Nelson Mandela

Please don’t touch the goat

goat_chickensLadies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the official Nkandla tour!

Where we prove that you have nowhere left to hide and we have nothing to fear … Er, wait, let me just put on my reading glasses … Oh. Right. Where we prove we have nothing to hide and you have nothing to fear!

Just one request before we start: the chickens are extremely sensitive to flash photography so we must ask you not to take any pictures, especially not if you work for a newspaper. But don’t worry because you’ll all be getting photos of your tour, taken by a military satellite that doesn’t officially exist. So if you’ll all look up right now, let’s give Yuri a big Nkandla hello! Hi Yuri! Yay! Yuri’s in an office in eastern Siberia but I know he can feel the love all the way over there.

Also, we’ll be sending you home with this beautiful colour print of Msholozi riding a Chinese dragon through the sky over the ruins of Wall Street. Special thanks to Chen Fu’s Photographic Joy of Little Beijing, Chinatown, New China City, Midrand, for supplying us with these.

Okay! So if you’ll kindly form a queue on the right we’ll get started. Sorry, ma’am, on the right. Yes, I know you prefer the left but we’ve all moved relentlessly right over the years, so if you have a problem with that you can write to your local ANC branch and they’ll forward your letter to the relevant shredder. Lovely! And off we go!

We are now passing through the main gates and — little boy, please don’t touch the fence, it’s got 90 000 volts running through it as part of our new Mmusi-B-Gone security system. Unfortunately Eskom isn’t producing quite enough electricity to make us 100% Madonsela-proof but we’re hopeful that if everyone keeps turning off their geysers we can reach our goal of zero accountability by late 2017.

If you look to your right you’ll see the famous West Wing of the president’s home, named, of course, for the chickens that live here. So there we have the West Wing, and just next to it is the Middle Breast, then the East Wing, and if we look down there’s the South Drumsticks and the Far South Pope’s Nose. Moving on.

…ignore that inflatable crocodile and that businessman floating face down…

Over to your left you can just see the corner of the helipad. This is a very important security feature for when the insurrection comes and the president needs to be evacuated to Russia. Oh, wait, sorry, I think I misread that … Ah, yes, here it is. For when the influenza comes and the president needs to be vaccinated in a rush. Obviously.

Oh look, everybody. The famous fire pool! Now, you’ve probably read all kinds of imperialist propaganda about how this is actually a swimming pool but I want you to ignore that inflatable crocodile and that businessman floating face down holding an empty bottle of Johnny Blue in his unconscious fingers, and I want you to understand that this is actually a vital safety feature. Why, just last night some of the copies of the constitution that were being used as kindling on the braai started burning out of control and we dumped them in the fire pool and pssh! End of problem.

And we’re moving on — Sir, please don’t touch the goat, it’s a national key point. By the way, for our Chinese guests, I’d just like to point out that almost everything you’re seeing today is for sale. Or perhaps we can interest you in a small northern province? And don’t worry about the local inhabitants, South Africans are very accommodating. God knows they’ve been accommodating this accommodation for years now. That’s just a little bit of humour to keep things light. Moving on.

What’s that, little girl? Why did none of our other leaders spend hundreds of millions on enormous, decadent, fuck-you-taxpayers homes? Not even the apartheid presidents? Well, I think they lacked imagination. I’m sorry but if you’re BJ Vorster and you don’t have a pleasure palace featuring a vast portrait of Anneline Kriel made out of cowry shells glued onto an ornamental rugby field, then you’re clearly not a visionary thinker.

And why didn’t Tata Madiba and Comrade Mbeki have Nkandla-sized homes? Gosh, I’m not sure. I suspect Tata spent most of his spare cash on shirts, and as for Mbeki, you must remember how expensive dial-up internet was in the 1990s, and what with all those Webcrawler searches for beetroot and conspiracies, he probably spent about R250-million a year on his phone bill. So …

Oh look, we’ve reached the end of the tour, so if you’ll — yes, Madam, I know we didn’t go inside but that’s the whole point of an Nkandla tour. Oh dear, you didn’t think you were actually going to see anything, did you? Shem.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

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2015: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Pic: Sunday Times LifestyleI know how West Indian bowlers feel. I tried to pin down AB de Villiers for a week and got absolutely nowhere.

My brief was straightforward. Do an in-depth interview with the mercurial middle-order star. Show us the man behind the legend, the bloke behind the scoring machine who reached 7 000 runs in One Day Internationals faster than anyone in history. I emailed the Proteas media liaison with the naïve enthusiasm of a young Caribbean bowler running in to bowl the first over of the morning: with a bit of luck, I thought, this could be in the bag by the first drinks break. The liaison was optimistic that we could find twenty free minutes for a phone-call.

And then De Villiers bludgeoned, walloped, spanked, thrashed and cudgeled 149 off 44 balls in Johannesburg, and overnight went from being a beloved golden boy to an untouchable golden god. Optimistic emails became hedged, then apologetic, and then nonexistent. I wasn’t going to talk to AB after all.

At first I was disappointed. There was so much I wanted to ask him. Where does he go from here? 150 off 43 balls? How does his impossible niceness affect his ability to sledge? (“Call yourself world-class? You’re merely one of the top three talents in your beautiful and culture-rich country!”) But as I watched South Africa steamroll the West Indies into a small maroon puddle in the ODI series, a new thought occurred to me: AB de Villiers deserves better than a sports interview.

We’ve all endured them.

Q: You won the game. How are you feeling?

A: Ja, a lot of credit to the guys, they dug deep and gave 110 percent.

A lot of pressure on you to win the next match?

Ja, a lot of pressure on us to win the next match, for sure.

How are you going to win the next match?

We’re going to dig deep and give 110 percent.

What keeps you motivated?

I like digging deep. And obviously giving 110 percent.

No. Someone who can score at three runs a ball shouldn’t be tied to the laws of journalistic reality. It would have been a crime – vivisection by cliché – to impose the banality of interview on a man whose batting is pure fantasy. And so I decided to conduct an interview with AB de Villiers in a parallel universe in which sports writers can ask anything and sports stars are free to speak their minds. This, then, is the interview I never had with a South African superstar.

TE: Let’s first talk about your incredible record.

ABdV: Thanks, but it’s not really a record, just some songs on YouTube. But the fans seem to like them.

I was thinking more of your status as cricket’s current superstar. Your average over the last few months is mind-boggling.

Thanks, but I don’t really know what that means.

You don’t?

“Average” isn’t in my vocabulary.

So what do you call your records?

I don’t call them. They just come to me.

Oh very good!

Thanks.

On current form you’re the best batsman in the world, but how did it all start? How did the boy become the superstar?

Ag, you know, it was a pretty standard start. My planet was dying and my parents stuffed me in into an escape-capsule, punched in the co-ordinates for Earth, and the rest is history. Well, except that the capsule disintegrated around me as I came through the atmosphere and the heat kind of burnt off my exoskeleton, so that’s why I look human.

We saw you play some outrageous shots during your amazing knock at the Wanderers. The World Cup starts in a fortnight. Can we expect any new shots?

Absolutely. I’m working on something called The Shank, where I leave my crease slightly, well, a lot, actually. Basically I run down the pitch, snap the bowler’s leg, remove his tibia, whittle it with my teeth into the shape of a bat, and then run back into my crease to loft him back over his head for seven.

Six, you mean.

Hey guy, don’t ride your defeatist small-picture thinking into my mental hacienda.

Sorry. But doesn’t the bowler see you coming? And how can he bowl a ball with no shin-bone?

It all happens really fast. You’ve heard the expression “quick hands and feet”? That.

I must apologize in advance for the next question. I’m sure you and the team are all tired of answering it, but it’s something that’s haunted South African cricket for years now.

“How does Faf get his hair to stay so perfect even when he’s been sweating under a helmet for hours?” I know, it’s weird.

No, I mean the issue of choking at World Cups. I’m sorry to bring it up, but it’s something that’s going to be talked about a lot over the next month. So what are your thoughts on choking?

Ja look, it’s a metaphor I don’t really understand because I don’t ever choke.

I know, you always deliver under pressure and you’ve hauled the team out of some really bad –

No, I mean, I am physically unable to choke. My throat can expand to seventeen times the diameter of a human throat. On my home planet this adaptation allows us to feast on the giant eggs of the Eagle-Iguanas that haunt the high plains of X’arrqh, but it’s also great in cricket because it means I can inhale 3000% more oxygen than anyone else. But having said that, yes, the Proteas have a patchy record in World Cups and we’re working hard to remedy that.

Any specific game plan?

Derp. Score more runs than them. Flip man, sports writing is sheltered employment hey?

Sorry I asked. It’s just that a lot of fans are wondering how you cope with being both the mainstay of the batting effort and the wicket-keeper. It must be incredibly demanding on your body. How do you keep so fit?

Actually the problem is staying less fit. My metabolism is very – OK, look, the physiology is complex, but in a nutshell I’m powered by a small neutron star. If I trained like normal athletes the star would explode, destroying all matter, and frankly I’m saving that outcome for in case we ever get into a corner in a Test series against Australia. So essentially to play international cricket I have to spend a lot of time eating pizza and cookie dough and lying in front of the TV.

Any favourite shows?

Game of Thrones. It’s basically a 40-hour batting clinic.

But isn’t it just graphic violence and – oh, I see. Right. Who’s your favourite character in Game of Thrones?

Faf du Plessis.

He’s not in Game of Thrones.

Have you scored 16 000 international runs and the fastest ODI hundred of all time?

OK, sure, now that you mention it, I really liked Faf in Season 3. Moving on. I know the fans are eager to know more about your life off the field, you know, the man behind legend? On your personal website you list a few favourites. Could we talk through them to give the fans a bit more insight into AB the man?

Sure.

So first up, you famously received a medal from Nelson Mandela for a school science project.

Ja, it was a miniature volcano I made in Standard 6.

Oh those are awesome, where you make the cone out of papiermâché and then make it fizz with –

No, it was an actual miniaturized volcano. I carved granite into the shape of a caldera and then injected it with magma at vast pressure. Madiba was very impressed.

You say your favourite movies are Gladiator and A River Runs Through It. The common theme in both is, of course, flies, whether on fishing lures or open wounds. Would you say you enjoy a lot of fly-related art?

No.

OK, let’s move on. Apparently you’re scared of snakes. What exactly about them scares you?

Their teeth. Who did you say your work for again?

Sorry, that was a silly question.

Yes. Yes it was. Maybe ask questions I haven’t already answered on my website.

OK. Um. What’s you’re favourite book?

Hm. I think my favourite book is the rule book. I like to set it on fire with a flame-thrower as I ride past on a grizzly bear.

And when you’re not eating pudding to keep you in shape or actually playing? How do you like to unwind?

I’m actually quite a conventional guy, so I guess I like playing golf with mates, catching up on some series, maybe reading a thriller, playing my guitar, sword-fighting, kite-surfing on the backs of manta-rays, you know, stuff like that. Oh, I also really enjoy cage diving with sharks.

I haven’t done it but apparently it’s a rush.

Totally. They put some Great Whites in a cage and then I dive into the sea next to them and try to get into the cage using nothing but my teeth. It’s rad.

If you could travel back in time and talk to 10-year-old AB, what would you tell him?

I’d say “Calm down, little AB! Stop screaming! I know it’s freaky that a grownup version of yourself just materialized in your bedroom from the future, but I’m here to tell you important facts about the mid-1990s, mostly TV spoilers about what happens to Ross and Rachel and why The X-Files runs out of steam towards the end.”

What are your favourite qualities in a human being?

Forgiveness. You should always forgive people. Except if they are bowlers. Then you must destroy them and sow salt into their run-ups as you listen to the lamentations of their women. Oh, and hope. I love hope. I love to watch it draining out of the eyes of the fielding team as I reverse-paddle a fast yorker for seven over the ‘keeper’s head.

Where do you go from here?

Into space.

No, I meant it more as a rhetorical –

I don’t deal with rhetoric. I deal with facts. And my next mission is to go into space. Do you know how far you can hit a cricket ball in a zero-gravity vacuum? I’ve carved a little message onto a cricket ball with my teeth. It says “Stay away from Earth if you value your shin-bones.” Stephen Hawking estimates there could be billions of life forms out there and not all are going to be friendly.

So you’re…you want to…protect the Earth from, what, predatory extraterrestrial bowlers?

You learn fast.

And how are you going to get into space?

Ag, you know. The normal way. Put on something warmish, a fleece or a jersey or something, and then jump.

Jump. Into space.

Ja, a standing jump.

That seems unlikely.

That innings at the Wanderers seemed unlikely, and yet here we are.

Touche. AB de Villiers, it’s been a pleasure. You are not only a superstar but a gentleman too. Long may you…AB? Hello? Hello AB?

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First published in Sunday Times Lifestyle.

“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.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

Looking through the glasses darkly

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The spectacles are enormous. Steel-rimmed and impervious to the summer wind, they lie on the grass of the Sea Point promenade as if left behind by a myopic titan after a picnic. But their placement is not arbitrary.

The vast lenses, many inches thick, are fixed on Robben Island out in the bay.

A nearby plaque explains. The sculpture is entitled Perceiving Freedom, and encourages us to contemplate how Nelson Mandela saw the world. The artwork is, it says, a “testament to the power of the mind”.

I know very little about the power of the mind but the sculpture certainly seems to be a testament to the power of corporate sponsors: Ray-Ban, the famous brand of sunglasses, is prominently named on the plaque, causing one’s bullshit detectors to start pinging. But only for a moment. If artists didn’t take the money of merchants there would be very little art in the world. Besides, they have some grand precedents, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an advertisement for the biggest corporation of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church.

And yet my unease remains and soon I realise why. It is not the sponsored spectacles that worry me. It is the picture on the plaque, a cropped portion of a famous photograph taken on April 25 1977.

On that day a group of South African journalists was given a guided tour of Robben Island by Major-General Jannie Roux, a psychiatrist and deputy commissioner of prisons. They were shown sporting facilities, tidied cells, neatly swept and weeded paths, all carefully curated to show the outside world a picture of a humane regime. And it was on this walkabout, according to the blurb on the plaque, that “the journalists encountered a tall, thin man dressed neatly in prison clothes and leaning on a spade. The man was Nelson Mandela, in his 13th year of incarceration on Robben Island.”

The words are factually correct but they have completely excised the human tensions of that moment. Handed a spade and told to look gardener-ish, Mandela was disgusted at being forced to be part of the charade, and, according to biographer Anthony Sampson, retreated behind a large bush as the journalists approached. Roux seems to have been slightly embarrassed.

Mandela has been transformed…into a kind of sentimental pulp

“We have located him for you,” he told the group, “but he doesn’t want to see you, and we won’t drag him.” But the photographers kept coming, and so Prisoner 46664 stood his ground, making a point of not doing the work he was supposed to be doing, his rage and disdain barely hidden behind the dark glasses. The resulting photograph does not show Madiba the reconciler contemplating forgiveness. It shows a proud, intelligent man trapped, exploited and angry.

By removing this context, the photograph (and the artwork it speaks to) do us a disservice in that they subtly rewrite our collective history and therefore skew our collective present. Over the last three decades Mandela has been transformed from a man into a concept and finally into a kind of sentimental pulp, used to plaster over the widening cracks in our national psyche; but this doesn’t help us get any closer to his – and therefore our – humanity. We need to know that Mandela could be proud and angry, that his beautiful smile could become a tight, disapproving scowl. It is healthy for us to know these things.

In the last few weeks the white Right has eagerly been rewriting history. One very famous country singer even wrote an article explaining that whites have been reading “for millions of years”, a startling revelation given that vaguely whitish people have been around for only about 10,000 years, and that Sumerians (not white people) invented reading only about 5,000 years ago.

In this climate of history being up for grabs, determined not by the brightest minds but by the loudest tweeter, it is important that we get our facts straight.

Even more important is to allow expressions of anger to remain unexpurgated in our history. Group hugs are lovely but if we airbrush over expressions of anger we deny the cause and legitimacy of that anger, and lose the opportunity to discuss it in any meaningful way.

Once we begin to cherry-pick the warm, affirming bits, leaving out the complex, fractious, often ugly parts, we begin to convince ourselves that it is never acceptable to show anger, and that injustice must be suffered with a sigh and shrug.

We can begin to persuade ourselves that those who burn tyres and municipal buildings are just being thuggish; that they are concepts rather than furious human beings. And once that happens, we have lost forever any hope we ever had of seeing the world through the eyes of Nelson Mandela.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

No GPS for mourning

kissIn young, white Cape Town, the mourning is directionless.

We cling onto scraps of third-hand Xhosa like magic spells – “Tata Madiba”, “enkosi kakhulu”, “uMkhonto weSizwe” – our Victorian penchant for petty shame reducing the words to whispers in case we get the pronunciation wrong. We don’t know the old dances, we don’t know the old songs; and so we sway, left leg, right leg, back to left, like wind-up penguins; humming half a beat behind the unfamiliar tunes, living half a century behind the unfamiliar times.

Some of us smile, but most look sombre, like the professional mourners of the past, hoping to disguise the argument going on inside our split personas.

“You’re comfortable bourgeoisie, your mourning is hypocritical.”

“But then why am I so sad?”

“Are you still sad, or is that feeling scabbing over into something that feels like normality?”

“Well I was very sad, and I think I’m still quite sad.”

“Grief that eases after a weekend isn’t grief. It’s sentimentality. He wasn’t your champion, because he tried to force change and you are rooted in the status quo.”

“But he made me less ashamed.”

“You shouldn’t be less ashamed.”

“But isn’t that just white guilt?”

“White guilt is acceptance of white responsibility.”

“But – holy crap, I’ve been thinking of, like, politics for, like, 14 seconds!”

“I know, right? What are we, goddamned Joburgers? Let’s hug that black chick over there and then go grab a latte. Oh shit, she’s not black, she’s coloured. Is hugging one coloured person enough? If only she was black. Now I’m going to have to hug two coloured people .”

Some suggested that our shock was due to us losing our “moral compass”, but this idea flatters us into believing that we are on a journey towards something greater – a long walk, in fact, towards freedom. Which of course we’re not. We haven’t used compasses, whether real or moral, for years; because our journeys have become small and routine, and, most importantly, defined by others. Like Americans who have abandoned their ability to read maps in favour of blind obedience to GPS gadgets, we have handed the wheel of our selves to strangers, to drive us where they want.

I saw it in the urgent need of people on Thursday night to tune into a foreign news network or to plug into Twitter, as if their feelings could be articulated only by CNN anchors and links to hagiographies on British websites. Suddenly, it seemed, sadness was no longer a private ache but a front page showing all the other front pages from around the world. Our enormous capacity for feeling, and for drifting in those feelings, quietly trying to reflect on what it all meant for us, was obliterated by a tinny mass-produced American-accented howl.

Still, perhaps this is how it has always been; sending up a great cry when a colossus dies. For millennia we have ululated or wailed, a display of public grief that, whether deliberately or not, allows more subtle feelings to be nurtured tenderly and privately.

Perhaps news anchors and content factories are the professional mourners of our age.

Certainly, more words have been published and spoken in the last few days than could ever be read. They were not written to be read or to generate thought: they were written as a single note in the great paean being sung around the world; an ancient song; an appropriate noise. The sound of feeling is silence, and we cannot bear to stay silent at this time.

Once the lamentation has ended, organised capital will get back to work on the official version of Mandela’s legacy. In 10 years the quasi left will commemorate his birth in 0AD and recall how he punched Hitler in the face after winning the 100m sprint at the Berlin Olympics. The furtive right will remind us of how whites elected him their spiritual leader in 1652, and of how he helped them fight against colonialism and apartheid, systems imposed on South Africa against their will by a race of space-fascists who miraculously evaporated in 1994.

But Cape Town’s bones can’t be erased or silenced. Out in the bay, the island of Makana and Mandela remains. It is not a compass bobbing in the fluid medium of history and circumstance, easily tricked by the magnetic pull of populists and propagandists. It is anchored to the bedrock of Africa, immutable. From the island, the great generation looked at the city and longed for the future. We who live here are far away from Soweto and Qunu; but at least we can look back at the island, and tell those ghosts that we have seen them and heard them. The long walk continues. Perhaps it has only just begun.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive