Two thousand and fourteen will go down in history as one of those years that went down in history – and thank goodness for that. From Oscar to Ebola, from e-tolls to Nkandla, from fake CVs to fallen Eskom silos, it was a year nobody will miss. Except perhaps for the president, who wasn’t around to know what he was missing.
But how can we make sure that 2014 never happens again, given that history has a horrible habit of repeating itself? Happily, there are lessons we can learn. Go figure, and here’s to the best of all possible tomorrows.
1. Don’t take a puppet to court, unless you’re a puppet master
Here’s a tip from Legal Action for Dummies: never pick a fight with a dummy who’s got a bigger mouth than you.
Despite this, court jester Chester Missing stood up to Steve Hofmeyr, famous for loudly claiming his right to sing only the second half of the national anthem, in a case that tested the court’s patience for putting up with jesters. At stake was Hofmeyr’s contention that the puppet was harassing him on Twitter, a platform purpose-built for pushing characters to the limit.
Why these matters can’t be settled in the old-fashioned way, with Hofmeyr throwing the first Punch and Judy at the puppet, is hard to fathom. Still, at least Missing’s master, the cloth-capped Conrad Koch, was able to disprove the ancient notion that the only thing you can do with a master’s in anthropology is ask: “You want fries and Coke with that?”
2. Never settle for a fake matric when you can aspire to be a fake president
There are degrees of deception in South Africa, from pretending you have a matric to pretending you have an MBA to pretending you’re a PhD in economics.
Then again, with our president having set the precedent by pretending to be a president, who are we to judge?
After all, when you’ve been appointed acting chief executive officer of South African Airlines (new slogan: “We didn’t invent lying, we just perfected it”) you may as well act like you’re a BComm as well.
We all know our country has a critical shortage of skills; it takes a lot of skill to embellish your curriculum vitae and be appointed to a top executive position. But please, at least exercise a little ambition in the process. If all you can manage to make up is a humble matric, you’ll never get much further than the upper echelons of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
3. It’s not what you know that counts, it’s what you no-no-no
In terms of overall performance, 2014 was a very good year for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the only political party whose overalls performed better in Parliament than they did.
Fighting for the right to bang on tables, jump on benches and shout at chairs, the EFF added new vigour to the democratic process, without actually pausing to process democracy.
In the end, for all the insults, interjections, walkouts, chants and refrains of “no-no-no”, the president didn’t pay back the money, the cops stormed in to break up the party, and Floyd Shivambu withdrew his middle finger. No wonder the speaker didn’t recognise the House.
But at least it was all a salutary lesson in the politics of relativity. No matter how much we may block and tackle each other on Twitter, no matter how we may rant and rage on the streets, we can take some comfort from the fact that we haven’t yet stooped to the level of our honourable members.
4. Always have a backup, in case of a crack-up
“There is a crack in everything,” sang Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.”
The corollary to this theorem is the silo at Eskom, because when that gets a crack in it, the lights go out.
The solution to this conundrum will be familiar to anyone who has ever lost a shed-load of work during a planned or surprise power outage. Implement redundancy.
Make backups of your backups, and silos of your silos. Stand ready at the coalface, even when the coalface has run out of coal. And remember, if all else fails, a packet of Polyfilla and a trowel will go a long way.
But let’s not be too harsh on Eskom. Even in the darkest of times, they’ve proved that they’ve got what it takes to delight their customers.
5. You don’t need a giant pair of Ray-Bans to reflect on the past
On a clear day, if you pause in your jogging or your pooch-walking on the Sea Point promenade, you can see all the way to 1652.
That’s if you’re not standing behind Perceiving Freedom, in which case all you’ll be able to see is a giant pair of Ray-Bans looking out to Robben Island.
Public art, unlike spectacles, should not come with a prescription. Who would have complained about the specs if they had just been installed as a pair of specs, other than a few tetchy artists who didn’t crack the commission?
But by imposing a reading on the work, and evoking the colossus of the man who towered over the island, the artist and the city reminded us Cape Town would be better served by a big pair of glasses gazing inwards.
At least that big star on Signal Hill isn’t meant to stand for anything else. Although we’re not too sure about the noonday gun.
6. When all else fails, appoint a panel of experts to take the blame
Given that the post office was too busy striking to be able to deliver the bills that nobody pays, you might have thought that e-tolls were not worth fretting about in 2014.
But so great was the public’s loathing for the system, in an election year, that government was forced to take urgent, decisive action and appoint a panel of independent experts for people to shout at for a change.
In turn, on behalf of the South African National Roads Agency Limited, an economist by the name of Rudolf Botha told the panel that people who use public transport, which is exempt from e-tolls, should “shut up” and not take part in the debate.
Even Marie Antoinette didn’t go that far. But the true voice of the people’s revolution against the tyranny of the gantries was the EFF’s Julius Malema, who threatened to destroy e-tolls physically, a task he was able to put on the back burner because the ANC are already doing such a fine job of it.
7. Easier to court the customer than take the customer to court
Companies and brands like to think that they own their reputations. After all, they spend a fortune on marketing and promotion, in the quest to plant just the right perceptions in the public mind.
The trouble is, the public do mind, particularly when the gap between perception and reality hits them in the pocket.
Take the guy who put up a big billboard to tell the world that Cell C is a useless service provider. Take him as a lesson in customer relationship management and as an opportunity to win hearts and minds; take him as a challenge to fix broken systems.
Just don’t take him to court, which is what Cell C did, in the hope of defending their reputation. Wrong call.
Not everyone can afford to respond to a R5 000 cellphone bill with a R60 000 cellphone billboard, but a tweet or a status update can achieve much the same result for free. Brands, we own you now. But the good news, at least, is that you couldn’t ask for better proof that outdoor advertising works.
8. Never pay anybody all their booty in advance
She may not as big as Beyoncé, or, for that matter, Kim Kardashian, but there’s no doubt that Nicki Minaj has earned her place at the forefront of global pop superstardom.
What a coup, then, for the Tshwane City Council, which managed to secure the Anaconda singer for the star-studded TribeOne Festival on the outskirts of the city.
Alas, the festival fell through owing to fears of dodgy infrastructure, and the people of Pretoria were obliged to settle for Steve Hofmeyr yet again.
But the abandoned jamboree cost the city R65-million, including a nonrefundable R10-million upfront fee for Nicki Minaj.
Despite the efforts of the ANC Youth League to get the singer to pay back the booty, that’s the most anyone has earned for not twerking since the president last pulled a salary.
9. Sometimes a little public humiliation is all the motivation you need
Sports psychology is a delicate science, calling for vast reserves of discipline, patience, positive reinforcement and mutual respect. But who’s got time for all that nonsense, when you’ve got Fikile Mbalula?
Outraged by a woeful performance in an African Cup of Nations game against Nigeria, the minister of sport, recreation and social media blasted Bafana Bafana as a “bunch of losers, just a bunch of unbearable, useless individuals”.
The pep talk did the trick, instilling the fear of Fikile into the squad to such an extent that, by the end of the year, with new coach Shakes Mashaba at the helm, they had qualified for the 2015 Cup of Nations and gone up six places in the Fifa rankings.
Sorry to bother you, Mr Minister, but when you’ve finished tweeting, do you think you could spare a few adjectives for the Springbok rugby squad?
10. By egg or by bacon, you must be mistaken
It takes a lot to get Muslims and Jews to concur on a matter of principle, so kudos to the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) for achieving more than the Oslo Accord ever did with a particularly pig-headed act of protest in the Sea Point branch of Woolworths.
Placing a pig’s head in the halaal section at Woolies is a sure way of demonstrating that you don’t really get the theopolitical dynamics of the Middle East conflict.
But that’s nothing. If you’re going to mix up your dietary laws, you may as well go the whole hog and post a picture of yourself and the porker to Twitter.
That way, even your own organisation will be obliged to keep its distance, and insist that your protest was really just the random act of a rebel without a Cosas.
11. When calculating headroom, don’t just think laterally, think vertically
If there is one key lesson we can learn from the year under review, it is the lesson that careful planning is crucial to success.
This applies whether you are a power utility distributing electricity to the national grid, a security contractor planting fencing around the president’s home, or a Springbok rugby team about to play the Irish.
But perhaps the saddest example, a fable for the ages, was the giraffe that didn’t fit under the bridge.
It is important to think vertically as well as laterally in such cases, as many a foreign tourist has discovered upon trying to fit a wooden giraffe into an overhead locker.
Civil engineers, please build taller bridges or deeper roads. Because if we’re going to rely on human nature to figure out the variables, it ain’t going to happen.
12. Your dolus will catch up with you, eventualis
Everyone was an expert in criminal case law and procedure in 2014. Well, except for that geologist who couldn’t see his hand in front of his face in the dark, and that police detective who couldn’t remember where he’d filed his preliminary report.
The rest of us at least picked up a little legal Latin along the way, but the principal “learning” from the Big Trial was that the law of the courts is neatly complemented by the law of karma.
No matter how fast you can run, your actions will catch up with you, eventualis. And then, after 10 months or so, you’ll be free to start running again.
13. The television will not be revolutionised
While the rest of us were searching for batteries for our torches or fuel for our generators, a small band of activists was striding into the frontline to rage against the dying of the light. The cast of Generations, the long-running SABC soap opera about squabbling families, demanded more money and better treatment, shortly before being sacked and replaced by another set of underpaid and exploited actors.
Not even the intervention of Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi, who surely had dramas of his own to worry about, could save the show from this brutal plot twist.
And yet the die, as well the show, has been cast. Who needs Generations, when we’ve got the proceedings of the National Assembly?
14. The good stories will always find a way to tell themselves
South Africa has good stories to tell, the president likes to tell us. Funny, then, that he always seems to be out of town when we most need him to tell us one. But maybe that is the good story.
In the vacuum of inspirational leadership, everyday humanity steps in to narrate its own parables. In a Wimpy in Cape Town, a man in a wheelchair battles to order an ice-cream, and then battles even more to eat it. A waiter sees him, goes over to his table, sits with him, feeds him, talks to him. They hug. That’s it: it’s not much of a story.
But it makes the papers and the talk shows and the opinion columns, because it reminds us that the small stories, the small acts of goodwill, can make us stop and think, and they can ripple all the way to the top.
The truth is, the good stories don’t even need to be told. They just need to be remembered.
15. And that’s it.
There were only 14 things to be learned from the horrible annus that was 2014 … Have a great 2015!