Punch-drunk in SA

Jeremy Gordin on all the bad news that has left the country reeling

Many years ago, in 1979, the lovable news editor of the Sunday Express Peter Wellman instructed me to cover a presser being held by soon-to-be WBA heavyweight title holder Big John Tate – or rather by his “staff” [i].

Big John was indeed big – 6-foot-4-inches or 193-centimetres tall, built like a Playgirl editor’s wet dream (so to speak), and also black as the ace of spades, the relevance of his “colour” being that he’d ignored the then international strictures against Seffrica and the horrors of apartheid and had ventured to our shores to fight Kallie Knoetze.

Strictly speaking, Wellman shouldn’t have sent one of his newsroom staff (like me) to encroach on the territory of marathon runner, World War Two veteran and sports editor Sam Mirwis.

But Sam was perhaps the most easy-going fellow in the world (almost as relaxed as, say, rugby writer Archie Henderson [ii]); and Wellman would have argued (and did) that Tate’s upcoming bout with Knoetze was clearly flavour of the month from a news point-of-view and that a reporter should be around to pick up on the non-boxing stuff [iii] – as in asking him “What’s it like to come as a black man to this land of discrimination?” and other silly questions.

Now, as some readers might know, besides being only 170 cm. tall (on a good day), I am quiet, deferential, and cautious, like President Cyril Ramaphosa; like him I depend more on my scintillating charm than, say, my punching ability [iv].

All that being the case, I cannot for the life of me work out how Tate’s trainer (Ace Miller, I think) managed to hear me muttering sotto voce to Mirwis, “Jeez, why are these guys tip-toeing around like a bunch of girls?” [v]

This happened as we were watching Tate and his sparring partner (also an import). The trainer rounded on me: “That’s what you think, huh? Well, get in there, buddy, and see how it feels! Go on, go on, here’re some gloves.”

Mercifully, Tate (I later realised) took it very easy on me. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding my headguard, after only a couple of punches from Big John, I’d forgotten my name, my current girlfriend’s name, or which country I was in.

I mention this experience from my happy youth as a reporter by way of making the point that during the last 10 days or so I have felt more banjaxed than I did on the receiving end of Big John’s mitts in 1979 – and not just because I’m older, more infirm, and less wise.

Maybe you have too? Consider.

First, there is having to take in, or to continue taking in, as it were, Ramaphosa’s latkes-in-the couch saga. One had expected him to say at least something relevant about the matter, maybe even crack a joke or two about former spook Arthur Fraser’s intelligence-gathering capabilities or perhaps his sister-in-law Bridgette Radebe’s distrust of banks (with which I think we can all sympathize).

But all I’ve been able to find issuing from the president’s desk is that this is a momentous week “that promises new beginnings”. Jeez. I read today – I know, I read far too much – that the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (I didn’t make up his name) once wrote: “A certain traveler who knew many continents was asked what he found most remarkable of all. He replied: the ubiquity of sparrows”.

Fair enoughsky, but as much use to me as hearing that this is a week “promising new beginnings” [vi]. What is it with this president? Doesn’t he understand that he needs to bury this couch fandango asap or the forces of evil will use it to bury him (doubtless already are)?

Then we heard on Sunday evening that about 21 (or 22) young people had died mysteriously in the early hours of Sunday morning in Enyobeni tavern, a so-called nightclub in Scenery Park (the mind boggles), East London.

We have now been informed, as of the day before yesterday, by pathologist Dr Solomon Zondi, that “a gaseous substance was released in the enclosed downstairs area – ‘this is where the pandemonium started’ – and that people who were closer to the release epicentre were most affected”.

But Dr Z has not “rule[d] out the possibility that [a] deadly substance could have been swallowed in drinks provided to patrons in the tavern”. He also said that “videos ... gave no indication of a teargas canister explosion, but people could be seen complaining of respiratory symptoms”. During post-mortem examinations on the deceased, Zondi added that “he was cautious not to inhale any odour emanating from any of the bodies. At one stage [he said] his heart started racing as he examined a body”.

If I were examining the bodies of 22 dead young people, my heart would race too, I can tell you, and no one’s ever accused me of being a sentimentalist [vii]. But the point is that the cause/s of death still remain mysterious.

Last Sunday, Zondi and colleagues started conducting autopsies, including stomach content examinations [viii]. These showed the stomach contents were not uniform, suggesting that the deceased did not eat the same food – “but we do not know in terms of the drinks [whether what they imbibed was unform],” said Zondi. “Some ate chicken wings, chicken feet, some ate rice, some ate carbohydrate meals, some it was just pure alcohol – you could smell it.”

I am given to understand by reliable sources that many students celebrate, even at the mid-year point, by holding a big party known as “Pens Down” – apparently the township equivalent of “Rage,” with which Politicsweb readers will, I’m sure, be reasonably acquainted.

Anyway, I noted that on Monday police minister Bheki Cele was there and broke down in tears outside the morgue where he had viewed the bodies.

“Those kids started dying at 2.13am until 4am,” said Cele. “They died as they danced. They danced and fell and died, literally. And they were pushed to the side and others kept dancing. Others felt dizzy and fell asleep on the sofa [sic] and died. Somebody should have done something. These kids are supposed to be under parental supervision,” he said.

Asked why the cops hadn’t prevented the incident, he responded, “A 13-year-old died. A 17-year-old. Nine girls died, 12 boys. And people ask, ‘where were the police?’ A 13-year-old dies at 4am and you are asking where are the police – really? Why was a 13-year-old out at 4am?”

Why was a 13-year-old out at 4am, indeed. Don’t be cross with me, but I’m starting to feel quite sorry for Cele. He at least makes the effort to get to as many crime scenes as he can, especially if they’re “high profile”. But the okes and ockettes who ostensibly work for him are so palpably overwhelmed, undertrained, and lost that ... that the SA police services do feel like a very long-lost cause.

Within the last 10 days, we have also reached the end of the Days of Zondo. This ending, notwithstanding the many criticisms of the good judge’s reports and final report, should have been (and in a way is) a time of jabulani – rejoicing.

After all, the Zondo commission has shown, as the Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis has written, in its six volumes and more than 5 500 pages, how South Africa was “bought and sold [should be sold and then bought] at the expense of the country’s ordinary citizens”.

But Davis goes on to say, “[g]laringly absent is what we arguably need most to settle the violently contested historical record: an overarching narrative that at least makes a stab at clearly laying out what happened, how and why it happened, and who was responsible” – a clear, concise but detailed summary, in other words.

Fair enough; what’s even more problematic or worrying, in my view, is that almost everyone to whom one speaks says, “Ja, no, well fine, but who’s now going to do all the necessary prosecuting?” Ah, a quintessential Seffrican question that has no ready answer; and questions without answers are, as we know, deeply troubling for homo sapiens who figure they have everything well and truly taped; and even for Seffricans who know that very little is taped.

Ooh, I am waxing philosophic today, ain’t I? Less philosophy is required, thank goodness, to deal with our latest rash of load-sheddings aka blackouts. What one needs is a generator or a UPS power inverter [ix]. However, the blackouts have brought back a poignant childhood memory.

My parents, who didn’t always suffer fools gladly (which is why I had a such a tough childhood [x]), were sometimes wont to utilize this putdown: If someone said to one of them or in general conversation, “Did you know that X or Y...”, and it was a piece of information or history that my parents adjudged everyone ought to know, one of them would reply, “Yes, and tell me, have you heard of the Rosetta Stone?”

I’m now glad that as a result I studied the Rosetta Stone – because having an archaeology degree and working knowledge of hieroglyphics is a prerequisite when it comes to understanding the various loadshedding tables. Other than this, as a friend (writing from overseas, of course) remarked: “What you need to do is tether bullocks to a harness in the garden to walk around and around and generate power.”

As I say, given what’s going on around us right now, I’m feeling more buggered than someone on the other end of a Mike Tyson punch or two. And I envy the cheery optimism of my learned friends, William Saunderson-Meyer, David Bullard, and Andrew Donaldson, each of whom has suggested that we’re stuffed.

I suspect that a comment made by some fellow on Twitter is more accurate: “We’re not f-----d! We were f----d so long ago that we’re already pregnant.”


[i] Big John, as it turned out, wasn’t much interested in “talking”; I’m not entirely certain that he could.

[ii] If you can get past the greedy guardians of the site, you should read Archie’s delightful, recent article: “Tears on the typewriter: covering the last Currie Cup final in Kimberley in 1970”.

[iii] I remember now that Mirwis, as part of his job, opted to go early-morning running with Tate – and noted that inter alia Tate would run up and down Nugget Hill, and then up and down again a few times, wearing a version of combat boots, not takkies. Those were the days when sports writers and reporters were, so to speak, serious players.

Talking of which, I also remember that, when world Light Heavyweight champion Victor “the cat” Galindez came to South Africa, the Rand Daily Mail’s chief reporter Viv Prince (who I noticed recently is still very much with us, happily!) went to interview him in his hotel room – and Galindez decided to try and show her a few, er, intimate wresting holds. As I understand it, Galindez came off second best. Viv came before #MeToo or such.

[iv] Also, although I’d boxed a bit while in the SADF, I’d evinced less than zero talent.

[v] I would of course never make such a dastardly remark now; I was only 27 then.

[vi] Only new beginning in which I’m interested is being 27 again, inhaling again the scent just under the ears of a new, 24-year-old girlfriend, and being rid of diabetes type 2 and ADHD.

[vii] Except about Jacob G Zuma.

[viii] “The toxicology testing processes in the government laboratory in Cape Town – which could determine what substance was implicated in the deaths – would take at least a week or two,” Zondi said. Regarding this, I also wouldn’t hold my breath.

[ix] I’m not too proud to admit, btw, that I wouldn’t have one – if it weren’t for an exceedingly good Samaritan of my acquaintance, who baruch Hashem earns a lot of money (and does so honestly – in this he is exceedingly rare too).

[x] Sometimes my mother, of blessed memory, proved to be, after all, only human, and forgot that her bible was supposed to be Dr Benjamin Spock’s baby book – not her inherited stash of Litvak sarcasm. My father, btw, thought Spock was a nincompoop anyway – but mostly feared my mother’s withering, er, Litvak sarcasm. (He was of Latvian descent. “But only a few hundred kilometres between respective shtetlach!” I hear you cry. Buddy, you don’t know nuffink about them tseylem-kops.)