Ben Trovato has been terrorising South African politicians, corporations and the general populace with his trademark bullwhip and scathing satire for 25 years now. The Whipping Boy is his latest offering, a collection of his best columns and letters from the Sunday Times bundled into one offsides offering. Zag caught up with our renegade columnist to chat about the trappings of fame, the fine art of political correctness, and swimming with sharks.
Interview by Will Bendix
Zigzag: So a new book to add to the pile. That makes it your tenth if I am not mistaken. You’ve told us before, but refresh us: What sadomasochistic impulse got you into the writing game in the first place?
Ben: I was conscripted into the Signals Corps and had to learn to type 45 words a minute. Failure meant running around the parade ground with a big Dutchman on my shoulders. After two years in the army, all I had learnt to do was shoot and type. Instead of doing the sensible thing and choosing a career that involved shooting people and taking their money, I chose journalism and consequently made no money at all. I switched from journalism to creative writing because you can’t drink on the job if you’re a journalist. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Anyway. What happens in the newsroom stays in the newsroom.
But at least now you can kick back and make the ‘famous author’ gig work for you, right?
Are you kidding? In this country, “famous author” is more of an oxymoron than “marital bliss”. Our most famous author, JM Coetzee, is an Australian. Our bookshops are emptier than Julius Malema’s threats to nationalise the mines. You tell a girl you’re an author and her eyes glass over like a dead snoek. Tell her you’re a drug dealer and she’ll be at your trousers in no time at all. The only way an author could get famous in this country is if he also appeared in Generations, Isidingo and 7de Laan, brought out five kwaito albums, and then started a cult in which thousands of people committed suicide on St Valentines Day. I am in the process of starting a cult. Apply early and avoid the rush. No Jehovah’s Witnesses, please.
I read somewhere that you are in fact a policy analyst? Is there any truth to this outrageous lie? What does a policy analyst even do?
I have no idea. It’s a complete fabrication on the part of my publishers. While they were putting The Whipping Boy together, they asked what I did in my spare time. They probably thought “policy analyst” was less likely to attract the attention of the authorities.
Ah yes, the authorities. You seem to spend a lot of time writing letters to the powers that be. Do you ever get a half-decent reply?
I used to spend a lot of time writing letters. These days I focus mainly on death threats. It’s more rewarding. But there have been a few decent replies from other parties over the years. Cape Mental Health suggested I see one of their social workers after I wrote them a 600-word letter without any punctuation. I once wrote to I&J referring to a study that showed fish do, in fact, feel pain and threatened a fish-eating boycott. The company assured me they did everything possible to reduce the suffering of the fish, whom they considered to be business partners. “The fish are left out of water on the deck of our vessels, lying in the sunlight where their last moments can be spent in calm reflection as they drift away,” replied one of the directors. I once tried to blackmail KFC, informing them I was in possession of the Colonel’s secret recipe. Their legal department threatened me. I also wanted to leave my brain to the SA Brain Research Institute but they rejected my offer, saying they didn’t take donations. Of course they do. Where else do they get their brains from?
Good point. Speaking of dealing with the brainless, I noticed in your new book you stopped enclosing R10 bribes along with your letters to prominent politicians and large corporations. What gives? How come you’ve turned your back on this proud South African tradition?
After all that licking, I became heavily addicted to envelope glue and spent three months in rehab. It also became too damn expensive. I’d have, like, a hundred bucks left at the end of the month and instead of doing the sensible thing and buying beer, I’d send the whole lot off with letters to people like Thabo Mbeki, Tito Mboweni, Tony Yengeni, Mick Jagger, Jeffrey Archer and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, all of whom pocketed the cash. Manto Tshabalalalalala-Msimang died owing me R30.
Oh well, at least the reviews have been good. You’ve been described as everything from the “Che Guevara’ of social commentary” to “A national treasure for his relentless pursuit of truth, equality, cold beer, and hot women”. But what we really want to know is, where did you hone your subtle skills in political correctness?
Political correctness? You should have your mouth washed out with sulfuric acid. I speak for racist, sexist, homophobic misogynists everywhere when I say that we all need to learn how to hate more sensitively. Let us find ways to discriminate without hurting anyone’s feelings. We are all humans, even if some of us are more human than others. Prejudice with a smile. That’s my motto for the new year.
Fair enough. But with all the hoo-ha about the Secrecy Bill, freedom of the press may soon mean a jail term. Doesn’t this worry you?
Don’t be silly. I think the Secrecy Bill is the best thing to happen to this country in a long time. Once all the journalists have been imprisoned, we can look forward to 15 years of nothing but good news. After the hell that our media has put us through, it’s the least we deserve. And when the crackdown begins, columnists must not be allowed to slip through the net. Even though some editors are increasingly doing the job of government censors by making sure that no religious, cultural, ethnic or tribal groups are offended by anything that appears in their newspapers, harsh action must be taken to stop ill-mannered scum like me. And when I say harsh action, I mean public executions. It’s the only language we understand. Failing that, I may pursue a more sensible line of work. I believe a position has opened up in the strandloper community near Elands Bay offering unlimited crayfish, surfing, sand fleas and white pipes. It sounds perfect.
It seems you also had a fine time in Mozambique and Thailand along with dear Brenda, if your new book is anything to go by. Where’s next on the holiday itinerary for you lovebirds?
Lovebirds? Are you completely mad? The woman once threw my passport in my face on a street somewhere in Mexico and jumped on to a passing bus. That was on our honeymoon. We’ve just got back from a three-week road trip to Durban. Yes, I know. Most people take three weeks to drive across Africa, but Brenda and the Land Rover were taking turns to have breakdowns. I am completely exhausted from this last holiday. All I did was drink and drive and shout at people. That makes it sound more fun than it actually was.
So no exotic surf trips in the pipeline? Can we expect to see you at Skeleton Bay this year? I’m sure the Namibian government would love to host you after your letter about Seal Clubbing you sent to Hatem Yavuz.
Don’t talk to me about that evil seal-bashing Turk. As for visiting the Skeleton Coast, I have never heard such madness. That godforsaken desert is infested with predators who wouldn’t hesitate to rip your tent apart and gnaw on your skull while you sleep. And that’s just the nature conservation officials. I’ll go if I can get a military escort. The Namibian government owes me after I single-handedly liberated their country in 1990. On second thoughts, forget it. No exotic surf trips planned. With Cape Town council digging up half the peninsula, a drive to Muizenberg from Fish Hoek feels like an overland trip across Africa anyway. I think I’ll just stay home.
Ah yes, Fish Hoek. How’s life treating you there? I hear they’ve actually allowed one of the restaurants to start selling beer?
Fish Hoek is wild. Every day is like Mardis Gras, without the topless girls, drugs and music. The Vic, there by the circle, is a riot every night of the week. There’s a gentleman propping up the end of the bar who hasn’t left his seat since the end of the Second World War and, if you wait long enough, you will catch sight of some of the drunkest, ugliest women south of the Limpopo. There are also man-eating baboons roaming the hills and in-bred mutants sloping about the streets.
Let’s not forget the world-first tourist attraction of swimming with great white sharks…
Well, we’re known as the suicide capital of the country and the great whites provide an interesting new choice for those who have run out of tether. Whenever the shark spotter sounds his siren, everyone rushes to the top of the hill to see who can spot it first. As far as entertainment goes, this is about as exciting as it gets in Fish Hoek. However, I need more. I want Helen Zille to offer prizes to anybody who can pick one off with a sniper rifle. Apex predator, my ass. If they’ve been around for millions of years, how come they can’t tell the difference between a snoek and a surfer? Dumb bastards.
Okay, forget the sharks, they only rule False Bay. Let’s talk real power. If you were president of South Africa for a week, what would you do?
I would disband the government and its law enforcement agencies and allow everyone to do whatever they wished without fear of censure or retribution. Restaurants will offer free meals and banks will give money to those who ask for it. Nothing will be allowed to close. It will be a time to settle old scores and make new friends. A time to shed your clothes and your inhibitions. A time to see if you have what it takes to handle true freedom. Vote for me.