Remembering heritage

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Last Sunday, over a light and impromptu lunch with Michele, the mother of my god-boy Cameron, talk turned to Heritage Day, and my Cameron (aka Haggis), who is eight years old, asked: ‘What’s heritage mean?’

So, as usual there were the long, excessively punctuated sentences about the present being a mixture of events that have shaped us, of rituals that solidified into traditions – through
no fault of their own – of how people behaved, what they believed, and what they did, and how it all morphed into some giant unfinished algorithm that occasionally would trigger some visceral response in people within that matrix to make them say, ‘Yes, I belong’, or ‘I am part of this’, or simply, ‘Let’s braai!’

I added that heritage is about what we remember of what we’ve done, what we do, and what needs to be done (if we chose to do it).

Today – Heritage Day – taking him to his judo competition at a school in Plumstead, I asked if he recalled our conversation about heritage.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s about remembering who you are.’

I took a wrong turn. Something in my eye, perhaps. We drove maniacally through backstreets where his only comment was: ‘We’ll probably be late. And there a re a lot of bergies on these streets.’

We got to the judo venue on time. He weighed in at 30.7kg.

School competitions challenge all the conforms of chaos theory. They are beyond chaotic. Stephen Hawking could not fathom it. I was stricken dumb. (OK, for you pedants and sticklers for accuracy – stricken dumber.) Parents do this kind of thing every weekend. I have no idea why so little alcohol is drunk by parents of children between the ages of six and 12, who have to attend judo championships, chess championships, etc.

Cameron has that scary, calm, one thousand blue miles stare. His opponent couldn’t even see it coming. Two perfect throws and Cameron walked away with a gold medal. They didn’t even bother to put any one else up against him.

That’s a moment I’ll remember. And you could say it added to our heritage, but I’m not too fussed about that.

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Maverick on the campaign trail

Until Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle

Julius
By Richard ‘Hannibal Elector’ Poplak

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In 2011, an Irish journalist based in Cape Town wrote a book about Julius Malema, called An Inconvenient Youth, and the New ANC. The author, Fiona Ford, titled her first chapter ‘The devil wears Breitling’. Ford writes that she was with Malema in Caracas, Venezuela, for the conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It’s Saturday, 24 April 2010. Back in South Africa, on Monday, 26 April, the ANC were planning to meet to decide on suitable “disciplinary measures to deal with the youth” Julius Malema.
Ford describes sitting with Malema in the Caracas hotel and his agitation about the hearings, but what stands out are his fashion comments delivered to Ford “with scorn, pity and dismay, all rolled into one”.
“The leather in your shoes is supposed to match the leather in your belt and your watch. So if you wear brown leather shoes,” he tells her, “you must wear a brown leather belt, and a brown leather watch.”
Three years later, Richard Poplak is on the 2014 electoral campaign of Julius Malema’s fledgling party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And what pops up but fashion and the red beret, the “primary piece of ordinance” in the EFF’s “prêt-à-porter arsenal”. Poplak goes on to quote Walter Benjamin on the “intersection of politics and fashion” (don’t get nervous – this is the sort of erudite reference Daily Maverick readers expect) but the catching issue here is fashion: the production and marketing of something, reputedly “new”. Ford’s excellent book had only one glaring error: it wasn’t a ‘new’ ANC that Malema was fashioning, but his own political entity.
If after reading Ford, you sat up, replaced the screw top on the chardonnay or ordered a Coke with out the klippies, and reconsidered your blasé notions of South Africa’s loudest and most “inconvenient” youth; after reading Poplak, you will skip the chardonnay and Klippies, and go straight to the spook and diesel.
Poplak points out – correctly – that the Democratic Alliance candidates in the 2014 election were not “bloodthirsty enough. Not battle-hardened enough”. What turns Mmusi Maimane on is macroeconomics, which is just not going to cut it in the brick-flinging, Molotov cocktail arena of South African politics. As he says, “no matter how much bullshit they [the EFF] spew, those berets scream ‘revolution’. And revolution is, sadly, sexier than macroeconomics”.
The great joy of being on the campaign trail with Poplak though is not only the insights into Julius Malema but also the side characters. Take Kenny Kunene and his Patriotic Alliance Party. Poplak reminds us of the fact that Kunene “isn’t the biggest piece of shit in South Africa” and that his talk about “helping children as often as Michael Jackson did, which, I’ll admit, is always a cause for worry” are not really the issues. What is the issue is that “no one knows what he does” since he stopped his life of crime and “got into the Brave New South African economy of producing nothing”. (He “won tenders” apparently.)
His take on Mamphela Ramphele is summed up in the preamble to the chapter devoted to her: “Destiny’s Child: In which we consume lox and cream-cheese bagels with the Worst. Politician. Ever.” Say no more.
And if you thought President Jacob Zuma was all about the laugh (Heh, HEH, heh, heh), then Poplak’s take on him is chilling. Zuma “radiates no intelligence… he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power”, and that does not bode well for the country.
Poplak’s style and language is mesmerising; the sentences flow through inflamed urban streets, splash against discordant images, and swirl around people who we know through their public presence, but who he engulfs with wave after wave of detail. His chapter on Trevor Manuel is searing and wickedly funny, filled with the sort niggles, usually ignored, that legends always leave in their trail. Who would have thought our country’s economic destiny was forged “by way of grammar”?
Julius Malema recently addressed the Cape Town Press Club. The venue was Kelvin Grove – yes, I know, last bastion, white privilege, racist, anti-Semitic, etcetera – ¬and Malema read his audience perfectly. OK the literacy requirement was at the level of: “Here is Jacob. Here is Helen. Jacob and Helen go up the hill”, but still, he nailed it.
Malema in front of this audience became a praise poet for Helen Suzman, an admirer of Helen Zille (whom he never once referred to as ‘Madam’), and a damning critic of both President Jacob Zuma and and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he speared with the comment that “Cyril loves money more than people”, referring to the Lonmin mine workers killed at Marikana. He also said that as he helped put Zuma in power, he would help Zuma lose that power. They loved it.
Malema was and is the consummate politician. Poplak resorts to gamer jargon to capture Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. “In the grimy scrim of South African politics, the Angry Birds gamer is a proxy for [the EFF], who are merrily catapulting ‘enraged urban youth’ into a piggish ruling party’s teetering political home.”
But is not just the ANC’s political home that is under threat from the EFF. It is the nation’s political metropolis. At the EFF’s final election rally, Poplak is at his descriptive best as Malema makes his entrance: “Fighters in white golf shirts and men in ersatz military uniforms… 30 bikers on screaming hogs and sport bikes, red-lining their engines to a slaughtered-pig squeal of mechanical agony”. There’s more. It’s a great essay.
But, as he says, the policies Malema promises the crowd have never worked, and the EFF party apparatchiks will not make them work “because none of them have actually done anything”.
But that’s a trifling detail when Julius comes.

[This review first appeared in the Cape Times, 19 September, 2014]

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Book Review: To Catch a Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story

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This is the tale of an epic clash between an underdog hero and ubiquitous villains. To Catch a Cop reads like a thriller, with the many strands of Paul O’Sullivan’s spiderweb organogram precisely and inexerobaly brought together by Marianne Thamm to culminate in the trial and disgrace of the once national police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

But a nagging thread runs through this tangled rats’ nest that Marianne Thamm so deftly unravels and rewinds into a neat ball, a strand that won’t tuck away neatly. You unpick the niggle early, when the disgraced national commissioner of police Jackie Selebi recounts how he was chosen for the job.

According to Selebi the then president Thabo Mbeki took him aside and said he had a “list of 100 potential candidates” to replace outgoing commissioner George Fivaz. The president then said, “I looked at this list and the only name that I found that I can think of is you.” And therein lies the rot that continues to destroy our “state of Denmark”.

Why did Mbeki — and scores of other seemingly honourable men and women — not only support this odious man, but also wilfully attempt to cover up for him? Even months before his fall, with the evidence of his corruption and mendacity mounting, Mbeki renewed Selebi’s contract for a further year.

Thamm tells a brilliant story of these murky slime pool lizards with such clarity and elegance, you really only need to wash your hands after each chapter. By the end of it, you are left nodding agreement with the tenacious and probably slightly unbalanced Paul O’Sullivan, that life is a simple but sustained struggle between the good and the bad and that it gets ugly in between.

The list of names that fall into the bad category is long and many of whom are very much alive and continuing with their suspect behaviour, for example suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. He’s now biting the hand that feeds him, turning on Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa (consipcuously absent from these pages, but appointed by President Jacob Zuma in 2009, just four months before Selebi went on trial). According to the M&G (2 March 2014) Mdluli claims to have evidence that “[Mthethwa] and top generals knew about fraud and corruption in the police’s crime intelligence unit but did not act on the knowledge”.

Selebi never spent a single day of his 15-year sentence in a prison cell — he was pardoned for health reasons — and was protected by people as high up as the then president of the country. Nothing seems to have changed within the current crop ruling the country’s police force. O’Sullivan is more sanguine and firmly believes that there are more good cops on the beat than bad ones; that good will triumph over evil.

But there is that niggley thread that you want to keep pulling: why was Selebi appointed in the first place? Why is the subsequent crop of ministers and commissioners untouchable? It is obvious that these decisions have resulted in a spectacular faillure by government to reform the South African Police Service.

O’Sullivan has one simple answer: greed. And when you read about the amount of drugs being moved freely about the country; the profits from prostitution, human trafficking and smuggling that are being laundered through South African businesses, it is hard to come up with any other reasonable answer. “If there is one thing I have learned from life,” said O’Sullivan to Thamm, “it’s that a lot of people prey on greed.”

If you thought that the collapse of policing in South Africa was a problem, then reading this book will explode even your most serious criticisms. The rot is deep, insidious and vicious — the body count in To Catch a Cop makes most thriller fiction read like a nursery rhyme — and there appears to be no attempt by government to do anything about it other than talk platitudes. Right to the end of his trial, Selebi and his supporters tried to paint a picture of O’Sullivan as simply a white “foreigner” with a racist dislike for an honourable black cadre.

O’Sulivan does not ride off into the sunset victorious. He may have won the battle against Selebi but the war continues. The last section of the book moves on to another figure in this heinous cabal of comrades and crooks: Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir, currently under arrest and charged with, among other things, attempted murder. His target: Paul O’Sullivan.

And like any good thriller, there’s a sequel to come.

[This review first appeared in the Cape Times on 11 April 2014]

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Oil: It’s not just about the money

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What happened in those countries outside of the Middle East in which oil was found? The countries in Africa, which collectively form the world largest oil producers after that region, for example. The top oil producing country in Africa is Nigeria which produces 2.2-million barrels a day, making fourth largest exporter of oil in the world. 

This question arose late after supper among some journalists who were in Abu Dhabi as part of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), which was celebrating its 20 anniversary. The initial question that prompted it was, ‘How did the United Arab Emirates (UAE) become such a successful nation?’

The casual response was, of course, oil money. But as Acemoglu and Robinson point out in How Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty ‘the windfall of wealth has done little to create diversified modern economies in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait’. One of the reasons the authors give for nations failing is the lack of a diversified economy. So why did it work for the UAE? Another response was that the UAE wasn’t a nation but actually a very large – and very successful – corporation, but that dodges the question.

Abu Dhabi had changed since I was last here more than 20 years ago. It looked the same: lots of new buildings, just more of them. The driver, with the zoned-in attention of a fighter pilot, swept from the airport along the broad highways and through the empty streets to drop me at the hotel as the sun rose harsh and fast. Dawn lasts an instant here on the far edge of the Empty Quarter.

The Centre, which has the backing of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bib Zayed al Nahyan and who is the Centre’s president operates as a sort of microcosm of the United Arab Emirates: an efficient, fully resourced and effective corporate entity. Its mission, said Dr Jamal Sand Al-Suwaidi, director-general of the centre, is ‘to support national decision making and serve both the UAE and GCC societies’.

Al-Suwaidi emphasised that the UAE is where it is because of its ‘clear strategy and methodology’ that was amply supported by the ‘quality of the management and the thoroughness of the research of ECSSR. The think-tank has produced more than 1 000 publications, hosted more than 800 events and published more than 20 000 of research papers in the fields of politics, economy, military, security and social studies. In short, it forms part of the inclusive political institutions required to make a nation successful.

How do the oil producing nations in Africa then measure up?

Historically, the UAE grew out of what were referred to in the 1850s as the “Trucial Sheikhdoms”, the majority of which now comprise the seven entities that make up the UAE. Earlier in the 1800s, the tribal leaders of the region reached an agreement with Britain to counter the piracy that interfered with their lucrative trading routes to India and the rest of the world. In return, Britain would provide protection against land or sea invasions — and pirates. Once oil was discovered in the 1960s, first in Abu Dhabi, the leaders realised they needed to present a more united front, and formed the Trucial States Council. At the time it included Bahrain and Qatar.

In 1968, however, Britain decided it could no longer afford to provide the protection it had agreed to and in 1971 they withdrew. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi gathered the Trucial States Council and attempted to form a federation. It failed; Qatar and Bahrain became independent and the regions most powerful leader (and the father of the man behind the ECSSR), the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi then persuaded his counterpart in Dubai to form a union. But first, he stipulated, they must draw up a constitution. The plan was then to invite the five other states to join them, which they did in 1971 (with Ras al-Khaimah coming to the party a few months later).

This matter of drawing up a constitution is an important point. Acemoglu and Robinson point out that in order for nations to succeed its citizens must “trust the institutions and the rule of law that these generated”. Such institutions – economic or political – they term inclusive as opposed to extractive: to be inclusive, “economic institutions must feature secure private property, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provides a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also must permit the entry of new businesses”.

And here innovation is integral to success, and innovation is “made possible by economic institutions that encourage private property, uphold contracts, create a level laying field, and encourage and allow the entry of new businesses that can bring new technologies to life”.

Extractive institutions are exactly what they say they are: as Robinson put it in a debate with Paul Collier, they are, “those which are designed to extract resources and income from some people and transfer them to other people”.

Nigeria gained independence in 1960 and oil production started in the 1950s. Despite the enormous wealth that oil brought to the country, not much of it benefited the citizens as corruption and venery saw the money channelled into personal bank accounts. In other words, it was an extractive system. This is, however, beginning to change and it’s because the political institutions are becoming inclusive. Military dictatorship finally came to an end in 1999 — as Simon Allison says, there had been a “few other attempts [at democracy] in Nigeria’s post-colonial history” — when a core group of military officers and civilian allies, oversaw the transition from military to civilian rule. It was the culmination of a four-year process and saw Nigerians break with their British colonial heritage and adopt an American-style constitution. The country has since had held three national elections.

In the previous extractive system, for example, there would be no investigation as there currently is into the alleged $49.8-million that went “missing” from the sales of crude oil between January 2012 and July 2013, which was supposed to be remitted to the federation account by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). (This trend towards inclusive institutions maybe reversed, however, given the recent firing of the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.)

Ottoman colonialism, which by 1566 covered North Africa from Tunisia to Egypt, the entire Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, imposed highly extractive institutions. The Ottomans were succeeded by the British, and while it was still an extractive system it allowed a greater deal of independence. But most of the Middle East and North African countries after independence simply continued the extractive system; the only difference this time was that it benefited an indigenous select few. The effect of these extractive economies eventually led to the series of anti-government protests – the so-called Arab Spring – that began in Tunisia in 2011 and spread across the Middle East.

Why Nations Fail claims that the high levels prosperity in successful modern societies rests upon those nation’s political institutions. It points out that investment and innovation work to generate prosperity only if they believe their successes will not be appropriated by the powerful. This assurance, they maintain, can only come from a centralized democracy.

Inclusive institutions are those that allow sustained economic growth, technological innovation and capital accumulation. Acemoglu and Robinson state that, ‘economic institutions… are those that allow and encourage participation by the great mass of the people in economic activities that make the best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make choices they wish. Innovation is crucial because talent and skill is spread throughout society and there is no way these talented skilful can flourish in an oligarchy operating a system of extractive institutions.

UAE does not qualify, strictly, as a democracy. The last elections held in 2011 involved 129 000 “selected” voters (male and female) who could vote for 20 members of the 40-member Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory assembly with very limited parliamentary powers. So, while the concentration of political power is characteristic of extractive economic institutions, the difference in the UAE is that political power is not only spread among seven members but, more importantly, it is also centralised.

And it does have a strong justice system. The Norway-based Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) 2013 annual International Human Rights Indicator (IHRRI) ranked the United Arab Emirates “first among Arab countries and 14th globally for respecting human rights — six points ahead of the United States (20th overall).

Abu Dhabi controls the majority of the UAE’s hydrocarbon wealth: 95% of the oil and 6% of the gas. Yet, due to a vigorous (and well-funded) economic diversification strategy non-oil and gas GDP — manufacturing industry, real estate, tourism and retail — now comprises 64% of the UAE’s total GDP. Its founder had a development vision, much of which is reflected in the establishment of the ECSSR that focused Al-Suwaidi said was on “establishing innovation and creativity” that supports the overall development of society. It is in other words, an inclusive system.

The same cannot be said for the other four top producers in Africa. Algeria is second, producing about 2.1-million barrels a day and number five in terms of world exports. It gained independence in 1962 after a bitter 12-year war against the French colonialists.

Algeria felt the rise of the Arab Spring and in 2011 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government lifted the 19-year state of emergency and promised the 2012 parliamentary elections would mean a real step towards democracy. The elections, however, showed markedly low turnout but it did see the establishment of 23 new political parties and new rules that preserved 30% of the places on the candidacy lists for women (this has led to 145 women gaining seats in parliament). But overall Algeria has largely preserved the political status quo in polls and remains an extractive system.

Third is Angola — one of Africa’s richest countries — with 1.9-million barrels per day pegging them at seventh in the world, yet a third of Angolans exist on les than $2 a day. Angola gained independence in 1975 and since 1979 has been ruled by José Eduardo dos Santos.

An example of how an extractive system works, say Acemoglu and Robinson, would be to look at the daughter of Angola’s president Isabel dos Santos, who according to Forbes, is “the wealthiest woman in Africa”. Forbes also claims, “every major Angolan investment held by dos Santos stems either from taking a chunk of a company that wants to do business in the country or from a stroke of the president’s pen that cut her into the action”. That stifles innovation.

Libya, which gained independence in 1951, produces 1.7-million barrels per day and exports about 1.2m of that. It comes in at fourth. It is currently engaged in a destructive civil war, which started in 2011 – part of the Arab Spring – after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 42 years. It remains mired in conflict. And, finally, in fifth position is Egypt, producing 680 000 barrels per day. It gained independence in 1922.

South Africa is 10th on the list of African oil-producing countries (roughly 191 000 barrels of oil every day). We inherited an extractive system (20% [whites] took resources and income from 80% [blacks]) and its slow to come around. The constitution has been challenged and the rule of law flaunted in numerous cases. On top of that we have cut back on important research and development that is required to increase our international competitiveness in science and innovation, The goal of raising R&D spending to 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010 was not been achieved and according to the National Survey of Research and Experimental Development 2009-2010, we invested only R21-billion (US$2.3 billion) in R&D over that period. This equals 0.87% of GDP in 2009-10. Not only that, but this was the third consecutive year that research funding as a percentage of GDP had dropped: 0.93% in 2007-08 and 09.2% in 2008-09. It is doubtful that we will meet our target of 2% GDP spending on research by 2018.

Think tanks are not a luxury. They are a prerequisite if a nation is to “adopt a strategic approach to forward planning” and be able to provide support to government decision-making processes.

As Robinson points out, nations locked into extractive institutions are not there for reasons of stupidity or ignorance. It is, they say, about the “conflict of interest of people who control power as politicians or as leaders or business leaders or whatever of the country, are having their preferred policies imposed on society, even if it’s not good for society”.

Organisations, such as the ECSSR — and locally the sadly now defunct Institute of Democracy in Africa (Idasa) — provide input into the political and economic institutions of governance, from training government cadres, to organizing seminars and creating the avenues for dialogue among decision making bodies. In addition it provides extensive and intensive analysis of local, regional and international events that potentially may affect the UAE. And where political institutions are inclusive, this sort of research is incorporated into the vision for the nation, rather than simply providing lip service — another extractive forum — for entrenched rulers.

Robinson goes on to say that leaders who rely on extractive systems are best termed “political losers” – leaders that are only interested in their own bottom line. “Many of the fundamental transformative technologies and many of the institutional changes that unleash economic growth throughout history have come together with changes that weaken the political power of rulers. And that’s why they’ve been resisted by rulers.” And that’s why we have to guard against political losers holding power.

[This first appeared in Daily Maverick http://bit.ly/1lEwegw]

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Is there time to fix the pipes?

A Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy (Max du Preez)

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to the Arab Spring — that moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

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In December 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had sold vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, for seven years, had his trolley and all the vegetables thereon confiscated by a police officer. When he attempted to pay the $7 “fine” for trading, the officer slapped him and basically told him to get lost. This was not his first run-in with arbitrary and random police actions and he decided to take it to the local provincial authorities. They, the corrupt and arrogant, ignored him.

That slap was to be the proverbial slap heard around the world. Bouazizi planted himself in front of the provincial headquarters, doused his body in petrol and set himself on fire. He died 18 days later. Thus began the Arab Spring.

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to this “spring” — this moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

Four months later, at the other end of the continent, a 33-year-old mathematics teacher Andries Tatane joined a protest of more than 4 000 people in a march on the Setsoto Municipal Offices in Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa to protest against poor service delivery.

They were met by the SAPS who turned water cannons on the crowd and then started arresting people. Tatane attempted to intervene. He was beaten and then shot in the chest twice by SAPS officers. He died on the street. All the officers were acquitted. Political analysts thought these would be the shots that would reverberate, if not around the world, at least around South Africa.

Du Preez is right: it was just a rumour.

Tatane’s death would be eclipsed 16 months later when the SAPS killed 34 striking platinum miners outside the small town of Marikana. Again, analysts pontificated about “watershed moments”, “turning points”, “tipping points” and “seminal” moments. Again, it was all a rumour.

Yes, Du Preez is an Old White Male (OWM) but if you think that is ground for dismissal, then you probably also believe that Julius Malema is a hopeless politician because he’s black. Du Preez brings his cynical, inquisitive and compassionate intelligence to the table in discussing South Africa after 20 years of democracy and the role played by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). It’s an intelligence that has won him numerous awards, including the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa (1996)and the Yale Globalist International Journalist of the Year (2006).

If you’ve read any of his regular columns or one of his many books you will know roughly where he is going with this book. But it is in the details, the conscientious examination of events that make this one of the ‘must read’ books about our country. It is his conscience that is troubled, and this is best revealed in his anecdotes. The story of meeting Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou in 1987 with Thabo Mbeki and other ANC members, and thinking: ‘Surely these guys have a similar commitment to genuine liberation of our people?’

‘Ouch,’ he says, he was wrong. Just another rumour.

Sankara was killed three months later in a coup staged by his comrade Blaise Compaore. Now, 26 years later Burkina Faso is a textbook example of what Acemoglu and Robinson describe in How Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Burkina Faso is a nation of extractive institutions, embedded with corruption and cronyism, where important offices in the government are given to supporters of the president who operate with impunity and where the political/economic elite flaunt their opulence.

Du Preez covers the familiar territory of Jacob Zuma’s rise to power but includes all the elements that make the whole story read like a political thriller. Except that it is true. The way Mbeki was outmanoeuvred and humiliated, the way Zuma manipulated the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and how he gathered around him a security cluster of ‘100% Zulu Boys’ — Jeff Radebe, Nathi Mthethwa and Siyabonga Cwele. Shades of PW Botha’s ‘Imperial Presidency’ and his State Security Council, which we now know served mainly to intensify the environment for structural corruption?

Surely not, but it does sound like the same dogs barking. Du Preez quotes Prof Njabulo Ndebele on the Nkandla debacle — more than R200-million of taxpayers’ money spent on Zuma’s private residence. ‘Nkandla,’ says Ndebele, ‘manifests an advanced stage in the systemic nature of corruption in South Africa that has been growing over an 18-year period and gathered momentum in the past five years.’

Zuma reveals himself not so much a leader of the nation or even the government. He is a leader of the ANC, and as long as he remains as such, he is in essence protected from prosecution (there are more than 700 legal cases outstanding against him). And because the nation is rudderless, the technocrats that may have made the country viable have long been replaced by political appointees, mostly inept, some corrupt and largely indifferent but yet filled with grandiose schemes (think e-tolls, nuclear reactors, SAA).

Another telling anecdote. Du Preez recounts a story told him by a colleague of how the Indian government built a dam to supply Mumbai with 455-million litres of water that the city required per day. But if the city had simply fixed all the leaking pipes it would have saved more than 600-million litres per day. The moral for South Africa is that ‘we should first fix our leaking pipes and taps before we build a new dam’.

Du Preez thinks the nation will be saved from becoming a Burkina Faso, a Zimbabwe, a Russia or a Greece because of two things: our Constitution and the Independent Electoral Commission. That, as he says, ‘no one has tried to mess with it [the Constitution] so far’ and that the ‘credibility and efficiency’ of the IEC ensuring the ‘credibility of our elections are never in doubt’.

Well, the constitution is under threat — Zuma has said it needs to be changed. And the Electoral Court ruling last year that IEC officials were wrong to bar individual candidates in the Tlokwe by-election goes to the heart of its credibility.

All this may be theory, another rumour. For in the wings, as Richard Poplak has so cogently argued in the Daily Maverick (‘Hannibal Elector: The rise and rise (and rise) of the EFF’) is Julius Malema and the EFF. His followers are ‘ready to throw the ideals and rhetoric of liberation out of their shacks with the day’s rubbish… [they] want to hear that the system will come up for a review, and that title deeds are going to be shredded, banks nationalised, the Mzansi flag raised over the mine shafts’.

It may be too late to fix the pipes.

[Rumour of Spring is published by Zebra Press (http://bit.ly/1ecAOKn).]

This review was first published in the Cape Times on Friday 21February 2014

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100% Maybe

Kgalema Motlanthe: A political biography by Ebrahim Harvey

[This first appeared in the Cape Times on Friday 23 November 2012]

Not many biographers would open their work with a volley across the bow of a fellow writer, but Ebrahim Harvey states upfront that, unlike Mark Gevisser, he will write the political biography of Kgalema Motlanthe that will “comprehensively unpack the dream itself” — alluding, of course to the subtitle of Gevisser’s book “The Dream Deferred”.

The dream, says Harvey “has to confront the very nature of the decades long struggle against political oppression (apartheid) and economic exploitation (capitalism)… and of the ANC’s policies and strategies that developed in relation to those two inseparable historical realities”.

A biographer need not feel an affinity for the subject (though Harvey clearly does) and it helps that there is a frame of reference on which both writer and subject concur. The concurrence here—and it is assumed and not reinforced by anything Motlanthe says, for he says very little—is that the ANC’s policy was formed out of a socialist manifesto and that it has abandoned this in favour of free-market capitalism. The dream has become a nightmare.

The confusing thing is that we are never really certain that it is Motlanthe’s dream that is unpacked. In fact, it is hard to discern any thing that can be remotely attached to Motlanthe and wrapped in the term “dream”—a word that evokes grand aspirations, a longing for things bigger than the painstaking administration of policy documents and proper bureaucratic procedures. He seems to be good at that.

This is not a flawed book; it is a bad one. The juicy bits, if they can be called such, have been splashed about in the media: that he saved Zuma at Polokwane, that he is dissatisfied with the ANC’s failure to of the poor, that the ANC did not need to expel Julius Malema, etc. But, strip away that and very little remains except a dry discourse on a need to revert to social engineering (frighteningly, of a Chinese nature, given Motlanthe’s infatuation with the Chinese way of government).

If Motlanthe is to be treated as a political animal, which the title of this book indicates, then Harvey has described some near-extinct species of sloth, patient by nature, not nurture. He describe Motlanthe’s “call to dutiful service”—embodied in his phrase, “In the struggle you do what you have to do and can do”—as a “passionate calling”: this is akin to describing the action of a hamster on a wheel as “persuasive”.

Perhaps, Harvey subscribes to the notion that politics is about ideas not personalities and thus we do not need to know or understand more about the current deputy president and maybe future leader of the country. But we cannot separate politics and personalities—rather like saying cuisine is about calories and not taste—and that is why the book is so dire.

The Motlanthe we see shows no leadership qualities: he is a grey man, filling his time with the endless footnotes of the history of the struggle like a PhD candidate determined to exhibit to his examiners the breadth of his reading. We are told, endlessly of his leadership prowess, but at every defining moment he fails. As the head of the NUM, he was easily persuaded to accept Mbeki’s explanation of why Gear—the spear of free-market capitalism—was right. He then criticises the fact that Gear was not discussed within the ANC, yet he was in a position to make that debate happen and remained silent.

He failed as the ANC’s secretary-general to display his so-called legendary negotiating pragmatism when Cosatu objected to iGoli2002 programme but he simply went along with it. Yet, that same secretary general at a 2000 Cosatu May Day rally “called on union members to ‘intensely hate capitalism and engage in a struggle against it’. These are words by which he does not live, and Harvey brushes over such duplicity too many times to achieve credibility.

For example, Motlanthe’s account of what transpired between himself at Luthuli House and Andrew Feinstein over the arms debacle conflicts with Feinstein’s. Harvey doesn’t pursue it. And he allows Motlanthe simply to avoid the question: what did he think about the arms deal? He was asked by Archbishop Tutu to instigate an arms deal inquiry during his eight-month tenure as president of South Africa, but refused to do so. It was on his watch that Vusi Pikoli was dismissed, against the recommendations of the Ginwala commission. (He denies a substantial pay-out was made to Pikoli to keep quiet.) And the less said about his chairmanship of the deployment committee in 2008 the better (which is obviously the choice Harvey makes).

Lord Douglas Hurd in an interview on his favourite political biographies, said the good ones are “writing the story of history and the story of their times through the lives of particular individuals”. He said such books should appeal to people for whom history has no thrall. On this measure alone, this book fails.

Perhaps Motlanthe said it best: “I still insist that it is not for members or followers of any organisation to want to be leaders… To volunteer leadership is the antithesis of democracy.” And therein lies the rub: what you get is “100% Maybe” (apologies to ZANews) and a dull book.

—ends— 

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The Underdog

Every dog has his day. So too the underdog. And its day may be done. You’d be hard-pressed to find the underdog in the empty national stadiums watched either by people worried their season ticket was an ‘I-told-you-it’s-a-waste-of-money’ prediction come true or corporate guests who can’t tell the difference between a drum majorette’s bum and a rugby ball; you might just possibly have a sniff of the underdog in school teams on a cold Saturday morning with the mothers screaming like butcher dogs in heat and the fathers trying not to cry behind their Oakley’s.

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Like most the myths that shape our lives, the underdog has been impounded by Hollywood, nabbed while limping home from a good thrashing, filling the air with the bark of ‘If we’d just run that line and if we’d had just kicked that touch and if we’d just fielded that sitter…’. The underdog is now an endangered cock-and-bone nameless stray condemned to exist triumphant only in the silver slippery world of cinema.

Blame it on television and sloppy sponsorship and gambling-addicted fanatics with access to too many cell phones. Blame it on the Me Decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s; blame the swamp-slurping Goldman Sachs muppets of the 21st Century. Blame bloated sports administrators who can describe every business class lounge in every city that has a stadium but couldn’t tell you the captain’s name of their national team. Blame your spouse. Blame the cat. Blame the referee.

But don’t blame the athletes.

Sir Sebastian Coe, one of the members of that all male club of sub-four minute milers (the women’s record is still 12 seconds off from a sub-four), told journalist Gary Smith that the members had ‘bond among us…which Lady Macbeth describes as a sickness: ambition and the pursuit of excellence’. That’s the true definition of an athlete.

The founding member of the club Sir Roger Bannister said, ‘I think the four-minute mile has been overrated. After all, it’s only a time. The essence of athletics is racing against an opponent rather than a clock.’ He was right: 46 days later, the Australian, John Landy joined the club, besting Bannister’s time by one second.

Bannister was not an underdog when he broke the four-minute mile barrier in May 1954. He was a determined athlete—and a medical doctor—who trained a paltry three times a week but he knew what the human body was capable of and he knew what he could achieve. Three months later, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, he was the underdog when he finally ran against John Landy in what the media billed as ‘the miracle mile’. It was the first time they’d met on the track. Landy led from the start only to be passed by Bannister in the final straight.

But being an underdog does not mean winning against a supposedly superior foe. That happens all the time. The allure of underdog, the thing that elicits a primordial growling and rumbling, that distant howl resonating with recognition and redemption, the thing for which myths are made rests on a single premise: honour.

We don’t just want our underdog to win. We don’t even care if they don’t win. Sure, we want them to win—but only with honour. That’s why there are no underdogs in top league football: you’ve just got crap teams and good teams. Occasionally a crap team will win and the usual shit will be thrown around about referees and diving and other matters of foul play. Or some one will get fired and some one bought and another sold.

Boxing? All boxers are underdogs so they don’t figure. Boxing’s a bewitching sport made mad, however, by men of feral cunning and rapine viciousness who never enter the ring except to hoist their boxer aloft in victory or haul him off the canvass in defeat. The only time anyone vaguely resembling an underdog got into a real boxing match was when Jake La Motta whipped Sugar Ray Leonard in their second meeting. But La Motta was not a honourable man: a great fighter but not an underdog. Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro portrayed that perfectly in Raging Bull. As the critic Pauline Kael said, Jake was a champ and a bum.

Cricket? Ever since Hansie Cronje praised the Lord, passed the ball and opened another Caribbean bank account, it’s been hard to watch any ‘underdog’ team triumph and not shudder, and feel the faint lick of some venal lounge lizard’s tongue tickling your neck.

Horse racing has the outsider—not to be confused with the underdog. The outsider is usually a horse with an iffy pedigree and, according to the New York Times study on horse racing in the United States, trainers that pump the horses full of ‘chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood-doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs’. And that’s just for the training sessions. No need to mention the owners or the anorexic, drug-fuelled jockeys.

The great and true stories of boxing and horseracing were the first to be ensnared by Hollywood, from Raging Bull to Seabiscuit. And to be fair, Seabiscuit was a true underdog, in every way. But, as the poet said, that was in another country, and besides the horse is dead. But Hollywood did what it does best and re-mythologised the underdog in Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and National Velvet. And if the movie ratings are to be believed, they will continue to do so.

Rugby. Now, that has all the ritual and reverence, all the fanaticism and murky fury and clarity required of myth. Rugby fans proudly support the underdog—there’s no room to mention that the underdog is perhaps now no more than a mangy mutt barking in the darker recesses of their brain.

They will tell you proudly and loudly that topdogs such as the Stormers pay their scrumhalf the equivalent of the ‘entire salary of the Cheetahs team’. They will tell you that the Cheetahs’ players turn up ‘110%’ for every game (maths not being a requirement for underdog believers). They will cheer for Argentina’s Pumas. They will tell you, as if speaking of their school mates, that the Pumas are a bunch of electricians, motor mechanics and café owners that get together after work, buy their own kit, pay their own airfares and play bruising, ‘real’ rugby.

The underdog believer yelled with delight at the Italian Azzurri, even before Nick Mallet made them into a team. When the Azzurri beat France by one point in the 2011 Six Nations —the first time in 31 encounters—their supporters told the les bleus fans that if they wanted to run with the underdogs they’d have to lift their legs high.

There’s a bone always gnawed over during this tail wagging: filthy lucre. The dog in the litter always picked up, the runt, is the one that can’t be sold. The one that can’t be bought. It’s not part of the mythology that the athlete born with a silver Nike on his foot can be the underdog. The underdog is one of us, the kid who struggles to make the U13 team, the adolescent hungering to run on with the First XV, the young man dreaming of donning his country’s colours.

But way back in the ‘80s high schools in the US sports management types started their culling. Kids were getting the message: if you don’t have megabuck potential, don’t even try out for the college team. Sport was no longer an extra-curricular activity: it was a career choice. The talented and goofy guys, who may have made sport fun to watch, went skateboarding or surfing or created digital games (where they always won). That’s a short way off from happening in South Africa. (I know, it’s not happening at your child’s school, and neither are the first team taking steroids.)

And so we follow the money trail and it leads back to… television. As Roone Arledge, who when he ran American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Sports in the ‘70s, told US Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin in 1995, ‘everything is magnified by television’. He would know. He’s the man who stuck a microphone in a dead zebra so viewers could hear what it sounded like being chomped by a lion. He’s the man who pioneered the instant replay in the ‘60s—and television sport was never the same again.

With that television magnification came the munificence of advertising. Wodges of splonga. When ABC bought the rights to broadcast the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, it cost $3-million. Eight years later the 1976 Montreal Olympics cost R25-million. The same escalation was happening in professional sport, as players became commodities to be bartered and exchanged, usually for huge sums of money. Teams became franchises with more marketing and branding staff on the team than players.

And we sucked it up. We installed DStv, not for the educational channels for our kids to watch, but for the six or seven or nine channels of 24-hour sport. Re-runs. Hand-held videos of unintelligible fishing competitions filmed on drab grey dam water with incoherent commentators. Black and white documentaries of boxing tournaments in dodgy halls between equally dubious fighters. Golfing play-0ffs at three a.m. in the morning. Mind-numbing views through camcorders mounted on ugly, shiny insect-like vehicles showing the backside of a similar vehicle travelling at 300kmph down a swath of asphalt.

And, of course, football and rugby and cricket. TV gives us a chance to watch the underdog, without having really to support him—like buying a ticket and showing up at the game. This is where myth was deflected, overtaken and even altered. In what some one once called ‘the boom bard bombardment board’ — television. With it, the original myth was fractured.

Consider the Cheetahs of the Free State Rugby Union—excuse me, the ‘Toyota’ Cheetahs. In the heart and bones of its supporters there is no more magnificent team. This is the underdog who not only is triumphant but whose triumph—and defeat—is cloaked with honour, whose players are the archetype honourable warriors. These are local boys made good. Who cares that Ashley Johnson comes from Wynberg or that Kabamba Floors is from Oudsthoorn. To the underdog believer, they are of the same ilk as Heinrich Brussouw and Adriaan Strauss. The Cheetahs don’t have draw-card foreign players past their sell-by date. Some may say they simply can’t afford them. Others will say that’s not their game. But as the song goes, ‘the truth bites and stings’ and both sides will come out bleeding and itchy.

That’s what happened to supporters watching the Cheetahs—the underdogs—in their SuperRugby 15 game against the Crusaders on Saturday. With a weak front row, the Cheetahs scrum was crushed. It was not a pretty sight for those of us who still refer to Os du Randt as ‘Sir’—and those less impressed call ‘god’. The Free State breeds props as easily as it grows mielies so what was happening? Coach Naka Drotske was obviously equally crushed.

Then it was down to uncontested scrums as all of the Cheetahs front-row forwards proved crock. We are 63 minutes into the game and the Crusaders are leading 21-11. Within 12 minutes the scores are even, and there’s less than five minutes to go. The Crusaders rampage like—well, like Crusaders—but the Cheetahs snarl and scramble and keep them out. Then the line breaks and Israel Dagg crosses over for a try and Taylor slots it to make the final score 28-21. The underdogs were bruised but proud. Bliksem, even the Kiwi commentators couldn’t hold back the praise bites.

But something was licking at the back of my neck. The uncontested scrums had definitely helped the Cheetahs. Was it a tactical move? And if so, so what? There is talk of dropping one of the South African SuperRugby teams to make way for the new franchise, the Southern Kings, in 2013. With that hanging over your head, any South African team—meaning the Lions or the Cheetahs—would do what it could to make sure it’s not left holding the wooden spoon—and an empty purse—at the end of this season.

But if it was tactical, the Cheetahs are no longer our underdog. They are mere pack dogs hounded by Mammon to tow the line. A management decision like this would besmirch even the colossus Os du Randt, the last of the South African players who started his career as an amateur and ended it in the professional era: an honourable and good man.

We need our mythologies—the underdog—in our life to lure us closer into the pool of understanding that leaves us sated by the ‘pursuit of perfection’ embodied in 80 minutes of methodical savagery and physical virtuosity; or in a one-mile long three minutes and 59 second of oxygen-depleting epiphany. We need our underdogs because without them we can no longer keep our head above water in the swamp pool of social constructs, ritual and regulation, taboo and transgression through which we sink or swim. And then get up and go to work every day.

After watching re-runs of that game and talking to a few trusted rugby observers, the Cheetahs are still the underdog, the beast that we cradle in our belly.  But the decision made in the last quarter of the Cheetahs vs. Crusaders game may be a faint hint of Gabriel’s hounds howling, warning us of the imminent death of the underdog, and that desolate moment when myth becomes nostalgia.

[This first appeared in Sports Illustrated August 2012]

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