Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the poverty of the airwaves

There is much talk about 5FM deejay Gareth Cliff these days and his rantings about failings of government, a black government that is. Now, judging from my listening to South African radio, deejays are being paid for ranting. Lets face it. Commercialisation was very bad for the airwaves in this country. The intelligence of deejays and what they say is simply appaling. It does not matter which radio station you tune in, the stupidity of them all hits you right in they eye. At least that is what I hear on English language radio, I only hope is that it is better on African language and Afrikaans radio; please let me know about it.

Cliff makes stupid jokes at the expense of others. This is what his listeners like. Just rant on about this ugly man or that stupid woman or whatever - this is what his listeners like, black and white. Another DJ on the same station whose name eludes me talked about girlie men having the same interest as women in a music band. Another jabb at some people, here gays and lesbians, just for fun. Ha, ha, very funny,

So in my view, it is not so much about Cliff being racist by ranting on about the government. If all ranting white South Africans were doing it because they were racist, then there would indeed be no hope for the country: all whites would then appear to be racist.

I do think however that many racists will find confirmation of their views about black incompetence and black and African failure in his rantings. But what about the black people who like his stuff - his rantings about the government and his gutter humour? Self-hating blacks?

No, the rampant commercialisation of public life seems to me the better explanation for the poverty of the airwaves. Or perhaps political interference and expediency. When I first came to South Africa, I listened a few hours daily to SAFM - it had high calibre hosts, and broadcast intelligent, challenging and smart shows. Now, there is not one station I am listening to. Radio is no longer a medium for news and information. I tried to switch to 702, but please, if Redi Direko and John Robbie are considered the intellectuls of the airwaves, then you know that radio has ceased to exist as a medium for intelligent conversation.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The end of non-racialism?

At the ANC’s General National Council in Durban, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe called for a renewed effort to gain the support of minorities for the ruling party. He said that support for the ANC among white communities had been on the increase since 2004, and that an outreach programme “was used to engage communities that have worked against or were not close to the ANC historically.” He particularly mentioned Indian and Coloured communities that required a differentiated approach. Mantashe had made this call for inclusiveness several times over the past year. However, the more he does so, the less credible his claim that the party is still the political home for all South Africans. Listening to older generation anti-apartheid activists talking about non-racialism, one is struck by the sense of nostalgia that it evokes – the once celebrated ideal that aspired to overcome race and that heldped garnering support around the world for the struggle against apartheid seems to have fallen by the wayside.

The dominant tendency within the governing party is away from non-racialism - free reign is given to African nationalism, celebrating and extolling the triumph of the advancement of the black African. The ANC youth, with plenty of nationalist fervour, is leading the way. For the young and dynamic, black, well educated or well connected, the future is promising. Without any direct experience of the perniciousness and divisiveness of racial and ethnic mobilisation, the African nationalist youth seizes the opportunities for personal advancement. In their thirst for power and enrichment, they have no qualms about playing the race or ethnic card. Theirs is a congregation of the ambitious, with little insight in, and even less desire to examine, the promises of a non-racial society. With their political experience confined to post-apartheid student politics, leaders such as Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu see non-racialism as a mere slogan, perhaps as a tactical tool that uses minorities to gain power.

The ANC is turning into an ordinary political party, devoid of the moral imperative of a liberation movement that wanted to create a better and more just society. As a nationalist party, the ANC is now the party that serves the enrichment of a self-styled patriotic bourgeoisie. Looking northwards, across our borders and back in time, it is déjà-vu all over again. After the wave of anti-colonial liberation that had swept across Africa in the 1960s, kleptocratic elites, under the guise of national mobilisation, ruined their societies. Nationalist rhetoric celebrated the suffering, struggle and triumph of the oppressed, while state and society were being looted for personal enrichment. Then and now, race and ethnicity is mobilized to divide and rule.

The current practices of Black Economic Empowerment and Employment Equity maintain race awareness without contributing enough to empower black people. For instances, to overcome the mental and material legacy that apartheid’s white supremacists had left behind, non-racial employment equity policies, based on class, would have suited South Africa well. It would have allowed for black empowerment without praising the virtues of race, as race and class did, and to a large extent still do, overlap so dramatically. Employment equity policies that support the poor would uplift primarily black people without excluding poor white people, an important symbolic act in a non-racial and caring society that aims to comfort all those left behind. However, employment equity as we encounter it today is arbitrary, legitimizes race thinking and serves as a rallying cry for black nationalists. It is surprising how quickly non-racialism turned into an empty promise. In a diverse and divided society as South Africa is, non-racialism is a symbol for a civic nationalism which establishes the South African nation as a home for all, no matter their race or ethnicity. In contrast, ethnic nationalism privileges one race or ethnicity over others. Last year’s outcry by black nationalists at the appointment of Gill Marcus, a white woman and stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle, as Governor of the Reserve Bank, is just another indicator how ordinary the bankrupt rhetoric of nationalist mobilisation and race talk has become.
A few years ago, one could remain optimistic that the ruling party was finding a compromise between African nationalism and liberal constitutionalism. After all, such was required if the majority of South Africans was to have a better life. This is no longer the case. Self-enrichment is what defines the ANC today. Just look at the party’s youth, the future of the country?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Afrikaner Afrikaan, a documentary film by Rina Jooste, 2009

I attended the screening of Afrikaner Afrikaan, a documentary film that dealt with Afrikaner identity at the Encounters Film Festival in Johannesburg. The audience at the Bioscope Theater in the centre of the city, a hip place with an ‘indie’ feel and which will hopefully one day develop into a real Cinémathèque, was dominantly white and Afrikaner which made me wonder whether black South Africans had already given up on their white compatriots and did not expect much from the film and the discussion with the author and two of its protagonists.

In the documentary, two opposing perspectives on Afrikaner identity square off against each other. There are those who want to turn away from Afrikaner exclusive ethnicity and nationalism, and try to find new ways ‘of being’ in a diverse country. They are quarreling with those who believe Afrikaners should be proud of themselves, their culture and history, and did not need anyone’s approval and sympathy. While the former see themselves as opening up to the ‘Other’, embracing Africa and black people, the latter call for the defense of Afrikaners, their language and culture.

The former are represented by Deon Maas, a media personality, and Johrné van Huyssteen, from the pop-rock band Ddisselblom. Both were in attendance. The ‘ethnicists’ or ‘culturalists’ are represented by Sean Else who rose to prominence as the producer behind singer Bork Van Blerk and his hit song De La Rey, a celebration of a South African War General, and the Blut und Boden musical Ons vir jou, a nostalgic tour the force of Afrikaner history and culture; in short, the stuff of which nationalism is made of.

In the film, Else denied that he wanted to indulgence in right-wing nostalgia but argued that Afrikaners should be proud of themselves - in the same way that Zulus were. He said that he was looking a black man in the eye with pride; in contrast, Johrné would try to avoid the black man’s eyes, and turn away in shame and guilt. So ja, it is then all about how Afrikaners are today relating to black people and this sought-after audience was absent.

Another question that came up was whether musicians who celebrated the Afrikaner past and Afrikaner heroes were doing it for the money or if they were truly indulging in historical revisionism and rightwing politics. I suspect that both go together – celebrating the Afrikaner past puts bums on seats and sells CDs. After all, over decades of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid, Afrikaners indulged this kind of ‘cultural’ national chauvinism, and it surely meets a consumer demand.

For Maas, Van Huyssteen, and author Jooste, the ‘De La Rey’ song was an example of the resurgence of nationalist exclusion and even racism among Afrikaners. That was made clear in the ensuing discussion. The general mood in the audience seemed that Else’s productions were an expression of a rising ethnic mobilization, even racism among Afrikaners. Only one young member of the audience argued that a liking for nostalgic music was not necessarily an endorsement of a right-wing and racist agenda.

In my own research, I came across the same ambivalence: attempts to appreciate, even salvage the past, no matter how tainted it is, go together with feelings of shame, awkwardness over racism and abuse in the name of Afrikaners. So a celebration of Afrikaner culture and ethnicity is not necessarily a yearning for white supremacy and racist apartheid. Nostalgia is an attempt to relate the past to the present. Yet, the question remains. Will nostalgia help Afrikaners to find a new pride in their history to become part of the new South Africa, as Else would have it? Or is the danger real that nostalgia for an honorable, Afrikaner past, one that ignores the abyss of white supremacy and apartheid domination, leads to racism in the present?

The irony of the South African post-colony is that the position of the progressive ones, Maas and Van Huyssteen, had been strongly criticized by black South African intellectuals. In one of his songs, Van Huyssteen sings of the white colonial immigrant who falls in love with a black woman. By doing so, he is claiming black African ancestry for himself and Afrikaners. Such claim of black ancestry, and its socio-political usage in contemporary South Africa has been rejected as an attempt to bury history and unproblematically claim adherence and belonging to an Africa and Africans that until recently were denigrated.

The same irony was at play when Maas was responding to a question that addressed the work of artist Anton Kannemeyer and his recent publication Pappa in Afrika. Maas supported the work and said it was the best contemporary satire in South Africa, even better than what renowned cartoonist Zapiro, had done. In a recent feature article in the Mail and Guardian weekly newspaper, Khwezi Gule, curator at the Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto, had criticized Kannemeyer for perpetuating racism under the guise of art that was supposed to shock and challenge stereotypes and racism. While the celebration of folkloric pride and ethnic identity, if not chauvinism, amongst Afrikaners and Zulus appears to have been endorsed by President Jacob Zuma, debates among progressives how Afrikaners can belong to an African South Africa, are far from achieving a similar consensus.

Despite all the risks associated with it, more discussions on identity, the past, and inclusiveness are desirable - across the colourline.





Thursday, August 12, 2010

Life beyond race – seminar blog

I have not participated in the last seminar of the series, titled ‘Life beyond Race’ but I have read the three articles; David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race - Reflections on Neoliberalism, chapters three and eight; Sarah Nuttall, Entanglement - Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid, chapter one; and Paul Gilroy, On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture - Darker Than Blue, chapter one. What follows is a summary and a discussion.

All the three articles address the issue of race and its entanglements. In David Theo Goldberg’s case it is the entanglement of race, racisms, and the neo-liberal state; with Sarah Nuttall, it is about re-reading identities, spaces, and histories that had been thought of as separate in order to find “points of intersection”; for Gilroy finally, entanglement is about the complex relationship between capitalism and racial divisions.

David Theo Goldberg makes two major claims. The first is that the emergence of the modern nation-state, largely a western and European construct, went together with race and racisms. State-making went with racism-making. The second is that the current triumphant neo-liberalism, as the dominant political and economic ideology adapted by many nation-states, re-enforces race thinking and racisms. As a global development, Goldberg identities five global areas in which particular forms of racisms, channelled through the state, occur: American (United States of America), Latin American, European, South African, and Palestinian racism. Analysing the leading, American racism, Goldberg argues that the roll-back of state programs which benefited black people is undermining much of the achievement towards racial justice that originated in the Civil Rights era. While the official state prohibits racism, private racism is accepted as the norm. Against this domination of whiteness, of (white) homogeneity Goldberg upholds heterogeneity. While this sociological approach is illuminating in indicating the global forces of capitalism and racism and how they manifest themselves through the state, the juxtaposition of homogeneity and heterogeneity seems to leave out much of what is happening in between; the shifts, leaps and bounds. Also, processes of challenges to this system of separation seem to be neglected. Previous discussions during this seminar on the opening and closing frontier in 17th and 18th century South Africa, for instances, offer insights into the intricacies of racial and power relations. It is then not only a linear expansion of European racism across the globe that is the constituting and determinant factor in where a future beyond race may lie. Rather, frontiers across race and class were and are shifting during struggles and processes, with different actors seizing opportunities, making and breaking alliances in the quest for control, security and resources.

To read closer these spaces that are in-between is the project of Nuttall’s articulation of entanglements across the colour line in reading literary and cultural production in South Africa. She is doing so with the help of creolité and how this concept first introduced elsewhere can be applied to South Africa; its strength is that it originates in the historical experience of slavery and its aftermath, integrates resistance but also accounts for subjection. With the background of a history of apartheid that strove to enforce racial divisions, the neglected or hidden history of the permeability of racial boundaries moves center stage. According to Nuttall, the South African approach to race and class emphasized the working class and neglected peasant culture, middle-class migrant and city cultures. Pointers towards what has the potential of undoing racial formations and hierarchies may emerge in analysing what has been over looked. In contemporary South Africa, more choices are available in terms of racial identification. As we analyse the ‘now’, racial entanglements, past and present, emerge.

In his analysis of the entanglement of American capitalism with African Americans, as former slaves who were reified and sold as commodities, Gilroy points to an uncomfortable observation: contemporary manifestations of African American popular culture do not augur well for emancipatory politics. Rather, an obsession with material culture negates the elevation of the self beyond the status of a mere object, as Gilroy’s reading of recent rap lyrics indicate. In this analysis, he joins Frantz Fanon who had described earlier the “formation of racial ontologies as part of the sociogenesis of deeply alienated human subjects” in which black people appear as objects. Gilroy’s is an analysis of the moral economy of the black Atlantic, with a focus on black people as consumers, and their particular relationship with the automobile. The mobility of the automobile held the promise of freedom which in the absence of full citizenship remained elusive. Furthermore, the automobile as an object of consumption has a larger significance in a globalizing world, with energy and environmental crisis, and deep cleavages between the rich and the poor across the globe.

Where do these readings leave us in our quest to understand contemporary South Africa? While consumer cultures give us choice, even in terms of racial identification, their emancipatory content is far from evident. Gilroy’s piece seems to contain a warning for South Africans who believe consumption and black advancement to middle class status will guarantee racial harmony. Unfettered neo-liberal capitalism, combined with the state abdicating social responsibility, maintains the status quo of racial inequality. Much of what happens at the level of the state is subjected to the ebb and flow of global capitalism, and if South Africa is analysed as a frontier society, this will have to be taken into consideration. The frontier in history has also been a moment of indetermination and flux. To grasp the nature of the current frontier appears more difficult yet necessary to gain better insights into “points of intersection” and future racial formations.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Safeguarding democracy in Germany and South Africa

Like Germany, South Africa hosted a successful World Cup. Unfortunately, we will not turn overnight into a global powerhouse as Germany is. We are a middle-income, developing, African country. A former colony located in the southern hemisphere. Germany is the world’s fourth largest economy, a dominant European power that possessed African colonies until 1918. But we share a few things. We both receive immigrants. Previously, southern European migrants, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and others, went north in search of work and found a new home in Germany - now it is largely workers from Turkey and their families who do so. South Africa, ever since apartheid ended, has become a promised land for many Africans from across the continent in search of a better life.

We both lived through darkness, but regained respectability. Germany was ruled by a ruthless dictator from 1933 to 1945 who was responsible for the devastation of the whole of Europe in World War II during which Germans conceived and implemented the holocaust, the near annihilation of the European Jewry. In South Africa, the apartheid state held on to white supremacy, exploited black people, made them second class citizens in their own lands and laid waste to neighbouring countries. Both had committed crimes against humanity. After the war, from what Germans call die Stunde Null on, the hour zero, a new state and nation emerged, a democratic republic, with a liberal constitution and provisions to safeguard fundamental human rights. So did South Africa. Apartheid injustice gave way to democracy and liberal constitutionalism – all citizens, independent of their origins, beliefs, and gender, share equal rights and duties.

Despite these commonalities, how the issues of migration and fundamental freedoms are currently played out could not be more different. In Germany, Ms. Aygül Özkan became the first minister of Turkish origins in the region of Niedersachsen. This is unprecedented in a country that still struggles to live harmoniously with its sizable Turkish minority, of which most are Muslim. However, as often is the case with newcomers, the minister, with little experience in politics after a successful career in business, made a major mistake. In a letter to local media, she asked them to support the government’s efforts to integrate foreigners by signing a media charter that prescribed a common practice when reporting on integration. In a swift response, the media, the opposition and eventually her own ruling Christian Democratic Party condemned what was widely seen as an attempt to threaten media freedom. The president of Niedersachsen apologized to the public and reiterated his commitment to media freedom.

In South Africa, our government is at pains to acknowledge that we need to change the way we treat African immigrants. Continued disregard for their human rights is undermining our own social fabric and our standing across the continent and the world. Given the way our government chose to respond until now, it will be by chance, not design, if less xenophobic violence will take place. And the same apparent carelessness is now undermining access to information and media freedom. The information bill and the media tribunal are testimony to how little awareness about the fragility of democracy and the constitutional state there is among the ANC members of parliament. As the common history of Germany and South Africa shows, once democratic values and practices are lost, regaining them comes at a high cost.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The World Cup is on!

Rightfully does South Africa and the world celebrate this soccer fest. The mood in the country, despite Bafana's defeat against Uruguay, is exhilarating. I can't remember any time since 2002 that people were so friendly, even more than usual, and all the daily strain seems so distant.

This is perhaps what makes this African and South African World Cup: the excitement across the country. There may be glitches with ticket sales, rather a problem of FIFA's greed, and transport, but the happiness factor that comes with soccer is quite unique.

The question remains: is it worthwhile for a developing country to spend obsence sums of money on a soccer fest that benefits Western capitalists and the mafia that is FIFA? It is clearly a problem that we don't know the salaries of the FIFA head honchos and that an organisation with such global importance has not accountability and is a law unto themselves. See the Insititute for Security Studies report at http://www.iss.co.za/pgcontent.php?UID=29940

Can we tally up the expenses for the World Cup with what we could have built in houses, job creation, and other programmes? Or can we say that the gain in happiness for a few weeks across the country was worthwhile the money spent?

I think the answer is yes and no. Remember that South Africa's development problem is not lack of funds - it is the lack of coherence and organisation in delivery, in creating and executing policies that advance the country. Perhaps then, the expenditure is justified and the gain in goodwill and happiness will create a better country which will be able to do things better.

Yet, the FIFA money fest has contributed to more corruption and unjustifiable expenditures. As a mafia organisation, besides the soccer fun, we cannot expect good practice to come from such an organisation. Also, instead of getting light headed through games, should we not focus on what needs to be done to improve the country? Rolling-up the sleeves, not partying should be the order of the day. And then, the World Cup money could have been spent on improving governance and towards sustainable livelihoods.

Perhaps we can say that if we could be assured that the World Cup was a clean business, we would be more understandable of the expenses. Also, if more would go towards supporting poor communities than just celebrating the rich, the fiesta that world soccer is, would gain much.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tertiary Education - what will the Stakeholder Summit bring?

It is never good to announce bad news, especially when you are new in a place. Nobody likes a Cassandra - the harbinger of bad news. The best example I can think of, and an object lesson in electoral politics that speaking the truth even, and especially if, it is bad news, is never popular, was the contest, after the unification of East and West Germany, between the Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine and Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl for the Chancellorship.

To punch drunken Germans, still celebrating the newly united country, Lafontaine warned that it will be a very expensive unification and Germany would better think clearly this one through and find ways to mitigate the problems that may emerge.

Not so Kohl. He celebrated the unification, and promised "flowering landscapes" to an eager electorate. And Kohl won, and Germany is still trying today to digest the unification.

I digress.

But as recent graduate students at the University of the Witwatersrand, we faced so many obstacles and so little support, it was indeed a miracle that students managed to finish their degrees. And when we warned that things were not rosy, we were just ignnored and silenced. I do not intend to pick unfairly on Wits, but this is where I got my degree from and where I made my tertiary experience.

Clearly, the university was under enormous strain and faced capacity problems. But what strikes me even today is that all the people, instiutions, and individuals who 'carry' the university were unable to acknowledge and act upon the problems that threaten the health and contintuation of the academic and intellectual endeavour.

In any forum within the university that issues were raised, a stony silence and passive resistance met the complainants. And of course, nothing changed. So it is with no surprise that we learn of the Declaration that the recent Stakeholders Summit of Higher Education had made, and particularly the focus on improving the conditions of studying and ensuring that universities produce new cohorts of graduates who are smart enough to take up teaching and research positions.

The writing is on the wall. University faculty is aging and we are not producing the graduates who can take up their positions.


Just to consider a few examples. Graduate students need support and facilities. At one Faculty Meeting, the library asked for more money. The good librarian was told that Faculty would not use the library as its holdings were poor and Faculty would not divert 'their' money to the library. Now, how are graduate students supposed to do cutting edge research which requires books when Faculty says the holdings were so poor that they were not using it?

Another issue is the low level of throughput. A high percentage of students fail. This reflects the poor education that especially undergraduate students, even at formerly white universities, receive. Too many students walk away with a three year BA degree but they can't read and write properly.

This is a dangerous situation for any developing country. When I studied about the causes of the war in the former Yugoslavia, one contribution to the war was the easy mobilization of young men ready for war and highly gullible, somewhat educated but not quite, yet easily seduced by the facile explanations of populist leaders. The authoritarian university system had produced graduates who had certain skills but were in fact only semi-educated.

Now, if South African universities continue to churn out half-baked graduates, we create cohorts of young men and women with high aspirations but little chances to make it into well-paying jobs and into a better life.

Pseudo-education and resentment create individuals who may easily fall for a populist leader, promising easy solutions to complex problems.

Yet universities, given their limited capacities, ignored the problem. But I still don't understand how come that all the issues that students had raised about 10 years ago, internally, are only now recognized at a high-level university forum as pressing?

If the stakeholder summit reflects a change in thinking, maybe university education can still live up to the needs of a modern and developing society.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Walter Benjamin. The know-how of the author in thirteen theses

I was away for a week writing, out in the bundus, and Benjamin was helping.

I. Whoever intends to write a considerable work, should enjoy themselves and allow themselves, after having finished their daily work, whatever does not render its continuation impossible.

II. Talk about what you have achieved, if you want to, but do not read [to others] while you are still working on it. The satisfaction that you thereby acquire slows down your speed. If you follow this commandment, your growing wish to communicate will eventually become the engine of accomplishment.

III. In your work setting, try to avoid the mediocrity of your everyday life. Semi-quietness, surrounded by dim noises engenders disrespect. However, the accompaniment of an etude or murmuring voices may become as important for your work as the silence of the night. In case it will fine tune your inner ear, it will turn into a testing ground of a diction that is so thorough that even eccentric noises will be drown out.

IV. Avoid random tools of the trade. Pedantic insistence on certain paper, pens, and ink is useful. Not luxury, but the abundance of these utensils is absolutely required.

V. Do not let pass any thought unnoticed [incognito] and be as serious in keeping track of them as the immigration police is of foreigners.

VI. Guard your pen against a spontaneous idea and it will, with the strength of a magnet, attract even more ideas. The more circumspect you treat an idea, the more mature it will turn out to be. Speech conquers thought but writing is in charge [control] of it.

VII. Never stop writing because you lack inspiration. It is a commandment of literary honor to stop only for keeping an appointment (a lunch or dinner appointment or a meeting) or if your work has been finished.

VIII. The absence of inspiration shall be filled with copying what you have achieved. Through it, your intuition will awaken.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea (Not one day without [writing] a line) – but certainly weeks.

X. Never consider a work as accomplished if you have not even sat over it from evening to morning.

XI. The final lines of a work do not write in you usual work space. You would not find the courage to finish in it.

XII. The steps of writing: thought – style – written word. It is the meaning of the proper copy that that it focuses the attention on the calligraphy. Thought kills inspiration, style attaches thought, the written word remunerates style.

XIII. The opus is the death mask of the concept.

From: One Way Street. (Einbahnstrasse). Bibliothek Suhrkamp, 1991, p. 46 – 49. Translated by Thomas M.Blaser

Friday, April 30, 2010

Running a marathon: experiencing race

This past weekend, I was running a marathon in the south of Johannesburg, in the Klipriver area, a suburb wedged between Soweto and Kathlegong. It was my first ever and it was my last chance to qualify for the coming Comrades Ultramarathon, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

The race went well and I qualified by running the intermediate to difficult parcours in 4 hours and 53 minutes.

One reason for my success was that from mid-way on, I joined the 'bus' led by Tebogo from Kathlegong whose flag that he carried on his back read he would drive his bus over the finishing line in under 5 hours.

The running bus was a piece of black culture in motion. There was about a core group of 10 runners who appeared to know each other well for they run in harmony, even synchronized, in breathing, gesture and rhythm. From time to time, a member of the group would start a chant into which the entire bus joined. "E-zy", "e-zy", one would go. Another went "hayi-bo", 'hayi-bo". There was also "So-ber", "so-ber" and a few others. Members would hurry in front from the back and fire the group on through exhortations. Given the last chant, I could picture the entire group during a church service. Indeed, it felt a bit like being in a black church. But foremost through the running in rhythm, I was taken back 18 years, when I was dancing to the rhythm of the congas at the Othella Dallas Dance School in Basel, Switzerland. It was the same feeling of unity, of captivating rhythm in phyisical exertion that made me feel good and in unity with humanity and the universe.

What struck me also was that this bus was running in formation and with much unity. For those who were a bit tired and struggled, including me, the group carried us forward and over the finishing line in time with ease. Perhaps not with ease, but rather so that the pain no longer mattered.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The race war that wasn't

Judging from some international media reports, one could have thought that a race war had finally arrived in South Africa. Some local analysts found that racial tension had heigthened. In contrast, a recent survey found that overall race relations were improving (http://westcapenews.com/?p=1389), despite the murder of neo-nazi leader Eugene Terreblanche and the diatribes of Julius Malema, the leader of the African Congress Youth League.

How should we interprete what is currently happening? I think that all of that has only apparently so much to do with race, but South Africa is foremost dealing with political problems that manifest themselves in leaps and bounds.

In my Phd submitted in 2007, I talked to young Afrikaners in order to get their sense of how they feel about the country, politics, black people, the legacy of apartheid, and so on. There was very little sense of taking up arms in order to defend an Afrikaner nation or ward off a black assault.

All manifested displeasure at affirmative action and almost all denied any responsibility for the apartheid past. In fact, there was not even a sense of belonging to a persecuted white group that required minority status protection.

Some scholars claimed that the minorities in South Africa, read, the white minority (for the other minorities, usually referred to as the Indians and Coloureds, are seen to carry much less weight in terms of numerical clout and organisational power), would more and more organise in order to resist the encroachment on their privileges. Yet I fail to see the evidence that this is happening.

The followers of Terreblanche who received so much media attention are hardly representing Afrikaners. Indeed, Afrikaner nationalism is dead and neither the ghost of Terreblanch nor the success of the song 'De la Rey' will galvanize a people into action to take up arms or to mobilize ethnicity.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The intellectual emptiness of the post-colony

William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni call it 'the poverty of ideas' in the title of their recently published collection of essays. For Peter Vale, it is the think-tanks that should launch new ideas and provoke through launching challenging debates. Yet all they do is rehash old and tired, ideological standpoints.

Professor Achille Mbembe, in his opening two part lecture of the Sawyer Seminar series at Wits University, reviews Frantz Fanon and his relevance for South Africa, and Africa, today. In Fanon's analysis of the newly liberated countries, ruled by the nationalist parties of the liberation movements, a profound lack of intellectual engagement dulls the spirit of the post-colony. Lazyness, especially of the intellectual type, marks the landscape.

Parallels with our present of this observation are all too close. On the left, we have the resurrection of a revolutionary discourse that adds however little insight. It is a mere regurgitation of apparently anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-imperial agit-prop as it has been the staple of left-wing, Marxist inspired discourse since the 1960s. Or how does the equalisation of the white liberal with the racist, criminal murderer a la 'prime evil' Eugene de Kock add any new insights to our contemporary society and politics ?

From the right, we read that affirmative action, as it is practiced today, is the precursor of genocide. Current BEE policies are the same as the policies implemented by the Nazis in the 1930s in Germany against Jewish Germans. This is a variant of a theme that compared apartheid oppression to fascism, an existing strand in standard academic discourse on apartheid. Again, little insight about current predicaments is gained from such arguments.

Unfortunately, I could continue with this list.

So where to can we turn for the emergence of an intellectual discoursre that deserves its name and will provide us with new insights on our current politics and society? We may be quite far away from such a new impetus, and perhaps a long spell of a sobering draught is upon us, but I think it will emerge from a push for a renewed affirmation of non-racialism and in defence of the values enshrined in our constitution.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Another taxi blog

This Sunday eveing I was doing my usual jogging in the Emmerentia area. As I was climbing up Hill Street, reaching Judith Street, I heard an enraged yell. "Move you Kaffer, move!" Had I heard right? A small grey car, trailing a fully loaded minibus taxi, was slowly climbing up the road above me. "Move you Kaffer", the agitated, white head shouted again. I did not trust my ears but the repetition made it clear: 'ordinary' racism taking its course.

As I write this, I think back of two other encounters in which white South Africans gave free vent to their racism. It is in theses moments that I doubt my own, usually held view that many young and white South Africans try to break with their heritage of white supremacy and apartheid racism and strive to live with black Africans as equals, as fellow human beings, and not as a racialized and inferior others.

What the chattering white classes forget is that the racialized populism of a Julius Malema, and the race-card-as-trump-card that Thabo Mbeki used to pull, resonate only because of the persistence of racism, ordinary and everyday.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Who will take on the taxi mafia?

There is no point in trying to make this look nice. The majority of South Africans travels to work and leisure with transport that is owned and operated by mafia syndicates.

I waited the other day at the gates of a learning institution in Gauteng. There were a few cars around that served as taxis, waiting for students and ferry them to their homes. Parked in front of me were two BMW 325, with rather menacing looking occupants, slim men, physical, cool. One of them went to the taxi drivers, and came back with the money they handed over to him.

Now, I can be mistaken, but it looked like the usual protection racket. In Sicily, it is called the 'pitso' - the daily money collected from small business operators for 'protection'. That I was not too far of the mark was confirmed when my friend told me that the combi operators, the mafia structures that operate the Toyata buses as taxis, had staged earlier a protest at the gates of the institution against the independent taxi drivers from whom they were now collecting money.

While they could not ban the independent taxi drivers, and they probably wanted the institution to do this for them, they went the other route and demanded now protection money from them. The independent drivers were cheaper and more suited to the needs of the students, especially female students who would be dropped right in front of their homes.

The question is what has happened since the end of apartheid to the transport sector? Why are these mafia structures sill in place? At a conference five years ago that evaluated the achievements and short-comings of ten years of democracy, the issue of transport was largely absent. Only a few years later, transport came back on the agenda when it dawned upon government that the delivery of houses, toilets, and jobs, would not be sufficient without infrastructure.

As an apparently efficient public rapid bus system is being introduced in Johannesburg, the taxi mafia is mounting another assault on the commen good by staging strikes and by shooting on buses. In light of the daily revelations of corruption between politicians and business interests, it is not far-flung to think that someone in political offices was benefitting and dragging their feet in taking the mafia on. I am waiting for revelations on why it took so long to take on this mafia. Any ideas?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What the President's view on culture says about his politics

The honeymoon is over.

South Africans desire a government that gets the basics done: education, health care, effective policing, infrastructure, clean water, affordable eletctricity; support for business, workers, and households. In other words, the things that a modern state is supposed to do.

Continuous street protests indicate that too many, especially poor people, no longer believe that government will deliver.

Already in the dying days of the Mbeki regime, such was the declared focus of the men and women in charge.

As the Zuma presidency takes shape, it remains to be seen whether these goods will be delivered.

Instead, what clearly stands out under the Zuma regime is a decisive tilt towards conservative, cultural politics. It is as if the Marxists had it right. The world of discourse and ideas is a mere reflection of the materal basis. The failure to improve on the material basis, the living conditions of people, is matched with the take over of conservative cultural politics - is this a ploy to throw sand in the eyes of the public and the masses?

Mbeki was applauded for having united two strands within the liberation movement: the Congress tradition, with its non-racialism, and the black consciousness tradition. While the black consciousness tradition was driven by the youth, the Zuma presidency now seems to add the black African nationalists and traditionalists, as represented by an elite group of mostly older men who rule over the countryside.

The Traditional Leaders' Bill, currently with the Appeals Court, made the ouverture to patriarchal, if not authoritarian 'traditional' leadership explicit - from this perspective, the ruling ANC had given up its claim to progressive politics, in the style of European social democrats, as Mbeki claimed was the ideology of his party. The usual political incantations of working for non-racialism, non-sexism, and against any form of discrimination remain just that - incantations, detached from the realities of power and the desire to govern a diverse, unjust, and unequal society.

It is in fact astonishing that the large support of the ANC for conservative 'traditional' leaders has not drawn more attention. It also makes sense to see this trend in Thabo Mbeki's and his health minister's, Manto Tshabala-Msimang, support for traditional healers in the face of an HIV/AIDS crisis. While it would make sense to mobilise and combine all health providers that people use, the benefit of traditional healers, especially for women's health, is not established.

Rather, with a bias towards men, traditional healers, with traditional leadership, can be seen as a conservative-traditional complex that works against women. Women are usually blamed by the traditional healers when things go wrong in the household. The leader of the association of traditinal leaders, Patakile Holomisa, only gave a mealie-mouthed condemnation of the practice, in the name of tradition, that abducts young women and sells them off to old men. Clearly, the interests and practices of traditional healers and leaders do not sit well with the Constitution.

In the buil-up to the ANC Polokwane conference in 2007 and the power contest that Zuma won, his statement that he would beat up a gay man in front of him could be interpreted as an exageration surfacing during heated campaigning for rural and conservative support. Zuma apologized. However, it is increasingly becoming clear that with Zuma in charge, the ANC is veering to the right. Culture is the most visible victim of this new celebration of conservative 'values'.

At the opening of the first Zuma parliament earlier in 2010, the leader of the opposition party, the IFP, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, asked all men to stand up in honour of Madiba. Zuma, including all ANC men, obliged. A lonely Naledi Pandor was ridiculed by laughing men across the party lines for protesting the exclusion of women from parliamentary ritual, even tough it was not routine.

Last week, Lulu Xingwana, the minister of Arts and Culture, reportedly stormed out of the opening of an exhibition that displayed photographs of women who love women and failed to give her speech. She said it was immoral and unsuited for children to see such photographs. A press release made the outburst even worse by declaring the photographs were undermining social cohesion and nation building.

The minister's outburst and her ministry's declaration fly in the face of the country's Constitution that aims to protect people in their diversity. It is even more worrisome in that it supports a mindset that views discrimination against gays and lesbians as normal for their lives and loves are supposedly immoral. Hate crimes against gays and especially lesbians are at an all time high, according to recent reports, and perpetrators must feel affirmed in their intolerance and hate by the minister.

In the same way that the 'war talk' of the Minister of Police supports officers who break the law and use lethal force in an indiscriminate manner, Xingwana's statements support those who believe same-sex relations are wrong and give free reign to their hate.

Zuma's usual defence against criticism has now become the claim that such is 'his culture'. Before taking off to London for a state visit, Zuma responded to his stance on Zimbabwe's new law limiting foreign ownership of companies to 49%, that it was not his culture to criticize the laws of other countries.

While there is much to be said and thought about tradition and culture in the post-colony, the elevation of culture as a catch-all explanation for anything and everything by a President who faces many obstacles, many of which are by his own doing, does not augur well for the realisation of progressive and democratic politics.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Do we really need a new morality initiative?

The sexual mores of our President have landed him again in hot water, and as any other shrewed politician would do, he deploys diversion tactics to make the issue go away.

All around the world, when there is a big problem that threatens to subsist, what you do is to instigate a Commission. It gives the impression that you do something and by the time the findings are published, no one will be interested in it anymore -other current affairs will have taken over. It is no different with Jacob Zuma's proposal for a Commission to probe South Africa's morals.

Yet, to focus on morals in solving social and political problems is also the typical stuff of the right wing, straight out of the conservative style book. John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations, taking his cue from US and UK conservatives, usually claims that the statistical absence of the proper South African family (mom, dad, and two children living under one roof) explains many social ills. And the restoration of the "family" will somehow solve the problem. Neglected are then the historical, social, and political dimensions of the problem.

While morality matters, the real question is what kind of morals are we talking about? Concern for morality often serves as a smoke screen for promoting conservative, political values. The scourge of rape and violence against women is hardly caused by young women wearing mini-skirts; pregnant school girls are not the ones to be blamed for their early pregnancy, but rather the (usually older) men who trade sex for (material) favours; HIV/AIDS cannot be controlled by ostracizing those who have contracted the virus, as through marking their buttocks, but by treating it as an illness that requires medical and preventive measures, and so on.

Conservative moralists want to suggest that if only people would be follow the right morals, the social, economic, and political conditions would improve. To me, this seems barking up the wrong tree.

If the zeal to enforce conservative family values was as big as the desire to demand fair behaviour by those with power, be it in government or the private sector, be it by those high up or by exerising merely parental authority, we would go a long way addressing the problems that bedevil us.

Acting in morally sound ways involves more than policing sexual and social behaviour - a starting point would be to reflect as to how power and authority are, should and could be, exercised.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Are South Africa's business ethics Wild West?

On Monday 4 January 2010 I bought Gillette Razor blades with a value of R 185.00 at the Clicks store at Campus Square shopping centre, Johannesburg. I realized that I had bought the wrong blades after I had opened the packet at home. Gillette has two razor shaving systems that look quite similar but that require different and specific razor blades.

I had merely cut the cover paper of the razor blades but I did not take the blades out of their plastic covers.

The next day, 5 January 2010, I was told by the store manager that he would not refund the blades as I had opened the packet. I told him that I had no use for the blades and that I would have to throw them away. He told me that I should have consulted properly with staff in order to buy the right blades. I accepted that I had bought the wrong blades by mistake but since I had no use for these blades, I required a refund. He refused.

I then called the Clicks Customer Centre. The agent repeated the same argument from the store manager: it was my mistake as the packet had been opened and the hygiene of the packet was compromised. The agent even asked me if I would buy blades from an open packet. Then, I was told that they would call the store manager to convince him to refund the blades. I told the agent that I would like to speak to the Regional Manager as it seems to me Clicks has a policy of refusing refunds. I was not called back the same day as I had requested.

On 6 January 2010, I called them again. No progress was reported. One hour after my call, another agent called to tell me that the Regional Manager would call me within the hour. He duly called and repeated the same: how thankful I should be that they refund the blades as they were wasted for them. Clicks would carry a loss from the refund. When I asked if Procter and Gamble, the owner of Gillette, would refund them, he said no. He denied that it was Clicks policy to discourage refunds.

I find this statement, that Procter and Gamble, would not refund Clicks hard to believe. I had contacted their Customer Care Line and they agreed without any questioning to refund me. All I had to do was to send them the purchased blades. If Procter and Gamble refunds an individual consumer, would they not refund a much more powerful retail company?

On 7 January 2010, I went back to the Campus Square Clicks and my purchase was refunded. Which raises the question: why could the store manager issue a refund only once I had contacted the Clicks Customer Centre? Why would he agree to do something three days later which he had previously refused?

Or has Clicks so little confidence in their store managers that they require these safety measures as to avoid internal corruption? Is it then a safety measure in order to avoid abuse? Or is this an administrative system that tries to make it as cumbersome as possible for Clicks clients to receive a refund?

If you look up Clicks on the ‘Hello Peter’ consumer complaints website, you will see that there are a high number of cases that individuals report and in which store managers refuse refunds for all kinds of reasons.

A colleague of mine had purchased in November 2009 prescription glasses with a value of R 400.00 at the Clicks store in Pretoria CBD. When she realized that they had the wrong strength, she brought them back. The store manager refused a refund on the grounds that the security label had been removed and hence she would not refund the glasses. My colleague accepted this and she had to buy another pair without the benefit of a refund.

The Consumer Protection Act of 2009 makes it quite clear that consumers are entitled for refunds under certain conditions. In the case of the razors, since the goods were in a packet, and I could not clearly establish that these were the correct blades I required, I should be legally entitled to a refund. The store may deduct a certain amount of the purchasing price for repackaging, but to claim that since the packet had been opened, no refund could be given, appears to be a contravention of the Act. In the case of the prescription glasses, the contravention of the Act seems to be even more blatant.

I find it quite unacceptable that a national retail chain seems to have instructed store managers to refuse refunds. Only when going through the call centre will a refund be granted. Clearly, this is highly consumer unfriendly, probably illegal and if they would state this refund policy openly, customers would be more careful when making a purchase at Clicks.

I wonder how many people have the means and the stamina to follow up on a mere refund. Most other retail stores accept refunds in the store with a receipt without having to go through a call centre. I wonder how many people have accepted the ‘no’ from the store manager and how much money has been taken out of South African consumers pocket and transferred to Clicks without any merit, any service rendered, and without any benefit to the consumer.

I have contacted The Star newspaper, the Sowetan, and the Speak Out tv program and hope their consumer reporters will pick the story up. Also, I have launched a complaint with the South African Consumer Protector at the local government call centre.

While I did eventually receive a refund, Clicks policy that renders getting a refund very cumbersome reflects poor business ethics. It is about time that South African business steps out of its Wild West attitude and lives up to the high moral values of a Nelson Mandela for which our country reached world-wide fame.