Helen Zille

Would the Comrades make it past Polly Graph?

Comrades“They’ve jogged past Mangaung! They’ve slogged through Polokwane! They’ve sidestepped Nkandla! And now it’s the final sprint towards the Union Buildings! Bob, incredible drama here in the closing stages of the 2017 Comrades’ Marathon!”

“Steve, absolutely. “What a race it’s been this – ”

“Sorry, Bob, a correction: the Comrades have asked us not to call it a ‘race’. Apparently they prefer to keep that word in their arsenal until just before election time.”

“Well, it’s been a helluva marathon, Steve, and picking a winner is going to be a game of Russian roulette.”

“You mean it’s still wide open?”

“No, I mean the winner is going to be decided in Russia over a roulette table.”

“I think you’re confusing this with the American electoral system. But never mind, these are covfefe times.”

“Nice use of an internet buzzword to make our commentary more hip for the Millennials, Bob.”

“Anything to woo the youth, Steve. Which raises the question: does 75-year-old Zuma have what it takes to go all the way, or will Ramaphosa time his kick just right and surge past at the line?”

“Bob, Zuma has been working with some amazing international coaches. As you know, he’s been part of the Gupta stable for a few years now, and they’ve reportedly done an incredible job training him to respond to basic commands – sit, stay, roll over, appoint this person as deputy minister – but you have to say that he’s going to struggle, especially because he’s carrying Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on his back.”

“Let’s see if we can get some footage of – oh, there they are, he’s battling on, she’s got her arms and legs round him, she’s urging him on with mumbled policy statements, but Steve, he’s gotta be feeling this right now. I mean, those legs are literally going to be on fire.”

“From your mouth to God’s ears, Bob. Oh, I’m hearing we’ve got to take a quick word from our sponsors.”

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“Welcome back, folks. Some great footage coming in now, that’s, er, oh, OK, that’s Gwede Mantashe, with that distinctive way of running in a circle.”

He has never run this marathon, except for when he has

“Interesting technique, Bob. He’s always made it very clear that he has never run this marathon and will never run it, except for the times when he has run it, and might still run it. He says he’s especially looking forward to the up-run which will give him the opportunity to excel in the down-run, which is his preferred race.”

“Sounds like he’s on tik, Steve. But then most of the Comrades are, am I right?”

“Absolutely, Bob. And speaking of which, I asked a couple of them this morning about why they still call each other ‘Comrade’. I mean, ‘Comrade’ is a term appropriated from the Soviet Union, which we all know ended in total economic collapse and ushered in a new era of authoritarian kleptocracy.”

“What did they say?”

“They said, ‘Yep, sounds about right’.”

“OK, a lovely aerial shot right now of the pack heading up the Long Climb Towards 2019.”

“Bob, always a taxing hill. Although you’re aware of the current controversy around this route, a lot of people demanding that the Comrades get routed up and over Polly Graph.”

“I think we’d all love to see them tackle a Polly Graph type of challenge, Steve, but of course the fear is that nobody would get past a Polly Graph and we’d have to call the whole thing off.”

“The Comrades is tough enough as it stands, Bob. Already some big names dropping out of the running. Baleka Mbete, veering off course, endlessly repeating that she didn’t recognise the route. Brian Molefe, starting strongly, then retiring in tears, then getting dropped off by bakkie at the halfway point and claiming he’d never left.”

“Steve, any chance of an upset from an outsider? Julius Malema is looking fighting fit these days. And how about Mmusi Maimane?”

“Bob, I don’t have high hopes. Julius wants to nationalise the route and lease small chunks of it to each runner to grow potatoes on, and Mmusi, well, that story is just pathetic.”

“Yes, sad scenes at the start line. When Helen Zille got both feet wedged in her mouth we thought Maimane was a shoo-in, but who could have guessed he’d grab the starter pistol and shoot himself in both feet?”

“Bob, this is being broadcast by the SABC, which means we’ve got to cut away from the action for absolutely no reason, but before we go, any final thoughts?”

“Steve, these Comrades are going to lay everything on the line. Remember, the winner gets that beautiful gold medal, plus a blank cheque signed by Treasury. If I was a Gupta right now, I’d be on the edge of the servant I use as a seat, chewing the nails of the servant I pay to chew my nails. This ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

*

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

Still snorting the fairy dust

magic

The young woman at the clinic had just received unexpected and upsetting news: she was six months pregnant with a human baby.

The doctor gently asked her if she had noticed any changes in her body that might have revealed the living thing growing inside her. Yes, she said, of course she‘d noticed changes. She wasn’t stupid. She‘d just never considered the possibility that it might be a baby.

The doctor was confused. What had she thought it was? A magical frog, answered the young woman; probably put there by a witch paid off by someone who bore a grudge against her.

The doctor who told us the story had done enough community service in rural areas to know such things were complicated and not easily dismissed with a “she should know better”. But the man across the table from me was aghast. How could people still believe in magic in the 21st century? How could any country hope to move forward when people still held medieval beliefs?

It was a peculiar thing for him to say, mainly because he had made it clear that he was a proud Christian, which meant that his beliefs were also medieval. But, more importantly, it seemed odd for someone to dismiss one magical tradition while being an eager supporter of another, in his case a Middle Eastern one in which bushes talk, sticks turn into snakes, oceans part and people come back from the dead.

The religions imported from the Middle East have used extraordinary violence to rebrand themselves as non-magical, so it‘s understandable that believers would actively reject the idea of magic existing in the modern world. These days, though, you don‘t need to burn women for witchcraft to stamp out magic: you just need to let the routine of urban drudgery suck the fairy dust out of life.

These days, magic is seen as something for children and depressed illusionists lurking along rain-swept piers in the off-season. Which is an astonishing self-delusion, because almost every single one of us has a deep, unshakable belief in magic. No matter our faith, our traditions, our history or our education, almost everybody believes in the possibility of a single transformative moment — a flash of light, a blue fairy, a line of numbers on a Lotto ticket — that will turn bad into good, sadness into joy and a pile of straw into a heap of gold.

If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved

If we weren’t steeped in magical fantasies, the advertising industry wouldn’t exist. We know that advertisements are lies, and that we are being deceived by people who are paid to suppress our critical faculties. And yet the ad industry is worth $600-billion a year because under our fashionable cynicism, deep down, we nurture the possibility of magic. If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved. If only we drive that car, we might be popular. If we just do that one thing, the spell will be spoken, the room will glow, and everything will be instantly all right.

It might seem incongruous to find that childlike hope permeating our political landscape, a place where parasites are willing to kill each other for a place at the artery. But those parasites are there precisely because we South Africans can‘t break free of our belief in magic.

We’ve been inhaling the fairy dust forever. If we make the castle walls high enough we won‘t ever need to have any dealings with the natives. If we just kill our cattle, the whites will be flung into the sea. If the National Party can just find a way to separate whites and blacks, the Republic will thrive. If we can only end apartheid, Uhuru will follow. If we can just recall Mbeki we‘ll finally have the country we deserve. If they find a way to remove Zuma, everything will eventually be okay. If only Helen Zille ran this province, she’d fix everything! If only everyone could see sense and vote EFF, President Commander Malema will create a land of milk and honey!

On and on, the same fantasy. And as we dream, the cynical realists get richer and more powerful because they understand magic better than we do: the magic of rhetoric, of how to play to our self-delusion, of preaching revolution and anti-capitalism while investing their cash in the cold, hard, non-magical market.

I don‘t think we‘re going to abandon magic any time soon, but if we can begin to accept that we have a pathological weakness when it comes to charismatic men promising us instant, permanent fixes, then we might have a chance to begin pulling this country back on a path towards something better.

It‘s time to break the spell. It‘s time to wake up.

*

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.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

The fault is in our stars

MarsA misunderstanding was inevitable.

The French delegation spoke very little English. The South African politicians who sat across the table spoke a little French but were just at that moment pressing lobster thermidor into their mouths and so their words were muffled.

What they did manage to say, however, was that the were offering the French nuclear industry a “sweet deal in return for lots of dough, as long as it’s not half-baked”.

The French muttered oaths – “Gauloises Blondes! Audrey Tautou!” – but the message seemed clear. Baking, dough, sweetness: the South Africans wanted their new nuclear power stations built by French confectioners.

And so, just before everyone retired to the firepool for a late-afternoon paddle, President Jacob Zuma wrote an IOU note on a napkin for R500-trillion, to be paid off in monthly instalments over the next 5,000 years or until Jesus returned, and work began immediately on 25 state-of-the-art nuclear reactors made of custard, pastry and almond flakes.

The initial results were encouraging. A delicious aroma wafted across the republic and Eskom workers delighted in nibbling off corners of infrastructure during their mid-afternoon blood-sugar slump. But soon it all went terribly wrong.

During a routine replacement of the fuel rods (uranium-enriched baguettes) in all the stations, technicians accidentally used gluten-free brioches and all 25 reactors melted down faster than an SABC board member being questioned about academic qualifications. Within seconds, glowing custard was leaking into the nation’s groundwater and sending plumes of radioactive yumminess into the sky.

Panic-stricken South Africans tried to flee the pastry apocalypse. An elite few phoned their old friends the Guptas but their calls kept going to voicemail. The rest headed north but were met at the border by Zimbabweans holding signs reading ‘Xenophobia is a bitch, ain’t it?’

In desperation the government considered occupying Lesotho (Mangosuthu Buthelezi still had his invasion maps from 1998, albeit slightly stained with coffee rings and covered with doodles reading “President Buthelezi”). But Helen Zille objected to this plan, saying that she was already queen of a mountain kingdom and didn’t want competition.

At that very moment Jacob Zuma’s Whatsapp pinged.

putin-riding-bear-601x368

“Hello Djekob! Eetz mee, Wladmr Pyootn!”

It was his old oil-wrestling coach Vladimir Putin with an intriguing offer: if Zuma would lease South Africa to Russia as a dumpsite for toxic waste (mostly investigative journalists arrested for investigating and gay people arrested for being gay) Russia would build a giant spaceship that would allow all South Africans to travel to a new home in deep space. To make the spaceship familiar and reassuring it would resemble a gigantic Hilux taxi with a vast plastic rear windscreen emblazoned with “Dreamlover”, and it would take them anywhere they wanted to go.

But where? Most South Africans wanted the shortest journey possible and opted for the moon but the EFF rejected this, saying that the moon was “historically white and has always looked down on Africa”. They suggested the red planet, Mars, but an outraged Blade Nzimande accused them of trying to steal the legacy of the South African Communist Party. However, in the end the Tripartite Alliance grudgingly agreed that Mars was the best option since it so closely resembled “the glorious bald head that would be created if Soviet science had somehow achieved the impossible dream of cloning the love-child of Vladimir Lenin and Vladimir Putin”.

Two months later the Dreamlover was complete.

55 million South Africans were told to fasten their seatbelts, half a million obeyed, and the countdown began. Unfortunately it had been assigned to a person who had only done Numerical Literacy at school and so it went “10, 9, 4, OneDirection…” but after an awkward silence the Dreamlover blasted off. A new era had dawned for the nation.

The long journey to Mars was not without incident. Just days after the launch a scandal erupted as President Zuma was accused of overspending on security upgrades to his section of the spaceship, including asteroid-proof windows, comet-proof thatch and Public Protector-proof financial reports.

Six months into the journey someone claimed they had seen a white dwarf through a telescope, and AfriForum accused them of hate speech, saying it was racist to refer to the dwarf’s race. (Scientists explained to AfriForum that a white dwarf was an astronomical phenomenon, at which the Democratic Alliance said that the Nkandla costs were an astronomical phenomenon. But nobody was listening to them any more.)

“Let me write an annoyed tweet about this at once!”

The Dreamlover landed on Mars on 27 April, 2024, and at once the newly elected President Veuve Clicquot Razzamatazz Zuma (a cousin of the first Zuma) tasked the nation with building a vegetable garden. The EFF refused, saying that it was a disgusting repeat of the Jan van Riebeeck story, and threatened to physically destroy the vegetables, possibly in some sort of delicious quiche.

A group of disgruntled white people who had kept to themselves on the journey said they were tired of being marginalized and were going to go off and be marginalized by themselves. But soon their space-mielies shrivelled and died (there was even less rain on Mars than in Mafikeng, and their crops turned to popcorn before they could be harvested). Worse, they had moved out of wifi range and could no longer get News24 on their iPads, so they grudgingly returned to the mothership.

As years turned into decades the people began to long for home. During the day they found that they could comfort themselves by blaming the government, just like in the old days; but at night it was harder. They would lie awake, gazing through telescopes at the distant Earth, remembering the sound of the wind and sea, and wondering.

Would they ever return, perhaps once the radiation had subsided in 50,000 years, leaving nothing but a warm, million-square-kilometer vetkoek? Could they start again and this time truly provide a better life for all? If they had to do it all again, what would they do differently? And then they sighed, switched off their little government-approved Razzamatazz night-lights, and thought: there’s no place like home.

*

First published in The Big Issue

“What a dust do I raise!”

They ended apartheid

Who ended apartheid? These guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

What would Nabokov do?

Nabokov

The editor of the magazine was apologetic but firm. The column I had just sent him, while containing some good bits, was self-indulgent.

“Too many notes,” he added, a politic reference to Amadeus that framed him as the tone-deaf Emperor and me as a misunderstood Mozart. But beneath the self-deprecating and flattering allusion was a clear message: if he was going to pay me from the royal mint I needed to play his tune. And his tune involved me removing about a third of the notes.

My response was appropriately Wolfgang-ish. I flung my wig across my hovel, downed a flagon of sack, threw the flagon after the wig, and rolled out into the street where I stalked the cobbles moodily until my stockingless shins and mittenless fingers began to freeze. Then I went home and conceded that while the piece was a tad frenzied, I didn’t know how to shorten it by a third without leaving it a limbless, bleeding torso of a thing. (You can see how upset I was: in a single paragraph I had turned a musical metaphor into an anatomical one.)

In the end the editor relented and the self-indulgence went plinky-plonky-tra-la-la into the world as I had written it. But it did get me thinking about the nature of column writing, and the fine line between self-expression and self-indulgence. And this week those thoughts have crowded around even more urgently, because this week is my first anniversary with The Times. For a full year I have danced around that line, sometimes indulging my readers, sometimes myself, but never quite sure which is which.

I understand, of course, that good writing is a conversation rather than a soliloquy. They’re my words but they’re your eyes and brain and heart. Still, it’s a tricky conversation, not least because the subject matter is so determined to float just out of reach: the zeitgeist is, after all, a geist. But perhaps the fundamental slipperiness is that columnists are employed to express opinions, and opinions are really just emotions strapped into a corset, given a stiff drink, and shoved out onto a spotlit stage. And emotions, even those prettied up and made to look like objective truths, are still a terribly diaphanous currency.

Ten years ago it was easier. I was a young columnist possessed of a vast collection of flashy phrases and a very limited knowledge of my self, and the result was eloquent pandemonium. This week I reread some of my old stuff and found my 25-year-old self to be the sort of man-child who is droll for about 15 minutes but whom you then want to thrash with a rolled-up newspaper. It wasn’t the jokes or the overcooked prose that annoyed me. It was the conviction with which I stated opinion as fact, the free and easy confidence of a medieval alchemist pronouncing about the nature of living on a flat Earth around which orbits the sun.

Then again, perhaps this is the purview of youth. Not that I’ve grown up much, mind you. The old show-offy temptations still sing their siren song. For example, in the social media age there is the temptation to chum for likes, retweets and all those other digital pings that promise infinite, hollow affirmation. Every week I fight the urge to write a column with the ultimate click-bait headline, say “Zuma And Zille in Shock Sex Romp at Satanic Bafana Ball”. Naturally the piece would be a fiction about a liaison between Primrose Zuma, Trompie Zille and a stash of hash kept in a soccer ball under the Van Staden’s River Bridge. But readers would discover this only once they’d clicked on the story in their millions and made me the trendiest trender on Trend Mountain.

Likewise there is the temptation to be too clever, to indulge in word games or to hide coded messages inside a particular paragraph. Nabokov, you remind yourself, was fond of acrostics: why shouldn’t I slip one into a column? Yet one unwieldy, forced or unwelcome Nabokovian dalliance is terminal. Flow is broken. The eye stutters on odd syntax.

But I am learning. Someone suggested to me recently that a column, however beautifully or carefully it is written, or however full of truth it might be, is just a picture drawn in the sand above the waterline, made to be enjoyed and then washed away. The desire to pin down thoughts, to write something that will stand, objective and permanent, is dwindling. They say the more you learn the less you know. For me, the more I write, the less I have to say.

Still, the self-indulgent urge is hard to shake. Which is why I’ve hidden an acrostic in here. I couldn’t resist. But I promise I’ll grow up one day.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive