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


Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be


On most days the elderly woman sits and watches the world from her balcony, waving to people she knows, peering at people she doesn’t.

She offers gossip, sometimes cake. She’s eager to tell the story of her dodgy leg and she tells it well. But beyond that she keeps her feelings to herself and her home is dark and quiet.

Once in a great while, however, she plays her music.

It fills her flat and spills out onto the street. And then you know that she is missing her late husband terribly.

The music, she tells you, is the soundtrack of their love. It was their music when they were first married and the world was perfect and everything would last forever. Sometimes they danced to it. Sometimes they just lay and listened.

When I first heard it, I thought she was having a party. But when she came out onto the balcony, her cheeks wet and her face softened and brightened by nostalgia, I realised my mistake.

But I was confused. Because her music, full of longing for and joy over times past, is disco.

Once I knew her story it made sense. When people fall in love, the music of the time often becomes the melody of their happiness. Love can turn the Macarena into Mozart. But still it seemed strange to me because it wasn’t what I understood the past to sound like.

As a child of the 1980s, I still believe, in some eternally 10-year-old part of me, that elderly widows reminisce over the music of Glenn Miller, recalling that first waltz in the air force hangar the night before he shipped out to France. They do not listen to the Bee Gees.

But of course they do, and my inability to grasp this says much more about my understanding of time and age than their taste in music.

In my defence, however, I think that it’s getting more difficult to tell the past from the present, mainly because the old technological signposts are melting away.

When I was a child, I could tell old from new in an instant. Film from 40 years earlier was a monochrome mushroom cloud rising jerkily over Hiroshima. Old music crackled and ticked and sounded as if it was being recorded in a cistern.

But for a modern child, 40-year-old footage is Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi duelling in smooth, lush colour, and music recorded half a century ago can sound as clean and rich as music recorded yesterday.

Now, we carry the past with us

Last year, as famous people kept dying, I wondered if the global reaction – a sense of mounting disbelief – had something to do with this change in our relationship with the past.

Once, the past slipped away quickly. Pictures faded, letters were eaten by fishmoths, mementos were lost. Now, we carry the past with us; cleaned up, backed up, remastered and catalogued. The 20-year-olds at Woodstock in 1969 would have considered the songs of the early 1920s to be terribly quaint and old-fashioned, but today’s 20-year-olds are proud to listen to the almost 50-year-old music of the Rolling Stones or David Bowie.

That’s because we’ve frozen our stars at their most magnetic. And when their bodies age and die, the disbelief can be profound.

Intellectually, I understand that people age and that somebody I first saw in 1990 is not going to look the same, unless that person is Samuel L Jackson. But there is a difference between intellectual understanding and belief, and I simply cannot believe that Gene Hackman is turning 87 this month. Tell me that William Shatner turns 86 this year and I will suggest that the Enterprise has veered off course into a parallel universe. And the only thing I find more implausible than Roger Moore’s Bond is the fact that Moore, the eternal 55-year-old, will be 90.

People like us have been around for about 7500 generations. Photographs have existed for seven. Voice recordings for six. But perfectly life-like copies of people and their voices, beamed into our rooms to talk to us and move us and inspire us? Those ghosts have only come into our lives in this generation. Given that we’ve been trying to figure out death and time and change for millennia and we’re still struggling, is it any wonder that these beautiful phantoms in our living rooms should leave us so confused?

Sixty years ago, the star culture of Hollywood was going supernova, transforming into modern celebrity culture. Now, a great glittering beautiful demographic bulge is arriving. The first young stars of the modern celebrity era are entering their 80s. There will be many more ghosts this year, and loud cries of alarm.

But there will also be music and memories and the Bee Gees; and the knowledge that ghosts will come to us whenever we need them most.


Published in The Times

I want no part of God or Naledi

NalediHomo naledi is a racist plot using pseudo-science to link Africans to subhuman, baboon-like creatures.

It sounded mad, and Mathole Motshekga and Zwelinzima Vavi were roundly jeered on social media for expressing it. I joined the chorus, because gigantic ignorance should not be tolerated in our leaders. But I can also understand where such paranoia comes from.

Even as Facebook howled its derision, racists gloated over pictures comparing Homo naledi to Robert Mugabe or Jacob Zuma. It is dangerous to discount the theory of evolution, but it is also understandable when most of your contact with the idea of primitive, dark-skinned knuckle-draggers has come not in the form of scientific debate based on our common humanity but as the poisonous barb on a white supremacist insult.

It made sense. But the more I read the arguments, the more I realized that only some of the objections were bound up with the awful legacy of racist European pseudo- science. The rest, it seemed, were religious, and bridged both class and race. It turns out that a huge number of South Africans, perhaps even a comfortable majority, reject Homo naledi as an ancestor because they believe that a monotheistic god created them in its own image.

It forced me to imagine their experience of our country, of its past and present, of everyday events. What, I wondered, is your average day like when you believe that science is either a racist tool or simply wrong? What kind of relationships do you form with people if you believe that they are God’s most perfect creation, or, as claimed by Motshekga, they were created before the universe existed?

I can’t speak for my compatriots, but I think if I believed those things, I would feel the most delicious entitlement. To know that you are the reason for all existence, that everything in the universe is a prop for you to use in the God-scripted drama of your life – ye gods, how glorious!

To an atheist like myself, who believes that the theory of evolution is currently the best explanation we have for how we got here, it all starts feeling a bit mad. But I also concede that many of my beliefs would seem bonkers to millions of my compatriots.

This month we are being urged to reflect on something called “heritage”; to collect a bundle of historical and culture goodies we have inherited and to show them off to each other as some sort of morale-boosting exercise. The assumption, of course, is that these goodies are real: concrete truths, sensible beliefs and practices, true histories. But how real is any of it when we live in a world saturated with fantasy and projection, where contradiction masquerades as conviction?

In South Africa, you don’t have to wander far before the ground under your feet turns to quicksand.

Our leaders talk democracy, then hand over the podium to feudal kings who talk about blind allegiance.

Revolutionaries call on us to be suspicious of non-African influences, in the same breath that they quote a German philosopher and adjust their berets, modelled on a Cuban and made in China, before driving to church in a Japanese car to worship a Jewish Palestinian who was put to death by Italians who whose life story was written by Greeks, preserved by Irish monks, and eventually brought to Africa by English blokes.

Gloomy whites urge blacks to “get over the past and move on” while jealously tending the flame of their resentment over the Boer War or the treachery of FW de Klerk.

Next week the country will suffer ‘Braai Day’, a carcinogenic corporate kerfuffle designed to bring South Africans together by banishing women to the kitchen, sending men to the garden, and completely excluding vegetarians and people who like their chicken cooked properly. It’s based on the assumption that we all need to share common values because we occupy the same country.

Which, of course, relies on the assumption that South Africa is actually a country. Cue even more contradictions, as passionate opponents of colonialism put hands on hearts and declare their love for the arbitrary stretch of land demarcated by colonial map-drawers in London. It would be funny if it didn’t sometimes become bloody, when, for example, Southern Africans from the imaginary place called “Zimbabwe” cross the imaginary line into the imaginary place called “South Africa”. Xenophobia is real and brutal, but I’m not convinced it is entirely about fearing otherness. It is also deeply bound up with unthinking, obedient belief in borders and countries; about crossing that imaginary line. When someone moves the 1 700 kilometres from Musina to Cape Town, nobody blinks. But move the 25 kilometres from Chamumnanga to Musina and you are considered utterly alien.

Perhaps this is why Homo naledi seemed like something worth celebrating. It felt like a piece of truly common history. And yet if you believe in evolution, is this really a win? Nothing that is good about modern Africa existed in those desperate little animals. They might have been (almost) human, but mostly they were food. We can’t begin to imagine how little they knew about their world, or how abject their short, frightened, painful lives were. They passed on almost nothing to their children except their DNA and their fleas.

When it comes to heritage, I’m as confused as the next naked ape. But I know I’m not going to celebrate Homo naledi as part of my human heritage. Instead, I’m going to celebrate that I have absolutely nothing in common with that ancient prototype. I’m going to celebrate inventors, philosophers, artists, even a few warriors. Above all, I’m going to pop a peer-reviewed headache pill, wash it down with pasteurized milk and celebrate the scientists who try to drag us out of the muck despite our determination to return there.

One day humans will cure brain death. If we decide to keep our organic bodies, ageing will become optional. I’m very grateful that I won’t be alive when that happens. But when it does, our descendants will look back on us and perhaps see us more clearly than we see ourselves: as a small flame flaring in the dark, briefly casting shadows on the wall – an illusory panorama of phantoms and projections – before we flicker out. They will read our assertions about who we are and where we’ve come from, and hear their true meaning; that we declare, “I am this!” because we know that one day we’ll be like Homo naledi: nothing at all.


A slightly shortened version of this column was first published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

There are no others

OOATranslation is a tricky thing. Meanings are missed. Words slip.

It’s possible that King Goodwill Zwelithini said that foreign nationals are valued contributors to the economy, and the translation just came out a bit wonky.

It’s even possible that you and I were asked if we wanted R148,000 of our taxes paid to Zwelithini every day of every year for the rest of his life (because that’s happening), and we just didn’t understand the question.

But there was no translation required when Setlamorago Thobejane, the president of the Council of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, revealed that King Goodwill is not a lone voice.

Speaking to the SABC this week, he explained that “all” of South Africa’s kings had asked Contralesa to raise the issue of foreigners. And these weren’t royal whims, either: the monarchs were simply passing on what their subjects were saying.

If this was true, and not just an attempt to shift the focus from the Zulu king, then it suggests that the pogroms against foreigners are only just beginning.

Is this a uniquely South African problem? I don’t know. But I suspect we might have our own particular brand of xenophobia, shaped by our particular history and geography.

Many of those trying to understand the current violence have focused on South Africa’s deeply rooted sense of exceptionalism, that widely held belief that we are somehow special. Exceptionalism, and the instinctive us-versus-them mind-set it fosters, has complex roots, but writer Sisonke Msimang offered a particularly succinct analysis in her 2014 essay ‘Belonging – why South Africans refuse to let Africa in‘.

“Just as whiteness means nothing until it is contrasted with blackness as savagery,” she wrote, “South African-ness relies heavily on the construction of Africa as a place of dysfunction, chaos and violence in order to define itself as functional, orderly, efficient and civilised.”

I think Msimang is entirely correct. But follow her train of thought to its logical conclusion and we arrive at a place where unity is as far out of reach as ever.

…thinkers are pleading with us to reject boundaries imposed by Europeans in the 19th century in favour of boundaries imposed by Europeans in the 5th century BC

I agree that South African-ness can exist only in contrast to the rest of Africa. But if you accept that then you also have to accept that Africa can exist only in contrast to the rest of the world. All you’re doing by calling for continental unity is extending the boundary of us-versus-them by a few thousand kilometres.

Some activists have blamed xenophobia on the existence of national borders, pointing out, rightly, that most of our current borders are arbitrary lines drawn on a map by Europeans. And yet what are continents if not arbitrary lines on a map?

It was the ancient Greeks who decided that Africa, Asia and Europe were separate things, despite the fact that, at the time, you could walk from the southern tip of Africa to the northern edge of Europe to the eastern shore of Asia without ever getting your feet wet. “Continent” means continuous. It’s all one chunk of land. That’s how we populated the planet. We walked out of the southern bit and wandered into the northern and eastern bits.

And now we sit with a bizarre situation where thinkers are pleading with us to reject boundaries imposed by Europeans in the 19th century in favour of boundaries imposed by Europeans in the 5th century BC.

Worse, it’s no guarantee that xenophobia will end. Replacing nationalism with continentalism might feel seductively ubuntu-ish, but all that’s happening is that the “us” and “them” camps are growing vastly larger. Regional identity is bulldozed in the name of pan-continental solidarity, creating bizarre geographical blind spots. You Egyptians and Libyans think you’ve got shared history with Greece and Italy? Wrong! Greece and Italy are Them. You’re Us. Therefore you’ve got much more in common with South Africans and Zimbabweans.

This is why we will struggle to eradicate xenophobia. It’s hardwired into our basic conception of the world. Our political systems are saturated with it. Certainly, some of our leaders have belatedly said the right things, but politicians know that they can’t exist without a slow-burning, low-key form of xenophobia holding sway over the public. Even in the healthiest and most unified democracies they frighten us with the subtle bogeymen of xenophobia: if the Others come into power, things will be Different. They’ll come in here and Change things, and then everything will be broken.

Political parties are gangs, and politicians are gang bosses. Their livelihood depends on continuously highlighting the merits of being an insider, the coherence of the group, and on demonising outsiders.

Perhaps, in the face of so much ignorance and anger, the only solution is to try to look beyond the party, the border, the coastline, to see the human on the other side. I recently heard of a guru who was asked: “How should we treat others?” He replied: “There are no others.”

That would be a start.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

History? Herstory? Ourstory? Whosestory?

dinosaursThe Holocaust didn’t happen. Not the way the Jews want us to think it did. Yes, the Nazis killed thousands. But the gas chambers? The ovens? Myths, invented by Zionist propagandists.

The young man who told me this wasn’t your average Holocaust denier. For starters he was South African, and studying politics at the University of Cape Town (we were standing just a poo’s throw away from the Statue). And he was black.

Carefully and articulately he explained that the Holocaust myth had been invented to entrench Zionism around the world. Its long-term plan? The continued colonisation and exploitation of Africa. Jews, he said, were behind every Western multinational plundering Africa. Jews had kept apartheid propped up. (What about Joe Slovo, I asked? Not a real Jew, he replied.) History, it seemed, was only big enough for one great crime.

It was my first taste of the peculiar calmness of the denier, the serenity that comes with having a mind that has found a theory it finds completely satisfying and has duly shut as tight as a clam. Curiously, it’s a calmness I haven’t found in white South African deniers. Perhaps that’s because we’re still a generation or two away from pathological apartheid denial: I doubt you’d find more than a handful of certifiably insane white people who believe that apartheid didn’t happen.

But there are other species of deniers seething in the suburbs and fibrillating on the farms. Trauma deniers wish the blex could just move on, while racism deniers wish they would just stop being so goddamned touchy about everything. Inequality deniers insist that their own wealth and the poverty of rural blex are a reflection of work ethics. And denial deniers protest that they are just trying to be rational adults in the face of constant provocation by entitled blex.

Given all this denial it would be easy to assume that many white people are hardcore history deniers, but that would be a mistake. These days history is the weapon of choice in almost any political debate. And not just recent history. Ask a very angry white man about a Victorian statue and he will unleash centuries of historical factoids on you, racing back through time like a brandy-and-Coke-fuelled Terminator, until he knocks on your door, asks if you’re Sarah Connor or Cecil John Rhodes or Shaka or Jan van Riebeeck, and shoots the conversation in the head.

For anxious whites…history promises a stay of execution

Dates, names, places; all have become ammunition against political opponents. Perhaps it’s inevitable. For black South Africans fighting for economic justice, history is testimony in a long-overdue trial: South Africa needs an economic Codesa, a negotiated settlement making amends for a vast economic crime, and history is the key argument of the prosecution.

For anxious whites, the future implications of past history are just as loaded. Relics of colonialism are falling, and yet what are white people but relics of colonialism? Surely it can be only a matter of time (the frightened suburbanite asks himself) until bronze statues are not enough and the living, breathing statues start being ushered out? Amid these fears, history promises a stay of execution: prove that you’ve been here long enough, discreetly enough, and perhaps they’ll let you stay.

The problem with any discussion of our history, though, is that it’s based on the assumption that we all have a basic knowledge of the past. And I’m just not sure that’s true.

Ten years ago, while lecturing on modernism in the English department at UCT, I realised that many of my students looked blank when I mentioned the 1920s. I tentatively asked if they knew anything about the 1930s. Nothing. The ’40s? Yes, they said: didn’t the US fight a war against Russia then? Fascinated by their almost total ignorance, I started giving my classes a short general knowledge test – a few famous faces, a few famous quotations and events. The results were staggering.

At least half of these beautiful young people who sat before me had completed 12 years of school without ever discovering where the Holocaust took place, or who wrote Das Kapital, or where Angola is, or when humans landed on the moon. (Neil Armstrong? Didn’t he win the Tour de France like a million times?) They couldn’t identify pictures of Walter Sisulu or Nadine Gordimer or Josef Stalin. Most, but not all, got Hitler.

My quiz was skewed to reflect the history I considered important. But still, if the educated elite are going into the world without the faintest understanding of how they got there, are we really surprised that our historical debates have become bogged down in pseudo-intellectual trench warfare?

So can we arrive at a shared reading of history? Will we ever be able to read from the same page? I don’t know. But reading – something, anything – is as good a start as any.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

The Rhodes less travelled

Three SoldiersIn the centre of Washington DC, the monuments are clustered, white and hard, like teeth in the jawbone of a titan. Pillars, rotundas, plinths, monoliths; all proclaim that this is the Forum of the new Rome.

Their uniformity is numbing. White marble quickly begins to wear down any kind of human response. You wander past reflecting pools and more temples to the fickle gods of politics and money. And then, just when it seems that this whole white world is impenetrable, the earth opens up.

The titan has been stabbed; bayonetted close to its heart.

The slash is gaping, but it’s clean: a wall of black, polished stone plunging down into the scooped-out ground.

When you descend into the wound, you see the names carved into the wall: 58000 Americans killed in Vietnam. Their names float over the reflection of your own body, touching you, and for a moment there is a sense of what it means to be hit in the face or chest or stomach; how easy it is to become a name on a wall.

Nearby, visitors gently reach up and touch the letters. For some it is an act of curiosity, for others an intimate caress, remembering a fiancé or imagining a father they were too young to remember. The day I was there, a middle-aged woman stepped forward, kissed her palm, placed it on a name, and then walked away.

For me, it is a successful memorial, remembering individuals without romanticising the war that killed them. But when the design was revealed in 1982, thousands of Americans, including many in government, were appalled. The wall, they said, was obscene, depressing and anti-heroic. Funds were hastily raised and another monument was created: a bronze statue of three sombre soldiers – white, black and Hispanic – armed to the teeth and built like quarterbacks.

It remains a profoundly unsophisticated memorial, a statue for those who believe that wars are about guns and muscles rather than burnt children. But it’s good that it remains there, near the wall, a bronze reminder of how feeble statues are as symbols of history.

You’d think that lifelike figures would make us feel more than black stone would, but the tinny cliché of The Three Soldiers amplifies the humanity of the wall and makes it resonate like a beating heart.

I don’t want to add to the debate currently being hosed off the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, mainly because I don’t understand why it’s even a debate. If we all agree as South Africans that the legislated dispossession and disenfranchisement of black people was a crime then I can’t figure out why anyone would come out in support of one of the chief criminals.

Is there some kind of bizarre statute of limitations on racist fuckwittery?

I also don’t get the double standard: statues of Hendrik Verwoerd have disappeared without resistance from white academics, and yet Verwoerd, as the architect of apartheid, was merely drawing up the blueprints commissioned by Rhodes. Is there some kind of bizarre statute of limitations on racist fuckwittery? Do acts committed before an arbitrarily chosen date fall under the “don’t judge the past by the standards of the present” defence?

No, I’ll leave all that to the poo-flingers and the pundits to sort out. And yet I can’t help wondering if by ditching the statue, we might be chucking out an oddly essential baby with the ideological bath water.

I sympathise with those who want it gone. If I was a student whose parents had had to carry a dompas, whose grandparents had lived in poverty because their parents’ land had been hijacked by white supremacists, a statue of the supreme supremacist would make me weak with rage. I would want to blow it up. I would want it dropped into the sea so that octopuses could gag that supercilious little mouth. I would want it melted down and turned into dozens of Oscar-like statuettes, to be awarded every year to the most productive black farmers working land once annexed by Rhodes’s policies.

Satisfying, perhaps. But what if he is our The Three Soldiers statue, a crude, backward-looking image that nevertheless might enhance more sophisticated memorials? What if removing unpopular statues robs us of a chance to reconcile the history learned by most white children before 1994 with the more complex stories that form modern South Africa? What if there is a way to use these symbols of the past as lenses through which to see our present more clearly?

Instead of carting Rhodes off to a museum, could we not hand him over to young South African artists so that they can build – on him, around him, over him, next to him – their own vision of their past and their present?

And if the answer to all these questions is no, and we still feel he’s in our way, let’s dynamite the old pirate. After all, it’s what he would have done.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

“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