (Also, I don’t want to rain on any goose-stepping parades but the last time a militaristic party representing less than 10% of South Africans brought the country to a grinding halt, we called it the Rubicon Speech and agreed it probably wasn’t a great idea.)

6. Experts create clarity. Read Achille Mbembe on Facebook and Pierre de Vos on his blog. Likewise, the AmaBhungane are very good at what they do. For the rest, don’t automatically believe anyone who makes a living from expressing an opinion, and that includes me. Also don’t assume an academic title means anything. (Speaking of which, if there’s anyone at the University of Zululand reading this, I’m still waiting for my PhD in Astrophysics to arrive in the mail like you promised. Did you not get my EFT or what?)

7. The looters want us to call each other names. The more cross-eyed we get calling each other “stupid” or fighting small battles of ego and identity, the less clearly we can see the gangsters for what they are and the more cash they can stuff into their pockets.

Finally: have a plan for what comes next. The looters are either going to win or they’re going to be severely injured in 2019 and start scattering. If they win, you’ll need a passport and liquid assets. If they lose more ground, and opposition parties step into the vacuum, stay intelligent. Everyone is corruptible and if you don’t think 20 years in power would turn the DA or the EFF into the current ANC, then you’re a politician’s wet dream.

So what can we do? Read. Think. Prepare. It doesn’t feel like a solution. But it’s a start.


First published in The Times and on Rand Daily Mail

Time to call things by their name

photo6“Student leader”. That’s what the journalist called Mcebo Dlamini.

I reread the paragraph to check if I’d missed a line somewhere, perhaps one in which Dlamini was described as a fantasist who admired Hitler, who called Jews “devils”, who claimed that Wits had head-hunted him to do a “secret” degree in nuclear physics, and who was now leading a minority of students at the university. Nope. It just read “student leader”.

Because, of course, that’s how we roll. An integral part of our shared South African-ness is a refusal to name things as they are. We can be outspoken, loud, even rude; but without fail we’ll call a spade a fork.

Decades ago, politicians enforced white supremacy but called it “good neighbourliness”. They shot schoolchildren but called it “restoring order”. These days the policies have changed but the coyness remains. When Julius Malema threatened journalists with violence, their colleagues giggled and called him “charismatic” and “controversial”. When corporations collude to fix prices we are told that “free enterprise” can be “complex”.

Of course, none of this is new to any of the angry South Africans dispirited by this country’s ongoing rush towards insignificance. But what is remarkable is that our angriest, most outspoken critics seem themselves to be indulging in a strange kind of denial.

You see it in our incredulous responses to the latest abuses of power. We find it shocking that the SABC has lost R400-million and disgraceful that Hlaudi Motsoeneng is still employed. We wonder exactly what Blade Nzimande is paid for, given the omnishambles that is higher education. And as for Zuma, well, don’t get us started! Has he no shame? Why would he do everything he’s done when he knew he’d be found out?

I don’t want to knock anyone who voices these sorts of ideas. It is important to speak out against bad government.

But here’s the thing.

Zuma isn’t in government. Neither is Nzimande. Because there is no government.

Hlaudi doesn’t work for the national broadcaster because we don’t have one.

SA Airways isn’t a dysfunctional airline because it’s not an airline.

What they are – what all of it is, from the corridors of the Union Buildings right down to crumbling rural municipal offices – is an ATM.

withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can

The entire edifice that we still insist on calling “the public sector” is a vast cash-dispensing system, and everyone with the PIN code has only one job: withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 2010, Zwelinzima Vavi famously warned us of a “predatory elite”. The SA Communist Party dispensed with its usual gobbledygook long enough to use the word “looting”. Even Gwede Mantashe admitted that people in the government were using their positions as “a stepping stone to power and accumulation”.

But I would argue that, for all our huffing and puffing, we remain naïve. After all, you’re only shocked by Zuma if you believe that he is a civil servant answerable to the public. You’re only outraged by Hlaudi and the SABC if you believe that they are still somehow connected to a functioning bureaucracy. You only talk about money being “lost” if you believe that there is a system in place and that something has gone wrong. Which, of course, is not the case.

“Why do they do it when they know they’ll be caught?” Well, it’s basic maths. By the time they’re caught they’ll have pocketed tens of millions. And what does “caught” actually mean? Nothing. If the only price of acquiring multi-generational wealth is to be called a thief by some columnists, many more of us would climb in with both hands.

All of which is why the outrage is starting to sound a bit foolish. When people get robbed by a gang dressed as police, they immediately recognise that they’ve been duped. Not us. We’re still aghast, telling each other “Sjoe, those were really unprofessional cops, hey?”

The looters have about 30 months left. That takes us up to the 2019 elections, at which point the ATM’s code will be changed and a lot of peripheral gang members will be cut off. Those B-grade gangsters will need to crack on if they’re going to take their 10- or 15-million before they’re ousted or audited. They know what they need to do.

And so do we. For starters, we need to take our collective head out of our communal arse and dispense with naïve beliefs. We need to look past the illusion of politics and see the ATM.

Journalists need to say “stolen” instead of “lost”; “looted” instead of “misallocated”. For our own intellectual clarity, we need to stop believing that these are good people doing their job badly and start understanding that they are bad people doing their job well.

And in 30 months, either they go or we do.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Niemöller Redux

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was staying in my lane.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I did not want to derail the positionality of the discussionality.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because Mcebo Dlamini says they’re devils and, I mean, he speaks for Wits students
And also did you see that thing on Facebook about how the Rothschilds rule the world
And are basically funding genocide pretty much everywhere?

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me
But that’s OK because I’m really awful so I probably deserve to be
Put up against a wall.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled Hillary voters…


Ellis Island 1892 or OR Tambo 2016?


Dear South Africans,

In 2015 the mainstream liberal media dismissed the idea that Donald Trump would run for president. Then, when he did, it insisted he would withdraw from the race in early 2016. Soon afterwards it guaranteed it was impossible for him to gain the Republican Party‘s presidential nomination.

Given that it has just told us that Trump’s showing in the first debate was a disaster and that his late-night Twitter rants have scuppered his chances, we now have to assume that he will sweep to victory on November 8.

This will, of course, trigger a humanitarian crisis. Vast waves of American liberals will grab their family photo albums, their PhD theses on Season 7 of Friends as a liminal simulacrum of Peak Oil, and race for the nearest border.

Most will go to Canada for emotional and psychological reasons. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a liberal, pro-LGBTI feminist who is also selling $15-billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, where women need a man’s permission to go anywhere and where being gay is punishable by death. This grand hypocrisy will remind Americans of many of their own politicians, and the familiarity will comfort them.

Many, however, will flee to other parts. Inevitably, some will come to South Africa. We urge you to welcome them into your homes, showing the hospitality we South Africans have always shown to displaced and desperate foreigners who — wait, actually, on second thoughts, never mind.

If you do decide to foster some Americans, please bear the following in mind.

Firstly, when they step off the airliner they will be frightened by the strangeness of their surroundings. We recommend that you slowly wave a copy of The Audacity of Hope and wear a rubber Tina Fey mask. When you speak, try a Jon Stewart monologue to break the ice.

They will also not have seen cars as small as yours. (Yes, some of you drive SUVs, but given how you drive them we’re pretty sure you’re not the fostering kind, so we’re talking to the rest.) When they see you in your Golf or Picanto or Yaris they will assume that you are an Oompa Loompa coming to take them to a chocolate factory. Reassure them that you are not an Oompa Loompa, perhaps by showing them your ID.

Whatever you do, don’t take them to a Spur

Try to lift their spirits with hearty meals,  but remember that very few Americans have ever eaten real food. When you offer them bread, beer or chocolate (rather than their usual food-like substances) expect surprise and anger. (Whatever you do, don’t take them to a Spur. They know their own history, and, not having grown up in South Africa, they will find it macabre and upsetting that you have taken them to a genocide-themed restaurant.)

Home life will pose some challenges but most can be overcome with patience and understanding. Like the beavers and woodpeckers of their homeland, Americans live in wooden houses, so try not to be angry if you come home one day and find that they have constructed a new wing out of plywood and staples. Thank them, and gently explain their mistake to them.

Any acrimony that may arise will be short-lived due to the fact that Americans are unfailingly friendly and optimistic. This may be upsetting to most South Africans, but do not let your foster Americans drag you down with their sunny natures and never-say-die pragmatism. Remember who you are: a gloomy South African, convinced that it’s all going to hell, but determined to do almost nothing to change your situation. Remember the true meaning of ubuntu: I am here because you’re still here, and as long as you’re still here, I’m probably staying.

A word of warning: do not become too attached to your foster Americans. Trump’s presidency is likely to last no more than 18 months (analysts suggest he may become increasingly irritated by “the yuge piles of paper with words on ’em” and simply wander off one day). And when he goes, so will your Americans.

Above all, try not to be smug. It may be tempting to make superior comments about a country in which an aggressive bigot like Trump can become president, but remember that you live in the country of Jacob Zuma and Hlaudi Motsoeneng, so you might want to pipe down a little.

More importantly, try to remember that if sudden, shocking change can happen in the richest country in the world, with almost universal employment and a vast, settled political elite, then it can happen anywhere, out of the blue.

So be nice to your Americans. Because you never know when you’ll need to grab the family photo album and the PhD, and go and look up faraway friends.


First published in The Times and at Rand Daily Mail

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