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I hope District Six Museum will finally get the respect it deserves

Last week my daughter and I were at the opening night of David Kramer’s new play, Langarm, at the Fugard Theatre in District Six and she bumped into a couple she met at the art gallery where she had worked. 

The woman said that they were going to see Pieter-Dirk Uys’s show but she was worried because the last time she went to see Uys, it was in Namibia and the show was in Afrikaans, so she did not understand a word. However, she argued, it was highly unlikely that he would do the same in Cape Town and at a Jewish-owned theatre. 

But the Fugard is not Jewish-owned. It is owned by the District Six Museum, who has their Homecoming Centre next door. The Museum owns the whole of what used to be known as the Sacks Futeran building. 

Last Saturday, my wife and I attended the 24th birthday celebrations of the District Six Museum at the Homecoming Centre, featuring a group of young ballroom dancers, most of them from places such as Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats. I realised then that, while David Kramer’s play might be called Langarm, what these youngsters were doing was the real langarm that we grew up with on the Cape Flats. 

I have always had a lot of respect for Kramer but felt, after watching his play, that he might have missed the mark this time. Yes, the play is entertaining and deserves to be seen by many, but maybe the focus was too much on the story of a couple – one black and one white – who decided to dance together despite apartheid. 

Yes, we lived under apartheid, but we did not always allow apartheid to dictate how we lived. Sometimes, we just lived, without even thinking about apartheid or politics. 

This was the case of many of the langarm dancers of the time. The annual langarm dance in the local civic centre was an opportunity for us to forget about the Struggle and just enjoy ourselves. 

But I also realised that the District Six Museum probably has the same kind of relationship with the Fugard that the young ballroom dancers would have with Kramer’s play. They are doing amazing work but it gets overshadowed by something that is more luminous. This is why some people think that the Fugard is the landlord and the museum is the tenant. 

But while the Fugard has the higher profile, the work done by the District Museum has helped to focus on an important part of our history in South Africa.

The forced removals of entire communities under apartheid was despicable and the District Six Museum helps to keep that dirty part of our history under the spotlight. 

While the birthday party was last Saturday, the museum’s birthday was on Monday, December 10, the same day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948, ironically the year apartheid was introduced in South Africa. 

Bonita Bennet, the director of the museum, posted on Facebook this week a quote by former trustee of the museum, Ciraj Rassool from the book, Recalling Community: “The District Six Museum opened its doors in the old church of the Central Methodist Mission at 25A Buitenkant Street on 10 December 1994.

“The exhibition with which it opened as a museum was called ‘Streets: Retracing District Six’. Described as an ‘archaeology of memory’, the museum was a culmination of years of planning, dreaming and imagining on the part of the District Six Museum Foundation.” 

The Foundation was one of a range of organisations, institutions and cultural projects which had emerged between the 1970s and 1990s to preserve the memory of District Six, the area of inner-city Cape Town at the foot of the mountain, which had seen the forced removal of 60 000 people from the heart of the city. 

“’Streets’ was due to be open for only a couple of weeks. However, since that day in December 1994 when ex-District Sixer and then Minister of Justice Dullah Omar opened the exhibition, the District Six Museum was not able to close its doors.”

Next year the District Six Museum celebrates a quarter of a century. I hope that it will finally get the respect it deserves for the important work it does. 

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 December 2018)

Sign of the times when celebs, not luminaries, are prime influencers

There was a time when an influencer was someone who helped to mould opinions in society through her views or actions. Nowadays an influencer is someone with a few thousand Instagram followers who endorses fashion accessories or designer drinks.

I found myself thinking about this when South Africa hosted the Global Citizens concert, with everyone going crazy over the celebrities when it should’ve been more about easing poverty and less about glitz and glamour.

Maybe it is an indication of where we are as a society. Don’t get me wrong; I like a celebrities, but I’d never take life-changing decisions based on their recommendations.

I’d rather be guided in important decisions by people like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Mendi Msimang or Alex Boraine - all in the news this week. On Wednesday, it was the fifth anniversary of the death of Mandela, an event still vivid in my memory. I remember where I was when I heard the news, as I’m sure most people do.

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This year would have been the centenary of Madiba, something celebrated throughout the world with the Global Citizens concert a highlight. I suppose to most people, Mandela is still an influencer and he’ll probably influence the world for years to come.

On Wednesday, the news also broke that Alex Boraine, the former vice-chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had died at 87. During much of the apartheid era, Boraine realised politicians needed to embrace all if our country was to have any hope of success.

Former ANC treasurer and South African diplomat Mendi Msimang died on Monday, aged 89. Described as “a beautiful human being”, he would have turned 90 today.

Another who played a significant role in our liberation and probably one of the biggest influencers in his prime was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the late president of the PAC.

Sobukwe, who would’ve turned 94 on Wednesday, was so popular that the apartheid government detained him in solitary confinement on Robben Island for fear he might influence the others.

He died in virtual obscurity in 1978 in Kimberley after being subjected to banning orders after his release.

His anti-colonialism views should find more resonance with the youth, but maybe many of them support his views without knowing it.

The problem with celebrity culture is that young people do not follow history and do not learn from the past.

We’d do well to do so.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 December 2018)

Put yourself in the media’s shoes before criticising

There is a reason why discussions about sport and religion are banned at family gatherings. They have the potential to turn friends against each other. In South Africa, it seems one should add politics to the list of banned topics and, if the events of the past week are anything to go by, then we should probably also ban discussions about the media.

It has been a long time since I have seen so much division over what I consider a simple issue: media freedom. However, if comments on social media are to be believed, then there is still a lot wrong with our media.

I think many people who criticise the media do so because some in the industry have reported critically or negatively about them or their political leaders. They forget the many times the media reported positively about those same people.

Criticism of the media is nothing new. Nobody, it seems, learns from history.

I recall writing an open letter as editor of the Cape Times in December, 1997, to then-President Nelson Mandela, who had been critical of the media in his speech at the ANC’s 50th national conference in Mafikeng.

It is appropriate to revisit Madiba’s comments as we come to the end of what would have been his centenary year.

He said: “During the past three years, the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as a force opposed to the ANC.” He accused the media of campaigning against “both real change and the real agents of change” and decried a situation in which the “majority has no choice but to rely on information and communication on a media representing the privileged minority”.

Madiba questioned the media’s ability to deal with criticism. “When it speaks against us, this represents freedom of thought, speech and the press. When we exercise our own right to freedom of thought and speech to criticise it for its failings, this represents an attempt to suppress the freedom of the press.”

A few days later, he also made some comments about black editors, calling us “mere tokens”.

Despite all of this, Mandela had a good relationship with the media. My response to him started by sketching the history of some of the people he criticised and the role the media had played in exposing apartheid atrocities. It has always been the duty of the media to explore issues on behalf of those who do not have the same access and opportunities.

I pleaded guilty, on behalf of my colleagues, for not always getting things right, but blamed this on our inability sometimes to understand our complex society - something we continue to work on. I also said that the best way to respond to his criticism would be to produce consistently good journalism.

This, I believe, is still the best way to respond to detractors of the media. And there are many journalists who continue to do this, despite all the pressures on the industry in recent years.

Those who criticise the media need to try and put themselves in our shoes. Most of us genuinely believe we can play a role in reporting what is happening in our country and, in this way, contribute to making our country the great place we all know it can be.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 December 2018)

Journalists are guardians of democracy; they must not be intimidated

At the best of times, it is tough to be a journalist - and not only in South Africa. Journalists are almost always among the worst-paid professionals, but most of us do not practise journalism because we want to earn big bucks. Most of us are driven by more simple things, like wanting to change the world.

One of the things they teach in journalism 101 is the need to be objective, which is of course impossible because none of us can completely get rid of our historical, social or political baggage. It is inevitable that this will impact on our journalism, which makes it difficult to be completely objective. Even the stories we choose to cover or ignore indicate some level of subjectivity. I teach young journalists the need to be fair and respectful towards the people and subjects they are writing about, even if they feel that they don’t deserve respect.

When one approaches everything with respect, it makes it easier to be professional and to remove oneself from any possible emotional attachments. The nature of journalism is such that we will not only write about or interview people we like. Quite often, we will interview people with whom we disagree vehemently, but professionalism requires that we record their stories.

In the past, there was always a clear line between news and opinion in the media. Opinion pages were clearly marked and opinion writers were not the same people who wrote news.

In recent years, for various reasons, there has been a blurring between opinion writers and news reporters, with the latter often doubling up, expressing their opinions on the news of the day.

This has provided ammunition to people who think the media is their enemy and who argue that journalists who have expressed certain opinions will never be able to be objective about any issue.

Most journalists, over the course of their careers, would have covered a range of stories, representing different political opinions or the preferences of different public personalities. It is my experience that most people who need the media are comfortable with the media, as long as journalists write positive stories about them. But as soon as the negative stories start to appear, they will turn on the media.

When I trained prominent people on how to deal with the media, I used to say: “If you don’t want the media to hang your dirty linen in public, then you should not dirty your linen.”

If you don’t want the media to report on your wrongdoings, then you should not do wrong. The role of the media is to report on the good and the bad in society. You cannot expect us to report only on the good.

This brings me to the disturbing comments by the leader of a major political party this week, attacking journalists and naming some on Twitter in attempts to isolate them. It is the easiest thing to do when you are confronted with uncomfortable realities as a public personality to blame the media and call it “fake news”.

The more difficult thing to do is to engage intelligently and with facts whatever it is that you disagree with.

My fear is that, as the elections approaches, more people will try to take aim at journalists. It is up to everyone, and not only journalists and politicians, to ensure that the media is able to do its work without threats and without fear.

If not so, we run the risk of missing out on important stories in our democracy, which might not be published because of fear.

The media is not perfect, but journalists should be allowed to do their work, which is to inform the public. This is, of course, easier said than done.

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

A selfless servant of the people has fallen, the radical priest is gone

A great man fell this week – and I am not talking about our former Home Affairs Minister. I am referring to Chris Wessels, a Moravian priest whose name became almost synonymous with the missionary settlement of Genadenal.

Wessels’ name was also synonymous with the Struggle for liberation. He passed away at the age of 83 on Tuesday morning, surrounded by members of his family, including his wife, Nabawaya “Nabs” Wessels who also played a crucial role in the Struggle. He leaves behind his children Uta, Esther, Christopher and Thandi and several grandchildren.

Wessels became involved in the Struggle at a young age, at a time when it was not fashionable for church leaders to be involved, even though many were grappling with whether apartheid was reconcilable with the Scriptures.

His involvement with the Struggle was driven by his strong faith, which he displayed at an early age. In a television documentary, The Golden Years, which was screened on SABC a few years ago, Wessels spoke about how he started praying for people when he was only 17. He said his relationship with God was “always very intense”.

He became a priest in 1970 and served the Moravian Church and the community in many capacities, including as a lecturer for 30 years at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Heideveld until his retirement in 2000. He remained active in the church as an emeritus minister.

Wessels was born in Genadendal but, after becoming a minister, he moved to Johannesburg where he met his future wife. They later moved to Port Elizabeth.

Wessels was arrested several times: he was detained under the Internal Security Act for four months in 1976 and for 69 days under the Terrorism Act in 1977.

At that time, he had been active in the Black Consciousness Movement, which was led by Steve Biko who was murdered by the security police in 1977. Biko and Western Cape BCM activist Peter Cyril Jones had been on their way from Wessels’ house in Port Elizabeth to King Williams Town when they were arrested. Wessels was also later arrested.

During his second stay in prison, Wessels was bitten blue by spiders, was left naked in his cell, was fed only maize meal and was given three dirty blankets and mats to sleep on. He said the guards would not allow him to read the Bible.

In a talk in 2001, Wessels said that, on his worst days, he asked himself whether fighting for liberation was worth the deprivation. He decided it was.

“I realised that I did not choose this road. The Lord chose it for me. This is how he wanted me to lead,” he said.

Despite his periods in detention, Wessels continued to be committed to the Struggle, but in the 1980s, he often took a back seat as his wife played more of a prominent role. She was a social worker who was active in many communities.

I met Wessels for the first time in the early 1980s when Nabs was a field worker for the Churches Urban Planning Commission in Hanover Park, where I lived and was a youth leader.

Later on, we interacted many times, in Cape Town or Genadendal. One of the memories that I will always hold dear was when I spent a few days at their home in Genadendal. It coincided with Nabs’ birthday and Chris had organised the Moravian Youth brass band to play a few songs on their stoep for “die juffrou”, as the wife of the priest was known. Nabs then invited the band members inside for tea and cake. It was a beautiful moment which spoke of the simplicity and humility of this amazing family.

I have never believed that people should be respected merely based on their contribution to the Struggle, but I do believe in honouring those people who continue to serve way into our democracy. Chris Wessels was one of those people. Long may he be remembered.

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

Remembering the amazing power of HHP

The first time I realised the amazing power of HHP (Hip Hop Pantsula) or Jabba, as Jabulani Tsambo was commonly known, was when he performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2007.

He was scheduled to perform at the Bassline stage, which is geared at a younger audience and which was upstairs at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, a space normally reserved for formal dinners and presentations.

However, it soon became clear to the organisers that the space was too small and that there was going to be the possibility of a stampede. They then decided that he should perform at the outside Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee stage which could accommodate more people.

The only time for this performance was after all the other acts had performed. The result was that several thousand people waited outside for HHP’s performance which is still one of my highlights at the jazz festival – and now is not the time for the debate about whether it is still a jazz festival.

A year later, I was chairperson of ESP Afrika, the company arranging the jazz festival, as well as the One City Events Company, which organised the Cape Town Festival, a completely different event which culminated in a huge musical festival on Human Rights Day, 21 March.

Our headline act at the Cape Town Festival that year was supposed to be the Angolan artist, Anselmo Ralph, who missed his flight on the day and we had to find a substitute in a hurry.

Somebody mentioned that HHP was in town and we reached out to him. He agreed immediately to perform at a much lower rate than normal, because this was a community-driven event, brought a band made up of Americans and South Africans and gave a wonderful performance.

It was clear that he loved performing and that it was something that brought him much joy. He also enjoyed the interaction with many members of the audience.

The news of his passing on Wednesday this week – which was flashed onto the television screens in the middle of new Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s maiden Medium-Term Budget Speech – came as a shock to many who only ever saw the entertainer on stage.

There was immediate speculation – which could be seen to be insensitive to the family – that he died as a result of depression. He was 38.

Tsambo kept his battle with depression very private, only speaking about it in a television interview last year.

The lesson here is that there is no stereotype that can be pinned on people who suffer from depression. They don’t walk around with long faces. In fact, quite often, they can appear to be more cheerful than most.

Whatever the cause of his death, South Africa’s music industry has lost a giant, someone who was prepared to push the boundaries of music with his experimentation, which was essentially a mixture of hip hop and rap music sang in English and Setswana.

May his soul rest in peace.

Media freedom is an issue for everyone, not just journalists

Friday marked 41 years since October 19, 1977, when the apartheid government banned several organisations, as well as popular newspapers and journalists. Since then, it has been known as Black Wednesday and it has become the day on which we reflect on media freedom in South Africa.

Some people will say that October 14 should probably become known as Black Sunday, because this was the day when the Sunday Times, still the biggest newspaper in South Africa, confessed and apologised for carrying a series of false stories which, it appears, was planted in the paper by forces aligned to a faction within the ruling party.

The editor of the paper should be applauded for taking responsibility for something that happened before his time.

But the actions of the Sunday Times have raised all kinds of ethical dilemmas for journalists. It is a crisis as big as what happened on Black Wednesday, even though it is completely different in nature.

Already there are calls from some political circles for the introduction of a media appeals tribunal, which was proposed by the ANC a few years ago. But before we rush into stuff that could irreversibly damage our media freedom and democracy, it is important to reflect on the lessons to be learnt from what happened at the Sunday Times.

The thing is, it could have happened to anyone, but those who planted the stories probably considered the reach and influence of the paper. History is filled with examples of how the media have been used to push certain agendas. In this case, however, lives of people found to be innocent have been destroyed and there are calls for more action to be taken against the paper.

Some people are saying that an apology is not enough.

I agree it is not enough, but it is surely a good first step. The Alcoholics Anonymous people will tell you that the first step to dealing with your problem is to admit it.

This is what the Sunday Times has done. Now we will have to see whether the internal checking mechanisms that they have introduced will be able to prevent something similar from happening in future.

I am always sceptical when politicians comment on the media, because they always appear to have hidden agendas. Most politicians probably do not like a free press, even though they are forced to live with it because our constitution guarantees freedom of expression.

When there are suddenly calls for the media to reveal their sources, I become suspicious, no matter how despicable the sources might be.

But if we start revealing our sources, we have no idea where all of this will end up.

Based on the precedent that we set now, we could be forced to reveal legitimate and innocent sources in future.

But the one thing that the Sunday Times saga has revealed is that the concept of audi alteram partem (right of reply) is not enough.

It is not good enough to say that we have given you the right of reply and so we will publish all the claims against you.

There needs to be a more vigorous interrogation of the integrity of our sources and the information that they have given us.

The problem with using the mistakes of the Sunday Times to punish all media is that the media have never been homogenous and should never be.

The best democracies are ones in which there is a huge diversity of voices in the media. Ideally, there should even be a diversity of voices at the same publication.

As we reflect on media freedom this week, it is important to remember that this should never be an issue only for journalists. The best way to defend media freedom is by making sure that it is an issue with which our entire society should be concerned.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus and other Independent Media titles on Saturday, 20 October 2018)

Hidden agenda behind #TrainArson attacks

A few years ago I read a story about a man who killed his mother and then cried when he realised what he had done because she was the only one who looked after him.

For some strange reason, I thought about that story this week when I heard the news about yet another arson attack on Metrorail trains.

I know it is not the same because it seems highly unlikely that the people who depend on Metrorail’s trains to get to and from work every day would jeopardise this vital service.

But I must admit that my immediate reaction, when the first train attacks happened months ago, was to suspect that it was probably the work of people who were disgruntled with Metrorail for one reason or another.

It is not unusual for people to, in anger, destroy services they would need again the following day. This has been the situation throughout the history of protests in South Africa.

Those people who are not affected by the problems experienced by poor communities which often express their anger out of frustration with being ignored by the authorities, do not always understand why people would destroy services such as libraries which are obviously important to the community.

I have been trying to understand the logic behind destroying services that you need, but it is beyond me. I do, however, understand that when pushed over the edge people can be driven to do things that are completely out of character or incomprehensible.

But this is clearly not the case with the train arson attacks, which seem to have something much bigger behind them.

It seems that someone is intent on destroying Metrorail and its ability to provide a valuable, if sometimes unreliable, service to the people of Cape Town.

Metrorail has never been perfect. I remember regular delays when, as a young man, I had to travel from Mitchells Plain to Cape Town for work daily.

But it has never been as poor as it has been in recent months.

The constant arson attacks on trains will not only have the effect of delaying them, but it could also force law-abiding working people to look for alternative modes of transport.

Unfortunately, most poor people do not have the luxury of owning or sometimes even knowing someone with a car, so the logical other options would be buses or taxis.

What has been disturbing for someone who has some distance between himself and Metrorail has been the apparent inability by the police and the company to apprehend anyone who could be guilty of what appears to be blatant sabotage - or at least to put a stop to it.

One would have thought that the company and the police would have been more determined to get to the bottom of this untenable situation.

But, once again, poor people are most affected by Metrorail’s inability to deliver an effective and regular service and, maybe, in the eyes of those in authority, their concerns are probably not important enough for these attacks to be regarded as a priority.

I cannot presume to talk on behalf of poor people but, from where I am standing, it looks like nobody really cares about the quality of life of those who are on the wrong side of the poverty line.

Good, efficient public transport is a right and not a luxury. As such, the government should be making the arson attacks on trains a priority.

It is not in anyone’s interests for Metrorail to fail - except maybe its competitors, but even they should understand the need for an integrated transport system that gives its users choices.

Rail transport is the most common and used transport system in most of the world’s best-run cities. If Cape Town wants to be considered the best-run city in South Africa, then it should urgently sort out its transport problems.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus and other Independent Media titles on Saturday, 13 October 2018)

Angry protests in 'coloured' communities were about class - not race

On Wednesday I was invited by a Johannesburg-based radio station to discuss the protests in Westbury, in Johannesburg, coming soon after the protests on the Cape Flats, specifically Bonteheuwel, and the presenters wanted to know whether there were specific issues that bedevil the “coloured community” in South Africa.

I realised that the premise of the discussion would be wrong, if one only tried to look for similarities in the protests in the two communities. I am also very reluctant to talk about the “coloured community” as an expert just because some people think I look like a “coloured”.

I must admit I struggle to describe what a “coloured” looks like or even sounds like. It seems like a large group of disparate people have being lumped into one “race” group and because I am supposed to be one of them, I am expected to be able to speak expertly about them.

We are lazy like that in South Africa. Often our analysis is based on the race of the person involved and not on the person’s views or their actions.

For instance, there was huge relief among many black people when it emerged that the person accused of raping a seven-year-old in the toilet at Die Dros restaurant in Pretoria was white. Surely, the race of a rapist should not matter. However, in South Africa, it will probably take a long time before this becomes a reality.

But I digress. I decided I should participate in the radio programme instead of allowing misperceptions to continue.

My problem with conflating this week’s protests in Westbury with what happened in Bonteheuwel and elsewhere on the Cape Flats last week is that the communities are very different, even though they have some things in common.

But what they have in common, I tried to point out on the radio, has more to do with class than with race. They are both working-class communities dealing with issues prevalent in working-class communities.

Yes, some people in these communities could feel that they are being ignored by the authorities because of their race, but the reality is that they are being ignored because of their class, as is happening to working-class communities throughout South Africa where there are regular service delivery protest.

Unfortunately, our governing parties (yes, there are more than one if you look at the different spheres of government) – who think they are ruling parties – do not really care about working-class communities, unless it is close to elections and they realise that they need votes. Governing parties ensure good governance, ruling parties tend to dictate, thinking they are more powerful than the people they represent.

For instance, in Cape Town, the problems of gangsterism and drugs are as big in some of the so-called African communities, but nobody focuses on it, maybe because nobody has protested about it in the way that the people of Bonteheuwel has protested.

There is another significant difference between the protests in Bonteheuwel and Westbury. In Bonteheuwel, they were mainly peaceful, while in Westbury they have often become violent and destructive.

Part of the reason for this could be the background of the community leaders. Many of the leaders in Bonteheuwel come from the mass democratic movement in the 1980s. They understand the value of building organisation as a tool to help address serious societal problems. I am not sure that the Westbury leaders understand this. I might be mistaken, but it looks like they are more concerned with short-term gain while being prepared to sacrifice organisational discipline.

It is a pity that, almost 25 years into democracy, the people who we entrusted to run our country, our provinces and our municipalities, do not seem to care about poor communities. One of the ways of addressing it is making sure that in these communities there exists strong representative structures who can liaise with the authorities all the time, so that we prevent this phenomenon of communities only being listened to at election times.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in Weekend Argus and other Independent Media titles on Saturday 6 October 2018)

Why we are a sick society

A while ago someone posted on social media a video of a young boy giving up his seat on a packed train to an old woman. Many people commented positively on this video with one person saying that the boy “has been raised by a queen”.

I thought to myself: what is so special about this? Is this not what we are supposed to do? I admit that I grew up many years before the boy in the video, but when we grew up, we were taught to give up our seats in trains and buses if a woman, especially a pregnant or older woman, was standing. This, we were taught, was basic respect.

Could that be what is wrong with our society today? That we have forgotten the meaning and the practise of respect? Or do the problems in our society, especially with regards to lawlessness, run much deeper than this?

It is easy when respect does not exist to commit crimes against others without thinking of the possible consequences and the impact on the victims.

How does one explain the rape of a seven-year-old in the bathroom of a restaurant by a 20-year-old man who had been stalking her? How does one explain the rape of a 17-year-old in hospital shortly after she had given birth by someone posing as a doctor?

Of all the bad news that we had to deal with this week, these two stories continue to haunt me. What kind of person does something like this?

At times like this, the “bring-back-the-death-penalty” brigade become more vociferous and those of us who believe in a more human rights approach to justice find ourselves being shouted into silence.

How does one explain the many attacks on educators by learners who are supposed to be valuing the experience of sharing the educators’ wisdom?

I don’t think it is only because educators are no longer respected by learners, as an MEC said last week. I think there is a general lack of respect throughout society.

Part of it is because everyone nowadays only think of themselves and don’t consider the plight of others. Part of it could be because those in power have no empathy with those who suffer in our society. In many cases, they have forgotten where they come from.

If our default position was to respect each other, our society would be a much better place in which to live.

The other story that has been playing in my mind over and over this week has been the police action against protestors in Bonteheuwel and other parts of Cape Town. When the police see a bigger threat in people who are protesting against gangsterism than in the gangsters themselves, then we have a serious problem.

It was shocking to see video footage of Henrietta Abrahams, who fought against apartheid, being dragged by police when they arrested her. It is disgusting that this should happen almost 25 years into our democracy.

Communities on the Cape Flats continue to be terrorised by gangsters and drug dealers and, from where I sit, most of the police do not do too much about it. Maybe it has to do with the low level of respect the police have for people in these communities? Maybe the police have more respect for the gangsters and drug dealers?

As we head into elections next year, there will be many more examples of people showing disrespect to others. Politicians are notorious for dragging debate, if one can call it that, into the gutter.

But the best way to infuse respect in our society is by starting at home. Parents need to take responsibility for teaching their children about respect for others, as well as for the environment. Too many parents have abdicated their responsibility in their children’s education to teachers. Education needs to begin at home and before children reach school-going age.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 29 September 2018)

Put emphasis on Heritage Day, not the braai

On Monday, while some of us will be reflecting on our heritage and identity, others will be braaiing meat. There is nothing wrong with a braai - and I might even braai myself, depending on the weather - but it becomes a problem if you use that as your main identity marker on Heritage Day.

Braai Day is a good example of commercial interests hijacking what should be one of South Africa’s most important holidays, where we should really be able to reflect on our history and the oppression and exploitation which was based on race and class that bedevilled relations in our country for many decades and centuries.

South Africa is a beautiful country with beautiful people and part of our beauty can be found in our diverse backgrounds. This is something to celebrate and you cannot do that if you are determined to reduce your heritage to a braai.

Personally, I will reflect on the many parts of my own heritage and identity. There are so many parts of my identity and it frustrates me when lazy South Africans try to pin my identity down to what they perceive as my race.

I don’t believe in race. It is a construct used by ignorant people to justify their prejudices.

When people believe that others are of a different race, it becomes easier to discriminate against them. So-called Durban businessman and convicted fraudster Kessie Nair became the latest South African to spew racial obscenities on social media in a five-minute video in which he referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa by the k-word.

While many have attacked his utterings as being those of somebody who is mentally unstable, the sad reality is there are many others who share his views. They are just clever enough not to broadcast their views on social media.

I have never bothered about what people call me, as long as they allow me to describe myself in ways with which I am comfortable.

All of us have multiple identities, and most of us cannot always be proud of all of these. But identity is tied up with our heritage. Where we come from plays a big role in determining what we eventually become.

For instance, I believe that my religious tolerance is partly because I grew up in a family where there were as many Muslims as Christians and my commitment to gender equality has been influenced by spending most of my earlier years with my mother and two sisters and, more recently, with my wife and three daughters.

My interest in journalism was piqued at an early age by the presence of newspapers in our house. Despite being poor, my father made sure that we had newspapers every day. It was difficult not to be influenced by newspapers and to consider a career in the media.

My interest in music was rooted in the love that my parents had for music, which rubbed off on all my siblings, while my interest in sport developed at a time when playing soccer was one of the few activities we could indulge in as working-class youngsters.

My love for food was developed watching my mom cook and trying to help her sometimes, even though my help was mainly restricted to tasting before she dished up for everyone.

None of these things relate to race and this is why it infuriates me when people try to make race my main identity marker. I am many things, and I would have been all of that irrespective of the racial identity that people try to pin on me. Happy Heritage Day.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 22 September 2018)

Crime stats seen in isolation

On Tuesday night, a few hours after Police Minister Bheki Cele announced the latest crime statistics, we watched the movie, Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, which in some ways contextualise a crime statistic from a few years ago.

In 2007, Ellen Pakkies strangled her drug addict son, Abie, to death after she and her husband suffered months of abuse at his hands. This included him stealing their possessions, including his father’s savings, breaking windows at their house and physically beating his mother.

Abie terrorised his parents and drove his mother, who had endured a lifetime of abuse, including being raped when she was four years old, over the edge. Ellen was eventually given a three-year suspended sentence and had to perform 280 hours of community service.

I chose to watch the movie at the Blue Route Mall in Tokai because it is the closest cinema to Lavender Hill, where Ellen and Odneal Pakkies still live. It is not often that one is able to watch a movie so close to where it is situated.

Crime is so much more than statistics. Behind every one of the 57 people who are murdered in South Africa every day there is a story of a human being who lived and loved, who might have been a father or a mother, or a son or a daughter. Most women who are raped are mothers and daughters with loved ones.

What Ellen shows is that crime cannot be seen in isolation. It needs to be contextualised within the brutal society that South Africa is to the majority of its people, the poor who cannot afford to escape communities such as Lavender Hill where gangsterism and drugs dominate the lives of most families.

Watching the movie, I found that I could relate to much of what was being portrayed because, like most people who grew up on the Cape Flats, I had a couple of family members who were addicted to drugs.

I remember my brothers, who both passed away at the relatively young age of 40, also displaying mood swings like Abie because of their drug addiction. In those days the drugs that decimated many communities were dagga and Mandrax, which were often mixed. Abie’s generation is being decimated by tik, which is apparently much more vicious.

My brothers would sometimes break everything in sight and often steal my mother’s stuff so that they would have money for drugs. But often they would cry like babies and ask my parents for forgiveness, promising never to steal and abuse them. Drugs affect just about everyone on the Cape Flats, especially those who do not use drugs, because they often have to deal with family members who do.

The gangsters, especially the ones who operate on the Cape Flats, know how much leverage they have in poor communities if they continue to addict young people to drugs. The problem I have with crime statistics is that the politicians, like the minister, often see them in isolation. Crime will not come down while South Africa remains the unequal society that it is. It requires more than policing to bring down crime statistics. It requires poor people to have access to decent jobs, housing and other things that are expected as normal in most societies.

It would be good for the minister and the top brass of the police force to see Ellen. It would be even better if they dedicated some funds to ensure that the movie is shown in schools and communities throughout South Africa, followed by discussions on drug abuse and gangsterism.

The shocking reality portrayed in the movie could help to dissuade young people who might be tempted to find drugs appealing.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 September 2018)

SA must stand up, speak out against wrongdoing

South Africa has been through so much as a country that we sometimes don’t realise when we are faced with a major tragedy or something about which we should be outraged.

We have been smacked so hard by bad news we have somehow become immune to much that is wrong in our society. 

We accept without questioning when people refer to cities in South Africa - either Johannesburg or Cape Town - as the murder capital of the world, and we do not flinch when we learn that there are more babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome in South Africa than anywhere else.

In the past week, for instance, we have had at least two incidents which, in a normal society, would have seen repercussions for senior people.

The one incident was the explosion on Monday at the Denel facility at Macassar where eight people were killed. There seems to be no rush to find out what was behind this explosion and who should take responsibility.

The people who died deserve to be more than statistics. They deserve to be remembered as people who sacrificed their lives in an incident that could have been avoided.

The same can be said for the fire at the Bank of Lisbon building, in the Johannesburg central business district, which houses a provincial government department. 

Three firefighters died in the blaze which started on Wednesday at a building the government knew was only 21% compliant in terms of safety regulations. Buildings are supposed to be at least 85% compliant.

In both cases, there should be a thorough investigation and heads should roll. In my experience of interacting with government officials over the years, I have seen that officials lower down are often prepared to take risks because they have seen people much higher up do the same.

If top officials can get away with doing illegal things and taking short cuts, what’s to stop people lower down the pecking order following suit?

One of the areas where no one seems to want to take responsibility - and to which our response as a nation has been remarkably muted - is the technical economic recession we find ourselves in. 

Some cynics say poor people are not affected by recessions, but, inevitably, poor people are the ones who suffer when the government and big business make stupid decisions.

The amazing thing about the recession is that it has taken everyone in the government by surprise. The response has been to call for a stimulus package to revive the economy.

The government has a plan to revive the economy - and they have had it for five years already. 

It is called the National Development Plan, but because of politics, no one is really paying any attention to it. If we implement half of the proposals in the NDP, South Africa would be a significantly better place to live in.

Now is the time for business to put their money where their mouth is and show how much they are committed to making a success of South Africa. 

Business are always putting pressure on government to make conditions more conducive for business, but the government’s responsibility is much broader. It has to make our society better for everyone who lives here.

South Africans need to learn how to become outraged, not only at politicians, but also when things happen that would be unacceptable in most other societies.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 September 2018)

Taking a leaf from Madiba’s book to end racism

There is a quote from Nelson Mandela used in the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate and, if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

It is a beautiful quote and often used by some people glibly to show how good they are. But these words are easier to say than to practise.

I thought about this a lot over the past few weeks as our country once again got all heated up over racist incidents, especially the infamous white beach video.

One of the things I could not resolve is: how do we internalise these words when we are confronted by racists?

For instance, if we accept Mandela’s words - which many claim to do - does it mean that we must always forgive racists and try to rehabilitate them?

Sometimes our response to racism says as much about us as it does about the racists we are condemning. When we condemn racist behaviour, it sometimes gives us an excuse to pat ourselves on the back and say: I am not as bad as that.

But racism takes different forms. It does not have to be the way Adam Catzavelos expressed his happiness at not seeing a black person on a beach in Greece.

I have often heard white people say: “But he is not like other blacks.”

In fact, this is something that was often said of Mandela, with those who said it conveniently forgetting his history and commitment to the liberation Struggle.

Sometimes our supposed disgust for racism can hide our own racism. For instance, when a white person is accused of racism, many black people do not hesitate to label all whites as racists. The same applies when a black person is accused of racism.

South Africa is still messed-up when it comes to race relations. Many of us were so eager to embrace the “new” South Africa after the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Mandela and the elections in 1994 that we moved from a situation of unbearable and inhuman intolerance and oppression (apartheid) to ubuntu, where black people were meant to embrace white people and we would all live happily ever after.

But we never dealt with the issues that led to apartheid and colonialism. We thought that if we ignored them, they would go away.

Now we are paying the price for ignoring the pain and hurt. More than 24 years into democracy, the lives of people in poor communities have not changed and they are rightly asking when they will improve.

When they are confronted by blatant racism by people who continue to live in privilege, it is understandable that they will be angry. But the anger from those of us who are middle class needs to be redirected. We need to consistently work to uplift poor people and towards a more equitable society.

Creating opportunities for the children of domestic workers, shop assistants, petrol attendants and farm workers is what the “new” South Africa project was supposed to be about. Let’s move from condemning racism to doing something practical about improving the lives of people likely to be the victims of racism.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 September 2018)

Taking ownership of the good, the bad and the ugly in SA

This week, more than most, has been one of joy, pain, anger, reflection and commemoration. It has made me realise that the more things change, not only in South Africa, the more they stay the same, to quote the old cliché.

The joy was because of the Eid ul Adha celebrations and the unbridled happiness it brings to many youngsters on the Cape Flats, not all necessarily from the Muslim faith. I visited my sister in Eastridge, Mitchells Plain, on Wednesday and made the mistake of giving a young boy some money after he offered me Eid greetings.

He ran down the street, proclaiming his good fortune, and soon I was surrounded by a group of young children offering me Eid greetings in return for cash.

We used to do this when we were growing up in Hanover Park, on Eid and on Christmas. It was one way of making sure that we had some spending money in a community where pocket money was often a foreign concept. Parents had to use whatever little money they had to survive; there was no time for luxuries such as pocket money.

The pain was caused in part by some of the high-profile deaths we had in the past week and a bit, such as American singer Aretha Franklin, who inspired many people from my generation, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and, more importantly, from a South African perspective, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, the wife of PAC leader Robert Sobukwe.

The Sobukwes’ role in the Struggle for liberation has been completely underplayed, mainly because of the dominance of the ANC in electoral politics since 1994. But there were times in our history when the PAC and Sobukwe enjoyed more prominence and support than the ANC.

The pain was also caused in some part by the stupid - no, imbecilic - utterances by a South African who was on holiday in Greece and commented in a video about how nice the beaches were and that there were no “k*****s” in sight.

Adam Catzavelos has already lost his job in his family business, which in return has lost a few contracts because of his racism. The backlash continues, not only on social media.

But Catzevelos’s stupidity has also been the cause of much anger this week, and rightly so. What surprises me every time something like this happens is how many people act surprised. He is not the only one who has the views that he expressed publicly. There are many others who express these views at braais and family dinner tables but do not commit their views to social media. I have been in many situations where white people, and sometimes people from other races, make racist comments because they feel comfortable in the company in which they found themselves. When I have raised my objections, which is every time, I am often told that I am “too angry” or “we were just joking” or “you must leave the past behind”. Some brazen white people will argue that “because the ANC messed up, that is proof that black people cannot be entrusted with government”. They will then talk about how things were better in the “good old days”.

I have never thought about laying criminal charges against people who display racism, preferring to try and change their views through arguments, but also because our justice system is already so clogged up with important cases that are taking years to settle.

But maybe I should. Maybe the only way to deal with racism is to make racists aware that they will be prosecuted and could be jailed.

Which brings me to the reflection and commemoration. On Monday this week, it was 35 years since the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the broad coalition which played a key role inside the country in the abolition of apartheid. It was an anniversary that should have generated more discussion and debate because the UDF represented the kind of South Africa we all wanted to live in. It was truly non-racist, non-sexist and democratic. On Tuesday, it would have been the 89th birthday of Rivonia Triallist Ahmed Kathrada, who passed away last year. He was vehemently anti-racist, not only in his words but also in his actions.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Amy Biehl, the 26-year-old American post-grad student who was killed while on her way to drop three co-workers at their home in Gugulethu. She had been active in many anti-apartheid activities and organisations.

Her family’s response to her death has been heralded throughout the world because, instead of anger, they embraced the community where she was killed and started a foundation in her honour, even employing two of the young men who were convicted of her murder.

These are all related because they show what a complex society we are. We all have to take ownership of the problems we have in society and look at our own culpability in their perpetuation. If we don’t speak out against racism, we help to perpetuate racism. If we ignore the inequality in our society, it will never be eliminated. Good people, because of their silence, are often the biggest allies of bad people.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 25 August 2018)

Principal determined to uplift Manenberg school

There are certain things that one notices when one enters Manenberg via Govan Mbeki Road and Vygieskraal Road.

One is the amount of dirt that is lying next to the road, almost a metre high at times, indicating that this has been a neglected dump site in the area. The other is the many able-bodied young men, dozens at least, standing on street corners. And this was before midday.

As one turns into Thames Avenue, one begins to see Edendale Primary School in Sonderendweg: a non-descript school in prefabricated buildings that were supposed to last five years at most. But they have been standing for almost 50 years.

The school was build in 1970 and most of the buildings have been standing since then. They are in more than a need for a decent paint job; they should be demolished and replaced with permanent buildings, something that will probably not happen for another 50 years.

I was taken to the school this week by Henry Petersen, who was principal at the school until about 20 years ago and now dabbles in business, mainly in the wine industry. He wanted to show me the good work being done by the current acting principal, Faadila Ryklief, who he had appointed as a department head in 1996.

Ryklief grew up in Wye Road, Manenberg, until her family moved to Lentegeur in Mitchells Plain, but she still completed her schooling at Manenberg High School. At the same time, she lost her father and her mother became a single parent.

“This is something in these areas. There are many single parents and, quite often, the women just give up. But my mother never gave up,” said Ryklief.

Ryklief started teaching at Edendale Primary School in 1988. She was appointed as acting principal about three years ago and have been told by the education authorities that her position will become permanent from October 1.

Edendale Primary was in the news last year for the wrong reasons. Chanelle McCrawl, 10, a Grade 4 learner at the school, was found murdered in October, a day after she was declared missing.

Her bludgeoned body was discovered in a field not far from the school. Her uncle and a neighbour have been charged with raping and murdering her. The case still has to go to trial.

“Last year was difficult, especially for the Grade 4 class. We lost Chanelle, but another of her classmates drowned in December while another one had a heart operation,” said Ryklief.

The problems of Manenberg inevitably find their way into the school. “We are a no-fee school and we try to supplement our income through fund-raising activities, but we can only have small fundraising activities on Sassa day (when beneficiaries get their social grants). Quite often, we have to cancel planned activities when the gangsters start shooting.”

One of the things that Ryklief has changed is not allowing parents to take children from school when gang violence breaks out. This used to be common practise.

“As soon as the shooting starts, parents come and fetch their children, even though the children are probably safer at school. One parent would come and take all the children from their street. We now tell parents that they are welcome to wait at school until the end of the school day when they can take their children,” she said.

Even sports activities are affected by the gangsters’ shenanigans.

“We don’t have a soccer field, so the children have to play on a nearby field, but they can only go when the gangsters are not fighting.”

Meanwhile, many of the facilities at the school are run-down. The Grade R play area has been closed because some of the equipment has become unsafe leaving the children to make up games in the general play area. The cricket nets are unusable and the cricket wicket is overgrown.

The school has 27 computers in a small lab, but six of the screens and five of the hard drives are not working. The average class has 42 learners, so most of the learners end up sharing computers during lessons.

Over the years, for a variety of reasons, the school’s population has shrunk, but Ryklief has been steadily increasing the numbers in the past three years.

“There was a time when we had about 700 learners, but this decreased significantly in the past 10 years. Three years ago we had 350 learners, now we have just over 440. Our plans are to introduce English Grade R classes, but this needs the approval of the education department,” said Ryklief.

Introducing English classes at the Afrikaans-medium school could also mean that the school could attract learners from Gugulethu, which is over the railway line.

On the face of it, Edendale is just another school trying to survive in the townships. But Ryklief is determined to make sure that the school attracts good teachers and improves its facilities in a community where most people have nothing.

“Sometimes township schools attract only teachers who are not committed in the way that we would want them to be. But I am hoping to attract good teachers.”

In many ways, the odds are stacked against her, but one cannot help but admire her determination to make a difference in an environment where most people do not care. For instance, if the education authorities cared, they would have replaced the pre-fab buildings years ago.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 18 August 2018)

Chapter of journalism vanished in the race for a new SA

There was plenty of reflection and nostalgia on Tuesday night at the launch of a book on two newspapers that opposed apartheid in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.

The book, Rhetorics of Resistance: Opposition Journalism in Apartheid South Africa, written by Bryan Trabold, an associate professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, focuses on the Weekly Mail and the New Nation.

Trabold spent more than two years in South Africa in the late 1990s and that is when he conducted most of the interviews for the book, which has had a limited release in South Africa.

At the launch at Clarkes Book Store in Long Street, Trabold explained that the book started off as a dissertation towards his doctorate. He said it took much longer than anticipated for the book to be published.

He had interviewed me in 1999, when I was editor of the Cape Times, and invited me and another former Independent Newspapers editor, Shaun Johnson (now CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation) to share some of our memories at the launch.

Johnson had worked at the Weekly Mail, the forerunner to the Mail & Guardian, and I worked at the New Nation.

In attendance at the launch were several people who had worked at either of the two papers, including another former Cape Times editor, Tyrone August, who had also worked at the New Nation. August was based at head office in Johannesburg while I ran the Cape Town office. Most of the people, however, came from the Weekly Mail side because the New Nation was never strong in the Western Cape, except in what is still known as the townships.

When Trabold emailed me a few weeks ago and asked me to participate in the launch, I was apprehensive because the period he reflected on was a long time ago and I, like everyone else, had moved on since then.

But his request, which I initially refused, got me thinking, not only about what happened in the bad old days of apartheid, but what is happening in the media space today.

Johnson shared a lot of humorous anecdotes from his days at the Weekly Mail, but also pointed out that the journalists who worked there were often scared because of the tactics of the apartheid police.

Things were slightly different at the New Nation, where we might not have shared as much humour, but we also did not feel as much fear. We were driven by something that was much bigger than us.

Apartheid had been declared a crime against humanity by the UN and we were in the forefront of the opposition to it.

We felt that, if we had to make sacrifices, it would be in line with our commitment to the struggle. We did not see a distinction between the struggle for human rights and the struggle for media freedom.

There were other differences between the two newspapers. The Weekly Mail had a mainly white readership, while the New Nation had a mainly black readership.

The Weekly Mail journalists all had bylines, while the New Nation staff wrote anonymously. Part of the reason for this was security, to protect journalists from scrutiny by the security police, while part of it was because of the collective nature of our project.

When one looks at the freedom the media enjoy in South Africa today, it is difficult to imagine the difficult conditions under which we operated in the 1980s.

Many anti-apartheid journalists, including yours truly, ended up in detention, and journalists were often beaten up by police along with protesters on who they were reporting.

Many of the anti-apartheid newspapers, including the New Nation and Weekly Mail, were closed for different periods by the apartheid censors.

The editor of the New Nation, the inspirational Zwelakhe Sisulu, spent more than two years in detention.

The apartheid authorities thought that, by banning and detaining us, they would silence us, but they soon realised that it would not work.

Paging through the book, I thought back to all the other smaller newspapers that existed in the 1980s and who played as important a role. These included newspapers such as Grassroots, Saamstaan and Vrye Weekblad.

I realise that we are failing those who sacrificed so much for our freedom by letting the history of these papers die without any of it being recorded. The fact that an American had to write the history of two of our most important anti-apartheid newspapers is an indictment on local writers and researchers who shun away from these subjects.

Trabold quoted me in the book as saying that the main reason we were involved in alternative media was because the mainstream media were not doing their work properly and did not reflect society properly.

This got me thinking about the media today. Are we doing our work properly now that we do not have all the inconveniences that we suffered during apartheid? Are we reflecting society properly? Our mission in the 1980s was to provide a voice for the voiceless.

Have the media done that in democratic South Africa? Or have we just continued to exclude the people who were excluded under apartheid?

There are no easy answers to these questions but all journalists, especially the young ones who hold the future of the media industry in their hands, should think about the role we are expected to play as those who report on our society. Journalism has always been more than a job to me.

It has always been about serving people whose voices would not be heard otherwise. I hope that the young journalists of today feel the same.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 11 August 2018)

#TotalShutDown: No abusive man’s worth hanging onto, or defending

Amina was young and beautiful, and a mother of four. She was doing well in her job and had recently being promoted to a management position in the factory where she started out at the bottom, more than 10 years ago. Her future was looking bright except for one thing: her abusive husband.

Her husband, Amien, was not much older than her, unable to hold down a job and had a serious addiction to a range of drugs. It was not unusual for him to start a new job, impress everyone with his work ethic, only to stay away after two or three weeks because he got bored or he succumbed to a drug binge.

Amina would sometimes come home to discover she no longer had a television set or a fridge, which had been pawned so that Amien could buy drugs. She then suffered the indignity of finding out where he sold her stuff and having to buy it back.

If she complained too much, he would beat her up. But in the community where they lived, Amien was not seen as a bad person because he was seen as a good Muslim who prayed five times a day and fasted religiously every year.

No one in Amina’s family said anything about their relationship, with everyone being happy she was married to a good Muslim. She stayed with him until she died at a reasonably young age. It is not known whether her death was related to the abuse she suffered.

Roberta was a professional woman who held down a highly-paid executive job in Cape Town. She met Mr Right who was from Durban and relocated to be with him. Fortunately for her, she managed to find an equally well-paid job in Durban.

But soon she realised that Mr Right was not perfect. He had a tendency of losing his temper quickly, not hesitating to take it out on her. She often had to hide bruises on her face and body caused by heavy beatings.

She was hesitant to tell her friends about what was happening in her relationship because she was now living in a strange city and she depended on Mr Right to help her acclimatise to a foreign environment.

She also knew all her friends, most of whom were in Cape Town, would tell her to leave him immediately, which she was not prepared to do.

She hoped that things would change, that he would bring his temper under control and that the beatings would stop.

The beatings never stopped and a year later she packed her bags and left him. She did not want to return to Cape Town - that would almost be an acknowledgement that the entire relationship was a failure - so she relocated to Joburg to start a new life on her own.

I thought of both women this week as I watched thousands of women marching to the centres of power in Pretoria and Cape Town to protest against abuse. While I did not use their real names, they were real women who were special to me.

When I heard about the abuse they suffered at the hands of their partners, my immediate advice was: “Get out. Leave him. No abusive man is worth hanging onto.”

These are just two examples of women’s abuse that I have encountered over the years. There are many more examples that I can list, including the many women on the Cape Flats who always have black eyes after they “walked into a door”.

What I learnt from both experiences is that the abuse of women will never stop unless the abusers have no alternative but to stop.

Abusers will continue as long as they know they will get away without facing any consequences or that the consequences will not match their crimes.

The abusers will also continue as long as they can convince their victims to remain silent and they enjoy the protection of people in their communities.

The only way to stop abuse is to highlight it at every possible opportunity. Survivors of abuse need to know that they can come forward and will be protected. Unfortunately, our justice does not inspire confidence, especially for victims.

Communities need to isolate, shame and report the perpetrators of abuse.

The abuse of women and children should not be seen as a problem for women and children. Men should play an active part in campaigning against it and ending it. If men do not speak up against the abuse of women and children, it is almost as if they are also guilty of abuse.

I salute the women who marched this week. I hope that soon we will see men not only marching but also organising against abuse.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 4 August 2018)

Music and sport help keep Mandela’s legacy alive

Like many other South Africans and people from around the world, I got caught up in the celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s centenary last week.

There were more than enough events to attend, all dedicated to preserving the memory and legacy of South Africa’s greatest statesman.

This situation will probably continue for a while as many people and organisations want to honour Madiba in their own way.

The City of Cape Town, for instance, unveiled a statue of Madiba at the City Hall this week, to mark the spot where he made his first speech after his release from Victor Verster Prison.

My highlights of last week were not restricted to attending the Nelson Mandela lecture delivered by former US president Barack Obama - even though it was special.

Instead, my best event last week had nothing to do with Madiba. On the other hand, it probably had everything to do with Madiba.

It was a show at Artscape last Friday night, organised by a relatively new body called the Fostering Foundation.

The organisation was founded by the legendary singer Sophia Foster and she has roped in actor Jody Abrahams, musician Celeste Williams and a whole lot of others who are working behind the scenes.

Their simple mission is “the transfer of skills to and development of the talented youth of the Western Cape”.

They have been quietly working with young people from disadvantaged communities without anyone really noticing.

The show took the form of the old-fashioned variety shows popular on the Cape Flats in my growing up years. The young people who have been exposed to the foundation sang and danced their way through two 45-minute sets tightly directed by Foster and Abrahams, with musical direction by Williams.

Foster played a supportive role, singing just one song on her own and another with some of the young singers, allowing her prodigies to shine. And shine they did, resulting in a standing ovation at the end of the show.

The youngest performer was 13-year-old Hiram Hartsog of Paarl, who started singing in the church choir when he was 5 years old. Others include 18-year-old Mpho Ngexe from Khayelitsha who has been singing from the age of 7, 14-year-old Angel Bowman from Table View, who wants to become a singer and international model, Yamkela Kasana, 19, from Langa, who is studying at CPUT, but wants to become a professional singer, and 20-year-old Mogamat George from Bo-Kaap, who grew up in a family of musicians.

In many ways, their stories reflect the difficulties that young people on the Cape Flats face on a daily basis, even though we are supposed to be celebrating 24 years of freedom.

Foster, in a video played at the event, talked about some of the performers not being able to attend rehearsals because of shootings in their neighbourhoods, resulting in people being trapped in their houses.

Young dancer Janica Mulder, 15, from Steenberg, recounted the sad story of having to identify the body of her best friend who had been brutalised and murdered.

But, Foster said, when the music started, it was almost like the young people would forget all their problems and immerse themselves in another world.

It is through work like this that Mandela’s legacy will live on. The organisers did not deliberately link their event to Madiba, but they did not have to. Their work spoke for itself.

We have a tendency in South Africa to think very simplistically about the country’s needs. We tend to think that, for us to succeed as a nation, we need to do only the so-called important things, such as creating jobs and providing proper housing for all.

But while it is important to sort out the bigger problems in society, we cannot underestimate the power of issues that are considered “soft”, such as sports and arts and culture.

In poor communities, music and sport provide an alternative to the general misery of life. But they can also provide a way out of poverty for people who are talented.

I was one of the young people who benefited from music.

As a teenager in Hanover Park, one of the main reasons why I never ended up in a gang was because I played guitar and I would often sit on the street corner with the local gangsters, strumming my guitar while they sang along.

They never put pressure on me to join the gang, realising that I had some talent (even though it was limited, in my opinion).

We need more projects in schools, and poor communities especially, that use sport and music to nurture talent and provide hope to young people.

We have seen the unifying power of both. No one will be able to forget the sight of Madiba wearing Francois Pienaar’s No 6 Springbok rugby jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Madiba also used music very effectively to convey his message. Here, one can think of the huge 46664 concerts featuring many famous performers.

There are many others who, like the Fostering Foundation, are quietly making a difference in communities. They are the real heroes who are keeping Madiba’s legacy alive.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 28 July 2018)

We should aspire to live as Mandela did every day

By the time you read this, most politicians, business leaders and many others in corporate South Africa would have ticked off on their to-do list: do good for Mandela Day.

Unfortunately, and as sad as it is to admit, this is what has happened to the legacy of one of the greatest South Africans who have lived. It has been reduced, in many cases, to 67 minutes one day a year when people with money and influence break from their normal routine to help those who are less fortunate.

They do this, not in privacy and not anonymously, but with cameras clicking and recording as if they did good without anyone seeing it on TV, in the newspapers or on social media, it would not count.

Their public relations people have been working overtime this week to show us how their principals have shown compassion for those who have less than them, for 67 minutes, give or take a few minutes more or less. But what happened before? What happens afterwards?

This year, of course, most people have done slightly more than the “required” 67 minutes because there have been many activities celebrating what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to people doing good and I am glad that many poor people have benefited from the benevolence shown this week.

I am not knocking those who quietly and out of the spotlight do good, not only on Mandela Day, but throughout the year.

I am trying to promote the willingness to do good continuously and out of the glare of the media because this is what Madiba stood for.

Doing good must become part of our DNA. We should not have to be reminded on special days that we should do something for those in need and we should not do it only if we are going to be acknowledged for doing good.

Doing good should be about more than a picture moment or a hashtag. Madiba never wanted acknowledgement. He was committed to changing South Africa for the better in line with the vision of the ANC, of which he was a humble servant. He realised it was important for South Africa’s future to create an environment in which all of its people would be able to prosper.

The unfortunate thing is some people have interpreted this to mean that only some people are supposed to prosper in South Africa, as has happened since we became a democracy, which is not much different from to what happened before.

A famous statement by a Struggle hero comes to mind here: “We never struggled to be poor.” It is true that we never struggled to be poor, but we also did not struggle to be stinking rich. We struggled to uplift the majority of people in this country, who happen to be poor. More than 24 years into democracy, most of these people have remained poor and still live in apartheid-created townships without access to decent living conditions.

One of Madiba’s traits was his humility. He never thought he was special and he never wanted to be treated in a special way. As many people reflected on their interactions with him this week, the one story that stood out was how he would be invited for dinner and always insisted that everyone in his party should be fed. Often people would only think about the VIP they invited and forget that there are other people in his party whose needs also need to be considered.

I always struggle to answer when people ask me what I did on Mandela Day because living Mandela’s values has never been about an event for me. It has always been about embracing and internalising the many lessons that we can learn from his life. I would like to think every day is a Mandela Day.

It always makes me uncomfortable to think about the woman abuser who decides not to beat up his wife for 67 minutes on Mandela Day; the corrupt politician who decides not to accept bribes during that time; the criminal who decides in honour of Madiba not to rob anyone on this special day or the employer who lets his domestic worker eat at the same table as his family on Mandela Day when she has to eat in a back room or outside, all by herself, on other days.

We should all try to live according to Madiba’s values all the time but it is not easy. Madiba was someone special and most of us are not. We struggle to do what came naturally to him.

We need to embrace all his values, not only some of them and need to embrace them all the time, not just some of the time and definitely not only for 67 minutes one day a year.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 21 July 2018)