Are you a “Poor Bob” snob?


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.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail


Assume the brace position

planeThe cabin crew are smiling tight-lipped smiles but everyone knows what’s happened.

You can see it on their faces when they slip out of the cockpit and quickly pull the door shut behind them.

The pilot has died.

And there’s no co-pilot, because the recently departed was an arrogant dickhead who insisted on working alone.

Worse, the plane is starting to lose altitude.

As you watch the drinks trolley lurch past, you curse your apathy. How did you let it get to this point? After all, you knew that this was going to happen sooner rather than later. They guy had been at the controls non-stop since 1994, and recently he’d been in horrible shape: bloated, flatulent, losing feeling in his extremities, increasingly paranoid. When he fired Chief Engineer Mbeki in 2007 you all agreed that the signs weren’t good, and yet you kept him in the pilot’s seat year after year. Why?

Perhaps there were a few extenuating circumstances. A lot of you remember what the plane used to be like before 1994 – a quiet, almost entirely empty flight that had only three destinations: white supremacy, economic collapse, and the holiday resort of Fantasyland 1952. No matter how bumpy it’s been since then you’ve always reassured yourselves that it’s way better than how things used to be.

Mainly, though, you and the rest of the passengers haven’t demanded a change of pilot because you’re all too busy tightening your seatbelts and riding out the turbulence. If we can just get through the next five minutes, you tell yourself. And then the next five minutes. And the next. And before you know it, Jacob Zuma has been president for seven years.

Now, as you see the horizon tilt in your window and the cabin crew start to whimper, you realise how deep in denial you’ve been. For years you’ve assumed that if something goes badly wrong, trained professionals will spring into action, pushing buttons and cranking handles like in those World War Two movies where they land a plane with no wings or engines and everyone walks off with a picturesque graze on their forehead.

You’ve told yourself that well-established countries with stock exchanges, universities, botanical gardens and video rental shops don’t just go into free-fall. Except for Venezuela, of course. But we’re not Venezuela because we don’t have an inept, anti-business government overspending on an obese civil service while blaming its mounting failures on a third force and – oh shit.

“Bloody pilot! This aeroplane is an instrument of white capital…”

You look around, hoping to see someone in a uniform stand up and march up the aisle. You want to shout, “Shouldn’t we ask if there’s a pilot on the plane?” but you don’t want to alarm anyone. In any case, you’re still pretty sure that someone will do something. But instead all you can see is passengers getting grumpy.

Up in First Class, a blonde woman in a blue T-shirt is hammering away at Twitter: “If I’d been flying this plane this would never have happened!” Across the aisle, a portly gent in a red beret is yelling, “Bloody pilot! This aeroplane is an instrument of white capital and we should never have been on it in the first place, so once it has crashed we will occupy it!”

I’m not sure when our pilot popped his clogs. Perhaps it was Polokwane or Marikana. Maybe it was White Shirts pushing MPs out of parliament, or the planned media tribunal, or riot police throwing stun grenades at students.

Maybe, comically, it was when he told the country he didn’t have money for students and then promptly announced plans to spend R4-billion on a private jet.

Whenever it was, though, I do know that he’s snuffed it. This government is dead. It will nudge the controls this way and that as it gets dragged out of the cockpit, but, right now, there is nobody flying the plane.

That’s worrying, of course, but not as worrying as what’s happening right now. Because instead of asking if there’s a pilot on board, we’re arguing over where, when and how the pilot died. And we’re not examining the claims by the DA and the EFF that they know what to do. Yes, the DA has clocked up some hours in gliders over the Cape Winelands, and the EFF has launched a couple of impressive rockets in Johannesburg, but fly a fully laden airliner? Where’s the flight plan? Actually, screw the flight plan: at this point we’ll take any plan that looks technically sound and isn’t just the usual pissing contest.

The fact is we don’t have a clue if anyone in South Africa knows how to run it. All we have is the old belief that someone will do something. Call it hope. Call it denial. But at some point we’re going to learn the truth. And when it happens, our seatbelts better be fastened.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Future shock

protestThe violence of midday was over. The riot police had finished their work.

Now, as five o’ clock rolled around, the students were sitting sprawled across the street outside parliament, waiting for the politicians to come out.

The police were still there, standing in a line inside the gates, staring dully at the students. Nearby, an officer leaned awkwardly against a van as he strapped on plastic leg guards. He was very fat and looked disconsolate. My overwhelming impression was of an inept club cricketer padding up to try to dig his team out of a hole.

We had come down to drop off supplies for the students. Some glanced at us with the contempt revolutionaries reserve for bourgeois tourists. Others were surprisingly pleased. Perhaps they were just amused that we’d brought chocolate to a gunfight.

Nobody was going anywhere, and so we wandered around the back of parliament, towards the gardens of Government Avenue. Now, a deep peace lay over the afternoon. Squirrels posed for tourists. Doves burbled in the branches. A man snoozed on a bench.

Here, it was difficult to believe that the standoff was real; that this picturesque bonbon of a building was serving as a bunker for frightened incompetents. But then we turned off into the little alley behind the Slave Lodge – more tourists, more squirrels – and walked straight into 1985.

The riot police had their backs to us. Beyond them, students sang and taunted. On the peripheries, stragglers were being picked up. I watched a young woman being marched into a van; she weighed about 50kg but apparently she required three men wearing body armour and carrying shotguns to escort her.

A loudhailer shrieked and an officer started yapping orders into it. His voice was distorted, echoing off the buildings around the square, but we could make out the gist. Disperse. Arrest. Fifteen minutes. Fokkoff or else. Why? Because we have rubber bullets and instructions from inside parliament and all you’ve got is a half an education and 20 years of student debt.

A ripple passed down the line of police – small gestures, anxious glances – and then they sprang the trap: stun grenades, a baton charge, raised shotguns. I heard the crack-crack of rubber bullets being fired. The students broke and scattered but quickly regrouped further down the street to turn and raise their middle fingers and to cross their arms over their heads.

And that’s when I realised what was happening.

The police were clearing an escape route.

We watched them try to escape the future.

Our leaders were too frightened to go out the front, where all those savage arts and commerce and microbiology students were waiting to attack them with weapons like logic and honesty; and so they were sliding out the back.

There was a crescendo of chatter on the police radios. The gates swung open and the first of the BMWs crept out.

We stood and watched them in their gleaming R2-million getaway cars, our faces reflected in tinted windows. We watched them flee the people who are going to run this country in 30 years. We watched them try to escape the future.

It would have been a terribly depressing moment, but just then we met that future.

Both of the young women were students and, as is sometimes the case with people whose minds have not yet calcified, they were comfortable holding complexities. They believed that a degree was the only way out of poverty, but they also knew that a degree was no guarantee of anything in a hopelessly underperforming economy. They respected their parents but resented them for not keeping their party accountable. They were ready to fight, but believed that discipline and non-violence would win the day.

On one point, though, they were unwilling to compromise. The ANC, their parents’ party, had to go.

“Don’t these people know that we’re trained to assess information critically?” asked the one as some apparatchik skedaddled past us.

“No,” said her friend. “They don’t. They think we’re as ignorant as they are. They think they’re fooling us but they’re just insulting us.”

“So stupid,” said the first, smiling into the impassive face of a passing dignitary. “All they had to do was listen and show solidarity. So easy. But now they’re done.”

Over the last two weeks South African students have taught me how little I know, perhaps how little any of us know. I’ve read authoritative voices explaining why there is plenty of money and why there is none. I’ve learned that countries are doomed without education, and that countries with weak education can enjoy booming economies. I’ve heard politicians promise that they have a plan to fix the mess made by their total inability to plan.

I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. But I have a feeling that if those two women are anywhere near parliament in the coming years, maybe, just maybe, we might be okay.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail