Cape Town

Another beautiful day. Damn.

Theewaterskloof Dam

The woman at reception was apologetic. “I’m afraid there might be some bad weather on the way,” she said, peering out at a distant wisp of cloud.

We understood why she’d said it. Most of the people who stayed at her establishment were tourists from the northern hemisphere. To them, rain is bad weather and sun is good weather. Of course she was going to apologise for the chance of a shower.

The peculiar thing, though, is that it wasn’t just an act put on for sun-seeking Swedes and Canadians. The locals believe it too. Ask most residents of this water-scarce country and they’ll tell you that the total absence of rain is an ideal state of affairs.

At the height of Cape Town’s last heat wave I heard a local deejay announcing that the dust-choked, raw-nerved city could look forward to “another amazing weekend of perfect weather” with temperatures throbbing up past 37 degrees and into the space where people burst into tears mid-conversation.

Yesterday, as I read that the city has eight weeks of water left, I heard someone sighing about how beautiful the weekend had been. He talked of windless warmth, a sky of the most perfect blue. The sea had been warm enough to swim in. Bliss!

What he was describing was, of course, a catastrophe; the preamble to Googling, “How to boil your own urine so that it is OK to drink”; but he could not see it as anything but aesthetic perfection.

It’s not our fault. Our colonial programming runs incredibly deep and a large part of that software is dedicated to an unbreakable attachment to the picturesque and the belief that scenery that was agreeable to British people in the 1700s is agreeable to us. And so we go out into the glare of this monstrous autumnal summer with its cruelly empty skies, peeling sweaty shirts off our backs, watching the dams drop and drop and drop, and admire the “good weather” and take photographs of yet another barren sunrise.

I’ve always felt that Cape Town is a temporary place. Established by a Dutch corporation as a satellite office; occupied by the British to guard sea routes to much more important places; used as a dumping-ground for revolutionaries from altogether elsewhere; it can seem like a city that has spent over 300 years waiting for a memo from Head Office to sell the furniture, shred the files and head back home.

the sand is running through the hourglass

Of course, that was just a feeling. I had no evidence of how fragile my city might be. Now, though, as the satellite images show the rain curling away to the south, week after week, and the sun rises on yet another depressingly “beautiful” day, I think I’m seeing proof. The sky has shifted. And now the sand, white and fine and unmoved by a breeze, is running through the hourglass.

Not that one should panic, mind you. Cape Town might be running out of time but the world goes on. I’m not even that fussed about climate change. That’s because a lot of people are very worried about it, which almost certainly means it’s not the thing that’s going to nail us. No, what gets you in the end is the banal threat you’d more or less made peace with; the one that was so over-hyped that it had become boring and, therefore, invisible.

For example: last year the Chapman University released its annual Survey of American Fears. Of the 1,500 people polled, 41% cited terrorist attacks as their greatest worry. Nowhere on the list of American horrors was “dying of heart disease”, a condition that kills over 1,500 Americans every day. That’s a 9/11 every two days.

And so it goes with all of us. We stay in the shallows to avoid the infinitesimally small chance of being eaten by a shark; and when we’re done we hop happily into our car and tootle off into the murderous streets, entirely convinced we will not become one of the 14,000 South Africans killed on the roads every year.

So yes, I have no doubt that what’s going to end humanity is something we’ve already grown tired of. Some clever little creepy crawly that shrugs off our antibiotics. Maybe a less clever little nuclear war. I know. So early 1990s. So lame.

Cape Town is in trouble, but it’s not going to shrivel and die. People are talking about drilling holes into aquifers, or blowing the budget on desalination. And who knows? Maybe dependable, good rain will come back one day, soaking us through the winter as it used to.

But as another brilliant dawn breaks, and the sky turns to deep blue, untroubled by a single cloud, and the wind doesn’t ruffle the vast, undrinkable ocean, I’m going to watch my language. Today is a beautiful day in Cape Town, but this is not good weather. And if the weather stays beautiful and bad for the next month, it could get very ugly indeed.

*

Published in The Times

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Playing in the traffic

skaterWgggg crack blat. Most afternoons. Wgggg crack blat.

The wgggg is a young man, piloting his skateboard across the tar for the 40th time that morning. Crack: he has jolted his skateboard five inches off the ground and has collided with a low concrete step. A moment later, blat: the board has skewed away and tumbled over and the young man has jogged to a stop nearby.

For hours. Wgggg crack blat. Over and over and over and over again. The wgggg never gets longer or louder: his approach speed is constant. The crack is always just a crack, never a whoosh or a bang. And the blat is always a disappointing quarter-second later.

I used to think he was practising, gaining the skill and confidence he needed to launch further and higher and more dangerously, but now I think he is doing exactly what he intends to do. These are not failed attempts. They seem to satisfy him. This peculiar ritual of 40 or 50 small, controlled collisions is where he finds his skateboarding pleasure.

The sound is fantastically irritating. It occupies the same short-fused part of my brain where large flies knock stupidly against windowpanes and leaf-blowers moan pointlessly at pavements. Sometimes the wgggg crack blat falls silent and peace returns and then there it is again – wggg crack blat! – because the man has decided to collide with the step five more times, just because the afternoon was becoming too gentle; and I want to storm over there and say cruel things to him about how small and wretched his stunt is.

But apart from being unkind, that would rather miss the point, because he’s not doing it for an audience. At least not a real one. He’s doing it for an audience in his imagination. And because it’s all imaginary, it doesn’t really matter how clumsy he looks in reality.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons you must never see video footage of yourself playing your chosen sport. I used to play cricket, and when I imagined myself batting I pictured a sort of 1940s fever dream of grace and poise, all cummerbunds and foxtrots and Spitfires doing slow rolls. Then I saw a clip of myself. Imagine a bear finding one of those tiny bottles of anchovies. It rears up, collapses onto its rump, awkwardly picks up the jar and tries to unscrew the top. Then it has its middle stump knocked over. No, you must never see footage of yourself.

I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining that I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life as a skateboarding stunt demon, and I am happy to live and let live. I can even deal with the noise.

But I have one condition: the man and his dreams of skateboarding pyrotechnics must stay where they are, in his driveway.

You’d think this is a small thing to ask; that daydreaming skaters wouldn’t want to go out into the sobbing chaos of Cape Town traffic. But you’d be wrong. Suddenly, the fantasists on four wheels are everywhere.

I don’t mean the ones who whiz down the city’s steepest and most twisting roads, ripping past you with the sound of tearing canvas and the half-whispered, quickly denied thoughts of pedestrians wondering what it would be like to see a face hit the tar at that speed. Those guys have been around for years and I must confess I quite like them. Not only do I admire their courage but they are also helping a dear friend of mine, who specialises in plastic- and reconstructive surgery, to put his daughter through university.

No, the scary ones are the gentle dreamers, because they have left their driveways and brought their denial to the streets and now my reality is starting to disintegrate.

As they roll serenely into oncoming traffic, or dawdle along in the middle of a lane, anaesthetised by their headphones and their fierce solipsism, you can see them dreaming: that they are physically indestructible; that their slow pace and erratic path are somehow an expression of interesting authenticity rather than the wandering of, say, a village idiot. And those dreams are making me question my assumptions about everything.

I mean, do I really brake? What if I just curled up in a barrel and rocked it back and forth until it wobbled out into the traffic? Wouldn’t that be better than owning a car?

On the weekend, a skateboarder entered an intersection near my home. He had fitted a small motor to his board and he stood perfectly still and upright, buzzing along at a slow jogging pace. The cars he was holding up hooted at him. He looked up, delicately bemused, as if he had heard a nightingale sing. The dream fluttered, stirred. For a moment it seemed that he might wake.

But to ride a skateboard in traffic requires a profoundly deep sleep; and so he trundled on, a soft fool on a plank, drifting through a sea of murderous metal.

Wgggg crack blat.

*

Published in The Times

Simply showing up is a start

showingup

A few people look slightly embarrassed.

Embarrassment has been a big topic ahead of this march. Some have been embarrassed by the lack of embarrassment of their friends. Others have been embarrassed by the idea of making this all about them and their middle-class discomfort, preferring instead to make it all about them and their middle-class mortification. Their Victorian ancestors beam down on them proudly.

One group, though, isn’t embarrassed. They’re the ones about to get richer than God by pushing through the nuclear deal.

A few modern Victorians still ask: “Have they no shame?”, using the language of a 19th-century dressing room to try to make sense of a 21st-century looter setting his eyes on the biggest prize in South Africa’s history.

One of those naive souls is outside parliament near me, holding up a sign: “Save the ANC, fire Zuma”. Determined to ignore what his eyes tell him, he still clings to the notion that the ANC is being held captive in a tower when in fact it has sold the tower to Russia and is sending the cash to Dubai in brown paper bags.

Of course, his isn’t the only misinformed banner out here. Over there a guy is holding up a picture of Nelson Mandela and the words, “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” When I was there in 2015, watching students getting gassed and shot at, that sign might have been relevant. But today it has the opposite effect to the one its waver is hoping for. Today, it serves as a call for perspective. No, it says, we are not there yet. Vote them out because they are irreparably corrupt or because they can’t deliver services or education; but don’t demand they go because you think this is oppression. That helps nobody.

High above us, a drone hovers, drifting against the cusp of sinister. One day it will be frightening. This afternoon it is still pleasant. We look up at it the way people looked at aircraft in 1913.

Two EFF fighters in full regalia raise their fists, looking subtly self-conscious as you might when you’ve worn bondage gear to a wedding.

We’d take anyone with a megaphone and a message

The absence of leadership is palpable as thirst. We’d take anyone right now, anyone with a megaphone and a message. One man, his credentials printed on a union T-shirt, obliges, leading some raw-voiced amandlas and a speech about educated revolutionaries; but it’s an underpowered megaphone and only the front row can hear. The tens of thousands shuffle on, good-natured, used to being leaderless, wanting more.

Half-hidden in a shaded doorway, a young woman holds a sign reading “Fuck white people”, the now-familiar logo designed by Michaelis art student Dean Hutton. She is tired and the sign is drooping. People glance at her and glance away.

I know that some people want a tabula rasa in this country, a great resetting of the clock and the balance sheet. From what I’ve read they understand that this would result in societal and economic collapse but they feel that the ensuing wreckage would still be better than what we have now. They believe that democracy has failed, or that it is inherently unable to improve their lives, and that it is time to knock it all down so that something new can be built.

I have my doubts. I don’t think that that path inevitably leads to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge but, without being an expert, I am pretty certain that it produces years of stagnation and regression and the potential for astonishing violence. Blank slates are seductive but they can also become a canvas on which monsters paint their fantasies. What comes next is trial (or show-trial) and error. Finally, once scores have been settled and the wheel slowly reinvented, the country starts a slow and painful crawl back towards the global status quo: generally capitalist, nominally democratic.

South Africans don’t need to read all the clichés about the inherent flaws of democracy to see its failings: they only need to look at the inequality in this country to see how easily democracy can be manipulated to avoid restorative justice.

But for me, it remains the least-worst method of government we’ve groped towards. And if, like me, you think that democracy is worth maintaining, then showing up is literally the least you can do.

Soon, the looters will ask us to show how much we’re willing to do to stop them. They will ask us if we’re sure that we want democracy, and they’ll demand that we prove it. They might call it something official like a “state of emergency” or a “temporary suspension of information technologies”, but it will be a question, plain and simple: “What are you going to do about it?”

Showing up is a start.

*

Published in The Times

Not all art is on the wall

hith-Mona-Lisa-model-E

The first time I saw the Mona Lisa in person I was literally stopped in my tracks. That’s because two young Americans were kneeling in the doorway, unfolding a map of the Louvre.

One of them was explaining in upwardly inflected Californian that it would be cool if they could like find a john on this floor because it had been like hours since he’d like peed and he really needed to like pee or whatever.

I said, “I’m sorry,” and they said, “It’s cool,” and I realised that they thought I was apologising. So I stepped over them and entered the room where the most famous painting in the world hung.

At least, I think it was the room where the most famous painting in the world hung. Because you can’t actually see the Mona Lisa. What you see is a scrum of about a hundred anxious people in flip-flops, bobbing and craning to get a better view of the bobbing and craning heads in front of them.

Now and then one of them manages to squirm around with his or her back to the wall before raising an arm, like a drowning swimmer calling for help, and taking a selfie. There is the sound of digitally simulated camera clicks, and the plop-plop of fresh flip-flops hurrying to join the back of the throng.

You don’t hear the people detaching from the group because they walk too slowly to make a sound. They drift off into the gallery, bent over their phones, scrolling through the pictures they’ve snatched. Like starving prospectors sieving through icy mud in search of a gleam of gold, they peer at each photograph, hoping that they captured something – a fragment of frame, two pixels of the actual painting – to prove to themselves that they had been close to something valuable.

Looking at the people looking at the people looking at the Mona Lisa was a sad experience. The painting was always going to be an anti-climax but I wasn’t prepared for the desperate hope of the plop-ploppers and the intense disappointment that filled the room.

But on the weekend, in a gleaming white cube off a bleedingly self-consciously Cape Town alley, I longed for the Mona Lisa mob. Because there was nothing between me and the art on the wall, and I was panicking.

Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur

Was I standing too close? Had I got my Hollywood tropes wrong? I had. Oh God. I had wanted to do Elegantly Ambivalent Connoisseur but instead I was doing Elderly Spotter of Excellent Fakes. I stepped back. Oh Jesus. Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur Stepping Back To Take In Some Sort of Imaginary Bigger Picture, Hoping To Bump Into Ingénue Standing Alone With Her Wine.

I glanced around and saw the artist glaring at us, despising our spineless decision to come to see his work, hating our approving nods. I understood his anger. It is a terrible thing to know that your rejection of the status quo has been paid for by your dad. I wanted to go over to him and reassure him that one day he would be able to have exhibitions that nobody was invited to, where he would be free from the insulting compliments of the masses; that one day he might even sell a painting to someone who wasn’t one of his dad’s clients. But at that moment I’d slipped into Person Who Suddenly Wants To Leave Gallery Because It’s Strangling His Soul.

Not that I could leave, of course. I’d only been there for 15 seconds, and it would be clear that I was fleeing and that I hated the work. Which wasn’t true. I didn’t hate the work. I didn’t feel anything about the work. I was like a gecko gazing at a copy of Vogue. It was just, you know, there. Perhaps I could do a slow lap of the room, pretending to pause at that one of the pig of neo-conservatism riding the Monsanto tractor, and then slip out of the door? Not yet. Maybe give it another 15 seconds.

“I like how the intervention has subverted the hegemony of flat-plane curating,” said the person next to me. I am quite fluent in Pretentious so I knew that he’d said, “I like that not all the art is hanging on the wall.”

I was going to reply that, for me, the power of the work derived from its discourse with the traditions of the Bacchanalia (“I like the free wine”) but instead I said, “Mm”.

Because, really, I have nothing to say about art. The bad stuff doesn’t deserve comment and the good stuff doesn’t require it, least of all from someone like me. But I’ll keep looking, because sometimes the most memorable pictures and mysterious smiles aren’t on the wall.

*

Published in The Times

Putting the ‘pro’ in ‘propaganda’

propagandaWhen I read that the ANC had spent R50-million on a propaganda campaign I was greatly relieved because it allowed me to think better of someone.

The person in question, a denizen of Twitter’s sweatier fighting pits, had once showered me with hot, pungent sanctimony after I’d criticised the ANC, and I had gone away believing him to be a wilfully stupid supporter of kleptocrats.

But when news broke of the ANC’s “war room”, everything changed. Because there he was, named as a valued member of the lavishly paid goon squad.

The relief rolled over me like a Gupta rolling over a cabinet minister. His criticisms hadn’t been personal. They hadn’t even been heartfelt. Rather than being a self-righteous prick he was simply being professional: putting the “pro” in propaganda.

My relief, however, was tinged with sadness. Because, even though I was happy to discover that my accuser was simply cranking out lies-by-the-yard for money, I felt terribly sorry for the country’s other propagandists who had just discovered how badly they were being paid.

I don’t know if the EFF has a propaganda department yet. I suspect their “war room” is just a dojo where senior Fighters gather around and applaud while Julius Malema delivers karate chops to an inflatable doll of Jacob Zuma. But if they don’t already have an Alternative Fact Brigade, they soon will: when the Commander-In-Chief publishes his memoirs in 10 years, perhaps titled 100% For Me, expect to see no mention of Venezuela or Robert Mugabe.

No, I don’t know if the EFF pays any propagandists, so it’s not them I feel sorry for. The ones my heart goes out to, the ones lying curled up on their unmade bed, staring at nothing and murmuring “Fifty million?”, are the spin-doctors of the DA.

I met one of them, once, a bright young thing who told me that he writes letters to newspapers whenever the DA needs a little push in the polls. You’ve probably read them: “Dear Sir, as a resident of Khayelitsha I can assure you that the location, or, as we call it, ‘the i-karsi’, is not only very safe but is also being brilliantly run by the DA. Halala Moesie Mymarny! Yours, Sipho Mandela.”

Until news of the war room broke, the future must have looked bright for the DA’s propagandists. There was work galore. Cape Town is busy selling off a large chunk of public coastline to a private developer, and under normal circumstances we might have expected something to appear online in the next few days, perhaps “New Study Proves That Seaside Walks on Public Land are Leading Cause of Depression”.

But that was then. Now, the rules (and the pay scales) have changed forever.

Once, a DA letter-writer was content to be paid with a tin of Danish butter cookies and an Exclusive Books gift voucher. (“With thanks. Buy anything you like, but just so you know, there’ll be a quiz on Helen Zille’s life next week and all the answers are in her memoir. Just saying.”) But how can butter cookies compete with R50-million?

Still, I would urge them to hang on. Their ship will come in, because propaganda is a growth industry. In fact it’s just getting started. And that’s because people are incredibly bad at discerning fact from fiction, especially if the fiction has a headline and some quotes and a photo of a man in a suit.

I should have learned this lesson back when I helped run satire website Hayibo.com. In 2011, our story about the African Union sending troops and food aid to riot-hit London went viral. It was posted to forums and blogs. It was even discussed by commodities traders, wondering how the imports would hit UK grain prices.

In retrospect it was chilling, but at the time we found it bizarrely funny. We simply couldn’t believe that Eton-educated stockbrokers could mistake our silliness for truth. For God’s sake, it even claimed that the AU would be “parachuting in dentists as part of a ‘Feel better about yourselves, Brits!’ initiative”.

I no longer find that story funny, not after seeing how completely adrift we are.

I often hear people wishing that our media were more sophisticated, but I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m starting to suspect that editors and broadcasters might need to revisit their assumptions about how information is received and take a big step back to the basics.

Propagandists everywhere are telling us that up is down and good is bad. They have gone straight back to the first principles of reality in order to rearrange them.

It is easy to point and stare, aghast. But the media cannot react to credulity with incredulity.

Rather, it needs to meet the new Goebbelses back there at Ground Zero. And it needs to start repeating, clearly and relentlessly, that bad is bad, that down is down, and that lies are lies.

*

Published in The Times

Stockholm Syndrome, the Good ANC, and other fantasies

south-africaThere’s blood in the water.

Sorry, false alarm: that’s just a cranberry juice being nursed by an anxious comrade over by the buffet table; the one who’s quietly practising saying, “Congratulations, Comrade President Ramaphosa!” over and over so he doesn’t cock it up when he says it for real.

Still, something seems to be shifting. There might not be blood in the water but there’s definitely a clot in the gravy. And, for the first time in a long time, South Africans are allowing themselves to think about what comes next.

Of course, some of us are struggling to think anything at all. For example, last week, a DA counsellor in Cape Town, tried to organise a “march against grime” during which homeless people would be asked to “move along”.

She wasn’t clear about where “along” was. One could be unkind and assume she was thinking of somewhere with less grass, circa 1962. Or you could be charitable and assume she literally had no idea and that the DA’s official policy is to shunt social issues into the next ward and hope they simply vanish.

After all, it’s worked for Cape Town when it comes to pumping raw sewage into the Atlantic. I don’t know which PR agency is handling the shitstorm in the city’s sea water, but they’re fantastic. Last year there were reports of tourists coming down with “food poisoning” and I can’t wait to hear which local industry gets thrown under the bus this festive season. (Cue a reassuring male voice. “Are you a tourist? Have you recently swum at Clifton? Are you curled up in your shower, vomiting and crapping uncontrollably? You’ve clearly got altitude sickness from climbing Table Mountain via an unsafe route! Next year, try the cable car!”)

Most DA supporters, however, seem to want a government like the one in Sweden. Because Sweden works. Mostly at H&M, but still. It’s also very safe. I visited Stockholm a few years ago and was warned that I was staying in a murder hot spot: a drunk had accidentally stabbed his buddy to death a few months back and the locals were still reeling.

My hosts were proud of how economically equal their country was, and I had to agree that I had seen very few poor Swedes.

That’s because most of them were now Americans. Something that tends to get overlooked in South Africans’ Scandinavian fantasies is that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, about a fifth of Sweden’s population – mostly poor rural people – upped and left for the New World.

Which is why, when I hear people wishing we could “be like Sweden”, I have to wonder where they’re planning to send the 10-million poorest South Africans. “Move along”, indeed.

Of course, not all South Africans want to live in Sweden. Many, I discovered this week, want to live in Cuba.

In the days following the death of Fidel Castro, I learned from my compatriots that he had left behind a small piece of paradise in the Caribbean, where children received excellent free education and everybody received excellent free healthcare. Yes, a few political opponents had received excellent free bullets to the back of the head but, as one local Castrophile said on Facebook, “It doesn’t matter what you do to your enemies as long as you serve the people.” (And then we still pretend to be confused when Jacob Zuma uses the country as a bidet.)

The EFF stated that Castro’s death had been painful to them, but probably not quite as painful as the death of Venezuela’s economy, a Ponzi scheme they once punted as a model for South Africa to emulate.

Still, the fighters will also be looking to the future and refining their plans to give the land to the people. Not the title deeds, of course, but long(ish) leases contingent on party approval are basically just as good.

Perhaps that’s why many, if not most, South Africans are allowing themselves to start dreaming about the possibility of the return of something called “the good ANC”.

In case you’re confused, the good ANC is the one that’s going to “self-correct”, the way rich people throughout history have decided to be less rich and to let more poor people into their club.

It’s also the ANC that says it’s not seduced by populism or demagoguery. Well, except that one time when a charming young player called Julius got it pregnant, hung around just long enough to see his big, bubbling, bouncing, buffoon of a baby brought into the world, and then buggered off. The good ANC might cling to its imaginary virtue but its track record suggests the only thing it’s good at is being used by Big Men on the make.

So what comes next? Your fantasy is as good as mine.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Much hairdo about nothing

popebun

Pic: George Peters – airworks-studio.com

I was a Waldorf child.

It’s not something I’ve been very public about because people can be cruel, mainly because they’ve lost touch with their guardian angel or are not eating enough yoghurt. But I was one, for better or for worse.

Our class was a tight-knit family (one plain, two purl, cast one off … yes that woollen tiger is coming along beautifully…), and we learned about the world in a free-flowing way. Sometimes also a free-falling way: I recall a lot of tree-climbing and quite a lot of crying. Our uniform was the dirt on our knees and the only examinations we ever had were for lice.

Soon, however, it was time to choose a high school. I was proving exceptionally talented at Israeli folk-dancing but I was not sure that this was a career that offered comprehensive medical cover and so I decided to go mainstream.

Which is how I found myself in a Cape Town school called Westerford, learning the school song.

The idea of a school song was new to me. Up until that point I had sung about maidens buried under ash groves and it seemed silly to sing about a suburban high school. But I obeyed, and learned the quasi-Victorian, paranoid dirge.

“In Westerford’s historic morn,” we droned, “an outpost stood where brave souls manned the lonely breach twixt Cape of Storm and Afric’s rugged hinterland.”

It turned out that Afric had only been rugged for a few years. The line used to be “Afric’s savage hinterland” but the words had been changed to reflect the times and to, you know, avoid committing a hate crime every Monday morning.

Yes, the times had changed; and now, the second verse of the school song explained, the outpost had been replaced by “our school, a living citadel”, standing “firm against the foes of good”.

So who were these foes of good, you ask? That was obvious. The greatest threat to that outpost of righteousness — indeed, the spiritual danger looming over all of humankind — was a boy with an earring and long hair.

You think I’m being facetious but I think it’s in Revelations: “And then, as I watched, from out of the loins of the she-beast issued forth a boy called Gary with a man-bun and a small stud in his left ear, and lo, the heavens did plunge.”

humanity’s greatest enemy

Hair length was policed with messianic zeal. Now and then a girl would ask if she could wear cycling shorts under her skirt so as not to freeze or have her underwear on display and her request would be ignored because, obviously, girls aren’t people so what the hell are they doing wanting to wear human clothes, but mostly because it distracted from the important work of hunting down humanity’s greatest enemy: the boy who wants to shame his sex and his nation by growing his hair an extra two centimetres.

The staff made noises about hair getting in your face and oil and pimples, but the dogma was clear. Men with long hair were dodgy. Except for Jesus, obviously. For the rest, short back and sides were a sign of self-discipline and a good attitude. Except for the defendants at the Nuremberg trials, obviously.

I hadn’t thought about that stuff for decades. And then, this week, News24 screamed in terror.

“Long hair, man-buns, earrings for boys at Cape Town school”, the headline howled like a man in a cardigan who has spat out his pipe, launched himself out of his armchair and is sprinting down a street in 1952, begging women and children to cover their eyes.

I read the story and discovered that Westerford, the living citadel, has finally been overrun by the foes of good. The school is doing away with gender distinctions in its regulations around hair and jewellery. From now, as long as they keep things neat and tidy, boys may wear their hair long and have studs in their ears.

The news spread like the Marxism that has clearly infected Cape Town’s schools. A city radio station asked its listeners for their take and got what you’d expect from people who feel they need to respond to a story about boys and girls being treated equally.

“Liberals”, I heard, were “letting things slide”. A “lack of discipline” was inevitable. I discovered, with some surprise, that the only thing standing between us and anarchy was an intact male earlobe.

When I swapped fairies and feyness for exams and scrubbed knees, I learned that things change without breaking. “Savage” can become “rugged” and nobody dies. But this week my old school reminded me that, while things change, people push back.

And when it comes to our beliefs about boys and men, so dutifully learnt when we were children, that outpost still stands; manning the breach twixt a fragile identity and an onrushing, inevitable future.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail