The things that make us happy

What is not to like about a country that can dish up such generous servings of Dali Mpofu, writes Jeremy Gordin

During the latter part of his busy life, the journalist and writer Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) [i] gave up fiction (though some would say he didn’t, ha ha!) and became seized with Science and what he claimed were related issues, and two linked books of his were titled The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971) and The Roots of Coincidence (1972).

The first has nothing to do with Cyril Ramaphosa or South Africa. It’s an account of Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer’s research on Lamarckian evolution and what Kammerer called “serial coincidences”; while the second book is a kind of follow-on, dealing inter alia with parapsychology, extrasensory perception and psychokinesis. But we need not “get into” either book – as I understand it, both and certainly the second have been firmly repudiated by so-called mainstream scientists.

Still, I have always been mildly titillated by what Koestler (or I suppose Kammerer initially) referred to as the theory of coincidence or “serial coincidences”. Koestler argued that there exist distinct types of coincidence that can (and should) be classified – an example of which would be what he called “the library angel”. I.e., you’re looking for certain information, typically in a library, and whoopsidoodle, how’s your poodle, you suddenly find it! It becomes accessible through serendipity, chance or coincidence, rather than through the use of a catalogue search [ii]

Now then, in 2016, given that he’d just completed his BSc. honours, I gave my son Jake as a gift a copy of On Bullshit by Harry Gordon (!) Frankfurt, emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University (2005, Princeton University Press), a book that is eminently serious and (simultaneously, I think) a brilliant spoof.

Who “used” this book well in one of his fine articles? It was Andrew Donaldson on 18 January 2023, in a piece titled ‘Eskommunication’. And who wrote an article yesterday that mentions inter alia the World Happiness Report 2023 – which finds that one of the six happiest places in which to live is Oslo, Norway?

It’s Mr Donaldson. And who lives in Oslo for the moment and has been residing there for the last three years, ostensibly completing a PhD in physics, with an emphasis on cosmology[iii] ? None other than Jake Gordin. Now, if that’s not a case of serial coincidences, I don’t know what is.

But now, leaving aside the heady world of Koestler’s many ruminations, here’s a vexing question I’ve been asking myself today. Do I need to have a quiet word with the learned Donaldson? I am a great admirer of his work, but I am slightly concerned that sometimes he might too readily accept information that he reads in various places.

For example, in his latest fine article, Donaldson has (as mentioned) written that the World Happiness Report 2023 has just been released, that South Africa is languishing in 101st place out of the 146 countries surveyed, and that the usual suspects top the list (i.e., are the happiest places in the world): Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Nothing wrong with all that; I do not suspect that the report’s data are falsified [iv] nor do I think that the report’s compilers and their bosses intend any serious harm. But having looked at who the human drivers of this report are (and have been), I do harbour qualms about people such as, to take one example, Jeffrey David Sachs.

Sachs is generally billed as “an American economist, academic, public policy analyst and neo-liberal,” who wrote a PhD thesis at Harvard titled Factor Costs and Macroeconomic Adjustment in the Open Economy: Theory and Evidence and has served as a special advisor to two UN Secretaries General.

Consider me peculiar if you want to do so, but I don’t feel comfortable about or with politicians, second-hand car salespeople, so-called estate agents, teetotalers, attorneys, psychologists, pencil-sharpener wholesalers (see endnote v), do-gooders, economists, academics, public policy analysts, advisors to the UN SG, and neo-liberals, especially if they’re not female. Would you trust someone who titled his or her thesis as Sachs did?

Moreover, I see that Sachs grew up in Oak Park, Michigan (MI), not to be confused with Oak Park, Illinois [v]. The internet tells us that “Living in Oak Park [Michigan] offers residents a dense [sic] suburban feel and most residents own their homes. ... There are a lot of parks. Many families and young professionals live [there] and residents tend to be liberal [sic].”

How in heaven’s name, I ask you, could someone who spent his formative years in Oak Park (MI) know anything at all about Kabul or Oslo? Well, I suppose he might, just as someone who spent his formative years in, say, Brakpan could know something about Nkandla. Still, I have concerns.

And here’s another thing. My son Jake, an intelligent, reasonable, pleasant human being [vi], would tell you – he tells me, often in overwhelming detail [vii] – why Oslo is clearly not one of the happiest places in the world; why Oslo ought in fact to be languishing down at the bottom of the list and South Africa ought not to be.

Yes, I understand – I’m not entirely a fool, though I don’t know fast radio bursts from black holes – that once one has walked or hiked the mountains of the Cape, spent an afternoon on Clifton beach, or come to appreciate the er humour of the Cape’s inhabitants not to mention the “generosity of the general population” (see endnote ii below), well, it’s doubtless something one can never get over[viii].

In short, my considered opinion is that if one is going to research, collate and present a World Happiness Report, one of the most important parameters that must be considered is the particular or primary strength of an individual country – and then this must be compared mutatis mutandis to those of other countries. One must study each country according to, as I believe the lawyers say, the merits of each particular case.

And what, brother and sisters, is our land’s primary strength? Ah, there are no random coincidences; Koestler was not entirely out with the fairies. We return to Harry Gordon Frankfurt. To wit, our primary strength is our bullshit quotient. We have one of the best – if not the best – in the world.

Blow me down with a feather, knock me over with one square of single-ply toilet paper! I sincerely promise that I (thought I) came up with the phrase “bullshit quotient” one minute ago – then lo and behold, I found that an Indian gent, one Ranjeev C. Dubey, apparently coined the phrase or put it on his book 11 years ago. But since his book’s summary is so apt, I’ll borrow it, with apologies to Mr Dubey.

“The author of this incisive, unsparing book holds that we [Seffricans] have an extra ‘credulity chromosome’ built into our DNA. He believes that we are wired to trust unquestioningly those who exercise authority over us, or those whom we admire, even as they unashamedly scam us.”

Por ejemplo, our Prez said he was going to put an end to all this Eskom malarkey, and thus appointed a Minister of Electricity, one Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa, a civil engineer. We were all very excited and even more excited when Sputla hit the ground “sprinting” ­– visiting every known Eskom power station and even some that might not exist.

But then Sputla laid it on us. Nah, he said, there’re no “corruption problems” at, for example, Kusile power station. That’s all been a bunch of codswallop.

“The problems and challenges that we have had here are technical problems, they have nothing to do with so-called corruption.”

But I hear you cry, SAPS is currently investigating 131 Eskom-related cases, while the Hawks have 83 cases across six provinces, with 18 in court. I also read a report this morn that “Thandeka Innocentia Nkosi, a senior buyer employed by Eskom at the Matla Power Station in Mpumalanga, and two other accused, 71-year-old Rabela Sarah Jones and her son Godfrey Jason Jones (46), are accused of defrauding the power utility of more than R14-million. A warrant of arrest has been issued for a fourth suspect, who is still at large.”

Well, I daresay it’s the bloody media again, the pesky fourth estate, exaggerating and so forth.

Today I also woke to a fine story in the Daily Schmendrick by Des Erasmus. Either she [ix] or the ‘editor’ back at the mother ship put it extraordinarily delicately, I thought: “One of the biggest challenges judges may have in assessing whether Jacob Zuma’s private prosecution of veteran prosecutor Billy Downer and journalist Karyn Maughan is to proceed, could lie in deciphering senior counsel Dali Mpofu’s erratic style of argument.”

“Erratic” – I likes it. Met ander woorde, Mpofu SC has yet again been hard at work all over the land – “They seek him here, they seek him there/ Those pesky whiteys seek him everywhere/ Is he in heaven or is he in hell? / That damned, elusive EFF pel”.

Say what you like about him, Mpofu has done more for raising our bullshit quotient than many others, including even police minister Bheki Cele, energy minister Gwede “Tiger” Mantashe or ANC SG Fikile Mbalula. I for one hope Mpoofie gets the Order of the Bidens Pilosa.

But there are also other sorts of different ways in which we Seffricans push up the bullshit quotient. The EFF, for example, recently extended its written gratitude to the people of Seffrica who heeded the call for the National Shutdown.

Protests were held, said the EFF, “across the length and breadth of the country, calling for the return of electricity and the immediate resignation of the imperialist puppet [x] Cyril Ramaphosa. From midnight, the clarion call was answered, and masses headed to the streets, particularly the youth.”

Well, I don’t know if I was snoozing, watching TV, or simply reading James Ellroy, but I missed the clarion and klaxon calls and the masses. I was also taken aback by this para of the EFF’s statement: “Yet another testament to the success of the National Shutdown is that Eskom was able to suspend load shedding due to lower than anticipated demand for electricity. This is simply because no major industry operated [xi], and a majority of businesses heeded the call to close in anticipation of the shutdown”.

No, no, fellows, that’s not how to do it. Do I have to write you a how-to-guide on selling lies? This is what you should have written: “Yet another testament to the success of the National Shutdown is that Eskom suspended load shedding because the masses were out on the street and the imperialist puppet Ramaphosa was poep-scared.”

A very wise person that I know – a relation, I believe, of the three swarthy okes who stood around the bed when I was born in the Moedersbond in Pretoria in 1952 – wrote to me about my March 16 column in which I suggested that the stayaway would probably be a wet firecracker.

“Well, sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. and I’m afraid this week it’s the latter. Just you wait for Tuesday, when the lights go on, we put our inverters in the garage, the stock market hits the roof, and the economy is back on track. Next week you will be eating your words and thanking Julie for getting it done.” [xii]

Yes. Though the rising tide of bullshit is growing ever higher, from Oslo to Kabul, we still do it best, which is why, as I’ve been saying, Seffrica remains one of the happiest places in the world. I must write to Prof Frankfurt who, though 93, will, I believe, vouchsafe us all a smile.


[i] For whom I retain a large respect even though, or perhaps especially because, he turned his back on my people’s two great revolutionary forays of the last two centuries, Marxism and Zionism; and I respect him even though these days Koestler gets, probably appropriately, a terrible press; in fact I’d say he’s pretty much been cancelled. This is because he was alleged to have been a “serial rapist” (of women he knew, not strangers). Still, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who could write Darkness at Noon (1940) remains worthy of some respect.

[ii] To put it another way, more ponderously, I suppose, Koestler argued that science needs to take more seriously the possibility of the occurrence of certain phenomena (e.g., serial coincidences) that are “outside our common-sense view of the world”.

[iii] Which, btw, I find one of the most depressing subjects on earth (or do I mean in the universe?). If you want to feel seriously insignificant, which is not my strong point, do some reading in the field (or field and sky, I suppose) of cosmology.

[iv] Results were determined, as Donaldson has told us, by analysing a country’s gross domestic product per capita, its social support programmes, healthy life expectancy, personal freedoms, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels. According to the report, the world’s most unhappy country is Afghanistan.

[v] Where Ernest Hemingway grew up and where the unfortunately racist Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs lived. Burroughs worked for seven years as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler; whether this was related to his support for eugenics and so-called scientific racism, I do not know, but it is possible.

[vi] He mostly takes after his gorgeous mother.

[vii] Which I suspect might sometimes annoy his Norwegian partner. But I suppose that’s inter alia what partners are for.

[viii] Moreover, it seems the compilers of the World Happiness Report omitted considering the weather, in my view a mistake. Never omit the weather; there’s a very good reason why the British talk about it so much, and it’s not the PC one you’ll find on the Internet. Nor was Oscar Wildebeest correct when he said that conversation about the weather was the last refuge of the unimaginative.

[ix] She’s a she-Des.

[x] Whose imperium? China’s, Russia’s or Mpumalanga’s?

[xi] It was the day after a weekend and the day before a public holiday.

[xii] He might have been being sarcastic; hard to tell these days.