Defend Truth


Fog donkey: the only honest man in a stadium of fools

Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreals Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africas leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective. His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikhs Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africas 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014). Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africas Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada. Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continents 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift.

The Memorial Signer—the man standing alongside speakers at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium—was called out as a fake, but was, apparently, suffering from a “schizophrenia attack” brought on by happiness. Which begs the question: who, or what, at FNB Stadium on that fated day, was real?

Dollhouse. Petrol. Roadsign. Interested nail. Icon. Much cardboard. Weather. Tile. Tiles. Sheet. Poptart.


I knew that it would not be long before the industrial mourning machine delivered its ruling metaphor, its Neo, its Christ-figure. It took no time at all before we tumbled down the Cartesian rabbit hole, before we found ourselves in a netherworld governed by topsy-turvy nonsense verse, wherein the man flapping his hands meaninglessly was the only man making any sense at all.

His name is Thamsanqa Jantjie. But for one glorious day, he was beyond the banality of names.

Let’s back up a moment. Thousands of mourners filed into FNB Stadium on Tuesday morning, and they had a very simple role to play—that of background colour. As they arrived, the media asked them the usual groaners—Why are you here? What did Madiba mean to you? How far did you travel to get to the stadium?—and they gave the stock answers—Because I loved Madiba. He was bigger than Jesus. I walked 12000km from Paris over the past three days. These paradoxically smiling, tear-stained faces were meant to provide the backdrop to the proceedings, singing happy songs, singing sad songs, and offering doses of curative African “spirit” for television viewers in Milwaukee and Swansea and Perth.

They had their shot, these good people, and they blew it.

Many files.

Wiper blade. Banana cheese.

Arriving next were our local leaders, who roared over in their motorcades with blue lights flashing and sirens bleating: the signs and signifiers of power in this newly gilded age. The media asked them the usual groaners—Why are you here? What did Madiba mean to you? How far did you travel to get to the stadium?—and they gave the stock answers—Because I loved Madiba. He was bigger than Jesus. I flew in a gold plated jet from Nkandla to Waterkloof.

To say that this cohort didn’t quite rise to the occasion would be, in fairness, an untruth, because I’m not sure what occasion they imagined they were rising to. Was this a memorial, a campaign stop, a meet-n-greet? Their words were the carefully measured pabulum served to a sick baby, so tasteless and easily digestible that they steamed through the intellect’s digestive tract to emerge as puffs of noisome air, drifting away with the rain.

They had their shot, these good people, and they blew it.

Ducting volume. Me.


Then we had the guests from afar, the super-celebs, the high-wattage smilers. They were here to speak above and beyond the assembled crowd, to measure out small political gestures, to take photographs with the features on their smartphones, to emit enormous words into a cavernous stadium and buff their brands before Clio, History’s muse, who was almost certainly in the stands taking notes. Their words were boxes and boxes of cocoa puffs, served up on the silver of a Versailles dinner set, sugared cereal masquerading as haute cuisine.

The Obamatory was pitched high, so high, in fact, that it laid everything around it to waste, like a Hollywood tent-pole opening a Rwandan film school year-end screening. But what did it all mean? What did it amount to?

They had their shot, these good people, and they blew it.

Mango tank. Sad chair talks.

Jam angel. Fisheries.

Shiny duck. Shiny ducks.

And so it was left to one man to make sense of it all. His job, as I understand it, was to interpret the words on stage for those who hear darkness. It is an ingenious process—by an agreed-upon code, spoken sounds are transformed into gestures, which in turn becomes language. The language is a gesture itself: by providing the deaf with a signer, we are saying that everyone must be allowed to participate—everyone, regardless of disability, is part of the polity.

The problem was simple: the signer did not know the agreed-upon-codes. Or rather, the problem is complicated: the signer could not deliver the agreed-upon-codes. The signer strode onto stage, stood alongside the most important people in the world, and made gestures that had no meaning to the hard of hearing—that had no meaning to anyone, it turns out, except perhaps the signer himself.

He had his chance, this beautiful man, and he absolutely fucking nailed it.


The deaf are offended, but they should count themselves among the very lucky few—they were the only people being spoken to like adults, like citizens, like humans. The nonsense that travelled through Thamsanqa Jantjie’s hands, conjuring images of Fog Donkeys and Mango Tanks and Moontrumpets and Maximum Coffee Extinguishers, was the best possible language available to describe what has happened to us, what is happening to us, what will happen to us. The deaf saw through his hands the only possible truth—an upside-down gobbledygook of streaming rubbish, a meaningless void of nothingness, a sales pitch selling nothing but the pitch itself.

We will leave aside for he moment the wisdom in placing a schizophrenic alongside the great men and women who spoke for us—a schizophrenic who, if he is to believed, was having a full-blown attack when their empty words traveled into his bustling mind. I believe that the Memorial Signer—not Jantjie himself, but the avatar he represented in that moment—will emerge as the only figure in the stadium that Clio shall reward with historical standing. He is the man of our age, a truthsayer, a sage, a Fog Donkey. The only way to understand all this is through the mind of a schizophrenic. Alternatively, can anyone of us describe the current malaise better than the Twitter handle attributed to him, which noted “Sausage blubber pencil/Prison/Magic lion everywhere”?

The Memorial Signer holds the only flashlight in the midnight dark of the rabbit hole. Follow him, my friends, and no other. For he leads us to the only truth worth hearing: there are no truths at all worth hearing. DM

* All quotes are pulled from the Twitter feed attributed to @MemorialSigner. Who, I’m guessing, is fake. Which, of course, makes these Tweets and their sentiments no less real.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted