Author Archives: David Fleminger

The (Potential) Upside of Coronavirus

David Fleminger – 27 March 2020

I’m glad I grew up in the 80s, when we still had a future. Now, any sense of certainty about what the next month, year, or decade may bring is truly gone. For the first time since 1945, the entire world is living under a wartime mentality. What was unthinkable just a week ago is now grim reality and we have no choice but to deal with it the best we can.

Make no mistake, it’s been a truly seismic shift. Something has snapped deep beneath the surface of humanity and the resulting shockwave will trigger both fast and slow-moving tsunamis, which are going to crash into the shores of society, commerce and politics for years to come. It’s going to be an extended period of terrible repercussions and unimaginable consequences, and we can only prepare for the worst.

Many articles have already been written about the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, and many more will come. The maelstrom of news, misinformation, anxiety, panic and lockdown swirls amid the inexorable rise in case numbers, with the dark shadow of death rates keeping pace.

Honestly, it’s making my head spin and I’ve had a tension headache for days now.

But, to avoid motion sickness, I often find that it’s helpful to look away from the frantic activity in front of you and focus instead on the middle or even far distance. Out there, beyond this ghost year of 2020, perhaps we can see the outline of a post-pandemic future?

As an amateur futurist (and aren’t we all these days?), my current thinking is that every crisis comes with an opportunity. After all, with total destruction comes the need to rebuild. And with the sudden shattering of the status quo, this could be an excellent time to make some fundamental changes to hopelessly broken systems.

The worst thing we can do after a flood is rebuild our houses on the same flood plain. That would be crazy (although not uncommon). And now, under the necessities of crisis management, perhaps we can finally shift priorities and perform a hard-reset on our society.

So, with little authority and much respect, here are some things that I believe we should be discussing, very seriously, as we begin to rebuild. Because one thing is crystal clear – this is going to happen again…

First, ban all wildlife markets globally and in perpetuity

Many of the planet’s most devastating plagues have been Zoonotic (transferred from animals to humans). Although researchers aren’t unanimous, AIDS is thought to have come from bush meat, MERS from camels, and SARS from civets; while Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the Spanish Flu and the new Coronavirus are all thought to have arisen through a recombination of flu strains from pigs, chickens, bats and/or pangolins that were crowded together in unhygienic wildlife markets.

The solution is simple: we must stop eating wildlife and close down all the markets where live and dead animals are crowded together alongside humans.

This needs to happen now, in every country on Earth, and in perpetuity. And the ban must be universally enforced by local and international teams, not subject to the whims of individual governments. This blanket ban should include forbidding international trade in anything other than domesticated animals, and all agricultural activities involving animals should be forced to operate according to strict standards of hygiene and the humane treatment of animals.

Not only is the wildlife trade inhumane and unhygienic, it simply isn’t necessary. If wildlife is an important source of food for the locals, government and NGOs need to step in and provide alternative sources of nutrition. It’s much cheaper than the costs of a global shutdown.

And if it’s ‘customary’ to eat bats, pangolins, rhino horn, monkeys or whatever, then that custom needs to be revised. Any traditional system that refuses to develop in face of crisis is dead and irrelevant. Time for us all to grow up and adapt to the times – we live in a connected world and it’s clear that we can no longer allow the reckless behaviour of one group to threaten the entire planet.

In fact, bearing in mind the bigger environmental picture, I have a sneaking suspicion that we should stop eating mammals altogether. But one step at a time.

And speaking of the climate…

The Climate Remains Priority Number One

The planet has been dealing with pandemics for millennia, and this too shall pass (either with the release of a vaccine or ‘herd immunity’ whereby more that 60% of the global population has been infected, thus depriving the virus of hosts). Hopefully, lessons will be learned and best-practices will be updated so that we can be better prepared for the next one.

But when it’s all over – no matter how awful the aftermath – we still have to deal with the fact that the Climate Crisis remains the biggest threat facing the long-term viability of humanity. There are already stories about how the pandemic has reduced industrial pollution, air quality has improved, wild birds have regained their colourful plumage in London, the (untrue) return of dolphins to the canals of Venice, etc.

We should therefore take a moment as individuals and (especially) corporations to consider how can use this down-time to re-fit and modify existing behaviours to better protect the environment when things start back up again in a month or two. If we just go back to business as usual (or worse, if the need to play catch-up results in the flaunting of existing environmental laws) there will be a very dire price to pay.

In essence, every action we take from now on must factor in the environmental cost. All product packaging needs to be reconfigured to be more easily recyclable and less wasteful. Consumer expectations in terms of choice and speed of delivery need to re-prioritised. Recycling should be formalised into paying work and trash needs to be monetised so that it is worth collecting (especially in Africa, where jobs are urgently needed).

Even the chemical composition of household products should be tweaked to remove anything that isn’t essential (for example, a foaming agent is added to shampoo, detergents and toothpaste for no reason other than the foam makes us think it’s working better).

Most importantly, financial models need to acknowledge that the environment cannot come behind the need for turning a profit. Because…

Profits are the Problem

In my (totally unqualified) opinion, the relentless quest for profit is killing the planet.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a believer in free markets and competition, etc. But not without limits. Consider this: Capitalism, by its definition, is designed to concentrate capital in the hands of those who already have it. Basically, under pure Capitalism, the rich get richer. That’s not a failing of the system, it’s how the system works.

By focussing only on their profit margin, which is necessary to keep the stock markets happy, companies are required to charge as much as they can while keeping costs as low as they can. The inevitable consequence of this model is that workers and suppliers are squeezed more and more every year. And this is clearly unsustainable.

Income inequality is already at an all-time high, even in developed countries, and it’s well established that such disparate distribution of wealth is linked to social instability, increased crime-rates, and political turmoil. Perhaps, then, it’s time for big business to worry less about ever-increasing profits and more about improving the lives of their workers. In other words…

Pay workers more – much more

With the exception of upper management, most staff should be paid more. Not for any philanthropic reasons, but so that they are able build comfortable lives, have homes, educate their children, and grow the wider economy. Everybody wins. But that means increasing the wages of workers substantially above the current rate of inflation. Otherwise, you get the phenomenon of ‘working poor’ that sees entire sections of the population trapped in a spiral of shrinking wages and increasing prices.

The good news is that, in light of the severe economic consequences that the pandemic is going to bring, governments and banks are rolling out bailouts to save the economy. The only problem is that, based on past experience, most of that money will go to the big corporates and financial services companies. Billionaires will bounce back as usual, the stock market will recover, and large companies will get the help they need. But the lowest-paid employees, freelancers, contractors, and gig-economy workers will likely be left carrying the can.

Post-pandemic, then, business leaders should look beyond their profit margins and commit to uplifting the working class through substantial pay raises. Especially those who do the grunt work: garbage collectors, teachers, factory workers, supermarket clerks, health-care workers, miners, etc. And if that means that upper management must take a pay cut, so be it.

This largesse may also extend to the concept of a universal basic income grant, which is being widely discussed as a potential safety net for vulnerable people in times of crisis.

However we do it, it’s imperative that we reduce income inequality – again, not for philanthropic reasons but because it’s the only way to enhance social and financial stability in the long run.

And if the corporates aren’t interested in redressing this ticking time bomb, then government should step in. Because…

It’s Time for the Government to do its job

The task of any government is to make life better for its citizens. But this is seldom the case. In South Africa, for example, there are huge issues around homelessness, hunger, access to quality health care, effective education, poor infrastructure in rural areas, living conditions in informal settlements, and so on.

This was certainly the case before the new democratic dispensation of 1994, but it’s now been 25 years since the ANC came to power and the daily struggles of millions of South Africans haven’t really changed.

Now, in the face of an unprecedented crisis, the government is rushing to setup additional homeless shelters, food kitchens, and sanitation facilities for those without running water. Empty buildings are getting repurposed as hospitals and hostels. Online and drive-through facilities are being made available for citizens to access services. The police are enforcing laws that were once only suggestions, and the security services are tackling intractable troublemakers who have been operating with impunity for years.

One wonders how the people will react when all these initiatives are taken away post-pandemic, and the government lets things slide back into the previous state of disrepair. Rather, let’s use this opportunity to entrench and formalise those positive contributions to our society so the forward momentum is maintained (with the proviso that autocrats and dictators don’t use the crisis as an excuse to seize more power and undermine democratic processes, as can happen).

Most importantly, governments need to start looking beyond themselves, put the people first, and consider their place in the wider world. And that means…

Moving Towards a Borderless Society

Clearly, the current pandemic is showing up both the best and the worst in our global systems.

On the plus side, there has been unprecedented cooperation between scientists and epidemiologists in terms of tracking the virus and developing a vaccine (which is still a year away). Health agencies are also sharing and re-distributing resources around the world, where possible, to help meet the shifting priorities of viral conflagration. Most gratifyingly, in South Africa at least, there’s the general cessation of partisan politics, which has been subsumed by a wave of solidarity and unity against a common, invisible enemy.

In line with this trend of increasing cooperation and compatibility (and despite populist and nationalistic tendencies that seek to split people apart), we urgently need to streamline systems to run across geopolitical boundaries. This will increase efficiency, stability and well-being across entire regions rather than just in individual territories.

In Africa, most notably, most of the national borders we live with today were drawn up by white men in Europe 150 years ago. And, back then, their only concern was snatching the most profitable bits of the continent away from their rivals. The result is a fragmented patchwork of semi-functional states that were further hobbled by centuries of Western exploitation and colonial bullshittery.

So, as controversial as it sounds, I would argue that it’s time to rethink the nature of these artificial geo-political borders. Red-tape, pointless paperwork, crooked officials, and long delays make every border a physical barrier to effective trade and exchange. Petty politics, conflicting legislation, and burdensome bureaucracy further restrict the growth of business and commerce. In America, a business franchise can open a branch in a new state relatively quickly. Not so in Africa.

This isn’t to say that we don’t need controls in place.  Single-point border posts can still operate (and be closed when necessary) but the emphasis must be on continuity and speed. Isolationist thinking is going to be the death of us (and the US).

It would be a very complicated process indeed but I would suggest that a federal-style union of all countries in the Southern African Development Community, based on the South African constitution with a single economic authority, is a good start.

And if all that sounds impossibly idealistic, let’s not forget…

It’s the End of the World (as we know it)

In short, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything – irrevocably – and we simply can’t go on as before. Because this is going to happen again and many systems and norms that we have had in place for decades are now proven to be ineffective or downright dangerous.

Despite the onslaught of dire outcomes that we’ll be facing in the next 12 months or more, we can and should seize this chance to re-invent fundamental processes and behaviours so that we’re able to handle the next crisis a bit better.

In the words attributed to Bishop Demond Tutu: “A time of crisis is not just a time of anxiety and worry. It gives a chance, an opportunity, to choose well or to choose badly.”

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Confessions of a Racist

Warning: this article contains personal opinions, trigger points, sweeping generalisations, and subjective conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. It is the start of a discussion, not the final word. Proceed at your own risk.

I – Growing up Racist

It’s taken me a long time to admit it, but I am a racist. Not a proud one, mind you. More like a reluctant racist who has finally decided to come clean so that I may better understand this shameful part of my psyche and thereby go into remission.

Firstly, a little bit about me.

I was born in Johannesburg and grew up in the 1980s, a time when South Africa was deep in the throes of Apartheid – a pervasive and comprehensive system of racial discrimination that underpinned every aspect of our society. As such, I was educated in an all-white public-school system that overtly and covertly pushed a very specific theory of racial superiority.

Simply put, we were taught that the white race is superior to the black race. Plain and simple. Black people were intellectually substandard, inherently violent, utterly untrustworthy. Therefore, they had to be suppressed or else they would rise up and kill us all in our beds. And this wasn’t just theoretical. It was an explicit statement of fact that the Nationalist government of the day trotted out at every general election to stay in power (it was even given a name: the ‘Swart Gevaar’ or Black Danger). Black people, of course, didn’t have the vote until 1994.

This ideology of racial superiority, along with a carefully constructed network of discriminatory legislation that comprehensively separated the races, came to define our lives in sunny SA. How else could we justify the systematic disempowerment of people of colour, which provided (amongst other things) a cheap and subservient labour force? After all, the main attributes that defined black people were strength and stupidity – forever consigning them to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, as described in the Bible.


II – Global Racism

But Apartheid wasn’t a purely South African invention. It was a cold, logical and ultimate expression of white attitudes to black people that has existed since the two races first met on the shores of Africa hundreds of years ago. Faced with the ‘savage’ darker races who lived in mud huts instead of stone castles and could neither read or write, the Europeans quickly embraced a racial hierarchy that conveniently put themselves at the top of the heap.

This firm belief in the supremacy of the white races over black (and Asian and Indian and Arabic, etc.) was subsequently used as a global foundation that gave rise to colonialism, the slave trade and many other crimes against humanity.

Even today, when we honestly should know better, there is still a lingering sense among some people that whites are somehow ‘better’ than blacks. Yes, very few people would admit that openly, even to themselves, but I would argue that it is far more pervasive than you would think – at least on a subconscious level. But more on that in a bit.

For now, looking around our polarised and fractured global society, it’s safe to say that racism is on the rise. Where we were once in general agreement that discrimination is bad, there is now a movement that seeks to legitimise white supremacy under the guise of nationalism, identity politics and anti-immigration rhetoric. Just look at inflammatory ravings of Trump or the Brexiteers, and the enthusiastic reactions populist leaders around the world have been getting from some sectors of their electorates.

From atavistic white supremacists raising their fists over in America, to the rise of aspirant dictators such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to the various politicians who yell about being overrun by hordes of immigrants carrying disease, crime and terrorism in their backpacks – this is the dawn of a dark new age that many of us thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

And so, after decades in the shadows, overt racism is back with a vengeance. And that’s forced me to look inwards and try to come to terms with my own latent racism so that I may better control it – not as a justification, you understand, more of an explanation. And if that means that I break the code of silence that sometimes keeps white people from talking about the implicit racism that exists within their own community, so be it.  


III – Good Neighbourliness

Under apartheid, racial discrimination wasn’t just encouraged. It was the law. Following the honeyed words of Hendrik Verwoerd (the charismatic prophet of ‘Grand Apartheid’) the black races simply weren’t capable of looking after themselves. We, the whites, had a duty to be the custodians of the darker people – looking after their needs, as we saw them, because they were little better than children.

In an infamous speech, recorded on film, Verwoerd put on his best smile and softly explained Apartheid as a ‘policy of good neighbourliness’. It was chilling piece of misdirection but many white South Africans bought it hook, line and sinker. Of course, there were plenty of white citizens who vehemently rejected Apartheid and actively worked to bring about its downfall, but for most it was a fait accompli and there was little to be gained from fighting the heavily militarised Nationalist government.

And so, using the word of the Bible as a backdrop, whites were encouraged to accept that God had given the Voortrekkers victory over the Zulu at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. Thus, the Afrikaners claimed a divine right over the destiny of South Africa evermore. But even if you didn’t believe that nonsense, the benefits of being white under Apartheid cannot be denied. Generations of white people, myself included, lived a wonderful life while standing on the backs of black people, who we were encouraged to ignore.

And so, from at least 1948 onwards, white South Africans were indoctrinated into believing that we were superior – it was just part of the natural order, after all. Then, quite rapidly, the system collapsed and we went through the miracle that was our first democratic elections in 1994.

Suddenly, racism was bad and nobody could remember ever supporting Apartheid. Apart from a few far-right lunatics, the new normal was embraced with equal amounts of hope and amnesia. We were now a Rainbow Nation and all the beer ads were full of multi-racial people drinking together in artificial harmony.

Over the past 20-plus years, this non-racial narrative has largely endured but the cracks in our national psyche were just papered over, not eradicated (at least for the older generations). And so, try as hard as I might, I will never be truly free of the racism inculcated in my youthful mind by a twisted educational system. 

IV – Latent Racism

Speaking personally, as always, my own racism feels like a virus. I survived the initial infection but now I’m a lifelong carrier. For the most part, my virus is latent but it’s subject to flare up when my immune system is low and my tolerance levels dip. Usually, my virus manifests in benign ways but that doesn’t make it less racist.

For example, whenever I see a multi-racial couple holding hands on the street, I notice that. My attitude may be ‘That’s nice’ but it is racism nonetheless.

Here’s a more severe example. I walk my dogs in the park every day. It’s my favourite place in the city – a common ground where people from all walks of life can relax and socialise. I firmly believe that every community deserves a clean, green park to improve their quality of life, and I lament the fact that many new settlements are being implemented without these facilities. But I digress…

Sometimes, while I’m chasing after my little bastards in the park, I see a black person sitting on a bench, reading a book or newspaper. And try as I might, a tiny, reflexive thought rises unbidden in my mind. Something along the lines of ‘Look at that. Who says black people don’t read?’. The answer is me. I think that black people don’t read. Otherwise I wouldn’t be taken aback (no matter how slightly).

The same goes for when I see a black taxi driver doing something stupid or inconsiderate. I try to dismiss the offender as something generic, like an arsehole – because everyone has one of those, but there’s that little voice deep in the shameful recesses of my mind telling me that ‘they’ are savages with no respect for law and order.

‘They’ is a very, very dangerous word.


V – Genetics and Race

This part may seem obvious – especially for readers in ‘enlightened’ countries who believe they have outgrown racism – but I think the following points bear repeating so that there is no doubt…

Racism is essentially a nonsensical ideology, seeking to introduce differences where there are none. Biologically speaking, we are all the same species: Homo sapiens – translated as ‘wise or thinking man’ (all evidence to the contrary). That means that our mechanics are identical. No matter how different we look, sound or act, there is nothing to indicate that one race is objectively better or worse than another. 

But racist ideologies consistently seek to negate anything that smacks of science. Instead, racism is driven by emotion, disempowerment, anger, fear, expediency and resentment.

Thus, for the hard-core racist, there are several distinct races and each one is fundamentally different from the others (these races are sometimes codified as African, Asian, European, Native American, and Oceanian). Whites are obviously the best hence you get the obsession with purity of the blood and other idiotic attempts to selectively breed a master race (as per Eugenics, Hitler and other forms of ethnic cleansing – although this can also apply to tribal identities within racial groups as well).

But, despite what some commentators may claim, there is no genetic evidence whatsoever to suggest that any one race is inherently superior to another. Not in terms of intelligence, strength, fertility, culinary ability or even a sense of rhythm. In fact, studies have shown that there is more genetic diversity within the black races than there is between black and white, and white people may have more in common with Asians than with other members of their own race.

The inherent equality of the races is therefore something that I understand and embrace. And yet, the concept of genetic superiority lingers in the air, feeding my latent racism like poison gas in a chamber.


VI – Some of my best friends are racist

Now comes the part where I break trust with my fellow racists and come clean about some things that white people sometimes say to each other when no-one’s looking. Once again, many readers may say that they don’t know anyone who would even think things like this let alone express them explicitly, but I posit that many of us are more racist than we realise – even if it’s within the confines of our own subconscious.

For example, I was recently having a discussion with a good friend about this subject and he said, without irony, that he isn’t racist because he knows some intelligent black people. But as a group, he continued, ‘they’ are stupid, inconsiderate, corrupt, etc. The fact that this is the dictionary definition of racism seemed to surprise him.

And he’s not alone. Without pointing fingers at anyone in particular, many of my family and friends are latent racists without fully acknowledging that they may be so. It could be the casual use of a mild racial epithet, a pejorative accent, or a throwaway comment about ‘them’, but a lot of white people subconsciously embody the genetic superiority paradigm without fully realising it.

I recall another conversation with an educated acquaintance (a radiographer) during which I tried to explain why white people should never, ever refer to black people as ‘monkeys’ or ‘apes’ or ‘baboons’. This was following a social uproar over a Facebook post in which a woman compared black people to something simian.

Simply put, I tried to convey how black people across the ages have been called primitive, savage or animalistic. In other words, that they exist further down the evolutionary scale and are thus closer to bloody monkeys than the glorious European races.

After listening patiently, her response was ‘but they are like monkeys’, as if that settled the matter. As further proof, she offered the ‘fact’ that black people have thicker skulls than whites. Besides, she had seen one driving with his hand hanging out the window and he looked just like a monkey. I quickly realised that it was pointless trying to continue with the conversation. It just wasn’t worth it to bang my head against a wall of stupid.

Another time, an acquaintance asked ‘what’s so bad about calling them monkeys anyway? I call my kids monkeys all the time’. Once again, I tried to clarify that there’s a history of using ‘monkeys’ as a specific racial insult but he wasn’t buying it. It was just political correctness gone mad, he said, and now we have to be afraid of everything we say.

This is, of course, rubbish. Free speech is central to our understanding of democracy, but it has its limits – specifically when it tips over into Hate Speech. South Africa has quite clear guidelines on what constitutes hate speech. In fact, we are one of the few countries in the world that has made racism a potentially criminal offence and there are currently several people in prison for their public racism (often shared on social media or filmed by bystanders and then exposed).


VII – Criminally Racist

Consider the following story: Recently, a leaked WhatsApp video message showed this guy standing on a beach in Greece and blissfully declaring that what made it so special is that there ‘wasn’t a ka**ir in sight’. For any international readers, ka**ir’ is an awful word for black people that was widely used during Apartheid – the term is so toxic I refuse to type it out in full. Think the N-word but even worse.

Obviously, the video went viral and the uproar was immediate. People were outraged and rightfully so. And then it spiralled. The man’s extended family was targeted, his father’s business had to shut down, as did his brother’s restaurant. The perpetrator still hasn’t come back from his holiday in Greece and likely never will.

The apparent explanation for his statement was that he had recently been the victim of an extremely callous robbery at the hands of black people while out hiking, high in the mountains. This doesn’t hold any water whatsoever. It’s the same reasoning that Anti-Semites use: a Jewish accountant ripped me off, therefore all Jews are crooks.

So, while I sympathise with the guy’s potentially innocent family members and those hapless workers who are out of job because of this idiot’s utterances, I can’t really say that people are over-reacting. It was a hateful statement and he should have had the sense to keep it hidden inside his head. The fact that he shared to a group of friends on WhatsApp only indicates that he thought he would find a receptive audience for his ‘hilarious’ social commentary. In other words, fuck that guy.

It does get tricky when it comes to humour, though. Does a heightened awareness of racism mean that we can’t make jokes anymore? After all, most jokes are at the expense of one group or another. Does that mean we can’t poke fun and have to watch everything we say in case we cause offence?

Well, it’s a complicated question (especially since I often make inappropriate jokes to get a laugh). In my opinion, though, I think it’s quite simple. Firstly, if it’s a joke about yourself or a group directly affiliated with your identity, you should be OK. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s all about the intention. If the joke is good-humoured and equitable, it should be fine (unless there’s someone looking to get offended). If the joke is mean-spirited and negative, you might be on shaky ground.

My advice: just ask yourself if you’d be comfortable making the joke in the presence of someone who is part of the group that it’s about. If you think twice, it might just be best to skip it altogether.


VIII – Can Black People Be Racist?

And that brings up another point. Is racism only white vs. black, or does it have a wider definition? I would argue that racism can be used as a blanket term for when a person makes a discriminatory statement or action against another group based on a racial, gender, ethnic, religious, sexual or cultural disparity. Whether you mistrust the Italians, or Greeks, or Blacks, or Asians, or Jews, or Women, or Homosexuals, or Transgender people, it’s all smacks of racism to me.

So, even though we have specialised words for each of the many forms that discrimination can take, it’s important to remember that the principles of superiority and entitlement that lie behind race-based discrimination are the same as those that lie behind misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc. Equality is a powerful concept that cannot be applied selectively – it’s all or nothing.

Furthermore, despite what some of our more populist leaders may say, of course black people can be racist. No matter how gruelling one’s cultural history and/or personal experiences may be, it is quite possible to be both a racist and a victim of racism. And being one does not make it OK to be the other. Racism is, ironically, something that transcends race.

So, for an oppressed race to turn around and embrace or condone the oppression of another is galling, but self-awareness is not our species’ strong suit. What’s even more infuriating is when formerly oppressed people co-opt racism for their own means. In South Africa, this happens quite often. For example, you’ll often hear the biggest crooks in our government cry ‘racist plot’ whenever they are accused of doing something illegal.

Just listen to our scrappy politicians argue about the scourge of corruption and ‘state-capture’ that has come to define the last 10 years of the ANC’s dismal Jacob Zuma-led government. Every treasonous accusation (and there are many) is dismissed by the kleptocracy as being a plot by ‘white monopoly capital’ and each negative news report is dismissed as being a ploy by ‘white-controlled media interests’ – despite the increasingly obvious legal evidence that shows how a network of cronies, which included almost the entire upper-management of our country, were united in a brazen attempt to loot the state for as much as they could.

And their defence? It’s obviously a conspiracy by white people to discredit black people who only want to advance themselves. It’s a neat trick that may distract those who are inclined to believe such assertions but it’s also mendacious bullshit and should not be countenanced.


IX – Confronting Racism

So, finally, now I’ve acknowledged that I carry the Racism virus, what can I do about it?

Well, it’s a personal question and I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself. So, personally, I try to be aware of the various prejudices and racist overtones that are swimming around in my brain. I endeavour to keep my discriminatory impulses in check, no matter how angry I am at the behaviour of an individual. Because the actions of one do not reflect the actions of all. Like I said previously, ‘They’ is a very dangerous word.

Instead, we should only be judged on our words and actions as individuals, not unilaterally lumped into a group that has been given labels and characteristics by external forces based on little more than partisan anecdotes.

I’ve also decided to be less complicit in racism. While none of my friends or family are overt racists, there is still a lot of casual racism flying around. Just listen and you’ll start to hear it…

And what’s the best course of action to take when you do catch a whiff of residual racism? Well, sometimes I speak up, sometimes I don’t. It depends on the circumstances – who’s there, what was said, is it worth it, etc. After all, I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ who constantly harangues people about their racist attitudes, and I similarly don’t want to be the person who makes every conversation political and tense – especially since I am far from blameless. Nevertheless, I find myself speaking up more and more often because I can no longer just sit back and leave discrimination (overt and covert) unchallenged.

That is my resolution. Where once etiquette would have dictated that I shut up and play along, I have decided to be less complicit in perpetuating the ingrained superiority complex that has been the hallmark of my race for centuries.  

It’s time for the narrative to change and that process starts with me.

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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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Sandringham ‘Township’ is a misnomer

Recently, I saw an alarmist post making the rounds on social media and email. It reads, in part: “I am not sure if you are all in the Glenhazel/ Sandringham, Fairmount area – but if you do have any connection there, then please get involved in the proposed development of a mixed-use Township which is planned for the area surrounding the Sandringham police station.”

There is more than one type of 'Township'

There is more than one type of ‘Township’

Clearly, this is a cause for concern – except that it isn’t.

You see, the emotive word in this call-to-arms is ‘Township’. However, when you read the actual tender document, it becomes clear that the word in being used in its original sense – as an innocuous urban planning term that means the same as ‘suburb’. It has nothing to do with our uniquely South African concept of township as an urban slum, such as Alexandra.

If you want proof, just have a look at your monthly account from the City of Johannesburg and you’ll see the heading ‘Township’ followed by the specific name of your nice, pretty residential suburb. Yes, whether you live in Houghton or Highlands North, you too are living in a Township!

So, let’s put aside our knee-jerk reactions and take a closer look at the proposed project in order to formulate an informed opinion. The proposal, as described in the CoJ’s tender document, is to develop the 17 000ha plot of vacant land roughly bounded by Modderfontein Road, the Sandringham Dip and the M3 highway. This would include the construction of residential units for low to middle income families along with educational, recreational, retail and corporate spaces.

Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Yes, the housing is going to be relatively high-density (probably including a couple of thousand apartments) and yes, the development is intended for lower-income earners. But that doesn’t mean the land is going to be given over to shacks and spaza shops. Instead, the city is trying to create ‘gap housing’ for people of limited means but with upward mobility. After all, we’re never going to clean up genuine slums if we don’t give people a viable alternative.

Obviously, the relative pros and cons of the development can only be determined once official drawings and plans have been submitted. And there’s a long way to go before that happens. In the meantime, rest assured that there’s still plenty to get worked up about.

The real cause for concern (as outlined in Marian Laserson’s excellent report) is that there seems to be a lack of proper paperwork behind the company that won the tender, which was originally issued in 2011. According to Laserson, the winning bidder is a new company that was registered just a few years ago, with little practical experience in the field and few financial statements to back up its ambitious plans. There is also confusion about the status of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – a legal requirement that must be completed by the developers and approved by the authorities before any construction can begin.

OK, now that you have a more factual grounding on which you can legitimately base your reactions – get busy! For more information, you can read the relevant documents for yourself (attached below) or get in touch with an appropriate authority. No doubt, special interest groups and public participation meetings will also be set up in the near future.

So, by all means, make your voice heard. Everyone living in the surrounding area should definitely engage with this process so that we may all benefit from the long-overdue development of this valuable land. It is a very interesting space with historical, environmental, social and economic implications. And I fully believe that we should all work together to improve our urban environment.

Just imagine what could be achieved if this development is handled responsibly: a rehabilitated river bank along which to picnic, some rare Bankenveld grasslands with a nature trail, restored sites of historical interest, neat rows of houses and apartment blocks, new shops and schools, smart offices, tarred roads, proper services…

The potential is indeed enormous – as long as we reign in our natural tendency towards hysteria (especially when it is based on a misunderstood word). That isn’t to say that we should turn a blind eye and allow the developers to flout the law. We just have to be cautious without being dismissive. IMHO.

Environmental Scoping Process – Notice

Linksfield BID_10 Oct 2013

Environmental Scoping Process – Notice

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Dave Tripping – New York City

I am now midway through a family vacation to Canada and it’s been great to see everyone again. Paradoxically, it feels like it was only yesterday that we all got together and yet we instinctively know that it’s years rather than miles which separate us. But it’s all good.

And what with all the reunion-ing, I haven’t had much time to update my blog. But fear not, faithful reader, I had a spare day at my cousins’ house in Dundaszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, so here’s the first exciting instalment of my travel journal. And it features a photo gallery of my quick three day stop-over in New York City, en route to Canada (there still isn’t a direct flight from the beloved country to the great white north).

Even though this is only my third or fourth time in NYC, it’s already starting to feel familiar. Yes, it’s over-whelming, thrilling, surreal, gruelling, delightful; but I am nevertheless embracing my informal citizenship of New York  by virtue of the generations of movie-makers, writers and artists who have made every aspect of life in the Big Apple part of the planet’s shared mythology.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the humidity – it was stinking hot, like a Durban in February. Still, it was a  real treat to pound the street, sweating freely, and making the most of my time in the city.

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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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Name That Theme Song – the kiddies edition

Here’s a special kiddies edition of the Theme Song Quiz – featuring 10 title tracks from cartoons and kids shows. With one or two long-running exceptions, these shows were wildly popular back in the day (along with LPs, cassettes and other analogue gadgets that are all but unknown to anyone born after 1985). So enjoy the blast back into your halcyon past and please let me know what you think…

TV Theme Song Quiz – the kiddies edition

For the answers, click here.

If you want to try your hand at the other editions, just click on the Quiz tab in the menu above.

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Pop Pilgrims visit the real-life locations behind famous movie scenes

One of my favourite features on the excellent AV Club website is the Pop Pilgrims series – a fascinating look at real-life locations that were featured in memorable movies scenes. From the Texas Chainsaw Massacre house, to the Exorcist steps, to the Night of the Living Dead cemetery – the Pop Pilgrims team travels around the states to check out these immortal sites and see how they look in the banal, quotidian light of the 21st century.

Each short episode also features interviews with people involved in the film and/or pedantic pop culture geeks who break down the location for your viewing pleasure. It’s a brilliant concept and highly recommended for all those nostalgic movie buffs out there (you know who you are).

So, for your viewing pleasure, I’ve embedded a selection of the best episodes below – just click and enjoy!

Visiting the Night Of The Living Dead cemetery

Austin: The Texas Chain Saw… family restaurant?

DC: The Exorcist stairs

Seattle: The diner from Twin Peaks, Twede’s Cafe

Los Angeles: The Graduate church

Die Hard‘s Nakatomi Plaza

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