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My John Hlophe — small comfort for Pius Langa

Just over three years ago, shortly after my agonising crawl towards formal employment ended, I acquired a winter sweetheart in one of the winelands’ politically more fractured enclaves. When spring finally sprung I found myself unready to let my winelands honey go — in fact, things became rather serious — so I took the plunge and bought a car to facilitate some convenience for the exploits of my heart. Since some remaining study debt still gave the bank licence to certain of my lower bits, and since coasting to and from the winelands enclave every weekend did not come cheaply (this was after all during the commodities boom), I decided to return part-time to my old waitering job to keep the wheels turning.

It was perfect. The restaurant was one of those suburban joints finding itself somewhere between a rustic local and one of those sausage machines that adjoin hotels across the world for the dining displeasure of the relevant accommodation establishment’s guests. I hardly expected to ever bump into anybody that I knew from my day job as a party-political researcher, much less so any of the high-profile public personalities that formed such a big part of our daily grind. That was until one Monday evening, when I again came in huffing in vain to make the 17h30 clock-in time only to find the Oros Man-clone manager violently flapping among the already set-up restaurant as he gestured to one of the other waiters to go down to the bar.

As it turned out waiter A, a not-so-clever hospitality student, sparked a bit of a race incident by cueing a black man and his two children to the much less inviting upper dining room past all the open tables downstairs, without explaining that downstairs had been reserved for a function. Having acquired a bit of a reputation for being able to deal with difficult customers, I was overseen for my tardiness by the Oros Man (who, I have to admit, found me a bit inflexible) and immediately directed me upstairs to see if the situation could be defused. I particularly welcomed the opportunity to escape a reprimand from the rotund fool (rocket scientists are hardly ever hired as restaurant managers), so the irony was therefore not lost upon me when I ran myself slap-bang into Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe and his pre-teens at table 37.

As it happened, I sat through the umpteenth morning meeting earlier that very day to decide on a media action step to drive the “Hlophe issue” to a head. The “issue” was that the Judge President was under investigation for allegedly acting in favour of the Oasis Group of companies, who had him on a R10 000 per month retainer. The point is I had lots of prior exercise in sussing my prospective customer through the eyes of the media. I had him pinned for a classic narcissist. And true as God, armed with the Oprah magazine’s four-step plan “to handle the narcissists in your life” I had Hlophe placidly gorging himself on lamb shank in no time.

I steered completely clear of the race issue, but he became putty as soon as I concurred in suitably superior tones on the ineptness of the Oros Man and his cohorts. His indignant lecturing on racism to his obviously bored offspring turned into sulky yelps as I firmly plonked down the second round of drinks with a broad smile that promised spectacular service and implied all but racial prejudice. Compliments were pulled out of thin air turning their appetites into milestones, the children into angels and his time into the most precious reason to make sure that the desserts arrive as fast as possible. In his mind, the only recognition required was his to give and for me to receive, so a power struggle was thankfully not necessary.

Not long after this, my bank’s softened attitude resulted in my very own opportunity to contribute to the credit crunch, which temporarily meant an end for my moonlighting days. As many of us now know, credit does not last forever. As luck would have it, neither did my car, nor my frolic in the winelands. Despite a promotion and part-time stint as a politics lecturer, I was returned as a waiter-by-night about a year later. Although the Oros Man had thankfully been replaced, the weasel with the Homer Simpson waddle that replaced him was only a slight improvement.

Indifferent, if not constantly preoccupied with work or my emotional and financial misfortune, I had all but forgotten about Hlophe when I was again confronted with the two silent, wide-eyed faces at one of my tables one night. I could not place them and almost thought nothing of it when the Homer Simpson weasel shuffled in next to me. As it turned out, Homer was a bit of a failed businessman. He alleged that the swanky 20-odd year old accompanying the two goodly siblings was a former business partner that stiffed him out of a good few thousand. Homer revealed the handsome, dreadlocked duck eater to be none other than Thuthuka Hlophe, elder son of Judge John. But Homer was mostly talk and since the fraud allegations against Thuthuka was still a year away from going public, it did little more than help drop the penny about the identity of his younger brother and sister.

Fast forward to a couple of months later, and I am crisscrossing Gauteng at a hectic pace with my political principal of the time, who was the leader of the opposition, to bring attention to the good work that ordinary South Africans of all backgrounds were doing to assist victims of xenophobic attacks at the places of safety where they gathered. We were working hard, as we learnt mid-day that we were competing with similar visits by ANC President Jacob Zuma.

Fresh from a groundbreaking visit to one of the more notorious camps north of Pretoria where my principal helped defuse a very tense situation with a militant Somali group — there was good representation from the print media to capture what was going on — we were racing back towards the airport so she could make her afternoon flight back to Cape Town. The phone rang. It was the leader’s media officer. The leader was not available, he said. Could we perhaps respond to allegations that Judge John Hlophe tried to influence the Constitutional Court’s decision on search and seizure raids carried out by the Scorpions on properties of Zuma and French arms manufacturing giant Thint? We could not. We were out in the field and had no access to proper briefing. All I knew was our story now had no hope. The ordinary heroes of the xenophobia crisis would not be heard. The causes of the catastrophe, the solutions and conditions in the camps would not receive the media attention it deserved. The next day’s front pages would be reserved for Judge John Hlophe exclusively.

Not long after this, a fortunate sequence of events saw me hang up my waiter’s apron — this time, hopefully, forever. Almost a year later after a riveting election battle, I also embarked on an exciting venture outside of party-political support work. But Judge John Hlophe still seems to be at it. He particularly seems to have not lost his penchant for using his grey matter mostly to eliminate the threats posed by all the grey areas surrounding his career by turning every issue into an issue of identity, if not of race. I read in the Mail&Guardian of August 7 that the judge felt his biggest sin was not his lack of discretion, but rather his legitimate support for President Jacob Zuma. I read he would not shake Chief Justice Pius Langa’s hand at one of the Judicial Services Commission’s hearings into his conduct, because he was “not going to shake a white man’s hand”.

Judge Hlophe tips ok, if not half as well as his son. I never shook either of their hands, though. They never asked me. Perhaps Judge John did not ask me because I am white? I don’t know. To be quite honest, it does not bother me all that much. I never made it a habit to greet my customers by hand regardless of whether they tipped ok, tipped well, accused me of racism or did not like me because I was white. I also never spat on the judge’s lamb shank after he talked down to me either …


  • Coenraad Bezuidenhout

    Coenraad Bezuidenhout has a masters degree in political economy and a decade's worth of experience in economic policy and public affairs. He currently heads up the Manufacturing Circle, a private sector lobby group representing - you guessed it - South African manufacturers. He writes here in his personal capacity on any issues of immediate interest related to politics, economics, public affairs and the arts.