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The Other News Round-Up: The Comeback Kids

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick takes a look at the greater- and lesser-spotted happenings in South Africa and abroad. This week: making a comeback.

On Thursday afternoon, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba announced that there would be tough times ahead, which is a little like the time the weatherman woke up and said there might be a slight rise in water levels about eight months after the December 2004 tsunami.

Kidding. That never happened. Just testing what fake news feels like. It’s not as fun as you’d think, which may explain Bell Pottinger’s hefty price tag.

Anyway, Gigaba unveiled a shiny new inclusive economic growth plan at the Thomson Reuters Economists Awards (See? You don’t need to make this stuff up), which targets SOEs as a priority. This was a solid serving of ham on wry, given that Gigaba is alleged to be involved in an enormous web of corruption contributing to the downfall of these self-same structures. But ag, as orphan Annie so stirringly sings, the sun will come out tomorrow, ne? Gigaba says he would welcome a commission of inquiry into state capture so that those implicated could clear their names.

In the meantime, he says, the proposed interventions “do not in themselves constitute an overarching economic recovery plan. They constitute, however, an important intervention to restore confidence to demonstrate action and that we have an action plan by which we as government are prepared to be held responsible. All of the ministers that have been mentioned in this action plan understand the responsibility we jointly share.” The president, he added, would play a role in implementation.

Got to hand it to the guy. You may not be entirely convinced by the plan (I’m not) but it’s a hell of a lot more convincing than anything coming out of Victoria Geoghegan’s bek. Spin: you’re doing it wrong. That’s a sad story when you do it for a living.

Onwards, then, hey? South Africans are, after all, masters of resilience and reinvention. And anyway, I don’t know about you, but I’ve long accepted the world is bananas. We live in a time when the world’s most powerful man’s claim to fame is his toupé and where a PR firm (sorry, I can’t let this go) responds to a stink by shutting down its social media page. And where we are all getting old enough for a whippersnapper on Facebook to ask, in response to a video of Bob Dylan singing To Make You Feel My Love, “Who’s this idiot who ruined Adele’s song?”

But I digress. Back to resilience and reinvention in troubling times. Gigaba, bless him, does seem to be making an effort – sincere or not, only he can say – at developing faith in his competence following the spectacular sewage spill of the #GuptaLeaks.

I’m wondering if he’ll do a better job of recovering than – to choose a completely random (cough) example – our apologetic chums at Bell Pottinger, or, say, a fascinating case I stumbled on earlier this week. It’s not political or financial crime, mind. But it represents a great example of how not to explain that you’ll do much better in future, officer.

Ever heard of Paula Denyer? Denyer was born Paul Denyer and is currently serving three consecutive life sentences as the Frankston serial killer. Denyer began identifying as female once in prison.

Now, let me state at the outset that Denyer has drawn the short straw, I think, in that the prison refuses to let her wear make-up or women’s underwear or express her female identity in any way, really, beyond calling herself Paula. As far as I’m concerned this seems unnecessarily punitive. If she’s trans, she’s trans, and expressing that is as much a human right as anything else.

But it does get murkier. Denyer, at the time of her initial psychiatric evaluation, was found to be a psychopath, completely remorseless and severely sadistic. As Paul Denyer, she had mutilated numerous women with not a trace of regret. Now, Denyer says she only did that because her repressed feelings as a trans woman were expressed as a hatred of women, and now that she’s come out, she should be given sex reassignment surgery at the taxpayer’s expense and also be released from prison, as she will not reoffend. Voila! Now you see the serial killer, now you don’t.

I should perhaps add that Paula started slashing her sisters’ teddy bears as a small child and had, besides women, killed cats and other animals when women weren’t available. Denyer was also questioned in connection with a number of prison rapes as late as 2012.

Offering a pithy explanation for killing, Denyer said: “I wanted to take life because I felt like my life had been taken.”

Say what you like – except if it’s transphobic, please – but that’s a heck of an attempt at an explanation. Because, correct me if I’m wrong, but if Denyer is a sadistic psychopath, that’s surely not going to change just because her previous major stressor is removed? The prognosis for psychopathy is generally understood to be poor, and serial killers seldom stop killing unless they are caught. What happens if the next trigger hits her? If she loses her job, suffers a rejection? I’m just saying, with the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of the trans community are not serial killers, that I myself might be a little, tiny bit more comfortable if she were re-evaluated before release.

Nonetheless, as baffling one’s audience into submission goes, Denyer’s explanation seems to have worked, because the responses defy logic. Denyer’s fairly harmless requests to express gender identity within prison walls have been denied, although she defies this. But despite persistently transphobic media coverage, she seems to have a small but serious crowd of supporters, and did eventually win eligibility for parole in 2023. That’s right. Don’t let her be herself in prison. But test the theory of whether anger makes her condition worse, and then open the door for her release. I guess we’ll all find out in 2023 if this was a good idea.

So what does make a successful comeback kid? There are plenty, surely. Donald Trump is president, for Pete’s sake, which five years ago sounded like the start of a bad joke. Julius Malema is a media darling, which to be fair sounded similarly surreal few years ago. Next thing you’re going to hear Helen Zille is giving workshops on careful Twitter usage.

I was determined to discover their secret. (Zupta crew: don’t try this at home.)

I combed the internet, because that’s how TMZ knows everything before it happens. The first rule – which we’ve already seen our own president using to remarkable effect, although he’s losing his touch a little – is to be brazen. Martha Stewart did this extraordinarily well after she went to prison for lying about a stock transaction. Stewart did her time and came out cool as a cucumber, going on with her business as though absolutely zilch had happened. After initially proclaiming innocence, post-conviction it was Business As Usual. Her company returned to profitability in 2006. I recall her coming to the Design Indaba a few years later and having her lackeys state upfront – a little as though she were Mariah Carey – that fans should form an orderly line to demand autographs and pictures. Nobody did. But bless Martha’s untouchable ego, life went blundering on.

The second rule: tell people what they want to hear, not what you want them to believe about you. Malema has this down to a fine art. Nobody wants to hear you want to kill for Zuma, guy! They want to hear you being witty and making hashtags! #Parliamentaryfunnyfestival. You heard it here first.

Third rule: go big or go home. Excuses do not a comeback make. Nobody wants to hear that you didn’t know what was happening. You want to pull a Robert Downey Jr and go from jail to being Iron Man. Inspiring, not depressing. (You can probably safely skip the bit where you lip-sync an Elton John song, though.)

So don’t worry, Malusi, and anyone else in your shoes. You’ll probably be fine. In the end, bouncing back is fairly simple, and has very little to do with who you are, what you’ve done, how good your explanation is. It’s not the story you tell, it’s the plotline you deliver. That, and the wilful deafness of the rest of us. DM


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