Onward, brave Communists!

unnamedWhen the Comrades arrived for this year’s general conference of the South African Communist Party, none of them could imagine the drama that was about to explode in their faces like the still-talked-about expired chocolate eclairs of the 2013 edition.

Not that they were naive, of course. As they erected the venue, draping three blankets off the top bunk and holding them up with a broomstick, they agreed that the next few months would be challenging. They would have to be alert to undue influence from outside: the Comrade with the neatest handwriting was tasked to make a sign reading: “MOM LEEV US ALON WE ARE HAVING OUR MEETING altho pleez leev a plate of Romany Kreems outside, also some Coke thnx XX.”

Soon, however, they relaxed into the familiar processes of the conference, such as the traditional Reading Of The Most Recent Telegram From The Soviet Union, a yellowing and somewhat greasy strip of paper that had arrived in 1991.

The agenda, too, was comfortingly unchanged.

A Comrade started off by reporting back on what progress had been made overthrowing global capitalism, a very short speech made somewhat longer by the sudden malfunction of his PowerPoint presentation and a snap resolution to crush monopolistic Microsoft once the workers were in charge.

Next came the traditional re-election of Cde Blade as general secretary, a happy celebration of continuity and personality cults. As he was wrapped in the Hessian Sack of Solidarity, handed the ceremonial Bronze Potato of the Proletariat, and given two extra Romany Creams, party veterans pointed out that Cde Blade has been general secretary since 1998 and is therefore almost old enough to remember when Russia and China were Communist.

This received a round of applause. They also refuted the notion that he has been general secretary for 19 years because nobody else wants the job because being the face of a national joke is a bit kak. This, too, received applause, although it was somewhat muted.

It was when they reached Item Three on the agenda that the bombshell dropped.

Item Three first appeared in 2005 and was, at least in principle, a resolution to discuss the possibility of a discussion of the potentiality of perhaps considering contesting a national election as an independent party.

The idea had cropped up from time to time since then – usually over a third bottle of Johnny Blue – for example, “Okay, I’ll lower university tuition fees the day we contest an election! Hahaha – oh Jesus I’m going to vom.” But it was, of course, ludicrous.

Why contest a national election, with all that upsetting democracy, when you could remain in government forever without ever having won a single vote? What sane person would offer to get a job when they had free board and lodging as long as they rubber-stamped the whims of President Gupta?

But when the delegates reached Item Three last week, something bizarre happened.

The SACP decided to move out of home and get a job.

At least, I think it did. Speaking to Eyewitness News, Blade said: “We’ve taken these resolutions and then congress is said go and work on the modality consult and engage and one milestone would be a report to the augmented central committee.”

I’m not exactly sure what any of that means. It’s possible it was Communist dirty talk, the kind of tumescent rhetoric you might have heard if you’d phoned a Moscow phone sex service in 1985. Not that I judge: when you’ve had a long day trying to seize the means of production (“Jeremy, what’s the password on my computer? No, I’ve tried RedTerror17.”) and you’ve got into your German-built means of propulsion and gone home, you sometimes need to embrace unique means of compulsion.

It’s also possible, however, the SACP is actually getting ready to go it alone. Which makes things very explicit indeed. After all, why does a parasite leave its host?

If it contests the 2019 elections, the SACP will win a single-figure percentage of the vote. But if the remora has left the shark because it knows the shark is about to die — or about to drop below 50% in the polls – then all of us might be winners after all.

Onward, brave Communists!


Published in The Times


I’m going into the ANC T-shirt biz

The Rand

The South African Rand

Let me be very clear. The shrivelling of the rand is not the fault of Jacob Zuma or the ANC.

It is a blatant lie that bad government is to blame. Because, of course, we don’t have bad government. We have no government.

I understand the confusion. I mean, it’s logical to assume that the people making speeches in parliament are politicians and that this implies the existence of some sort of government acting in the interests of the public.

But the thing is, those people aren’t public servants. What they are is just plain old businesspeople, running a very successful private investors’ club, accumulating and safeguarding enormous fortunes for their few hundred members.

I know it’s confusing, especially because they often call themselves “the government” and they’ve bought office space in parliament and various provincial legislatures. But blaming them for wrecking the economy is as silly as accusing Goldman Sachs of being a bad government. It’s not their job. It hasn’t been their job for six or seven years. And if you still think it should be, or that they might start doing it, then you really haven’t been paying attention.

I don’t know who broke the Zuma Rand. Perhaps we all did. Financial journalists regularly point out that we South Africans are uniquely inept with our money: those who have some tend to spend it faster than an SA Communist Party commissar in a Mercedes showroom.

One explanation could be that we’re fantastically bad with numbers. The press is still trying to figure out the calculation that raised the matric maths literacy mark from 38% to 71%, but I don’t think it was a calculation at all. I suspect it was an aesthetic decision: 7 looks a bit like a Nike swoosh, which is cool, so that had to be in there somewhere, and 1 looks like a finger, which is what maths literacy graduates use for counting, so naturally that had to go in too. All in all, a much nicer looking number than 38, because 3 looks like a broken 8, and 8 looks like Bennie Boekwurm, and nobody wants one-and-a-half worms for a final matric mark, right?

a lot of us are behaving like indignant British colonials

Another possible reason we spend more than we earn is that rands are increasingly depressing things to have. Over the years they’ve gone from being a tenner you discover in your pocket to a silver fiver you find in your car’s ashtray to that green, corroding 5 cent smear you scrape off the bottom of your kitchen drawer. No wonder we spend them as fast as we can.

To be fair, though, the rand isn’t dying alone. The Russian rouble can’t buy you a decent hit on a journalist in Moscow any more, and the Brazilian real is worth about as much as the floaters bobbing about in the Rio Olympic yacht basin. But still, it’s all very alarming for those of us raised on the myth of South African exceptionalism: regardless of our political leanings, a lot of us are behaving like indignant British colonials who have been herded into an internment camp, snapping open our parasols and marching over to the commandant to demand that he sorts out what is clearly just a terrible misunderstanding. We are South Africans, damn it! Surely there has simply been some clerical error that we can sort out like gentlemen?

But time and currency traders wait for no one, and the rand continues to reflect our meandering journey to wherever we’re going. The De Klerk Ront has been denounced: you’ll struggle to find anyone admitting they ever spent one. The Mandela Rand has passed away and become myth. The Mbeki Rand has been recalled. The Zuma Rand, a currency still quite useful for buying fire-pools and votes, will inevitably be replaced by another. Some are starting to whisper about the Dlamini-Zuma Rand, or, as euphoric British tourists would call it, two pence. And then? Will it be a Malema Rand, a unique dual currency that buys economic freedom for senior Fighters and fokkol for everyone else?

I don’t know, of course, because, like many people in so-called government, I know absolutely nothing about economics. But I do know that it’s time I found alternative revenue streams.

Luckily for me, there’s an election coming, which means South Africa’s three growth industries this year will be T-shirts, food parcels and speeches about redistributing land. The state already has speech writers — or at least a hand-cranked speech-generating machine made in Murmansk in 1958 — but I reckon I can still coin it with the other two.

Say, five million yellow shirts emblazoned with “VOTE FOR US OR YOUR SOCIAL GRANT STOPS”? Ten million hamburger buns emblazoned with the face of the president? Lordy, I’d make millions of rands! Literally dozens of pounds!

So long, suckers. I’m off to the printers.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

A royal pain

royalsLike all great fairy tales, it started with a palace; a gigantic thing, all gold and gleaming.

The young man at the nearby table used his hands to describe soaring columns and endless corridors. His friend shook her head, enchanted.

The Palace of Versailles was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, he said. But it hadn’t just been the beauty that had affected him. Visiting the place had taught him two incredible lessons.

The first was about the past, namely, that people in the olden days were far more skilled than we give them credit for. Did his friend realise that the palace had been built, like, 200 years ago and yet – his eyes grew wide and his friend gaped in amazement – it was still standing?

So far, so normal. I used to teach 19-year-olds and I quickly discovered that to most of them history is what you had for breakfast. But I must confess I was surprised by the second lesson.

Visiting Versailles, he said, had taught him that if you have enough passion, you can achieve anything.

Fairy tales are full of unlikely events, but this felt absurd for a very specific reason: the man telling the story was black. It sounded tone-deaf, jarringly discordant; a young African, living in an era and a country defined by narratives of liberation and unearned privilege, being inspired by a monument to the triumph of the unelected super-rich over the disenfranchised poor.

Then again, perhaps such confusion and contradictions are inevitable in our confused and contradictory country. Talk about palaces in modern South Africa, and things get very messy, very quickly.

Lenin and King Louis must be spinning in their graves

How do you stay ideologically consistent when the SACP is an ally of the ANC which defends the privilege of traditional leaders? Communists allied to kings? Lenin and King Louis must be spinning in their graves.

Inconsistency lies at the heart of South Africa’s relationship with royalty. Most of us have marvelled that citizens of a constitutional democracy are taxed by a democratically elected state which then uses some of that money to pay 10 kings, hundreds of chiefs and thousands of headmen to enact a set of laws that run parallel to the laws of the land.

Last week supporters of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo protested against the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal to jail him on charges including kidnapping and assault of his subjects, saying he was merely doing his kingly duty, and acting within traditional law. But what tipped this over into the surreal was that the spokesman for this group is also the deputy labour minister. When it comes to democracy versus royalty, many of our public officials are taking Marie Antoinette one step further: they’re having cake, and eating it.

royals are simply Mafia families that haven’t needed to rub out anyone for a while

Perhaps that’s because, despite our claims that we like and understand democracy, a surprising number of people around the world still believe that royalty is actually a thing. Whether the training is coming from folklore or from Disney, it works the same, teaching us that kings and queens are special. We refuse to see that royals are simply Mafia families that haven’t needed to rub out anyone for a while. We love the continuity that royals seem to represent, but we seldom ask how the first of the line got all that power, maybe because, deep down, we know the answer: they hacked somebody to death and took it out of the dead hands of its previous owner.

The only difference between the Windsors in London and a psychotic warlord building a narco-state in the Caucasus or the Amazon jungle is time. He knows he will have to settle for being president. His son will be president commander. His grandson will be lord commander. But his great-grandson, ah, his great-grandson will be king, and will be applauded with silk gloves as he releases flocks of doves over an Olympic ceremony.

If you think I’m being cynical, consider the fairytale kingdom of Monaco. In 1967 it issued a stamp commemorating Lucien, Lord of Monaco in the early 1500s. Lucien got the gig because he murdered his brother, Jean. But it didn’t last as long as he hoped, because he was duly murdered by his nephew. That’s the kind of dirt most normal families try to bury, but if you’re rich enough you put it on a stamp. I put it to you that these are not well people.

Compared to Europe’s most successful plunderers, our local royals seem fairly benign. Except, of course, that Europe’s traditional leaders have no power to do anything except wave. Our country is a democracy, so if people want to be judged and jailed by kings then that’s their right. But traditional leaders, too, need to check their privilege from time to time. After all, Versailles represents more than just a pretty building.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail