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This is a quick and casual aside as I await the more weighty matters of Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget policy statement at 14h00 today.

For various reasons* I attempt to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving technological and cultural aspects of what we call ‘social media’

New cultural trends drive developments in language and there are a couple of new words and usage that I found interesting enough to share here.

Recently a person I follow on Twitter (Sarah Britten who goes by the handle @ananitus – I love her stuff and follow her across several media platforms) used a hashtag to characterise the flood of criticism she got when she mentioned that she had gone to a chiropractor for relief from some or other ailment.

Most of the criticism/advice came from men and she called it (the criticism and advice) “#mansplaining’ as in: enough with the #mansplaining, I don’t need you to tell me whether alternative medicine is unscientific or illogical (that’s not a quote, I don’t have a record of the original interchange, but that is roughly how I remember it).

I immediately felt slightly embarrassed. Oops, busted. I have been patiently mansplaining to the women in in my life that their views are illogical and unscientific ever  since I was a too serious boy. Hurumph Hurumph – stroke my beard, push my eyebrows together, suck on my pipe. You see Josie/Mom/darling the scientific method exposes astrology as  … blah blah.  Yeah, right.

A hashtag (#) is a kind of metadata tag that allows all future conversations that deal with the same topic to be grouped and therefore accessible.

Listicle is another new word (well, new to me anyway) that perfectly sums up a phenomenon to which we are all being increasingly exposed. A listicle is an article that presents itself as a list.

It can be any rubbish … just make it up. The 10 ugliest South African politicians. The five top reasons to vote/not to vote for the ANC in 2014. Seven reasons that Blade Nzimande has become a recluse (or the 50 reasons he should become a recluse). Five secrets that are keeping Zuma in power. The 10 hottest DA members of parliament. Five reasons why South Africa sucks as an investment destination. The three top reasons why Zuma’s critics should keep their tax affairs in order. Five reasons we should not listen to the rubbish spouted by political analysts. The ten least known Zuma sexual conquests. Four ANC members most likely to become president in the next 20 years.

The point that I find so interesting is that  listicles  are almost irresistible to your finger hovering on the mouse. Just look at The Huffington Post and you will understand just how compelling (and trashy)  listicles are.

In fact listicles are so compelling that they can usefully to termed ‘click bait‘. Anyone who has ever flicked a gaudy lure in front of a fish in the hope of irresistibly drawing the fleeting piscene attention long enough to embed the hook in the creatures mouth (goodness, when I put it like that fishing sounds a faintly monstrous activity) will immediately understand what ‘click bait’ means.

I have held out against using listicles as click bait on my blog. I hope I am never reduced to heading a post with Top five political risks to investment in South Africa or 3 reasons supporting a sovereign downgrade or even Top 10 best dressed ANC NEC members. But you never know; desperate times lead to desperate measures.

 

 

*For me it’s a professional imperative: I have to get my views out there to persuade those  who might want to pay for those views (supposedly delivered in more depth) that the said views might be worth paying for … so I  trundle out my free-to-air discussion and curating on a range of platforms in the hope that this will generate paid work … which it generally does, btw. The two other reasons are

  • posting forces me to come up with a view on the unfolding situation … I am never certain what I think about something until the moment I am forced to say to someone else what it is I think – so thanks, you are that someone else;
  • keeping the blog is a way of safely storing a history of my views – this is all sitting out here in the interweb, a record of my views, safely stored away from my own lack of competence or the ill-fortune of my laptop.
  • the cloud.

Niccolo MachiavelliJacob Zuma has forced me to reread Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s The Prince, published 500 years ago this year.

He (Jacob Zuma) didn’t threaten me with the red lightsaber or catch me in a honey trap. My natterings, fortunately, are not impactful enough to draw the attentions of the Dark Lord (Darth Vader, dah! – ed) or his stormtroopers.

The compulsion comes from watching, slack-jawed, as Jacob Zuma skips happily across the backs of starving crocodiles – on his way, off towards the welcoming horizon.

Surely the world was an intrinsically hostile place for a black baby boy, born to a single-parent mother (who was also a domestic worker) in the South Africa of 1942? Surely when he received no formal education any chance of success in life would have become vanishingly small – in the estimation of a wandering actuarial statistician, perhaps?

When Jacob Zuma went to prison and then later was repeatedly caught with his hands in all sorts of cookie jars I imagine the hypothetical actuary would have confidently predicted a life of ignominy and poverty.

But instead Jacob Zuma is picking up an honorary Doctorate of Leadership from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technolog(who writes the script of the world? … no ordinary mortal would dare make this shit up – ed) and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and undoubtedly stashing bits of his loot in safe houses in Malaysia.

My second post on this website in mid-2009 titled The Accidental President (catch that here) argued that Zuma’s rise was pure chance and contingency. But when the same random set of things happens over-and-over (Jacob Zuma escapes danger with a sack full of cash) you have to start questioning whether this is purely the shambolic interactions of events, people, history and the world.

Politics is about power (yes, I know, we have heard that somewhere before). Power is agency, the ability to make stuff happen, to make people do your bidding and to make situations turn out in a particular way. Political analysis is the analysis of how (and why) power is exercised.

Which brings me back to Machiavelli.

I read The Prince when I was about 17 and, clearly, I didn’t understand a bleeding word.

I vaguely remember being outraged and confused by the book.  Bertrand Russell is widely quoted as having said The Prince is a handbook for gangsters (which is a great line but there is much debate as to whether the great logician himself actually said it).

However, I am now kicking myself that I haven’t been reading and rereading The Prince every year – and in the flush of my transient enthusiasm, I promise myself I will do so from now on until I die … or perhaps I will stop a little before.

(As an aside: I was halfway through the book when the Syrian nerve gas story broke. I was glad to have Machiavelli as a companion to think about how those with agency might cause, or allow, such things to happen and why they might do so.)

So, anyway … Jacob Zuma is the Prince and I doubt he ever needed a Machiavelli to tell him how to be what he is and how to do what he does.

Here is the opening dedication. It’s quite compellingly mysterious to those among us who are a little thin on our Florence-during- the-Renaissance, but it is also a good explanation of the work that follows:

Dedication: To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici

It is customary for such as seek a Prince’s favour, to present themselves before him with those things of theirs which they themselves most value, or in which they perceive him chiefly to delight. Accordingly, we often see horses, armour, cloth of gold, precious stones, and the like costly gifts, offered to Princes as worthy of their greatness. Desiring in like manner to approach your Magnificence with some token of my devotion, I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired in the course of a long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity. Which knowledge most carefully and patiently pondered over and sifted by me, and now reduced into this little book, I send to your Magnificence. And though I deem the work unworthy of your greatness, yet am I bold enough to hope that your courtesy will dispose you to accept it, considering that I can offer you no better gift than the means of mastering in a very brief time, all that in the course of so many years, and at the cost of so many hardships and dangers, I have learned, and know.

This work I have not adorned or amplified with rounded periods, swelling and high-flown language, or any other of those extrinsic attractions and allurements wherewith many authors are wont to set off and grace their writings; since it is my desire that it should either pass wholly unhonoured, or that the truth of its matter and the importance of its subject should alone recommend it.

Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.

Let your Magnificence, then, accept this little gift in the spirit in which I offer it; wherein, if you diligently read and study it, you will recognize my extreme desire that you should attain to that eminence which Fortune and your own merits promise you. Should you from the height of your greatness some time turn your eyes to these humble regions, you will become aware how undeservedly I have to endure the keen and unremitting malignity of Fortune.
Niccolò Machiavelli

……………………………………………………………..

I know how Niccolò feels. Sometimes these humble regions are just that little too humble. However, I would have been more cautious about calling for the Prince’s attention if I was Machiavelli. If the Prince read the little book, then the Prince would know that Machiavelli had the Prince’s number and that Machiavelli had rewritten the handbook. Which I can’t imagine would have charmed the Prince.

I will attempt a ‘highlights package’ of The Prince and possibly some learned comments (which are unlikely to be as good as you will find in this interesting article and interview). For the keenest among you, there are several places on the internet where The Prince is downloadable for no charge – I am sure the copyright has long expired … or rather I hope so. My copy, which is in electronic form on my laptop, originates at: http://www.feedbooks.com.

Finally, Jacob Zuma still has a few crocodiles to hop on before he reaches safety. I still think that the odds are against him, but I am not an actuarial statistician, wandering or otherwise . I draw comfort purely from the certainty that no-one, ultimately, gets out of this alive.

(A quick and lightweight aside on a Sunday morning … not part of the ‘deep blue’ series, but bleak enough – I wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody.)

Mandela ailing in the last few days before Mangaung?

Perhaps the universe does have a sense of humour; one that delights in casual cruelties, sneering irony and a deep, dark and impenetrable sarcasm.

Are we facing the death of the universally beloved founder of the (now) great teetering edifice of the South African democracy just as the ANC elects Jacob Zuma for a second term as president?

Just because it is chance and random does not mean that we are not compelled, by out basic humanity, to seek hidden connections and meanings in such coincidence … or rather such impending coincidences.

When the gods smite the earth with earthquakes and floods and drought (as they are regularly wont to do), representatives of those gods have forever and always said through their thin lips: “Well, what do you think? If you behave like this of course he is going to be furious. Bring me a virgin and sharp knife, quickly!”

I can imagine the voluptuaries in the halls  of the African National Congress (or at least those halls that the hoi polloi don’t get to see – where real power is bought and sold and bought again), wiping their plump, greasy hands as they push suddenly away from the laden centenary celebration tables, their sweaty faces shocked, goose liver shiny lips pursed in a meaty sphincter: “oh …. my … god!”

(Yes, yes, I know that in amongst the many thousands of Nkandla beneficiaries (and friends and family), assassins, warlords, desperately confused hoi polloi, drivers of large gleaming cars, meeting-chair-breakers, confused little old ladies who had meant to go to the church next door,  rent-a-crowd members  … and those who are only there for the tshirts and braai, there are several good people fighting the good fight, making famous last stands and that sort of thing. So I obviously don’t mean you have any goose fat to wipe off your faces or that you have plump, grasping little hands … that’s those others, at the top-table – who have spent more on liposuction in the last 5 years than you will earn in your lifetime – no, don’t get up, we know who you are. Glad to have cleared that up.)

The point is that it is going to be impossible not to think of Mandela’s death as some kind of inevitable yin to Mangaung’s yang (it works the other way around too.)

A slaughter of a whole reed dance of virgins will not appease these gods (which are nothing more than our ape brain need to impute narrative to randomness) but might make a few supporters of the Traditional Courts Bill feel pious.

To ridiculously (and messily) extend the religious metaphor: what god would pop snake or stones into our trusting mouths, open to receive meat and bread?

The trickster/Pan/Loki would do precisely that, just as he/she would take Mandela with the one hand and give us the Nkandla legacy cast in military grade bunker cement with the other.

Okay, now I am ready to read the Sunday papers.

I have been interviewed several times this week about the Cosatu strike.

Is this an irreparable breakdown between the ANC and Cosatu?

Does this have implications for Zuma’s bid for re-election at Mangaung?

How stable is the ANC/Cosatu alliance?

What do I think of Jackson Mthembu’s response to Vavi’s claim that the ANC says “Cosatu is exaggerating poverty of workers in South Africa”? (… or whatever … If you can’t follow the subjects and objects in that sentence check out the ANC statement here – or not.)

Where is the SACP in all of this … and is Cosatu split between its president and secretary general?

Where is all this leading … what is going to happen … what does it all mean?

I’ll give those of you who are interested a kind of answer to those questions in a separate post, but I first wanted to say:  it’s a peculiar business this being a ‘talking head’, someone whose views are sought on something as slippery as what’s really happening in our politics, where it’s all leading and why.

This is not (only) an idle existential question to while away a windy Cape Town Saturday morning … it is brought on by a perilous attempt at humour by that leading bastion of irony and satire, the South African Communist Party and their laugh-a-minute, Umsebenzi Online – and more particularly the March 8 “Red Alert” that you can catch here.

(Perhaps only start reading from the “Succession battles at leading newspaper” headline. That way you might still be open to that old Marxist quip: history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce” – here for Wikipedia’s sketch of the source of that quote, Karl Marx’s excellent The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon – something I find it difficult to believe the writers of Umsebenzi Online have actually read or understood … but that is just by the by.)

Anyway …

The SACP’s satire is a teasing poke at … well, at people and institutions that do what I do for a living.

The premise is that Umsebenzi Online has come into possession of “dramatic new evidence” of a deep factional split at 195 Jan Smuts Avenue … which is the address of the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

The premise is that editor Nic Dawes is being challenged by “the ring-leader of the Young Turks” Matuma Letsoalo.

And the issue over which they are divided?

Whether to stick with the fading Julius Malema as the leading character in the soap opera the M&G produces or replace him with “the unions” as the new villain.

Umsebenzi Online then seeks the views of “two well-known, dial-a-quote, soap opera specialists – Aubrey Habib and Eusebius Mashele”* who proceed to pontificate incoherently about the split at the M&G.

There is a whole cast of villains in Umsebenzi Online’s slightly stilted (hardly unexpected that – Ed) attempt at humour.

And all the villains are ‘talking heads’ … people who have come to make their primary living from giving their views on the South African political soap opera.

I think there is a real question to be answered about political analysts – poorly asked and answered in this pinkish satire

Are the views of ‘political analysts’ any more reliable than anyone else’s? It’s not like there is a professional association that erects barriers to entry and puts in a whole lot of quality controls. And anyway such associations are usually just a gang hierarchy that protects the turf from competition.

My own answer – and I have to have one, or my tongue would shrivel up and drop out of my head and my fingers fuse uselessly to this keyboard – is that political analysts are to politics what critics are to art and literature. The critics don’t have to be artists or writers themselves – in fact, that might well be a drawback to them performing their function.

Critics come to be what they are through a market mechanism – their views are sought out and some consumer ends up paying for them. The art consuming public is looking for confirmation, information or rebuttal; they are looking for a view against which they can balance their own view, or learn something from – or just to think about.

The best critics are a mirror for the artist – trusted or hated by the practitioner, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

Rubbish critics can find an oppulent home in rubbish publications and TV stations – because mediocrity does so often rule the mass market mechanism.

Fine critics can quietly go about their business and eke out an interstitial existence of quiet excellence and the small comfort of professional respect.

Or the other way around.

I am all in favour of communists using satire to further their aims – it is so much more desirable than the dystopian bureaucratic terror which appears to be the default instrument – when available – of this vanguard of leading intellectuals.

But I wish this satire had been more … well, funny … and clever – basically, more thoughtful. We are bludgeoned daily by the views of “experts” – and it might not have escaped you that I both bludgeon and am bludgeoned in my turn.

How and why political analysts come to be part of our lives and part of the cultural and public intellectual process is an important question – one we should think about before consuming the sometimes suspicious fruits they offer.

* Those fake names are a melding of the real Professor Adam Habib:

Aubrey Matshiqi:

Prince Mashile:

and Eusebius Mckaiser

(Right you four, you can send donations to The Association of Professional Standards in Political Analysis for the free publicity – Ed)

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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