ancient Rome

Shame on you, Cyril!

surprised cyril

I must admit that I am terribly disappointed in Cyril Ramaphosa.

Just one affair? What kind of presidential contender only has one affair?

In France you can’t even become deputy mayor unless you list at least three dangerous liaisons in your CV. The Italian constitution demands that when a new president is inaugurated, he or she has to take the oath of office while being orally pleasured by at least five lovers. And Ramaphosa has the nerve, the barefaced audacity, to admit that he’s only had one paltry dalliance?

No, Mr Ramaphosa. This will not stand. You have betrayed the very institution of patriarchal politics and you have lost the respect of the millions of hypocrites in this country.

Still, at least the disappointing revelations of the weekend were illuminating in other ways. For starters, there was more confirmation (if any more was needed) of just how inept the Zupta camp can be when it comes to Machiavellian schemes.

A sex scandal? Seriously? All the dirty tricks at their disposal and they opt for a sex scandal? Their own godfather brushed off an extramarital one-night stand and a rape trial. The political consequences of Jeff Radebe’s sexting shenanigans have been the distant chirping of a lone cricket. And yet somehow they convinced themselves that South Africa would rise up in puritanical fury against Ramaphosa.

It seems delusional, but I think there is method to this madness; a method written down and learned by heart, 50 years ago, in the Soviet Union or Bulgaria. It was even a good method: back then, kompromat – salacious information used for blackmail – could remove opponents and topple governments.

But what the Zupta brains trust doesn’t seem to understand is that it is 2017, not 1967. The sex scandal has been defused and rendered almost entirely useless as a weapon. And that’s because its animating, destructive energy – shame – has been evaporated by modernity.

“Hey Jacob you little hottie. Send nudes. Also nuclear contracts.”

The world in which powerful people offer tearful apologies and resignations is gone, replaced by one in which a man can boast that he “moved” on a married woman “like a bitch”; can urge men to “grab ’em by the pussy”; and still become president of the US. It is a world in which a politician can joke that an alleged rape victim “enjoyed” her ordeal because she stayed for breakfast, and go on to become hailed as a progressive president-in-waiting.

None of that, however, penetrated the bubble of the Zuptas or their puppets in the press; and so they trotted out their kompromat and told us that Ramaphosa is a “blesser”, a hilarious accusation given that this country is hostage to the biggest blesser-blessee relationship of them all. (“Hey Jacob you little hottie. Send nudes. Also nuclear contracts.”) Sigh.

The second thing the B-grade smear illuminated was our collective desperation for something better.

We’re fond of false dichotomies in this country but within hours of the non-story being published by non-journalists, Ramaphosa’s supporters were outdoing themselves. If Zuma was Voldemort, Ramaphosa was Harry Potter, the magical chosen one, a reluctant messiah who would save us all.

“This is the kind of leadership we need!” tweeted “rebel” MP Derek Hanekom, a post retweeted almost 100 times by fellow Ramaphosists.

I enjoyed his enthusiasm but I wondered what kind of leadership, exactly, Hanekom was referring to. Was it Ramaphosa’s impression of a smiling statue, holding perfectly still as the ANC was hollowed out? Was it his refusal to take a meaningful stand against wholesale looting until he was ready to launch his own bid for power?

Obviously, it couldn’t be either. Which makes me think that Hanekom wasn’t actually talking about leadership. Instead, he and those who think like him are actually talking about Elastoplast. Because right now the country has only two presidential candidates. The first is a rusty spike being hammered deeper into a sucking chest wound. And the other is an Elastoplast.

I don’t think anybody seriously believes that an Elastoplast can fix a country. It is, after all, a sticking plaster, not a statesman. It might not even close the hole. But at least it’s not making the hole bigger. And right now, that feels like progress.


Published in The Times and TimesLive


Moonlight and Romans


One afternoon in Turkey, 2000 years ago, a man called Paul sat down and wrote a very long letter to his colleagues in the Corinth office.

The epistle, delivered by inter-office donkey, contained many beautiful thoughts on life and faith, and it went down very well with the Corinthians, although Quintus in Marketing was concerned that Paul claimed to be seeing “through a glass, darkly”. Had the Ephesus branch stopped washing its windows? Because that really wouldn’t reflect well.

They told Quintus to put a sock in it and he asked, “What’s a sock?” and they told him to go and feed the donkey, and they read on, eagerly. But then they came across a passage that made them glance awkwardly at each other; because instead of being about righteousness and worldly troubles, it was about love.

Love, wrote Paul, carefully forming the letters in a world full of cruelty, is patient. It is kind. It does not envy or boast. It isn’t proud. (At this juncture they murmured, “Amen,” for many of them had recently been humbled by love, especially Barnabas in Accounts who had been sleeping on the couch since Tuesday. When they read on, and saw that love “keeps no record of wrongs”, Barnabas perked up, but they told him not to try his luck.)

Today, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians has been tarnished by overuse. A few kind and earnest hearts still repeat it at weddings, but too often, these days, 1 Corinthians is the last resort of teachers who have forgotten that they are leading the assembly devotion this morning.

This week, though, it might be worth dusting off Paul’s words. Because this is the week when our relationship with love – and our patience and kindness – are tested to the limit by Valentine’s Day.

It wasn’t always like that. When I encountered Valentine’s Day for the first time, it seemed to have a lot to do with love. Especially the bit about patience. I was incredibly patient. I waited from 1985 until 1989 to get a Valentine’s Day card from my love. It never happened, but she did once bite me in the head by accident so I can truthfully claim that I bled for her.

Once I grew up, however, and put away childish things (Quintus didn’t like that part of the epistle at all), I started to suspect that Valentine’s Day might not be about love after all, at least not the love outlined by Saint Paul. For starters, it can be spectacularly unkind. And if love is not supposed to boast or be proud, why is that asshole Brad in Grade 7 going around showing everyone the two cards he got?

love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir

No, with maturity comes the realisation that love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir. The Romantic-Industrial Complex has harvested the beautiful subtleties of attraction and loyalty and clamped them in a pink, fuzzy vice, doused them with despair until they melt into the general shape of a kitten, cast the warped lump in plastic retrieved from the digestive tract of a suffocated turtle, painted it with feelings of not being good enough, and then rolled it out to scream, “I WUV U!” at a lonely world.

I’m exaggerating, of course. It’s really not that bad. The turtles are dead before they hook the plastic out of them.

Still, one can’t deny that Valentine’s Day has become a vast and somewhat cynical industry: the day reportedly generates about $18-billion, $17.8-billion of which goes to columnists to write about how awful it is.

The other $0.2-billion is paid to writers to reveal the day’s ancient origins, which is how I discovered that Valentine’s Day has roots in Ancient Rome. It seems that between February 13 and 15 the ancient Romans used to celebrate fertility by getting fertile with each other, all over the place, until they had to stop and replenish their electrolytes or reupholster the furniture. Of course, they also did this on February 12 and February 16, as well as between January 1 and February 11, and from February 16 until December 31, but those three days were special.

Naturally, not everyone was involved. Valentine is, after all, the patron saint of unreasonably high expectations, and the day’s ancient ancestor would probably also have featured a fair amount of heartbreak. (“Roses are red, violets are blue, here’s a dead Gaul I had flayed just for you.” “Ja listen we need to talk.”)

Today, some of us will be involved and some of us won’t. Some hearts will soften and others will harden. Some people will taste only sweetness in the day, others will gag on the saccharine aftertaste.

Either way, though, love will remain, patient and kind. And a little more patience and kindness can never be a bad thing.


Published in The Times