Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Trotting through life


What I talk about when I talk about running
Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, 2008

In parts memoir, meditation on writing and travelogue, but mostly a reflection on the significance of running. Murakami is a powerful creative mind, and where he gets his power is from the road.

The author of Kafka on the Shore and Norweigian Wood started running aged thirty-three to overcome the unhealthy lifestyle he had fallen into before committing himself to being a full-time novelist. Since then he has run an average of six miles a day, six times a week. He has shuffled his way through marathons (one a year, every year), ultra-marathons and triathlons in settings as diverse as Boston, Tokyo and Hawaii.

His transformation from chain-smoking night-owl into this stubborn roadie is remarkable, as suddenly a slightly disorderly life becomes disciplined and rigorous. Early to bed, five am rise, work, then run. This new lifestyle alienated his friends, who no longer saw him at night as he became increasingly stoical, but that was what he had to do in order to be able to stretch his mind and mine the depths of his imagination. The hardship of the long distances gave Murakami the physical awareness which allowed him to flourish as an artist.

Just as meaningless as it is to put one foot in front of the other day after day, no matter how wet the surface or freezing the air, it is also how life is. That is what it takes to produce anything of value in this world - one set of conquests after another - and that is what running taught him.

What makes this so enjoyable is that this isn't a treatise on how to be healthy or even necessarily Murakami insisting that running is great and everyone should give it a whirl. He says this is what I do and it isn't the thing for everyone. But everyone needs their 'thing' the point is not so much running, but what gives you joy and suffering at the same time. We all need that.

We also need escape. People ask Murakami what he thinks about most when he runs. Nothing, he says, "I run in a void".

I have to admit, (despite Mr. Murakami's insistence that it is ungentlemanly for a man to reveal how he keeps fit), I share his passion for the sport (I, like Murakami, have never been much of a gentleman to start off with anyway). I read this book in a day - fittingly on the day of the London Marathon - a spring afternoon of incredible warmth and beauty. So inspired was I while reading it, that I grabbed my running shoes, packed a bag and hit the asphalt, my book packed without its dust jacket to stop it from scuffing. I ran from park to park, pausing, taking my shirt off, and whipping through chapter after chapter of this marvelous, reflective essay. I would force myself to stop reading, then I would run some more.

The connectedness one feels with the surrounds, the inwardness and solitude that runners crave, Murukami understands these things and puts them onto the page. If ever my legs were crippled in an accident I would return to this book again and again to grieve for the beauty of roadrunning and to celebrate it. This is a most fitting tribute to the madness that is running.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mark Shuttleworth voting in London

QPQ talks to Mark Shuttleworth. Techie, philanthropist, Ubuntu pioneer, Afronaught and expat.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

ACDP Chief Whip on special voting day in London

ACDP Chief Whip and MP Cheryllyn Dudley was in London on Wednesday 15th April 2009 to observe the special voting day. She talks about the state of the opposition in South Africa, and faith-based politics in the country. She also examines the efficacy of the institution of parliament. If you can't view the video below click here.

I was quite impressed by Ms. Dudley as she was thoughtful and friendly. However, one problem I had with what she said was with her definition of secularism. She claims that "South Africa is not technically a secular state."

It is worth noting what the constitution says about religion at this point. Chapter 2, Section 15 concerning freedom of religion, belief and opinion says that:
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.

  2. Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that ­
    1. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
    2. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and
    3. attendance at them is free and voluntary.

    1. This section does not prevent legislation recognising ­
      1. marriages concluded under any tradition, or a system of religious, personal or family law; or
      2. systems of personal and family law under any tradition, or adhered to by persons professing a particular religion.
    2. Recognition in terms of paragraph (a) must be consistent with this section and the other provisions of the Constitution. well as Chapter 2, section 31, concerning cultural, religious and linguistic communities:
  1. Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community ­
    1. to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and
    2. to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.

  2. The rights in subsection (1) may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.

Here the constitutional order makes generous provisions for the protection of religion but that is altogether different from saying that the country is guided by religious doctrine. This is not total. For instance, the reason we don't sell alcohol on Sundays reflects a sentiment that drinking on the holy day is wrong. Or the fact that Christmas is a public holiday while Ramadan isn't shows the dominance of the Christian tradition. So there is a spectrum, but we are still on the secular end of that spectrum, because religious considerations for the most part do not guide governmental decisions.

Secularism requires that principles of a particular faith should not be the foundation of the institutional or legal apparatus. But it still allows for freedom of religion and association. For example, many Christians feel strongly against abortion, yet it is legal in our society. They might prohibit the practice among their followers but they cannot will that prohibition to be universal merely by referencing scripture. The nature of secular democracy is that you have to balance competing needs and in this case the rights of women to adequate reproductive health outweighs the moral indignation that many people of faith may have against aborting unborn babies.

If, as Dudley says, 80% of South Africans are Christians it also means 20% are not, so a significant minority would choose a different set of spiritual convictions or none whatsoever. Thankfully she does emphasise that the separation of church and state not only protects the state from the church, but also the church from the state (ditto for the mosque and the synagogue).

Dudley says: "...for us it is very important that the institution of the state and the institution of the church are kept separate in that they have very different roles and different functions." She goes on to say that they want to be free to practice their religion without government imposing their own restrictions and rules. Sounds like a ringing endorsement of secularism to me.

Watch the video to see the full context of her statements and judge for yourself.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pieter Mulder (FF+) on voting abroad

Above is an interview I conducted with Dr. Pieter Mulder, the leader of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) in Trafalgar Square, London. Here South Africans living in the United Kingdom were casting their votes in the 2009 National Elections. Mulder and his party played a significant role in agitating for the revision of the Electoral Act on the grounds that the legislation was unconstitutional (the original law prevented a broad category of citizens living abroad from voting). I don't support the FF+, but I was very grateful to them - and the many others - who organised around this issue and agitated for the change.

Although the FF+ tends to draw its support from mostly Afrikaans white conservatives, consider what the white right looked like in the early nineties and how different the FF+ is from the Nationalist and Conservative Parties of yesteryear. We all bemoan the proliferation of opposition parties under our Proportional Representation (PR) system, but one of its benefits is that it enabled a wide range of interests to gain representation. This increased the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy for those citizens who may have felt excluded by a first-past-the-post system where they wouldn't have stood a chance in hell of gaining a seat in parliament.

So the next time you find yourself chuckling at the lilly-white election posters of the FF+ remember the moderating effect that fifteen years of democracy have had on the party and its supporters and how it is far better, in the words of Linden Johnson, to have them inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Classic FM News broadcasts on voting abroad

On Wednesday the 15th of April 2009 I had the privilege of reporting for Classic FM from Trafalgar Square, where expat South Africans turned out in their droves to vote in the national elections. This was a significant moment, as the rights of those living temporarily outside of the country would have been severely compromised had they not been allowed to vote, as the Electoral Act then stipulated. Thankfully some public-minded citizens took it upon themselves to take the government to court over the matter and we were allowed to exercise our democratic

Classic FM News - SA Election Coverage - 11am - 15 April 2009.mp3 -

In the reports (two of which are embedded here) I paint a mental picture of the crowds snaking through the square as well as the process of voting. I was in and out in about an hour and fifteen minutes and although the logistics of the event were certainly challenging, this was clearly a bogus excuse not to conduct the overseas voting. It really wasn't that difficult to organise. Below is an image of an orderly and efficient bank of voting desks where officials would scratch out names of those on the voters roll:

I was very impressed by how well the whole process was managed, and I am very thankful to the IEC officials and everyone involved who helped make the process that much easier.

I held my nose and voted COPE, and my ballot paper is depicted below for those who may doubt my 'allegiances' - however flimsy they may be. I hesitated for a while before dropping the envelope into the box and as did so I said to the official, "I can't believe I just voted for those guys."

Something to note is that it is Terror Lekota and not Mvume Dandala, the Presidential Candidate, whose picture is on the sheet. I mean really. If in some alternate reality COPE actually won, do you think Terror would allow Dandala to become the national president? Somehow I don't think so. What then is the point of even having a presidential candidate I ask you, if his picture doesn't feature?

My friend Lexi's painted thumb proving she cast her vote:

I also took my video camera along and, time permitting, I will post some of the content on YouTube. Stay tuned for more on the elections as we build up to election day back home.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

QPQ overseas election coverage on Classic FM tomorrow


I will most likely be reporting from South Africa House tomorrow morning for Classic FM, where I worked as an intern from January to March this year. Apart from the occasional Sarah Brighton song, Classic FM is by far the best listen in Gauteng; mostly because of their excellent news coverage and platform shows.

I have been asked by my former colleagues to provide insight from the SA foreign mission in London about the efficiency of the process and the feeling on the ground. Voting starts at 07h00 GMT and hopefully I can get on the phone back home within about an hour. So listen out for QPQ tomorrow morning on the hourly bulletins on 102.7 FM. If you live outside Joburg you can plug into live streaming by visiting

Classic FM ran this report today, which highlights just how many people are going to vote tomorrow. It's a lot, so get there as early as possible:

Some 16,240 South Africans living abroad are expected to cast their votes tomorrow. Of these, 7427 voters are registered to vote at the South African mission in London. This makes it the largest polling station in the elections. Overseas voters must be registered and produce their ID and passport to be allowed to cast their vote. Voting stations at South African missions abroad will be open from 7am to 7pm. There are 124 South African missions abroad.

SA expats vote tomorrow: NB information

Tomorrow I will be making my way to the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square to cast my ballot. The absentee vote was something that had to be pried out of the jaws of the ANC government by our superb Constitutional Court.

I'm sorry it had to take a judicial order and that the government came up with such cynical explanations as to why they couldn't allow the short-term expatriates to chose who would lead their country. But the silver lining was that it showed the durability of the courts and the executive's (reluctant) acceptance of its legitimacy.

The IEC and the SA mission in London have released some important information about tomorrow's voting process. You will have to bring your VEC10 form, passport, identification document. You are also urged to bring along your VEC1 form, which can be downloaded on the IEC website.

If you are away from a printer today you needn't fear, as VEC1 forms will be available on election day. However, I strongly suggest you print out this form to quicken the voting process tomorrow. Lets meet the IEC halfway on this one as they are doing their bit to ensure we exercise our democratic right. Lets also show the nation how much balooney the government was talking when they said the logistics would be too much to manage by ensuring we vote quickly and efficiently.

See you there!

Hold your nose and vote COPE


It gives me a cold, hollow feeling to say this, but I am going to vote for the Congress of the People in the upcoming national elections. The reasons for this are several, and if you allow me, I will elaborate on why I am taking such a banal course of action this time around.

But first, here are some very valid reasons not to vote for COPE:

  • Their presidential candidate is a religious leader, Mvume Dandala, who has no executive experience, has never even been an MP and who seems to be disconnected from the political mood of the country. What's more, he was placed there by bickering opponents who were unable to assume the principal position for themselves and thus settled on him as a compromise candidate. Why they didn't just use Shilowa, a flawed but pragmatic leader with a governance track record is beyond my understanding.
  • The movement is largely made up of the beneficiaries of the Mbeki era, who are indignant at their loss of power and patronage. They have been discarded by Zuma's ANC and there was no other course of action left for them to take. They have big egos and are associated with a president who manhandled democratic institutions and manipulated the administration of justice, a president who ignored the AIDS epidemic and who racialised the discourse of South Africa and how it confronts its problems.
  • That name. It is every sub-editors dream. Who thought of COPE as an acronym? Honestly! It says, "All we want to do is manage, we don't care too much for dreams of a better future, merely on how to stumble through the present."
  • They've had an incoherent election strategy, with no clear path to power and a seemingly dwindling support base.

Mbhazima Shilowa will not be running for President.
(Photo by David Ansara)


So why, considering all of the above, should you vote for this muddled party?
  • They are a splinter of the ruling African National Congress, which has dominated the political process since 1994. COPE was born amid the ashes of the factional infighting of the ruling party. They might not pose an immediate electoral challenge to the ANC, but COPE's very existence represents a symbolic threat to an organisation far too comfortable with power.
  • It says to people who fought in the struggle: "Being in opposition is okay" as it makes a legitimate claim on the fight against apartheid. This counts for a lot, as many opposition parties are easily dismissed (sometimes unfairly) as representatives of minority interests (e.g. DA) or as complicit in the administrative apparatus of the ancien rĂ©gime (e.g. Holomisa's UDM, or Buthelezi's IFP). Simply, COPE offers a credible alternative that could potentially undermine ANC hegemony in South Africa in the long term.
  • Although some commentators have smeared the Congress of the People for being a party of elitists, there seems to be a focus in their agenda on the plight of the rural poor. Potential exists here for both organisations to coalesce around an urban/rural axis, which could help to conscientise people about the persistence of the class stratifications that exist in our country. Zuma's base is among urban blacks, and traditional conservatives; maybe COPE could capture another sector of society that is often overlooked.
  • Hopefully this will persuade the electorate to eventually vote according to policy and ideas rather than as an expression of their identity or as part of a nostalgic loyalty for the moral clarity of the anti-apartheid days.

I trust this clarifies why I will be marking my X next to the face of the good reverend. This is certainly going to be an election of great significance and COPE will live or die by these polls.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Are we brainwashed by advertising?


Since arriving in the UK I've participated regularly in an audience discussion show entitled Off the Cuff. The programme is broadcast weekly on the Iranian international English news service channel, Press TV (channel 515 on Sky on Saturdays from 19h33 - 20h00 GMT). The topics usually concern some item of public contention, such as the war in Iraq, the effects of capitalism or the limits of personal freedom and the role of the state. I am over-complicating it though - it is simply an opportunity for people from all walks of life to engage with one another on issues they feel are important.

My first week on the show was very interesting indeed. Here the audience was asked how deeply they feel the media, and the advertising industry in particular, influences our consumer behaviour and dictates our lifestyles, preferences and needs.

I didn't fully get round to my point (owing to the fast-paced nature of the show and my own bombastic speaking style), but I think my message is clear. Certainly the advertising industry is guilty of a lot of sins. For instance, statements that downplay or ignore the harmful effects of the products they sell, such as greasy food or alcohol are clearly objectionable. Also, advertisers promote a view of the world which says that only through the attainment of vast personal wealth and by purchasing items you don't really need, can you be happy.

These are fairly common objections, and an industry such as this should be subjected to the proper regulation because its influence is great. Content that actively promotes a prejudiced view of a minority group or uses hate speech or which is totally misleading should suffer appropriate sanction. But we also have agency and choice and are not the "blank slates" the ad execs sometimes think we are. Can one teaspoon of detergent really wash a thousand dishes? I don't think so. Most educated and discerning people can come to a conclusion independently of the inputs the media feeds us.

"The medium is the message". Another frequent adage. A swish website, a viral marketing campaign and the use of repetition and catch phrases all help to push a product. The above qualities were all evident in the ground-breaking Obama presidential campaign. They helped to amplify Obama's message, but without the charisma and intellect that underpinned his candidacy he wouldn't have won. Similarly, the sloganeering and fear mongering of McCain (and especially his vice presidential nominee) weren't enough to hide the inherent contradictions of a moderate trying to pass himself off as a conservative right-winger.

To put it colloquially: if your product is shite, it won't sell, because word gets around and people see through transparent rubbish.

At the top of this post you will see an abridged version of this episode which I edited to show the salient points (with my own comment at the end). Click here to download the full episode onto your computer from Press TV's website (Original broadcast on the 28th of March 2009).


Thanks to Pete Engelbrecht for editing the clip and to Press TV for the original material.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Slices of guilt


Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Penguin, 1981) 122 p.

A small, anonymous Latin American town. Innocence lost or squandered. An accused who knows not what he has done nor the reason he is being hunted.

The woman is a new bride, Angela Vicario, who is discovered to have lost her virginity - shock! - before committing to marriage. To avoid humiliation she accuses Santiago Nasser, of stealing her most sacred gift. The narrative draws inevitably towards Nasser's death, at the hands of Angela's butchering twin brothers; and the reader is but a powerless spectator.

This is a story so revolting it is difficult to look away. So silly in its violence. How could a town be swept up in this meaningless witch hunt? The townsfolk try to explain from each of their perspectives, and each seeks to rationalise the death in their own way. They are bystanders but just as culpable as the murderers themselves. As they received adequate warning but did nothing, theirs is a moral omission.

I don't know if Marquez if culpable either. I want to blame him for his depictions, but I can't, he is hiding behind the protective veil of 'the author'. C'mon Gabriel man, this dying is a serious business, and you make light of it at every turn!

[For an excellent exposition of the changes in style from Marquez's earlier to later works and the similarities to Kafka, see this post at (Mis)readings.]

Thursday, April 9, 2009

QPQ now broadcasting from London


As some of you may know, I have moved to the United Kingdom. I am now based in London in a little suburb called Kilburn in the north-west of the city. I was one of the last batch to be issued the two-year working holiday visa, an opportunity that could not be bypassed.

Some things I have noticed about England, which I really enjoy:
  • Public transport is excellent. I feel a part of the city, rather than just passing through, as I do when I am in Joburg. The glum disposition of the passengers on the tube may be notorious, but the sense of public ownership of the trains is very high and the undergound is like the circulatory system of the city. SA would be a substantively better place to live if it could secure a safe and efficient transport system.
  • A relative lack of crime concerns. In the UK feel freed up from the nagging insecurity which is so much a part of daily life back home. It is really quite unfortunate that we have to live that way, as our country is such a beautiful and dynamic place. I cannot say I have been directly affected by violent crime (I have however been burgled before), but the knowledge that the institutions of the state are losing their ability to maintain law and order profoundly affects your own sense of civic responsibility and undermines your trust in strangers. Not good for a divided society trying to heal the wounds of the past.
  • True multiculturalism. Although there are some genuine barriers to freedom for people of minority groups, this is a country (or should I say a city) at ease with its plural character. I live in a neighbourhood filled with Poles, Indians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Muslims and Jews and the melting pot of cultures is a fascinating spectacle to observe.
  • The proliferation of fine museums. They're the best in the world and they're free!

The downsides are of course:

  • The heightened sense of individualism and an atomised culture. At times the city can feel cold and impersonal.
  • The state is far more involved in your life here. There are a proliferation of CCTV cameras and one is constantly aware of being scrutinised. So the freedom to do and act as you please is limited by an administrative apparatus that won't so much as let you pee on a tree.
  • Credit crunch, financial crisis, recession, depression. Call it what you will, it's biting hard and people's livelihoods are at risk.

So QPQ is will continue to be a feature on the blogosphere, but with less of a parochial focus on South Africa. I love the place, but the off the cuff responses to the next crisis of the day can get repetitive and somewhat exhausting. So I am going to write when I feel like it and not be dictated by the caprices of the news agenda. I will also venture out of the strict boundaries of the blog's original subject mandate.