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


The public: enemy number one

we see you

Imagine a small group of South Africans sitting around a fire-pit at a swanky game lodge.

They’re all vastly wealthy but gloomy as hell. Earlier in the evening there was laughter and silliness but now the expensive whisky has invited grim ruminations on the state of things and on the dissatisfaction and anxiety they all share.

“This country, man,” sighs the richest of them. “It’s not like it was in the good old days.”

“It’s the masses,” murmurs another millionaire, poking at a melting ice cube. “They just don’t know how to vote properly.”

There are approving hums and sighs from the others. Silence falls. The fire gleams in puffy, watery eyes.

So whom did you picture? White captains of industry? Fair enough. They’re easy to see.

These days, though, the scene would work equally well with the senior leadership of the ANC.

Seriously. Run it again with some Zuptas in the starring roles and nothing would be out of place.

It’s not explicit yet: the ANC’s deep and growing distrust of voters, bizarrely similar to the contemptuous despair of white racists over the years. But it’s there. And it’s becoming more visible.

Last week Andile Lungisa, the Deputy Grand Panjandrum in the Eastern Cape Chapter of the ANC Youth League of Eternal Helplessness, delivered a fiery lecture at Zwide.

His speech was remarkable for a few reasons, not least because it provided the most perfect illustration of the ANC’s approach to governing that I have ever encountered.

According to The Herald, Lungisa revealed that state-owned enterprises were not, in fact, badly run piggy banks for connected gangsters but were instead models of good governance.

His example: Transnet and SAA both preside over many ships and aircraft, but, he said, “we have never heard of any ship that sank at our ports” or “any SAA aircraft missing”.

It’s genius, right? South Africa isn’t a smouldering ruin, therefore it is being well run. Jacob Zuma hasn’t released anthrax into the water supply, therefore he is a splendid leader.

It was an illuminating moment, but no less revealing was what he said next. The likes of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas needed to be guarded against, he warned, because “when the ANC decides to redeploy . or remove them, they go around mobilising the society against our movement”.

“Society against our movement.” Hold that thought for a moment.

Two weeks ago the ANC made a few fretful noises about investigating state capture. Relieved, I tweeted that a corrupt party had called on a corrupt government to investigate allegations of corruption against itself, so everything was now hunky dory.


Moments later, a cross reply from one Sindy Mabe, a sock-puppet at Gupta TV, ANN7: “Your comments fit well with the incessant desire & public lexicon to dislodge @MYANC we see you.”

The “we see you” was a faintly nostalgic touch, the adult version of a beefy snot-nose passing a note to a child in Grade 3 that reads “WE KNOW WERE YUR LOKKER IS AND AFTER SKOOL WE R GOING 2 MESS YOU UP”. (Although it did make me wonder who the “we” was. A gaggle of ANN7 interns who always show up on the wrong day for gang meetings because they’re illiterate and can’t read their WhatsApp reminders? A senior editorial séance, where they hold hands and murmur: “Can you hear us, Atul? Show us the people we need to be watching.”?)

But again, that wasn’t the telling part. No, the really revealing part was that dog’s breakfast of a phrase, “incessant desire & public lexicon”.

I don’t watch ANN7 (because I’m a multicellular life form) so I don’t know if Ms Mabe’s grasp of words is very different to mine; but to this writer, “the incessant desire & public lexicon to dislodge” the ANC means that the public has an incessant desire to remove the ANC, and talks about it, publicly, often.

Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer any more than two sound-bytes signify a growing distrust of and antagonism towards voters. But it did strike me as peculiar that, within a fortnight, I’d heard a senior ANCYL person create a juxtaposition between the party and society as two separate – and opposing – things, and an ANC propagandist tell me that what a large number of people were talking about and feeling was just plain wrong.

It’s understandable. In January last year, while campaigning in Tlokwe, Cyril Ramaphosa told young voters that “the enemy wants to collapse the power of the ANC”. When the deputy president of a constitutional democracy publicly announces that opposition voters are “the enemy” is it any wonder that apparatchiks further down the food chain think in these crude binaries?

But still, I can’t help feeling that something has shifted. The chest-thumping, warlike rhetoric has become infected with real fear and littered with unconscious admissions that there are two separate camps within this country: the fracturing, shrinking ANC, and everybody else.

So what happens when the fear takes hold and ever larger sections of the public are cast as the enemy? We’re about to find out.


Published in The Times

What would you do for R4-billion?


OK. No more metaphors or parables. Just some numbers and a simple question. R1-trillion. That’s how much South Africa’s nuclear plans, revived last week, will cost.

The minister of finance says the project will only proceed at a pace the country can afford but Jacob Zuma also swore at his inauguration that he would put the interests of the country first so we all know what this administration’s promises are worth.

20%-25%. That’s how much is lost to corruption in public procurement contracts in the EU.

R250-billion, or 25% of R1-trillion. Assuming we South Africans are more or less as corruptible as Europeans, that’s how much money will be stolen by connected insiders before the project is finished. Some of those connected insiders will, of course, be on the outside: London brokers and bankers, Kremlin fixers. This deal is primarily for their benefit, not ours, so let’s assume they will help themselves to the lion’s share, say, R150-billion, leaving R100-billion for South Africans to divvy up.

So who gets what? At the bottom of the pile there’s the shabby aristocracy of hustlers in their pointy shoes and white pleather armchairs; the otherwise-unemployable heads of small PR firms that exist only on government largesse; salmonella-stalked catering businesses run by the venal youngest son of the criminal brother of the second wife; easy-come easy-go lords and ladies living from tender to tender, leaving behind them disputes, half-built public buildings, and short, rancorous terms as school principals or management consultants.

They are on the periphery of power, scurrying after the crumbs off the table, but there are many of them, let’s say a thousand, and they know how to monetise favours. R5-million apiece? That’s R5-billion.

Above them on the food chain: the lawyers, accountants and financial advisers; the curators of smallanyana skeletons. They are as anonymous as a line of grey suits, but they are positioned deep in the machinery of patronage, as essential to the flow of dirty money as valves in a sewer system. Let’s say there are 500 of them, and they’re each content to peel off R10-million – a solid year’s work, carefully squirrelled away offshore or perhaps laundered back to respectability. Another R5-billion.

There would be rough patches. But it would be worth it.

Then: the lieutenants; the made men in this mob. They’re old comrades, friends, backers, enforcers, godfathers-turned-kingpins. And they’ve joined this operation with clear eyes. The plan was explained – keep us in power long enough to ink the nuclear deal and we’ll make you richer than the Lord God Almighty – and they went away and thought it through. There would be rough patches. They would be loathed by former friends and comrades. They might be betrayed at any point, their place in the queue usurped by some harder, sharper operator. The media would hound them. But it would be worth it. Say, R300-millon each – an Nkandla and change – for the hundred hardest, closest lieutenants? Another R30-billion.

Which leaves R60-billion for the masterminds; the feared, fawned-over few who were once interested in politics and power before a bigger prize rose into view.

Is it reasonable to imagine an inner circle of no more than 15 people? Fifteen superb strategists, winning a decades-long chess game in which the champions each get R4-billion? Why not? Why else would they cling on so fiercely? On its current course the ANC will be dead in 10 years: why sacrifice everything, including the party, just to hang on to evaporating power? Why? Because that R100-billion is coming down the road and it’s close enough to smell.

Many South Africans still insist on believing the country is being dismantled for ideological reasons rather than financial ones. They can’t believe that people would act the way they’re acting just to make a buck. It seems too obvious. There must be some other incentive.

Except I don’t think there is. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this, to think as pragmatically as the kingpins are thinking, is to ask yourself this: if you had manoeuvred yourself within range of R100-billion, tax free, untraceable, what would you do?

What would you do for R5-million? Spend a couple of hours a day on Twitter, accusing the critics of government of being racists or sell-outs? Of course you would.

What would you do for R10-million? Buy a sensitive case file and shred it or pass it on to a colleague of a colleague who sometimes drinks in Saxonwold? Would you lie in court? Why wouldn’t you?

What would you do for R300-million? Help pay a British PR firm whose pithy inventions – “White Monopoly Capital!” – might distract voters from your plan for a few more months? Would you publicly endorse people you knew to be criminals? Would you willingly become known as a parasite preying on the poor you used to claim to love? It’s a no-brainer.

And finally: what would you do for R4-billion? How many of your former friends would you sacrifice? How many media firestorms and opposition marches would you sit through, knowing that in the end it would all be worth it? How quickly would you sell your country if it meant more money than you and your family could spend in five lifetimes?

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even politics. It’s just money.


Published in The Times

Red lights and mixed signals


I see it in the red lights.

I see it in the blank expressions of the people in their cars, carefully ignoring my existence, as they sail through the intersection. Nothing to see. Didn’t happen. And if it did, well, everyone’s doing it nowadays.

I don’t know if the same thing is happening in South Africa’s other cities, but in Cape Town we’ve subsided past some kind of tipping point.

A few years ago, if someone ran a red traffic light you’d huff and puff and hoot.No longer. These days you assume that at least two cars are going to cruise through. Being five or six car-lengths from an amber light is no longer an invitation to slow down. And so, when the light turns green for me, I sit patiently and wait for the small procession of entitled arseholes to pass.

It’s difficult to read their minds (partly because so few South African motorists have one) but it’s safe to assume that many of them are thinking two things as they bump serenely over the corpse of common decency.

The first is an angry thought that they mull over many times a day, namely, that they live in a country being destroyed by crime and corruption.

The second, less a thought than a comforting feeling, is that driving through a red light has nothing to do with either of the above.

Now I’m not suggesting that running a traffic light is a sign of societal collapse. There isn’t a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse named “Being A Dick On The Roads”.

But this week, as I watched the light-runners cruise past, I was reminded again of all the petty crimes, the minor corruptions, that people indulge in every day; and how easily we absolve ourselves. I remembered which corruptions we object to and which we let slide. And I was reminded yet again that for a country with a fairly dogmatic view of right and wrong, our approach can be bizarrely haphazard.

Sometimes the hypocrisy is amusing. I once found myself in conversation with a lawyer who was explaining to my half-turned-away head that corruption was killing us. A week later it emerged that this self-righteous bore had been running a grubby little con on the side.

At other times, our collective tolerance feels shocking and self-destructive. For example, there are literally millions of rapists living in South Africa and yet our response to the war on women is to urge them to be more careful when they go out. In this country we tell women not to get raped because we resolutely refuse to tell men to stop raping. The national consensus seems to be that rape is a crime with a victim but no perpetrator.

But what about large-scale corruption? Surely this is one crime to which all South Africans respond with united and co-ordinated vigour?

Not even close.

The fact is that, for all our anger and frustration, we tolerate corruption. Want proof? Look at who’s in the Union Buildings. The party that perpetrated the Arms Deal is still in power. Listen to polite conversations about the 2010 World Cup construction cartels. The price-gouging co-conspirators are still forgiven as businesspeople “just trying to do business in an anti-business environment”.


Perhaps we forget the feeling of the thing. When you’re being battered with new revelations it’s hard to hold onto the old ones, and forgetting starts to feel a little like forgiving. The truth is that we huffed and puffed and hooted at the Arms Deal or some new corporate con, but we still waited, even though the light had turned green for us.

Remember that sense of letting it all slide? “That was terrible!” I fumed – but then what? I don’t know the law. I don’t want to be in government. I don’t know how construction companies work. So all I could do was try to look stern and say, “And if you ever do anything like that again, I’m going to get really cross!”

And Thabo Mbeki’s ANC heard my tinny little hooter – and a million like it – and heard the emptiness of the threats, and saw the complete absence of meaningful consequences; and Jacob Zuma and his litter of corporate piglets pinched themselves as they saw a fortune present itself to them on a tray.

No, in this country we praise right and denounce wrong, but I suspect that this might be self-soothing, a way to persuade ourselves that our home is a country and not simply a once-productive mine that has been abandoned by its former owners and is now slowly being sold for scrap. And mines are dirty places. You live near one long enough, you get dirty. It just happens, slowly, and to everybody.

Now, though, the red light is showing. So: stop or go?


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Time to call things by their name

photo6“Student leader”. That’s what the journalist called Mcebo Dlamini.

I reread the paragraph to check if I’d missed a line somewhere, perhaps one in which Dlamini was described as a fantasist who admired Hitler, who called Jews “devils”, who claimed that Wits had head-hunted him to do a “secret” degree in nuclear physics, and who was now leading a minority of students at the university. Nope. It just read “student leader”.

Because, of course, that’s how we roll. An integral part of our shared South African-ness is a refusal to name things as they are. We can be outspoken, loud, even rude; but without fail we’ll call a spade a fork.

Decades ago, politicians enforced white supremacy but called it “good neighbourliness”. They shot schoolchildren but called it “restoring order”. These days the policies have changed but the coyness remains. When Julius Malema threatened journalists with violence, their colleagues giggled and called him “charismatic” and “controversial”. When corporations collude to fix prices we are told that “free enterprise” can be “complex”.

Of course, none of this is new to any of the angry South Africans dispirited by this country’s ongoing rush towards insignificance. But what is remarkable is that our angriest, most outspoken critics seem themselves to be indulging in a strange kind of denial.

You see it in our incredulous responses to the latest abuses of power. We find it shocking that the SABC has lost R400-million and disgraceful that Hlaudi Motsoeneng is still employed. We wonder exactly what Blade Nzimande is paid for, given the omnishambles that is higher education. And as for Zuma, well, don’t get us started! Has he no shame? Why would he do everything he’s done when he knew he’d be found out?

I don’t want to knock anyone who voices these sorts of ideas. It is important to speak out against bad government.

But here’s the thing.

Zuma isn’t in government. Neither is Nzimande. Because there is no government.

Hlaudi doesn’t work for the national broadcaster because we don’t have one.

SA Airways isn’t a dysfunctional airline because it’s not an airline.

What they are – what all of it is, from the corridors of the Union Buildings right down to crumbling rural municipal offices – is an ATM.

withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can

The entire edifice that we still insist on calling “the public sector” is a vast cash-dispensing system, and everyone with the PIN code has only one job: withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 2010, Zwelinzima Vavi famously warned us of a “predatory elite”. The SA Communist Party dispensed with its usual gobbledygook long enough to use the word “looting”. Even Gwede Mantashe admitted that people in the government were using their positions as “a stepping stone to power and accumulation”.

But I would argue that, for all our huffing and puffing, we remain naïve. After all, you’re only shocked by Zuma if you believe that he is a civil servant answerable to the public. You’re only outraged by Hlaudi and the SABC if you believe that they are still somehow connected to a functioning bureaucracy. You only talk about money being “lost” if you believe that there is a system in place and that something has gone wrong. Which, of course, is not the case.

“Why do they do it when they know they’ll be caught?” Well, it’s basic maths. By the time they’re caught they’ll have pocketed tens of millions. And what does “caught” actually mean? Nothing. If the only price of acquiring multi-generational wealth is to be called a thief by some columnists, many more of us would climb in with both hands.

All of which is why the outrage is starting to sound a bit foolish. When people get robbed by a gang dressed as police, they immediately recognise that they’ve been duped. Not us. We’re still aghast, telling each other “Sjoe, those were really unprofessional cops, hey?”

The looters have about 30 months left. That takes us up to the 2019 elections, at which point the ATM’s code will be changed and a lot of peripheral gang members will be cut off. Those B-grade gangsters will need to crack on if they’re going to take their 10- or 15-million before they’re ousted or audited. They know what they need to do.

And so do we. For starters, we need to take our collective head out of our communal arse and dispense with naïve beliefs. We need to look past the illusion of politics and see the ATM.

Journalists need to say “stolen” instead of “lost”; “looted” instead of “misallocated”. For our own intellectual clarity, we need to stop believing that these are good people doing their job badly and start understanding that they are bad people doing their job well.

And in 30 months, either they go or we do.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Dying for Zuma to leave


You know people who know people who can get things done. Like rigging a roulette table at a casino.

You don’t know who or how, and you don’t want to know. Plausible deniability. All you know is that it’s Saturday night, the booze is flowing and you’re winning. Not all the time, of course – the guys who rigged it knew what they were doing – but it’s ticking along nicely enough. Just stay put for another four or five hours, and you’re going to clean up, cash in, and walk away.

Except, at about 9pm, just as you’re really getting warmed up, someone in your entourage comes up and whispers in your ear. He’s uncomfortable, he says. He worries about how this is all panning out. He thinks you should leave, and that the crew should move to a table that hasn’t been rigged.

Madness, right?

Which is why I don’t think Jacob Zuma is going anywhere. Why would he walk away from the table just as the long con is paying off?

Still, it’s fun to indulge the anxious fantasy that politics is about doing the right thing, so let’s leave the casino for a moment and imagine a scenario in which the ANC decides to recall Zuma.

The first hurdle is, of course, ego. The ruling party has proved that it is much more concerned with saving face than saving the country, so how exactly would they sideline Number One while keeping his dignity intact?

There’s one solution that’s so obvious I’m surprised we haven’t read any think-pieces about it: Zuma needs to fake his own death.

For example: 100 orphans are tipped into a lake after an enraged white supremacist surfaces and capsizes their boat. Zuma happens to be on the shore, having led his flock down to the water to drink deep of the Kool-Aid. He hears the cries of the children and dives into the lake.

For hours he swims like a man possessed by Ubuntu-demons, dragging orphan after orphan to safety. But the exertion takes a terrible toll on a man of almost 74. His organs of state are failing. He is having, you might say, a constitutional crisis.

At last he scoops all 100 children into his arms and begins to run. He sprints across thorns, between Thuli Madonsela’s CIA handlers, and over the testicles of white monopoly capital, until he reaches a rural hospital. The children are saved – but no! The doctors tell him that there is no electricity.

He readies himself for one final sacrifice

Zuma is incensed: after all he’s done to avert load-shedding by de-industrialising the country! No, say the doctors, it’s the cables: they have been stolen, probably by unmarried women, and now there is no way of getting the electricity from the substation to the hospital.

Zuma immediately understands what he must do. He readies himself for one final sacrifice … and then he grabs the substation in one hand and the hospital in the other.

Ninety-million volts crackle through him, but he cares only for the children. “Save the babies!” he gasps, arms outstretched, glowing with a holy blue light.

The doctors work frantically, saving life after life. All except one. The father of the nation is spent. He is no more.

Handled right – a sombre statement on TV by Cyril Ramaphosa, an infographic in The New Age explaining how electricity works (eels, fairies, etc), state funerals in Pretoria and Uttar Pradesh – it would be an exit for the ages.

Even better, it would be a goodwill windfall for the ANC. Nothing rehabilitates a reputation like dying. A wife-beater has a fatal stroke while torturing a dog and within two years he’s remembered as a passionate man who died doing what he loved most. Were Zuma to be heroically fried tomorrow, Mmusi Maimane would lead the nation in prayer and Julius Malema would concede that although he’s no longer 100% for Zuma, he’s definitely somewhere in the mid-50s, possibly even nudging up towards 60%.

The problem, though, is if the ANC writes Zuma out of the soap opera that we all inhabit, he’ll have to stay dead, lying low in Nkandla for the rest of his life. Just nipping down to the corner shop for a Sterri Stumpi would be a logistical nightmare, involving an elaborate ghost costume and clouds of dry ice. Then again, ghosts are supposed to be transparent, and Zuma has made himself so transparent in recent months that the ruse might just work.

No, in the end the ANC is going to have to fall back on the old classic: Shaik Syndrome. A nondescript ailment that will leave Zuma alive but reclusive, alert but silent, waving and smiling from the sidelines. Maybe a chronic heart problem caused by loving us too much?

In the end, maybe. But of course this isn’t the end. The old gambler is ordering another drink. He’s not going anywhere. Why would he?


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Guests of the Godfather


I’m embarrassed. Not because I didn’t know. Of course I knew. I just didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

If you’d asked me if everything that happens in this house was legitimate, I’d have hedged. I’d have told you that I’m just one of a few upstairs house guests, and we don’t get to see what goes on in the downstairs rooms, but from up here we do have a view of the ornate, wrought-iron front gates, and we see who comes and goes.

Most days it’s our host, sliding out in his convoy of black limousines. I admit I had stopped wondering about that: about why a man who claims to be so loved by so many needs a bulletproof car and a platoon of armed guards. Perhaps I’d stopped wondering because there was so much more to wonder about.

Like arms dealers, for starters. They arrived just after my host bought this place. We quite liked him back then. He’d booted out the last owner, a real little shit, and he was dignified and generous. So when the arms dealers came up the driveway, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. For our own protection, he said, and led them away down to the secret rooms we aren’t allowed to peep into.

After that, I just kind of went with it. The police were always coming around and we’d crowd at the windows and catch snatches of conversation – fraud, drunk driving, missing funds – but they always went away and our host waved up to us and told us all was well.

And I believed him. I must have, because I stayed. Now that I’ve woken up, I can see the ludicrous lengths I took to stay asleep. Like a few months ago, the gates opened up and in drove a guy called Omar. Wanted for genocide in Sudan. Genocide. And what did I do? I went out into the corridor and tut-tutted with the other guests and used words like “outrageous” and “disgraceful” – and then went right back to my room and made myself a toasted cheese sandwich.

I know why I was like this, of course. Nobody likes acknowledging that they are the guest of a gangster. It’s upsetting. It makes exhausting demands on your sense of yourself as a moral person. Because if you’re a moral person, how can you make a life for yourself in a home that is fundamentally rotten?

the real problem is you know how it all ends

But that’s only half of it. I think I’m OK with being less moral than I hope to be. I’m flexible that way. But the real problem with admitting to yourself that you live on the top floor of a Mafia godfather’s mansion is that you know how it all ends.

It ends with shocking violence, or in late-night pandemonium, throwing things into a suitcase and then a frantic rush over a high wall. It can never end well, because only the most intelligent criminals grow old peacefully and launder their money into respectable legacies, and I fear that my host is not looking like the most intelligent of criminals.

So I’d gone on, kept safe by the easy cynicism favoured by people who live in slowly unfolding disasters they can’t or don’t want to walk away from. Cynicism feels good because it makes you look informed. On point. Ahead of the curve. It convinces you that eye-rolling is an action and not just a reaction. It persuades you that seeing a train wreck is the same as avoiding it.

I’d like to claim that it was last week’s revelations about the Guptas that woke me up, but we’d all seen the brothers shuttling up and down the driveway for years. No, something else broke through the bubble of cynicism and left me mortified. It showed me how naïve I had been in my small condemnations of small crimes; how I had so completely underestimated the scope and ambition of my host’s corruption.

What woke me was what happened after the Gupta story broke.


Our host simply smiled up at us, saying that everything was fine. The firm had met. The naughty Guptas were going to be given a time-out. Business as usual.

Well, almost. My host will have to find a new source of money, perhaps one that doesn’t have newspapers and television stations and can therefore remain hidden for far longer.

But otherwise he’s going to keep doing what he’s done for decades -waving and lying, lying and waving – until he’s so rich that he can’t remember why he’s trying to get richer. Until corruption is the only way anyone can remember. Until every beam and floorboard in this mansion has rotted, and one day it all subsides into a stinking pile of rot and mould.

Yes, I’m embarrassed.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail