Alexander Maughan

22 August 2015

The warthog and his lexicon of dreams


Kneeled – almost comically so – the warthog digs for roots. There’s no glamour in this. Just earth-gritted food. A Land Rover passes without braking, creating a Doppler distortion of cackling tourists on the hunt for prettier things. Things that live off the flesh of savaged warthog.

The warthog’s face remains stern and fixed. His majime is manifest. There’s no special secret to his survival. Stubbornness gets him his food. Every obstinate grunt is a fine-tuning of his ganko. The shallow mutterings of human nodes atop a 4×4 are a passing distraction. He returns to the grinding of soil. There’s cleanliness to be found in this dirt.

1 grunt.file.readJSON('warthog.json')

Behind that battle-fronted face, beneath those small squinting eyes, hide creative dreams. But what’s a warthog to do? His life has been one of hostility. He’s outmanoeuvred cheetahs, and stood down jackals. For all their speed and nipping deceptions, they lack his tunnelled cunning. The Gresham’s law of commoditised wildlife, however, is indifferent to his outwardly beige and dusty survival. He is a passing triviality en route to slumbering lions. The warthog, in most part, is okay with this. In most part.

It may seem like this tusked pig is mostly concerned with the snort and sneeze of daily survival. Indeed, his mettle and wiry strength are the product of focus; the fusing of mostly ignored repetitions that incrementally increase yield and value. There’s refuge in this. But beyond this, behind those aiming eyes, bigger aspirations fester. That armoured face, that highly strung antenna for a tail that flies the flag of allegiance to Shokunin, intimate at a festering compulsion that threatens to mature into madness if not bled by sharing.

Only one-tenth of what you write will end up in your manuscript, but when you knock on that tenth you’ll hear oaken solidity, not sawdust and glue. 1

The warthog follows a well-worn path. Stops, turns, and reverses into his hole. Enough food has been foraged for today. As his leathery eyelids close, the warthog kicks at some uneven dirt, grunts, and dreams of bigger things.


  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
10 April 2015

White darkness

Raised fist

My thoughts on racism hold very little currency because I am an english-speaking white man living in South Africa; a country with a relatively recent race-driven and colonial past. It’s a past that almost all countries around the world share in some form at some point in their history. South Africa is just one of the more recent examples of how destructively horrible humans can be towards one another, and how this destruction and its present-day economic permutations continue to make a vast majority of people limp in agony.

I have lived my entire life on a continent that doesn’t really allow me to call myself African because of my skin colour. The right to adorn (or scorn) oneself with the label of African is arbitrated purely on pigmentation. Language, or even living on the actual continent, plays no part in this evaluation within popular culture.

Although this results in a significant identity crisis – a confusing and broken diaspora of nothingness – I have too many white-man advantages in life to expect any sympathy. Nor do I seek it. It does, however, hugely affect the way in which I view the world around me.

When I first went to England at the age of 18 – one place in the world I’m apparently more readily allowed to call home – I realised unequivocally how not only was this place not home for me, but The Real English certainly didn’t see me as one of them. I was aware of the typically British way of being treated like an outsider: with polite condescension.

So in a modern world of imagined boundaries drawn on abstracted maps, I belong nowhere. I have no home. When one acknowledges and starts to own this anchorless existence, you are at least afforded some objectivity to issues around nationalistic fervour, race, ethnicity, and general sentiments of belonging.

Yesterday, a shrine to one of the chief colonial architects of Southern Africa was taken down at the University of Cape Town, all to the noisy hum of differing, often racist, opinions and hyperbolic activism. I believe it was right to take it down, and I believe the same should be done to all the other glorifications of the country’s dehumanising past. These statues are not historical documents. They are public celebrations of the people they portray and what they stood for. These people and what they stood for should not be celebrated. So, take them down. This shouldn’t really even be a debate.

However, some of those elevating themselves as fist-in-the-air activists – that collection of self-aggrandising children who seem to believe this toppled statue is a symbol of generational change – are sadly deluding themselves. The toppling of colonialist and apartheid statues is an inevitability; relatively easy to bring about. Actual change for the betterment of the disenfranchised majority, on the other hand, is seldom inevitable and is much harder to realise.

A hashtag taped across the mouth of a camera-posing student doesn’t bring about meaningful social and political change, and it certainly doesn’t even register within the collective culture’s longer-term consciousness. Neither is this even a real catalyst for change. It’s a distracting pat on the back for nothing.

Rhodes’ statue may have fallen, but his legacy of unaccountability to the majority lives on stronger than ever. What the hell happened to the entire economic section of the ANC’s Freedom Charter? Our President’s cavalier power mongering waves an unconcerned middle finger to economic and gender inequalities strangling this country. Worse, his government has played continuously into the hands of corporations that siphon huge amounts of money and resources out of the country, as well as handing over competencies to socially unbound organisations that care about one thing and one thing only: monetary profit. The current ANC government pumps more money into rich men’s pockets than ever before, men that resemble Rhodes in so many ways, including his white complexion.

The flawed free market system that keeps rich countries rich and developing countries in a perpetual state of non-development has been continuously ratified by the country’s elected government. Every time you get rightfully angry at some white person’s racist comment about white-provisioned modernity to the poor savages of Africa, just think about the foundations of this thinking. It is a cosmology based on an unwavering belief in capitalistic free markets. Take what you can while giving as little away as possible. Hoard and pile up your wealth, and then use this wealth to establish and fortify biased infrastructures that serve only you and others like you. Accumulation versus contribution. Zuma’s actions sadly embody this belief more than most. When a publicly re-elected President gets away with this, you genuinely have to worry about the feasibility of real change.

Thinking you’ve sparked change because you toppled a statue is both maddening and saddening. The Rhodes-types that are alive and kicking today need to be toppled and held accountable, otherwise they themselves just become statues that eventually get toppled only long after they are dead.

Racism is a huge problem in South Africa. It’s a huge problem everywhere. A significant contingent of South Africans will continue to be racist and will continue to take advantage of an economic setup that suits them, while simply using the ideals of capitalism as an excuse for not even wanting to pay their domestic workers a living wage. More concerning is that the elected government ratifies this thinking. Its leader embodies it at every turn. Selfish accumulation versus socially aware contribution.

So, when you stop to think about it for a bit, maybe racism isn’t the biggest problem we face. Maybe it’s a deluded belief in the free market, and the euro-centric mindedness that established it. In this regard, the ANC has never been more old-school European. Skin colour proves itself yet again to be such a futile and empty evaluation.

Race is an issue and it needs to be the focal point of many hard, but rational, discussions. However, we seem to be caught up in a circular process of trying to fight fire with more fire. The sentiment seems to be that #RhodesMustFall is more about toppling a statue of white guy, rather than it being about removing a monument to human divisiveness and cruelty. This sentiment lends itself to allowing non-white leaders extravagant leniencies, somehow excusing behaviour that is in no way good for the majority – behaviour driven by the same greed for which Rhodes is infamous. But, hey, I’m just some white guy. Of course I’d think this.

26 February 2015

Basics, please


There’s a roadside restaurant about an hour outside of Cape Town, heading east along the coast. I’ve eaten there many times. The route is a common one for us, being a national road that eventually takes you to the Garden Route and the many holiday towns that sit anxiously along it during the off-season. It’s also the route we had to take to get to our wedding venue – a return trip we did more than a couple times.

The food has always been good. Despite this, I’ve never really saved it as a noteworthy place in memory. My mind, I guess, was always on the road ahead.

Before leaving for a short break last week, one of my wife’s friends made special mention of this very restaurant we’d eaten at many times. Neither of us had any strong opinions about the place, but maybe it had gotten a whole lot better? So, we made a point of stopping and getting something to eat, even though it was an odd point for us to do so on this particular journey.

The place had changed. They had done some significant decor remodelling, following an American cum Scandinavian pseudo barn look. Retro light bulbs, exposed beams, and lots of chalk boards. The kind of aesthetic that seems to have been designed with Instagram filters in mind. In Cape Town, it would be a lumbersexual haven. Instead of hipsters with MacBooks, however, there were a few overweight South African farmers. Maybe some of them were actually lumber jacks, albeit the hands-on-hips managers of South African black labour kind.

Despite being too late for breakfast and too early for lunch on a weekday, the place was mostly full. We were directed to our Table For Two, whereupon the frustrations of an obvious negligence to certain basics began.

The chair I was forced to sit at – the one my wife so adeptly avoided – was clearly the brainchild of a sadistic chiropractor who wished to have his revenge on a world that called him a quack. Its horribly uncomfortable design was made worse by the floor slanting away from the table. It felt like I was falling backwards into a hungry concertina.

After trying the whole stiff upper lip thing, instilled in me by my British parents, I eventually gave up and joined my wife on her side of our very small table, where she had the back-saving mercy of a good ol’ wooden bench. The two gentlemen either side of us, also with smart wives who had secured the refuge of the level-floored bench side of the table, looked at me as if I had broken our communal bond of suffering. Both were waiting impatiently for their bill, so they knew their rotation to the front was nearly over anyway, so best to just hold tight until orders from General Visa or Colonel MasterCard gave them respite.

By this point my eyes were reccy’ing the joint for a better table, and I soon spotted some happy customers making their leave from a table that seemed to hold residence on level ground, and was mercifully surrounded by chairs that didn’t exude malevolence. We quickly grabbed our drinks and eating tools and claimed the dirty table for ourselves. Problem solved.

Problem not solved. My post-torture happiness was broken when the food arrived. The plate that acted as a divide between my food and the table fancied himself as a bit of breakdancer. It had been so badly warped by heat, that a bulging, ceramic tumour protruded from its bottom. While attempting the humble acquisition of a bite of food, the plate would spin round and flip up. I was left trying to figure out if I was involved in some kind of gustatory rodeo, or if I was sparring with the plate reincarnation of Mohammed Ali. The rumble in the jungle was actually my confused stomach, which didn’t understand all the delays.

This time I did indeed leave that restaurant I had eaten at many times before with a mental note. The note simply read, “Never go there again.”

In any type of service or product there are undeniable basics that can’t be ignored. As a newly unemployed citizen of a capitalistic world, when I choose to pay to have a sit-down meal at your establishment, the fundamentals of being able to sit with at least a modicum of comfort and place food in my fat face without the crockery attacking me are nonnegotiable.

This indifference to basics is a longstanding lament, that reaches into many experiences in my life outside of feeding myself, including my working career. Why are so many of us willing to neglect the basics while spending huge amounts of time and money on fancy non-essentials? Why do we think it’s okay to add more features and spruce up the aesthetics while certain fundamentals go uncared for?

The expense of creating an Instagram-friendly barn look – although certainly appreciated in and of itself – didn’t retain me as a customer. The decision to add more tables – even if it meant placing them on uneven ground – may have increased short-term turnover, but myself and the two miserable fellows who were sat either side of me are not going to be long-term customers. We didn’t care how pretty those retro lightbulbs were, and we certainly didn’t care about any of the other cool aesthetics while we were being gnawed at by the hungry concertinas you called chairs.

Maybe this indifference to basics is okay. It seems most businesses think so. Millions are spent trying to attract new customers with fancy peripherals to make up for the ones that left angrily. The strange thing is that the basics are so much cheaper to take care of than all that fancy market-prodding decoration. By all means, work on aesthetics and features that enhance experiences, but neglecting the basics while doing so is stupid. Well, unless you think customer churn is a good thing, that is.