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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Presenting my new website, Democracy Version Two, or “D2″ for short

Mense, gut tells me it’s time I gave you a rollicking column completely free of anything that smacks of better world & so forth. And kop says: “ja, okay, next week.”

Right now I do a thing I’ve spent some time plucking up courage to do. This is to present to you my new website,, which is entirely about better world & so forth.

I get gloopy just saying that, aware that the Anonym Mob are reaching for the vitriol. But I focus on the rest of us, we who rather than rage at cruel fate for dumping us in Africa prefer to revel in what is beautiful and to fix what is not. Too bad the scorn-and-bile crowd hog the airtime, but that says that real people are quiet, not absent.

It’s freeing up the real people that gives me faith in our tomorrows. That’s the nub of my site and it pursues a theme I’ve been punting, to mainly sceptical ears, since around the time the average Moneywebber was in nappies. The first time I was really roundly dumped on for it was in 1985, and that is a funny story.

The then new Weekly Mail had asked for a free ad in my then relatively established magazine Frontline. Shortly after, they ran a review of my first book on how to make SA politics seriously sound. The review was by a Marxist prof of economics, Colin Bundy, who kicked my book to shreds with hobnail boots.

That incidentally put me to an intriguing dilemma. I asked myself if I would (i) run so savage an assault on any colleague/competitor, and if so (ii) on one who had given me a welcome-to-the-world freebie ad? I concluded Yes, it was right. If you start getting into royal game, censoring your contributors to ensconce off-limit privileges, you’re on a highway to a very bad place. But I also wondered: would it be the same were I not a person who had given a single past-tense hand-out but a person providing continuing advertisement bookings? That answer, I never knew.

The funny bit is that while Bundy’s attack was rough all round (though surpassed later by Robert Kirby in the Financial Mail), his high point fingered my idiocy and imbecility for saying that one day Afrikaner farmers and African labourers would stand together in the same voting queues. I’m sure that many readers jeered with him in ’85. I’ve always wondered if any of them, come ’94, remembered and scratched their heads and blinked a bit.

I tell you that because I want you to have Bundy in mind when you look at my site. You will see stuff that looks as strange to you now as those queues looked to him in ’85. Be a tad cautious about shrieking Crazy! Naïve! Dwell a moment on previous times in your life where what first looked outlandish later became workaday.

Now comes the point where, if we were at a table and someone says “so what is this site of yours about, Denis?” and I say “oh, just about making a better world”, people start pushing their chairs back surreptitiously, fearing that insanity has become contagious. (One never knows, in this changing world.)

The case this site makes is that if you have a truly right political structure, you can forget all your worries about people. It doesn’t matter how educated they are, what gods they believe in, how much conflict is in their history; nothing. And the structure that is truly right is a structure that takes leaders out of the driving seat, for voters, people, you and me, to get in.

You know how all your life you have been hearing (and probably saying) “the ordinary black/ white/ Muslim / Catholic/ Someone is fine, but the fanatics/ priests/ ideologues/ mullahs/ someones will never let the ordinary people come into their own.” Well, what you have here is a structure that puts the ordinary people actually genuinely in charge. It puts them/us cast-iron solidly in charge. It puts us so firmly in charge that – breathe deep, clutch your credulity – from the moment that a society installs D2, Democracy Version Two, it is impossible for coups, civil wars, revolutions, major riots and most brands of corruption, to exist.

Now, while you’re thinking “how can he say that, is he alright in the head?” I sneak in a quick uppercut and say, like a Verimark ad, “but that’s not all.”

Among other things that this D2 will cause to happen is an inexorable march towards an equilibrium of social justice.

Nice big words in there. “Inexorable” means that this result is going to happen regardless. You could not change this result even if you had all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and all the tea in China stacked in the scale behind you. It has to happen, like water has to run out of a hole in the bucket.

“Equilibrium” means that the Have-Mores will bid a reasonably cheerful farewell to a portion of their More, considering it a modest price for peace of mind, and the Have-Lesses will be okay with their Less, reckoning that the guys who work harder or work smarter are welcome to the Ferrari, and nothing’s wrong with Toyota.

You’ll meet both those words quite often on the site, plus another, rarer, ultra-word: “consentience”, the place at which society is at rest.

» read article

I want to see razor wire become a museum exhibit

It is time we stop our country following the crumbly trail of Africa.

Our local Community Police Forum (CPFs) asked me to speak at their AGM, and wanted me to propose a topic. I said I’d like to address why, in this crime-obsessed society, the annual meeting of a police precinct containing some 50 000 adult people would not have more than 0.03% attendance.

I got keen on that question, as I thought round it, and I’d like to submit a condensed version of the speech:

* * * * *

Riparile, goeie naand, molweni, shalom, namaste, sanibonani, goeie naand, dumelang, salaam aleikom and good evening. When CPFs came in 15 years ago, this was wonderful exciting new-age new-world empowering news. Imagine, we the mere people could actually meet the police, be involved, influence them.

At an early CPF function I shared a platform with Mary Metcalf. Mary – herself a wondrous phenomenon, ordinary person became a high-ranking policymaker – had a firm message: Carpe Diem, seize the day. The time had come, she said. This was the Carpe Diem era.

I was on a CPF for a while. I didn’t see a lot of Diems getting Carpéd. I heard a term called “Area”, being in-group shorthand for “Area Commissioner”. Whenever we raised a suggestion for the police to do (as opposed to suggestions for us to do, such as repaint the station, again) the answer was “no, Area’s orders are…” We could talk to the police, but it was Area that got heard.

We the people mainly got our knuckles rapped, every meeting. We were still forgetting to lock our car doors. We were still leaving our gates unlocked. We were still leaving our alarms switched off. We were a delinquent public; tsk!

This switched me off. I don’t want a society where I’m okay if I have great security. I want a society where I’m so okay that I need no security. When I was a child, gates and fences were waist high. You could sit on your stoep and greet people walking by. I want that again. I want to see razor wire become a museum exhibit.

I know I am not acquiring that tomorrow. I know it’s not top of the police agenda today. But it must be part of what the CPF and the police are about. If your vision is to mitigate extremes of badness while taking basic badness as for granted forever, you lose me.

But that is not what keeps 49 850 people away from this hall tonight. What is it that does keep them away? I offer one big unhesitant enormous bald-statement categorical answer, and then I tentatively, deferentially ask some polite questions.

The big answer is this: that all or nearly all local community endeavours are eternally under-supported is because they don’t have power.

Some of you know that I have, since Noah was a baby, been punting a notion of an upgraded democracy where the people actually “rule”, as the branding claims. I am not going to fling that at you now – be relieved – but I am firmly say that to the next generation, or the one after, the notion of local communities sharing power with national parliament will be as self-evident as shrink-wrapped cheese or twist-off beers are to us, causing (i) a more contented nation and (ii) CPF-type activities never again wringing hands and wishing the hall was fuller.

» read article

AA, BEE: A New Racism that Boomerangs

I stiffened the sinews, clenched my teeth and tackled the 134 comments addressed to two recent columns. One was by me: “if today’s fashion is ‘give the job to the black oke!’ tomorrow’s fashion will be ‘bring back the whiteys!’ “. The other was Frans Cronje on Politicsweb saying much the same thing, though better researched: “the cliché of South Africa’s future and irony of its recent past [is] that affirmative action disempowered its greatest proponents while empowering its most fervent critics.”

I expected wading through these 134 comments to be sewer-repair work, clothes pegs on the nose. How nice to discover that no, comment-lines are not only populated by bile-and-imbecility merchants, there are real people with sincerity and ideas, exploring ways out of decline, in to respect and confidence.

I’d had a wrong idea, I confess, but I claim that it’s not an irrational wrong idea to have. The last few times I’ve checked Moneyweb’s comment lines I’ve been struck by racist scorn (two-way, I add, though sometimes I see bilious black responses as almost forgivable in retaliation to bilious white derision.)

Racist insults are like squashy turds on a footpath; when they recur a few times you cease to notice the nice flowers and upright plants; you get a yecch impression of the footpath. I’d become quite deterred from writing this column, loath to be linked to Neanderthals looking for put-downs.

But now, finding all those real people, I take heart and I also redefine. I declare that henceforth this column is for those people, the ones interested in discussing ways towards a strong, sound country. It is not at all for the delectation of the scorn brigade. Bigots who burn for excuses to whack the blacks can feel free to scoot away. A click or two should deliver them a more congenial home, with the same initials daarby. And for the funnymen yearning to scrawl their witty and entertaining “Yawn” over any place that requires time out from spleen-venting for brain-using, here’s a friendly tip: this column hereby becomes yawn, yawn, all the way. Wander away now, and stay awake.

Let’s now go through some aspects of this proposition that Frans and I have – rather uncannily and with nil consultation – presented to you simultaneously. We each say in essence that the new racism, whether defined as AA or BEE or BBBEE or what, boomerangs. It damages the cause it is meant to help.

Thereafter I suppose we part a little. Frans argues that the whiteys benefit but I’m cautious about that. Yes, it does mean the whiteys, or non-Africans in general, again becoming artificially favoured in the job queues. But that isn’t really “benefit”; it is just another perverse twist in the racism tango, sowing the seeds of the next pile of disillusion and reversal. And while Afrikaners who used to wield rubber stamps are overjoyed to have been pushed into starting their own mini-businesses, they are as un-beneficially affect by the collapsing civil service as anyone else.

I’d say that no one benefits from BEE, except short term. Sudden fortunes must be fun. But we know where sudden fortunes end. We also see lots of evidence now of the pains they cause even while they ride high. The new mansion and the new supercar get an ashen taste when your peers are sniggering behind your back.

Proposition One, for today: I put it to you seriously that there is no real beneficiary from the new racism, and there is a categorical loser; the regular humble South African who needs a growing economy. That person – child or granny or parent, worker or work-needer or grant-receiver – loses because of the iron law that for your economy to select its players on grounds other than ability to hone its cutting edge is sabotage.

Even when you focus solely on choosing the best person for the job, you get it wrong half the time. A policy that condemns a nation to restrict the candidate pool is a policy that’s betting on the other side. That’s why you hear of BRIC, Brazil, Russia, India and China as the up-and-coming. It’d be BRICSA if our nation was not being stabbed in the back by its own government. Basic net effect: we enter an era where central decisions affecting SA’s life are made by people who have no intention of being in SA while the consequences of those decisions play out.

That’s bad news, not for “blacks”, not for “whites”, bad news for people who want to live here permanently and peacefully. That’s why I thump this tub. We’ll get nowhere while BEE is a race war. We start getting somewhere when we agree that we all want an unchained economy, and when no one fears it’s un-black to say so.

Proposition Two is: the enemy is distortion; the enemy is not people’s colours.

Reading these single-digit IQs shrieking abuse — “go back to swinging in your tree” and the ilk – I wonder what death-wish is at work. People right here in Africa get hysterically hostile to everything about Africa; does that add up? You can see their frustration. They see BEE appointments meaning jobs not done, half-done, done wrong. They see people with half their service and a third of their capability being promoted above them. At the office they must put on shit-eating grins, it’s not surprising that they turn to vitriol under the anonymity of the internet.

» read article

We must move beyond race, or we’re doomed

The worst, the deepest, the most indefensible sin that a columnist can commit is to say “I told you so”. It should be in the contract: “I told you so” means instant beheading.

Unless you use the dreary phrase “as I said in my column of nineteenvoetsek…” For that you get water-torture first.

You now know that I am about to say “I told you so”. And I claim Beginner’s Exemption because I don’t believe (!?) I’ve ever done this thing before.

As I said in piles of nineteenvoetsek columns: when we started to thrust melanined people into roles that they wouldn’t fill if they didn’t have the melanin, we guaranteed that melanin would later become a handicap.

Let me say that in plain Seffricenglish: if today’s fashion is “give the job to the black oke!”, tomorrow’s fashion will be “bring back the whiteys!”

Tomorrow is upon us, it seems to me. Not that the ship of state has switched course yet. It’s still drifting in the same wrong direction but only momentum is taking it there. The engine-room has shut down. People who deeply believed that freedom unleashed a 900% bigger pool of managers and engineers to make us a 900% richer country, now confront what they could not confront before: what we actually get is holes in the road, broken robots, reduced activity and personal tragedy.

Thus, the debate welcomely changes. We get towards a better basis, certainly from the pro-transformation side.

Indications? Here you go:

* THE new mantra, spreading like a rescue-blanket. It goes “there must be a balance between the demographic need and the need for capacity”, and it is now on the radio whenever a mayor/MEC/minister explains why their department dysfunctions. Fifteen years ago you’d be shot (as in the big word for “ostracised”) for talking like that. The doctrine said that transformation raised capacity. Since then, “capacity” has become a one-word code for “sorry, no output here; new staff, not yet trained”.

The “balance” mantra is a staging post towards the inevitable next step, which is when the idea of “a demographic need” disappears in favour of a human need, for everyone’s prospects to be ceiling-free and staircase-supported, with no selective escalator rides.

* WE’RE past the point that we could ask “might SA go the route of Africa?” We know we’re on “the route of Africa”, that once seemed so vital to avoid. What’s funny is to see it in the twin clichés, pot-holes and robots, a.k.a. traffic lights. For half a century those things have symbolised African states failing. For the last state to let them go wrong seems like a bad script, over-obvious. But so it goes, and manhole covers walk away and tap-water acquires creepy-crawlies and hospitals run out of swabs and airplanes run out of pilots and the no-nevers are here and happening.

So now it’s not as if alarms and warning notes are just whitey being grouchy. It becomes clear that there is a problem, and that switching Van der Merwe for Tshabalala is not a comprehensive answer.

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At the “Africa for Haiti” Media Gig

That I made it to the Nelson Mandela Foundation for the lunch of “Africa For Haiti” was thanks to cabin fever. I’d had seven days chained to a laptop and I needed human buzz or I was going to need a straitjacket.

Up pops a short-notice invite to a press conference, and hey, why not? I’m only a sometime taker for Very Politically Correct functions, but sometimes is right, like it’s sometimes right to hear the other lot too.

Moreover, there’s no nicer corner of PC-ness than the Mandela Foundation. The vibe is great and so is the kitchen. Occasionally they trundle the old man in, too, to smile at everybody for a minute or two. And I’ll tell you this much: nobody, not even the webcretins with their anonymous bigoted bile, fails to feel dew in the eye and a lump in the throat when the old man bestows that smile.

So I get over to Central Avenue, Houghton, feeling mildly fraudulent because (a) I’m not a real journo any more and (b) I have nil thought of writing Haiti.

I know Haiti is the toughest disaster ever, and if I put myself in the heads of those guys pulling boulders off their grannies I feel the stomach tangle. But it’s far, and there’s 42 beggars on my shopping block, and the big ous are on the case, US and UN and UK and EU and so on. What is Africa going to do, send beads?

Nobody knows I’m a fraud, and I love meeting the new media gang. They got out of school in about 2008 and you can’t believe they’ve lived long enough to grow the heads of hair they sport, but they’re amiable and open hearted and you get to know them without the sniffing-out and status-gauging of money-minded professions.

Journos are good at that, as a breed. So are smokers and so are Africans, and here are lots of African journalist smokers whose days are made by an Ubuntu that comes naturally. How nice that some good things persist in this world of somersaults, even if they get a bit stressed hiding their smokes like contraband.

Africa for Haiti carries the blessing of lots of large names, including no less than four archbishops, but only Graca Machel represents the nomenklatura right here right now. She is pretty much chairman, and makes a delightfully unpretentious speech about how it’s one thing to cough up bully-beef while shattered waifs are all over your screen, but there’s also a problem with reconstruction after the world’s attention has moved off. So this effort is not about disaster relief; it’s about medium- to long-term reconstruction over the next six months.

From those TV scenes I’d think they’ll still be clearing debris in six months, but fair point, Africa for Haiti isn’t talking soup-kitchen. It’s talking the caravan of normality getting back on the road.

Graca is endearing. Not that she comes across wrong on screen, but that you tend to assume haughtiness among screen-people with big claims to status, such as being the only person who ever married two presidents. Live, that assumption evaporates, in her case.

Still, I’m ho-hum about the project, and the support-messages from dignitaries don’t always help. We owe Haiti for anti-apartheid sanctions? Or because God says so, as if He had to tell someone to tell us or we couldn’t guess?

But… then, reservations vanish:

Trevor Ncube is a guy about whom I have already revised my ideas. He took over the Mail & Guardian while media owners were shovelling shares at anyone who had indigenous features and an excellent tailor, and nice guy though he was — no question, but so are they all — one was bound to assume that this was a case of more of the same: another trumpeted advance that would wither into stagnation.

I don’t think so any more. The media empire he is building is, I’m reliably informed, the real thing, with actual building actually happening and at the actual hands of the actual chief exec. That’s exciting in its own right.

And now here is Trevor on Haiti, making a speech a paragraph long, with the punch of the Gettysburg address.

He says in effect that let alone Haiti’s acute current need to receive, Africa has a big chronic need to give. “It is time that we stand and be counted as Africans. We have received much from the world. We must show them and ourselves that we can give as well as receive; that though we may not be rich we do have a heart.”

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Seffricans STOP bitching and whining, and be proud of our film industry

I have consumed more of the planet’s oxygen than most of you, so I have realised some big things. Like: few joys are greater than watching Impossibles turn to Achieveds.

I have just seen three brilliant Seffrican films in a row, and for many decades I would have bet you that was Impossible.

Not long ago if you saw two consecutive Seffrican movies at least one would make you cringe. And we were making one movie per five years. Prognosis was not good. Let alone that the cheeky Strylians were flooding our cinemas with stuff that turned us green.

Ja, well. How lekker to report that some things get so conspicuously better that even the webcretins have to zip their dreary whingeing lips.

True, District 9 is only Honorary Seffrican, and not without a cringe factor. But it’s not cringe for the movie. You burst with pride for the movie, claim the movie eagerly, even while knowing the claim is a big con. All we did was deliver unto daylight the guy who made it, before he did the E-word, Emigration.

Still, he liked us, if liked is the word, enough to site his work of grim comic genius right here in Jozi. You can be pretty damn sure that if you were Bjørn or Inge in Uppsala this movie would not boost Africa’s place in your holiday plans. But hey, there is a point at which too bad for Bjørn and Inge, we can wallow in a solid wry painful in-joke against ourselves.

Our son saw us heading out and said where we going. We said District 9 and he klutzed: “That’s not your movie! That’s our movie! It has car chases! Things blow up! There’s Effects!” We said we’d heard there was social satire. He shrugged ho-hummishly and said “a little”.

We nearly diverted, but we’re good Seffricans at heart and know it’s our duty to monitor the lies that the world is being told about us, so we got there.

And we saw why he was ho-hum. For young people, like distant people, the satire must surely wash past.

For people who lived the era of the Amptenaar with his snor and his do-it-by-the-book formalities and his delicious did-you-got-a-licence English and his love-hate for the bulk of his countrymen, the laughter is harmful to your stomach. (Although it is true, be warned, that it recedes in the second half under an orgy of Effects and things blowing up.)

A moment that re-runs in my head is Wikus the main ou, in a cellar beneath a squatter shack, coming upon a majestic enormous Star Wars command centre, shining and gleaming and intimidating as hell. He peers in horror and speaks as a township superintendent: “Fok. No, man. This is verry notta loud. Therre can be a fine.”

“Fok”, incidentally, constitutes half of Wikus’s word-count, proving that this is a genuinely 21st century film.

Then there’s White Wedding, by Jann Turner.

I haven’t met Jann and I’ve never written her name before and I have to clear some air here by recognising that while in her own right she is abundantly a person of renown, she is also the daughter of a father of renown, who was murdered in our name by a bullet that, we are sure, was paid for by our taxes. I’m sorry, Rick, RIP.

I see via Google that White Wedding has scored a bagful of triumphs, plus loot. You could have fooled me. I hardly heard of it when it was on circuit, and what I did hear gave me a vaguely gloopy feel – oh dear, back to bloody Black & White and all that.

Next thing it was off and I had to dig it up in the video store. Duty, y’know.

Well, what a pure innocent gem it turned to be. The “White” doesn’t even mean “white”, really. It’s virtually exempt of race baggage. It’s a clever feel-good tale, told with vooma.

If I bring up District 9 with the veiled intention of reassuring old toppies that they can cope with it, I bring up White Wedding with the secret plot of waking up the neurotics who try to live in Little Pale Island. I think here of my friend Pete: “no, Denis, our world is shrinking, our people are leaving, everything is declining, because of the blacks. The last thing I want is to watch movies about them.” Aaarrgghh, numbskull, no wonder you’re miserable, closing up on yourself. Engage, man; open your eyeballs and embrace your compatriots. Not least, when you acknowledge things that go well you’re the better able to confront things that go wrong.

Last, The Silver Fez. Some people would say “no, this is not a movie, it’s a documentary”. That to me is like saying this is not a column, it’s a blog.

The Fez is on screen and it’s entertaining. Isn’t that what a movie is?

This one is entertainment-plus, not sommer ha-ha. Ha-ha comes in all right, but so does thought and joy and pity and tension and whodunit and a sense of being a little more connected with your world and your nation than you were 90 minutes ago.

Silver Fez is made by Lloyd Ross with Rian Malan, (who my autocorrect turns into Rain; I have to beat it back). Rian’s role is partly on-screen, with guitar. Lloyd’s is off, with camera.

Lloyd was makhulubaas-cum-bottlewasher of Shifty Records at the same time as I had the same job on Frontline magazine. Shifty lives on where Frontline is long deceased (mind you, Tony Sutton in Toronto has started a Frontline retrospective, and Lloyd has gone on to be a RUC, Really Useful Citizen, and a unique one at that. This project, for instance, he deals grippingly with current life in South Africa without a mention (well, one, 5 seconds long) of the dreaded national politics. How unique is that?

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A Booktown Fights for the Karoo

This is a tale of the Karoo, of a dry dry dusty dusty bit of it.

Ah, as I write I feel koppie beneath my feet; clear crisp view to forever.

This is a tale of the Karoo and of beautiful lunatics, and of South Africa here and now. But it begins in another place and another generation.

Hay on Wye is an un-dry and un-dusty picture-postcard dorp on the England/Wales border. In 1960 Hay was coming up for its 900th birthday but seemed unlikely to make it. The cattle trading industry, which had sustained the economy since frontier wars went out of fashion, was all pooped out. Town was teetering.

So they got smart, and said “let’s make a Booktown”.

A what? There was no such thing. Half a millennium since Gutenberg, the notion “Booktown” had never been thought of.

Hay thought of it. It made itself into a town built on books; talking books, reading books, ogling books, selling books. Now, Hay has 20 fulltime bookshops. Its annual festival fills a hundred thousand beds. And the idea caught on, as good ideas do. By 2007 Hay was the grandaddy of 28 booktowns stretching from Jinbocho, Japan, to Archer, Texas, via Bosu-dong, South Korea, and Redu, Belgium.

There were booktowns in every continent except Africa.

And then, along came a beautiful lunatic.


When I was a student a friend of mine approached a prominent person with an idea.

The prominent person listened, and said: “where is the money in this?”

My friend was startled: “It’s not about money, it’s about… beauty.”

The prominent person said: “What use is that? To spend time on things that make no money is lunatic.”

Ever since, I’ve hoped the world will never run out of beautiful lunatics.


Darryl David was already a rare figure, as an Indian professor of Afrikaans. When he decided that what the Karoo needed was a booktown, he became rarer.

He took it seriously. No light whimsies here. Darryl examined prospective booktowns, writing up his results on the internet and explaining why this one, that one, the next one, wouldn’t do.

Then he came to Richmond, and he explained why it would do.

This was a bold thing to explain. Insofar as Richmond’s potential was pegged on Hay’s success, there were discrepancies.

In a two-hour drive of Hay you have a population centre called London. In a two-hour drive of Richmond you have a population centre called Graaff-Reinet.

In a 300K radius of Hay you find some 10 000 bookshops. In a 300K radius of Richmond you find 0 bookshops.

It was an ambitious basis upon which to create a booktown.

But Darryl David phoned around, undeterred, and, it turned out, all roads in Richmond led to a particular person. They led to a Canadian veterinarian in Parktown North, Johannesburg.

Baker is an Africa convert, and puts a convert’s zeal into his hobbies. One of these is driving 4x4s to corners of central Africa where cooldrink cans burst in the sun as if they’ve been microwaved, and crossing a bridge can take a week. Another hobby is watching the sun go down from Vegkop, his manor house on the hill over Richmond, with beers and friends and deep satisfaction at the world and its works.

Baker has a forename, Peter, which features on his degrees and his ID. In person, he is so solidly known as “Baker” that one can think he was christened Baker Baker. He is a man in a hurry, who answers his phone (when he can find it and has remembered to turn it on) by bellowing “What!” in tones designed for declaring war.

Darryl gulped before phoning Baker to propose a booktown in Richmond. “I knew that people would think ‘is this for real’, and I know that people can be rude.” Darryl didn’t know that Baker has a third hobby: thwarting the Karoo’s new industry.

Money is being made in the Karoo, at last. That should be exciting news, but shoulds are risky. This money is made by sabotage. You buy up a derelict cottage, demolish it, and sell the wood – mature yellowwood, often 100 years mature; ceilings and beams and floorboards, gold dust. Then you leave the crumpled dagha walls like a kicked-down anthill, and the Karoo has lost twice. It has sacrificed a treasure and it has acquired an eyesore.

Local government has the legal means of combat but local government is the epicentre of “incapacity”, the code word for implosion by reverse racism. Add a new Rates Act whereby the rates on a pensioner’s cottage exceed the pensioner’s pension and, but for one thing, you’d see a Karooful of kicked-down anthills.

That thing is the thin mortgaged line of people who are buying up the Karoo.

Some say “speculators”, and there is something in that. But it is so far-fetched a speculation that in my view it comes closer to beautiful lunacy.

Baker is a baron of Richmond now, the puzzled possessor of a clutch of run-down dwellings that would pay him millions if he pulled them down and are money down the drain while he keeps them up.

At least Baker has a stream of Joburg pet-owners on the supply side. Co-baron John Donaldson, a stoere Boer despite his name, returned to the Karoo from which he sprang and found kicked-down anthills spreading like hawkers’ stands. He bought one demolition candidate and set it up as home. Soon he was running a family of mini-businesses and, with Baker, buying demolishables before the demolishers got them.

When Darryl David phoned Baker and Baker bellowed “What!” Darryl nearly put the phone down. “I mean, it was a bit tricky, you know. If he’d said ‘good morning, how can I help you’, it would be easier to explain.” Darryl spat it out notwithstanding, and Baker, within some 90 seconds of hearing “booktown” for the first time in his life, bellowed “Yes!” so heartily that Darryl’s ear hurt.

John Donaldson was promptly enlisted and Booktown Richmond was born.

Fast-forward now through a year or so of local politics, allowing your mind to boggle at the galvanising, objecting, stonewalling, steering, re-steering, re-re-steering, backbiting, bitching, accusing, blaming, disputing, denouncing and disbelieving that the injection of a new dimension into a village’s life must mean.

Come to the third weekend of October 2008, and place yourself in Richmond.

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The real lesson Caster Semenya taught us

When the call for anti-Mugabe sanctions was riding high, I think you noticed an irony. You’d heard the same noises before – “force the oppressors to their knees”, “show them that the world is serious” and so on – but now they came from different mouths.

This had been the ANC’s song, before De Klerk. Now Tories and Republicans and the DA were singing it.

And Thabo Mbeki was reading from the script that Helen Suzman had shared with Maggie Thatcher: “sanctions hurt the poor” and “quiet diplomacy gets results”.

It was wry; a proof that reason comes second. The world likes to think it works on logic but actually our minds have ratchets, factory fitted. We see things from the slant that we happen to know is the only straight-up slant there is, the one that God wants the world to have. Anybody coming at matters from a different slant is biased, automatically; usually ignorant and venal too.

It’s exactly like accents. I don’t have one of those. It’s you who do, if you speak differently to me.

It’s also exactly like Caster-views. Now that the chief shibboleth of Seffricanism is that Caster is Our Golden Girl Repeat Girl That Word Is Girl, anyone countenancing a certain particular question is instantly written off as a racist and a saboteur and even [block the children's ears] a European.

There’s a way that I understand the race thing coming into this. I’ll come back to it. But first I tell you how I keep cool when Caster-worship is flung at me. I think of parents at school athletics.

Say there’s a bump in a relay, and a stumble. It’s uncanny how every Green House parent can give sworn evidence, cross their heart, that Blue’s foot strayed into Green’s lane, while every Blue House parent saw first hand, direct, Green’s flailing elbow put Blue off balance.

When decibels rise in declaring Caster’s femininity, I imagine a women’s race – running, swimming, whatever – where our champion is beaten by someone else, an Australian, say, with a history of being seen as a boy. I know that the person now shouting at me “Be fair, leave her alone!” would shout “Be fair, she shouldn’t qualify!” (And the clever guys who say “it just takes a glance in the trousers” would be experts on X and Y chromosomes.)

You can’t get upset at people insisting on what way you should think, I find, when you know that they would insist on the opposite if the tables were turned.

This morning I caused upset of my own after hearing a bunch of good people, somewhat involved, talk of the heights that Caster is going to reach when the fuss settles. On evidence available to them, the world record is a doddle and the Usain of the next Olympics is identified and a great Seffrican celebrating is en route.

I said I can’t see that. I can only see tears.

They said how can I say that, who’s side was I on?

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Time to Dump “Black” and “White”

On the pavement, surrounded by a tangle of pruned rose branches that would defy a tank, our cousin, Di, has nearly finished a day of rose-surgery. They’ve been mega-bushes, climbing our wall. I’ve just got home. I’m awed. I’m saying “Di, can I get you tea, can I get you coffee, can I get you a whiskey, can I get you band-aid…”

While I talk, branches fly out of the mobile hump that is Di under bushes. She keeps on working: “No. No. No. No.”

I know her Noes will all be Noes, but there is the hostly instinct. Seffricans are good at that. We over-offer instinctively, same as we instinctively say “how are you” to everyone from the speedcop to the talk-show host who has just said “fine” 14 consecutive times to the same question.

I run out of hostly offers, and at last recognise her Noes as “will you let me get on with it now”. I step back and I bash into a passer-by.

It isn’t a big bash; no bruises or pain, but I’ve definitely invaded someone else’s space. I offer the sheepish “sorry” of a person who belatedly discovers that it is not clever to walk backwards into the public walkway of a busy pavement.

The passer-by is a woman, twenties, nice-looking, bluejeans.

We disentangle, mildly humorously. I catch her eye. She gives a fleeting no-problem grin. Fresh attractive face, expressive. She gestures to Cousin Di, attacking bushes, and says: “a worker, that one, look after her”. She flexes her arm in a ripply airpunch like when your team scores a point, gives me a nod, and walks on.

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Drop the “chairwoman”, Gill

In bad, bad ancient days when people thought homosexuality was sinful and Africans didn’t do voting and prisons were good places to send criminals to, they also got some things right. For instance, the person conducting a meeting was the chairman. Easy.

My friend Libby Husemeyer was an excellent chairman, a real master.

Another friend, Astrid van Warmelo, was a fireman. She was a fireman, see, and if you didn’t get that right you might get a klap. She was not up for being singled out, separated, lessened. She did the work that other firemen did; she should be called what other firemen were called.

But the world moved on, in that way it has. And as always, the moving on was mainly a moving up, but with lots of little duwweltjies of downness scattered around to puncture your tubes.

Thus have we inflicted the innocent English language with barbarous new constructions such as “chairwoman” and “spokeswoman”.

Now I concede most readily that “chairwoman” and its little friend are not the weightiest of the new idiocies, but they are well up among the crispest and they are also eminently salvageable. I hereby put to the distinguished jury a simple proposition: that “chairwoman”, pending its expulsion from the dictionaries to which it has recently acceded, should meantime be expunged from our usage.

Here’s the indictment:

Count 1. Chairwoman is retrogressive.

Once, your gender mattered mightily. So did your race, your tribe, your class. Those things wrote the script of your life.

No longer, whew.

Race, class, tribe and gender retreat. That’s not exactly new; they’ve been in retreat as long as humans have been evolving, but there was a lot to be retreated from. For centuries it was grudging retreat with active rear gunners. Now, with humankind testing new thresholds, the retreat is a free-fall. Each day we judge you less by whether you are man or woman, dark or pale, born of a duke or born of a peasant. Each day we judge you more by who you are; honest or shady, real or phoney, open or veiled.

Status distinctions tumble and fall, to be carted off in the tumbrel of bygone tyrannies. Our own generation has taken terrific steps, like Ms, overdue relief to a womankind that spent millennia with its marital status on display like a neon forehead. There is more to be done. It’s work in progress. It’s going the right way.

Except for “chairwoman”, and its partners in crime. Other backward terms are mainly hangover terms, not yet cleared out from the past. “Chairwoman” is a new invention, re-dividing the human race that in so many other ways is travelling out of division and into unity. That’s perverse.

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