DA

The sext lives of politicians

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe

“…and about this long.”

Yesterday I read something that truly shocked me.

According to the Sunday Times, Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, had allegedly sent texts and e-mails of a sexual nature to a young government photographer, asking her to send him nude pictures of herself.

Wait, I haven’t got to the shocking part yet.

The photographer was reportedly suspended because of “improper behaviour” (we all know how hard this government comes down on improper behaviour) and, bizarrely, because of the sorts of clothes she wore in the presence of politicians.

That wasn’t the shocking bit either. No, what stunned me was the reaction to the story. Because there, in black and white, I read experts suggesting that the sext scandal had scuppered whatever chance Radebe had of becoming president.

I’m not sure which country those experts have lived in for the last decade, but in my country we have a president who was tried for rape and came through it absolutely unscathed. His loudest supporter at the time suggested that his accuser had had a good time. It was a vile and vastly destructive thing to say, but that statement did not stop Julius Malema from becoming the leader of a large party and it won’t stop him becoming president at some point.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Radebe hasn’t got problems. No doubt he lies awake every night, tossing and turning on that huge pile of money that senior ANC people use instead of mattresses, fretting about the coming months.

For starters, he’s got to time his leap off the sinking SS Zupta just right. Then there’s the wording of his inevitable not-quite-apology. This, at least, is less stressful because he can just plagiarise someone else’s: these days there’s a new one almost every week, delivered by one of the coterie of arse-kissers who put Zuma in power and kept him there, becoming gigantically wealthy as they helped him sell the country to the highest bidder.

The rhetoric is pious, full of resolutions to do better, but every single one of them is saying that same thing: “Baby? Babe? Please pick up. I was going through some stuff back at Polokwane…and…Also it’s not really my fault, you know? I mean, you don’t know what he’s like! He’s…well..I just want to let you know I’ve changed and I promise this time it’ll be different. For realsies.”

Yes, Jeff Radebe has plenty to vex him, but if anyone in Zuma’s South Africa still believes that explicit sexts are enough to hurt an embedded politician, they really haven’t been paying attention.

The story has been sold as faintly salacious but one should be cautious of seeing the sexual exploits of powerful people as some sort of entertainment, given their potential for exploitation, a wildly skewed power balance, and, frankly, abuse.

What do they write?

Still, it did make me wonder about the secret, digital sex lives of our senior politicians. Assuming that some of them have secret affairs with relative equals, what exactly do they write in those sweaty-palmed exchanges?

After all, desire is a fairly honest emotion but how do you express it when you’ve been trained since Comradegarten to speak in euphemisms? Are you able to suggest a lunchtime quickie in a nearby hotel or does everything sound like a policy statement? “Our position is that we are generally in favour of a potentiality in which we boost job creation in both the hospitality and prophylactic industries.”

Certainly, I would imagine that it’s important to take into account someone’s political ideology before embarking on a secret sext affair. For example, if an EFF member asks you for a picture that will make the earth move, he is almost definitely asking for a photo of a tractor-manufacturing plant in the former Soviet Union.

Likewise, if you’re going to get steamy with a senior DA type, you should probably abandon some of your more traditional romantic preconceptions. “Send me a picture of you…No, that one’s got a poor person in the background. Please put it on a bus to Wolwerivier and then take the pic again. OK. Good. Hot. Now show me the benefits of colonialism! Yes! Put on a pair of jodhpurs and straddle a railway line. Oh god yes, you really float my gunboat.”

But whatever you do, and whomever you do it with, do not have an online affair with someone high up in the ANC. Because we all know how that ends.

He’ll tell you he looks like Idris Elba. You’ll ask for a picture. He’ll send you a picture of Idris Elba. You’ll say, “Wait, this is Idris Elba”, and he’ll say you’re a racist who works for the CIA. You’ll say, “It’s over, I’m mailing a picture of a tractor-manufacturing plant to the Commander-In-Chief,” and he’ll beg you to stay. He can change. He was wrong. He’ll do anything. Except, you know, actual governance.

Yes, we’ve all been there. Many still are. And it’s time for that sordid little affair to come to an end.

*

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.

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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.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Yes, but what can we do?

people

Yes, but what can we do?

It’s a question I’m seeing everywhere as the oxygen is sucked from our national life.

We’re feeling desperate. Almost desperate enough to do something.

I’m reading angry Facebook posts about tax boycotts and marches and petitions to the United Nations. Intelligent people are talking about emigration. Less intelligent people are Tweeting about shooting students and assassinating politicians.

Almost all of it is unwise or downright suicidal. But what do we do? Is it enough simply to vote in 2019, and, if the results are ruled free and fair, to suck it up for another five years?

This option is becoming increasingly unpopular. There is a feeling in South Africa that we are running out of time and that the usual rules and systems of democracy might need to be put aside to save the country.

That, of course, is exactly what dictators say in their first broadcast to the nation. Which is why it might be important for all of us to step back; to make a conscious decision to resist this collective anxiety and to try to find a space of relative calm and perspective. Perhaps the answer to “What can we do?” is simply to stay alert, and to try to remember some of the following.

1. Things are moving. The 24-hour news cycle and a lack of historical perspective have made us dangerously impatient with the pace of the democratic process. To the Twitter generation a week is an age. It feels as if the current cabal has been in power forever. But it hasn’t, and whatever is happening is happening fairly fast.

2. We don’t have a government, we have looters. Once you understand this, most headlines will make a lot more sense and your gloom will feel slightly more focused.

3. Hyperbole is a national sport. When you hear that a certain neighbourhood or campus has “turned into a war zone” because armed police are present and there are some bricks in the road, take a look at a picture of Aleppo. South Africa is a violent, angry country, but we’re not at war and it helps nobody to believe that we are.

4. The bar has been lowered so far that ground zero feels like progress. In our country it is now considered an act of almost Scandinavian good governance for a mayor to drive to work in a car worth less than R1-million. This is not a rational response and we need to be wary of it. Eventually the ANC is going to charge someone with corruption or appoint a qualified person into a senior job, and, because our expectations have been lowered so execrably far, it will seem that accountability Nirvana has arrived. Don’t fall for it.

5. The EFF has told us what it is: we should try to believe it. The Fighters want a nationwide shutdown in support of the students and to remove Jacob Zuma. This makes perfect sense, because, as any surgeon will tell you, the best way to save a patient on the operating table is to switch off the machines and to walk out. (Also, I don’t want to rain on any goose-stepping parades but the last time a militaristic party representing less than 10% of South Africans brought the country to a grinding halt, we called it the Rubicon Speech and agreed it probably wasn’t a great idea.)

6. Experts create clarity. Read Achille Mbembe on Facebook and Pierre de Vos on his blog. Likewise, the AmaBhungane are very good at what they do. For the rest, don’t automatically believe anyone who makes a living from expressing an opinion, and that includes me. Also don’t assume an academic title means anything. (Speaking of which, if there’s anyone at the University of Zululand reading this, I’m still waiting for my PhD in Astrophysics to arrive in the mail like you promised. Did you not get my EFT or what?)

7. The looters want us to call each other names. The more cross-eyed we get calling each other “stupid” or fighting small battles of ego and identity, the less clearly we can see the gangsters for what they are and the more cash they can stuff into their pockets.

Finally: have a plan for what comes next. The looters are either going to win or they’re going to be severely injured in 2019 and start scattering. If they win, you’ll need a passport and liquid assets. If they lose more ground, and opposition parties step into the vacuum, stay intelligent. Everyone is corruptible and if you don’t think 20 years in power would turn the DA or the EFF into the current ANC, then you’re a politician’s wet dream.

So what can we do? Read. Think. Prepare. It doesn’t feel like a solution. But it’s a start.

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First published in The Times and on Rand Daily Mail

Pols, poles and polls

ANC-poster

High up in the sky, at the top of the tallest telephone pole in the street, Jacob Zuma is smiling like a dope.

His expression is that of a Roman emperor being fellated on a tiger skin while listening to an ensemble of harpists and a briefing from a temple priestess who had a dream in which the emperor was riding a burning elephant through a barley field, sure proof that this year’s crop will be the best ever. So pretty apt, really.

The impression of distant, untouchable, delusional power is reinforced by the location of Jacob Zuma’s face. In Cape Town, the ANC’s elections posters tend to be very high up on the lampposts. This is because if they are anywhere within reach, Capetonians tend to attack the placards, clawing and biting at the cardboard until it hangs in ragged shreds. Defacing campaign posters is illegal, but then again so is building a private home with public money, so perhaps we’ll call that one a draw.

Lower on the poles and lower in the polls, the DA candidates have grown wings: a clever designer has placed the hopefuls in front of the national flag so that colourful stripes rise from their shoulders like the feathery pinions of archangels. The trouble is, nobody likes people with wings.

Like that X-man with the giant pair, who looked like the unfortunate result of an upsetting tryst between a human and a swan. We were encouraged to pity him and the prejudice he faced, but I got to tell you, if I saw that dude flapping past me I would properly freak out and throw a wrench at him before the pro-mutant lobby could conscientise me. As for the other superheroes that had wings poking out of their shoulders: do you even remember their names? Was it Kiewiet-Girl? The Silver Hadeda? Night-Chicken?

Speaking of forgetting people’s names, the FF+ posters are next, emblazoned with the smiling face of Constand Viljoen. Ag, not him, the other one. Connie Mulder. No, wait, he was the Information Scandal guy. (To think that a government-funded newspaper used to be called a “scandal”. Bless.) So not Connie. His son. Something Mulder. Japie? Fox? Pieter! Anyway. There’s Pieter.

always leave ’em wanting more

There’s nobody on the EFF posters. That’s one of the fantastic benefits of a personality cult. You know The Face is etched into the hearts of the faithful, and by not showing The Face you remind everyone of The Face. First rule of razzle-dazzle showbiz: always leave ’em wanting more.

So there they are, all asking me to vote for them. Except for the EFF. They’re ordering me to vote for them. “VOTE EFF”, their poster says. I can respect that. It’s a clear, concise announcement of centralised, militarised power: a barked instruction, undiluted by wishy-washy nonsense like promises or explanations or track records.

Not like the ANC and DA posters. Those are full of – actually I’m not sure what they’re full of because, even though I’ve read them a thousand times, I can’t remember the words. To be fair, the ANC ones are too high up the pole to read clearly – something about power and people and Dora the Explorer’s pirate adventure, no, wait, that’s an ad for some school holiday theatre. But the DA slogan is actively repelling my mind. Why? Because for some reason they decided to use the word “progress”. And “progress”, my friends, is what polite teachers write in the report cards of idiot children. I know, because it’s what my music teacher used to write about me. “Tom is making steady progress through Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s Book of Elementary Tunes for Tone-Deaf Children Who Can Only Use Two Fingers at a Time.”

Last week I wrote rather cynically about wanting better lies from politicians, but that supremely vague and euphemistic “progress” got me thinking about how tired I am of the jargon and the coded language, and it made me think about how refreshing it would be to hear the truth, no matter how banal or unsexy it might be.

Imagine how much more you’d respect the ANC if its posters showed Zuma mashing a slice of cake into his face under the slogan, “We were pretty fantastic until about 1998 and then the wheels fell off because let’s be honest, money is lekker, and in theory most of us would like to do the right thing but we’ve got hungry interior decorators to feed so please don’t cut us off.”

The DA? “A few parts of Cape Town are run like a Swiss watch-making factory and we might have just enough capacity to replicate that in one other metro, so pull in and it might be your metro! Maybe. Terms and conditions apply.” The FF+? “It’s flippen scary here, yo.”

The EFF, though, don’t need to change a thing. “VOTE EFF” says it all, doesn’t it?

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Assume the brace position

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

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

The pilot has died.

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

Worse, the plane is starting to lose altitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail