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People should hear tributes while they are still alive

MANY years ago, I interviewed Ray Chipaka Phiri after the release of one of his albums. One of the songs was dedicated to this father. He explained that his father, who was a mineworker of Malawian descent, always had a smile on his face. He had asked his father why, when he was so oppressed, he always managed to smile. His father explained that smiling and laughing was the only way to deal with his oppression.

“If I think about my oppression all the time, I would go through life depressed. I prefer to be happy,” Phiri quoted his father as saying.

When I heard this week that Phiri had passed away at the age of 70 after succumbing to lung cancer, I thought about this discussion we had in Bantry Bay, overlooking the sea, and how humble and approachable this talented genius had been. At that time, he had already achieved so much, having travelled the world with Paul Simon’s Graceland tour and having had huge success with Stimela, one of South Africa’s best bands ever.

But I also found myself thinking about the many friends and comrades who had passed away in the past few years and the things that I will always remember of all of them.

Death has a way of catching up on all of us but, when it happens, those of us who are left behind, are still surprised.

Last Saturday, we were sitting in St Georges Cathedral at the funeral service for Ronald Bernickow, popularly known as Berni, a former colleague and comrade who had passed away about two weeks earlier.

We all knew that Berni had contracted cancer years ago and we followed his progress with interest. It would not be unusual to hear that he was in and out of hospital or had suffered another setback. But every time he seemed to recover and continue his public service, which he did until the end.

I thought nothing about it when I bumped into Berni’s wife, Lorna, in our local supermarket a month or so ago and she told me that he was going through a tough time health-wise. When I had last seen him a few weeks before then, he had looked reasonably healthy.

Because he knew his time on earth was limited, Berni planned certain parts of his send-off, leaving notes for some people and even ordering his friends to celebrate his life and not mourn his passing by drinking all his leftover alcohol.

He had been given a few months to live 10 years ago, but never stopped living and giving until he could not continue anymore. One of the lessons, I suppose, I will take from Berni’s life is to live life to the full and to never stop giving.

Listening to people giving tribute to Ray Phiri over the past few days, I suppose one could say the same about him. He never wanted to stop being active and helping where he could. And, of course, performing.

At Berni’s funeral service, which went on for a long time because of the number of people who wanted to pay tribute, I found myself thinking about what I would want people to say about me when I have passed on. I realised that, while I have no intention of dying anytime soon, I suppose it is something that I would have no control over.

I have this dream of dying and watching people pay tribute to me while they are not able to see me. In my dream, I find myself asking whether I am at the right funeral because I cannot believe some of the things that people are saying about me.

I understand the notion of paying tribute to people once they have passed away. In many ways, it is also a way of finding closure for the people who are left behind. “We have given you a good send-off. Now we can get on with our lives.” Unfortunately, when everybody has left, the family is often left alone to deal with their grief.

But sometimes it is important to pay tribute to people while they are alive. It is not good enough to tell someone how much you loved them when their coffin is lying in front of you. They should have heard it often while they were alive.

One of the things that I have requested from my family and friends is that the people who speak at my funeral or memorial service should be people who know me and they should be able to speak about my values, my hopes and my dreams. I do not want politicians to speak, unless they are people who knew me genuinely.

We only die once so it is important to make sure that our final send-off is done properly. Unlike Ray Phiri’s father, I struggle to go through life smiling, because I get angered my injustice and inequality very easily. And unlike Berni, I will properly not leave notes for all my family and friends. But I hope that, like them, I will be able to leave a legacy that makes my family proud. For now, let me go on living.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 July 2017)

Public support best protection for press freedom

AS A YOUNG journalist living in Hanover Park many years ago, it was always difficult to write stories about my community. Part of the problem was that you knew almost everyone you would write about and, in cases where stories were not complimentary, it was easy for them to track you down and confront you about it.

Once, I did a story about the goings-on at one of the local high schools in which a certain SRC member came off badly. The next day, he arrived at our house in Solent Court with his mother, demanding I publish an apology. My mother took exception to these people bringing their problems with my professional conduct into our house, but I managed to speak to them and, after I explained the story, they left without expecting an apology.

The mother's biggest problem, it appears, was the humiliation of seeing her son's face on the front page of the newspaper. She had not bothered to read the article.

Listening to the ANC once again raising the spectre of regulation of the media at their national policy conference this week and, after the incidents at the homes of respected newspaper editors last week, got me thinking about this incident of years ago. I asked myself how much had changed in the decades since then.

I suppose it must be difficult to be a politician or a senior employee at a state-owned entity at the moment, waking up every morning not knowing whether you'll be the story based on e-mails you happened to have sent to a politically connected family, asking for favours.

Whenever politicians realise that they could potentially be embarrassed by revelations in the media, they start talking about media regulation.

When I taught media relations to senior people in the government and corporates, I told them that, if they did not want their dirty linen to be aired in public, then they should not dirty their linen.

What this means is that, if you have done wrong, you should expect the media to pick this up, sooner or later.

Throughout history, and throughout the world, journalists and politicians have always had a strange relationship.

Politicians like journalists to write stories about the good things that they do, but they always take exception when journalists point out bad things.

But politicians need journalists as much as journalists need them.

Politicians need to develop a thick skin and learn to live with a vibrant media that carries out thorough investigations. This is one of the lessons that they could learn from democratic South Africa's first president, Nelson Mandela, who knew how to manipulate the media in a positive way to achieve the objectives of his government and political party.

Mandela, who had an elephant's memory for names, always greeted journalists by their first names and knew personal things about them, such as if they'd recently had a baby or acquired a dog. He realised the best way to handle journalists was to engage with them, showing he was a human being and then maybe they would start reporting on him like a human being.

I remember how he would call cartoonists to ask them to send him copies of cartoons which could have been considered derogatory. But he was also not shy to point out mistakes to journalists and would often call editors early in the morning.

The intolerance that has been shown from certain quarters to journalists - and I refuse to name them because they have received more than enough publicity already - should not be allowed to continue. There are platforms on which to engage with journalists and that does not include visiting them at their homes and threatening them and their families.

Politicians will soon discover journalists are a strange breed, in that we will vigorously defend each other's right to practise our craft. We have realised that, if you allow attacks on one journalist, without defending his/her rights, you will soon have attacks on other journalists whose views might be closer to yours.

I believe we must have as many views as possible expressed in the media. It is important to know what right-wingers are thinking, just as it is important to know what left-wingers are thinking.

Ultimately, most journalists are driven by a desire to bring the truth to the public. Journalists are, in the main, loyal to their profession and to the public they serve. This includes their readers, listeners or viewers. Politicians and political parties quite often do not form part of this public or community.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I am not yet too concerned about threats to the media, even though last week’s invasion of private homes could be considered a new low.

But we need to remain vigilant and we need to make sure that we always have the support and confidence of the public. The public needs to know and understand that any attack on media freedom is an attack on their freedom. This protection, by the public, is probably the best protection anyone in the media industry could enjoy.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 July 2017)

Hani's ideals would've made him an ideal leader

Chris Hani would have been upset at how legitimate demands and political slogans are being used to promote the interests of a faction in the ANC.

Chris Hani would have turned 75 this week. It is an event that passed without any fanfare but it would have been an appropriate opportunity for our political leaders to reflect on Hani’s values and his commitment to the struggle for the liberation of all South Africans. We should not only commemorate death but also celebrate life.

Two of Hani’s contemporaries in the Struggle, became presidents of South Africa. Thabo Mbeki, who turned 75 on June 18, was president from June 14, 1999 until September 2008, while Jacob Zuma, who turned 75 on April 12, was president since 2009, having been re-elected for a second term in 2014. 

There are many who believe the SA Communist Party leader would probably also have become president of the ANC and the country if his life was not cut short by a right-wing assassin on April 10, 1993, just over a year before South Africans voted in our first democratic elections. 

Other contemporaries who are roughly the same age include Pallo Jordan, who turned 75 on May 22, and Mavuso Msimang, who will turn 76 on October 19. 

It is interesting to look at this group to see how things turned out differently for men who were the best of comrades during their years in the Struggle. 

Hani was deprived of an opportunity to accomplish greatness in South Africa, Mbeki went on to tarnish his good name as president, due to some bad decisions and misguided loyalties, but this was nothing compared to what Zuma has “achieved” as president. Some of his critics blame Zuma for the demise of the ANC and warn that the party may lose the 2019 elections if there is a perception Zuma is still in control, even if not as president of the ANC. There are even people who want Mbeki to make a comeback. They have obviously forgotten the criticism they bestowed on him when he was Number 1.

Jordan went into hiding after his lack of a doctorate was exposed, while Msimang surfaced as one of Zuma’s most vocal critics, part of the group of ANC stalwarts, demanding leadership change in the organisation. 

Leadership will be top of mind for everyone at the ANC’s policy conference this weekend, although, officially, ANC members are not meant to discuss this publicly. 

It is difficult to speculate what Hani would have said about the current state of national politics but, I suspect, his views would probably have been closer to Msimang’s. Hani was committed to the ANC, led by Oliver Tambo, who would have turned 100 in October this year, and would have been upset at how legitimate demands and political slogans were debased as they are now used to promote the interests of a faction in the ANC.

Whether this faction is truly committed to tackling white monopoly capital and radically transform the economy, is debatable. 

Because this faction appears to have taken ownership of these terms, others are not engaging with them meaningfully, leading to a situation where nobody is taking the transformation of our economy, and our society, seriously. 

Talk of transformation, so far, has only been hot air. If we had proper transformation in our society, and particularly our economy, we would not see headlines about the huge gap between the earnings of South African chief executives compared to what they pay workers. According to a report this week, some chief executives earn up to 500 times more than the lowest paid workers in their companies.

I have no problem with chief executives earning huge salaries, but it must be reward for good work and they must lead in a way which empowers their staff. The best leaders are not those who try to accrue capital and benefits only for themselves, but those who believe that sharing in a more equitable manner with their workers will lead to a situation where everyone will earn more. There are some people in South Africa who still have misguided notions of the communism espoused by people like Hani. They focus unnecessarily on the notion of communists being non-believers.

I would like to think that someone like Hani believed in humanity, equality and justice, and that is good enough for me. I will gladly take a pro-poor non-believer over an oppressive believer any day. There are some good non-believers in the same way as there are bad believers (just think about apartheid). Ultimately, we should judge people on their actions as opposed to their words.

Let’s celebrate Hani’s life but let us also commit ourselves to creating a society where everyone will be treated as roughly equal. I don’t think that is communism. It is just doing what is right.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 July 2017)

Aunty Hilda was a hero, and should be honoured

THE name Hilda Paulsen is not as well-known as many as that of many others who contributed to the struggle for democracy. But to many people who lived in Mitchells Plain, and particularly Eastridge, in the 1980s, she was a hero who dedicated her life to improving the lives of people around her.

(Please note that I use the word hero because I do not believe there should be gender distinctions for bravery.)

Mrs Paulsen, as we all knew her, lived in Eastridge and was my main contact person in the area when I was sent to organise the community in the early 1980s. Her small house became our head-quarters where all pamphlets and Grassroots community newspaper copies were delivered before we gave them out door to door.

She represented the area on all kind of committees, such as the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee and the structures of the United Democratic Front. She was one of the many ordinary working-class people who dedicated their time and energy to helping us overcome apartheid by engaging in community campaigns for lower rent and electricity payments, for a hospital in Mitchells Plain, and supporting worker and student struggles.

Her daughter, Marlene, was as involved as her while her son, who later converted to Islam and became known as Mogamad Nazier, was at high school and an interested observer of what we were doing. I would like to believe that he drew some inspiration from the activities of his mother and sister which inspired his later involvement in community organisations and finally the Economic Freedom Fighters, which he now represents in Parliament.

I moved out of Mitchells Plain in the early 1990s – to Durban and Johannesburg – and lost touch with many of the people in Mitchells Plain. Mrs Paulse had also moved out to Crawford, which is around the corner from where I now live.

I can’t recall the last time I saw Mrs Paulsen, but I bumped into Marlene a few times, the most recent being at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and she asked me when I was going to visit her mother. She told me that her mother had become blind but would definitely recognise my voice. I promised I would visit soon, but kept on delaying it, mainly because of my work and travel schedule. But I kept on saying to my wife that I needed to visit Mrs Paulsen.

On Wednesday this week, I heard that Mrs Paulsen had passed away. She was 82. I never kept my promise to visit her and I could not go and see the family immediately because I am up in Gauteng until the end of this week.

On Monday, I received a call from another woman who lives in Eastridge and she told me about how the creche in Leadwood Road, where we often held community meetings, had fallen into disrepair. She asked me to see whether there was anyone in my corporate network who would be prepared to assist them with funding because otherwise the creche would have to close. She pointed out that she does not get paid to work at the creche.

I thought about Mrs Paulse then and, if I had been in Cape Town, I would probably have gone to visit her immediately. But I also thought about the structures we had set up in the 1980s and the people who were involved. Many of these people are now despondent that the future we thought we were building has not been realised.

Some, like Willie Simmers, continues to make a difference in Mitchells Plain through the Mitchells Plain Advice Office, which has also been struggling to make ends meet for many years. Willie is now in his late seventies and, as far as I know, still volunteers his services to the advice office.

From time to time, we bump into former activists at funerals or memorial services. Many of them no longer find themselves in the ANC, which would have been their natural home after their time in the UDF in the 1980s. The energy levels might no longer be there, but their commitment remains to make our country different to the one in which we grew up.

Most of them, like Hilda Paulsen, have not been acknowledged for their contribution and have never asked for any acknowledgement. The only thing many would have wanted was for our country to be close to what we thought it was becoming: a non-racial, non-sexist democracy in which everyone would have equal access to education, housing, health, justice and employment opportunities, among others.

They would have wanted to play with their grandchildren knowing that South Africa now offered much greater opportunities to them.

Unfortunately, while South Africa today is very different to what we went through under apartheid, there still remains a lot of work to be done to get us even close to what we thought we were fighting for. Yes, it is up to the young people to take the struggle forward, but we cannot afford to let people like Hilda Paulsen pass on without us tapping into their wisdom.

I regret not having the opportunity to see Aunty Hilda in her final years, but I know that she will forgive me. After all, forgiveness is one of the key lessons we have learnt in the struggle in order for us to move forward. But I would have loved to ask her what she thought about the situation in our country and what needed to be done.

Rest in peace, dear comrade. Your journey has not been in vain.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 24 June 2017)

Benni can reignite local interest in the beautiful game

Ryland Fisher is excited about the relaunched Cape Town City and the appointment of Hanover Park-born Benni McCarthy as coach.

For many young boys of my generation, who lived on the Cape Flats, soccer was an important part of our lives. Many of us played soccer, either in the Saturday or Sunday leagues - some in both, even though technically this was not allowed - and we had formal practices a few times a week. On the other days, we could be found playing soccer on one of the open pieces of land near the blocks of flats where we lived.

It was a way of keeping ourselves occupied and helped to keep many of my peers away from the gangs which infested such a huge part of our community.

Support for local soccer has always been big and, over weekends, dozens of people, sometimes even hundreds, would stand on the side lines to watch us play. They would not only be parents who were forced to watch us, as happens with lots of sporting activity in the wealthier suburbs, but would include many people for whom this would be a rare entertainment activity.

Soccer supporters were mostly fairly knowledgeable and would encourage their teams to do whatever was needed to do to win. They would normally take umbrage at refereeing that they considered to be below par, which was most of the time.

The support for local soccer has never really transferred to the PSL teams and stadiums remain largely empty when our professional teams play, unless it is against teams such as Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates when the stadium is filled with supporters of the teams from Gauteng.

Part of the reason for the lack of support could be blamed on economics - you can watch local amateur soccer for free but having to pay to watch professional soccer, even if it is only R20 or R30, can be hard on the pocket and has to compete with bread, milk and airtime, which, for some people, has become as great a necessity as staple foods.

There are some people who argue that Kaizer Chiefs supporters seem to find the money to support their team, wherever they play in the country, but this is not something that requires a cash injection week after week.

The big teams visit every couple of months, at most. Support for local soccer is going to depend on people being prepared to part with their cash on a near weekly basis.

I was very excited when I heard about the launch (or should that be relaunch) of Cape Town City. I grew up supporting the old Cape Town City and my father used to take me to watch them play at Hartleyvale when it was still a soccer stadium. When I became politically aware, I started supporting Santos, which competed in the non-racial league.

My support for the new Cape Town City has very little to do with what they’ve done on the field, although that has been impressive.

My enthusiasm was linked to some of the things the team said it would do, and what it did at the outset.

One of these things was to identify soccer stalwarts, not only from the PSL but also those who supported anti-apartheid sport, and offer them free entry to their games. They spoke about taking soccer to the people.

The appointment of Benni McCarthy as their head coach, despite his not having coaching experience, is another good move.

Let me declare my conflict upfront: I am a proud product of Hanover Park, a place which is always in the news for the wrong reasons but which has given to our community leaders in many areas of society, not only in sport and entertainment.

McCarthy is, of course, a product of those amateur leagues that are so popular on the Cape Flats but he was noticed by professional scouts at a young age, going on to become Bafana Bafana’s most prolific goal scorer.

I am sure he will make us proud and hopefully convince more people that they should part with their hard-earned cash to support local professional soccer.

Years ago, I learnt that people who succeed in life also want vindication from the people with whom they grew up or who live in their home towns. I have worked with at least two internationally-acclaimed South African musicians who shared with me the same story about how they wished they could have the same acclaim locally as they enjoyed abroad.

McCarthy has an opportunity to wriggle himself back into the hearts of people from all over Cape Town who may have begun to forget his achievements on the soccer field. He can also be the catalyst for reigniting interest in local professional soccer.

As we celebrate Youth Month, apart from sorting out pertinent issues such as unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young people, we need to pay more attention to the things that interest our youth. Sport, in particular soccer, and music are two of those things. It is a pity that the government and many corporates do not seem to realise the importance of the stuff that feeds our soul, such as sport and music.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 17 June 2017)

Keeping kids safe is everyone's responsibility

WE HAVE almost reached the end of Child Protection Week but for most children in South Africa, it has not made any difference to their lives. Of course, the protection of children and others who are vulnerable in our society should not be the focus for only a week, or even a month. It should be something that we focus on every day of the year.

The protection of children is also something that should not be the preserve of government or law-enforcement agencies. It is something for which all of us, especially parents, should take responsibility.

The dangers to our children are not new. They have been around forever. They were there when I was young, more than 50 years ago.

When I visit townships on the Cape Flats and look at the hundreds of unsupervised young children playing and walking around, I often reflect that I used to be one of them. I used to play unsupervised. I used to wander all over Hanover Park without my parents having a clue where I had spent my day.

Every year, we host a concert in town as part of the One City, Many Cultures Cape Town Festival. We bus in people from several Cape Flats communities to experience the concert for free. This year, for the first time, I noticed that most of the people who come on the buses are unsupervised children. Clearly, their parents see a bus trip to town as a way of keeping their children occupied for the day. At the end of the day, when the buses return home, I often wonder if any of the children have been left behind.

It is easy to blame parents for being negligent when children suffer harm in the townships. Surely, they should be aware of where their children are, one often hears people say, people who have not walked in the shoes of a township single mother who has to work to feed her family, or of a couple who both have to work because the wages of one will not be enough to care for their children.

In most cases, parents are not able to afford day care, so schools become a place where you deposit your children for safekeeping and, after school, you hope that they stay off the streets and will be safe. You trust any adult to look after your children, even if your gut tells you that you shouldn’t.

Most parents want the same thing for their children and would never want any harm to come to them. But we do not live in a perfect society, so some children will always be in more danger than others, especially in poor areas such as those on the Cape Flats.

Both my parents had to work, so my siblings and I were left to our own devices most of the time. Sometimes my mother would take me (the youngest of five children) with her to work, especially when she worked as a domestic worker, but when she worked in a more formal environment, like a clothing factory, she was not able to take me with her. 

If my mother saw or knew some of the people with who I used to hang out as a child of less than 10 years old, she would be shocked.

My sisters, who are two and four years older than me, were given the responsibility of looking after me while my parents were at work, but it is an unreasonable responsibility to give to young girls.

In township homes, young girls have to grow up quickly to take responsibility to look after their younger siblings. The same kind of pressure is not normally placed on boys.

I’m glad that the President has given so much attention to Elsies River over the past few weeks, visiting the area twice after the brutal killing of three-year-old Courtney Pieters, whose lifeless body was found in a shallow grave in nearby Epping, less than two weeks after she disappeared from her home. Mortimer Saunders, 40, has been arrested and charged with raping and murdering the young girl. He lived in a room in the family’s small home.

There are many other communities on the Cape Flats where crime is as much of a problem as in Elsies River and where the residents are looking at the President’s actions with interest.

The crime problems besetting our townships will not disappear with a R10 000 donation and the promise of a house to a bereaved family, no matter how good the intentions. The problems are multifaceted and complicated.

I would like to give the President the benefit of the doubt and say that he is genuinely concerned about what has happened in Elsies River and probably also in other parts of the Cape Flats. What he needs to do now is to engage with community leaders and other interested parties from throughout the Cape Flats and talk to them what can be done to eradicate, and at the very least reduce, the violence that is paralysing many of these communities.

Crime on the Cape Flats will only be eradicated if everyone works together – the police, communities, civil society organisations, churches, business people and others. We owe it to our children, and the generations to come, to make sure our townships are no longer places of fear.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 3 June 2017)

If you have money, you can do whatever you want

The Spur scuffle, lack of black representation on the JSE, land restitution and water restrictions: There is an economic threat that runs through all these incidents, writes Ryland Fisher.

Cape Town – One of the things that always surprises me about South Africans is how astonished or outraged we are by something we should have expected as a natural response to something that happened previously.

For instance, did we really think that the apparently racist and sexist incident in a Spur franchise in Johannesburg, where a white man insulted and verbally assaulted a black woman, would have no repercussions? The incident apparently began after what looked like a scuffle between children in the restaurant’s play area. The man, from Orkney in the North West, was subsequently banned from Spur restaurants countrywide.

Since then there has been something of a right-wing backlash against Spur’s response and the punishment meted out to the offending patron. It seems some white people have been boycotting Spur in droves, impacting seriously on the franchise restaurant group’s profitability – at least in branches that used to be supported mainly by a certain demographic.

I don’t begrudge anyone the right to decide where they want to buy their steaks, but incidents like these make me realise how much wealth is still concentrated in the wrong hands in South Africa.

I thought about this saga this week when I read articles about the lack of black representation on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, the Department of Labour’s struggle to get companies to comply with employment equity regulations, continuing battles about land restitution and water restrictions in the Western Cape.

All of these things are related, although this might not be initially obvious.

There is an economic threat that runs through them all. This means that people with money will not hesitate to use it to get their way.

It’s amazing how many white people will oppose anything that could potentially impact on their pockets without thinking about how the money ended up in their pockets in the first place.

Most white people still benefit from laws and procedures put in place during apartheid and colonialism and they will continue to benefit for the foreseeable future, unless something drastic is done to redress this situation.

The other day I was reading a story about a supposed whizz kid who bought, renovated and sold his first property when he was 21 years old.

I thought that he was definitely not from my old neighbourhood because, where I come from, nobody has money to buy property at that young age, and often not even at an older age.

Yes, he was able to go on to build a successful business, but he would not have been able to do this without the help he received at the beginning, help that in most cases is not available for people of a different demographic.

Companies on the JSE will continue to conduct business in the same way as they have always done, because they have enough money to pay fines if they do not comply. In the same way, companies that do not comply with employment equity legislation will just buy their way out of trouble.

Because they can.

Many white people who own large tracts of land will not want to give up any of that land and are not even concerned about how they became the land owners in the first place. They will use their economic muscle to prevent giving up land for as long as they can.

The same principle applies to many other areas of society. For instance, there are people who do not mind how many traffic fines they receive and they do not change their driving behaviour because of fines. In fact, they just pay and move on. Because they can.

The Western Cape is facing one of its biggest crises at the moment – lack of water. There are many people who probably do not even think about the implications of fines for using excessive amounts of water. They will just pay the fines and continue to waste water. Because they can.

Granted, not only white people have money in South Africa. Thanks to black economic empowerment and the relationships that some previously-disadvantaged black people have developed with previously and currently advantaged benefactors, there are quite a few black people who now fit in the middle class, with some even fitting into the upper class.

One of the things many of the nouveau rich will probably have learnt by now is that, while money can’t buy you happiness or love (if you have to believe the Beatles), it can probably buy you just about anything else.

It is untenable for South Africa to continue on the current trajectory where poverty, unemployment and inequality are meant to live side by side with so much blatant wealth in the hands of a few. We will never be able to have a truly free South Africa as long as this situation is allowed to continue.

The wealth in our country needs to be distributed more equally, and not only to the elite, whether they are black or white. This is not radical economic transformation or whatever the government is calling it today. It is common sense.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 27 May 2017)

It takes more than a hashtag to end violence

While men will never truly be able to understand the struggles of women, we can play a role in stopping gender violence, writes Ryland Fisher.

Women have always played a major role in my life. Being the youngest of five children, I was close to my mother and interacted mainly with my two sisters because of the age gap between my brothers and me.

For most of my adult life, I have lived with my wife and three daughters. At some point, I even had four female cats. But I digress.

In many ways, these experiences have sensitised me to women’s issues, but I can never ever claim to be able to understand what women are going through in our society.

The recent reported spate of violent, if not brutal, incidents against women occupied much of my thoughts this week.

I’ve used the word “reported” because I believe that women throughout South Africa suffer violent abuse on a daily basis but most of these incidents are never reported in the media.

It often takes something outrageous - like the horrendous killing of a beautiful young woman, allegedly by her boyfriend - to grab the attention of the media.

I keep on asking myself: What is wrong with our society that we allow acts such as these to happen? And, what can we - men and women - do to stop this?

“What is wrong with us” is probably easier to answer than “What can we do about it”.

It is easy to blame apartheid for much of what remains wrong with our society today, and there are people who roll their eyes when one does that. “How can you still talk about apartheid 23 years after we have become a democracy?” they ask.

But apartheid is still very much with us, and not only in the dormitory townships that will take generations to undo, or the huge number of skilled and unskilled people unable to find work, often because they happen to be the wrong skin colour.

The most damaging thing apartheid did to our society was to dehumanise most of our people. It is easy to discriminate against people if you consider them less than human. So, when police went into townships and beat up protesters, they could do this without feeling anything for the people they were beating up. In their minds, they were not beating up people, because only whites qualified to be people.

When security police had a braai after burning the body of an anti-apartheid activist, they could do so without feeling any irony because, in their minds, they considered the anti-apartheid activist to have been less than human.

And when these same policemen went home at night, dined with their families, read their children bedtime stories and kissed them goodnight, they did not think about the impact of what they did during the day because they only “took care” of sub-humans.

Throughout society we create pyramids or ladders, in which we attach more importance to some people than to others; and how much respect we accord you depends on where you find yourself on this pyramid. In many cases, women are at the bottom end. Women are meant to respect men, but men are not necessarily expected to respect women.

Unfortunately, there are many people, not only men, who think women are lesser beings than men. Often, this is what they learn through religious teachings. This is probably one of the reasons why some people think it is normal for a man to “put a woman in her place”.

Have you ever seen a women colleague with a black eye, which she claimed happened when she fell against the stairs? Or have you ever heard the noise from a neighbouring flat where clearly a woman is being beaten by her partner, and yet did nothing about it? This is not unusual but it makes you party to abuse.

My advice to my daughters and to other women I know has always been: if he starts abusing you, even if not physically at first, it is time to move on. Don’t ever believe that he will change and things will improve.

It was not a mistake that he hit you and he will probably do it again, and maybe even more severely. Your best defence against abuse is to get out of the relationship and to report the abuse, even if we know the police often do nothing about it.

As a man, I have a duty to be respectful towards everyone around me, especially women.

While I can never assume the right to protect women - that would be condescending in a way - I can help create awareness among other men about the rights of women. I can speak out when I suspect abuse, and report it if necessary, and I can try to show women that there are some men who care.

While men will never truly be able to understand the struggles of women, we can play a role in stopping gender violence - and we do not have to wait for 16 days in December to do so. Now is as good a time as any to start, but it needs to go beyond a hashtag.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 20 May 2017) 

Mother's Day is a time for me to reflect and respect

MY MOTHER passed away more than 30 years ago and it still seems like yesterday when she was around. I don’t need a special day to think about her but, I guess, all the noise that is made around Mother’s Day does assist in making her top of mind at this time of the year.

I was fortunate that for most of my growing up years, I had my mother and father around, expect for a brief period when my parents were separated and my father took my two older brothers with him and my mother took me (the baby) and my two sisters with her.

They lived apart for a few months until we got news one day that we had been successful in getting a rental council house in Hanover Park. This was the first time my family had a home to call our own and it allowed us to be together once again. Later, we were able to buy a house in Mitchells Plain which, I suppose, was a logical development for our family.

Maybe one day I will write more about this period and all the things that went on then but, for now, I want to focus on my mother and what she meant to me.

There are certain perks to being a boy, and the youngest at that, when it comes to mothers. Mothers always seem to have a soft spot for their boys. I still see it with my women friends and their boys. It is like boys can do nothing wrong in the eyes of their mothers.

I saw it many times when I was a young reporter writing about gangsterism on the Cape Flats. I have yet to meet anybody who died in gang violence who was a gangster, at least in the eyes of their mothers. Their sons always remained innocent to them. This is not to say that innocent people do not die in gang violence; too many do.

I remember the jealousy of especially my sisters when we were growing up, because they felt I was being spoiled by my mother, and how they took “revenge” on me when she was not around. I also remember how my brother forced me to fight against other boys in an attempt to “toughen” me up. I suppose he believed that it was not enough to have a tough character, but that you needed to be tough physically as well.

The role of mothers, especially in the rough neighbourhoods of the Cape Flats, are not always acknowledged properly. In most cases they are the glue that keeps families together. They are also the ones who have the most influence on their children.

In an environment where there are thousands of errant fathers, who do not take responsibility for their children, the role of mothers become even more important in guiding their children and influencing their life choices.

A few weeks ago we were at a family wedding in Mitchells Plain and taking pictures in Westridge Gardens, when my sister noticed a young man walking with his son. She said that it was strange to see young men taking responsibility for their children in Mitchells Plain. I had assumed that it would be the norm for young men to do that.

My mother was not educated in the traditional sense. In fact, she worked sometimes as a domestic worker and sometimes in a factory.

But I refuse to call her uneducated because she knew the value of education and tried to instil this knowledge in her children. I suppose, because I was the youngest, it was easier to instil this in me. She encouraged me to read with the result that, when I went to primary school (we did not have the option to go to pre-primary or day-care in those days) I could already read books meant for children in higher grades. My love for reading continues to this day.

My mother also instilled in me the value of tolerance, something that I struggled with at first. Now, as an adult, I see why it is important to be tolerant towards those who are perceived to be different to you.

But the most important lesson that I learned from my mother is to respect women, all women. I saw the way she and other women were struggling to raise their children against incredible odds, and yet they carried on without complaining.

This made me determine to teach my three daughters, who could become mothers themselves someday, not to depend on men for their survival and success. I realised that, if my mother had not struggled like she did and had access to resources that many in my friendship circle take for granted, she might have been able to make a much bigger impact on society and the world.

I am glad that she was able to impact on my world. I hope that I will be able to pay homage to her by making sure that I will continue to promote and share the values that she introduced to me – without even realising it. Those values have served me well and continue to serve me well.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 13 May 2017)

Making a difference is what counts, not skin colour

ONE of my mentors in journalism was Mike Norton. We met while I was volunteering at Grassroots community newspaper in about 1980 and I would later replace him on the fulltime staff.

Mike did not talk much about himself but I learnt that he had worked at one of the papers in Johannesburg and was jailed in the 1970s for refusing to reveal his sources. At that time, journalists could be jailed for six months for refusing to reveal their sources. As far as I could ascertain, Mike was the first or the only person to have been jailed in this way. While we were often threatened with this law, it was hardly ever used.

If you try to Google Mike Norton, you will not find much about him, but he was one of my heroes.

I often wondered how someone like Mike, who worked at one of the big newspapers in Johannesburg, came to work at a small community newspaper like Grassroots. But I did not complain. I learnt a lot from him and, between the two of us, we helped members of political youth groups, who were interested in media, to understand the intricacies of newspaper design and production.

We often worked late into the night at Grassroots. I was employed at a paper called the Cape Herald at the time and remember going to work at the Grassroots office after hours. Quite often, Mike and I would run to Cape Town railway station – and Mike could not run – at around 10pm to catch the last train to Mitchells Plain.

We also worked together on anti-apartheid organisations in Mitchells Plain and, just the other day, I saw a picture in my collection at home of the two of us, with Neville van der Rheede, representing Mitchells Plain at a United Democratic Front general council meeting. It must have been in 1984 or 1985.

I am not sure when Mike died, but I think it was in the late 1980s. One of the things I remember from his funeral in Westridge, Mitchells Plain, was the presence of a few white people who did not look like comrades. They looked just like ordinary white people (if there is something like this). It turned out that they were Mike’s family and that was the first time that I realised Mike was white.

I thought about Mike a few times over the past few weeks. At the end of March, I participated in a debate on race and human rights at Stellenbosch University and one of the panellists spoke about how she, as a white person, felt about issues of race. I thought about Mike, who never identified himself as white or black, but just got on with the business of opposing apartheid.

I felt disappointed that this young woman felt that she had to contextualise her contribution to the debate and to society by virtue of her skin colour.

But I suppose that is just the way things are nowadays. Everything we do is coaxed in racial categorisation. So, when people decide to march against the President, the assumption is that they are white and, because they are white, they must be racist.

I remember feeling uncomfortable a few years ago when Julius Malema (then ANC Youth League president) attacked Jeremy Cronin who had made a huge contribution to the Struggle years before Malema was even a twinkle in his father’s eye. It was clear that Malema felt that, as a black person, he had the right to say whatever he wanted to any white person, irrespective of that person’s credentials.

I thought about Mike again when I saw the stories a week or two ago about the visit to South Africa by Rachel Dolezal, the American white woman who pretended to be black and who now calls herself transracial.

Mike was different to Dolezal because he never pretended to be black. He just never spoke about being black or white. Dolezal purposefully set out to convince people that she was black and even rose high up in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

There are many whites who supported apartheid and who now claim to have never known about apartheid. There are also many whites who hate blacks and take great joy in the government’s failures because it fulfils their prophecy of the ineptitude of blacks in general.

But not all white people fall in either of these categories. There are many white people who, like Mike Norton, just want to make a difference to our society and turn it into the better place that the ANC promised us since we voted for the first time in 1994. There were many such white people who were involved in the Struggle and there are many still today.

We need to get to a point once again where it does not matter what your race is, but whether you are prepared to make a meaningful contribution to uplifting poor people in our society. Frankly, I have met many black people who talk a lot but do nothing. I would prefer a white person who acts over one of these black people any day. I suppose now I am going to be called a racist, but that’s okay. I’m just thinking aloud.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 6 May 2017)

Workers' Day should be about more than just organised workers

ON Monday, May 1, we celebrate International Workers’ Day, our last holiday for at least six weeks - which is a long time considering the slew of holidays we have had in the past few weeks.

I intentionally included the word “international” because South Africans sometimes forget to contextualise our struggle as part of what is happening in the world.

Workers’ Day, also known as May Day in some quarters, began in the US and some other countries in the 1800s when workers demanded an eight-hour working day.

The situation in South Africa was very different then, as we were still grappling with colonialism and the after-effects of slavery at the time, especially in the Cape.

Slavery was abolished only on December 1, 1834.

In the Struggle years, we unofficially celebrated May Day on May 1, when we remembered the contribution of workers and their representative organisations.

It only became a legal public holiday when South Africa became a democracy, although there were some employers who had given their staff the day off since the late 1980s.

Today the situation in South Africa is different, even though it is probably more in tune with what is happening in the rest of the world.

We are very much part of the global village and are afflicted with all the ills that exist elsewhere.

I could not help thinking, as I read about the row over the president’s (non-)attendance at Cosatu’s big May Day celebration, how what constitutes the working class has changed, and wondering whether, as we believed, the organised working class should still be at the apex of our struggle.

Before you accuse me of going soft in the head, I am merely thinking aloud which, I suppose, I am allowed in this column.

The reason for my question relates to the changes in South Africa over the years, where the number of people who qualify to be organised has dwindled significantly.

There are many people nowadays who are not employed. The official figure is around 26%, but it is probably higher.

There have been attempts to organise unemployed workers, but it is difficult because unemployed workers do not have the means to pay membership fees - which is often the lifeblood of representative organisations - but, if they are lucky, unemployment should be a temporary state.

It is easier to organise boilermakers or food workers because they are likely to be in their industries for a long time. If our economy improves, the membership of potential unemployed workers’ unions should decrease significantly.

But then there are also the people who are employed in companies or situations where it is difficult to organise.

Much has been made about the ability of small-to-medium enterprises to create employment.

Most of the people who work in these enterprises never get to belong to unions, either because their companies are too small to be unionised or the workers are too scared to be unionised for fear of losing their jobs.

In a situation where jobs are as scarce as they are in South Africa, many people believe it is more important to hold on to your job than to express working class solidarity by becoming unionised and potentially getting involved in strikes, which could lead to losing your job.

A generous estimate is that about 4million people belong to the various trade union federations and independent unions in South Africa. This means the majority of people who would be considered working class are not unionised and will probably never be unionised, because they fall outside of industries targeted by unions, because they are in companies considered too small to be organised, or because they are unemployed.

When one considers society is much bigger than people who belong to organised formations, whether these are unions or political parties, one should think of ways of gauging their opinions at all times when taking decisions about democracy.

The ANC is right that South Africans have voted them into power nationally, in most provinces and in most municipalities. But that does not mean that only the voices of the ANC’s roughly 700000 membership should matter in the debates going on about our democracy at the moment.

Each of the more than 30million people who are eligible to vote would feel that their voices should be heard in the current debates - irrespective of where they placed their crosses the last time.

How they are treated now might determine where they place their crosses in 2019.

South Africa is about much more than membership of political parties, just like Workers’ Day should be about more than organised workers.

As those of us who are privileged to have regular incomes celebrate our rights tomorrow, we need to also think about the people who do not have this privilege and how we are going to make sure that they have the right to enjoy it in future.

(First publshed as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 29 April 2017)

Freedom stumbles in delivering a better life for all

With all the political and economic upheaval of the past few weeks, it is easy to forget that we are celebrating 23 years of our democracy next Thursday. Officially it is called Freedom Day but we have learned over the past 23 years that “freedom” is a bit of a misnomer. Maybe it should have been called Political Freedom Day, because economic freedom is still far from being a reality for most South Africans.

But Freedom Day – to use its official title – is a good time to reflect on how far we have come as a nation and how far we still have to go.

There is no doubt that South Africa is a better place to live in today than it was under apartheid. You cannot compare a system that oppressed the majority of South Africans – often brutally – with one in which we have the freedom to speak our minds, no matter how disgusting our views might be.

We now have different ways of dealing with what could be construed as offensive views, and not just detention without trial or bannings.

Having been the victim of detention without trial and working at publications that were routinely banned, especially as apartheid were sighing its last gasps, I can bear witness to the fact that it is a much better environment in which to work as a journalist and commentator.

The challenges today are different for journalists – nowadays we are challenged by shrinking staff and juniorisation of newsrooms. In some newsrooms, we are also faced with the rapidly disappearing Chinese wall between editorial and advertising, making it sometimes difficult to ascertain what is news and what has been paid for.

Our Constitution guarantees most human rights and our courts have not been shy to perform their duty to hold those in power to account for their abuses. We also have vibrant civil society organisations, many of whom would have been closed by now already under apartheid.

But while rights are good and necessary, they mean very little to people whose lives have not changed in an economic sense since the days of apartheid.

Most South Africans still live in under-resourced townships where there appears to be a different reality and a different set of rules to that which govern the inner-city areas and the suburbs.

I grew up in some of these townships and most of my family still live in them. For many people in these townships, apartheid might as well never have ended.

They still struggle to find decent work, their schools appear to be sausage-making machines that provide a place where you can send your children for 12 years and hope that they come out with a decent education, which often does not happen.

As a result of the bad foundational education, young people struggle when they go to universities – that is if they are lucky to find bursaries to pay for tertiary education.

But most young people who live in these townships end up going to work after spending some time at school. The reality is that most of those who enter the primary school system do not go on to high school and most of those who enter high school, do not complete matric.

In an economy where growth is slow, and where graduates often struggle to find work, imagine how difficult it must be to find work if you did not even complete your primary or high school education. No wonder in many of these townships, you will find hundreds of able-bodied young men standing on street corners, in between badly-build houses, without any hope of ever finding work.

But there are other realities for people who live in the townships, which are often far away from the city centres or industrial areas which means a dependence on reasonably-priced and efficient public transport.

While middle-class people can always use Uber or Taxify if they have a transport problem, poor people are left at the mercy of a Metrorail system that is mostly inefficient, a taxi industry that can politely be described as volatile and a bus industry not immune to untimely and inconvenient work stoppages.

Imagine the impact of the recent bus strike on people who depend on buses to go home over the long weekend to see their families, who they only see at Easter and/or Christmas.

Radical economic transformation, the term that is being used as a vote-catcher by certain people in the ANC ahead of the elective conference in December, means nothing to people on the Cape Flats whose lives have not changed in the past 23 years.

It will only mean something if people see a significant improvement in their lives and those of their families. We can no longer continue to have these different realities in South Africa. The rich cannot sleep easily while the poor go hungry. It is up to those with resources to find ways of making a difference in poor communities. It should not only be up to government to improve the lives of poor people so that they can also celebrate what the rest of us call freedom.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 22 April 2017)

Zuma's detractors are not necessarily all racists

There is a scenario that often plays itself out in South Africa. A black person who is unable to argue against another person, probably white, decides to use the race card as her defence. There is another scenario that plays itself out around election times, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world, where politicians, in their desire to increase their support base, reverts to group identity in an attempt to turn their supporters against others who might be perceived to be different.

I was thinking about these two scenarios this week, a week in which we saw some significant shifts in power relations in South Africa and the re-emergence of what we used to call “people’s power” in the 1980s when we were trying to bring apartheid to its knees.

Last Friday’s countrywide protests against President Jacob Zuma was dwarfed in Tshwane by the march on Wednesday organised by opposition parties, with especially the Economic Freedom Fighters supporters, in their customary red uniforms, coming out in their thousands.

Zuma’s camp, because that is what government has effectively become in many ways, tried to counter the damage of the biggest protests seen in our democracy, by using the memorial for Chris Hani, the SACP leader who was killed 24 years ago, and a 75th birthday party in Soweto on Wednesday, where Zuma could speak comfortably, without having to fear being interrupted by rowdy protesters.

But his supporters saw nothing wrong with doing some disruption of their own last Sunday when members of the ANC Youth League turned a memorial for the late ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada in Durban into a rowdy affair where speakers who appear to be critical of the President were drowned out. This was despite a court ordering the Youth League not to be disruptive.

But when your principal, the President, continuously ignores court orders and makes spurious remarks about the judiciary, then that almost gives the ANC Youth League and his other supporters the right to ignore the law, or even worse, break it at will.

It is clear to me, as a concerned South African, that the President and his supporters in the ANC have chosen to go down the path of dividing South Africans. Why else would they blame everything on “white monopoly capital” and “white racists”. It is irresponsible for the President to try to create a situation where all white people are perceived as racist.

The President’s men and women seemed to have calculated that, if they consolidate their base of ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal, that would be enough to carry them through the ANC’s elective conference. But winning at the ANC’s elective conference in December does not mean that the ANC will win the general election in 2019.

If the protests of the past week are anything to go by, the ANC should be very afraid of losing their majority in the national government and some provinces come 2019. I don’t know if the ANC is ready to be in opposition, so soon after our supposed liberation.

In a situation like this, the ANC would do well to ask what went wrong and why, and not to strengthen the walls of their bunkers, but to engage with society on ways of getting out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

How did we go from a very strong and credit-worthy economy to junk status? (Yes, I know it is only two out of three ratings agencies, but it is serious enough already.)

How did we get to a point where President Nelson Mandela used to love interacting with the public, especially children and often impromptu, to one where Parliament has to be barricaded because the President is in the House?

One of the most telling things about the President’s expensive birthday celebrations in the middle of Soweto – at Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1995 – was the presence of his security detail on stage and below the stage. It is clear that he feels that he needs protection even when he is surrounded by people who sing his praises.

I am a stupidly loyal person at the best of times and I have constantly given the President the benefit of the doubt, hoping that eventually he will do the right thing. It is clear that he has no intention of doing this.

The sad thing is that he is dragging the ANC, once Africa’s proudest liberation movement, down with him.

It is sad that there are such serious divisions in our society at the moment, but there is also hope. Hope lies in the fact that the citizens of South Africa – and not only whites – are increasingly deciding that they hold their future in their own hands.

Democracy means much more than just voting every couple of years. Democracy means engaging with all the issues in society, and playing an active part in seeking its resolution.

The President needs to listen to and try to understand the anger of the people. If he did, he would probably understand the reasons for him to step down.

I really and sincerely want to support our President, but cannot do so at the moment. If that makes me a racist, then so be it.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 15 April 2017)

Politics is a numbers game to win at the ballot box

Let us think about how we can build our country, irrespective of who holds political power or who is president, says Ryland Fisher.

In the early 1980s, like most people who were politically active, I found myself in a political faction. One day my political faction had a fight with another faction which we won in a resounding manner. A few hours later, a few of us were at the house of someone from the other faction and he told me something I have remembered over the years as I observed the ebb and flow of politics.

Out of respect for him, I will not identify him, but he said: “This is politics. One day you win. The next day you lose. It is about how you recover after a loss.”

I thought about this as I watched the power play between the president and his detractors over the past week and a bit.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country sent President Jacob Zuma a message on Friday: he must go. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Factionalism is of course as old as politics. It is driven by different things and often factions can change, depending on a variety of factors. Factionalism is rarely driven by principle. It is driven by personalities and the pursuit of personal gain.

Years after we were supposedly in different factions in the 1980s, I and others have forgotten about why we differed and we have all become good friends. In some ways, we have realised our opposition to apartheid and the camaraderie we developed during the Struggle were bigger than our perceived differences.

But I digress. Watching the interaction between the president and his opponents has almost been like watching a game of chess. Except this is not a game and the consequences, some of which we have already seen, are significant.

In some ways it is like watching politicians play political games while the country goes up in flames.

Politics, like many other things in life, is about numbers. How many people can I get to support me?

This is why the opposition’s proposed motion of no confidence in the president is doomed to fail. The opposition knows that they cannot depend on ANC members in Parliament to carry such a motion on their behalf. No matter how upset ANC members might be with the president, it will be difficult to bring themselves to support an opposition motion.

Even if they privately agree he should resign, they will rather betray their consciences than the political party to which they owe patronage.

This is one of the weaknesses of our governance system. Our public representatives are beholden to political parties and not to the people they are supposed to serve.

The only way the opposition is going to vote an ANC president out of power is by garnering more votes than the ANC in the elections, but the next one is only scheduled for 2019. Until such time the opposition will have to realise they are in the minority and will have to fashion their strategies around this. They will have to use other tools at their disposal, including the courts and mass mobilisation.

I am not one of those who argue for the removal of the president just because everybody else is doing it. I have previously stated the removal of the president is not going to make a huge difference to ordinary people in South Africa.

The only thing that will make a difference to ordinary people, the majority of whom are poor, is for the ANC, or whoever is in government, to implement pro-poor policies, provide housing and education, create decent jobs and reduce inequality.

I have long ago given up on the notion of blind support for the ANC or any political party. There are good and bad people in all political parties. The challenge is to identify those who are good and work with them in ways that will make a positive difference to society.

I would not bother too much about the bad people in politics because, if you focus on them, you end up not doing anything.

The challenge to the people who have been protesting this week – and I am not saying they should stop protesting – is to think about what next needs to be done to make our country a better place for all who live in it.

It should not just be about replacing one man. But we need to be consistent in our endeavours to create a better society. This is why we need to be outraged and forced into action when joblessness and poverty increases, when gangsters rule our townships, when drugs take over the lives of our young people, when foreign criminal syndicates kill our wildlife, when racists, colonialists and xenophobes spew hatred, when people dispossessed of land struggle to get restitution – I can probably list at least a dozen more reasons for us to be outraged beyond the actions of the president.

Until we spread our outrage, there will always be suspicions about the motives of those who are only outraged at the president but say nothing when society is faced with a myriad other problems.

If you are selective in your outrage, you are no better than the people who support one or other faction. Let us think about how we can build our country, irrespective of who holds political power or who is president.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 April 2017)

Living Kathrada's beliefs will do justice to his legacy

The words used to describe Ahmed Kathrada in tributes say much about the man, but also about the state of South African politics, writes Ryland Fisher.

I did not get to say goodbye to Ahmed Kathrada in the way I wanted this week. While he was being buried at the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg on Wednesday morning, I was facilitating a conference on empowerment and transformation a few kilometres away in a hall named after Oliver Reginald Tambo and in a room named after King Shaka.

While my heart and soul wanted to be among the mourners bidding Kathy a final goodbye, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I was doing the work Kathrada and other leaders like him began many years ago. They fought for the transformation of our society from one where the minority oppressed the majority, to one where the wealth of the country would be shared much more equitably among all who live in our beautiful land.

The discussions at the conference were clear: While there has been progress in the transformation project, there remains much to be done. I was impressed with most of the speakers, making me realise once again that, if we look hard enough, we should be able to find the Ahmed Kathradas of this generation, people who will carry forward the project begun by Kathrada and others like him as long ago as the 1940s (some would argue this began in 1912 when the ANC was formed).

Anti-apartheid activists and close friends, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, chat in Parliament in Cape Town. File picture: Reuters

One of the privileges of journalism, and one journalists often take for granted, is that we get access to interesting and powerful people. I would take interesting over powerful any time. Now and then, but not too often, you get someone who are both interesting and powerful - and Kathrada was one of those people, even though he never acted like he had any power.

The words used to describe Kathrada in tributes at his funeral and messages from around the world say much about the man, but also about the state of South African politics.

Kathrada has been described as “incorruptible”, “humble”, “wise”, “committed to selfless service”, “unhappy with the state of South Africa”, “committed to non-racism”, “a uniting force” and a “stalwart of the Struggle”. Someone at the funeral said that Kathrada would “not stab you in the back” and was opposed to the “parasitic patronage which seeks to corrupt the movement”.

“Movement” is a term often used by ANC members and supporters to describe the organisation, harking back to the days when we used to talk about the liberation movement.

At Kathrada’s funeral - which the president did not attend, but which was attended by former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, who delivered the eulogy, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and a host of cabinet ministers - overt calls were made for the president to step down.

Reading, watching and listening to many of the tributes, I could not help thinking that South Africans, and not only those who attended the funeral, are looking for alternatives to what our society has become.

Would the words used to describe Kathrada be used to describe any of our current leaders? Probably not.

It is probably an indication that the elected political leadership in South Africa have moved away from the project of building a non-racial, non-sexist and more equitable society which is captured in the country’s constitution, and was the rallying cry of the liberation movement in the days when we opposed apartheid.

It is clear that, in the past few years particularly, things have shifted rapidly to a situation where the interests of the majority have been superseded by the material interests of the minority.

The extent of this minority is not known, with some people blaming everything on the president’s relationship with one family.

While I think this relationship is a major problem and needs to be addressed, this is not the only place where things have gone wrong.

Corruption has permeated much of society where it has become common for business people, for instance, to expect to pay bribes in return to receive government contracts.

Whenever I speak to small business people, who are struggling to make a living in an economy that is not where it was five to 10 years ago, they speak about paying bribes as if it is a normal thing to do.

I am glad people at Kathrada’s funeral spoke out about what is wrong in the ANC and in society. This is a good sign that our democracy is still strong. One remains hopeful that this new spirit of defiance and accountability will permeate throughout the ANC and will guide discussions at the elective conference in December. However, I am worried that all the blame is being laid at the door of one man - even though he should probably shoulder much of the blame.

The ANC needs more than new leadership to convince sceptical South Africans that the organisation is worth supporting in 2019. It will need to demonstrate a commitment to root out corruption, through action and not words, and it will need to show that it is prepared to finally deliver on the non-racist, non-sexist and more equitable society that it promised us in the Struggle years.

That is the only way to keep Kathrada’s legacy alive and to pay proper tribute to him and others like him, including Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu , from what now seems a golden generation of leaders.

(First published as aThinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 April 2017)

Well-meaning handouts won't prevent disasters

If we do not find out-of-the box solutions to providing jobs and housing for all, we will continue to have disasters, writes Ryland Fisher.

One of the biggest problems in South Africa is that we have too many people who are dependent on the state or the goodwill of others.

This is one of the results of how our society was structured for more than 350 years, first under colonialism and then under apartheid.

If you design society in a way that the majority of people do not have access to decent jobs, housing, education and other basic human rights, then you will always have a problem, especially when you try to change things in an attempt to make these rights available to all.

I have never been one to blame all the ills of our society on apartheid, and to do this becomes more and more difficult the longer we are a democracy - this year we are celebrating 23 years since we voted in democratic elections for the first time on April 27, 1994.

However, it is difficult not to still see the effects of apartheid and colonialism throughout our country.

The events of this week, where we had major fires destroying parts of a huge informal settlement in Hout Bay and we ran the danger of not being able to pay out social grants at the beginning of next month, should prompt us to ask some questions about the nature of our society and how we can change things for the better.

Having been in the media industry for more than 35 years, I find some level of predictability when major disasters hit Cape Town, or anywhere else in South Africa for that matter.

There is shock that something like this could have happened, even though it probably happens once a year. There is sadness at the loss of life or property. Then there is a huge, and commendable, public effort to help those in need.

The sceptic in me wonders about some people who only do good when disaster strikes others. I can’t help thinking: Do they do good at other times as well, or do they wait for disasters to happen so they can appease their conscience by giving away old clothes and blankets and maybe a few cans of food?

I’m not saying this is not necessary (although new clothes and blankets would probably be more appreciated) but I believe far more is needed.

I am glad that, finally, it appears as if the city, province and national government are seeking permanent solutions to prevent major fires causing as much damage as occurred at Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay. The question remains: Why has it taken so long?

The same question can be asked about the social grants crisis that can potentially cause more harm, and to millions more people, than any fire could.

The Constitutional Court grappled with this question this week and, if the learned judges were pulling out their hair, imagine what mere mortals like us thought about what is going on.

The court has resolved the issue. But this is not enough.

There is a need to look at why so many people need social grants and how we can stop them depending on government handouts.

It is not enough to say that young girls should not fall pregnant, or young men should find work. In an economy that is not growing, it will always be difficult to find work - because it just does not exist.

The only way to increase employment is by growing the economy.

There have previously been calls for an economic Codesa, where some of the most powerful brains in the country can join politicians in finding ways to grow our economy so that everyone can benefit.

The government needs to realise they need the help of people in business and civil society.

Ultimately, whether we live in Bishopscourt or Bishop Lavis, we all want the same thing. We want to have decent jobs, be able to put bread on the tables of our families; we want our children to have the best possible education; we want decent health care, and we want to live in a crime-free environment. In short, we want decent human rights.

As we mark Human Rights Day on Tuesday, we need to think about out-of-the-box ways of achieving this for everyone in South Africa.

If we do not do this, we will continue to have disasters - possibly even bigger ones than what we have experienced - and we will continue having to put plasters on the problems in society.

We do not need plasters any more. We need major surgery. And the government does not have the skills or the willpower to do it. All of us, who care about this country, need to think about ways to contribute in a meaningful way, beyond giving food and blankets.

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

It takes more than slogans to transform a nation

It is difficult to have problems with the campaign against "white monopoly capital" or "the pursuit of radical economic transformation". One of the ways in which we can tackle inequality, poverty and unemployment in society is by addressing the fundamentals, such as who owns what and how they came to own it.

Almost 23 years into democracy, we have not done enough to transform the economy into one that the majority of people can participate in actively and profitably. The lack of ownership of our economy by the majority cannot continue because the more people feel excluded, there is more danger of uncontrollable eruptions.

What I have a problem with is how “white monopoly capital” and “radical economic transformation” have been reduced to slogans without any real content.

I also object to how these terms are used to further divide society, particularly divisions between factions in the ANC and everyone else.

These slogans have become how some people define themselves. These are mainly Johnny-come-lately revolutionaries who do not seem to understand the meaning of the word “revolution”. They use these slogans with abandon and, if you happen to disagree with them, then you are either a supporter of white monopoly capital or against radical economic transformation.

It is almost the same as using the term “racist” to attack mainly white people with whom they disagree. If they fail to come up with superior arguments, they know that they can always accuse their detractors of racism to win the argument.

It is also similar to what is happening in the US, where new President Donald Trump and his supporters have used the term “fake news” to attack anyone in the media who opposes them or exposes their wrongdoings. Once they apply the term to any news item, they hope people will no longer believe the media that broadcast or printed it.

This has the result of people not engaging with the news in an intellectual manner, but rather just rejecting some reports and media houses outright. This is a dangerous situation and might soon see some journalists feeling unsafe to cover certain stories because of their media houses being associated with “fake news”..

But getting back to matters closer to home: white monopoly capital and radical economic transformation.

What we need in South Africa is a robust engagement with these terms. We need to ask ourselves what they mean and what we need to do to ensure they belong in the past. How do we deal with what is perceived to be white monopoly capital? How do we spread the economic wealth in a more equitable manner? How do we make sure that we do not just replace “white monopoly capital” with “black monopoly capital”, which, in my humble opinion, is equally bad? And who is part of white monopoly capital? How does one define who is part of this group? If there is such a group, do they have a political agenda or is their only agenda economic, that is to make as much money as possible?

If this group exists - this has not been proven by anyone yet - who should intervene to change this situation and how? Is there a way of engaging with them constructively?

The danger of stigmatising people in this way is that you tend to make people go into their laagers and they refuse to engage with society in a constructive manner.

It is like using the race card against white people, which has the effect that most white people are reluctant to engage in any discussion about race for fear of being labelled.

The discussion about radical economic transformation is probably more important for South Africa. We cannot hope to continue in the way that we have over the past 23 years, and 350 years before then, with the majority continuing to be excluded from the mainstream economy.

How does one change this? What steps need to be taken to make sure that those who have are prepared to share with those who don’t have, and not in a charity-kind of way, but in a meaningful way? How do you convince seriously rich people to give up much of their wealth in order to help transform our economy?

But more importantly, how does one grow the economy so that more people benefit through having jobs and, importantly, more disposable income, which will in turn help to boost the economy.

It is time for those who speak out against white monopoly capital and in favour of radical economic transformation to come up with realistic alternatives and solutions. Otherwise these will remain nothing more than rhetoric, and you can’t feed a nation on slogans.

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

There's a clear line between greed and arrogance

ON MONDAY I accidently watched part of the press conference of Collins Letsoalo, the former acting CEO of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). He had called the press conference to “clarify” certain matters related to his excessive salary which, it is claimed, he had paid to himself without board approval and knowledge.

I switched off the TV after a few minutes because I could no longer bear to watch the arrogance on display. If I closed my eyes, it was almost like listening to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the suspended SABC senior executive who effectively ran the corporation. Motsoeneng, of course, also has issues related to excessive salary increases for which he still has not accounted.

Let me explain. I have nothing against arrogance. I often feel that people who are overly confident can sometimes be misconstrued to be arrogant. But arrogance needs to be backed up by some intelligence and professionalism. In short, if you know what you are talking about or what you are doing, more than others, then you probably deserve to be a little bit arrogant.

But what was clear from Letsoalo’s press conference was that he was effectively trying to spin himself out of a situation where it appeared that he was caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Letsoalo, who reportedly earned R1,3m at the Department of Transport, where he was chief financial officer, demanded the same R5,9m package that was paid to the previous CEO of Prasa, Lucky Montana. This, apparently, was not in the terms of his secondment to Prasa.

Letsoala was, of course, fired by the board within hours of the press conference, and sent back to the Department of Transport, but he resisted, saying that the board did not have the power to fire him. What then is the power of the board, if they are not able to hire and fire CEOs or acting CEOs?

There seems to be a perception among some people that, when they have done something wrong, they should not take responsibility and find someone else to blame. Or they will make certain silly pronouncements in the knowledge that, no matter how provocative their statements, nothing will happen to them.

Surely these people must take their cue from someone higher up and they must feel that they have some protection? Or maybe they are just following the cue of people more prominent than them who have committed similar indiscretions without facing any repercussions?

One can think here of people such as ANC Youth League president Collen Maine, who makes one reckless statement after the other without any real punishment by his mother body, the ANC. In his latest dangerous statement, made in front of President Jacob Zuma last week, he called Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan an “impimpi” and reminded his supporters about what happened to impimpis in the apartheid days. Impimpis or apartheid spies, used to be necklaced, with a tyre thrown around the neck and set on fire.

It is not that the ANC has not acted against reckless people in the past. Former youth league leader Julius Malema found himself out in the cold after actions deemed to be inappropriate by the ANC leadership. Of course, he managed to bounce back outside the ANC and has now become one of the biggest thorns in the side of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

The problem with arrogance is that those guilty of this practice make as if everything is about them and not about the people they are meant to serve.

In Letsoalo’s case, for instance, he was meant to stabilise Prasa after Montana’s departure and he needed to oversee a major overhaul of the country’s rail transport system. He was brought in after Montana stepped down in 2015 after the Public Protector report outlining corruption and mismanagement at the parastatal.

The real victims here are the taxpayers who are meant to pay these exorbitant salaries while they themselves are struggling to make ends meet. The other victims are the people who depend on government and its agencies to deliver services that will make like easier, whether this is transport, broadcasting services or social grants, which is another area where arrogance is bedevilling service delivery.

Letsoalo, Motsoeneng and others need to ask themselves what is means to serve the public, which is what public servants are supposed to do. Public servants are not meant to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor people they are supposed to serve. They are not supposed to treat the money collected from hardworking taxpayers as a private piggy bank that they can just raid whenever they feel like it.

Whether Letsoalo was correct about his pay demands is not the issue. What is the issue is that public servants can be paid such huge amounts in a country with so much poverty and inequality. Prasa is not a private entity. It is effectively part of government infrastructure and there should not be such huge difference in salaries between them and what other public servants earn.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 4 March 2017.)

Achievements should not be reduced to racial issues

One of the things that have always irritated me, even when our democracy was still very young, was the labelling of achievers as “the first …”

It was not unusual to refer to someone as the first black pilot, the first black woman engineer, the first black train driver, or the first white beggar (ok, the last one was just to mess with your mind a bit).

Almost 20 years ago, when I was still with the Cape Times, I used to discourage such descriptions because, instead of celebrating achievements, they tend to cast aspersions on the person who had achieved.

But, I also believed, and still do, that labelling people in this manner, probably says more about the person who is doing the describing than the person who is being described. It indicates to me that you are not able to accept what the other person has achieved and feel the need to reduce his or her achievements to race and, by invoking race, you invoke all the negative stereotypes associated with race.

But you can also create the perception that the person does not deserve his or her achievements and that they would not have had that achievement if it was not for their race.

I argued with my reporters that, if they thought it was necessary to describe the person as “the first black”, it needs to add value to the story and it should not be the first thing that is mentioned about this person.

I have always been nervous about racial descriptions of any kind in the media. For instance, I used to agonise every time we referred to a wanted criminal by his or her race, because if your main descriptor is that the wanted person is “a black man”, then you could effectively be pointing a finger at every black man in South Africa.

It is not a good descriptor and as journalists, I argued, we should rather find better ways to describe people. I’m not saying that race should not be used as a descriptor, but it should never be the main or overriding descriptor.

Imagine my surprise this week when I read a story about the appointment of Springbok player Siya Kolisi as the new captain of the Stormers, the Western Cape based rugby team. In the headline and the opening paragraphs, Kolisi was described as “the first black African captain” of the Stormers.

I could imagine all the people who think that blacks should not play rugby – and there are still many of them around – thinking that this was the beginning of the end of the world. Then there will also be the people who will hope that he does not fail because, if he does, they might never appoint a “black African” captain again.

I remember when I became editor of the Cape Times when I was in my mid-30s, the newspaper articles all mentioned the fact that I was “young”. By using that word to describe me, they tried to conjure up all the negatives that some people would normally associated with being young, such as being reckless, impetuous and immature.

I realised that a year or two before that, a white person who was younger than me had also been appointed to edit another paper and none of the articles referred to him as “young”. Instead, they called him a “whiz kid”.

The same reporters who happily write about the “first blacks” don’t ever write the race of someone who has achieved if that person happens to be white. It is almost an unwritten rule that white people are expected to achieve these things while for black people it must be an exception.

For how long must we tolerated stories about “the first”? And how deep will these divisive descriptions still go? “The first black”, “the first coloured”, “the first Indian”, “the first Xhosa”, “the first Muslim”, “the first gay”, “the first disabled person”? I must admit I have yet to read stories about “the first Christian”, “the first straight person” or “the first able-bodied person” to achieve something. Maybe they are considered to be the norm and everything else, well, abnormal.

I have no false illusions about how deeply entrenched race, racism and other prejudices still are in our society. We struggle not to see people in race terms because it sometimes helps us to determine how we should react to certain people or what we should expect from them.

All I am asking is for us to think twice, maybe even thrice, before we decide to apply racial labels to anyone. It might not be your intention to cause harm, but they harm that you cause could run quite deeply.

Even if Kolisi does not mind being referred to as “the first black African Stormers captain”, I am sure he would prefer to be known as the Stormers captain and a very good rugby player, which is what he is.

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

There's only one race, the human race, Ms Marais

There is an old saying, used often in Islamic circles, that the intention is as good as the deed. Of course, this is not always true because deeds often differ from stated intentions.

Take the case of Paula Marais, who claims she set out to produce a book “intended to encourage interactions between cultures”. Instead, what she produced has been widely criticised for being racist, insensitive and full of stereotypes.

The book Marais published, Rainbow Nation Navigation: A Practical Guide to South African Cultures, looks at supposedly different cultures in South Africa. One of her offensive chapters lists a few examples of things “coloured” people are supposed to do, such as women worrying about whether their hair would “mince”.

Marais was quoted this week as saying: “It is a true tragedy that the intention of the book has been lost. My brother came down from travelling through Africa and felt inspired to try to get to know his fellow countrymen. I did too. We both had, or were expecting, children and we wanted them to grow up in a more tolerant country.”

I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, although it is really difficult to see her book as anything other than a botched economic opportunity.

Similar but different sentiments guided me when I launched the “One City, Many Cultures” project at the Cape Times in 1999, except I would never refer to Africa as if it is on some other continent. We need to refer to it as “our continent”. This, I have learnt over the years, is a mistake South Africans, and particularly Capetonians, tend to make.

The difference between what we did at the Cape Times and what Marais did in her book lies in the execution. But execution is informed by a worldview and if your worldview is based on ignorance, then you are bound to make mistakes, especially when it comes to unpacking different religions, races and cultures.

This is a very complex area of study and not something that can be entered without a great deal of sensitivity.

Readers with long memories will remember “One City, Many Cultures” attempted to debunk the myth that we are all so different.

We showed through our almost daily articles that, while we think we are different, we have far more in common. This was driven by a belief that we are, after all, human beings and part of one human race; race is a construct meant to divide us and culture is also often used as a way to justify keeping people apart.

Every week, we looked at how we related to what I call the important things in life, but which are never really reflected in the mainstream media, such as birth, growing up, teenage years, becoming adults, how we look after our elderly, and death and remembrance.

I will never forget bumping into the person who was writing about death and remembrance. He told me that he had just returned from a Jewish funeral and how remarkably similar it had been to a Muslim funeral he attended the previous week. This was precisely the impact that I, as editor, and everyone else at the Cape Times wanted to create.

In short, we wanted to unite people, rather than divide them, and we used the method of investigating what we have in common. We are all born, grow up, become teenagers and adults, grow old (if we are lucky to live long enough) and eventually die. And all of us, irrespective of our cultures, religions or supposed race groups, mark these life events in some way, often in similar ways.

Marais, on the other hand, seems to have gone out of her way to explore the differences between what she perceives to be cultures and this approach was always going to be a problem.

When you do what she did, you end up “otherising” people (if there is such a word). You end up creating or reinforcing perceptions of differences between people which is often used as an excuse to create mistrust among people.

This is one of the problems I have with anthropology. It seems as though anthropologists go out of their way to find differences between groups of people, and sometimes those differences don’t exist.

Apartheid was premised on the fact that blacks and whites look different and that they were not supposed to mix, and we saw the damage this caused.

Donald Trump’s attempts to keep immigrants out of the US are based on the same premise, and we can see the damage it is causing.

It appears there is a thin line between wanting to do good and what could be perceived as racism or other forms of discrimination. Let’s hope that Marais and others like her learn from this experience and do not make the same mistake in future. Hopefully then, their deeds will reflect their intentions.

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