Thursday, October 30, 2008

Feedback: Kader Asmal - Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture

Kader Asmal.

The University of Johannesburg on Tuesday evening (28 Oct '08) hosted Prof Kader Asmal, who delivered this year's Helen Joesph Memorial Lecture entitled "Law, morality and ethics in public life in South Africa" (PDF).

Struggling through ill-health, Asmal raised concerns about the extent of public deliberation in the country. Pointing to some notable erosions in the quality of the national political life, he argued that that politics and morality have become divorced from one another.

The following paragraph illustrates some of Asmal's reservations about the current trajectory of the ANC and the heated rhetoric of the Zuma-Mbeki contest. Participatory democracy, he said, is about more than merely the indexes of governance that you meet, but rather the collective ideals that we set for ourselves as a society. We are clearly failing to articulate and enact these ideals:
"It seems to me that we need to revisit our views on the role of ethics and morality in public life as we approach an unprecedented level of upheaval in our political landscape which offers both threats and opportunities. But we will only benefit from these events if we do not fall into the trap of personality politics but actually ask ourselves profound questions about what challenges these events pose to our values and our views and what principled positions we wish to adopt in response to ensure that our journey as a young democracy continues to evolve on the basis of sound practices. And our questions must move beyond individuals, institutions and statutes if we are to make real progress and not simply tick another box on an institutional matrix of how we may be performing." [p.2]

One of the revelations of the evening was Asmal's disapproval of the dissolution of the Scorpions (DSO), the elite anti-corruption law enforcement agency.

"Who can deny that the unseemly sight of travel-voucher scams has denuded our Parliament of its reputation and the credibility of every single member who is tarred with the brush of the behaviour of the institution in its latest actions to try and settle the debt for liquidators at taxpayers’ expense?" [p.3]

The Prof intimated that it was this which prompted him to resign from Parliament in a gesture of protest:

"A few months ago we had the burning question as to whether Members of Parliament implicated in ‘Travelgate’ should be allowed to vote on the legislation effectively disbanding the Scorpions. Given that their ‘interest’ in the matter was not strictly speaking financial, though one could convincingly argue that it was, it became a very real possibility that they would be voting on the amendments without having to either declare their interests or in fact recuse themselves from voting. [p.4]

"What values are we inculcating in public life when we allow the arms deal to be an albatross around the neck of one of our continent’s most hopeful stories of transition and possibly, at a global level, of harmony and unity of purpose amidst diversity and challenge? The ominous cloud of the arms deal continues to hang over individuals and institutions alike permanently reminding us of the risks to our societal fabric posed by an absence of ethics, morals and principles in public life." [4]

Asmal also voiced his disgust over the bout of xenophobic violence in May and urged the government to open a commission of enquiry into the matter, "whose very existence" he explained, "would play an educational role". The ANC veteran also cautioned that the incitements to violence displayed by the Youth League and others could pose a threat to the constitutional order.

As an example of the dissonance between the codified regulations and the actual practice of ethical governance, Asmal drew on the example of the Reserve Bank Governor's latest salary hike and the bulging pay-packets of the Eskom board members. Although not legally proscribed, such actions are insensitive to those poor people who live frugally under an inflation rate of between 3-6%.

Asmal spoke movingly of the duty of leaders towards those who have allowed them the privilege of governing and the responsibility that this entails. The passage below is a neat synthesis of his message:

"We need to launch a clarion call that will compel us to reclaim the struggle’s moral just cause that the people come before the personal, that actions must speak louder than our words and that we will always treasure the noble honour to be servant leaders and not leaders who serve ourselves." [p.9]

Thank you to Asmal for giving this lecture under trying circumstances; QPQ wishes the Professor a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Forum: Is our freedom of speech in danger?

Click to enlarge.

Meet The Press

At its Polokwane conference, the ANC adopted a resolution to create a media tribunal, to which public complaints can be made. Will it be used to restrict our freedom of speech, or is it just part of the pre-election hype?

"Meet the Press" is a new public forum hosted by The Weekender and the University of Johannesburg. It will bring together national media personalities who will debate issues of the day with some of our top politicians.

Join us in what promises to be an intriguing debate.

  • Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu general secretary
  • Jessie Duarte, African National Congress spokesperson
  • Karima Brown, Business Day political editor
  • Stephen Grootes, Talk Radio 702 political reporter
  • Prof Adam Habib, University of Johannesburg deputy vice chancellor will facilitate the debate and let you have your say.

WHERE: Arts Centre Auditorium, University of Johannesburg, Kingsway Campus,
Cnr Kingsway & University Rd, Aukland Park.
WHEN: Wednesday, November 12, 2008
TIME: 6:00 for 6:30 pm
RSVP: Lucille Smith by November 11, 2008
on or 011 280 3652


I have put together a list of links on or by each speaker on the freedom of expression issue:

  • 'Vavi defends "shoot and kill" for Zuma remarks.'
  • Duarte: 'freedom of the media in South Africa today was undermined not by the state but by commercial interests'.
  • Brown's muzzling during the SABC blacklisting saga.
  • Grootes interviews Dario Milo about the far-reaching implications of the Protection of Information Bill.
  • Habib is defended by the American Civil Liberties Union against ideological exclusion by the Department of Homeland Security, USA.

Feedback: Four inconvenient truths about India's economic growth


Last week (23 Oct '08) Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist at the World Bank for Africa and the global economy gave a seminar at Wits in which he attempted to debunk some of the popular thinking about India's upward march of economic progress. There are four myths or - to use Al Gore's popular parlance - 'inconvenient truths' about this emerging power that need to be re-evaluated.

Inconvenient Truth #1:
Growth accelerated ten years before the reforms

In 1991, under the stewardship of then finance minister (and now PM) Manmohan Singh import licenses, capital controls, tariffs and quotas were all systematically reduced. In the grand narrative of "India Shining" this was the moment when the theory of trade liberalisation took root and the country was allowed to fulfill its true potential.

However, the not-so-convenient truth for many is that this growth actually took place before the reforms were initiated. The period under Indira Gandhi was one of socialist rhetoric, big state involvement in the economy, exchange controls, etc. But under her son Rajiv Gandhi, there was a change in attitude toward the domestic private sector in the early 1980s.

A key distinction was that the 1980s were pro-business rather than pro-competition as it was later in the 1990s. But ultimately the change in approach was a trend and not a schismatic moment.

However, Devarajan stated that India "got lucky" with the 1991 crisis which forced further reforms. The liberalisation agenda had already begun under Rajiv Gandhi but the crisis galvanised the Congress administration to aggressively reduce trade tariffs and lower regulation. This momentum subsequently carried India to the levels that we see today. Simply, reforms helped accelerate and consolidate a process that had already been under way for years.

IT#2: India grew despite high fiscal deficits

Although the World Bank and the IMF often insist on a 3% fiscal deficit, Devarajan argued that what many people don't know is that the major reforms actually resulted in a huge revenue loss after 1991 in terms of customs, excise and financial repression taxes, etc.

Add this to high interest payments, (and not high expenditures on infrastructure and public works), and you have stratospheric deficits. In this sense, Devarjaan noted, capital expenditures actually fell.

He went on to state that the very factors that contributed to high deficits, plus lower entry barriers have increased competition and hardened budgets for firms and banks. Now you have no more reckless spending.

So another myth is broken. You can have growth with a large fiscal deficit. Said Devarajan: "If some small African country was running at 6% the IMF task teams would have been crawling all over the place!" Not so in India.

IT#3: India is not growing - the Western and Southern states are

It is not the whole country but rather already prosperous states like Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat that are enjoying the fruits of prosperity. Other states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh are experiencing significantly lower, if any, improvements in their economic standing. "This is no hair-splitting issue. We're talking about five, six hundred million people. That's almost the size of Africa." he said "I mean UP has a population of 160 million. That's a lot of people".

A big drag on these states' growth has been the failure of agriculture. Consider that today the farming sector involves some 100 million people. The much celebrated IT workers of the outsourcing revolution, the ones whom Thomas Friedman argues are making the world 'flat' are a meager 1 million individuals. Both groups contribute the same amount to the gross domestic product.

Why, Shanta asked, has agriculture failed during this period of phenomenal economic growth? Primarily, and ironically, it's because of subsidies. Farm subsidies for electricity and water mean that prices for these resources are not a consideration for farmers who suffer no sanction for inefficient work. For instance, unlimited electricity supply means that farmers run their pumps for too long, stretching the power grid to its limits and also reducing the water table. This is an expensive burden on state revenue, sometimes amounting to over 1% of GDP. The end result is that nobody gets the so-called free power as the infrastructure to provide it is collapsing.

There is also no political will to rectify this as any Chief Minister who tries will invariably get voted out of office. The result is a classic case of unintended consequences where a well meaning policy to help the poor actually results in squandering and waste. Because of this, Indian agriculture is now lagging behind China and even Bangladesh in its production targets.

India also has a highly regulated labour market where it can take many years of severance pay to fire a worker and very harsh punitive measures for non-compliance. In the labour courts of India there are some 533 000 cases pending with 28 000 having been in place for over a decade.

Whilst acknowledging the benefits of trade unions and workers rights, Shanta pleaded with India to create a more elastic labour force as the status quo was leading to a reduction in productivity and entrepreneurial activity. Manufacturing has also suffered under these conditions and India's informal economy is disproportionately high.

IT#4: Despite growth, services are getting worse

Devarajan noted that in several critical areas India's ability to cater to the basic needs of its people was declining: water distribution, adequate standards of education, and simple health provisions such as immunisations. He gave some bleak figures reflecting the state of public welfare in the country and across most indexes (e.g. teacher & doctor absenteeism) the government was mostly doing very badly.

Devarajan explained that this was attributable to a dysfunctional matrix of politics, patronage and poor network services. Those connected to state utilities are paying artificially reduced tariffs (which benefits them in the short term). However, this affects the quality of the service and ends up not helping the poor population who aren't connected to the system and who actually need it the more than the middle-income farmers. The unconnected group have to pay vastly inflated prices for water from private contractors who deliver it in large trucks. Clearly this is far more wasteful. One of Shanta's graphs showed an almost perfect correspondence between a rise in subsidies and a dip in public investment.


This was a wonderful seminar with some passionate contributions from the audience afterward. Thank you to the Centre for India Studies in Africa for organising it and everyone who attended - Dr. Shanta Devarajan most of all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Seminar: Centre for Indian Studies in Africa

I will be attending this seminar tomorrow afternoon. My dissertation was on Indian politics, albeit on a earlier, poorer era, but I am nevertheless fascinated by the topic. (I also spent 3 months touring the country in my heyday).

Two pertinent questions:
  • Will the global financial crisis put a halt on India's supernatural growth? AND
  • Is India's growth creating sustainable wealth for the society as a whole or merely the few?

Two related but tangential points:
  • Spare a thought for steel baron Lakshmi Mittal who recently lost £16 billion of his £33.24 billion fortune due to the Credit Crunch. The ArcelorMittal chairman is in a lot of pooh, but not as much as the rural peasants whose food security is looking rather perilous.
  • India is planning its first lunar mission. The 21st Century space race is heating up! If the train system is anything to go by, it will work really well, but never be on time! [Hat-tip to Irreverance.]


The Centre for Indian Studies in Africa invites you to a seminar:

"Four inconvenient truths about India's economic growth"

Shanta Devarajan

Shanta Devarajan is currently the World Bank Chief Economist for Africa. He was previously the Chief Economist for the Bank’s South Asia region and for its Human Development Network. He was the director of the World Development Report 2004, Making Services Work for Poor People.

TIME: 1 - 2.15 pm, Thursday 23 October 2008.
WHERE: Borkum Hare Room, 1st floor, New Commerce Building
West Campus, Wits University

All welcome.
Visitor parking available next to the Tower of Light.
For more information: Marie 011-339-1757

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cape Town Globalist on the stands


Fans of quality student journalism need look no further than Volume 3, Issue 2 of The Cape Town Globalist, a glossy current affairs publication available for free on UCT campus and online.

This edition covers the period October 2008 to April 2009. Now you might be thinking that is a trifle long for a magazine, but make no mistake, this is no usual varsity rag. There is a strong focus on feature writing, or 'narrative non-fiction' in the Globalist with writers spending many weeks and months researching and fine-tuning their work. The result: a daring and fluently written series of articles that go beyond the usual diet of daily news fodder.

Tatenda Goredema and Anine Kriegler examine contrarian views among SA students towards Barack Obama, the US Democratic Presidential nominee
in 'Obama is a faint hope for Africa'. The writers look at Obama's position on foreign policy and the financial crisis and what his racial identity means for the continent of his origin.
Obama does make some promising noises about providing eligible African countries with greater access to the US market. He has suggested extending the product list covered by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, for example. He has also promised to double foreign assistance spending, although this was before the recent financial services crisis sent the US and world markets reeling.

It is less likely now than ever that even a strongly Democrat Congress would approve sending billions of dollars to Africa when major shifts in fiscal policy are clearly required at home. Strangely, the candidates’ development policy proposals seem of little concern to the African and pro-African press that so reveres Obama.

Another noteworthy piece, which I commented on at length, is 'Requim for radicalism' by Sarah Ball. The writer raises concerns over the decline of student radicalism at UCT and juxtaposes this with profiles of several activist and youth groups who are attempting to shake up campus politics.

Given the tumult in South Africa at the moment, I would hardly say that there is a lack of interest in politics among young people. If anything, interest is on the increase. But that is different to there being coherent organisational channels with which to take up one's grievances and create change in one's environment. This was something sorely lacking during my time at UCT and apart from the sterile combination of the ANCYL and DASO, there was little on offer in terms of meaningful political participation.

In this, I agree with the spirit of Ball's piece in its attempt to articulate a new agenda for SA youth. However, I have a few reservations about the chosen groups. A case in point is the section on the Young Communist League:

Speaking in a hush usually reserved for secrets of the most serious variety, Ben Cronin of the Young Communist League shared his optimism for South African youth politics. Confident that the “temporary victory” of neo-liberal politics in the 1990s has come to an end, he says a new space for fringe politics has opened up.

In his mind, fringe movements such as the Young Communist League can only function once the dominant centre has firmly established its position in the political system. In the case of South Africa, the 1990s were unquestionably a teething period for the ANC, who, for this reason, faced little active opposition and answered to minimal dissent from outside parties and organisation. As this period has come to an end and a space for criticism has opened up, opposition parties are able to become increasingly vocal about their differing viewpoints.

To Cronin’s mind, the world is slowly coming to terms with what he sees as the disastrous effects of capitalism. The economic and societal pressures placed on the average global citizen are awakening them to the fact that the current global hegemony is forcing them into an unsustainable lifestyle. The example of Cuba is a source of inspiration, a reminder that the Socialist ideal is not as far removed from the realm of possibility as is commonly believed. Guevara T-shirts and Palestinian scarves are more signs of the youth’s internalisation of radical political ideals than they first seem.

Referring specifically to the above passage, I responded:

The Young Communists aren’t the fringe grouping they make themselves out to be. Although not exercising the same weight as their counterparts at the ANC Youth League, their proximity to the ruling party gives them a high degree of influence (as the orchestrated regicide against Mbeki clearly shows).

I am not convinced by the revolutionary sloganeering as it ignores the incredible power that the alliance wields. The thought that the tripartite alliance was somehow kidnapped by a neo-liberal conspiracy denies the agency available to the movement to make decisions about how best to govern.

In addition, I’m not sure that Cuba is an appropriate model for the type of society we are trying to create in South Africa. In Cuba there is some kind of nominal equality of income and healthcare for all, but media is controlled and freedom of expression, movement and association are severely limited. The Young Communists are really advocating a big interfering state which, given our history, we should be skeptical of.

What we really need are strong institutions to check the excesses of power. Regardless of what policy direction we intend to take, it is the rule of law, accountable leadership and a respectful, non-violent democratic discourse which are far more important to cultivate. Combine these with a vocal and organised civil society movement then we can start to build the type of South Africa we deserve, and not the one that the SACP wants to impose on us.

The Globalist team consists entirely of undergraduates and is headed by Murray Hunter, former editor of Varisty newspaper. Well done to Murray and the team on a fine publication!

Friday, October 17, 2008

CCR seminar: The Global Economic Crisis


This seminar is on in Cape Town. Unfortunately, as I live in Johannesburg I won't be attending. However, if anybody who would like to give me some feedback on the session I would be most interested to hear about it.

The Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) invites you and members of your organisation to the seminar:

“The Global Economic Crisis: Implications
for South Africa and Africa”

The global economic crisis that started several months ago in the United States has played havoc with financial markets. And though the Minister of Finance, Mr Trevor Manuel, has calmed fears of immediate damage to the South African economy, analysts have warned that the impact will be felt in South Africa and Africa sooner or later. This will be the subject of discussion at this seminar.

  • Professor Melvin Ayogu
    Dean, Faculty of Commerce and Professor of Economics
    University of Cape Town


  • Mr Jorge Maia Economist and Head of Research and Information
    Industrial Development Corporation
  • Prof. Sampie Terreblanche Emeritus Professor of Economics University of Stellenbosch

DATE: Wednesday 29 October 2008
TIME: 17H30 to 19H00
VENUE: Centre for the Book, 62 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town
RSVP: Lavenia Benjamin
TEL: (021) 689 1005

Feedback: Is our democracy under threat?

Last Thursday the 9th of October 2008 saw an esteemed panel speaking at the Wits Great Hall on some of the difficulties facing our young democracy. Topics included the status of party politics, the independence of the judiciary and the role of tertiary education institutions in society.
  1. George Bizos – Senior Advocate and Human Rights Lawyer;
  2. Patricia de Lille – Leader of the Independent Democrats;
  3. Prof. Yunus Ballim – Vice Principal and Deputy vice-chancellor;
  4. Prince Mashele – Political Analyst from the Institute of Security Studies;
  5. Gwede Mantashe – ANC Secretary General.


George Bizos

1.) Prof. Tawana Kupe, the invigilator, started the discussion by asking George Bizos about the recent attacks on the judiciary. Is the judiciary under siege or is there justified criticism being leveled against it?

"I believe that we have a legitimate judiciary in a democratic country in which the rule of law prevails.", Bizos said. "Whether the ANC is a threat to democracy. My answer is a qualified 'no'."

Bizos went on to say that the judiciary has largely transformed and that the majority of the judges on the bench today would not have been able to practice under apartheid.

However, he noted that political cases put a lot of strain on the judiciary and that current political cases will inevitably divide people. In this context it is inevitable that "incautious statements" will be made. Bizos referred to one particular instance where a COSATU official in K-ZN stated that "no judge in the country could give Zuma a fair trial."

Citing this example and others, Bizos noted that "young and old" used intemperate language, but subsequently withdrew their statements claiming that they were taken out of context and were actually figurative expressions. This statement elicited much laughter in the Great Hall. Bizos continued by saying that Zwelinzima Vavi came out and stated that the above official's comments weren't reflective of COSATU's position and Kgalema Motlanthe defended the courts even before he assumed the presidency.

Bizos, who acted on many occasions as council to Nelson Mandela, drew on the example set by the former president when he was subpoenaed to appear in court for a case involving the education department. This was the first case that the ANC government lost since coming to power in 1994. Although Madiba's legal advisers told him that he was under no obligation to subject himself to cross-examination he insisted that he go before the court as he wanted to show how not even the president was above the law.

This is a tradition that Mbeki upheld and Bizos hoped would continue under Motlanthe and future ANC Presidents.


Patricia de Lille

2.) Next up was Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats, who spoke broadly about the role of the opposition in a democracy. Even though the opposition are divided there are lots of ways of holding the governing party to account, she claimed in her punchy address.

"I didn't need a million people to support me. I've taken this government to court five times and won." she said, referring to the sovereign power of the Constitution, which she used as her "guideline for all political engagement."

"This country belongs to all of us; not just the ANC. One of the principles we fought for was equality before the law. Comrades who fought in the trenches seem to have forgotten this principle."

She accused the opposition of opportunism in supporting the ANC breakaway, saying that one minute they were bemoaning the ubiquity of parties in the country, the next they were welcoming the new splinter faction.


Yunus Ballim

3.) Prof Yunus Ballim opened by stating that his "point of entry into this discussion is academic freedom and institutional autonomy. I consider a good university to be part of the custodians of democracy. This is a role on par with the judiciary and the free press." In this sense, he said "Threats to higher education amount to threats to democracy."

Prof. Ballim drew attention to three Bills currently undergoing tabling in parliament, one of which being the Higher Education Amendment Bill. These put all manner of restrictions on higher education authorities, restricting academic freedoms and imposing heavy punitive measures for non-compliance.

Ballim attacked the legislation as being the work of naive people and something that the National Party would have been proud to produce, which caused much uncomfortable murmurs in the audience. "This is the stuff of a government that is concerned about the unpredictable nature of democracy. One must ask, is predictability desirability?"

"It is an instrumentalist view of higher education as being in the service of the state. These bills create new problems. These Bills represent an unquestionable shove towards mediocrity." he said.


Prince Mashele

3.) Prince Mashele made the point that democracy is not about replacing Thabo Mbeki with Kgalema Motlanthe. It is bigger than these men and us, he remarked. "It's about the institutions that underpin them. As long as you don't touch the institutions that's fine."

Mashele used the examples of Zimbabwe as well as Kenya to illustrate how fragile democracy can be in the absence of durable institutions. The problem with the Kenyan case, Mashele noted, was that nobody trusted the judiciary. When a simple electoral conflict occurred and the issue was referred to the courts, it was unable to be resolved without the resort to violence.

That is why when people such as Julius Malema or Gwede Mantashe make utterances which are quoted "out of context" potential exists to erode the credibility of public institutions.

Mashele urged South Africans to use their imaginations to avoid future crisis. "I have confidence in South Africans," he smiled "they will tame the vagaries of the irresponsible lovers of power."


Gwede Mantashe

4.) Gwede Mantashe found the forum questions very strange indeed. In the first, 'Are we witnessing a calculated and systematic assault on our democracy?' there is a focus on our democracy. "Who is this our?", he asked. His feeling was that it implicitly excludes the ANC. The second, 'Is institutional independence under threat from the ANC?' and finally 'Or is all this alarmist sensationalism and political hot air in a pre-election year?'

"These questions assume that the ANC poses a threat to democracy rather than a hope. A threat to who?" Mantashe asked. "The conclusion is that it is a threat to the acclaimed custodians of these values." he said, referring to elitist groups who take it upon themselves to speak for the democratic will of the people, to the exclusion of the majority party.

"What are these questions based on? Are they based on facts or impressions? The real question we should be asking is whether the ANC as a liberation movement is under siege."

Rather, Mantashe argued "the ANC will pose the least threat to democracy. We do not want to be spectators in the theatre of change around us."

On the criticism of inner democracy within the organisation, there is no bigger example of this than the project to save the movement from elitist control as what happened in Polokwane, Mantashe said. "To reclaim the movement - that is inner democracy!"

On the hullabaloo caused by his 'counter-revolutionary judiciary' remarks in June, Mantashe countered that the Mail & Guardian journalists had distorted his words to suit their agenda, conflating comments about the opposition with comments on the judges. [For a response to these accusations see the article by Frans Kruger, the M&G's ombud. 'You said it, Mantashe.']

The ANC Secretary General also argued that calls for a direct presidential system to replace the party list system would be a panacea. He cited the example of Zimbabwe, which has a directly elected president (and a man who's been in power forever). Manthashe also remarked how the National Party had gerrymandered the constituency system to secure victory when they didn't enjoy a majority of the electorate's support. He suggested that this should be avoided.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture @ UJ


This lecture will feature Prof. Kader Asmal, a former cabinet minister and prominent intellectual of the ANC discussing 'Law, morality and ethics in public life in South Africa'.

As a legal scholar Asmal should be well positioned to speak clearly about the role of the legal system in our society and the notion of public morality. As an ANC insider it would be of interest to see how he views the party's commitment to upholding the rule of law and the tension between judicial independence and the promotion of a transformation agenda.

Also, as the primary agents of the liberation movement are the ANC still equiped to defend constitutional democracy and is the factionalism that has riven the organisation apart threatening to undermine voices of moderation in its ranks?

A guess as to his topics: the recent attacks on the judiciary, the public utterances of the ANC Youth League vis-a-vis the rise of Jacob Zuma and his high-profile trial last month. Questions about leadership and the strength of our democratic institutions against the excesses of power should also feature highly.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Is our democracy under threat?

Adv. George Bizos

Wits and The Weekender are hosting another debate. I didn't blog about the last one, but this week there are some big names in the ring. The advert below:

Date: Thurs 09 October 2008

Time: 6.00 for 6.30 p.m

Venue: Wits Great Hall, University of the Witwatersrand

Are we witnessing a calculated and systematic assault on our democracy? Is institutional independence under threat from the ANC? Or is all this alarmist sensationalism and political hot air in a pre-election year? Join The Weekender and the Faculty of Humanities at the Wits University in a public debate with some of the top minds in the country:

George Bizos – Senior Advocate and Human Rights Lawyer;
Gwede Mantashe – ANC Secretary General;
Patricia de Lille – Leader of the Independent Democrats;
Prince Mashele – Political Analyst from the Institute of Security Studies;
Prof. Yunus Ballim – Vice Principal and Deputy vice-chancellor.

Contact: Lucille Smith, 011 280 3652,

Was Machel murdered?

Last night's documentary on SABC3, 'The Death of Samora Machel' (see my earlier post) failed to live up to its much-hyped expectations. There is a very serious case for appointing a judicial commission of inquiry into the crash, as Pik Botha suggested: "A Judicial Commission of Inquiry will be able to lay this matter to rest. It will also help in the process of healing between South Africa and Mozambique including the region of southern Africa considering our past."

This is a very brutal past indeed, what with apartheid SA's support of the right-wing rebel group RENAMO which was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, the numerous cross-border raids, not to mention bombings of ANC cadres (the most famous victim being Albie Sachs). This all led up to the humiliating Nkomati Accord in 1984 which Mozambique was strong-armed into signing, effectively forcing them to give up hosting SA liberation groups in exchange for SA withdrawing support for rebel groups (which the latter didn't do). The Machel crash is just one event in a traumatic past shared by the two countries, and stirs obvious mistrust.

Graca and Samora Machel along with P.W. and Pik
Botha at the signing of the Nkomati accord in 1984

However, many questions remain unanswered. For instance, the so called 'mobile beacon' that was allegedly used to deter the plane away from its original destination of Maputu. The only evidence of this is anecdotal. One source, Hans Louw, who may or may not be credible after spending so many years in jail, could be harbouring some kind of agenda. Another source, who was shrouded in darkness, claimed to have driven the operatives to the spot where they were supposed to shoot the plane down with surface-to-air missiles. So was the plane to be shot down or diverted? Would they have planned for both? The weather was also incredibly poor that night and the region has had its fair share of aeronautical accidents.

I for one wouldn't put it past the security forces to have committed such an act, especially considering their less than pious approach to national sovereignty and extra-judicial killing in other parts of the region. However, media coverage of the incident can only reveal so much and is limited in its forensic and investigative powers. These are grave accusations and need to be tested in a thorough way.

A new inquiry would also be far better than the initial one conducted by Judge Cecil Margo, who, as Debora Patta pointed out in 1998, "was an honorary colonel with ties to the old South African Air Force [which] was reason enough for him to excuse himself from the inquiry into the Machel crash."

The camera work on the docci was also notably poor, but overall a decent attempt at trying to open up debate about one of history's more ambiguous moments.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Special Assignment: 'The Death of Samora Machel'

This week on Special Assignment (SABC3, Tuesday @ 21h30) there looks to be a promising investigative feature on the 'Death of Samora Machel'. Machel was the leader of the liberation group, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and the first president of Mozambique following the successful overthrow of Portuguese colonialism in 1975. Machel's plane, theTupolev Tu-134, crashed just inside the South African border under suspicious circumstances in October 19, 1986. The case has remained unsolved ever since.

The press release indicates that the principal interviewee will be Hans Louw, a former Special Forces and CCB operative for the apartheid government. Fresh out of jail, Louw will be spilling the beans on the alleged complicity of the SA government in the death of a neighbouring head of state.

The write-up:

Louw, the first black Special Forces member, was released on parole from a Pretoria prison last month after a 28 year sentence for an unrelated murder.

He claims to have been part of a plot to bring the presidential plane down on the 19 October 1986.

Samora Machel died when his plane crashed under mysterious circumstances in the Lebombo mountains with 33 others. It was a time of heightened political tensions in the region and many believe that the crash was no accident. A South African led commission of enquiry later found that the crash was due to pilot error while a Soviet team found that a decoy beacon had caused the plane to stray off course.

Check out this comprehensive profile of Samora Machel's life and his role in shaping modern Mozambique on SA History Online.

US elections briefing in the Economist

In The Economist this week there is brilliant series of articles on the upcoming presidential elections this November in the United States. It's appropriately titled 'The battle of hope and experience'

Will America choose the old hero who favours tax cuts for business and the rich and backed George Bush’s wars? Or the young man who promises health care for all, a swift exit from Iraq and more money for the average worker? As America’s financial system buckles, this ought to be an unlosable election for the Democrats. But it isn’t.

You can download the full pack in PDF, which I recommend, or you can access each article as separate installments online. The PDF is available at this link.

Topics include: how the candidates would deal with the fallout in the economy, the two wars - Iraq and Afghanistan, violent crime (a largely unexplored issue in the election thus far) as well as healthcare, regulation and trade, foreign policy and the 'struggle over values'.

The election is proving closer than expected, but as I write it seems as if the Palin effect is diminishing and McCain's stated indifference to economics will be his undoing if voters' concerns about the financial crisis continue into next month.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The costs of censorship

Too risqué for SA?

My friends are freedom of expression junkies and have been very active lately promoting the cause. It seems that despite many gains for free speech since the demise of apartheid, hysterical thought police are on the ascendancy once more.

Mark Oppenheimer has written a piece for Media Online ('Censorship rears its ugly head'). The article unpacks the implications of the draconian Film and Publications Act and the recent censure of the controversial, but critically acclaimed Argentine movie, XXY. It seems that authorities in South Africa have taken it upon themselves to determine what we can and cannot watch on our screens and are using the worryingly high levels of child abuse in the country to drive their agenda.

The award-winning film concerns a teen hermaphrodite who grapples with his/her sexuality and engages in sexual acts with another minor in an apparently graphic and explicit manner (I haven't seen the film - obviously).

The catch, according to Mark, is that the woman in the lead role is not actually 15-years-old like her character, but a consenting-age adult of 22. Hence, the child nudity and intercourse is a fictional representation and no actual children are involved. Mark argues that the Film and Publication Board (FPB) are suppressing an idea rather than protecting children as they claim to be doing. The recent legislation, he says, is confusing virtual child pornography - which he argues is harmless - with the real thing.

Please note: Mr. Oppenheimer is not promoting sex with children, but rather saying that the classification system is too broad and that the FPB are confusing resistance to child abuse with intellectual coercion. Where I disagree with him is when he says that virtual, life-like images of child intercourse would actually entice paedophiles away from real children by giving them a vent for their desire. This may be true, but I am concerned that there is a risk that such material could normalise or legitimise the practice.

But that is a separate issue. The real concern is that regular censorship could spread into other areas, such as discussions around race, religion and political belief as it did in the past.

A hat-tip to Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment for his little post 'Censorship is bad' which links to the 10 most challenged books in history, a great Time magazine retrospective on book-banning which features many works of enduring artistic quality.

Something I didn't know about Mike is that his favourite novel is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Personally, I found Nabokov's book disturbing and repugnant, but it gave me a unique insight into the mind of a paedophile and the psychological complexities of such a condition. I am therefore grateful that it eventually escaped the censors and I had a chance to read it. If we care about stopping child abuse then we need to know what motivates perpetrators in the first place and a text like Lolita serves such a purpose - however uncomfortable reading it makes us feel. Under the current definition outlined by the Film and Publications Act, such a text could be proscribed.

Stanley Kubrick's 'Lolita' (1962)

Literature and other works of philosophical or intellectual inquiry are meant to challenge society's norms and values. We should therefore allow artists, authors, journalists, researchers and scientists - everyone in fact - the maximum amount of latitude to pursue those ideas. We do ourselves a serious disservice if we dismiss topics as taboo rather than confronting them head-on. J.S. Mill best highlighted the absurdity of censorship and how it can obstruct a better understanding of our world in his 1859 essay, On Liberty:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

There is one caveat: the freedom described above can be limited when the material in question leads to others' rights being violated or amounts to a direct incitement to cause harm. For instance, an actual video of children being raped or an instruction manual on how to seduce unsuspecting kids will undoubtedly lead to children being physically and emotionally damaged and stripped of their dignity. Such material can be justifiably censored. Lolita, despite its sexual predilections, cannot.

That said, I'm not sure that Patrick Madden's apologia for paedophilia passes the litmus test. He claims that paedophiles are a misrepresented class of untouchables (forgive the phrase) whose desires are founded on genuine affection for children; a condition no more perverse than any other sexual preferences:

"What is almost certainly true is that an individual's sexual orientation is not chosen by that individual, but rather is formed during childhood entirely without the individual's knowledge or consent. Whether someone is attracted to men, women, children, animals or plants is not a choice.

Therefore, people may not be held morally accountable for their preferences; only for their actions. An inclination to paedophilia is not abhorrent, nor should it be a crime. A hatred of paedophiles is the moral equivalent of a hatred of homosexuals, just more fashionable."

This to me amounts to a dangerous moral relativism that denies the agency available to molesters about the harmful consequences of their actions (by claiming that they are the victims of an arbitrarily determined social construct). I feel that Patrick understates the powerlessness of being a child when confronted with the will of an adult and also overstates the ability of children to adequately consent. The equivalence of homosexuality with paedophilia is a false one; a straw man. You wouldn't tell gays that their feelings are wrong, and Patrick uses that sentiment to say the same for paedophiles.

The fact that children play "doctor-doctor" does not mean that they want to engage in sex with grown-ups. Children are inquisitive about all sorts of things that may be harmful to them, such as swallowing poison, and there are many instances when they should be protected from making decisions that could hurt them. Patrick's argument that we are disempowering children by protecting them is flimsy.

Again, I am on a tangent. Although I find Patrick's arguments distasteful and invalid, this is different to actually wanting to stop him from expressing his views. I might not agree with Mr. Madden's treatise, and I will certainly do my best to reason with the man, but I have no problem with him posting his views on Asylury, his blog. This is an important distinction that we often fail to make - between arguing against somebody, and wanting to shut them up.

Many might say that the well-being of our children is far too important to risk on a marginal issue like free speech. Actually, the topic is the best example of how our emotional responses can suffocate an essential component of democratic life - of allowing the maximum amount of free expression consistent with the liberty of others.

SA Judiciary Debate @ Conhill

Tomorrow's debate at Constitution Hill looks interesting, especially given the current pressures on the courts by certain factions of the ANC and other members of the tripartite alliance. 

The speakers are a nice mix, although only one is actually a member of the judiciary - Ntsebeza. He was the head of the investigative unit of the TRC and recently defended Cape Judge President John Hlophe against allegations of improper conduct by the ConCourt judges. Ntsebeza will most likely be talking on the subject, but obviously as Hlophe's advocate he will be limited in what he can discuss given his closeness to the case.

I am not adverse to hearing de Lille, but I don't know if her contributions will be substantive enough. I am looking forward to meeting Friedman - this is his blog on ThoughtLeader - as he has been the go-to man for clarity on the current political upheavals. 

I think Mangcu generally offers unique counter-views and I have blogged positively about him in the past. That said, Mhambi and others weren't too pleased with Mangcu's position on the latest Zapiro controversy ('Zapiro is guilty of being a cartoonist in South Africa'). That cartoon will no doubt feature highly in the discussion.

I will be there tomorrow at six taking notes and I encourage you all to come along. Email me.