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Madikizela-Mandela’s death exposes a divided SA

This week should have been mainly about commemorating the birthday of the late legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela, or the 90th birthday of revered American poet and author, Dr Maya Angelou, who passed away almost four years ago, or the 50th anniversary of the assassination of American civil rights leader, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King.

Instead, the week has been dominated by the death at 81 of Struggle stalwart Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela, considered by most South Africans as the mother of the nation.

The news of Madikizela-Mandela’s passing completely overshadowed the death of another amazing pioneering South African woman, Pam Golding, who took on the white male business establishment, against great odds, in the 1970s.

She went on to establish arguably the biggest real estate agency in the country, and one of the most successful internationally. Yes, it did help that she was white and that gave her access to certain opportunities under apartheid, but it still took guts to do what she did.

Madikizela-Mandela’s death also made us overlook the remarkable life of another great Cape Town woman, Faieza Desai, who passed away at the age of 51 last Friday. In her death, she defied traditional and sexist Muslim tradition when women were allowed at her graveside.

Women are not normally allowed at the graveside at Muslim funerals, even if the deceased was a woman. They normally have to wait at home and prepare food for the men when they return from the cemetery.

But in a week when the history and legacy of Madikizela-Mandela dominated the public discourse, it is important to think about the many other great women who have also contributed to our freedom, whether it was from apartheid or sexism.

It is not only women from Madikizela-Mandela’s generation. There are women who led the way before, and there are others who are still leading the way.

If the struggle against racism is far from over, then the struggle for gender equality has even further to go.

Often the contribution of women in society is tied to their relationship with men. In most cases, women only get recognised as the wife or partner of a man. I have frequently remarked on the sexism of the saying “behind ever successful man is a woman”, because it implies women must stand behind their men, not beside them and definitely not in front of them.

Like most South Africans, I was shocked when I heard the news about Madikizela-Mandela’s passing on Monday afternoon. But I have not been surprised by the vitriol spewed by mainly white South Africans, who always appear to be desperately looking for ways to denigrate the achievements of black South Africans.

I have given up on trying to understand the views of people who continually try to create a rift between Nelson Mandela and the people, and the organisation he always represented and served.

Many of the people who invoke Mandela’s name nowadays never voted for him when they had an opportunity, something they will conveniently not admit, just like the racists who voted for the apartheid regime will never admit that they did.

Some black people on social media have responded by vilifying the legacy of Golding and making racist comments on stories about her passing.

That is not helpful. In some ways, we are talking past each other.

If anything, Madikizela-Mandela’s death has once again shown up the deep divide that continues to exist in South Africa, almost 24 years into our democracy. We cannot move forward as a country unless we deal with the deep discomfort some of us feel towards others which surfaces at times like this.

I have always tried to explain the divisions in South Africa as based on the huge inequalities that exist in our society, but this week’s comments - from both blacks and whites - indicate that the divide is based on much more.

Even if we eradicate all the economic inequality in our society, we will still not have dealt with the psychological inequality, something that exists not only in South Africa but throughout the world.

There appears to be an impatience among many whites who feel that we should “move on” from our apartheid past. Instead of asking us to do that, they should try to understand the roots of our anger.

I believe I had a relatively easy life, even though I grew up very poor.

But I had my share of being denied opportunities because of my race; of experiencing police brutality; of being arrested and detained without warning and without reason; of having to pass by white beaches until we got to the worst one (which was reserved for blacks); of having to sit upstairs or at the back of buses because only white people could sit downstairs or in front, of watching my dad being called “boy” by white people young enough to be his children.

I’m sorry but if the white people who attacked Madikizela-Mandela so blatantly and viciously on social media this week want to be part of South Africa, they must try to understand our pain in order to understand our anger. If they refuse to do so, they might as well go live in Australia.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weeken Argus on Saturday 7 April 2018)

We assumed inherent racism would disappear

It is easy for anti-racists and non-racists to rejoice after the sentencing of former estate agent Vicki Momberg to an effective two-year prison sentence for racism, after she used the K-word repeatedly - 48 times - in her interaction with police officers and call centre agents after an alleged smash-and- grab incident outside Joburg in 2016.

Momberg had to pay for her crime - because racism is a crime and should be punished - and magistrate Pravina Rugoonandan needs to be commended for her ruling which will ensure that, for the first time in South Africa, someone will be jailed for uttering racist terms towards someone who might not look or sound like her.

Momberg is appealing the sentence but has already spent time in jail because her bail was revoked after sentencing.

It is a good moment for our democracy and will hopefully ensure racists - black or white - will think twice before using derogatory terms about others.

However, why do conditions still exist in our country that make it possible for racists to think they can easily get away with perpetuating racism, whether this be blatant or subtle.  

Surely, almost 24 years since we voted for the first time in democratic South Africa on April 27, 1994, we should have moved on to deal with racism in a more concerted manner?

And surely, when we embraced each other as part of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s favourite concept of a “rainbow nation”, we should have made a commitment to treat each other with dignity and respect, as the magistrate pointed out in her ruling this week.

The reality is that South Africa has not really dealt with the racism at the root of 300 years of colonialism and 50 years of apartheid. We believed that we could easily move on from a situation of severe repression and oppression to one in which we would all embrace each other unconditionally.

Behind any acts of racism is a belief of superiority, based on perceived differences. This is why it is more likely to find white racists than black racists, but this does not mean black racists do not exist.

As whites are likely to have privilege, not only in South Africa but also in most parts of the world, it stands to reason racism would emanate mainly from whites.

When we became a democracy, many South Africans tried to put the past behind us without interrogating the reasons we had that past.

We never looked at the factors that allowed white supremacists to rule our country so long, despite them being a minority.

We never looked at how we could repair the damage done by centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid.

We never looked at how we could prevent a similar situation from occurring in future.

We assumed because legalised racism was something of the past, inherent racism would also be.

But the many incidents of racism prevalent in our society - and the Momberg one is but the tip of the iceberg - show we cannot relax and pretend everything is okay in ubuntu South Africa.

The first step towards dealing with racism is to admit it is a problem. Yes, we can legislate and even imprison a few people, but that will never be enough to deal with the problem at a much greater level.

We have legislation against so many things, but that does not seem to have much impact in a society where many people seem to take risks and get away with criminal activity, because they don’t get caught and, if they do get caught, they do not get convicted.

The Momberg incident would probably also not have had this conclusion if the whole incident was not video-recorded and shared on social media.

Momberg would probably just have put this down to a stressful experience and moved on with her life. She would probably have thought nothing about using the K-word again afterwards.

Racism is often based on ignorance - because those who perpetuate racism do not know enough about people who they perceive to be different to them - and the best way to deal with ignorance is through education.

We need to have continuous conversations throughout our country where we look at our apartheid and colonial history and the damage it has done. We need to, together, find ways of making sure we are able to move forward properly.

But we also need to look at how we can change behaviour permanently. Momberg might serve her time, but will she come out a better person on the other end? Or will she continue to harbour racist thoughts? The only difference then is that she does not verbalise those thoughts and that could be even more dangerous to society, especially if there are thousands, if not millions, of others who feel the same.

While we rejoice at the imprisonment of a racist, we need to realise this is only the start. There are many more like her and they might not be deterred by a possible prison sentence.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 31 March 2018)

Sorry isn't good enough anymore Mr Shivambu

South Africans are mostly forgiving. Sometimes, in pursuit of ubuntu, it almost seems as if we want transgressors to apologise so we can forgive them.

When former police minister Adriaan Vlok apologised despite overseeing the apartheid police, we applauded him as if that was enough to erase the years of oppression he oversaw.

We almost willed former president PW Botha to apologise in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that we could forgive him and move on. We even forgave former prsident FW de Klerk for his role in apartheid. Some of us argued that he deserved his Nobel Peace Prize because he had moved our country to democracy.

More recently, we have seen several high-profile instances where politicians have apologised for transgressions and moved on.

Some of us were almost hoping former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, Premier David Makhura or Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi - anybody - would apologise for the deaths of 144 people in the Life Esidimeni tragedy, so we could forgive them. As much as we sympathise with the victims, we are always keen to forgive transgressors.

We have forgiven so many people for their blatant racism, which sometimes they blamed on lapses of judgment, or fatigue or both.

We have become so accustomed to accepting apologies and then allowing the transgressors to continue with their lives.

But sometimes an apology is not enough.

No amount of apologising can make up for apartheid; the millions confined to Bantustan homelands.

Yet black people, who form the majority in our country, have been patiently trying to find ways of forgiving. Maybe it has something to do with the crimes committed during apartheid being so huge that it is easier to forgive than to prosecute. The latter would probably take centuries.

Yet, even if there has been an apology, it does not mean that we should forget.

It is probably within the context of the easy apology that EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu thought it appropriate to apologise in the least contrite of statements after he attacked a journalist.

Throughout the statement, Shivambu refers to his attack on the journalist as a “scuffle”, trying to underplay what had happened. But what happened is that a leader of a significant political party in our country chose to use violence against a member of the media, ostensibly because he did not like the race of the journalist.

Shivambu ended the statement: “The EFF, which I represent in Parliament and am deputy president of, upholds media freedom, and freedom of association. As a loyal member of the EFF, I fully uphold media freedom and freedom of association and the scuffle was not meant to suppress these constitutional principles.

“I will not do media interviews concerning the incident because I believe there are important other issues to speak about in the public discourse than a scuffle. ”

Of course, instead of censuring their deputy president, the EFF praised him for his apology. This is not unusual because the EFF president, Julius Malema, has probably transgressed in much bigger ways.

And just like that, Shivambu thinks it is possible to move along without any repercussions, because that is how we do things in South Africa.

Maybe he is right that an assault on a journalist is a small thing and we have much bigger things to worry about, such as poverty, inequality, joblessness and, of course, land restitution.

But politicians need to set an example to the public otherwise, very soon, we could see more journalists assaulted because people do not like their race or the publication they represent.

The political climate leading up to the national elections next year will become intense and many people will say things for which they will later be forced to apologise.

But apologies mean nothing if they do not have consequences. Shivambu has presented the EFF, Parliament and the courts with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that politicians will not be allowed to get away with it.

Political conduct is not only determined by how politicians react to big issues like Life Esidimeni. It is also determined by how they conduct themselves daily, including interaction with the media.

If we do not now deal with Shivambu and Malema for that matter, we will not be able to deal with the vitriol that will no doubt spew closer to the elections.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 24 March 2018)

Management’s big mistake putting the old out in cold

Shortly after I heard the sad news about the passing of Stephen Hawking on Wednesday morning, I had a disturbing conversation with a good friend who was laid off work about six months ago. I didn't think the two things were related but, after thinking about it quite a bit, I realised they were.

Hawking was one of the most brilliant minds ever and spent large parts of his life explaining the universe, black holes and relativity. He was without doubt the most famous scientist in the world. 

Having been diagnosed with a rare form of motor neuron disease in his early 20s, and given a limited time to live, he defied the odds and passed away at the age of 76. His mind remained active, despite his disability. 

This brings me to my friend, who I shall not identify to protect his privacy. He is one of the most brilliant technical people I have met and takes great pleasure in understanding and mastering all kinds of computer operating and design systems. We worked together more than 20 years ago when I was asked to manage a fourth-wave technology project and he was one of the resources made available to me. 

I learnt much more from him than he learnt from me. He was one of the hardest working people I knew. Over the years we remained in contact and saw each other from time to time. The last time we spoke, he told me about how the company he had been serving loyally for more than 20 years had sent him abroad to study new software that they hoped to use locally. He was very excited about this software, which he now understood better than anybody in the company.

Yet soon afterwards, the company faced some economic challenges and they decided to lay off some people, including him. This was despite them going ahead with the implementation of the new software. They figured they could probably bring somebody from overseas or somebody else could learn how to deal with the software.

In one stupid management decision, the company lost years of intellectual knowledge that they had built up over many years, knowledge he could now make available to others.

For the past six months, he told me this week, he has sent his CV to just about anybody he could think of, without any success. He has become despondent and has had to sell off some assets to make ends meet. I cannot believe that someone with such incredible skills and experience could struggle to find work.

I can only think that he is considered too old. He is in his early 50s.

I am in my late 50s and I have begun to wonder about at which point one no longer becomes useful to society. I have been fortunate that my skills and experience are still being sought by many people and companies, and I share them happily. I am still able to make a relatively decent living, even though some months are better than others, but that is the plight of anybody who does project-related work.

There are certain things that only come with experience and my big concern is that, because South Africa has such a huge unemployment problem, especially among young people, older people will be the first casualties and with them will disappear an intellectual memory that can never be replaced.

There will always be a clamour to create job opportunities for young people, but can we really afford to lose years of skills and experience? We must find a way of using the expertise of older people to create opportunities for younger people.

Obviously, political parties will focus on the youth because they form the majority in society and have the potential to determine who becomes our elected political leaders. They could also be an investment in the future. But clever political leaders will consider the valuable contribution that can be made by people who have done the hard yards. It does not have to be a matter of choosing youth or experience. There must be a way of choosing both.

Imagine if someone had told Stephen Hawking that he should retire at 60, because that is the retirement age for scientists. Or if Nelson Mandela was disallowed from becoming South Africa’s first democratically-elected president at the age of 75 because he was considered too old.

There is a saying that age is nothing but a number, but it is not. It is much more than that. It could indicate a lifetime worth of experience that could be put to great use in society. Mandela, at 75, was not too old. Hawking, at 76, was probably taken away too soon. My friend, at just over 50, is still a spring chicken in comparison but, unless he finds work soon, all his skills and experience could be lost to society. That would be a shame. Unfortunately, his story is not unique.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 17 March 2018)

DA's Day Zero rapid changes too hard to swallow

There is a disease that seems to afflict many supposed public servants in South Africa. They struggle to take the public into their confidence and often do things that are not in the public interest.

This is nothing new. Public servants - and I include elected political leaders - have been lying to the public for many years, probably for as long as politicians have been around.

One of the biggest scandals of the apartheid era was the Information Scandal, which revolved around the government ploughing millions of rand into a huge misinformation campaign, including starting an English-language newspaper aimed at breaking down what was seen as the English media’s opposition to government. That newspaper still exists.

More recently, we have had scandal after scandal, including ones involving the millions spent on Nkandla and many involving the Gupta family.

“Smaller” lies have been perpetuated by people such as Malusi Gigaba, the Home Affairs Minister who did not know who had been granted citizenship, and former Public Enterprises minister Lynne Brown, who claimed to have been given wrong information by state-owned enterprises who reported to her, information which she then shared with the public.

The examples are too many to mention in a limited space such as this.

Now it seems the people of Cape Town might have been fed a huge lie by the DA for the past few months.

I have thought about the water crisis in Cape Town from all angles and, the more I think about it and the way it has been handled, I can’t help but conclude that the DA has been using the water crisis to sort out internal political issues.

If that is the case, then the DA should be ashamed that they have sunk as low, if not lower, than the ANC which they love to criticise.

How do you explain that “Day Zero”, a term probably coined by Tony Leon’s public relations company, has shifted so much in the space of a few months?

In October, mayor Patricia de Lille said Cape Town could run out of water by March this year, if Capetonians did not reduce their daily personal water consumption.

Then DA leader Mmusi Maimane became involved in the crisis at the end of January, side-lining De Lille in the process.

“Day Zero” - then calculated to be in April - was first brought forward and then, within weeks, shifted weeks and then months later.

Now, it appears, in the words of Maimane, “provided we continue consuming water at current levels, and we receive decent winter rainfall this year, Day Zero will not occur in 2018”.

A few weeks ago, everyone in authority was still complaining about the millions of residents who were not complying. How did that turn around so quickly?

There are not many examples in the world of consumer behaviour changing so radically and in a matter of two months. Yes, some of us changed our behaviour, but definitely not most people.

There is no doubt that the water crisis facing the Western Cape is the biggest it has faced, at least in recent history.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to realise the dam levels are at their lowest in years. One only has to drive around in the rural areas to see farms dying and dams, such as Theewaterskloof, virtually empty.

Desalination plants and “importing” water from surrounding municipalities can help, but not to the extent that the crisis will almost disappear, which it has, if Maimane is to be believed.

There can only be two explanations for what transpired this week: either the crisis was not as big as originally thought or the DA has decided there are other more important things that need its focus.

From where I am sitting, it appears the DA has realised it needs other, bigger, issues if it is to have any hope of beating the ANC in next year’s national elections. There can be no other explanation.

The water crisis was nothing more than a huge crisis that the DA could exploit to show up the ANC’s inefficiencies. Their messaging throughout this crisis has always been about how the city is in crisis because national government (code word for the ANC) was not doing its work.

In typical public servant mode, they refused to accept responsibility for their own role in manufacturing this crisis.

What this crisis has taught me is that, given the opportunity to rule, any opposition party will quickly adopt some of the bad habits of typical ruling parties, and that includes lying to the people they are supposed to represent.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 10 May 2018)

Skip colour, age or tribe - ministers must perform

After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his first Cabinet reshuffle late on Monday night, many South Africans were more pre-occupied with the number of people in Cabinet with whom they could identify than the skills and experience of those appointed.

After feeling disappointed that he did not go far enough, I now realise Ramaphosa did reasonably well with his maiden Cabinet reshuffle. He is operating under severe restrictions in the ANC because of the narrow margin by which he won the presidency at the elective conference in December.

So, to take out 10 suspect ministers a week after outsmarting the wily Jacob Zuma is a feat not to be scoffed at.

My hope, though, is that after the Cabinet review he will have another opportunity to remove some others because of their portfolios falling away or being merged.

But while logical people would look at the skills and experience of those appointed, there are many who only look at whether Ramaphosa appointed ministers who look and sound like them.

There is a weird assumption that if someone looks and sounds like me, he will probably think like me too and he will have my best interests at heart.

But I am alarmed when people list the ages of the Cabinet members on social media and say not enough young people have been appointed. I agree that we need to create more opportunities for young people at all levels of society, but it must never be just because they are young. At the level of the Cabinet, in fact, it must be about how competent they are. If you are young, that should almost be a bonus.

As someone who was young once, I have realised that there are many things that I would have done differently. I was one of the youngest people to be appointed editor of the Cape Times, but it was only after I left the paper and reflected on some of the things I did that I realised I made many mistakes which I would not repeat having had the benefit of more experience and, dare I say it, wisdom. I am not saying my experience is indicative of all young people, but it’s the experience I know.

One of the other criticisms of the Cabinet is the number of women who have been appointed, but this perception is probably tainted by the disappointment at the choice of Bathabile Dlamini as the minister responsible for women.

I agree that women are under-represented in many areas where it matters. But being a woman should not be the major reason for being appointed to the Cabinet. Competence should always be the main reason. The other criticism of the new appointments is that there is not enough of this or that racial or tribal group. Some people seem to have nothing better to do than to scan people’s profiles to see which racial or tribal group they belong to.

I have never supported group identity, because it’s the easiest way to perpetuate situations of us and them. If I belong to one group, then surely there must be many others to which I don’t belong and with whom I should take issue.

I prefer to look at what I can learn and, in some cases, adopt from my interactions with different groups of people. Having said that, we must be conscious of how we put together groups of people in South Africa, especially with something as important as the Cabinet.

At Cabinet level, however, I care less about the colour, gender or age of ministers than about their ability to deliver. Hopefully, all ministers will have proper performance agreements with the president, which will be used to assess their fitness to hold office going forward.

If Bathabile Dlamini does not deliver, then she must go, even if it will upset her ANC Women’s League constituency. If Blade Nzimande does not sort out our transport problems, then he must go, even if it upsets the SACP. The same should apply to all ministers. If they don’t perform, they should be fired - even if it upsets those who supposedly look and sound like them.

In the end, we are all South Africans and we want the best for our country.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 3 March 2018)

#Budget2018: Ramaphosa and Gigaba have failed SA

I was sitting at OR Tambo International airport this week and overheard someone speaking on the phone. His words were roughly: “Do we know somebody at X municipality? We need to talk to them about this tender.” He then went on to say how important it was to speak to the right person so that his company could influence the tender process.

His comments, a week after Parliament elected a new president - who has promised us a corruption-free government - once again convinced me that the road ahead is not going to be easy. There are too many people who are used to “eating”, and they will not stop “eating” voluntarily. The problem is not only at national government level, but probably more prevalent in local government.

It was ironic that the municipality he was referring to is named after a respected communist leader who would probably be turning in his grave knowing that crimes of corruption are being committed in a municipality bearing his name.

It is good that everyone seems to be falling in love with our “brand-new, out-of-the-box” president (my apologies to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu who used this phrase in relation to Nelson Mandela), but Cyril Ramaphosa will need much more than his considerable political skills to effect real change in our society.

Already, Ramaphosa has failed his first test when the finance minister he inherited and who, by all accounts, appears to be living on borrowed time, delivered a Budget speech that should make all of us face reality.

It will take much more than walks - whether they be on the beachfront or from township to township - and quoting legendary jazz saxophonist Hugh Masekela to get South Africa back in the shape that we all know it can be. He will also need a lot more than the Mandela magic that he will inevitably turn to at regular intervals this year, in what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday year.

If the Budget is an extension of the cabinet’s wishes, which is also an extension of the president’s vison, then Ramaphosa and Malusi Gigaba have failed the nation with the first opportunity they had to show us that things are improving now that Jacob Zuma is no longer Number One.

A caring government would never increase VAT, which directly impacts on the poor. The 1 percentage point increase will offset the additional R90 social grant recipients are receiving. But the increased tax on petrol will also have the effect of pushing up food prices, which will probably impact on the poor even more.

There are people who argue that we need to accept the hardships bound to be imposed by the Budget because it is part of undoing the damage done by nine years of Zuma rule. Some are also pointing out positives, such as that more students will now be able to study without paying university fees. It’s a pity the focus on education does not extend beyond tertiary education. It should include basic and even pre-school education.

As with any Budget, there will be people who will see the glass as half-empty while others will see it as half-full, but the Budget was the first real opportunity for Ramaphosa to show his intention to do things differently to his predecessor, to go beyond the beautiful speeches and the healthy walks.

Budgets, while appearing to be highly complicated, are very simple. A Budget is based on the rule that you can only spend what you have. If you spend more than you have, you end up borrowing, which comes with interest, which adds to your spending.

With all his faults, former president Thabo Mbeki insisted on reducing South Africa’s deficit, which decreased the amount we borrowed.

The more we borrow, the more we are likely to be influenced by the people from who we borrow, usually foreign governments and international institutions with dubious agendas. And we will always be beholden to what a former finance minister called the “amorphous markets”.

Any good Budget must have a balance between increasing revenue and reducing spending or, at least, spending mainly on what is necessary. Part of our problem is that we lost much of our national fiscus to corruption and mismanagement.

At the same time, the revenue service has focused too much time on political and internal issues and has gone backwards in the drive to collect taxes. Additionally, some state-owned entities have been corrupted to such an extent that it will take major surgery to repair them.

What happens next is even more important than the Budget. Hopefully, by the time you read this column, Ramaphosa would have introduced a new, much-leaner cabinet from which he would have dropped all ministers who face state capture allegations, including the finance minister (we can only live in hope).

To help us get out of the hole we are in, South Africa needs its best brains in leadership positions in government, not only as ministers but also as senior civil servants. The political allegiance of these people should not matter, only their competence and their commitment to the national project.

Ramaphosa still has enough goodwill among many sectors of society to enable him to “send” people into jobs where they can make a difference. He may be forgiven for this year’s Budget, but he will not be forgiven if the situation has not radically improved by next year.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 24 February 2018)

SA received an almost perfect Valentine’s Day gift

Lest we forget, Valentine’s Day has a bloody history. It did not start out as a day on which many people throughout the world celebrate love.
Instead, depending on who you believe, it either began with the beheading of a Roman priest called Saint Valentine in the third century, or an Italian bishop who was apparently executed for trying to convert the emperor to Christianity. These are among many stories which try to explain the origins of Valentine’s Day.

In short, Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with love, an association which annually makes billions internationally for retailers who sell love-related products. Because of its history, we should not be surprised that Valentine’s Day 2018 will go down in history as one of the bloodiest days in South African politics in recent years.

It was the day on which we saw the President of South Africa being forced to resign - the second time this has happened in democratic South Africa.

But unlike Thabo Mbeki 10 years ago, who resigned almost immediately after being recalled by the ANC, Jacob Zuma tried desperately to hold on to the most senior political office in the country.

He even abused the offices of the public broadcaster a few hours before his resignation.

This was indeed one of the most interesting weeks in South African politics, and we have had many of those.

But as we become used to saying and writing “former President Zuma” and “President Cyril Ramaphosa”, it is important to reflect on how we got to this situation and how to avoid it happening again.

The instability caused by the impasse over the presidency of the country impacted on all South Africans. Because of the vast gap - about 18 months - between the ANC’s elective conference and the country’s elections, it is likely that we will have a similar situation when Ramaphosa comes to the end of his term as ANC president.

This could be in five years or a maximum of 10 years.

Even if Ramaphosa becomes the best president of democratic South Africa, that will not be enough to stop his party turning on him when the time comes.

Up until about a week ago, Zuma still believed that one of the reasons he should not be recalled was that “the people still love me”.

Whichever faction wins the day at the ANC’s elective conference will want to put their preferred leader in place.

This is, of course, if the ANC is still the governing party in five or 10 years, something that began to look increasingly unlikely in the last few years of Zuma’s reign.

But the unceremonious end to Zuma’s presidency was brought about not because of the “two centres of power” argument. It came because the ANC realised that, with him in the prominent position he occupied, there was a strong chance of the opposition taking more than the Western Cape in the elections scheduled for next year.

They just did not know how to tell him what he’d done wrong because, if you think about this properly, all the ANC’s leaders share some culpability for allowing Zuma to destroy the once-proud liberation movement, much of the security sector and parts of the state-owned entities and the financial and economic sectors in South Africa.

After all, they voted for him to become ANC president in December 2007 and the country’s president in May 2009, despite his having been involved in a rape trial and with many charges of corruption hanging over him. They voted for him to continue as ANC president five years later and for him to have a second term as the country’s president.

Zuma’s presidency has once again illustrated the dangers of populism.

We need to choose political leaders for better reasons than their popularity, which is probably too much to ask. But leaders need to have the necessary skills to deal with the complex issues in a country that was ravaged under colonialism and apartheid. It does not deserve also to be ravaged in democracy.

The country and the world are living in hope that things will improve under President Ramaphosa. Why would it not, because surely anything will be better than what we have been subjected to over the past few years?

But the biggest lesson we should learn from the Zuma years is that we should never leave the destiny of our country in the hands of political leaders. There is a crucial role to be played in our democracy by civil society and especially the media. Without the pressure applied by civil society and the numerous reports of corruption in the media, the ANC might never have been emboldened to take the step they took this week. Valentine’s Day 2018 will be remembered by most people not for the gifts of love they received, but for the political head that rolled as the day came to an end. It was almost a perfect Valentine’s gift to the nation. Let’s hope that the ANC realises they need to treat the nation with love and respect, and not only on one day a year.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 17 February 2018)

It is time for Ramaphosa to restore our confidence

It is not every day I attend the launch of a rose. But when the rose is named after Nelson Mandela and the event is at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, it is very difficult to decline the invitation.

The event took place on Thursday and what an event it was. My highlights were a special performance by the legendary Imilonji Kantu choir, which became famous as the ANC’s choir in exile, accompanied by soprano Sibongile Khumalo. Mandla Langa, who completed Mandela’s second biography, Dare Not Linger, read a moving poem. I also caught up with old friends and associates, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah. The Arch said he enjoyed reading my column (blushes).

There was also plenty of talk about love - being the launch of a rose, one would have expected this - but it was about Mandela’s love for his people and his love for service. It was not about the version of love which will have the world’s lovers going crazy on Wednesday.

Caught up in the emotion of the day, I thought about Sunday, February 11, 1990, the day Nelson Mandela was released 28 years ago.

This day will remain vivid in my memory because it represented, for many at the time, the end of the Struggle and the beginning of something new. Precisely what this something new was, nobody knew.

We all know now that we were a bit short-sighted to think the Struggle would be over because of one event - the release of the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, which followed the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and other political parties nine days earlier when the National Party president, FW de Klerk, made his famous speech that would change South Africa for the better.

But we could have been forgiven for our exuberance that Sunday morning when we heard the news that we had all expected that week, much like we have been expecting the news of Jacob Zuma’s departure as president of the Republic of South Africa this week.

I remember us driving in convoy from our home in Mitchells Plain, proudly flying the ANC flag which we could not display openly just over a week before, and waiting excitedly on the Grand Parade to see and hear the great man who had been our leader despite being in prison for 27 years.

My tears rolled freely when Mandela finally appeared on the balcony of the City Hall and proclaimed himself to be a servant of the people who had fought against white domination and who would fight against black domination. Despite just coming out of prison, he committed himself to the people, as he did at the Rivonia Trial which led to his imprisonment, and said he was prepared to give his life for his ideal of a free people and country.

I remember turning to one of my best friends, saying that this was our president speaking. At that point, of course, Mandela was not even president of the ANC and we had no idea whether he would eventually become president of the country.

Tomorrow, the current ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, who held the microphone for Mandela as he spoke on the day of his release, will hope that some of Mandela’s magic will rub off on him and the party, which has become a pale shadow of the organisation Mandela, and Oliver Tambo before him, led.

But Ramaphosa will need more than trying to mimic Mandela and invoke his spirit if he is to rekindle public confidence in the ANC. There are too many people who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the ANC who have given up on the party. And there are too many young people whose only experience of the ANC is the corruption and incompetence which have overshadowed all the good that was done by many comrades in what we used to call “the movement”.

When Ramaphosa finally replaces Zuma as president of the country, he has to go beyond rhetoric and symbolism, in the way he governs but also in way he leads the ANC. He needs to show that he is serious about a new beginning for the organisation that celebrated its 106th birthday on January 8 this year.

The only way to do that is by taking action against people who are perceived to be corrupt, irrespective of the position they hold in society or in the ruling party.

I hope to be standing on the Grand Parade tomorrow, listening to Ramaphosa speaking, and I might even shed a tear again. But my tears this time will not be because of joy. Instead, they will be because of the way our hope has evaporated, like the water in the Western Cape, and how, in a short space of time, we have managed to destroy a once-proud movement and almost managed to destroy a great country too, all because some people could not control their greed.

In the year that we celebrate Tata Madiba’s 100th birthday, let’s hope that Ramaphosa will be able to restore our confidence in our country’s leaders once again. We can only live in hope. Mandela earned our love and respect.

The jury is still out on whether Ramaphosa will be able to do the same.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 10 February 2018)

Closure of any media outlet is no reason to rejoice

As South Africa transitioned from apartheid repression to a democracy in the early 1990s, I ventured from working at alternative, anti-apartheid newspapers to working at the then mainly white mainstream newspaper, the Sunday Times.

I figured that papers like the Sunday Times would have to transform with our democracy.

My first editor was Tertius Myburgh, who was close to the National Party, but he was replaced, soon after I arrived, by Ken Owen, an old-fashioned liberal who was rather different from Myburgh.

I became an assistant editor of the Sunday Times under Owen and he became one of my mentors in journalism despite our different political persuasions. Owen taught me about the liberal notion of “while I might disagree with you, I will fight to the death for your right to express your views”.

Owen was one of the best-read columnists in the country. He was respected for his views by many people in the ANC and the United Democratic Front, even though most of them disagreed with him most of the time.

I thought a lot about Owen this week and how true liberals like him have all but disappeared in South Africa. The people who profess to be upholding liberalism are too consumed by populism and are easily distracted by whatever the ruling ANC does.

Many of these modern-day supposed liberals were happy this week when MultiChoice, which has a monopoly on pay TV in South Africa through their ownership of DStv, decided they would not renew their contract with ANN7 when it expires in August. The result is that ANN7 will no longer have a platform, potentially leading to the closure of the station and the retrenchment of its staff members, said to be about 500.

The reasons for the happiness at the station’s demise are because it was started by the Gupta family and has mostly taken a very different position to most of the media in South Africa.

Some people in the media have even called them propagandists. The reason most media are not seen as propagandists is because their views correspond with the pre-dominant views in society.

But most media propagate a viewpoint. I have always maintained it is impossible for media to be objective, because all of us have political, social, economic and historical baggage which informs the way we report. The best we can try to do is to be fair.

But I also believe that, if certain views exist in our society, then it is important for us to know about them. Suppressing views will not make them go away. In many ways, they make the people who hold those views more committed to them.

During the struggle against apartheid, I worked for several anti-apartheid newspapers which often got banned, and journalists banned or detained. But the attempts to repress our views just made us more determined and, in some ways, convinced us we were right. I know things were different then, but it is strange that, in the democracy that so many of us fought for, people can applaud the decision to silence a media outlet which holds a divergent viewpoint.

During apartheid, we drew strength from the support of those who had different views but who supported our right to exist.

I hold no brief for the Guptas, even though I worked for them briefly a few years ago. I have been highly critical of the Guptas when they deserved criticism, which was probably most of the time.

However, I will never deprive them or anyone else, of their right to invest in media. As I said at the Cape Town Press Club in 2012, when I was editor of The New Age, there is no such thing as a perfect media owner and, as journalists, we must produce excellent media products despite and not because of our owners.

I refused to use The New Age to fight the Guptas’ battles. Obviously, the people at ANN7 - which was started after I left The New Age - have a different view and have been actively promoting factions that are aligned to President Jacob Zuma, who has always been seen to be close to the Guptas.

But that is no reason to close them down or to rejoice at their closure. People who rejoice at the closure of any media outlet - especially people in the media industry - need to reflect on what this means for democracy. Any voice that is silenced is bad for democracy.

We need to remind ourselves of the famous words by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller who did not speak out when they came for the socialists, the trade unionists or the Jews, because he was not one. Until they came for him and there was no one left to speak for him.

I’m sorry, I cannot gloat at ANN7’s demise, even if I am tempted to.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 3 February 2018)

Finally, we have a crisis on our hands that affects all

The question that has been bothering me for the past few weeks is: When is a crisis a crisis? Certain issues have been bedevilling the City of Cape Town for many years, if not decades, but they have never been seen as a crisis. I can only think that something is not a crisis if it only affects poor people, or mainly poor people. It becomes a crisis when it starts affecting middle-class or rich people directly.

Many issues affect poor people daily, but not much is said about them because they do not affect those who have access to greater resources. One example is the despicable situation with Metrorail, where trains are always delayed, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers stranded. This can be fixed with political will and better management.

Another example is the crime and gangsterism on the Cape Flats - a problem for as long as I can remember. It was a problem when I was growing up and has only become worse. These two issues - and there are many others - seem to not affect rich people directly, so are not described as a crisis in the same way as the drought.

However, they do impact on everyone because they have the potential to derail the city’s economy in the same way as the water shortage.

For now, most attention appears to be focused on water, or the lack thereof. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it is an immediate problem that needs urgent action.

The fact that the Western Cape, and in particular Cape Town, could soon be without water, is a major crisis. Some people are saying ours will be the first city in the world where this happens.

This is unacceptable in the city that claims to be the best run in South Africa. It is possible that our city’s leaders have believed their own spin.

Access to water is a human right and our city leaders should have years ago put in place contingency plans to obviate the crisis that is happening now.

But it is not the time to point fingers because, in some way, everyone is to blame. Most of us have had a wasteful relationship with water. We assumed it would never run out and ignored those who warned us to be more prudent.

It is important to get through the next few weeks and months before there is any realistic hope of rain, but even then, the winter rains might not be enough to change the situation dramatically, at least not for the next few years.

It is likely that by April most of Cape Town’s estimated 4 million people will have to queue at the 200 water points set up by the municipality, where each of us will be entitled to receive 25 litres of water a day.

This is not something new for many people living in informal settlements. When I was a young boy, and we lived in an informal settlement, one of the duties assigned to my sister and me was to fetch water from a tap a few blocks away. We would carry the buckets of water using a broom stick as leverage. There are many people who still do this today.

As soon as we are able to get to some sort of normality, we need to seriously look at how this situation happened and what we need to do to avoid it in future.

One of the first lessons one learns in political strategy is that one should never waste a crisis.

The DA seems to have realised this (although belatedly), the ANC is beginning to realise it (but might also be too late), and some civil society organisations are looking at positioning themselves to benefit from the water crisis. Some business people are also looking at ways they can make money from this unfortunate situation.

Call me a sceptic but I struggle to trust politicians, irrespective of their political party.

Most politicians have one eye on the 2019 general elections and are looking at ways in which they can exploit the water crisis to win votes.

The best way to deal with the water shortage is to commit personally to use as little water as possible, to encourage others to do the same and to report those who abuse this valuable resource.

Let the politicians worry about politics. We have more serious business to worry about. Like whether it is safe to not flush the toilet and whether we can get by with only one shower a week.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 27 January 2018)

There are potential economic benefits in sports

When Bill Clinton stood for election as American president in 1992, one of his campaign slogans was “The economy, stupid”. Not much has changed since then and, increasingly, people are realising that most things in life revolve around the economy.

For some strange reason, I was thinking about this as I watched South African cricketers Lungi Ngidi bowling from the Pavilion end and Kagiso Rabada bowling from the Hennops River end at SuperSport Park in Centurion in the second Test against India this week.

I thought about how in a country with a majority of black people there are still some who insist that certain sports should not be transformed to represent the majority in our country.

Sport has always been like a religion to many in South Africa. In fact, I had a sports editor once who said that rugby was not a religion, it was more than that.

Therefore, it makes sense that some people will be sensitive when it comes to sport and want to hold on to the way things have always been. They tend to forget that since 1994 we have officially moved away from our apartheid past.

I hope these backward-looking people will now realise that one of the main objectives in sport is to win, and you can win with transformed teams.

But transformation does not happen on its own. Those in leadership need to commit themselves to transforming their organisations. Transformation should never be about quotas. It should rather be about giving opportunities to those who were deprived of chances in the past.

Ngidi, on debut for the Proteas, and Rabada, who last week became the number one Test bowler in the world, have shown how racist thinking needs to stop permeating our sporting codes, especially rugby and cricket. Choose the best players, but give black players the chance to prove they can be the best.

But what has all of this got to do with the economy?

In a country such as South Africa, where you have so much unemployment, I am amazed that the government has not seen the potential economic benefits of sports, arts and culture. Apart from the obvious benefits, if managed properly, can potentially help alleviate poverty in many townships.

We have so much natural talent in our townships, whether it is in music or sports, yet not much is being done to nurture it or turn it into something that could productively contribute to the economy.

Most artists and cultural organisations, as well as most sporting organisations, I know are struggling.

It appears to be only at a professional level in some sports where there is a bit of money. In most cases, it does not cost much to play a sport or to engage in cultural activities. In most townships, you will find young people kicking balls, some of them home-made. And it is not unusual to find people playing music on guitars which they made themselves or which they fixed.

For most of the past 20 years, I have been involved in a project which hosted community festivals in various communities on the Cape Flats. After every event, I walked away thinking about how talented people in those communities were.

But most of the young people who performed at these festivals did not go on to have a career in the entertainment industry, because there is not a nurturing and supportive environment to help them along. But we have also hosted many sports tournaments as part of this project and, again, I have been astounded at the talent on display.

Sadly, many youngsters do not continue in sport beyond high school, because of a variety of factors.

For instance, there are not too many sporting scholarships in South Africa, so you must be more than special to be given academic support based on your sporting capabilities. In the same way, you must be mega-talented to be granted a music scholarship. Or you must know someone who knows someone.

But it starts before this. It starts with creating an environment in schools where young children are encouraged to play sport or participate in cultural activities. It starts with parents encouraging their children to participate in sport or culture because it is a way that they could potentially make a living.

Until government and corporates see the potential economic benefits of sports, arts and culture, these two areas of life will always be treated like they are unimportant. A forward-looking and progressive government would see its value. After all, almost everything in life comes back to the economy, stupid.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 20 January 2018)

It's easier to make the wrong choice than the right one

I’ve reached a stage in my life where it has become normal to attend more funerals than weddings, and more 50th or 60th than 21st birthday parties. This is the normal course of life. People get older, they get sicker and they die, some sooner than others, some without getting ill.

I used to be able to count on my one hand the number of funerals we attended annually less than 10 years ago. Now, it is difficult to keep up. Two hands, I suspect, will not be enough.

In a weird way, we’ve come to accept death as a part of life.

Except when it happens to somebody young and then there are more questions than answers.

This week my mind has been occupied by the death of Ashraf “Ashley” Oosterwyk, who would have turned 30 next month. Ashley, as I have known him from birth, went missing almost a year ago and only last week the police confirmed to his mother that a burnt body that was found near Strandfontein early last year was indeed Ashley. He had been shot in the head and then burnt, it appeared.

Ashley is the son of one of my best friends, Trevor Oosterwyk, and his former wife, Roshni Buckton. He was named after Ashley Kriel, a young Bonteheuwel activist who was killed by police in 1987, a few months before his birth.

We have always seen all our children as being everyone’s children, so Ashley was as much my son as Trevor’s. He and his sister, Maxine (now Malika) spent a lot of time in our home and with our children and we developed a special bond over the years.

But children grow up to become adults and, as adults, they develop their own problems. Ashley, through fate and not by design, I believe, became involved in gangs and addicted to drugs. This is probably what led to his untimely death.

I have no doubt that, given an opportunity, Ashley would have turned his life around. But I also understand the pressure there is on young people on the Cape Flats to get involved in gangs. I faced that same pressure growing up and I have no idea how I managed to withstand it.

Everyone knows that once you get addicted to drugs, it is a difficult habit to kick. Some people spend their whole lives trying to get rid of their drug addiction.

Once you get involved with gangs, it is difficult to lead a normal life afterwards. And once you end up in prison once, and become consumed by the gang culture in our overcrowded prisons, it is difficult to turn back.

My intention is not to question Ashley’s lifestyle choices or to blame his death on anyone or anything. Rather, I found myself thinking what kind of person shoots somebody in the head and then tries to burn the body?

But I also found myself thinking about another young life that has been ended so prematurely, without him being allowed an opportunity to fulfil the potential that he no doubt had, despite his problems. I have always believed that all of us have the potential to succeed in different ways. It is, quite often, a matter of identifying the best path for us. Too many people fail in life because they are doing jobs that are not using their correct skills or interests.

I tried to think about the last moments of Ashley’s life. Did he plead for his life? Did he suffer or was it over quickly? Was he still alive when they set him on fire? These are the painful questions which, I am sure, all those who loved him and his family are wanting to ask but do not know how.

I tried to think about the point at which he veered from the life path his parents had intended for him. I thought about my children and whether they might also have been tempted to venture onto the same path as Ashley.

We laid Ashraf to rest according to Muslim rites yesterday. It is customary for Muslims to be buried on the same day or as close as possible to this, but this was obviously a different situation. The body had been found almost a year ago and had been in a mortuary since.

There are not many ways one can console a parent who has to bury a child. It is, after all, not the natural course of things. Children are supposed to bury their parents. This is way nature works.

My hope is that Ashley/Ashraf will rest in peace and those of us who are left behind will be able to learn from his short life. Sometimes it is not easy to make the right choices. It is much easier to make the wrong choices. No life lived or lost must be in vain and I am sure that his life and death will not have been in vain. Hamba kahle my son.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 13 January 2018)

Time stands still for the poor of paradisic Paternoster

It is easy to see why so many people have fallen in love with Paternoster. The West Coast town is amazingly fall-in-lovable with (if there is a word like this).

The architecture of the town is modelled on the original white fisherman’s cottages, of which there are still a few, and the beach is small and secluded enough for anyone with a low level of fitness to walk it end to end several times in a day. The best time to spend on the beach is just before and after sunset when the beach and the town show off their beauty painted in dusky hues.

Paternoster, which means “Our Father” in Latin, is named after a prayer which foreign sailors used to recite when they passed the rocky shores.

It is a town where time, were it not for the invasion of tourists and gentrifiers, could easily have stood still.

The sad reality is that for many of the town’s original residents, time has stood still. It is almost like they are trying to make themselves invisible when surrounded by the influx of tourists and out-of-towners who have bought up much of the property in the town and built more properties, effectively forcing out small fishermen who have traditionally made a living from catching crayfish and other marine resources.

The fishing boats go out early morning or late at night and come in just after sunrise, an occasion that sees many locals wanting to see what the catch was.

There is a routine: the boats come in as close to the shore as possible, a Jeep pulls them out of the water and then they get taken away, probably for their wares to be sold to one of the nearby factories exporting their catches.

When we watched early this week, the catches included “Bulle” (big crayfish) and Hotnotsvis (yes, it does not sound politically correct but that is what it is called).

Of course, there are downsides, even to a piece of paradise. One of them was the longest wait ever for a parcel of takeaway fish and chips - almost two hours - with the people who work at the small kiosk warning those who are impatient not to place orders.

There are also many restaurants that are completely overpriced, with their food not up to standard. How do you explain selling old fish to customers in a seaside town? Maybe because all the fish that gets caught in the town is exported?

The highlight of my week so far has not been the amazing sunsets or the tranquillity of the beaches. It was a discussion I had with three young boys on the beach who were trying to sell me handmade curios and fresh white mussels.

The boys, one of whom was Frederico, were between eight and 10, and are in Grades 2, 3 and 4. They told me that they lived in “die huisies” (the small houses), a reference to the small government-built houses that form part of most towns in South Africa. They told me a bit about their history, including about the recent death from a heart attack of one of their fathers, and the problems they have at school.

But it was when I asked them what they hoped to become one day that I realised how poor people in small towns like Paternoster do not have much hope and expectations.

They wanted to become a “kreefvanger” (crayfish catcher), a “karate man” (whatever that means) and a policeman, respectively.

The thought of one day going to university has not even crossed their minds.

This made me realise once again how messed up our realities are in South Africa.

Yes, free higher education is important, but we need to first create the environment where more people - including from small rural towns like Paternoster - will be encouraged to aim for higher education.

There are too many people in South Africa who have resigned themselves to a future where their full potential will never be realised.

Places like Paternoster will remain bastions of inequality - which, as we all know, is becoming worse in South Africa - unless meaningful interventions are made to uplift the life of poorer communities.

I hope I am wrong, but I did not see any visible engagement from Paternoster’s rich invaders to improve the lives of the town’s original inhabitants.

I am not against development but it must be done in a way that it takes along the people at the bottom. If this does not happen then resentment will always exist. This can never be good if we want to develop our country and fulfil its potential.

Federico and his friends deserve more than selling curios for R30 and a future where they can only hope to become crayfish catchers, karate men or policemen - even if they do live in a piece of paradise.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 6 January 2018)

New Year’s resolutions ­- are they worth it or not?

I’ve always been ambivalent about New Year’s Eve celebrations and New Year resolutions - for different reasons.

While it is important to find reasons to celebrate - and a new year is a good enough reason, I suppose - too many people invest too much hope in a new year, and that some people might change for the better.

But change is a constant process and not something that happens overnight. For someone to say that his/her New Year resolution is, for instance, to be a better person is at best hopeful but probably also a bit deceitful.

If, for instance, a person is bad on December 31, there is a high likelihood that s/he will still be bad on January 1. Change in most cases is incremental, so the best one could hope for is for the bad person to be slightly better.

Another popular New Year resolution is around the consumption of food or alcohol or both. This is normally a resolution that gets delayed by at least a few days after January 1 because the person making the resolution often realises it is difficult to make a commitment to eat or drink less when you are caught up in festive season activities.

But within a week or two most people who made the resolution have forgotten what they promised on December 31.

New Year resolutions are not necessarily bad, because they provide an opportunity to reflect on ways in which one can improve, personally or physically. And all of us can always improve.

On an annual basis, I used to do a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities and threats) analysis of myself. I used to think about the areas in which I was weak and try to find ways in which I could turn my weaknesses into strengths. This was a way of turning myself into a better person. I have not done this for a while.

For instance, I realised that it was easy for me to get angry without much provocation. One of the ways of dealing with this problem was, I realised, meditation. It helped and made me much calmer. The problem is that when you do not meditate often enough, you tend to get back into your bad habits - as is the case with just about everything else in life.

If you are tempted to eat unhealthily, before long you will probably find yourself eating mainly unhealthy food.

If you stop exercising, it is very difficult to get back into an active routine.

My personal SWOT analysis also extended into areas that I did not understand properly and encompassed finding ways of improving my understanding. One of the problems with being a journalist is that people expect you to know and understand just about everything under the sun, and we try our best, but some things are more difficult to comprehend than others.

What I have realised about doing personal SWOT analyses is that it is important to get input from the people around you, which is sometimes difficult to do. Most of us do not take kindly to criticism, no matter how constructive.

So, I suppose if I have to make a New Year resolution it would be to listen a bit more to the people I love and respect and not to get too angry too quickly (a little bit of anger now and then, I suppose, has never harmed anybody).

Which bring me to New Year’s Eve celebrations. I have often wondered why some people are prepared to spend so much money on a celebration. Quite often, the celebration happens in the company of hundreds of strangers and you find yourself, on the stroke of midnight, wishing people you have never seen before or will never see again.

Some of my best New Year’s Eve celebrations have been small intimate affairs where we were maybe six to 10 people, just sitting around a fire, listening to music and talking about everything under the moon.

Some people might say that this is a sign of getting old, and that is not a bad thing. As one gets older, one begins to appreciate friendship and family a lot more and one enjoys spending time with your loved ones even more.

Which brings me back to my New Year resolution. Apart from listening more to those who I love and respect, I also want to find more time to spend with these people. I don’t want to go to another funeral thinking that I should have made time to visit the person who passed away. Life is short, and it is good to spend as much of it as possible surrounded by those you love and respect, and who hopefully love and respect you.

Happy New Year. May all your best wishes come true in 2018.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 30 December 2017)

A time for celebrations and cautious optimism

There are two more sleeps before Christmas and it is time to be festive. Christmas has always been special, especially on the Cape Flats where I grew up and where people would celebrate irrespective of their religious inclination.

While Christmas is rightly seen as a Christian holiday by some, it is also seen as a universal day of peace and celebration by many. It is a day to spend with families and loved ones. It is a time to reflect on the past year, to think about loved ones who may no longer be around and to recommit to the decent human values that are supposed to form part of the fabric of Christmas celebrations.

There are so many people who celebrated their last Christmas last year, with some of them knowing or suspecting that this would be the case. But, even when people pass away in old age, the families who are left behind always struggle to understand what has happened.

People who have impacted on me in some way and who have passed on in the past few months include Eddie Daniels, who was imprisoned on Robben Island and became good friends with Nelson Mandela and others despite being from a different political background, and Laloo Chiba, who also spent time on Robben Island and remained committed to the ANC. Chiba was the best friend of Ahmed Kathrada, the Rivonia Trialist who died in March. All three had reservations about where we are going as a society.

There have been many others who died this year, including Ismail Rasool, the father of former Western Cape Ppremier Ebrahim Rasool; Maggie Marks, whose family played an important role in the UDF and ANC politics; Professor Richard van der Ross, who I respected hugely even though we had differences in our approach to “coloured” identity; Essa Moosa, a judge and people’s lawyer who represented me and many others in the difficult days of the struggle; Ronald Bernickow, a former trade unionist; and Gabriel Naidoo, an educator and committed Christian who gave the world a brood of children who continue to fight for justice.

It is appropriate in this week to reflect on these people as we turn our focus from the 54th national conference of the ANC and start focusing on trips to the beach, mountain walks and reunions with friends and family over the next two weeks.

It was painful watching the proceedings of the ANC conference on television this week. What was most painful was the realisation that the days are over when the ANC was an organisation for people who wanted to uplift the country. While there has been much talked about unity in the ANC, the organisation is deeply divided and will probably become more divided in the next few years.

I sincerely hope I am wrong because the ANC, with all its imperfections, remains the only political organisation with the policies to truly transform our society in one in which the lives of the majority will be improved.

But the ANC will struggle to renew itself when so many members threw their weight behind people who have serious corruption allegations against them; when it has a women’s league which supports men who have been convicted of assaulting women; when it has people glibly talking about radical economic transformation and land restitution without thinking of its implications. We need to view with seriousness the policy decisions it takes, but it is also important to note that the ANC cannot unilaterally change the constitution of the country. To do that, it needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which it has not had for quite a while.

While ANC members and branches were the most important people at this week's conference, the organisation now needs to think about how it can appeal to the broadest spectrum of South Africans, as we gear up to the elections in 2019.

The next indication of the “new” ANC will be at the traditional January 8 speech to be delivered by the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on January 13 in East London. By that time, hopefully all of us will feel renewed after the festive season break.

Merry Christmas and please think about those who might not have reason to celebrate.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 23 December 2017)

I live in hope that ANC will put aside factionalism and work together

Factionalism in politics is almost as old as politics. It has never been restricted to one political party and is usually based on personalities rather than policies.

The focus is on factionalism in the ANC because of the implications this has for the leadership vote at the organisation’s elective conference, which starts in Joburg today and is expected to end on Wednesday.

Who wins the ANC presidential vote will indicate which faction - or slate as it is called within the ANC - is strongest: those supporting Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or former AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Or maybe it will indicate who had the most money to spend.

As far as I can remember, there have been factions in the ANC and related organisations. When we were involved in Struggle in the 1980s, we were all identified as belonging to one or other faction. More than 30 years later, we can hardly remember what our factions stood for and we are all friends.

I think that the main difference between our factions was based on our approach to organisational democracy. The one faction believed in democratic centralism while the other group supported federalism. Each faction had a leader whose name became synonymous with the faction.

But the factions were also based on the areas in which you lived. When I moved from Hanover Park to Mitchells Plain, I was seen as being in another faction.

I had been a youth leader in Hanover Park and, when I attended the funeral of a youth member a few months after moving from the area, I was shunned by some of my former comrades in Hanover Park.

Nowadays, factionalism seems to be more about the individuals involved and what they can offer their followers, than about policy matters.

The factions appear to be more fluid, with some people being prepared to die for their leader the one day, and being his rival a few years later.

We have an ANC presidential candidate who, a few years ago, stood as deputy president on the slate that lost to her former husband, who is now the party and the country’s president and her biggest supporter.

Politics has become a game of survival and I have often seen comrades vacillating between supporting one leader over another, with the only reason being that the one is offering more security in terms of employment and remuneration than the other.

It was not too long ago that Thabo Mbeki lost the ANC presidency to Jacob Zuma and some of his supporters left the ANC en masse to form Cope. Many of those who left returned to the ANC soon after, with some of them now supporting Ramaphosa. Cope is a shadow of the party it was in its prime.

Ramaphosa was a rival of Mbeki and, according to some, was Nelson Mandela’s choice as deputy president but Madiba was overruled by the ANC faction that had been in exile, and chose Mbeki instead.

While Ramaphosa remained a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, he decided to focus on business while biding his time to make his presidential bid.

He got his opportunity at Mangaung, when he became deputy president as part of Zuma’s slate after Zuma’s former deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, decided to challenge him for the presidency.

Ramaphosa’s assumption was probably that Zuma would support his bid to become president .But now Zuma has decided to back his former wife to become ANC president and possibly president of the country.

But factionalism is not necessarily a bad thing. It could show that the party is not one-dimensional and allows and encourages debate.

The ANC has a good opportunity, as the dominant party in South African politics (at least for the moment), to show it can put aside factionalism and work together in the interest of the country and not only the members of a faction or of the party. I suppose one can always live in hope.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 16 December 2017) 

Politicians only pretend to promote Mandela’s values

It is ironic that in the week when we marked the fourth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing, the news was dominated by many examples of how Madiba’s legacy is being undermined in South Africa today.

Off the top of my head, there is the Public Protector’s report which shows how “public servants” in the Eastern Cape siphoned off money meant to be used to organise Mandela’s funeral.

Instead, they used it to fatten the bank balance of preferred “service providers” - some who did noteven provide any service.

The report talks about R300 million, but this is restricted to a few towns in the Eastern Cape, and there was probably millions of rands more, abused in the same way over the same period in other parts of the country.

Then there is the ongoing Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings into the plight of psychiatric patients who were removed from private health into the “care” of dodgy NGOs that were clearly just taking the money but unable to provide any service for the patients.

Every time I watch only a minute of the arbitration hearing, I get angry that needy people and their families were treated with such disdain and disgust.

I hope that everyone responsible for this tragedy will be made to pay in their personal capacities and not be able to hide behind their “official” positions and responsibilities.

Another ongoing “event” is the parliamentary inquiry into corruption at Eskom.

As an experienced journalist, I am expected to use the word “alleged” whenever I write about corruption, but there is nothing alleged about the corruption at Eskom. It is just about determining the scale and who was responsible.

Every day of the hearing, there have been shocking allegations of incompetence, about board members turning a blind eye to theft, knowing they can always turn to the public if they run out of money. Hopefully, the thieves will face their day in court and some of the money will be recovered.

But the story that upset me most this week, was about the international study that indicates that 78% of Grade 4 learners are not able to read with comprehension.

This means that they might be able to mouth certain words, but have no idea what it means. South Africa is bottom of the 50 countries surveyed.

I found this news shocking but not surprising.

If there is anything that makes a mockery of Madiba’s legacy, it is the way our education system has digressed over the past 23 years.

It has become more about making sure we have a certain percentage of matriculants who pass every year, at least more than the previous year, and not about the quality of education provided.

Madiba’s love for children is well-documented and can be seen in the legacy projects he supported and that still continue to this day, including the children’s foundation and the children’s hospital that carries his name.

Madiba also, when he was president, regularly coerced businessmen into building schools in the rural areas to make sure that rural children would have the opportunity to be educated with dignity.

These are just four aspects that I could think of immediately as I reflected on Madiba’s legacy and the important role he played in our society. There are many more shocking examples of how his legacy is being undermined and undone.

Next year, when we mark what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday in July, there will, no doubt, be many activities where politicians will try to remind us of the values by which Madiba lived.

I doubt whether there are many politicians in South Africa today who are qualified to speak with honesty about Madiba’s values, and who are helping to promote those values.

But it is important for us who can be described as “ordinary people” to reflect on the values of Madiba and to look at how we can live up to those values, despite and not because of the politicians.

Meaningful change will only come about if it is driven by ordinary people and not by so-called leaders. Leaders have a tendency to become distant from their followers, irrespective of political party.

They need to be reminded from time to time that they are supposed to be our servants, as Mandela indicated on the day of his release from prison.

All of those who are concerned about the future need to continuously reflect on what we can do to make South Africa the great place we know it can be. And then we need to do it.

This is the best way to pay tribute to Madiba and his legacy.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Satuday 9 December 2017)

Mitchells Plain Town Centre an insult to the poor

There is a word that sticks in my memory after the 15th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, last Saturday. That word is “dignity”.

The guest speaker, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J Mohammed, spoke about how, when Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, they took away his freedom but could not take away his dignity.

I thought about dignity earlier in the week when I took my sisters shopping in Mitchells Plain Town Centre, a place I had not visited in many years. The last time I went there was probably when we lived in the area in the early 1990s.

The centre resembles a place where the assumption is that poor people, who are the majority of its patrons, do not deserve any dignity.

Major retailers who cater for “upmarket” shoppers, such as Pick n Pay and Woolworths, as well as all the jewellery stores, have left the centre, to open up at the nearby Promenade shopping centre.

Their places have been taken by lesser-known retailers who sell goods at much lower prices. And this is where my sisters wanted me to take them to shop.

Parking has always been a problem at the Town Centre. But what has become worse is the complete disdain for the rules of the road. Taxis and private cars stop in the middle of the road, double- and triple-park, while those who are trying to be law-abiding citizens have to navigate their way taking into consideration the inconsiderate behaviour of others.

The parking area, on the edge of the Town Centre, was filled with eager young men offering to “look after” my car. Against what is anyone’s guess.

As we walked from the parking area towards the shops, I could not help but notice the pungent smell. I gave up trying to figure out what caused it, but it was not pleasant.

We had to watch where we walked because you could easily step into open manholes which, from the look of the dirt inside, appeared to have been open for months.

After we shopped, the content of our trolleys was checked against our till slips. This appeared to be common practice at most of the shops in the centre. We were not allowed to take the trolleys to the car. We had to place our bags into a trolley that “belonged” to a homeless person who was earning a living by taking people’s bags to their cars in her trolley.

There were several others who were making a living in the same way, all of them being managed by someone employed by the store.

The trolley carrying our shopping only had three working wheels, so we struggled towards our car which was a distance away.

We walked past several fruit and vegetable vendors and a few Rastafarians selling herbal cures for all kinds of ailments. At least, entrepreneurship was alive.

When we got to my car, there was a scramble among the eager youth about who had “looked after” it. Of course, whoever it was, was the one I had to pay.

I could not help but think about what an undignified experience shopping at Mitchells Plain Town Centre was compared to shopping at Cavendish Square, or even Kenilworth Centre. I had a choice. I chose to go there because I wanted to experience a place where I spent much of my time when I was younger.

But most people who shop there do not have the same choice. They have to swallow their dignity and make the most of their shopping experience. At least the prices are cheap. I don’t know about the quality.

I thought about the many times I had been confronted with similar situations where the dignity of poor people did not matter. I thought about going to work with my dad in the factory where, according to his payslip, he was a “labourer”.

I remember how angry I was when young white men called my dad by his first name and he called them “Mister”. I thought this is no way to speak to the head of our household, the breadwinner in our family, the man who tried to raise us with discipline and dignity. I am still angry about it, more than 40 years later.

It is so easy to give up your dignity, especially when you are poor and vulnerable. One of the things we fought for during the Struggle was for everyone to have dignity, to be treated with respect.

The way people are treated in Mitchells Plain Town Centre is probably not the worst in the world, but it is an indication of how many people live without dignity.

I wondered about the retailers who are making millions out of the people who shop in the town centre, without pumping anything back to uplift the centre.

What would happen if people no longer supported their shops? But where else would people go for bargains? It seems that bargains are more important than dignity for some. And the people who are making the money know this.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 2 December 2017)

Politics is fickle and the support not guaranteed

This week has been significant and even historic, words that get used glibly sometimes, but which are not out of place in the context of what happened in southern Africa.
The significance for some people, especially those on the Cape Flats and more especially those in Bishop Lavis, is that a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Paxton Fielies won season 13 of Idols South Africa. I suspect it is important, but I would not know because I have not watched Idols for many years.

But what happened on Idols pales into comparison with what happened in our neighbouring country, Zimbabwe.

After the military took over key government ministries and the president’s home last week, there was a wait-and-see situation: will Robert Gabriel Mugabe leave willingly and, pardon the pun, gracefully, or will he have to be impeached?

It all came to a head on Tuesday night when the Speaker of parliament announced that, after 37 years in charge, Mugabe had resigned.

The people of Zimbabwe should be allowed to celebrate their victory, but they will soon realise that their struggle is only beginning. The replacement of one leader with another cut from the same cloth is not ideal, but at least it is a start. In some ways, Zimbabweans will know that they are dealing with a devil they know.

Mugabe’s replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was one of Mugabe’s closest confidantes over many years. He occupied several positions in government and, like Mugabe, is a struggle hero with close links to the military.

Mugabe is 93. Mnangagwa is 75. Mnangagwa’s age should not be a problem. Nelson Mandela was 75 when he became president of South Africa. But Mandela was clear that he saw his role as being a caretaker president, meant to guide South Africa through what could potentially have been a difficult period.

Whether Mnangagwa will be prepared to change the political milieu in Zimbabwe and create a more enabling environment, where political parties work together in the interest of the country irrespective of political differences, remains to be seen.

If he delivers more of the same, then the celebrations this week would have been misplaced.

There are several lessons South Africans and others can learn from what happened in Zimbabwe. The first is that politics is fickle. People who may support you today will easily turn their backs on you tomorrow. We have seen this in South Africa where not too long ago, Julius Malema was prepared to die for Jacob Zuma. Today he is Zuma’s biggest enemy.

Political support is not guaranteed. No one could have predicted that Mugabe’s rule would have ended so acrimoniously after he had been revered in Zimbabwe for most of his 37 years in power. The same people who ended Mugabe’s rule are the ones who propped him up for all these years.

This shows that any leader can lose political support and can be deposed. A good example of this is Libya where Muammar Gaddafi ruled with an iron fist for 42 years until he was killed when the country descended into civil war.

We don’t know what went through the minds of Zanu-PF politicians in Zimbabwe when they finally decided to turn on Mugabe. Maybe they saw him becoming a liability. Maybe they dreaded being ruled by his young wife, who it appeared he anointed as his successor.

Maybe the military simply felt that their grip on society and, more importantly, the finances in society, would be lessened if somebody from outside their circles became president.

Maybe, politicians simply read the cards and saw that their bread would continue to be buttered by supporting Mnangagwa as opposed to his rival, Grace Mugabe. Politicians tend to support whoever can guarantee them something equal or better to what they have become accustomed.

There have been hopeful signs in Zimbabwe before, especially after the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the MDC’s good showing in the 2008 elections, despite being split into two factions.

Another lesson relates to the role of the military. The use of the military in any situation should always be a last resort and should never be a long-term solution. The Zimbabwean military should be complimented for exerting pressure on politicians to seek a political solution.

South Africa is, of course, a different situation to Zimbabwe and those people who are hoping that we would have a coup, of sorts, in South Africa need to be less hopeful.

We’ve never really used military solutions in a positive way. The ANC will be the first to admit that uMkhonto we Sizwe on their own did not bring the apartheid government to the negotiating table. The combination of internal mass protests and international isolation probably played a bigger role.

Those who are unhappy with the status quo, need to continue to engage politicians and put pressure on them to bring about the changes that will benefit our country. Who knows, they might even realise that change would benefit them too and things could improve for the better.

What happened in Zimbabwe this week has proven that anything is possible. And that should be enough to give us hope in South Africa.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 25 November 2017)