Saturday, May 31, 2008

Police Brutality - Letter to Business Day, 25th March 2008

SIR - It may be argued by some that the escalation of violent crime is cause for the police to employ more strident use of force in dealing with potential criminals. However, the recent incidence of police brutality in Stellenbosch illustrates how dangerous this notion can be. The police service’s primary purpose is to protect people from harm and to enforce the law in a manner that seeks to avoid physical coercion under all possible circumstances. When this mandate is overstepped it is ordinary citizens who feel the full boot of the state on the backs of their necks – not only criminals. It is incumbent upon all of us to see that the licence we give to law enforcement agencies to deal strongly with perpetrators of crime is used in a manner which is proportionate and justifiable. If this licence is abused by certain individuals it should promptly be taken away.

The actions of the SAPS also shed some uncomfortable light on the bodies designed to regulate their activities. This will be another difficult litmus test for the efficacy of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD). Punitive measures are clearly in order for those responsible for beating young people, pulling their hair and spraying them with mace in what amounts to assault and intimidation.

The accusation of excessive displays of force was recently used by the Minister of Safety and Security as a ruse to justify the reigning in of the Scorpions (DSO). Clearly the SAPS is permeated by the same heavy-handed attitude of which the Scorpions stand accused. If that body is indeed merged into the SAPS (as appears to be the case by unanimous executive decree) will this culture disappear? That is doubtful.

The Stellenbosch fiasco, the xenophobic attacks against immigrants in the Central Methodist Church, as well as the abuse of traders in Mitchell’s Plain are evidence of a growing sense of impunity among the police reminiscent of the dark days of the 1970s and 80s. This will only alienate ordinary citizens from the work of law enforcers and cultivate an attitude of non-collaboration and mistrust. Claims about “community-based policing” are merely rhetorical unless the police can be trusted to deal with the populace with respect to their dignity (as their own code of conduct and the Constitution implores them to do). The good faith of the people is the most valuable asset the police have in the formidable task of fighting crime in South Africa. That faith is rapidly being squandered.

David Ansara

This letter appeared in the Business Day, 25th March 2008.

For the CCTV footage of the attacks see YouTube - Police Raid on The Bohemia

Book Review - Anthony Butler "Cyril Ramaphosa"

Cyril Ramaphosa

Anthony Butler

Jacana (2007) 442 p.

Butler, a lecturer in public policy at UCT and a columnist for the Business Day offers an insightful biography on Cyril Ramaphosa, the founder of the National Union of Mineworkers and a major figure in the mass democratic movement.

However, a biography is only as good as its subject and Ramaphosa has his limitations as a person of interest in the contemporary political climate. The run-up to the ANC national conference at Polokwane in December 2007 created much speculation about the presidential ambitions of various players in the ruling party. This conjecture included Cyril as a potential alternative to Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma (the incumbent party leader and his erstwhile challenger respectively).

Unfortunately, history was not kind to Mr. Ramaphosa. Despite his organisational ability and business acumen - as well as his considerable skills as a negotiator – he withdrew his candidacy; seemingly unwilling to appear at odds with the “collective decision–making” practices of the ANC. Butler does a fine job of placing Ramaphosa within the historical context of his time, but falls short of providing an intimate portrait of the man’s personality and inner life.

David Ansara

Amartya Sen at UCT

Photo by Mark Oppenheimer

A History of Violence

David Ansara

Prof. Amartya Sen was at UCT to deliver the annual Nadine Gordimer Lecture for 2007. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, an Oxbridge and Harvard Professor, entitled his lecture “Poverty, war and peace”, speaking on two occasions to large audiences.

Sen made an early distinction between the Cultural approach and a Political Economy approach in understanding the root causes of global violence. His discussion on culture rejected the ideology of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, Samuel Huntington’s popularized theory of the mutual antagonism of the major religious groups in the world. The inevitability of conflict caused by such difference Sen believes is grossly overstated, jokingly referring to the theory as “Hate-at-first-sight” and “A nice way of misunderstanding nearly everybody.” Such mono-causal conceptions, he notes, deny the long history of interconnectedness that exist between these ‘civilizations’ in the form of trade, scholarship and art. Moreover, it brings a superficial idea of identity to bear. “There is a powerful tendency to forget how other identity factors are used to justify violence on a grand scale.” The 1st and 2nd World Wars for instance, grew out of the virulent nationalism of the great European powers. “A shared Christianity” he pointed out “did not stop Britain, France, and Germany from tearing eachother apart.”

In the political economy approach, Sen discussed the often-held perception that “poverty and inequality are a source of violence and that suffering brews intolerance and anger”. The rhetoric of fighting poverty, he claims, is used inappropriately, often suggesting that “if you remove poverty, you remove conflict.” He warns against the tendency to lump ‘like evils’ together at the expense of more nuanced evaluations of conflict. “Poverty and violence do have connections, but need to be investigated with what I call empirical strong-mindedness” he said. This is not to say that issues of poverty are trivial, but “just as virtue is its own reward, poverty is its own punishment. The relationship between poverty and violence is impossible to sustain.” Sen in turn calls for “humility in the social sciences” when approaching these distinct problems. By avoiding such simple binary explanations we can better understand the complexities of human behaviour.

As an example, Sen cites the city where he first attended university: Calcutta. The levels of violent crime there are lower than any city in India, yet the environment is incredibly degraded and poverty-stricken. This peaceful co-existence is remarkable, especially given the history of communal and religious violence that occurred in Bengal during Partition in the 1940s, (a mass-tragedy that Sen himself witnessed as an adolescent). He also looks at the severe deprivation of Ireland during the potato famine of the 1800s. The mass starvation there did not lead directly to violent revolt. “The Irish do not have a reputation for docility, yet these were years of peace.”

Sen’s cautionary advice on scholarship did not go far enough in explaining why violence flourishes in many parts of the world, yet is absent elsewhere. The Indian and Irish examples can hardly be seen as conflict-free, with both countries experiencing communalism and terrorism at one stage or another. The multiple variables leading to situations of violence are indeed difficult to narrow down, and Sen’s reminder of these difficulties is pertinent. However, it was hard to discern Prof. Sen’s own theoretical understandings of the clashes in our world. He did well to address questions of methodology, but did not attempt to reach for conclusions; an element of his presentation that was unfortunately absent.

- 2007

Book Review - Mark Gevisser - Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred

Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred

Mark Gevisser

Jonathan Ball (2007), 892 p.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

~ Langston Hughes ~

Born into the struggle against apartheid, Thabo Mbeki has constantly sought to subsume his personal life to the historical mission of serving the ANC. This makes his biography a difficult task, but 8 years in the making Gevisser has produced a book of remarkable insight and subtlety.

Mbeki’s youth is portrayed as a disconnected one as he is early on identified for a leadership role and sent to the UK to study. Thus starts an ambiguous relationship with the ANC. As a Western-educated intellectual he brings sophistication and clarity of thinking to the organisation, rapidly ascending to become its principal diplomat and O.R. Tambo’s heir apparent. However, his comrades resent him for his ambition and many enemies are made along the way, revealing the cynical manipulations of the exile culture.

Less attention is given to the presidency itself, but Gevisser does well to trace the origins of Mbeki’s AIDS dissidence, his eccentric views on Zimbabwe and other blunders - perhaps giving them more of an intellectual explanation than they deserve. For better or for worse, few people have done more to change the course of South Africa than Thabo Mbeki. The Dream Deferred succeeds in getting beneath the enigma of such an important figure.

David Ansara

For a far better review see the

'Mystery Man'

Book Review - Antony Altbeker : "A Country at War With Itself"

A Country At War With Itself: South Africa’s Crisis of Crime

Antony Altbeker

Jonathan Ball Publishers (2007), 189 p.

This sociological treatise traces both the origins and the fallout of the crime eruption of post-1994 South Africa. Altbeker raises some compelling questions about human nature, the boundaries of social conformity, and what happens when states cease to exercise legitimate control over their citizens; a point, he argues, SA has reached. His argument is that the justice system is hampered by its failure to adequately prosecute individuals arrested for the offences that they commit. This leads to a culture of impunity whereby the perception of the authorities as being indifferent to nihilistic behaviour emboldens potential or borderline criminals to flout the law as they see others have done.

His solution is not to lengthen sentences (which would increase the strain on our prisons), but to prosecute more offenders - out of which the “chilling effect” could take hold. Altbeker also rejects two commonly held assumptions about criminality in this country: that its primary cause is poverty, and that the philosophy of Restorative Justice can heal the brokenness of a “society half-made”. His preference is for a more traditional punitive model that punishes people swiftly and firmly for their aberrant deeds.

M&G Online: 'What if apartheid didn't do it?"

Friday, May 30, 2008

Interview with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia

The Living Encyclopedia

David Ansara

People of influence often pass through Cape Town; a sign of the increasing cosmopolitanism of the city. However, few fly so stealthily under the social radar as Jimmy Wales, co-founder and creator of Wikipedia. The encyclopedia has changed the way people access knowledge online by decentralizing the sources of articles, allowing anyone to edit content. With little fanfare, Wales appeared in Observatory last Friday night to talk at the Independent Armchair in a special music and software-sharing event. He spoke to Varsity about new developments in the Wiki world and some of his personal ambitions.

Wales is now developing search engine software which he hopes will bring the same level of transparency to internet searching as Wikipedia brought to encyclopedias.

“This is something that I’m very excited about and it is to take the idea of search, which is currently proprietary, closed, secretive and do it completely open source. We publish all the algorithms, we make it completely transparent, and we invite the public in to control the editorial content of the story. A lot of people don’t think about it this way, but search is actually a very political thing. In other words if you type in a key word, what comes back to you? Who decided that? Why is that more important than something else? And it’s really important to us as citizens to actually care about that and to … to be able to understand how things are ranked. Why is this the most highest rated? Why is this on pg. 7 of the search results? And so, what we should do is pull together in the open search community, build a free search engine, distribute the software so anybody can copy it, duplicate it, set up a competitor. All kinds of things could be going on and I think that we could have an explosion of creativity around search, in the same way that we’ve had an explosion of creativity around free content.”

Chief among Mr. Wales’ concerns is the growth of the smaller languages on Wikipedia, especially those of the developing world. Addressing the crowd, he discussed the possible growth trajectory of the African languages and what his hopes are for the near future.

“We’ve got about 125 different languages [on Wikipedia] that have at least 1000 articles. I did a check this morning in the languages of South Africa. In English … we’re doing pretty good [laughter]. In Afrikaans we have almost 7000 articles. Not quite as good as the Dutch, a slightly related language which has over 300 000 articles. But still, that’s an encouraging sign. But one of the things that I am concerned about is that in the languages of SA, after English and Afrikaans, there are no languages which have more than a hundred articles right now. So we have a long way to go. The ultimate goal of Wikipedia is to give a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet, in their home language. So you might be a bit discouraged that in the other languages of SA and Africa we have such a small set of projects. But the situation in India about a year-and-a-half ago was very similar to the situation today in SA. [Currently] in India we have about seven languages that have between 5 and 15 thousand articles. And a lot of those languages are growing at a rate of 10% a month.”

Ideologically, Mr. Wales espouses the principles of Libertarianism, describing himself as ‘centre-right’ politically. Is there a political agenda behind the work that he does?

“Well a political agenda, yes, in a certain sense; but I always say a ‘Small-People political agenda’. My political agenda is that open societies and democracies are best served with transparency, openness, and clarity about what’s going on. I trust people. I trust ordinary people to make the right decisions - if they have the right information. The important thing for that is freedom of speech, a broad, diverse environment, where people feel safe to express perhaps even a controversial opinion so that others can evaluate it. I really believe in the marketplace of ideas and I think that the internet is a fabulous tool for realizing that, but only if we stand up and say, ‘This is what it’s for’. It’s not about selling dog food, it’s not about pop-up ads, it’s not about spam. It’s about people talking to eachother about real issues that matter.”

This article originally published in Varsity Newspaper

Listen to the full interview on streaming audio at the Internet Archive:

Photos courtesy of Mark Oppenheimer

Interviewed by David Ansara, Erin Bates and Mark Oppenheimer in Cape Town South Africa on the 20th of April 2007