politics

Simply showing up is a start

showingup

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

The Next Rainbow

Tim-Peake-photo-of-South-Africa-900x599

Us, photographed by Tim Peak.

“When the sun rises over South Africa this morning it will be a new country.”

In the first few minutes after Jacob Zuma’s midnight purge, the Facebook status of columnist Marianne Thamm spoke the feelings of a great many South Africans. It felt as if a Rubicon had been crossed; a temple curtain had torn.

But I would respectfully disagree with Thamm. When the sun rose over a post-Gordhan South Africa, the only thing that had changed was the nationality of the landlords.

Once, they were Dutch and British. For a while the great-grandchildren of the Dutch and British pretended that the place was independent; but soon they ran the property into the ground and needed Wall Street bankers to keep them afloat, so the Americans held the title deeds for a while. And now, South Africa is owned by a family from India and, it is safe to assume, a handful of Russian politicians and their pet oligarchs.

Yes, it’s the same old place it’s always been.

The uproar is familiar, too: that collective groan we produce whenever the predators in power let the façade slip and we see them in their natural habitat, urgently thrusting bloody snouts into the steaming guts of a still-kicking country.

This, however, seems to be a particularly frightening moment. The feeding frenzy, usually half-hidden by darkness, is happening in broad daylight. We’re being shown things we didn’t want to see, like who has power and who has almost none. As we discover that the ANC has finished its transition from a liberation movement to a political party and finally to a monarchy, the processes of democracy are starting to look like a cargo-cultish ritual performed by the faithful and delusional.

Then again, there is method to the opposition’s madness. The DA and EFF do not want Jacob Zuma removed from power immediately because the longer he is president the better they will do in 2019. Indeed, some people suspect the opposition parties have actively worked to keep Zuma in power, calling motions of no confidence or marching on Luthuli House in the full knowledge that such events force the ANC to close ranks and stand by its beleaguered boss – the surgeon deliberately leaving the cancer to spread so that he can look even more heroic when he finally tackles it.

And so here we are, in a slightly new place in the same old place. There’s a lot of anger and confusion, and crippling amounts of commentary and analysis about what happens next.

I’d also like to talk about what happens next.

I don’t mean what happens after Zuma or 2019. I don’t mean what will happen, or what is likely to happen, because I don’t have the faintest idea about any of that. Instead, I want to talk about what could happen, what should happen, what might happen if we briefly tear ourselves away from the grim present and turn our eyes to brighter horizons.

I know this sounds like the naivety of privilege, but humour me for a minute. God knows, you’ve humoured worse for the last seven years.

What if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have?

Even if we could return to the rainbow nation idealism of the mid-1990s, we shouldn’t. Rainbowism is dead mainly because it resolutely ignored the racism and race-based inequality that saturate the foundations of this country like rising damp and which make any new building impossible until it has been dealt with.

But what if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have if we made hard choices and had honest conversations? What if, instead of gradually accepting this sordid place as it is, we reminded ourselves of what we want and deserve?

What if red represented the blood being shed every day – by men in their war against women; by callous or desperate criminals; by systems that brutalise the bodies of the poor – and a future in which we staunched the flow?

What if orange – the colour of the soil – represented a just, intelligent and lasting solution to urgent questions about land? What is the statute of limitations on stolen property? Can land be given back to the dispossessed without threatening food security? Some say that if land is not handed out there will be a revolution, but surely if farming gets any more dangerous or difficult there will be a revolution anyway when the food runs out? Or is this a false dichotomy?

What if green stood for money and a commonly accepted belief that leaders shouldn’t steal it and that bosses should earn sensible rather than disgusting amounts of it? What if we had an honest discussion about how much corruption we’re willing to tolerate, given that corruption is the deal all peoples make with their politicians in order to have their countries run? And speaking of which, can we decide whether we want to be part of the capitalist world with its inherent corruptions or whether we want to start afresh, and if the latter can you let me know ASAP so I can start looking for a job somewhere else?

What if blue symbolised water, the stuff that we can’t live without but which we’re going to get less and less of? And what if we employed experts to manage it so that we don’t have to manage without it?

What if indigo – a colour added rather arbitrarily to the spectrum by Isaac Newton but now in danger of being dumped by scientists – demonstrated an ability to adapt to new facts rather than to cling on to traditions and beliefs for their own sake? Can we restore intellect and wisdom to public life, and educate our children for an automating world?

What if violet, made up of EFF red and DA blue, was a reminder that competing ideologies can and should keep each other in check? What if we were mature enough to find humane and sustainable solutions to hard economic problems, rather than plunging Venezuela-like to the left or goose-stepping to the right towards Trumpian gangster capitalism?

Finally, yellow: the colour of cowardice, omitted from its rightful place because fear isn’t something we want to acknowledge. But what if yellow could remind us that we’ve been cowards in the past, that we’ve avoided tough decisions and taken the path of least resistance? And what if it could remind us that we’ve also been braver than we ever imagined we could be?

Let’s be brave again. Then, maybe, the sun will rise over a truly new country.

*

Published in The Times

Numb and Number

one-plus-oneWhen parliament gathers tomorrow, and the Speaker invites the minister of finance to address the House, and Brian Molefe stands up, and Jacob Zuma hisses, “Not yet, Brian!” and Pravin Gordhan politely clears his throat, South Africans won’t understand a word that comes out of his mouth.

That’s because we are astonishingly bad at maths. Every year the educational surveys confirm it: if a deity told us to go forth and multiply, we’d go fourth and divide.

Perhaps that’s inevitable in a place where so little adds up. Consider a South African story sum: “If a train leaves Johannesburg at noon on Tuesday and travels at 100km/h, what time will it arrive in Cape Town, 1400km away?”

This question is, obviously, impossible to answer. For starters, did the train stop outside Kimberley for four hours or only two hours because of cable theft? And when you say “arrive in Cape Town”, does that mean it arrived intact and under its own power or does it still count if half the train grinds to a halt near the station upside down and on fire?

Not surprisingly, many of us quickly learnt that one plus one equals migraine, and gave up on numbers before we’d reached our, er, (looks at fingers) ninth birthday.

Which is why Gordhan could recite the collected lyrics of Adele and we’d think something fiscally significant had just happened.

Sensing our anxiety around numbers, some media outlets avoided the Budget build-up entirely, preferring to focus on ANC veteran Mathews Phosa, who claimed to have had a “Damascus moment” at the State of the Nation address two weeks ago.

I’ve always found it an odd phrase: referring to yourself as St Paul, the sixth-most important person in Christendom after the Holy Trinity, the Virgin and John the Baptist, seems a peculiar way to express a humbling moment. But theology aside, I’m confused by this particular journey on the road to Damascus.

I understand how a bloke might pass the hamlet of Nkandla and not fall off his horse. But surely when you passed the smoking ruins of the village of Marikana you’d experience the tiniest suspicion that it might be time to reassess your beliefs?

Confused by these questions, other media focused instead on the revelation that currency traders had been colluding to rig the rates of the thing that controls the thing with the money and – please don’t make me go on. I didn’t understand any of it. And neither did the people who tried to get angry about it over the weekend. “It’s a disgrace, hey? Someone should go to jail for…that thing…they did…with the money…?”

the Young Lions are absolutely right

No, thanks to the maths-shaped hole in our brains we won’t have a clue what Gordhan is talking about.

But we do know a couple of things.

The first is that Gordhan is under ferocious political pressure.

Last week the ANC Youth League called for him to be fired, claiming he is blocking transformation projects. The Young Lions are, of course, absolutely right: Gordhan has consistently stood between them and their project to transform themselves into rich people.

We also know that Gordhan is facing a tax revenue shortfall of R28-billion, which is basically the entire hold of a privately owned Boeing taking off at midnight from Waterkloof headed for Dubai.

At this point the frugal reader who understands a household budget might remind Gordhan that auditor-general Kimi Makwetu found irregular expenditure of R46-billion last year. Surely, they might politely ask, the minister could simply tell the government to stop flushing billions down the toilet?

But such questions betray a naïve belief that something has gone wrong rather than to plan; that “irregular spending” is an administrative slip-up rather than the public face of a deliberate system of plunder. Because that money isn’t being flushed away into a void. Rather, it is flowing, at a rate of R87,000 every minute, into the bank accounts of “public servants”, well-connected CEOs, and the people who keep smallanyana skeletons safely locked in closets – a vast ecosystem of political filter-feeders, gorging on vast clouds of money.

Finally, we know one more thing: taxes will rise. And why wouldn’t they? If you were Tony Soprano’s financial adviser would you tell him to cut back? Hell no. You’d tell him you’ll make it work. And then you’d go out and slap an extra two points on every loan and put the screws on a few more shopkeepers.

Yes, they’ll make it work. And so will we. Will it add up? Probably not. But when has that ever stopped a South African?

*

Published in The Times

“It’s not sinking, it’s a submarine!”

titanic

Had Angie Motshekga been the owner of the White Star shipping line on the morning of April 15, 1912, history might have sounded quite different.

As flashbulbs popped and journalists shouted questions, she and her team would have shuffled into place behind a table. An appeal for quiet; and then the big news, delivered with half a smile: White Star Lines was delighted to announce that early this morning the RMS Titanic had become the world’s first passenger submarine.

She was still verifying the figures, but it looked like almost a third of the passengers had survived, and she wished to extend warm congratulations to them and their families.

I like to imagine that a sensible public would have howled her down and run her out of town, but after last week I’m not so sure.

Instead of uniting to mourn the countless young lives trapped in a sinking system and dragged down into the deep, many South Africans instead argued over the matric results as if there was something to argue about; as if we’re still unsure about whether this is working or not; as if our schooling system might still turn out to be a submarine rather than a wreck.

Perhaps the confusion is understandable. Assumptions, both sensible and false, are wobbling. What once felt like bedrock now shifts like jelly under our feet. It is increasingly difficult to know what to think, indeed, to share ideas at all. Who, these days, would risk the wrath of one of the many inquisitions doing the rounds, or has the energy to take on the legions of know-nothings?

All of which is why I’m going to stick to a few simple guidelines in the year ahead; not so much resolutions as gentle reminders to myself: Post-It notes stuck on the fridge of my subconscious.

The first is to keep remembering that this year our politicians are going to say a lot of words, because that’s how politicians make money. When they say those words I’m going to want to believe that they have some connection with reality and I’m going to want to catch feelings. But that’s what the politicians’ financial planners want me to do: every time we take the bait and get worked up, we send up dust and smoke and noise, a great smokescreen that allows the looters to steal a few million more. So in 2017 I’m going to try to count to 10 and opt out of actively making the conmen richer.

They will clutch portraits of Oliver Tambo

I will also look up the definition of “gaslighting” just to remind myself of what it looks like, and who does it, and why. Because this year, as senior gang bosses shift allegiances to get a better grip on the teat, they’re going to tell me that I’m mistaken for thinking poorly of them. They will clutch the constitution or the Bible or portraits of Oliver Tambo and insist that they never voted to entrench corruption and that if I still believe them to be scoundrels then the problem must lie with me. Yes, “gaslighting” is definitely one to remember in 2017.

(Note to self: remember to keep some salt aside to sprinkle over think-pieces about how the deputy president is going to grab the controls and pull us out of our current dive. Having watched Cyril the Human Ball-Gag smile and nod his way through the calculated dismantling of accountability and good governance in this country, I will emulate him by simply smiling and nodding.)

The next Post-It is just a number: 8.5. That’s the percentage of my compatriots who voted for the EFF. Which is why, when I read tumescent prose about how the EFF is a giant, red tsunami, I will remind myself that there are more left-handers in South Africa than Fighters.

Likewise, when the Commander-In-Chief denounces Jacob Zuma, I will recall how he made his career by giving us Zuma, and how he now furthers that career by attacking Zuma. (And yes, in fairness, I expect the president also features heavily in the prayers of Padre Maimane: “For what we are about to be handed on a silver platter in the next few months, may the Lord make us truly thankful…”)

Finally, I will try to remember that opinion is not news. Twitter is not a peer-reviewed journal, and shouting, “This is the worst year EVER!” reveals only that one knows very little about history. Most of all, pessimism is not insight. Rather, it is a narcotic fog we breathe, vented by millions of people seduced by misery; people who have watched footage of a distant massacre before they’ve got out of bed or read angry words on a screen before they’ve spoken to another human being. They are not informed: they are infected.

Right. The Post-Its are up. Let the noise begin. Hello 2017.

*

Published in The Times

Stockholm Syndrome, the Good ANC, and other fantasies

south-africaThere’s blood in the water.

Sorry, false alarm: that’s just a cranberry juice being nursed by an anxious comrade over by the buffet table; the one who’s quietly practising saying, “Congratulations, Comrade President Ramaphosa!” over and over so he doesn’t cock it up when he says it for real.

Still, something seems to be shifting. There might not be blood in the water but there’s definitely a clot in the gravy. And, for the first time in a long time, South Africans are allowing themselves to think about what comes next.

Of course, some of us are struggling to think anything at all. For example, last week, a DA counsellor in Cape Town, tried to organise a “march against grime” during which homeless people would be asked to “move along”.

She wasn’t clear about where “along” was. One could be unkind and assume she was thinking of somewhere with less grass, circa 1962. Or you could be charitable and assume she literally had no idea and that the DA’s official policy is to shunt social issues into the next ward and hope they simply vanish.

After all, it’s worked for Cape Town when it comes to pumping raw sewage into the Atlantic. I don’t know which PR agency is handling the shitstorm in the city’s sea water, but they’re fantastic. Last year there were reports of tourists coming down with “food poisoning” and I can’t wait to hear which local industry gets thrown under the bus this festive season. (Cue a reassuring male voice. “Are you a tourist? Have you recently swum at Clifton? Are you curled up in your shower, vomiting and crapping uncontrollably? You’ve clearly got altitude sickness from climbing Table Mountain via an unsafe route! Next year, try the cable car!”)

Most DA supporters, however, seem to want a government like the one in Sweden. Because Sweden works. Mostly at H&M, but still. It’s also very safe. I visited Stockholm a few years ago and was warned that I was staying in a murder hot spot: a drunk had accidentally stabbed his buddy to death a few months back and the locals were still reeling.

My hosts were proud of how economically equal their country was, and I had to agree that I had seen very few poor Swedes.

That’s because most of them were now Americans. Something that tends to get overlooked in South Africans’ Scandinavian fantasies is that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, about a fifth of Sweden’s population – mostly poor rural people – upped and left for the New World.

Which is why, when I hear people wishing we could “be like Sweden”, I have to wonder where they’re planning to send the 10-million poorest South Africans. “Move along”, indeed.

Of course, not all South Africans want to live in Sweden. Many, I discovered this week, want to live in Cuba.

In the days following the death of Fidel Castro, I learned from my compatriots that he had left behind a small piece of paradise in the Caribbean, where children received excellent free education and everybody received excellent free healthcare. Yes, a few political opponents had received excellent free bullets to the back of the head but, as one local Castrophile said on Facebook, “It doesn’t matter what you do to your enemies as long as you serve the people.” (And then we still pretend to be confused when Jacob Zuma uses the country as a bidet.)

The EFF stated that Castro’s death had been painful to them, but probably not quite as painful as the death of Venezuela’s economy, a Ponzi scheme they once punted as a model for South Africa to emulate.

Still, the fighters will also be looking to the future and refining their plans to give the land to the people. Not the title deeds, of course, but long(ish) leases contingent on party approval are basically just as good.

Perhaps that’s why many, if not most, South Africans are allowing themselves to start dreaming about the possibility of the return of something called “the good ANC”.

In case you’re confused, the good ANC is the one that’s going to “self-correct”, the way rich people throughout history have decided to be less rich and to let more poor people into their club.

It’s also the ANC that says it’s not seduced by populism or demagoguery. Well, except that one time when a charming young player called Julius got it pregnant, hung around just long enough to see his big, bubbling, bouncing, buffoon of a baby brought into the world, and then buggered off. The good ANC might cling to its imaginary virtue but its track record suggests the only thing it’s good at is being used by Big Men on the make.

So what comes next? Your fantasy is as good as mine.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

I’m stuffed

home_onaout

This week, a man logged onto Facebook in a state of existential dread and shyly asked the world to comfort him.

He had read a report, he explained, which revealed that Queen Elizabeth II was going to punish the US for electing Donald Trump by revoking its independence. He was alarmed about the consequences of this action. Could it mean nuclear war?

Someone tried to tell him that it was satire but he wasn’t reassured. What if it wasn’t satire?

I found myself surprisingly affected by him. His question had been asked with such polite fragility that I couldn’t bear to think badly of him. Instead, I saw an anxious human left exposed by his parents and the education system that failed to make him literate. I saw a frightened person asking for help because he’d been given substandard tools and they had broken.

I think I also saw myself. In the last week I’ve also asked questions that probably sounded naïve and uninformed to people who read events better than I do. I’ve also found myself struggling to form a coherent opinion. And at the end of it, I’ve had to admit that I know very little about the stuff that is alarming me.

I know that the queen isn’t about to march on Washington, but I don’t know anything about the people who are. I don’t know what to think about the rise of the white right when less than a third of Americans actually voted for Trump. I don’t know why they keep calling their country the “greatest democracy” when half of them didn’t vote and the electoral college decided it all anyway.

At the same time I feel mentally constipated, over-full of waste. Then again, given my diet over the last few months, I’ve got nobody to blame except me.

Opinion – written, spoken, Tweeted, sprayed on walls – is intellectual junk food. It contains very little information, and, as last week revealed, even less insight. It also doesn’t satisfy. It leaves one malnourished, wanting more; and so you go back to the familiar glow of the screen and the welcoming architecture of your favourite websites. The staff are friendly and affirming. Good choice! Welcome back! Can I supersize that think-piece for you? Have you tried our new combo deal, where you get two despairing polemicists for the price of one, that is, for free? And don’t forget: all columns come with a bottomless cup of beard-stroking!

I gorged, and now I feel sick

The 24-hour news cycle has been stuffing us for years, but last week the McMusing came off the production line faster than ever. I gorged, and now I feel sick. Maybe that’s why so many of us have turned into news anchors, endlessly leaning towards the camera of social media and announcing: “This just in!” Perhaps when there’s too much empty-calorie information going down, it can’t be processed and it has to come up.

Still, a few indigestible bits remain with me. They won’t come up or go down, because they’re not lubricated by creamy sophistry or sense.

Some of what I saw was simply bizarre, like a black South African feminist backing Trump because “that bitch” had “rigged the primaries” against Bernie Sanders. The rest, though less surreal, were no less confusing.

I saw Democrats getting furious that democracy had produced the wrong outcome, and I saw pro-lifers calling for Trump’s murder.

I saw the white right mock frightened minorities for being “delicate snowflakes”, the same white right that had just flocked to the polls in fear because it had convinced itself that the richest, whitest and most Christian country in the universe was becoming a poor, dusky caliphate.

Least palatable of all, I saw again how easily one becomes used to a post-Trump world. I saw my own surrender contrasted in the shocked faces of the Americans. It was still all so new to them. Nobody on the left had ever seen a proper Banana Republic El Presidente take power. Nobody on the right had ever seen their fantasy come true; a pouting Rambo taking a flame-thrower to common decency and the greater good.

South Africans acted out horror or triumph, but the newness wasn’t there. That’s because we’ve already had our Trump moment. We’ve got used to being ruled by a women-hating, insular cabal of dodgy businessmen who promise hugely and deliver nothing but division.

Right now, though, I don’t know a damned thing, except that it looks like literally anything can happen in this whacko universe. So I’m calling it right now. Trump gets bored and resigns in a year. Mike Pence appoints Sarah Palin as his Veep. He wants to watch a cowboy movie for foreign policy tips and accidentally rents Brokeback Mountain. He has a stroke, and, at long last, America gets its first woman president.

Lame satire, right? Couldn’t happen, right? Guys? Anyone?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Yes, but what can we do?

people

Yes, but what can we do?

It’s a question I’m seeing everywhere as the oxygen is sucked from our national life.

We’re feeling desperate. Almost desperate enough to do something.

I’m reading angry Facebook posts about tax boycotts and marches and petitions to the United Nations. Intelligent people are talking about emigration. Less intelligent people are Tweeting about shooting students and assassinating politicians.

Almost all of it is unwise or downright suicidal. But what do we do? Is it enough simply to vote in 2019, and, if the results are ruled free and fair, to suck it up for another five years?

This option is becoming increasingly unpopular. There is a feeling in South Africa that we are running out of time and that the usual rules and systems of democracy might need to be put aside to save the country.

That, of course, is exactly what dictators say in their first broadcast to the nation. Which is why it might be important for all of us to step back; to make a conscious decision to resist this collective anxiety and to try to find a space of relative calm and perspective. Perhaps the answer to “What can we do?” is simply to stay alert, and to try to remember some of the following.

1. Things are moving. The 24-hour news cycle and a lack of historical perspective have made us dangerously impatient with the pace of the democratic process. To the Twitter generation a week is an age. It feels as if the current cabal has been in power forever. But it hasn’t, and whatever is happening is happening fairly fast.

2. We don’t have a government, we have looters. Once you understand this, most headlines will make a lot more sense and your gloom will feel slightly more focused.

3. Hyperbole is a national sport. When you hear that a certain neighbourhood or campus has “turned into a war zone” because armed police are present and there are some bricks in the road, take a look at a picture of Aleppo. South Africa is a violent, angry country, but we’re not at war and it helps nobody to believe that we are.

4. The bar has been lowered so far that ground zero feels like progress. In our country it is now considered an act of almost Scandinavian good governance for a mayor to drive to work in a car worth less than R1-million. This is not a rational response and we need to be wary of it. Eventually the ANC is going to charge someone with corruption or appoint a qualified person into a senior job, and, because our expectations have been lowered so execrably far, it will seem that accountability Nirvana has arrived. Don’t fall for it.

5. The EFF has told us what it is: we should try to believe it. The Fighters want a nationwide shutdown in support of the students and to remove Jacob Zuma. This makes perfect sense, because, as any surgeon will tell you, the best way to save a patient on the operating table is to switch off the machines and to walk out. (Also, I don’t want to rain on any goose-stepping parades but the last time a militaristic party representing less than 10% of South Africans brought the country to a grinding halt, we called it the Rubicon Speech and agreed it probably wasn’t a great idea.)

6. Experts create clarity. Read Achille Mbembe on Facebook and Pierre de Vos on his blog. Likewise, the AmaBhungane are very good at what they do. For the rest, don’t automatically believe anyone who makes a living from expressing an opinion, and that includes me. Also don’t assume an academic title means anything. (Speaking of which, if there’s anyone at the University of Zululand reading this, I’m still waiting for my PhD in Astrophysics to arrive in the mail like you promised. Did you not get my EFT or what?)

7. The looters want us to call each other names. The more cross-eyed we get calling each other “stupid” or fighting small battles of ego and identity, the less clearly we can see the gangsters for what they are and the more cash they can stuff into their pockets.

Finally: have a plan for what comes next. The looters are either going to win or they’re going to be severely injured in 2019 and start scattering. If they win, you’ll need a passport and liquid assets. If they lose more ground, and opposition parties step into the vacuum, stay intelligent. Everyone is corruptible and if you don’t think 20 years in power would turn the DA or the EFF into the current ANC, then you’re a politician’s wet dream.

So what can we do? Read. Think. Prepare. It doesn’t feel like a solution. But it’s a start.

*

First published in The Times and on Rand Daily Mail