nuclear

What would you do for R4-billion?

money

OK. No more metaphors or parables. Just some numbers and a simple question. R1-trillion. That’s how much South Africa’s nuclear plans, revived last week, will cost.

The minister of finance says the project will only proceed at a pace the country can afford but Jacob Zuma also swore at his inauguration that he would put the interests of the country first so we all know what this administration’s promises are worth.

20%-25%. That’s how much is lost to corruption in public procurement contracts in the EU.

R250-billion, or 25% of R1-trillion. Assuming we South Africans are more or less as corruptible as Europeans, that’s how much money will be stolen by connected insiders before the project is finished. Some of those connected insiders will, of course, be on the outside: London brokers and bankers, Kremlin fixers. This deal is primarily for their benefit, not ours, so let’s assume they will help themselves to the lion’s share, say, R150-billion, leaving R100-billion for South Africans to divvy up.

So who gets what? At the bottom of the pile there’s the shabby aristocracy of hustlers in their pointy shoes and white pleather armchairs; the otherwise-unemployable heads of small PR firms that exist only on government largesse; salmonella-stalked catering businesses run by the venal youngest son of the criminal brother of the second wife; easy-come easy-go lords and ladies living from tender to tender, leaving behind them disputes, half-built public buildings, and short, rancorous terms as school principals or management consultants.

They are on the periphery of power, scurrying after the crumbs off the table, but there are many of them, let’s say a thousand, and they know how to monetise favours. R5-million apiece? That’s R5-billion.

Above them on the food chain: the lawyers, accountants and financial advisers; the curators of smallanyana skeletons. They are as anonymous as a line of grey suits, but they are positioned deep in the machinery of patronage, as essential to the flow of dirty money as valves in a sewer system. Let’s say there are 500 of them, and they’re each content to peel off R10-million – a solid year’s work, carefully squirrelled away offshore or perhaps laundered back to respectability. Another R5-billion.

There would be rough patches. But it would be worth it.

Then: the lieutenants; the made men in this mob. They’re old comrades, friends, backers, enforcers, godfathers-turned-kingpins. And they’ve joined this operation with clear eyes. The plan was explained – keep us in power long enough to ink the nuclear deal and we’ll make you richer than the Lord God Almighty – and they went away and thought it through. There would be rough patches. They would be loathed by former friends and comrades. They might be betrayed at any point, their place in the queue usurped by some harder, sharper operator. The media would hound them. But it would be worth it. Say, R300-millon each – an Nkandla and change – for the hundred hardest, closest lieutenants? Another R30-billion.

Which leaves R60-billion for the masterminds; the feared, fawned-over few who were once interested in politics and power before a bigger prize rose into view.

Is it reasonable to imagine an inner circle of no more than 15 people? Fifteen superb strategists, winning a decades-long chess game in which the champions each get R4-billion? Why not? Why else would they cling on so fiercely? On its current course the ANC will be dead in 10 years: why sacrifice everything, including the party, just to hang on to evaporating power? Why? Because that R100-billion is coming down the road and it’s close enough to smell.

Many South Africans still insist on believing the country is being dismantled for ideological reasons rather than financial ones. They can’t believe that people would act the way they’re acting just to make a buck. It seems too obvious. There must be some other incentive.

Except I don’t think there is. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this, to think as pragmatically as the kingpins are thinking, is to ask yourself this: if you had manoeuvred yourself within range of R100-billion, tax free, untraceable, what would you do?

What would you do for R5-million? Spend a couple of hours a day on Twitter, accusing the critics of government of being racists or sell-outs? Of course you would.

What would you do for R10-million? Buy a sensitive case file and shred it or pass it on to a colleague of a colleague who sometimes drinks in Saxonwold? Would you lie in court? Why wouldn’t you?

What would you do for R300-million? Help pay a British PR firm whose pithy inventions – “White Monopoly Capital!” – might distract voters from your plan for a few more months? Would you publicly endorse people you knew to be criminals? Would you willingly become known as a parasite preying on the poor you used to claim to love? It’s a no-brainer.

And finally: what would you do for R4-billion? How many of your former friends would you sacrifice? How many media firestorms and opposition marches would you sit through, knowing that in the end it would all be worth it? How quickly would you sell your country if it meant more money than you and your family could spend in five lifetimes?

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even politics. It’s just money.

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Published in The Times

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The heist to end all heists

BuddiesThe alarms have all been tripped. All of them. This isn’t the familiar, daily smash-and-grab. This is huge. A heist to end all heists.

We go to our windows, careful to stay out of sight. It’s still far away, but the first reports are already flickering like sparks from a bulldozed lamppost: they’re working on an international scale; the Russians are involved; they have earth-moving equipment and engineers. They’ve even got nuclear scientists. And they’ve hit the mother lode. It’s going to take decades for them to cart off all the cash.

We know what we’re seeing because we saw a proper heist once, back in 1999. This one’s much, much bigger, but our response is the same. We just stand at the window, twitching the curtain, angrily saying that someone should do something. Not us (because what can we do?) but someone, like the police or Thuli Madonsela or foreign investors or something.

They know we’re watching, but they don’t care. We’re just scenery to them now, a fleeting impression to be remembered one day when they’re lying on their private beach, laughing about the old days when they were making their pile. “Remember when you and me and Skippy took that side road, and there was that newspaper editor standing there going, ‘Stop, thief!’? I just saw an open mouth and a wagging finger. God! He looked so angry! ‘Stop, thief!’ Shame. I wonder what happened to that guy.”

Maybe once they feared us; feared that someone would be a hero or try to get in their way. But they needn’t have worried. In 1999 we shouted and pointed but we didn’t actually do anything. Even our angriest words were polite. An arms “deal”, our newspapers called it, as if something equitable had been arrived at. As if all that money had somehow bought something worthwhile. As if a heist could be a deal.

That’s when they learned that we’re just mannequins in our windows. We’ll shout things like “Pay back the money!” and “Consult us before you pay Russia to build six new nuclear power stations!”, but they know we don’t mean it. If we meant it we’d be massing outside their fences, shaking their gates, dragging them out in their pyjamas. Instead, we’re arguing over whether Danny Jordaan is a good choice for mayor. They can relax.

they can begin the work of getting hot money to cool down

That’s the secret: relaxing. Waiting. Stretching out and letting the years tick past. That’s all they have to do to get away with it. And we’ve shown them how. We’ve taught them. All they need to do is grab the brass ring and then wait.

Even if they do the unthinkable and mortgage our future to the Kremlin, it’s going to work out for them. As the sun rises over the enormous crater in our national psyche, a trillion rand potentially signed over to one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, we’ll shout accusations and condemnations. Then there will be headlines. There might be a commission of inquiry, but even if it goes anywhere the result will just be more headlines. And then it will all go quiet, and they can begin the work of getting hot money to cool down.

The signs are encouraging. The takings from the last heist are coming along nicely. In 1999, they were called ugly things like “bribes”. Now, they’re property and educations. Left in the dark for almost 20 years, they’ve fermented into something that smells like respectability. And we’re okay with that. We don’t want to remember the origins of wealth. We love our fairy tales about beautiful people who got rich without ever getting filthy first.

No, they know they just have to wait. If you wait long enough, you never have to pay back the money. Endure five or six years of shouting from the mannequins, and you get to the keep the house and the fire pool. It’s yours forever, to hand down to your family, to create a dynasty. Some critics might remember you as a taker without a conscience. Who cares? Fuck them. In 50 years they’ll be dead and your family will be rich, celebrating your memory as a patriarch, a founder, a giver, a saint. All you have to do is wait.

The arms deal cost R30-billion. Its foulness is still washing up everywhere. If a trillion rand goes to Vladimir Putin’s personal fiefdom in return for our nuclear future, we will be buried in a tsunami of filth so deep that we’ll forget what clean air smells like.

It’s possible we’ll get six working power stations. It’s possible they will be safe. But whatever happens, the moment the deal goes through, we’re toast. We might end up with clean electricity, but the lights will have gone out on the possibility of good governance, and nothing will be clean again.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

Crouching Tiger, Obliterated Rhino

Bloemfontein, 2025

Bloemfontein in 2025.

We all want to know what lies around the next bend, but nobody can read the future. Nobody, that is, except futurolog futuristologists futologistogist fut people who figure out likely scenarios using computer models, statistics, and industrial quantities of marijuana.

In the final chapter of my 10% TOTALLY TRUE history book, The Unauthorised History of South Africa, I tasked some futu of those people to provide a glimpse into the future of our country. And this is one of the scenarios they saw: Crouching Tiger, Obliterated Rhino.

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In 2017, South Africa’s two last remaining international investors, Vietnam’s Rhino Horns R Us and Nigerian cellphone operator, Spam-n-Phishing Inc, begin to worry that the country’s small pool of taxpayers is running out of money.

To calm their anxiety, the government decides to launch an advertising campaign to reassure them. The campaign is subcontracted to an agency owned by the wife of the Minister of Finance, who levies R1.3 billion in tax revenue to pay for it.

As a result, South Africa’s taxpayers finally do run out of money.

For a month, nobody in government gets out of bed. For their whole lives the politicians have assumed that taxpayers would always pay for everything, regardless of whether or not the politicians did their job, and the shock of running out of money – and having to go to Woolworths in person to buy their midmorning yoghurt drinks, rather than sending their bodyguards – sends many into deep slumps.

At last, South Africa’s politicians have to face the unthinkable: they will have to get real jobs like everybody else.

Some begin to type out their CVs, listing their honorary doctorates from online universities in Turkmenistan and their previous work experience as deputy assistant paper-shuffler for the ANC Youth League.

But then, a cheap knock-off email arrives via cheap knock-off iPad: China wants to buy South Africa.

In 2021, amid a week of massive celebration, South Africa becomes the twenty-fifth province of the People’s Republic of China, and is renamed the Giant Southern Crater Province in honour of the enormous strip mines that soon get to work removing all of South Africa’s topsoil.

China’s twenty-fourth Province, the Giant Tobacco Field Province, formerly known as Zimbabwe, welcomes the Crater Province to the People’s Republic and soon money is pouring into the country almost as fast as its soil, crops and fresh water are pouring out through a large suction tube linking Richards Bay with Beijing.

Many citizens become upset when famous landmarks such as Table Mountain and Bloemfontein are turned into small bits of gravel for the Beijing construction industry, and they unite in a letter-writing campaign.

200 million letters are delivered to Pretoria by a convoy of trucks. The letters are welcomed by a delighted Energy Minister, who sends the trucks directly to the new Glorious Peoples’ Aluminium Smelter in the crater formerly known as Brakpan. (According to official Chinese records, the letters take 83 seconds to burn and help smelt up to 19 grams of aluminium, which is ultimately turned into three fake Hello Kitty lapel pins.)

The Giant Crater Province enjoys a decade of extreme prosperity. In 2032, it also achieves energy independence, thanks to the enormous Happy Nations Glorious Democratic Nuclear Power Plant. This engineering marvel, built by the lowest bidder out of bits of off-cut Hello Kitty memorabilia and based on a blueprint stolen from France in 1959, generates a billion kilowatts of power once it is powered up. For thirty-nine hours it is the envy of the world. Then it explodes, mainly into the country’s remaining groundwater.

The Giant Crater Province is renamed the Giant Glowing Crater Ex-Province and is handed back to South Africans by the Chinese government, with thanks.

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If you want to read more future scenarios, or you just want to learn about First Tannie Elize Botha’s 1974 Day of the Vow mushroom quiche that sent 35 people to hospital with radiation burns, please buy the book by clicking here.

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.

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First published in The Big Issue

No smoke without Koeberg

VOA_Markosian_-_Chernobyl02

Last week I saw Cape Town die. A vast column of smoke was rising on the other side of the bay, an impossibly high V climbing into the sky.

Whatever lay at the point of that V was not merely burning, it was being incinerated. This was a conflagration, a holocaust. And then the reality of what I was seeing hit me, hard enough that I felt a little sick.

Koeberg, a nuclear power station, was on fire. The city was dead. I needed to leave. Right now.

A light-headed, hard-swallowing moment later my eyes tried again and this time the message got through. The fire was a little way north of Koeberg. Just a veld fire. All was well. A summer day like any other. But the ease with which I calmed down and slipped back into my routine startled me. It reminded me of how eagerly we unthink upsetting thoughts once we have survived a scare, as if the threat, once dodged, was never real.

Most South Africans seem to agree that Eskom couldn’t plan its way out of a paper bag, even if that paper bag had got soggy in unseasonable rain or had been ripped up by a collapsing coal silo. Our government, too, comes in for ferocious and often deserved abuse. And yet we trust both Eskom and the government to keep Koeberg safe; entrusting to alleged nitwits and nincompoops the running of a giant concrete death-machine capable of turning Cape Town into a ghost city.

Underlying this surrender is the assumption that the state reserves its best responses for the most important problems. Sure, we tell ourselves, it might not be able to keep the lights on or deliver textbooks or arrest any of the Marikana shooters or fight poverty or crime or corruption but surely it wouldn’t let Koeberg explode?

Perhaps it wouldn’t, but all we have are assumptions. Which is why I found myself looking for details of Cape Town’s nuclear evacuation plan. The good news is that the City has a plan. The bad news is that it involves public transport and citizens leaving by car on unspecified routes. Buses, taxis and Cape Town drivers? Just nuke us now. It’ll be less traumatic and there’ll be a lot less hooting.

Even more bizarre, however, was the instruction for citizens to listen to Cape Town’s two largest commercial radio stations, presumably for updates on the radioactive plume.

I could hear them already: “How whack is this radiation vibe, hey? What’s your worst nuclear disaster story? Tell us! SMSes cost R1. Meanwhile here’s Taylor Swift with Shake It Off’!”

I was aghast at the apparent flimsiness of the plan. I wanted maps with suburb-by-suburb emergency meeting points, and details of the convoys that would evacuate us along highways lined with armoured infantry. I wanted some indication of how the prevailing wind would affect the situation: if it’s a southeaster, carrying the plume out to sea, are we still cooked? What I didn’t want was commercial DJs. I don’t want the end of my world narrated by people who know only two adjectives – “awesome” and “amazeballs” – and use them mainly to describe cronuts and Miley Cyrus’s tongue. I want gravitas. I want intelligence. I want a sombre timbre. And before it all ends, I want someone to find it awesome and amazeballs that I just used two consecutive words ending in “bre”.

Perhaps the reliance on radio worried me because, by making the whole thing sound like a media event, it reminded me that my own grasp of the potential disaster extends no further than the films I’ve seen. All that stands between me and panic is the vague assumption that someone will wake Denzel Washington in the small hours of the morning and that once he gets to Koeberg there will be various protocols he can follow, like phoning Judy Dench so she can provide some instructions in terse British. If that doesn’t work I must have faith that there’s a character actor who is ambivalent enough about his leading man status – perhaps Colin Farrell? – to sacrifice himself by crawling through the ventilation system and sealing the reactor manually from the inside.

Unfortunately that plume of smoke wasn’t a special effect. It was a brush with an appalling possibility and a reminder that if Koeberg burns an entire city ceases to exist. But it was also a reminder of just how deeply ingrained and how powerful our denial is. It is the silver lining to Cape Town’s mushroom cloud and it tells us that we’re going to be okay. After all, we’ve got the southeaster, right? And amazeballs people working at Koeberg, right? And, plus, anyway, I mean, they wouldn’t let it happen, right? Right? Guys? Right?

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Originally published in The Times and TimesLive