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December 21, 2015 in African National Congress, ANCYL, Bond yields, Cabinet, capitalism, China, complexity, Corruption, Crime, Discipline of global capital markets, Economics, financial markets, foreign investment, government v private sector, Jacob Zuma, Karl Marx, Macro-economics, National General Council, Nhlanhla Nene, patronage networks, Pravin Gordhan, propaganda, risk, Socialism, sovereign debt, The ZAR, Uncategorized | 5 comments
You might be surprised at how carefully some people who’ve never set foot on these shores, people who are mostly blindingly clever at maths and informed to a scarily deep level about our politics and history and whose job includes trading our currency and bonds, have asked me that headline question in the last week.
I have a stock answer that is true to myself but provides cold comfort to those whose fingers must hit one or other button to ‘short‘ SA relative to Russia, or vice versa, or Turkey or Brazil or the Philippines or offer up a financial instrument more exotic than I, for one, can understand, an indecipherable instrument that hedges all the angles but still takes a bet that has within its algorithms a call as to whether South Africa sucks completely or sucks less than the market has priced.
That answer begins: “well it’s complicated …”
Zuma as a president and the various cabals and gangsters that have kept him in place have had free policy and patronage range since 2008.
Nhlanhla Nene’s axing was the worst and most damaging – and exposing – decision Zuma and his cronies have taken since Zuma was elected ANC president in late 2007 (and I would include Mbeki’s recall in that comparison.)
Nene’s summary and unexplained axing and Van Rooyen’s appointment showed astonishing depths of either ignorance, cronyism or hubris – but I am tending towards ignorance, seasoned by the other two.
Only an extremely ignorant man, advised by people whose basic stupidity or grandiosity (undoubtedly a perfect combination of the two ) could have shat on the doorstep of global capital markets, of the people, countries and institutions that lend us money, those who own our banks and those who rate the quality of our government debt – and thought they could walk away from their malodorous mess.
We hear all this blather in ANC discussion documents about the crisis of capitalism, the unstable ‘casino economy’ and the glorious rise of China and Russia (India is occasionally mentioned) and this self-serving internal jabbering has left Zuma surrounded by coterie of people who think sentiment and a rain of Chinese dollars has relieved us of the brutal disciplines of global capital markets? Are these not lessons we learned in 1994 – 1996?
What? China will lend/give us money to bail us out as our currency crashes and the bond yields spike? Dream on morons. The markets aren’t everything you know, I hear him bleat, and this is what I have learned, Zuma proudly asserts, from my week at Focac and the visit of Premier Zi Jinping, my new best friend. The rise of China means ‘western’ markets have lost their power to take away our sovereignty.” Yay! Lets fire that neo-liberal sell-out Nene and get along with the business of taking back what is ours.
… and the awful retribution of the implacable, cold and thoughtless ‘markets’ crushed us under its heel, without even noticing.
Okay so a group of ANC leaders managed to slap him (Zuma) and his handlers down and have appointed Gordhan (again) who is going to deliver up some brutal lessons to this crew (I cannot wait!) … you will see in previous posts why I think that Gordhan’s appointment is not only a good idea, but leaves us in a position even better (politically) than when Zuma fired Nene (although it is a close call) – that is the answer I finally give to those who ask the question in the first paragraph … but only after long and probably boring but stern admonishments that complex systems do not yield up easy, dualistic answers.
But I want you to think about our core political leadership … or rather think about what they think about. Who are they? I assume it’s Zuma and his myriad sons and daughters and cousins and wives, it’s obviously the Guptas, the increasingly awful Lindiwe Zulu and others scattered about the differentially abled ANC Youth League, the Woman’s League and the Premier League with Ace Magashule neck and neck with Zulu in the running dog, protect-the-President-at-all-costs, Joseph Goebbels’ cup.
Jacob Zuma gave a perfect explanation (in terms of his logic) and defence of why he axed Nene in the speech he gave after the announcement. Rian Malan, journalist and author, nailed the problem by closely examining the unscripted words Zuma delivered after announcing that Nene was out and Van Rooyen was in.
You must read Malan’s article (here) but the long and the short of it is Zuma said “I am rebelling against (the idea that) what determines the value of a commodity is the law of supply and demand … The value of a commodity is the labour time taken in production …”
Do you know what that means? Do you realise how dire the consequences that flow from this being the view of our President?
Having been in reading groups in the early 80’s where we poured over and over “Capital: Critique of Political Economy” and several of Karl Marx’s other texts, I know exactly what Zuma thinks he means when he incoherently refers to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value.
In the intellectual vacuum that Zuma and whatever advisers he used when he fired Nene and appointed Van Rooyen there could only have been a complete absence of the knowledge that most of those who lend us money, buy our financial equities or trade our currency base their decisions on the reliability, predictability and respect of the Minister of Finance. It doesn’t matter if the traders and fund-managers are wrong or right in using this Cabinet Minister as the touchstone of policy credibility, it only matters that they do and the actions and inactions of the head of the National Treasury are scrutinised and combed with ruthless thoroughness by those who sell or buy our currency or debt (and in this case our bank’s equity as well).
We have a President surrounded by a coterie of what I am tempted to describe as imbeciles – and I don’t mean the Cabinet. Do they really think that (the interrupted) rise of China will free us from the dictates of markets? Our debt, equity and currency are traded on markets where prices are set by how many buyers or sellers there are, not some sentimental, half baked understanding of Marxist theories from the mid-to-late 1800s. When those markets ‘think’ the politicians are clearing obstacles (Nene) so they (those politicians) and their clients can loot the public purse they (the traders) will unsentimentally sell the financial instruments that are the backbone of our economy and we will crumble. And this time we came that close.
We have a steely new Finance Minister who I believe has more reason than ever to stand up to the ignorant and incoherent policy coming from the centre – although growth and our place in the world will make his job intolerably hard.
We have seen that the centre can be countermanded when its decisions are so bad that they could have a real chance of pushing the country into penury.
However the centre is still the centre, and it is still strong and dominant in the ruling party anyway. We are not home and free while Jacob Zuma occupies the driving seat. It doesn’t really matter if he is a crook or a fool -he has shown unequivocally poor judgement, and this looms over us as an ever present risk.
Vavi and the Numsa , DA taking Gauteng, mutters at the Treasury, grounds for even more caution on Zimbabwe and Malema’s visit to the prophet
August 14, 2013 in African National Congress, Alliance Politics, Amcu, Cosatu, Democratic Alliance, Elections2014, financial markets, Foreign relations, industrial relations, Julius Malema, National Devlopment Plan, opposition politics, platinum sector, SACP, Socialism, Vavi | 3 comments
Here are some bits and pieces of my latest commentary:
Vavi and Numsa – the underlying risks
Zwelinzima Vavi faces a special central executive committee of Cosatu meeting today to decide his fate following his admission that he had sex with a junior Cosatu employee in her office in the Cosatu headquarters. Numsa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (perhaps Cosatu’s largest union after the collapse of Num in the face of Amcu competition) characterises the attempt to discipline, and possibly shaft, Vavi as “a real rupture in the Alliance, and therefore in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP between the forces of socialism and the forces of neoliberal capitalism”. There is widespread speculation that Numsa might exit Cosatu if Vavi is axed.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Numsa’s position as just so much socialist babble and dissembling (although I did I see a recent Numsa paper defending Vavi with this quote from the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations … law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices” – tee hee ).
Numsa reads the pressure being placed on Vavi as rooted in Vavi’s criticism of the ANC leadership with regard to corruption and with regard to the ANC’s adoption of the National Development Plan. For Numsa and ‘the left’ in Cosatu/ANC/SACP, Vavi’s sexual practices are irrelevant, the ‘real’ issue is that the Zuma-led ANC and its allies in Cosatu and the SACP are attempting to rid themselves of a strident critic before the 2014 election. The left is, implicitly, saying: ‘you are trying to get rid of Vavi so that you can continue stealing from state coffers and selling us to the global corporations in whose pockets you now reside.’
The strategic planners around Zuma probably did want to get rid of Vavi and saw the sexual misconduct as an opportunity to do so with the least cost to Alliance strength and unity. However a result that leads to Numsa splitting from Cosatu might end up being catastrophic for Zuma and his allies. Numsa is the best organised and most militant union in Cosatu. It already effectively competes with Num (at Medupi for example) and if it were to set itself up in competition to other Cosatu unions the platinum sector circa-2012 could, conceivably, end up looking like a labour-relations picnic. Such a split could also cause unforeseeable disruptions in the ANC’s electoral support, conceivably leading to a political realignment and possibly to the formation of a ‘left’ or ‘workers’ party.
However, the Zuma administration and the central ANC leadership is desperately trying to unite the constituent elements of the Alliance behind the National Development Plan – partly in an attempt to prove to global capital markets and other investors that the ANC is serious about creating a settled environment for investment, and partly because it appears to believe that plan is the right path to ensure increased levels of economic growth and employment. Numsa sees the NDP as a direct extension of the ‘neoliberal’ Growth, Employment and Redistribution macroeconomic policy.
To understand more fully what is at stake here it is interesting to examine how Numsa, in its own words, understands the NDP and GEAR and how it interprets the ‘real’ reasons the Zuma leadership is attempting to get rid of Vavi:
“The capitalist neoliberal trajectory which the ANC leadership had adopted”, designed to “ deepened and entrenched South African capitalism” and “ it also laid the grounds for deepening imperialist domination in South Africa” … “allowed monopoly capitalism to evade expropriation“ … “thus in fact GEAR negated one of the fundamental objectives of any liberation struggle – the elimination of imperialism”. Finally: “Inevitably, the rupture in Cosatu is between those who want to see a thoroughgoing implementation of the Freedom Charter … and those who are consciously or unconsciously defending South African capitalism and imperialism by defending the NDP and not openly supporting the implementation of the Freedom Charter, especially its nationalisation demands.”
The stakes are high. The Zuma administration needs to prove to investors that these political positions are not represented in ANC policy making AND it has to keep the Ruling Alliance intact. The disciplining of Vavi today brings this to a head. The Zuma aligned faction probably wants to achieve a disciplining of Vavi with regard to his public utterances but to a degree that keeps Numsa in the tent. It’s a delicate balance and fraught with risk.
The Democratic Alliance – much talk of the possibility of taking Gauteng
The DA Electoral College decided late last week that Mmusi Maimane will head its campaign to take Gauteng from the ANC is 2014. Maimane stood against Jack Bloom for the position of ‘premier candidate’ for the DA in Gauteng. The election comes amidst increased media speculation that the Official Opposition could realistically pursue victory against the ANC in the economic heartland of the country.
The peculiarly South African ‘coded’ relevance of this story, is that Maimane is black and Bloom is white – and therefore the DA electoral college’s choice of Maimane over the more experienced Bloom is seen as indicative of the DA’s decision to ‘go all out’ to win a greater share of the black vote, especially in the region where it is assumed that ‘urban African professionals’ are both most abundant and most likely to be disaffected with corruption and ANC failures of governance.
At this distance out from a national election any definite prediction about results should be taken with a mountain of salt. Parties are either trying to talk up their chances or are predicting dire results to scare their members and supporters into campaigning mode. In the 2009 election the Democratic Alliance won 16.6% of the vote in Gauteng and it is vanishingly unlikely that the party will win a majority in the province in 2014. It is conceivable that the DA could find itself in a position to lead an alliance of parties to victory over the ANC in the province next year. However the parties themselves and their expensive private polling consultants possess the only real ‘
scientific‘ (probably ’empirical’ is better) – ed) data. Any hints that emerge into the public domain that come from those party contracted polling agencies are probably designed to serve specific party objectives, rather than the truth – and should be treated with maximum scepticism.
Zuma expected to tell SADC ‘our work in Zimbabwe is done’
It is unlikely that the 15 member SADC Heads of State meeting scheduled to take place on August 17 will call for a coalition government in Zimbabwe – as the body did after the disputed 2008 elections. City Press reported on Sunday that a source close to the South African mediation effort has said: “As far as South Africa is concerned, we have ended mediation in Zimbabwe”. It is likely that the regional body will vote to accept the election result (although not unequivocally and not without polite reservations) and further, that the body will call for the UK and the US to drop sanctions against Zimbabwe as part of an economic recovery plan.
The SADC is likely to err on the side of order if the trade-off is between political/economic stability and electoral fairness in the region. In 2008 the body assessed that the election was so unfair that accepting Mugabe’s refusal to acknowledge an MDC victory would be an unstable result. Thus the body forced Mugabe and his party into a coalition government. The estimation appears, this time around, to be that accepting a Zanu-PF victory is the more stable of the possible outcomes – and that stability is rooted in Zanu-PF having performed better and the MDC having performed worse this time around.
There is an interesting account in the Mail & Guardian of how Zanu-PF won Harare from the MDC that bears testimony to a real shift in voter sympathies in Zimbabwe – as opposed to purely cheating and skullduggery on Zanu-PF’s part (catch that story here). It is impossible to make a serious estimation of how much Zanu-PF’s victory was legitimate and how much a result of the aforementioned skullduggery. However, it is my opinion that the SADC will conclude that enough of the victory is ‘legitimate’ to declare it so, and thereby help make it so.
The outstanding questions, it seems to me, are:
• Will the party implement the indigenisation programme in a way that further drives foreign investment out of the economy?
• Will the party implement catastrophic monetary and fiscal policy?
It is probably a correct response to be ‘optimally cautious’ rather than ‘cautiously optimistic, given Zanu-PF’s serious mismanagement of the economy post-1999. However, it is also important to think of Zanu-PF and Mugabe as conscious and politically aware players in their game. Zanu-PF is likely to be cautious about policy – it is no longer necessary to implement ‘panic’ measures and any incumbent administration is likely to want to seek a degree of economic stability. This does not mean Zanu-PF will back-off ‘indigenisation’ – it appears to have worked for the party up to a point. But it does mean that Mugabe and his party are unlikely to implement indigenisation that further (i.e. any worse than it already has) breaks international norms and standards about property or in a manner that causes a stampede out of the economy. (Important qualification: One of my colleagues who specialises in analysing platinum companies has suggested that the indigenisation ‘deals’ that were struck prior to the election are actually coming ‘unstuck’ because Zanu-PF appears to believe it can get more favourable terms now that it has won such a divisive victory in the election. If that is, in fact, the case then it would be appropriate to be less confident of my formulation that “Zanu-PF is likely to be cautious about policy”.)
Additionally, a serious and high-risk ‘unknown’ is what might happen
if and when Mugabe (finally) dies. My own assumptions about how history works is that individuals rarely make a huge difference to outcomes. However, through careful manipulation and a clever ruthlessness Mugabe has become the lynchpin of Zanu-PF power and I am uncertain as to what might happen if a vacuum suddenly appears in the space he currently occupies, but I think it is unlikely to be pretty.
Pravin Gordhan – mutters at The Treasury
“Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s leadership style has been called into question as treasury employees accuse him of taking a unilateral decision to cut performance bonuses by more than half, while failing to condemn publicly the expenditure on the multimillion-rand upgrade of President Jacob Zuma’s compound in Nkandla” – Mail & Guardian.
Aggrieved staff members are not necessarily the most reliable critics of the bosses for whom they toil. However, successive ANC governments have relied on the Department of Finance being a centre of excellence that consistently trains and/or attracts top, highly motivated and effective officials – so any signs of serious stress in the organisation is worthy of consideration. The article, from the ‘quality weekly’, quotes a ‘senior official’ in the following manner: “Since he [Gordhan] was appointed as minister, things have never been the same in the national treasury. He brought a management style that is foreign to the team of the national treasury. He sometimes speaks to the management team like they are kids. His leadership style has seen many of the senior treasury employees, including former director general Lesetja Kganyago, leaving … All he is focusing on is making sure that he is reappointed as the minister of finance after next year’s election. People here say that this is one of the reasons he does not condemn the enormous amount of taxpayers’ money that was spent on the president’s residence”
In the same story, the Democratic Alliance finance spokesman Tim Harris claims that recent replies by the Treasury to the party’s parliamentary questions revealed a ‘significant’ vacancy rate at senior levels within the department, “in particular, 25 senior employees have left the department in the past year,” he said.
We have to take this from whence it comes (aggrieved employees and the official parliamentary opposition) but the status and functioning of the previously above reproach Treasury is important enough to consider even the fruit of this tainted tree.
Julius Malema seeks spiritual guidance
City Press reported on Sunday that Julius Malema and his colleagues in the Economic Freedom Fighters left South Africa on Friday for a week’s visit to a massively popular Nigerian preacher in Lagos who has ‘prophesied’ a huge and bloody revolt in South Africa – presumably one led by Malema. The EFF said in a statement that this is a “spiritual visit to meet and create friendship with this son of Africa and his congregation, and ask for blessings on the journey ahead”.
Nothing really … it’s just that Malema’s antics are endlessly entertaining. Of course this lighthearted approach is based purely on the belief that Julius and cronies are never going to get anywhere in their political party endeavours. If the EFF ever looked like it was a real threat I would probably not be sniggering up my sleeve at their tormenting of the ANC …
I wrote what follows in July 1990 immediately after returning from a two week trip to Moscow. I was part of a group with the now sadly departed Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa). The original was published in Democracy In Action, the institute’s monthly newsletter. I had looked for a copy for years and Paul Graham the last executive director of Idasa, and a man for whom I have the highest regard, went to considerable trouble to find the article for me as he was closing up shop. I am republishing it here exactly as it originally appeared, although I have to sit on my hands to stop myself stripping out much of the sentiment and youthful taking-of-oneself-too-seriously – and thereby cutting two thirds of the length. (I would also quite like not to admit to some of the things I once believed which I admit to in the article … and I would love to add a bit of irony … but it is all too late for that now.)
Why am I bothering – I am not unaware that this was not exactly seminal? No special reason, except my desire that it form ‘part of the record’. I wanted it “out there” in the electronic universe to remind myself of the precise moment I stopped being a confused socialist and carried on with being just confused, an altogether less satisfying state than I had experienced previously. It was bitter-sweet for me, this moment, and I have never entirely resolved the conflicted feelings that it evokes in me. I don’t promise that what follows will be madly interesting to anyone but myself and perhaps some others directly involved in the events I describe. So, if for no other reasons than the much vaunted record, complete and unexpurgated, here is:
Ten days that shook my world
Standing on the Leningradsky Prospect – the “straight way” to Leningrad – just outside Moscow I was filled with an unhappy mixture of dismay and despair.
I had reached an unbearably poignant shrine. In heroic proportions and cut deep into huge blocks of concrete was the visage of the Soviet version of the Unknown Soldier. The young interpreter translated the script alongside that haunting face in hushed tones. “It says that, ‘the defenders of Moscow defend here forever’. Here they fought an important battle in the Great Patriotic War. Many people died. But for us this is very sad.”
Twenty million Soviet citizens died in that war. more than all the other deaths put together. The German army failed to take Moscow or Leningrad and eventually broke its back on a bitterly defended Stalingrad and the even more bitter Soviet winter.
Standing at that memorial I felt dismay at the enormity of suffering the people of this country had experienced in the last 100 years. I felt despair because by that stage of the trip I already sensed than another tragedy was befalling this oft punished country.
How do you record a credible impression of a country with 290 million inhabitant and more mutually unintelligible languages than anywhere else in the world after a brief two weeks spent in one city – albeit Moscow?
The answer is you probably can’t.
It was sunny mid-June and I was part of an Idasa delegation of “young researchers” on a fact-finding mission hosted by a group called the Committee of Youth Organisations. For me personally the visit was of particular importance.
The Soviet Union was the land of milk and honey for many of us who grew up politically in the student movement in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the flagship of a growing fleet that would rid our world of the uncaring and greedy imperative of profiteering capitalism and the misery it had brought our country.
We could quote chapter and verse of statistics that demonstrated the availability of basic goods and services to all Soviet people. We could parade the achievements of Eastern bloc socialism – in the production of iron and steel, in the eradication of illiteracy, in culture, the arts and in sports.
In response to perestroika and glasnost we had all reformulated our ideas and I wanted to discover two things: the soul of the Soviet people and whether the red flag was still flying. We were not able to answer any of these questions conclusively and were left with a series of often unconnected impressions.
I was quite unprepared for what I found in Moscow.
We sat in a meeting with the editor of the Moscow Communist Youth Organisation (Komsomol) daily newspaper. The paper has a subscriber list of one and a half million and is delivered daily. This man was a political appointee yet he harangued us for over an hour about the evils and absolute unworkability of socialism.
We didn’t understand. Here was a powerful and influential communist, picking up a glass on the table and asking, “Who does this belong to? To the state, or the people, or some vague body? I don’t care about this glass,” and he made as if to throw it out of the window.
In an intense and growing fury he took a Parker pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This is my pen! If this man (pointing at his second in command) breaks this pen, I will beat him,” he said, shaking his fist angrily.
Reaching some kind of climax, the editor rose to his feet and shouted pointing out of the window at the inevitable queue at a shop across the road: “Those people are queuing for children’s slippers. This is not how people should live! This is not even how animals should live!”
The sentiments behind these ragings were expressed by everyone we met – more cautiously only by the most senior members of the Communist Party.
The economy has clearly failed to meet the requirements of the population and the list of reasons they give reads like a tirade from the New Right.
Here is a selection of rough quotes as I jotted them down in my notebook or remember them now:
“The authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative command system has created impossibly skewed production priorities.”
“Why work hard, or with any care and attention to detail if you are going to get your 300 roubles a month no matter what and anyway, you are not going to be able to buy anything with it? We have created workers who don’t know how to work.”
“Goods are expensive and if they are made here they are of inferior quality. It is very difficult to get imported goods and usually these are impossibly expensive.”
“I have lived here all my life. Now it is worse than anyone can remember. There are just no goods in the shops and for the first time we are really worried about hunger.”
Almost without exception the people we spoke to blamed socialism for their ills. When those of us with deep philosophical and political roots in the South African socialist movement protested that it wasn’t socialism per se that was the problem, but rather the errors committed in the building of the society and economy of the Soviet Union specifically, we were laughed out of court.
“It is the ideas themselves. 1917 was a disaster for us. We need the market economy,” was the refrain we heard time and again.
There seems no doubt that there is a developing consensus amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow at any rate, that the “free market” is the panacea to many of their ills. It would have been impossible, and extremely presumptuous of us to lecture them on the evils of rampant capitalism. They want it and they want it now.
When Germany and Japan start buying up state enterprises for a pittance and fill the shops with goods that only a few can afford; when unemployment and lack of housing becomes a problem for the previously protected underclass and when access to a whole lot of goods ans services becomes determined by income, they may change their minds, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.
The citizens of Moscow (a relatively wealthy city) are struggling, increasingly despairingly, to survive. At first I was tempted to argue that they are better off than the unemployed in the First World, but it just doesn’t appear to be true, especially as far as countries with social welfare systems are concerned.
The problem, of course, is that the capitalism that will be built in the Soviet Union will be a mean and half-starved animal.
The Soviet people look at the highly developed capitalist economies of the West for a vision of their own future. The truth is that they can expect only the vicious and exploitative versions of the system that exist on the periphery in the Third World. The creation of that system is going to be extremely painful.
The other element of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the political entity itself.
The republics are finally starting to be flung off the edges of the vortex of rapid political change. Long repressed nationalism, often highly chauvinistic, is emerging everywhere and Gorbachev is finding it almost impossible to hold the show on the road.
The dark spectre of the Soviet Union’s collapse into 15 disgruntled, warring, potentially economically unviable Third World states with terrifying military resources at their disposal is starting to haunt the wold.
And what about the Russian people?
We were all astounded at the depth of education and cultural and philosophical literacy in the wide cross-section of people we met. A deep abhorrence of war and commitment to peaceful change was the characteristic feature. In response to the question “what do you want, or see as an alternative?”, the most common phrase was, “respect for universal human values.”.
We asked many young people if they were proud of any of their national achievements – the beautiful, cheap and efficient Moscow underground, the low price and ready availability of books and records and the level of literacy and education.
We were told (variously): “The Soviet Union is not a country, we have no national achievements”; “how can we be proud if it takes all our effort and time just to buy a loaf of bread in a shop”.
Almost every young person we met had a burning desire to leave the country. The most popular movie on the circuit is a “documentary” comparison of life in the Soviet Union versus life in the West.
Apparently this films looks at the worst of Soviet life compared to the best in the West. It sounds like the worst kind of anti-communist, American ultra-right chauvinism – except it was made by a Soviet film producer. What is more, the public swallow every last detail in an orgy of masochistic self-hatred.
One thing we found interesting and encouraging was freedom and vibrancy of the media.
Organised political opposition to the Communist Party is weak (outside of the national movements in the republics) and many of the new parties have no real experience at mobilising the population. However, the press and television are filled with debate and exploration of new ideas and harsh examinations of social problems ranging from alcoholism through to child abuse.
By the end of the 10 days, the six of us were punch-drunk and exhausted. We spoke together for hours trying, unsuccessfully, to draw out the essence of the experience. We all had the sense of being in an important place at an important time. This was the exact point where a grand enterprise had come off the rails.
The resounding shock waves of that catastrophe have changed the whole world, not least of all our own country. We struggled with the enormity of it and the sense of hopelessness we were left with.
As the last day of the visit dawned, I spoke to a wise and gentle man about my confusion and disappointment. He said: “Yes, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but you are wrong to say our people are hopeless or despairing. They have spirit and humanity. We will win through in some way.”
(I was accompanied on that trip by Ian Liebenberg, Hermien Kotze, Zorah Ebrahim, Khehla Shubane and Mark Swilling – and I wish them well wherever they may be.)