Monday, December 15, 2008

The death of Chris Hani: the more things change, the more they stay the same

In April, 15 years ago, right-wingers gunned down Chris Hani, the popular ANC leader, outside his home.

A the time, South Africa was at the height of transition negotiations from white minority rule and white rightwing leaders featured much more prominently in public debates than today. Their incendiary talk, depicting Hani as the militant leader of ANC terrorist shock troops, contributed to a climate in which the murder became possible.

15 years later we still have prominent politicians, like the ANC youth league's Julius Malema, Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi and others who see no problem in a war talk that wants to kill for the supreme leader, exterminates cockroaches and does other ghastly things to the enemy. And then they feign ignorance, engage in linguistic and non-sensical acrobatics when these things indeed happen.

No such war talk is mere 'figures of speech'. And it was never so.

In 1993, Shaun Johnson observed:

"Before the assassin made up his mind to take Chris Hani's life, Hernus Kriel, from the platform of parliament, described Umkhonto we Sizwe as 'a bunch of criminals'. A powerful newspaper told its readers Hani was mustering a terrifying, vengeful 'Black People's Army'. Before lawless youths went on their stabbing and stealing spree on Wednesday, ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba told a gathering of youngsters: 'The young lions must not only bark and roar, but you must bite'. And before this whole sorry saga started, we had Eugene Terreblanche exhorting his followers to revolution, Inkathata members being encouraged to 'bugger up' the ANC, PAC leaders endorsing the slogan 'one settler, one bullet'. The list goes on.
Every one of these people will today swear they didn't mean what you thought they meant. These were euphemisms, metaphors, allegories, parables...they didn't really mean it literally. Well. It is too late to tell that to the people who listened to, and believed, those words. They missed the subtleties. Not nearly enough people in our country can read. Pitifully few will have been familiar with John Locke's wise observation that 'we should have had a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves.' ...Chilling statements are commonplace in South Africa today. It is fair to ask whether we are not now reaping their mean harvest." (Strange Days Indeed, Bantam, 1993)

Words matter. Discourses circulate, from the mundane and everyday life to politics, to academic discourse, and so on. How can we combat crime and violence when the words of our leaders mirror and perpetuate these?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Update for WoWers of 2007!

It seems to me that Jean's roundabout has sparked a new flurry of activities among the WoWers of 2007 (my apologies to Bruce).

So here's my bit:

After 14 months at the Institute of Race Relations in Braamfontein, I happily eloped to the African Futures Institute in Tshwane which makes good use of my various talents.

After observing South African politics from a liberal perspective, I am now working on development issues on a continental scale.

And it finally it is true: after months of waiting (I handed in my PhD thesis in February 2007), I am scheduled to graduate on 25 November 2008.

In true Wits fashion, enough to entertain all conspiracy fans in the country, I was confronted with last minute, allegedly unpaid fees, putting a red flag on my graduation status, after I was told in June 2008 that I only had to wait for the graduation date to come up.

Thanks to the ever agile Magda Gale from the Politics Department, it was all sorted out. (They gracefully paid the so called fees for 2007: fees for what?, for waiting around to graduate?)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Violence against women

I read this article in the Sowetan and I was appaled. In response, I sent the letter below to the editor.

Maybe it helps.

Today in Braamfontein, a young woman walks down the street, dressed in high heels and and miniskirt. Five youngsters start whistling at her, jumping up and down as if Jesus was coming back. The daring one walks up to her and says, 'just a hand shake, just a hand shake'. She smiles and they do a high five. As this happens, a metro police car drives by with four officers in it. The car slows down, honks and the officers join the commotions - smiling and whistling.

Am I prudish or is this kind of male excitement in the face of an attractive woman walking down the street amounting to sexual harassment?

If I would not live in a country in which gang rape is common and violence against women is filed under 'things that happen', I would greet this kind of behaviour by just shaking my head.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is the more placid face of a society wrecked by violence, misogyny and patriarchy.

"Dear Sir,

I find your article very problematic from a gender perspective.

Your paper prides itself of supporting the community, of being involved in nation building and so on. Yet it seems that when it comes to the advancement of women, you no longer see any reason to show your engagement and care.

As journalists, you are hopefully aware that we live in a country in which violence against women is high. Much of the violence is based on stereotypes and mis-perception how ‘real’ women are supposed to behave. Women who do not fit these expectations (how women should act) are sanctioned and punished. The best example is the killings of women who love women.

Hence, to combat violence against women, we have to start questioning stereotypes with regards to how men and women are supposed to behave.

Your article does nothing more than re-enforce stereotypes that confine men and women to act in certain ways.

The woman in your piece, Terry Pheto, has no agency. She is the ‘weak’ woman, the price for the stronger of the two men who fight over her. The two fighting males are the ones who decide how this drama is being played out, they have all the active parts in your little soap story.

The men are full of agency. The woman has no agency and awaits dutifully the outcome of what happens between the two fighting men. She is being ‘bedded’, after all.

So here we go again, the same old.

Have you tried to contact her? Maybe she has some interesting comment to make? Or perhaps it does not matter to your story writing what the woman says and does because all that matters is that the two men are fighting it out? Is she merely a pretty prop that makes up a nice background for your story?

I think it should be possible to write entertaining pieces about celebs that change our stereotypical views of how men and women are supposed to behave.

I think you can do better – is it not time to act?

Regards, Thomas.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

John Matshikiza, 1954-2008

With sadness we learn of the passing away of John Matshikiza, writer and actor. I first learned of him as the columnist in the weekly Mail &Guardian. For many years, his column was the first thing I would read every friday morning. South Africa has lost one of the most insightful observers of society and politics.

His writing is elegant and critical, and I learnt always something new about life and the country I had chosen to live in.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Joshua Polumo Mohapeloa and Paul Hamner

Another week-end filled with music! Spring is in the air and things are happening. Saturday night was great jazz with Paul Hamner (piano) and McCoy Mrubata (saxophone), and their excellent band. The House of Ntsako was jiving and all was well. Well, a bigger audience and a bigger revenue for the musicians would have been on order.

On sunday it was the Cantus Africana Chamber Choir singing Mohapeloa. It was a unique experience and the voices were beautiful. A truly uplifting and essentially humane exeperience.

Hamner is a true talent. Not only playing his terrific jazz, he also featured in the New Music Indaba's 2009 progragmme, playing Olivier Messiaen. We sure got talent in this country!

Monday, September 1, 2008

T. Musicman is doing it again!

The Anita Baker concert was a disaster and the promoter, a Mr Tladi, is trying to wiggle out of it by blaming her. Unfortunately, he was not addressing the issue why there were much more tickets sold than seats available and how he could claim the event was at a state-of-the-art venue when it was only in a dull Nasrec hangar, with atrocious accoustics. In all, a rather unconvincing apology. And the promoter is laughing all the way to the bank!

At this weekend's Joy of Jazz festival, T.Musicman was at it again! Unbelievable, that they provided the sound for the entire festival. What is going on here? They must have some good friends in high places. Or is there no competition when it comes to staging art events?

On friday, at the Dinaledi stage, the first show had the usual sound problems. When I say usual, I mean for T. Musicman, not for jazz concerts! When the Original All Stars of Jazz Fusion came on stage, to ensure proper sound was a constant problem - the artists' had to signal all the time and the technicians were spinning around the stage non-stop.

On saturday, at the Bassline, the quiet sounds of Thord Gustafson were overshadowed by a blaring sound system.

Unfortunately, we will not have seen and heard the last of T.Musicman. Given the contracts they had cornered, they seem to have too good connections to be booted out.

In South Africa, what matters first is your connections, delivery and accountability feature much later. While this story was concerned with frivolous entertainment for the well-heeled, this is a recurrent aspect of our society, what a pity!

Monday, August 25, 2008

T.Musicman - the worst concert organiser in southern Africa, greedy and contemptuous?

Anita Baker, the American singer, made it to South Africa, gracing her world-wide fan base with one unique concert. South Africans love music and the 6 000 or so tickets sold quickly, even though prices were high, ranging from 300 to 500 rand.

The promoter announced a state-of-the-art concert hall, a newly furnished hall at the Nasrec convention centre, south of Johannesburg. I was a bit sceptical when I read this because Nasrec is rather infamous for dull political meetings in airplane hangars and not top notch concert venues.

The concert was set to begin at 7pm on a sunday evening. As we walked into the hall at 6pm, and began looking for our seats, our spirits were a bit dented. Ordinary plastic chairs, hastily arranged in rows, were a far cry from the promised state-of-the-art concert venue. A young woman informed us that our seats were not available because stage equipment took our spot, apparently they did not know about this in advance, and they would add seats on the side for us. We insisted on centre seasts for this is what I bought, not side seats. So we were seated closer to the stage, a bit on the side. Not bad, we thought - we had a good front seats and could not complain.

Many more people streamed in and they could not find seats either. More seats were brought in yet never enough to satisfy all the people with no seats or seats behind pillars from which they could not see much. I mean, who would buy seats behind a pillar for R300?

Tempers flared up as angry fans who had tickets for which there were no seats engaged listless ushers in shouting matches. People scrambled for seats and fist fights broke out.

A clueless Masechaba Moshoeshoe, a normally swift and accurate radio host from Kaya FM, one of the sponsors, besides the Sowetan newspaper, took the microphone by 8pm and appealed to civility and promised seats for everyone. Her admonishment that we show our best side, friendly and non-violent in the face of adversity, did not do much to accomodate disgruntled fans. The mayhem continued as more people streamed in.

Clearly, many more tickets were sold than seats were available.

A stand-up comedian was rolled out to divert attention away from the disaster and placate the fans before Anita Baker eventualy would come on stage.

8.45 and the concert began. Ouf, what a relief. Nevertheless, fans walked around with chairs, looking for better spots and blocking all the aisles and making movement impossible. It was better not to think about safety hazards.

As the diva belt out her beautiful songs of love and passion, she used the time in-between to instruct the technicians to adjust the sound. She had to do so for a full 45 minutes and finally gave up. One could not hear the horns, and her voice was submerged by the crackling of an inadequate sound system.

Realising that people had no seats, she expressed her compassion and encouraged her fans to complain with the promoter. We needed to know that it was not her making!

So went the concert of an international top act, for the first time in South Africa (and probably for the last time) - a greedy and contemptuous promoter cheated the artist and her fans out of a unique experience.

How was that possible? How come Kaya FM and Sowetan, to established media organsiations, teamed up with a shoddy, thuggish promoter with no respect for the artist and the fans?

Was the concert not an example of what goes often wrong in South Africa? People in positions are only interested in making a quick buck, no concern for fairness and delivering service enters their mind. In other words, thuggery is an accepted and tolerated way of doing business. As long as no one takes exception to this state of affairs, and makes their voices heard, Sout Africa will remain mediocre.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What is wrong with these students?

As a graduate of Wits University and a former member of the University Council, representing graduate students, I take university governance issues and students politics seriously.

With all the pressures that are on South African universities, it is no surprise that expediency, incompetence, lack of will and dedication, and maladministration take its toll. Students are at the bottom of the value chain within the university, and they always pay the price for these problems.

Inadequate resources, unfair treatment by people in authority, and disrespect are just some of the negative experiences that student life entails. Add to that the problems of financing, the lack of academic support, and the low rate of success and the high drop-out rate in universities can be explained. Hence, student representatives take these issues most seriously: they affect the students' life and decide over their success or failure.

In his inauguration as the new Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town, Max Price bemoaned that students are not concerned with other issues. He said:

“It upsets me that we don’t see students protesting about corruption in government, or about attacks on the constitution, or about the way SA treated Zimbabwe.”

Yes, of course, student leaders should make their voices heard about important political and social issues, of local and global reach. But with so many things going wrong for students within their universities and with the very basics of tertiary education not guaranteed, how can Price expect them to focus beyond the university, before they are properly supported to succeed?

The more sinister interpretation of this statement is that he does not want students to be involved in the running of the university and make a contribution towards improving it. My experience with university administrations is that they only want student input in governance when it suits them, but when they point the finger at failures, mistakes and problems, they are dismissed as rabble-rousers and thoughtless imatures who need to be told better. Indeed, a long way to go for South African universities to change the mind-set, away from 'mother-knows-best' to consultation and inclusiveness.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mahmoud Darwish, 1941-2008

I sadly acknowledge the passing away of Mahmoud Darwish, poet, writer, intellectual and political activist. I discovered him by coincidence some years ago while watching a French tv programme, one of those about culture and poltics that the French do so well.

His poetry reading and his interview talk were spell-binding. He spoke in simple words, yet profound. Or perhaps it was just the translation in French that brought out his Arabic in such a manner. Even though I could not understand what he said, it was beautiful to listen to the sound of his words in Arabic.

As people like Darwish disappear, I wonder if there are men and women to take up from where he left off. Do we still have people of moral integrity, with sensibilities for the human condition and active in politics, engaged with and part of society? Or is it that today, the issues that we confront, no longer lend themselves to such activism?
Read his obituary in The Guardian.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chinese in Africa

Indeed, the Chinese-in-Africa theme cost John Matshikiza his weekly column in the Mail and Guardian or so it seems. And dogged as he is, he continues on the subject. A case of good follow-up journalism, one might say. Yet, in his recent column in The Weekender, he is getting ahead of himself.
This piece proves that one should not write with too much passion. Though it is supposed to be satirical, his reference to Indians asking to become black is quite non-sensical and probably hurtful to many Indians who suffered under apartheid. After all, BEE defines Indians, Coloured and Africans all as black. So there is no need to get reclassified, even for purely material reasons. While one should remain critical to China's advances in Africa, one also needs to maintain a historical perspective of Chinese settlement on the continent and in South Africa and the fragile relationships that were established between newcomers and indigenous peoples. Matshikiza is on the subject a true bull in a China shop.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The pleasures of victimhood

How do you create non-racialism through thinking and policies that consider race? This is the dilemma of any affirmative action policy. In South Africa, we have the additional problem that poisenous race thinking was firmly entrenched in government policy and everyday life. For this reason, some criticized the salvaging of the four racial categories (African, Coloured, Indian and White) of the apartheid era into the democratic order.

A recent court ruling ordered that Chinese South Africans qualified for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), that is, preferred treatment when it comes to business deals and not just the usual designated groups (black African, Coloured, Indian). The criticism from some black business organisations was that this was unfair since black people suffered the most from apartheid. Some reported historical events that showed how Chinese South Africans had it not so bad. Others said that this devalued the plight of black people. After all, black people suffered under apartheid which was like the holocaust. Some made ironic comments that Jewish people also suffered under apartheid and that they should now also benefit from BEE.

Clearly, to have suffered in the past is a sign of distinction for some. It is, however, not to designate moral superiority but serves as an additional arrow in the armoury of capitalist competition. In a seminal article, Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Review of Books about the joys and perils of victimhood. In South Africa, people should reread his article. While there are people who still suffer from the consequences of apartheid, they are hardly those who seem to embrace being a victim so much.

As long as race plays such an instrumental part in making material gains for a selected few, only little progress can be made towards non-racialism. Or, the question remains how to achieve redress based on racial categories and to move away from race-thinking? The case of the Chinese South Africans shows well that we still struggle to come up with genuine policies that overcome this conundrum.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Xenophobia at home

In the aftermath of the violent attacks on foreigners in Gauteng, a domestic confrontation reminded me how easily the seeds for such violence are sown. And more important perhaps, how this kind of pogrom takes on a life of its own and spreads through imitation beyond control.

On a sunday night, Silas, the security guard who lives on the property next to my cottage, and which he also guards, came to see me and said how upset he was about the domestic worker, Precious, who looks after the main house and also after my cottage.

He said that she was untrustworthy, and that it was now too much, it was either him or her, one had to go. While he was working hard to secure the premises, she was having friends over at the main house, eating and drinking. Further, she was not respecting him, she was rude to him and she was not doing her job properly. And finally, she may be planning to poison him for she let his meat go rotten by deliberately putting it in a fridge that was not working.

I thought that this was quite a tall order and said that I was confident a way could be found to resolve the issue in a satisfactory way for both.

He then said that I could not quite understand for I was white. She was Zimbabwean and she would be capable of killing him, of poisoning him. While he would always be able to sort out an issue with a white man like me, with a black woman from Zimbabwe, it was another story. No middle ground could be found, it was about life and death.

Silas was from the Eastern Cape, leaving two young children behind while seeking a living in Johannesburg. His wife was with him, working as a domestic. He is trying to improve his employment situation by getting a driver's licence and seeking better paid work.

He is, as Deon Du Plessis, the editor of the Daily Sun, writes, the typical blue collar South African worker, trying to improve his lot, through saving and seeking opportunities in a harsh environment and there is not much sympathy for others, from other countries, in similar positions.

Precious had left her children in Bulawayo, and worked in Johannesburg as a domestic to support her three children and her family in Zimbabwe. She is articulate and writes well - she was cooking in the house because she was learning how to cook. Her employer trains her because he wants her also to cook for him.

In the final analysis, what triggered Silas' ire was that an apparent outsider appeared to move ahead and over him, over what he was entitled to: a better life. And, in a climate of fear and hatred of foreigners, it was easy to adopt a xenophobic discourse. Envy and jealousy came into the open.

Precious seemed to enjoy a better relationship with her white employer: she would be trained by him and had access to the entire house. She seemed comfortable in the presence of her white employer(s) while he was struggling to find a way to relate to and confer with them.

In the small space of the setting of my home was the tragedy that had gripped the country over the last few months.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Farewell to Edwin Cameron

After years of dedicated service to the University of the Witwatersrand, Edwin Cameron retired from the chairmanship of the University Council.

While the laudatio speeches were certainly right in pointing out the stature of the man, I found the snide remarks about students and their representatives un-becoming.

Certainly we can be distressed about the often poor leadership qualities and the lack of insightfullness on behalf of the very same student leadership, but these will only improve if they are treated by the university management and staff as thinking human beings that play their part in the university governance.

Instead, they are constantly belittled and manipulated by the university powers that be. Thankfully, there are the exceptions but the general tone is rather discouraging.

If the university is to be more efficient and excellent, all stakholders have to be taken seriously. A more democratic, just and striving institutions needs to do away with paternalism and top-down governance.

Monday, March 31, 2008

World of Work 2008

Thanks for having me for lunch - I enjoyed spending time with all of you. And good luck for your journey over the next weeks.

Below is the link to the two openings at the South African Institute of Race Relations:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

One year on: four lessons from the World of Work program

It is one year since I was part of the World of Work program and I try to think hard what I took home from the one month of seminars and workshops that were to equip me with a better understanding of the business world, my place in it and how I can and should relate to it.

While I was in the program, I was offered a permenent position as a researcher with the South African Institute of Race Relations. So things turned out well for me: I landed a job.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that it requires constant work to figure out what it is that I want to do in my professional life. The program fostered in me the understanding that it foremost depends on me what job I want to do. It is much more than getting ready for employment and applying. The crucial question is what do I want to do? Or in the phrase of an advertising campaign: where do you want to go today ?

The second most important lesson is that in order to function in the workplace, and to land a job, is to fit in. This is in a sense a terrible lesson: do we not want to express our individuality and be recognized as such before we fit in? Yet as a member of an organization, we have to fit in. And so we do. I think the trick is do so but also to cultivate one's personal touch to the tasks you do.

Third, network, network, network. Be out there, meet people, leave an impression. New encounters sharpen your sense of what the possibilities are. Don't settle into a passive routine. While you do your work, you already plan your next move.

Finally, look at yourself as an entrepreneur. That is, your attitude is positive, be on the lookout, everyday offers new opportunities to make things happen. You may have to settle with your circumstances, but something better is around the corner. And this, you only reach with the right attitude. So you choose your attitude.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Transformation at South African Universities

After the shocking events at the University of the Free State in which white male students denigrated black cleaning staff by making them to drink alcohol and serving them urine-laced food, an evaluation of tertiary transformation has been ordered by the Minister of Education. What will this exercise bring?

Given my own experience, I feel this is just another commission, another talk shop in the making. Let's be serious. Universities are already at breaking point. Too little resources, too many demands, low motivation and a pervasive lack of leadership.

Too many in the university believe that transformation is a diversion, is divisive and undermines the academic endeavour. It may be the case that such is the consequences of policies and actions pushed through under the label 'transformation'.

Yet transformation only works if the entire university community is behind it. And that requiers dialogue and coalition building. The university leadership which is not only the VC and the DVCs but also other powerful people within the university community, need to sit together, talk things over honestly and decide on a meaningful way forward.

When I was an active student, the entire university leadership did everything to shut down a student-led initiative on transformation. So anxious were they of only discussing the issue, that they felt threatened by students and torpedoed the whole thing in an unceremonious, if not downright pernicious way.

What is lost when transformation comes up, is that the issue is not only black or white or gender or else, but good governance. Transformation is an excellent opportunity to create accountable and democratic university governance systems. Yet this is never a priority. Rather, the focus is on rewarding compliant lecturers, administrators and students, and pretending that something changes. Like in the corporate world, the number one maxim for employment and promotion is to fit in with the dominant culture. So things remain the same - perhaps here and there some individuals get exchanged for others. Fitting into a culture that prefers compliance and the adulation of authority over excellence and frankness, the will to do better and create something new, is neglected.

As Noam Chomsky observed in the United States, the university is the place where consent is manufactured and enforced. However, if tertiary education is to improve, discussion is needed of all the thorny issues. Otherwise, no coalition to advance the institution can be built.

If something is meant to change, a greater will to speak out, to root out mediocrity and to get open and honest talk going, is needed. In this eminent, intellectual task, the South African university fails.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Violent Valentine

Yesterday, Februar 14, I went out with a couple of friends to one of the usual bars in Melville's entertainment mile on 7th. street. The bar was full and babylon water flowed freely. We were all in a jolly mood - after all, it was thursday night and Valentine's day!

I noticed two women dancing with ambition in the middle of the bar, but I was soon diverted by the exciting company at my table.

Suddenly, much commotion struck at the entrance of the bar. The two women were engaged in a brutal fist fight with the bouncer and other bar employees. They rolled on the pavement in front of the bar, exchanging blows and tearing each others' shirts apart.

Some at my table intervened but to no avail. A friend inquired as the reason of the fight and one waiter said the boss had told the two women to stop dancing.

The commotion did not entirely die down and one of the women, after they were unceremoniously ejected from the bar, was taunting the bouncer, asking him where he was from, what he was doing here and why he did not understand her language.

My friend was now very angry and she felt that it was typical for a male-dominated, violent and patriarchal society to treat women in such a way. Also, that the two women were apparently a couple turned this into a homophobic incidence as well.

I was struck by the sudden violence, partially fuelled by too much alcohol consumption, but foremost by the indifference with which the violence was greeted by the people around. Some tried to say that the women deserved such treatment since they caused the trouble. Others had smirks on their face, taking the misery of others as entertainment, completely ignoring pain and distress.

This is what made me pause - how casual we have become in our response to violent and socially pathological behaviour.