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The Financial Mail recently conducted its annual survey of the fund management industry’s ranking of the broker analysts  in South Africa.

As I have mentioned previously I find it faintly awkward crowing about it here. However, in the spirit of our age of frenzied self-promotion, I feel compelled to share with you the fact that I topped the ranking in the Political Trends and Industrial Relations category again this year.

(Click on the table and a larger version will load.)

FMrankingsedit2

 

This does not mean I am a better political analysts than anyone else on that list. It means that more fund managers who pay for the service voted me as useful to their investment process. At least part of the reason for that is this is my main source of income and I probably spend a greater portion of my time and effort on servicing the fund manager clients than do other analysts on that list.  In addition, for at least one of the people on that list, this category is a minor priority for them (Elna Moolman of Macquarie First South is primarily an economist and she has been top ranked as such for several years.)

I value the ranking; the people who actually pay for the research are the ones who get to vote.

I am grateful to have had a consultancy arrangement with BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities which makes me part of that firm’s excellent and supportive research and sales team.

 

Walking back home from the Sea Point promenade I encountered, no more than thirty minutes ago, two tall attractive young women in blue t-shirts standing next to a table full of DA literature.

Nearby is a church hall that serves as a voter registration station.

This weekend is the last nationwide drive to get as many potential voters as possible signed up before next year’s election.

The DA girls had long ponytails and light-brown hair and they held apparently identical and delicate Japanese umbrellas.

I gruffly (to avoid being misconstrued) asked them how it was going.

“Good!” they chimed brightly and in unison, their thick cables of hair bouncing in a way perfectly described by the aforementioned style’s name.

They politely enquired if I had registered and I muttered something about not being sure if I was going to vote and stumbled off in a confused retreat. (I have registered, I will vote … I am just not sure for whom.)

I was thinking as I walked the final kilometre to my modest apartment that it was about time the DA put some zest into its campaigning – good for the staid old liberals. (Patronising thoughts, I know, but I can do no more than apologise for having them.)

I walked into my flat, came straight to my computer and clicked on my Twitter feed.

Imagine my delight when I almost immediately found this:

ANCELEC

 

Here is the full text of the Tweet – although it is the picture that is important:

‏@iroiphotography:

Lack of creativity RT @Mr_Mpangase: Surely this is in breach of ANC conduct?  pic.twitter.com/Sujnop3cdK Retweeted by Siphelele Mpangase

(I think that is a real flyer or poster, but at this time we all have to be extremely careful of fake advertising designed to make one or other of the parties look bad.)

My delight was immeasurably enhanced as I found another Tweet that really gets to the meat of the election matter.

African ‏@ali_naka29m:

@CdeJMN Agang launched with Tea and cakes, EFF slaughtered 8 Bulls. Spot the difference!

I am still grinning.

This voter registration weekend is specifically aimed at younger potential voters and it has not escaped my attention that none of the myriad and complex messages here are intended for me.

I doubt I will be this sanguine and good natured after another five months of this … but before the nausea sets in I thought I would share some of the silly syrup.

Have a good week.

 

 

This is a quick and casual aside as I await the more weighty matters of Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget policy statement at 14h00 today.

For various reasons* I attempt to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving technological and cultural aspects of what we call ‘social media’

New cultural trends drive developments in language and there are a couple of new words and usage that I found interesting enough to share here.

Recently a person I follow on Twitter (Sarah Britten who goes by the handle @ananitus – I love her stuff and follow her across several media platforms) used a hashtag to characterise the flood of criticism she got when she mentioned that she had gone to a chiropractor for relief from some or other ailment.

Most of the criticism/advice came from men and she called it (the criticism and advice) “#mansplaining’ as in: enough with the #mansplaining, I don’t need you to tell me whether alternative medicine is unscientific or illogical (that’s not a quote, I don’t have a record of the original interchange, but that is roughly how I remember it).

I immediately felt slightly embarrassed. Oops, busted. I have been patiently mansplaining to the women in in my life that their views are illogical and unscientific ever  since I was a too serious boy. Hurumph Hurumph – stroke my beard, push my eyebrows together, suck on my pipe. You see Josie/Mom/darling the scientific method exposes astrology as  … blah blah.  Yeah, right.

A hashtag (#) is a kind of metadata tag that allows all future conversations that deal with the same topic to be grouped and therefore accessible.

Listicle is another new word (well, new to me anyway) that perfectly sums up a phenomenon to which we are all being increasingly exposed. A listicle is an article that presents itself as a list.

It can be any rubbish … just make it up. The 10 ugliest South African politicians. The five top reasons to vote/not to vote for the ANC in 2014. Seven reasons that Blade Nzimande has become a recluse (or the 50 reasons he should become a recluse). Five secrets that are keeping Zuma in power. The 10 hottest DA members of parliament. Five reasons why South Africa sucks as an investment destination. The three top reasons why Zuma’s critics should keep their tax affairs in order. Five reasons we should not listen to the rubbish spouted by political analysts. The ten least known Zuma sexual conquests. Four ANC members most likely to become president in the next 20 years.

The point that I find so interesting is that  listicles  are almost irresistible to your finger hovering on the mouse. Just look at The Huffington Post and you will understand just how compelling (and trashy)  listicles are.

In fact listicles are so compelling that they can usefully to termed ‘click bait‘. Anyone who has ever flicked a gaudy lure in front of a fish in the hope of irresistibly drawing the fleeting piscene attention long enough to embed the hook in the creatures mouth (goodness, when I put it like that fishing sounds a faintly monstrous activity) will immediately understand what ‘click bait’ means.

I have held out against using listicles as click bait on my blog. I hope I am never reduced to heading a post with Top five political risks to investment in South Africa or 3 reasons supporting a sovereign downgrade or even Top 10 best dressed ANC NEC members. But you never know; desperate times lead to desperate measures.

 

 

*For me it’s a professional imperative: I have to get my views out there to persuade those  who might want to pay for those views (supposedly delivered in more depth) that the said views might be worth paying for … so I  trundle out my free-to-air discussion and curating on a range of platforms in the hope that this will generate paid work … which it generally does, btw. The two other reasons are

  • posting forces me to come up with a view on the unfolding situation … I am never certain what I think about something until the moment I am forced to say to someone else what it is I think – so thanks, you are that someone else;
  • keeping the blog is a way of safely storing a history of my views – this is all sitting out here in the interweb, a record of my views, safely stored away from my own lack of competence or the ill-fortune of my laptop.
  • the cloud.

In this age of frenzied self-promotion I should be more comfortable about this, so let me just come out and say it: I was top ranked in the Political Trends and Industrial Relations category at the Financial Mail Analyst of the Year Awards last week.

FM rankings

Every year since 1977 the Financial Mail has sent a confidential questionnaire to domestic institutional fund managers and investment organisations to ask them to rate the research they get from brokerage houses. This year 35 institutional fund managers with more that R4 trillion assets under management were polled.

How this business (from which I derive a significant portion of my income) works, is JSE member firms (basically stock brokers) employ or contract specialists to produce research that somehow aids the fund manager in making investment decisions. If the research added value to the fund manager’s decision the broker is paid either directly or in the form of a commission of some kind. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate the award: the people paying for the service get to vote.

This year I am grateful to have been a consultant to BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities and as such part of that firm’s excellent and amiable research and sales team.

There are not many medals of honour, accolades, gold stars and trophies in the political analysis business (and quite right too), but I achieved an acknowledgement last week of which I am particularly proud.

Once a year the Financial Mail commissions a poll of the top 30 or so South African asset managers (life assurers, retirement and pension funds, private client investment managers and hedge funds).

This year the polled group had a total of about R3.7 trillion assets under management,  a significant portion of which is the savings and pensions of ordinary South Africans.

How this business (from which I derive a significant portion of my income) works is JSE member firms (basically stock brokers) employ or contract specialists to produce research that somehow aids the fund manager in making the best investment decisions. If the research added value to the fund manager’s decision the broker would be paid either directly or in the form of a commission of some kind.

For the past year I have been lucky enough to have had a contract with Religare Noah Capital Markets to provide analysis of political trends and industrial relations to that firm’s fund manager clients. My name was thus in the pot when the fund managers voted and this is how it turned out:

I am particularly pleased to receive this award – and not only because  it comes with a nicely framed scroll that, if I ever again get an office, will look quite handsome on the wall.

The main reason for my appreciation  is that the ranking is based on a vote by investment professionals, who in one way or another, have to pay for the analysis.

I am about to move my main contract to a new firm, BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities which combines the strengths of powerful French investment bank BNP Paribas and Cadiz Securities, a South African-based specialist equity derivatives broking and research company.

So I thought I would use this moment and forum to thank Religare Noah Capital Markets for the work they have given me over the last year – I appreciate the support and opportunity and wish you all well in the future.

(Note:  There are several names below mine on the scoreboard up there of excellent economists, strategists and other species of financial analyst who would not see themselves primarily as “political analysts” – so the fact that I have outscored them is no reflection of the value they add to the fund managers … and, in fact, several of them were highly ranked in other categories.)

I have been interviewed several times this week about the Cosatu strike.

Is this an irreparable breakdown between the ANC and Cosatu?

Does this have implications for Zuma’s bid for re-election at Mangaung?

How stable is the ANC/Cosatu alliance?

What do I think of Jackson Mthembu’s response to Vavi’s claim that the ANC says “Cosatu is exaggerating poverty of workers in South Africa”? (… or whatever … If you can’t follow the subjects and objects in that sentence check out the ANC statement here – or not.)

Where is the SACP in all of this … and is Cosatu split between its president and secretary general?

Where is all this leading … what is going to happen … what does it all mean?

I’ll give those of you who are interested a kind of answer to those questions in a separate post, but I first wanted to say:  it’s a peculiar business this being a ‘talking head’, someone whose views are sought on something as slippery as what’s really happening in our politics, where it’s all leading and why.

This is not (only) an idle existential question to while away a windy Cape Town Saturday morning … it is brought on by a perilous attempt at humour by that leading bastion of irony and satire, the South African Communist Party and their laugh-a-minute, Umsebenzi Online – and more particularly the March 8 “Red Alert” that you can catch here.

(Perhaps only start reading from the “Succession battles at leading newspaper” headline. That way you might still be open to that old Marxist quip: history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce” – here for Wikipedia’s sketch of the source of that quote, Karl Marx’s excellent The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon – something I find it difficult to believe the writers of Umsebenzi Online have actually read or understood … but that is just by the by.)

Anyway …

The SACP’s satire is a teasing poke at … well, at people and institutions that do what I do for a living.

The premise is that Umsebenzi Online has come into possession of “dramatic new evidence” of a deep factional split at 195 Jan Smuts Avenue … which is the address of the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

The premise is that editor Nic Dawes is being challenged by “the ring-leader of the Young Turks” Matuma Letsoalo.

And the issue over which they are divided?

Whether to stick with the fading Julius Malema as the leading character in the soap opera the M&G produces or replace him with “the unions” as the new villain.

Umsebenzi Online then seeks the views of “two well-known, dial-a-quote, soap opera specialists – Aubrey Habib and Eusebius Mashele”* who proceed to pontificate incoherently about the split at the M&G.

There is a whole cast of villains in Umsebenzi Online’s slightly stilted (hardly unexpected that – Ed) attempt at humour.

And all the villains are ‘talking heads’ … people who have come to make their primary living from giving their views on the South African political soap opera.

I think there is a real question to be answered about political analysts – poorly asked and answered in this pinkish satire

Are the views of ‘political analysts’ any more reliable than anyone else’s? It’s not like there is a professional association that erects barriers to entry and puts in a whole lot of quality controls. And anyway such associations are usually just a gang hierarchy that protects the turf from competition.

My own answer – and I have to have one, or my tongue would shrivel up and drop out of my head and my fingers fuse uselessly to this keyboard – is that political analysts are to politics what critics are to art and literature. The critics don’t have to be artists or writers themselves – in fact, that might well be a drawback to them performing their function.

Critics come to be what they are through a market mechanism – their views are sought out and some consumer ends up paying for them. The art consuming public is looking for confirmation, information or rebuttal; they are looking for a view against which they can balance their own view, or learn something from – or just to think about.

The best critics are a mirror for the artist – trusted or hated by the practitioner, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

Rubbish critics can find an oppulent home in rubbish publications and TV stations – because mediocrity does so often rule the mass market mechanism.

Fine critics can quietly go about their business and eke out an interstitial existence of quiet excellence and the small comfort of professional respect.

Or the other way around.

I am all in favour of communists using satire to further their aims – it is so much more desirable than the dystopian bureaucratic terror which appears to be the default instrument – when available – of this vanguard of leading intellectuals.

But I wish this satire had been more … well, funny … and clever – basically, more thoughtful. We are bludgeoned daily by the views of “experts” – and it might not have escaped you that I both bludgeon and am bludgeoned in my turn.

How and why political analysts come to be part of our lives and part of the cultural and public intellectual process is an important question – one we should think about before consuming the sometimes suspicious fruits they offer.

* Those fake names are a melding of the real Professor Adam Habib:

Aubrey Matshiqi:

Prince Mashile:

and Eusebius Mckaiser

(Right you four, you can send donations to The Association of Professional Standards in Political Analysis for the free publicity – Ed)

The déjà vu is washing over me like the phantom symptoms of a late winter bout of hypochondria.

I remember the lead-up to Polokwane.

The thuggish crowds outside Jacob Zuma’s court appearances.

The man we had known was in Shaik’s pockets since 1993, he who famously couldn’t keep it in his pants, the rape accused shower-after-baby-oil-sex to fend off HIV/AIDs who had only been doing his Zulu man duty by her, Umshini wami mshini wam …  it was entirely impossible that my ANC would ever allow this man to rise to the venerable chambers previously occupied by heroes of the stature of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela … and kept lukewarm by Mbeki’s occasional visits.

And my paying clients insisting I make a call: will he become president?

Well, say I, Mbeki only appointed him deputy because he needed to fend off the challenge from Winnie a-fate-too-awful-to-be-contemplated-by-the-financial-markets Madikizela-Mandela. He had a certain ethnic appeal, so to speak, in the Inkatha heartlands of Kwazulu-Natal but Mbeki knew no-one would ever seriously propose him as president!

And as I knew, you don’t bet against Thabo Mbeki, the master of palace politics …

… and now here we are again.

The weekend the charges against Malema were announced, SARS, the Public Protector and the Hawks were reportedly deep into investigations of their own.

How could Malema hope to sell himself as a victim just as his lifestyle and his predation on the public purse became the subject of such intense scrutiny?

Can the man whose clothes and accoutrement cost the annual income of any twenty of the youths he hopes to represent … represent them or gain their sympathy?

Yes! I need to shout in my own ear. Yes they can … they have … they will again.

Maybe not this time.

This situation has its own dynamics and there is no point in second guessing what the ANC Disciplinary Committee might decide after it finishes meetings this week – but we mustn’t pretend to ourselves or anyone else that we can tell the future.

Will Malema’s minions brute about the streets wearing 100% Juju t-shirts and threatening to fight to the death for their … leader?

Will this sway the process?

Where is the unswayed process going anyway?

There are only two things I know for sure.

The first is that I do not know what the future holds for Julius Malema. He could be banished from the ANC. His disciplining might  provoke a backlash that conceivably could lead to Zuma’s downfall and to Mangaung being an even more corroding rerun of Polokwane. He might disappear into obscurity in the wasteland that (until very recently) has been politics outside of the ANC. He might spend a few years in the wilderness and return chastened and wiser and work his way back to becoming the coming man.

The second thing I know for sure is that my desire for particular outcomes is a serious barrier to me thinking sensibly about which outcomes are most likely.

I know this is not a great and profound insight – nor am I here on the road to Damascus or any particular destination; intellectual, metaphorical or spiritual.

I do hear the breathless clamour of the prediction and analysis industry prophesying the best and the worst of all possible worlds – depending on the emotional predisposition of their target market.

Predicting the worst is often a mistaken attempt to warn against a particular course of action … it’s a political act and an act of propaganda.

Predicting the best is often a semi-religious act, a sort of shamanistic incantation, willing a particular future into the present.

For me, I admonish myself daily:

It is okay to hope the ANC will rediscover its soul and its leaders their long-lost spines. But hoping for a thing does not make it more probable. No-one knows what is going to happen with Malema. So sit on your hands and wait like the rest of us.

I think both the DA and the ANC might be on the verge of an evolutionary spurt that will change what they are and thus see them shifting into new ecological  niches in our political landscape.

I also think that the landscape itself changes much slower than we think or hope.

Voluntarism is a term for a species of political error – and I dredge this up from the gleaming days of my youthful involvement in the ‘mass democratic movement’ in South Africa. The taxonomic system we developed for naming and defining ‘mistaken beliefs’ was tiresomely thorough and self-righteous, but I have to confess that I still dip into that frame of reference and find there useful analogies and ways of understanding the world.

Voluntarism  means believing that through pure force of will, cleverness of organisation, brilliance of strategy, accuracy of tactics and shear hope, anything could be achieved no matter what the inherent conditions.

I am convinced that the Democratic Alliance foray into the townships and squatter camps is either a form of voluntarism or it will result in the DA becoming something else entirely – and ultimately something very similar to what the ANC has become.

This somewhat pessimistic view of politics is based on the assumption that politicians and political parties do not have a free hand to sell what they like to whoever (whomever?) they like.

The racial divide in South Africa and the racial solidarity of the groups which face each other across that divide is a deep structural phenomenon and not a casual consumer preference.

When Julius Malema talks about “the Madam and her tea girl” referring to DA chief Helen Zille and the DA MP and national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko he finds a resonance.

This ‘resonance’ is not something created by clever marketing and it is also not something that can be got rid of like Vodacom changing its colours from blue to red.

Groups of people, their ideology, culture and attitudes can be changed – particularly in the powerfully denaturing environment of modern industrial cities. This is how an African peasantry became  the urban proletariat of South Africa’s modern capitalism. And it was this process that created the possibility of an ANC that represented all black Africans in the country and not just specific tribal groups.

But do not overestimate the power and speed of this process. Think of the ethnic boroughs in New York; think of the Xhosa/Zulu tussle in the ANC and think of the unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience in South Africa.

South Africa’s history, including colonialism and Apartheid, has a powerful momentum in our lives today. I think this means that the hope that the DA with more black faces and branches (but essentially the same ideology , structure and principles) could make a serious electoral challenge will remain just that – a hope.

A party still called the Democratic Alliance could displace the ANC, but only by becoming something very similar to its foe i.e. led by black people with a history of opposition to Apartheid and primarily about redressing the past,  directing state resources to benefit black people and  channelling wealth towards the emerging black elite.

The “rump” of the DA are good old white liberals (in the best sense of the word) who have their ideological roots in the closing years of Apartheid.

A party with such a “rump” will never (in any time frame that could be relevant to us) represent a majority of black South Africans – even urban professionals, even a significant minority. To represent those people the DA would have to be of those people, run by those people and be an instrument to further the interests of those people.

I do think urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC.

But I will be looking for a Movement for Democratic Change lookalike (to the ANC’s ZANU-PF) to emerge from the South African political dynamic.

That ultimately means I am still looking for an organised defection by the industrial working class and their middle class allies that will emerge from a split in the Ruling Alliance – that would probably put Cosatu on one side and the ANC on another.

On this basis the ANC could lose control of the cities to a political formation like the MDC –  although not one that could be portrayed, as the MDC has been by ZANU-PF and by the ANC (which can already sense the threat), as having been funded and set up by white farmers and other ‘enemies of national liberation’.

There is a part of me that hopes I am wrong … that we have it within ourselves to escape the awful gravity of our history; that we really are free to choose our future.

My view, however, is that the choices we do have are all within a narrow band of possibilities confined by the deep structural features of our past and present.

Thus the ecology of our society and our politics remains the same – or at least changes extremely slowly – but the creatures that inhabit the landscape are modified by natural selection and drift and displace each other in the niches that are available to them.

(My next post will deal with the question of what the ANC is becoming as it changes its niche as the party narrows and shifts – geographically, ideologically and socially.)

This added after publication:

The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.

The word is voluntarism (not volunterism, as I originally had it … I got it wrong because I mistakenly thought ‘we’  had made it up and I could therefore spell it as I pleased) and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology”  – from Dictionary.com.

As the cannonade and sharp retorts of the Municipal Election become deafening, it strikes me how alike are elections and wars.

Both these human endeavours are faced with comparable technological, communication, infrastructural and personnel challenges.

Generals preparing for war and political leaders for elections have this in common:

  • They must have a game plan and clear objectives, including a realistic view of the chances of success and the costs involved in achieving objectives.
  • There must be lots of money available.
  • They must have a clear understanding of the enemy and the enemy’s resources and capabilities.
  • They must have precise information about the terrain upon which the battles will take place and the loyalties of the citizens who inhabit that terrain.
  • They must have a complex and balanced organisation at their disposal which contains the full capabilities and capacities that might be required – from senior management down to foot-soldiers, and encompassing every specialist skill that might be applicable to the proposed campaign as well as the most varied arsenal possible.
  • They must have systems of supply and replenishment – allowing funds and resources to flow to where they are needed.
  • They must have a system of communicating to every level of the force and auxiliary services;
  • They must have a system of communicating to the world and general public not directly involved in the war.

I suspect one could search for more complex similarities, but the issue of interest to me is how both elections and war require – or cause, I am not sure which –  propaganda and distortion of the truth.

We have all heard the notion: “The first casualty in war is the truth” – (Aeschylus 525 BC – 456 BC) and it is apparent listening to what  the principal players in our election say of themselves and each other that “the truth” seems infinitely elastic and vague.

The most obvious contravention of the rules of engagement have been Julius Malema’s comments in Kimberly over the weekend: “We must take the land without paying. They took our land without paying. Once we agree they stole our land, we can agree they are criminals and must be treated as such.”

But Malema is just a weapon that gets deployed in the battle, and I doubt any one army in this conflict is innocent of the impulse to use every single weapon in its arsenal.

And we shouldn’t be surprised.

For the strategists and generals are up to their necks in the campaign, it is all they think about, all day and all night, sleeping, eating and on the toilet. As the final day comes closer, every possible advantage, every weakness of the enemy, every inch of ground, every weapon in the arsenal … becomes important and worthy of exploitation.

A kind of frenzy takes over the leadership and all caution or higher feeling gets brushed aside.

It’s win at all costs … and that is pretty much where we are right now.

And that is the problem.

In nine days time we are all going to look up from the carnage and find a world very slightly changed by the battle that has been fought.

It is only myopic politicians and generals who could possibly believe their little war/election justified the distortions and propaganda they have deployed.

Remember the ANC’s online leather jacket sale; those amazing garments seemingly designed for a camp 1970’s version of a black Star Wars?

And the Stabproof Protektorvest (TM) that some enterprising person tried to flog to 2010 World Cup visitors to South Africa who needed to withstand the blows they could expect to be rained upon them by the hordes of ‘machete wielding tribesmen’ the UK gutter press was warning about?

Well, what do you make of how Julius Malema and his delegation arrived at court yesterday to defend against the charge that singing Dubula iBhunu constitutes hate speech?

… and in case you can’t see the accessories properly, here is another one:

So what do the Nazi party, the AWB and the ANC Youth League actually have in common?

Certainly a sense of camp elegance and style; dark flowing fabric and the gleam of steel and silver, cut through with the clean heroic red.

And the instinctive understanding of the marketing value of a bit of curling-lip arrogance, creaking leather and a hint of sex and violence on the side.

And perhaps a few other tendencies and traits that will reveal themselves over time.

(The sources of those pics were as follows: the accessory close up was: http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/article1016881.ece/Jujus-guards-cause-chaos and the one of Malema surrounded by his elegant guards came, I think, from http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/who-is-malema-at-war-with-1.1056002.Please visit those sites.)


Jacob Zuma’s decision to meet with Gareth Cliff and Woolworths’ decision to put Lig, Juig, Joy and Lééf back on the shelves makes me wonder about the rules of engagement in the battle of ideas in the age of celebrity and social media.

In the 1980’s those of us connected to the ANC in the ‘white left” were mostly engaged in the battle of ideas. In that war we witnessed one defeat from afar and experienced victory up close and personal – and believed it was ours.

First, watching from afar as one government lost the battle:

In Zimbabwe the signs that ZANU might be losing was the Catholic Bishops Conference starting to sound alarmed at what was happening in Matabeleland.

In South Africa as in Zimbabwe the Catholic Bishops Conference was friendly ground for national liberation movements in the battle of ideas – it was territory we had already won, so there were two ways of understanding what was happening:

  1. the Catholic Bishops Conference had been won over by the bad guys or;
  2. ZANU had become the bad guys.

Thankfully we were suspicious enough of ZANU and Mugabe to not be totally surprised as the Gukurahundi massacre gradually revealed itself. I regretfully suspect that had the situation been reversed (and our ally ZAPU had won to power) ‘some among us’ would be denying the atrocities to this day … but then, I am forced to believe that in those circumstances such atrocities would never have happened … hmm.

Putting aside that difficult conundrum … the victory we experienced up close and personal was our own over the Apartheid regime – or that was what we liked to think, anyway.

Another way of saying the Apartheid state and the National Party lost the battle of ideas is to say they lost influence over the middle ground that lay between them and the African National Congress.

We (the activists and supporters of the ANC) saw this as the fruit of our work in implementing the revolutionary injunction: “Isolate your most dangerous enemy from his potential friends!” – we were a tiresomely self-righteous lot much in love with clunky slogans, but anyway …

The National Party losing the middle ground was less a function of the work of those of us distributing awful translations of already awful ANC literature to bemused Afrikaans speaking white students at Stellenbosch and more a complicated interplay of factors as diverse and vast as the failing of the Soviet economy and the effects of sanctions on South African businesses.

But if the pamphlets (or even the establishment of  Nusas and End Conscription Campaign branches at the University of Stellenbosch) made little difference to the grand scheme of history the fact that such branches were set up in the National Party heartland and staffed and run by young Afrikaners was a crucial indicator of what was going on.  These were real hints of the shape of things to come – so to speak.

The ebbs and flows in the ideology and influence upon organisations and groups in the middle ground keeps a reliable scorecard of the broader contest.

The ANC in those days conceived of the middle ground as the organisations, forums and activities over which it could exert influence. It started with organisations and institutions which were very close to it (essentially under its discipline), through the newspapers and universities all the way to forums like the General Synod of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, within spitting distance of the Apartheid regime itself.

We are a long way from the 1980’s and the ANC that was then running its war from the wilderness is now in the fortress at the centre of its own heartland. It is not as threatened in its retreat as the National Party and the Apartheid state were by the mid-80’s, but the rumours of war are starting to be whispered in the corridors.

Like I said, the useful thing about the middle ground is that it is like a gauge of the state of play. You only need to cast your eye over the daily newspapers to realise that the ANC is gradually moving onto the defensive on important fronts in the war of ideas.

If you do have doubts, look at this extraordinary list of individuals and civil society groups that have signed in support of the Right To Know campaign in opposition to the Protection of Information Bill. All those organisations are not suddenly firm enemies of the ANC and the state … but they are drifting into opposition, a fact that is clearly starting to concern the ANC and government.

Another sign of the shifts in ‘civil society‘ is DJ Gareth Cliff feeling confident enough to attack government and President Jacob Zuma in deeply uncivil terms on his blog – its worth a read.

Jacob Zuma’s office has announced (astonishingly, I might say) it is seeking a meeting with Cliff to discuss his article.

In the same week the South African retail giant Woolworths reversed a decision to remove Christian magazines from the shelves of its stores – after an ongoing campaign that played itself out on Woolworths own facebook page.

At one level both Zuma and Woolworths live and die by the strength and popularity of their image. Perhaps they are just following that hoary old marketing maxim:  “the customer is always right”?

But I think that Zuma and Woolworths holding up the white flag in the battle of ideas is an important sign of things to come. Is presages a coming time when billions of rands and perhaps political power itself will be won and lost in the the feverish rebellions that sweep across the web.

The implicit hesitation by both Woolworths and the South African government is both healthy and wise. This is a new field of battle and the rules of engagement are uncertain. It is right to edge your way forward, using each brush with the enemy as an opportunity to learn something new about the terrain upon which the war will be won and lost.

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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