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Herewith some of my latest news updates.

(Just as an aside before I start: I couldn’t help but smile at Richard Poplak’s seriously over-the-top take on the Nkandla report in Daily Maverick this morning: “But Madonsela has certainly nailed Zuma to history’s grimiest post—he will be forever remembered as a thief, a fool, and a Zulu man who was incapable of managing the affairs of his kraal … Jacob Zuma will not escape his fate as one of this country’s more reprehensible figures. And Nkandla will be the crown he wears as he slithers into historical ignominy” … anyone who reads this column probably realises that I am not overly enamoured of Jacob Zuma as our president, but Richard seems to think he is a sort of Vlad the Impaler in leopard skins, which I think is a metaphor too far.

… and while I am making asides did I just hear Gwede Mantashe throw Riah Phiyega under a bus for the fire pool/swimming pool confusion in the Presidential mansion? So she is going to take the fall for Nkandla and Marikana? Shem, as they say on Twitter.)

… anyway:

  • South Africa’s Public Protector ruled that President Jacob Zuma improperly used state funds to upgrade his Nkandla homestead and “failed to act in protection of state resources”.
  • The Public Protector said Mr Zuma’s behaviour amounted to misconduct, but that she couldn’t conclude that the president had misled parliament. He will have to repay some of the funds.
  • The report is negative for the ANC and will cost it votes in the May general election.
  •  Trevor Manuel’s exit from parliament has not been quite as smooth and painless as it first appeared. He will end up as a public critic of the ANC, but not, as yet, in an opposition party.
  • A thickening seam of discontent and activism opposed to growing government intervention in the economy is beginning to reveal itself in the South African financial press.
Zuma deemed guilty of misconduct, but not of misleading parliament

After a 28-month investigation, South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela announced that President Jacob Zuma and his family had improperly benefited from upgrades to his private Nkandla home worth around ZAR 246mn. “Expenditure on Nkandla was excessive,” Ms Madonsela said and involved the “misappropriation of funds”.

Ms Madonsela said President Zuma knew of the scale of the Nkandla project and “failed to act in protection of state resources”, allowing extensive upgrades beyond security. She explicitly said Mr Zuma’s failure to protect the state’s interests during this saga amounted to “misconduct”, that his failure to protect state resources was a “violation” (of what we are not exactly sure yet) and that his conduct had been inconsistent with the constitution. However, she said that he did not wilfully mislead parliament on the matter. That would have been a criminal offence.

Mr Zuma will now have to respond to these findings to parliament within 14 days and repay some of the misappropriated funds. It doesn’t look like anyone will go to prison or be forced to resign and the actual practicalities of the crisis are not desperately serious for the ANC and President Zuma (or rather not in a new way … they were already quite serious in terms of general respect for the integrity of the President.)

So what?

Ms Madonsela recently described the function of the Public Protector as being to “curb excesses in the exercise of state power and control over state resources”. However, there is some confusion as to the status of her rulings and consequent recommendations to the president for remedial action.

Getting President Zuma to take remedial action against himself for the misuse of public money would seem like something of a non-starter. Already, ex-police chief Bheki Cele, former minister Dina Pule and Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson – all of whom had adverse findings against them by Ms Madonsela – have found their way onto the ANC’s election list.

Still, this is very much a negative for the African National Congress (ANC) – even more so than the general public expected, though probably not more than the ANC expected. The party knew the report was going to be damaging and has been stiffening its spine for some time, weighing up the costs of attacking Ms Madonsela – an illegal act – or taking it on the chin.

The party will lose votes as a result of this, but we think it was losing votes anyway because of Mr Zuma’s general probity (please see our most recent rough guide overleaf for an idea of how we think support is shaping up). Mr Zuma’s position in the ANC will be weakened (but remember he is strong in the sense that he controls the majority of powerful ANC structures).

Still, the brand value of the ANC is being damaged and this is likely to trigger a self-correcting mechanism. While the changes are still 40-60 against, we think a rescue mission by the party’s ‘old guard’ is now more likely  and that it might successfully mange to shift Mr Zuma aside by around 2016 (a sufficiently strong group just needs to emerge that can cut him a deal with proper guarantees). Obviously the worse the ANC does at the polls, the more the under performance is ascribed to the character and probity of the president … the more likely it is that such a group emerges and coheres to a degree that it is able to offer any enforceable guarantees.

votelates

Trevor Manuel: Concealed weapons

Last week, warm tributes were paid to former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel as he took his leave of parliament and it appeared that his sometimes fractious relationship with his party and cabinet colleagues would, for once, be smoothed over. However, in a high-profile Sunday Times interview, he proceeded to warn that “attacks on public bodies, such as the Public Protector and the courts, would weaken these institutions — and that democracy would then battle to survive”. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mathanshe responded sharply to Mr Manuel, saying: “We do not attack the public Protector, but criticise her where we feel we should … Trevor refuses to participate in the activities of the ANC NEC, and if you refuse such, you want to be a free agent.”

So what?

Trevor Manuel has been something of a ‘market darling’ and (according to himself and in his own words) the rand “fell out of bed” when the news broke that he had resigned after Thabo Mbeki had been recalled on 22 September 2008 (The Zuma Years, Richard Calland, August 2013, Zebra Press … read it, it really is quite good!!). There is no love lost between the country’s longest-serving finance minister and architect of the National Development Plan (NDP) and the incumbent leadership of his party.

In a coded farewell speech in parliament, he quoted a seemingly benign passage from a work by historian Tony Judt: “For thirty years, we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.” There were knowing nods all around, but Mr Manuel usefully forgot to mention the title of the book he was quoting, Ill Fares the Land. We expect Mr Manuel to emerge as a critic of the ANC in its present form, although he is unlikely to join any of the existing opposition parties.

Mr Manuel was also interviewed by the Business Times, in which he criticised the short-sighted way in which some trade unions were approaching negotiations, saying it has sparked a “race to the bottom”. He accused National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) General Secretary Irvin Jim, who has constantly attacked the NDP, of “speaking a lot of rubbish”.

Mining companies told to “get off their knees” and stop sucking up to government

Tension in the mining sector under the twin pressures of serious labour instability and increasing government regulatory pressure is causing unusual fractures and pressures, according to Business Day and the Sunday Times, provoking something of a growing campaign of activism in some sectors of the ‘private-sector intelligentsia’, for want of a better term. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights of the tension (it gets complicated, but stick with it):

  • Eight weeks ago, a respected Chamber of Mines negotiator in the platinum strike (now in its eighth week), Elize Strydom, said Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) mediators in negotiations between employers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) had ”showed an absolute lack of economic acumen” by suggesting companies meet the AMCU’s wage demands “half way”. The mediators had suggested they accept a rise of 25-30% for entry-level miners with basic pay of ZAR 5,700 (the AMCU had demanded ZAR 12,500 a month, a rise of 120%, the companies had offered 8.5%).
  • Ms Strydom (and the Chamber) were immediately attacked by the CCMA and accused of ‘‘white-anting” the mediation process. The CCMA insisted the Chamber either apologise or endorse Ms Strydom’s comments. If the Chamber did endorse Ms Strydom, in the words of the CCMA, it would indicate that the Chamber clearly had “no faith in the institution that is made available by the state and which is accepted by all social partners in other economic sectors”.
  • Business Day editor Peter Bruce says in his Thick End of the Wedge column this week: “But the mines did nothing. Until, that is, they flung themselves into the arms of the state and savaged Strydom for what she had said … A depressing scene.” Mr Bruce’s comments, bitterly critical of the Chamber and the mining firms, underpin Rob Rose’s column in the Sunday Times, in which he says: “So, when some maverick breaks the conspiracy of silence, it’s no surprise that there’s a hullabaloo of outrage. Spin doctors reel blindly … the gutless Chamber of Mines, and the even more enfeebled legion of platinum CEOs [fail to take a stand]. Now, this is why this issue is so important: the platinum industry is on a precipice. Workers have been on strike since January 23 and the mines have lost billions in revenue and even more in terms of international investment goodwill.”
  • Also in the Sunday Times, a report on the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) amendment bill says “the ANC rushed through controversial changes … that opposition parties feel will create further uncertainty in the mining sector.” The article notes that the new regulations will give government the right to a free stake of up to 20% in any new oil and gas projects, with a right to acquire the rest at an “agreed price”. The story quotes the Democratic Alliance’s James Lorimer as saying that only “cronies, comrades and cousins” would benefit from the bill, which he said would “severely damage” the industry. Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu said critics were resisting change and transformation, “representing white minority interests” and “wanting to sell the country’s natural resources to the highest foreign bidder”.

So what?

The Chamber of Mines said that “while further work is required on developing the regulations that will help give effect to the MPRDA Amendment Act, the chamber is firmly of the view that through this problem solving process, greater regulatory certainty is emerging for the mining sector.” Obviously, for the Chamber and the companies engaged in negotiating the details of legislation and regulation with government, or engaged in the constitutionally created structures of the labour market, there is no upside in attacking the government or the institutional framework. Equally obviously, key sections of the financial press disagree and are essentially sounding a call to arms and arguing that the growing institutional, regulatory and legislative hostility to the private sector is becoming a crisis.

An irresistible opportunity for a caption competition arose when I saw this picture on Die Burger‘s webpage:

RadebeCwelebetter

What is intelligence minister Siyabonga  Cwele whispering in the ear of justice minister Jeff Radebe? What is Radebe thinking? I hesitate to ask.

Post your suggestions in the comments section below. The winner will receive a copy of the excellent ‘SA Politics Unspun’ by Stephen Grootes – which I will review here soon. The judge’s decisions are arbitrary and subjective … and seldom final.

That picture accompanies a story in Die Burger describing the alleged cover-up by the security cluster of public protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report – thanks to the person who pointed it out … catch the original here.

Below follows a sliver (‘slither’ as a young close relative of mine is wont to say) of my weekly politics summary and analysis from early Monday morning – I have stripped out some technical issues so what is left is little thin (although it was, frankly, a little thin anyway.)

But purely for the record:

Election fever and the registration weekend

  • Election fever takes hold – AgangSA launches with tea and cakes, EFF slaughters 8 bulls
  • Winnie Mandela still in ANC colours, but speculation as to her loyalties continues
  • Vigilante violence in Khutsong – Minister Nathi Mthethwa holds the thin blue line
  • The Democratic Alliance feels the stress of attempting to hold on to its old support base while pursuing a new one

Despite the 2014 election dates not yet having been announced, most parties are entering campaigning mode. (The elections must be held, according the SA Constitution, between April and July 2014). This weekend the Independent Electoral Commission held the second and last national voter registration drive and managed to register just under 500 000 new voters – and change the details of an additional 600 000 others (Independent Electoral Commission).

Election noise from almost every corner of the country is already deafening. Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights) from this past weekend:

Winnie appropriately dressed in Bekkersdal

Various leaders visited Bekkersdal, a community to the west of Johannesburg that has been plagued by violent service delivery protests and where many IEC registration booths were unable to open on Saturday morning. The most notable was Winnie Mandela who was “warmly received” by the community (eNCA). The twitterati and commentariat were obsessively interested to see whether she would arrive wearing red – indicating a possible defection from the ANC to the EFF. She arrived in ANC colours and spoke like a loyal ANC leader – for now, anyway. Registration booths opened in Bekkersdal yesterday.

Police minister stands his ground

Minister Nathi Mthethwa and several of his generals bravely faced down an extremely angry Khutsong audience (also west of Johannesburg) yesterday. Mthethwa visited the troubled area in the wake of last week’s vigilante violence in which 6 alleged criminals were murdered – by stoning and burning. Mthethwa, a close Jacob Zuma ally, stood his ground as audience members screamed at him and his senior officers, accusing the police of incompetence and corruption and threatening to fry criminals ‘like chicken’. Mthethwa urged the crowd to work with the police – and expose the area’s drug lords and corrupt cops.

The best action was on Twitter

Much of the off-beat action was on Twitter. A flyer portraying itself as having been distributed by the ANC Youth League promising a R60 car-wash by scantily clad young women near a registration station in Kenilworth (looks fake, but you never can tell). One tweet pointed out an essential difference between AgangSA and the EFF: “Agang launched with Tea and cakes, EFF slaughtered 8 Bulls” – which, in our opinion, nails down the difference between the two new parties rather well.

DA swerves

The Democratic Alliance continues to shudder from its ‘mistaken’ backing of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in the National Assembly recently. It appears the flip-flop is based on tension in the official opposition between those who believe backing state interventions to reverse the relative exclusion of black South Africans from senior management positions as well as from other forms of ownership and control of the economy is essential if the DA is to win black votes. The South African Institute of Race Relations quoted in the Business Day on November 6th says: “DA support for this kind of racial engineering will come as a shock to many of its current supporters.” As it happens Helen Zille backed away from supporting the bill and has reshuffled her shadow minister of labour, Sej Motau. Tension around this matter will remain and grow in the party.

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 the 1980′s I unwittingly employed an apartheid police informer, Mark Behr, to work in the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (of which I was a regional director).

Behr had a serious talent – and zest – for self-promotion. But he was also bright, ambitious and charismatic and I naively believed that all those characteristics together, could be harnessed for the good of the organisation, and ‘the struggle’ (I know. We really called it that.)

As it turned out he was already in the employ of the Dark Side …  and those who got the benefits of that self-promotion and ambition were the opposition to the anti-apartheid team.

Mark Behr was a lightweight apartheid agent and there is a part of me that wishes I could just put him and the sheer awfulness and banality of the apartheid security state machinery, and his role in it, behind me.

But unfortunately for me, someone pointed out last week that there is a Wikipedia entry on Behr that, when I accessed it on Friday (13/02/2013) said (without any cautionary remarks):

“Undergoing a process of political radicalization himself, he later turned double agent and spied on the South African government on behalf of the African National Congress

… and further:

“Professor Behr is a well respected and acknowledged international author and experienced double agent that left South Africa for a safer lifestyle in the USA.”

The gradual santisation of Apartheid and the security machine that maintained it is disturbing to me for too many reasons to name here.

But that is less the issue for me in this particular story.

No matter how slow the historical fabrication happens, how tiny the incremental changes made to the record, there is no version of the truth in which Behr underwent “a process of political radicalization” or “turned double agent and spied on the South African government on behalf of the African National Congress” – or any similar heroic, tragic nonsense.

I know this because I was connected to the underground structures that dealt with Behr, heard his original confession and sent him home safely – a neutralised enemy agent; but also a narcissist and fantasist who, precisely for these reasons, could not be trusted to report back to the movement.

(I mean, please … Behr, in an attempt to have his credentials as an anti-apartheid activist improved, used a gun – and instructions – he got from his police handlers to shoot through an outside window into his room at his university home. He then ran back inside, and later, suitably disheveled and shocked, managed to convince the student body and administration that he was the victim of an apartheid hit-squad assassination  attempt … a little story he managed to leave out of his confession that I cover below – probably because of its obvious buffoonery and because thousands of people still remembered how convincing was his feigned shock and ‘injured victim’ status at the time … and by the way – - this as an added afterthought – he also managed to leave out of his 1996 confession – see below – that he had been a “double agent”.)

Why am I bothering with this, all these years later?

Because Behr knows the truth … as do I. I am no longer certain anyone else remembers or cares. Behr could easily have corrected the hagiographic Wikipedia entry – but he has allowed this distorted tale, in which he is the dashing hero, and of which he is undoubtedly the author, to become the official version of a minor – but important to me – slice of our history.

In 1996 Behr made a dramatic and self-aggrandising (and unauthorised by the ANC) public confession at a writers conference in South Africa.

This is what I said at the time (published in the Mail & Guardian here) … I no longer have that condemnatory certainty, but as an antidote to the Wikipedia entry I cut-and-pasted above, I wouldn’t change a word.

Thus, purely for the record:

The Smell of Rotten Apples

PEOPLE who worked secretly or otherwise to undermine the movement against apartheid should be given every encouragement to say what they did and why. I am all for listening to them and forgiving those who are genuinely contrite.

Unfortunately the sincerity of Mark Behr’s confession is doubtful.

Even before one looks at the text it is difficult to believe that Behr is not engaged in another act of self-promotion. The initial signs are:

  • He flew in from Norway, delivered his confession and fled back overseas without facing those on whom he had spied;
  •  He addressed himself to a conference of people interested in writing, where he was the star speaker, rather than to the ex-Stellenbosch students he had betrayed and the anti-apartheid activists on whom he had informed;
  • He revealed to close friends he was only coming clean because he was going to be named as a spy by a witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
  • He is publishing a book dealing with spying and betrayal early next year. One must assume his high-profile confession is part of an advance publicity campaign.

To grasp just how unlikely is Behr’s sincerity, we need to examine the text of the 4 000-word confession and apology.

A number of things are missing from the text. He never mentions the arm of the state he spied for, who his handler was, how much he was paid or what information he passed on. If Behr really wanted to redress some of the harm he did -—a crucial aspect of confession and forgiveness—- then these were the questions he should have answered. Instead of dealing with the details of what he did and for whom, Behr spends the overwhelming majority of his words worrying about how he will be judged. The repeated lament is: “I have always suspected that the only voice people will hear from that moment on … is the voice that cannot b e trusted, that is incapable of the truth.”

Aside from his exasperating self-absorption the problem with Behr’s words is their totalitarian thoroughness. Behr constructs his defence as a monolith. On reading the document we are left with the impression that there is nothing more to say except to forgive the poor chap, he is suffering enough already. There is no chink in the words for us to enter and engage with him. He has pre-empted any possible criticism by exhaustively criticising himself. He apologises for the betrayals, for his motivation, for his lack of moral courage; he apologises for apologising; and then, in an infinite regress, he apologises for apologising for apologising.

This is called “shutout”. We are left unable to engage with the truth. We can do nothing but acquiesce or reject him outright. If we reject him we place ourselves with those who deny perpetrators the right to change heart; to seek a language to express their grief and regret.

But to what are we being asked to acquiesce? If it was just forgiveness it would be easy. You have to listen to the rhythms of the text, the cadence of Behr ‘s voice to understand the enormity of what he wants from us. “It is with the profoundest imaginable regret …”, “I soon believed in the moral correctness of this struggle I was reporting on …”, “… this might be … yet another reinterpretation geared for justification …”, “I lacked the moral fortitude to face the consequences of my treason …”, “I … would like to capitulate into silence … there is also truth in silence as there might be in ceasing to live.”

Imagine a young version of the Reverend Jim Bakker – remember him? Then listen carefully to Mark Behr and you will hear something akin to the tearful televangelist minister who got caught sleeping with a prostitute – again. He is beating his breast, calling down the wrath of God on his sinner’s head, begging us to join the Lord in forgiving him. The individuals in the congregation are crying with him, wishing they could be the ones to embrace him, to soothe away the contradiction at the heart of this flawed titan of a man. Behr’s confession is a number of things. It is also an audacious attempt at seduction.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has begun bringing the painful stories of victims on to the centre stage of our history. As that process begins to take effect we are presented with Behr claiming to have been the victim: “… one is born into, loved into, violated into discrimination”. Behr claims to be the victim of propaganda, of Christian National Education, of his family, of history, of fate, of his own moral weakness. With all due respect! This is a man who spied for the apartheid police in exchange for money. He apparently didn’t even support apartheid. Ten minutes listening to the truth commission will clear the heads of anyone seduced into believing Behr is the tragic hero at the centre of our national drama.

I do believe there is something fragile and sacred in our process of confession and absolution. We all probably know white men who were, as conscripts, engaged in atrocities in Angola and Mozambique. We have watched them writhe in the terrible privacy of their own fear and shame. These men cannot even imagine words to describe where they have been and what they have done. We have all known someone amongst them who has descended into the hell of drug addiction or suicide.

Behr had the unique combination of talent and opportunity to examine how young whites became culpable. His confession could have begun giving them a voice.

But he misses his one chance at salvation. In an orgy of self-pity and self-promotion he abandons the only people who really needed him to speak with sincerity.

I hear that Behr’s confession was warmly received by many. Behr has consistently traded on his anti-apartheid credentials. I am appalled at the possibility that he will now get away with trading on his credentials as the contrite perpetrator, as the prodigal son.

Behr phrases his confession in the literary context of the limitations of memory and language to describe truth. He has extensive access to platforms that propogate his vision of the truth and a unique ability to manipulate language to do so efficiently. Behr is the fast-food chain in the market of truth. Perhaps in the neighbourhoods where they consume mediocrity three meals a day his version of himself and history will prevail.

Behr could be forgiven for spying on the anti-apartheid movement, even if it was for thrills and extra ready cash. But, quite simply, he would have to be sorry first. Not sorry for himself. Sorry for what he has done.

Nic Borain was secretary general of Nusas in 1985, and established a Nusas branch at Stellenbosch. He was regional director of Idasa Western Cape from 1988 to 1990, and during this time employed Mark Behr

Enthusiasm is a quality I value.

It’s especially endearing in children and dogs. But in human adults beyond the blush of youth it is nothing short of heroic.

However, when enthusiasm is both sentimental and irrational it is decidedly less attractive.

Which brings me to Mamphela Ramphele, Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Development Plan – severally and apart.

When Ramphele resigned yesterday as Chairperson of Goldfields an anticipatory shudder went through the local and international intelligentsia (from the well known Russian word интеллигенция, and defined in Wikipedia as “people engaged in complex mental labour aimed at disseminating culture”).

Yes Ramphele:

  • is tough, principled, intelligent, successful, well organised and has experience at running large organisations;
  • has a degree of “struggle credibility” having been involved in the Black Consciousness Movement 70s;
  • and is unlikely to have made her move without adequate capital backing and other promises of support by significant others …

… and yes we all assume, undoubtedly correctly, that there is a significant (and growing) urban, African, middle-class electoral constituency that is increasingly unrepresented by an ANC that is tending, under Jacob Zuma,  to drift towards a  rural, chauvinist, patronage driven complacency.

The point, for the интеллигенция, is that this constituency is ripe-for-the-plucking by an opposition party lead by Ramphele … a constituency that feels unable to support the Democratic Alliance for historical, ethnic, cultural, policy reasons.

What is it with us looking for a saviour to rise from these streets?

In the recent months it has been Cyril Ramaphosa who will save the ANC from itself and us all from Zuma’s government.

And if that fails we have the National Development Plan that will fix everything.

Like Ramphele and Ramaphosa, the National Development Plan is great.

It might be my own pessimism, but in my opinion these are, all three, not (powerfully) shapers of historical outcomes … they are effects, not causes.

The NDP is just a piece of paper, an adequate diagnosis and a bundle of good intentions.

Ramaphosa is embedded in something much more powerful, and scarier, than he will ever be.

Ramphele is a single person with no established political constituency, no party machinery and a reputation for humiliating her senior managers in public (… aside from all those good things I mentioned earlier).

Sure, we can hope that she will sweep the ANC’s patronage networks aside and replace it with a meritocracy pure as the driven snow.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I am in Serbia on a social visit and I thought I would record here some of my initial observations about stuff we might learn from this country about some aspects of SA politics and culture.

Cultural Betrayal

Firstly, I am in Belgrade – a city of 1.6 million people built on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava – and a peculiar mixture of modern flash, Soviet-era bland and medieval tatty. The scars of the Nato bombings are still dramatically evident in a sort of carefully preserved tableau, a series of monuments to that seminal betrayal, that you can’t miss on your way in from the airport

Serbian/Yugoslav Army HQ? Taken a few minutes ago (thanks Jaimo) – I will double-check what the building’s original function was … before it (and a few of its neighbours) were bombed on May 1 1999, becoming (permanent?) monuments to Western perfidy

Why betrayal? Because everyone my age here has the same (as me)  … memealogy? (okay, I made it up – memes are cultural genes and you can work it backwards from genealogy). The cultural literacy is all Rolling Stones, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, The Alien, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Billy Joel (you dredge up the cultural icon from the 60s, 70′s and 80′s and I bet I share it with Serbians of an appropriate age – except they are more culturally literate. Interestingly, just like in Yugoslavia, in SA we got this stuff a few years late – in SA because of apartheid and National Party awfulness, in Yugoslavia because of a slightly different set of transgressions.)

… and then one day their beloved Americans and English cultural tutors bombed them and killed the firemen trying to save people from the buildings – ostensibly to stop some new, particularly ugly, transgressions. Oh the treachery, the faithlessness …

Ethnic uniformity

The second thing that strikes me is the populace is ethnically identical. They are all white. There are no black people, no Arabic looking people; no any kind of people who are in any way different looking from what I think of as Slavic – which is just a minute variation on your bog standard white person – the men with chiseled features and the women with unusually long legs and everyone with white skin … not olive or dusky or anything, but white – in the old Apartheid conception of the skin colour.

“The city was more cosmopolitan”, my Serbian friend tells me, “before the disaster of Slobodan Milošević – before then you could see more  Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Slovaks …”

We are wandering down a medieval street crammed with crowds of handsome young people. I ask him to show me some individual examples of these groups that survived the virtual and literal ethnic cleansing that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia.

His attempt seems half-hearted, even dispirited.

“Hmm maybe she is Croat,” he says indicating a woman flicking through some blouses at a street kiosk. She is one of the tall, long-legged, light-brown haired, chiseled cheek-boned and haughty beauties that shoal in these alleys, as ubiquitous as sardines at the right time in Durban.

“Ok, maybe not” he shrugs as I frown at him in confusion.

We finally manage to agree that “those gypsies” selling knock-off Ray-Bans look ethnically dissimilar to the majority. But to me  it’s a margin call – any one of them could have been my old ‘Leb’ Catholic chinas in the Johannesburg of my youth; definitely ‘white’ under apartheid’s racial taxonomy.

Remember it took the terror of ethnic cleansing to create this level of uniformity, but even before that, in the old Yugoslavia, the full range of ethnic diversity could have been encompassed by the differences between, say Rafael Nadel and Charlize Theron …

Let’s compare monstrous barbarisms

Everyone here above a certain age seems haunted by what happened after the collapse of Yugoslavia. You would think that this lot would be immunised to bombs, betrayals, racial and religious purging and radical disjuncture in their social organisation.

It started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” in 50 000 BCE  (okay, I’m exaggerating) who in their turn were replaced by an endless Roman occupation; sacked by Attila the Hun in 442 and then one thousand five hundred years of bloody, impossible to follow conquest, resistance, sacking, rapine, pillage … I could go on and on. It was the Byzantines, the Franks, the Bulgarians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Crusades, the Serbian Empire (briefly) the Hungarians again, the Ottomans (for five hundred years! … and yes, they did persecute the Christians but not half as badly as the Christians did to almost anyone of any other faith during the Crusades … and there are a whole lot of beautiful and ancient churches that the Ottoman-Turk conquerors and rulers left standing) and the Austrians.

And of course, that is only before the First World War, and as you know all the important stuff happened since then.

I know our African and South African histories are important and it is appropriate that we wrestle as long as it takes – which will be forever, obviously – with the ongoing consequences of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

But being here does tempt me to wish my countrymen and women had a slightly less myopic view of our own trials and tribulations.  I read this morning that Belgrade is trying to scrape together the finances to build a memorial to Judenlager Semlin, the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast Europe where in May 1942 the Nazi’s proudly announced one of their first major European campaign successes: Serbia was “Judenfrei”. The men had been executed earlier, but the last 7000 Jewish women and children were killed in the camp in the first few months of 1942.

By May Serbia was Judenfrei.

And this is not a The Holocaust trumps all kind of statement – I just mention it  in the context of the previous 2000 years of European history. The Germans might have achieved a unique scale with their technological and organisational excellence, but the great rivers of cruelty and tears are old, deep and cold here and they flow through every valley of this geography – and not only to and from the mighty lake that was The Holocaust.

The Economy and the European Debt Crisis

The Serbian economy has hit the wall and the government is trying to decide on a balance between cutting public sector wages and salaries by about 6% and increasing VAT to about 22%. The options are limited and there is an absolute consensus that extremely hard times have arrived. This is the European debt crises writ slightly smaller – because Serbia is not part of the European Union.

But what I see are people eating and drinking in restaurants – and partying as hard and as healthily as it gets.

There are almost no beggars – and those that there are are obviously professionals with studied acts:

  • the near-sighted (with ridiculously cute thick glasses) slightly retarded child playing – very badly – the violin, every item of clothing and scuff on his thick medical black shoes a carefully choreographed act that everyone consents to and ignores.
  • An old hunched-backed crone, her nose not six inches from the floor, tapping along on a short, gnarled staff, an arthritis crippled hand held out blindly above her … I am convinced she is a 22-year-old actress who couldn’t find a waitressing job.

The point is there are none of the streams of dead-eyed, exhausted people searching and researching the refuse; people you will find in any South African city. There is a medieval character to Belgrade, which means there are a million nooks and crannies and little hollows in ancient buildings and monuments everywhere. In South Africa those would all be occupied – where they were fenced, the fences would be broken and tunneled under – there would be evidence that someone was eking out an existence in every hollow, in every gap.

But here, nothing.

Sure, there is an occasional drunk sleeping on a park bench, but that is pretty much as bad as it gets. I have absolutely no doubt that I am not seeing the whole picture and certainly there are large areas of the city with awful Soviet-era council housing-type tenements, covered for 10 metres from street level with graffiti that looks to me just like Cape Town’s gang signs.

In South Africa we feel like we are bursting out of our seams, with the poor competing intensely for the leavings of the rich and thereby driving some kind of desperate but highly energetic economy. Here it feels older and emptier, certainly dowdy in places, but calm and stoic.

Everyone has time for a coffee and a rakia.

Don’t get me wrong. These people descend from women who have thrown their babies onto invader’s spears; their forefathers and mothers have eaten dogs and rats and stones to stave off the inevitable rape and slaughter that awaits the fall of the castle walls; they have catapulted the last live chickens at their enemies who have besieged them for years, and successfully convinced the invaders to just give up and go home.

So I  am not exactly saying that this is tired old Europe with nothing left to do but casually sip a coffee in the shade, sneering at the inevitable heat death that comes with impossible debt, dipping personal income and stagnant growth – of the economy and the population.

I am also not exactly saying that we are fresh and chaotic and ready to burst onto the global stage with the vigour and desperate energy of youth.

But there’s something in there, some little kernel or nugget – maybe a hope that I haven’t quite allowed myself to feel yet …

But it’s mid-afternoon and so hot that it is impossible to process this any further. Time for my first rakia and 4th double espresso – I’ll think about this tomorrow.

We are the ape with the pattern recognition dial cranked up high and this has served us well over our evolutionary history.

But when we assess risk in systems as complex as the global economy our instinctive wariness at the sudden silence in the Palaeolithic forest is not necessarily useful – and might be part of a warning system directly implicated in us getting things wrong in the complex and networked world in which we live and act.

The billions of tons of grinding debris in the violent waters surging over Japan’s eastern coast seem part of a flood of dangerous chaos and instability stretching from the sovereign debt markets through the shifting front lines in Libya to the meltdown at the Fukushima  nuclear power facility.

Two months ago the theatre of the world seemed to be playing to a comforting old script we all knew.

Today it feels like anything might happen – and it probably will.

Let me not pretend to expertise on plate tectonics, but the clearest and most current metaphor that best explains how we should think about the world and the global economy is the state of the earth’s crust east of Japan just before Friday’s quake.

The Japanese main island of Honshu is unique in the world in that it is at the meeting point of four of the Earth’s fourteen major tectonic plates.

Plates driven by convection in the plastic rock below (in the asthenosphere) meet each other with a gradual build up of complex pressure and stresses, which are, in truth, continent smashing in their power and potential.

After sometimes extended periods of apparent stability the stresses reach a point at which they are suddenly released and one or more plate(s) move(s) violently – in this case the Pacific Plate jerks in the direction it has been pushing all along: deep underneath Honshu.

And then follows a sequence that might, with the benefit of hind site, look like tumbling dominoes in one of those endlessly complicated but strangely compelling set piece knock downs (only click here if you have the patience and bandwidth for watching endlessly toppling supermarket products – the Balkan juice  boxes are the most mysterious.)

First the quake: 8.9 on the Richter Scale, making it the 5th most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Then the seabed buckles over hundreds of square kilometres displacing a huge volume of water that sends a whole series of giant waves travelling at over 600 km/h in every direction, giving the Japanese authorities less than 15 minutes to react.

Then consider if you will the extended shuddering cascade of triggers and causality that will travel into the future – think of it as a wave that unlocks energy, destructive or otherwise, inherent in the situations and objects it encounters, rather than the cause of what happens.

Beyond the immediate human tragedies of loss, displacement, suffering and death there is long-term infrastructure damage, economic catastrophe in the already stretched insurance industry, political turmoil from a populous that will accuse the politicians of not having prepared adequately, an unfolding nuclear crisis and sundry other effects and consequences that we can all speculate about, but will likely be a surprise anyway.

The point is that while we can attempt to model such systems, beyond a certain level of complexity there is almost nothing we can say with certainty about how things will unfold.

While you consider these waves spreading out from the disaster that has struck Japan,  bursting other bubbles, causing other wound up instabilities to suddenly unwind, consider the ripples of this earthquake meeting the ripples of the oil supply shock rooted in the political turmoil in North Africa and the gathering force of the the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and elsewhere.

“Why” is not the question

When tragedy strikes us, particularly the personal, catastrophic and traumatic kind – a fatal car accident, a murder or the unexpected suicide of a family member – our first self-protective act is to grasp for an explanation.

Our initial need is for something simple, some prime cause that can give us the limited comfort of being able to say to ourselves: “This is why it happened”.

Fredrick Nietzsche {here quoted from”Ubiquity: The Science of History – or Why the World is Simpler Than We Think” by Mark Buchanan (Crown 2000) – it’s heavy going but well worth the effort} said:

To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none…The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear….

In the world in which we live, no explanation is almost always better than an incorrect one. At least then you know you don’t know – which is a slight protection in itself.

There is no new tide of chaos sweeping the world. This is the world as it has always been: interconnected in dizzyingly complex ways and apparently both deeply unstable and unpredictable.

But we have never lived the world at this level before. When twitter and Facebook and Al Jazeera TV and immediate images of the terrifying dark swirling waters engulfing the Japanese coast are brought together in our sensory universe in the same moment our evolved risk assessment tools are inadequate.

We are seeing the world not at the human scale of the hunter in the suddenly quieted forest. This is the world from a perspective that humans previously imagined was only available to their gods.

As individuals we are still essentially the same animal as that palaeolithic hunter in the primal forest.

But collectively we have recently gained the technology to see – if not fully understand – what is happening way beyond the forest, way beyond the world.

It will be a collective endeavour (through states and various other forms of human organisation) to make that information useful to us – as such forms of organisations have imperfectly striven to do in the past.*

Already Tsunami Warning Systems have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives over the last few days and Twitter and Facebook have kept millions of Japanese families in touch with the world and each other.

But we are only at the very beginning of the journey towards the kingdom where our collective ability to generate and harness vast streams of data will become meaningful and intelligible to us as individuals.

For now it is enough to say: when dealing with the world in all its complexity, don’t trust your instincts.

Luckily for us “pattern recognition” is not the only reason we have survived as we have.

“Adaptability” is this primate’s main strength and with the finger pressed firmly on the fast forward button of technological advancement we are going to need every edge we can get.

*The struggle between ourselves as individuals and the collective elites, governments and national secret agencies that previously attempted to monopolise this information and act on it to further their own interests – as often as not incompetently and mistakenly – is the subject of another discussion, although an important and linked one.

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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