Hacklandiaby Brandon Edmonds / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 03.11.2011
I’m sinking into the sand at the Grand near the V&A in Granger Bay. “They shipped the sand in and have created a private beach with a beautiful blue sea horizon. The sea is often filled with boats adding to the composition of the image which will stay in your mind long after you have left and may well be a stage for some pleasant dreams one night.” The creator of that bland, inoculated prose (‘the composition of the image’/’pleasant dreams’) is Dax of the emphatically unremarkable food blog, Relax with Dax. He’s sitting across from me at an al fresco dining table, in a bright red Castle windbreaker, expertly liberated from the SAB functionaries behind this promotional dinner with Cooked chef Justin Bonello. It’s the Cape Town leg of a 5-day Castle Homegrown tour during which a suspiciously representative clutch of lucky customers have been shown “the best the country has to offer”. They’ve been to Kimberly, done the Moses Mabhida bungee, met Siphiwe Tshabalala and will have Johnny Clegg play for them exclusively on the closing night of a punishing itinerary drenched in beer.
Dax looks like a character actor. A short, round nebbish-y step-father figure who always seems to be in the vicinity when his teenaged step-daughter steps out of the shower. I imagine him ultimately going postal. He has the coddled skin of a guy who still calls his mother religiously and masturbates, come the Witching hour, to rote Marc Dorcel Euro porn. I’m terrified of becoming him, terrified I already have. See Dax is a palpitating mollusk on the pampered hide of the Cape’s desultory social scene. He writes shit like this: “The other day someone asked me if I thought the Grand on the Beach is the place of the season and after thinking about it I said yes. So it’s important for me to get this review out to you.” I love how he thinks about it. I love how he can write a phrase like ‘place of the season’ without irony. By love I mean loathe of course. It’s important for me to clarify that for you.
Anyway Dax is the epitome of a hack from Hacklandia. BMW promo at Montecasino? I’m there. Champagne lunch with Investec? What time! That’s Dax in line at the perfume launch, the nightclub opening, flashing a peace sign in a flash mob bankrolled by Wimpy. He has Coldplay on replay all day. Again, I’m being vicious because Dax is my destiny. Let’s face it. The Census lady came round recently and I discovered, filling out the form, my annual salary is the bottom rung. The rock bottom rung. I don’t have medical aid. I haven’t seen a dentist since the Mbeki regime. What’s stopping me from crossing the border into Hacklandia? Integrity? Please. Marxist posturing? Possibly. I think it’s pride basically. I pride myself on being contrary. That Groucho quote is scripture to me: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” But things change.
Imagine the fruits of Hacklandia! Arm-wrestling industrialists after a lunch of Iberico ham and truffle fritters in Barcelona. Afternoons sipping Mouton Rothschild on crisp white sheets in Peru. Evenings soulfully penetrating the contemporary equivalent of Raquel Welch in her prime. All the seductions of Capital. An estate with servants educated at the Sorbonne. My own helicopter. A place on a lake. So at ease with myself that George Clooney wants to be me. Have me Hacklandia. My keyboard is yours.
Yet living there would mean refusing to see what I see. I’d be Dax in the mirror each morning. Willfully placing an ankle in a bear trap. Another brand ambassador passive-aggressively shoveling mendacity. Take this dinner thing. What’s the fucking point? The beer put regular South Africans up at the Mount Nelson. They hired luxury coaches. They’ve flown everyone first class. They’ve plied them, for days, with beer and proteins. Why? “Get the brand out there,” an organizer says. “Great word of mouth. These are real South Africans discovering their country.” If anything sells itself it’s sex, crack and beer. It’s always-already got great word of mouth. This feels like marketing for the sake of marketing. Because the budget’s there. SAB tossing baubles at the public. A retail giant so secure in its monopoly, so assured of monstrous annual turnover, it can pluck citizens from their lives on a whim.
A couple from Pretoria saw Soweto for the first time. They got to travel in a mini-bus taxi. “It was noisy,” they said. Another couple, who work in a pie factory in KZN, have flown for the first time. Which is cool. I notice how wasted the husband is. He’s wearing his Castle cap hip hop askew like the Fresh Prince. “He makes sausage rolls,” his wife says. It’s clearly an arcane diss since he winces. They’ve dined, thanks to the prize, in the kind of high end restaurants Hollywood douches on cost-cutting location shoots take for granted. “We could never afford to do this,” some winners tell me. They all seem exhausted. Overfed. Overindulged. Glassy-eyed and torpid. Stuffed ticks.
SAB apparently issued little medical bags “with every pill you can imagine” to keep participants standing. I ask one of their brand dudes what the company has to say about beer as a destructive force, ruining lives and families, making cars pile up on freeways? “We have educational outreach programs,” he says. “We want people to drink responsibly.” Yeah and I want a locked underground facility with just me, Ecstasy and a bevy of naked Miss Teen USA contestants. Could happen.
The Grand itself is pretty. The roped off sliver of beach gives me Cannes vibes and there’s a bar out here made of beige graphite with muted back-lighting. All they have is Castle. Not even bottled water. Brand Nazism. Farty chillwave scatter-hop plays as divers emerge from the shoreline. It’s had shitty reviews, the Grand. Only good for sundowners is the chi chi consensus. They have a seafood pizza for R500. It feeds three allegedly. For tourists really, which is precisely what Castle has turned these good people into.
I feel the warm breeze of Hacklandia on my cheeks. This could be my life. In Country Road slip-ons and a Woolworths suit. Covering corporate events. Generating copy fluff for soccer moms, for trans-Atlantic flyers, for industry insiders and market leaders. I could buy a little place in Vredehoek on the back of it. I could hand-signal on a Vespa and follow trends and “make something of myself”. Oh you are good, Hacklandia! Nice try.
Finally, a moment with the star himself. Justin Bonello, the leading man of a pair of occasionally beguiling cooking shows on BBC Food, where he and other white 30-somethings eased around the country (and southern Africa) prepping on fold-out tables, heaping salads into bowls and baking in dustbins, is professionally adept at spilling the existential beans. To seem real. Within minutes of meeting him he’s offering up his dark place. “I was destitute,” he says. “Just a few years ago I had nothing.” And all I wanted to know was what’s in the array of potjies standing like blown up devil thorns over the coals! Peppered lamb neck is the answer. Deeply tender and redundantly accompanied by gummy gnocchi (Bonello’s MO as a cook is the unanticipated – hence the Wors Cannelloni and Thom Yum Goon Risotto in his admittedly lovely cookbook “Cooked in Africa”).
We’ll enjoy chilli mussels and delicious steamed bread for starters and a platter of roasted butternut and beetroot with pine nuts. Bonello is as approachable a cook as he is in person. He could push the boat out a little more (accessibility becomes too-easy very quickly) but that wouldn’t be him. And he’s one of us. He’s suffered. Seems the Platinum Group (Jenni Button, Hilton Wiener, Aca Joe) fucked him over. “They left me with R500k worth of merchandise.” But he, you know, bounced back. And here we are with Castles in our hands.
Later I watch Bonello sign copies of his book for the competition winners. None of them know who he is. The drunk sausage roll guy makes him sign his T-shirt. Everyone laughs. Then Dax sits for his book-signing. They hang arms over each other’s shoulders. They grin for the camera. I am deep in the heart of Hacklandia. An assistant asks me if I want my copy signed? This is it. Enter the circle of promotion or keep my distance, looking on? Let’s just say I’ll be re-gifting the book come December. It’s pages free of magic marker.
*Illustration © Alastair Laird.