Monday, January 31, 2011

A Famous Grouse: January 29

Latest Saturday Weekend Argus column. Unedited, as usual. For those who don't get the paper. -- AD 

SOME years ago, before I settled in the fishing village, I was invited to address journalism students at the University of the Witwatersrand and share with them my thoughts and opinions about the trade. I readily accepted. A captive audience? Who wouldn’t?

However, come the lecture, it was soon apparent that most of my bright-eyed audience all imagined that, within a year or two, they would find themselves beamed into the nation’s sitting rooms on a regular basis and with a flash of perfect teeth they’d kick off the evening news with the inside skinny on some event of vast significance.

Obviously I had to divest them of this silly notion. “Television,” I said gravely, “can do furniture. But it can’t do journalism.”

It was an old joke, but they didn’t seem to know it. So I told them the one about television being a medium because it was not well done or rare. They didn’t seem to know that one either and I left Wits deeply concerned that these youngsters would never come to know, as I have, the beauty and romance of ink and fishwrap.

For them it would all be about tweeting and running around with wires in their ears. Would they ever be able to use a notebook and pen, I wondered.

For some unknown reason I have never been invited back to the university, but I rather hope that those students, wherever they are today, could perhaps reflect on my words, particularly in light of recent events concerning the national broadcaster and the way it reports the news.

Last week, SABC board shortlist nominee Govin Reddy told the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications that SABC journalists were pathetic, untrained and lacked what has been described as “the cutting edge”.

Understandably, Reddy’s comments have ruffled feathers at Auckland Park, and I believe there is much gnashing of teeth in the newsrooms there.

Some have defended the corporation’s lack of edge, arguing that it was unfair to compare the SABC to the BBC, as Reddy did, as the latter had so much more in the way of resources. In other words, as I read it, it’s not that the SABC is worse than the BBC, but rather the BBC is better than the SABC. Or something like that.

But there is no reason why SABC reporters can’t up their game and get edgy like the print media.

Their former managing director of news and current affairs, Snuki Zikalala, certainly showed them how when he checked in to the Harare Sheraton to oversee the SABC’s coverage of the 2005 presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

It was here, in his suite, that he was able to inform his reporters that there was no food shortages in the country because he “had no problem ordering fresh bread rolls, bottled water and whisky through room service” and that those who begged to differ could well find themselves before a disciplinary hearing.

There are those who point out that Zikalala has a PhD in journalism from Sofia University, Bulgaria, and therefore he is an expert and knows what he is doing. There are also those who point out that, etymologically, the term “of Bulgaria” provided the word that perhaps best describes what, in fact, Zikalala was doing to journalism at the SABC.

But then again, you don’t need a doctorate to know that, when they’re out in the field chasing down a story, print journalists always first get drunk in their hotel rooms. True, they perhaps cannot afford to order whisky through room service but that doesn’t mean they haven’t got a bottle or two in their luggage.

In fact, back in the day when I was a young reporter with one of Cape Town’s leading English morning newspapers, we didn’t even have to be in the field to get wasted. There was a well-stocked bar and a cigarette machine next to the sports department, and several sub-editors supplemented their income by selling drugs to the junior staff.

Of course, things have all changed now. Gone, for example, are the days that an ambitious journalist would greatly increase her chances of a salary increase by sleeping with the editor. Newspapers don’t have that kind of budget these days, which is all rather sad for editors. Pathetically, journalists now needing a bit of a leg-up with their careers are reduced to having sex with politicians.

SABC hacks needing that valued cutting edge are advised to get a vigorous drug habit. Something in the horse tranquilizer vein. There’s nothing that earns the respect of your colleagues so much as pawning your cameraman’s equipment to pay the dealer.

And, for a while anyway, viewers will find your work very interesting.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Famous Grouse: January 22

Last weekend's unedited Weekend Argus column. In the published version they changed "bullshit" to "bulldust". Does anyone still say "bulldust", when what they really mean is "bullshit"? Did they ever? Beyond the age of ten, that is? Answers on a postcard. . .  Oh, and due to some printing fuck-up or other, the last line of the column disappeared. Pity. --AD

ONCE again to Mahogany Ridge, where there has been much chatter about the mysterious illness that appears to have laid low honeymoon murder suspect Shrien Dewani, thus preventing him from making an appearance at his extradition hearing in London this week.

According to British news reports, the 31-year-old businessman has been diagnosed as having acute stress and depressive adjustment disorders -- a condition known locally as the Shaiks.

Opinion amongst the Ridge regulars is sharply divided as to how soon the chronically ailing Dewani will next be spotted on the links of Albion’s finer country clubs, his perky Bollywood turban set at a rakish angle as he calls for his favourite mashie.

Some say three months at least, while others, more cynical, suggest no more than six weeks. Older regulars, perhaps recalling social conditions in the UK from their last visit, when they went over on the mailship, are adamant that it will never happen. “None of the better clubs will allow him on their courses,” said one. “Chap’s teeth are far too loud. And he’s got too many. Obviously he stole them.”

There is however consensus that Dewani has done his homework, and is fast acquainting himself with the intricate technicalities of our justice system, particularly as deftly exploited by convicted fraudsters, and is not relying solely on the unhinged and thoughtless remarks from the national police commissioner,  Field Marshal Bheki Cele, to stuff up the case for the  prosecution.

In this regard, the Field Marshal’s public outburst to the effect that Dewani is a monkey who “came all the way from London to have his wife killed here” will no doubt be leapt upon by the defence, who, it is claimed, were considering whether to cite the case of British journalist Simon Wright, who was arrested during last year’s World Cup, and who has announced that he is suing the Minister of Police for R50-million.

At the time, Wright’s lawyer told the press: “Cele alleged that he [Wright] was involved in all kinds of illegal dealings and arranging for the World Cup authorities to be placed in a bad light as far as security was concerned, that there was conspiracy and all kinds of absurd, blatant lies.”

The fact, of course, that the Field Marshal is a notorious windbag with a penchant for military insignia should have little bearing on a murder accused’s guilt or innocence.

But we do not live in an ideal world and instead have to bear the vituperative nonsense of Max Clifford, the bullshit artist hired by Dewani to fling calumny at all who would accuse his client of any wrongdoing. Alas, I fear this spin doctor’s nastiness may stick, and our particular brand of justice -- shoot first, questions later, maybe, if they’re still alive -- could be found wanting.

But onto the Johannesburg Art Gallery, where thieves have made off with a bronze sculpture of a French general, Lazare Hoche, by the 19th century artist Jules Dalou.

Originally, it was supposed that this a “metal theft” -- that the 71cm statue, donated to the gallery in 1910, would be melted down for scrap -- but, according to officials, it is now thought that the work was stolen for its artistic merit.

I somehow doubt this. It’s far too Eurocentric for the New South African aesthetic for any kind of merit. What’s more, it’s a statue -- not a BMW or Audi A6. And besides, unlike Ronnie Kasrils, let’s say, who led Angola to famous victories against everyone, Hoche was not even a good general, and typical of the French military habit, lost most of his important battles before dying of consumption in 1797, aged 29.

Nevertheless, the Dalou piece was a valuable one. Like all South African museums, the Johannesburg Art Gallery receives next to no funding from government whatsoever, and is thus incapable of looking after its treasures. Rather than help the museum up its security to safeguard works by Picasso, Warhol and Pissarro, among others, our Department of Arts and Culture instead flings millions in “housekeeping money” at the National Youth Development Agency’s crappy anti-imperialism festival.

Such philistinism reminds me of a story, a few years ago, in which an Iziko executive mentioned to some DAC knob that a little extra government funding would help the gallery’s acquisitions programme, only to be told that this was not necessary because it was quite clear that the gallery’s walls were full of pictures and they didn’t need any more. Where would they possibly hang them?

I have been told that this may have been a witty aside. But I am not sure. It was during Thabo Mbeki’s term of office -- and older readers may recall that, during his tyrannical presidency, government officials were not allowed to tell jokes.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Famous Grouse: January 15

Herewith most recent Weekend Argus column. As submitted. -- AD

LIKE many readers, I’m a little dismayed at the incident between the two policemen and the Grandmother of the Nation, Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, on the Johannesburg M1 motorway’s Jan Smuts Avenue off-ramp on the morning of Thursday, December 30.

Regulars at the Mahogany Ridge, who as a rule won’t venture north of the Huguenot Tunnel for fear of the violence in the hinterland, have had to accept my word that, at this time of the year, this is a peaceful neck of the woods in Jozi.

True, the offramp is near Wits University, but this being the holidays, its campus was largely free of students who’d otherwise have been engaged in some sort of rampaging mob activity, greatly angered that twelve years of outcomes-based Plasticine worm-rolling had little prepared them for the rigour of acquiring engineering or accounting degrees.

It was here that gogo Winnie’s silver Audi A6 was pulled over by the cops who had been following it in an unmarked car since it had joined the M1 at an off-ramp five kilometres earlier.

According to reports, the Audi was being driven in a reckless and dangerous manner at about 150km/h, weaving in and out of traffic, with its hazard lights flashing.

Because the speed limit on this stretch of the M1 is 80km/h, the car was, you could say, behaving in a manner that was suspicious, if not cause for outright alarm.

Furthermore, it had tinted windows, so its occupants couldn’t be seen. This is probably against the law as well.

There are two versions of what happened next. Obviously.

The one is from an archaic and vicious relic of the apartheid era, and the other . . . well, the other comes from Warrant Officer Jannie Odendaal, a police officer with almost 20 years’ experience.

But let’s hear from the former. As I understand their comments in the media, go-go gogo, with her bodyguard and driver, were late for a funeral.

Homilies about “late” and “funeral” spring to mind, but so too does the tragedy in which a 13-year-old member of the Mandela family died in a road accident on the eve of last year’s World Cup. (But, you know, it’s best not to say anything.)

Bodyguard Jacob Monare has claimed Odendaal was not prepared to accept this explanation about a funeral -- would any policeman, I wonder? -- and a heated exchange followed.

When Madikizela-Mandela emerged from the car to calm things down, Odendaal allegedly swore at her, saying: “I don’t give a fuck who you are, get back to the fucking car.” At some point, Monare added, Odendaal’s parner hit him in the knee with an R5 assault rifle.

Odendaal, who together with his partner is in all manner of official and bureaucratic brown stuff merely for doing what he said was his job, suggested the abuse came instead from Monare, who had screamed at him, “Who do you think you are coming to search this car? It’s not apartheid anymore!”

Odendaal was astounded. “I’m a police officer dressed in full police uniform and this guy -- a normal civilian -- he assaults me,” he said. “I then ran back to my vehicle and got a Taser [stun gun] just to intimidate him a bit to calm down.”

Moreover, and far from calming the situation, Madikizela-Mandela had also screamed at Odendaal: “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Clearly, two Tasers were needed. Or a cattle prod. And maybe a large net.

But both policemen now face disciplinary action and charges of pointing firearms. Their partnership has been broken and they have been transferred to different units. Odendaal has been booked off for a week due to the stress of the situation.

Amazingly, there are allegations -- utterly credible -- that the whole matter would disappear if Odendaal offered a grovelling apology to Winnie, who, it needn’t be stressed, is obviously a powerful figure in the ruling party.

What disturbs me most, however, about this awful saga, is Odendaal’s description of Winnie. He told reporters that when she emerged from the car, “I didn’t really recognise her, you know? She had a lot of white powder or cream or stuff on her face. Her face was pale and she looked very old ...  she didn’t look anything like in the newspapers.”

This is alarming, to say the least, and it perhaps offers a hint at the real issue here. True, Madikizela-Mandela is 74 years old. But it is a very young 74, and she leads a very full and active life, one that would exhaust women half her age. And. of course, she looks no older than, um, fiftysomething.

Perhaps WO Odendaal should send her some flowers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Famous Grouse: January 8

(Latest Weekend Argus column, as submitted)

DEAR me, the year is but a week old, and already it has thrown up a foul pun opportunity for the sub-editors.

I refer, of course, to the Frankenchicken outrage, in which a large-scale, up-country supplier, Supreme Poultry, has apparently gone bonzo in the genetically-modified food department, allegedly “treating” its stale and rotting frozen birds so that they be rebranded and sold with new expiry dates.

What happens is that the old chickens are returned to the supplier and they’re thawed for 24 hours at room temperature, injected with brine, and then repackaged and sold with new expiry dates.

Sometimes the birds are treated with chlorine to reduce what is charmingly referred to in the news reports as “bacterial load”.

Call it working the wilder frontiers of sustainable food resource management, but the “reworking”, if you’ll pardon the poultry jargon, of vrot chicken is, according to Supreme Poultry, an accepted industry-wide practice.

Pausing for reflection, the more sophisticated reader may wish to dwell upon the notion that almost overnight, as it were, an expired chicken has, in a process rich with the irony of the post-modern gesture, become an “expired” one. The notion of “chicken”, therefore, actually far outlives the chicken. (At this point, aesthetes may cease retching; it is a cathartic moment -- and therefore high art.)

The lumpen among us, however, have had their suspicions confirmed. All along we knew the chicken tasted of fish -- and not just any old fish, either, but fish farmed in a swimming pool.

Imagine the exchange at the local brasserie:

“Please inform the chef that I cannot eat this...”

“And why not? Is it not to sir’s taste?”

“No, it is not. Sir was expecting the chicken breast to taste of chicken, albeit one complemented by the flavours of the pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and Parma ham stuffed therein. This, on the other hand, tastes of Ryk Neethling’s Speedo.”

“If I may remind sir of the starving masses in Africa...”

“At this moment, sir is well aware of what it means to go hungry...”

But we digress. The zombie fowls have predictably upset the South African Communist Party, who have set about the matter with the customary brio that has made them the most feared Stalin organists of the 21st century.

Delving deep into his grab bag of tired rhetoric and fustian bilge, party spokesman Malesela Maleka has cobbled together the customary nonsense with all the usual culprits. “We are not shocked,” he noted, “precisely because we have always known the capitalist system knows no decent bounds in its insatiable pursuit of profits.”

There is, I suspect, a bit of a pork pie in that. Not about capitalism and profit, but about about being shocked. Otherwise why the bluster about tips of the iceberg and the appeals to both the departments of health and trade and industry to urgently investigate this affair?

The party was also outraged (but not shocked apparently) at the claim by Supreme Poultry that the Frankenchicken was not sold to the big supermarket chains but to wholesalers and spaza shops, Maleka said.

“This can only mean that rotten chicken is being sold to poor black South Africans, the majority of whom buy from ‘cheap’ wholesale outlets and spaza shops. This is a racist trading practice and is offensive in the extreme.”

Point taken, and here at the Mahogany Ridge we shall certainly be thinking twice before asking for a bit of white meat at the Sunday roast. In fact, we may abandon chicken altogether. Who knows who those wholesalers are? Supreme Poultry’s certainly not saying.

But I suspect SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande expects a little more from us. This week he too had a quick dip into that bag of tired slogans and, ignoring the May 1973 sell-by date, made all sorts of alarming noises which may or may not have contributed to the soaring temperatures: the “bourgeois print media [had] turned one blind eye to the seriousness of this matter”; there was “ideological hypocrisy by the bourgeois establishment and its meat producers”; and worse still, the silence of the “liberal constitutionalists”, which safeguarded the “interests of the elites”.

Ultimately, though, it was all about weight -- or as Nzimande put it, “this ‘strange’ phenomenon of shrinking chicken”. Quoting Zimbabwean sources, he claimed that, when cooked, the zombie bird reduced considerably, sometimes by as much as 40% of its original weight. All that frozen brine, apparently.

But South Africans are used to being short-changed. Look at what they’re promised by politicians. And look at what they get in return for their faith.

In the meantime we may sadly be forced to become vegetarian.

A Famous Grouse: January 1

Unedited Weekend Argus column

THIS being that time of year, we were thinking of resolutions at the Mahogany Ridge.

After a few large ones, and in addition to the usual stuff about losing weight, giving up cigarettes and being nice to the less fortunate, there was a consensus of sorts that we needed to deepen our commitment to militant secular humanism by driving from the village, with stones and other projectiles, all manner of religious fundamentalists and extremists.

Said consensus, I should add, was reached mere moments after news reached us here at the Ridge of the letter by the wives of a group of prominent right-wing Israeli rabbis calling on Jewish girls not to have anything to do with Arabs; not to date or work with them, even in an in an official capacity, such as national service.

You may recall the outrageous gist of it, but if not, here it is again, as it appeared in mainstream Israeli newspapers in this week of goodwill to all mankind:

“There are quite a few Arab workers who give themselves Hebrew names. Yussef turns into Yossi, Samir turns into Sami, and Abed turns into Ami.

“They ask to be close to you, try to find favour with you, and give you all the attention in world. They know how to act with courtesy, as if they really care for you, but their behaviour is only temporary. The moment you are in their hands, in their village, under their control, everything changes.

“Your life will never go back to the way it was, and the attention you so desired will turn into curses, beatings, and humiliations.”

The letter is the latest in a series of anti-Arab initiatives by Israel’s growing lunatic mainstream. And it is the mainstream. Earlier this month, a large group of municipal rabbis signed a petition urging Jews not to rent or sell homes to Arabs. The petition was roundly condemned, but a poll found that 44% of Israeli Jews supported the rabbis’ call. Forty-four per cent? That’s hardly a fringe element.

I’ve been to Israel. I’ve also been to Northern Ireland. It’s all too easy to suggest that the “situations” there defy logic. But they don’t. They’re sectarian-based. Remove religion from the equation, and . . . well, put it this way, you’d think the sooner more Israeli Jewish youngsters dated and had ape sex with their Arabic counterparts, the sooner there’d be lasting peace in the Middle East.

And why not? Despite their intentions, the rabbis’ wives make dating an Arab sound an attractive proposition. By their own admission, they’re kind and courteous. You can almost see their soft eyelashes and moist, full lips, and smell the falafels in those balmy Jaffa nights. And, on top of that, there’s the veiled promise of “curses, beatings and humiliations”, the dark and dangerous delights of doing the Bonobo with one another. Who could resist such temptations?

Growing up in the mid-1970s, we too were warned about such things at school -- although, in our case, it wasn’t Arabs, but the girls at the nearby convent.

At the time I didn’t think about it too much, and put it down to the sort of rubbish that ignorant and superstitious teachers will say. I was at the Catholic boys school across the road, after all.

Do you know the sort of damnation that was in store for me, a 15-year-old boy, just for thinking that sort of thing about the various Bridgets, Dorothys and Kerry-Anns who fell under my curious gaze -- particularly at inter-school swimming events as they emerged, dripping wet, from the pool in their clinging, black Speedos?

I didn’t, and still don’t. This is despite the best efforts of Brothers Malachy, Cyprian, Thomas and John, among others. Their chair-legs, canes, cudgels and leather straps notwithstanding. But I do have an idea of how long one spent in hell.

“Lads,” we were told, in yet another tedious sermon on mortal sin, “imagine the tallest mountain in the whole world. Now imagine the world’s smallest hummingbird. And every thousand years, this hummingbird flies past this mountain, gently brushing it with it with the tip of its wing. Now, by the time that hummingbird has, with the gentle brushing of its wing, ground that mountain into dust, eternity would not even have begun!”

It seemed a very long time to be sent down for, and for nothing other than being held in the sway of a raging hormonal soup. Why fight it? Well, that’s what I thought then, and I still do.

Happy New Year, then. Drive extremism from your lives, and be nice to everyone.