Author: Tom Eaton

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

Waiting for Godnows: A Tragi-Comedy in One Act

this is fine

The smoking ruins of a collapsed building. Two loyal comrades, STEADFAST and VICTORIOUS, sit in the rubble. They are on fire.

VICTORIOUS: Comrade, I am beginning to suspect that the building may not be structurally sound.

STEADFAST: I understand that you are in shock, but we do not air such views in public. Take your concerns to the appropriate forum, such as the suggestion box on the fourth floor.

VICTORIOUS: But comrade, the fourth floor is no longer there.

STEADFAST: That is defeatist talk. See, all the floors are here, all around us. It is much more efficient this way, with all floors rationalised into one single layer of gravel and dust. It also means you don’t have to walk up stairs. And that is good: I have always thought that stairs are elitist because they imply that some people are lower than others.

VICTORIOUS: Very true. Down with stairs!

STEADFAST: Down with stairs! Although it now occurs to me that walking up stairs, thereby raising yourself up, might be a revolutionary act.

VICTORIOUS: Perhaps you are right. Up with stairs!

STEADFAST: Up with stairs!

A pause. The soft crackling of flames.

VICTORIOUS: Comrade, I do not wish to be counter-revolutionary but, since we are on fire, do you think we should ask someone for help?

STEADFAST: You are indulging in reckless intellectual adventurism, comrade. How do you even know that we are on fire?

VICTORIOUS: Well, because I can see the flames dancing on my knees and I’m in terrible pain, and also your face is melting off.

STEADFAST: I see these things too, comrade, but my point is: how do we know that these are not natural events that occur from time to time during the life of any organisation? Why opt for fear-mongering explanations and play straight into the hands of counter-revolutionaries who want us to indulge in bourgeois conceits like fire extinguishers?

VICTORIOUS: So what should we do?

STEADFAST: We must take a consultative and collectivist approach to our questions, and ask the pyrotechnicians at branch level if we are, in fact, on fire. If they conclude that we are, then we must make sure with party structures that we were set on fire in the correct fashion, so that there can be no hint of favouritism or factionalism.

VICTORIOUS: Agreed.

STEADFAST: Comrade, if I may be frank, it alarms me how eager you were just now to ask for help.

VICTORIOUS: Well, it’s just that we’re on fire …

STEADFAST: Potentially on fire, pending the decision of branch pyrotechnicians. Remember, asking for help implies that there is a problem, and our Leader explicitly told us that there was no problem, shortly before he demolished the building.

VICTORIOUS: I’m sorry, comrade. We are led.

STEADFAST: We are led! And if he has decided to lead us into this crater, where we find ourselves allegedly and potentially on fire, pending a review, then we must respect that decision! But back to my concerns about a potentially irregular process of conflagration. Comrade, which structures did you go through in order to be set on fire?

VICTORIOUS: Well, there was a burning doorway that I sort of fell through as the building collapsed so I suppose …

STEADFAST: The building did not collapse. It redeployed itself in a downward direction, to be closer to the grassroots that sustain our glorious movement.

A passer-by, CHARITY, approaches the crater. She is carrying a fire extinguisher.

CHARITY: Excuse me, I couldn’t help noticing that you’re on fire in a crater.

VICTORIOUS: Stay in your lane! Do not be so arrogant as to think you know what is happening inside our movement!

STEADFAST: Well said, comrade! I see you have come around.

VICTORIOUS: I have been galvanised by her racist liberalism. She is clearly trying to impose her not-on-fire-in-a-crater ideology on us.

STEADFAST: Exactly. Letting her put out the fire would be a betrayal of everything this movement stands for! An injury to one must be an injury to all, even if they weren’t injured at the start!

VICTORIOUS: Forward to 2019, when we will give our Leader a mandate to set fire to everyone all over again!

STEADFAST: Forward to glorious, revolutionary, historic total incineration!

They turn to ash.  CHARITY shrugs and wanders away.

*

Published in The Times

Temba Bavuma: A Rock In A Hard Place

TembaEarlier this year I noticed a strange cricketing trend: over the last decade, the Test teams most likely to be shot out for under 100 were not underachievers like the West Indies or relative minnows Bangladesh. Instead, the most implosion-prone batting lineups on the planet were South African and Australian.

I examined this peculiar statistical blip in an article for The Cricket Monthly, and, unsurprisingly, found a few culprits: when a team crumbles for less than 100, a lot of things have gone badly wrong. But one of the most common factors I found was a weak link at No.6 in the batting order.

In this era of fluid batting orders and big-hitting all-rounders floating around between No.5 and the tail, it’s easy to forget that, for most of Test history, No.6 has been a specialist position. That’s because the player who walks out at four down needs an unusual combination of gifts: the shots and aggression to accelerate and drive home a winning position, but also the technique and restraint of an opening batsman as he sees off the second new ball. Or, in the case of a nightmare collapse, the first new ball…

During sub-100 implosions, I found, South African and Australian No.6’s weren’t even trying to play conservatively, instead throwing the bat at everything in their half. The results were dismal.

Of course, we’re not talking about huge numbers of Tests: the Proteas have collapsed for under 100 on only four occasions since readmission. But the accelerating frequency of those collapses – one in 2006, then 2011, then 2015 and 2016 – seemed to hint at a trend.

Since I wrote that piece, the Proteas haven’t crumbled to a sub-100 total again. And yet the last eighteen months have been fraught with top- and middle-order collapses. Stiaan van Zyl, Stephen Cook and JP Duminy have all been axed precisely because the Proteas have found themselves at 50 for 4 far too many times in recent series.

So why haven’t the Proteas slumped to the humiliation of a double-digit total since then?

The answer, I believe, stands 5-foot-and-change, has the heart of a heavyweight boxer, and, when needed, a bat as wide as a barn door.

a proper Test batsman

I’ve been a fan of Bavuma’s since his debut. As cricket is slowly eroded by a preference for can’t-be-arsed T20 tonkers with iffish technique and the attention spans of goldfish, Bavuma is a proper Test batsman: calm, organized, patient, and possessing some beautiful shots he keeps under strict control. In the field, he sparkles with the same magic that illuminated Jonty Rhodes, reminding us that this is all supposed to be fun while still giving the impression that a miracle catch or cobra-strike run-out are never far away.

The trouble with comparing him to Rhodes, however, is that you also have to acknowledge one unflattering similarity: like Rhodes, Bavuma doesn’t score enough runs.

This week, when he scored his 1,000th Test run, many of his admirers were quick to point out that he had reached the milestone in 35 innings, one fewer than it had taken the mighty Jacques Kallis to reach the same tally.

They meant well, and I know what they were trying to say, but Bavuma can do without those sorts of compliments. Kallis had perhaps the worst start to his international career of any South African batsman in Test history, and they’re really not doing Bavuma any favours by pointing out that he has almost exactly replicated the Kallis trainwreck. They’re also not easing the pressure on him by cooking up statistical comparisons: Kallis reached his 2,000th run in his 55th innings, so if Bavuma is going to keep pace with the illustrious run machine, he will need to score 52 runs in every one of his next 19 innings.

look at the recent past, not the future

I understand why Bavuma’s fans are reaching for Kallis’s legacy. Even his most loyal supporters have to admit that his record looks weak. An average of 31.75 after 36 innings is low, no matter how much future greatness you invoke.

But here’s the thing. If you want to find evidence for why Bavuma should be penciled into every Proteas Test XI, you don’t need to speculate on some vague, imaginary future. You can simply point to the recent past and one undeniable fact: when South Africa is under the hammer in a Test match, Bavuma is already a star.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s watched any cricket over the last 18 months.

The Proteas are 32 for 4 in their first innings at Perth when Bavuma walks in. His 51 nurses them to 242. The Proteas stay in the game, then win it.

Ten days later, in Hobart, South Africa have shot out Australia for 85 but they’re also folding fast, losing 4 for 33 to find themselves on 76 for 4. Bavuma puts his back to the castle door, grips his axe with both hands, and survives for 204 balls. The Proteas win.

Wellington: the Black Caps have put up 268 in their first dig, not a great total but still, it seems, a winning one as the Proteas fold to 79 for 5. Bavuma does a Gandalf (“You! Shall Not! Pass!”) and makes a patient 89. The Proteas post 359, and go on to win the Test.

Even Monday’s grim loss at The Oval might have been grimmer without Bavuma.

At 47 for 4 in their first innings and with England making the ball do obscene things under grey skies, South Africa were in real danger of being shot out for under 100 and forced to follow on with three days still to play. But Bavuma’s unflustered rearguard stands with Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel took the Proteas to the relative calm of the next morning with its blue skies and easier conditions. Dean Elgar has been rightly praised for his heroic, bloody-minded hundred, but it was Bavuma who took the Oval Test into a fourth and fifth day.

why is he averaging just 31?

Clearly, Temba Bavuma is a man with the temperament and the technique for hard-fought, bare-knuckle Test cricket. So why is he averaging just 31?

I had a look at his stats and I was surprised by what I found.

In the last decade, in all Test matches, the fourth wicket has fallen, on average, with the score on 166. This fairly middling number would probably feel right to most fans: if your No.6 is taking guard at 160 for 4 in the first innings, you’d be hesitant to put a lot of money on the result either way. It’s fairly solid, but 160 for 4 could become 160 for 5…

Not surprisingly, the fourth wicket falls earlier for losing teams and much later for winning ones. In the last ten years, losing teams have found themselves, on average, at 112/4, while teams that have gone on to win have averaged 207/4.

So, using the figures above, let’s extrapolate a variety of match situations that your average No.6 might walk out into at the fall of the fourth wicket:

0/4 to 60/4: a complete disaster; heroic defence, hard work and plenty of luck required to avoid a major defeat.

70/4 to 130/4: deep trouble. Requires intense discipline; defeat still the most likely option.

140/4 to 180/4: solid; probably safe for now; can’t afford mistakes but potential to kick on and start dictating terms.

190/4 to 230/4: safe, en route to a winning total. Batsmen who apply themselves can make plenty.

240/4 and up: dominance, very little pressure on batsmen. Help yourself.

You’d expect Bavuma to have experienced all of these situations in more or less equal measure. But that was the first surprise.

rampant or wretched

Of his 34 innings in the middle order (he’s opened twice), just six have started with the Proteas in that “average” range. Which means that, in general, Bavuma walks to the crease with his team in one of two positions: rampant or wretched.

The second surprise was how Bavuma responds to those two match situations.

The history of Test cricket is pretty clear about what we can expect in both scenarios. It’s Batting 101. If you come in at 50/4, you’re facing fresh, fired-up bowlers, a hard ball and enormous pressure. Scoring runs is going to be difficult. Conversely, if you come in at 300/4, the bowlers are exhausted and demoralized, the ball is a hacky-sack, and there’s no pressure. It’s a buffet. Tuck in.

According to the fundamental physics of batting, Bavuma should be struggling when things are tough, and piling in when the going is good. Except he isn’t. Present him with a buffet, and he gets instant indigestion.

Bavuma has taken guard in a number of favourable match situations, ranging from 136/3 right up to a fantastically luxurious 439/4. His average in those innings? A paltry 23.66.

But even that figure is flattering, bolstered by just one innings: the unbeaten 102 he carved off an exhausted England at Newlands in 2016. Remove that outlier, and his average in cushy match situations plunges to an appalling 15.

So why do I remain a Bavuma fan? Simple. It’s because of what he does when things are falling apart and otherwise steady men are losing their heads.

Bavuma has taken guard 15 times with the Proteas either turning their canoe towards Shit Creek (70/4 to 130/4), or with them far up it, sans the proverbial paddle (69/4 and worse). In a couple of those he was batting at 7, moved down the order by night watchmen, but the situation was no prettier: his innings at No.7 have started at 136/5 and the ludicrously terribly 79/5.

His average in these trainwrecks?

44.61.

That’s a healthy Test average anywhere, in any game situation. But when the team is facing certain disaster? Pure gold.

Test cricket’s name is not idly chosen. The most elevated, difficult and complex form of the game is a test of technique, of psychological strength and of character. And when the questions being asked are at their toughest, Temba Bavuma stands tall and answers them with a straight bat.

I don’t know why Bavuma isn’t scoring when the table is laid and he is invited to gorge on runs. It’s possible that he believes that his role in the team is a fundamentally defensive one, and that when the top order has done its job he is somewhat surplus to requirements. Perhaps, when the stakes feels fractionally lower, he lets his focus slip, or isn’t sure how to pace an innings when he doesn’t have to fight for every run.

Whatever the reason, Bavuma is too good and focused a player not to find a solution. Every Test he plays, he understands his game a little better and comes closer to figuring out how to accept bowlers’ charity. And when he learns how to turn his cool, methodical mind and method towards domination as well as defence, he could yet be something very special indeed.

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.”

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“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

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

“It’s not sinking, it’s a submarine!”

titanic

Had Angie Motshekga been the owner of the White Star shipping line on the morning of April 15, 1912, history might have sounded quite different.

As flashbulbs popped and journalists shouted questions, she and her team would have shuffled into place behind a table. An appeal for quiet; and then the big news, delivered with half a smile: White Star Lines was delighted to announce that early this morning the RMS Titanic had become the world’s first passenger submarine.

She was still verifying the figures, but it looked like almost a third of the passengers had survived, and she wished to extend warm congratulations to them and their families.

I like to imagine that a sensible public would have howled her down and run her out of town, but after last week I’m not so sure.

Instead of uniting to mourn the countless young lives trapped in a sinking system and dragged down into the deep, many South Africans instead argued over the matric results as if there was something to argue about; as if we’re still unsure about whether this is working or not; as if our schooling system might still turn out to be a submarine rather than a wreck.

Perhaps the confusion is understandable. Assumptions, both sensible and false, are wobbling. What once felt like bedrock now shifts like jelly under our feet. It is increasingly difficult to know what to think, indeed, to share ideas at all. Who, these days, would risk the wrath of one of the many inquisitions doing the rounds, or has the energy to take on the legions of know-nothings?

All of which is why I’m going to stick to a few simple guidelines in the year ahead; not so much resolutions as gentle reminders to myself: Post-It notes stuck on the fridge of my subconscious.

The first is to keep remembering that this year our politicians are going to say a lot of words, because that’s how politicians make money. When they say those words I’m going to want to believe that they have some connection with reality and I’m going to want to catch feelings. But that’s what the politicians’ financial planners want me to do: every time we take the bait and get worked up, we send up dust and smoke and noise, a great smokescreen that allows the looters to steal a few million more. So in 2017 I’m going to try to count to 10 and opt out of actively making the conmen richer.

They will clutch portraits of Oliver Tambo

I will also look up the definition of “gaslighting” just to remind myself of what it looks like, and who does it, and why. Because this year, as senior gang bosses shift allegiances to get a better grip on the teat, they’re going to tell me that I’m mistaken for thinking poorly of them. They will clutch the constitution or the Bible or portraits of Oliver Tambo and insist that they never voted to entrench corruption and that if I still believe them to be scoundrels then the problem must lie with me. Yes, “gaslighting” is definitely one to remember in 2017.

(Note to self: remember to keep some salt aside to sprinkle over think-pieces about how the deputy president is going to grab the controls and pull us out of our current dive. Having watched Cyril the Human Ball-Gag smile and nod his way through the calculated dismantling of accountability and good governance in this country, I will emulate him by simply smiling and nodding.)

The next Post-It is just a number: 8.5. That’s the percentage of my compatriots who voted for the EFF. Which is why, when I read tumescent prose about how the EFF is a giant, red tsunami, I will remind myself that there are more left-handers in South Africa than Fighters.

Likewise, when the Commander-In-Chief denounces Jacob Zuma, I will recall how he made his career by giving us Zuma, and how he now furthers that career by attacking Zuma. (And yes, in fairness, I expect the president also features heavily in the prayers of Padre Maimane: “For what we are about to be handed on a silver platter in the next few months, may the Lord make us truly thankful…”)

Finally, I will try to remember that opinion is not news. Twitter is not a peer-reviewed journal, and shouting, “This is the worst year EVER!” reveals only that one knows very little about history. Most of all, pessimism is not insight. Rather, it is a narcotic fog we breathe, vented by millions of people seduced by misery; people who have watched footage of a distant massacre before they’ve got out of bed or read angry words on a screen before they’ve spoken to another human being. They are not informed: they are infected.

Right. The Post-Its are up. Let the noise begin. Hello 2017.

*

Published in The Times

I bought a Kreepy Krauly for the firepool

ttp12firepool27-26-07-2015-17-07-10-668

I used to enjoy paying tax. Really, I did.

It started when I realised that I wasn’t rich enough to avoid paying tax and that I therefore had two options.

My first was to get angry. I could seethe at having to hand over a large chunk of my earnings to a state that veers between incompetence and criminality and that was giving me so little in return for my money.

The problem, though, was that the state didn’t care about my feelings, so getting angry was, as the cliché goes, like taking poison and expecting my enemy to die. The second option was acceptance; but nobody wants to feel that The Man has defeated them, and so I began to experiment with a kind of idealistic denial. Instead of imagining all the bad places my money might go, I imagined the best. And what I imagined was a small school on a hill, in a beautiful part of the country.

It had solar panels on the roof and a borehole that provided clean water. There was a vegetable garden where lessons on botany and biology produced nutritious lunches. Inside, there were books to read, paper to write and draw on, maps and diagrams on the walls, models of dinosaurs and birds and spaceships and the solar system dangling from the ceiling.

Five mornings a week children would stream there to learn and play, to be met by teachers who would grow their minds like gardeners tending a park. Every month the school would do minor repairs and buy new and interesting supplies. Every year, the school would receive enough money to keep doing what it was doing. And some of that money came from me.

That was my tax fantasy. It was idealistic, sentimental, and shamelessly bourgeois; but it worked. When I signed my tax return, I felt that I had made a contribution to something good; a small investment in a kinder, better future.

And then Thuli Madonsela’s report happened, and now the fantasy has to change, because now I know where my taxes go.

I mean, I knew before. We all knew before. We’ve known since the Arms Deal. Hell, we’ve known since Sarafina 2. But now we know that we know. It’s all written down, clearly and neatly and undeniably, and no matter how loudly the looters and their parasites protest and deflect, it’s all there in black and white. So now I have to update the fantasy.

I can still give thousands to my school, but now I must also acknowledge that a few hundred of my rands are going directly to a variety of turds floating on the top of our national cesspool. Still, I refuse to get angry about paying tax. So, instead, I’m imagining where those few hundred bucks are going. And it’s turning out to be a lot more fun than I thought.

For example, I have now convinced myself that I paid for a faulty Kreepy Krauly for the firepool. Due to a minor factory flaw, it refuses to move in a normal figure-eight across the firepool but instead keeps thock-thockthocking itself into a tangle in the shallow end and then creeps up the wall and exposes itself to the air so that it goes thock-thock-thlock-shlorp-schlorp, and the president has to say, “Sorry, Ajay, just a moment,” and puts his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and yells, “I’m on the phone to Dubai! Can someone do something about that fucking Kreepy Krauly?!”

Likewise, it was me who paid for Baleka Mbete’s latest roll of sticky tape, which turned out to be not sticky at all, so that when she wrapped a birthday present for an old friend she had to use 12 strips instead of four, and when she placed the slightly rumpled and pleated object on the gift table, her friend glanced at it and smiled, “Shame, well, at least you tried,” and she was plunged into a sudden existential gloom about how everything she touches turns to shit.

It was I who bought Cyril hat spilled meat-magma into his mouth and made him spit it out hastily and get gravy on his leather upholstery.

Next year I will dream new dreams. Perhaps I will buy Brian Molefe a malfunctioning GPS to replace his current malfunctioning one. Or perhaps I will simply buy the president a new pair of underpants, an eccentric pair that have a tendency to ride up the Crack of State, so that the next time he’s asleep in parliament, dreaming of Vladimir Putin handing him a cheque for seventy-eleven million thousand and six million rands, he is suddenly jolted awake by a counter-revolutionary wedgy and shouts, “Order!”

Yes, I used to enjoy paying tax. But perhaps all is not lost.

*

First published in The Times and 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.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail