South Africa has always been a terrible place run by terrible people


There’s no funny way to say this, so I’m just going to say it.

The CEO of SAA has been paid R600-million to leave his post.

That’s 20 times the amount Brian Molefe was going to be paid for “saving” us from load-shedding, or two Nkandlas with R100-million in change.

I am, of course, not talking about the current CEO, Vuyani Jarana, who is still very much at his post, overseeing a team of men shovelling piles of our tax rands into the spinning turbines of a parked Airbus.

No, the guy I’m talking about left in 2001. His name was Coleman Andrews and he was paid R230-million on his way out the door, about R600-million in today’s money.

Did you feel that? Your blood pressure easing as you realised I was talking about something that happened ages ago? Perhaps even a twinge of annoyance that I was bringing up ancient history when there’s so much corruption happening right now?

Those feelings are how we cope.

We relegate old scandals to the past and brace for new ones, like castaways on a raft cresting one wave and bracing for the next.

That reaction, however, also reveals the depth of our collective denial.

If you believe each scandal is a singular event, a crisis to overcome so that you can return to some sort of pre-existing calm, then you believe every wave in the ocean is an anomaly. But, of course, the ocean is made of moving water. And South Africa is made of corruption.

We pretend it isn’t. Every day we tell ourselves this or that example of thievery or violence is an anomaly in an otherwise law-abiding country. Every day we tell ourselves that beyond the next wave there is flat water.

That delusion is essential to our survival. If you allow yourself to see your position – nowhere, on a raft, facing an infinite number of waves – it’s easy to despair. We have to believe the ocean will end; that everything will be fine once we send a few crooks to jail.

And yet when has South Africa ever been fine? When, in the past three centuries, has it not been a Gordian knot of exploitation, misery and unabashed criminality?

Murder drew the country’s borders and mapped out its regional fiefdoms. Slaves established its farms. People stripped of their dignity and property dug its mines and built its towns and cities. And in those towns and cities exploitation was rebranded as enterprise, a lie sold so well that even the exploiters started believing they had built it all by themselves by working hard.

And yet, even now, we resist acknowledging this existential corruption continues. We agree the Sharpeville massacre was carried out by a monstrous system, but the murder of miners at Marikana, well, that was an anomaly. We dare not admit fully to ourselves that violence and trauma and profound corruption comprise the very DNA of this country. And so we forget.

Take Coleman Andrews. If you’re like me, you’d probably filed him away, the way we’ve filed away slavery and colonialism and the Land Act and apartheid and even some early ANC scandals, packing them into the box labelled “The Vague Past, To Be Discussed Later Once This Is All Sorted Out”.

Because that’s what total corruption trains us to do. No collective memory, no collective consequences. Just brace for the next wave and continue to believe the waves will end.

So what do we do? I think the first step is to discard the self-soothing belief that this is a good place being ruined by bad people. Instead, perhaps it is time to consider this is a terrible place, being run, as it always has been, by terrible people; that the country we pretend to live in doesn’t exist.

At least, not yet. It could, but it will be hard, because we will have to do it all ourselves; deciding who gets what land and what economic justice looks like and who has to foot the bill.

In the end, however, it is the only hope we have. The alternative is a tiny raft on an ocean of waves.


Published in The Times and TimesLive


We demand better lies!


Do you know what’s really gone to hell in the new South Africa? The quality of the lies we get told by our government. Yes sir, the lies were way better in the old days

I grew up listening to the fictions of the Nats and, by God, those hillbillies had the gift of the grift.

South Africa’s military could napalm a foreign country, have photos of said napalm splashed on international front pages, get condemned by the UN, and what would happen? Pik Botha would appear on the SABC to explain that we had misunderstood.

He didn’t tell us we’d taken it out of context. He didn’t claim that news reports had been fabricated by enemies of the state. He’d simply nod knowingly, take his sexy hot-chocolate voice down an octave, and reassure us that the world was a confusing place and that it’s easy to get confused and not understand complex adult issues.

By the end of his earnest sermon, the volk had forgotten all about war crimes and had gone back to sleep with a vague sense that a Sunday school picnic had gone awry but that a kind oomie had arrived just in time to make sure the ants didn’t crawl into the Redro.

When democracy came to South Africa, and the world and its spin-doctors opened up to us, we assumed this tradition would continue and even flourish. As arms dealers and corporate predators swarmed towards Nelson Mandela’s government, we believed that now, at last, we would finally get the lies we deserved: beautiful, gleaming things crafted by the greatest propagandists our taxes could buy.

For a few years the new government delivered on that promise and we were treated to a couple of masterful smoke screens.

Consider Sarafina 2, the new South Africa’s inaugural corruption scandal. Do you remember who was to blame and who got punished? No? Job done. If you have to Google a scandal to recall its details, then excellent liars have delivered some primo perjury and awesome obfuscation.

Sadly, however, the early promise soon faded.

The Arms Deal presented Thabo Mbeki with a wonderful opportunity to cook up some presidency-defining perfidy (for example, faintly sabre-rattling stuff about South Africa needing to step up to its rightful place as the biggest, baddest nation in Africa; of walking quietly and carrying a big stick; of maybe needing to invade Lesotho again) but what did he do?

Instead of being tastefully aggressive, he went defensive and told us we needed Swedish fighter jets to keep us safe, presumably from Botswana’s air force of three crop-dusters and Zimbabwe’s squadron of kamikaze weather balloons. Soon even the explanations dried up, replaced by terse denials and then accusations of racism, counter-revolution and disloyalty.

When Jacob Zuma was put into power by Julius Malema it seemed that we might enjoy something of a lying renaissance: any young demagogue who declares that he is willing to die for his paymaster is clearly getting ready to lead your country towards a new dawn of big, bold, juicy lies.

But once again the ANC flattered to deceive, squandering a good start by appointing Mac Maharaj as Zuma’s spokesmuppet. Suddenly everything and everyone was being “taken out of context”. It wasn’t even a proper lie.

In retrospect, it was inevitable that the whole sorry thing would end in a fire pool.

It was a ridiculously weak lie, and we heaped scorn on Zuma; but really the fire pool was an indictment of all of us: final proof of how low our standards have dropped when it comes to the lies we accept from our leaders.

If we weren’t such rubes or so resigned to our fate we’d be calling for “accountability” (the process whereby politicians tell small, elegant and reassuring lies to the public), we would speak with a clear and united voice to the corrupt and self-serving people in government and business, and we would say:

“Stop insulting us with these kindergarten fibs. Take us seriously as adult human beings who deserve adult lies. Hire consultants. Weave dazzling tapestries of legalese and opaque finance. Bore us into submission!

“For God’s sake, you know we’re all financially illiterate. All you have to do is present us with a vast spreadsheet and tell us it reflects the expenditure on Nkandla as off-set against the value-added deal we struck with China to balance the 2015 fiscal surge which was part of the Treasury’s eight-point plant to ratchet up the overshoot of the underspend of the – see? We’re nodding off already.

“But a swimming pool for putting out fires? Are you f***ing kidding me?”

I know the rich and powerful won’t stop lying to the rest of us, and frankly I’m OK with that: I don’t want to know what they know. But for now can we agree to one, first baby step? Can we demand some better lies?


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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Two minutes of freedom

Charl PauwA few days ago I was on the shore of a lagoon, peering down at what seemed to be thousands of tiny, dead crabs.

The shells were no larger than my fingernail but most were perfectly intact, and I was wondering how the crabs had died when a hearty voice rang out.

“They’ve moulted!” said the voice. These, he said, weren’t dead animals but rather learner-shells shucked off by growing crablets.

I straightened up to stare at the owner of the voice as he provided a few more interesting facts about crustacean puberty. But I wasn’t really listening, because I wasn’t there. I had been transported to about 1987, and the prospect of my inevitable death.

Back then, just before I reached my teens, I knew how I was going to die. It was all very clear and completely inescapable.

It would happen around my 19th birthday, on hot sand under a shrub somewhere in Angola. A spectacularly stupid corporal with a mousy moustache would order me away on some chore, and I would stumble onto an Angolan soldier. We would both panic, our rifles nightmarishly tangled in straps and bits of uniforms, but he would pull his free more quickly. His lucky shot would nick a major artery in my neck. Nothing too painful: I would simply feel myself melting like an ice block dropped onto the sand. He would look down at me apologetically before he hurried away, and I would bleed to death, listening to the songs of disinterested birds and sobbing over the monstrous injustice of it.

The scene was so clear because I had done my research. For years I had been absorbing the great anti-war literature of the 20th century, morbidly fascinated by the futility and scope of organised violence. By the time I was 10 I had no idea how to kiss a girl but I knew how boys died in wars. I played with toy guns and built Lego forts for plastic soldiers, but I knew that these were fantasies; that war wasn’t medals and parades but rather eternities of wasted time and small bits of meat hosed off the floors of helicopters.

I also knew that South Africa was fighting a war against Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and possibly Cuba and the Soviet Union, and that the war would go on long enough for me to be called up and snuffed out under a shrub.

This information came to me not from books but from the nightly television news; a surreal pantomime where big-haired white people in polyester spoke calmly about limpet mines in post offices and pop concerts at Sun City.

They were my doomsday clock, counting down

It’s interesting to look back at those broadcasts now, to marvel at the shoulder pads and the painfully obvious propaganda, but for me they are also infused with childhood horror. They were my doomsday clock, counting down to that day in about 1996 when I would be murdered by the apartheid state.

But every so often the clock stopped.

It happened for only two minutes, perhaps once a week, but I was grateful for it. I’m still grateful.

You never knew when it would happen. It might come after a handsome man with a perm had presented the latest Swapo body count, or before a piece about a beauty pageant in Bloemfontein. But when it began, it felt as if someone had opened the windows and allowed cold, fresh air to pour into a stale polystyrene Auckland Park studio.

Now it was time to leave South Africa; to skim over a clean, wild ocean towards a distant island or a foundering ship. It was time to hear from Charl Pauw.

Perhaps the Nats were trying to convince whites that they lived in a compassionate society. Perhaps someone at the old SABC had a penguin fetish. Whatever the case, there was Charl, with his kind, crinkled face lashed by sea spray, dangling from a helicopter; trying to get through his link while an angry gannet stabbed at his knee; shouting into his microphone as the South Atlantic wind moaned and a vast ship heaved into him.

Slowly, Charl became my envoy to a wider world; someone who could slip beyond the suffocating confines of South Africa and show me places where stupid little corporals held no power to send me to my death.

And now he was here, beside me on the beach, telling me about crabs; still filing a good-natured report on marine life.

I was startled because it was so unexpected. But I think I was also caught off guard because in my mind he had always lived in a timeless, never-resolving news report about oceanic danger. His home was a pitching heli-pad. His friends were penguins.

But now he’d made it home, and he had human friends, and I’d made it past 1996. It was wonderful. I wanted to tell him some of this, but it would have sounded mad. And besides, he was walking on, heading towards some distant flamingos.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

“What a dust do I raise!”

They ended apartheid

Who ended apartheid? These guys.

Once, in certain sweaty parts of the world where the main exports were bananas and refugees, it was fashionable to name infrastructure after ideologues.

South Africa has managed to restrain itself – you’re unlikely to find the Thabo Mbeki Glorious People’s Communal Tap – but we do still have a weakness for renaming roads after struggle icons. Which is odd, when you think about how awful roads really are.

This week the late professor Jakes Gerwel become the latest victim of this phenomenon as his name was grafted onto a blasted expanse of dead space lined with industrial blight formerly known as Vanguard Drive in Cape Town. And if the city gets its way, FW de Klerk will be synonymous not only with apartheid but also a piece of highway flanked by rusting fences and patchily carpeted with squashed rats. If first prize is getting a road named after you, second prize is having two roads named after you.

Not surprisingly, the proposed renaming of Table Bay Boulevard has raised questions. The Right has never forgiven De Klerk for being a volksverraier (traitor of the people). The Left has never forgiven him for being apartheid’s last Head Goon. So who were the 27 people who proposed the name change? Did the city put an ad on Gumtree asking for ideological fence-sitters and 27 people replied?

Of course, there are many people in the middle who believe that apartheid was abhorrent but that De Klerk deserves some sort of accolade for his role in our history. Helen Zille articulated their position best: those who claim that De Klerk was pushed kicking and screaming towards reform are wrong, she said, as he might easily have dug in and clung on as a tyrant. I’m not convinced. Deciding to stop being a dick is a good choice, but do you deserve a public gong 20 years after you dragged yourself up to par?

Still, Zille’s comment underlined how we believe in different stories. In the story Zille believes, there were two doors and De Klerk picked the right one. In the version I believe, there was one door through which he was marched with the bayonet of history pressing into his back. And, for all the facts we brandish at each other, we must concede that both of these are just stories.

There are plenty of stories about the end of apartheid. Most have similar endings and most are satisfyingly simple. The prisoner becomes a prince. There is a coronation and, if not a wedding, at least a honeymoon. No wonder, then, that so few of our stories delve deeper. For example, how do we deal with the apparent fact that Nelson Mandela seems to have liked PW Botha while he could barely tolerate De Klerk? How can the goodie like the baddie more than he likes the Conflicted Everyman Who Ultimately Makes The Right Choice Midway Through The Third Act?

An even more confusing story is the one that goes like this. Once upon a time, the United States and the Soviet Union were pointing vast numbers of nuclear missiles at each other, and inside these missiles was a magical substance called uranium. A distant land, South West Africa, had enormous deposits of the stuff but that country was controlled by an even more distant land, South Africa; and so, to ensure that the Russians didn’t get their red mitts on the precious uranium, the US tolerated and sometimes secretly bankrolled apartheid South Africa. But then, one afternoon, the Soviet economy fell apart and, with a soft fizzing noise and a small puff of smoke, South Africa and its puppet neighbour become completely irrelevant to geopolitics. The regime had its American Express credit card cut in half, and the resistance stopped getting its weekly back issues of Pravda and tins of borscht. The National Party had ruled unchallenged for four decades but just seven years after perestroika and glasnost, Namibia was independent and South Africa had black majority rule.

In this story, De Klerk didn’t end apartheid. Neither did Mandela and the ANC. What ended apartheid wasn’t black revolution or white reformers or sporting isolation or Londoners refusing to buy South African oranges. What ended it was a broken Soviet economic model and a series of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s not a great story for those of us who believe that we are the masters of our own fate, perhaps because it reminds us of another story, by Aesop: “The fly sat on the axle-tree of the chariot wheel and said, What a dust do I raise!”

The dust is settling now. In Cape Town, it’s drifting down onto new street signs. Does De Klerk deserve one? I don’t believe he does. At least, that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

Why are white people so angry?


About a year ago I parked my car in a street near my home. When I returned from my errand there was a note under my wipers: “Please don’t park so close.”

I was confused. So close to what? There were no other cars along this stretch of pavement. Was there some hidden pavement bailiff, with the task of saving Cape Town’s stone pavement edging from wheel rims?

I was still wondering when a garage door rolled open, revealing a long driveway in which loomed three enormous cars – about two million bucks of German swish – and a middle-aged woman, hurrying towards me, her face scrunched up in an expression of world-weariness.

She explained that she had left the note. The problem, she said, was that I had parked in such a way that she was struggling to steer her SUV into her driveway. I turned, amazed, to look at the empty street, the two metres between the front of my car and the edge of her voluminous driveway, the acres of turning room.

But she was still talking, looking even more pained, and asking me to refrain from parking anywhere along the 30 metres of pavement outside her house. I told her it was public road, and she said, “Ja, but if you people keep parking here I will have to get the council to assign parking bays and nobody wants that.”

I stayed civil and we parted, she with a cheerful “Thaaaanks!” (passive-aggressive for “Fuck yoooou!”) and nothing more was said. But here’s the odd thing. I’ve seen her a few times since then, and she is still angry with me. A year after our first meeting, she still tightens her mouth and turns on her heel when she sees me. Even more bizarrely, the more I smile, the more she scowls. The reality of that first meeting has been rewritten in her mind, and it is now a story of her victimhood and my aggression.

Yesterday, as we were all encouraged to meditate on reconciliation, I thought of her and her self-righteous anger; of the self-righteous anger that seethes just below the surface of so many comfortably-off whites. I heard it and felt it last week, in despairing conversations about “the country” and about how much we would miss “Mideeber”; exactly the same tone as I had heard in that street a year ago.

We are right to be angry; about legislated secrecy; about wholesale plunder; about generations of potential ground to pulp in the mincer that is a non-functioning education system; about the undeclared war on women and children. But many are not angry on behalf of the poor and the defenceless. They are angry for themselves, about a perceived assault on them and their way of life.

Perhaps for some wealthy palefaces the root of that anger is anxiety, and the root of that anxiety is the knowledge that reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness: true reconciliation requires books to be balanced. More idiomatically, it describes differing world views that become aligned – your conception of reality lined up alongside mine. But neither meaning implies a forgiving of old debts. Neither is a jubilee.

Perhaps those nursing their vague sense of persecution inside their million-rand SUVs have realised that there is only one way for the reconciliation books to balance: they need to feel equally wronged by our history. They need to come to the table not as the accused, but as one of two equally aggrieved parties; as one half of a grudging detente.

But what is this slight that the new dispensation has committed against them? Some might see racism at the heart of this anger, or insist that these whites resent black government and yearn for a return to apartheid. I don’t think so. Whites don’t want apartheid to return, mainly because we would have to go back to pretending to be Australian when we go on holiday to Europe. But apartheid of another sort might be to blame.

The rich have always tried to remove themselves from humanity. Luxury implies isolation: game lodges, islands, penthouses with private lifts. Exclusivity requires exclusion. People with money, whatever their race, want apartheid – apartness – from those without money. For the small tribe of wealthy whites, the realities of the new South Africa must be a terrible affront. Humanity is everywhere; outside the tinted windows, buzzing the intercom, parking beaten-up Golfs next to its houses .

Perhaps the offence I committed a year ago wasn’t to have blocked an incompetent driver’s route home. Perhaps my crime was simply to exist. For some, reconciliation is a long way away.


First published in The Times and TimesLive