Social commentator and Twitter celebrity Eusebius McKaiser talks about race, his favourite author and why academic writing often sucks.
Early on in my interview with Eusebius McKaiser, whose book A Bantu in My Bathroom has just been published, he flourished a big panga against a common trend among journalists and columnists: gathering their published articles into a book.
"Nothing in this book has been published before. You can't just google your articles and put them into a book," McKaiser said as we sat in a restaurant at the Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg. I was glad he did not check his phone regularly the way most Twitter celebrities (twelebrities, in the parlance) always do; I did not want him to pre-empt the interview by notifying his roughly 13 000 followers.
McKaiser said columns in newspapers, by their nature, responded to the demands of the news cycle. For instance, when Julius Malema shouts abuse at Jacob Zuma, a columnist will feel the need to address that. Although it makes for compelling reading at the time, rereading it a few years later, even in a cloth-bound book, is a tad anodyne and anachronistic.
But in his refreshing and lucidly written book, which features takes on issues as varied as sexuality, race and culture, the Grahamstown-born McKaiser fills a gap in South Africa's literary landscape: the essay form.
Educated at Rhodes and Oxford universities, McKaiser adores George Orwell and James Baldwin, both novelists who distinguished themselves as essayists. About Baldwin, McKaiser writes that he "fell in love with that ugly man while living in England.
A Bantu in My Bathroom
"His writing is as gorgeous as he was not … I cannot comprehend how a 21-year-old human being could be capable of so much insight into humanity – into the proverbial human condition. That is how old Baldwin was when he published this collection of essays."
In fact, Notes of a Native Son, the book McKaiser enthused about, came out in 1955 when the American author, born in 1924, had turned 31.
McKaiser, whose day job is that of social analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand's Centre for Ethics, insists he is "a better speaker than a writer". It is not a surprise that McKaiser – the 2011 world masters debate champion and a debating coach – is a host on Talk Radio 702 and was once a presenter on Interface, SABC's current affairs programme.
A Bantu in My Bathroom comprises 17 essays written in a crisp, conversational style and is lit up by anecdotes. Some of them are deeply personal, such as how, as a seven-year-old, he was raped by an older male cousin and how he once had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive lover.
He explained his style: "I have a disdain for academics who don't communicate their thoughts plainly. [The reasoning seems to be] that if they are not understood, then it must mean they are saying something deep. You can be deep and still be understood.
"My writing style was not just about reaching more people, but also to prove the point that academic discourse doesn't have to be opaque."
The first piece in the book, the title essay, begins as the author is paging through the classifieds of The Star. A white woman is looking for someone to share her house with. "The advertiser … made it clear that she was looking for a white person."
McKaiser called the person and told her that he was not white but wanted to be her tenant. But the landlady insisted that the race of her housemate was not negotiable.
"Don't you think that's a little bit racist," he asked. "Not at all!" she replied. "I just want to live with people of my kind! People I can relate to! What's wrong with that?"
It was a debate that would echo beyond their conversation when he brought it to his radio show. The woman, unsurprisingly, had her supporters among those who called in, defending her right to choose to live with people of her own race.
But McKaiser fought back, his reasoning being that "in contexts that are less personal, such as public debate about voting preferences, the same group of listeners are quick to bemoan racialism's reach and endurance. But racialism's reach and endurance inside their homes and hearts dare not be spoken about.
"Why can you complain about … people with racial political preferences, but defend your right to have exclusively racial preferences when it comes to your friends?"
The cogent essay ends with a Baldwinian flourish and exhortation: "We, therefore, cannot make progress in the public space without fixing what we do in private. Nonracism, and nonracialism, begins at home."
Fate of fellow coloureds
Other fascinating essays include "Cape Town's Dirty Coloured Secrets", in which he examines how every visit to the city reminds him of the fate of fellow coloureds. For McKaiser, the plight of coloured people is visible in Cape Town in ways it is not in other big cities. Whenever he sees a coloured drug addict begging on Long Street, McKaiser recognises that he is a "member of this pitiful underclass".
Then there is an essay with overtones of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room in which McKaiser's 19-year-old self wrote his father a letter to tell him that he is gay. His flustered father asks: "Are you sure it is not the friends you hang out with?" And then persists: "Don't you just want to try, my son? With a woman?"
It is a lovely collection of well- considered work, yet sometimes you feel that, as in the essay "If You Are a Liberal, Why Don't You Like Polygamy?", this competitive debater is touched by the sophomore's desire to win arguments.
Although McKaiser is a late convert to Twitter, he has taken to it naturally. This week his horde of fans were clogging his timeline, some congratulating him, others inquiring about how to get the book that has already gone into reprint a mere 10 days after it was published.
As you would expect from a twitterati, McKaiser believes that when he dies "my death will be announced on Twitter before it's announced anywhere else". One hopes that his death will be deferred to some point in the distant future. Even if it were to happen, he will not be forgotten; his book will be remembered as one of South Africa's best 2012 reads.
Follow him on twitter at @eusebius