Category Archives: Cultural

South Africa – How Fucked Are We?

Scared-FaceYassis, I’m depressed about the state of our nation. And that worries me. I’ve always been the one who is upbeat about South Africa (you know the one). I love my country deeply. It is part of my identity, part of my self. I just can’t imagine living anywhere else. And yet…

The events of the last few days have shaken me. I’m unsettled, anxious. My usual confident bluster is faltering. And I don’t like it.

So, I thought I would try to write out my conflicting thoughts and emotions; try to make sense of recent events as they relate to my (and our collective) future.

But first, as we must, a quick recap: Zuma’s State of the Nation address was a catastrophe. It began with a mysterious cellphone signal blackout (which is now officially described as a ‘technical glitch’ and definitely not ordered by anyone). Journalists protested and opposition MPs refused to continue until the signal was restored (which it was, even more mysteriously). Even though the ruling party has promised it will never happen again, it’s an ominous indication of the government’s desire to control the flow of information.

Then came the double whammy of the EFF’s stubbornly disruptive (but procedurally defensible) highjacking of JZ’s speech, followed by the heavy-handed and well-rehearsed removal of all EFF members from the house. I can’t say this part of proceedings came as a surprise. The EFF clearly announced their intentions well in advance, and the Speaker of the House was literally reading from a prepared script. But the physical violence of the armed guards’ response was genuinely shocking.

Perhaps more pertinently, the official parliamentary TV feed refused to show us the scuffle. Instead, it remained locked on the unsmiling faces of the petulant Speaker and brooding NCOP Chairperson. We only saw this fracas thanks to people in the gallery who filmed it on their cell phones). That’s another blow to the freedom of information (especially if you believe rumours that the SABC’s head of news was in the OB van calling the shots).

Finally, we have the issue of the security guards themselves. Who were they: police, army, parliamentary? This is an important question, as raised by Musi Maimane of the DA, because the police and army answer to the Executive (i.e. the president). The parliamentary security force, on the other hand, answers to parliament itself. This separation is essential for democracy and not just semantics (as the Speaker implied when she said she can’t point out who is police and who is from parliament).

So, put it all together and what do you get? Well, you get a ruling party who was prepared to restrict the flow of information and interfere with the autonomy of parliament for their own ends. OK, they were probably only thinking short term (how do we protect Zuma from embarrassment?). But a quick glance through history will show that many dictatorships began with little more than a jammed signal and troops in parliament.

Now, I don’t think we are seriously at risk of JZ becoming a Mugabe. Our democracy is too strong for that. But the spectre of sad, decaying Zimbabwe looms directly over our heads, and the parallels are hard to avoid. Especially when Zuma chuckles ‘heh-heh-heh’.

I regret that this is the case. I hate to trot out the hoary, old trope of ‘failed African state’. But let’s go down that road and see what sticks.

By all accounts, Zuma is intent on putting his mates and/or loyalists in all the top positions, regardless of their experience or ability. Such a system of patronage is, to mis-quote the beloved Pieter-Dirk Uys, the Vaseline of political intercourse in many countries. But one can’t help but wonder if this inter-dependent cabal is going to simply walk away from power when Zuma’s time is up.

Then there’s our infrastructure. After driving to Malawi over December, I can accurately say that maintenance is one of the biggest challenges facing our continent. Without expertise and money applied in the correct places, things fall apart – simple as that. It’s happening with our power grid (the big talk is that our water supply is next). And, petty as it may sound, you just need to look at the state of our rainwater drains, brittle roads, overgrown verges, broken traffic lights to see that the government just isn’t that good at keeping things in shape.

The ‘failed state’ scenario can be taken further. There’s proposed new land legislation that will stop foreigners from owning agricultural land, and limit individuals from owning too much. Not an outrageous proposition (many other countries have similar restrictions) but a policy with lots of potential for abuse. There’s new mining legislation that seeks to give the minister control over pricing. There’s a broad malaise of corruption seeping into every aspect of the bureaucracy, where getting a piece of the action becomes more important than getting things done. And let’s not forget an alarming rise in racial rhetoric that is finally starting to make me feel a little bit unwelcome.

Perhaps worst of all, there is neither progress nor consequence. South Africa is simply not making any headway against the challenges we face such as education, service delivery, economic growth, unemployment, and so on. Sure, these are large, sprawling issues with many complexities, but all too often the people in charge seem either inexperienced, inefficient, insubstantial or downright dishonest.

Because whatever happens, nothing happens. Scandals come and go but no one gets fired. Blunder after blunder, and no one is found responsible. Even when the Public Protector (blessed be her name) makes an official finding, she is ignored and the transgressors get off scot-free. Without accountability, we are helpless.

OK, that’s some of the shit we’re having to deal with at the moment. But what does this all mean for the future? Are we really on course to become yet another failed African state?

Well, first let’s look at some realities that we have to face right now.

Number One: Zuma is not going anywhere for another three years. Barring a pretty-much unthinkable backlash from within the ANC, Zuma is going to be president until the next elections when our constitutionally mandated two-term limit will force him to step down.

Number Two: our erratic electricity supply is going to remain erratic for at least three years. Despite all the interventions in the pipeline, for the next three years we are going to struggle to produce enough power to keep up with consumption.

Number Three: The opposition is weak and will probably remain so. The DA just cannot shift the perception that it is a ‘whites-only party’. And the EFF is radical, fractious and, while often correct, somehow untrustworthy.

So, more of the same for the foreseeable future. What, then, do we do?

Honestly? Fucked if I know…

Those of us who can, could obviously investigate emigration. It’s not an easy process (unless you are very rich – and I don’t shed tears for the rich). Uprooting everything and starting over from scratch is extremely painful. However, maybe now is the time? If you honestly cannot see any hope for South Africa over the next ten years, then you’d be foolish to hang around waiting for it to get worse.

But what if, like me, your optimism is battered but not broken. Do you do a pre-emptive evacuation, to be on the safe side, or do you stay and watch the winds, waiting for the final straw to land on your back? I realise that this very South African middle class tendency to keep one foot on the plane (however subconsciously) isn’t particularly helpful. But it’s there – nagging away in the back of my brain.

The big question that usually hushes my doubt is: where do you go? What with terrorism, climate change, political uncertainty, economic depression and everything else, the whole world is in upheaval. For me, the answer is probably Canada: I have family there and nothing ever happens. But the weather is terrible. And it’s Canada. The UK, America, Australia, New Zealand – they all have their drawbacks. So, I have to ask myself, is my lack of faith in South Africa really worth the price of relocation?

In my heart, I don’t think it is. So, the only other option is to just grin and bear it. After all, it’s not so bad here on the tip of Africa. We live in a beautiful country with beautiful people and beautiful weather. We also have a history of defying dire expectations. And, while we are all living in the looming shadow of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, we’re still a long way away.

And perhaps this is the best way to approach the events of last week – to consider them an early warning; a canary in the mine alerting us to the presence of poisonous gasses that could overwhelm us if we don’t take notice. That’s why, after a few days reflection, I’ve decided that the SONA debacle was a good thing – lucky, even. At least it gives us a chance to correct our course before we really run aground.

Finally, to wrap things up, let’s return to the original question: how fucked are we? Right after SONA, I would have given us a HFAW score of 8. Now, the government seems to have realised that they overstepped the mark and are backtracking on many fronts. No one will be held accountable, of course, but just maybe the fallout has given some people pause for thought – whether it’s politicians who need to re-assess their priorities or members of the public who need to re-assess their vote.

Either way, my little flame of hope is flickering back into life. It’s not as robust as it once was. After all, a mirror was held up to our democracy, and I didn’t like what I saw. But the passage of time (even a few days) soothes everything and I am no longer tormenting myself with ‘should I stay or should I go?’. I’m staying. I’m here. This is my country as much as anyone else’s, and nothing’s going to chase me off my birth right. At least for now…

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How do you solve a problem like Malema? Part Three – At least we don’t live in North America

For Part One, click here.

For Part Two, click here.

Of course, Malema isn’t a uniquely South African problem, or even an African problem. Every country in the world has its Malemas; those hate-filled zealots who fervently believe that what they are right and everyone else is wrong. In a way, it’s something to be admired. Such strong beliefs are usually a sign that people are invested in the issue – they have a lot at stake. Why else would they care so much?

The Republican Party in America, for example, is a currently being dominated by a bunch of Malemas. Honestly, those guys scare the crap out of me. It’s a genuine cause for alarm that the government of the most powerful nation on Earth (as they keep telling us) is riddled with extreme religious fundamentalists; narrow reactionary ideologues who ridicule science, demonise their critics and peddle hypocrisy. OK, the last two are true of any politician. But you get my point. Fanatical Republicans are dangerous precisely because they care SO much about their God-blessed America.

It was the same with the Voortrekkers. Throughout history, extreme patriotism has been used as a justification for terrible acts of aggression and even genocide. After all, passion is only a hair’s breadth away from crazy.

Not that passion isn’t important. We all need to be passionate about something in our lives. Whether it’s work, family, country or Super Mario Brothers, something’s got to be at stake to make things matter. Just think about issues such as personal safety, political stability, social justice, economic health – if any of these things are at risk in your country, you better believe that you are going to give a shit.

Apathy, then, is the product of contentment.

Case in point: Canada – sanity capital of the world. Everything in Canada is sorted. The politics is mild to the point of irrelevance. Everything functions smoothly. There is no crime. The streets are clean. The economy seems to be holding up well enough. There’s ice-hockey on TV and hot coffee on every corner. OK, the climate sucks balls, but you can’t have everything.

Still, you can’t visit Canada without feeling that there’s something’s missing; a frisson of uncertainty, a lack of dire consequences. In other words, in Canada, nothing seems to matter. And that’s probably a good thing – a state towards which all the nations on Earth should be aspiring. It’s just so dull.

FYI, I’m about to embark on a family trip to New York and Toronto, and I’ll be writing as I go. So, I’ll reserve the right to shamelessly contradict myself about Canada in subsequent blog posts – or I might just keep on trolling. But for the moment let me return to the ostensible subject at hand by saying that I both revile and celebrate Julius Malema, and all the dictators for which he stands. Juju is a constant reminder that I care deeply about the country of my birth – it’s where I have placed my stake. And for that provocation I am truly grateful.

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How do solve a problem like Malema? Part Two – Julius and Stalin

For Part One, click here.

Here’s the rub about Julius Malema: he is a troll that feeds off attention. But we can’t stop reporting on him because he is a very dangerous troll who needs to be tracked at all times. And that’s why I’m breaking my self-imposed vow to stop writing about Malema, lest I make him stronger. Recent events have forced a re-think in the way we handle this little sociopath. He can’t simply be ignored anymore. He needs to be stopped.

I was chatting the other day with someone who said that if Malema ever came into power he would be worse than Stalin. At first, I thought it was an obvious exaggeration for comic effect. Now, I’m not so sure. Malema, like Stalin, is a zealot and a revolutionary. They are also both dictators – leaders utterly convinced of their infallibility and utterly devoted to personal power; men who think that the rules don’t apply to them by virtue of their ‘noble’ goals. Both are capable of colossal self-delusion and hypocrisy. And both believe, like Napoleon the pig, that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

Bearing this in mind, would a militarised Malema really order the murder of millions if they dared oppose him? Hard to say. Sociopath to psychopath is a leap. But it doesn’t jar with the overall pattern.

Wait, hang on. I’m getting carried away. Let’s ease off the hysteria pedal for a moment. I certainly don’t think that Malema is going to come within a mile of executive power. Our democracy is too mature for that, and his behaviour is simply too reckless. But stranger things have happened – put an opportunistic man in the right place at an unfortunate time, and you get the Holocaust.

Tenuous Nazi analogy aside, there’s another aspect to this Malema dilemma that’s even more worrying. Sometimes, Julius is correct. Let’s be clear:  I deplore his hijacking of the Marikana tragedy for political gain. I condemn his general air of entitlement. I reject his call for blanket nationalisation, partly because government is notoriously unable to manage large corporations and partly because I am suspicious that Malema is just using it as a Mugabe-style excuse so that state assets will  be easier to plunder ‘when he takes control’. But Juju does occasionally articulate some legitimate concerns.

For example, mine workers should get a minimum wage of R12 000 per month. Why not? It’s a reasonable request. Speaking in the long term, if we don’t start paying people a living wage, how are we going to build a sizeable middle class? And without a sizeable middle class, how are we going to build a sustainable nation? If that means corporate profits take a temporary knock, so what? It’s a moral, social and political imperative to dramatically increase salaries for the rank and file. Our future depends on it.

More to the point, Malema is only exploiting what is already there. He is not a cause. He is a symptom of some very deep seated problems in our country – a canary warning us that poisonous gas is about to overwhelm South Africa. In other words, we need to stop Malema by fixing the morass that spawned him. Maybe then his insatiable appetite for fame will guide him towards something more innocuous, like a TV game show.

You can read Part Three here.

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How do you solve a problem like Malema? Part One – Don’t feed the trolls

OK, seriously, you guys. Julius Malema is a troll, and we have to stop feeding him. To be clear, I’m not talking about the mythical beast of Norse legend. I’m talking about the modern kind of troll – strange denizens of the web who prowl internet comments boards and social media sites, grabbing attention with provocative statements and then drinking in the affirmation or vitriol – makes no difference.

In the dark ages, pre-web, attention trolls weren’t very widespread. After all, access to an audience used to be restricted to those with means or talent. But then Tim Berners-Lee came along and suddenly everyone had equal access to a platform from which they could try to attract attention, like a desperate street prophet at a market.

Luckily, internet trolls can be controlled. Just learn to spot when you’re being trolled and ignore them. Don’t reply, don’t correct, don’t engage at all. Every comment, every like, every share is another drop of mother’s milk, sucked directly from your teat. Oh, the troll makes it tempting – spewing out nonsense specifically formulated to make you frothy. Even I can’t resist the odd bit of troll baiting, when I see or hear something particularly egregious that can’t stand unchallenged. But as soon as you catch yourself being lured into a troll trap, you must remove the teat immediately! If enough people do this, the troll with wither away and stop bothering you. Starving them of attention is the only way to kill a troll.

And I should know because [dramatic pause] I am a troll. Well, occasionally. I mean, I sometimes say controversial or outrageous things – in real life and on-line – because I find them funny, or think they’re good for a rise. Most often, people don’t notice. But I did write this one article, published a day after the death of Michael Jackson, in which I was…shall we say uncomplimentary?

I got more comments on that post than on anything else I had ever written – not much by Kardashian standards but enough to know that people were reading it. And they didn’t like what I had to say. But that didn’t matter, the attention was intoxicating – especially in a world where fame is the ultimate achievement.

Then I got pulled up short by a single comment. It simply said ‘You are a c*nt’.

Now, I stand by just about every word of that flippant article – I even wrote a defence of it, here. But I gradually realised that the comment was right. I was being a c*nt. So, I tried to stop. It isn’t easy. I still have the odd slip every now and then – a bit of c*untish behaviour here and there. But, on the whole, I think I keep my nose clean. Nevertheless, thanks to my experience, I know a troll when I see a troll.

And Malema is a troll – no doubt about it. He knows that as long as he is in the news, he is alive. So he makes sure he stays in the news by saying things that either appeal to people or make their blood boil – often at the same time. And the newspapers lovingly repeat every word. Why do they oblige such an obvious tactic? Because, in South Africa, nothing draws eyeballs like Julius Malema – apart from Zuma’s penis.

For Part Two, click here.

For Part Three, click here.

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Grow a pair, Zuma

This whole affair about Brett Murray’s painting of Zuma’s exposed genitals is, quite frankly, a load of bollocks. But it has raised a number of troublesome issues regarding freedom of expression, censorship, the right to dignity and the role of art in society.

The Spear by Brett Murray (uncensored) – by clicking on this image you certify that you are aged 16 years or older (as per the Film and Publications Board idiotic rating)

So much has already been written about Zuma’s dangling tottie that I don’t want to rehash the whole cock and balls story. In summary, however: Yes, ‘The Spear’ and its encompassing exhibition titled ‘Hail to the Thief II’ would have hardly made a blip on the popular consciousness if the ANC had done the sensible thing by ignoring it. Yes, the ensuing shitstorm of publicity has raised Brett Murray’s profile into the stratosphere. And yes, the sudden escalation of hysteria – culminating in the painting’s unauthorised defacement – has made rational discussion impossible. Continue reading

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Sounding the call

OK, so some dopey Rasta dude screwed up the South African national anthem on international TV. Big oops. But while the choice of singer was unfortunate and careless, it hardly qualifies as a catastrophe. After all, we’ve got plenty of real problems to worry about. Nevertheless, everybody is up in arms, officials are scrambling to cover their asses and ‘Anthemgate’ has already been given the standard suffix for a scandal.

Now, I’m not saying that fumbling the anthem in a global forum isn’t a serious breach of national etiquette. I also agree that it is slightly embarrassing to the country and downright offensive to many self-respecting South Africans. However, let’s get a bit of perspective here… Continue reading

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Walking the Talk

Usually, on a Sunday, I wake up late and mooch around the house. All right, I do that most days of the week. But this Sunday, I did the 702/Discovery Health Walk the Talk. And I must congratulate the organisers for putting together an outstanding event.

Apart from the queue to get into the parking lot (which we expected) it was a genuine pleasure to be a part of this annual walkabout. The facilities were excellent. The marshals were pleasant. The weather was great. The crowd was in good spirits. And it was a rare treat to walk along the beautiful suburban streets of our city, lined with tall trees that are impressive even in their winter nakedness. Continue reading

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Oy Vey! Crooked Rabbis Bust for Corruption

It’s the hottest corruption scandal in America at the moment, featuring a stellar cast of crooks that includes three mayors, two members of the New Jersey state legislature and number of Jewish priests. That’s right. A flock of rabbis have been caught doing something not kosher. Continue reading

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Don’t mess with Manuel – he’s from Barcelona

Remember Manuel, the wonderfully inept Spanish waiter from the classic series, Fawlty Towers? Of course you do. Well, Andrew Sachs, the actor who played Manuel, is back in the public eye after years of low-key voice-over work and he’s apparently more popular than ever. In fact, he’s at the centre of a major rumpus that is threatening to engulf the BBC and two of its most popular presenters.

The whole mess started on Saturday night when comedian Russell Brand and nebulous ‘media personality’ Jonathan Ross were doing their weekly ‘no-holds-barred’ radio show. With hours of air-time to fill and very little material with which to fill it, the two decided to call up Sachs who was supposed to appear on the show but had cancelled for some reason. Continue reading

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A Zap in the Face

Has Zapiro gone too far this time? I’m not sure. His instantly infamous cartoon of Jacob Zuma about to rape the legal system is a fiercely strong statement. It’s the kind of cartoon that really kicks you in the guts. And it’s ambitious too. Instead of just lampooning Zapiro’s favourite shower-headed target, this time he’s implicated all the big political players as active participants in the rape.

Understandably, the cartoon has got a lot of people very angry. The ANC, its youth league, Cosatu and all the other organisations featured in the piece are unanimous in their condemnation of Zapiro. Of course, there has been the meaningless, knee-jerk accusation of ‘racism’, which is trotted out so often it has lost any impact whatsoever. But there are other criticisms of the cartoon which are not so easy to dismiss. Continue reading

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