I, not us and them

ParisI’m going to say “I” quite a lot in this column.

Lately there’s been a little too much “we”, “us” and “them” for my taste, but mainly I’m doing it because writers indulge in the imperious “we” only when they’re feeling authoritative, secure enough to speculate on what “we” think; and right now I’m not sure I know a damned thing.

Another awful thing has happened, this time in Paris.

I didn’t want to write about it. These days, no matter how quietly I might write, my column is a monologue, spoken against and over and through ten thousand similar monologues, all forming an unintelligible cacophony of analysis.

Mainly I didn’t want to write about it because a column is a performance, and a performer by definition is the star of his or her show, and I do not want to insert myself and my career into the murder and maiming of 500 people. In order to be honest I must write about “I” and not “we” or “them”, but this latest horror is fundamentally not about me.

The solution? Don’t write about Paris. Leave the obituaries to people who knew and loved the dead. Leave the analyses to those who have read more than a Salon.com article about Isis or Daesh or whatever I’m supposed to call them now.

But then I began to worry. Wouldn’t it be a form of desertion not to write about Paris, or at least a breach of the etiquette of public writing? Surely by virtue of having a voice in a national newspaper I am required to contribute to discussions about awful events? Don’t I have some sort of duty to offer formal condolences?

Certainly, great swathes of the internet would insist that I do. Once, when monsters did monstrous things, we all stood shoulder to shoulder and accused them. Now our solidarity lasts only as long as it takes for the first think-pieces to appear. Then we begin to point at the people standing next to us, first at those we believe allowed the tragedy to happen, and then finally, and perhaps most bitterly, at those who are not showing the required amount of grief or are grieving for the wrong victims.

The demands of this new zeitgeist are confusing to me, and so I imagined myself walking past the open gates of a graveyard and seeing a large family, strangers to me, standing weeping around a grave. I could go over and offer discreet condolences. Some of the family might even appreciate it. But if I chose not to, and instead wished them well in my head and walked on, would I be failing in some basic human duty? No, I decided.

Then I wondered what it would be like to storm up to the graveside and to yell, “You monsters! Don’t you know that someone else was buried over there in that plot yesterday? How dare you stand here at this grave and ignore that one over there?” And I saw quite clearly just how narcissistic that would be; and how revealing.

Much of the  finger-pointing is just an unconscious reflection of unhappy relationships

If I condemn others for not caring enough about what I care about, I am not really talking about an issue. Rather, I am presenting my view of justice and proportion as the topic of discussion. And more often than not that means I’m going through some personal crisis involving an outraged sense of justice and a lost sense of proportion.

Indeed, I suspect that much of the digital finger-pointing and virtue signalling that I’ve seen online, draped in the flag of ethics or politics or religious debate, is really just an unconscious reflection of unhappy relationships, frustrations at work, and deep, understandable anxieties about the future.

For me, the anxiety is growing, but homicidal maniacs are only part of the problem. My anxiety is mostly caused by the chaos of too much contradictory information about too many bloody events with too few lines drawn under them: an endless series of dockets opened and partially investigated before being added to a pile.

Like someone clinging to the clapper of a vast, deafening bell, I feel swung this way by spun reportage, then that way by canny speculation. I swing to the political left, drawn by my desire to believe that people are good and that everything is going to turn out all right, and then I swing to the right, pulled by my suspicion that only brutal might can defeat death cults.

And all the while the clanging resounds and resounds, making thought impossible; turning me into a creature of sound bites, of half-read headlines, of uninformed squabbles over religion and migration; of pure reaction.

Every time the words get in the way. Perhaps because, in the end, there are so few words I can say honestly and without pretence:

I’m sorry this happened.

I don’t understand.

People are monstrous.

People are kind.

People survive.

I hope.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Assume the brace position

planeThe cabin crew are smiling tight-lipped smiles but everyone knows what’s happened.

You can see it on their faces when they slip out of the cockpit and quickly pull the door shut behind them.

The pilot has died.

And there’s no co-pilot, because the recently departed was an arrogant dickhead who insisted on working alone.

Worse, the plane is starting to lose altitude.

As you watch the drinks trolley lurch past, you curse your apathy. How did you let it get to this point? After all, you knew that this was going to happen sooner rather than later. They guy had been at the controls non-stop since 1994, and recently he’d been in horrible shape: bloated, flatulent, losing feeling in his extremities, increasingly paranoid. When he fired Chief Engineer Mbeki in 2007 you all agreed that the signs weren’t good, and yet you kept him in the pilot’s seat year after year. Why?

Perhaps there were a few extenuating circumstances. A lot of you remember what the plane used to be like before 1994 – a quiet, almost entirely empty flight that had only three destinations: white supremacy, economic collapse, and the holiday resort of Fantasyland 1952. No matter how bumpy it’s been since then you’ve always reassured yourselves that it’s way better than how things used to be.

Mainly, though, you and the rest of the passengers haven’t demanded a change of pilot because you’re all too busy tightening your seatbelts and riding out the turbulence. If we can just get through the next five minutes, you tell yourself. And then the next five minutes. And the next. And before you know it, Jacob Zuma has been president for seven years.

Now, as you see the horizon tilt in your window and the cabin crew start to whimper, you realise how deep in denial you’ve been. For years you’ve assumed that if something goes badly wrong, trained professionals will spring into action, pushing buttons and cranking handles like in those World War Two movies where they land a plane with no wings or engines and everyone walks off with a picturesque graze on their forehead.

You’ve told yourself that well-established countries with stock exchanges, universities, botanical gardens and video rental shops don’t just go into free-fall. Except for Venezuela, of course. But we’re not Venezuela because we don’t have an inept, anti-business government overspending on an obese civil service while blaming its mounting failures on a third force and – oh shit.

“Bloody pilot! This aeroplane is an instrument of white capital…”

You look around, hoping to see someone in a uniform stand up and march up the aisle. You want to shout, “Shouldn’t we ask if there’s a pilot on the plane?” but you don’t want to alarm anyone. In any case, you’re still pretty sure that someone will do something. But instead all you can see is passengers getting grumpy.

Up in First Class, a blonde woman in a blue T-shirt is hammering away at Twitter: “If I’d been flying this plane this would never have happened!” Across the aisle, a portly gent in a red beret is yelling, “Bloody pilot! This aeroplane is an instrument of white capital and we should never have been on it in the first place, so once it has crashed we will occupy it!”

I’m not sure when our pilot popped his clogs. Perhaps it was Polokwane or Marikana. Maybe it was White Shirts pushing MPs out of parliament, or the planned media tribunal, or riot police throwing stun grenades at students.

Maybe, comically, it was when he told the country he didn’t have money for students and then promptly announced plans to spend R4-billion on a private jet.

Whenever it was, though, I do know that he’s snuffed it. This government is dead. It will nudge the controls this way and that as it gets dragged out of the cockpit, but, right now, there is nobody flying the plane.

That’s worrying, of course, but not as worrying as what’s happening right now. Because instead of asking if there’s a pilot on board, we’re arguing over where, when and how the pilot died. And we’re not examining the claims by the DA and the EFF that they know what to do. Yes, the DA has clocked up some hours in gliders over the Cape Winelands, and the EFF has launched a couple of impressive rockets in Johannesburg, but fly a fully laden airliner? Where’s the flight plan? Actually, screw the flight plan: at this point we’ll take any plan that looks technically sound and isn’t just the usual pissing contest.

The fact is we don’t have a clue if anyone in South Africa knows how to run it. All we have is the old belief that someone will do something. Call it hope. Call it denial. But at some point we’re going to learn the truth. And when it happens, our seatbelts better be fastened.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

It’s the President on Line 1

JZ 2A picture can paint a thousand words, but sometimes it also paints just one.

Like “fokkoff”.

On 28 September the UN held a luncheon during its 70th session (“luncheon” is rich person for “lunch”), and just after the first course of wild platitude poached in a jus of lightly broken promises, and just before the second course of braised rhetoric on a bed of indecision, heads of state got to wander around the room and press the flesh.

You’ve almost certainly seen what happened next: the picture up top got saturation coverage in the local media.

Zuma’s critics marveled at what looked like an astonishing diplomatic faux pas. Who could be so important that he couldn’t hang up? The Guptas? The contractor installing Madonsela-proof windows at Nkandla? The ANC Women’s League, asking his manly guidance about the best route for their next march in defense of his dignity?

His supporters cried foul. This was typical counterrevolutionary neoconservative neoliberal propaganda, they cried: publishing one picture out of context and creating an anti-Zuma narrative around it.

Of course, the person who has done most in creating an anti-Zuma narrative is Zuma, but that detail escaped them. In theory, however, they had a point. We didn’t know the context. That’s because our media only published that one picture. But root around a little more, and some other pictures from that moment surface; and taken together, they look, well, comical.

The first shows a businesslike Barack Obama saying howdy. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding some dialogue, just to keep things lively.)

JZ 1

Barack Obama: Hi Jacob. Good to see ya.

Jacob: No, just land at Waterkloof again, it’s fine.

BO: What’s that? You like the watercress?

JZ: Just wait.

BO: Say what now?

JZ: Not you, Mr President, I’m talking to someone else.

BO: I can see that.

JZ: Heh heh.

[Awkward beat.]

BO: And you’re going to keep talking to them?

JZ: Heh heh.

It’s now got embarrassing for Obama so he makes a joke. Ha ha, I guess Mr Zuma is too busy to talk to me. I guess I’ll try again later. Ha ha.

JZ 2

And yet he won’t let go JZ’s hand, and JZ is starting to feel the horns of a dilemma pricking his presidential posterior. You can see it on his face. He’s pathetically grateful to have got a hello from POTUS. He knows that every single diplomat in the room would have hung up the phone the moment they saw Obama approach. He knows he should slam that Blackberry down and give Obama a big-two handed handshake and make a joke about mothers-in-law always calling at the wrong time.

But he can’t.

Because whoever is on the phone is much more important to him than the President of the United States.

I know what the Zuma rent-a-crowd yells at this point:

YES BUT IF THE COUNTERREVOLUTIONARIES HAD TAKEN ANOTHER PICTURE TWO SECONDS LATER THEY WOULD HAVE SHOWN ZUMA HANGING UP AND HAVING A PROPER CHAT!!! HE HAS HIS FAULTS BUT HE WOULD NEVER BE SO ARROGANT AND UNSOPHISTICATED AS TO CONTINUE ON THIS CALL!!!!

So does Zuma hang up?

No.

JZ 3

He keeps that fucking phone glued to his ear as Obama moves past him to greet a Silver Fox who is eagerly anticipating his arrival.

BO: Hey pal, you’re not on the phone, are ya?

Silver Fox: Not at all, Mr President. Besides, I can’t use my phone. Repetitive strain injury.

BO: Really?

SF: Totes. Messed up my thumb. This one.

BO: Goddamn, that looks painful. So painful I’m just gonna stand here for a moment massaging my right thumb with my left.

SF: Massage really helps.

BO: Don’t look now but is Zuma still on his fucking call?

SF: He sure is, Mr President.

BO: Ugh.

Obama is just about to move on when another dignitary, Balding Man In The Foreground, rises to shake his hand.

The tension is broken. A perfect opportunity for JZ to whisper into the phone, “Listen, I’ll call you back. Just use Waterkloof. If anyone leaks it to the press I’ll just make them ambassador to Colombia. Bye.”

So does he?

Generated by IJG JPEG LibraryGenerated by IJG JPEG Library

No.

He does the “Hey, do you guys mind? I’m on a really important call” face.

The “I’m going to tolerate your jolly hand-shaking for five more seconds but then I’m going back to the phone” pose.

Moments later, the dogs bark and the POTUS caravan moves on.

At last, JZ can get back to his call in peace and quiet.

JZ 4

I admit I don’t know when this last picture was taken. It’s possible it was snapped before Obama arrived. It’s possible some agency photographer thought they’d get a file shot of Zuma for general background bumph about the luncheon. But I’d bet good money it was taken after Obama left; when photojournalists around the room had seen the exchange and whispered, “Holy shit, get a load of this guy! He’s still on the phone!”, and they kept snapping until Zuma made that gesture – “I bet he feels this big right now”, “His country is this big but he still can’t hang up the phone?”

If it was taken after Obama left, then we have photographic evidence that JZ has no shame.

But then I think we’ve kind of known that for a while, not so?

Resistance is futile

497fe70c66b6f7c43d329594db8d3e5aNational Cat Day isn’t one of the more widely celebrated holidays in the US.

People who don’t have cats don’t care, and people who do have cats are usually too busy arranging their online photo albums (Mr Spanky, subfolder “Outdoors”, subfolder “Lying on his side”, subfolder “Thursday”, subfolder “10am-11am”) to make much of a fuss.

Still, it’s safe to assume that a few million Americans marked Thursday’s festival with a tin of tuna or a wind-up mouse or a specially commissioned oil painting of cat and human in matching woolen hats, standing on an Alp at sunrise.

Gifts would have been given. Hugs would have been administered – “I wuv you more dan anything in de whole wide world, yes I do! Yes I – aw, why are you wriggling? Stay with me! Why do you always fight me? No! No biting! Bad Mr Spanky! Bad kitty ca – aaa! My eyes! My eyes!”

But even as tempers flared, humans would have been careful to keep their cats away from the internet in case they saw the latest statements by former star Bridget Bardot or singer-cum-novelist Morrissey.

In case you don’t have “cat genocide” set as a Google alert, here’s the story so far. Feral kitties are wiping out vast numbers of indigenous animals in Australia. That country’s government plans to cull about 2million of the critters. It has the backing of environmental groups. What it does not have, however, is the backing of Bardot or Morrissey.

Both have condemned Canberra’s plans. Disappointingly, they haven’t done it through the medium of French film or terrible prose, but they have used words like “genocide” and “idiocy” to describe the cull.

I understand their anger. Kitties are precious fur-people. The trouble is, kitties are also monstrous killing machines that will not stop until they have wiped out all life on Earth. The science is clear: among animals that move on all fours, they are pretty much the worst thing ever. And science includes Miley Cyrus on that list, so that’s saying a lot.

On the day that America celebrated its cats, the little fuckers slaughtered 60 million animals. I’m not making that up. American kitties kill more than 3 billion birds and as many as 20 billion small mammals every year. That’s 730 kills a second. In the time it’s taken you to read this far, American cats have filled your living room to the ceiling with carnage. And that’s just in the US.

In the rest of the world, Mr Spanky has made dozens of species extinct for no other reason than that he felt like it.

Sometimes all it takes is one kitty with lots of time on its hands. At the end of the 19th century, Stephens Island off New Zealand got a new lighthouse keeper. With him came his cat, a certain Tibbles. A few years later, the flightless Stephens Island wren was extinct, and Tibbles was burping and wiping feathers off his face.

These numbers give the lie to any cat owners who try to claim that they are environmentally conscious. The bottom line seems to be fairly damning: if you own a cat and allow it out of doors, you are an accessory to a vast ecological crime.

But there is hope for cat owners in the form of a tried and tested legal defence. I’m not referring to insanity, although we’ve all had that awkward moment when an otherwise rational adult starts describing their cat’s appreciation of irony. No, I’m talking about the plea of diminished capacity; specifically the possibility that cat owners are being controlled by their kitties.

I’m not a scientist and I wouldn’t want to claim that we’re dealing with a parasite that slowly turns the infected into cat-obeying zombies, but that’s pretty much exactly what’s happening.

The villain is a parasite carried by cats called Toxoplasma gondii. Its effects on mice are dramatic: animals that have been infected via cat urine are generally less fearful of cats, with the result that more of them get eaten. It’s not quite a horde of zombie mice sleepwalking into cats’ dinner plates, but it’s close.

Where it gets a bit creepy, though, is when some scientists see behavioural changes in humans infected with the parasite. According to Jugoslav Flegr, the scientists whose research into cat zombies won him the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize, infected humans show diminished fear of dangerous situations. They are twice as likely to be killed in car accidents, one explanation being that their reflexes have slowed because their brains aren’t that fussed with keeping them alive any more.

So is your cat trying to kill you? Of course not. But it is trying to make you less suspicious. And when you die, perhaps by slipping on the kitty litter (how did it get there?), it will eat your corpse, and purr – until Toxoplasma gondii tells it to kill again.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Future shock

protestThe violence of midday was over. The riot police had finished their work.

Now, as five o’ clock rolled around, the students were sitting sprawled across the street outside parliament, waiting for the politicians to come out.

The police were still there, standing in a line inside the gates, staring dully at the students. Nearby, an officer leaned awkwardly against a van as he strapped on plastic leg guards. He was very fat and looked disconsolate. My overwhelming impression was of an inept club cricketer padding up to try to dig his team out of a hole.

We had come down to drop off supplies for the students. Some glanced at us with the contempt revolutionaries reserve for bourgeois tourists. Others were surprisingly pleased. Perhaps they were just amused that we’d brought chocolate to a gunfight.

Nobody was going anywhere, and so we wandered around the back of parliament, towards the gardens of Government Avenue. Now, a deep peace lay over the afternoon. Squirrels posed for tourists. Doves burbled in the branches. A man snoozed on a bench.

Here, it was difficult to believe that the standoff was real; that this picturesque bonbon of a building was serving as a bunker for frightened incompetents. But then we turned off into the little alley behind the Slave Lodge – more tourists, more squirrels – and walked straight into 1985.

The riot police had their backs to us. Beyond them, students sang and taunted. On the peripheries, stragglers were being picked up. I watched a young woman being marched into a van; she weighed about 50kg but apparently she required three men wearing body armour and carrying shotguns to escort her.

A loudhailer shrieked and an officer started yapping orders into it. His voice was distorted, echoing off the buildings around the square, but we could make out the gist. Disperse. Arrest. Fifteen minutes. Fokkoff or else. Why? Because we have rubber bullets and instructions from inside parliament and all you’ve got is a half an education and 20 years of student debt.

A ripple passed down the line of police – small gestures, anxious glances – and then they sprang the trap: stun grenades, a baton charge, raised shotguns. I heard the crack-crack of rubber bullets being fired. The students broke and scattered but quickly regrouped further down the street to turn and raise their middle fingers and to cross their arms over their heads.

And that’s when I realised what was happening.

The police were clearing an escape route.

We watched them try to escape the future.

Our leaders were too frightened to go out the front, where all those savage arts and commerce and microbiology students were waiting to attack them with weapons like logic and honesty; and so they were sliding out the back.

There was a crescendo of chatter on the police radios. The gates swung open and the first of the BMWs crept out.

We stood and watched them in their gleaming R2-million getaway cars, our faces reflected in tinted windows. We watched them flee the people who are going to run this country in 30 years. We watched them try to escape the future.

It would have been a terribly depressing moment, but just then we met that future.

Both of the young women were students and, as is sometimes the case with people whose minds have not yet calcified, they were comfortable holding complexities. They believed that a degree was the only way out of poverty, but they also knew that a degree was no guarantee of anything in a hopelessly underperforming economy. They respected their parents but resented them for not keeping their party accountable. They were ready to fight, but believed that discipline and non-violence would win the day.

On one point, though, they were unwilling to compromise. The ANC, their parents’ party, had to go.

“Don’t these people know that we’re trained to assess information critically?” asked the one as some apparatchik skedaddled past us.

“No,” said her friend. “They don’t. They think we’re as ignorant as they are. They think they’re fooling us but they’re just insulting us.”

“So stupid,” said the first, smiling into the impassive face of a passing dignitary. “All they had to do was listen and show solidarity. So easy. But now they’re done.”

Over the last two weeks South African students have taught me how little I know, perhaps how little any of us know. I’ve read authoritative voices explaining why there is plenty of money and why there is none. I’ve learned that countries are doomed without education, and that countries with weak education can enjoy booming economies. I’ve heard politicians promise that they have a plan to fix the mess made by their total inability to plan.

I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. But I have a feeling that if those two women are anywhere near parliament in the coming years, maybe, just maybe, we might be okay.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

That’ll do, pig.

cute-pigs“Do you want to hear something truly perverse?” asked the chef.

I did. Jonny is a mercurial gastronome who delights in language almost as much as he relishes food, and I knew that when he said “perverse” he really meant it.

In France, he said, there is a certain songbird: the ortolan. It is about the size of your hand and rather plain, but for connoisseurs of the dark culinary arts, it is the ultimate test of a chef’s skill – and morality.

Well, at least it was until fairly recently. The French government has banned the killing and cooking of ortolans, partly because they are so rare and partly because (here the storyteller laughed at the awfulness of what he was about to reveal) it’s just so completely depraved.

Ortolans are too small and delicate to be shot, he explained, and so instead they are trapped and put inside a box. A box full of grain. Into which no light whatsoever can penetrate. And so the frightened bird begins to eat. It eats and eats, growing fat on the grain that is its only comfort in a hellish universe.

At last the bird is taken out of its endless midnight . and promptly drowned in a vat of Armagnac, a type of brandy. Its lungs fill with the liquor; a self-marinating delicacy.

The bird is cooked whole, bones and all, and the diners assemble. But instead of sharing their experience, they drape a large napkin over their heads and eat in the solitude of this small linen tent. Some say that the napkin traps the aromas, bathing the diners’ faces in a steamy mist of tortured songbird. Others say it allows them to spit out the bones without looking disgusting. But apparently the napkin’s most important purpose is to hide them from the disappointed gaze of God.

Jonny was laughing uproariously at the macabre spectacle of a tableful of French Ku Klux Klan lookalikes hiding from the Almighty as they wolfed down the evidence of a terrible crime. For me, it was a curiously human scene, like children driven by some barbaric curiosity into killing a frog, now hiding from their mother.

It reminded me of the tensions that lurk in our relationship with animals, especially the animals we eat. I had heard of culinary traditions that verge on psychopathy. For example ikizukuri, the Japanese art of slicing up a sea creature, like a fish or an octopus, but leaving all the organs functioning so you can eat a still-writhing animal. But I had never before seen so clearly that child-like intersection of cruelty and shame.

It was the Stone Age equivalent of #Blessed

I suspect we’ve been living with that intersection since the first human bludgeoned a passing rat. As we got better at hunting, we got better at denial, too, kidding ourselves that if we thanked a buck before we cut its throat and had a little spiritual moment, everything was in balance. It was the Stone Age equivalent of #Blessed: if you’re grateful for it, it doesn’t matter how you got it.

(By the way, can we stop kidding ourselves that our ancestors “lived in harmony with nature”? If they’d had AK-47s they would have turned the planet into a meat loaf faster than you can say “Hasta la vista, bison!”)

If all of this is sounding a little combative, I apologise. The fact is I’ve given up bacon and I want to blame someone. But please don’t think I’m trying to take any moral high ground. You should keep eating what you like. I’m still going to eat every cow, sheep or chicken that crosses my path. That’s because I’m a human and therefore a hypocrite when it comes to food. (Yes, vegans, you too: you might be saving the big fur-people but your sprout farms are Armageddon for entire civilizations of creepy-crawlies.) All I’ve done is add pigs to the group of animals I’ve decided are lovable rather than edible. It’s not an ethical decision; it’s a sentimental one.

Then again, perhaps there is hope for us meat eaters. Even as I watch Babe, gently moaning and pawing the screen, scientists are hard at work making lab-grown flesh. Apparently the burger they conjured in a petri dish in 2013 tasted a bit like meat, though somewhat dry. So they’re already way ahead of McDonald’s.

It’s inevitable that this kind of meat will become more common. The planet can’t cope with the meat eaters it has, let alone the host of new carnivores appearing in the developing world and, by all accounts, petri flesh requires vastly less energy and water to produce. Soon I might be able to enjoy a rasher of facon while romping with my pet piglet, all the terrible contradictions removed by science.

But I wonder: when Jonny’s protégé prepares faux meat, will diners ask for it to look bloody? Will we always require evidence of a kill to really believe that it’s meat?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

A royal pain

royalsLike all great fairy tales, it started with a palace; a gigantic thing, all gold and gleaming.

The young man at the nearby table used his hands to describe soaring columns and endless corridors. His friend shook her head, enchanted.

The Palace of Versailles was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, he said. But it hadn’t just been the beauty that had affected him. Visiting the place had taught him two incredible lessons.

The first was about the past, namely, that people in the olden days were far more skilled than we give them credit for. Did his friend realise that the palace had been built, like, 200 years ago and yet – his eyes grew wide and his friend gaped in amazement – it was still standing?

So far, so normal. I used to teach 19-year-olds and I quickly discovered that to most of them history is what you had for breakfast. But I must confess I was surprised by the second lesson.

Visiting Versailles, he said, had taught him that if you have enough passion, you can achieve anything.

Fairy tales are full of unlikely events, but this felt absurd for a very specific reason: the man telling the story was black. It sounded tone-deaf, jarringly discordant; a young African, living in an era and a country defined by narratives of liberation and unearned privilege, being inspired by a monument to the triumph of the unelected super-rich over the disenfranchised poor.

Then again, perhaps such confusion and contradictions are inevitable in our confused and contradictory country. Talk about palaces in modern South Africa, and things get very messy, very quickly.

Lenin and King Louis must be spinning in their graves

How do you stay ideologically consistent when the SACP is an ally of the ANC which defends the privilege of traditional leaders? Communists allied to kings? Lenin and King Louis must be spinning in their graves.

Inconsistency lies at the heart of South Africa’s relationship with royalty. Most of us have marvelled that citizens of a constitutional democracy are taxed by a democratically elected state which then uses some of that money to pay 10 kings, hundreds of chiefs and thousands of headmen to enact a set of laws that run parallel to the laws of the land.

Last week supporters of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo protested against the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal to jail him on charges including kidnapping and assault of his subjects, saying he was merely doing his kingly duty, and acting within traditional law. But what tipped this over into the surreal was that the spokesman for this group is also the deputy labour minister. When it comes to democracy versus royalty, many of our public officials are taking Marie Antoinette one step further: they’re having cake, and eating it.

royals are simply Mafia families that haven’t needed to rub out anyone for a while

Perhaps that’s because, despite our claims that we like and understand democracy, a surprising number of people around the world still believe that royalty is actually a thing. Whether the training is coming from folklore or from Disney, it works the same, teaching us that kings and queens are special. We refuse to see that royals are simply Mafia families that haven’t needed to rub out anyone for a while. We love the continuity that royals seem to represent, but we seldom ask how the first of the line got all that power, maybe because, deep down, we know the answer: they hacked somebody to death and took it out of the dead hands of its previous owner.

The only difference between the Windsors in London and a psychotic warlord building a narco-state in the Caucasus or the Amazon jungle is time. He knows he will have to settle for being president. His son will be president commander. His grandson will be lord commander. But his great-grandson, ah, his great-grandson will be king, and will be applauded with silk gloves as he releases flocks of doves over an Olympic ceremony.

If you think I’m being cynical, consider the fairytale kingdom of Monaco. In 1967 it issued a stamp commemorating Lucien, Lord of Monaco in the early 1500s. Lucien got the gig because he murdered his brother, Jean. But it didn’t last as long as he hoped, because he was duly murdered by his nephew. That’s the kind of dirt most normal families try to bury, but if you’re rich enough you put it on a stamp. I put it to you that these are not well people.

Compared to Europe’s most successful plunderers, our local royals seem fairly benign. Except, of course, that Europe’s traditional leaders have no power to do anything except wave. Our country is a democracy, so if people want to be judged and jailed by kings then that’s their right. But traditional leaders, too, need to check their privilege from time to time. After all, Versailles represents more than just a pretty building.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Banting erotica: low carbs, high sales

baconWhen romance novelist Jackie Collins died last month, she left behind some astonishing figures.

I could get my head around the fact that she had written 32 novels. I could even imagine what it must be like to have your books translated into 40 languages: it’s pleasing to imagine a punctilious Mandarin translator trying to find the perfect pictograms for “pulsating desire”. But when I read how many copies she’d sold, my mind boggled.

500 million. Do you have any idea of how much sweat you could wring out of the jodhpurs of 500 million romance novels? How many diamonds would come clattering to the floor as evening gowns are hastily pulled down over heaving, sun-kissed shoulders? If you piled all those books up into a single, tumescent tower of literary lust, how high would it go?

And then there’s the money. It’s a bit crass to marvel at the moolah of the recently departed, but it’s probably not a stretch to imagine that Ms Collins made hundreds of millions of dollars – that’s billions of rands – from her work.

In case you are wondering, I have not made billions of rands from my books. I was reminded of this over the weekend as I found one of them on a shelf in the CNA, its price reduced to R40. Which is obviously less than a billion.

For a moment I gazed at it, standing forlornly on the sale shelf, alongside shop-soiled copies of 2011’s bestsellers. I felt its shame. Once, in the heady summer of 2014, it had worn its price tag with pride. Of course, it was mostly just for show. Books are overpriced by about 400% in South Africa and nobody was going to pay the not-quite-a-billion-rand on the tag. But still, I remember how proud my little book felt to stand near the front of the shop, pretending someone might buy it, instead of waiting in the long queue that ends in the pulping machine.

We don’t do it for the money

I’m not complaining, mind you. Nobody in South Africa writes fiction for money. Whenever I tell people the figures they think I’m joking, and why wouldn’t they? Who in their right mind would spend a year ploughing heart and soul into something that will earn them about R10 000 after tax? How can it be possible that when you buy a novel for R180, the author gets about R10? As I said: we don’t do it for the money.

At least, we didn’t. But that’s changing. Local writers are becoming more strategic, abandoning literary fiction with its metaphorical farms, metaphysical windmills and total sales of 19 copies in favour of more commercial stuff. They are figuring out that in order to get very rich producing fiction for South Africans, all they have to do is write Banting-themed erotica in which someone is murdered and a grizzled Afrikaans detective tracks down the killer, and there is a colouring-in element.

To this end, I am working on a novel in which a young, naïve and very horny strip of bacon is seduced by a cold, sadistic and vastly rich potato (“She felt herself begin to sizzle as she gazed into his seven eyes .”). The potato then goes to Bloemfontein on a business trip and is found dead in a baking tray. (“Inspector Hempies de Gruwel took a drag on his Gunston and nodded. ‘Au gratin,’ he sighed. ‘Helluva way to go’.”) De Gruwel knows he’s only got one shot at redemption left (his marriage and his relationship with his estranged daughter, Cauliflower, have both disintegrated, thanks to his carb addiction). The climax involves a race against time, a chainsaw, bondage and cheese sauce, but you have to colour in the last six pages to see how it all ends.

Now and then I hear local fiction writers worry that they are being shut out by a hostile industry. I understand how they reach that conclusion. Most writers feel like outsiders, and if you believe you are standing on the outside, then you have to believe that there is an inside where insiders gather to drink cognac and smoke rolled-up R200 notes. Except as far as I can tell there is no inside. When it comes to South African fiction, there is only outside: a little meadow. You wander into it, and, for an hour or two, you are gently warmed by the sun, or taken out for lunch by your publisher, or interviewed by someone who hasn’t read the book. And then you wander out of the meadow, and find yourself in the CNA.

I am making peace with this little meadow. I’m figuring out that getting upset over how little South Africans read local fiction is like quilters getting upset that quilting isn’t a national sport.

Still, if Hempies de Gruwel doesn’t make me millions, I’m going to have to get a real job.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Gut feel

bacteriaTwo of my friends recently made a spaceship. You didn’t hear about it because they are publicity-shy, but I’ve seen it, and it works.

I understand only some of the science, but essentially it looks like most spaceships in pop culture: more or less cylindrical, with a bulbous front bit that houses the command centre, a long middle bit where the crew live, and propulsion units sticking out the back. What really stunned me, though, was just how big it is. It’s vast. The living quarters can house literally millions of voyagers, representing thousands of different species from all corners of the galaxy. (Almost none of the crew is human.)

I asked my friends what the point of the vessel was and they explained that, like most transportation, it has only one mission: to keep everything inside safe and in working order as it wanders this way and that through the universe.

Interestingly, the ship collects its own fuel. In fact that’s pretty much all it does. Scanners detecting edible food? Hard to starboard, Number One! Oxygen found in the atmosphere? Alpha Team, prepare to inhale! As soon as the crew has positioned the ship near a new source of sustenance, a loading dock in the front part opens up, and the goodies are transported down into the middle of the ship, where millions of workers convert it into whatever is needed. A few hours later, waste products are ejected into space from between the propulsion units.

The ship has an official name, something pretty and optimistic, but to everybody on board she’s just “The Tube”. Because that’s what she is: a city-sized hose pipe that sucks in energy and ejects waste. Every living thing on board exists to serve the tube, and in return, the tube keeps them alive.

The spaceship is, of course, a human baby, and the vast crew that will push this person through the universe – nudging it this way for food, that way for love, the other way for shelter – is the swarm of bacteria that have already taken residence in her gut.

Humanity, we accept, exists somewhere between our ears.

When the discovery of Homo naledi was announced, some writers posed the well-thumbed question: what makes us human? Is it our intellect? Our emotions? The way they come together to create beliefs, customs and relationships?

They are good questions, but, perhaps because they are usually asked by thinkers, their answers tend to gravitate to the brain, like dust around a planet. Humanity, we generally accept, exists somewhere between our ears.

There’s no denying that the brain is astonishing. That melon-sized lump of fat has subjugated an entire planet. It can hold dazzling amounts of information, like how, when you eat cereal and you spill down your chin, you need to scoop it back into your mouth with the same action you use for shaving, and why Sam Smith’s new Bond theme is a subtle critique and inversion of the hegemony of the patriarchal, Shirley Bassey-esque idiom that has dominated the franchise for too long. But these days, it also knows about something called faecal transplants.

I’ve listened, spellbound, to a surgeon who performs them. “Perform” is the only appropriate verb: implanting faecal matter from one person into the bowels of another person seems more like a by-invitation-only circus act in a London basement than a medical procedure.

It’s horrifying. But only if you believe the accepted answers to that old question; that we are human mainly because of our brains, and that our humanity is a refined, higher magic that flits about in our skulls like cherubs riding on winged rainbows. If you consider the possibility that we exist for the benefit of our passengers then such transplants aren’t freak shows. They’re the new owners moving in.

Just how human can we claim to be when our bodies are home to millions of non-human life forms, all working away, night and day, to keep themselves fed, warm and happy? Are we truly free-thinking individuals when our health, and possibly even our moods and thoughts, are created and maintained by our on-board crew of aliens? Are we here to learn about ourselves and others, or are we lengths of mobile hose pipe, slaves to a tiny civilization that lives inside us and endlessly orders us to shove stuff into the top of the pipe and, from time to time, make more pipes so that more of our overlords can live in new digs?

That’s why I like the spaceship analogy. Spaceships are nobler than hose pipes. They are built for adventure, not just consumption. They go boldly where no self-aware mass transit system has gone before. They – oh, wait, message from the engine room. Yes, sir? Time for me to have lunch? Right away, sir.

Resistance is futile.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Sex without a happy ending

rotk.funnyface2I don’t remember the theme of my high school dance.

It might have been “Night of a Thousand Stars” or “20 000 Leagues Under The Sea” or “Arabian Nights”. In the mid-1990s my school was trying hard to nurture compromise and broad-based discussion so it’s even possible we ended up with “20 000 Arabs Under The Sea At Night”, and I went dressed as the commander of a vast Saudi submarine fleet. I really can’t remember.

But I do know that for my teachers, all dances had the same theme: “A Heaving Orgy Behind The Bicycle Shed Climaxing In A Baby Boom Sometime Late Next Year”.

The school was fairly religious, a wood-polish-scented mix of Methodist optimism and Anglican defeatism shot through with a crackling bolt of old-timey Baptist brimstone. A polite détente existed between the old guard and a handful of godless radicals who padded around the staff room in Birkenstocks made of hemp. Tradition and modernity wrestled like Jacob and his angel. But as our dance rolled closer like an inexorable pram full of babies spawned to Ace of Base, traditionalists and reformers found common ground. It was time to warn. It was time to educate and empower. It was time to show us The Film.

Our hopes were high as we shuffled into the hall. At last, we thought, some proper sex education. With pictures. Perhaps moving pictures. And some moody saxophone music, and maybe a thin plot featuring a wealthy heiress whose air-conditioning has broken, and because she’s just so hot – so, so hot – she has to phone for a repairman.

Some of us probably knew a little about sex. Some of the boys, the ones who could shave, had condoms in their wallets and even knew how to use them (you don’t over-fill the condom with water or you can’t tie the knot properly). For my part, I was about 40% sure that sex didn’t involve either birds or bees, although I was willing to be convinced that birds and bees sometimes had sex with each other, which was possibly where hummingbirds came from. But generally, sex education in Cape Town’s southern suburbs was like reading the laws governing LBW decisions in cricket: awkwardly formal and very specific and yet still almost impossible to understand without diagrams.

I gather that the teens are experimenting with Alain de Botton now

Of course, a few brave teachers had tried from time to time over the years, starting their explanations with a long, shuddering sigh before revealing that when a man and woman are deeply in love and married, they sometimes feel the urge to stimulate each other. When this happens, the man and the woman sit down on facing sofas and read each other extracts from The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. (I gather that the teens are experimenting with Alain de Botton now, which explains why they are out of control, “consoling” each other in dark cinemas and hedges and wherever else teens congregate.)

Thus aroused, the couple will now start touching each other’s erogenous zone, which is a strip of land between North and South Korea. It is now time for the spouses to begin something called “forp lay”, named after the ancient Saxon festival during which forps were laid on the roof of the family hovel and then set on fire to ward off ice zombies.

Soon the lovers are swept up in their passion, and set about caressing each other’s most sensitive parts, such as the eyeball and the back of the throat. These caresses have a powerful physiological effect, as a specific part of both the man and woman become engorged. This part is known as their “sense of duty”. Determined to do their duty, the man and woman sink out of sight next to the bed, at which point Satan enters the bedroom.

Disappointingly, the film covered none of that. Instead, it opened nine months later, with blood and screaming and the rending of flesh and poop and crying and more blood. We were plunged face-first into the miracle of birth, an entire wall lit up by a vagina and a baby’s head. There was no music. The plot was simple: sex ends with a screaming, bloodied parasite bursting out of a screaming, bloodied woman.

Half an hour later, a hundred teenagers walked out of that hall determined never to touch another human being again for as long as they lived. Even self-love was out of the question. Yes, it seemed unlikely that sperm could go airborne and impregnate someone a few kilometres away, but who really knew? Just that year we’d seen Arnold Schwarzenegger get pregnant in Junior, and if Emma Thompson could agree to appear in that movie then surely anything was possible?

I don’t remember the dance, but I’m pretty sure when MC Hammer started up, telling us “U Can’t Touch This“, we gratefully obeyed.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.