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)

Trying to bring media, government together in Zimbabwe

THE picture portrayed by most foreign media about the situation in Zimbabwe is one in which the local media are involved in a daily pitched battle against the government.

That might be so, but I was privileged to be a participant in a workshop last week where the usual protagonists and adversaries sat down and talked to each other.

The workshop, hosted by the Parliament of Zimbabwe and facilitated by the State University of New York, brought together about 60 people in all, including members of parliament from the ruling Zanu-PF, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, along with journalists from the state-owned media and the opposition (or independent) media.

It was held in Kadoma, a little town about two hours’ drive from Harare on the road to Bulawayo.

It was the first time that parliamentary representatives, from both major political parties in Zimbabwe, had sat down with representatives of the media to trash out areas of concern on both sides. The decision to have the workshop was made in December already, but Zimbabwe’s bureaucracy is not unlike other bureaucracies, so the workshop finally happened last week.

I was approached a few weeks before the event to be the chief facilitator. I was supposed to work with two resource people, one a Ugandan journalist, and the other a public relations practitioner from Zimbabwe. By the time the workshop started, two more Zimbabwean facilitators had been added and this raised some eyebrows among some of the participants. The two extra facilitators turned out to be a bonus, because we now had enough facilitators to spread the workload evenly.

The seriousness with which the government of Zimbabwe viewed this workshop was evident by the presence of the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the leader of the House, Patrick Chinamasa, and the Minister of Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo. Also present for parts of the workshop were a few Deputy Ministers, the Speaker of Parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Clerk of Parliament, Austin Zvoma, and the chief whips of both Zanu-PF and the MDC.

Unlike many workshops I have attended in South Africa, the Zimbabwe workshop was lively and vigorous, with equal participation from the media and the parliamentary representatives. Members of parliament in Zimbabwe take themselves very serious and address and introduce each other as “Honourable”, which probably helps to take some of the sting out of vicious personal attacks.

The issues raised on both sides would be familiar to South Africans, such as MPs not understanding the way media works, and the media not understanding the way parliament works.

There was a complaint about MPs not being accessible and one woman journalist complained about sexual harassment from male MPs. The way the entire audience responded with laughter, shows that Zimbabwean society still has a long way to go before it can consider itself gender-sensitive.

MPs also complained about being under-resourced and, as such, not being able to respond properly to queries from journalists. Some of the MPs complained about journalists not covering their constituency work. Others complained about being ignored by the television cameras covering parliament.

In the end, after all the complaints had been listened to by both sides, the workshop drew up an action plan that had short-, medium- and long-term objectives.

Among the short-term objectives is to get members of parliament to meet with editors and to visit some of the publishing houses so that they can acquaint themselves with the way the media operates. Journalists who do not normally cover parliament would also be encouraged to visit parliament, so they can understand the workings of parliament better.

It was also agreed that MPs should be trained in how to deal with the media more effectively. This training will include how to conduct press conferences and how to prepare for interviews.

I was disappointed that some of the recent, blatant attacks on media freedom in Zimbabwe were not discussed at all, but maybe that is the subject of another workshop.

The workshop, everyone agreed, was long overdue and just the beginning of a process. Part of the value of the workshop was that, for the first time, members of the rival Zanu-PF and the MDC, sat down and talked. As did members of the state-owned media and the independent media.

The Minister of Justice, Parliamentary and Legal Affairs, Patrick Chinamasa, properly summed up this change in attitude.

“We are mixing freely now,” he said, “but something happens when we enter the parliamentary chamber. It is almost like we become possessed by demons and start attacking each other.”

One of the abiding memories of this workshop for me will be the sight of Zanu-PF and MDC MPs enjoying drinks together in the bar at night, and  Chinamasa actively engaging a journalist from the independent Daily News.

It showed the value of talking, something which Zimbabweans might be beginning to understand at last.

(First published in the Sunday Independent in 2002. Not sure of the month.)

Rights of poor remain low on SA's political agenda

Life is full of uncomfortable truths and the way you respond to them can make you stronger, or they can traumatise you for a long time.

One of the uncomfortable truths that I and many others have had to deal with over the past few years is that the ANC, the organisation which many of us would have been prepared to give our lives for just over 20 years ago, is no longer the same movement we supported almost blindly.

It has lost its values such as non-racism and non-sexism, and now mainly serves to prop up a leadership that does not deserve the support we provided when we voted it into power. It has become a party which many people support because of the perception they could benefit from economic opportunities and not because it fights for the vulnerable in society.

Another uncomfortable truth I have had to deal with is that poor people do not really matter to those with political power, irrespective of the political party. Most politicians use poor people as voting fodder at election times, but quickly forget about the promises they made to secure votes.

Most politicians are middle class and have middle-class interests, so they struggle to identify with the plight of the poor. Many politicians from poor backgrounds end up committing “class suicide” once they earn high salaries as public servants and move from the townships to the suburbs.

I have always thought it would be difficult for black people to turn their backs on other black people. We share too much history and, no matter where we find ourselves in life, we can never forget where we come from. Most black people have relatives who are poor and are reminded of their roots, even if they do not want to be reminded. It is for this reason I assumed black people would always help other black people, especially those who are poor.

But I was wrong. I have realised class is probably a much more important common denominator in South Africa. Middle-class people tend to stick together despite their race, even if some blacks who find themselves in the middle class are often made to feel unwelcome. If the struggle of middle-class blacks is about identity and acceptance, and access to opportunities, the struggle of poor blacks is about survival in a situation where one might not have a home or a job.

It is easy, when you are middle class, to forget about the needs of poor people and only worry about your own situation.

It is another one of those uncomfortable truths that the gap between rich and poor in South Africa has grown tremendously since we became a democracy. Yes, it is true we now have many black millionaires and even a few black billionaires, but that does not excuse the fact that most South Africans remain economically excluded.

It is true that black people did not struggle to be poor, but we also did not struggle for some to become stinking rich while most people remain poor. We struggled to uplift the most vulnerable in our society, something which has not happened in a significant way since 1994.

This disdain for poor people can be seen in the evidence delivered at the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings where we heard that 143 people died after more than 1 700 patients were removed from health care facilities by the Gauteng government and moved into the care of mainly ill-equipped non-governmental organisations. The people who were removed were poor, and their families are poor, which could possibly explain the contempt with which the Gauteng government treated them.

The disdain for poor people can also be seen in the way poor people’s bodies have been transported for pauper’s burials in Gauteng, something which was only exposed when an open trailer carrying 42 bodies lost a wheel this week and corpses were exposed in the road.

These are two high-profile events which have received coverage in the newspapers, but most of the incidents where poor lives don’t matter do not receive media coverage.

Most of the people who live on the Cape Flats are poor and the response to their plight - whether it is when they become victims of crime or whether they want decent housing - is another indication of how poor people do not matter in South Africa today.

It is sad that their plight is only highlighted when another young child is killed in the crossfire of gang violence. Yet, many people on the Cape Flats live under horrific conditions every day.

It is sad that there can be even a perception that the successive governments we voted for to replace the apartheid government continued to treat many poor people with the same disrespect as the apartheid government.

The sad reality is that this will not change if one political party is replaced by another. It will only change when poor people realise the power of unity - especially when it comes to voting - and demand their rights be placed higher on the political agenda. Otherwise, the status quo of deepening poverty and inequality will be with us forever.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 18 November 2017)

Channel the anger in a plan to tackle ills of country

Someone called me an angry man last week. Before I got angry at him, I thought about it and realised that sometimes it is good to be angry. Sometimes anger is the only appropriate response to many situations in which we find ourselves.

In South Africa, it is quite easy to become immune to bad news and to temper our anger. What else can you expect in a country where everything appears to be extreme, from corruption on a large scale to major crimes to which we pay very little attention?

But I refuse not to get angry.

I get angry when I read revelation after revelation about monies being siphoned out of the public purse into the pockets of certain families and their friends. I get angry when I think about how many poor people put their hopes and confidence in politicians who abuse it and use their newfound positions of influence to benefit themselves and their families financially.

I get angry when I see former comrades, whose behaviour was exemplary during the freedom Struggle, becoming caught up in scandals involving money being stolen from government and state-owned entities.

I get angry when I hear how our SOEs have been used as personal piggy banks by the people who we entrusted to run them on our behalf.

But I also get angry when I see old South Africans flags at a protest about something legitimate.

Farm murders - in fact all murders - are unacceptable and we need to protest to stop them. But not with the old South African flag. That just brings back too many evil memories of apartheid and makes me wonder about the motives for the protest in the first place.

I get angry when I see the response from some politicians to the charges of corruption and state capture, and when they accuse their accusers of racism - “It is only because we are black that we are accused” and “we did not struggle to be poor” are two of the famous rebuttals from those who are trying to protect the corrupt ones.

I get angry when I hear of another young child being shot and killed in crossfire between gangs on the Cape Flats, especially Hanover Park, where I grew up. If I had remained in Hanover Park, it could easily have been me or my children who were the unintentional victims of gang violence.

But in a week in which there was again much noise about the shenanigans of the president, his family and friends, and their friends, the story that touched my heart the most was about a 7-year-old boy - two days shy of his eighth birthday - who died after an ambulance transporting him to hospital after an accident, was attacked. Yes, you have read that right: the ambulance was attacked. Why anyone would want to ambush an ambulance baffles the mind.

If this is not enough to make anyone angry, then I don’t know what is. It’s good to get angry, just like it is good to shout or cry sometimes. I have never subscribed to the theory that real men don’t cry. I cry when I feel like it and I will shout my lungs out if necessary. It is incredibly therapeutic.

However, for anger to be effective, it must be channelled properly. It is not good enough to say you are angry about something. You must think about ways in which you can help to fix what is making you angry.

It is not good enough to shrug and say that there is nothing we can do about the government corruption that fills reams of newsprint and gigs of internet space daily.

Like journalist Rehana Rossouw said at the launch of her book, New Times, this week, as taxpayers, we pay the salaries of public servants and we should learn to manage them.

This is, of course, easier said than done, but it is important not to become complacent. We should never think that it is just another case of corruption, and it is not even billions, only a few million.

We should be outraged by every act of corruption, even if it involves only thousands or even hundreds of rand.

We should share the information with our friends and networks, we should write to our members of parliament to express our disquiet and we should engage people of influence in civil society and encourage them to speak up. We should show our disgust at every opportunity.

If all else fails, we should make our cross on election day next to the person or party who we think will be least likely to continue corruption. But I don’t know whether we can wait until then.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 11 November 2017)

Enough of talkin' about a revolution let's march

A few months ago, I was added to a group of former 1980s activists on WhatsApp and e-mail. I have remained a member of the group, even though I have not been active, mainly because of a crazy schedule. But I support what they aim to do.

Nowadays I find it is difficult to even make time for my family, let alone for fighting the revolution.

But South Africa needs a revolution and I appreciate the people who are making the effort to attend meetings, march and protest, and distribute pamphlets highlighting some of the issues facing us today.

The term “revolution” might seem a bit strong, but I think it is precisely because we forsook our commitment to change this country in a revolutionary manner, that we have ended up with the situation we have today.

And let me say it outright: there is no way that democratic South Africa can be compared to apartheid South Africa. It is easy to forget the oppression and repression that we suffered under apartheid, and we are far from that. Hopefully we will never go there again.

But South Africa has many problems, some because of our stupid idealism, and some because of factors beyond our control. That crime rates continue to rise almost unabated is a serious blight on our leadership. And not creating jobs - in fact, losing jobs - is unacceptable for a ruling party that promised “a better life for all”.

It is easy to ridicule the ANC. The ruling party should accept the blame for a lot of what is wrong in our country today. But they are not the only people who are to blame.

And this is why I support the group of former UDF activists. In fact, until recently I used to joke and refer to us as “expired activists”. Some of the comrades in the group have shown they are far from expired.

Indeed, some of us had expired for most of the past 23 years or so. Many of us had thought that, when Nelson Mandela and others were released and the ANC and other organisations were unbanned, our struggle was over and we could halt our activism to do “ordinary” things, such as raising our children and pursuing our careers.

Some decided to enter formal politics and quickly discovered its limitations because, in many cases, they became beholden to the party for keeping roofs over their heads and forgot why they joined the Struggle in the first place: to fight for the rights of the downtrodden and to make sure that everyone would be able to reach their full potential in our beautiful country.

Many of the comrades in Parliament put the party and their own personal interests ahead of the interests of the people who held out hope their lives would improve under a democratic government.

Some in government will point out things like fresh water supply and electrification of townships as ways in which lives have been improved, but this is the very least that we would have expected of a government who cares about the majority of the people.

When some of the people who we entrusted to lead this government decide to enrich themselves rather than caring about the poor, then you have a problem.

I really thought our days of marching and protesting were over, but clearly they are not. We all need to take responsibility for taking our eye off the ball and depending on those we entrusted with leadership to pursue the things we identified in documents such as the Freedom Charter.

We really thought our comrades would fight hard to ensure the doors of learning and culture would be open, that everyone would have houses, security and comfort, that the land would be shared among those who work it, and that all would be equal before the law, among others.

This week, a few old comrades who are part of the old UDF activists group and who should really have been reflecting with pride on the achievements of our democracy, were arrested for demanding the president be charged with corruption. That it has come to this is a serious indictment on a movement that many of us once followed almost slavishly.

Those who still refuse to admit something is seriously wrong in our country, need to reflect on how true the ruling party remains to the goals of the Freedom Charter. Honestly, they have not done much. Which is why, at a time when we should be thinking of slowing down, many of us are expected to become revolutionaries once again. The Struggle continues.

(First pubished as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 4 November 2017)

Just when you’ve thought you’ve made the grade

Thousands of grade 12 pupils throughout South Africa began writing their final examinations this week. While not wanting to take anything away from their accomplishments - they have survived 12 years of schooling, after all - our congratulations should come with a warning. Matric is not the end of their education, but should probably represent the beginning of a new phase which they should embrace.

A matric certificate nowadays is not enough to guarantee you a better life. In fact, having a degree does not do that either, but at least it gives you a better chance of success.

Passing matric is still considered a big thing, especially in poorer communities, where the bulk of children who enter the schooling system do not finish their studies. Research has shown that significantly less than half of children who start primary school end up in matric.

Most of these people end up being unemployed, standing on street corners during the day and providing easy fodder for gangs who exploit their inability to earn money. The sad reality is that the ranks of the unemployed in the townships are boosted by many matriculants who cannot afford to go to university and can’t find work. South Africa is going through a highly troublesome period, something which was indicated in the Medium Term Budget speech by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba on Wednesday.

In short, he said South Africa is spending more money than it collects and he has no idea how to turn things around. This means more young people will be unable to find jobs, despite their educational qualifications, increasing inequality in our already unequal society and leading to more poverty and desperation.

It has been a long time since things have looked so gloomy.

One of the ways many nations have changed their fortunes is by educating their people. In South Africa, primary and high school education is free. But free education has never been qualitatively good and that is why parents with money spend thousands every year, supplementing what government provides so that their children receive quality education.

This has, of course, introduced a new form of apartheid in education, with township schools, which depend on government subsidies, not being able to improve the quality of the education they offer, and what some people call former Model C schools (basically former white schools) being able to improve their educational offering significantly because of the extra thousands provided by parents annually.

For many parents in the townships, school is something their children have to complete as a stepping stone, hopefully, to something better. In many cases, this never materialises.

Every year, a few weeks after writing the matric exams, thousands of candidates wait for their results.

For some, good results mean they can get into good universities and study courses which could secure them a decent income after a few years. For most, however, it is another milestone that they have had to complete, without any idea of how it is going to benefit them, financially or otherwise.

The gap in the quality of education between township schools and universities means that youngsters coming out of inferior education will always struggle to survive at university. I know there are exceptions, but they are not many.

This has implications for what government will decide about the funding of tertiary education.

Students want free education but realistically this will be difficult to achieve, especially against a background of the dire economic situation that Gigaba painted on Wednesday.

Free tertiary education cannot take place without the students coming to the party, whether this is by committing to complete studies in a prescribed number of years or agreeing to make some contribution to society after completing their education.

There also needs to be a way of making sure that those who can pay, make at least some contribution.

The situation in South Africa requires decisive leadership, something we have been lacking for a while.

Instead, we have reached a situation where the government - and particularly the president - appears only to take decisions when faced with a court order or threats of legal action.

If I were president - and I will never be, for too many reasons to list here - I would take the nation into my confidence. I would urgently convene a summit of the best brains in the country, from business, labour, civil society and academia, among others, and I would ask them a simple question: how do we take this country forward?

Yes, I know we have the National Development Plan (NDP) which is a great document that seems almost unattainable in the current economic climate. But we need another intervention - a jolt almost - to get us to that point where we can start to realistically look at achieving the goals of the NDP.

We need to put aside political differences and work together in the best interest of the country.

Failure to do this will mean that matric certificates and even degrees will become almost meaningless if we do not create jobs to absorb those who have achieved, and if we are not able to pay to improve the quality of our education.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 28 October 2017)


Good people can be racist and jump to wrong conclusions

It was one of those weeks when there was a lot going on locally. Mandla Langa’s completion of the second biography of Nelson Mandela was launched in Johannesburg, Sisonke Msimang launched her biography in Cape Town, the District Six Museum hosted a storytelling session in Langa, and we commemorated the 40th anniversary of Black Wednesday, 19 October 1977, when the government banned several newspapers and organisations, and banned and/or detained many journalists. Their crime was to oppose apartheid.

We even managed to see Shakespeare in Love at the Fugard Theatre, which provided some respite from what turned out to be an otherwise heavy news week. We cannot overlook the conflicts that are going on in many parts of the world, and the constant reshuffling of his executive by our President who appears to have itchy feet or fingers or both.

I have given up trying to speculate about what is going on in the mind of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. All I know is that he manages to catch his opponents off guard a lot of the time, indicating what a master strategist he is. I am not saying he is a good man or even a good politician, but I am saying that he is clever and should not be underestimated. He has shown that over and over.

But the story that grabbed most of my attention is one involving a goat and a few other animals.

The story of a seven-year-old’s birthday party in a Woodstock park which was assumed by a white resident to be a ritual animal slaughter – or worse – indicates how far we still have to go as residents of Cape Town and South Africa in order to even begin to understand each other.

Much has been written about this story, including the eventual and inevitable apology, and there are some people who probably believe that we should move on now – just like they believe we should move on from apartheid which ended more than 23 years ago.

The unfortunate thing is that while legalised apartheid and discrimination might be a thing of the past, it is much more difficult to rid our psyche of the apartheid mentality and of the almost inherent need to discriminate.

I have no doubt that Megan Furniss considers herself a good person. From her Facebook profile, I gather that she is a vegan who loves animals. She even has a blog where she talks about a lot of societal issues and she is involved in the theatre industry. From my contacts in the industry, she appears to have done several interesting things in theatre.

But even good people have flaws. Even good people can be racist. Even good people can discriminate. Even good people can be Islamophobic. Even good people can jump to wrong conclusions.

In the apartheid days, I often thought about the mindset of members of the security police who used to hunt down, detain and beat up anti-apartheid activists during the day and go home to have dinner with their families at night. They probably even read their children bedtime stories. They probably loved their families and saw the work they did in upholding apartheid as a job which had to be done.

It is not easy to be good, at least not all the time, and most people have lapses from time to time. It is how you respond to those lapses that can set you apart from others.

I try to be good. I have humanitarian values, I oppose violence and I do not believe in the death penalty. But I know that if anyone hurt any of my daughters, my views might change and my behaviour might change.

But I digress.

The problem with what happened in the park in Woodstock over the weekend shows that many Capetonians, and probably South Africans, are still intolerant to those who might appear to be different from them. It is easy to assume all the bad stereotypes when you see a group of people who might appear to have a lot in common, but just not with you.

In the era of social media, it is easy to express your uneasiness when confronted with a situation involving people who appear to be different to you. And it is just as easy to regret your views.

Should we move on so quickly and easily from what happened in the Woodstock park? I don’t think so. I believe we should learn lessons from all unfortunate incidents. The main lesson here is not to make assumptions and not to express your assumptions in public without verifying what was really going on. A subsidiary lesson is that we are very far from being the “Rainbow nation” we sometimes pretend to be.

Imagine if Furniss had gone to speak to the family involved and learnt what they were really doing, her initial post might have been completely different and probably very positive. It would probably not had received the social media traction it did.

I have always said that ignorance is to blame for many of our problems. Ignorance can often lead to intolerance, intolerance can sometimes lead to hatred, and there is no limit to what can result from hatred.

I suggest that Furniss, apart from apologising via social media, should look up the family she offended and learn a little bit (or a lot) about their cultures and traditions. It might end up making her a truly good person. The only way to deal with ignorance is to actively learn about each other.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 21 October 2017)

We should prepare now for more stormy futures

It began slowly, but suddenly. A loud thump against the bonnet of the car, which we thought was a stone, followed by another, and then a bombardment of huge hail dropping from all sides of the car. It was Monday, just before 4pm, and a colleague and I were driving to an appointment in Roodepoort when we were caught up in what has been described as one of the biggest storms to hit Gauteng in recent years.

It lasted a lifetime, or so it seemed, even though the clock indicated the first rush of hail, which transformed the landscape almost immediately, was over within 15 minutes. This was followed by another hailstorm about 30 minutes later. By that time, we were safely at our meeting venue, but could hardly hear each other as the hail made thunderous music on the roof and windows of the building.

I have lived in Gauteng and travel there often, so had become used to thunderstorms and summer rains, but I had never been caught in a hail storm before and it was scary. I am surprised there was not more damage to the hired car, apart from some dents caused by hail stones, some of which were easily the size of golf balls. At one point, I thought the windscreen would be smashed.

At times I could not see where we were going, but there was no safe place to turn off, only trees, and we know it is not safe to park anywhere near trees in a storm. So we stopped and started until we got to our meeting, where we felt safer. I only told my colleague later how scared I was.

A day later, my fears appeared almost silly when I saw the flooding people in KwaZulu-Natal were experiencing and I read that what appeared to be a tornado had flattened homes in other parts of Gauteng and at least five people had been killed in Gauteng and 11 in KwaZulu-Natal. I saw the pictures of the devastation and I counted my lucky stars.

All the time, I thought about the drought in Cape Town and how we could do with the rain - without the hail, thunder and flooding, of course.

What is happening with the weather is not surprising, given the warnings of climate change of which we have been warned of for years, warnings that always seem to fall on unresponsive ears.

I remember when I first lived in Gauteng more than 20 years ago. You could set your watch to the weather, especially in summer.

We would take my daughters for swimming lessons at a local pool after school and knew we would have to take them out of the pool just after 3pm because a thunderstorm would be approaching.

The storm would last about 15 minutes and then the sun would return. My daughters would then make their way back into the swimming pool.

It is difficult to convince people about the dangers of climate change, and those who appear to be convinced are in a minority. It looks unlikely we will be able to save the planet and its people by changing behaviours, unless this is regulated, which requires convincing governments and international agencies.

It is also difficult to dictate to the weather how it should behave.

But what can be done is to prepare for the worst.

What the bad weather in Gauteng and KZN showed is the poor quality of infrastructure in those provinces. That roads could become flooded so easily might indicate a poor drainage system. When holes appear so quickly in Gauteng roads may indicate the use of inferior materials in constructing these roads.

The Western Cape is not off the hook here.

Whenever there are major rains in Cape Town - and we have not had any for quite a while - roads and, in some cases, entire townships get flooded.

I am not trying to downplay this week’s storms, but I feel that if we had prepared properly the situation could have been much better and at least some of the devastation avoided.

Governments are good at reacting after the fact, declaring disaster areas - whether it is because of weather or, in the case of Cape Town townships, gang warfare - but they are not good at preventing and minimising the catastrophes that necessitate declaring disaster areas.

Planning is important, as well as proper execution of plans.

Perhaps the storms are telling us more about the government’s inability to handle crisis than we are prepared to admit.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 14 October 2017)

Upliftment is the way to bring down crime levels

On Tuesday the shuttle driver who was taking me to Cape Town International Airport told me, almost nonchalantly, that he’d lived in Marikana, Philippi, until last week but had fled the area and moved to Khayelitsha after the recent violence which saw at least 18 people killed over a 10-day period.

“At least I feel safer in Harare in Khayelitsha,” he said.

It was a strange statement, seeing that Harare was, not too long ago, deemed to be one of the most crime-ridden areas in Khayelitsha.

But for someone who lives in a violent environment - where you could get killed every day, either in random gang shootings, planned assassinations or other violent actions - safety is a relative term.

Marikana is what is euphemistically called an informal settlement, consisting mainly of corrugated iron shacks, while Harare is a mix of shacks and formal housing, with a few facilities such as a library, small shops and even a satellite police station.

Marikana started years ago when people began invading privately-owned land near the airport to build homes. It is estimated that more than 60 000 people now live on the land.

It is probably one of the most dangerous places to live and one will have to wait and see whether the remedial action announced with big fanfare by Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula this week - because he knows of no other way in which to make announcements - will have any effect.

The minister announced a change in leadership at the Philippi East Police Station and the introduction of 40 extra police officers in the area.

I welcome these moves but more needs to be done. The problem with beefing up the police and making the kind of changes which Mbalula has made, is that this could signal to criminals that they have the lawmakers and peacekeepers on the back foot. It is a short-term solution that does not address the structural problems in the area.

The police have announced the steps that they are taking to counter the criminals. The criminals have not announced their moves. They never do.

The best way to police areas such as Marikana, which is dense, over-populated and difficult to navigate because of a lack of roads and other infrastructure, is by winning over the community, which seems not to have happened in this case.

Too often, criminals get away with their activities because they have the protection of the community. Gangsters are often the sons and daughters of community members who will do everything in their power to “protect” their loved ones. Many community members live in hope children who are involved in gangs or other criminal activities will one day “see the light”.

I lived in many dangerous places on the Cape Flats as a youth, including at least two “squatter camps”, which is what we called “informal settlements” in the old days, and I remember how we depended on the support of community members when we walked to school or collected water from a tap on privately-owned land. We had to pay for every bucket of water we collected.

We also “made friends” with the local gangsters because if we did not do that, they would not allow us to walk through their areas and we would never be able to go to school.

We never went out at night and always slept with one eye open because a shack does not afford one much protection. Sometimes at night, one could hear the sounds of what appeared to be gang fights outside. In many ways, we were trapped in our shacks at night.

As I grew older and became involved in community organisation, I realised that this is often one of the best ways to deal with seemingly unstable communities. Community organisations which become true voices of the people they claim to represent can help with addressing a range of social issues, including crime and gangsterism.

Through community organisations, the affected people can feel they are playing a role in determining the future of their community and their children.

One hopes the mobilisation that resulted in more than 300 people storming the police station last week, demanding action against criminals - action which probably led to Mbalula’s visit and announcements this week - can be harnessed in a positive and a permanent manner.

It would be a pity if it was only a one-off protest. There should be a way of turning the anger against crime into a concern for the upgrading and upliftment of the community.

Crime never operates in isolation and is often the result of a range of other social ills, such as unemployment, poverty and a lack of housing. If dealt with properly and things do get turned around in Marikana, this could serve as an example of how to deal with crime and other societal issues in a grim situation. But that will require more than grand announcements and will need some real community engagement.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 7 October 2017)

Selfless leaders are vanishing in the ruling party

POLITICIANS are inherently full of contradictions. Politics is never about doing public service and helping poor people. It is often only about the self-interests of a politician, a group of politicians or a political party.

It is sometimes difficult to understand the actions of politicians. Surely, if you see yourself as a public servant, then you should be doing everything in your power to ensure that the people are served appropriately, even if it means that your actions might harm a group of politicians or the political party to who you might have pledged allegiance.

For the past couple of years, many people who have traditionally been loyal to the African National Congress, which still rules the country, most provinces and most cities and towns, have found themselves questioning their loyalty. This is because there has been mounting evidence that some ANC leaders appeared to have been working the interest of business, and one family in particular, as opposed to working in the interests of the majority of South Africans.

Many of these people, some in the leadership of the ANC, have been grappling with the best way to voice their displeasure at the way a once-noble movement has been reduced to a bunch of bag boys, thieves and tenderpreneurs.

I remember speaking to a Minister a few years ago and he told me that he was hanging in because, if he resigned, he would be replaced with someone who was compliant. He thought it best to fight from the inside.

Most people who depend on the ANC for their livelihood will not have the courage to leave the party, as former MP and rising star Dr Makhosi Khoza did recently. Most will not even have the courage to raise their discomfort.

I never thought that I would one day write anything negative about the ANC because, throughout the Struggle years, the ANC always best represented, in theory at least, the vision of South Africa with which I agreed.

As the ANC has seemingly unravelled in front of our eyes, I like many others have looked at the alternatives. I’ve always struggled to find resonance with most of the other political parties.

The one opposition party still has some way to go to shake off its colonial past, I struggle to support any party which calls its leader commander-in-chief because it brings up images of African military dictatorships, and it is sad to see how the once-powerful and charismatic Terror Lekota has become an almost pathetic bit-part player in Parliament. The only party that could be vaguely appealing is Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement (which he incidentally started with former Nationalist Party blue-eyed boy Roelf Meyer who is now in the ANC) but I don’t know if they have much appeal and interest beyond the Eastern Cape.

I’ve never allowed my political allegiance to impact on my writing and other journalistic decisions or general political behaviour. Instead, I have allowed myself to be guided by broad principles based on personal values, the Freedom Charter and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. I judge everyone and everything against these and decide, based on these, whether any politician or political party is worthy of my support.

Using this method, I work with people across political parties who are interested in uplifting poor communities and not only advancing their own careers and parties. I realised a long time ago already that there are good and bad people in all political parties. Sometimes the only thing that keeps certain people in a political party is their chance of advancing politically and career-wise.

There appears to be no limit to how far some people will go to advance their political careers, even if it means distorting history or erasing history.

An example of this is the recent funeral of former ANC Youth League secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa, where his links with Julius Malema, who was ANCYL president at the time, was completely overlooked.

Another example is the recent dinner to mark the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the National Development Plan where there was not a single mention of Trevor Manuel, who was the minister responsible for heading up the National Planning Commission, who drew up the NDP. One would have thought that the President, who was the keynote speaker, would have mentioned the contribution of Manuel and current Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was Manuel’s deputy on the NPC. Manuel, of course, has been critical of Zuma, while Ramaphosa, who was also not at the event, is opposing Zuma’s preferred ANC presidential candidate.

Maybe the solution for those who want to make a political contribution to South Africa is to look outside political parties. Get involved in non-governmental organisations who do good work in communities. But continue to hold politicians to account, not only through your vote but by pointing out their wrongdoings.

It is not good enough just to condemn politicians. We must show them what needs to be done to make a change to our society. And we need to do this without thinking of our own self-interests.

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

#HeritageDay: Coloured identity coloured by outside influences

IT WAS after 9am on Monday and a small truck with a stage and sound equipment was standing on the sports field at Groote Schuur High school. The stage was to be used by a rapper from Wynberg, who goes by the name of YoungstaCPT, as part of a roadshow to inspire pupils.

The event, which was sponsored by a cellphone network, was supposed to start at 8.30am, but around 9.30am pupils and teachers started coming from all directions and walking towards the stage, which was at the far end of the sports field. Within minutes, excitement had developed with an introduction by Blake Williams, a former world champion hip hop freestyle dancer, who also grew up in the southern suburbs.

He told the story of how he had won the world title twice in succession, the first person to do this.

But the real excitement was reserved for YoungstaCPT, who had the crowd rapping along from the first to the last song with his self-penned songs in a mixture of English and Afrikaans.

The adulation displayed by the pupils was the kind normally reserved for overseas performers. I found it amazing and exciting the pupils were as enthusiastic about seeing a local artist perform as opposed to yet another American artist.

On Tuesday night, we went to a different event. It was the launch of Dr Ruben Richards’s new book, Bastaards or Humans: The Unspoken Heritage of Coloured People, which was hosted at the Castle of Good Hope. It started with a discussion among religious leaders, a ceremony in the infamous dungeon, known as Donker Gat, followed by the book launch proper.

While the two events had little in common, especially not the music (the book launch featured mainly cover versions of American music which went against the ritualistic and traditional feel of everything else, including the involvement of a group of Khoisan leaders), both represented parts of the Cape’s unique heritage. This is important in the week that we celebrate our heritage.

Yes, I know, Heritage Day has become nothing more than braai day to many, but that is something that needs to be addressed through proper education.

As I watched YoungstaCPT talking to the Groote Schuur pupil about the history of the Western Cape - or the "Wes-Kaap", as he calls it (it is the name of one of his most popular songs) - I thought about why this understanding of our history and our heritage does not filter through to the classrooms in a much more aggressive manner.

I thought the same thing as I listened to Richards reading excerpts from his book which dealt with the early history of the group of people known as coloureds or, in some circles, as so-called “coloureds”. Richards seemed to be determined to place “coloureds” in the rightful place in history.

I am one of those not entirely convinced of the need to define anyone as “coloured”. I’ve written about this a lot, in my book Race and in many subsequent columns. I started off dismissing this notion completely but, more recently, I have adopted the position that people should be welcome to identify themselves in whatever way they wish to.

I also believe that people can identify me in whatever way they wish, as long as they respect my right to identify myself in a way that makes me comfortable. I really don’t care if anyone wants to call me “coloured”, but that is not something I call myself.

The main basis for my rejection is you should not have a group identity based on what you are not. It should be based on what you are. A large part of the “coloured” group identity seems to be based on the fact this group is not white and not black.

But dismissing the group identity does not mean I dismiss many of the cultural attributes associated with this identity, rightly or wrongly.

It does not mean I cannot enjoy the food that “coloureds” are supposed to enjoy, or enjoy the music they are supposed to enjoy, to choose two obvious coloured markers.

My enjoyment of a particular kind of food or music does not mean I enjoy only that kind of food or music.

The joy of living in a country as deurmekaar as South Africa is that there are many aspects of different cultures and heritage that we can enjoy.

This Heritage Day weekend, I would implore everyone to step out of their comfort zones and explore something different.

You can still enjoy your braai (seeing how this has become cultural), but enjoy something from other cultures too.

Maybe while you are at it, enjoy more than the American music that is so popular among people who identify themselves as “coloureds” and many other South Africans, and listen to YoungstaCPT and the many other young people like him who are writing their own songs and charting a new, exciting direction for South African music.

Happy Heritage Day everyone.

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

When will the Freedom Charter be realised in SA?

IT WAS not easy growing up on the Cape Flats, especially not in an area like Hanover Park, which was known for its gangsterism and unemployment. But I grew up in the area more than 40 years ago and the sad thing is that the situation does not seem to have improved.

When we were fighting against apartheid, we were inspired by the Freedom Charter, which promised that “there shall be houses, security and comfort”.

It is sometimes good to remind ourselves what was written in the Freedom Charter, which was adopted at Kliptown, Soweto, on June 26, 1955. This is what it said under the clause of “houses, security and comfort”:

“All people shall have the right to live where they choose, to be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security; unused housing space to be made available to the people; rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no one shall go hungry; a preventive health scheme shall be run by the state; free medical care and hospitalisation shall be provided for all, with special care for mothers and young children; slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres; the aged, the orphans, the disabled and the sick shall be cared for by the state; rest, leisure and recreation shall be the right of all; fenced locations and ghettoes shall be abolished, and laws which break up families shall be repealed.”

In the dark days of apartheid, we saw in our minds a picture of what the Freedom Charter envisaged. We were determined that a democratic South Africa would be one in which there would be no or little gangsterism, that the government would build decent houses and see to the other needs expressed in this, and the nine other clauses in the Freedom Charter.

It is sad that the situation in most cases is still the same as it was under apartheid, especially in the townships. Granted, there are black people who have benefited economically in democratic South Africa but most people are still waiting to reap the benefits of the not-so-new South Africa.

In places like Hanover Park, families are still being held hostage by gangsters who operate with impunity. For many young people, the only way to survive is by joining gangs who, at least, provide you with protection in certain areas.

Most of the young boys who grew up with me were wooed by gangs and some of them succumbed. In an environment where you are not likely to matriculate and, if you do, you are not likely to be able to afford to go to university (or you might not qualify to go), and you will struggle to find work, gangs provide a refuge against a multitude of problems.

Gangs often provide a home for young people who might not feel they belong in society. I know, because I flirted with being a gang member in my early teens. Fortunately for me, sanity prevailed and I concentrated on my studies.

I discovered in those days that, if you had a talent - such as being good at music or sport - the gangs would allow you the freedom to pursue your dreams. It also helped if you were better than average academically.

It is sad that things have not changed for the better in places like Hanover Park but it is even sadder that things do not look like improving any time soon.

It is not that government does not know the problems. The National Development Plan, which was launched five years ago this week, outlines in a very comprehensive manner the problems in our society and the goals we need to achieve to become a better place.

The NDP outcomes, for instance, talk about “sustainable human settlements and improved quality of life”, “improved quality of basic education”, “all people in South Africa are to feel safe” and “a long and healthy life for all South Africans”.

For people in Hanover Park and other townships on the Cape Flats, this means nothing. And it will continue to mean nothing as long as people do not feel safe in their houses and are unable to do anything to improve their living conditions due to a lack of job opportunities or chances to engage the economy in a meaningful way.

The government needs to focus beyond the narrow vision that it seems to have and engage poor communities in a discussion about how they can finally feel that they have a stake in our country. The Freedom Charter says, “that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief”.

More than 62 years after the adoption of the Freedom Charter and 23 years into our democracy, it would be important for politicians to remember these words.

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

Wage discrepancy highlights discrimination at work

WHEN I joined the Cape Herald - a newspaper aimed at the “coloured” community - as a young reporter in 1980, I earned R200 a month. It was not a bad salary for a 20-year-old youngster who grew up on the Cape Flats.

However, a few months after I began my journalism career, we discovered white staff were earning more than double what we and other blacks throughout the country were earning.

We went on strike and, after holding out for more than a month, management gave in to our demands and my salary doubled to R400 a month. A month or so later, I received a merit increase which pushed my salary up to R500 a month, and I felt like the richest man on the planet but realised the salary I was earning was normal for people who were not black.

I was reminded of this during the week when I listened to talk show host Eusebius McKaiser and his guests discussing the discrepancy between the salaries of black and white professionals and between males and females.

Jaen Beelders, managing director of Analytico, which monitors what people earn, said on the show that white professionals earn an average of R22000 a month versus the R8000 paid to black professionals.

In the same week, John Maytham talked on his show about the plight of black professionals in Cape Town. Maytham’s guest was Valerie Tapela, who did her M Phil in coaching management at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Her research tried to answer the question: “Where are the black professionals in Cape Town?”

She concluded that the city is stuck in the ways of the “old order” and racial discrimination is still rife.There is no easy answer to why Cape Town appears to be unfriendly towards black Africans. Part of it has to be because of the city's history, which was a “coloured preferential” area during apartheid. But more than 23 years into our democracy, we have no justification for using apartheid as an excuse for making anyone feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in our beautiful city.

As Capetonians, we need to begin to embrace our South African and African identities. We must start feeling comfortable with being part of our country and our continent. In the same way, people who might be from other parts of our country and our continent should also feel comfortable in our city.

I have been privileged to have travelled widely in our country and on the continent, and I have always felt welcome, wherever I have gone.

One of the ways we make people feel unwelcome is by paying them less than others. The same argument about the Western Cape embracing others should apply to the people in corporates who decide on salaries for executives. It is unforgivable in 2017 for blacks and women to be paid less than whites and males.

I have previously got into trouble with readers of this column by pointing out that the economic wealth in South Africa is still concentrated mainly in white hands. In fact, a week or so after I wrote about this in a column, I had a meeting with a white woman who told me she normally likes my column but that I sometimes upset her when I point out economic inequalities. “I agree with you, but we don’t want to be reminded of it all the time,” she said.

But we cannot get away from the fact that black people would not underpay other black people while paying whites more. Nor would women underpay other women while paying men more. The only conclusion is that white men are the ones who are mainly in charge of determining salaries, and they tend to reward people who they think look and sound like them. I know this is a simplistic analysis, but I am merely thinking aloud.

The only way to deal with discrimination is to expose it. If you know of people who are underpaying people based on race or gender, you should raise it with the relevant Chapter Nine Organisation, whether it is the Human Rights Commission or the Gender Commission.

If you live in Cape Town and notice people who are trying to bring back apartheid - an era in which black people were not welcome in our city - then you need to make a noise about it. We cannot afford to ignore racism and discrimination because we don’t want to upset the apple cart or upset our neighbours and so-called friends. If we do that, racism and discrimination will be with us forever.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 9 September 2017)