Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, October 29, 2004

So Bush/Kerry wins. What now?
The US elections are four days away, and it seems to me that Bush will sneak again, probably without his team of lawyers this time. But the big question for me is, what next?

Whoever wins this election will be taking control of the seat of power with an incredibly weak mandate, serving a voting population that is polarised like none before it. Close to half of the voting public will go to the polls to keep the ultimate winner out, and will do so with incredibly strong convictions. The election campaign of 2000, coupled with the vitriolic nature of this one, has forged a populus that is staunchly entrenched in either camp. Add to that the major changes Bush has made in his term regarding America's style of foreign policy and interaction with the rest of the world, and there is simply no middle ground left.

The problem for the winner, is that the public will continue to judge policy decisions based on partisanship rather than merit, and this spells a danger for US democracy. This may be negated if the Republicans take control of the Senate and the House as is expected, but the public spectre remains. A Republican or Democratic policy agenda will mobilise resistance on either side and polarisation will deepen as half the US voters conclude that the US is heading in the wrong direction.

Election victory speeches extolling "unity" and "non-partisanship" will not ring true this time, and it is sure to be an acutely interesting first year of the eventual winner's term.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Saudi Media misinformation
Many pundits postulate on the reasons why the US is so hated by the Islamic world. Here's a clue. These two op-ed pieces from the Saudi Government Daily show some of the joys of the US' favourite ally: (via MEMRI)

Saudi Gazette Editorial: 'Bush the Nazi'
The Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh recently published an editorial titled "Bush the Nazi," referring to allegations that President George W. Bush's family had ties with the Nazis.

My personal favourite though:

Saudi Gazette: 'U.S. to Invade Pakistan'
In an article in the Saudi English daily The Saudi Gazette, Md. Maqdoom Mohiuddin wrote an op-ed and book review which exposes an alleged U.S. plot to invade Pakistan, and then later possibly Sudan, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey.

"The original plan is to invade Pakistan and occupy the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. It would seek India's help and allow India to annex Punjab, Sindh, and part of Kashmir under Pakistan rule.

"There have been rumors about a possible invasion of Pakistan but this is the first time this strategy of the U.S. is exposed. This is a very dangerous plan which will have unimaginable severe consequences and will put the survival of the world at stake.

"There is no doubt that the U.S. is the biggest enemy of Islam and the Muslims. It utilized Pakistan to bring down the former USSR, helped Pakistan form the Taliban and help the Taliban to come to power in Afghanistan. But when Afghanistan refused to allow passage of an oil pipeline it declared the Taleban as terrorists and, after 9/ll, attacked Afghanistan.

"After the destruction of Afghanistan, it sought the help of Pakistan through intimidation. Now it is not only trying to destabilize Pakistan but is also bent on dividing it. This is the worst example of friendship extended by the U.S., as Secretary of State Collin Powell recently avowed that Pakistan is the U.S. biggest and trusted ally outside NATO.

"The bomb blast in Pakistan and the sectarian fighting between the Sunnis and the Shiites show that the U.S. has started implementing its program.

And just a parting shot:
"President George W. Bush is also the biggest enemy of Islam. After 9/11, he openly advocated a Crusade and everyone in the world knows what a crusade is a war against the Muslims and total annihilation of the Muslims."

Can anyone say "fact check"?

Blair stumbles through the courts
Tony Blair has waded into the liberties of the courts by announcing plans whereby judges in child abuse and trials would be able to order that a broad range of earlier convictions be disclosed to jurors. In other prosecutions, juries will be told about previous convictions if they are similar to the charges being heard.

In my opinion, this is a serious breach of civil liberties and is not one the British government should be interfering with. Every case has to be dealt with on its merits, and it is incredibly prejudicial for a jury to be told of previous convictions, with the inherent result that you try defendants for previous crimes. In addition, there results a situation where the prosecution can set up "patsies" for the crimes in question, where police can "round up the usual suspects" and harass anybody with a previous conviction. It simply makes it too easy for police and the prosecution to make a weak case stick, thus undermining the presumed innocence of the defendant and weakening the strength of their justice system.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Satanists on board
"Chris Cranmer, 24, has been given the go-ahead by his captain to perform Satanic rituals on board the HMS Cumberland and is reportedly lobbying his employers to register Satanism as an official religion in the armed forces."

What's next?

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Mbeki for Nobel Prize?
I can't help but feel a bit ambivalent about the Economist's ambitious leap of logic in stating "South African President Thabo Mbeki should have been considered for the Nobel Peace Prize" instead of Kenyan Wangari Maathai. Considered, perhaps, but seriously considered?

The Economist says:
Today, the politician who has arguably done the most to end the world's worst wars is South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, who was instrumental in pushing Congo and Burundi from utter mayhem to shaky peace.
It goes on to say:
Ah yes, you say, but he has controversial views on AIDS. So does Ms Maathai, as it happens. As she reiterated last week, she thinks the virus was created by “evil-minded scientists” to kill blacks: “It is created by a scientist for biological warfare.”

It's an interesting, and in my opinion, rather generous conjecture by the Economist. Mbeki prides himself on foreign policy initiatives throughout Africa, but it is in my view a little too charitable to conclude that Mbeki was solely responsible for bringing peace to Congo and Burundi. I suppose many will submit that it was a lean year for Nobel Peace Prize candidates, and such was the selection of a rather controversial winner, but I still maintain the Mbeki has underlying faults in his foreign policy in the albatross Zimbabwe which would make his selection an even more controversial one.

Nontheless, any bit of good press in the Economist is welcome, but the muted response from Mbeki's spokesperson, Bheki Khumalo, infers that we can conclude that it's not being seen as a majorly credible endorsement.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sanity prevails
Let's hope Parliment has got the message after the rash decision earlier this month. Thabo Mbeki is expected to announce a salary increase of "between 5.5% and 6.2% for national office bearers - including ministers, deputy ministers and members of parliament - this week".

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

British aid money in SA
The Guardian has a real go at Blair's Labour party over the use of aid money to persuade South Africa to privatise its public services. The Guardian, somewhat patronisingly, argues that the South African government's naivete (they actually use the word "suckered") has meant that they have accepted Britain's "interference" in the privatisation of our economy with somewhat callous consequences.

The Labour government took South African civil servants on a tour of privately financed British hospitals, and took the private financiers on a tour of South Africa. The South African government, unaware that Britain's private finance initiative rests upon nine separate kinds of public fraud and false accounting, began commissioning its new hospitals and prisons by the same means and from the same British companies. Now, suckered again by a new round of trade fairs and ministerial visits, it has begun to permit foreign companies to move in on its essential public services. Making a bed for them requires "cost recovery" and "marketisation", which is why pre-paid meters are now being imposed upon the people of Phiri and Orange Farm.

It goes on to say:

Britain's Department for International Development (DfID) is plainly breaking the law. The International Development Act forbids it from spending money for any purpose other than the elimination of poverty. It might also have broken the rules forbidding it to link aid money to deals for specific British businesses. DfID funds or has recently funded (it has so far been unable to tell me whether or not the scheme is still current) something called the "British investment in South Africa promotion scheme", which promotes "business-to-business links" between companies in the UK and companies in South Africa. What this is doing inside a foreign aid department, no one can say.

It's worth a read nonetheless...

Friday, October 15, 2004

Kudos to Ramos
South Africa's Maria Ramos was yesterday named at number 29 on Fortune's Global 50 Most Powerful Women in the World list. An awesome accolade for a very astute business leader.

Tsvangari acquitted
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangari has escaped the most lethal of Mugabe's bullets, but still has one to go. As was predicted , Tsvangari was acquitted of high treason for the trumped-up 'assassination attempt' on Mugabe. Whilst many were predicting that he would be found guilty under Zanu-PF pressure on the judiciary, the risk of political upheaval was he to be found guilty (and thus given the death penalty) was simply too high for Mugabe. The world seems to be content to watch the political persecution of Tsvangari, but one doubts whether that would hold for political assassination.

Tsvangari, however, moves swiftly along to his next treason trial next month, in which he is accused of encouraging riots to topple Mugabe.

Is Al-Qaeda a myth?
The BBC commences this week with a documentary series entitled "The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear" which builds the premise that Al Qaeda is not the global strategic terror network that the world's media (and administrations) are suggesting. The Guardian reports:

The Power of Nightmares seeks to overturn much of what is widely believed about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The latter, it argues, is not an organised international network. It does not have members or a leader. It does not have "sleeper cells". It does not have an overall strategy. In fact, it barely exists at all, except as an idea about cleansing a corrupt world through religious violence.

Curtis' evidence for these assertions is not easily dismissed. He tells the story of Islamism, or the desire to establish Islam as an unbreakable political framework, as half a century of mostly failed, short-lived revolutions and spectacular but politically ineffective terrorism. Curtis points out that al-Qaida did not even have a name until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation.

Curtis also cites the Home Office's own statistics for arrests and convictions of suspected terrorists since September 11 2001. Of the 664 people detained up to the end of last month, only 17 have been found guilty. Of these, the majority were Irish Republicans, Sikh militants or members of other groups with no connection to Islamist terrorism. Nobody has been convicted who is a proven member of al-Qaida.

It's a controversial look at the use of Al-Qaeda as a political tool to keep the population's fear directed under a particular name. Bush has little hope of crushing terrorism in his limited four year term(s), but he can show what he is achieving in crushing the Al-Qaeda network in particular, something that is a lot more tangible to the public.

The debate loses its relevance in the real world of terror, as Al-Qaeda or not, terrorism occurs around the world almost daily at present, and the terrorists do not need to hide under a name to achieve their aims of maiming and killing. But it does seem to represent a logical argument as to how it is easier for the media and for governing powers to funnel an intangible ideological behavior such as terrorism into a specifically named identity that can be the focus of the world's fear. Whilst I would not agree, as some claim, that Osama bin Laden is a 'patsy', some sort of latter-day Lee Harvey Oswald, I do think that it is expedient for political leaderships to place much of the war against terrorism under Al-Qaeda, based in convenience as opposed to fact. The media tag along as it is easier for them to communicate under this methodology, naming various Islamic extremist groups as "affiliated to Al-Qaeda". I also believe that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many young terrorists become drawn to the aura and idealism that Al-Qaeda represents, and go on to undertake terrorist activities under the loose banner of Al-Qaeda. The documentary would surely make an interesting evening's viewing, though I doubt we will get to see it in South Africa.

In any case, I would just be grateful if we could agree on Al-Qaida/Al-Qaeda/Al-Quaeda's spelling?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Selebi is new Interpol president
SA Police Comissioner Jackie Selebi was sworn in last week as Interpol's new president, commencing a four-year term. This is a strong affirmation of Selebi's leadership given Interpol's high international profile, and it's surprising that there was very little media coverage of his appointment.

Leon crosses the line
Tony Leon yesterday questioned Mbeki's role in the arms deal scandal, which in my opinion, is incredibly premature. Thabo Mbeki is the president of South Africa, and none of his immediate colleagues have yet been found guilty of wrongdoing in the arms deal. That is not to say that it may not happen, but to be attempting to associate Mbeki in this mess at this juncture is a desperate and iniquitous insinuation.

Mbeki deserves more respect than that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Somebody was laughing when this guy was ordained... Click here

Conservatives on the march
Aussie PM John Howard is all business after gaining what has been described as "the most powerful mandate in a generation" in the recent Australian elections. He's stated that his party's newfound powers will be set to fulfilling its conservative mandate in extending anti-terrorism laws (and infuriating privacy advocates with measures that include the surveillance of emails and text messages) and pushing through legislation that liberalises Aussie media and telecoms ownership. Howard's coalition government should have control of both the lower houses of parliment, allowing them to largely rubber stamp legislation.

As a key US ally, Howard's re-election is an obvious boon to Bush. A Labour election victory would have seen Australian troops pulled out of Iraq, which would have been a crippling psychological blow to Bush's 'coalition of the willing' and of significant detriment to his election campaign.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Zuma: Damaged Goods?
The ubiquitous Shabir Shaik trial gets underway this morning, and he'll be in the dock with Zuma's reputation sitting firmly on his shoulders. To be honest, I don't have much interest in Shaik's ultimate guilt or innocence, I find my interest more focussed in the consquences on the Presidential succession debates.

Zuma has long been touted, above likely candidates Nkosazana-Zuma and Trevor Manuel, as Mbeki's natural successor, a factor which many suggest has embroiled him in the arms scandal under the shadowy world of power politics. His standing within the ANC party leadership is strong, and he has many supporters in high places. This is undoubtedly a reason behind the substantial power battles that went on behind the scenes in the wake of his naming in the arms scandal as well as the debacle with Bulelani Ncuka, and is also the probable reason behind him not being directly brought to trial in this matter.

What I'm interested in though, is what this has done to Zuma's Presidential aspirations. A report released by Markinor over the weekend, which was subject to some highly questionable reporting, gives some marginal insight into the general population's mood. Markinor states that 34% of South Africans believe that Zuma is innocent, but an additional 45% percent of those polled were unable to offer an opinion. I would extrapolate that the majority of those 45% either knew so little about the Zuma issue, or effected no interest in its outcome, that the actual outcome of the Shaik trial would not have any impact on almost 80% of those polled.

This would consequentially infer that the ANC party structure would be able to make their suggestions on the succession without a particular mandate from the ANC voting population about Zuma, as they would be largely non-committal about his perceived guilt. But what of within the ANC party? Smuts Ngonyama, head of the ANC presidency, said: “As the ANC we have confidence in the Deputy President, and have no reason to doubt his integrity. We have full confidence that the [court] process will vindicate the Deputy President’s position.” That belies much of the internal battles that occur within the powerful upper echelons of the ANC, and much could be made after the commencement of the succession debates about Zuma's linkage with the arms scandal, and we could perhaps experience the first real bit of 'dirty' electioneering in the ANC's short post-Apartheid history.

The real challenge though, will no doubt come from outside the party's borders, from the opposition. One can see Tony Leon and other opposition leaders wringing their hands at the prospect of a messy Shaik trial, and it is patently obvious that the opposition will not miss a beat in leveraging the scandal in the likely event of Zuma being involved in the succession debates. However, in this current ANC dominated parliment, this pressure may be difficult to transfer into a striking of Zuma's name from the candidates.

It seems to me that the current muddying of Zuma's name will have little real effect on his chances for Presidential succession amongst the greater voting population, and within the ANC itself. It gives an easy platform for his rivals to plant themselves, but it by no means pushes him out of the set of hopefuls.

The Shabir Shaik trial will no doubt hold much mud-slinging, especially with Zuma in mind, and it will be very interesting for Markinor to conduct their recent poll in a few months (or years...) after judgement in the trial, to ascertain the public's mood once more. The apparent 'ease' of the last two years of Zuma's involvement in the scandal will largely be tested in the coming months, and the succession question will only be truly concluded then, but I would imagine that Zuma's involvement means little to the majority of South Africans, who are not concurrent with political affairs.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Parlimentary hypocrisy
I think it is incredibly hypocritical for parliment to be recommending to give themselves a 7% wage increase, with the dust not yet having settled from a bitter argument between government and public servants. After putting the country through a strike by not allowing a 7% raise to the public servants, this action by the Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers is incredibly short-sighted.

Of course the numbers are vastly different, over a million workers versus a few hundred, but Parliment sets the tone for the country's leadership, and if upheld, it will be a real stab in the back for public service. In Mbeki's second 'delivery' term, it will also continue to undermine the relationship between politicians and the public service that has to deliver on their promises, which will always come back to bite the hand that feeds...

Iraq WMD report gets the media treatment
I've spoken before about the consistent superiority of political expediency over independent tribunals and investigations, especially in this critical US election year, and another case in point is the latest Iraq weapons report from the chief US weapons inspector. The report had clearly been exposed to Democratic and Republican decision-makers before its publication with the result that again, a critical report bears something for both sides to cling to. The report's main finding is that there were no WMD's in Iraq when the US waged its justification for the war, and its resultant invasion. However, the report states that Saddam "sought to sustain the requisite knowledge base to restart the program eventually." This on its own is a fairly innocuous statement. Considering that he had no complete nuclear capability before 1991, this capacity refers to chemical weapons and the beginnings of a nuclear research program, which "requisite knowledge" would be held by a significant number of global countries. I'm pretty sure South Africa, after dismantling its weapons program, still holds the "requisite knowledge" to restart its WMD program 'eventually'.

It also included are some bizarre references to Saddam Hussein having tried to bribe foreign diplomats to get off his case. In a weapons report?

The obvious result is that each side carries in their loyal media the different angles on the report:

The Washington Post (Democrat-leaning): Weapons That Weren't There
The Washington Times (Republican-leaning): Saddam worked secretly on WMDs
The New York Times (Democrat-leaning): U.S. Report Finds Iraqis Eliminated Illicit Arms in 90's
The New York Post (Republican-leaning): Suck-ups for Saddam's Oil

The rest of the world's media, predominantly less interested in the report's impact on election politics, (UK excluded) carries the main thrust if the report's message about the lack of WMD's, including our own media:

News24 (SA)
Mail and Guardian (SA/UK)
Turkish Press (Turkey)
Sify News (India)
Xinhua (China)
Globe and Mail (Canada)
Gulf Daily News (Bahrain)
Daily Times (Pakistan)

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Those aluminium tubes
After struggling in last Thursday's debate, the Bush administration was on the back foot again after reports pronouncing the only solid evidence used by the administration to 'prove' Saddam was developing WMD's, as incorrect.

In the lead up to the Iraq war, Bush's attack dogs, Condolleeza Rice and Dick Cheney, were doing the talk show rounds confirming that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons on the basis of the discovery of a sale of high-strength aluminium tubes to Iraq. Rice stated that the tubes were "only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," and that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Vice President Cheney went even further, saying "he knew 'for sure' and 'in fact' and 'with absolute certainty'" that Hussein was buying the equipment to build a weapon. Cheney claimed: "He [Saddam] has reconstituted his nuclear program". Rice also claimed in July 2003 that "the consensus view" in the intelligence community was that the tubes "were suitable for use in centrifuges to spin material for nuclear weapons."

This assertion has been steadily eroded by the reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee, UN experts and the 9/11 commission, and in a lengthy story in Sunday's NY Times. The NY Times reports that:

"Even though Iraq had a history of using the same tubes to make small rockets, the president and his closest advisers told the American people that the overwhelming consensus of government experts was that these new tubes were to be used to make nuclear bomb fuel.

The tubes-for-bombs theory was the creation of a low-level C.I.A. analyst who got his facts, even the size of the tubes, wrong. It was refuted within 24 hours by the Energy Department, which issued three papers debunking the idea over a four-month period in 2001, and by the International Atomic Energy Agency. A week before Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, in which he warned of an Iraqi nuclear menace, international experts in Vienna had dismissed the C.I.A.'s theory about the tubes. The day before, the International Atomic Energy Agency said there was no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program and rejected the tubes' tale entirely."

It also stated that the tubes were the wrong size, "too narrow, too heavy, too long" for a centrifuge. They had a special coating to protect them from the weather, which was "not consistent" with use in a centrifuge, as it could cause bad reactions with uranium. They were ill-suited for bomb making.

The story got a lot of publicity, and to exacerbate matters even further, Donald Rumsfeld was quoted yesterday, after being asked about the links between Hussein and Bin Laden, which was again a construct of support for the war, as saying that "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two".

In response to the latest reporting on the aluminium tubes, Rice hit the talk shows on Sunday evening. Appearing on ABC News This Week, she turned on her previously rock-solid assertions admitted she in fact knew at the time that intelligence analysts were locked in intense debate over the issue. "I knew that there was a dispute. I actually didn't really know the nature of the dispute."

Bush also came out firing yesterday, denouncing Kerry's policies as "dangerous for world peace". Once again, this illustrates the Bush team's skills in controlling the news cycle, as most papers carried this sensationalist claim by Bush as their leader story, with secondary reporting on the tubes thus limiting the damage done through publicity. As I've discussed before, the Bush team is incredibly adept at forcing the Kerry campaign to respond to his press claims, thus forcing his choice of campaign issues to the fore. It is a communication strategy that has proved to be highly successful in the run-up to the elections.

The tubes were one of the final vestiges of support that the Bush administration has been clinging to in its stubborn justification for its war on Iraq, and there can be very few sane minds that refute that it was a hawkish action of political, rather than global security, significance. Saddam Hussein was a repressive, brutal tyrant, and the world is a better place for having him gone, but the political timing of this unilateral war, as well as the acute impact that the war has had on international relations, and particularly on Muslim extremism, was not worth the cost.

This is just one of a myriad of sub-themes that is at play in this election, and I have no doubt that the Republican army will be able to drown it out under a plethora of attacks on Kerry. The Democrats have been consistently exposed as being weak in taking advantage of these news cycles, and I suggest that this case will be no different. If you polled US voters this week regarding their thoughts on the justification of the Iraq war and compared it to polls conducted last week, I would venture to say they would remain largely unchanged...

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Backup Boys Debate
With the latest Newsweek polls showing that Kerry's favourable showing in last Thursday's debate has closed the gap between Bush and himself, Tuesday's Cheney-Edwards debate is crucial in either extending the Kerry-Edwards momentum, or slowing it. It's a scintillating matchup, with experienced trial lawyer, but political newbie, Edwards against 30-year political veteran Cheney. Edwards is inherently eloquent and posseses the personal injury lawyer's skill of framing his dialogue to mould the audience's perceptions of the issue. But it will remain an open question whether this will be enough against the tough, uncompromising and consummate politician that is Dick Cheney. For those with DSTV (and insomnia), the debate will be broadcast at about 3AM on Wednesday.

Friday, October 01, 2004

I've been using Gmail for about a month now and have been very impressed by the features (and the space). I've got three Gmail accounts to give away, preference given to SA bloggers. Drop me a comment with an email address, or email me on the email link on the right hand side bar and I'll send invites...