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Ian Martin

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Frikkie And Plug Turn Shit Into Gold

Khaya Vista looked out over a sea of shacks, and that is why it was named Khaya Vista. Also, it was situated right there in the township of Khayalitsha. Like The Phalex in Alexandra, it was a 20-storey tower with eighteen luxury apartments, each with its own balcony garden and pool.

“You can actually see the cableway,” said Frikkie. He was looking through the tripod-mounted telescope in the direction of Devil’s Peak and the mountain. Then he switched his focus to the shanties and RDP hovels below, and began to examine township life in detail.

“Hey, I’ve just seen a guy taking a crap in a cardboard box!”

“Fascinating,” said Plug from his floating lounger. “A shoe box?”

“Bigger than that. Christ, but this sun is hot!”

He turned aside, stepped into the water, and let his sweaty bulk sink.

“Yah, this is too much,” said Plug, and he rolled off the lounger into instant relief.

They were drying themselves in the shade when a babe came out to check on their wellbeing.

“This is rum weather,” said Plug. “Two Daiquiris, please. And don’t forget to have your shirts off when the guests arrive.”

The guests he was referring to were the Chinese billionaire and his entourage. They were expected to land their jet in the next hour, and then they would be brought directly to Khaya Vista.

“You don’t think 50 is a bit steep?”

“Hell, no,” said Plug. “We can drop to 45, but anything under that would be insulting, like implying he was a cheap skate, or didn’t have the bucks to afford the classiest penthouse on the Cape Flats. Remember, this guy paid 20 million Euros for a castle in Germany, and for that replica of the Versailles in Florida he coughed up a cool $95 million. This is small change.”

“Do you know anything else about him?” asked Frikkie. “I mean, what’s he doing here, anyway?”

“It’s a kind of bizarre story. He came to Africa for the first time about three months ago, partly on safari, but mainly looking for business opportunities. He liked the look of Cape Town, and when he was doing the tourist thing, he was taken up to Rhodes Memorial, and it blew his mind. They must have fed him a bit of a history lesson and now he is the number one fan of Cecil John Rhodes. He has this fantasy in his head, and he sees himself as a heroic entrepreneur about to colonize and exploit the whole of Africa on behalf of the Chinese Empire.”

“Sounds a regular asshole,” said Frikkie. “Maybe we should up the price to 60?”

Plug adjusted the climate on the patio and introduced the scent of lemon blossom to mask the stench of Khayalitsha, which was wafting up in the summer heat. Frikkie began playing with a touch pad, getting the cameras to zoom in and out of life down at ground zero and display it on the overhead screen. He found a group of men standing around half an oil drum raised off the ground on cement blocks.

“Can you go in closer?” asked Plug. “Shit, man, look at all that meat! They must have cleaned out somebody’s freezer in Bishops Court. And look what that character is swigging like it’s beer. That’s Chivas Regal, for God’s sake!”

“This is cool, hey?” said Frikkie. “This is what we must sell this Chinese punk. From here he can look north and dream of stealing Africa’s riches, and at the same time he can look down and perv on uncut reality.”

“Uncut reality? I like that,” said Plug. “That’s what we’re giving him, and that is what he must pay for.”

Seeing men busy with a braai had made Frikkie peckish, and he picked up the patio phone and asked for refills and some snacks.

It wasn’t long before two black babes arrived, one with the drinks, the other bearing a platter of canapés and asparagus and dips. They were comely babes, wearing traditional bead necklaces and grass skirts, and that was about it. They gave the two men plenty of opportunity to fondle them with their eyes, and then they withdrew.

Frikkie went out into the sun again and stood at the balcony rail contemplating the tens of thousands of ramshackle structures stretching into the distance. When he returned to the cool shade of the patio he looked distracted, as if he was listening to something stealthily gnawing its way into his head.

“It’s a pity,” he said, sipping his cocktail. “You know, it’s a real pity we can’t sell all this stinking poverty to someone. I mean, there must be some way of packaging it. You know, like the way the bankers were able to package debt and sell it on to other bankers, who in turn repackaged it and sold it to yet more banker wankers. I mean, if you can sell something as crazy as debt, you should be able to sell poverty?”

Plug was still enjoying the pleasure of remembering the comeliness of the catering staff, and it took him a few moments to process Frikkie’s words and register their content.

“Frikkie, my mate, are you suffering from sun stroke, or is this a stroke of genius? If the latter, then we are going to have to do some serious work on it. Debt has value because the creditor can charge the debtor interest. If the debtor doesn’t pay, the creditor seizes the goods and sells them. Take a look down there and tell me what you can sell. A cardboard box with some shit in it?”

“No, man, you’ve got me wrong,” said Frikkie. “I’m not talking about the non-existent assets of the poor. I’m talking about the needs of the poor. You know this carbon trading bullshit? The rich pay the leaders of poor countries to keep their citizens poor and not consume resources, so the rich can continue leading an unsustainable lifestyle.  We need to come up with a crafty scheme like that.”

The image Plug had been ogling was now totally erased and Frikkie waited patiently while his partner cranked up his cerebral machinery.

“Mmm. Definitely not sunstroke. How to turn the needs of the poor into a saleable commodity: that’s the question, is it? Then we need to describe and quantify those needs. If we assume that poor people all over the world aspire to live like a middle class American, we must ask what it would cost to get a shack dweller up to speed. A decent house, a car, private education for the kids, private health care, and all that stuff. Let’s say it would take a million dollars per household, multiplied by a billion households. That gives us a thousand trillion dollars to fix the problem.”

“That’s a shitload of money,” said Frikkie. “Imagine the prosperity that would be generated if that amount was injected into the world economy. But where would it come from?”

“Take a pill and be happy,” said Plug. “You just print the stuff, the way the US does to fund its growing deficit, and you leave succeeding generations to sort out the annoying repercussions. No sweat.”

“Okay, that sounds cool,” said Frikkie. “So the money is available; now we must work out the details. Let’s say we want to build a hundred thousand nice, comfortable houses for all the Khayalitsha indigents down there. How would it work?”

“Well, let’s see.” Plug found his cigarette box and pen, and began to make some calculations. “It should be possible to put up a properly built, modestly proportioned, 3-bedroomed house, fully furnished and with all mod cons, for a million rand. Agreed? Right, now 100 thousand houses at a million apiece, gives you a hundred billion rand.

Not a bad project, hey? Imagine landing a R100 billion job.”

“Yah, and imagine what a monumental fuckup it would be if it wasn’t run properly. You would have to keep the government out of this as far as possible.”

“That goes without saying,” agreed Plug. “If we are talking about selling global poverty, this would have to be administered by an international organisation like the United Nations, and there would have to be proper planning and tendering procedures. And whoever is awarded the contract would be obliged to make use of local labour as far as possible.”

“What if there are not enough skilled artisans to do the work?”

“That would just be another need up for sale,” said Plug. “Training colleges would have to be set up all over the place. In fact, it would mean overhauling and extending the entire education system.”

“The more I think about this, the more I like it,” said Frikkie. “Just by turning poverty into a commodity, poor developing countries suddenly convert their liabilities into assets. Overnight, a sprawling squatter camp becomes a gold mine. Get caught shitting in a shoebox, and you will become the instant celebrity who launched a hundred thousand flush toilets.”

“Frikkie, I’m beginning to think you might have come up with an idea so revolutionary it could change the course of human history. And its great strength lies in its universal appeal. Even the all-powerful one percent who are content with the status quo would get behind this project. It would not be long before they began to grasp the implications of unlocking such a vast amount of potential wealth.”

The men at the braai had disappeared and Frikkie went in search of more uncut reality. He found two women bent over 20-litre paint drums overflowing with soapsuds.

“Look at this,” he said. “This is a perfect example of how poverty traps people in a hand to mouth existence. These women will spend five hours doing their washing, carrying buckets of water, breaking their backs and ruining their hands, when a middle class housewife can get the same amount of work done by using her automatic washing machine and allotting just fifteen minutes to the task. Being poor makes one highly inefficient at even the most basic of daily chores.”

“And it’s almost impossible to free themselves,” said Plug. “Billions of people all over the world are condemned to subsist like this, because our mental processes have evolved too slowly to cope with the explosion of scientific discoveries and technological applications. You could say, on a certain level, we are still too pernicious and odious a species to get our brains working for the common good.”

“That’s for sure,” said Frikkie. “It’s in our nature not to help anyone if we can’t see how it would be to our advantage. You know, I once asked my father why he never gave a cent to beggars or vagrants. And you know what he said to me? He said he wouldn’t piss on a bergie if he was on fire.”

“That’s a gem!” said Plug. “Your father was a true philosopher and a poet. “That aphorism perfectly sums up the selfish and mean-spirited attitude held by the one percent in their dealings with the rest of humanity. It’s just such a misanthropic outlook that keeps the masses stuck in poverty, unable to extricate themselves, short of a little help from the rich. The only way out is to persuade the wealthy elite that they can make a lot more money by moving people out of poverty than by leaving them where they are. That is why this idea of yours is so brilliant.”

“Yes,” said Frikkie, trying not to sound self-important. “It didn’t come to me in a flash, like some ideas do. No, it kind of crept up on me, and when I turned around there it was. But listen, it’s one thing to have some inspiration, and another thing to turn it into bucks. How are we going to make sure we are rewarded for developing such a powerful concept?”

“We will have to be careful. As with many other milestones in human development, it could be said that this is just common sense, and all we are doing is pointing out the obvious, and the commodification of poverty was about to happen anyway, and had nothing to do with Frikkie Welgemoed and Plug Davis. Bastards! It takes a Copernicus, or a Darwin, or an Einstein to point out the obvious. I think we are going to have to set up … Ah,  the Chinks must be on their way.”

A topless babe had appeared and was shaking her knockers at them to get their attention.

Frikkie got the entrance foyer onto the screen in time to see the arrival of their client and his buddies. The tycoon was tall and well built, and looked more like a Japanese rugby player than a Chinese businessman. He wore a pith helmet and a safari suit, and was animated and cracking jokes, and clearly having a good time.

“Looks alright,” said Frikkie. “Kind of reminds me of Jackie Chan.”

“This is our man,” said Plug. “Sixty million it is. Let’s go and greet him as the elevator doors open, and welcome him to his new home in Africa.”


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