South Africa

South Africa has always been a terrible place run by terrible people

SAdisaster

There’s no funny way to say this, so I’m just going to say it.

The CEO of SAA has been paid R600-million to leave his post.

That’s 20 times the amount Brian Molefe was going to be paid for “saving” us from load-shedding, or two Nkandlas with R100-million in change.

I am, of course, not talking about the current CEO, Vuyani Jarana, who is still very much at his post, overseeing a team of men shovelling piles of our tax rands into the spinning turbines of a parked Airbus.

No, the guy I’m talking about left in 2001. His name was Coleman Andrews and he was paid R230-million on his way out the door, about R600-million in today’s money.

Did you feel that? Your blood pressure easing as you realised I was talking about something that happened ages ago? Perhaps even a twinge of annoyance that I was bringing up ancient history when there’s so much corruption happening right now?

Those feelings are how we cope.

We relegate old scandals to the past and brace for new ones, like castaways on a raft cresting one wave and bracing for the next.

That reaction, however, also reveals the depth of our collective denial.

If you believe each scandal is a singular event, a crisis to overcome so that you can return to some sort of pre-existing calm, then you believe every wave in the ocean is an anomaly. But, of course, the ocean is made of moving water. And South Africa is made of corruption.

We pretend it isn’t. Every day we tell ourselves this or that example of thievery or violence is an anomaly in an otherwise law-abiding country. Every day we tell ourselves that beyond the next wave there is flat water.

That delusion is essential to our survival. If you allow yourself to see your position – nowhere, on a raft, facing an infinite number of waves – it’s easy to despair. We have to believe the ocean will end; that everything will be fine once we send a few crooks to jail.

And yet when has South Africa ever been fine? When, in the past three centuries, has it not been a Gordian knot of exploitation, misery and unabashed criminality?

Murder drew the country’s borders and mapped out its regional fiefdoms. Slaves established its farms. People stripped of their dignity and property dug its mines and built its towns and cities. And in those towns and cities exploitation was rebranded as enterprise, a lie sold so well that even the exploiters started believing they had built it all by themselves by working hard.

And yet, even now, we resist acknowledging this existential corruption continues. We agree the Sharpeville massacre was carried out by a monstrous system, but the murder of miners at Marikana, well, that was an anomaly. We dare not admit fully to ourselves that violence and trauma and profound corruption comprise the very DNA of this country. And so we forget.

Take Coleman Andrews. If you’re like me, you’d probably filed him away, the way we’ve filed away slavery and colonialism and the Land Act and apartheid and even some early ANC scandals, packing them into the box labelled “The Vague Past, To Be Discussed Later Once This Is All Sorted Out”.

Because that’s what total corruption trains us to do. No collective memory, no collective consequences. Just brace for the next wave and continue to believe the waves will end.

So what do we do? I think the first step is to discard the self-soothing belief that this is a good place being ruined by bad people. Instead, perhaps it is time to consider this is a terrible place, being run, as it always has been, by terrible people; that the country we pretend to live in doesn’t exist.

At least, not yet. It could, but it will be hard, because we will have to do it all ourselves; deciding who gets what land and what economic justice looks like and who has to foot the bill.

In the end, however, it is the only hope we have. The alternative is a tiny raft on an ocean of waves.

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Published in The Times and TimesLive

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Are you a “Poor Bob” snob?

graduation

Poor Bob. That’s what his family used to call him.

It probably started in high school when he failed a year or two and the counsellor called in his parents and showed them a graph.

A good boy, a hard worker. But he was – here the counsellor cleared his throat and pointed at the graph creeping along the baseline – not really what one would call academic.

Thus diagnosed, the infection spread rapidly. Bob became Poor Bob in a matter of months, and when he scraped through Matric by a percentage point or two, Poor Bob became, for a time, Poor, Poor Bob.

It went without saying that university was never going to happen for Poor Bob. Still, there were things Poor Bob could do. Things “with his hands” – the old, middle-class euphemism for getting dirty. Surgeons and pianists use their hands too, of course, but Poor Bob was never going to be one of them. No, “doing things with his hands” meant sticking them up exhaust pipes or down drains.

These days, nobody calls him Poor Bob any more. That’s because he’s now a plumber and every time he reaches into a blocked pipe he pulls out fistfuls of money.

As a humanities graduate, I find the story of Poor Bob more and more interesting.

Partly that’s because I’m starting to be haunted by the suspicion that I should have learned a trade. When you’re 19, with no conception of age or permanence, you imagine that you’ll be writing or creating at the same pace for the rest of your life. But now that I’m ancient by undergraduate standards, I have to admit that it’s going to be difficult to write a column for the next 15 years, let alone the next 30. So yes, the idea of making a pile of slightly piquant dosh and then employing an apprentice sounds pretty good right now.

Mainly, however, I find Poor Bob’s story a useful insight into something many people have been grappling with over the last few months.

We South Africans enjoy emotive, empowering rhetoric. From the EFF’s chest-thumping sound bytes and the Fallists’ battle cries to Oprah-esque bonbons about being the maker of your own destiny, we’re fond of believing that we’re a nation of doers; of self-made, self-motivated superheroes.

Which is, I would humbly suggest, not the case. And Poor Bob is proof.

a place of rigid destinies

Dig a little deeper, apply a little pressure, and you’ll find that most of us are not living a South African copy of the 20th-century American Dream, where you can be whatever you want to be.

On the contrary, this is for the overwhelming majority a place of rigid destinies and strictly policed social positions; where Victorian notions of class and human worth have combined with ancient beliefs in royalty and blood purity to create a society deeply invested in hierarchies.

Which is how Bob became Poor Bob. If he’d been German and unencumbered by Victorian class prejudices, his counsellor would have had good news for his parents: Bob was a prime candidate for technical school and could look forward to a long and stable career making high-end technology. But in South Africa? Cue the sound of embarrassed whispers behind fans in the drawing room.

Of course, some anxiety is understandable. We don’t have technical schools or training colleges, so if your child isn’t going to university it’s easy to worry about sending them off into a howling void.

But the fact is, “working with your hands” was a euphemism long before the collapse of these institutions. The whispers go back generations.

Which is why it might not be enough simply to blame an incompetent government for the current graduate-or-starve dichotomy. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge our own part in this situation, and to consider the possibility that a collective, unconscious snobbery has helped push us into this corner.

So where to from here? Well, for starters, let’s climb down off this high Victorian horse and see tertiary education for the useful little donkey it is. Let’s be honest and admit that, barring a few postgraduates and the odd philosophy student, almost nobody is going to university to get an education. They’re going there to receive specific knowledge about one small niche, so that they can be comfortably streamed into a similar niche in the working world. A humanities student can graduate without knowing anything about money or machines. A medical student can study for seven years and never read a poem. These are not educations. These are qualifications.

If we can admit that a qualification is simply a qualification and not evidence of being a higher life form; if we can agree that knowing how to build an engine is just as impressive as a PhD in political science; then we’ve got a chance to push for the kind of education system we need. The kind that turns Poor Bob into Rich Bob.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Campus protests are business as usual at the big hole

bigholeVanguard. A brave new world. Unprecedented violence. New lows of hooliganism.

If the rhetoric from both camps is anything to go by, the protests curdling South African universities are something entirely new. Even the campuses, familiar landmarks until recently, have been reimagined as entirely new spaces:  enclaves on a new frontier, uncharted, open for capture by competing forces.

I’m sure that the last few weeks have been appallingly stressful for students and staff, with many plunged into situations and dilemmas they’ve never faced before. But as an outsider following the deluge of reports and tweets from the front lines, I must confess that much of it has looked strangely familiar. Instead of glimpsing terra incognita, I’ve simply seen our national crises and complexes acted out in microcosm.

For example: both the yawning chasm between rich and poor and the nasty tendency to tell the poor that they simply need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are present in the monstrous catch-22 faced by so many students. With youth unemployment at well over 60% and with no German-style vocational training available, they’ve been told that a degree is their only hope to earn money — but they don‘t have enough money to pay for a degree.

The parallels go on.

As our national conversations become more polarised and wrathful, I’ve seen budding despots “no-platform” people from speaking on campuses, refusing to listen to different views simply because they are different. And, as is often the case when dictators start flexing their muscles, I’ve seen blossoming thinkers try to keep intellectual and political spaces open, holding complicated, contradictory ideas in balance.

As the politicians continue to be paid vast sums for passing the buck, I’ve seen young apprentice politicians — the cabinet of 2040 — learning the dismal tricks of their trade. I’ve seen them test the power of angry, empty words; of directing righteous anger against the wrong targets.

The great politician has a genius for getting other people to make sacrifices that will advance his or her own career, and I’ve watched this handful of ministers-in-the-making bring other students’ lives to a standstill while surging to the front of the queue themselves, pushing into pole position for long and lucrative careers in government.

And finally, as big, organised money gets on with the business of making more money, I’ve watched moneyed students buying the space they need to get on with their work.

major lawsuits, even class actions, aren’t far off

(For now, the money is keeping calm and carrying on. But I suspect that major lawsuits, even class actions, aren’t far off. Money doesn’t like its reproductive functions being messed with.)

Beyond the campuses, the response to the protests has also been business as usual.

We’ve continued our endless fascination with tertiary education, blind as ever to the utter devastation in our primary and secondary schools that continues to grind our potential into the mud. We’ve retreated into extreme positions, branding the students as violent, entitled hooligans or as revolutionary geniuses who are our only hope for the future. We’ve been properly sucked into an “us good, them bad” position. In short, pretty much your average day in South Africa.

I’m not qualified to offer the tiniest shred of advice to students or academics on how to end this impasse or on where to find the cash or on what to do with it. But I do know that the current discussion — in which the universities are somewhere over there on the outskirts of town and the students are good or bad and that someone will do something and then we can all go back to complaining about Jacob Zuma — is not going anywhere.

That’s because the universities aren’t over there. They’re right here. The students are us. They’re a strand in the fabric of our society, and if they’re unravelling, then it suggests that the whole thing has already started looking a bit ropey.

Some are claiming that the burning of books, art and buildings is the first step in the implosion of our society. But I suspect they might be confusing cause and effect, and living under the misapprehension that, despite the odd hiccup here and there, South Africa is pootling along more or less in the right direction. Which is, of course, not the case.

This country is profoundly dysfunctional. That’s because it‘s not really a country. South Africa is an abandoned mine. Sure, there are livings to be made around the edges of the great, gaping hole, but it was always an exploitative venture with a finite lifespan, and now that the original exploiters have made their piles and buggered off, the place’s fundamental raison d’être is vague. We’re drifting, because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be now.

The students won’t show us the way forward. But they are showing us where we are, right now. And, grim as it seems, that’s a start.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Pols, poles and polls

ANC-poster

High up in the sky, at the top of the tallest telephone pole in the street, Jacob Zuma is smiling like a dope.

His expression is that of a Roman emperor being fellated on a tiger skin while listening to an ensemble of harpists and a briefing from a temple priestess who had a dream in which the emperor was riding a burning elephant through a barley field, sure proof that this year’s crop will be the best ever. So pretty apt, really.

The impression of distant, untouchable, delusional power is reinforced by the location of Jacob Zuma’s face. In Cape Town, the ANC’s elections posters tend to be very high up on the lampposts. This is because if they are anywhere within reach, Capetonians tend to attack the placards, clawing and biting at the cardboard until it hangs in ragged shreds. Defacing campaign posters is illegal, but then again so is building a private home with public money, so perhaps we’ll call that one a draw.

Lower on the poles and lower in the polls, the DA candidates have grown wings: a clever designer has placed the hopefuls in front of the national flag so that colourful stripes rise from their shoulders like the feathery pinions of archangels. The trouble is, nobody likes people with wings.

Like that X-man with the giant pair, who looked like the unfortunate result of an upsetting tryst between a human and a swan. We were encouraged to pity him and the prejudice he faced, but I got to tell you, if I saw that dude flapping past me I would properly freak out and throw a wrench at him before the pro-mutant lobby could conscientise me. As for the other superheroes that had wings poking out of their shoulders: do you even remember their names? Was it Kiewiet-Girl? The Silver Hadeda? Night-Chicken?

Speaking of forgetting people’s names, the FF+ posters are next, emblazoned with the smiling face of Constand Viljoen. Ag, not him, the other one. Connie Mulder. No, wait, he was the Information Scandal guy. (To think that a government-funded newspaper used to be called a “scandal”. Bless.) So not Connie. His son. Something Mulder. Japie? Fox? Pieter! Anyway. There’s Pieter.

always leave ’em wanting more

There’s nobody on the EFF posters. That’s one of the fantastic benefits of a personality cult. You know The Face is etched into the hearts of the faithful, and by not showing The Face you remind everyone of The Face. First rule of razzle-dazzle showbiz: always leave ’em wanting more.

So there they are, all asking me to vote for them. Except for the EFF. They’re ordering me to vote for them. “VOTE EFF”, their poster says. I can respect that. It’s a clear, concise announcement of centralised, militarised power: a barked instruction, undiluted by wishy-washy nonsense like promises or explanations or track records.

Not like the ANC and DA posters. Those are full of – actually I’m not sure what they’re full of because, even though I’ve read them a thousand times, I can’t remember the words. To be fair, the ANC ones are too high up the pole to read clearly – something about power and people and Dora the Explorer’s pirate adventure, no, wait, that’s an ad for some school holiday theatre. But the DA slogan is actively repelling my mind. Why? Because for some reason they decided to use the word “progress”. And “progress”, my friends, is what polite teachers write in the report cards of idiot children. I know, because it’s what my music teacher used to write about me. “Tom is making steady progress through Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s Book of Elementary Tunes for Tone-Deaf Children Who Can Only Use Two Fingers at a Time.”

Last week I wrote rather cynically about wanting better lies from politicians, but that supremely vague and euphemistic “progress” got me thinking about how tired I am of the jargon and the coded language, and it made me think about how refreshing it would be to hear the truth, no matter how banal or unsexy it might be.

Imagine how much more you’d respect the ANC if its posters showed Zuma mashing a slice of cake into his face under the slogan, “We were pretty fantastic until about 1998 and then the wheels fell off because let’s be honest, money is lekker, and in theory most of us would like to do the right thing but we’ve got hungry interior decorators to feed so please don’t cut us off.”

The DA? “A few parts of Cape Town are run like a Swiss watch-making factory and we might have just enough capacity to replicate that in one other metro, so pull in and it might be your metro! Maybe. Terms and conditions apply.” The FF+? “It’s flippen scary here, yo.”

The EFF, though, don’t need to change a thing. “VOTE EFF” says it all, doesn’t it?

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

A country of no consequence

i did it my way

“I did it myyyyyyyyyy way!”

As I watched David Cameron resign, I wondered: what would it take for Jacob Zuma to stand on Plein Street outside parliament and resign?

Most of us have asked a similar question but I’m not sure how many have pushed for an answer. In this increasingly gloomy society it’s not so much a question as a statement of despair, usually followed by someone guiding the conversation somewhere else by announcing that they’re putting on the kettle and asking if anyone wants a biscuit.

But at that moment, as I watched a politician trying to keep his head above a flood of consequences, I really wanted to know: what would Zuma have to do in order for the ANC to tell him to quit?

Think about it. Anything coming to mind? No? Well, that’s to be expected. When astronauts spend months in space, their muscles atrophy. The same thing has happened to us. We’ve spent so long floating around in this zero-consequence country that our imaginative muscles have withered. We are no longer familiar with cause and effect, action and reaction. Around here, things just happen.

Which is why it’s so difficult to think up a hypothetical crime that might force Zuma’s hypothetical resignation. Nothing makes sense. Nothing fits. We’ve decoupled from the laws of political physics.

Looking back at events, each of which would have destroyed a British prime minister or a US president in a blinding flash of public humiliation, you see that bizarre upending of reality. Being on trial for rape made Zuma stronger. Dodging hundreds of charges of corruption entrenched him even deeper. When it emerged that he’d used public money to build a private palace, the faithful revealed that the real villains were his architect, Thuli Madonsela and the media. (The R7.8-million he’s been ordered to cough up is no doubt a plot engineered by our CIA-controlled Treasury.) When white-shirted goons invaded parliament and the broadcast signal was jammed, he just giggled.

By the way: if you’re one of the many ANC stalwarts who told me that you would recall Zuma the moment he stepped out of line, please get in touch. I’m eager to hear whether the fact that you haven’t recalled him yet is because you don’t feel he’s stepped out of line (in which case you’re clearly in a coma and I would like to send some flowers to your hospital ward) or whether it’s because, as I respectfully suggested to you at the time, you’re the turkeys who voted for Christmas. In which case: gobble gobble while you can.

“Listen, Jacob, we need to talk.”

Given all that completely bonkers history, let’s take a sane moment and try to imagine an event that might cause enough anger and disgust within the party to trigger a chain of events that will end with the Buthibond knocking on the bunker door and saying, “Listen, Jacob, we need to talk.”

Drunk driving? Oh please, that’s so 2013. Drowning a barrelful of kittens? An unfortunate accident, with a generous donation to the SPCA. Assault? He’d be happy to defend himself in court – if you can find a witness.

No, the more I think about it, the more I’m certain that the only way the ANC would tell Zuma to fall on his sword would be if he murdered somebody live on national television.

Not just anybody, mind you. If he shot an opposition MP in parliament, it would be a matter of hours before the ANC unearthed evidence of a plot against his life. Luckily for a grateful nation, the ever-alert Zuma saw the villain going for his gun and managed to whip a pistol off a nearby officer before blasting away in self-defence. When the media and the public started working through the footage frame by frame, revealing no assassin, the ANC would accuse them of using fake footage, of being CIA moles, of taking the pixels out of context .

Of course nobody would be listening because the country would be on fire. But Zuma wouldn’t be forced to resign. You know he wouldn’t.

No, the only way he’d go too far would be to mow down a bunch of senior ANC officials in parliament for no reason whatsoever.

People in his faction would cook up reasons – a moment of poor judgment caused by relentless psychological attacks from the EFF and DA; a Pavlovian response to finally being handed his machine gun after years of asking for it – but then, and only then, would he be required to step down.

Is this preposterous? Perhaps. But the fact that it’s not an insane leap – that we have to rack our brains to think of more likely scenarios – is evidence enough of just how far up Shit Creek we’ve drifted.

And, in the end, it’s a pretty simple equation: zero-consequence countries end up being countries of no consequence whatsoever.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

 

Still snorting the fairy dust

magic

The young woman at the clinic had just received unexpected and upsetting news: she was six months pregnant with a human baby.

The doctor gently asked her if she had noticed any changes in her body that might have revealed the living thing growing inside her. Yes, she said, of course she‘d noticed changes. She wasn’t stupid. She‘d just never considered the possibility that it might be a baby.

The doctor was confused. What had she thought it was? A magical frog, answered the young woman; probably put there by a witch paid off by someone who bore a grudge against her.

The doctor who told us the story had done enough community service in rural areas to know such things were complicated and not easily dismissed with a “she should know better”. But the man across the table from me was aghast. How could people still believe in magic in the 21st century? How could any country hope to move forward when people still held medieval beliefs?

It was a peculiar thing for him to say, mainly because he had made it clear that he was a proud Christian, which meant that his beliefs were also medieval. But, more importantly, it seemed odd for someone to dismiss one magical tradition while being an eager supporter of another, in his case a Middle Eastern one in which bushes talk, sticks turn into snakes, oceans part and people come back from the dead.

The religions imported from the Middle East have used extraordinary violence to rebrand themselves as non-magical, so it‘s understandable that believers would actively reject the idea of magic existing in the modern world. These days, though, you don‘t need to burn women for witchcraft to stamp out magic: you just need to let the routine of urban drudgery suck the fairy dust out of life.

These days, magic is seen as something for children and depressed illusionists lurking along rain-swept piers in the off-season. Which is an astonishing self-delusion, because almost every single one of us has a deep, unshakable belief in magic. No matter our faith, our traditions, our history or our education, almost everybody believes in the possibility of a single transformative moment — a flash of light, a blue fairy, a line of numbers on a Lotto ticket — that will turn bad into good, sadness into joy and a pile of straw into a heap of gold.

If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved

If we weren’t steeped in magical fantasies, the advertising industry wouldn’t exist. We know that advertisements are lies, and that we are being deceived by people who are paid to suppress our critical faculties. And yet the ad industry is worth $600-billion a year because under our fashionable cynicism, deep down, we nurture the possibility of magic. If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved. If only we drive that car, we might be popular. If we just do that one thing, the spell will be spoken, the room will glow, and everything will be instantly all right.

It might seem incongruous to find that childlike hope permeating our political landscape, a place where parasites are willing to kill each other for a place at the artery. But those parasites are there precisely because we South Africans can‘t break free of our belief in magic.

We’ve been inhaling the fairy dust forever. If we make the castle walls high enough we won‘t ever need to have any dealings with the natives. If we just kill our cattle, the whites will be flung into the sea. If the National Party can just find a way to separate whites and blacks, the Republic will thrive. If we can only end apartheid, Uhuru will follow. If we can just recall Mbeki we‘ll finally have the country we deserve. If they find a way to remove Zuma, everything will eventually be okay. If only Helen Zille ran this province, she’d fix everything! If only everyone could see sense and vote EFF, President Commander Malema will create a land of milk and honey!

On and on, the same fantasy. And as we dream, the cynical realists get richer and more powerful because they understand magic better than we do: the magic of rhetoric, of how to play to our self-delusion, of preaching revolution and anti-capitalism while investing their cash in the cold, hard, non-magical market.

I don‘t think we‘re going to abandon magic any time soon, but if we can begin to accept that we have a pathological weakness when it comes to charismatic men promising us instant, permanent fixes, then we might have a chance to begin pulling this country back on a path towards something better.

It‘s time to break the spell. It‘s time to wake up.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Froth and steam

starbucks

In a dim corner shop, in the last years of the 1980s, the chocolates were singing.

You couldn’t hear them, of course. If you’d stood still next to the shelf of Ghost Pops and listened, all you would have heard was the arcade game in the corner going boop-boop-bang, and the black-and-white TV on the counter, where Ridge Forrester was proposing to Brooke Logan for the fourth time that month.

But the chocolates were singing all the same. Because, in my mind, they were pop stars.

I don’t know why I started associating them with the musical megastars of the time, but I did. TV Bars were Kylie Minogue, satisfying in a popped-rice sort of way. Bar Ones, relentlessly blaring their sweetness at you, were Whitney Houston. Cabrio, a mysterious nougat delight that was hard to find and impossible to define, was Prince. Tempo – nutty and prone to melting but universally adored – was Michael Jackson. And Chomps were Bles Bridges: you’d heard that people liked them, but you’d never actually met one of them in person.

I knew my pop stars and I knew my chocolates. The world made sense.

And then I ate a Snickers bar.

It came to me wrapped in a T-shirt and carefully packed at the bottom of a suitcase. It came from America. And it came in a pack of three. Looking at them, beautifully lined up, I saw the kind of ambition and ingenuity that had put humans on the moon. And when I bit into the first one, I tasted a new world.

This week I was reminded of my Snickers revelation of long ago, courtesy of a loud conversation between some pearl-clutching thought leaders.

Something terrible had happened, they murmured, alarmed. A violation. An invasion. A hate crime.

Starbucks had arrived in South Africa.

Starbucks, you will recall, is an American company that produces liquid sugar in a cup, various delicious pastries, and enormous amounts of bourgeois eye-rolling. But until that moment I hadn’t realised that they are also German stormtroopers on motorbikes.

Because that’s where the conversation went. Starbucks is a conquering power. And the South Africans who queue for their products do so not out of choice but because they have been colonised.

I must confess that I sometimes still get confused

When I was at university I heard a lot of wealthy children complaining about cultural imperialism but I was never quite sure what they meant. Why, I wondered, was it cultural imperialism when you wanted to watch an American movie, but if you read philosophy by a German translated into English, written in print invented by Romans, and wore a beret modelled after a French or Spanish design (which had been adopted by Cubans and Bolivians), you were somehow an authentic, self-made original?

It was only later that I discovered that cultural imperialism is about imbalances of power – a dominant culture squashing a smaller one. Again, though, I must confess that I sometimes still get confused. For example, the dominant culture in our local print and social media is overwhelmingly opposed to American cultural imperialism. I could be wrong, but it’s been a while since I saw a photo on Facebook of a group of people in a town square chanting “Life to America!” So if I buy a Starbucks bonbon, am I selling out or is it an act of resistance against the vast, prescriptive hegemony of the anti-American, anti-globalisation movement?

I confess that I’m ignorant about the finer points of the discourse. In fact I don’t really even know what a “discourse” is. I just know you have to say it when you find yourself trapped next to a Humanities graduate, perhaps because you were both lunging for the humus at the same time, so that they never discover that you thought a “discourse” was just a wanky word for “chatting about stuff”.

All of which is probably why I struggle to see those queues outside newly opened American stores as a sign of cultural oppression. I concede that it’s possible that some of those happy, eager faces are simply masks hiding zombie half-minds completely in thrall to the fiery, all-seeing eye of Lord Starbuck. But what if many of them are just people; eager for a small taste of something new, something foreign; to offset the endless sameness of life?

My Snickers bars in the 1980s didn’t taste better than a Tempo. The chocolate tasted like chicken and the caramel tasted like it was made by Boeing. But I didn’t care. The treat was the novelty, not the taste.

Fortunately, the conversation soon moved in a new direction. Beyoncé was about to release a new album – they all knew it was called Lemonade – and they were keen to discuss what the title meant, and how excited they were about it, and how glorious she was.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail