The mysterious case of the Australian strawberries


For years I was an avid fan of Border Security: Australia's Front Line, the television program where nothing happens but you always suspect that something might. The series focusses on the mind-numbing and anal customs process demanded by Australian officials. 

Cliff-hangers come in the form of tinned goods inspections where someone may be hiding a grapefruit or other contraband. It is riveting stuff and I would recommend that you look for it on Netflix.

Given my fascination with Australian officialdom, I am somewhat dismayed at the latest news coming out of the country. In a place where an illegal bag of (salted) peanuts might cause runway 2 to be shut down indefinitely and where neighbours report others for parking violations primarily to create some excitement in their otherwise peaceful and blessed lives, there is finally some real news. 

And it's not good.

Someone, it would seem, is inserting needles into Australian strawberries. To date, no one has come to any harm (aside from the fruit) but the impact on the industry and on the psyche of Australians has not been insignificant. 

So much so that on September 19, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was left no choice but to confront this horror. Short of declaring a state of emergency (yet), he said that anybody who hid a needle in a strawberry was "a coward and a grub". 

Unfamiliar with the term "grub", I asked Google for assistance. There were two choices of potential meanings. The prime minister either meant that the person perpetrating this was an user of the "Free Software Foundation's Multiboot Specification, which provides a user the choice to boot one of multiple operating systems installed on a computer or select a specific kernel configuration available on a particular operating system's partitions" or that they were no better than a bag of beetle larvae. Given the fruit reference, I assume he meant the latter. 

"It's not a joke. It's not funny," he told reporters. "You are putting the livelihoods of hardworking Australians at risk, and you are scaring children." He added: "And if you do that sort of thing in this country, we will come after you, and we will throw the book at you."

If you watch Border Security as much as I do, you will know that he means it. His threat even worried me, and I have not been near a needle in years. Maybe even ever. 

Not that the "grub" has listened to his warning. There are now cases of needles being found in an apple, inside a banana and even in a slice of mango – according to headlines across the Australian press. 

For accuracy and honest reporting, one needs to note the singular use of the word apple, banana and that a singular needle was found in a slice of mango. Not even the whole fruit. As far as national crises are concerned, I can't imagine that anything that is not in the plural, although worrying, is worth getting worked up about. 

It might be that the South African context where at least 57 people are murdered each day, 69 000 people lost their jobs in the last quarter and the fact that the country's fiscus has all but been donated to a family who now resides in Dubai, blurs the seriousness of a strawberry prick. If you know what I mean. 

Australians are clearly upset by this and I can't help wondering if it is not time for Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba to fast-track some South African visas for those who have been traumatised by these occurrences. 

There is little chance that this would happen in South Africa, given that with the recession that we are facing, no one would waste a needle, let alone a slice of mango. 

The needle in the strawberry story will be solved long before South Africa exits the recession and long before the country re-employs the 69 000 people who lost their jobs last quarter. It is strange and it makes no sense. But every now and then it is wonderful to be able to say that with all our challenges, at least that is one thing that we don't need to worry about.  

- Feldman is the author of Carry on Baggage and Tightrope and the afternoon drive show presenter on Chai FM.

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