Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mbeki on Freedom Day
Whilst he was clearly cribbing notes from a certain 1960's US president, Mbeki's "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech at yesterday's Freedom Day celebrations was both salient and timeous. As I have been discussing recently, our country's past has seared prejudicial nuance into our daily lives, and it takes a conscious effort to change thought processes and challenge our everyday assumptions.

Mbeki said: "We should ask ourselves whether through our actions we have contributed to the transformation of our country or whether we have blocked its advance away from our apartheid past. We should ask ourselves whether we have worked towards the goal of a country whose citizens are equal or whether we have sought to entrench the inequalities of the past."

Whilst Mbeki was undoubtedly talking to those actively blocking transformation, I do believe that we all have to heed the call and make the conscious effort to consider transformation in our own minds. It's not the obvious actions that neccessarily block transformation, its the nuance of prejudice that has to be confronted, challenged and beaten if we are to move forward as a truly integrated and 'free' nation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Sound familiar?
The Nation carries a (naturally biased) report on "Bush's War on the Press".

"The White House and its supporters are doing more than just talking trash--when they talk at all. They are taking aggressive action: preventing journalists from doing their job by withholding routine information; deliberately releasing deceptive information on a regular basis; bribing friendly journalists to report the news in a favorable context; producing their own "news reports" and distributing these free of charge to resource-starved broadcasters; creating and crediting their own political activists as "journalists" working for partisan operations masquerading as news organizations."

IDASA gives SA a limited grade
The IDASA study into South Africa's democracy was released yesterday, giving SA a 63% on their democracy index. Particular notice was given to the strength of the democracy, heavily credited to President Mbeki, but there were significant caveats as well, specifically around the incessant growth in inequality and the continued poverty problems in the country.

Poverty was always going to be the perennial kicker in post-Apartheid democracy. Much has been made of the fact that more people have moved into unemployment and poverty in the fifteen years since Mandela's release than those before it, but one has to look at educational realities to find answers. In the absolute destruction of non-white education by the Apartheid state, finding its sweet spot in the mid-70's, a generation of non-white students were largely bullied out of education, forced to learn in Afrikaans and given no support from the state. This was also at a time of exponential growth in the non-white population. What resulted is a glut of unskilled labour that started to hit the employment market just around the time of Mandela's release. These workers, many of them rural, had few skills to offer employers and struggled to find employment, thus reinforcing the cycle of poverty and unemployment.

This may seem like an unnatural rationale for the poverty problems prevalent in our country, but I do believe that one has to look at circumstances beyond simple statistics. The Apartheid state delivered, by design, a huge pool of unskilled labour for the economy's main drivers in resource mining but the problem was, they delivered too much of it. After Mandela's term, which was largely tasked with keeping the country out of civil war, Mbeki started his term needing to position South Africa in the world community, stabilise the democracy, and drive employment to alleviate poverty. I agree with a recent book review in the Financial Mail (no link available but found in edition 8/04/05) that postulates that Mbeki had to turn his back on a purely welfare based state to position his government away from its socialist/communist associations to attract foreign direct investment into the country, improve credit risk profiles and build the economy. Mbeki also determined the wisdom of keeping the money in the economy to diminish the forward book inherited from Chris Stal's days and to improve South Africa's debt profile. This then would allow South Africa to move to a longer term vision of poverty reduction driven out of employment gains rather than handouts. This is the situation that we find ouselves in now. It took a decade to solidify the macro-economic picture, and Mbeki's recent state of the union address specifically moved to targeting poverty alleviation off the back of this stability.

Whilst the basic income grant remains controversial, the government has set in place a number of initiatives aimed squarely at the reduction of poverty. Whilst I completely acknowledge that I am speaking from a position of privelage, not poverty, I do believe that Mbeki and his finance department have done the best that they could have to develop the economy to a place where we can start to make real gains against poverty in South Africa, and most improtantly, that they are based in sustainable employment, rather than handouts.

Monday, April 25, 2005

ANC in the hot seat over assassination
The investigation into the assassination of senior ANC official Noby Ngombane is turning over some rather large stones, with some serious repercussions for the ANC as a party. News24 reports that a "senior African National Congress leader in the Free State and a senior official of the party's provincial office in Bloemfontein allegedly conspired and paid an assassin from Bethlehem to kill Ngombane".

This is an acutely troubling accusation for the ANC. Whilst one would assume that this is an act of a few rogue individuals, the alleged use of party coffers to pay for the assassination is a worrying sign for ANC transparency and protocol. It is clear that there were significant rifts within the ANC's Free State leadership, but political assassination by party members damages the reputation of the ANC as a political entity. If proven, the ANC will be hard-pressed to effectively spin the convictions as an independent act as opposed to a party mindset.

Comments made by Noby's wife, Nokwanda, at his funeral, only add further petrol to the flames. She was quoted as saying that "an atmosphere of destruction of Ngombane's personal dignity and spirit began long before the assassin took his life. A climate has been created which justifies the pulling of the trigger, so that when the time came, it appears as if the murderers were doing the Free State province a favour".

This was naturally refuted by the ANC's Free State head Ace Mageshule, who stated that the ANC would "never allow members that are murderers". Nevertheless, it presents a tricky challenge for the ANC. How much support do they lend to their Free State politicians without running the risk of being perceived to be protecting real criminals in their midst?

Expect the DA attack dogs to come out snarling...

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The USA's Global Health Corps
Manto better get her trenches dug, because the Yankees are a comin'. That's according to a report released recently outlining proposals for a Global Health Corps of US volunteers (similar to the Peace Corps) which will be tasked primarily with rolling out AIDS programs in developing countries. The report states
"In a 199-page report, "Healers Abroad: Americans Responding to the Human Resource Crisis in HIV/AIDS," the panel proposed an initial Global Health Service Corps of 150 members. They would be government employees who would be sent to one of the 15 target countries in PEPFAR -- 12 nations of sub-Saharan Africa, plus Haiti and Guyana in the Caribbean and Vietnam in Southeast Asia -- and would work there for three years, primarily as advisers and trainers to health ministries and organizations."
One can only imagine Manto turning them away at the airports...

Monday, April 18, 2005

Time on SA's continued racial divisions
Time magazine carries an erudite feature article on South Africa's ongoing racial divisions which points out the serious work to be done after the rainbow period of Mandela's presidency.

I've always been a realist, and I am incessantly surprised by people's need to believe that the past 50 years of SA's history can be solved in a decade. For white and black alike, Apartheid has carved conscious and subconscious preferences and prejudices that cannot be shaken without internal dialogue and external reinforcement of opposing positions. (Anyone who disagrees, go and take the implicit association test on race here) What's not helping, is that according to an IJR poll mentioned in the article, South Africans are not mixing socially. Time quotes the study as stating "that 32% of South Africans still do not approve of their child sitting next to a kid from a different race in the classroom, and although just over half of those surveyed approve of living in a neighborhood in which half their neighbors are from a different racial group, 51% would not approve of a close relative marrying a person of another race. White people are particularly wary of interracial marriage; just 16% say they would approve of a close relative taking the plunge with a black, Indian or colored person."

Decades of oppression of our black population and decades of propaganda and psychological programming of whites is not something that can be wished away. Whilst it unfortunately has commonly been abused, I am a supporter of BEE and of affirmative action when relating to people of equal merit, and I am a supporter of affirmative action in some of our sport teams that have been slow in accepting transformation. The worst, and most prevalent, form of prejudice is nuance, and it is nuance that these policies look to redress. Second thoughts about drinking from a water cooler that a black person has just drank from, believing that a black person could not handle that tough project, or a thought that a black person is less intelligent because he or she speaks with a Xhosa lilt when speaking English.

Whites will continue to be affronted by these policies, but there are few realistic alternatives out there. As young people, us whites feel especially aggrieved, as we claim that we were too young to have benefited from Apartheid, and are paying for the "sins of the fathers". This is naivete. Our parents, even those liberals that joined Black Sash and marched on Parliament, still benefited from the Apartheid system, benefited from reserved jobs, benefited from an economy growing off the sweat of black workers, and thus we, as young whites, still acquire the springboard impossible for the majority of black youths our age. Even now, if one compares white education to black education, there are few parallels that can be drawn.

To disown racial division in South Africa requires conscious effort on the part of all its citizens. Racism (on both sides of the racial spectrum) will not just fade in to the night, we all have to take directed effort in challenging our assumptions, tolerating our differences, and carrying the burden of government policies to assist in transformation. Only through these efforts will we be able to create a platform for the second 'miracle', the emergence of a truly non-racial and free society in South Africa.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The slipping state of our journalism
Forgive me for this rant, but I am incessantly appalled by the state of writing in South African newspapers. Here is a case in point. This is an entire article taken from the IOL site:

SA lose first Test against Argentina

April 14 2005 at 03:47PM

Buenos Aires - South Africa lost their opening Test against Argentina 5-2 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday night.

The Spar Women's National Team, ranked 12th in the world, took the lead in the 16th minute through vice-captain Marsha Marescia before FIH Women's Player of the Year Luciana Aymar equalised in the
21st minute.

But South Africa hit back through Candice Forward to take a 2-1 lead into half-time.

Argentina equalised again five minutes after the interval through captain Magdalena Aicega and then took the lead through Carla Rebecchi in the 53rd minute and Aicega in the 55th minute.

The skipper ended a brilliant performance with a hat-trick one minute before fulltime. - Sapa

Anyone want to guess what sport it is?

Political blog readership in the US
Quite an amazing stat from the Wall Street Journal. 40% of Americans online have read a political blog, and more than a quarter of them visit a political blog at least once a month.

And people say blogs aren't a powerful source of debate?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A test we should all do
I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell's writing, both in the New Yorker and his fantastic book "The Tipping Point". So I bought his new book "Blink" on Friday, and spent the weekend up in Bains Kloof devouring it. While not as good (IMO) as The Tipping Point, it gives some fascinating insight into how humans make snap decisions. One of the most interesting things he discusses is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which is a online test run by Harvard University that gauges your subconscious association between factors. The test asks you to distinguish faces of European and African origin along with associated words, ultimately indicating whether you have an automatic preference for white over black. Gladwell notes in Blink that most people in the US, including Black people, have an automatic preference for Whites. This finds its antecedent in the media world, business world and social world, where White people are largely given more face time. Given our more recent past in South Africa, most Black people would have a natural association of Whites and evil, so that preference would undoubtedly be reversed.

It's a fascinating test to undertake though, and it opens your subconscious bare. I ended up with a "slight automatic preference for white people" which surprised me at first, but when we consider what the Apartheid environment we've grown out of, I suppose that it is a subconscious stream that is still working its way out. A range of tests, including the race test, is available on the Harvard site. Give it a go, and let me know how you scored, and how you felt about it...

Monday, April 11, 2005

Mugabe's Red Herring?
Zimbabwe's state-run Herald newspaper reported today that 822 white farmers are going to be given compensation by the Mugabe government for being 'relieved' of their farms. The paper went on to quote Zimbabwe's Land Reform and Resettlement Minister John Nkomo as inviting "former owners or representatives to contact the ministry as a matter of urgency in connection with their compensation".

Could this be a face-saving method for Mugabe to bring these farmers back into the crippled Zimbabwean agricultural sector? One could easily see through this 'invitation' as being an effective way to get former farmers to contact the government, who, quite reasonably, could offer these farmers some of their land back in return for improving the state of Zimbabwe's agricultural output. Zimbabwe's agriculture production has plummeted, from providing 50% of all export earnings in 2000 to 11% at the end of 2003, according to an independent study.

It may be an impossible scenario, but given those figures, it may be a reasonable response to a desperate situation.

FW Hits Alzheimers
Whilst we all knew this was the case during the regional NNP conferences about six months past, the NNP finally took the well supported step of disbanding the party over the weekend. This was an inevitable step heralded by the party's past, and delayed only by the misguided notion that if they added a word onto the party brand, all would be forgiven. Subject closed.

What I did find interesting were FW de Klerk's equally and somewhat inexplicably misguided comments about the "void" in political opposition left by the dissolution. Is he serious? A party without roots and without a leader, a party that garnered an absolutely marginal level of support in the last election, a party that has been engulfed by the ANC itself? FW has clearly fallen out of step with the realities of the South African political lanscape and, more especially, the realities of the pathetic state of his party. Perhaps he wishes he was there leading the charge against the ANC, with his crew of henchmen underneath him. Whatever the case, FW de Klerk has no foundation to be calling for a stronger opposition to come out of the NNP. South Africa has moved on, and its high time De Klerk stopped clinging by his fingernails to the party that birthed Apartheid and took his rightful place in the political wilderness.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Empathy flounders at The Guardian
The Guardian has once again wasted no time in showing their seeming obligation to deliver moralistic rantings in the face of mourning. This time the papacy is under fire, on the day that they're lowering Pope John Paul II into the crypt below St Peter's, with a caustic editorial by Guardian journo Polly Toynbee. Toynbee castigates the papacy for his Catholic conservatism, stating that he has "caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world."

She goes on to state:

"He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost. How dare our prime minister go there in our name to give the Vatican our approval for this? Will he think of Africa when on his knees today? I trust history will some day express astonishment at moral outrage wasted on sexual trivia while papal celebrity and charisma cloaked this great Vatican crime."

What editor commits these rantings to print on the day a world leader is buried? As much as the Guardian deplores George Bush, one doubts that they would have the fibre to publish such vitriol the day he was buried. I am an absolutist on free speech, but moral empathy should be given some thought, none the least by editors, in times like these. Religion has always drawn criticism from the far left, none more so than Catholicism, and it is perhaps for this exact reason that Toynbee feels the need to reach for the extremes of criticism. Antecedent or not, and whether I support th papacy views on contraception (I don't), this article is misguided and mistimed.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Ubiquitous Terri Schiavo
Even on the unblemished beaches of northern Brazil, Terri Schaivo was making headlines in every newspaper. I returned from honeymoon to a postbox stuffed with The Economist, Time, Financial Times and other media extolling the various viewpoints on the issue that cleared forests of newsprint around the world. In the end, I'm glad it's all over, although it has raised some important discussive issues in the global psyche on the right to live.

My personal view, assuming Terri's husband's virtue, is that this was never a "right to life" debate, because Terri Schiavo had enunciated her wish to revoke her very right to life. This was a political debate from day one, and even last week, CNN reported polls showing the overwhelming majority of Americans supporting Schiavo's right to remove her feeding tube. This was a fight hijacked by Bush's Christian Right support, and the US political ponies' dancing to the music was evident to see. Congress coming in on a Sunday for an emergency sitting, forcing the Federal Courts to hear the case again? George Bush flying back from holiday to sign a bill into law? Governor Bush forcing the case to the Florida courts? I joined in the US population's irritation at the politcal involvement in the case.

However, my most important take out of the whole debacle was the strength of the separation of the judiciary and state. Here was a Governor, Congress, Senate and President pleading the case, and yet the Federal Court failed, no less than 6 times, to bow to the pressure. To me, that's a model of a strong fucntioning government.