Wednesday, June 6, 2012


There’s a lot of chatter in South Africa at the moment: offensive paintings, tweeting imbeciles, money-grubbing football coaches, and the usual day-to-day pillaging and looting that is the spirit of modern democracy. The media packages it all and we read and re-tweet it, but the real conversations are the ones that take place between actual people, like the one I observed last night.

Once in a while I stand in with a blues band down on Wilson’s Wharf in Durban. Tuesday nights in the city are nothing to write home about for white people anymore, and those that venture out aren’t exactly your typical Investec suburbanites. Last night, the white guy on the left in the picture, with all the grace and social skills of a failed sprocket salesman, downed goblets of red wine at the  bar and then turned his burgeoning invincibility on the black guy to his right.

The black guy was sitting quietly by himself two stools down sipping a draught and reading, of all things in a city bar on a week-night, a pocket-sized edition of Sun Tzu’s “The Art Of War”. White Guy noticed the title and pounced.

“ ‘The Art Of War’, hey? You fucking ANC guys…”

What followed was a loud stream of invective accompanied by wine-induced slouching and gesticulating (see picture), all  from the white guy and all based on two assumptions: 1. This particular black guy was responsible for the the state of the country at the moment, and 2. ‘The Art of War’ was some kind of ANC/black terrorist text.

The black guy, to his credit, just sat and listened. The white guy got louder and louder, throwing out phrases like “fucking kaffirs” etc. The bar staff in the immediate vicinity started paying very close attention in case it started getting nasty.

Then, inexplicably, the white guy goes, “Well, fuck it, I’m leaving anyway. Soon as I can get out of this bladdy country I’m gone”. After complaining and accusing, he’s leaving anyway? Then, even more inexplicably, the white guy and the black guy, unable to continue the one-sided conversation because of the barrage of white-guy blues rock from the guest band, get up and go outside to share a smoke and carry on their fireside chat. They came back in a few minutes later practically arm-in-arm, all national issues resolved.

As much as people like Julius Malema may make it embarrassing for some black people to be black, white guys like this make it excruciating to be white in a country like South Africa. When previously-advantaged white people show themselves to be more ignorant and uninformed and just plain dumber than their previously-disadvantaged countrymen, it’s teeth-clenchingly awful.

Somewhere down the line, though, this belligerent drunk smirking racist and this graceful, thoughtful quiet African man found some common ground, shared a drink and a smoke, and the staff reported back that they were ‘friends now’.

National Democratic Revolution be damned: this is the real South Africa.

Friday, April 6, 2012


I’m currently reading Arianna Huffington’s “Third World America”, her treatise on the escalating economic woes of the wealthiest nation in history. Aside from her constant need to create quotable soundbites and her tendency to write like the blogger she is, it’s a good read, and an alarming one (not just for Americans). Two things have jumped out at me so far:

1. America is a country, but is also an idea, and a fine one at that. Over more than three centuries, the idea of a democratic utopia for mankind has inspired the rest of us plebians toward greater ideals, although in the last century at least the idea has started to yield less and less.
That’s why I raised an eyebrow at the end of the list of superlatives Mz Huffington uses to describe her adoptive country: aside from the obvious ones, she uses the word ‘noble’.
The traditional understanding of ‘noble’ as ‘being of high moral principles’ may have been applicable in another age, but not anymore. In fact, if anything, I would say that ‘noble’ is the least appropriate word one could use to describe modern America. Powerful, yes. Great, indisputibly. But noble?
Western values are corrupt and morally bankrupt, and no nation can claim the blame quite like America. That’s not to say Americans are guilty as a nation, any more so than ‘Germans’ are collectively guilty for World War 2. America post-WW2, however, has presided over the collapse of any notion of Western moral superiority (for better or for worse), and of all things, ‘nobility’ went first.

2. A March 2010 Harris Poll is quoted in which Republicans are polled regarding their feelings  on Barack Obama. Apparently, 57% of those polled  believe he is a Muslim, 38% believe he’s doing ‘many of the things that Hitler did’, and 24% believe ‘he may be the Anti-Christ’ (chapter 2 page 86). 
Paranoid and frightened they may be, and justly so in the face of the steady decline of America, but aren’t these the same people who voted for George W. Bush? Twice? The man who, more than any other elected President (including Nixon and Reagan), presided over the key events that have resulted in America’s current condition? Bush 43 was the harbinger, and yet Obama is ‘the Anti-Christ’? 
The American Society of Engineers’ 2009 report on America’s infrastructure was described later as ‘the kind of report card you would have expected on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire’ (p94).
America’s degeneration began long before Obama. It’s not Bush’s fault either of course, but here’s the thing: of the $2.2 trillion needed over the next five years to just make America’s infrastructure barely passable, only $975 billion has been budgeted. Where are the spending priorities? Overseas wars (begun under Bush), and the unfair bailing out of multi-national corporations. Obama’s not perfect, but there’s one word I would ascribe to him: noble.

Post-script: “America is like a middle-aged man, still clinging to a perception of himself at age twenty-three, refusing to take in the wrinkles and the bald spot showing up in the mirror. And the bad knee. And the clogged arteries that could make his heart stop beating at any moment. We still see ourselves as a youthful nation, when it simply isn’t true anymore.” – Arianna Huffington, “Third World America” 2011