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My sister was a famous model and in that capacity was invited to judge the Miss World competition at Sun City in 1995.
She asked me to accompany her as her official partner for a whole weekend of glitzy celebration and judging.
The event was interesting to me for a number of different reasons but the only aspect that might apply to a column on politics and investment risk is the astonishing effect that being treated as a celebrity can have on one’s moral and intellectual soul.
I had been living alone on a farm in the Southern Cape for 5 years when Josie invited me to accompany her to the competition.
I had spent the 1980’s involved in “the struggle” in various capacities. By 1990 I’d had enough and I left politics and my myriad comrades and friends as they got on with the business of negotiating the peace and then running the country.
Of course I had some contact from afar with previous friends, but those who had moved into the ethereal realms of Mandela’s first cabinet seemed to have been lifted body and soul out of the social networks they had previously occupied .
I would only meet again those of my old friends who had become senior politicians in government a year and a half after the Miss World competition when I returned to ‘civilisation’ to become a father and take up a permanent position as a political analyst for a Cape Town based investment broker.
At the Miss World competition we stayed in the The Palace of the Lost City at Sun City (a big step for me because we had spent the 1980’s promoting the boycott of the resort that was built in the then bantustan of Bophuthatswana).
The point I wanted to make about all of this is that from early morning to late at night the organisers of the event and the hotel treated me as if I was a celebrity. It was a peculiar but not altogether unpleasant experience. I couldn’t walk out of my room without a dapper assistant type person reaching for my arm to accompany me to waiting vehicles or parties of fabulously beautiful women sipping at drinks.
Every second of the day there was someone right beside me nodding with interest at everything I said and did. Everything was paid for. It was like being in a dream where the lights swirl around you and you are the centre of the attention of some vast organisation of doormen, waiters and compliant and beautiful people.
An air-conditioned limousine (there really is such a thing – it is not just a cliché in bad spy novels) delivered me to Jan Smuts airport for my trip back to the farm after the celebrations were finally over.
What I remember most vividly about the whole weekend was standing alone with my bag just in the entrance to the airport.
“Hello!” I might have thought shrilly to myself . “Excuse me? I’m here – where the hell is everybody?”
Two years later I met again, mostly in their formal capacities, my previous friends who had become ministers and deputy ministers, ambassadors and persons of similar august standing in society.
I was never shocked and surprised at the grandiosity and extraordinary pomposity most of them came to exhibit.
I have since sat around tables with men I had previously watched fight Apartheid police with their fists and feet and watched as they lean back from the table, eyes closed, their voices drawling as their massive new brains formulate positions that keep all of those present silent as the great man speaks.
I have sat with ambassadors at formal dinners where the guest are subjected to a reading by the said ambassador of her extremely bad poetry. We all sit in silence and most nod in awed approval.
This is a different world they inhabit.
Their whole lives, every moment of the waking day, is spent surrounded by a system that takes them extremely seriously. They travel first class and they are met at the plane by luxury vehicles driven by people trained to give the impression that this is the most precious cargo they have ever carried.
Everyone they interact with confirms the lived reality that they are, in fact, a different kind of person: cleverer, more interesting and more valuable.
There is often a faux gentleness and compassion that goes along with this kind of celebrity. When someone with whom you might once have thrown stones at the police as you dodged through billowing clouds of tear gas puts her hand on your arm and looks into your eyes and says “we really appreciate the work you are doing” you don’t screw up your face and ask “what work?” You just nod.
I believe there is something intrinsically harmful to ourselves and our society in the way we elevate our politicians. I recommend taking every opportunity to deflate the individuals, prick the bubble that we have surrounded them with.
I do not think it is inevitable that politicians, ministers or even super models become pompous wind bags but I can name very few who have escaped the corroding effects of celebrity and power.
I still see Jeremy Cronin flying with real people on the plane and chatting like a normal human being (what will we do if that stalwart ever goes over to the dark side?)
And my lovely sister Josie seems to have escaped with her humility and charm intact – although I rather suspect that is because even as whole restaurants full of New Yorkers would break into spontaneous applause as she entered in the 1980’s she never quite lost the sense that there had been some huge and embarrassing mistake – one she was just too polite and sweet to correct.
*from the poem: Heron Rex by Michael Ondaatje in The Cinnamon Peeler – Selected Poems – 1989 … my long time favourite collection of poetry.
I came across a long research note that I wrote in early 2007 exploring the impending succession process in the ANC to culminate at the Polokwane conference 7 months later.
So I was writing before the June 2007 National General Council during which Jacob Zuma’s resignation/suspension as ANC deputy president was overturned from the floor and it became clear that change was inevitable.
I thought I should upload the document onto this web log so that one day when some student decides to examine the accuracy or otherwise of the predictions of political analysts they’ve got some publicly available data to work with.
Also, it’s an interesting read – both because of how wrong and how right it was, but also because how defensive I was about Mbeki and how suspicious I was of Zuma. I regret the former but not the latter.
Click here for the whole document, but below are some highlights and lowlights:
Why I thought markets were nervous about a change in ANC leadership
All change is unsettling, but a South Africa without these illustrious, high-minded leaders of global eminence and distinction (Mandela and Mbeki) might feel less of a sure thing and the fears that waned from 1994 may wax again with their departure and replacement by people’s whose names cannot be pronounced in London and New York.
My learned views on why the global context made the transition even scarier for investors
New and untested leadership of the ruling party and the country will enter the stage of history in a context of unexpected and growing global uncertainty. The inherently unsettling nature of the domestic political succession is amplified as an apparently natural and stable global order has revealed itself to be increasingly tricky, unstable and unpredictable.
The ending of the Cold War did not end history and the US did not come to represent a unipolarity around which democracy and stability could spread. Instead, the Washington Consensus has crumbled and the rise of China, Russia and India is in the process of rewriting the rules of global trade, economic governance and the structure of capital markets. The world’s major economic and military power extends itself and commits ever more of its myriad apparatuses, fashioned to achieve its national goals, to perplexing military campaigns. And while the cat’s away: the emerging world is experimenting with different forms of governance, including economic governance, that would have been unthinkable only ten years ago.
… this country has developed a habit, possibly a mythology, of what I term “leadership exceptionalism”. In short this refers to the belief, erroneous or otherwise, that South Africa has achieved an unlikely stability primarily through the exceptional quality of leaders throughout the society – including on both sides of the Apartheid fence and in the churches, trade unions and business.
(It helps that I already thought this idea was rubbish.)
Getting it wrong about Polokwane (and one might ask: who’s the “our” in “our first case scenario”?)
Throughout the early stages of the transition contest it appeared that Zuma was the main contender and the person most likely to get the job – an outcome we will dispute below … It’s foolish to predict such a close run race so long in advance, but our first case scenario is one in which Zuma fails to become president of the ANC in 2007. If this is the case, the 2009 successor to Mbeki will not be known until the ANC goes through a specific nomination and election process for this position – probably starting in 2008.”
Why corruption was making the process so much worse (and, goodness, look how uncomfortable I was about criticising Mbeki)
‘True or false and for better or for worse;
- the allegations of corruption against Jacob Zuma
- the multiple and uncontested economic transactions and favours that passed between the ANC Deputy President and Shabir Shaik – now convicted of two counts of corruption and one of fraud
- the widespread, but entirely untested, charge that President Mbeki has allowed the courts and prosecution authority to be used less to stop Zuma’s alleged corruption and more to prevent him ascending to the presidency in 2009
has stamped the succession process with the twin burdens of being a proxy for the fight against corruption and being tainted by the alleged misuse of state resources by the highest power in the land.
and I could’t hide what I thought of the challenger
Aside from the actual corruption allegations mentioned in 4.2, to put the icing on the anxiety cookie, Zuma’s various statements and legal tribulations have portrayed a man who is:
- a polygamist;
- poorly educated,
- apparently ready to play into ethnic divisions for political advantage,
- undisciplined in his sexual behaviour,
- under the guise of “ Zulu traditionalism” unsettlingly cavalier towards women.
There’s lots about the left backing Zuma, but his own position was clear
This is not to suggest that Zuma is a leftist, worker friendly or naturally close to the SACP and Cosatu – in fact the very opposite might be true. The left backing of Zuma, which has caused bitter internal debates in the trade union movement and amongst the communists, must be understood as primarily an attempt to wield any likely candidate against those who represents the rightward drift of policy, namely Thabo Mbeki and his anointed successor.
The left was already taking a clear stand against corruption
Organisations of the left, but particularly the South African Communist Party, have been the most consistent moral watchdog in the Ruling Alliance. They have held government to account for tendencies of “cronyism” and the “compradorist and parasitic” nature of much of the emerging “bourgeois” elite which they argue is characterised by “primitive consumption”; they have insisted government focus on HIV/AIDS and expunge any denialism in its ranks, they have fought for a principled approach to the Zimbabwe situation, and, most importantly, they have presented themselves as the bastion against corruption within the state, government and business.
which made their backing of Zuma so difficult for me to swallow …
The decision (implicit or explicit) to back Zuma’s candidacy has deeply divided the left and soundly removed them from the moral high ground they had come to occupy. Those who won the debate to back Zuma – with the uncontested facts of his unhealthy relationship with the corrupt and fraudulent Shabir Shaik and his distasteful statements about HIV/AIDS, women and Zulu traditionalism already out there in the world – have cast the individuals and organisations of the left as opportunistic and willing to back any candidate from whom they can expect improved political access and influence. Given the idealism of much of the membership of the SACP and like minded groups, the opportunism of some of the left’s current leadership’s will probably prove to be their undoing.
Hmm, the sweet idealism of my youth …
That’s enough … there is lots more revealing stuff in there, including comments on every possible candidate. I will just add the comments I made then about Tokyo (because I believe they are true today) and then leave it up to you to read or dip into when it suits you.
On Tokyo Sexwale
Popular, ex-Robben Islander and exile; flamboyant – soldier adventurer type, trained in USSR for the ANC before his capture. After 1994 turned to business with a lot of flair (Mvelaphanda Holdings) and undoubtedly made the system work for him in a very successful way. He is probably the most charismatic character with the broadest appeal amongst this lot. He also has the ability to build a strong and loyal group around himself – hints of “cult of the personality”.. He is rich and flash enough for this to count against him. He has constantly denied that he may run but there are constant rumours that he is assembling a team to make a run for the top job.
It is difficult not to imagine the tearing of some deep and important ligament in our body politic in the tone and content of this debate that starts in The Times, ostensibly between Pallo Jordan and Justice Malala and ostensibly about media freedom. The battle is joined – and complicated – by the ANC in its formal capacity in this unattributed article, by a reader’s reply to Justice Malala (K B Malapela’s article here) and a contribution by the redoubtable Paul Trewhela here.
My mother was taught at a Catholic convent in Johannesburg in the 40’s and part of the curriculum was a subject called “Apologetics”, which essentially means defending the faith and recommending it to outsiders. All of the contributions to this debate, to greater or lesser degrees, have the brittle quality of Apologetics. This is clearly not a debate designed to win over an opponent; it is much more a debate designed to slag off the opponent – to influence perhaps separate audiences.
This does not mean that the opponents are all just political propagandists rolling out set pieces in an archaic ideological struggle. The anger, hurt and perhaps even fear are real and personal. After studying each spit and snipe, each appeal to history and every egregious character assassination (of which there are many) I find myself uncomfortably ambiguous about where my sympathies lie.
When we strip out all of the detail, at issue is the clash of these two broad assertions (this is definitely my formulation – the actual words or even ordering of arguments – will not necessarily be found in this form in any single contribution to the ‘debate)’:
- The one view attacks Malala and defends the ANC – in the general context of supporting legislation to make the print media legally accountable. It goes something like this: ‘The ANC, admittedly imperfect and flawed, is the national liberation movement that led the struggle against Apartheid; the organisation whose members and supporters paid the overwhelmingly highest price in the struggle against Apartheid and it is currently the political party in which resides the main hope of building a South Africa free of Apartheid and its vestiges (which are still strongly present and primarily injurious to black South Africans). Given this truth, the depth and ferocity of Justice Malala’s attack on the organisation can only be explained by him having made a profession out of attacking the organisation for the benefit of a self-satisfied and confirmedly racist audience – or that he serves some darker and deeper purpose of enemies of South Africa.
- The other view defends Malala and attacks the ANC – in the general context of opposing legislation that seeks to control the media. This argument goes something like this: “The ANC has no claim to an exclusive role in the struggle against Apartheid and in any case the ANC’s contribution to that struggle was always flawed and undermined by deeply anti-democratic (or Stalinist) traditions and brutal repression of internal dissent. Justice Malala is part of a tradition of journalism in South Africa that has fought government censorship and general government abuse of power. Abuse of power, in various forms, characterises the ANC government today and it is right, fitting and brave for Malala to continue to ‘speak truth to power’.
I was going to paraphrase each article and attempt to draw out each essence but it’s probably better that you do that for yourself.
But here, for those who are interested, are my considered opinions on the issues that I think lie at the heart of this debate.
Firstly, regimes can reach a point where the only strategic option is complete non-engagement; where the only way forward is the destruction of that regime and its replacement by an alternative. But it is ludicrous to argue that this is where we are in South Africa with regard to the ANC government. Much of our political commentary and journalism seems to be phrased in these terms – as if we are all revolutionaries now, beyond any hope or care of reforming the system. This view is both implicit and, to a lesser degree, explicit, in the words of Malala and Trewhela. I am all for gung ho evisceration (by written word) of corrupt and pompous politicians, but there is a not-so-subtle line between vigorous – even exuberantly irreverent – criticism and the argument that government per se is the problem and therefore cannot be part of the solution. Many aspects of this government’s performance are deeply disturbing – as is the seeming avalanche of cronyism in our political culture. But I am absolutely clear that a government that continues to command around 70% of national electoral support (primarily because that electorate perceives the government as the main heir to the mantel of national liberation movement) has got to be engaged with, has got to be encouraged to be “the solution” more than it is “the problem”. And anyway the ANC, government, Cabinet and ‘the state’ in all of its manifestations is not some undifferentiated monster that requires slaying. The most important debates that shape our future take place within the ANC and the government as much as they do in the national media or in Parliament. Who wins and who loses within the ANC remains a decisive question that we cannot abandon as “irrelevant”.
Secondly, the ANC’s claim to legitimacy based on its historical role as the leading organisation representing black South African’s aspirations for national determination and in opposing Apartheid is a false claim. That the ANC was the main formation thrown up by Apartheid oppression of black South Africans is indisputable and that legions of its supporters, leaders and members fought bravely and suffered deeply is equally indisputable. But how often in the world have we seen claims of historical suffering and historical struggle against oppression justifying present corruption and brutal repression? The ANC needs to hear the claims of some journalists and commentators that the ANC of today represents a radical discontinuity with that ANC of the past. This is a legitimate assertion that can only be answered with specific claims to value based on present activities and achievements.
Too often the ANC’s claim to legend, previous heroism and fortitude, to banners and flags and songs, is the only answer it seems able to give to those who say it has become an unsalvageable cesspool of greed and self-interest.
The ANC needs to be reminded of the words of the great African revolutionary leader, strategist and philosopher, Amilcar Cabral (here I quote the first and last few sentences of this famous statement):
Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. . .
Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures.
Claim no easy victories…
Single heroes who defend narrow approaches to the precious citadel against massed ranks of Orcs, barbarians or Persians are much revered in mythology.
I would like to nominate Gwede Mantashe to stand briefly amongst their legendary ranks.
He stood up yesterday in front of the South African Democratic Teachers Union and said (as quoted in Independent Online):
Sadtu … has neither clarity nor commitment to the education of the black child in the eyes of the public. We continue to use them (children) as pressure points and cannon fodder in the bargaining process. During the strike white children in general and Afrikaans children in particular continued to learn, many of you know this, whose children are in Model C schools. The children of many teachers go to Model C schools. When they (the teachers) go on strike their children continue to learn.”
He was booed and heckled off the podium.
After the booing and heckling had finally died down and he was allowed back onto the podium he said:
When comrades heckle me, they want me to express views about them… if that’s the issue I would suggest that Sadtu in future does not invite me.
So let this heroic stand – flawed like the stands of all the greatest mythological heroes* – not go unnoticed and un-revered. It takes a special kind of discipline and courage to stand up in front of your allies and dress them down in the clear and unambiguous terms Mantashe used.
There is little question that the activities and failures of the South African Democratic Teachers Union is making a singularly negative contribution to South Africa’s progress. There are other failures in government and in society that contribute to the unfolding catastrophe that is our public education system, but the lousy return on the considerable capital we as a country invest in education is in no small part due to the actions and inactions of Sadtu members.
So bravo Gwede Mantashe, the halls of Valhalla await you … hopefully later, rather than sooner.
* Note: Even legendary heroes are not perfect, so we just have to ignore that ridiculous assertion that Afrikaans children were the the least affected as a group by the public sector strike.