Steve Hofmeyr

Bell Pottinger and the dom drolle


Steve Hofmeyr once called me a dom drol.

I was delighted and not just because it was a glowing character reference. No, what really tickled me was Hofmeyr’s revelation that turds have an intellectual tradition.

After all, the existence of a dom drol implies the existence of a slim drol; a brilliant, original drol; a drol that can expand your mind and not just your colon. To this day I picture Steve, crouched over his loo, arguing race and history with a floater, accusing it of being a dom drol until it unleashes some glittering sophistry, stalking back and forth across the bowl like Aristotle pacing an amphitheatre, until Steve is forced to concede that it is, in fact, a slim drol.

I mention this only to make two points, namely, that I get called names quite often and that slim drolle are real.

Recently, people have taken to calling me “cynical”, as if they’re using an exaggerated and slightly cruel slur that will get an emotional response.

I don’t react because they’re right. About our country and its politics, I am utterly cynical. But even that’s not good enough, because my cynicism (I believe that South Africa is a used-up and abandoned mine, owned by rent-seekers who would burn it to the ground if they could collect the insurance) is simply not expansive enough to cover the volume of the shit that is swirling around our little canoe right now; the one we’re sitting in without a paddle.

Which brings me back to slim drolle and their bastard offspring, cunning turds, or as you and I know them, Bell Pottinger.

Wait, where are you going? What? You’ve already read three columns about Bell Pottinger today and you’ve still got four bookmarked from yesterday, plus the five from last week?

I can commiserate.

We’ve got BellPotty over the British propaganda firm, and recently it seems that every pundit in the country has turned their focus onto what is, to be honest, a fairly minor footnote in the history of South African corruption and state collapse.

So why has the response, at least in the media and online, been so explosive?

One possible answer is that white people got scared. A government campaign explicitly linking the idea of whiteness to the idea of vast, ill-gotten riches is extremely alarming to white people who don’t have the capital – monopolistic or otherwise – to protect themselves should public sentiment turn against them.

Many South Africans still admire Joseph Stalin

Another answer is patriotism, or at least a sort of sophisticated xenophobia.

As the philosopher Eddie Izzard pointed out, we only really get riled up about abuse when it crosses borders. Many South Africans, some of whom are in parliament, still admire Joseph Stalin, but which public figures, other than Mcebo Dlamini, are fans of Adolf Hitler?

The difference, of course, is that Stalin killed his own people whereas Hitler made the rookie mistake of killing the neighbours.

I suspect something similar is at work in our reaction to Bell Pottinger.

Every day South African corporations hire advertising agencies to tell women that their bodies are repulsive and that their minds are empty. Every day South African financial institutions extort feudal interest from the desperately poor.

We disapprove, of course. It’s distasteful and should be stopped by someone at some point. But we’re not shocked because, you know, that’s just advertising. That’s just commerce.

But try to disparage us from London instead of from Johannesburg, or stash our money in tax havens in Dubai rather than tax havens in Mauritius, well, may God have mercy on your soul.

Yes, we know you’re a PR firm so you’re really just an ad agency that lies to the wealthier classes; and yes, this is ultimately just commerce. But YOU ARE ALSO SATAN AND SHOULD APPEAR BEFORE THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT.

Perhaps, however, the most basic cause of our visceral response to Bell Pottinger is frustration.

Despite gigabytes worth of sleaze, the Guptas and their manservant, Jacob, are still not in court. We know why.

In South Africa, the foxes have always guarded the henhouse, but under the Zuptas they’ve taken over the farmhouse and local abattoir, too. And so we watch a vast crime taking place as the authorities tell us to move along because there’s nothing to see.

Opposition parties fight the Zuptas in the courts but for the rest of us the frustration of not being able to land a meaningful blow is immense; and so we round on the one group of lackeys we feel we might be able to hurt: the pinstriped parasites at Bell Pottinger.

It’s an understandable response, and, certainly, the British firm needs to feel this blunder in its bottom line. Ultimately, though, it is the people who hired Bell Pottinger who must be held to account, at the polls and in the courts.

And if these saboteurs are still in power in 2020, then it is we, not they, who are the true dom drolle.


Published in The Times


Welcome to Cadreville

Copyright World Economic Forum / Eric Miller emiller@iafrica.comThe state of the nation? Why, it’s just dandy. An orgy of delights, dappled with kiffness and drizzled with nca. Yes, life in Cadreville is pretty damn fab.

You’ve never heard of Cadreville? Not surprising, really: they tend not to signpost the border in case the poor people beyond the fence in South Africa come knocking. But it’s there, a beautiful little kingdom of a few hundred people, ruled over by King Jacob the Jolly.

In Cadreville, every citizen has a senior job with the South African government, earning an average salary of about R900 000 – although “salary” implies payment for work done, and in Cadreville you don’t have to do your job to get paid. You don’t even have to go to work very often. This is the other reason why unemployment is at zero percent: you cannot be fired for doing your job badly, or for doing it only two days a week, or for not doing it at all.

Cadrevillians, however, are not layabouts. The kingdom has a thriving industrial hub and produces two major exports: hundreds of hours of speeches and thousands of hollow promises. Its factories are powered by furnaces endlessly fed with millions upon millions of banknotes harvested in South Africa, but these are not as polluting as one might suppose. In a nod to sustainability, the smoke from the furnaces is collected and used later as smokescreens. Sometimes these take the shape of Steve Hofmeyr tweets. Sometimes they look like the business secrets of Somali shopkeepers or Bafana Bafana losses. Either way, they keep the people of nearby South Africa angry and confused, and too distracted to notice that their money is being poured into a machine that gives them almost nothing in return.

The people of Cadreville are scared of the people of South Africa and live behind high walls, but their fears are unfounded. There is no crime in the kingdom, thanks to bulletproof cars and bodyguards and blue-light convoys and police and all the other things that South Africans don’t have, but mainly there is no crime because the charges always go away, and if there’s no court case how could there have been a crime? There has been only one major security scare, when some newcomers began shouting: “Pay back the money!”, but they were quickly pacified with R900 000-per-year salaries and soon, instead of talking about money, they were squabbling about the right to wear red onesies to work.

The citizens of Cadreville have never experienced load-shedding, thanks to the reservoir of diesel, paid for by South African taxpayers, that powers their estates’ generators; but they do fear power cuts. Oh yes, losing power is their worst nightmare.

Our leaders seem to pass the buck faster than a lion on laxatives.

This week, as jolly King Jacob told us that blackouts were not the government’s fault, you could hear 20 million eyeballs rolling right back in their sockets. It was the same noise we heard when our leaders told us that the crippling over-spend in the arms deal was not the government’s fault, or that the killing of miners by police was not the government’s fault, or that the widespread illiteracy of schoolchildren and their teachers was not the government’s fault.

The eye-rolling was understandable. Our leaders seem to pass the buck faster than a lion on laxatives. But was it rational? I’m not so sure. In fact, for all that we like to claim that our leaders have lost touch with reality, I suspect that we are the deluded ones. Specifically, I think we might be labouring under the delusion that government is about running a country, when, in fact, history has proved over and over again that government is simply an income-generating scheme for politicians.

Perhaps this is why the State of the Nation address is headline news; why we think we care about politicians: we are still trapped in the naïve belief that we are the purpose of all their endeavours, when, in fact, we are just their pensions. You, me, the aspirations we nurture, our painstakingly cultivated little patches of Earth: all are merely part of a financial plan for the few hundred overlords who parade at parliament and pretend they are like us before going back to live in a country you and I will never visit.

So what is the state of our nation? Parts of it seem to be collapsing in a smouldering heap. Other bits seem to be plodding along as usual. Here and there, chunks are apparently thriving. Some of the people reporting this are telling the truth, others are hiding an agenda. It’s hard to know anything for sure.

But what does seem certain is that the residents of Cadreville know even less than us. They don’t have a clue. And why should they? As long as we keep giving them a huge mandate to get richer and more clueless, why on earth would they change a thing?


First published in The Times and TimesLive

Looking through the glasses darkly


The spectacles are enormous. Steel-rimmed and impervious to the summer wind, they lie on the grass of the Sea Point promenade as if left behind by a myopic titan after a picnic. But their placement is not arbitrary.

The vast lenses, many inches thick, are fixed on Robben Island out in the bay.

A nearby plaque explains. The sculpture is entitled Perceiving Freedom, and encourages us to contemplate how Nelson Mandela saw the world. The artwork is, it says, a “testament to the power of the mind”.

I know very little about the power of the mind but the sculpture certainly seems to be a testament to the power of corporate sponsors: Ray-Ban, the famous brand of sunglasses, is prominently named on the plaque, causing one’s bullshit detectors to start pinging. But only for a moment. If artists didn’t take the money of merchants there would be very little art in the world. Besides, they have some grand precedents, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an advertisement for the biggest corporation of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church.

And yet my unease remains and soon I realise why. It is not the sponsored spectacles that worry me. It is the picture on the plaque, a cropped portion of a famous photograph taken on April 25 1977.

On that day a group of South African journalists was given a guided tour of Robben Island by Major-General Jannie Roux, a psychiatrist and deputy commissioner of prisons. They were shown sporting facilities, tidied cells, neatly swept and weeded paths, all carefully curated to show the outside world a picture of a humane regime. And it was on this walkabout, according to the blurb on the plaque, that “the journalists encountered a tall, thin man dressed neatly in prison clothes and leaning on a spade. The man was Nelson Mandela, in his 13th year of incarceration on Robben Island.”

The words are factually correct but they have completely excised the human tensions of that moment. Handed a spade and told to look gardener-ish, Mandela was disgusted at being forced to be part of the charade, and, according to biographer Anthony Sampson, retreated behind a large bush as the journalists approached. Roux seems to have been slightly embarrassed.

Mandela has been transformed…into a kind of sentimental pulp

“We have located him for you,” he told the group, “but he doesn’t want to see you, and we won’t drag him.” But the photographers kept coming, and so Prisoner 46664 stood his ground, making a point of not doing the work he was supposed to be doing, his rage and disdain barely hidden behind the dark glasses. The resulting photograph does not show Madiba the reconciler contemplating forgiveness. It shows a proud, intelligent man trapped, exploited and angry.

By removing this context, the photograph (and the artwork it speaks to) do us a disservice in that they subtly rewrite our collective history and therefore skew our collective present. Over the last three decades Mandela has been transformed from a man into a concept and finally into a kind of sentimental pulp, used to plaster over the widening cracks in our national psyche; but this doesn’t help us get any closer to his – and therefore our – humanity. We need to know that Mandela could be proud and angry, that his beautiful smile could become a tight, disapproving scowl. It is healthy for us to know these things.

In the last few weeks the white Right has eagerly been rewriting history. One very famous country singer even wrote an article explaining that whites have been reading “for millions of years”, a startling revelation given that vaguely whitish people have been around for only about 10,000 years, and that Sumerians (not white people) invented reading only about 5,000 years ago.

In this climate of history being up for grabs, determined not by the brightest minds but by the loudest tweeter, it is important that we get our facts straight.

Even more important is to allow expressions of anger to remain unexpurgated in our history. Group hugs are lovely but if we airbrush over expressions of anger we deny the cause and legitimacy of that anger, and lose the opportunity to discuss it in any meaningful way.

Once we begin to cherry-pick the warm, affirming bits, leaving out the complex, fractious, often ugly parts, we begin to convince ourselves that it is never acceptable to show anger, and that injustice must be suffered with a sigh and shrug.

We can begin to persuade ourselves that those who burn tyres and municipal buildings are just being thuggish; that they are concepts rather than furious human beings. And once that happens, we have lost forever any hope we ever had of seeing the world through the eyes of Nelson Mandela.


First published in The Times and TimesLive