No smoking please, or satire

Andrew Donaldson writes on the insistence on seriousness in the time of plague


BEING of Caledonian stock, I keep an eye on developments in the land of my forefathers, and when Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, warns of a spike in unplanned pregnancies as a result of the lockdown, well, I sit up and pay attention.

At one of her recent daily media briefings on the spread of the coronavirus in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was asked what advice she’d give to people thinking of starting a family or those “with time on their hands at home”. 

Which is, arguably, not only quaintly archaic, but also, as euphemisms go, suitably Presbyterian. However, rather than feign expertise, as many a politician would do, Sturgeon deftly passed the question on to Calderwood, who had evidently given the matter some thought.

“This has occurred to me,” Calderwood (an obstetrician by profession) said. “We do need to be advising people about having time on their hands – the labour ward is always very busy nine months after Valentine’s Day … It has also been suggested to me that we talk to people about contraception, and really thinking about whether ... 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned ... so whether perhaps to think: is this really the time to have an unplanned pregnancy?”


I mention this because some South Africans share these concerns and are worried that, nine months hence, the folk at home affairs may have their hands full registering bawling bundles of joy with names like Wuhanita, Quarantina, Corona-Lee, Covidia, Wuhannes and Pangolina. 

Meanwhile, news on the contraception front is not good. The Guardian has reported that a global shortage of condoms is looming, thanks to lockdowns. Malaysia’s Karex Berhad, which makes 20 per cent of the world’s rubbers, was forced to shut down for more than a week recently, and not a single condom rolled off production lines during this time. 

This has resulted in a shortfall of about 100 million condoms, many of which would have been distributed by aid programmes such as the UN Population Fund. 

It will take time to jumpstart factories,” Karex Berhead CEO Goh Miah Kiat said. “We are going to see a global shortage of condoms everywhere, which is going to be scary. My concern is that for a lot of humanitarian programmes … the shortage will not just be two weeks or a month. That shortage can run into months.”

Some will not give the proverbial as a result. But it may just be trousers down and chocks away all the same. It was perhaps always so, and in my time bushes heaved at house parties, vans rocked at drive-in theatres and what have you. 

However, there are claims that it is a little different for today’s youth. It’s said, and this is difficult to believe, that they do not have as much sex as previous generations, because they’re fearful of the future. Or it could be that they have no clue, as they watch too much unrealistic porn. (“No, Muriel. That’s so not how it’s done…”) 

Whatever. Now there is no sex at all. At least not for those still living with their parents. (Or perhaps that’s what parents prefer to believe.)

Which brings us to a more serious matter. It appears there is unhappiness with the less-than-earnest tone of my recent work and some discomfort that, at a time of a deadly global pandemic, I should “make fun” of a grim situation. 

It was wrong, for example, to mock Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet in last week’s Grouse, which was described as “unjustifiably sarcastic, critical and cynical merely to provide an entertaining read instead of adding any value to the Covid-19 information pool”. One reader, in particular, was aghast that the transport minister, Fikile Mbalula, should “openly” be labelled an idiot.

This is alarming. I’ve been insulting people in government for years now, and it seems odd that I should suddenly be expected to stop. 

While I’m pleased that my scribblings are deemed “entertaining”, I’m puzzled at the accusation that I have nothing of value to add to the pandemic’s “information pool”. I’m no expert when it comes to most things, true, but I am good at indignation, and that may or may not be of some merit.

I’ve been labelled a right-wing reactionary and a circle-jerk, leftist social-justice warrior. Whatever. What perturbs is the suggestion that I am amused by the pandemic. I am not. It is no laughing matter. I am dismayed at the inept and idiotic response to the crisis from various arms of government.

Satire, it is said, is a lonely business. And a difficult one. It is shaped as much by its audience as by its targets. Writing in The Times recently, James Marriott quoted Evelyn Waugh’s argument that satire works best “in a stable society and presupposes homogenous moral standards”. 

In other words, satire succeeds when we all agree, vaguely, on what is detestable.

Marriott was commenting on the return, after a quarter-century, of the puppet series, Spitting Image. In its heyday, it lampooned Ronald Reagan, Robert Mugabe, Margaret Thatcher and PW Botha, leaders universally loathed by the show’s audience. Marriott doesn’t believe there is such consensus today.

“Our society lacks the shared moral framework in which the best satire flourishes,” he says. “What evils do we despise? The small-minded, pigheaded, Little-Englander absurdity of Brexiteers? Or the pompous, condescending smugness of Remainers? … Instead of satirists we’ve ended up with freelance propagandists for each of the two teams in the culture war.

“Today we spend our time shutting satire down. Shane Allen, the BBC’s controller of comedy, has complained of a ‘Victorian moral code around the way people criticise comedy, especially on social media’. He’s right. Our present culture of online outrage has spawned countless campaigns of feigned offence-taking in which one side pretends to believe the other side’s jokes are mortally insulting.”

The great satirists were not team cheerleaders, then, but independent loners driven by outrage. And there was nothing “funny” about their targets. They set out to wound, to offend, to ridicule. There was honour in all this.

Jonathan Swift, whose tomb informs visitors that its occupant has now gone “where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart”, is a great example. He was so dismayed at the heartless attitudes to poverty in Ireland and at British policy towards the Irish, that he suggested the latter sell their children to the landed gentry as food.

His 1729 pamphlet, A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For Making them Beneficial to the Publick, describes at some length about the hardships suffered by the Irish, before startling readers with his solution: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout….”

Was offence taken? You bet, and there was a hue and cry among 18th-century nobility, the likes of which … well, never mind, there’s such fierce competition when it comes to being outraged these days that comparisons are unhelpful. 

I wonder what Swift would have made of Thursday’s coronavirus briefing in Pretoria. This was as clustery as clustery gets, and did little to reassure anyone that government is on top of the situation. 

Here was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, near comatose and mumbling on about Fikile Mbalula’s new taxi lockdown laws. Out it came in a monotonous drone. I could barely stay awake, and my scrawled notes are not helpful: “… Funerals … there must be a permit … cross borders and roadblocks … foreign nationals must be allowed to be repatriated … previously the taxis could only travel half full … clearly … challenges were presented … initial regulations … now taxis can go 70 per cent full … with masks … zzzzz …”

Where was the transport minister, Proxy-Zuma wondered at one stage. Was he around? No-one seemed to care and, for all we knew, he was stuck at the bottom of his closet, rummaging around for a change of clothing. Perhaps someone had been kind enough to tell FixFokol (as Twitter calls him) that the lilac dashiki he’s been sporting this week makes him look like an elderly lesbian. 

Then Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu reassured the nation that the taps won’t be running dry. The “various boards that are responsible for various responsibilities” will be “put under the one central command that is the command centre”.

It was almost a relief when police minister Cheek Bile (according to the anagram generators, and full of…) rose to clear confusion about the sale of cigarettes in the Western Cape.

Earlier in the week, Premier Alan Winde said that tobacco products could be purchased, provided they are sold with other essential goods. But central command was having none of that. 

“These regulations, as they are signed by minister Dlamini-Zuma, are national regulations,” Bile said. “There are no provincial regulations. There are no municipal regulations. So, what is done in Limpompo [as they call it up there] is expected to be done in Western Cape.”

Which is probably what they fear in the Western Cape. Stupid everywhere. No exceptions.

On a more cheery note, here in my neck of the woods, the village supermarket has announced that it is lifting limits on the sale of Easter eggs. No word yet, though, on the reopening of the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”).