The fault is in our stars

MarsA misunderstanding was inevitable.

The French delegation spoke very little English. The South African politicians who sat across the table spoke a little French but were just at that moment pressing lobster thermidor into their mouths and so their words were muffled.

What they did manage to say, however, was that the were offering the French nuclear industry a “sweet deal in return for lots of dough, as long as it’s not half-baked”.

The French muttered oaths – “Gauloises Blondes! Audrey Tautou!” – but the message seemed clear. Baking, dough, sweetness: the South Africans wanted their new nuclear power stations built by French confectioners.

And so, just before everyone retired to the firepool for a late-afternoon paddle, President Jacob Zuma wrote an IOU note on a napkin for R500-trillion, to be paid off in monthly instalments over the next 5,000 years or until Jesus returned, and work began immediately on 25 state-of-the-art nuclear reactors made of custard, pastry and almond flakes.

The initial results were encouraging. A delicious aroma wafted across the republic and Eskom workers delighted in nibbling off corners of infrastructure during their mid-afternoon blood-sugar slump. But soon it all went terribly wrong.

During a routine replacement of the fuel rods (uranium-enriched baguettes) in all the stations, technicians accidentally used gluten-free brioches and all 25 reactors melted down faster than an SABC board member being questioned about academic qualifications. Within seconds, glowing custard was leaking into the nation’s groundwater and sending plumes of radioactive yumminess into the sky.

Panic-stricken South Africans tried to flee the pastry apocalypse. An elite few phoned their old friends the Guptas but their calls kept going to voicemail. The rest headed north but were met at the border by Zimbabweans holding signs reading ‘Xenophobia is a bitch, ain’t it?’

In desperation the government considered occupying Lesotho (Mangosuthu Buthelezi still had his invasion maps from 1998, albeit slightly stained with coffee rings and covered with doodles reading “President Buthelezi”). But Helen Zille objected to this plan, saying that she was already queen of a mountain kingdom and didn’t want competition.

At that very moment Jacob Zuma’s Whatsapp pinged.


“Hello Djekob! Eetz mee, Wladmr Pyootn!”

It was his old oil-wrestling coach Vladimir Putin with an intriguing offer: if Zuma would lease South Africa to Russia as a dumpsite for toxic waste (mostly investigative journalists arrested for investigating and gay people arrested for being gay) Russia would build a giant spaceship that would allow all South Africans to travel to a new home in deep space. To make the spaceship familiar and reassuring it would resemble a gigantic Hilux taxi with a vast plastic rear windscreen emblazoned with “Dreamlover”, and it would take them anywhere they wanted to go.

But where? Most South Africans wanted the shortest journey possible and opted for the moon but the EFF rejected this, saying that the moon was “historically white and has always looked down on Africa”. They suggested the red planet, Mars, but an outraged Blade Nzimande accused them of trying to steal the legacy of the South African Communist Party. However, in the end the Tripartite Alliance grudgingly agreed that Mars was the best option since it so closely resembled “the glorious bald head that would be created if Soviet science had somehow achieved the impossible dream of cloning the love-child of Vladimir Lenin and Vladimir Putin”.

Two months later the Dreamlover was complete.

55 million South Africans were told to fasten their seatbelts, half a million obeyed, and the countdown began. Unfortunately it had been assigned to a person who had only done Numerical Literacy at school and so it went “10, 9, 4, OneDirection…” but after an awkward silence the Dreamlover blasted off. A new era had dawned for the nation.

The long journey to Mars was not without incident. Just days after the launch a scandal erupted as President Zuma was accused of overspending on security upgrades to his section of the spaceship, including asteroid-proof windows, comet-proof thatch and Public Protector-proof financial reports.

Six months into the journey someone claimed they had seen a white dwarf through a telescope, and AfriForum accused them of hate speech, saying it was racist to refer to the dwarf’s race. (Scientists explained to AfriForum that a white dwarf was an astronomical phenomenon, at which the Democratic Alliance said that the Nkandla costs were an astronomical phenomenon. But nobody was listening to them any more.)

“Let me write an annoyed tweet about this at once!”

The Dreamlover landed on Mars on 27 April, 2024, and at once the newly elected President Veuve Clicquot Razzamatazz Zuma (a cousin of the first Zuma) tasked the nation with building a vegetable garden. The EFF refused, saying that it was a disgusting repeat of the Jan van Riebeeck story, and threatened to physically destroy the vegetables, possibly in some sort of delicious quiche.

A group of disgruntled white people who had kept to themselves on the journey said they were tired of being marginalized and were going to go off and be marginalized by themselves. But soon their space-mielies shrivelled and died (there was even less rain on Mars than in Mafikeng, and their crops turned to popcorn before they could be harvested). Worse, they had moved out of wifi range and could no longer get News24 on their iPads, so they grudgingly returned to the mothership.

As years turned into decades the people began to long for home. During the day they found that they could comfort themselves by blaming the government, just like in the old days; but at night it was harder. They would lie awake, gazing through telescopes at the distant Earth, remembering the sound of the wind and sea, and wondering.

Would they ever return, perhaps once the radiation had subsided in 50,000 years, leaving nothing but a warm, million-square-kilometer vetkoek? Could they start again and this time truly provide a better life for all? If they had to do it all again, what would they do differently? And then they sighed, switched off their little government-approved Razzamatazz night-lights, and thought: there’s no place like home.


First published in The Big Issue


Time to come out of the jungle


Almost exactly 40 years ago, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was coaxed out of the Philippine jungle, the last Japanese-born soldier still fighting World War 2.

He had not been alone. Many Japanese soldiers had fought on after 1945, either refusing to believe that Japan had surrendered or simply never getting the news.

Over the years Onoda’s war had shrunk in scale: his last remaining comrade was shot by police when the old soldiers raided local farmers in 1972. By 1974, Onoda’s weapons would have been a mouldering rifle and a rusting samurai sword, and his enemies trespassing goat-herds and lost tourists.

He returned to an unrecognisable world. The year Onoda enlisted, Japan’s warplanes had taken two hours to travel the 350km from their carriers to Pearl Harbour. The month before he walked out of the jungle, the crew of Skylab 4 returned to Earth after spending 84 days in space. When he joined the Imperial Japanese Army it had been the high noon of global aggression and quasi-historical claims on other countries’ territory. Now, the global war was a cold one and colonialism was not only openly condemned by the formerly colonised (when had Indians and Africans been given a voice?) but also officially regretted by the colonisers.

Onoda was deeply unhappy. He grieved over what he perceived as the decay of a society that had been great in his youth. It upset him so much that he emigrated to Brazil for a time, farming cattle in a Japanese community until he apparently adjusted to modernity and ultimately returned to Japan.

I thought of Second Lieutenant Onoda last week as I read of another alleged racist attack at the University of the Free State and as I looked at pictures of students in Potchefstroom performing Nazi salutes as part of a fun exercise in militaristic conformism. I thought of him as I read the endless, despairing racism that has killed online debate. I thought of him again and again as I saw educated, relatively wealthy white people react with anger and fear, over and over again, and heard him despairing over his beloved fascist motherland brought low as a messy modern democracy.

I sometimes wonder if racism should be classified as a communicable disease, passed down from parent to child. But when I think of Onoda I wonder if white racism is not so much a disease as a terrible allergic reaction to modernity.

I am not a historian and I might be entirely wrong but I can’t help wondering if many white South Africans never got the post-colonial memo; that, instead of being awoken out of the comfortable blancocentric slumbers of the 1930s by World War 2, we hit snooze in 1948 and went back to sleep until 1994.

Perhaps this is where the anger comes from. I imagine that if I woke up (or came out of the jungle) to find my ancestral and spiritual home unrecognisably different, my overwhelming response would be grief. Is it possible that many white South Africans feel they have lost their Heimat and, if so, that their anger is born of grief?

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross might agree. Her famous model for the five stages of grief is disputed, but I do find it interesting that her first two phases are denial and anger. Was the “Rainbow Miracle” and Madiba-love a kind of denial, an irrational belief that a dreamed-of country, with all its 1930s social strata intact and unchallenged, might still be within reach? Is that why even some whites who consider themselves non-racist feel no shame in employing black women to tidy even small flats – because servants are part of the natural pre-War order?

Is the anger I see all around me the result of the denial slipping away? Are many whites now feeling what Onoda felt; that society had gone to hell simply because it was no longer how things had been in the 1930s?

I don’t know if the Kübler-Ross model is applicable to us or even worth examining in the context of white anger. But if there is merit in both, it might be worth noting that the next stage of grief is bargaining. Can we still be friends? If you take the mines will you at least leave me my farm? After this comes depression, and then, at last, acceptance. I like to imagine that acceptance is not a grudging surrender but rather a new beginning, a rebirth into modernity. But for now, it seems, we have a long way to go.


First published in The Times and TimesLive