Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, April 28, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on police lineups
Malcolm Gladwell posts some insights into the effect of race of the success of police lineups on his blog, and it makes for interesting reading. He makes the comments with specific reference to the case in the US were a number of (white) lacrosse players from Duke University are alleged to have raped a black stripper.

The victim picked out two players from the lacrosse team from photographs of all the players, and the two were indicted by a grand jury on that foundation. Gladwell argues that too much weight is given to lineups, as a human's ability to perceive memories with such detail is often flawed. This is more so when dealing with cross-race identification (I.e. a white person identifying a black person or vice versa).

Gladwell states:
"The problem seems to be that when we encounter someone from a different group we process them at the group level. We code the face in our memory under the category black or white, and not under the category of someone with, say, an oval face and brown eyes and a prominent chin. Race, in other words, trumps other visual features that would be more helpful in distinguishing one person from another. Why do we do this? One idea is simply that itÂ?s a result of lack of familiarity: that the more we Â?knowÂ? a racial type, the more sophisticated our encoding becomes. Another idea is that itÂ?s a manifestation of in-group/out-group bias. The thing about coding by group and not by facial feature is that itÂ?s a lot faster. And from an evolutionary standpoint, youÂ?d want to use quicker processing methodologies in dealing with those who come from unfamiliarÂ?and potentially unfriendlyÂ?groups. The bottom line is that the adage that Â?all blacks look the sameÂ? to whites (and all whites look the same blacks) has some real foundation."

This naturally has significant ramifications in a society like ours, especially in apartheid days when white people were actively encouraged by the state to think that "all blacks look the same", and where many black people were undoubtedly unjustly collared from identifications that were based on this premise.

Not that the police really tried to account for these flaws; I can remember when I was young, having police bringing back car-loads of black people from the train station after a robbery at our house, just because "they were running and were suspicious". I can remember, as young as I was, how frightened those guys were, as they were undoubtedly just running to catch the train, yet the police were encouraging us to point the finger at someone - anyone - so that they could get back to the police station.

It really does make you wonder how many innocent people are languishing in our jails from a result of these inherent identification biases.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Nepalese Victory
The rolling protests in Nepal, led by the country's students, have brought welcome democracy to Nepal, with the monarch finally caving in to demands to allow a new parliament to rewrite the constitution with full democratic rights inherent. This was a substantial victory for a people long denied any voice in the direction of their own state, and a major blow to communist influence in the small mountain state, as the monarch was long seen as being in the pockets of Nepal's Moaist leadership.

I'm always pleased to see a rising democracy in any state without individual rights, and most especially so, when it seems to have come from the sentiment of it's own people, rather than from foreign interference. That truly, is democracy...

Monday, April 24, 2006

Zille under attack
New Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille's weekend excursion turned nasty, with alleged "ANC supporters" throwing chairs at her in the hall, and stones at her car. ANC supporters or not, abusing an elected official violently again paints a poor picture of our country's respect for democracy. The arrogance of the ANC within the regional government shone through again, with the local ANC councilor Depoutch Elese stating that the reason she was abused was because "people were angry she had not 'followed procedure' and informed him of her visit."

This is arrogance and disrespect of the highest order. The fact that the ANC feels that the Mayor has to gain their permission to enter one of her districts speaks volumes. Zille claims that those attacking her were "wearing ANC T-shirts" and that the attack was "undoubtedly planned". Not being there, it's difficult to make comments on those statements, but the ANC councilor's attitude certainly lends credence to the claim.

Unfortunately for Zille, what these protagonists have done is create a perception that she, and the DA, is not welcome in certain sections of the Cape, which immediately is divisive and infers that she does not hold legitimacy for members of the electorate. This lack of support is natural in a democracy, but physical violence is not.

The ANC should take a hard look at what is going on in the Western Cape.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Somalia: A return to the past
Whilst Somalia is by no means classified as a peaceful state, the relative calm since the failed US missions of the early Nineties has been shattered in recent weeks in renewed violence between the local warlords and Islamic factions. On Friday, it was reported that the Islamists have "declared Jihad" on the warlords, further raising the stakes on the violence as that is sure to attract other Islamic fighters from around the world. This is sure to escalate, and in a place as lawless as Mogadishu, there is little the world can do by stand on the sidelines. The Somali people have enjoyed little respite in the past decade, and they will be the ones bearing the brunt of this again, bringing another sad African story to the fore.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the warlords, who have practiced terror on the local population for decades, and who so famously repelled the US missions in Mogadishu, are calling themselves the "Mogadishu Anti-Terrorism Coalition". With the US refusing to comment on whether it supports the warlords, that 'no comment' probably infers tacit support at least.

This "war on terror" is certainly messy...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

W Cape Politics Hurting Constituents
Wallace Mgoqi's attempts to bring down the Zille government in the Western Cape are misguided and mischievous, and say little for the ANC's respect of democracy. Mgoqi's insistence on remaining in the city manager role in name only is slowing the government's abilities to implement and run the city, which is arguably the ANC's premise in the first place. If the DA are to be believed, then Mgoqi has even turned to fraudulent activities to try to negate the democractic win by the DA in the Cape. The ANC must have knowledge of this, otherwise they would have long since forced him to rescind his actions, and this is a distinct worry for our democracy as a whole.

The only people this action by Mgoqi is hurting at present is those living in the Cape. Whilst this issue is still up in the air, and whilst precious governing time is being hijacked by its progress, the Western Cape is being short-changed in terms of delivery. There are many pressing issues in the Cape, from housing shortages to the electricity crisis, all of which are not being given the regional government's full attention at present.

The ANC's talk of a full-scale emphasis on regional government delivery clearly only applies to ANC-led regional leadership. Their lack of support for, and active interference in, the DA-led regional government is a blight on their national policies, and it's issues like this that make me an ANC supporter at a national level, but an anybody-but-the-ANC supporter at regional levels of government, until they can prove a democratic maturity with objectives for the people of our country, not just their party.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hamas shows true colours
Yesterday's suicide attack in Tel Aviv showed how difficult this Palestinian leadership is going to be for Hamas, and also, how the proverbial leopard cannot change its spots. Whilst Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah decried the attack on Israeli civilians, Hamas claimed that it was justifiable "self-defence".

Hamas' response kills any hope held by Western 'appeasers' that Hamas could turn its back on violence, and once again illustrates that Hamas is simply not a partner for peace in the region. With their coffers already low from a rapid closing of the foreign aid taps, Hamas' support for this suicide attack further alienates it from potential donors and makes it impossible for moderate foreign governments to be sympathetic to their cause. This may be the first step in showing how impossible it will be for Hamas to viably govern the Palestinian state. There are simply too many unsavoury attributes attached to the movement that makes effective governance, especially in international terms, incredibly challenging.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Swazi Conundrum
I will openly admit that yesterday's spat at the Swazi border post came completely out of the blue for me. Although I know that Swaziland is of course a monarchy, I had not heard of widespread discontent within its borders. Without implying that my lack of awareness about this issue is cause for concern, it raises the question; are the local trade unions attaching themselves to these issues (recall the headline-grabbing "visit" to Zimbabwe last year) to gain easy publicity?

The unions did very well in terms of column inches last year, with the diplomatic row over Zimbabwean visit, the widespread service delivery protests, the internal ANC skirmishes and the Zuma defence. Any modern political party is aware that they have to further their brand, and public perception is a large part of that, which Cosatu seems to understand with clarity. Attaching your party to attributes of "freedom of the people" is always a winner with the voting electorate, and it is a smart strategy for Cosatu to follow. I would cynically wonder if this is the case here.

Moving onto the next issue - the police response to it - it does seem to have been fairly heavy-handed. This comes with the with the caveat that I say this relying only on media reporting, but the indisputable facts that rubber bullets were used to disperse the crowd, and scores of high ranking Cosatu leaders were arrested are a cause for concern. Cosatu head Zwelinzima Vavi went so far to say that "the general police behaviour has been barbaric and undemocratic."

This puts South Africa in quite a bad light, whatever the provocation from the protesters. All the international media see - and report on - is SA police cracking down heavily on a pro-democracy rally. Surely the correct option would be to let the protest go on without incident, and deal with the issue diplomatically. Firing rubber bullets into a group of protesters - who had the requisite permissions to picket - immediately harkens back the the bad old days of the SAP and does nothing for police reputation. All it does is steel the protesters in their dislike of police forces, inferring that any future protest with the same individuals will undoubtedly have a highly charged, and possible violent, atmosphere. As I have said, I am unaware of the provocation from protesters that led to the police action, but the response seems to have been ill-judged.

I must admit to not being a fan of monarchies, I think they are in impediment to good governance, so I do support these protesters on principle. Swaziland, completely reliant on South Africa and other neighbours, should have the same political rights and freedoms as any other state.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The media gets it right? Or wrong?
More fun and games today from our journalists regarding the SA National Editor's Forum debate on the media coverage of the Zuma trial. News24 carries a headline story entitled "Zuma: Media doing a good job", whilst IOL carries a headline covering the same event entitled "Zuma coverage has been in contempt of court". No naturally it's a debate, so each newspaper has selected a different side of the debate to cover. There are some anomalies, as News24 quotes Professor Robin Palmer as saying "I think the media is being unduly harsh on itself... it has actually done very well" whilst IOL quotes him as on begrudgingly stating that the media has done "a fairly good" job.

Personally, I think the media has done a good job. I think it is only correct that when a person in line for the presidency has various allegations that bear some substance made against him, the media should be free to test their merit and place those allegations in the public domain. If there was no truth to the allegations (talking more of the corruption charges here) then there would be nothing for the media to write about for any extended length of time. There have naturally been times where there have been some poor reporting, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Zuma supporters see the press as a cabal working together to discredit Zuma, which to my mind is nonsense.

Media plays a huge role in a democracy, and its independence should never be compromised. Freedom of speech and a free media are bedrocks of a successful democracy, and they should never have to toe the party line. The Zuma trial is no different.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Economist on the ANC and South Africa
That irrefutable read, The Economist, carries a survey on South Africa in the latest edition, entitled Chasing the Rainbow. It offers a balanced view of both the good news and the areas of concern in South Africa, lauding the economic stability, but lamenting the fact that this has not benefited all sectors of society. It also carries an interview with Richard Cockett, the author of the survey.

Cockett has a harsh words for the ANC, illustrating that the ANC has failed to move from a liberation, transitional party to a traditional democratic party, particularly focusing on the ANC's increasing centralisation in its party structure, which Cockett states is alienating the party from its supporters.

"Over the past few years it has concentrated more and more power in Pretoria at the expense of the municipalities and the provinces at the same time as increasing the control it exerts over the lower ranks of the party. This has begun to produce a backlash among its own supporters. The ANC still has a top-down authoritarian structure where loyalty to the political cause is prized above almost everything else, including competence. The greatest weakness of the ANC's top-down system is that the party is inclined to dismiss ideas from outside its own bureaucracy."

I think this is a fair comment, as there have been a number of signs of strict control and political hubris shown by the ANC leadership, in terms of local government intervention, lack of service delivery, and the lack of permitted criticism of the political elite. Mbeki is an uncompromising politician, and many have lamented his "my way or the high way" and paranoid style of leadership, which undoubtedly does nothing to improve transparency and debate within the ANC structures.

Whether this will represent any seismic shifts in election trends in the next few years is a hot topic for debate, but I personally believe that the 'liberation party' voting trend amongst the general electorate is still alive and well, and will still play the biggest role in the next few years of elections.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Quote of the Day

"A G-string takes away a woman's dignity. If a man sees a woman in a G-string, he deserves to rape her"

- Euginia Yantcho, supporter of Jacob Zuma protesting outside the courthouse by burning G-strings. She acknowledged that Zuma's accuser was not wearing a G-string when she was allegedly raped by Zuma, but said that she was taking "a moral stance against women who laid a charge of rape 'too easily'". Yantcho was also one of the protestors who waved posters on March 7 with the woman's name and picture on them, and later burned them while she sang "Burn the bitch".

Monday, April 03, 2006

ANC back on message
Old habits die hard, and none more so than the knee-jerk "racist" reaction used by the ANC when their backs are against a wall. The latest being labelling Helen Zille as being "racist" for wanting to get rid of the incompetent Cape Town city manager Wallace Mgoqi.

An ANC statement said that the attempt by the DA to fire Mgoqi, “a respected jurist, former chairman of Old Mutual and a land claims commissioner, exposes the DA-Zille administration as determined to purge Cape Town of its black management, regardless of the racial consequences for the city”.

Can't we all just get along?