The late Deon du Plessis, founder of the Daily Sun, had a certain way with words.
Once he summoned me to this office at Independent newspapers. If memory serves (which it doesn't very well), it was at the start of 1999 or thereabouts. We'd met in 1996 when I was project manager and launch managing editor of Business Report.
‘Listen," he said matter-of-factly, his voice rumbling up from the bottom of his giant carapace, "Fallon [Ivan Fallon, Tony O'Reilly's vicar-general] thinks you're a bottomless cxxx. But I want you to come and work on something with me here. Just go and see him and say ‘sorry' for whatever it was you did."
"But I didn't do anything. I just left."
"Who gives a shit?" he asked rhetorically. "Just go and say sorry and let's get on."
He wanted me to be project manager of the nascent Daily Sun - which in those days was called, I think, Spear of the Nation - and this is indeed what I became, along with a team including Esther Waugh, Kevin Ritchie, Kanthan Pillay, Fergus Samson, and a Cape Town guy who later became quite a famous photographer but whose name I forget.
The photographer and I invariably called each other Ntloko Bokwe, Goat's Head Soup (cribbed from the Stones), which was the name of my column in the dummy we created nearly every day for year. (Contrary to popular opinion, Du Plessis took few chances; he worked things through - or, rather, he had others work things through - and then he had them work those things through again - till everything was just right.)
Now, one thing that Deon used to repeat quite often in those days - Du Plessis was "into' repetition, but then my wife says that I am too - was this: "Geezus, can you fxxxxxx imagine if we lived in the states and ran the New York Times and we said we couldn't distribute it in Arkansas? Do you know who the rulers of this country are?"
Bill Clinton was of course the president of the US then. And it genuinely boggled Deon's mind - it really threw him - that Independent didn't have a publication or distribution machine - not a one - in the Eastern Cape whence hailed Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
"WTF? How in hell can we not have a newspaper in the Eastern Cape?"
I was reminded of this on Saturday evening when I saw (on the News) one of the cutest, most touching vignettes that I have seen for many a long day. It happened at the ANC's Midrand announcement that the nomination process for the Mangaung elective conference in December had officially opened.
There was Mr Hardass himself - Stalinist secretary general Gwede Mantashe peering through his specs with his gimlet eye - he looks like a black version of me - look at the picture of me above - with a little photoshopping and black dye, that could be Gwede (though he looks older) - and the secretary general was asked how in tarnation had ANC membership numbers in the great state of KwaZulu-Natal increased by 86 000 (read it and weep!) while ANC membership numbers in the Eastern Cape have plunged by 38 000 ...!
Thirty-eight thousand down, muthafugga, in the great state of the Eastern Cape!? The spiritual home of our liberation party, the ANC, the home, my little pussy rioters, of Mandela, Mbeki, Stephen Bantu Biko, and Mantashe himself!
Gwedele didn't know what to say. Or, rather he knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn't say it. He hesitated. He looked coy. And then he said, "Well, er, I can't give you a scientific answer why this happened ... but, er, well, I can imagine why it has happened ... The decline in the eastern Cape, I really can't explain it except that it indicates that there could be serious organizational problems ..."
C'mon Gweds. This is not rocket science, my china. Even Steven "the babe magnet" Friedman got it. What happened is that JGZ and the kitchen cabinet got together and they said to one another: "Who gives a damn what's being said in the fancy conurbations, at Scusi or Vida or Wits, by the likes of Business Day or the M&G or the Sunday Times or the Daily Maverick or Politicsweb or all those tossers? The race might not be to the swift but the battle goes to the okes who get the votes at Mangaung."
And they went to KZN and they boogied - up KZN hill and down KZN dale - en kyk hoe lyk hulle nou.
But what happened in the Eastern Cape? Well, it's an anti-Zuma enclave, ain't it? But the education system's there has toppled, the hospitals have toppled, the police are clueless, the provincial administration is about as effective as Bafana Bafana's strikers, the people are leaderless, dispirited, depressed ...I mean the person who has taken over the reins of the party is a Zulu, one of Shaka kaSenzangakhona's thugs ... No wonder the Xhosa are cast down and not paying much attention to the party ...who cares, after all.
As Deon also used to say - this, a few years ago however - "this is the era of KZN. What's circulation looking like there, my hearties?"
And Sunday's Sunday Times headline was: "Zuma close to victory." A trifle premature, as the gynecologist said to the actress, a trifle premature. But still, you have to hand it to the herd boy: there're better men than you and I who have thought he's done and dusted, when up he pops up again like a jacob-in-the-box.
And yet what he also does, with unfailing regularity, is to fall off the podium at his victory celebration, if you follow my drift.
Consider it. On the very same day that Zuma's imminent victory is proclaimed, we read in City Press, just across town from the Times, a report by me old china Paddy "pass the port" Harper that Zuma's ranch at Nkandla is getting a revamp that's going to cost taxpayers R203-million.
Everyone, everyone, is foaming at the mouth. Our man in Cape Town, constitutional boffin Pierre de Vos, has said from the mountain top (I mean this figuratively, not from Table Mountain): "[This amounts to] the blatant looting of public funds by a president who lacks even the most basic sense of right and wrong."
You think, Pierre?
I don't know why people don't want the president to have a children's playground, medical clinic and helipad at his place. Give him a break; he has many children, many wives, and he's 70 years old. What's the problem here?
If only Zuma and the specific government departments would get themselves some savvy spin doctors. But they don't. Mac Maharaj is an old-time ascetic Marxist, who spent years on the island. He has no idea why Gedleyihlekisa wants the estate in the middle of bloody nowhere.
All Mac could do was tell the hacks sniffily not to bother him with such trifles but to talk to the ministry of public works. Actually Mac didn't quite get the question, I think. His other response was: the yanks have Camp David, the Brits have Chequers - why shouldn't we have Nkandla? And maybe he has a point.
Meanwhile, at the ministry we have this strange new dude, Thulas Nxesi, who took up what you might call the "Maharaj defence". Instead of explaining why it all cost so much - bullet-proof glass and underground tunnels and helipads etc don't come cheap - he thought attack was the better part of defence and he accused City Press of having stolen a classified document.
He also stressed the "security needs" of a "presidential home". After all, King Mswati III of Swaziland might send his special forces across the border to attack the ranch and steal the cattle. Didn't we renege on some loan or something? Or didn't Zuma promise lobola to some Swazi maiden that he failed to pay?
Ja-nee, never a dull moment - always up and down, down and up - with our swinging first citizen.
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