Pretending that puppets are presidents

Atul sockpuppet

“Say something to the people, Jacob.”

I don’t know how our political journalists do it.

Day after day they report to this committee room or that media centre and listen to the well-dressed guy behind the table, calling him “Minister” as if he’s an actual minister and not just a Gupta sock puppet; writing down his words as if they’re important and not just a script written in Dubai and spell-checked in the London offices of BellPottinger; writing careful and intelligent analyses of how this sock puppet’s imaginary policy will affect the imaginary policies of his fellow sock puppets, and, ultimately, the career prospects of our imaginary president, a low-level employee of Middle Eastern monopoly capital.

I understand why they have to do it. Journalists report on what is presented to them. We don’t have any actual ministers (public officials working in the best interests of the citizens of the country) so it’s the sock puppets who come to the press conferences, which means those are the ones you report on. Also, you can’t have the nation’s newspapers all leading with stories called things like “Moral Bankrupt Who’s Never Had A Real Job Dutifully Enacts New Get-Rich Scheme Of His Foreign Paymasters”.

Still, I’ve reached a curious moment. I just can’t pretend any more. The official titles have been sounding increasingly ropey but now they’ve tipped over into sheer ludicrousness, as if a group of catalogue models is wandering around our public buildings, all doing Blue Steel pouts for the camera as they introduce themselves as “Deputy President” or “Minister” or “Honourable Member of Parliament”.

The absurdity is funny, but it also exposes the danger of our current moment.

The people who control all the money and the guns are coming unhinged in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen in this country. The Nationalists, clinging to their white supremacist ideology, their terror of Communism and their Calvinist religion, were predictable right to the end. The sock puppets, by contrast, abandoned their ideology years ago and are rushing towards something much more frightening: the final split away from their most basic identities as people. Which means they could do almost anything.

You can see it in every belligerent, aimless press conference: they don’t know what they’re doing but, more important, they no longer know why they’re doing it. They’ve gone too far for too long on too little, and now, stripped of the higher moral ground and all the props of history handed to them in 1994, they stand naked before us, exposed as small, venal creatures caught in a dreadful struggle between trying to save themselves and lingering long enough to gorge on just a little more public money.

groping towards the heap of treasure

This is the lunatic dance we’re watching: they cringe away from responsibility and principle and the vastly damning verdict of posterity; and yet they still strain forward, hands grasping, groping towards the heap of treasure they hope will fill the weeping hole where their conscience and purpose once lived.

If this were simply the decline of a political party hollowed out by corruption and slowly collapsing under the weight of its own bad decisions, I might be less alarmed. But this is not the collapse of a party. It is the unravelling of a cult. And when cult leaders feel the End Times rushing towards them, things can get incredibly ugly.

It is more important than ever to focus on the absurdity of our situation. We must resist our powerful, primitive instincts that try to convince us that all of this nonsense is a reflection of some sort of reality; that State Capture is just a part of politics rather than the moment we all step back and stop participating in this parody of a state.

I respect our political journalists for the work they do as our early-warning system, but printed words and broadcast images give our imaginary politicians a veneer of legitimacy. We must chip away at that veneer every day, seeing these so-called politicians for what they are: hopelessly cornered nobodies, minor lackeys clutching their household gods as they rush between crumbling temples in a falling Rome. We must read the news not as fact but as a psychological profile of a group of desperate hustlers.

If we can keep the absurdity in clear view, then perhaps, come 2019, we can see them off and send them back to where they belong: failing, corrupt businesses; badly lit seminar rooms at increasingly irrelevant colleges; and, in some cases, prison.

For now, though, try to remember: there is no president. There are no ministers. There is no national government. There is no plan. There are only small, limited people, twitched this way and that by their compulsions, cracking under the demands of their appetites. There is only this interregnum of pure absurdity. And then there is 2019 and a chance to escape this lunacy once and for all.


Published in The Times

Baby, I can change! I promise!

Say anything

“Say Anything”: ANC policy for 23 years.

Jacob Zuma, the nation’s media announced, had “survived” the meeting with the National Executive Committee, which was rather like announcing that a medieval king had survived his morning blowjob.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Zuma isn’t taking a lot of flak right now. According to insiders at the NEC meeting, anxiously warming the massage oil between their hands, 45 of the 106 attendees asked Zuma to step down. Hell, that means that only 57% of the ruling party publicly endorses the gutting of the republic for personal gain.

Then there’s the extraordinary claim in the so-called Gupta e-mails (presumably leaked to the Sunday papers by one of those malcontents to coincide with the NEC meeting) that the Zuma clan is trying to relocate to Dubai.

At first glance this looks like some sort of escape plan, a bit like the end of ‘The Sound of Music’ where the Von Trapps skedaddle over the Alps. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the Zuma Family Singers all lined up on the national stage, warbling a medley of our favourite hits from that film – The Lonely Gupta-turd; How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Free Press?; My Favourite Indians; Sell Every Mountain – before rolling the car silently down the highway to Waterkloof Air Base.

I’m not so sure, however, that a move to Dubai would necessarily be about fleeing. One of the people named in the weekend’s tranche of e-mails was Mzwanele Manyi, who once declared that there was an “oversupply” of coloured people in the Western Cape. If Mr Manyi is in any way connected to the Zumas or the Guptas, it’s possible he noticed a severe shortage of Zulus in Dubai and the whole thing is just another of his social engineering schemes.

So yes, there have been lots of hard words – Daddy even had to get a bit shouty with the NEC, telling them that if they said naughty phrases like “step down” again he would send them to their rooms without any kickbacks – but I don’t think anybody actually believes that Zuma is about to disappear. He may not be Nominal President for much longer (our actual president, is, of course, whichever Gupta feels like handling the South Africa account that day), but it is now accepted dogma that his plan is long-range, long-term control over the country via remote control.

All of which brings us, rather confusingly, to the ANC Stalwarts. You’ve probably read one of their faintly heroic ejaculations about pulling the country back from the brink and how they don’t agree with the direction we’re going.

Who sends the best emojis?

What they mean, of course, is that they are feeling terribly uncomfortable. Fighting for a good spot at the trough is hard enough at the best of times, but imagine trying to position yourself ahead of Zuma’s transformation into a digital, holographic ruler. Whose back are you going to massage now? Or will it boil down to who sends the best emojis?

Drowning people will cling to anything, so it’s not surprising that the Stalwarts are gaining some traction. Already, some folks are convincing themselves that the apparatchiks who put Zuma in power and kept him there are actually ardent democrats just waiting to explode into a rainbow of good governance. “Yes, it looked like she was asleep in parliament but she was actually resting her mind ahead of the great struggle to take back the country from, er, herself.”

Alas, they’re going to sink. I know that not everyone in government is corrupt. Some of them are merely incompetent. Others are paralysed, trapped in a web of conflicts and contradictory promises they’ve made to their backers. But when I consider life after Zuma, I remember the words of Cyril Ramaphosa, our next president.

“The ANC is pained immensely by stories of corruption,” he told the New York Times. “We are highly conscious of the damage that corruption does to a party and a country.”

He said those words in 1996. Twenty-fucking-one years ago. The context? Damage control around Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s Sarafina 2 corruption debacle. And you tell me this lot can change?

We don’t know if there is leadership that can do right by the country. Certainly many people are becoming frustrated with the media’s focus on Zuma: why, they ask, do we keep saying what we don’t want rather than outlining what we do?

I understand that question, but right now it’s like marching up to a paramedic who is holding someone’s intestines in, and saying, “Excuse me, but I’m very concerned that you’re not addressing when this person will go back to work.”

When you’re learning how to identify feelings, you start with the not-feelings: what a thing doesn’t feel like. We’re clearly unskilled at electing good governments, so, as we begin to grope our way towards a better alternative, I think it’s OK to focus on what we don’t want; to say that we don’t want this, or the people who allowed this to happen.

The next step? Education. Better safeguards. Perhaps a paragraph added to the constitution explicitly stating that the country probably shouldn’t be run via e-mail from abroad.

We’ll slowly clarify what we want. But it’s not this.


Published in The Times

The Freedom Charter – Rebooted!


We, the Connected People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: screw you.

We know we once said that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, but that’s obviously a ridiculously naive position, so from here on South Africa belongs to anyone with enough non-sequential, unmarked dollars in a brown paper bag.

To help you understand your place, here are some important principles to remember:

The people shall govern. From Dubai.

All national groups shall have equal rights – unless their rights get in the way of our rights, in which case you’ll find that some rights are more important than others. This discovery is calling “marikana-ing”, derived from the verb “marikana”, “to remind the public about whose rights matter and whose don’t”.

The people shall share the country’s wealth. Mostly people who live in Dubai, or whose last name is Zuma. Mines and SABC soaps don’t come cheap, you know.

The land shall be shared among those who work it. And since our National Executive Committee has been giving this land a proper working-over for the last few years, we think it’s only fair that it be shared between us. (If you disagree, please see “marikana-ing”.)

All shall be equal before the law. Except for those who don’t ever have to come before the law because they know where the bodies are buried. Also this obviously excludes rich people. But if you’re poor or don’t know the dialing code for Saharanpur, India, the law will take its course, all over your face.

All shall enjoy equal human rights. Except, obviously, poor people. Because, honestly, screw them. Also, please see “marikana-ing”.

There shall be work and security. But mostly work in security. Signal jammers and email-readers are a major growth industry in our South Africa. Also, those iron gates at Nkandla and Saxonwold aren’t going to patrol themselves, you know.

The doors of learning and of culture shall be opened. By a government messenger, arriving at 3.15pm for his 11am meeting, to tell the Vice-Chancellors that they’re getting fokkol from  Treasury because we blew it all on Dudu over at SAA.

There shall be houses, security and comfort. Hell yes. So many houses. So much security. And so, so much comfort.

There shall be peace and friendship. Actually, on second thoughts, no, there probably won’t. Because those 25-year-old “military veterans” are itching to earn some combat medals, and elections are so goddamn unpredictable.

Adopted by an untouchable cabal, printed on buffalo-skin (thanks, Cyril) and signed in Veuve Clicquot.

April fools


On April 1st, the Western Cape government squeezed out this bone-dry little bonbon on its website:

Media statement: WC Cabinet to use remote controls for traffic lights

Premier Helen Zille announced today that as an alternative to using blue lights, members of the Western Cape Cabinet will each receive a remote-control device to change the traffic light (or robots) from red to green as they approach.

Premier Zille’s directive comes after several cabinet ministers complained that because they are not permitted to use blue lights in the province, they were late for most of their meetings.

After consulting various IT professionals and Minister of Transport and Public Works Donald Grant, who has signed off on the project, Premier Zille obtained permission to issue the traffic light remote control.

The remotes will be issued by next week Monday.

Members of the public are urged to approach every traffic light with caution as they may change at any stage if a Minister is approaching.

“It basically works like your TV remote control. As you approach the traffic light, you can just change it from red to green, all at the click of a button,” said Premier Zille. “None of our Cabinet Ministers will ever be late. It’s part of our good governance strategy,” Premier Zille added.

Minister of Economic Opportunities Alan Winde added that the remote controls were “part of our commitment to be an innovative government”.

“When we visit Gauteng and those other provinces, blue light convoys are a bit much. They are loud and disruptive. But in the Western Cape, we’ll be quiet about it. Just a click of a button and we can go through to our meetings with no delay,” said Minister Winde.

“We would like to thank the Premier for this great idea,” he added.

Media Enquiries: 

Michael Mpofu
Spokesperson for Premier Helen Zille
Cell: 071 564 5427
Tel: 021 483 4584

It was a brave attempt at comedy from Helen Zille’s Department of Drollery, but it went largely unnoticed, mainly because April Fools jokes are by definition, horrible:  the last refuge of people holding onto a childlike infatuation with contrived, low-stakes trickery.

Of course, a lot of people thought it was real, partly because most people are illiterate, but mainly because the content was plausible (remote-controlled traffic lights are no more outlandish than remote-controlled presidents, a cool new toy designed by the Brothers Guptas) and the format looked ultra-legit.

Having written a lot of fake news, I know how eager people are to fling themselves off the Cliffs of Credulity. I’ve also learned that unless you want your inbox swamped by the garrulously gullible blaming you for their inability to read, you need to throw your reader a small bone. Just a hint that all is not as it seems. Perhaps some quotes attributed to a spokesperson with a BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS NAME, say, Plenty O’Quotes or Nom de Plume or Chatty McTalkyson. Not Helen Zille or Alan Winde, both of whom are, I gather, real people.

This didn’t help either…

bad idea

Was this post brought you by Spindoctor Mpofu, Remote-Clicker for Premier Robotrunner Zille? Is he reachable on 082-APRIL-FOOL, or at

No. For Media Enquiries, please contact Michael Mpofu, Spokesperson for the Premier. Plus the flag. Plus the Chicken Of State (or whatever our national crest signifies). Plus, it’s an initiative of the Western Cape Government.

It’s possible that there has been a more earnest, legitimate-looking sign-off to a joke, perhaps to a state-sanctioned 1923 German jape about a slight delay to the start of the asparagus-planting season. But I suspect that that little block above might be the greatest comedy-killer in human history.

Which is why I don’t blame anyone who thought this story was real. But I wasn’t ready for what happened next. (Yes, I know. That’s pure clickbait. But I’m about to talk about crap journalism, so I think it’s appropriate.

On April 4, this appeared on page 3 of The New Age.

New Age page 3

The news report, written by a certain Vincent Cruywagen, reads as follows:

As an alternative to using blue lights, members of the Western Cape cabinet can at the click of a button on a remote-control device, change the traffic light (or robots) from red to green as they approach the signal.

The measure announced by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille on Friday comes after several cabinet ministers complained that because they were not permitted to use blue lights in the province, they were late for most of their meetings.

“Zille obtained permission to issue the traffic light remove control after consultations  with various IT professionals and the MEC for transport and public works,” Donald Grant, who has signed off the project, said.

Members of the public are urged to approach every traffic light with caution as they may change at any stage if a cabinet minister is approaching.

“It basically works like your TV remote control. As you approach the traffic light, you can just change it from red to green, at the click of a button. None of our cabinet ministers will ever be late for appointments again. It is part of our good governance strategy,” Zille said.

Western Cape MEC for economic opportunities, Alan Winde, said the remote controls were part of their commitment to an innovative government.

Winde said whenever he visited other provinces especially Gauteng blue light convoys were “a bit too many”.

“They are loud and disruptive but in the Western Cape, we will be quiet about it.

“Just a click of a button and we can go through to our meeting with no delay. We also want to thank the premier for this great idea,” Winde said.



So that just happened.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “My god! Didn’t an editor see this and think it looked fishy and check the source?” You’re thinking that because you think The New Age is a newspaper. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There are at least 19 other South Africans who believe that The New Age is staffed with journalists who do things like fact-checking and so on.

So no, I’m not amazed or outraged that a non-newspaper printed a fabricated story as news, especially one that would paint the official opposition in a bad light.

I’m also not surprised that a “newspaper” published this “story” three full days after it had first appeared.

But I am very, very amused by how it ran said story.

For starters, there’s the glorious, charge-the-cannons chutzpah of Vincent Cruywagen putting his byline on a story he cut and paste off a website.

Actually no, that’s unfair. He didn’t just cut and paste it. He cut it, then butchered it, then stitched the bleeding bits back together. And sometimes he added entirely new bits. Like when he read not-Alan not-Winde not saying that blue light convoys were “a bit much” and decided that “a bit much” should become “a bit too many”, a completely new phrase in the English language.

Then there’s the Python-esque moment where Vinnie C takes an invented reported statement and re-invents and invented quote.

The original: After consulting various IT professionals and Minister of Transport and Public Works Donald Grant, who has signed off on the project, Premier Zille obtained permission to issue the traffic light remote control.

Vinnie’s Version: “Zille obtained permission to issue the traffic light remove control after consultations  with various IT professionals and the MEC for transport and public works,” Donald Grant, who has signed off the project, said.

But I think what tickles me most is that little email address stuck on the end: Insisting that this is news; that they haven’t made it all up; that they’re a proper newspaper and not just clumsy propaganda. Begging someone – anyone – to email them, to reassure them that their drivel is read by at least one human who isn’t a Gupta or a Zuma.
Bless you, Vinnie. Long may your mouse right-click.

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