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


I haven’t signed the petition

voteI haven’t signed the petition. Not that one, anyway; the one in which an angry nation is calling on Thuli Madonsela to remove Jacob Zuma from office.

I haven’t signed it because I have an irrational fear that it might actually work. I worry that, given enough signatures, Ms Madonsela might somehow be legally obligated to go to the Presidency and to wrestle Mr Zuma out of his chair, down the passage, and into some sort of container with breathing holes punched in it. Which would be upsetting for everyone involved. (I’m sure she can hold her own in a bare-knuckle brawl, but nobody wants to see a person as poised and serene as the public protector get all wheezy and sweaty as she eye-gouges a thrashing head of state.)

Mainly, though, I haven’t signed the petition because I’m not really sure what it‘s demanding. I mean, if the plan is for opponents of the ANC to remove Zuma from office within a week or two, without the co-operation of his party and without consulting the constitution, then isn’t that just a coup? And if that’s not the plan, and the point of the petition is to force Zuma to see how unpopular he is, then I’m not sure a document signed by 0.4% of the population is going to give him sleepless nights.

Then again, maybe I’m just confused by the wave of online activism swamping us, for example, the proposed “tax boycott”. As I understand it, this is a plan to force the state to listen by cutting off its allowance. Basically, it’s a game of fiscal chicken in which taxpayers hope the government will blink first. It’s going to be a long wait: there are parts of this country where the government hasn’t blinked in 20 years.

My main concern with the tax boycott, though, is that it ignores the damage it would do to our most vulnerable compatriots. If you managed to turn off the money tap it would mean you’d also turned off social grants and basic services. The state would scramble. It might even give you what you wanted. But in the meantime babies would die and grandmothers would starve. Have we really reached the point where we would knowingly destroy poor families in order to inconvenience a rich one in Nkandla?

But let’s opt for a best-case scenario. Let’s imagine that the petitions and boycotts work and sense prevails and the country smells of ubuntu-flavoured apple pie: what then? How do we come back from having set that kind of precedent? Surely if we start believing in the power of petitions rather than the rule of law we are completely at the mercy of the most vocal groups? After all, if we believe in the validity of a petition calling for a president to be removed by a civil servant, then we must also respect the results of a petition that calls for homosexuality to be outlawed or the death penalty to be introduced or white people to be repatriated to a bog in Flanders. We must be ready to live in a country whose policy is created on Facebook and is governed by a parliament of Likes. You might want to live in a Buzzfeed article — You‘ll Never Guess What Crazy Legislation Just Got Passed! I‘m Crying! — but I prefer my laws crafted by experts.

Yes, I know that the government seems reluctant to put the constitution first. I know it needs a kick in the rump. We all know this.

But we also know what the remedy is.

Basic civics.

It’s boring as hell. It has none of the Wild West glamour of sending the Lone Madonsela to face off against Jake the Joker at high noon. But unfortunately it is fundamental to the future of this country.

For 20 years I’ve assumed that democracy was something that just sort of happened; a basic self-regulating machine that ticked along, powered by the inherent goodness of people and a shared belief in not being kak. But of course that’s simply not true. Democracy relies on informed citizens demanding democratic leadership. And democratic leadership is a crop that must be endlessly husbanded, weeded and, if necessary, burnt out and replanted.

It’s repetitive work. It can be tedious. It requires knowledge, too: a smattering of economics, a smidgen of law, a spot of political theory — just enough knowledge so that when we complain we don’t sound like a medieval slop-stirrer blaming his scurvy on the spells of Jewish shape-shifters.

And then? Next year, we put theory into practice.

We vote.

No more, no less.

Forget Facebook. Ultimately, a piece of paper posted into a cardboard box is the most powerful technology we have.

If we’re learning, the results will show it. If we’re not, well, I’ll see you all online.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Vive le cowardice!

vive le cowardice

The matriarch of the tyre fitment centre is beckoning. Her face is grim. I join her under the hydraulic lift to peer up at the exposed viscera of my ancient car. She points into the darkness between the front wheels, like an oncologist pointing at an X-ray.

It’s just as well I brought in my car when I did, she tells me: the front left chimp-fascinator has detached from its spangle buttock, causing the hangnail defuser to rub against the front right felafel, making that fearful grinding I have been hearing. I nod, as if I have understood anything she has just said, and wonder how many zeroes will be on the end of my bill.

Suddenly a younger woman runs in from the street outside. I recognize her as the admitting nurse who took my car’s blood pressure 10 minutes ago. Then, she was aloof. Now she is flushed.

“There’s bladdy thousands of them!” she cries. Ways to balance a wheel, I wonder? Rands, meekly paid by people like me, who can’t tell a shock-absorber from a pilchard?

“Here they come!” she squeals; and there they come indeed: union members in red T-shirts, bladdy thousands of them, marching up through the city, like a scene from Les Miserables. They are within earshot now, and we can hear them singing the song of angry men. Or at least, approximating the song of angry men. It turns out they are not only Les Miserables but Les Tone-Deaf too.

Should I be worried? Somewhere nearby a police siren gives a cautionary whoop. The crew in the fitment centre are edgy, peering out into the street and fingering their tyre-irons.

Shit, this thing is kicking off. I need a token of solidarity, something to show the masses that I support their right to march and that I am not a racist elitist. What do the working classes like? Very sweet granadilla-flavoured soda? Aerated maize dusted with cheese-simulating tartrazine? Christ, this is bad.

Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Most of them are probably Christians, and, thanks to having let myself go, I look like Jesus. I will walk out to them, two fingers raised. If only I had a dove that I could toss up into the air. Or feed them fish and lambs. Or was it loaves?

Why am I thinking of lambs? Did Jesus have a lamb? Yes, there’s that song, “Jesus had a little lamb … ” Wait, no, that was Mary. But wasn’t she his mother? Maybe there was a family lamb that sort of got passed around. Oh, damn this heathen city with its lapsed Anglican moral relativism! If I were in a proper god-fearing Old Testament town like Bloemfontein I’d know my holy fauna and get out of this thing only lightly maimed.

The matriarch and two tyre-whisperers are lowering the metal shutters over the entrance. This is it. We’re going to have to be in here for days, possibly years. Once the initial shock of the apocalypse wears off, we six men are going to have to compete for the two women, perhaps in some sort of ritualised tyre-balancing competition. But do I even want to compete for them? The younger one seems a bit fickle, and the older one has a voice that can strip paint. Perhaps I should just marry one of the men instead, and live in a small house made of tyres, and I could tick off the years on that soft-porn calendar over there. Or…

Why have they stopped rolling down the shutters? And why…?

Wait! Are you mad? Why are you opening them again? Didn’t you see that episode of MacGyver with the man-eating ants? Unless we’ve got a moat of burning petrol we’re all doomed!

Too late. One of the men is going outside. Just as well. We need a hero, someone to keep morale high while we draw lots for who gets to sleep in the Camry for the first week.

Go, brave man, while I crouch behind these hubcaps; go and keep the intelligentsia safe from ever having to do anything. Go, and I will immortalise your earthy working-class heroism in a column, which I will write for money.

Hang on, he’s back. And – gag – there’s an assegai stuck right through his chest. Oh, wait, it’s a rolled-up newspaper under his arm. He says, “They’re going down Somerset Road.”

The opposite direction. We’re going to live.

I won’t have to marry Denzil over there and honeymoon in a Goodyear hovel.

I am flooded with relief and, oddly, solidarity. The danger past, I reflect on the virtue of the marchers. I hope that their demands are heard. And when they march again, I will be with them in spirit, as my body hides under a duvet, behind bolted doors. Aluta continua.


First published in The Times and TimesLive