Do lobsters scream when you drop them into boiling water? I can’t say, never having done it myself, but I do know what frogs say when you slowly bring a pot of water to the boil around them: “Stop complaining about Eskom and do something constructive!”
Last week our national swamp was in full voice. Most chirped “Bloody Eskom!” but a sizeable chorus was stamping its tiny webbed feet and telling the rest not to be so pessimistic. “Complaining has never changed anything!” croaked some on Facebook; but one of them was more concerned with the present than the past, and specifically how I was undermining the country.
We had just subsided, with a collective judder of expiring fridges, into a spell of Stage 3 load-shedding when I suggested on Twitter that the country was now being powered by an Eskom technician’s grandmother rubbing a Shoprite packet against a cat. At once I was told that such jokes did nothing but undermine the efforts of those trying to fix the country. We needed solutions, not jokes.
I don’t want to undermine anyone, least of all the whole country, so please allow me to issue a warning. Dear reader, if you are easily undermined, perhaps by brushing against a dandelion seed, please stop reading now: the rest of this column contains words that might not spontaneously eject flocks of winged kittens straight into your eyeballs. If your solution to the electricity omni-shambles is to quote Oprah quoting a head prefect quoting a Hallmark card quoting a unicorn farting a rainbow, then perhaps now is the time to go back to your wigwam and put the cheese back in your ears.
Still, there is no use ranting. Shout too loudly and nobody can hear the words any more. Besides, I am not one of those people who are angry because they believe something has gone terribly wrong.
On the contrary, I believe the power crisis is running exactly according to plan. That plan, called “The Plan” and written on a napkin in barbecue sauce during a bosberaad in 2002, reads as follows: “Electricity. The mains box is in the kitchen. Make sure the big switch is in the up position. If it jumps down check if an appliance has fallen into the Jacuzzi, then push it up again. If it jumps down again wedge it up with a stick. If the box catches on fire, phone Eskom. If Eskom doesn’t answer, phone Eskom again. If Eskom still doesn’t answer, phone Eskom and tell them to answer because it’s a national emergen-” The rest is obscured by a blob of mustard.
I am joking, of course. There is no napkin, because there’s no plan. All there seems to be is a kind of totem-stroking faith, as if our leaders are a group of cargo-cultists who have built a replica of a power station out of fruit crates and are now wondering why the megawatts aren’t crackling through the palm-frond wires they’ve plaited together. Their confusion is palpable. The electricity used to come from Eskom (they murmur to each other). If we go through the correct motions – wiggling the mains switch, paying gigantic bonuses – the electricity will come from Eskom once more. We just have to wait and pray.
But there I go undermining again. And to be honest, I don’t actually believe that our leaders spend all their time waiting for the electricity to come back, mainly because they’ve all got generators. I also don’t believe that they’re deliberately ignoring our questions and demands. They just can’t hear us above the cacophony of the trough. Seriously. It’s really hard to hear distant whines about electricity when you’re deafened by glop-blorb-schplurp sounds punctuated with contented grunts and burps.
Maybe I am cynical. Perhaps, on the whole, it is better to suggest solutions than to complain about problems. But the thing is, my poor, easily undermined darlings, solutions were suggested. Over and over again, for 20 years. They were suggested and then underlined in luminous marker pens. They were presented in clear, large fonts on official documents, with pictures for those who are resistant to reading. They were written in fairy lights wrapped around polite, articulate submissions by experts. They were written in chocolate sauce on the ice-cream cakes celebrating 10, 15 and 20 years of democracy. And now it seems that they were ignored. So you’ll have to forgive those of us who amuse ourselves at Eskom’s expense, because at this point all we can do is laugh.
As for undermining the country, I think Eskom is doing fine without my help. South Africa became famous for negotiated power sharing. We just never imagined that power sharing would one day involve nipping next door to plug your phone into your neighbour’s diesel generator.
Originally published in The Times and TimesLive