Tag: Durban Poison

Release the tapeworm, not the tape

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

No, I haven’t had a stroke, although if I were to have one my first choice would be for it to happen right now on a Sunday night. Apart from waking up dead, I can’t think of a better way to start the week than in a private hospital in a private ward with around the clock access to Netflix, pethidine and a night nurse who understands that the bed bath is an art and not a duty.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes is a Latin phrase written by Virgil while bumming around Italy committing unspeakable acts upon doe-eyed slave boys and writing poetry before Jesus was born.

It means “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Why would he say that? He should have kept his little rosebud mouth shut. The little ponce had no idea how many housewarming parties he ruined over the next two thousand years.

“Go see who’s at the door, babe.”

“Ah, fuck. It’s that dreadful Agamemnon.”

“Don’t let him in!”

“But he seems to have brought a gift.”

“What is it?”

“Some kind of wooden horse.”

“I already have a ceramic horse. Pretend we’re not home.”

“Okay, he’s gone.”

“Thank god.”

“He left his gift.”

“The horse? Quickly, bring it in.”

And with that I come to Adam Catzavelos. More of a Greek bearing gifs. Yes, I am aware that this segue belongs in calipers but statistics show that people are far more likely to kill themselves or a loved one on any given Sunday and I need to prepare for all eventualities.

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In a thirty second selfie video shot on a beach in Greece, Adam Catzavelos changed his life forever and reduced the national tolerance level for white people by 39.4%. In fact, he did it in only five seconds. That has to be some kind of record. Many of us would leap at the chance to say half a dozen words and magically lose our horrible families and boring jobs. It wasn’t even half a dozen words. It was one word.

It wasn’t Avada Kedavra, the killing curse.

It wasn’t Crucio, the torturing curse.

Not was it Imperio, the controlling curse.

This was K***ir, the Motherfucker of Curses – so named because once the word passes your lips, it is your life and not the life of the target of the curse that is destroyed. It’s a very weird curse, made weirder by the fact that black people can utter it with no negative consequences whatsoever apart from perhaps being invited to make up a four-ball with the managing director the weekend after next.

Here’s the thing, though. And it’s something that nobody seems to have considered. What if – and this is a very real possibility – it wan’t Adam Catzavelos who uttered that ugly racial slur? What if his brain had been taken over by, say, a tapeworm? It wouldn’t be the first time this sort of thing had happened.

On 6 September 1966, Dimitri Tsafendas stabbed and killed Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd during a session in parliament. During his trial – which in a normal country might have been a ticker-tape parade – his lawyer said that Tsafendas had been acting on the instructions of a giant tapeworm which dwelt within his client.

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The court, headed by a judge who failed to recognise the rights of tapeworms, sentenced South Africa’s first Greek hero to be detained “at the pleasure of the State President”. This happened to be a man named Charles Roberts Swart. Without a hint of irony, his nickname was “Blackie”. Judging by his photograph, he looks like a man who would derive tremendous pleasure from the detention of evil-doers, especially if they had impaled his prime minister on the advice of a tapeworm.

There are good people and bad people. There is good bacteria and bad bacteria. And there is no scientific reason to think that tapeworms are any different. I’m not for one minute suggesting that all Greeks are dictated to by tapeworms. That would be Greekist.

But given the history of Greeks and tapeworms – and who among us will ever forget the sight of Maria Callas eating bowls of tapeworms to control her weight – it is quite clear that there are at least two types of tapeworms that are attracted to Greeks. Or at least two types of Greeks who are attracted to tapeworms.

There are plenty of statues of horses in this country. What the fuck did a horse ever do to change anything in South Africa? I think it’s appalling that there isn’t a single sculpture of Tsafendas’s tapeworm in any park or garden in this country.

Problem is, it might look just like Catzavelos’s tapeworm.

 

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A letter to the American President

Dear President Trump,

Thank you so much for your recent tweet in which you threatened to invade my country if the government didn’t stop killing all our white farmers and stealing their land. I live in a very violent country and we need all the help we can get from civilised countries like yours. Did you know that fifty people die violently every day in South Africa? Then again, none of them are farmers. Also, they are black. Forget I mentioned it.

This was your very first tweet in which you mention Africa and we are honoured that you chose to single us out among all the other covfefe countries like Nambia and Zimbopaloowop.

I fell in love with that tweet, sir. So much so that I have to reproduce it here so that even more people can be exposed to your intellectual prowess and unique insight into global foreign affairs.

“I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.”

And you fired this dramatic shot across my government’s bows without even needing to consult anyone in your administration! I suppose that’s what Fox News is there for. Barack Obama would have definitely made some kind of spineless attempt to ascertain the so-called ‘facts’. I get the feeling that you might have had a bit of a chat with one of the boys, though. They’ve been out here, right? Of course they have. They killed a bunch of our animals. I think it was Eric who was photographed holding up a knife and an elephant’s tail. If anyone knows anything about South Africa, it’s Eric and the other one. The throwback. You know who I mean.

Not everyone here is thrilled about your tweet. For a start, my government is terribly upset. They say they haven’t actually seized any land from white farmers. That’s an appalling argument. Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean you can’t condemn it. As a graduate of the Lewis Carroll School of Political Philosophy, you understand this better than most.

Some homeless loser called Patrick Gaspard – probably an alias – accused you of “needing political distractions to turn our gaze away from his criminal cabal”. This desperate drug fiend had the gall to claim that you have never visited Africa and have no discernible Africa policy. Fake news! Your tweet showed the world that you do have a policy on Africa. Well, Fox news host Fucker Carlson does, and that’s good enough for me. Anyway, why on earth would you need a policy longer than 280 characters for a continent that you recently described as a shithole?

Oh dear. I’ve just googled this Gaspard character. It turns out that he’s a Columbia University graduate and was the American ambassador to South Africa from 2013 to 2016. It doesn’t matter! The point is that he was born in the Congo to Haitian parents! That’s two strikes right there. Three, if you consider that the traitor is probably fluent in French. You can’t trust anyone who knows a second language.

Julius Malema (you won’t recognise the name) said his party of Economic Freedom Fighters aren’t afraid of you. He doesn’t seem to realise that he’s joining the back of a long line of people with similar sentiments and it will be decades before he gets to you. Nothing to fear there, Mr President.

A lot of other people in South Africa implied that they will fight you on the beaches. This is what happens when you allow black people onto the beaches. In the good old days, the US Marine Corps would have been able to come ashore at Addington Beach and Camps Bay without a problem. Then again, there would have been no need because back then we had a government which understood that white and right rhyme for a reason.

But you do have allies on these hostile shores, Mr President. There is a group called AfriForum mandated by none other than God to protect the rights of minorities. When I say minorities, please don’t think I am talking about the Bushmen. They had their chance and blew it. Too much time spent sitting around fires communicating with the ancestors instead of forming armies. Africa is not for pussies. You can’t just grab and kiss.

I should warn you that AfriForum is trying to claim credit for your tweet. The group’s CEO, Kallie Kriel, who would probably be the equivalent of your Imperial Wizard in the KKK, said this in a statement: “I think our lobbying has certainly had an impact because we have spoken with a lot of people who have had contact with President Trump and we have spoken with many think tanks, one of them for example the Cato Institute, which has taken a very strong stance shortly before this statement now by President Trump.”

Be careful of these people. You might think they are allies but they cannot be trusted. Their once glorious National Party folded like a pack of cards and many of their members joined something called the Democratic Alliance. As you know all too well, the very word Democratic is a scourge and a curse.

I must admit that I and many of my countrymen know very little about farming, let alone farm seizures. I had an epileptic dog called Julius Seizure once but that doesn’t really help. So when you asked Secretary Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures”, my heart was filled with hope. Please ask Pompeo to share his findings with us because nobody here really knows what is going on. Also, if you do get the chance, please ask Pompeo to change his name. Out here, a Pomp is a sexual act and we find it hard to take him seriously.

Anyway, Mr President. It’s getting dark and I have to unleash the hounds, feed the crocodiles, activate the landmines and make sure the perimeter guards have enough bullets for the night. I can only imagine it’s worse for the farmers.

If our government gives you any more guff, send in the troops. They will be met by some of our finest men, including Oberstgruppenführer Steve Hofmeyr and his loyal sidekick Sturmbannführer Adam Catzavelos. If they are on holiday, we have many others to take their place.

Good luck with the impeachment.

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So, anyway.

Durban Poison letters 3

I just wanted to thank everyone who emailed me and wrote to the Sunday Tribune expressing their outrage/condolences/relief after the newspaper gave me the boot. I find it a bit odd that the paper chose to use a few of the letters. It’s almost as if they were saying, “Yes, we were idiots to get rid of him, but if you don’t believe us here are some of our readers who feel the same way.”

So far, none of the fake mainstream media has offered me a home for my column. The Big Issue in Cape Town seems keen and at this rate I may well become the magazine’s first vendor/columnist.

I was so traumatized by being “let go” for reasons that still make no sense that I immediately went to Sri Lanka on a surfing trip. If I had a paying column, I’d tell you all about it.

 

 

 

 

Lies, editors and contracts

I don’t know, man. I’m very easy-going but sometimes I just can’t let lying dogs sleep.

I was reading today’s Sunday Tribune online when I happened upon Mazwi Xaba’s column. He’s the editor who recently fired me as a columnist.

Even though I’m in no mood for it, he has left me no choice but to saddle up my high horse and ride into battle. Here’s what he wrote.

“For the record, columnist Ben Trovato is still contracted to write for us at least until the end of August. Like his followers who wrote in, we valued his contribution. Trovato flew very close to the line, but he was always guaranteed the carte blanche he has enjoyed for years until he left over contractual issues. Like most newspaper companies, ours is dealing with the digital revolution that necessitates changes. The door will remain open for him while we investigate other options.”

Okay. Here’s the thing. I don’t know why he chose to adopt a Trumpian approach to the truth in this matter. What works in America doesn’t always work here. So let’s break this down. For the record.

I am not “still contracted” to write for the Tribune for the simple reason that I have never signed a contract in the five years I wrote for them.

By saying “we valued his contribution”, Xaba implies that the decision to leave was mine. It wasn’t. If he genuinely valued my contribution, why did he get rid of me?

I fly close to the line because, having been in print and television journalism for the best part of thirty years, I know where the line is and see no point in flying anywhere else. I was given “carte blanche” to write a weekly column at The Namibian (1986–1991), the Cape Times (2002–2007) and the Sunday Times (2008–2013). I wouldn’t have kept writing for the Tribune if the then editor, Jovial Rantao, and his successor Aakash Bramdeo, had put constraints on me.

And now this is where the facts start to stumble.

“… until he left over contractual issues.” Since I never had a contract in the first place, and contractual negotiations never took place, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to accept that I couldn’t have left over contractual issues. And the words “he left” implies that I chose to leave. I didn’t. I was pushed.

Here’s the real story. Somewhere around March, I and several other freelancers were asked to sign something called an SLA. A contract for freelancers. It was a ridiculous contract that appeared to have been cobbled together from other contracts.

It stated that my column “belongs solely to the Client to be used on all properties and platforms solely at the discretion of the Client.” That would mean me giving up copyright. At the very least, I wouldn’t be able to publish a compilation of my columns as I did with my Cape Times (On The Run) and Sunday Times (The Whipping Boy) columns .

It would also mean that any title within the group could use my column without paying for it.

I asked, politely, for the clause to be scrapped and explained why I felt it should be done away with.

Then, under Compensation, it said “The Freelancer will be paid xxx per column.” The new amount slashed my fee by more than half. I assumed it was a mistake (I asked the editor, he didn’t respond) and requested a very modest increase on the grounds that I had been earning the same pitiful sum for five years.

That was on April 19. Then everything went quiet. Too quiet.

Nearly two months went by. Then, on June 13, I got an email from Human Resources asking me to sign the contract. It was becoming like Groundhog Day. I pointed out that I’d already raised my issues with the contract on April 19. I was told HR was not aware of my concerns and that the issue would be “escalated to the relevant persons”.

On June 20, a week after HR received my very polite objections to the contract as it stood, I got a call from the editor. Mazwi Xaba said he was very sorry but the paper had to let me go. I asked if there had been complaints. He said not. In his words: “It was purely a business decision.”

It didn’t make sense. A week earlier, HR had been badgering me to sign a year-long contract. Then, a week after I attempted to negotiate the contract, I get fired. I asked him about this and he denied there was any connection between the two. Nothing to do with my demands, he said. They weren’t even demands. They were requests. Freelancers can’t afford to make demands.

If the Tribune regrets losing me, as Xaba implies in his column, wouldn’t they have tried to reach some sort of compromise with me? Negotiate, maybe? Or at the very least tell me, “Sign the contract as it stands or you’re out.”

His suggestion that I was being dumped because of the “digital revolution” makes no sense and I’m not even going to explain why.

The only semi-truth is that I was meant to write a column until the end of August. Not contractually, though, because I didn’t have a contract. And not, as the editor would have it, “at least until the end of August”.

However, I did fail to read the attachment to his secretary’s email formalising my dismissal. Had I done that, I would have seen that I was only getting the boot at the end of August. During my telephone conversation with the editor, I thought it was the end of July. So in the final edition of the month, I said goodbye. Okay, fine. That screw-up is for my account. It cost me an extra month of money. Inexplicably, the editor also said in his column on 29th July that “we say adios to Ben Trovato this week”.

The editor’s last sentence in today’s column is like a plot twist in a David Lynch movie.

“The door will remain open for him while we investigate other options.”

What does this mean? Answers on a postcard, please.

The End?

There is a reason more and more people are reluctant to answer their phone if they don’t recognise the number. It’s because they know the odds against it being good news are staggeringly high. You have more chance of winning the lottery than of being pleasantly surprised upon answering a call from an unknown number.

I tend not to answer even if I know who is calling. Not because I am becoming increasingly reclusive and misanthropical, but because … no, that’s it. The only real chance you have of me answering your call is if I was in some way responsible for your birth and those odds are literally one in 7.6 billion. Not good. Don’t even bother.

So when my phone rang the other day and I didn’t recognise the number, I looked at the cat and we laughed and laughed and fetched another beer. I got the beer. The cat pretends not to understand about fridges. Smart cat, that.

But then there was a beep. I wasn’t expecting it. Nobody does. Random callers aren’t meant to leave messages. They are meant to give up and never try to contact you again. It’s far easier to ignore calls than messages. Something to do with the way the human brain is wired, I suppose. I’m not so curious that I’ll answer my phone, but leave a message and curiosity will gnaw away at my resolve until I cave in. I always regret it. The game changes the moment you listen to the message. Suddenly you are forced to make decisions and take steps and the chances of everything ending badly are magnified immeasurably.

I don’t always listen to a message right away. If it’s from an unknown number I might run it through Google to identify the caller. In this case it turned out to be my employer, the Sunday Tribune. I didn’t recognise the number because I’ve only been writing for the paper for five years and nobody has ever called me from there before.

The message was from the editor’s secretary asking me to ring him back. My first thought was, this can’t be good. My second thought confirmed my first. To cut a short story even shorter, I have been “let go”. That’s the term management uses when we freelancers get the boot. It’s as if we are caged animals that, through an act of great generosity on our captor’s part, are released back into the wild.

My column, Durban Poison, is no more.

Not having a weekly deadline for the first time in years has left me feeling light-headed. Okay, fine. It’s the alcohol that’s making me light-headed. Like all red-blooded South Africans, I drink to celebrate as well as to grieve. In these harsh economic times, losing a steady income is reason enough to grieve. Plus I have a potentially fatal skin condition which makes it even harder to get hired. There is no known cure for the Whiteness.

On the flip side, not having to put fourteen hundred words in the correct order every Wednesday night is cause to celebrate. My brain seems to think so, anyway. Then again, it’s been wrong before.

But that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you going to miss the columns I post on my blog which inexplicably appear in triplicate on Facebook and Twitter? If not, you should absolutely email the editor at tribuneletters@inl.co.za and congratulate him on his decision to let me go.

What? You’re asking why I wouldn’t keep writing a weekly column just for you? Look. I’m not against the idea in principle. Thing is, I lost my day job in 2004 and accidentally became a columnist shortly afterwards. Ever since then I have struggled to write anything without some sort of incentive. It needn’t even be financial. I’m not a complete mercenary. It could be in exchange for beer, seafood, a modest beachfront property or what-have-you.

Let me know.

Pirate Ben

Skeletons in the closet

EdnaMolewa

Dear Comrade Edna Molewa, Minister of Environmental Affairs, Apex Predator of the Civil Service, Trader of Bones and Nemesis of Big Cats Everywhere.

Well done on your decision to allow fifteen hundred lion skeletons to be shipped out of the country over the next twelve months. That’ll teach them. They became insufferable after finding out that we call them the king of the jungle and their attitude has only worsened over the years.

You can’t go to the Kruger Park these days without coming across flocks of lions copulating openly on the roads. This is a terrible thing for our children to see. And if they’re not shagging they’re trying to bite a tourist’s head off. This is not the kind of behaviour we expect from our lions. During apartheid, yes. But not now.

Fifteen hundred skeletons. That means on average the bones of 4.2 lions will leave the country every day for a year. Since the lions are being broken up into pieces, it is technically possible to get .2 of a lion. You probably wouldn’t need much more than a shoebox for that bit. I suppose not everyone wants a whole skeleton. Smaller families might be happy with just a couple of scapula and a bag of vertebrae. If they’re lucky they might even find some tiger in among their lion.

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It was a smart move not letting anyone know that you were doubling the quota and then making it retroactive to avoid upsetting our limp-wristed lion lovers while also preempting protests at the CITES meeting in Geneva where trophy hunting management with special focus on leopards and lions is being discussed. I don’t know what there is to discuss. Breed ’em, shoot ’em, skin ’em, sell ’em. If that’s not already your ministry’s motto, it should be. Take it, it’s yours. My gift to you.

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South Africa has 3 500 lions in the wild and killing 1 500 a year will barely make a dent. Okay, maybe a small dent. But lions recover quickly. Maybe not from death, but certainly from sex. I once stumbled upon some kind of lion orgy where they were all going at it at once, boys on boys, girls on girls, it was terribly exciting to be honest. When we returned to our rondavel I pounced on my wife and attempted to take her roughly from behind, the preferred position of the Panthera leo, but it ended badly and medical assistance was required.

I assume at some point we will run out of wild lions. It’s a good thing, then, that we have so many kind-hearted people devoting their lives to raising lions in captivity. There are currently around seven thousand domesticated cats living in facilities which I am told are little more than luxurious feline brothels where they fornicate to their heart’s content. Not a bad life at all. I wouldn’t mind it for myself, even if it did mean waking up one morning and getting shot in the face, beheaded and deboned.

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There is something I’m a little curious about. When I wake up in the morning (or sometimes afternoon) I often say to myself, “I could really do with scrambled eggs and a Bloody Mary right now.” But are there people somewhere in the world who say, “What a lovely day for a picnic. Have we got any lion bones left over?” Or however you’d say it in Mandarin.

As your Southeast Asian market knows, lion bones (licked, chewed or crushed and snorted) give you the strength, hairstyle and sexual prowess of a lion and you should be commended for encouraging this enlightened way of thinking. Just don’t let South African men get wind of this! They’d give up beer and switch to lion bone wine and there wouldn’t be enough lions in the world to satisfy that market.

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Anyway, I’d be surprised if the United Nations didn’t want to award you some sort of medal for promoting the magical properties of big cat bones. Did you know that you can also get oil from snakes? We should totally be selling that, too.

I like the way you think, comrade. You said if the supply of lion skeletons from breeding facilities was restricted, dealers and addicts would simply get their fix through poaching or robbing the stockpile. And that would mean depriving a lot of people of the traditional kickbacks and bribes, the backbone of our economy.

Supply and demand feed off one another with all the enthusiasm of Hanoi villagers enjoying a rhino horn and lion bone blowout during the Tet festival. This is why it’s important that people like you keep dem bones coming. The government makes money, you make interesting new friends in the animal trade and our captive-bred lions are spared the indignity of growing old.

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Speaking of dem bones, do you remember that song? The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the Xaysavang Network, the Xaysavang Network’s connected to the Vannaseng Trading Company, the Vannaseng Trading Company’s connected to DKC Trading, DKC Trading’s connected to the Department of Environmental Affairs and so on.

While we’re getting nostalgic, I remember a time you could take the kids to the circus and they’d all want to be lion tamers when they grew up. Now they’re all going to want to be lion farmers. Or even taxidermists, like the adorable mom-and-son outfit Sandra Linde Taksidermie in the Free State province which has been shipping the bones of big cats to mainly Vietnam since at least 2009.

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Have you heard that China has begun issuing permits for trade in leopard bones? Of course you have. You’re a woman who knows her business and it’s unlikely that you’d miss a chance to turn our wildlife into hard currency. So captive-bred leopards soon? Excellent. They’ve had it coming for a long time. Leopards are narcissistic and belligerent and they make almost no effort to be spotted by tourists who have paid a lot of money to tick them off the Big Five list. Get their bones out. Once they’re all gone, we can offer visitors the Big Four. Or maybe promote hippos into the premier league. Sure, they are overweight and not very bright, but in South Africa this is often all that’s required to be given a position of power.

Needless to say, a lot of people from vegetarian countries won’t want to come here once they realise our government is encouraging international trade in wild animal body parts while playing footsie with smugglers and syndicates, but that’s their problem. We don’t need their filthy euros.

Have you been to the Golden Triangle, by the way? I believe the pangolin pies, tiger skull soup and bear bile shooters are on special at this time of year. You can get anything you want in Laos. A lot of it will have been harvested from our very own animals, of course, but that’s no reason not to support the local traders.

With your commitment to conservation, comrade, you must have been awarded plenty of trophies. I bet your favourite is the buffalo.

Cape-Buffalo-Trophy.-Photo-by-Lord-Mountbatten-Wikimedia-Commons.

Can I help you? And other loaded questions

In the 1700s, when I was just a young cabin boy, ships going into battle flew the flag of their country. However, some would fly a flag from a different country so as to trick the enemy into thinking they were an ally. Then, when they were within range, they’d run up their real flag and attack. This is where the phrase “showing their true colours” comes from.

Why am I telling you this? I have no idea. No, wait. It’s coming back to me. The country is at some weird kind of war with itself and there is much hiding of one’s true colours. A high-octane game of political hide-and-seek is on the boil but it’s all dangerously interchangeable. At any given time the hiders become the seekers and the seekers become the hiders and, just when you think you know what’s going on, they switch it up.

Take Dali Mpofu. As chairman of the Economic Freedom Fighters, you’d think his true colours are red. The colour of revolution. Also love. The two are entwined. True revolutionaries love the poor. They have to or nobody would support them. Then they get elected and turn into fascists or dictators and the poor end up even poorer. Love and hate, eh. Funny old business.

Mpofu is a master at flag-flying and he’s not overly concerned about which flag happens to be flying at any given time. I think he probably just runs them all up and sails into battle with the aim of confusing the enemy. It’s not a bad tactic. Just as long as his commander-in-chief, wife, friends and colleagues at the bar know what he’s doing and why. Not that bar. The other one.

Then there’s Alochna Moodley who was removed from a Kulula flight and subsequently lost her job for using the k-word in an SMS. Later, she apologised to Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza who had been seated next to her and who read her SMS while she was writing it. Swiftly changing flags, Moodley said her schooling was to blame for not having taught her about apartheid.

Meanwhile, I am casting an early vote in the Orwellian future that awaits us for Rev. Mabuza to head the Thought Police in the Ministry of Truth. He’ll clean up this mess in no time at all.

And then there’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. He calls an imbizo to explain why the government shouldn’t be allowed to get its filthy hands on the vast tracts of rent-collecting land owned by his Ingonyama Trust, all the while running up Zulu war flags alongside flags that say war is the last thing the Zulus want.

President Ramaphosa flies a flag signifying good, clean, honest governance. He is worth R6-billion. You don’t accumulate that kind of money by adhering to the ten commandments. But that was then and this is now. Cyril might well have a skull and crossbones in his closet, but it’s unlikely he will ever deploy it because he’s just too damn decent. Jacob Zuma set the bar so … no, he took the bar, repeatedly whacked the taxpayers in the face with it, chopped it up and painted the pieces yellow and sold them as gold nuggets to his friends and family who broke it into even smaller pieces and … you get the idea. And for his entire truncated term, Zuma’s flagpole remained as naked as his avaricious ambition.

Speaking of misjudging books by their covers, I was on my way to rob the Standard Bank in my local mall a few days ago when I stopped off at Wordsworth Books to have a look at all the new releases I can’t afford. I don’t usually make it further than the sale table at the entrance because it’s too depressing to be reminded of the number of people who make a proper living from writing.

While browsing, I noticed a middle-aged man with a beard behind the counter watching me. I watched him watching me for a bit, then returned to the marked-down books. It took him about thirty seconds to get to me.

“Can I help you?” he barked. Momentarily confused, I shook my head and said I was fine. This wasn’t strictly true, but he didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be interested in hearing about my rapidly escalating aversion to humankind, telephones and winter.

I sauntered over to the ghetto that is SA non-fiction to make sure that nobody had bought the last remaining copy of my memoirs. There it was on the bottom shelf where it belonged. The only way you’d even know it was there was if you had to suffer a cardiac event and collapse. I like to think whoever it was might reach for it as he lay there and perhaps, if the paramedics were stuck in traffic, die with a smile on his lips.

Then I left. Walking through the mall, I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. It wasn’t pretty. I had come directly from a two-hour surf. My hair was wild and tangled and bleached more from age than the sun. My eyes were scarlet from the salt water, my 15-year-old jacket looked like a Salvation Army reject and I hadn’t shaved in five days.

That’s when it struck me. The manager of the bookshop had pegged me as a homeless shoplifter and hurried over to make sure I knew that he knew. There was no other explanation for it. Staff in South African bookshops never initiate contact with customers. It might even be in their contracts. Most of the time they actively avoid you in case you ask them a question involving books, a subject many of them know little about. But they do know that you are there to browse and that if you need help, you’ll ask. Bookshops are almost unique like that. Nobody goes to Sheet Street to browse. There, you expect to be asked if you need help with anything. But in bookshops, nobody expects to be harassed by shop assistants.

It was patently obviously that I was a browser. There were other people in the bookshop who were also quite clearly browsing. The bearded man, having been trained to manage a bookshop, will have known how to recognise a browser. They are the ones who wander in, pick up books at random, read the back cover, mumble the title to themselves to hear how it sounds, shake their head at the price, then wander out.

He singled me out. There was no cheery greeting. No chit-chat about the weather. Not even a smile. Just a pair of raised eyebrows and a curt “Can I help you?” The same question whiteys ask when they come across an unidentified darkie sitting on the verge outside their home. It’s a warning, not a question.

But even if I did look a bit rough around the edges, what the hell kind of idiot homeless person would go into a bookshop to shoplift? Did he think I’d wandered down off the mountain to slip a James Patterson down my broeks when nobody was looking? Upon which I would hole up in my lair for three days reading voraciously before sloping back to the bookshop. Maybe to slip it back onto the shelf and steal something with a little more intellectual heft.

I only thought of it later, but what I should have done was call him out on it. Ask him outright if he thought I was a kleptomaniac hobo. The passive-aggression would have startled him enough to call security. That would’ve been my cue to dart over to the ghetto, grab my book and hold it up.

“Recognise the jacket?” I’d say. Because in my author photo I really am wearing the same jacket. The face is shaved, hair is more or less under control and eyes have been whitened thanks to Photoshop, but even he would have to admit that the customer who stood before him, limping slightly after taking a surfboard rail to the testicular department only twenty minutes earlier, might not be not an unhinged vagabond after all.

Fun fact. Bookshops make at least three times more than any author on each copy sold. Perhaps I’d look less like a desperado if I got the 40% and they got the 12%.

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