politics

Pretending that puppets are presidents

Atul sockpuppet

“Say something to the people, Jacob.”

I don’t know how our political journalists do it.

Day after day they report to this committee room or that media centre and listen to the well-dressed guy behind the table, calling him “Minister” as if he’s an actual minister and not just a Gupta sock puppet; writing down his words as if they’re important and not just a script written in Dubai and spell-checked in the London offices of BellPottinger; writing careful and intelligent analyses of how this sock puppet’s imaginary policy will affect the imaginary policies of his fellow sock puppets, and, ultimately, the career prospects of our imaginary president, a low-level employee of Middle Eastern monopoly capital.

I understand why they have to do it. Journalists report on what is presented to them. We don’t have any actual ministers (public officials working in the best interests of the citizens of the country) so it’s the sock puppets who come to the press conferences, which means those are the ones you report on. Also, you can’t have the nation’s newspapers all leading with stories called things like “Moral Bankrupt Who’s Never Had A Real Job Dutifully Enacts New Get-Rich Scheme Of His Foreign Paymasters”.

Still, I’ve reached a curious moment. I just can’t pretend any more. The official titles have been sounding increasingly ropey but now they’ve tipped over into sheer ludicrousness, as if a group of catalogue models is wandering around our public buildings, all doing Blue Steel pouts for the camera as they introduce themselves as “Deputy President” or “Minister” or “Honourable Member of Parliament”.

The absurdity is funny, but it also exposes the danger of our current moment.

The people who control all the money and the guns are coming unhinged in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen in this country. The Nationalists, clinging to their white supremacist ideology, their terror of Communism and their Calvinist religion, were predictable right to the end. The sock puppets, by contrast, abandoned their ideology years ago and are rushing towards something much more frightening: the final split away from their most basic identities as people. Which means they could do almost anything.

You can see it in every belligerent, aimless press conference: they don’t know what they’re doing but, more important, they no longer know why they’re doing it. They’ve gone too far for too long on too little, and now, stripped of the higher moral ground and all the props of history handed to them in 1994, they stand naked before us, exposed as small, venal creatures caught in a dreadful struggle between trying to save themselves and lingering long enough to gorge on just a little more public money.

groping towards the heap of treasure

This is the lunatic dance we’re watching: they cringe away from responsibility and principle and the vastly damning verdict of posterity; and yet they still strain forward, hands grasping, groping towards the heap of treasure they hope will fill the weeping hole where their conscience and purpose once lived.

If this were simply the decline of a political party hollowed out by corruption and slowly collapsing under the weight of its own bad decisions, I might be less alarmed. But this is not the collapse of a party. It is the unravelling of a cult. And when cult leaders feel the End Times rushing towards them, things can get incredibly ugly.

It is more important than ever to focus on the absurdity of our situation. We must resist our powerful, primitive instincts that try to convince us that all of this nonsense is a reflection of some sort of reality; that State Capture is just a part of politics rather than the moment we all step back and stop participating in this parody of a state.

I respect our political journalists for the work they do as our early-warning system, but printed words and broadcast images give our imaginary politicians a veneer of legitimacy. We must chip away at that veneer every day, seeing these so-called politicians for what they are: hopelessly cornered nobodies, minor lackeys clutching their household gods as they rush between crumbling temples in a falling Rome. We must read the news not as fact but as a psychological profile of a group of desperate hustlers.

If we can keep the absurdity in clear view, then perhaps, come 2019, we can see them off and send them back to where they belong: failing, corrupt businesses; badly lit seminar rooms at increasingly irrelevant colleges; and, in some cases, prison.

For now, though, try to remember: there is no president. There are no ministers. There is no national government. There is no plan. There are only small, limited people, twitched this way and that by their compulsions, cracking under the demands of their appetites. There is only this interregnum of pure absurdity. And then there is 2019 and a chance to escape this lunacy once and for all.

*

Published in The Times

Would the Comrades make it past Polly Graph?

Comrades“They’ve jogged past Mangaung! They’ve slogged through Polokwane! They’ve sidestepped Nkandla! And now it’s the final sprint towards the Union Buildings! Bob, incredible drama here in the closing stages of the 2017 Comrades’ Marathon!”

“Steve, absolutely. “What a race it’s been this – ”

“Sorry, Bob, a correction: the Comrades have asked us not to call it a ‘race’. Apparently they prefer to keep that word in their arsenal until just before election time.”

“Well, it’s been a helluva marathon, Steve, and picking a winner is going to be a game of Russian roulette.”

“You mean it’s still wide open?”

“No, I mean the winner is going to be decided in Russia over a roulette table.”

“I think you’re confusing this with the American electoral system. But never mind, these are covfefe times.”

“Nice use of an internet buzzword to make our commentary more hip for the Millennials, Bob.”

“Anything to woo the youth, Steve. Which raises the question: does 75-year-old Zuma have what it takes to go all the way, or will Ramaphosa time his kick just right and surge past at the line?”

“Bob, Zuma has been working with some amazing international coaches. As you know, he’s been part of the Gupta stable for a few years now, and they’ve reportedly done an incredible job training him to respond to basic commands – sit, stay, roll over, appoint this person as deputy minister – but you have to say that he’s going to struggle, especially because he’s carrying Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on his back.”

“Let’s see if we can get some footage of – oh, there they are, he’s battling on, she’s got her arms and legs round him, she’s urging him on with mumbled policy statements, but Steve, he’s gotta be feeling this right now. I mean, those legs are literally going to be on fire.”

“From your mouth to God’s ears, Bob. Oh, I’m hearing we’ve got to take a quick word from our sponsors.”

Now that you’ve entered your autumn years it’s time to unwind, relax, and avoid prosecution. At Dubai Summer Breeze retirement estates we understand what’s important to you and your lawyers. With a wide range of leisure activities, round-the-clock nursing staff and your own bunker, Summer Breeze is the ideal way to escape the rat race and the angry mobs back home. Dubai Summer Breeze. Because growing old shouldn’t mean dying in prison.

“Welcome back, folks. Some great footage coming in now, that’s, er, oh, OK, that’s Gwede Mantashe, with that distinctive way of running in a circle.”

He has never run this marathon, except for when he has

“Interesting technique, Bob. He’s always made it very clear that he has never run this marathon and will never run it, except for the times when he has run it, and might still run it. He says he’s especially looking forward to the up-run which will give him the opportunity to excel in the down-run, which is his preferred race.”

“Sounds like he’s on tik, Steve. But then most of the Comrades are, am I right?”

“Absolutely, Bob. And speaking of which, I asked a couple of them this morning about why they still call each other ‘Comrade’. I mean, ‘Comrade’ is a term appropriated from the Soviet Union, which we all know ended in total economic collapse and ushered in a new era of authoritarian kleptocracy.”

“What did they say?”

“They said, ‘Yep, sounds about right’.”

“OK, a lovely aerial shot right now of the pack heading up the Long Climb Towards 2019.”

“Bob, always a taxing hill. Although you’re aware of the current controversy around this route, a lot of people demanding that the Comrades get routed up and over Polly Graph.”

“I think we’d all love to see them tackle a Polly Graph type of challenge, Steve, but of course the fear is that nobody would get past a Polly Graph and we’d have to call the whole thing off.”

“The Comrades is tough enough as it stands, Bob. Already some big names dropping out of the running. Baleka Mbete, veering off course, endlessly repeating that she didn’t recognise the route. Brian Molefe, starting strongly, then retiring in tears, then getting dropped off by bakkie at the halfway point and claiming he’d never left.”

“Steve, any chance of an upset from an outsider? Julius Malema is looking fighting fit these days. And how about Mmusi Maimane?”

“Bob, I don’t have high hopes. Julius wants to nationalise the route and lease small chunks of it to each runner to grow potatoes on, and Mmusi, well, that story is just pathetic.”

“Yes, sad scenes at the start line. When Helen Zille got both feet wedged in her mouth we thought Maimane was a shoo-in, but who could have guessed he’d grab the starter pistol and shoot himself in both feet?”

“Bob, this is being broadcast by the SABC, which means we’ve got to cut away from the action for absolutely no reason, but before we go, any final thoughts?”

“Steve, these Comrades are going to lay everything on the line. Remember, the winner gets that beautiful gold medal, plus a blank cheque signed by Treasury. If I was a Gupta right now, I’d be on the edge of the servant I use as a seat, chewing the nails of the servant I pay to chew my nails. This ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

*

Published in The Times

Baby, I can change! I promise!

Say anything

“Say Anything”: ANC policy for 23 years.

Jacob Zuma, the nation’s media announced, had “survived” the meeting with the National Executive Committee, which was rather like announcing that a medieval king had survived his morning blowjob.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Zuma isn’t taking a lot of flak right now. According to insiders at the NEC meeting, anxiously warming the massage oil between their hands, 45 of the 106 attendees asked Zuma to step down. Hell, that means that only 57% of the ruling party publicly endorses the gutting of the republic for personal gain.

Then there’s the extraordinary claim in the so-called Gupta e-mails (presumably leaked to the Sunday papers by one of those malcontents to coincide with the NEC meeting) that the Zuma clan is trying to relocate to Dubai.

At first glance this looks like some sort of escape plan, a bit like the end of ‘The Sound of Music’ where the Von Trapps skedaddle over the Alps. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the Zuma Family Singers all lined up on the national stage, warbling a medley of our favourite hits from that film – The Lonely Gupta-turd; How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Free Press?; My Favourite Indians; Sell Every Mountain – before rolling the car silently down the highway to Waterkloof Air Base.

I’m not so sure, however, that a move to Dubai would necessarily be about fleeing. One of the people named in the weekend’s tranche of e-mails was Mzwanele Manyi, who once declared that there was an “oversupply” of coloured people in the Western Cape. If Mr Manyi is in any way connected to the Zumas or the Guptas, it’s possible he noticed a severe shortage of Zulus in Dubai and the whole thing is just another of his social engineering schemes.

So yes, there have been lots of hard words – Daddy even had to get a bit shouty with the NEC, telling them that if they said naughty phrases like “step down” again he would send them to their rooms without any kickbacks – but I don’t think anybody actually believes that Zuma is about to disappear. He may not be Nominal President for much longer (our actual president, is, of course, whichever Gupta feels like handling the South Africa account that day), but it is now accepted dogma that his plan is long-range, long-term control over the country via remote control.

All of which brings us, rather confusingly, to the ANC Stalwarts. You’ve probably read one of their faintly heroic ejaculations about pulling the country back from the brink and how they don’t agree with the direction we’re going.

Who sends the best emojis?

What they mean, of course, is that they are feeling terribly uncomfortable. Fighting for a good spot at the trough is hard enough at the best of times, but imagine trying to position yourself ahead of Zuma’s transformation into a digital, holographic ruler. Whose back are you going to massage now? Or will it boil down to who sends the best emojis?

Drowning people will cling to anything, so it’s not surprising that the Stalwarts are gaining some traction. Already, some folks are convincing themselves that the apparatchiks who put Zuma in power and kept him there are actually ardent democrats just waiting to explode into a rainbow of good governance. “Yes, it looked like she was asleep in parliament but she was actually resting her mind ahead of the great struggle to take back the country from, er, herself.”

Alas, they’re going to sink. I know that not everyone in government is corrupt. Some of them are merely incompetent. Others are paralysed, trapped in a web of conflicts and contradictory promises they’ve made to their backers. But when I consider life after Zuma, I remember the words of Cyril Ramaphosa, our next president.

“The ANC is pained immensely by stories of corruption,” he told the New York Times. “We are highly conscious of the damage that corruption does to a party and a country.”

He said those words in 1996. Twenty-fucking-one years ago. The context? Damage control around Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s Sarafina 2 corruption debacle. And you tell me this lot can change?

We don’t know if there is leadership that can do right by the country. Certainly many people are becoming frustrated with the media’s focus on Zuma: why, they ask, do we keep saying what we don’t want rather than outlining what we do?

I understand that question, but right now it’s like marching up to a paramedic who is holding someone’s intestines in, and saying, “Excuse me, but I’m very concerned that you’re not addressing when this person will go back to work.”

When you’re learning how to identify feelings, you start with the not-feelings: what a thing doesn’t feel like. We’re clearly unskilled at electing good governments, so, as we begin to grope our way towards a better alternative, I think it’s OK to focus on what we don’t want; to say that we don’t want this, or the people who allowed this to happen.

The next step? Education. Better safeguards. Perhaps a paragraph added to the constitution explicitly stating that the country probably shouldn’t be run via e-mail from abroad.

We’ll slowly clarify what we want. But it’s not this.

*

Published in The Times

The sext lives of politicians

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe

“…and about this long.”

Yesterday I read something that truly shocked me.

According to the Sunday Times, Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, had allegedly sent texts and e-mails of a sexual nature to a young government photographer, asking her to send him nude pictures of herself.

Wait, I haven’t got to the shocking part yet.

The photographer was reportedly suspended because of “improper behaviour” (we all know how hard this government comes down on improper behaviour) and, bizarrely, because of the sorts of clothes she wore in the presence of politicians.

That wasn’t the shocking bit either. No, what stunned me was the reaction to the story. Because there, in black and white, I read experts suggesting that the sext scandal had scuppered whatever chance Radebe had of becoming president.

I’m not sure which country those experts have lived in for the last decade, but in my country we have a president who was tried for rape and came through it absolutely unscathed. His loudest supporter at the time suggested that his accuser had had a good time. It was a vile and vastly destructive thing to say, but that statement did not stop Julius Malema from becoming the leader of a large party and it won’t stop him becoming president at some point.

Of course I’m not suggesting that Radebe hasn’t got problems. No doubt he lies awake every night, tossing and turning on that huge pile of money that senior ANC people use instead of mattresses, fretting about the coming months.

For starters, he’s got to time his leap off the sinking SS Zupta just right. Then there’s the wording of his inevitable not-quite-apology. This, at least, is less stressful because he can just plagiarise someone else’s: these days there’s a new one almost every week, delivered by one of the coterie of arse-kissers who put Zuma in power and kept him there, becoming gigantically wealthy as they helped him sell the country to the highest bidder.

The rhetoric is pious, full of resolutions to do better, but every single one of them is saying that same thing: “Baby? Babe? Please pick up. I was going through some stuff back at Polokwane…and…Also it’s not really my fault, you know? I mean, you don’t know what he’s like! He’s…well..I just want to let you know I’ve changed and I promise this time it’ll be different. For realsies.”

Yes, Jeff Radebe has plenty to vex him, but if anyone in Zuma’s South Africa still believes that explicit sexts are enough to hurt an embedded politician, they really haven’t been paying attention.

The story has been sold as faintly salacious but one should be cautious of seeing the sexual exploits of powerful people as some sort of entertainment, given their potential for exploitation, a wildly skewed power balance, and, frankly, abuse.

What do they write?

Still, it did make me wonder about the secret, digital sex lives of our senior politicians. Assuming that some of them have secret affairs with relative equals, what exactly do they write in those sweaty-palmed exchanges?

After all, desire is a fairly honest emotion but how do you express it when you’ve been trained since Comradegarten to speak in euphemisms? Are you able to suggest a lunchtime quickie in a nearby hotel or does everything sound like a policy statement? “Our position is that we are generally in favour of a potentiality in which we boost job creation in both the hospitality and prophylactic industries.”

Certainly, I would imagine that it’s important to take into account someone’s political ideology before embarking on a secret sext affair. For example, if an EFF member asks you for a picture that will make the earth move, he is almost definitely asking for a photo of a tractor-manufacturing plant in the former Soviet Union.

Likewise, if you’re going to get steamy with a senior DA type, you should probably abandon some of your more traditional romantic preconceptions. “Send me a picture of you…No, that one’s got a poor person in the background. Please put it on a bus to Wolwerivier and then take the pic again. OK. Good. Hot. Now show me the benefits of colonialism! Yes! Put on a pair of jodhpurs and straddle a railway line. Oh god yes, you really float my gunboat.”

But whatever you do, and whomever you do it with, do not have an online affair with someone high up in the ANC. Because we all know how that ends.

He’ll tell you he looks like Idris Elba. You’ll ask for a picture. He’ll send you a picture of Idris Elba. You’ll say, “Wait, this is Idris Elba”, and he’ll say you’re a racist who works for the CIA. You’ll say, “It’s over, I’m mailing a picture of a tractor-manufacturing plant to the Commander-In-Chief,” and he’ll beg you to stay. He can change. He was wrong. He’ll do anything. Except, you know, actual governance.

Yes, we’ve all been there. Many still are. And it’s time for that sordid little affair to come to an end.

*

Published in The Times

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?

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Published in The Times