Vale, Eusebius McKaiser

Just a few hours after Eusebius McKaiser posted a recommendation to his social media networks, encouraging everyone to listen to Musa Motha, we learn that he has died at the age of 45.

His death was sudden, with no forewarning, and it was apparently an epileptic seizure that took him down. My deepest condolences to Nduduzo, and of course also all the other members of his intimate circle, that I never got to meet.

Currents and undertoads

Things have been rather adrift for some time, for many of us. Obviously Covid-19 for all of us, and then everyone’s other stuff – perhaps the same as before or perhaps changed, but always at least complicating the lives of the person dealing with their particular version of a life.

My novel story (as in “a new thing that one is dealing with”, also sometimes an escalation of an old thing) involves the last few years at the University of Cape Town, which has been in the news of late, for the same reasons spoken of in said news. As you’d expect.

Bread from air: the outcomes of visionary thinking

We pick the narratives that we prefer. And if we find a guru, thought-leader or intellectual who speaks to our values and dreams, confirmation bias means we celebrate their successes, and forgive them their failures. In reality, though, they’re going to be the same mixed-bag as the rest of us, albeit often operating at a higher level of complexity and consequence than we are.

Election thoughts: South Africa, 8 May 2019

Along with many of you, today I made a difficult decision regarding which party to vote for in South Africa’s National elections – more difficult than any of the previous 10 (if you include the Municipal elections) were.

In one respect, I take that as a positive thing, because competition is good, and more than one option on the ballot today had merits to consider. It’s sometimes a sign of a more mature democracy that the choice of whom to vote for isn’t utterly obvious.

Kevin Anderson: who gets to be South African?

Kevin Anderson, a South African citizen, defeated John Isner 26-24 in the final set of the Wimbledon Men’s semi-final yesterday, in what ended up being the second-longest ever match at Wimbledon. (Isner won the longest match, back in 2010, when he beat Nicholas Mahut 70-68 in the final set.)

Does Anderson’s victory make him the first South African to reach the singles finals at Wimbledon? No, it doesn’t, regardless of how you classify Kevin Curren, defeated by Boris Becker in the 1985 final. Does Anderson’s victory beg(gar) the question of who gets to be called “South African”? No, it doesn’t – but it does perhaps raise the question.

New York, The Cure

T and D and I recently went to New York, to witness The Cure in concert at Madison Square Garden. D should really be writing this story, as he’s the professional storyteller, who often tells stories so well that you can hardly believe them to be true.

Perhaps I’m the right second-choice, though, as while T could derive the quotient of any two numbers you give him to 5 decimal places (maybe more – no insult intended!), and then tell you something about the importance of that number to some vital – but really obscure – detail regarding human history, he doesn’t style himself as a writer.

I think I took too few photographs, but photographs wouldn’t tell the full story in any case. Neither will I, but here are a few pieces of the story, starting with a subway ride to Coney Island. It was lunchtime, and I had impressed upon T and D the importance of visiting Totonno for pizza.

Two years previously, I had tried to take B, K, and S to the same establishment, walking the 700 meters or so from the subway stop to the pizzeria (that’s far, at midday in July), only to find that they were closed. Today, I had made sure they were open, and the pizza was as good as I remembered.

Walking out, T and I wondered whether D was a Cure fan of sufficient intensity to really think this pilgrimage worthwhile. So we set him the standard test in these situations, namely asking what his favourite album was. He answered correctly, and T and I knew we were all of like mind.

After pizza, we expended (too few of our) carbohydrates on a boardwalk-walk, ending up at a cocktail bar, where we scored an extra frozen margarita, after the charming and generous barkeep caused a little spillage in handing it to D – or when D grasped it too eagerly. In any event, 3 guys, 4 cups. 4 strong cups, drunk alongside a bare-torso’d and buff man, sporting a tattoo of a Saint, and far too many muscles.

We got back to Manhattan late afternoon, and decided to have drinks at the rooftop bar of my hotel. There was a woman collecting money at the entrance to the elevator – a “couvert charge”, as so many signs at the entrance to clubs in the 80’s and 90’s read. But my room was on the 10th floor, and these folks were ‘my guests’, so we headed towards my floor, and simply passed it by, arriving at the rooftop shortly thereafter.

D went outside, and T and I went to the bar. Cosmopolitans sounded like a good idea to us, and so it was that we emerged into the New York skyline with three glowingly-pink drinks. Onto a rooftop patio populated entirely by muscular black men taking selfies, and who were quite clearly gay.

One of them asked us what we were drinking. D told him it was a Cosmopolitan. He turned his string vest away from us, and D took a photo of our three pink drinks, with that man in the background, taking a selfie.

Later, we walked to Madison Square Garden, where the efficiency was impressive. As was D’s – while T and I stood in the queue to buy T-shirts, he struck up a conversation with a random stranger, which ended up resulting in

  • a seat 10 rows from the front, where D calculated that he would (if he wanted to) be able to run onstage and seize one of Robert Smith’s guitars before security got to him, and
  • advice from one of the security guards that he could use whatever bathroom he liked, depending on which queue was shorter, because by law, they were not allowed to ask whether you identified as male, or female, or whether you reject the choice entirely.

T and I were between D and the nosebleed seats, and alongside two very enthusiastic women, one of whom was quite bonkersly happy, all googley-eyed and yelling things I couldn’t hear or chose to ignore. For some reason, T bought them a few drinks, and they spilled vodka on my Cure T-shirt as it lay on the ground in a bag next to T.

The concert was easily the best one I’ve ever been to. The sound was perfect, the songs were old, and the Garden was full of people as excited to be there as I was. We drank many vodkas, and many bourbons after those. We smiled, from the first note to the last note of the (4th!) encore.

Waking up the next morning, I thought to myself: Suggesting that D walk me home (we were heading in the same direction) is the sort of thing I can imagine a friend like T thinking of. Happily following the suggestion is likewise the sort of thing a friend like D wouldn’t hesitate to do.

And when I saw them both the next morning, it turned out that this is exactly what happened.

Harambe and our hubris

One of the lessons we could learn from the killing of Harambe, the gorilla recently shot by Cincinnati Zoo staff, is that we humans are forgetting that not everything is under our control, and that it never could be.

We are not omniscient and omnipotent gods – all we can do is plan as best we can, and take reasonable precautions against unknown risks. And even when you do so, something could still go wrong, as ended up being the case on Saturday, when a child fell into this gorilla’s enclosure.

It’s easy, from the sidelines, to insist that the mother was negligent. Perhaps she was – but at the same time, the only way to guarantee the safety of your children is to keep them in a protective bubble at the end of a leash. In a padded room. Even if you’re careful, mistakes happen.

It’s easy to say that the zoo is at fault. But this is the only time this had ever happened to them since 1978, and it’s an incident that exposes a weakness in the enclosure security that they hadn’t known about until now, presumably after taking all reasonable precautions in enclosure design and maintenance.

It’s easy to choose sides, and say that it’s outrageous that an endangered animal had to die because of someone’s negligence, because why couldn’t they tranquilize it instead – even as expert after expert reminds you that a 400lbs gorilla would take a good few minutes to go down after a (successful) shot, which would give its agitation more than enough time to be channeled into an expression that kills the child.

We want winners and losers, heroes and people to blame. Some are taking blaming the mother so seriously that over 400 000 of them (more by the time you read this) want the parents to be “held accountable”, and tell us that this incident demonstrates a “negligence may be reflective of the child’s home situation”.

These things seldom stop with petitions, though. Mob justice ensues, and people are bullied on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Sometimes it’s not even the “right” person being bullied, but a namesake only, that some keyboard warrior for Harambe has discovered and intends to shame into abjection.

This was an accident with tragic consequences, which are sometimes unavoidable despite our best efforts. Everyone will learn from it, including – hopefully – the mother, whose immediate response was to thank God, rather than the game-ranger who actually (probably) saved her child.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe, a gorilla on the Internet (as far as most are concerned), they wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to joining any initiative aimed at saving western gorillas more generally.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe (at least the people who – like me – still eat meat), they won’t give a moment’s thought to the animal suffering they are responsible for, simply because they prefer a certain sort of food.

This desire for “justice” and for “shaming” is within our control. This lack of perspective where we think that we could have done better, and someone else is blameworthy – even though we know a fraction of the context – is within our control.

But knowing all possible eventualities, preparing for every possible risk, and making the perfect decision in the moment (rather than bloviating about what it was, in retrospect) is not something we can reasonably expect of ourselves, or anyone else.

In memoriam: Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

There are already hundreds of tributes to Prince out there, with many more to come as people hear of his death, yesterday. I heard about it last night at dinner with friends, and was, for a long moment, rather inconsolable.

He was a musician that provided a fair chunk of the soundtrack to my life, and that of many others. I was a fan pretty much from the beginning – other Capetonians will remember those very expensive import LP’s we bought from that place in the Golden Acre whose name I can’t remember, and it was there that I found a copy of “Dirty Mind” in 1980, before Tipper Gore had an “explicit lyrics” warning pasted on to it.

I quickly filled the back-catalogue of his first two albums, and then bought everything else for a decade or two, until his output became too voluminous (and, to be honest, inconsistent) to keep up with.

In 1990, I was coaching tennis to bratty American kids (including one of GW Bush’s grandsons!) in upstate New York, and remember one night when some of the camp counselors and coaches were persuaded that it was a good idea to go and see Bryan Adams perform in Canada.

I stayed behind, because Bryan Adams, and because the rest of us had planned a party. We went to Forest Lake, smoked a joint, drank too much beer, and lay on the shore while a friend played Purple Rain at an absurd volume through his car speakers.

I did so last night also, but without the joint or the beer, although the whisky was good and plentiful. We played “Darling Nikki” too, at my wife’s suggestion, even though that’s the name of an adolescent crush that she doesn’t like being reminded of.

That’s a signal of how much his music means to many folk. And rightly so – younger readers and those who don’t know his music might not appreciate just how damn good he was.

All the early albums had liner notes that read “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”. He did everything, in other words. The legend had it that he could play 20 instruments by the time he was in his late teens.

He turned other people into stars too, or gave them some of their most memorable songs – Sinead O’Connor, with Prince’s song “Nothing Compares to U”, written for a band called The Family. The Bangles, with “Manic Monday”, Chaka Khan, with “I Feel For You”. “The Glamorous Life” for Sheila E. And there are plenty more.

Few other people would be able to maintain the falsetto he does in this performance of Purple Rain while simultaneously playing a ridiculously good guitar solo. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just today – but it feels like nobody else could.

We’ll miss you.

Zuma, Obama and misreading intentions

You’re all familiar with that asshat driver who speeds up to close a gap you were about to merge into. Maybe you are that driver? If so, you’d also be aware of those occasions where you did so accidentally – perhaps you hadn’t noticed the other car trying to merge, or perhaps you suddenly realised you were late for an appointment, and sped up.

Of course, perhaps you’re just an asshat. But let’s assume not, and instead use this as an example of what is called the “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology. This error describes our habit of assuming intention or motive to explain behaviour, rather than considering external factors like the two listed above.

The same error has been in evidence in some reactions – especially in the intemperate world of social media, to this photograph of Presidents Zuma and Barack Obama.

zuma+phoneFor some who distrust or dislike Zuma, whether for good or bad reasons, the photograph is evidence of his arrogance, or simply an opportunity to mock or criticise him (because he was obviously talking to someone more important than Obama, like the Guptas).

But there’s no reason to assume anything sinister, or anything worth mockery or criticism here. A still image, taken out of a context, tells us nothing about what either man was thinking. Obama could have approached Zuma while the latter was already on the phone, as the former was on his way to another table and thought to just quickly say “hello”.

We don’t know. What we do know is that people can reveal their own attitudes, pretty clearly, in how they respond to images such as these. Criticism is good, and necessary – but let’s try to keep it evidence-based.

Building a better society starts with recognising this one’s broken

Today’s horror is the rape of a Northern Cape high school boy, whose classmates tied him to a bed and raped him with a broom handle. “Today’s horror” is of course inaccurate, as there are no doubt many others. But this one stands out for me for various reasons:

The initial use of the word “sodomy” instead of the word “rape”, demonstrating an unconscious (and widespread) homophobia. It’s a mild form of homophobia in isolation – but to note that would really miss the point unless you follow it up with the observation that, for those who identify with marginalised and oppressed groups, all of these mild or micro cases add up to a environment of systemic discrimination.

The norm is white, male and heterosexual. This is not to say that it’s impossible for people to overplay their hand (whatever that hand might be) in terms of being part of some marginalised group – some people can be disingenuous, and excuse some personal failing by reference to a coincidental feature they happen to possess.

That’s an entirely separate issue from whether, on average, someone who is not white, male and heterosexual is likely to have a rougher deal than people like me. So, denying any person’s experience by reference to them “playing the x card” (x = race, gender, etc.) pretends that systemic disadvantage is nonexistent, and makes you sound like a heartless, uninformed and unreflective fool.

SASecond, on the rape case, is the fact that some seem to want to make this all about kids being kids at an initiation ritual, rather than it being a racially motivated attack. The bone I’ll throw at you is that of course we can’t know it was a racial attack. But it’s pretty likely to be, in South Africa, at least to the extent that certain inhibitions about not treating other human beings in a barbaric fashion are more present if the prospective target is white, male and heterosexual.

It doesn’t matter that the crowd of kids who were looking on, and (I’m told) cheering were modeling a united colours of Benetton poster, comprising people of various races. It’s possible to internalise racism against any group, even the group you belong to yourself.

And, as DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rightly notes in a statement on this attack

Under the cover of “traditions” such as initiations, children are given the platform to act on their racism and homophobia – sanctioned by the institution and often “protected” by just those who went through the same “rites of passage” themselves. Many of these kids are raised by racist, bigoted parents and then spend years and years in these situations where they barely have to disguise this. In fact, it often gets encouraged.

On Facebook, Max du Preez asked “Isn’t it time to consider legislation declaring racist acts (attacks and serious insults) hate crimes with harsh punishment?” I don’t want to get into hate crimes and hate speech at present, because there’s so much to talk about there, but one thing we do need is to at least recognise that they exist, and identify them for what they are.

We have too many folk who still believe the Rainbow Nation myth, and think we’re pretty much united, and too many who believe we’re still in some sort of (undeclared) race war, or at least socially (or otherwise) incompatible with each other. The truth is in the middle – we’re sorting things out, but that requires work, not mythologising.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, go read and play with the “parable of the polygons” to see an elegant demonstration of how (perceived) harmless choices can still add up to a harmful world. Also, read Oliver Burkeman’s recent Guardian piece, which argues that believing the world is intrinsically fair or just can lead to increased injustice, because we “blame the victim” instead of supporting remedial measures.

I don’t know for sure how we build better societies, but recognising our problems, instead of pretending we live in some alternate and superior universe would surely be a start.