Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Op-ed: SA voting for authoritarianism

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Business Day, Friday 25 July 2008. For more info see here and here.

Dumisani Kumalo

A distressing record of siding with the bad guys

By David Ansara and Michael Meadon

Recently the South African government rejected a draft resolution of the United Nations Security Council (SC) for sanctions on Zimbabwe following the presidential runoff elections of 27th June 2008.

Along with China, Libya, Russia and Vietnam, South Africa voted against the draft resolution which, (a) called for a return to democracy, (b) imposed an arms embargo and (c) placed targeted sanctions on the upper echelons of the government. Notably, South Africa was the only liberal democracy that voted against the resolution.

South Africa's UN ambassador, Dumisani Kumalo, argued that while the government was worried about the situation in Zimbabwe, South Africa is obliged to follow the African consensus as expressed by SADC and the AU, neither of which called for sanctions but simply expressed "grave concern". Kumalo went on to say that "dialogue" between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC parties is the only way the problem can be addressed.

There is a tendency to see the South African government's approach to Zimbabwe as an anomaly in an otherwise noble foreign policy agenda. However, a cursory glance at South Africa's short history on the Security Council (SC) tells an altogether different story. More accurately, the failure to support the Zimbabwean resolution is just one instance in a worrying trend of endorsing authoritarianism. The most notable example of this was in the tacit support for the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar).

In its first major action after being elected to the SC, South Africa voted with Russia and China against a draft resolution on Burma that censured the military junta over its continued human rights abuses and called for democratic reforms. This included an injunction to end attacks on Burmese citizens, including sexual assault, abduction and acts of torture against minority groups and opposition supporters.

Since both China and Russia wielded vetoes, South Africa's vote was technically moot, however, its failure to support the resolution had major symbolic repercussions. By refusing to confront the regime South Africa put its desire to score points against the permanent members from the West ahead of the emancipation of the Burmese people. As a consequence, South Africa's international reputation as a guardian of human rights and democracy suffered enormously.

While Russia and China's 'no' votes on such matters are to be expected, South Africa's hostility to punitive measures was unseemly. According to Kumalo, the government was concerned about the situation in Burma but was worried that adopting the resolution would compromise the work of the Secretary General's envoy to Burma. He also suggested the resolution had overstepped the mandate of the SC set out by the UN Charter and that it dealt with issues best left to the Human Rights Council (HRC).

The similarities in the positions taken by the South African government vis-à-vis the Burma and Zimbabwe situations are striking. However, the validity of its reasoning in both cases is flawed in several ways.

As dictatorial regimes seldom give up power voluntarily, there has to be a change in the material circumstances of the dictators themselves for meaningful change to occur. The current Zimbabwean talks hold much promise, but it is unclear whether the results will be lasting or substantive (a la the Kenyan scenario). There is little to suggest that the mere act of "dialogue" can produce results in the absence of a force that compels the incumbents to cede power.

With regards to the SC deferring to the HRC on questions of human rights, this too is disingenuous. Firstly, the HRC has no power and functions solely as a deliberative body. The HRC has no teeth and therefore no bite. Secondly, it is limited because a large proportion of its members are themselves frequent abusers of human rights, such as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, South Africa's voting record on the HRC is itself abysmal – South Africa has shielded authoritarian regimes in that forum as well.

Mostly however, South Africa is hiding behind an absolutist definition of sovereignty. The idea that national sovereignty – adopted as a governing principle of international relations for purely pragmatic reasons at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – is some sort of grand, unbreakable moral principle is patently absurd. South Africa should not pretend governments have the right to slaughter their own people. As Kofi Anan declared in his final speech as Secretary General of the UN "[Collective responsibility means] that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed"

Indeed, it is ironic that the ANC, which benefited from South Africa's isolation over the "purely sovereign" issue of Apartheid, would adopt a reactionary position with respect to the right to freedom of other peoples. As Desmond Tutu exclaimed at the time of the rejection of the Burma resolution, "If others had used the arguments we are using today when we asked them for their support against apartheid, we might still have been unfree." How long will South Africa continue to vote for authoritarianism?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thumbing its nose at the world

The articles listed below were either used as a reference for my recent op-ed in the Business Day or are related to that topic in some way.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post: 'The Despots' Democracy'
South Africa has actively blocked United Nations discussions about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe -- and in Belarus, Cuba, North Korea and Uzbekistan. South Africa was the only real democracy to vote against a resolution demanding that the Burmese junta stop ethnic cleansing and free jailed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. When Iranian nuclear proliferation was debated in the Security Council, South Africa dragged out discussions and demanded watered-down language in the resolution. South Africa opposed a resolution condemning rape and attacks on civilians in Darfur -- and rolled out the red carpet for a visit from Sudan's genocidal leader. In the General Assembly, South Africa fought against a resolution condemning the use of rape as a weapon of war because the resolution was not sufficiently anti-American.


And the rejoinder by Jannie Momberg, editor of News24: 'The rogue democracy'

It is a bit rich for Gerson and others in the US to accuse South Africa of being a rogue democracy. America's foreign policy has been presented for decades as guided by liberty and human rights while in reality it has often pandered to dictators, suppressed democracy and led to the deaths of thousands of people.


Michael Trapido of ThoughtLeader: 'Is South Africa a Rogue Democracy?'

A rogue democracy implies unreliable and deceitful - can we argue with that with respect to our foreign policies? I don’t think we can. We were the country demanding sanctions and intervention to gain our freedom - now demanding the exact opposite for Burma and Zimbabwe. Where is our consistency in that regard? We expect to be treated with dignity and humanity, yet we vote against resolutions calling for it with respect to others.


The Economist, on the current negotiations in Zimbabwe and why the opposition should, 'Only talk tough'
It sticks in the gullet of the large majority of Zimbabwe’s people yearning to see the back of Robert Mugabe that the man who should have displaced him four months ago by virtue of the ballot box has now been persuaded to engage in talks with him, seemingly more as supplicant than rightful successor. But Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who won the first round of the presidential election in March but was savagely intimidated into abandoning the second round at the end of June, is right to agree to talks with the usurper.


Thomas Friedman, op-ed columnist for the New York Times: 'So Popular and So Spineless'
But when it comes to pure, rancid moral corruption, no one can top South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and his stooge at the U.N., Dumisani Kumalo. They have done everything they can to prevent any meaningful U.N. pressure on the Mugabe dictatorship.


Following our rejection of the Draft Resolution on Burma, Michael Wines of the NY Times wrote: 'South Africa Lowers Voice on Human Rights'. He also mentions our dilution of a motion against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

This week South Africa endangered a delicate compromise among nations often at odds — the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany — to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The major powers agreed on an arms embargo, freezing of assets and other sanctions against Iran, but South Africa proposed dropping the arms and financial sanctions and placing a 90-day “timeout” on other punishments, which critics said would have rendered the sanctions toothless.

“I’m not gutting the resolution,” Dumisani S. Kumalo, South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, told news agency reporters this week. “I’m improving it.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Feedback - Obama & Africa: a local perspective


On Monday 22nd July 2008 Wits University and The Weekender hosted a debate on the significance of Barack Obama for Africa and the potential foreign policy positions that his government would take towards the continent. Before the session I compiled a reading pack that provides a collection of literature for those looking for more resources on this topic.

Speakers included:

I. Achille Mbembe, professor of political science and history at Wits;

II. Tony Leon, Member of Parliament and former leader of the DA;

III. Monica Stewart, Vice Chair of the SA chapter of Democrats Abroad.

VI. Stephen Grootes, a journalist with Talk Radio 702.


I. Professor Mbembe
explored the meaning of Barack Obama in three remarks, the first of which concerned Obama’s personal identity, and particularly how he has been able to transcend traditional notions of race:
So, as far as I am concerned, what is potentially productive, especially for us here in Africa, is the way Obama opens up and pluralizes the concept of blackness itself; the way he takes it away from blackness as a way of limiting one’s choices; the way he firmly writes it as an openness to the world, to the unexpected, to what is to come, what we can hope for – the way in which for him, to be black means turning one’s back to the politics of victimhood in order to embrace the politics of worldliness and the politics of possibility. [Original emphasis]

The Professor’s second comment interrogated what Africa means to Obama. In this he made a distinction between Obama’s politics of self-identity and Obama’s politics of power:

As is made clear in his Dreams from my Father, his own upbringing hardly typifies the African American experience. His identification with Africa has an added poignancy if only because, to a large extent, Africa for him also stands as the figure of the Absent Father – that is, a source of profound pain, longing and trauma he struggled to overcome in his quest for manhood.

However, this relationship is not un-thinking, nor overly affected by sentiment:

“Clearly he is not an Afrocentrist if by Afrocentrism we mean a current of thought that advocates a form of cultural and intellectual apartheid based on the belief in fundamentally distinct and internally homogenous ‘African’ ways of knowing and feeling about the world, ways which only members of the group can possibly understand.”

Thirdly, Mbembe asked - inverting the second question - what does Obama mean for Africa? The continent, he said, has yet to fully grasp the significance of the candidate’s achievements thus far. (This is the subject of the Professor’s recent article in the Sunday Independent):

Obama is not running to be the first Luo president of Kenya, his late father’s country. Nor is he running as the African candidate for the US presidency. He is running as the American citizen he is – someone who understands the rawness of power politics in America, who wants to win, who will be pursuing first and foremost US interests in the continent and who is to a certain extent beholden to the way in which the US has traditionally defined those interests.


II - Tony Leon made a similar speech to the one he presented to the Cape Town Press Club in June (see full transcript here). His comments focused, among other things, on the strategic and military concerns of an America under Obama:

…he obviously has sensitivity toward and approval of, international collaboration and a detestation of the unilateralism and preemption of Georg W. Bush. But I think that while his involvement with Africa will certainly be more intense (to the extent that other foreign policy challenges allow it to be) it will by no means be uncritical nor will it amount to approval of democratic delinquencies or rights-negations which occur so often on our continent.

Leon noted that despite the antipathy toward President Bush, he has actually been more involved than previous US presidents when it comes to Africa, especially with regards to foreign aid, and more importantly, trade (e.g. the African Growth and Opportunity Act or AGOA):

Whether Obama or McCain ascend to the presidency, it is worth recording that the United States is still Africa’s largest trading partner. Our relationship with this hypo-power remains vexed. On the one hand anti-American sentiment, in the words of Dr. Greg Mills, “remains rife”. Much of this is attributable to the continent’s lack of ardour for George W. Bush and his general vision of pre-emption and the invasion of Iraq in particular. On the other hand, as Mills notes “the Bush administration arguably has been the most generous ever in Washington, in terms of policy toward, trade with and aid to Africa. On the diplomatic front, Bush has devoted more time to Africa than any of his predecessors.”

Undoubtedly this renewed Africa focus has been driven by twin imperatives: first, America’s growing energy needs: an estimated 25% of US oil imports will come from Africa by 2015, up from 15% in 2007. The second driver of policy has been Washington’s war on terror, one of whose consequences has been the establishment of the controversial Africom (US Military Command for Africa). These imperatives will remain, even though a “President Obama” will doubtless refashion and reshape them. Perhaps, crucially an Obama presidency, will allow Africa and America to re-engage with each other afresh and absent of the debilitating background noise which has drowned out so much of the positive underpinnings of this vital relationship.


III - Monica Stewart’s discussion revolved around the Manichean theme of what she termed “the politics of fear and loathing versus the politics of hope and change”. Barack Obama, she said, embodies the politics of hope and change and this resonates far beyond the boundaries of the United States.

On the question of Obama’s willingness to 'aim for the centre' and to jettison core liberal issues such as gun control and the abolition of the death penalty, Stewart conceded that he is a smart politician, but denied that he was cynical.

Repeating her mantra, she said that the politics of hope and change is hard in the climate of fear and loathing. “Its been stultifying; its dumbed down our political system. Everybody hates us!” she cried “In South Africa I’ve experienced a lot of loathing towards the United States.” Obama, she suggested, will remove a lot of that ill feeling.


IV - Steven Grootes opened by quoting, of all people, Halle Berry who once joked that “Being a little bit black in Hollywood is like being a little bit pregnant.” In this Grootes was saying that Barack Obama is not white and that’s significant (despite dubious suggestions from some quarters that he is not “black enough”). A victory for Barack Obama, Grootes added, would be a victory over the fear of difference. It is a victory over people not voting for you because you look different, and have a different past.

Grootes relayed how he had gotten to see Hillary Clinton during the Texas primary campaign. According to him, she was a competent and professional and capable woman. However, the next day when he heard Barack Obama speak, he thought that he had touched tomorrow. Grootes listens to political speeches for a living, but this was the first time he said, that he had taken a speech and put it on his iPod so he can listen to it again!


For an opinion on why Obama is veering away from the left and towards the middle, see the Economist, 'New and improved'

Mr Obama was always clear that he was running for the presidency of the United States, not the chairmanship of

The likes of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, on the left, and Barry Goldwater, on the right, may have won brownie points from their supporters for sticking to their principles. But they went down to calamitous defeats.

He is occupying the middle ground in order to reassure white voters that he shares their values. This is no airy-fairy liberal who is going to allow himself to be pushed around by Middle Eastern despots. This is a shrewd opportunist at work.


Thanks once again to the organisers for a wonderfully stimulating event. (Unfortunately, Howard Dean will not be coming to South Africa as I indicated in my earlier post on Obama.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Complicit in tyranny

.QPQ's representative to the UN is astonished
that the SA government voted 'no'.

Michael Meadon and I have co-authored an op-ed piece entitled, 'A distressing record of siding with the bad guys'. It was published in the Business Day (Fri 25 July) and concerns South Africa's voting record at the United Nations Security Council. In the article we illustrate how our government has repeatedly sought to block punitive measures against authoritarian regimes - specifically in Burma and Zimbabwe.

Michael first drew attention to SA's lacklustre commitment to democracy and human rights on his blog, Ionian Enchantment. His original argument is over two posts. The first, 'Voting for authoritarianism' condemns the rejection of the draft resolution on Burma (in early 2007) and the second, 'South Africa's shame' is a response to a similar action taken by SA over targeted sanctions towards Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF cronies a fortnight ago. The article is a synthesis of these posts as well as some commentary on recent developments in Zim. Of the current negotiations, we write:

As dictatorial regimes seldom give up power voluntarily, there has to be a change in the material circumstances of the dictators themselves for meaningful change to occur. The current Zimbabwean talks hold much promise, but it is unclear whether the results will be either lasting or substantive. There is little to suggest that the mere act of “dialogue” can produce results in the absence of a force that compels the incumbents to cede power.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mark Oppenheimer - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This is the third installment in the 'Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans' series. For details on how to submit click here. Click here to see other contributions.

On the wings of eagles

In 1984 an elite army unit was sent into the hills of Gonder to complete a secret mission and save thousands of lives. I am not talking about an episode of the A team or Lord of the Rings fan fiction, I am talking about Operation Moses. For some time the Israeli government had been aware of an isolated community of Jews living in Ethiopia. There was debate about whether they were the product of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba or the remaining descendants of the lost tribe of Dan, but it was certain that they would be massacred in an escalating civil war if nothing was done. With little time to spare, the army was sent in to perform one of the most dangerous rescue missions in military history.

The soldiers parachuted into a remote mountain village and within minutes they realized that their mission was impossible. In order to airlift the community to safety they would need at least a two kilometer landing strip for their aircraft to take off and they were confronted with nothing but rocky terrain. The nearest airport was being closely watched by Ethiopian militias so it could not be used for the rescue. The war had caused wide-spread famine and disease in the region. Given the severity of the situation it was decided that the children would be taken first and more units would be sent back for their parents.

Each group of 500 children was lead by 12 soldiers, one soldier for each biblical tribe of Israel. With little more than a map and a compass to guide them, they wandered through the desert reenacting a modern day exodus to the Promised Land. They travelled under cover of night for fear that they would be spotted by hostile soldiers and be captured or killed. As the dawn broke Israeli aircraft flew over their heads and dropped supplies for the journey. During the day they hid in caves and fields of crops; while the children rested the soldiers planned the night time journey.

After seventeen days they arrived in Sudan. With enormous relief the soldiers showed the children the jets that were waiting to take them to Jerusalem. The children stared at the jets and the desert that lay behind them and flat out refused to board. The soldiers tried everything from threats to candy to get them inside but they were met with nothing but resistance. Eventually the translator that had accompanied them on their journey asked if he could say a few words to the children. Almost immediately the children got up and boarded the aircraft. The soldiers looked on with bewilderment and asked the translator what he told them. He quoted from the prophet Isaiah “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” He knew that that the children were scared to get on to the airplanes because they had never seen them before, so he told them that they were eagles waiting to take them to Jerusalem.

Millions of Zimbabweans are threatened with death at the hands of their government and they are seeking refuge in South Africa. Instead of greeting those in need with compassion, some have reacted with cruelty. After having their shops ransacked and their homes burned to a crisp many are left with nowhere to turn. Maybe if we took a moment to notice what Israel does right, instead of showering it with blame, we would know how to help those in harm’s way.


Mark Oppenheimer holds a BA (LLB) as well as an Honours in Philosophy from the University of Cape Town. Mark is also a published photographer and he is currently participating in a photographic internship in Tel Aviv, Israel. Visit Liberty Addiction to view some of his work.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book Review - Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi


Indira – The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi

by Katherine Frank

(2001), 567 p.

The 500-plus pages of this biography are barely enough to contain the complex ambiguities of Indira Gandhi’s personality – not to mention the flaws and merits of her leadership. Few single accounts, however, could better Ms. Frank’s in terms of historical accuracy; and the dexterity with which the individual identity is juxtaposed with the political persona is worthy of praise.

While initially dealing with Indira’s early life, her shortcomings and emotional desires, what evolves is the story of a woman consumed utterly by the quest for power and the loneliness it breeds. The drama of Indira’s four terms as prime minister mirrors the hope of the independence struggle and the unfulfilled dreams of a new nation struggling to come to terms with itself.

But it is this sense of being “tied to history” which so deluded Indira, leading inevitably to the petty personalisation of Indian politics and the culture of sycophancy which pervaded until her dramatic assassination in 1984. A remarkable insight into a life little understood.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Robert Krause - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This is the second article in the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. For details on how to submit click here. Click here to see other contributions.

Why are we arguing?

Whenever the tragic decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict becomes a main news story it is a near certainty that the letters pages of newspapers and the lines of radio stations will be flooded with the impassioned voices of South African Jews and Muslims cheering “their” side on. At the end of the ritual it can be safely predicted that all involved are even more entrenched in their positions, that Palestinians are no closer to liberation and Israelis no closer to peace.

If arguments about the political and human situation stand a hope of having a positive impact (i.e. of getting people to examine and even revise their views), it is vital that they are based on criteria that can apply to everyone. Ethnocentric arguments, which appeal to a highly narcissistic reading of one’s history - or even the seal of God - amount to preaching to the converted . The principles of international human rights law and humanitarian law, anchored as they are in everyone’s right to life, self determination and equitable treatment offer such common grounds.

Unfortunately (and this is drawn both from my research into Jewish and Muslim community radio and my general impressions from mainstream media), too much of the discourse employed by individuals from both communities is ethnocentric. On the Jewish side, one can often detect an insular, culturally essentialist Zionist discourse. The motive for criticism of Israel/Zionism is the world’s incurable hostility to Jews. Muslims/Arabs are viewed through the Orientalist prism of a clash of civilisation with Israel, whom they hate because (like the US) they represent “civilised”, “westernised” values. In the face of this barbarity Israel’s occupation is portrayed as trivial and Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is dismissed as being invented by Israel’s opponents.

Ironically, many Muslim contributions situate their conflict within a similar clash of civilizations scenario – that of the global conspiracy against Muslims (which in its worst versions employs the anti-Semitic canard of a global Jewish/Zionist conspiracy). The desired future for Palestine frequently exhibits a highly nativist view: because Israel exists as the result of a colonial-settler movement (a premise I don’t contest), the Jewish population in Palestine has no right to remain except as guests in a Muslim dominated Palestine (any recognition of an Israeli people is viewed as an intolerable concession to Zionism).

If all the heated argumentation on Israel-Palestine is not serving to highlight the tragic Mideast situation what is it doing for the participants? I would suggest there is a strong element of self-affirmation. However the people of Israel-Palestine have no need for such affirmation. Neither do local Muslims and Jews who are unnecessarily alienated from another.

What Palestinians and Israelis do need is solidarity. Solidarity between those who are uncovering the brutality of the occupation (such as the Israeli soldiers who formed Breaking the Silence) and those who are non-violently resisting a system of ethnic discrimination that dehumanizes all who take part in it (such as the Palestinians who have struggled against the confiscation of agricultural land by Israel through the illegal West Bank wall).

Such solidarity can only be built around a vision based around the self-determination of both peoples and the equal rights of all individuals in Israel-Palestine (whether in a 2-state or a single state framework). Those who genuinely want peace and justice in the Middle East should contribute to public discussion with this aim in mind.

Robert Krause holds a BA (Honours) in History from the University of Cape Town and is currently completing his LLB at the same institution.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Writer Profile: Mark Gevisser

Mark Gevisser is a South African journalist best known for his 2007 biography of Thabo Mbeki The Dream Deferred (see my review) as well as his numerous profile pieces for the Mail & Guardian. Gevisser was born in Johannesburg in 1964 and attended Yale University, graduating in 1987 with a degree in comparative literature (Magna cum Laude). He worked in New York for a while writing for both The Nation and The Village Voice. In 1990 he returned to SA and has since published widely on politics, art and culture, as well as the built environment. At various stages in his career Mark has worked as a screenwriter, documentary filmmaker and museum exhibition designer (he was content curator for the Constitutional Hill exhibition). He is quite the polymath.

Below is an overview of Mark Gevisser's most notable writings and involvements:


'Mugabe's good son' appeared this April in the M&G during the height of the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe. It provides something of a follow-up to last year's biography of President Mbeki and tries to unpack the motivations and strategic shortcomings of "Quiet Diplomacy". The relationship between the two leaders is represented as that of a tumultuous father-and-son bond. Gevisser asserts that Mbeki has been unable to balance his loyalty to this errant anti-Colonial stalwart with the democratic ideals of the African Renaissance. The article also reveals the ambivalence that the writer has for Mbeki. Gevisser is at once captivated and repulsed by the failings of the last eight years:
For many, particularly in the Zimbabwean opposition, Mbeki's filial loyalty to Mugabe disqualifies him from being an honest broker. Mbeki sees it another way: he believes that it is precisely this relationship that gives him access to the old man's inner sanctum. Who but a son can drum sense into an age-inflamed father? This is the logic behind Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy". We should not forget the role that he and his South African team played in brokering this benchmark election in the first place. But the fact that the poll is in effect now meaningless is, of course, a dramatic illustration of the limitations of Mbeki's filial diplomatic policy.


In 2001 Gevisser wrote an excellent piece for The Nation on the international responses to the September 11th attacks ('Dispatches' 27 Sept '01). The article highlights the differences between black and white reactions among students at the University of Witwatersrand and the roots of anti-Americanism on our campuses and in the broader society. Gevisser's article formed part of a six-part series by writers from across the globe and provides a glimpse of the zeitgeist immediately following the attacks.
If South Africans - and other people of the South - thought the United States was arrogant before, this was only confirmed in the aftermath of the attacks. "We have been wronged," the message went, "so the whole world must go to war." The distasteful consequence is, among many South Africans, a lack of empathy for a deeply wounded nation, an admiration for unjustifiable terror tactics and a limited understanding of the attack's global consequences.


The 1998 documentary film, The Man Who Drove With Mandela, sees Mark Gevisser credited for his role as screenwriter/researcher in this unusual piece about one of history's neglected characters. Those familiar with struggle folklore will recall Nelson Mandela in 1962 assuming the identity of a chauffeur, criss-crossing the South African countryside in a limousine whilst planning acts of sabotage as leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe. The man in the back seat posing as the wealthy patrician was actually renowned stage director, communist and homosexual Cecil Williams. The film explores the life of a man who, despite his fame, fought many a battle with authority on account of his association with the 'two underworlds' of the struggle movement and the gay subculture. This film won the Teddy Documentary Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999.


In 1996 Gevisser's M&G weekly columns were collated into a publication called Portraits of Power: Profiles in a Changing South Africa, which included over 40 pieces of writing on people of influence in SA. These included politicians (Matthews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Trevor Manuel, and Zola Skweyiya) social activists (Fatima Meer, Mamphela Ramphele, Barney Pityana), musicians and sportsmen. I have browsed through the book and read some of the entries and it provides a fascinating glimpse of South Africa's transitional years, condensed into the lived experiences of these individuals.


Mark is also an outspoken member of the homosexual community having co-edited a book in 1994 with Edwin Cameron Defiant Desire, Gay and Lesbian Lives In South Africa (Routledge). In his article, 'Affairs of the heart' Gevisser talks about his two exhibitions on the politics of sexuality. The first Home Affairs: About Love, Marriage, Families and Human Rights is at the Apartheid Museum until September and Jo’burg Tracks: Sexuality in the City is showing at the Old Fort, Constitution Hill, till November.

After I gave a public lecture on my Mbeki biography in Cape Town a few weeks ago, an old comrade came up to me and embraced me. An older woman, she had played a key role in the fight for gay equality and had been one of my icons and so I was somewhat taken aback when she told me how “surprised” she had been (“pleasantly”, she added) that I had acknowledged my life partner by name in my book.

In that moment I realised how far I - and this country - have travelled in the two decades since I met her. The thought wouldn’t have occurred to me not to name my partner and disclose my sexual orientation. But for my older comrade, who had fought battles that I had not, my acknowledgement was a profoundly political act, a blow against homophobia, rather than just a thank you to the man who shares my life.


As the above material attests, Mark Gevisser is a gifted writer who has enabled South Africa to better understand itself. If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to take the time to read Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred; it is one of the finest biographies I have encountered.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans - Introduction

Call for Submissions

The ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine is one of the most heated subjects in global political discourse today. It is not merely a contest over land or scarce resources (although these things are important) but a clash of competing nationalisms, both rooted in a history of profound loss and bloodshed.

Quid Pro Quo is a blog based in South Africa, a country seemingly far-removed from the troubles of the Middle East. Although there is vast geographical distance between here and Israel/Palestine, the level of interest among South Africans is intense. There are sizable Jewish and Muslim communities in this country, both of whom attach a strong symbolic significance to the conflict - a significance that is deeply interwoven with ethnic and religious ideology.

By-and-large most people in SA wish to see a peaceful end to the decades of war and insecurity in the area; the difficulty is in how to achieve that resolution in a way that is equitable and fair. QPQ shares this commitment to peace and is thus providing a platform for local writers to explore issues around Israel/Palestine that they feel have a particular bearing on their lives as South Africans.

A voluminous literature exists on this subject, some of which is well reasoned, others polemical. It is my desire to play host to the former. QPQ invites submissions that focus on any or all of the three themes listed below:

  1. The relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities in South Africa and their historical interaction. This can also include discussion on the meaning of Jewish or Muslim identity in SA.
  2. Possible conflict-resolution lessons that South Africa could provide for Israelis and Palestinians e.g. the negotiated transition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), etc.
  3. Concrete measures (both past and present) undertaken by South African politicians, activists or members of civil society to enhance peace-making efforts in the region.

Given that QPQ is primarily concerned with politics and the media in SA it is important that contributing authors stick within the above constraints for the benefit of conceptual parsimony. Although writers will be given some latitude in their articles, it is necessary that the material reflects a local perspective.

Please keep submissions to less than 500 words to ensure that the material is readable and concise. Email your contribution as a Word document attachment to this address:

I am a believer in Howard Zinn's maxim that "you can't be neutral on a moving train". However, I will be trying to take as impartial a stance as possible in the presentation of my own views. That said, I will not be participating as frequently in these debates given my limitations of knowledge, time and energy. I want to hear what you have to say; the stage is yours...

Click on the label 'Israel/Palestine' to see all submissions and related material.

[Please note: QPQ will not provide a platform for views that propagate violence, use hate speech or are abusive towards its contributing authors.]

Monday, July 14, 2008

Public Forum: Barack Obama and Africa - a local perspective


After a successful inaugural seminar (which I blogged about here and here) The Weekender and Wits University will be co-hosting another of their discussion forums. This time the focus is on developments in the United States, specifically the meteoric rise of Democratic Party presidential nominee Barack Obama. The panel will be debating the significance of Obama's candidacy for the African continent. Below are the details, click on the image to enlarge:

I have put together a preparation pack for those wishing to attend in order to facilitate a more meaningful interaction on the night. Do not show up without looking at this material:

'Senator Obama goes to Africa'
This is a film made during Mr. Obama's 2006 trip to Africa. It is a glowing portrait of a man deeply connected to his African roots and reflects his vision of the continent, albeit through the lens of the diaspora:
Part personal odyssey and part chronicle of diplomacy in action, this timely documentary follows Senator Barack Obama as he travels to the land of his ancestry. From South Africa to Kenya to a Darfur refugee camp in Chad, Obama explores the vast continent that is gaining increasing importance in this age of globalization.
An excerpt from the film can also be viewed on the site. Here Obama talks movingly of his father, a Kenyan economist about whom he knew very little, but whose affect on his life was substantial. He also addresses some of the dreams and failings of a country struggling to fulfill its potential and the disease of corruption that prevents it from doing so.


Obama-mania sweeps Africa, but could he deliver?
This Reuters article by Andrew Cawthorne appeared in several publications around the world on June 9th. It raises some cautionary thoughts from various quarters in Africa about the meaning of the recent Obama nomination.
Obama's late father was Kenyan, and on a trip here two years ago he was feted like a rock star. But apart from visits to his ancestral roots, Obama does not have a particularly strong track record of interest in Africa, analysts say.


'Obama or McCain: Who would be better for SA?'
I don't want to steal too much of the thunder from the upcoming event, but Tony Leon has already spoken about the US presidential candidates (to the Cape Town Press Club on the 11th of June 2008) and he is likely to raise some similar points. Leon, the former leader of the DA, is now the party's spokesperson on international affairs. He is fitting nicely into his new role as public intellectual, and he seems unencumbered by the need to chase votes or play the party politics game (as much).

Mr. Leon has also spent some significant time in the USA, having recently completed a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, nogal. So his finger is on the pulse of this issue, more so I would imagine, than many other politicians in SA.

His speech considers the two candidates at some length; both in their areas of convergence and difference. But focusing on the Democratic candidate for a moment, although Leon sees enormous promise in an Obama presidency, he also considers it as important to deconstruct some of the misconceptions around the candidate's likely international policy positions.

There is an assumption which I believe to be mistaken, or a far too superficial reading of the situation, that because of Barack Obama's provenance and his sense of identity with Africa, that somehow he will be a soft touch when it comes to our continent. A closer analysis would suggest that his approach could be described as something akin to ‘tough love".
In a similar vein, he continues with a good measure of rhetorical verve:
The point I'm making here is that contrary to what some of the fabulists among his opposition and perhaps among some wishful thinkers at home in South Africa, Senator Barack Obama is not some effete, limp-wristed, Chardonnay-swilling, latté-drinking defeatist who would withdraw America from world engagement and provide a kind of uncritical mother love and apple pie approach to developing democracies and to global issues.
Leon argues that Obama would have a more muscular approach to Darfur, (having piloted the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act with conservative Senator Sam Brownback) as well as a foreign aid policy with some pretty stringent conditions attached to it.


'The Pan-African Meaning Of Barack Obama'
Moving away from the liberal perspective, Milton Allimadi of the Black Star News has a more radical take on Obama's ascendency:

To many African peoples, here in the United States, in the Diaspora, and on the African continent, Obama is not merely a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. With his intellect and with his ability to attract millions of voters and excel in the world‘s biggest political arena, Obama is seen as an affirmation of all the latent positive attributes that African people harbor. At the same time, he’s seen as a repudiation of all the negative attributes that have historically been assigned to Africans.

On the same site there is another article on Barack Obama's political career which provides a good introduction (or a supplement) to the topic. 'Barack Obama And Africa'


'US Democrats urged to register to vote in close poll'
This piece of reportage features Monica Stewart, who will be speaking on Monday. She is the Vice Chair of the SA chapter of Democrats Abroad and will be attending the Dem Convention where Obama will receive his party's official blessing. The article also talks about the upcoming visit of Howard Dean, the Democratic Party Chairman who is urging Dems living in South Africa to register to vote as early as possible. Apparently there are 20 000 of these folks (out of a total of 6 million US expats worldwide) living in the country. Although the article doesn't mention it, it is safe to say that about 19 500 of them are Semester Study Abroad students at UCT.


No discussion on the Obama candidacy at the moment would be complete without some wanton speculation as to the identity of his Vice-Presidential running mate. Check out The G-Spot for a great rough guide on how to pick a Veep...

... and how not to!!!


An exhaustive list of stuff to plough through. So get reading, you only have a week.

Please email Lebo Moliki on by 16 July to RSVP. Also, let me know if you will be attending, I'd love to have a chat about this man Obama and what he means to us.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mantashe and the ANC vs. The People (Cont.)

I recently wrote a post in support of Prof. Raymond Suttner's article 'Where are the alternatives to these harmful voices?'. There have been several responses to his piece, as well as to the original comments made by the Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe.

The most vociferous reaction (to Suttner) so far has been from the ANC Today, the official rag of the ruling party: 'Judges must not undermine the integrity of the courts' Volume 8, No. 27 • 11—17 July 2008.

In it they patronize Suttner for "spreading falsehoods". This is a man who, lest we not forget, once stood on the National Executive Committee of the ANC and is still a card-carrying member of the organisation. The newsletter also claims that the Secretary-General's comments were taken out of context by Suttner and others.

"Mantashe criticised the manner in which the Constitutional Court judges had handled the Hlope matter. But he did not call them counter-revolutionary, and he did nothing to undermine their independence or constitutional mandate. Like all public institutions, the judiciary must be prepared for their actions to be scrutinised, discussed and criticised. That is not unhealthy in a democracy."

I smell a straw man. Suttner, et al are not saying that judges are beyond reproach or that we live in a juristoracy. But attacks such as those issued by Mantashe are clearly inappropriate and smack of interference in the Zuma trial. The apparent willingness by the new ANC to manipulate a nascent democratic institution to ensure a politically expedient outcome warrants a robust defense of our judges. ANC Today goes on:

"...many commentators claimed that the ANC had launched an attack on the judiciary; some media claimed that he had described the actions of the Constitutional Court as "counter-revolutionary"."

No, I do believe it really was Cde. Mantashe who said those words. Rather than providing a sufficient counter-argument to the criticisms, the ANC once again blames the media for distorting an official's comments. This is a typical dodge, revealed as such by Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee. She claims that she is in possession of an audio tape of Mantashe saying that the judges were "counter-revolutionary". 'ANC shrugs off Mantashe's stance on the judiciary'

"She [Haffajee] said Mantashe, who usually calls her when he [is] not happy with a story in the paper, had not phoned her to complain about the story. "He has not complained nor requested an apology. My colleague has a tape recording of the interview," she said."

I am heartened, albeit only slightly, that the people who made these comments are a little bit embarrassed by what they said.


Patricia de Lille of The Independent Democrats (ID) referred to Mantashe's remarks as "a campaign to spare ANC president Jacob Zuma from equality before the courts" This is obvious, but needed to be said: 'ID slams ANC's "ruthless attack" on judges'


In her online newsletter, Helen Zille, leader of the opposition DA (automatically making her a White Russian schemer in some people's eyes) accused Zuma's ANC of being 'the real counter-revolutionaries'. Zille draws a moral equivalence between the actions of the ANC and National Party (NP) government under apartheid.

"The former oppressed are emulating their erstwhile oppressors and, when the “revolutionary vanguard” mimics the regime it replaced, you know that the counter-revolution has begun. It is straight out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm."

I agree that the Nats violated judicial and media freedom on a regular basis, but I also believe that the institutional vitality of the constitution is stronger now than it ever was under the old regime. That does not mean that we should ignore genuine assaults on our Constitutional Court, but let us compare like with like.

Ultimately, however, Zille's article asserts the need to protect our most important body from the pettiness of party loyalties, with the injunction that "the revolutionary change that came to South Africa was a Constitution that guaranteed universal rights – and committed the government to uphold and protect them, not to dispense them selectively."

I wonder if Ms. Zille has been reading Quid Pro Quo lately because she draws liberally on the Orwellian metaphor. Unfortunately, QPQ does not hold a monopoly on that little truth; but still, very cheeky, Helen!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Atheist meme


I have been memed by Michael Meadon at Ionian Enchantment. I am thus duty-bound to answer the following questions... Other participants include Simon at Amanuensis and Doctor Spurt at Effortless Incitement.

1) How would you define "atheism"?
The search for truth and meaning independent of a supernatural power of any kind.

2) Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
My upbringing was moderately religious. My parents believe in the existence of a God and are steeped in Christian cultural practices, its norms and traditions – but they are not dogmatic, nor do they attend religious gatherings. Both are uncomfortable with, but ultimately resigned to, my atheism. “Where did I go wrong?” is my Mother’s most common refrain.

I attended an Anglican high school which entailed lots of wine-drinking and cracker-eating every month. Yummy. Thankfully, I was never able to sneak any of them out as they were always placed directly into my mouth (I was thus spared the ignominy and shame of being a cracker smuggler).

3) How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?

4) What scientific endeavor really excites you?
Genetics. The full potential of this field has yet to be realized. It would be an amazing enhancement of human welfare if one day we could grow our own transplantable organs, fix severed spinal cords, et cetera. I like the idea of being able to toy with nature and maximise the advantage we get out of it. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that many religious people see this as a transgression of their beliefs.

5) If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?
I think the term “Brights” is a little condescending and doesn’t quite roll off the tongue or have the same counter-cultural appeal as say, “Queer” does for homosexuals, for example. “Brights” is a no-hoper and should probably be jettisoned in favour of the more traditional “Atheist”.

6) If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what would be your first response?
“Where did I go wrong!?” would be my refrain. I would then proceed to give him/her my (by then 20-year-old and dog-eared) copy of Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion.

7) What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
"The universe is so infinite and complex we couldn’t possibly understand it without appealing to a divine creator.” I usually respond by saying that this is a fallacy of the appeal to ignorance (
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam). Merely stating that we don’t understand parts of our world does not mean that a divinity actually created it.

Also, my worst: “Can you prove that God doesn’t exist?”
I'm afraid that’s just not good enough. I usually quote Hitchens at this point: “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.” God does a pretty neat job of being unfalsifiable, the wily chap that he is.

8) What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
I really am quite fond of a lot of religious iconography, grandiose Cathedrals, that sort of thing. Also music. For instance, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? By Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash is a moving ode to a man who may or may not have been the Saviour. (“Oooh sometimes… it causes me to tremble! Tremble!”)

9) Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
Me main man, Dawkins. He encouraged me to abandon my namby-pamby agnosticism. See him speak at this TedTalk.

10) If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
Tony Blair. Anybody who saw that smug self-righteous face of his on the cover of Time magazine a couple of months ago would agree. 'Tony Blair’s Leap of Faith.' Few people this century have done more to destroy inter-religious dialogue than Mr. Blair and now he represents himself as this crucial interlocutor between the warring faiths. Good grief…

Prov. 6:16-19: "These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A luta continua?


In Business Day today there was an excellent op-ed piece by Raymond Suttner, 'Where are the alternatives to these harmful voices?', in which he discussed the recent verbal attacks on the integrity of the Constitutional Court by Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the ANC. Mantashe's comments reveal the belligerent mentality of those in the ANC who have clustered around the new party president - and who seek to weaken the institutions of democracy in order to see him come to power. "Our revolution is in danger," he said "we must declare to defend it till the end." Below is a portion of Suttner's article in response to these worrying statements:

The ANC leadership has until now appreciated that abiding by Constitutional Court decisions has instilled public confidence in the democratic system. Its respect as the strongest political force is essential for stable democratic order. This does not preclude criticism of decisions or individual judges or judgments, which are not the same as impugning the integrity of the institution. Surely someone as experienced as Mantashe ought to know that? Surely he realises that few outside of the Zuma inner circle will buy his idea that the judges are part of the plot against their leader?

Personally, I sought and gained nothing from the Mbeki presidency — or should I say the MbekiZuma presidency for, until his dismissal, the Mbeki vision was simultaneously a Zuma project. One never heard a word in support of the poor emanating from Zuma, nor attempts to make the ANC government more people-driven, nor similar sentiments that might give credence to claims by South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leaders that Zuma’s victory was a victory for the left, or a democratic gain.

In truth no programme, linked to any plot, was defeated at Polokwane. It was a battle for loot, between those who sought to benefit from continued Mbeki rule and those who had been ditched by Mbeki or sought to benefit from a Zuma presidency. There was no programmatic difference; or what left inflection the Zuma election platform may have had was deflected by pictures of the Cosatu and SACP leaders dogging his heels to share the applause that greeted Zuma the “deliverer”.

A battle over loot indeed. The idea that somehow Zuma represents a re-emergence of a leftist tendency within the movement is a handy distraction for the petty power aspirations of the Polokwane insurgents; and Suttner is spot-on in seeing through the guff. Clearly JZ has amplified his leftist rhetoric in order to get himself promoted, his most vociferous support coming from the labour and communist wings of the Tripartite Alliance. To my mind, the ANC President is more of a traditional patriarch than the working class prophet he is made out to be.

Although questions over whether Zuma is really a man of the left are compelling, this is not where the fuss lies. The concern is with the respect for procedural democracy and the sustainability of our judicial institutions, which must stand above ideological conviction.

Implicit in the term 'National Democratic Revolution' is the righteous achievement won in 1994; of overcoming the decades of legal racism and bureaucratic authoritarianism of apartheid and the pledge to remove the socio-economic inequalities that are its legacy.

However, this language has also spawned a dangerous group-think among ANC cadres. Any real or perceived obstacle in the way of their stated aims (the 'revolutionary' goal of seeing the most tainted man in the party's history becoming Head of State) must be defeated at all cost - even if it means steamrolling the Human Rights Commission, smearing the highest court in the land or declaring that murder is justifiable. Anybody who objects is a counter-revolutionary and their criticisms are immediately invalidated.

Mantashe is beginning to resemble a pig from George Orwell's Animal Farm, specifically the character of Squealer - the official spokespig and organiser of the revolutionary vanguard. A verbal contortionist, Squealer manipulates the masses into believing that being obedient to the Supreme Leader Napoleon is to better serve the revolution. By renouncing the past achievements of other struggle heroes and searching for remnents of the old order Squealer successfully keeps the animals in check.

"Comrades," he said, "I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be? Suppose you had decided to follow Snowball, with his moonshine of windmills--Snowball, who, as we now know, was no better than a criminal?"

"He fought bravely at the Battle of the Cowshed," said somebody.

"Bravery is not enough," said Squealer. "Loyalty and obedience are more important. And as to the Battle of the Cowshed, I believe the time will come when we shall find that Snowball's part in it was much exaggerated. Discipline, comrades, iron discipline! That is the watchword for today. One false step, and our enemies would be upon us. Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?"

Loyalty and deference to the Big Pig is more important than the Seven Commandments written in bold white on the barn wall - the words that bear the true essence of egalitarianism on the farm. At what cost to the country is Zuma's ANC going to continue to talk the talk of revolution but at the same time actively undermine everything that the real revolution sought to achieve? We need not be surprised if we should awake one night to a loud crash. In the moonlight we will see Squealer writhing in the dark, a broken ladder, a spilt can of white paint and a brush by his side. Will the words on the wall remain unchanged?


My favourite letter-writer, Dr. Lucas Ntyintyane, expressed similar sentiments in his letter to the editor in the same edition of the paper. 'Defending whose revolution?'

The same leadership that complained of palace politics a year ago is today practicing its own form of McCarthyism... The new ANC leaders are displaying what Maxim Gorky called “spiritual vampirism” and creating a Stalinistic cult of personality. They are eroding civil liberties and annihilating democratic institutions to worship a God-like figure.