The Americans counted their bullets, pressed their backs against the stack of Tintin books, and waited.
The Japanese army was everywhere. Half a dozen sappers were already crawling through the scattering of Lego blocks on the western perimeter, and there were rumours of a sniper up on the book shelf. Sarge bellowed into his radio again, begging for air cover, but the Mustang was still being refuelled under the duvet.
The Battle of the Bedroom Floor was interrupted by a polite knock on my door. Our house-guest had been sent to call me to dinner.
He was a plump, kind man with a shock of fading yellow hair and eyes that wrinkled to nothing when he smiled, which was often. His English was poor and so he adopted a jovial silence, beaming and nodding to show that he was enjoying the conversation if not contributing to it.
But now, as he looked at the toy soldiers strewn across the floor, his face was pale and unsmiling. Even though I was not yet 10, I realised that something had hurt him as he knocked and looked down. It had slipped through his defences because he had never expected to encounter it here, in the room of a child. He leaned against the doorframe, and seemed enormously tired.
“This is a game?” he asked. It didn’t sound like a question. It sounded like an accusation. Then the real question came.
“But why would you play this?”
Later, seeing my embarrassment, my parents explained.
Our guest was German and when he was in his late teens he had been drafted into Hitler’s navy and sent aboard the battleship Tirpitz. The ship was relentlessly hunted and spent the war limping from one Norwegian fjord to another, where steep mountains and shallow water offered some protection from the British bombers and submarines that pursued it. Forty years later, that fear still clung to our guest: many of the Cape’s coastal roads, where mountains plunge into the sea, made him anxious.
In the end the bombers found their target. The Tirpitz was destroyed, along with 1000 of its crew.
Our guest survived the attack and the war. Millions didn’t. All of his brothers were drafted and killed. Hitler sent his mother a medal for surrendering so many of her babies to the meat grinder.
“But why would you play this?” At the time, I thought I heard disbelief in his voice and that was why I was embarrassed. I thought he was saying: “You stupid child, how could you take any pleasure from war?”
We swear that now we know better
Now, though, I think I understand his tone better. It wasn’t disbelief. It was despair.
When industrialised killing ends, we bow our heads and swear that now we know better. Those working to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive say, “Never again.” In those first moments after the killing stops, it seems the most fundamental truth that it should never start again; that war is an obscene crime.
And yet here I was: a child, playing at mass murder. Somewhere in those first eight or nine years I had learned that war was fun. And I think that’s why the kind, anxious German felt overcome with despair. We had learned nothing.
I wonder what that damaged man would say about our politics, where every day the imagery and rhetoric of war become more entrenched and more normalised. Jacob Zuma now goes nowhere without a platoon of helmeted, camouflaged stormtroopers carrying assault weapons. The EFF, already fond of uniforms and talk of fighting, crushing, overthrowing and destroying, has begun to let its civilian veneer slip: Julius Malema has spoken publicly about waging war against the current government, and at the party’s election manifesto launch, leaders were flanked by enormous men in camouflage fatigues.
Revolutionaries like to warn us about how deeply we’ve been indoctrinated by racism, sexism and capitalism. Yet, oddly, for people who claim to be fighting for a peaceful future run by civilians, they remain silent about militarism. Both left and right still recite the utterly discredited Victorian euphemisms for killing to make a few profiteers richer: “the fallen”, “the ultimate sacrifice”, “the glorious dead”, “martyrs”. Basically, all the stuff Hitler told that man’s mother.
It seems ridiculous that one needs to spell it out. You’d think we’d know by now; that we might have learned to stop playing at soldiers like ignorant 9-year-olds. But since we haven’t, here goes.
War is bad.
Those who use its rhetoric have no plans to do any actual fighting. They’ll leave that to you, but if you get killed they’ll do their best to send your mother a telegram.
The people who will win will not be your friends. They will not look after you when it’s over.
So to those South Africans cheering the war-talk, I ask again: “Why would you play this?”
In 1977, P.W. Botha and his cabinet gathered in the Leopard Lounge in parliament’s democracy-proof bomb shelter for an emergency all-night meeting to discuss two important matters of state.
The first item on the agenda was the death of Elvis Presley, and whether either the ANC or the Soviet Union were responsible. The second issue was handlebar moustaches: were they ‘kak sexy’, as Pik Botha claimed, or were they ‘fokken porno’ as the clean-shaven P.W. Botha believed?
At 3.30 a.m., while Pik Botha showed the last of his slides of Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck and implored the hardliners to see the ‘innate hawtness of the noble biker tash’, Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan excused himself.
He had become peckish, and, as a clean-shaven member of cabinet, he had grown tired of Pik’s endless rhetoric about the Village People, Freddy Mercury and all the other macho stars who wore moustaches. He hurried across the road to a Total garage and bought a coleslaw.
Suddenly his walkie-talkie crackled: P.W. wanted to know where he had gone and what he was doing at that exact moment. Malan radioed back that he was ‘facing a Total coleslaw’.
Back in the bunker, Botha reportedly went white, then orange, then blue. For a moment his cabinet feared that he would turn black and they would be forced to send him to the nie-blankes scullery down the hall. But Botha recovered and then began screaming, ‘Magnus says we’re facing a total onslaught!’
Malan’s coleslaw marks a dramatic turning point in the history of South Africa. From that night onwards the South African military machine went into high gear. By the late 1970s the country was even developing its own nuclear weapons.
The details of this programme remain wrapped in secrecy, but as far as we know, First Tannie Elize Botha was placed in charge of developing the bombs.
At an initial brainstorming meeting, it turned out that nobody in the government knew anything about nuclear bombs, other than that they produced a ‘mushroom cloud’. Botha and Malan were sceptical: how could a cloud of mushrooms be so dangerous?
But then Pik Botha reminded them of their 1974 Day of the Vow brunch at which Elize’s mushroom quiche had sent thirty-five people to hospital with radiation burns, internal bleeding and hair loss. Clearly she was the right woman for the job.
By 1986, South Africa had managed to produce up to six bombs capable of unleashing a cloud of Denny mushrooms over a radius of at least fifty metres.
If you want to know what happened next, buy the book. It’s called ‘The Unauthorised History of South Africa and it’s kak sexy. Click here for the Kindle from Amazon. Or go to Exclusive Books at the Waterfront. They’ve got actual copies. I know, because I’ve just moved them off the ‘South African Non-Fiction’ shelf and put them on the display table in front, in the ‘Bestsellers’ pile, and in the ‘Fokken Porno’ section.
You know people who know people who can get things done. Like rigging a roulette table at a casino.
You don’t know who or how, and you don’t want to know. Plausible deniability. All you know is that it’s Saturday night, the booze is flowing and you’re winning. Not all the time, of course – the guys who rigged it knew what they were doing – but it’s ticking along nicely enough. Just stay put for another four or five hours, and you’re going to clean up, cash in, and walk away.
Except, at about 9pm, just as you’re really getting warmed up, someone in your entourage comes up and whispers in your ear. He’s uncomfortable, he says. He worries about how this is all panning out. He thinks you should leave, and that the crew should move to a table that hasn’t been rigged.
Which is why I don’t think Jacob Zuma is going anywhere. Why would he walk away from the table just as the long con is paying off?
Still, it’s fun to indulge the anxious fantasy that politics is about doing the right thing, so let’s leave the casino for a moment and imagine a scenario in which the ANC decides to recall Zuma.
The first hurdle is, of course, ego. The ruling party has proved that it is much more concerned with saving face than saving the country, so how exactly would they sideline Number One while keeping his dignity intact?
There’s one solution that’s so obvious I’m surprised we haven’t read any think-pieces about it: Zuma needs to fake his own death.
For example: 100 orphans are tipped into a lake after an enraged white supremacist surfaces and capsizes their boat. Zuma happens to be on the shore, having led his flock down to the water to drink deep of the Kool-Aid. He hears the cries of the children and dives into the lake.
For hours he swims like a man possessed by Ubuntu-demons, dragging orphan after orphan to safety. But the exertion takes a terrible toll on a man of almost 74. His organs of state are failing. He is having, you might say, a constitutional crisis.
At last he scoops all 100 children into his arms and begins to run. He sprints across thorns, between Thuli Madonsela’s CIA handlers, and over the testicles of white monopoly capital, until he reaches a rural hospital. The children are saved – but no! The doctors tell him that there is no electricity.
He readies himself for one final sacrifice
Zuma is incensed: after all he’s done to avert load-shedding by de-industrialising the country! No, say the doctors, it’s the cables: they have been stolen, probably by unmarried women, and now there is no way of getting the electricity from the substation to the hospital.
Zuma immediately understands what he must do. He readies himself for one final sacrifice … and then he grabs the substation in one hand and the hospital in the other.
Ninety-million volts crackle through him, but he cares only for the children. “Save the babies!” he gasps, arms outstretched, glowing with a holy blue light.
The doctors work frantically, saving life after life. All except one. The father of the nation is spent. He is no more.
Handled right – a sombre statement on TV by Cyril Ramaphosa, an infographic in The New Age explaining how electricity works (eels, fairies, etc), state funerals in Pretoria and Uttar Pradesh – it would be an exit for the ages.
Even better, it would be a goodwill windfall for the ANC. Nothing rehabilitates a reputation like dying. A wife-beater has a fatal stroke while torturing a dog and within two years he’s remembered as a passionate man who died doing what he loved most. Were Zuma to be heroically fried tomorrow, Mmusi Maimane would lead the nation in prayer and Julius Malema would concede that although he’s no longer 100% for Zuma, he’s definitely somewhere in the mid-50s, possibly even nudging up towards 60%.
The problem, though, is if the ANC writes Zuma out of the soap opera that we all inhabit, he’ll have to stay dead, lying low in Nkandla for the rest of his life. Just nipping down to the corner shop for a Sterri Stumpi would be a logistical nightmare, involving an elaborate ghost costume and clouds of dry ice. Then again, ghosts are supposed to be transparent, and Zuma has made himself so transparent in recent months that the ruse might just work.
No, in the end the ANC is going to have to fall back on the old classic: Shaik Syndrome. A nondescript ailment that will leave Zuma alive but reclusive, alert but silent, waving and smiling from the sidelines. Maybe a chronic heart problem caused by loving us too much?
In the end, maybe. But of course this isn’t the end. The old gambler is ordering another drink. He’s not going anywhere. Why would he?
I’m embarrassed. Not because I didn’t know. Of course I knew. I just didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
If you’d asked me if everything that happens in this house was legitimate, I’d have hedged. I’d have told you that I’m just one of a few upstairs house guests, and we don’t get to see what goes on in the downstairs rooms, but from up here we do have a view of the ornate, wrought-iron front gates, and we see who comes and goes.
Most days it’s our host, sliding out in his convoy of black limousines. I admit I had stopped wondering about that: about why a man who claims to be so loved by so many needs a bulletproof car and a platoon of armed guards. Perhaps I’d stopped wondering because there was so much more to wonder about.
Like arms dealers, for starters. They arrived just after my host bought this place. We quite liked him back then. He’d booted out the last owner, a real little shit, and he was dignified and generous. So when the arms dealers came up the driveway, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. For our own protection, he said, and led them away down to the secret rooms we aren’t allowed to peep into.
After that, I just kind of went with it. The police were always coming around and we’d crowd at the windows and catch snatches of conversation – fraud, drunk driving, missing funds – but they always went away and our host waved up to us and told us all was well.
And I believed him. I must have, because I stayed. Now that I’ve woken up, I can see the ludicrous lengths I took to stay asleep. Like a few months ago, the gates opened up and in drove a guy called Omar. Wanted for genocide in Sudan. Genocide. And what did I do? I went out into the corridor and tut-tutted with the other guests and used words like “outrageous” and “disgraceful” – and then went right back to my room and made myself a toasted cheese sandwich.
I know why I was like this, of course. Nobody likes acknowledging that they are the guest of a gangster. It’s upsetting. It makes exhausting demands on your sense of yourself as a moral person. Because if you’re a moral person, how can you make a life for yourself in a home that is fundamentally rotten?
the real problem is you know how it all ends
But that’s only half of it. I think I’m OK with being less moral than I hope to be. I’m flexible that way. But the real problem with admitting to yourself that you live on the top floor of a Mafia godfather’s mansion is that you know how it all ends.
It ends with shocking violence, or in late-night pandemonium, throwing things into a suitcase and then a frantic rush over a high wall. It can never end well, because only the most intelligent criminals grow old peacefully and launder their money into respectable legacies, and I fear that my host is not looking like the most intelligent of criminals.
So I’d gone on, kept safe by the easy cynicism favoured by people who live in slowly unfolding disasters they can’t or don’t want to walk away from. Cynicism feels good because it makes you look informed. On point. Ahead of the curve. It convinces you that eye-rolling is an action and not just a reaction. It persuades you that seeing a train wreck is the same as avoiding it.
I’d like to claim that it was last week’s revelations about the Guptas that woke me up, but we’d all seen the brothers shuttling up and down the driveway for years. No, something else broke through the bubble of cynicism and left me mortified. It showed me how naïve I had been in my small condemnations of small crimes; how I had so completely underestimated the scope and ambition of my host’s corruption.
What woke me was what happened after the Gupta story broke.
Our host simply smiled up at us, saying that everything was fine. The firm had met. The naughty Guptas were going to be given a time-out. Business as usual.
Well, almost. My host will have to find a new source of money, perhaps one that doesn’t have newspapers and television stations and can therefore remain hidden for far longer.
But otherwise he’s going to keep doing what he’s done for decades -waving and lying, lying and waving – until he’s so rich that he can’t remember why he’s trying to get richer. Until corruption is the only way anyone can remember. Until every beam and floorboard in this mansion has rotted, and one day it all subsides into a stinking pile of rot and mould.
“There is a race war in South Africa. It is 364 years old. Though we agreed to cease fire 22 years ago, we are agreeing to open fire again.”
It was just one of a series of tweets posted by Shaka Sisulu, grandson of Walter, and the rest revealed a less literal meaning; but that didn’t matter to the frightened white people who passed the message around. Not when there were so many other posts like it: social media, it turns out, is lousy with calls for ethnic civil war.
The white sabre-rattling is the same as always: gloomy predictions and poisonous assumptions, all masquerading as pessimism but barely disguising a nihilistic longing for Gotterdammerung.
The declarations of war by black people, however, were new to me.
Most were variations on a theme of exasperation. Penny Sparrow was the penultimate straw, but the attack on black protesters by a white mob at the University of the Free State was too much. Talking was futile with people determined not to listen. Now it was time for taking the land, the wealth, the power, and, if necessary, taking lives.
I don’t presume to know the minds or lived realities of people who feel that race war is a sensible solution to anything. But I would urge warriors on both sides to take a breath and to imagine, just for a moment, what an ethnic civil war in South Africa actually looks like.
At first it looks like a body, lying on a pavement in a blackening pool of blood. Soon, an angry mob. The police, firing rubber bullets. The politicians denounce the guilty and warn of a stern response. Then broken windows, overturned cars, fire. Then another body. Rumours spread faster than news. The police start using live ammunition; the politicians’ warnings get sterner.
Then, an appalling escalation: five bodies, including a child. The country staggers. There is a silence, and then a roar. The politicians stop denouncing and demanding, and start pleading. The army deploys but its orders are unclear. Rumour replaces news. White soldiers have fired on black civilians. Black soldiers have fired on white soldiers. New voices, cold and shrill, call for solidarity with race and culture and religion; call for revenge. Militias form. In the townships they’re called self-defence units. On the farms they’re called commandos. Rumour and news finally overlap: a self-defence unit and a commando have butchered each other somewhere in Limpopo. The footage shows black bodies, laid out in a line in the dust; white bodies, crumpled in a ditch. And we’re off.
Panic spreads like smoke. The rich fly away; everyone else drives or hitchhikes north, forming long caravans of buses, taxis and family sedans that pick the safest and fastest route to the border. There are scuffles with Mozambican border guards. Botswana announces it will take in 100000 refugees, but the rest need to go elsewhere. Namibia is swamped.
Many who stay believe that this will be a fight to the finish. Black or white, they are convinced that the land is theirs and that their enemies do not want to share it; that it is their only home; and that they will win or die trying.
Some don’t want land. They’re staying to settle old scores.
A few simply want to kill people, for no real reason.
Not everybody who takes up arms is South African. The frightened people camping at the border see them first: truckloads of meaty white men, coming south, heading for the most volatile towns. The white supremacists have arrived – skinheads from Russia, Britain and Scandinavia, Klansmen and Stormfront militiamen from the US – eager to wage racist jihad.
The killing begins in earnest, but within months ideologies begin to fracture. The struggle against a common enemy is replaced by more complex, lucrative skirmishes. Rival militias fight over control of money, drugs and weapons. The ideologues find themselves targeted as demoralising distractions, and they are murdered or flee.
Warlords, black and white, establish fiefdoms, and South Africa ceases to exist. In its place is hell, patrolled by young men armed with machetes and high on crystal meth, who divide their time between murder and recreational rape.
In the end the only people who win are racists living far away, who point and say, “See? We told you blacks and whites can’t live together. We told you it always ends like this in Africa.”
I don’t know what happens next. I suspect that there needs to be more talking and less shouting; that racists need to be told that they are ignorant rather than wise; that we need to vote the incompetents out of power and install managers who can educate us and feed us and keep the lights on. But I do know one thing for sure: if you’re calling for war, you’ve already surrendered.
“There have been a few rumours floating around,” said AB de Villiers.
The nation relaxed. At last the awful speculation would end, and in a second we would hear the good news. The rumours were media speculation. The rumours were a dressing-room joke misheard by a journalist. The rumours were mind games cooked up by touring English. All was well.
And then he finished his sentence.
“…and in most rumours there is always a little bit of truth.”
Say what now? Had AB de Villiers, national treasure, really just admitted that he had been considering retiring from international cricket? It was like phoning your mum to say hi and her mentioning that the cat had run away again, oh, and she and your dad were planning to emigrate.
A choked, childlike “Why?” hung over South African cricket for a moment. De Villiers went on. There were “big tournaments going on around the world”, he told the press conference, and some of them couldn’t be ignored “because financially they make a huge difference in our lives, and obviously you’ve got to look after that side of it as well.”
Obviously. The word was faintly shocking. We expect footballers to talk about grubby things like money and to take that subtly exasperated tone that rich people use when they talk about trying to get richer (“I mean, I got kids to feed, you know?”); but cricketers? Don’t proper chaps play solely for the love of the game and to earn the respect of other chaps?
Surprise soon eased into denial. There had to be more to the story than met the eye. Had to be. When De Villiers was given the captaincy, we nodded and said, Yep, that was it: his statement had been a cunning power play. Give me the top job or I walk. Well played, AB.
We calmed down. We told ourselves that De Villiers was going nowhere. We explained to each other that incredible hitters don’t just walk away from international cricket.
But nobody believed it. Not deep down. Because, of course, it’s already happened.
I’ve never been a fan of Chris Gayle. I can see the superficial appeal of his destructive batting, but I’ve always found it cynical; a performance he chooses to turn on or not, depending on his mood. Certainly, too many of his big Test scores were made against weak attacks or on flat tracks. But I concede that Gayle has one gift almost unmatched in modern cricket.
Viv Richards could read flight. Brian Lara could read length. But nobody has read the writing on the wall quite as early as Gayle. If Gayle has ever shown a flash of genius, it was surely the moment he understood – before most of the other players of his day – that the future of cricket was in franchises rather than countries.
Gayle is by no means the first Test star to be lured into luminous pyjamas by huge amounts of cash. Forty years ago the cricket establishment was stamping on its top hat in frustrated rage, glaring at upstart Australian Kerry Packer and his World Series. The parallels with today are striking: top players choosing cash over country; cricket marketed as an evening of glitzy entertainment rather than an austere, five-day Victorian ritual; despair over the inevitable death of Test cricket.
But Gayle, the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League are different to World Series cricket in one fundamental respect.
For Packer, the World Series was never the end goal. Today we remember it as a revolutionary event in the sport’s history, but we forget that it only happened because Packer couldn’t get what he really wanted: broadcasting rights to Australian Test cricket. World Series Cricket might have invented day-night cricket and dragged players into the professional era, but it was ultimately a petulant “up yours” to the big boys; a rich kid picking up his ball and going home because nobody wanted to play with him.
Two years later Packer finally won his precious rights, and promptly pulled the plug on World Series. What Australians wanted when they switched on the telly was white flannel and red ball; and Packer wanted to give them exactly what they loved.
It was the players who kept that love alive in Australia: the last greats of the 1970s; the strugglers of the 1980s; the new titans of the 1990s. For all their toughness and sledging, every one of them was entranced by the romance of the five-day game.
But Gayle is different. He is the prototype of a new breed of player, one who apparently feels very little for Test cricket; who is not an Australian or South African or Indian but simply a performer who knows his worth; who understands that he has only a few years in which to make his millions; and who plans to wring every dollar out of the game he has mastered.
Indeed, it’s not surprising that cricket’s first true mercenary is a West Indian. The West Indies are not a national team. At their most cohesive, in the 1980, they were the embodiment of a regional ideology. At their worst, in the 2000s, they were a confederation of malcontents. Without a shared nationhood to bind them together, and with a losing culture sapping all the pleasure out of the game, it was inevitable that the bonds of nationalistic zeal – of patriotism – would fray first.
On the face of it, these observations should comfort Proteas fans. De Villiers is not only a South African, and therefore still steeped in old world notions of patriotism, duty and gees, but he is a famously dedicated team player, and, as of January, the captain. He seems to be the antitheses of Gayle; the last man you’d expect to play for pay rather than pride.
The trouble is, pride only takes you so far.
De Villiers has been frank about what he wants to achieve. Years ago he declared he wanted to be the best batsman in the world. When he was appointed captain, he said it was the realization of a lifelong dream. For a driven, ambitious man like De Villiers, milestones and accolades are sustenance. They not only motivate, but they give shape to a career, turning it from an amorphous blob (“Played for South Africa from 2004 to 2019”) into a distinctive narrative with highs and lows, light and shadow.
De Villiers has just turned 32. There’s still plenty of time for him to rack up all sorts of extraordinary records. There’s no reason why he couldn’t claim the highest individual Test and ODI scores for himself. He’s also got one more shot at a World Cup win, in England in 2019.
The problem is, though, that champion cricketers don’t only want the whiz-bang records that get broken on a single day. They want the slow-burning ones too; the big, potent records that speak to endurance and consistent excellence year after year: most runs, most wickets, most wins…And unfortunately most of those records – the sort that might keep De Villiers interested – are probably already out of his reach.
It’s basic arithmetic. South Africa will simply not play enough Tests over the next half-decade to give De Villiers a shot at the endurance records. Even if he doesn’t miss a Test for the next five years, he’s likely to fall well short of Sachin Tendulkar’s 15,921 runs; and he’s taken over the reins too late (and with too weak a bowling attack) to challenge Graeme Smith’s record for most wins by a South African captain.
Given these realities, how difficult must it be to commit yourself to another five or six years of nets and shuttle runs and buses and press conferences and camps and more shuttle runs and more buses and interviews and yet more buses, knowing that you can’t end up with your name at the top of all the columns? How can you not start looking east to the IPL or the Big Bash, awash in hard currency, and wonder how much longer you’ve got? When does the window start closing? Do you push past 35 and hope your knees and eyes can still earn you a few million a year, or do you go the Gayle route, and make hay – and millions – while the sun shines? Yes, you love representing your country, but if you’re 32 you’ve only got another six or seven years in which to earn the money that’s going to see you through the next sixty. It seems a mad question but you’ve got to ask: at what point does playing Test cricket become a financial handicap?
In January it was De Villiers doing the asking, but right now dozens of Test stars are wondering the same thing. Some have already made up their minds: Brendon McCullum has retired from international cricket at 34. Many more will follow in the coming years. (For the record, my money is on De Villiers giving up Tests in 2018 and ODIs after the World Cup in 2019.)
All of which brings us, rather oddly, to the ICC World Twenty20 bash, arriving amid a school of minnows on March 8, as Zimbabwe take on Hong Kong and Scotland face up to Afghanistan.
When the tournament debuted nine years ago, most pundits viewed it with a mixture of disdain and horror. Snobbery was only partly to blame: T20 cricket, still relatively new, was largely unwatchable. Nobody knew what a good score was, and batsmen flailed at everything or got out trying. Captains set fields by guesswork. Spectators were uneasy, unsure if they were supposed to party for forty solid overs or if they were allowed to sit and focus on the strategy.
Since then the format has figured itself out, becoming if not more sophisticated then at least more formalized. It has even managed to grow something resembling a very short history: we now have a vague memory of one or two memorable innings; a couple of standout bowling spells; a thrilling finish here and there. Slowly, T20 is transforming from the shameful love-child of marketing hacks and cricketing sell-outs into a sport with its own lore, and above all, its own fans.
For traditionalists like me, that is superficially reassuring. We want the young upstart to grow up as fast as possible. We want its rough edges to be smoothed, its juvenile aggression to mellow into more mature forms of attack. We want, in short, to draw T20 into the grand traditions of cricket; to install it as a sort of naughty younger brother to Tests and ODIs – a cheeky ruffian that is good for a laugh but which ultimately defers to the more traditional formats.
Of course, that’s not going to happen. And those of us who believe in a Victorian hierarchy of cricketing virtue, with Tests at the top and T20 at the bottom, are about to be brushed aside as dismissively as Chris Gayle plonking a half-tracker into the second tier. Because we’ve badly misread the state of the game.
The World Twenty20 might have “ICC” ahead of its name and feature national teams, but what purists need to understand is that it isn’t a World Cup. It isn’t even a competition. It’s a stall set up in the middle of a marketplace, a pop-up shop where the best hitters in the world take on the best anti-hitters (because that’s what bowlers have become), and try to catch they eye of franchise money men. All vying to become like Granddaddy Gayle, the millionaire who figured it out first.
When stars like De Villiers start leaving Tests and ODIs toward the end of this decade, those formats will die astonishingly quickly. When that happens, many fans will want to blame the players and accuse them of all sorts of things. Some may even quote Kerry Packer’s crude proposition to the Australian Cricket Board back in 1976: “There’s a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentleman. What’s your price?”
But moralizing and finger pointing will be useless. Because when it comes to 20-over franchise cricket – the future – it’s really not personal. It’s just business.
Raoul was a revolutionary. He’d been fighting for almost ten years. That’s how old we all were. Almost ten.
He arrived in my primary school class like a Molotov cocktail through the window of a bank. He made it clear that the rules of polite, bourgeois company were not for him. He swore. He smoked. He gelled his hair to look like Michael Jackson. He kissed girls. With tongue.
On the playground he was magnetic; a small, handsome boy animated by a current of discontent. These days he would probably be diagnosed and drugged by the medical-industrial complex, but back then he just seemed compellingly raw.
In the classroom, he practised both active and passive resistance. School was an oppressive regime and he fought it with everything he had. Arriving late was a moral duty; a calculated act of sabotage targeting one of the pillars of the school system. Homework was a yoke to be thrown off. Sassing the teacher wasn’t rudeness: it was revolution.
Like the great demagogues, he combined stormy oratory with brooding silence. But he also shared their instinct for playing a room, and self-righteousness never tipped over into petulance: the moment he felt his audience start to get anxious, he would crack wise and unleash his smile on us, releasing the pressure so that he could start building it all over again.
The other kids lapped it up. Superficially, it was fun: they enjoyed seeing the teachers reach the end of their tethers, the class enemy rendered helpless. But Raoul’s resistance also spoke to them of more complex victories. It injected an almost illicit realness into the classroom, a reminder that there was a wider world beyond the school gate. Most of all, it spoke of a future in which we would no longer be oppressed. A time of freedom. Of equality. Adulthood.
I didn’t buy a word of it.
Partly that had to do with my personality. I liked school and probably had an unhealthy love of order and quiet. I was, you might say, a brainwashed counter-revolutionary. But mainly I wasn’t buying what Raoul was selling because he was a complete shit.
He lied, constantly. He blamed everyone else for his mistakes. When he felt cornered, he threatened violence. He created a myth of strength around him, and used appalling language against anyone who doubted it, but when his mother scolded him after school, he crumpled and wept. He was a lying, cheating hypocrite.
people who believe in magic need to believe in magic
I didn’t understand, back then, why nobody else was seeing through Raoul. I was too young to know that people who get hypnotised want to be hypnotised. People who believe in magic need to believe in magic.
They all have good reasons for doing so, but it does create some blind spots. Consider some of our own revolutionaries, and how determined we are to overlook the non sequiturs in their rhetoric; how people preach sacrifice, struggle, blood, sweat and tears while their average day is less about AK-47s and Karl Marx than IRP5s and Johnnie Walker.
Contradictions, though, don’t matter, because no one is keeping score. Revolutionaries speak of being willing to take a bullet, but most of them are bulletproof. Theirs is a world of scathing criticism and damning judgment, but it only goes one way. That’s because the revolution (whatever its end goal) structures itself as religious movement, leading the faithful to the promised land, which means that any criticism of it is a crime against morality. Its opponents are not just deluded: they are evil.
The greatest benefit of being a revolutionary, however, is that the revolution never ends. If it fails, or is crushed, you can blame sell-outs, counter-revolutionaries, vast geopolitical odds stacked against you, and you start again. But winning? God forbid.
Why on earth would you want the messy, unsexy reality of becoming the new regime, with all those dull compromises (not to mention all the promises you’d have to break because when you made them you never thought you’d have to honour them), when you could simply go on being adored as a messianic figure, a liberator whose failure to liberate is someone else’s fault? Why would you risk losing the glamour that disguises your shortcoming? Right now, your comrades tolerate your alcoholism as a necessary outlet for the huge pressures you face, and your violent temper is interpreted as passion. But if the revolution ended you’d just be a drunk with anger issues. No, much better to find a new enemy massing on a new front, a new fight that can never be won, and keep the whole business ticking along indefinitely.
Revolutionaries are vital because they howl truth to power and they shake us out of our torpor, reminding us that alternative realities are possible. But do I want Raoul running my life? Do you?
Twenty years ago, everything was different. Twenty years ago, everything was the same.
In the summer of 1995, South Africa was a country consciously, self-consciously, trying to build something better. These days it’s become fashionable to dismiss that period as a naïve fantasy – the worst thing a white liberal can be accused of these days is “rainbowism” – but for all its faults and delusions, it was a time of genuine hope and effort. We spoke about the past and the future, instead of hunkering down in the endless, cynical, eroding now. We tried.
No one tried harder than Nelson Mandela, head of state, brand builder, and fantasist in chief. That was why he was at the Soweto Oval in late October that year, meeting a star-struck England team. The paint was still tacky on the picket fences, the outfield a work on progress, but nobody minded. That was the point. We were building something. And Mandela was coming to check that the work was going to schedule.
The English were impressed by the missionary zeal of South Africa’s cricket administrators, even if they didn’t understand very much of what they were seeing. In Wisden, veteran correspondent Scyld Berry explained that Ali Bacher and his team were trying to “create from scratch an interest among the African population”. Even now, few South Africans know the history of black cricket in this country, so perhaps one could forgive a visitor for getting it so wrong. But I also I think Berry was misled by the zeitgeist of the country: back in 1995, everything felt like a building site. We were all starting from scratch.
The Soweto fixture and the spontaneous meet-and-greet by Mandela were good political theatre, but they were also an important statement of intent by South African cricket. England, inheritors of the oldest and richest cricketing traditions, would play before the people who would inherit the new South Africa. It felt honest. And when Lulama Mazikazana held the South Africans’ tail together with 44 in the second innings – the second highest score after Hansie Cronje’s half-century – one could imagine that this was more than window-dressing. This was the start of a plan.
Twenty years later, that plan seems to be mouldering. England’s itinerary says it all. Twenty years ago, every fixture resonated with historical or political significance. First, a social outing against a Nicky Oppenheimer XI at a private oval: a nod to the Randlords who initiated the first cricket between England and South Africa. Then, a one-day warm-up against Easterns at Springs, a no-frills neighbourhood for a raw franchise looking to inject some mongrel into the domestic scene. Then Soweto. Then, a four-day game against Border in the heart of the Eastern Cape, the spiritual home of black cricket.
Today, England’s itinerary has all the political will of a soggy cucumber sandwich. First there’s a thing against some guys at somewhere called Senwes Park, a meaningless name for a forgettable stadium in a place of no cricketing consequence. Next is a kerfuffle at Pietermaritzburg’s City Oval, a cricket ground famous for nothing except having the most literal name on the planet. And then? The most ridiculous fixture of all.
But first, a small digression.
Cricket is dying. That’s not me being pessimistic. It’s a measurable fact. Melburnians and Capetonians still pack their respective stadiums every Boxing Day and Tweede Nuwe Jaar, but attendances are plunging pretty much everywhere else. Worse, a lot of those absentee fans haven’t decided to stay home so they can watch the game on the telly: according to the Times of India, Indian television audiences for cricket dropped by 40% between 2008 and 2014.
I’ve seen no statistics about the local situation but my gut tells me that interest in cricket in South Africa is gradually waning. Now and then I see a cardboard cut-out of AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis marketing some brand or another, but it’s a far cry from the 1990s when you couldn’t walk ten paces without seeing a cricketer hawking energy drinks or running shoes or, in the case of Jonty Rhodes, “fashion trousers”. And it wasn’t just cricketers. Remember how we went ape over Elana Meyer? Josia Thugwane? Baby Jake? Penny Heyns? Today, De Villiers dominates his sport more than any of them ever did; yet his most loyal and vocal fans are in India. And I’d bet more South Africans would recognize Hansie Cronje than Dean Elgar or Imran Tahir in a line-up.
In this climate of general ambivalence, November’s letter to Cricket South Africa (CSA) from disgruntled black players, in which they asked CSA to stop using them as bench-warmers and window-dressing, should have sounded like the crack of doom. Whether or not CSA was sympathetic to their complaints, it should have sprung into a public flurry of fence mending and brand-building. Black stars are the end product of the entire transformation machine, and if they’re miserable enough to risk their careers by writing letters to administrators, then it suggests the machine is broken. More importantly, it suggests that CSA has a crisis of perception on its hands. If black players or whispering about being overlooked or sidelined, then black fans are going to be shouting about it. And South African cricket cannot afford to lose a single black fan.
If cricket in this country is to survive another twenty years, it needs to become a sport played, loved, watched and argued over by the majority. It must become a home for black excellence and black pride, where black superstars play the game without being defined by white teammates or predecessors. Our domestic and national teams must become mostly black. The crowds watching them need to be mostly black. Demographics and economics demand no less.
So. Given that the global game is shedding fans, and that the future of South African cricket depends entirely on finding new black converts, you might have assumed that CSA would have used the opening Test of an historic series to create some sort of buzz. You’d assume that it would draw parallels between this tour and the one in 1995, evoking the memory of Mandela or Steve Tshwete or Khaya Majola, and reminding us that we started a job back then that isn’t anywhere near completion. You’d assume that it would understand the value in awarding a historic, politically important first Test to Port Elizabeth, and get Makhaya Ntini or Professor Andre Odendaal to recall the mighty deeds of African greats like Frank Roro and Eric Majola, and remind us that, in the 19th Century, St George’s Park was the first venue to host a Test played outside England and Australia, and the last to host a Test before South Africa went into sporting isolation in 1970. You’d assume that that, in the week before the Test, members of the England and Proteas squads would play with local cricketers in a one-day exhibition match at the Dan Qeqe Stadium in Zwide.
So has CSA planned any of that? No. It’s decided that a potentially historic, empowering series will start in a city that doesn’t give a damn about Test cricket.
I have nothing against Durban. Some might claim that the sun sets early there because it’s just too bored to stay in the sky, but not me. Durban is a lovely place to view from a passing airliner. But Kingsmead, ah, that’s another story.
Kingsmead, you might recall, is the place where Jacques Kallis played his last Test. Actually, you probably don’t recall, because there is absolutely nothing memorable about the place. That’s mainly because it’s always empty. Always. Because of its large Asian population, Durban invariably gets Tests against Asian tourists, but it really doesn’t make a difference. No matter who’s playing, Durbanites can’t be arsed. In 2013, just 4700 of them bothered to pitch up to watch the greatest South African cricketer of all time take guard in his last innings.
By the close of the day Kallis was on 78. The next day – the day on which he would score a final hundred – was a Sunday. A cricket-loving city like Cape Town would have filled the 25000-seater ground half an hour before play started. Hell, Bloemfontein probably would have managed 10 000. But not Durban. That Sunday, just 7000 people dribbled through the turnstiles. And that wasn’t even an anomaly. Opening days at Kingsmead rarely see more than 12 000 people show up, and the remaining days usually only get between 3000 and 7000. In short, Kingsmead is an irrelevant backwater, and anyone who tries to tell you that Durbanites love their cricket is flat-out lying to you.
Thankfully, England travel with a large contingent of fans, so Kingsmead will probably only be half empty instead if the usual two-thirds. But the fact remains that by launching the series in Durban, CSA has wasted the opportunity to make it mean something. Itineraries are statements, and this one reads like a corporate report, a bland affirmation of business as usual. It needed to be a simple, honest statement: “This is a special series, and because it is special, we will use to remember why we’re doing this. We will remember our determination, 20 years ago, to make this a game for all South Africans, not just something we shunt into townships when the Sports Minister is on our backs. And, in the spirit of 1995, we renew our intent to make cricket an African game.”
But that’s not what’s happened. And so the series will play out, and we’ll all have a great time, and then we’ll return to the confusing recriminations and wrathful sound bytes of the so-called “transformation debate”, which is not really a debate, and which revolves around something nobody seems to have defined clearly.
Certainly, there is still no intelligent input from the man pushing the “debate”, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, whose genius for rhetoric allows him to sound both belligerent and completely helpless. Transformation, he crossly insists, isn’t happening – implying that it is some sort of organic process that can only be encouraged but never enforced. A moment later he waxes stern, vowing that he will make it happen – now implying that it is merely a question of the right legislation. It’s a surreal Sméagol-Gollum double act: claiming on the one hand that it’s all terribly complicated and on the other that the time for excuses is over. Bizarrely, Mbalula often ends up threatening himself.
Then again, I don’t blame the Minister for not having easy answers. I don’t know if quotas force open the doors for young black players and give black kids instant role models, or if they demoralize players who feel they’re not there on merit and who are duly crushed by a lack of self-belief. I don’t know if talent can magically spring up in the veld, or if it needs time and money and food and care. Maybe all are true. Can transformation be a gradual process, its slowness preventing alarm but also allowing it to be endlessly deferred? Or must it be a drastic intervention, say, a decision that the Proteas will field only two white players in every Test, hoping that upheavals in the short term are an investment in a long-term future for the game? Would the International Cricket Council allow such a move, or would it see it as political interference and ban South Africa all over again? I don’t know.
But I do know that the South African game needs new blood, new passions and new histories, or else it will atrophy. It will become a historical curiosity, played on festival days alongside jukskei and croquet. And I know that in order to find new blood, it needs to leave the boardrooms and the manicured outfields. It needs to get out into the dust and heat and vast spaces of our country. Once out there, it needs to seduce hearts and thrill minds. It needs to remember the spirit of 1995. It needs to think deeply about why Mandela walked down that line of blushing English players and shook their hands.
Right. Hashim Amla held on heroically but we’ve been thumped, to add to our hammering in the first Test and what was probably a stay of execution in the second. We’ve lost our first away series in nine years, and we’re pretty annoyed about it, because we didn’t lose to a cricket team. We lost to whichever suits ordered the pitches and the obedient groundsmen who prepared them.
India knew they couldn’t compete player for player so they went scorched earth, preparing these wickets in the hope that, in a low-scoring shoot-out, South Africa’s batsmen would be worse against unpredictable spin than theirs.
Of course, most people have seen through it. Michael from Australia was diplomatic…
…whereas Michael from England was less so…
Such opinions have not gone down well with Indian fans, who have responded as maturely as they often do.
Anyone accusing India of producing rubbish wickets has been called a crybaby and presented with the following argument:
Whenever we tour South Africa, you prepare green tops and your fast bowlers massacre us. So now it’s our turn. We’re going to prepare wickets that turn from the morning of day one because fair’s fair. And stop the ridiculous double standards. When we get bombed out by your quicks you say we can’t bat, but now that you’re getting rolled over it’s somehow the pitches’ fault? Grow a pair, South Africa.
You’ll see this view splattered across most of the internet, repeated by a surprising number of semi-respected pundits. Surprising, because it’s complete bullshit.
The facts simply don’t support it. The “South Africans are crybabies who can dish it out but can’t take it” argument boils down to the assumption that Indians can play spin but are uncomfortable against pace while South Africa can handle pace but aren’t happy against spin. Fair enough, and probably true on sporting wickets. But if the wickets were half decent, playing to India’s traditional strengths, wouldn’t we have seen India’s batsmen plaster South Africa’s modest spinners all over the park? Wouldn’t we have seen at least one of them make a hundred? Instead, all we’ve seen is India looking almost as nervous and unimpressive as South Africa. Virat Kohli, their star, has scraped 68 runs in 4 innings. In fact only two batsman – Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara – have managed to average in the 40s in the series so far. Almost 600 overs of Test cricket and just four half-centuries…
Indian fans and administrators can repeat all the affirming mantras they want but the figures don’t lie. Batsmen are getting massacred in this series, irrespective of their country or their ability to play Test cricket.
And that’s because the pitches ordered by the BCCI haven’t been cricket pitches. They’ve been long strips of clay held together by the nocturnal erotic emissions of spin bowlers.
Historically, the greatest spinners, bowling in their favorite conditions against their most helpless opponents, have usually taken a wicket every 7 or 8 overs. Shane Warne made his reputation humiliating Englishmen in England, but it was in Sri Lanka where he committed some proper atrocities, striking every 39 deliveries. Muttiah Muralitharan was also more or less unplayable in Sri Lanka, claiming a victim every 43 balls at his favourite hunting ground at Kandy.
In the current series, Imran Tahir has taken a wicket every 26 balls.
The guy who can’t buy a wicket on South African pitches has taken his sticks at twice the rate Muralitharan managed on his favourite, tailor-made ground.
The rest? Just as silly. Ravichandran Ashwin has taken one of his 24 wickets every 25 balls. Ravindra Jadeja has taken one every 31 balls. Even Dean Elgar has taken 5 for 63 in 19 overs.
So. These figures trash any claims by Indian fans that these are sporting pitches and that South Africa just aren’t any good at playing spin.
But what of their claims that this is justifiable “revenge” for the seaming monsters their team has to face in South Africa?
To check this, I looked at every Test in which India has been shot out for under 200 in South Africa, and here’s what I found.
The bloodbath that gave rise to India’s notion that South Africa produces unsporting green tops. India was evaporated for 100 in the first innings and 66 in the second. It was pure carnage. But was the pitch impossible to bat on? Andrew Hudson seemed to manage, with 80 in the first innings and 52 in the second. Adam Bacher got 55, Brian McMillan 51. Hell, Allan Donald made 26. South Africa’s two scores of 235 and 259 (and ten wickets in the match for Venkatesh Prasad) suggest that this surface offered considerable help to good seamers, but an unsporting spitting cobra? No.
Cape Town, 1997.
India were gunned down for 144 in their second innings, but it had nothing to do with a pitch that had produced showers of runs. After South Africa racked up 529 for 7 (with hundreds for Gary Kirsten, McMillan, and 102 off 100 balls from Lance Klusener), India replied with 359, including exhilarating tons from Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin. The cause of India’s dismal second innings? Good seam bowling from South Africa and bad batting from India. Not the pitch.
Again, India succumbed in their second innings, managing only 179. And again, it was a dismal performance on a pitch that had offered a great contest between bat and ball. Ashwell Prince had made 121 in South Africa’s first dig, backed up by fifties from Herschelle Gibbs and Mark Boucher, while the South Africans had declared on 265 for 8 in their second dig. The culprit? Bad batting by India. The pitch? Acquitted
Cape Town, 2007
Dale Steyn took 4 for 30 to smear India all over Newlands, dismissing the tourists for 169. A spiteful pitch? Nope. Just a great fast bowler working over batsmen making bad decisions. India had looked imposing in their fist innings, Wasim Jaffer’s 116 helping them to 414. They still managed to lose the Test though, and they had nothing to blame except themselves. Pitch? Acquitted.
Centurion, people. Cen-fucking-turion. The most batsman-friendly wicket in South Africa. And still, India managed to get put through the wood-chipper, dismissed for 136 in their first innings thanks to a Morne Morkel five-for. South Africa then proceeded to do the wild monkey dance all over the visitors, racking up (the following my disturb sensitive viewers) 620 for 4. Kallis made 201*, Amla 140, and AB de Villiers pulped 129 off 112. A real snake-pit, right? Just to prove there were no demons in this famously friendly pitch, Tendulkar and Dhoni then helped India to 459 in their second innings – a huge score and still an innings defeat. The pitch? Gloriously acquitted.
And that, boys and girls, is every instance in which poor, persecuted India were cruelly ambushed on South Africa’s unsportingly green pitches.
In short, Indian fans can go suck it. There is no tit-for-tat pitch war happening. There’s just South Africa, preparing pitches that reward seam bowling and disciplined strokeplay, and there’s India, preparing a steaming pile of horse manure.
*Drops mic. Onto an Indian Test pitch. Mic goes through surface, deviates by 30 degrees, spits up in a puff of dust, takes the shoulder of the bat.*
Throughout the 2000s, the amorphous monster called “global terrorism” had been a creature of the shadows, stepping out into the world to kill and maim but then slipping away again. In 2013, however, it stepped out and stayed out, illuminated by fire.
The number of atrocities surged by almost 50%. In almost 10 000 attacks – an apparently endless orgy of bombs and machine-guns and swords and torture apparatus – 17 700 people were killed by terrorists.
Some might argue that that number is too low, given the fluidity of the definition of terrorism. For example, governments still insist that war and terror are different things; that killing civilians with an AK-47 because they believe in the wrong sect is terror, but killing them with a drone because they’re in the wrong tent is “collateral damage”.
Even now, the hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria are not counted as victims of terror because they were killed during something defined as a war rather than as a murder spree. (I suspect one day we’ll figure out that murder is murder and that only the motive and the punishment are up for debate.)
Anyway, 17 700 is the number you’re likely to find quoted by most reputable news sources, so that’s the one we know. It’s the number that informed our imaginations as we pictured the disintegration of a region. And the pictures were vivid and persistent.
Down here in South Africa, the 24-hour news cycle fired up our national addiction to anxiety, and, as always, we were encouraged to engage: to pray for the victims or to offer them our secular solidarity; to condemn the perpetrators and those who armed them; to appeal to those we believed might offer solutions. It wasn’t too big a leap for people already fluent in the media’s terrorism dialect. “Nine-Eleven?” “No, Seven-Seven.” “Was it an RPG?” “No, an IED”.
It seemed important to have an opinion. It still does. Every car bomb or suicide blast feels like an existential jolt, a rattle of psychic shrapnel against the carefully constructed walls of our identity. Every image of crumpled bodies scratches across our eyes, violating our picture of how the world should look.
But however much we engaged and informed ourselves, and tried to be rational and humane and hopeful, those dizzying, paralysing numbers – 17 700, with 15 000 dead in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria alone – led to one resigned generalisation: that those places are utterly, irretrievably, broken.
I am guilty of this generalisation all the time. When “Breaking News” flashes up on the screen, I am sure I am going to learn that another chunk of the planet has broken away from humanity and sunk away into the dark, sulphurous fires of barbarism. I wouldn’t visit Iraq or Afghanistan for anything in the world. I’m also not making plans to tour Pakistan or Nigeria.
But here’s the odd thing.
In 2013, the year that the current killing spree began to surge, in which the murder of 15 000 people in five countries made us all believe that those countries are now uninhabitable, another country recorded 16 000 of its own people murdered.
That country was South Africa.
At the weekend some local security experts warned that South Africa is a fairly soft target for killers. I disagree. Any medium-sized state in which citizens manage to murder 16 000 of their own (it’s closer to 18 000 this year) is not a target. It’s already been hit. It’s a bullet hole. It’s a fucking crater. Ten thousand people were killed in terror attacks in Iraq last year and we consider it a hellhole without a functioning government. We killed almost twice as many, but somehow still think of ourselves as normal.
All across Europe walls are going up and padlocks are being double-checked. Many of us might have similar urges. But countries aren’t destroyed by terrorists. They are destroyed by bad or nonexistent governments. Long before wretched places like Iraq or Afghanistan became targets for outsiders they were being hollowed out from within, by corruption or despotism or sectarian brutality. There were early warning signs.
And for me, 18000 murders a year is sort of a hint.
Yet we South Africans resolutely refuse to take the hints.
There’s a fire in the kitchen but we’re opening the windows in the lounge to let the smoke out so we can keep arguing over whether the word is “flammable” or “inflammable”.
Perhaps we always choose denial because we feel helpless. But we aren’t helpless. We can still do what people in failed states can’t. We can vote. We can demand that the basics get done right. Water. Food security. Education. The protection of democratic institutions. Policing.
And if this government can’t do the basics, or won’t, then we must vote the fools out.