Shame on you, Cyril!

surprised cyril

I must admit that I am terribly disappointed in Cyril Ramaphosa.

Just one affair? What kind of presidential contender only has one affair?

In France you can’t even become deputy mayor unless you list at least three dangerous liaisons in your CV. The Italian constitution demands that when a new president is inaugurated, he or she has to take the oath of office while being orally pleasured by at least five lovers. And Ramaphosa has the nerve, the barefaced audacity, to admit that he’s only had one paltry dalliance?

No, Mr Ramaphosa. This will not stand. You have betrayed the very institution of patriarchal politics and you have lost the respect of the millions of hypocrites in this country.

Still, at least the disappointing revelations of the weekend were illuminating in other ways. For starters, there was more confirmation (if any more was needed) of just how inept the Zupta camp can be when it comes to Machiavellian schemes.

A sex scandal? Seriously? All the dirty tricks at their disposal and they opt for a sex scandal? Their own godfather brushed off an extramarital one-night stand and a rape trial. The political consequences of Jeff Radebe’s sexting shenanigans have been the distant chirping of a lone cricket. And yet somehow they convinced themselves that South Africa would rise up in puritanical fury against Ramaphosa.

It seems delusional, but I think there is method to this madness; a method written down and learned by heart, 50 years ago, in the Soviet Union or Bulgaria. It was even a good method: back then, kompromat – salacious information used for blackmail – could remove opponents and topple governments.

But what the Zupta brains trust doesn’t seem to understand is that it is 2017, not 1967. The sex scandal has been defused and rendered almost entirely useless as a weapon. And that’s because its animating, destructive energy – shame – has been evaporated by modernity.

“Hey Jacob you little hottie. Send nudes. Also nuclear contracts.”

The world in which powerful people offer tearful apologies and resignations is gone, replaced by one in which a man can boast that he “moved” on a married woman “like a bitch”; can urge men to “grab ’em by the pussy”; and still become president of the US. It is a world in which a politician can joke that an alleged rape victim “enjoyed” her ordeal because she stayed for breakfast, and go on to become hailed as a progressive president-in-waiting.

None of that, however, penetrated the bubble of the Zuptas or their puppets in the press; and so they trotted out their kompromat and told us that Ramaphosa is a “blesser”, a hilarious accusation given that this country is hostage to the biggest blesser-blessee relationship of them all. (“Hey Jacob you little hottie. Send nudes. Also nuclear contracts.”) Sigh.

The second thing the B-grade smear illuminated was our collective desperation for something better.

We’re fond of false dichotomies in this country but within hours of the non-story being published by non-journalists, Ramaphosa’s supporters were outdoing themselves. If Zuma was Voldemort, Ramaphosa was Harry Potter, the magical chosen one, a reluctant messiah who would save us all.

“This is the kind of leadership we need!” tweeted “rebel” MP Derek Hanekom, a post retweeted almost 100 times by fellow Ramaphosists.

I enjoyed his enthusiasm but I wondered what kind of leadership, exactly, Hanekom was referring to. Was it Ramaphosa’s impression of a smiling statue, holding perfectly still as the ANC was hollowed out? Was it his refusal to take a meaningful stand against wholesale looting until he was ready to launch his own bid for power?

Obviously, it couldn’t be either. Which makes me think that Hanekom wasn’t actually talking about leadership. Instead, he and those who think like him are actually talking about Elastoplast. Because right now the country has only two presidential candidates. The first is a rusty spike being hammered deeper into a sucking chest wound. And the other is an Elastoplast.

I don’t think anybody seriously believes that an Elastoplast can fix a country. It is, after all, a sticking plaster, not a statesman. It might not even close the hole. But at least it’s not making the hole bigger. And right now, that feels like progress.


Published in The Times and TimesLive


Moonlight and Romans


One afternoon in Turkey, 2000 years ago, a man called Paul sat down and wrote a very long letter to his colleagues in the Corinth office.

The epistle, delivered by inter-office donkey, contained many beautiful thoughts on life and faith, and it went down very well with the Corinthians, although Quintus in Marketing was concerned that Paul claimed to be seeing “through a glass, darkly”. Had the Ephesus branch stopped washing its windows? Because that really wouldn’t reflect well.

They told Quintus to put a sock in it and he asked, “What’s a sock?” and they told him to go and feed the donkey, and they read on, eagerly. But then they came across a passage that made them glance awkwardly at each other; because instead of being about righteousness and worldly troubles, it was about love.

Love, wrote Paul, carefully forming the letters in a world full of cruelty, is patient. It is kind. It does not envy or boast. It isn’t proud. (At this juncture they murmured, “Amen,” for many of them had recently been humbled by love, especially Barnabas in Accounts who had been sleeping on the couch since Tuesday. When they read on, and saw that love “keeps no record of wrongs”, Barnabas perked up, but they told him not to try his luck.)

Today, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians has been tarnished by overuse. A few kind and earnest hearts still repeat it at weddings, but too often, these days, 1 Corinthians is the last resort of teachers who have forgotten that they are leading the assembly devotion this morning.

This week, though, it might be worth dusting off Paul’s words. Because this is the week when our relationship with love – and our patience and kindness – are tested to the limit by Valentine’s Day.

It wasn’t always like that. When I encountered Valentine’s Day for the first time, it seemed to have a lot to do with love. Especially the bit about patience. I was incredibly patient. I waited from 1985 until 1989 to get a Valentine’s Day card from my love. It never happened, but she did once bite me in the head by accident so I can truthfully claim that I bled for her.

Once I grew up, however, and put away childish things (Quintus didn’t like that part of the epistle at all), I started to suspect that Valentine’s Day might not be about love after all, at least not the love outlined by Saint Paul. For starters, it can be spectacularly unkind. And if love is not supposed to boast or be proud, why is that asshole Brad in Grade 7 going around showing everyone the two cards he got?

love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir

No, with maturity comes the realisation that love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir. The Romantic-Industrial Complex has harvested the beautiful subtleties of attraction and loyalty and clamped them in a pink, fuzzy vice, doused them with despair until they melt into the general shape of a kitten, cast the warped lump in plastic retrieved from the digestive tract of a suffocated turtle, painted it with feelings of not being good enough, and then rolled it out to scream, “I WUV U!” at a lonely world.

I’m exaggerating, of course. It’s really not that bad. The turtles are dead before they hook the plastic out of them.

Still, one can’t deny that Valentine’s Day has become a vast and somewhat cynical industry: the day reportedly generates about $18-billion, $17.8-billion of which goes to columnists to write about how awful it is.

The other $0.2-billion is paid to writers to reveal the day’s ancient origins, which is how I discovered that Valentine’s Day has roots in Ancient Rome. It seems that between February 13 and 15 the ancient Romans used to celebrate fertility by getting fertile with each other, all over the place, until they had to stop and replenish their electrolytes or reupholster the furniture. Of course, they also did this on February 12 and February 16, as well as between January 1 and February 11, and from February 16 until December 31, but those three days were special.

Naturally, not everyone was involved. Valentine is, after all, the patron saint of unreasonably high expectations, and the day’s ancient ancestor would probably also have featured a fair amount of heartbreak. (“Roses are red, violets are blue, here’s a dead Gaul I had flayed just for you.” “Ja listen we need to talk.”)

Today, some of us will be involved and some of us won’t. Some hearts will soften and others will harden. Some people will taste only sweetness in the day, others will gag on the saccharine aftertaste.

Either way, though, love will remain, patient and kind. And a little more patience and kindness can never be a bad thing.


Published in The Times

Sex without a happy ending

rotk.funnyface2I don’t remember the theme of my high school dance.

It might have been “Night of a Thousand Stars” or “20 000 Leagues Under The Sea” or “Arabian Nights”. In the mid-1990s my school was trying hard to nurture compromise and broad-based discussion so it’s even possible we ended up with “20 000 Arabs Under The Sea At Night”, and I went dressed as the commander of a vast Saudi submarine fleet. I really can’t remember.

But I do know that for my teachers, all dances had the same theme: “A Heaving Orgy Behind The Bicycle Shed Climaxing In A Baby Boom Sometime Late Next Year”.

The school was fairly religious, a wood-polish-scented mix of Methodist optimism and Anglican defeatism shot through with a crackling bolt of old-timey Baptist brimstone. A polite d├ętente existed between the old guard and a handful of godless radicals who padded around the staff room in Birkenstocks made of hemp. Tradition and modernity wrestled like Jacob and his angel. But as our dance rolled closer like an inexorable pram full of babies spawned to Ace of Base, traditionalists and reformers found common ground. It was time to warn. It was time to educate and empower. It was time to show us The Film.

Our hopes were high as we shuffled into the hall. At last, we thought, some proper sex education. With pictures. Perhaps moving pictures. And some moody saxophone music, and maybe a thin plot featuring a wealthy heiress whose air-conditioning has broken, and because she’s just so hot – so, so hot – she has to phone for a repairman.

Some of us probably knew a little about sex. Some of the boys, the ones who could shave, had condoms in their wallets and even knew how to use them (you don’t over-fill the condom with water or you can’t tie the knot properly). For my part, I was about 40% sure that sex didn’t involve either birds or bees, although I was willing to be convinced that birds and bees sometimes had sex with each other, which was possibly where hummingbirds came from. But generally, sex education in Cape Town’s southern suburbs was like reading the laws governing LBW decisions in cricket: awkwardly formal and very specific and yet still almost impossible to understand without diagrams.

I gather that the teens are experimenting with Alain de Botton now

Of course, a few brave teachers had tried from time to time over the years, starting their explanations with a long, shuddering sigh before revealing that when a man and woman are deeply in love and married, they sometimes feel the urge to stimulate each other. When this happens, the man and the woman sit down on facing sofas and read each other extracts from The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. (I gather that the teens are experimenting with Alain de Botton now, which explains why they are out of control, “consoling” each other in dark cinemas and hedges and wherever else teens congregate.)

Thus aroused, the couple will now start touching each other’s erogenous zone, which is a strip of land between North and South Korea. It is now time for the spouses to begin something called “forp lay”, named after the ancient Saxon festival during which forps were laid on the roof of the family hovel and then set on fire to ward off ice zombies.

Soon the lovers are swept up in their passion, and set about caressing each other’s most sensitive parts, such as the eyeball and the back of the throat. These caresses have a powerful physiological effect, as a specific part of both the man and woman become engorged. This part is known as their “sense of duty”. Determined to do their duty, the man and woman sink out of sight next to the bed, at which point Satan enters the bedroom.

Disappointingly, the film covered none of that. Instead, it opened nine months later, with blood and screaming and the rending of flesh and poop and crying and more blood. We were plunged face-first into the miracle of birth, an entire wall lit up by a vagina and a baby’s head. There was no music. The plot was simple: sex ends with a screaming, bloodied parasite bursting out of a screaming, bloodied woman.

Half an hour later, a hundred teenagers walked out of that hall determined never to touch another human being again for as long as they lived. Even self-love was out of the question. Yes, it seemed unlikely that sperm could go airborne and impregnate someone a few kilometres away, but who really knew? Just that year we’d seen Arnold Schwarzenegger get pregnant in Junior, and if Emma Thompson could agree to appear in that movie then surely anything was possible?

I don’t remember the dance, but I’m pretty sure when MC Hammer started up, telling us “U Can’t Touch This“, we gratefully obeyed.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

Sex in the suburbs


The first thing you noticed about the young woman on her balcony across the road was that she was mostly naked.

A black, translucent veil-like thing strained at its seams but it had been designed to show off far more than it obscured, and what it revealed was a bosom she was clearly very proud of.

No, on second thoughts, that wasn’t the first thing you noticed. The first thing you noticed was the machete, a great big gleaming murderous Orc-sword of a thing, clutched in her plump hand.

Had she simply been a generously endowed woman floating about on her balcony like a character from vampire-themed erotica, I might have done the gentlemanly thing and only glanced up from my coffee 12 or 15 times. But the machete pushed the whole scene into a different league. I couldn’t look away.

On her balcony wall stood a variety of potted plants, including one very imposing cactus, and it was this plant that she now approached, tilting her head this way and that as she sized it up. There was something odd in her movements, a forced theatricality that I couldn’t quite place, but I didn’t have time to ponder any more because she was pulling on a pair of thick yellow rubber gloves. As she tugged at them the veil floated up and she made an entirely unconvincing sound of alarm and pulled it down again, hiding exactly nothing from view. And then, like a Valkyrie about to cut short a very bad date, she drew back her machete and swung it with appalling force into the middle of the cactus.

For a moment everything wobbled: the cactus, her, my grasp on reality. Then she worked the blade free and took another swing. The cactus was as thick as a thigh and somewhat indifferent to her assault. She began to saw, struggling to make headway through the flesh of the plant – apparently you never bring a machete to a cactus fight – but then she paused, pouting, one hand on her hip, and I was again struck by the curiously posed feeling of the scene. This wasn’t a slightly eccentric gardener doing some semi-nude pruning. This was a bad actor, simulating indecision and frustration for an audience.

I was pretty sure she couldn’t see me, but who else could she see in the building above me? Who else was watching this bizarre little scene? Had I stumbled into a burlesque show for one? Perhaps I was the uninvited third wheel at a daily tryst between an exhibitionist and a voyeur with a cactus kink. Even now, he or she might be sitting up behind a window somewhere, chewing a blanket and whispering, “Yes! Mr Cactus has been bad! Mr Cactus must be punished!”

With one final slash the cactus was bisected and she turned and disappeared from view. Suddenly I felt chastened. I had sexualised an innocent, bucolic scene and projected God knew what kinks onto an entirely conventional person who – holy mother of cleavage! She had returned, but the Vampira veil was gone, replaced with the smallest sequined micro-dress ever stitched together by Vaudevillian elves. Instead of a machete, she brandished a broom. Apparently this was her housekeeping ensemble. I could almost hear the voyeur upstairs saying, “Yes! I’ve been a dirty dirty little balcony and I need a broom! Broom me! BROOM ME!”

That’s the fascinating thing about the burbs. You just never know. As I walked home past picturesque Victorian semis and quaint front gardens patrolled by Jack Russells, I recalled an acquaintance who now and then indulges in a bit of sadomasochistic swinging in the suburbs. It is a midnight world of passwords and discreet invitations, where judges and housewives and academics and captains of industry descend into exquisitely appointed dungeons and do things to each other that would make the Marquis de Sade blush. It is a world kept entirely secret, entirely apart from the collective reality we share. That reality insists that sex in the suburbs or in flats opposite coffee shops is something politely middle class, an ancient ritual celebrating love or devotion or companionship. But there are other ancient rituals, too. I looked at the pretty homes containing pretty lives. That newly excavated cellar: was it for a wine collection or a rubber bench with a harness suspended over it? That new riding crop being hurried inside from the Land Rover: was it a surprise birthday present for a pony-mad child, or was it for the ageing rump of a grateful barrister?

It is entirely possible that the cactus lady was performing only for herself, enjoying the feel of the air on her skin and the sense of power that comes with swinging a machete. But there are so many other possibilities too. That’s the great thing about people. You just never know.


First published in The Times and TimesLive