Lunch with the Queen

IT’S A SOGGY SATURDAY MORNING AND ANNA STARCKE, the Grande Dame of South African political analysis, has invited me for breakfast in her Kilarney flat. It’s an assault.

And it is not just Ms. Starcke herself – she is doused in a musky perfume, her blonde hair perfectly coifed, a bright pink glossed over her thin lips – her flat smacks the senses into overload. I can’t write fast enough. Mirrored walls, swathes of contemporary art, traditional African carvings – life-sized, dozens of them – and giant green leafy plants of every variety. Newspapers are stacked knee high, lining all available space, and business magazines sprout in carefully sorted piles along the stairwell.

Classical music filters out of her office computer. The screen barely emerges from her desk, surrounded by small mountains of books that are half opened, marked up, eaten alive.

“Where are you?” she calls to me.

“Here,” I raise my hand so she can see me, lost among the sculptures, next to the eight section floor-to-ceiling Chinese screen which hides her office from the rest of the living room display.

Our interview commences in the dining area. Fresh fruit, neatly sliced, croissants, scrambled eggs, and coffee are expertly prepared and delivered by Mrs. Mazibuko, as Ms. Starcke refers to Nnyadi Mazibuko, her domestic worker of 25 years. It’s a throwback to civility, eccentricity of the finest sort, an intellectual amusement park ride into the depths of the world of Ms. Starke: one part gallery, one part library, one part boudoir. To be in Ms. Starcke’s home is to traipse through her mind.

We talk about the collection of newspapers, magazines, books, her daily dose of must reads, from Business Day and The Star to the Financial Times, The New York Times, the Washington Post and Slate. She confesses her curse.

“I can’t bring myself to get rid them until I have read them,” she sighs. “When we have important things happening here, we have to bring them to the neighbors.”

But this is not an important thing – no soiree, no power players to attend to. Just another journalist. So the research stays intact, for reference, the building blocks of Starcke Realities, a biting, succinct media analysis delivered to select individuals and corporates throughout the country. Over the years she’s had corporates like ABSA, Barloworld, Liberty, Hollard and Mercedes Benz on her client list, some of which have stayed for more than 20 years.

“Anna does two things,” purrs longtime subscriber and former AngloGold Ashanti CEO Bobby Godsell. “She’s an insightful analyst of South Africa and the global political context in which business and society operates, and she’s a diligent researcher who digests everything into a crisp and informative newsletter. And she doesn’t simply translate things into campaign slogans.”

The Starcke Realities commentary is intended for guys like Godsell. It briefs those who don’t necessarily spend their entire waking hours consuming every type of media possible; those beings wholly unlike Ms. Starcke, who glutinously gobbles up media like an American housewife on bonbons. This massive home-based archive makes up the research, too, of her “conversations,” those briefings with the select corporates who line up to hear what she’s got to say on a more intimate level – a veritable all expenses paid tête-à-tête with one of the brightest minds in the country.

It’s politics, she says, with a small p. “I’m a profiler,” she tells me. “I think myself into people and situations. I read their body language, their facial expressions. You can find out masses like that.”

But what I want to know is how she got here.

She tells me: born in Germany, left school at the age of 15, went straight to work for the five-star hotels. And when the boy next door, artist Helmut Starcke, told her he wanted to take her to Africa, it seemed like a good a plan as any. He painted, she worked. In Cape Town’s antique shops, galleries, in bookstores. She educated herself about everything that came across her path.

Then she started freelance writing, ended up on staff at the now long-defunct monthly news magazine News/Check and later at the Financial Mail. In 1978 her book Survival – a series of interviews with power players like PW, Buthelezi, Oppenheimer and Motlana – was a must read. Her departing image in the book of the reigning regime and its corporate backers – “like children singing in a dark forest” – is signature Starcke. It was the book that launched her career into the dizzying heights of political analysis; a field non-existent in a politically imploding country. She went to work talking with management teams about how the political atmosphere of the country was changing, and the need to adapt or die.

But what made her clients stick with her for so long was her forecast on the labour movement as a serious power force. “My clients thought I was totally mad,” she says. But by the time the mid-eighties struck, she was proven right. And, in fact, in Ms. Starke’s version of the world she was always right. “I don’t want to sound like George Bush but I wasn’t egregiously wrong about anything,” she says. Except, that is, that she was nine to 14 months too early with her forcecasts.

And, according to Hilary Prendini-Toffoli and Gus Silber in Who’s Really Who in South Africa, that might not be far off: “Intimidatingly well-informed, this impeccably groomed intellectual strikes terror into the heart of anyone she happens to encounter at a cocktail party who has allowed his or her grasp of current affairs to slip a little.”

They catgorise her as not just an econo-political analyst and “behind-the-scenes race relations facilitator” but a hostess whose dinner parties and power lunches crossed the spectrum of South African society; today, Edwin Cameron, Cyril Ramaphosa, Dennis Beckett and the artist Carl Nel would make the cut.

In the foreword of Survival she offers up a little insight of her own. “I dislike labels,” she writes, “but if I have to pick one, it is that of a crusading moderate who refuses to except that people must be crushed between the narrow self-gratifying intellectual confines of the extremists on either the right or the left.”

Not much has changed. The crusading moderate is back on the case and we have to cut our interview short. Analysis calls. Jacob Zuma’s voice, fresh into his January 8 ANC speech, booms over the radio waves and into our conversation.

That’s when she invites me upstairs.

We head into her bedroom. An entire wall is lined with yet another bookcase crammed from with books – an achingly enviable collection which spreads, vine-like, into her library, her hallways, spaning every conceivable genre. You are as likely to find a Rolling Stone collection or review of the complete works of Van Gogh as you are to find Mark Gevisser’s book on Thabo Mbeki or an autographed copy of Alvin Tofler’s Third Wave.

Ms. Starcke steps up into her canopy bed; her cigarettes, coffee and ashtray balance on a tray over crisp white sheets. I take a seat in the director’s chair, facing the TV and an oversized painting of her and her daughter – circa eighties – and a patchwork of original artwork. I prepare for the analysis. The barrage begins.

There is an annoying buzz over JZ’s voice. Ms. Starcke wonders aloud if this is on purpose, some devious attempt at sabotage. She likes that he keeps looking up – Mbeki didn’t do that, that was his problem, she says. She wonders if the crowd is hearing what we are; the ANC brass lower their heads, press their palms into their brows, talk amongst themselves. She comments on how the light is hitting Zuma’s head, if that is hair sprouting through his otherwise shiny baldness. She considers the crowd breaking through the fences, recalling the soccer massacre in Ellis Park in 2001. The buzzing continues, his voice is now echoing. It’s completely incomprehensible, an audio disaster.
All of a sudden, Ms. Starcke lets out a yelp, like a wounded puppy. I turn to see her striking her fists in the air. This gaffe has struck her, like a stinging slap on her very flesh. She cannot stand to miss out, to have such an egregious lapse in media consumption, even if the text can be picked up online. Reluctantly, she gives up. We head downstairs.

I get my bag together, thank her for her time, shuffle past the piles of newspapers, magazines, the books splayed in every available space, the life-size carvings, the oversize canvases. And I reenter the land of the entirely ordinary.

We talk later in the week, the newsrooms and the streets abuzz with Mbeki, Zuma, Selebi, Kebble. The very future of South Africa crumbling before our eyes? Even the hard core believers are meeting with their emigration consultants. Should we all be packing our bags?

“Hell no,” she writes me in an email. “Having survived the Mandela and Mbeki administrations’ mismanagement of education, HIV/AIDS, corruption and infrastructure planning – not to mention the monumental disaster of the Nats before them – it would be crazy to throw in the towel now. Especially considering that many of the long-festering boils are close to bursting. Which, as any doctor will tell you, is a pre-condition for healing. Besides, Zuma’s NWC, leaving aside the not unusual quota of some four bad eggs, gives hope for an invigorated watchdog of the polity. Hysteria is out of place.”

Let’s hope the Grande Dame is right one more time.

April 2008, Maverick