Simply showing up is a start


A few people look slightly embarrassed.

Embarrassment has been a big topic ahead of this march. Some have been embarrassed by the lack of embarrassment of their friends. Others have been embarrassed by the idea of making this all about them and their middle-class discomfort, preferring instead to make it all about them and their middle-class mortification. Their Victorian ancestors beam down on them proudly.

One group, though, isn’t embarrassed. They’re the ones about to get richer than God by pushing through the nuclear deal.

A few modern Victorians still ask: “Have they no shame?”, using the language of a 19th-century dressing room to try to make sense of a 21st-century looter setting his eyes on the biggest prize in South Africa’s history.

One of those naive souls is outside parliament near me, holding up a sign: “Save the ANC, fire Zuma”. Determined to ignore what his eyes tell him, he still clings to the notion that the ANC is being held captive in a tower when in fact it has sold the tower to Russia and is sending the cash to Dubai in brown paper bags.

Of course, his isn’t the only misinformed banner out here. Over there a guy is holding up a picture of Nelson Mandela and the words, “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” When I was there in 2015, watching students getting gassed and shot at, that sign might have been relevant. But today it has the opposite effect to the one its waver is hoping for. Today, it serves as a call for perspective. No, it says, we are not there yet. Vote them out because they are irreparably corrupt or because they can’t deliver services or education; but don’t demand they go because you think this is oppression. That helps nobody.

High above us, a drone hovers, drifting against the cusp of sinister. One day it will be frightening. This afternoon it is still pleasant. We look up at it the way people looked at aircraft in 1913.

Two EFF fighters in full regalia raise their fists, looking subtly self-conscious as you might when you’ve worn bondage gear to a wedding.

We’d take anyone with a megaphone and a message

The absence of leadership is palpable as thirst. We’d take anyone right now, anyone with a megaphone and a message. One man, his credentials printed on a union T-shirt, obliges, leading some raw-voiced amandlas and a speech about educated revolutionaries; but it’s an underpowered megaphone and only the front row can hear. The tens of thousands shuffle on, good-natured, used to being leaderless, wanting more.

Half-hidden in a shaded doorway, a young woman holds a sign reading “Fuck white people”, the now-familiar logo designed by Michaelis art student Dean Hutton. She is tired and the sign is drooping. People glance at her and glance away.

I know that some people want a tabula rasa in this country, a great resetting of the clock and the balance sheet. From what I’ve read they understand that this would result in societal and economic collapse but they feel that the ensuing wreckage would still be better than what we have now. They believe that democracy has failed, or that it is inherently unable to improve their lives, and that it is time to knock it all down so that something new can be built.

I have my doubts. I don’t think that that path inevitably leads to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge but, without being an expert, I am pretty certain that it produces years of stagnation and regression and the potential for astonishing violence. Blank slates are seductive but they can also become a canvas on which monsters paint their fantasies. What comes next is trial (or show-trial) and error. Finally, once scores have been settled and the wheel slowly reinvented, the country starts a slow and painful crawl back towards the global status quo: generally capitalist, nominally democratic.

South Africans don’t need to read all the clichés about the inherent flaws of democracy to see its failings: they only need to look at the inequality in this country to see how easily democracy can be manipulated to avoid restorative justice.

But for me, it remains the least-worst method of government we’ve groped towards. And if, like me, you think that democracy is worth maintaining, then showing up is literally the least you can do.

Soon, the looters will ask us to show how much we’re willing to do to stop them. They will ask us if we’re sure that we want democracy, and they’ll demand that we prove it. They might call it something official like a “state of emergency” or a “temporary suspension of information technologies”, but it will be a question, plain and simple: “What are you going to do about it?”

Showing up is a start.


Published in The Times


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

Future shock

protestThe violence of midday was over. The riot police had finished their work.

Now, as five o’ clock rolled around, the students were sitting sprawled across the street outside parliament, waiting for the politicians to come out.

The police were still there, standing in a line inside the gates, staring dully at the students. Nearby, an officer leaned awkwardly against a van as he strapped on plastic leg guards. He was very fat and looked disconsolate. My overwhelming impression was of an inept club cricketer padding up to try to dig his team out of a hole.

We had come down to drop off supplies for the students. Some glanced at us with the contempt revolutionaries reserve for bourgeois tourists. Others were surprisingly pleased. Perhaps they were just amused that we’d brought chocolate to a gunfight.

Nobody was going anywhere, and so we wandered around the back of parliament, towards the gardens of Government Avenue. Now, a deep peace lay over the afternoon. Squirrels posed for tourists. Doves burbled in the branches. A man snoozed on a bench.

Here, it was difficult to believe that the standoff was real; that this picturesque bonbon of a building was serving as a bunker for frightened incompetents. But then we turned off into the little alley behind the Slave Lodge – more tourists, more squirrels – and walked straight into 1985.

The riot police had their backs to us. Beyond them, students sang and taunted. On the peripheries, stragglers were being picked up. I watched a young woman being marched into a van; she weighed about 50kg but apparently she required three men wearing body armour and carrying shotguns to escort her.

A loudhailer shrieked and an officer started yapping orders into it. His voice was distorted, echoing off the buildings around the square, but we could make out the gist. Disperse. Arrest. Fifteen minutes. Fokkoff or else. Why? Because we have rubber bullets and instructions from inside parliament and all you’ve got is a half an education and 20 years of student debt.

A ripple passed down the line of police – small gestures, anxious glances – and then they sprang the trap: stun grenades, a baton charge, raised shotguns. I heard the crack-crack of rubber bullets being fired. The students broke and scattered but quickly regrouped further down the street to turn and raise their middle fingers and to cross their arms over their heads.

And that’s when I realised what was happening.

The police were clearing an escape route.

We watched them try to escape the future.

Our leaders were too frightened to go out the front, where all those savage arts and commerce and microbiology students were waiting to attack them with weapons like logic and honesty; and so they were sliding out the back.

There was a crescendo of chatter on the police radios. The gates swung open and the first of the BMWs crept out.

We stood and watched them in their gleaming R2-million getaway cars, our faces reflected in tinted windows. We watched them flee the people who are going to run this country in 30 years. We watched them try to escape the future.

It would have been a terribly depressing moment, but just then we met that future.

Both of the young women were students and, as is sometimes the case with people whose minds have not yet calcified, they were comfortable holding complexities. They believed that a degree was the only way out of poverty, but they also knew that a degree was no guarantee of anything in a hopelessly underperforming economy. They respected their parents but resented them for not keeping their party accountable. They were ready to fight, but believed that discipline and non-violence would win the day.

On one point, though, they were unwilling to compromise. The ANC, their parents’ party, had to go.

“Don’t these people know that we’re trained to assess information critically?” asked the one as some apparatchik skedaddled past us.

“No,” said her friend. “They don’t. They think we’re as ignorant as they are. They think they’re fooling us but they’re just insulting us.”

“So stupid,” said the first, smiling into the impassive face of a passing dignitary. “All they had to do was listen and show solidarity. So easy. But now they’re done.”

Over the last two weeks South African students have taught me how little I know, perhaps how little any of us know. I’ve read authoritative voices explaining why there is plenty of money and why there is none. I’ve learned that countries are doomed without education, and that countries with weak education can enjoy booming economies. I’ve heard politicians promise that they have a plan to fix the mess made by their total inability to plan.

I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. But I have a feeling that if those two women are anywhere near parliament in the coming years, maybe, just maybe, we might be okay.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Demons?! Protect the President!

Ghostbusters-15Demons. They’re every secret service agent’s worst nightmare.

One minute you’re standing at the president’s side, listening to the football on your earpiece, checking out the maidens in the front row. And the next – boom. The gibbering, leather-winged horde. Beelzebub’s army, getting all up in Number One’s grill.

Of course we train for moments like this. On your first day at the academy they show you the tapes of all the near misses, like when the Lesser Azanian Skull-Sucker rushed Thabo Mbeki in parliament. (Stupid demon didn’t know the Prez was wearing a vest laced with garlic and beetroot and it blew up like a Zuma nephew in front of a buffet table. Lolz.) And of course they show you The Incident.

That’s what we call it. The Incident. I reckon it’s still too raw to call it what it was: that time a demon actually possessed Number One. Me personally, I haven’t watched that tape a lot. I don’t need to. I’ve got it on replay in my head, all day and all night.

I was there, you see. In the gallery, one hand on my earpiece, listening to the football. And then all hell broke loose. Literally. Little suckers came straight up through the floor in a metaphysical cloud, like translucent vampire bats. I remember starting to scream “Nnnnnnnnoooo” (they train you to scream like that, in slow motion, because it looks more impressive in the replays), and I remember Julius Malema grabbing one of the demons, putting Aromat on it, and eating it whole, and I thought, “We’re going to be okay.” And then, bang. Out of nowhere a Giggling Gargoyle zips across the chamber and slams into Number One’s left armpit.

Everything goes very quiet. Number One looks kind of stunned. I mean, he always looks kind of stunned but this was different. Then he slowly raises his middle finger, and I think, Sweet Jesus, he’s possessed. He’s going to flip us the bird, and then he’s going to poop on the lectern and projectile vomit on Mmusi Maimane and then we’ll never hear the end of it. But then I think, wait, he always flips us the bird when he pushes his glasses up his nose, and I’m flooded with relief. Maybe the Giggler went clean through him. Maybe .

Baleka Mbete had a spare vial of holy water in her garter

And then Number One starts making a terrible sound, and I know he’s been hit. “Heh. Heh. Heh.” Classic Giggling Gargoyle. Echoing through the chamber. It was the lowest point of my career. Also, my earpiece was going crazy because fucking Arsenal had just scored.

As we now know, it all worked out okay. Baleka Mbete had a spare vial of holy water in her garter and jabbed it straight into the back of his neck, and Number One was saved.

There was an internal investigation. The finger got pointed. (The Ministry of Metaphysics and Old-Timey Religion has a special disciplinary mummified finger that kind of swivels around by itself and points at sinners, traitors, media sources and women who can read.) I kept my job. But the stakes were clear: if I let a demon get that close to Number One again, I would face the harshest punishment the state could hand down. Yes, I would be given an ambassadorial post.

Things calmed down after that. The demons are going elsewhere these days, mostly possessing schoolkids playing Charlie in the Western Cape. The response to that has been excellent, with some schools warning parents about “satanic” and “demonic” games and threatening to expel anyone caught playing them. Good for them. Nothing stops kids experimenting with superstition like authority figures telling them that the magic is real and that they’re not allowed to do it any more.

I thought we’d be okay for a while. But then on Saturday at the reed dance in Nongoma – wham. Demons. At least that’s what the maidens said. Google “Zuma demon maidens” and you’ll see what went down. Trans-dimensional pandemonium. You’ll also see me hustling Number One out of the demon triangulation zone. He was actually pretty brave: some of those little girls were properly possessed, babbling hateful stuff like “But what I really want is a good education” and “Pay back the money”.

Some claimed the maidens gathered for the reed dance were just tired, cold and hungry, and that the demon menace was group hysteria. Bull. That’s exactly what the demons want us to think. Luckily, King Goodwill is the kind of guy who still calls a spade a devil’s shovel, and he scolded Satan’s concubines and told them they had brought evil spirits to ruin his special day. Not that I’m surprised, really. I mean, girls are basically demons. Which is why they need old men to tell them what to do.

I’m just glad nobody got hurt and nothing got damaged. Well, except the pursuit of secular and rational leadership. But if those science crazies won, I’d be out of a job.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

A watchlist

ZumaOn the weekend the Sunday Independent ran a story “in the spirit of transparency and proper record-keeping” that featured a long list of names.

Each name belonged to a Member of Parliament. They had two things in common: they were members of the ANC, and they had voted Yes to adopt the report that absolved Jacob Zuma of having to “pay back the money”.

Click here to see the article, written by . It’s worth reading, not least because it highlights some notable names. Perhaps it’s even worth printing out, if you’re also into proper record-keeping.

For me, though, the list had an interesting side-effect.

As I skimmed down it, glancing at each name followed by “(ANC)”, a tired little voice in my head said, Well duh, obviously they voted Yes. Why the fuss? What were you expecting?

For a moment I almost listened to that voice. I almost let it numb me, as it numbs me dozens of times a week as I read about the latest degraded political kerfuffle. But then I realized that I was about to make a mistake. I was about to brush this story aside as the machinations of a political party – an impersonal, opaque, amoral blob – without looking squarely at the human truth behind the list.

I was ready to see the list as a catalogue of MPs, instead of what it really is: a list of names belonging to adult South Africans with free will, employed by us to lead us. Instead of doing the right thing, every single one of those MPs who voted Yes made a conscious choice, as an adult of sound mind, to endorse one of our most potent symbols of sleaze and unaccountable governance.

Some of the comments on the article see the list as a sort of “name and shame” thing. Of course it’s not that, because none of the people on this list feel real shame. If they did – if they were still in touch with themselves as ethical individuals – they would have voted No or been overwhelmed with regrets and resigned.

The article’s conclusion hinted that the list might become a kind of time capsule, beamed into our future: history, it said would decide on the virtue of those named. I have less epic aspirations by repeating the list here. I am also not presenting this as a call to action, an attempt to whip people up against this lot. I’m not speaking for anyone except myself. I suppose I’m just writing these names here as a kind of watchlist, for my personal use: a list of people I will never trust with anything, ever again.

I know that sounds extreme, but is it any more extreme than what they did by voting en masse? No, I think fairness and moderate criticism went out the window when they lined up obediently to kiss the ring of power, choosing their careers over the health of our country. If they had fought among themselves over the report, splitting into two or even three camps –Yes, No, and It Depends – I might have told myself to stay balanced. If they had unleashed on each other some of that flame-thrower rhetoric they like to use on judges and transparency activists, I might have thought, See, there are still some true democrats in there fighting the good fight.

But to present a front as united as this; not even to pretend to be interested in responsible government…I feel that I have been absolved of any responsibility to try to be fair-minded or to consider them on a case-by-case basis. Freed of that responsibility by their mass stampede towards spinelessness, I am at liberty to write them all off as invertebrate scoundrels. All of them.

Every time any of them makes a pronouncement on the state of things, I will disregard it as a self-serving half-truth or an outright lie. Every time one of them outlines a planned project, I will suspect that it is a get-rich-quick scheme for close friends, corporate funders or political allies. Every time of them attacks his or her critics, I will be inclined to give the critics the automatic benefit of the doubt.

So here’s my watchlist, without the party initials after each name. You don’t get to erase your personal culpability by hiding behind party unity. If you’re an adult in a democratic society, you are making choices for you, not your boss. And if you voted Yes to Nkandla, then you engraved your name on a monument to greed, weakness and cowardice.

You are:

Beverley Lynnette Abrahams

Freddie Adams

Patricia Emily Adams

Vatiswa Bam-Mugwanya

Kopeng Obed Bapela

Joyce Vuyiswa Basson

Simphiwe Donatus Bekwa

Francois Beukman

Phumzile Bhengu

Nozabelo Ruth Bhengu

Nkhensani Kate Bilankulu

Bongani Thomas Bongo

Mnyamezeli Shedrack Booi

Mmatlala Grace Boroto

Lynette Brown

Rosemary Nokuzola Capa

Ndumiso Capa

Yunus Ismail Carrim

Mosie Antony Cele

Lydia Sindisiwe Chikunga

Thapelo Dorothy Chiloane

Fatima Ismail Chohan

Mamonare Patricia Chueu

Jeremy Patrick Cronin

Robert Haydn Davies

Angela Thokozile Didiza

Dorries Eunice Dlakude

Bathabile Olive Dlamini

Zephroma Dlamini-Dubazana

Bongekile Jabulile Dlomo

Beauty Nomvuzo Dlulane

Mary-Ann Lindelwa Dunjwa

Cedric Thomas Frolick

Joanmariae Louise Fubbs

Dennis Dumisani Gamede

Ndabakayise Gcwabaza

Knowledge Malusi Gigaba

Nomalungelo Gina

Donald Mlindwa Gumede

Derek Andre Hanekom

Sango Patekile Holomisa

John Harold Jeffery

Mlungisi Johnson

Mziwamadoda Kalako

Hellen Boikhutso Kekana

Ezekiel Kekana

Charles Danny Kekana

Tandiwe Elizabeth Kenye

Lefu Peter Khoarai

Dalton Hlamalani Khosa

Timothy Zanoxolo Khoza

Makhosi Busisiwe Khoza

Nthabiseng Pauline Khunou

Juliana Danielle Kilian

Gerhardus Willem Koornhof

Mmamoloko Tryphosa Kubayi

Luwellyn Tyrone Landers

Regina Mina Lesoma

Dipuo Bertha Letsatsi-Duba

Fezeka Sister Loliwe

Zukile Luyenge

Sahlulele Luzipo

Xitlhangoma Mabasa

Puleng Peter Mabe

Bertha Peace Mabe

Livhuhani Mabija

Solomon Patrick Mabilo

Andrew Frans Madella

Celiwe Qhamkile Madlopha

Patrick Maesela

Mapule Veronica Mafolo

Nosilivere Winifred Magadla |

Dikeledi Phillistus Magadzi

Gratitude Magwanishe

Tandi Mahambehlala

Amos Fish Mahlalela

Jabulani Lukas Mahlangu

Dikeledi Gladys Mahlangu

Mbangiseni David Mahlobo

Moloko Stanford Maila

Fikile Zacharia Majola

Lusizo Makhubela-Mashele

Zondi Silence Makhubele

Thomas Makondo

Sampson Phathakge Makwetla

Hope Helene Malgas ,

Johanna Mmule Maluleke

B J Maluleke

Duduzile Promise Manana

Millicent Manana

Zwelivelile Mandela

Emmanuel Maphatsoe

Mohlopi Phillemon Mapulane

Moses Siphosezwe Masango

Elizabeth Masehela

Lindiwe Michelle Maseko

Kwati Mashego-Dlamini

Buoang Lemias Mashile

Nkosiyakhe Amos Masondo

Madala Backson Masuku

Tshililo Michael Masutha

Mkhacani Joseph Maswanganyi

Cassel Charlie Mathale

Dudu Hellen Mathebe

Motswaledi Hezekiel Matlala

Mandisa Octovia Matshoba

Cathrine Matsimbi

Risimati Thompson Mavunda

Comely Maxegwana

Fikile April Mbalula

Sibongile Mchunu

Mzameni Richard Mdakane

Thandi Cecilia Memela

Lindiwe Ntombikayise Mjobo

Bongani Michael Mkongi

Humphrey Mmemezi

Martha Phindile Mmola

Samuel Gaaesi Mmusi

Lungi Mnganga-Gcabashe

Pumzile Justice Mnguni

Derick Mnguni

Velhelmina Pulani Mogotsi

Nthibane Rebecca Mokoto

Maapi Angelina Molebatsi

Bomo Edna Edith Molewa

Masefele Rosalia Morutoa

Itumeleng Mosala

Madipoane Refiloe Mothapo

Malusi Stanley Motimele

Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi

Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu

Nokukhanya Mthembu

Emmanuel Mthethwa

Abram Molefe Mudau

Azwihangwisi Faith Muthambi

Mamagase Elleck Nchabeleng

Claudia Nonhlanhla Ndaba

Nokuzola Ndongeni

Andries Carl Nel

Nhlanhla Musa Nene

Bonisile Alfred Nesi

Beatrice Thembekile Ngcobo

Phumuzile Ngwenya-Mabila

Mogotle Friddah Nkadimeng

Girly Namhla Nobanda

Nomathemba November

Madala Louis David Ntombela

Thembelani Waltermade Nxesi

Raesibe Eunice Nyalungu

Archibold Jomo Nyambi

Bonginkosi Nzimande

Mildred Nelisiwe Oliphant

Gaolatlhe Godfrey Oliphant

Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor

Ebrahim Patel

Elizabeth Dipuo Peters

Mathume Joseph Phaahla

Yvonne Nkwenkwezi Phosa

Imamile Aubin Pikinini

Makgathatso Pilane-Majake

Bhekizizwe Abram Radebe

Jeffrey Thamsanqa Radebe

Goodwill Sbusiso Radebe

Strike Michael Ralegoma

Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa

Leonard Ramatlakane

Tete Ramalie Ramokhoase

Daphne Zukiswa Rantho

Deborah Dineo Raphuti

Maureen Angela Scheepers

Machwene Rosina Semenya

Cornelia Carol September

Susan Shabangu

Sheila Shope-Sithole

Mtikeni Patrick Sibande

Lindiwe Nonceba Sisulu

Elvis Kholwana Siwela

Phumelele Stone Sizani

James Jim Skosana

Mcebisi Skwatsha

Vincent George Smith

Makhotso Magdeline Sotyu

Mohamed Enver Surty

Barbara Thomson

Sello Albert Tleane

Thandi Vivian Tobias

Xoliswa SandraTom

Tshoganetso Tongwane

Grace Kekulu Tseke

Rembuluwani Moses Tseli

Sibongile Pearm Tsoleli

Dikeledi Rebecca Tsotetsi

A Tuck

Nicolaas Koornhof

Sharome Renay Van Schalkwyk

Adrian John Williams

Sheilla Tembalam Xego-Sovita

Lumka Elizabeth Yengeni

Senzeni Zokwana

Going to hell since 1652

Charles_Bell_-_Jan_van_Riebeeck_se_aankoms_aan_die_KaapLet me apologise. I’m about to use a four-letter word.

It’s a word that people have been using far too much lately and it will probably make you sick to hear it again, but I’m afraid I have to, so let’s get it out of the way.

Parents, cover your children’s ears because here it comes: SONA.

I know. It’s gross. But it’s the only way to sum up Thursday night. The “glitch“. The pre-planned brawl. The giggle. All playing out with the slow inevitability of a gigantic turd being squeezed out onto our national consciousness as if by some gluttonous titan purging itself over parliament.

It felt so appalling that I was sure that when the turd was finally delivered complete, its stink would reach the rest of the world. As President Jacob Zuma announced that foreigners would not be allowed to own land (and his ministers thanked the gods of hypocrisy that their properties in Europe would not be similarly restricted), I tweeted that the “loud crashing sound you’re hearing in the distance is the rand”. It hit a nerve. Hundreds of people retweeted it. Yes, we agreed, this was big. This was Rubicon big.

The next day, however, the rand was stronger and the JSE was up almost a full percent. I had to admit that I had been seduced by the idea that South African democracy matters to the people who run the world. But the markets know what the rand and Zuma are worth to them and they had barely blinked.

Exceptionalism has deep roots in South Africa. Perhaps it’s one of the few things that unites us, this belief that we are the exception to the global rule. But it also means we can get melodramatic. While I was throwing my toys over financial Armageddon, others were writing articles about the end of days. Some suggested that democracy had been “broken” on Thursday night. I understand their anger, but I would suggest that the only thing the ANC has broken is 1,000 years of feudal rule in Southern Africa by punctuating it with a 20-year experiment in democracy that now seems to be winding down.

Others claimed that South Africa had “stopped”, as if it had ever really started. A few even said that Zuma had stolen the country, which was patently silly: the country has been stolen goods since the Khoi and the San were first dispossessed, which means at worst the president is just a common fence.

Fool us once? Shame on you. Fool us twice? Shame on us. Fool us for centuries? Damn.

Dozens of columns; hundreds of outbursts on social media; thousands of bitter words; all have swirled up into the sky to form one enormous statement of gloom: South Africa is about to go to hell. But once you take a deep breath, and recognise that we might have a tendency to lose perspective, you have to admit that South Africa has always been about to go to hell. Just ask a Khoikhoi herder in 1652. Ask a Xhosa homesteader in 1775. Ask any neighbours of the Zulus in 1815. Ask a Voortrekker in 1835. Ask a black farmer in 1912. Ask a white miner in 1922. Ask a Jew in 1948. Ask anybody except an Afrikaner nationalist in 1961. Ask whites in 1976. Ask blacks in 1985. Ask the Conservative Party and AWB in 1994. Ask Zuma supporters in 2005. Ask Mbeki supporters in 2008.

On and on we go; noisy, rash, insular, generous, ignorant, capable, deeply mistrustful of authority and at the same time completely enslaved to it, begging to be abused by one rotten leader after another. And so it will go after Zuma. We will drag ourselves free of the slime and cynicism of this time, and eagerly, gratefully, surrender to some new gang of nincompoops who promise the world and swear that this time it will be different. Fool us once? Shame on you. Fool us twice? Shame on us. Fool us for centuries? Damn.

Perhaps that’s what happens when you think you’re special. Maybe we’ve slipped into a kind of denial, seeing only the home we want to see, unable to see it for what it is. Most of the time I live in that delusion, trying hard to see an accountable, industrialising modern democracy. But on Thursday night I saw another South Africa; not a nation but just a small frontier town at the end of the railway line. A place haphazardly knocked together by prospectors and preachers, cattle ranchers and con men; peculiarly tolerant of difference in the way that misfits are, but at the same time always up for a public hanging or a bar brawl. A place ruled by a long line of venal mayors in the pocket of local mining- and railroad barons, where justice is arbitrary and violence is imminent. It’s proud of itself in a small kind of way, which is why it will stay like this until the railroad is rerouted and it starves to death.

We’re a dusty main road haunted by a saloon, a jail, a bank and a brothel. Could we become a nation? Sure. We just have to stop being ourselves.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

Welcome to Cadreville

Copyright World Economic Forum / Eric Miller emiller@iafrica.comThe state of the nation? Why, it’s just dandy. An orgy of delights, dappled with kiffness and drizzled with nca. Yes, life in Cadreville is pretty damn fab.

You’ve never heard of Cadreville? Not surprising, really: they tend not to signpost the border in case the poor people beyond the fence in South Africa come knocking. But it’s there, a beautiful little kingdom of a few hundred people, ruled over by King Jacob the Jolly.

In Cadreville, every citizen has a senior job with the South African government, earning an average salary of about R900 000 – although “salary” implies payment for work done, and in Cadreville you don’t have to do your job to get paid. You don’t even have to go to work very often. This is the other reason why unemployment is at zero percent: you cannot be fired for doing your job badly, or for doing it only two days a week, or for not doing it at all.

Cadrevillians, however, are not layabouts. The kingdom has a thriving industrial hub and produces two major exports: hundreds of hours of speeches and thousands of hollow promises. Its factories are powered by furnaces endlessly fed with millions upon millions of banknotes harvested in South Africa, but these are not as polluting as one might suppose. In a nod to sustainability, the smoke from the furnaces is collected and used later as smokescreens. Sometimes these take the shape of Steve Hofmeyr tweets. Sometimes they look like the business secrets of Somali shopkeepers or Bafana Bafana losses. Either way, they keep the people of nearby South Africa angry and confused, and too distracted to notice that their money is being poured into a machine that gives them almost nothing in return.

The people of Cadreville are scared of the people of South Africa and live behind high walls, but their fears are unfounded. There is no crime in the kingdom, thanks to bulletproof cars and bodyguards and blue-light convoys and police and all the other things that South Africans don’t have, but mainly there is no crime because the charges always go away, and if there’s no court case how could there have been a crime? There has been only one major security scare, when some newcomers began shouting: “Pay back the money!”, but they were quickly pacified with R900 000-per-year salaries and soon, instead of talking about money, they were squabbling about the right to wear red onesies to work.

The citizens of Cadreville have never experienced load-shedding, thanks to the reservoir of diesel, paid for by South African taxpayers, that powers their estates’ generators; but they do fear power cuts. Oh yes, losing power is their worst nightmare.

Our leaders seem to pass the buck faster than a lion on laxatives.

This week, as jolly King Jacob told us that blackouts were not the government’s fault, you could hear 20 million eyeballs rolling right back in their sockets. It was the same noise we heard when our leaders told us that the crippling over-spend in the arms deal was not the government’s fault, or that the killing of miners by police was not the government’s fault, or that the widespread illiteracy of schoolchildren and their teachers was not the government’s fault.

The eye-rolling was understandable. Our leaders seem to pass the buck faster than a lion on laxatives. But was it rational? I’m not so sure. In fact, for all that we like to claim that our leaders have lost touch with reality, I suspect that we are the deluded ones. Specifically, I think we might be labouring under the delusion that government is about running a country, when, in fact, history has proved over and over again that government is simply an income-generating scheme for politicians.

Perhaps this is why the State of the Nation address is headline news; why we think we care about politicians: we are still trapped in the naïve belief that we are the purpose of all their endeavours, when, in fact, we are just their pensions. You, me, the aspirations we nurture, our painstakingly cultivated little patches of Earth: all are merely part of a financial plan for the few hundred overlords who parade at parliament and pretend they are like us before going back to live in a country you and I will never visit.

So what is the state of our nation? Parts of it seem to be collapsing in a smouldering heap. Other bits seem to be plodding along as usual. Here and there, chunks are apparently thriving. Some of the people reporting this are telling the truth, others are hiding an agenda. It’s hard to know anything for sure.

But what does seem certain is that the residents of Cadreville know even less than us. They don’t have a clue. And why should they? As long as we keep giving them a huge mandate to get richer and more clueless, why on earth would they change a thing?


First published in The Times and TimesLive