Author: Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

Pretending that puppets are presidents

Atul sockpuppet

“Say something to the people, Jacob.”

I don’t know how our political journalists do it.

Day after day they report to this committee room or that media centre and listen to the well-dressed guy behind the table, calling him “Minister” as if he’s an actual minister and not just a Gupta sock puppet; writing down his words as if they’re important and not just a script written in Dubai and spell-checked in the London offices of BellPottinger; writing careful and intelligent analyses of how this sock puppet’s imaginary policy will affect the imaginary policies of his fellow sock puppets, and, ultimately, the career prospects of our imaginary president, a low-level employee of Middle Eastern monopoly capital.

I understand why they have to do it. Journalists report on what is presented to them. We don’t have any actual ministers (public officials working in the best interests of the citizens of the country) so it’s the sock puppets who come to the press conferences, which means those are the ones you report on. Also, you can’t have the nation’s newspapers all leading with stories called things like “Moral Bankrupt Who’s Never Had A Real Job Dutifully Enacts New Get-Rich Scheme Of His Foreign Paymasters”.

Still, I’ve reached a curious moment. I just can’t pretend any more. The official titles have been sounding increasingly ropey but now they’ve tipped over into sheer ludicrousness, as if a group of catalogue models is wandering around our public buildings, all doing Blue Steel pouts for the camera as they introduce themselves as “Deputy President” or “Minister” or “Honourable Member of Parliament”.

The absurdity is funny, but it also exposes the danger of our current moment.

The people who control all the money and the guns are coming unhinged in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen in this country. The Nationalists, clinging to their white supremacist ideology, their terror of Communism and their Calvinist religion, were predictable right to the end. The sock puppets, by contrast, abandoned their ideology years ago and are rushing towards something much more frightening: the final split away from their most basic identities as people. Which means they could do almost anything.

You can see it in every belligerent, aimless press conference: they don’t know what they’re doing but, more important, they no longer know why they’re doing it. They’ve gone too far for too long on too little, and now, stripped of the higher moral ground and all the props of history handed to them in 1994, they stand naked before us, exposed as small, venal creatures caught in a dreadful struggle between trying to save themselves and lingering long enough to gorge on just a little more public money.

groping towards the heap of treasure

This is the lunatic dance we’re watching: they cringe away from responsibility and principle and the vastly damning verdict of posterity; and yet they still strain forward, hands grasping, groping towards the heap of treasure they hope will fill the weeping hole where their conscience and purpose once lived.

If this were simply the decline of a political party hollowed out by corruption and slowly collapsing under the weight of its own bad decisions, I might be less alarmed. But this is not the collapse of a party. It is the unravelling of a cult. And when cult leaders feel the End Times rushing towards them, things can get incredibly ugly.

It is more important than ever to focus on the absurdity of our situation. We must resist our powerful, primitive instincts that try to convince us that all of this nonsense is a reflection of some sort of reality; that State Capture is just a part of politics rather than the moment we all step back and stop participating in this parody of a state.

I respect our political journalists for the work they do as our early-warning system, but printed words and broadcast images give our imaginary politicians a veneer of legitimacy. We must chip away at that veneer every day, seeing these so-called politicians for what they are: hopelessly cornered nobodies, minor lackeys clutching their household gods as they rush between crumbling temples in a falling Rome. We must read the news not as fact but as a psychological profile of a group of desperate hustlers.

If we can keep the absurdity in clear view, then perhaps, come 2019, we can see them off and send them back to where they belong: failing, corrupt businesses; badly lit seminar rooms at increasingly irrelevant colleges; and, in some cases, prison.

For now, though, try to remember: there is no president. There are no ministers. There is no national government. There is no plan. There are only small, limited people, twitched this way and that by their compulsions, cracking under the demands of their appetites. There is only this interregnum of pure absurdity. And then there is 2019 and a chance to escape this lunacy once and for all.

*

Published in The Times

The public: enemy number one

we see you

Imagine a small group of South Africans sitting around a fire-pit at a swanky game lodge.

They’re all vastly wealthy but gloomy as hell. Earlier in the evening there was laughter and silliness but now the expensive whisky has invited grim ruminations on the state of things and on the dissatisfaction and anxiety they all share.

“This country, man,” sighs the richest of them. “It’s not like it was in the good old days.”

“It’s the masses,” murmurs another millionaire, poking at a melting ice cube. “They just don’t know how to vote properly.”

There are approving hums and sighs from the others. Silence falls. The fire gleams in puffy, watery eyes.

So whom did you picture? White captains of industry? Fair enough. They’re easy to see.

These days, though, the scene would work equally well with the senior leadership of the ANC.

Seriously. Run it again with some Zuptas in the starring roles and nothing would be out of place.

It’s not explicit yet: the ANC’s deep and growing distrust of voters, bizarrely similar to the contemptuous despair of white racists over the years. But it’s there. And it’s becoming more visible.

Last week Andile Lungisa, the Deputy Grand Panjandrum in the Eastern Cape Chapter of the ANC Youth League of Eternal Helplessness, delivered a fiery lecture at Zwide.

His speech was remarkable for a few reasons, not least because it provided the most perfect illustration of the ANC’s approach to governing that I have ever encountered.

According to The Herald, Lungisa revealed that state-owned enterprises were not, in fact, badly run piggy banks for connected gangsters but were instead models of good governance.

His example: Transnet and SAA both preside over many ships and aircraft, but, he said, “we have never heard of any ship that sank at our ports” or “any SAA aircraft missing”.

It’s genius, right? South Africa isn’t a smouldering ruin, therefore it is being well run. Jacob Zuma hasn’t released anthrax into the water supply, therefore he is a splendid leader.

It was an illuminating moment, but no less revealing was what he said next. The likes of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas needed to be guarded against, he warned, because “when the ANC decides to redeploy . or remove them, they go around mobilising the society against our movement”.

“Society against our movement.” Hold that thought for a moment.

Two weeks ago the ANC made a few fretful noises about investigating state capture. Relieved, I tweeted that a corrupt party had called on a corrupt government to investigate allegations of corruption against itself, so everything was now hunky dory.

WE SEE YOU

Moments later, a cross reply from one Sindy Mabe, a sock-puppet at Gupta TV, ANN7: “Your comments fit well with the incessant desire & public lexicon to dislodge @MYANC we see you.”

The “we see you” was a faintly nostalgic touch, the adult version of a beefy snot-nose passing a note to a child in Grade 3 that reads “WE KNOW WERE YUR LOKKER IS AND AFTER SKOOL WE R GOING 2 MESS YOU UP”. (Although it did make me wonder who the “we” was. A gaggle of ANN7 interns who always show up on the wrong day for gang meetings because they’re illiterate and can’t read their WhatsApp reminders? A senior editorial séance, where they hold hands and murmur: “Can you hear us, Atul? Show us the people we need to be watching.”?)

But again, that wasn’t the telling part. No, the really revealing part was that dog’s breakfast of a phrase, “incessant desire & public lexicon”.

I don’t watch ANN7 (because I’m a multicellular life form) so I don’t know if Ms Mabe’s grasp of words is very different to mine; but to this writer, “the incessant desire & public lexicon to dislodge” the ANC means that the public has an incessant desire to remove the ANC, and talks about it, publicly, often.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer any more than two sound-bytes signify a growing distrust of and antagonism towards voters. But it did strike me as peculiar that, within a fortnight, I’d heard a senior ANCYL person create a juxtaposition between the party and society as two separate – and opposing – things, and an ANC propagandist tell me that what a large number of people were talking about and feeling was just plain wrong.

It’s understandable. In January last year, while campaigning in Tlokwe, Cyril Ramaphosa told young voters that “the enemy wants to collapse the power of the ANC”. When the deputy president of a constitutional democracy publicly announces that opposition voters are “the enemy” is it any wonder that apparatchiks further down the food chain think in these crude binaries?

But still, I can’t help feeling that something has shifted. The chest-thumping, warlike rhetoric has become infected with real fear and littered with unconscious admissions that there are two separate camps within this country: the fracturing, shrinking ANC, and everybody else.

So what happens when the fear takes hold and ever larger sections of the public are cast as the enemy? We’re about to find out.

*

Published in The Times

Would the Comrades make it past Polly Graph?

Comrades“They’ve jogged past Mangaung! They’ve slogged through Polokwane! They’ve sidestepped Nkandla! And now it’s the final sprint towards the Union Buildings! Bob, incredible drama here in the closing stages of the 2017 Comrades’ Marathon!”

“Steve, absolutely. “What a race it’s been this – ”

“Sorry, Bob, a correction: the Comrades have asked us not to call it a ‘race’. Apparently they prefer to keep that word in their arsenal until just before election time.”

“Well, it’s been a helluva marathon, Steve, and picking a winner is going to be a game of Russian roulette.”

“You mean it’s still wide open?”

“No, I mean the winner is going to be decided in Russia over a roulette table.”

“I think you’re confusing this with the American electoral system. But never mind, these are covfefe times.”

“Nice use of an internet buzzword to make our commentary more hip for the Millennials, Bob.”

“Anything to woo the youth, Steve. Which raises the question: does 75-year-old Zuma have what it takes to go all the way, or will Ramaphosa time his kick just right and surge past at the line?”

“Bob, Zuma has been working with some amazing international coaches. As you know, he’s been part of the Gupta stable for a few years now, and they’ve reportedly done an incredible job training him to respond to basic commands – sit, stay, roll over, appoint this person as deputy minister – but you have to say that he’s going to struggle, especially because he’s carrying Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on his back.”

“Let’s see if we can get some footage of – oh, there they are, he’s battling on, she’s got her arms and legs round him, she’s urging him on with mumbled policy statements, but Steve, he’s gotta be feeling this right now. I mean, those legs are literally going to be on fire.”

“From your mouth to God’s ears, Bob. Oh, I’m hearing we’ve got to take a quick word from our sponsors.”

Now that you’ve entered your autumn years it’s time to unwind, relax, and avoid prosecution. At Dubai Summer Breeze retirement estates we understand what’s important to you and your lawyers. With a wide range of leisure activities, round-the-clock nursing staff and your own bunker, Summer Breeze is the ideal way to escape the rat race and the angry mobs back home. Dubai Summer Breeze. Because growing old shouldn’t mean dying in prison.

“Welcome back, folks. Some great footage coming in now, that’s, er, oh, OK, that’s Gwede Mantashe, with that distinctive way of running in a circle.”

He has never run this marathon, except for when he has

“Interesting technique, Bob. He’s always made it very clear that he has never run this marathon and will never run it, except for the times when he has run it, and might still run it. He says he’s especially looking forward to the up-run which will give him the opportunity to excel in the down-run, which is his preferred race.”

“Sounds like he’s on tik, Steve. But then most of the Comrades are, am I right?”

“Absolutely, Bob. And speaking of which, I asked a couple of them this morning about why they still call each other ‘Comrade’. I mean, ‘Comrade’ is a term appropriated from the Soviet Union, which we all know ended in total economic collapse and ushered in a new era of authoritarian kleptocracy.”

“What did they say?”

“They said, ‘Yep, sounds about right’.”

“OK, a lovely aerial shot right now of the pack heading up the Long Climb Towards 2019.”

“Bob, always a taxing hill. Although you’re aware of the current controversy around this route, a lot of people demanding that the Comrades get routed up and over Polly Graph.”

“I think we’d all love to see them tackle a Polly Graph type of challenge, Steve, but of course the fear is that nobody would get past a Polly Graph and we’d have to call the whole thing off.”

“The Comrades is tough enough as it stands, Bob. Already some big names dropping out of the running. Baleka Mbete, veering off course, endlessly repeating that she didn’t recognise the route. Brian Molefe, starting strongly, then retiring in tears, then getting dropped off by bakkie at the halfway point and claiming he’d never left.”

“Steve, any chance of an upset from an outsider? Julius Malema is looking fighting fit these days. And how about Mmusi Maimane?”

“Bob, I don’t have high hopes. Julius wants to nationalise the route and lease small chunks of it to each runner to grow potatoes on, and Mmusi, well, that story is just pathetic.”

“Yes, sad scenes at the start line. When Helen Zille got both feet wedged in her mouth we thought Maimane was a shoo-in, but who could have guessed he’d grab the starter pistol and shoot himself in both feet?”

“Bob, this is being broadcast by the SABC, which means we’ve got to cut away from the action for absolutely no reason, but before we go, any final thoughts?”

“Steve, these Comrades are going to lay everything on the line. Remember, the winner gets that beautiful gold medal, plus a blank cheque signed by Treasury. If I was a Gupta right now, I’d be on the edge of the servant I use as a seat, chewing the nails of the servant I pay to chew my nails. This ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

*

Published in The Times

Baby, I can change! I promise!

Say anything

“Say Anything”: ANC policy for 23 years.

Jacob Zuma, the nation’s media announced, had “survived” the meeting with the National Executive Committee, which was rather like announcing that a medieval king had survived his morning blowjob.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Zuma isn’t taking a lot of flak right now. According to insiders at the NEC meeting, anxiously warming the massage oil between their hands, 45 of the 106 attendees asked Zuma to step down. Hell, that means that only 57% of the ruling party publicly endorses the gutting of the republic for personal gain.

Then there’s the extraordinary claim in the so-called Gupta e-mails (presumably leaked to the Sunday papers by one of those malcontents to coincide with the NEC meeting) that the Zuma clan is trying to relocate to Dubai.

At first glance this looks like some sort of escape plan, a bit like the end of ‘The Sound of Music’ where the Von Trapps skedaddle over the Alps. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the Zuma Family Singers all lined up on the national stage, warbling a medley of our favourite hits from that film – The Lonely Gupta-turd; How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Free Press?; My Favourite Indians; Sell Every Mountain – before rolling the car silently down the highway to Waterkloof Air Base.

I’m not so sure, however, that a move to Dubai would necessarily be about fleeing. One of the people named in the weekend’s tranche of e-mails was Mzwanele Manyi, who once declared that there was an “oversupply” of coloured people in the Western Cape. If Mr Manyi is in any way connected to the Zumas or the Guptas, it’s possible he noticed a severe shortage of Zulus in Dubai and the whole thing is just another of his social engineering schemes.

So yes, there have been lots of hard words – Daddy even had to get a bit shouty with the NEC, telling them that if they said naughty phrases like “step down” again he would send them to their rooms without any kickbacks – but I don’t think anybody actually believes that Zuma is about to disappear. He may not be Nominal President for much longer (our actual president, is, of course, whichever Gupta feels like handling the South Africa account that day), but it is now accepted dogma that his plan is long-range, long-term control over the country via remote control.

All of which brings us, rather confusingly, to the ANC Stalwarts. You’ve probably read one of their faintly heroic ejaculations about pulling the country back from the brink and how they don’t agree with the direction we’re going.

Who sends the best emojis?

What they mean, of course, is that they are feeling terribly uncomfortable. Fighting for a good spot at the trough is hard enough at the best of times, but imagine trying to position yourself ahead of Zuma’s transformation into a digital, holographic ruler. Whose back are you going to massage now? Or will it boil down to who sends the best emojis?

Drowning people will cling to anything, so it’s not surprising that the Stalwarts are gaining some traction. Already, some folks are convincing themselves that the apparatchiks who put Zuma in power and kept him there are actually ardent democrats just waiting to explode into a rainbow of good governance. “Yes, it looked like she was asleep in parliament but she was actually resting her mind ahead of the great struggle to take back the country from, er, herself.”

Alas, they’re going to sink. I know that not everyone in government is corrupt. Some of them are merely incompetent. Others are paralysed, trapped in a web of conflicts and contradictory promises they’ve made to their backers. But when I consider life after Zuma, I remember the words of Cyril Ramaphosa, our next president.

“The ANC is pained immensely by stories of corruption,” he told the New York Times. “We are highly conscious of the damage that corruption does to a party and a country.”

He said those words in 1996. Twenty-fucking-one years ago. The context? Damage control around Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s Sarafina 2 corruption debacle. And you tell me this lot can change?

We don’t know if there is leadership that can do right by the country. Certainly many people are becoming frustrated with the media’s focus on Zuma: why, they ask, do we keep saying what we don’t want rather than outlining what we do?

I understand that question, but right now it’s like marching up to a paramedic who is holding someone’s intestines in, and saying, “Excuse me, but I’m very concerned that you’re not addressing when this person will go back to work.”

When you’re learning how to identify feelings, you start with the not-feelings: what a thing doesn’t feel like. We’re clearly unskilled at electing good governments, so, as we begin to grope our way towards a better alternative, I think it’s OK to focus on what we don’t want; to say that we don’t want this, or the people who allowed this to happen.

The next step? Education. Better safeguards. Perhaps a paragraph added to the constitution explicitly stating that the country probably shouldn’t be run via e-mail from abroad.

We’ll slowly clarify what we want. But it’s not this.

*

Published in The Times

The sext lives of politicians

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe

“…and about this long.”

Yesterday I read something that truly shocked me.

According to the Sunday Times, Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, had allegedly sent texts and e-mails of a sexual nature to a young government photographer, asking her to send him nude pictures of herself.

Wait, I haven’t got to the shocking part yet.

The photographer was reportedly suspended because of “improper behaviour” (we all know how hard this government comes down on improper behaviour) and, bizarrely, because of the sorts of clothes she wore in the presence of politicians.

That wasn’t the shocking bit either. No, what stunned me was the reaction to the story. Because there, in black and white, I read experts suggesting that the sext scandal had scuppered whatever chance Radebe had of becoming president.

I’m not sure which country those experts have lived in for the last decade, but in my country we have a president who was tried for rape and came through it absolutely unscathed. His loudest supporter at the time suggested that his accuser had had a good time. It was a vile and vastly destructive thing to say, but that statement did not stop Julius Malema from becoming the leader of a large party and it won’t stop him becoming president at some point.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Radebe hasn’t got problems. No doubt he lies awake every night, tossing and turning on that huge pile of money that senior ANC people use instead of mattresses, fretting about the coming months.

For starters, he’s got to time his leap off the sinking SS Zupta just right. Then there’s the wording of his inevitable not-quite-apology. This, at least, is less stressful because he can just plagiarise someone else’s: these days there’s a new one almost every week, delivered by one of the coterie of arse-kissers who put Zuma in power and kept him there, becoming gigantically wealthy as they helped him sell the country to the highest bidder.

The rhetoric is pious, full of resolutions to do better, but every single one of them is saying that same thing: “Baby? Babe? Please pick up. I was going through some stuff back at Polokwane…and…Also it’s not really my fault, you know? I mean, you don’t know what he’s like! He’s…well..I just want to let you know I’ve changed and I promise this time it’ll be different. For realsies.”

Yes, Jeff Radebe has plenty to vex him, but if anyone in Zuma’s South Africa still believes that explicit sexts are enough to hurt an embedded politician, they really haven’t been paying attention.

The story has been sold as faintly salacious but one should be cautious of seeing the sexual exploits of powerful people as some sort of entertainment, given their potential for exploitation, a wildly skewed power balance, and, frankly, abuse.

What do they write?

Still, it did make me wonder about the secret, digital sex lives of our senior politicians. Assuming that some of them have secret affairs with relative equals, what exactly do they write in those sweaty-palmed exchanges?

After all, desire is a fairly honest emotion but how do you express it when you’ve been trained since Comradegarten to speak in euphemisms? Are you able to suggest a lunchtime quickie in a nearby hotel or does everything sound like a policy statement? “Our position is that we are generally in favour of a potentiality in which we boost job creation in both the hospitality and prophylactic industries.”

Certainly, I would imagine that it’s important to take into account someone’s political ideology before embarking on a secret sext affair. For example, if an EFF member asks you for a picture that will make the earth move, he is almost definitely asking for a photo of a tractor-manufacturing plant in the former Soviet Union.

Likewise, if you’re going to get steamy with a senior DA type, you should probably abandon some of your more traditional romantic preconceptions. “Send me a picture of you…No, that one’s got a poor person in the background. Please put it on a bus to Wolwerivier and then take the pic again. OK. Good. Hot. Now show me the benefits of colonialism! Yes! Put on a pair of jodhpurs and straddle a railway line. Oh god yes, you really float my gunboat.”

But whatever you do, and whomever you do it with, do not have an online affair with someone high up in the ANC. Because we all know how that ends.

He’ll tell you he looks like Idris Elba. You’ll ask for a picture. He’ll send you a picture of Idris Elba. You’ll say, “Wait, this is Idris Elba”, and he’ll say you’re a racist who works for the CIA. You’ll say, “It’s over, I’m mailing a picture of a tractor-manufacturing plant to the Commander-In-Chief,” and he’ll beg you to stay. He can change. He was wrong. He’ll do anything. Except, you know, actual governance.

Yes, we’ve all been there. Many still are. And it’s time for that sordid little affair to come to an end.

*

Published in The Times

Another beautiful day. Damn.

Theewaterskloof Dam

The woman at reception was apologetic. “I’m afraid there might be some bad weather on the way,” she said, peering out at a distant wisp of cloud.

We understood why she’d said it. Most of the people who stayed at her establishment were tourists from the northern hemisphere. To them, rain is bad weather and sun is good weather. Of course she was going to apologise for the chance of a shower.

The peculiar thing, though, is that it wasn’t just an act put on for sun-seeking Swedes and Canadians. The locals believe it too. Ask most residents of this water-scarce country and they’ll tell you that the total absence of rain is an ideal state of affairs.

At the height of Cape Town’s last heat wave I heard a local deejay announcing that the dust-choked, raw-nerved city could look forward to “another amazing weekend of perfect weather” with temperatures throbbing up past 37 degrees and into the space where people burst into tears mid-conversation.

Yesterday, as I read that the city has eight weeks of water left, I heard someone sighing about how beautiful the weekend had been. He talked of windless warmth, a sky of the most perfect blue. The sea had been warm enough to swim in. Bliss!

What he was describing was, of course, a catastrophe; the preamble to Googling, “How to boil your own urine so that it is OK to drink”; but he could not see it as anything but aesthetic perfection.

It’s not our fault. Our colonial programming runs incredibly deep and a large part of that software is dedicated to an unbreakable attachment to the picturesque and the belief that scenery that was agreeable to British people in the 1700s is agreeable to us. And so we go out into the glare of this monstrous autumnal summer with its cruelly empty skies, peeling sweaty shirts off our backs, watching the dams drop and drop and drop, and admire the “good weather” and take photographs of yet another barren sunrise.

I’ve always felt that Cape Town is a temporary place. Established by a Dutch corporation as a satellite office; occupied by the British to guard sea routes to much more important places; used as a dumping-ground for revolutionaries from altogether elsewhere; it can seem like a city that has spent over 300 years waiting for a memo from Head Office to sell the furniture, shred the files and head back home.

the sand is running through the hourglass

Of course, that was just a feeling. I had no evidence of how fragile my city might be. Now, though, as the satellite images show the rain curling away to the south, week after week, and the sun rises on yet another depressingly “beautiful” day, I think I’m seeing proof. The sky has shifted. And now the sand, white and fine and unmoved by a breeze, is running through the hourglass.

Not that one should panic, mind you. Cape Town might be running out of time but the world goes on. I’m not even that fussed about climate change. That’s because a lot of people are very worried about it, which almost certainly means it’s not the thing that’s going to nail us. No, what gets you in the end is the banal threat you’d more or less made peace with; the one that was so over-hyped that it had become boring and, therefore, invisible.

For example: last year the Chapman University released its annual Survey of American Fears. Of the 1,500 people polled, 41% cited terrorist attacks as their greatest worry. Nowhere on the list of American horrors was “dying of heart disease”, a condition that kills over 1,500 Americans every day. That’s a 9/11 every two days.

And so it goes with all of us. We stay in the shallows to avoid the infinitesimally small chance of being eaten by a shark; and when we’re done we hop happily into our car and tootle off into the murderous streets, entirely convinced we will not become one of the 14,000 South Africans killed on the roads every year.

So yes, I have no doubt that what’s going to end humanity is something we’ve already grown tired of. Some clever little creepy crawly that shrugs off our antibiotics. Maybe a less clever little nuclear war. I know. So early 1990s. So lame.

Cape Town is in trouble, but it’s not going to shrivel and die. People are talking about drilling holes into aquifers, or blowing the budget on desalination. And who knows? Maybe dependable, good rain will come back one day, soaking us through the winter as it used to.

But as another brilliant dawn breaks, and the sky turns to deep blue, untroubled by a single cloud, and the wind doesn’t ruffle the vast, undrinkable ocean, I’m going to watch my language. Today is a beautiful day in Cape Town, but this is not good weather. And if the weather stays beautiful and bad for the next month, it could get very ugly indeed.

*

Published in The Times

Playing in the traffic

skaterWgggg crack blat. Most afternoons. Wgggg crack blat.

The wgggg is a young man, piloting his skateboard across the tar for the 40th time that morning. Crack: he has jolted his skateboard five inches off the ground and has collided with a low concrete step. A moment later, blat: the board has skewed away and tumbled over and the young man has jogged to a stop nearby.

For hours. Wgggg crack blat. Over and over and over and over again. The wgggg never gets longer or louder: his approach speed is constant. The crack is always just a crack, never a whoosh or a bang. And the blat is always a disappointing quarter-second later.

I used to think he was practising, gaining the skill and confidence he needed to launch further and higher and more dangerously, but now I think he is doing exactly what he intends to do. These are not failed attempts. They seem to satisfy him. This peculiar ritual of 40 or 50 small, controlled collisions is where he finds his skateboarding pleasure.

The sound is fantastically irritating. It occupies the same short-fused part of my brain where large flies knock stupidly against windowpanes and leaf-blowers moan pointlessly at pavements. Sometimes the wgggg crack blat falls silent and peace returns and then there it is again – wggg crack blat! – because the man has decided to collide with the step five more times, just because the afternoon was becoming too gentle; and I want to storm over there and say cruel things to him about how small and wretched his stunt is.

But apart from being unkind, that would rather miss the point, because he’s not doing it for an audience. At least not a real one. He’s doing it for an audience in his imagination. And because it’s all imaginary, it doesn’t really matter how clumsy he looks in reality.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons you must never see video footage of yourself playing your chosen sport. I used to play cricket, and when I imagined myself batting I pictured a sort of 1940s fever dream of grace and poise, all cummerbunds and foxtrots and Spitfires doing slow rolls. Then I saw a clip of myself. Imagine a bear finding one of those tiny bottles of anchovies. It rears up, collapses onto its rump, awkwardly picks up the jar and tries to unscrew the top. Then it has its middle stump knocked over. No, you must never see footage of yourself.

I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining that I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life as a skateboarding stunt demon, and I am happy to live and let live. I can even deal with the noise.

But I have one condition: the man and his dreams of skateboarding pyrotechnics must stay where they are, in his driveway.

You’d think this is a small thing to ask; that daydreaming skaters wouldn’t want to go out into the sobbing chaos of Cape Town traffic. But you’d be wrong. Suddenly, the fantasists on four wheels are everywhere.

I don’t mean the ones who whiz down the city’s steepest and most twisting roads, ripping past you with the sound of tearing canvas and the half-whispered, quickly denied thoughts of pedestrians wondering what it would be like to see a face hit the tar at that speed. Those guys have been around for years and I must confess I quite like them. Not only do I admire their courage but they are also helping a dear friend of mine, who specialises in plastic- and reconstructive surgery, to put his daughter through university.

No, the scary ones are the gentle dreamers, because they have left their driveways and brought their denial to the streets and now my reality is starting to disintegrate.

As they roll serenely into oncoming traffic, or dawdle along in the middle of a lane, anaesthetised by their headphones and their fierce solipsism, you can see them dreaming: that they are physically indestructible; that their slow pace and erratic path are somehow an expression of interesting authenticity rather than the wandering of, say, a village idiot. And those dreams are making me question my assumptions about everything.

I mean, do I really brake? What if I just curled up in a barrel and rocked it back and forth until it wobbled out into the traffic? Wouldn’t that be better than owning a car?

On the weekend, a skateboarder entered an intersection near my home. He had fitted a small motor to his board and he stood perfectly still and upright, buzzing along at a slow jogging pace. The cars he was holding up hooted at him. He looked up, delicately bemused, as if he had heard a nightingale sing. The dream fluttered, stirred. For a moment it seemed that he might wake.

But to ride a skateboard in traffic requires a profoundly deep sleep; and so he trundled on, a soft fool on a plank, drifting through a sea of murderous metal.

Wgggg crack blat.

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Published in The Times