Sunday, August 31, 2008

Whose land is it? Your's or the state's?

Wits University and the Weekender have hosted some marvelous debates over the last couple of months (see QPQ’s coverage of earlier events which include the meaning of Barack Obama for Africa and the role of the media in the changing fortunes of Zuma and Mbeki). This week Tues 26th August 2008 debate raged over the implications of the controversial Expropriation Bill.

Thankfully, on the way to the university I heard on the radio that Thandi Tobias-Pokolo, the chairwoman of the public works committee in Parliament has shelved the Bill after a number of sticking points in the legislation could not be resolved. She also cited the need for further consultation with “relevant stakeholders” before passing such a far-reaching act saying that existing “public participation may have been insufficient to see the Bill through.” The Bill will no longer be considered during this parliamentary cycle.

However, an interesting caveat appeared in the Business Day on Thursday which problematised the “shelving” of the legislation. It noted that despite the celebrations by opponents of the Bill, “it was not clear if this meant that it would be redrafted or if, after further ‘consultation’, it would simply be reconsidered.” Whatever, the fact that the Bill has not been withdrawn is sufficient evidence to believe that the government wishes to extend its powers of expropriation.

The all-male cast of speakers were:
  • i.) Thembeka Ngcukaitobi – Partner, Bowman Gilfillan – involved in drafting the Expropriation Bill.
  • ii) Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation
  • iii) Patrick Craven – National spokesman, COSATU
  • iv) Andile Mngxitama – activist for land rights since 1997

The four were presented with several questions by Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations (which co-hosted the event). Rather than recording the minutia of the talk I will summarise each gentleman’s position on the Bill.


Thembeka Ngcukaitobi

i.) Thembeka Ngcukaitobi, who was one of the architects of the document, spoke about why it had been put on hold. There were two reasons: political and technical.

On the political front Ngcukaitobi echoed the statements of the portfolio committee which said that given the significance of the Bill it needed to be canvassed more extensively and opened to further hearings. People had complained that there was not enough consultation, he said.

Technical reservations were also raised related to specific clauses in the proposal, Ngcukaitobi said. It was felt that certain sections were not consistent with the constitution. Given these considerations it was decided that Bill should be shelved. “Is there a chance it will be re-instated?” he asked “Unequivocally - yes. It has to be done that way.”

“In SA we live in a country governed by the constitution. The constitution has limited power to expropriate property. The real question is how should this be done in a manner which is sustainable?”

“Expropriation is no panacea for land reform,” he said, “it is one of the mechanisms. You have to recognize that it exists within these limits.” He added that we should take steps to mitigate against the “unintended consequences” of the legislation.


Leon Louw

Although QPQ does not share Leon Louw’s market fundamentalism, he certainly made some astute points about the rule of law and the importance of maintaining a coherent system of private property ownership, something which he argued the Expropriation Bill threatened to undermine.

Louw opened by saying that in actual fact this Bill would have done more to undermine the aspirations of the lower income strata from acquiring property in that their ownership of such property in future might be jeopardized. The rich are good at protecting themselves, he noted, and they probably would have been able to insulate themselves from the harmful effects of this law had it been passed.

What is ironic, Louw remarked, is the complete reversal of racial roles if you consider how blacks’ property rights were systematically undermined under the apartheid regime. When whites were in power whites expected the state to abuse that power on their behalf. “Blacks today feel the same and that’s very sad,” he mourned.One of the consistent themes in Louw’s discussion was that countries which scored higher on property rights indexes were usually wealthier. It is to these countries that poor people take flight at high risk to themselves. The rich are unaffected by and large.

Louw elaborated on specific problems in the legislation. “In this Bill you have no recourse to the courts. The state can literally confiscate any form of property.” There are no countries in the developed world that do this, he noted. Louw also added that it was not just land, but any property that could be expropriated for the public interest. This could have devastating consequences.

“The problem comes in when you entrust bureaucrats with omnipotent powers.” Surely in the 21st century we have now gotten over this myth, he exclaimed.

On the question of food security, Louw observed that trying to establish broad subsistence-based farming among the majority of people was to miss the point. What you do as a country to feed yourself is you get rich and the food problem takes care of itself. Look at Gibraltar, look at Malta – they are rocks, they don’t produce their own food. People who depend on what they produce are insecure. They are subject to the whims of the weather, land, etc.

We don’t produce many trousers in this country, he joked. Under this hysterical definition we suffer from trouser insecurity. “I don’t want to see what happens when we all stand up!”


Patrick Craven

iii.) In a response to Cronje’s question about the hyperbolic reaction from corporate South Africa, Patrick Craven noted that every country in the world has a provision for private property expropriation. Even in successful market economies, such provision exists, he said. “Do we need a law to solve this particular problem? Yes. But how are we going to implement it in a way that will allay the fears of those concerned?"

Craven insisted that there was a great need to re-think land reform strategy. Zimbabwe is a classic example of how not to distribute land, he said. “We need to avoid extremes and we need to avoid land distribution that goes from the hands of rich whites to the hands of rich blacks.”

Similarly, he claimed, one cannot set up subsistence farmers for failure. At the moment far too much land is not being used productively and that needs to change.

We should definitely bring the Bill back. In many areas land reform efforts are blatantly not working, he said. “Willing buyer, willing seller is not working. Farmers can hold government to ransom because of [the government’s] limited budgets. We need to bring it back to break through the logjam.”


Andile Mngxitama

iv.) Andile Mngxitama, who was certainly the most voluble of the speakers, exclaimed that it was the “anti-land reform lobby which has actually won here.” Sense was prevailed upon the government by the banks and corporate sector. The Bill is clearly part of the radical posturing of post-Polokwane politics, but no clear indication of change, he said

Mngxitama was quick to lambaste the ANC government as neo-liberals who had sold out the revolution.

“Expropriation is seen as a stick.” But this is land that is held by the few, he continued, which is actually stolen property.

He was equally scathing of the status quo of ownership which is still dominated by whites.

“The cheapest way to achieve food security is to get people to support themselves.” SA agricultural industry is an evil one. It is characterized by the violence of farmers against black people and against the environment. Agriculture is not based on people’s needs, but based on profits.

“Black people don’t have private property to protect.” He exclaimed, turning to Louw “We don’t have the money Leon because of the history. Black people don’t have the money to protect themselves.”

Most troubling was Mngxitama’s view of the land reform strategy in Zimbabwe. “In the early years of liberation, the problem wasn’t addressed; you had 4000 white guys with all of the land.” The Zimbabwean land question, the colonial question, has been resolved.

In response to Mngxitama, QPQ thinks that such concentration of ownership in settler hands was surely undesirable, but I echo Craven’s view that this strategy of mass distribution would be unsustainable. Also the violence and recrimination with which the Zim expropriation took place was clearly something we should avoid at all costs in South Africa, and not just because we don’t want to see our land going fallow. More than this, one of the most basic principles of liberal democracy is that we resolve our conflicts through non-violent means, violence by the state included

Saturday, August 23, 2008

State of the Nation: Judicial Independence

The second in the State of the Nation series took place on Wednesday 22nd August 2008 at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). This week’s topic was the independence of the judiciary and the speakers were: Arthur Chaskalson, former Chief Justice of SA; David Unterhalter, an advocate; and Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary-general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).


Arthur Chaskalson

Arthur Chaskalson spoke about the importance of the concept of judicial independence and why it is crucial for the proper functioning of a democracy. He cited the United Nations resolution of 1985 on The Basic Principles of the Independence of the Judiciary, which states, and I paraphrase:

  1. The independence of the judiciary shall be guaranteed by the State and enshrined in law.
  2. The judiciary shall decide matters before them impartially, on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law, without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interferences.
  3. The judiciary shall have jurisdiction over all issues of a judicial nature.
  4. There shall not be any inappropriate or unwarranted interference with the judicial process, nor shall judicial decisions by the courts be subject to revision.
  5. Everyone shall have the right to be tried by ordinary courts or tribunals using established legal procedures.
  6. Judicial proceedings must be conducted fairly with respect to the rights of the parties involved.
  7. The judiciary must be adequately resourced by the state.

Chaskalson underscored South Africa’s endorsement of these principles within our own constitutional framework. He also reiterated the importance of applying the law impartially, especially considering the high public profile of certain litigants at the moment.

Chaskalson’s comments were made in reference to recent remarks by senior members of the ANC leadership who have condemned Constitutional Court justices as forces of ‘counter-revolution’ for speaking out publicly on the alleged misconduct of Judge President of the Cape High Court, John Hlophe. This amounts to an affront to the principle of judicial independence, he said.

“Justices have been pilloried, their words somehow wrenched from its context and content.” he said. The implication was that the CC was somehow prejudiced against the ANC and its president. He insisted that there is no suggestion wherever that any such thing is happening.

Chaskalson went on to cite the deputy president of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe, and his statements about the role of the judiciary vis-à-vis the Jacob Zuma trial. He unpacked several points made by Motlanthe in his 1st August 2008 article on ANC Today.

  1. Motlanthe affirmed the importance of our constitution, and made the commitment to judicial independence to safeguard the rights of individuals. Chaskalson endorsed this view.
  2. The widespread lack of transformation in the judiciary was a pressing concern for the country. Chaskalson shared Motlanthe’s concern, but noted that this issue had no bearing on the attacks on the CC. “Who are the judges?” he asked “Eight of the eleven judges are black. All have a long commitment to struggle against apartheid. Those are the factors that influenced the JSC’s appointments.”
  3. According to Motlanthe, there is a commitment that the ANC will strive to uphold, defend and protect the credibility of the institution of the judiciary and the state. Chaskalson welcomed this commitment but insisted that it needs to be implemented.
  4. Chaskalson agreed with Motlanthe that all citizens should enjoy the same rights under the law as ordinary citizens. “Attacking the highest court in the land [from a position of political advantage] for short-term political aims is a negation of that principle.”

Everybody agrees that the judges are open to criticism and scrutiny, he ended. “This is not in itself a bad thing. However, criticism that amounts to an attack on the CC with such stridency undermines the integrity of the courts. It undermines a pillar of our democracy.” he said. “Comrade Vavi,” he implored “the time has come for us to allow processes to run. Let us do that.”


Zwelinzima Vavi

Zwelinzima Vavi claimed (full text) that the perception of the ANC and its alliance partners as acting in concert against the judiciary was a false one. He insisted that COSATU would be the first to come to the defense of the Constitutional Court if they believed that it was genuinely under attack; which he didn’t think it was. Vavi dismissed the allegations of undermining the integrity of the judiciary as the distortions of the national media which is driven by its rapacious capitalist agenda.

“Society is being presented with a story, largely by the commercial media, that institutions of democracy, in particular the judiciary, is under threat. Evidence for this is seemingly pronouncements by COSATU, ANC and SACP. I strongly submit that this case is based on shoddy reporting and evidence. Instead it amounts to a campaign to silence COSATU and its allies on the critical question of the role of the Judiciary.


Most of the time, South Africans form their opinions on organisations and personalities on the basis of what they read, hear or see from the media. The media is a very powerful force in society. Just three very rich companies, whose reporting and editorials does not always reflect the interests of the people we represent, own 95% of weekly and daily newspapers. In a class based society it is unavoidable that the media would reflect the interests of their rich and powerful owners.”

Vavi then outlined the liberation movement’s historic commitment to fight for the independence of the courts and that it is the poor and vulnerable who most need the protection of constitutional democracy.

"Let me for the record state categorically that COSATU not only respects the independence of judiciary but actually regards it as the corner stone of our hard-won democracy. It is just a myth driven mainly by media hysteria, that we have no respect for these pillars of our democracy.

It is a myth that we are a threat to our Constitution and the institutions flowing from it. No matter how many times this untruth is peddled it will not change the fact that COSATU and the rest of the formations who fought a long and hard struggle to win this constitutional based democracy are not a threat to our democracy.

COSATU, and the individuals who lead it - guided by the Freedom Charter, which insisted that "all must be equal under the law" - have spent all their lives struggling to free South Africa from the atrocities of apartheid and to win freedom and democracy.”


David Unterhalter

David Unterhalter, who is representing Mr. Hugh Glenister at the CC in his attempt to retain the Scorpions, spoke about the differently held values of many of those in power and those who genuinely value a robust and autonomous legal system under a constitutional order.

Unterhalter acknowledged that if you look at the history of democratic South Africa, then the government has generally abided by decisions of the judiciary. “However,” he cautioned “we are now in a different time, a time of transition.” Unterhalter raised the concern that there are two competing discourses frequently registered in public debate about this issue. One is the discourse of the independence of the judiciary and that its institutions should remain free from government meddling and the will of those in power. But there is also another discourse - that of the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). This view holds that the instruments of the law are in fact objects in the way of the NDR and that the judiciary should rather lend itself to the revolution and render itself as a means to that end.

There is a high degree of hyperbole coming out of the new ANC leadership about the counter-revolutionary aims of the courts. When one speaks about counter-revolutionaries you need to substantiate these claims and no such substantiation has been forthcoming, Unterhalter observed.

“Where is this conspiracy against Mr. Zuma?” he inquired rhetorically. There is a significant ammount of evidence from the Shaik trial to suggest that Zuma has a case to answer, he said. Unterhalter also failed to believe how it is that the national prosecutors and members of the bench are conspiring to undermine Zuma in the systematic way that they have been accused of doing. Conspiracies need to be backed up with concrete evidence was his message, and the best place to do this was in the court of law.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Alana Pugh-Jones - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This article forms part of the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.

Engaging for Peace

“I went into it with an opinion, my own opinion, and we were guided also by who we went with, our own experience, our own background, our own understanding of justice and our own values”. With these words Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya began his report back at Wits as a delegate on the recent ‘South African Human Rights Delegation’ trip to Israel and the West Bank. The delegation comprised twenty three human rights figures and sought to show, in their own words, ‘solidarity with Israelis and Palestinians working to fight human rights abuses and bring about a non-violent end to the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel’.

The evening left me optimistic that spaces of dialogue are emerging, in South Africa and across the world, where people on either side of a contentious conflict can discuss issues in a civilized and constructive manner. Makhanya’s acknowledgement that our individual and inherent bias is the total of our subjective past gave me pause to reflect on my own viewpoint when listening to this group.

Much of what was reported on rings heartbreakingly true – the security fence must indeed be a symbol of oppression to the Palestinian people, hampering as it does their mobility and access to various resources as it often cuts through their land and divides villages. It is also, however, representative of Jewish insecurity and both the psychological and physical trauma that thousands of terrorist attacks on the Israeli civilian population has exacted.

The occupation of Palestinian land, discussed by the delegation at length, undoubtedly dehumanizes Palestinians. Yet it also denigrates Israelis as well – in particular the young soldiers compelled to stand guard over strangers who don’t want them there and with the weight of life or death decisions hanging over them day in and day out. Israel’s security measures inevitably disrupt the lives of its own citizens too, through constant road closures in response to threats of terror or attacks themselves.
Neither side in this conflict has a monopoly on victimhood - exploiting its wares only allows the tragedies of the past to become immoveable stumbling blocks to progress in the future.

The delegation saw its message not as pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, but as pro-peace. Not enough discussion has taken place on Palestinian agency in the conflict and the Palestinian leadership is not held accountable in the same way as the Israeli authorities. The situation in the region is untenable, but equal pressure must be exerted on both sides to make conditions pass to ameliorate the situation – anything less is counterproductive to efforts for peace.

As young South Africans, navigating the twisting paths towards reconciliation in our own wounded nation, we have an obligation to use our experiences as maps to help others move towards peace. This is where Jewish and Muslim South Africans in particular can seize the opportunity the recent coverage of Israel and Palestine in the media has presented. As we enter into dialogue we must do so as Jewish and Muslim South Africans proud of, and loyal to, our identities - only from this vantage point will we be able to seek peace and begin to realise that our destinies are intertwined.


Alana Pugh-Jones holds an MPhil in Justice and Transformation from UCT. Alana is extensively involved in Jewish communal work and Zimbabwean democracy advocacy. She is currently working as Diplomatic Liaison for the national office of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg. Alana contributes to this blog in her personal capacity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sam Beckbessinger - Response to Doron Isaacs

This article forms part of the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. It refers to an earlier piece by Doron Isaacs. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.


Firstly, I need to issue a sincere apology for one typo: I attributed the Holocaust comment to you; I had intended “Eseck” but mistakenly typed “Isaacs” (the names sound similar). I understand that this angers you and I will ensure that it is altered on the website immediately, and that a note will be added to the bottom of the article noting the change. This was a mistake and not a malicious attack. I apologise for this.

I do want to defend the rest of my points, however. It hardly seems fair that you get 1800 words to make your point in, and I was allocated 500. Of course it will result in my argument being reductive. I’m going to sneak in a few extra words here in defence of myself against your response.

I can’t help my “nit-picking”. I’m a linguist. Nit-picking over semantics is just what I do. On the topic of semantics, I did not state that the speakers “alleged” that the occupation was a sinister plot to exterminate Palestinians, I said that they were “suggesting” it (i.e. “to imply as a possibility”). In retrospect I should have used the less ambiguous word, “insinuated”, but my point remains. By arguing that the state of Israel was not acting out of concern for its own security, and must therefore be trampling over the human dignity of Palestinians out of a more malicious motive, it seemed to be the logical conclusion of your argument. Of course I do not mean that you literally believe that an explicit genocide is underway; I was trying to make the point that by arguing away Israel’s defensive motives you caricaturise it as an evil, aggressive state. Fareds’ and Pregs’ analogies with the Holocaust underscored that insinuation. I do not believe I radically misinterpreted them – and if I did, then their rhetoric was misleading.

Geoff Budlender

I also contend that I did not misquote Geoff Budlender. If you recall, he broke his speech into 5 discrete observations. Due to the space limitations of my report I was not able to list them. I was quoting from point number four. As I remember (and here I am paraphrasing from my transcript, not quoting):

  1. The first observation was the need to move “beyond the blame game”.
  2. The second was that the Israelis needed to realise that the cost of maintaining control over the area will be enormous – on an economic but also on a human level.
  3. The third was that he sees little hope for the situation than there was for South Africans living under Apartheid, because the imbalance of power is so profound and the people involved have so little prospect of changing things (Fared returned to this point in the Q&A session by talking about the way that Palestinian leadership had been decimated).
  4. The fourth was … and this is where you disagree with me … that he is depressed by the fact that (because of point three above) that nothing short of “cataclysmic violence” (his phrase) will displace Israeli power – which is terrifying “for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and for all of us”. I was not intending to say that Budlender condoned violence in any way (that would be ridiculous to argue about a man like Geoff Budlender). But he did state it as though it were a prediction.
  5. His final point was that it was encouraging to meet Palestinians and Israelis who were working together in the midst of this difficult circumstance.

Budlender did make the point that he saw little hope for the situation, and that he predicted that it would take “cataclysmic violence” to displace Israeli power. It remains my opinion that this pessimistic position is unhelpful, and I would have wished him to offer more thoughtful suggestions for what can be done.

It was impossible, within the word-limit of the article, to fully report on your description of the difficulties for Palestinians within the West Bank, and I am glad that you have done so in your comments. I agree that the reality of life under Israeli military rule in the West Bank urgently needs to be addressed. I would even have liked to have added to your description the fact that the defence barrier is impacting negatively on the environment (blocking natural rainflow and causing springs to dry up) which impacts directly on Palestinian farmers. I also agree with you that the Israeli settlements are largely motivated by a settler ideology and should be removed. Israel’s government has had an ambiguous relationship with these settlements; and has not reacted decisively enough against them.

What I object to is not the accuracy of your reporting or your sincere empathy for the immense difficulties that the Palestinians are facing. Rather it is the nature of your rhetoric. I tried to explain my position on this as best I could. You have every right to be angry about my typo and I will do my best to rectify that error. However, you have not convinced me that I am wrong about my principle point.

Perhaps if I outline my personal experience of the Israel-Palestine issue my opinion will make more sense to you. I too entered UCT considering Israel an oppressive Apartheid state. The left-wing media I had spent my teenage years devouring had reinforced this caricature over and over again, and I never questioned it. I have been to endless talks during my time at University that reinforced this opinion dogmatically. If I had listened to this talk only a few months ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly with the most extreme opinions expressed by Fared and Pregs.

Recently I have been forced to question my assumptions. I have realised that even information from the most well-meaning humanitarian factions can be one-sided. I spent a month in Israel in June and saw the West Bank for myself. I met settlers and Palestinians; ultra-orthodox Haredis and coalition peace groups. I participated in a march against the occupation. What I was exposed to was a plethora of opinions that made all that I had heard in South African human-rights circles seem worryingly blinkered. This discovery has been devastating for me, and disillusioning. It is much more comforting to believe in David and Goliath stories than in a muddled situation where many sides have legitimate, competing claims.

Doron, I am glad that you are doing all you can to aid the peace process. I only wish that, as a young person wanting to be shaped into a moral actor in the world, I had been exposed to balanced, honest accounts during my time at UCT. In 4 years here I had never heard a single word in defence of Israel’s actions. Even though many of them have been wrong, some of them have been understandable. This was essentially my issue. If in the process I offended you, I apologise.

Sam Beckbessinger is completing her BA (Honours) in English literature at the University of Cape Town.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gevisser & Feinstein in conversation at the Book Fair

The Cape Town International Book Fair that took place in June saw an array of authors talking about their work and some of the problems afflicting our ever-changing society. Of particular interest was a 'conversation' between Mark Gevisser, biographer of President Thabo Mbeki (click for a writer profile and a my review of The Dream Deferred), and Andrew Feinstein, former ANC MP and author of the arms deal expose After the Party.

I recorded and transcribed the session for the purposes of disseminating what was a thoroughly engaging hour of discussion. It was a grueling process and took me quite a while, but I did a little each day and got through it. The end result is quite incisive. You can find the links to my google.doc transcript as well as the audio file on the Internet Archive below:

Each author presented his ideas and then interrogated the views of his counterpart in an informal exchange, with a few questions at the end. The discussion ranged widely from the methodological constraints of writing biography, to the legacy of the arms deal, the prosecution of Zuma, and how the ANC is less a political party than a political family (with all of the passions and failings that families have to endure).

Mark Gevisser

Below are some of the best extracts from both speakers. Gevisser on the deferred dreams of a president and a nation unable to realize its potential:

"I would be lying if I said I could have predicted that Mbeki was going to stand at Polokwane, lose and all the wheels would then come off his legacy and his presidency. No, I didn’t predict that; but I certainly knew that the dream would remain deferred one way or the other, which is why I chose to call my book The Dream Deferred. I think the dream remains deferred for him of being accepted and loved as a leader who has lost the faith of people. Certainly the dream remains deferred for us as South Africans wanting a solution. What I tried to do with the title The Dream Deferred was to say, if you think of dreams that can be won, if you think of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, you’re always going to be disappointed.


It’s what happens in a difficult, deeply divided developing society where there are no easy resolutions, where there is never a kind of victory, conclusion, arrival - there’s just always a road along which we have to travel.

The road happens to be particularly bumpy at the moment and I think the road was always going to be bumpy, whether Mbeki had won or lost at Polokwane. Perhaps it’s a little bit bumpier than I and most of us anticipated but its one particular road that’s never going to be smooth given the society we live in."

Feinstein considered how the arms deal has sullied the ruling party, been investigated inadequately and prosecuted without the proper oversight. His proposed solution is a conditional amnesty for those implicated in corrupt activities in the procurement process, something which has since gained credence among some circles in the ANC (although without the conditional part):
"In terms of the issue of the amnesty, I feel very strongly that ideally what the country requires, because I do feel that the country is in need of almost a moral regeneration, a moral revival and an incredibly good starting point for that would be a concrete instance of an unfettered judicial and expert inquiry into the arms deal and exactly what happened. And that if prosecutions follow from that so be it.

Now the reality is that politically the chances of that happening are virtually zero. So then the option of the amnesty comes up. Now, I feel that what we as South African citizens would require from an amnesty is three crucial things.

  1. The first is that anybody seeking amnesty had to disclose fully their involvement in the arms deal. And that would require that the amnesty process had a very effective investigative dimension to it.
  1. The second would be that any ill-gotten gains would have to be returned to the fiscus.
  1. And the third would need be that anybody who admitted to benefiting inappropriately from the arms deal would have to leave public office if they were in public office now, and would not be able to stand for public office in the future which would obviously undermine the strategy of the new hard line.

Those would be the only conditions as far as I am concerned that would I think will make an amnesty acceptable."

Gevisser often uses the literary allusion of portraying Mbeki as an embodiment of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. His disconnectedness and his refusal to bow to the will of the mob (to quote Coriolanus, "play the man I am") are all features of Mbeki's personality. As the President's biographer, Gevisser talked about his relationship to this very complex man and how as a writer he understood or responded to some of the Mbeki's questionable behaviour:

"I’m often asked about whether I like Thabo Mbeki and if I did like him, do I dislike him now and do I feel betrayed by him or am I hurt by him? And my answer is that from twenty years of being a journalist to write political profiles and work as a biographical journalist even though I’m not a therapist and I’m not a mental health professional I feel like there’s an approach I had to my subjects.

Even if I spend eight years working on him rather than just a week working on him – which is what I was doing when I was doing my Mail & Guardian profiles - is that there is a way that you establish, for want of a better word, “professional empathy”. I do feel that, I don’t hang out with these people, I don’t drink with them, I don’t socialize with them, I don’t sleep with them – I write about them. I reserve strong emotions of love and hate for the people in my personal life. I had to keep on doing that to keep my sanity.

That being said, for the last eight years I’ve had a photograph of Thabo Mbeki on his wedding day, with his beautiful bride and this sort of lovely open handsome smile looking down at me as I sit at my computer. The book came out at the same time as we moved and there was this wonderful feeling of liberation in taking that poster down and deciding not to put it back up again in my new home. There was a feeling of despair once I realized that it was still there and even though he was not there as the poster, I’m still involved with him, I still had to carry on writing about him and his story’s not over. You know I live in this world and I’m not immune to the anger that so many people are feeling towards Thabo Mbeki and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a lot of that anger myself. As a biographer I can’t write about it, but perhaps as a political commentator I can and will.

My anger at his deciding to stand at Polokwane was profound. I thought it hurt his own legacy because I believe there is a lot of that legacy that is worth celebrating and we can talk about that if we want to. I think the way he destroyed his own legacy by deciding to stand against Jacob Zuma in Polokwane and therefore preventing the space for another viable candidate to stand I think it made me very, very cross.

It made me very, very cross that he lied in the Selebi-Pikoli incident. But despite that anger I think one of the things that I’m trying to do - I am conscious as Mbeki’s biographer how we as a society are creating Thabo Mbeki as some sort of lighting rod for all our anger and frustration and feelings of betrayal. Quite frankly I think that is very unhealthy."

Andrew Feinstein

Feinstein's appraisal of Thabo Mbeki's time in office was equally, if not more, scathing. In response to a question about Mbeki's alleged complicity in the arms deal, he gave an indication of the depth of Mbeki's involvement, if not for his personal enrichment then for the benefit of the party he led:

"First of all one has to ask the question: is he complicit? My answer clearly in my book and in the statements that I have made subsequently I would suggest yes.

First as chairperson of the ministers’ subcommittee that made all of the decisions that undermined the procurement process quite fundamentally so landing up with a jet from BAE in the United Kingdom that the Air Force said they would only accept if the politicians forced them to buy it – and that was two and a half times the cost of the jet that they actually wanted to buy and that met their technical needs which the BAE jet, by their own admission, never had.

Secondly, I think he was complicit in the cover up, from destroying the public accounts committee, as a non-partisan body and apex of the accountability process, to engaging in - I believe unconstitutionally - the investigators after excluding Judge Heath and telling them exactly who and what they could and could not investigate in relation to the arms deal. And then I also believe that the he was either directly involved in soliciting money for the ANC or condoning the solicitation of money for the ANC from the successful bidders. Which in effect amounts to saying “If you give us money we will give you these multi-billion dollar contracts.” So using the state coffers to procure reward for you political party.

I also argued in the book that I didn’t think, or I didn’t see any evidence, that Mbeki had personally benefited from the arms deal and I made the case that that wasn’t a motive that interested him. Obviously with the book coming out subsequent to Polokwane there were claims within the national executive committee that possibly he did. This is one of the big un-answered questions that needs to be further explored and investigated."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Doron Isaacs - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This article is a response to Samantha Beckbessinger's August 4th piece 'A weak debate' and forms part of the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.

Misrepresenting the facts

By Doron Isaacs

Sam Beckbessinger’s article on the UCT report-back by members of the recent delegation of South African human rights leaders to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is familiar: like most apologia for oppression, it steers well clear of political reality and nit-picks over semantics.

That I will come to, but first a more serious issue must be dealt with: that a good proportion of the reporting is completely false. Corrections must be made to basic errors of fact.

  • Beckbessinger writes that all four speakers alleged that “the situation arose from a sinister plot to exterminate the Palestinians.” That is a bizarre fabrication – nobody suggested that.
  • It is more serious to misquote someone like Geoff Budlender, South Africa’s best human rights lawyer and current Chair of the UCT Senate. Beckbessinger claims him to have said that “only cataclysmic violence will displace Israeli power, terrifying as this is for all of us”. That quote seems to imply that Geoff has resigned himself to accepting such violence. He simply did not say that. In different words he spoke of cataclysmic violence to make what seemed like two obvious points: firstly, that all peaceful means of ending the occupation must be urgently used to obviate the need for any violence, and secondly, that when politics fails, it creates a mental vacuum in which violence seduces the oppressed. He specifically said that violence was not a tenable strategy.
  • Beckbessinger writes: “Isaacs went a step further than this, claiming that the Occupation mimics the violence of the Holocaust.” Seriously, you can’t just go around inventing quotes like that. I would suggest the editor of this blog to familiarise himself with this country’s law of defamation before publishing such fantastical journalism.

I have welcomed a great deal of the criticism that has been leveled at the delegation. It has created space for debate and differences of politics. It is tempting not to engage with gutter reporting, but I will spend some time replying to what appear to be the premises of Beckbessinger’s opposition to the group.

Firstly she contends that we have “no appreciation for the complexity of the conflict’s political history.” She shows her own appreciation for this complexity by making the claim that the “system of control over the area was developed as a response to persistent security threats to Israel.” What I tried to convey in my brief remarks at UCT is that the occupation has little to do with Israel’s security. This has been a crushing realisation for me, a person who has spent his entire life invested in the difficulties of Israel.

I will offer just one example. It concerns a very simple thing: How people
in the West Bank move from place to place. There are 2,5 million Palestinians in the West Bank[1] and 462,000 Jewish settlers.[2] Of these settlers, 271,400 live in the West Bank proper beyond the municipal border of East Jerusalem.[3] There are 36 permanent checkpoints that scrutinize Palestinian cars entering Israel.[4] But besides the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, as of May 2008, the Israeli army had 63 permanent checkpoints within the West Bank[5]. According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there was an average of 90 additional flying checkpoints – checkpoints not fixed in one place – within the West Bank. These present a potential inconvenience to the West Bank Jewish settlers. There are about 130 settlements the Israeli government considers legal and 105 it considers illegal, all clearly illegal in terms of international law: it is illegal to settle a civilian population in occupied territory.

To allow for the free movement of Jewish settlers within the West Bank, Israel is developing an entirely separate road system. Israeli roads are being built to connect settlements and bypass Palestinian villages and town – in official documents these are called “fabric of life” roads. But duplicating every road is impossible, so many roads previously used by both Israelis and Palestinians are now for Israelis only. The military governor calls these “sterile” roads. As one drives through the West Bank one sees village after village having had its road access – which is many cases dates back centuries - blocked by huge piles of earth. In March 2008 there were 512 physical obstructions in the West Bank.[6] People must take a much longer route, walk on foot, or simply accept that they do not have the right to travel.[7] Again, this has precious little to with protecting Israel. It is for the advantage of the Israeli civilian population living in occupied territory in violation of international law.

To move between villages and areas requires permits. One needs a permit for a car and for yourself. If you ride a horse you need a permit for your horse. If you are a farmer whose grapevines have been cut off by the Separation Barrier, you need a permit to tend to them. Even so this permit will permit you 24 days access per year because this is what Israeli agronomy experts have determined is needed to harvest grapes.

There are many other examples. Settler and Palestinian water networks and electricity grids are being separated, with settlers receiving more power and water per person. There are different legal systems: If a settler and a Palestinian commit the same crime against the same person in the same place they will be tried in two different courts under two different and unequal bodies of law.

What I am describing is happening to a large extent on the east of the Separation Barrier – the area designated, even in the most conservative Israeli peace proposals, as land for a Palestinian state, alongside Israel. The settlements will soon have made that impossible, if they haven’t already. Far from providing security for Israel, the Israeli occupation presence in the West Bank is a great threat to Israel’s viability.

Israel claims that its occupation of the West Bank is driven by security imperatives. The reality is that much of it is in service of an ideological settler project. Most people in Israel do not support this project but, as the former Deputy Attorney General of Israel, Talia Sasson, told us, the state has funded it overtly and tacitly throughout (partly due to Israel’s fractional political system.)

None of this, of course, excuses Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians. At UCT I was very emphatic in condemning this. I said:

“The armed struggle, particularly violence against civilians, has been a disaster for Palestinians. It has been a politically bankrupt strategy that has come at a terrible moral cost. As Nathan Geffen said on Monday night in Bokaap, the net effect of suicide bombing has been to kill off the once-vibrant Israeli peace camp, and to strengthen the right around the world.

… it is wrong, and a political failure.

Domination must be erased, not replaced by a new domination of the dominated. The Palestinian freedom struggle must not simply be against the occupation, it must be a moral alternative to it. If that were the case many more people, including Jewish people around the world, would find it easier to support.“

The prevailing wisdom in Jewish circles is that present-day terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians have a history that pre-dates the occupation. It is true that Jews and Arabs have clashed violently since the early days of Zionism, but it is a sobering fact that the first suicide bombing in Israel was in the mid-90s, after Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish zealot, murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The other received wisdom is that the territories currently occupied by Israel were the undesired spoils of a defensive war in 1967. Israeli historians have now seriously undermined that claim. Tom Segev, foremost among Israel’s historians, in his recent book 1967: Israel, The War, and the year that Transformed the Middle East (New York: Metropolitan, 2005) writes as follows:

“There was indeed no justification for the panic that preceded the war, nor for the euphoria that took hold after it…”[8]

“Three days after the war, [Minister of Defense Moshe] Dayan went before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and reiterated his claim that Eshkol’s government had caused war to break out by exacerbating tensions with Syria.”[9]

“Before the first anniversary of the war, the Prime Minister’s office published another booklet in the series “Know What to Sat”, which included the following statement: “The fact is that until this day no Arab ruler has shown a willingness to reach a peace treaty with Israel.” This was not so: Nasser offered at least a “nonbelligerency” agreement , and Hussein had offered a peace accord.”[10]

These are not quotes taken out of context, they are fragments of a sustained argument that Israel went to war by choice, without clear objectives, and subsequently allowed national pride and hubris to result in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It must be acknowledged, as Segev does, that Israel was not single-handedly capable of putting an end to the conflict over Palestine, and that Palestinian obduracy played a significant role.[11] But Segev’s critique of Prime Minister Eshkol and Defense Minister Dayan is far more withering:

“Lacking vision, courage, and compassion, captivated by the hallucinations of victory, they never accepted Israel’s role in the Palestinian tragedy, or perhaps they simply did not have the courage to admit it; this was probably the main inhibition. And perhaps they truly believed that one day they would succeed in getting rid of them.”[12]

Beckbessinger allows that “something needs to be done to alleviate the human rights abuses in the Occupied West Bank”. What will put an end to these abuses? Violence against Israeli civilians is not a moral or strategic option. Industrial action by Palestinian workers is hard to foresee because the globalised labour market has partly replaced them with illegal migrants from the far east. What remains then? Simply a peaceful and moral politics that creates a groundswell of support for human rights groups in Israel and Palestine and pushes back the ongoing deepening of the occupation. This is exactly the kind of politics with which the recent delegation is engaged.


Doron Isaacs studied at UCT. He is Coordinator of Equal Education and co-organised the recent SA Human Rights Delegation to Israel & the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For more info visit

[1] The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

[2] Btselem (

[3] Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

[4] Btselem (

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] It is technically incorrect to call these roads Israeli-only roads. In some ways it is more correct to say Jew-only roads. On the roads there are large yellow signs erected in terms of the law. They say: This road can only be used by (1) an Israeli citizen (2) a person with a permit to use that road (3) a person who entered Israel on a tourist visa or (4) anyone who could become an Israeli citizen under the law of return, i.e. all Jews in the world. (The 1 million Arab citizens of Israel do fall into the first category, and technically, Palestinians can acquire permits, but few do.)

[8] Segev 1967 at 16.

[9] Segev 1967 at 414.

[10] Segev 1967 p 563.

[11] Segev 1967 p 522.

[12] Segev 1967 p 542.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Book Review: The Clash of Civilizations

The world according to uncle Sam

The Clash of Civilisations

Samuel P. Huntington

Simon & Schuster (1997), 367 p.

In 1993 the political science journal Foreign Affairs published what was to be its most contested and controversial essay since WWII. The paper (the title of which was initially suffixed with a question mark, possibly to indicate uncertainty or speculation) proposed a new paradigm with which to understand global conflict. In the post-Cold War world, after the great battle of ideologies, there shall be a re-assertion of cultural and religious identity and the ultimate clash of civilisations will result.

This book is the response to the deluge of criticism that Huntington's essay evoked. The core theory is now expanded to take in more case studies and to present further evidence to advance his cause. It is a deeply conservative argument which sees scholarship not as an attempt to gain insight into the workings of our world, but as a programme of action for US securocrats and policy makers to reassert Western hegemony with even more vigour than they have done in the past.

Huntington’s division of the world into seven or eight neat cultural blocs belies the complexities of these societies and how they conflict. The ‘civilisational clash’ thesis ignores the interplay of ideologies and material conditions which often serve as the tinder for these seemingly inevitable fires. At its core, the work is a rejection of universal humanism and a study in the short-sightedness of the Neo-Conservative movement.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Samantha Beckbessinger - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This is the fourth in the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.

A weak debate

Towards the end of July a group of four representatives from the self-appointed “Human Rights Delegation to Israel” spoke to a group of UCT students about their experiences. The delgation had consisted of 25 activist veterans: notably Zackie Achmat (TAC), Edwin Cameron and Dennis Davis (Justices of the Supreme Court), Mondli Makhanya (editor of the Sunday Times), Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge (ex-Deputy Minister of Health) and Johnny Steinberg (author). An impressive list. They had spent a week in the West Bank, meeting with Israeli-Palestinian coalition groups, and were united around the premise that the Occupation by Israel of the West Bank is condemnable and should be ended.

However, listening to the four representatives – initiator of the Equal Education campaign and former head of Habonim Doron Isaacs, Professor of Contemporary Islam at Harvard University Farid Esack, prominent advocate Geoff Budlender, and gender activist and former ANC-MP Pregs Govender – I came away not with the renewed sense of ethical certainty that I had been expecting, but rather with a small insight into why the Israel-Palestine dialogues in Cape Town have been so fruitless.

For four so intelligent, socially-committed people, the speakers disappointed me by speaking in vague moralistic aphorisms with no appreciation for the complexity of the conflict’s political history. Although I wholeheartedly agree that the Occupation of the West Bank is infringing upon human rights and should be ended, it is not historically accurate to talk as though the situation arose from a sinister plot to exterminate the Palestinians – as all of the speakers, to varying degrees, suggested it is.

Doron Isaacs

Isaacs (by far the most well-informed speaker) began the discussion by detailing the difficulties that life in the West Bank poses to Palestinians; specifically those that curtail free movement such as the separate road system, checkpoints, permits and separation barrier.

These grievances are legitimate, but Doron weakened his argument by obscuring the fact that the system of control over the area was developed as a response to persistent security threats to Israel. For instance, separate road systems were only proposed after months of attacks on Israeli cars.

I was saddened by Doron’s one-sided approach because I agree with him in essence. But resisting the Occupation does not have to entail caricaturing Israel as an ugly schoolyard bully. The Jewish community has no incentive to support the ending of the Occupation if the people arguing for it take no stock of the Israeli point of view and refuse to acknowledge the sacrifices it will entail.

Geoff Budlender

The other three speakers were even more disappointing. Budlender, who has so thoughtfully championed the causes of the oppressed in South Africa, disengaged himself from the issue by saying that the Occupation was “worse than anything [he]’d ever seen” and that he saw no hope for peace, worryingly claiming that “only cataclysmic violence will displace Israeli power, terrifying as this is for all of us”.

All of the speakers used the analogy of Apartheid to condemn the occupation, but used this as an emotional pejorative rather than as a useful site to explore the political realities at play. Govender and Isaacs went a step further than this, claiming that the Occupation mimics the violence of the Holocaust. Both speakers spoke about the “manipulation of memory” at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and their speeches soon degenerated into shocking allegations that they provided no evidence for (“children tied to Israeli jeeps as human shields”) and, in the case of Fared, an argument that Israel as a Jewish state has no right to exist at all (although a Palestinian state, which would similarly be based upon ethnicity, does).

Pregs Govender

Even though I believe that these arguments are wrong. I do believe that they can have a place in social dialogue. However, as a group that has the power to advise politicians, the Human Rights Delegation to Israel had a responsibility to present fair, thoughtful suggestions on how to move beyond the conflict. This badly-informed session of Israel-bashing was certainly not that.

Something needs to be done to alleviate the human rights abuses in the Occupied West Bank, and one of the first steps in that process should be the withdrawal of Israeli military control and the removal of the settlements. Discussions that see the situation in its honest complexity, rather than as a simplified Lord of the Rings battle between a doomed group of Palestinian elves and a horde of Israeli orcs, are where that process will begin.

Samantha Beckbessinger is completing her BA Honours in English Literature at the University of Cape Town.