Goodbye and no thanks say all the fish

Andrew Donaldson writes on the best coffins for departing ANC politicians


IT is said we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but then there is Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Her passing on Monday, possibly due to an aggravated bout of impudence, was sudden and unexpected. 

This may explain why the subject of the hastily penned tributes from colleagues in the ANC bears little or no resemblance to the former minister. The ANC, for instance, hurriedly issued this gusher:

“Death has robbed our movement and the people of South Africa of a humble, dependable and dedicated servant. The ANC pays tribute to this extraordinary freedom fighter whose sacrifices and commitment to the liberation of her people remain a source of inspiration to many young cadres of our movement. All those who love justice, freedom and democracy will sorely miss her intellectual sharpness, political maturity and passion for defending those who are vulnerable in our society, especially women. In this regard, Comrade Tina was unrelenting in her gender activism.” ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Uh, no. That’s definitely not our Tina.

Of all the controversies that dogged her political career as she failed from one department to the next, we remember most of all how, in 2015, as energy minister, she sold off more than ten million barrels of the country’s strategic oil reserves at far less than the going market rate. She later claimed this rock-bottom bargain clear-out was not a sale as such, but rather “a rotation” of goods.

She was seemingly cleared of wrongdoing by the disgraced and now suspended public protector, Busisiwe Mkwhebane, whose findings suggested that, for all her “intellectual sharpness”, Joemat-Pettersson was duped into the sale by the former boss of the Strategic Fuel Fund Association, Sibusiso Gamede. 

Strange then, that in recent weeks, Mkwhebane’s husband, David Skosana, should lay a charge of extortion against Joemat-Pettersson along with two others, ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina and Section 194 committee chairman Richard Dyantyi. 

Skosana, a prominent Radical Economic Transformation wingnut who has vilified judges and journalists on social media, claims the three demanded R600 000 to make his wife’s impeachment inquiry go away. 

Skosana’s allegations have been denied. But even so, it’s as if these people have run out of normal folk to steal from and are now turning on one another. 

Joemat-Petterson had a rougher time with the previous public protector, Thuli Madonsela. In November 2012, our Tina, then minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, was berated for swanning it up in luxury accommodation while waiting to take occupancy of her official residence and for taking an au pair on a flight to Sweden in 2010. 

More seriously, in December 2013, Madonsela found her guilty of maladministration in an R800-million deal with Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Marine Services consortium, the end result of which was that fisheries research and patrol vessels were handed over to a wholly unprepared South African navy.

All told, one cock-up after another. But death allows the ruling party an opportunity to airbrush the cock-ups from struggle history. “Her life was a living example that revolutionary leaders are not born, but emerge from experience,” the ANC claims. “They are shaped and nurtured by the daily struggles of the people and the values of the freedom struggle.”

I don’t know about a living example, but as a dead one … well, the less said the better.

Lasting dignity plans

Still with the dead, Scotland’s aptly-named Go As You Please Funerals has launched a service designed to bring some levity to what are usually difficult occasions. According to news reports, the Edinburgh undertaker offers patrons a choice of designs which can be printed on a plain wooden casket. 

Some are clannish — an all-over tartan print, say — but most are inspired by a favourite movie or musician. One customer, for example, opted for a design that superimposed her late mother’s face on a broomstick-riding Harry Potter. Other designs, however, point to habits that may have cut short their occupants’ time with us, and these include a pint of Tennents lager, a bottle of Bell’s whisky and even a sausage roll.

“We’re absolutely not making fun of death,” manager Murdo Chambers told The Times. “This is something that each and every one of us are going to face, which is why we try to get people to talk more about it. We don’t laugh at death — it’s sad, people are grieving. But we also believe that there can still be things to laugh and smile about. If they see something that’s a direct reflection of that person’s tastes and the things they were interested in, isn’t that going to make you smile?”

The Go As You Please caskets may be nowhere near as famously surreal and fantastic as the fish, chicken and Mercedes Benz coffins seen at Ghanaian funeral parties. But they did prompt discussion, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), on the sort of boxes in which some of our politicians should be buried. Provided, that is, they wish to give mourners something extra to smile about. 

For example, Fikile Mbalula’s coffin would resemble a derailed train. It would, in addition, be at least three metres long to give the impression that its famously small and shouty occupant, now ANC secretary general, was a tall person. Bathabile Dlamini, former ANC Women’s League president and routine failure, would be sent off in a large hip flask. My friend Carl Niehaus’s casket would not be visible to the naked eye, thanks to the cunning use of camouflage. As for Tina Jou Ma se Pest, well, a rusty 44-gallon oil drum will do.

The end of the world as we know it

Money for nothing? What’s not to like? Mere mention, however, of universal basic income is enough to drive conservatives and other fearful folk quite irrational and there will come much bluster about communism and scroungers and the grubby like. 

But researchers with Autonomy, a British think tank that focuses on tackling climate change, economic forecasting and the future of work, are pressing ahead with plans to introduce England’s first pilot UBI programme and are now seeking financial backing for the scheme which, it is hoped, will “make the case for a national basic income and more comprehensive trials to fully understand the potential of a basic income in the UK”.

The organisation aims to provide 30 anonymous participants, randomly selected from the northern town of Jarrow and the London borough of East Finchley, each with £1 600 a month for the next two years. The sum (about R38 200 when I last checked) is considered a basic living income in most parts of the UK and will be transferred unconditionally and regardless of participants’ social and employment status.

Critics claim that a basic monthly income of this magnitude for all citizens is not financially feasible. But those in favour argue that by eliminating present individual means-tested social grants and all the costly administrative red tape that comes with the bloated bureaucracies supporting such programmes, UBIs could be far cheaper in the long run. As Will Stronge, Autonomy research director, told the BBC: “All the evidence shows that [a UBI] would directly alleviate poverty and boost millions of people's wellbeing: the potential benefits are just too large to ignore.”

Another concern is that UBIs could result in fewer people working. This is interesting because fewer people will indeed be working, though not because of UBI. It is Artificial Intelligence, or AI, that is going to be this century’s great disruptor in much the same way that James Watt’s steam engine ushered in the industrial revolution some 250 years ago. If anything, AI is going to make UBIs a necessity — if, that is, we are to survive the coming upheaval.

I don’t wish to be overly dramatic, but the headlines have been frightening. On Tuesday, The Times splashed with a report on yet another warning of AI’s threat to humanity. This time it was from Matt Clifford, who is helping to set up an AI taskforce for Rishi Sunak’s government. According to Clifford, policy makers must be prepared for deadly dangers if mankind failed to control the technology. He was quoted as saying:

“In the industry we talk about near-term and long-term risks, and the near-term risks are actually pretty scary. You can use AI today to create new recipes for bioweapons or to launch large-scale cyberattacks … these are bad things. You can have really dangerous threats to humans that could kill many humans — not all humans — simply from where we expect models to be in two years’ time.”

Clifford’s comments follow a statement last week signed by 350 AI scientists, tech industry leaders and public figures claiming the technology could eventually lead to the extinction of humanity. The signatories included executives from the top four AI companies, OpenAIGoogle DeepMindMicrosoft and Anthropic

One of them is the so-called “Godfather of AI”, Geoffrey Hinton, who recently resigned as vice-president of Google in order to speak freely of the dangers of the technology he had helped develop. He was recently asked about a “worst case scenario” regarding AI and replied: “I think it's quite conceivable that humanity is just a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence.”

Another of those signatories, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, recently informed a US senate committee hearing of a “potential concern” that AI could develop the ability to “self replicate and self-extricate into the wild”.

In his testimony, he stated that external AI “safety experts” had been invited to review OpenAI’s latest chatbot versions and identified areas of concerns including “the generation of inaccurate information (known as ‘hallucinations’), hateful content, disinformation, and information related to the proliferation of conventional and unconventional weapons”.

Think, in other words, of our Lady Haw-Haw, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla. AI would be able to magnify her toxic spew on Twitter to the nth degree and at the speed of light. Accused Number One’s daughter has already been identified in a study by the London-based nonprofit Centre for Information Resilience as being at the forefront of Russia’s drive to sway public opinion to its side in South Africa and elsewhere. It’s only a matter of time before the troll swallow dives into the AI murk.

Again, this may be too alarmist. For, together with all the dark and grim murmuring of the impending apocalypse, there has also been cheery approval from those who welcome the new technology. I’ve heard washing machine retailers on radio talk shows gleefully reporting how they no longer have to pay freelance writers for brochure copy; AI churns it out faster and for fokol. Less prosaically, medical scientists say they are standing by for the big breakthroughs in cancer research that will come courtesy of AI.

It’s clearly going to have an impact on employment. There will be less for us to do. Ergo, the need for a universal basic income.

The question, though, is whether all this free time will result in any further human achievement, or will that evolution be left to AI? 

When the doomsayers warn of the end of humanity, I don’t envisage the nightmarish scenarios of the Terminator films where robots armed with deadly ray-guns run amok on a mad mission to exterminate the human race. 

Instead, with nothing to do and nothing to challenge us, cultures will die and our drive to create will vanish. We will atrophy until we are grunting blob-like forms steadily morphing back to the fishy organisms that first emerged from the primordial soup billions of years ago. Full circle, you could say.

As far as humanity’s concerned, it’s downhill all the way now from here on into the void. Until then, I’m going to be bingeing on old movies on DVD and listening to Bob Dylan and re-reading Elmore Leonard and Herman Charles Bosman.