Black September in cloud-cuckoo-land

Jeremy Gordin says the country's headline writers appear to be naïve if not delusional

If you’ve been a journo for as long as I have, there’re a few things, among others, that you know for almost certain.

One is that readers shouldn’t blame writers/reporters for the headlines on particular articles. Headlines are affixed by a subeditor – but more often than not are rewritten by someone further up the food chain, i.e., the chief subeditor and often by the editor.

This is because the editor or those near the top of the hierarchy are more in touch (or believe they are) with the “marketing needs” of the publication, i.e., the necessity to grab the attention of readers at all times, i.e., the vital need to pen the best “clickbait” possible.

Secondly, if you’re a “working journalist” (bit of an oxymoron, but no matter), if your daily beer depends on being constantly in touch with important people’s spokespeople and such-like, you can’t afford to be “negative” all the time or maybe even some of the time – because the spokespeople, etc. will stop being your best friends and won’t feed you those tasty morsels of information and gossip on which you thrive. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Regarding this second point, I also understand that remaining as cosy as possible with your main “sources” is exacerbated if one is covering a “niche” segment, such as entertainment or rugby. This is because those controlling access to entertainers or leading sportspeople, not to mention to those all-important free tickets, don’t like you being “too critical”.

The reason I’ve been musing for some 240 words on what will seem pretty obvious, even banal, is that in recent days I have encountered some rather odd headlines as well as content.

Now then, unless you are, alas, in a coma, or very poor indeed, i.e., so poor that you don’t even have an illegal connection in your Diepsloot abode – you might have noticed that we have in recent days been living through what is quaintly referred to as loadshedding, including level six for a day or two, though level five seems just as bad.

During level six’s four-hour blackouts even those of us fortunate enough to own an inverter find it wailing at us after some three hours as the battery loses power, though this obviously depends on the size etc. of the squat little beastie.

For example, call me a sentimental old fool and closet anglophile if you like, but I wanted to watch HM Elizabeth II’s state funeral from soup to nuts. I enjoy pageantry, love the skirl of the bagpipes, and, reactionary that I am, love even more watching the anti-monarchists getting a few in the eye.

But on Monday, a level six day, I couldn’t watch the state funeral in full because the inverter chirped plaintively and shut down.

Of course, I shouldn’t be discussing this loadshedding business so crassly. I’ve just caught sight of a Guardian story, the headline of which is “Britons are skipping meals ‘just to keep the lights on,’ research reveals” – the point being that when you consider that many more Seffricans than Brits are perforce skipping meals and that this doesn’t help keep the lights on anyway, let alone provide food, one realizes just how unfunny things are here.

As my learned friend David Bullard has so aptly put it, level six has made it painfully clear “that zero maintenance, no accountability, corruption, sabotage and a perpetual smirk on the faces of our lords and masters are the order of the day”.

Here though is the thang, as they say in Texas. I’m not shocked in the slightest by Seffrica reaching (or descending to) level six yet again. It’s seemed obvious to me for years – and I’m far from being the sharpest person you know – that Eskom and also the various local “infrastructures” were coming apart – and have come apart – at the proverbial seams.

What has shocked me more was a headline I came upon in or on Tuesday’s Daily Maverick (DM): “Cyril Ramaphosa hurries home to guide action plan for country’s crippling power crisis”. This appeared at the top of a story by Queenin Masuabi.

“My Queenin,” I said to myself, “you’ve got to be shittin’ me!” – and I happen, by the way, to think Masuabi is one of the better reporters around.

Trouble is, as a depressed-looking Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan remarked on TV just the other day (the inverter hadn’t given up yet), we Seffricans seem to have short memories.

Indeed, Minister Gordhan. Here – though it’s not the memory loss “proof” to which you were referring – is a short Reuters paragraph dated 10 December 2019 [sic]: “South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa cut short his state visit to Egypt so he could return home and meet with utility Eskom ...over a deepening power crisis that has seen six straight days of nationwide blackouts.”

Déjà vu all over again, as I think Yogi Berra once remarked.

There was also the headline on another Tuesday story, this one on News24 and written by the redoubtable Qaanitah Hunter: “When Ramaphosa lands back in SA, will he finally be the president we need?”

Good advocates say they never ask questions in court to which they don’t already know the answers; so I presume Ms. Hunter’s question was a rhetorical one. But lest it wasn’t – lest Ms. Hunter really doesn’t know the answer – I can tell her for free.

No ma’am, Ramaphosa will not be the president we need. You have my word.

Some people do know this, however. For example, Malaika Mahlatsi (aka Malaika wa Azania), the trenchant Sowetan columnist, feminist, author of Memoirs of a Born Free (2014), and a perkin who doesn’t seem to like white folk very much – a sentiment with which one often sympathises, and with which I shall deal in my forthcoming book, Memoirs of Jewish Boychik Entrapped in Caucasian Cisgender – Ms. Wa Azania has also been stomping hard, as it were, on the wah-wah pedal.

She explained on Wednesday that “Performative politics refer to actions that are taken specifically with an audience in mind, to elicit a response or reaction. The president is not returning to fix anything. He cannot even claim that he is doing so in solidarity since he is personally unaffected by blackouts ... ”

Although I suspect that all “politics,” especially in the beloved country, are “performative,” and that the demise of Eskom might have a bit more to do with cadre deployment (read: jobs for pals), theft, sabotage, and non-performance than with the president’s lacklustre thespian skills – well, there you have Ms. Wa Azania’s reading of the situation, chaps.

Then there was another beaut, also in the DM, also on September 19, by Stephen Grootes, on whom one can always count for a beaut. His article was headlined “Powerless, Clueless, Hopeless: ANC’s complete & sustained failure to deliver electricity will be punished at the polls”.

Given the headline, I presume I needn’t point out to observant Politicsweb readers that Grootes’ thesis is that the SA electorate – perhaps the most forgetful and apathetic in the world – is so very cross due to loadshedding that it will whack the ANC in the 2024 national elections.

Ja-nee; and I’m Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman often pops by of a Thursday for coffee and carrot cake.

Finally, if I might be so bold as to move off the subject of so-called loadshedding, there’s a piece by Craig Ray, who’s generally a fine rugby writer, so we can assume this article somehow “fits into” my fifth paragraph above: having to remain as cosy as possible with your main sources.

In his article, published in the DM of 20 September and headlined “Boks’ ‘bomb squad’ returns for Rugby Championship finale against Pumas,” Ray doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Which is precisely the point. He simply regurgitates, without a word of criticism (well, maybe one muffled remark), what we might call the philosophy or thoughts of Chairman Nienaber, Jacques to his friends.

Thus, we learn that – in this most important of matches, the deciding contest of the 2022 Rugby Championship – Nienaber is reverting (inverting?) to his moronic “six/two split between forwards and backs on the bench” – and is doing this in the very game in which he’s been forced to select an overweight, elderly, third-choice flyhalf (Frans Steyn).

What will happen if Steyn is injured? No worries, says Nienaber. One of the two backs on the bench, out-of-form scrum-half Faf de Klerk, will step in as fly-half. As a friend quipped: “I would love to see Faf at fly-half – a lunatic takes over the asylum ....”

And as my brother remarked, more earnestly (he’s a Gordin): “If Steyn goes off early, and rugby is a game in which folk do get hurt, the big danger is that there is no one to kick from the tee. I heard one pundit say that Faf and Willie [le Roux] can kick from the tee. Well, I can also kick from the tee – question is, how well? Ideally, in a rugby test match of today, you need a kicker who can put over 90% of his attempts from 50 yards.”

Then we learn that Nienaber has recalled flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit to start. I happen to think Du Toit was one of the best rugby players in the world – note the emphasis on was. He is just not the player he was prior to his major shoulder operation (though we hope he will be again). So why not begin the game with Franco Mostert, who’s been outstanding and seldom seems to tire?

What are senior citizen No 8 Duane Vermeulen and prop reserve Ox Nche doing in the squad? Vermeulen is another who used to be one this country’s great rugby players – but, alas, those days are verby; and there’s a cornucopia of young loose forwards available in this country. As for Nche, in my view he’s simply overrated.

The point is that Nienaber has toppled into Ramaphosa-think, or perhaps I mean Ramaphosa stasis. Rather than being proactive, giving new people and combinations a chance, Nienaber reverts to ... well, mainly doing nothing, continually continuing with what he has.

None of this means the Boks will necessarily lose. But if they win – and I hope they do, by a big margin – they will win despite Nienaber and not because of him. And Ray, who is smart enough to have pointed this out, hasn’t.

But listen, I’m not depressed by the peculiar headlines and apparently discombobulated reporters discussed above; nor even by Nienaber being allowed to get away with a Ramaphosian approach to rugby.

Actually, I’m feeling quite pleased. I’d thought I was living all alone in cloud-cuckoo-land but am very happy to discover that I’m not.