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Don’t judge by racial identity

I was thinking of white privilege a lot this week, especially after seeing Jervis Pennington’s intriguing one-person play, An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life, at the Alexander Bar and Theatre, my favourite small theatre venue in Cape Town.

For those who can remember back to the early 1980s, Pennington was the frontman for a boy band called The Soft Shoes, who won a competition called Follow That Star, an earlier version of Idols.

They sold quite a few records but disappeared completely after a few years of popularity. Pennington subsequently did some other things in the entertainment industry but later found himself destitute and living on the streets of Cape Town.

The play should have had a bigger audience and here’s hoping that a bigger venue will give him an opportunity to tell his amusing stories and sing his specially-written songs about love and societal problems.

As someone who grew up poor on the Cape Flats, I could relate to many of the things he shared about growing up as a poor white in Johannesburg, especially having the same stuff on your school sandwiches day after day - when you were lucky to have sandwiches.

He grew up during the years of apartheid, but clearly, he did not take much advantage of his “white privilege” in those days. Please don’t get me wrong: white privilege is a reality and many whites, including those who were poor, benefited and took advantage of it.

But there were probably a few whose lives were so terrible that they did not even realise that they were entitled to this privilege. And then there were those who shunned their privilege.

In the apartheid days, we assumed that blacks were the good guys, because of apartheid oppression and exploitation. We assumed that whites were the bad guys, for the same reasons. But there were more than a handful of whites who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, despite coming from privileged backgrounds.

Many years ago, when I was head of the journalism department at Peninsula Technikon, a leader of the SRC came to see me about enrolling a young woman into our programme. I explained to him that there was a very lengthy application process, including an interview after shortlisting, which she clearly did not do.

He eventually told me I should accept the young woman as a student - I have no idea what their relationship was - because he did not want to have to accuse me of being racist. Both him and the young woman were African. I asked him to leave my office. Later, my staff said that I was either brave or foolish to act so harshly against an SRC leader.

What I saw, however, was not a leader, but someone who was using his race to get others to bend rules for people like the young woman who did not even bother to apply to study in the department, but who would then insist on being accepted.

I was not going to allow myself to be bullied by a racist. We need to guard against treating everyone in the same way, based on their race. And this applies to blacks as well as whites.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 2 March 2019)

We should have gone for counselling after we became a democracy

On Tuesday night, I co-facilitated an interactive dialogue discussion at the District Six Homecoming Centre. A couple of things made it interesting.

The topic was “The South Africa we all want to live in” and it took the form of what I can only call an “inverted panel discussion”. We invited panellists, but they did not sit upfront. They sat in the audience and were allowed to respond only after we had heard a significant number of contributions from the floor.

In this way, we ensured that people who attended could set the agenda for the discussion without having to listen to a panel of speakers and then have only a few minutes at the end for questions and comments.

What was really interesting was that the event - organised by the Community Chest of the Western Cape, District Six Museum and the One City, Many Cultures Project - attracted more than 100 people without advertising the names of speakers.

My experience, until now, is that many people decide to attend certain events based on who is speaking.

The fact that so many people came to this discussion is probably an indication that ordinary South Africans want spaces free from political-party interference where they can talk about the problems facing our country and help to search for solutions.

If anything, Tuesday night’s discussion showed me that there is still a lot of hurt in our society and some of this hurt stretches back to the days of apartheid.

Issues raised including the “forgotten” people of the Western Cape, those who live on the Cape Flats or are homeless; the lack of restitution for the people who were forcibly removed from District Six, some of them 50 years ago; the need for the repatriation of human remains of our ancestors from foreign countries; gangsterism on the Cape Flats; food security; land; racism and violence, including the slapping of people in Parliament and schools; and the responsibility of the rich towards poor people.

The overall tone of the evening was not to complain, but rather to look for solutions to our many problems.

One of the invited respondents was Gabeba Gaidien, an impressive young woman who has been working in Manenberg and who spoke about how trauma was passed on from one generation to another in South Africa. One way of dealing with trauma was through education, she said.

I have always felt that, in South Africa, we moved too quickly from a situation of serious oppression to one of ubuntu and rainbow nationism. We never dealt with the trauma most of us suffered under apartheid but tried to forget it in the interest of building a new nation. All of us should probably have gone for counselling after we became a democracy.

Stanley Henkeman, the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, another of the invited respondents, summed up the evening by saying that there was a need for a new narrative in South Africa, but no one could write that narrative on their own.

The government needed to work with civil society and others in order to get to that narrative, he said.

One of the most poignant moments of the evening came towards the end when Pamela Court, whom I have known for many years, spoke about white privilege and how she still struggles with it, despite trying to live with a non-racialism credo for more than 30 years.

What this dialogue - and there will be a few more all over the Western Cape in the next two months - showed is that South Africans are prepared to talk to each other to look for solutions. As we head into the elections, political parties will try to exploit the divisions in our society.

I have hope that we have enough people who are prepared to rise above those divisions to work together for the South Africa we all want to live in.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 23 February 2019)

Eskom renders people powerless in the darkness that they subject SA to

Before I sat down to write this column, I had to check the load shedding schedule. I had to make sure there was enough time before the next Eskom-inspired electricity blackout for me to write and whether we would still be connected to Wi-fi by the time I would be ready to email it.

They say a week is a long time in politics. In South Africa, it becomes even longer if one has to deal with what is euphemistically called “rolling blackouts” or “stage four load shedding”. It should rather be called what it is: a complete and utter mess-up (I can’t believe that I can be so polite despite my anger).

Like most South Africans, I had to quickly adjust to load shedding terminology this week. I had to find out whether we would be without electricity only once a day or, in the case of stage four, three times a day. I had to download an app with load-shedding schedules.

It is difficult to plan around Eskom time, as opposed to African time, because quite often they don’t stick to their own schedules. The other night, they said we would get load shedding at 6.30pm, but it started at 6.10pm. But they also once said that we would get load shedding in the morning, and nothing happened.

I know there are many South Africans who live in informal housing and do not have access to electricity. But electricity, like water, is a basic human right in modern society and one which has become an integral part of our lives.

Having to schedule our lives around the availability of electricity is not easy, and it creates great discomfort in many households. You have to check that all your emergency devices are fully charged, that your gas tanks are loaded, that you have enough power on your laptop, and that you have enough candles.

You have to put hot water in a flask so that you can make a cup of tea or coffee when the lights are out. You have to make sure that you cook while there is still electricity and that you cook something that can be eaten cold because you might not be able to warm it up at supper time.

People whose businesses need to run without interruption have had to buy generators to make sure that they do not lose productivity or profits.

I am fortunate because I possess the means to travel from an area without electricity to one without load shedding. So, if we have to, we can just go and have dinner or to see a show in an area which is not affected, according to the load-shedding schedule.

Most people do not have this luxury and just have to deal with their circumstances.

About 10 years ago, I was working with a Ghanaian media company and was based in the capital, Accra. Part of my deal was a house with a water tank and a generator, which I found quite funny at the time. It looks like we are heading that way in South Africa, unless we can stop the damage that has already been done to Eskom.

There have been all kinds of speculation about the latest bout of load shedding, coming as it does a few days after President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a reasonable and workman-like, if not mind-blowing, State of the Nation speech in which he announced that elections will held on May 8 this year.

I would love to buy into the conspiracy theories about possible sabotage but I think it is probably more simple and sadder than that. Eskom is messed up, it is bloated, inefficient and lacks leadership. And that is probably more dangerous than any conspiracy.

Phew! I made it. I have a few more minutes to email my column before the lights go out once again.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 16 February 2019)

This Valentine's Day, mute your scepticism and celebrate all the loved ones in your life

On Thursday millions of people around the world will be clamouring to buy roses and make dinner reservations so that they can entertain someone special in their lives. It is, of course, Valentine’s Day, known as the day of love in many countries.

Irrespective of its origins, dating back many centuries, Valentine’s Day has become popular with people who are looking for love or who believe they have found love.

When we were young people growing up in the Struggle, we were sceptical about days like Valentine’s Day, seeing it only as a commercial opportunity introduced by the capitalists to exploit the vulnerable working class even more. The scepticism is still there, but it is muted somewhat. We all know that it is more about making money for people who sell roses, chocolates and other stuff associated with love, but we don’t mind playing along, within reason.

I almost always buy flowers for my wife on Valentine’s Day, but it might not be roses, because who decided that the best way to show your love is by buying roses? There is a demand for roses on this day which, of course, means that people who sell roses can increase their prices and make a lot of money in the process.

Most Valentine’s Days are filled with sadness for me, because I inevitably think about people who are no longer with us, people who might have played a role, directly or indirectly, in my life over the years. One such person is Vernie Petersen, the former national commissioner of prisons and director-general of sport who, it was revealed at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry in State Capture recently, resisted many attempts to corrupt him while he was the head of prisons.

It was through Vernie that I met the love of my life, my wife, who has been my life partner for almost 35 years. I was organising young people in Tafelsig, Mitchells Plain, and Vernie, who was from Westridge, came around to check up how we were doing one Thursday night. In his brown VW Beetle were a few members of the youth group in Westridge. I only had eyes for one of them and she later became my wife.

This Valentine’s Day, I will be thinking especially about Vernie’s loved ones who were deprived of him way too soon.

It was difficult during the Struggle years. As activists, we were taught to be sceptical about everything, including love. It was not easy to admit to anyone that you had fallen in love. The many commitments we had, meetings almost every night after work, meant that love life often had to take a distant second place in terms of importance.

Over the years I have realised that love can be overrated but developing a good partnership with the person you have chosen to spend your life with, can never be. You need to learn to laugh together and not only love together.

Love can take different forms. There is the love that I felt for my mother who was the disciplinarian in our family, but I understood it because she had to raise five children, mostly with minimal support from my father, under very difficult circumstances.

Then there is the love that I felt for my three daughters from the minute I witnessed each of their births. This love, like the one that ends up in marriage, has to survive through thick and thin, through sickness and health, etc.

More recently, I have discovered another kind of love, for my grandson, who, in the space of eight short months, has stolen the hearts of everyone in our family. He has become the centre of our universe and we follow every step in his development with great interest.

It is good to love and be loved. You don’t need a special day for this and you should not have to prove it with roses, chocolates or special dinners. That does not mean you should not spoil your loved ones from time to time and not only on Valentine’s Day.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 9 February 2019)

Agrizzi should be held accountable for his racism

Apart from corruption - which would be obvious at a commission of inquiry into state capture - two of the remarkable themes to come from the marathon testimony of Angelo Agrizzi to the Zondo Commission this week and last week dealt with racism and the role of journalists.

There are some people who argue that, because Agrizzi is a confessed racist, his testimony should be taken with a pinch of salt or dismissed outright.

But just because he is racist, he should not forfeit his right to take the nation into his confidence about the many instances of corruption he witnessed at Bosasa, the company he served as chief operations officer not too long ago.

There are even people who argue that Agrizzi’s testimony at the Zondo Commission was driven by his hatred of black people, because he wanted to show how corrupt black political leaders were.

But what Agrizzi’s testimony showed is that it is not only black people who are corrupt. And it is not only politicians who are corrupt. As is the case in any corrupt relationship, the corruption involving Bosasa had the corrupted (in most cases politicians and public servants, black and white) and the corrupters (the mainly white bosses of Bosasa).

My feeling is that Agrizzi should be made to pay for his racism in the same way as people such as Penny Sparrow have been made to pay. He should be taken to court and held accountable. In the same way, he should account for the role he played in promoting a culture of corruption within government and the public service.

Those whom he mentioned as having benefited from the corruption, as well as those who aided and abetted the corruption, should also face criminal charges.

While it is relatively easy to deal with Agrizzi’s confessed racism, it is more difficult to deal with his claims that the company paid journalists for information and to write sympathetically about the company.

It is a pity that he claimed not to be able to remember the names of journalists who had been paid in this way.

Pinky Khoabane is not a journalist. At most, she is someone with an opinion. And Stephen Laufer stopped being a journalist many years ago. He is now a spin-doctor and has been for many years. And there are many journalists in the Eastern Cape who could go by the name of “Bongs”.

I am a strong believer in people having to account for things that they did wrong, but it is difficult for anyone to take any action with regard to the supposed journalists named by Agrizzi.

Journalists who accept money in return for writing positive stories on companies or individuals only serve to put more pressure on an industry that is already struggling with credibility issues.

But it is important to remember that, while the allegations of journalists being paid by Bosasa is probably true, it is highly likely that it is only a small group of journalists who allowed themselves to be manipulated in this manner. Most journalists I know are committed to their craft and do their work diligently despite and not because of the money they are being paid by their employers.

While Agrizzi’s testimony should not be dismissed completely because of his racism, one should also not believe every word he said. He should be subjected to proper court procedures where his motives could be exposed and the truth of his statements could be fully tested.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 2 February 2019)

People age, memories fade but their contributions to society never should

I was young once, not too long ago. Now I’m attending 60-, 70- and 80-year-old birthday parties and don’t feel out of place. And I have suddenly realised that it will be my turn to celebrate my 60th in about 18 months.

Where has the time gone?

Last Sunday, we celebrated the 70th birthday of veteran (that’s such an old-sounding word) entertainer Terry Fortune. It is strange to compare the energy of someone like Fortune with what we experienced from 70-year-olds when we were growing up.

Tomorrow an old friend and comrade, Marcus Solomon, turns 80. Both Solomon and Fortune defy stereotypes of old people.

Solomon has always been, in the eyes of us young Mitchells Plain activists in the 1980s, someone who came close to being the complete activist. He spent 10 years on Robben Island after being convicted as a 24-year-old of “conspiracy to overthrow the state”.

Solomon and his then-wife, Theresa, were one of the most influential activist couples in Mitchells Plain and initiated several progressive community projects in Woodlands, where they lived, and in other areas.

One of the projects they started was an alternative crèche where activists could comfortably send their children. For the past 36 years Solomon has been working with the Children’s Resource Centre and has decided that, instead of having a party to celebrate his 80th birthday, he would rather use the occasion to raise much-needed funds for the CRC.

“I am appealing to you to make a once-off or a regular monetary donation to the organisation. You are also free to make any form of support you think will benefit it. The work the organisation has done over the years is still very much needed and your support can help us continue it,” he wrote in an email to people in his network.

The selflessness of people such as Marcus Solomon contrasts starkly with what we have come to expect from people who are supposed to be in political leadership positions today.

I saw another one of Solomon’s contemporaries this week at an event at the District Six Homecoming Centre. Willie Simmers has been working at the Mitchells Plain Advice Office for almost 40 years and, at the age of 78, he still takes the train from Crawford station to Mitchells Plain most days to serve the community. Sometimes they get paid, most times they don’t.

A few years ago, we arranged a surprise 70th birthday party for Simmers because we felt it was important to honour his contribution. I was looking at the documents of the event this week and saw that one of the people who donated funds was Vernie Petersen, another former Mitchells Plain activist whose name came up at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry this week, but in a positive way.

Petersen, as the national commissioner of prisons in 2007, had resisted all attempts at corruption by Bosasa, whose former chief operating officer Angelo Agrizzi has been revealing details at the commission of politicians they bribed. Many friends and family members of Petersen believe his death, at a relatively young age in February 2011, could be blamed on the pressure he was put under by Bosasa and complicit political figures.

I remember after Albert Fritz left the ANC to join the DA in 2008. He told me that his decision was based mainly on the way Petersen had been treated by people who were supposed to be his comrades. Fritz, who grew up with me in Hanover Park, had been in the office of the inspecting judge for prisons. I did not support his decision, but I understood.

It is important to remember the contribution of people like Solomon, Simmers, Petersen and many others. Fortune contributed towards the entertainment field, destroying racist and gender stereotypes at a difficult time. It is one thing to get old. It is another when people forget your history and contribution to society.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 26 January 2019)

Criminals need to be held acountable for their deeds

How many times have we been victims of crime?

This is not a strange question to ask in a violent country such as South Africa where many, if not most, people have been victims of crime, many in their own homes.

I thought about this after we were woken on Sunday morning with the news that my brother-in-law’s house in Mitchells Plain had been broken into and he had been shot in a scuffle with the intruder.

He is fine now, having been discharged from hospital after spending a few days in the trauma unit surrounded by others who had also suffered gunshot or knife wounds, mainly in gang fights.

Two days before that, the house in which my parents-in-law live, also in Mitchells Plain, was burgled while everyone was in the house.

Fortunately, no one was injured, but my young niece will probably be traumatised for a long time after being threatened by the intruder, who escaped with a few small items.

My sisters, who also live in the area, have had their fair share of crime, from my nephew being shot dead in gang crossfire many years ago, to another nephew being stabbed through the lung by gangsters while he was in a taxi at Mitchells Plain Town Centre a few months ago.

We experienced our first burglary while we lived in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain, more than 30 years ago.

Fortunately, we were not at home, but I still remember vividly how violated I felt when we came home and realised someone had been inside our house, scratched through all our stuff and took whatever he could carry, which included our small black-and-white television and my camera kit, which included a camera, a couple of lenses and a flash.

He also took my daughter’s favourite blanket, which he probably used to wrap his loot in. My wife and I were most devastated by the loss of the blanket, which was an important companion to my then one-year-old daughter.

But we have also been burgled in Rondebosch, where we have lived for more than 20 years. This time, my three teenage daughters were alone at home and were confronted by young men who took our big screen television, some jewellery and a range of other stuff. I was more concerned about my daughters’ well-being than about the stuff we lost.

You can easily replace material possessions; it is a bit more difficult to replace a person or heal someone who has gone through a traumatic experience.

The Rondebosch burglary was the culmination of a series of incidents at our house, including the theft of my daughters’ bicycles and my golf equipment (which might have been a blessing in disguise because I have always been a lousy golfer).

But now we had to beef up security, install an electric fence and get a dog. All the time I thought to myself: why must we be held to ransom by unscrupulous thieves? Why must we sacrifice our free-living lifestyle like this, to make sure we are able to keep out people who want to steal from us or, worse, hurt us?

Of course, in all the incidents of crime we have experienced, no one has been arrested. And this is probably what explains the situation the best.

One of the reasons for the high crime rate in South Africa - poverty and inequality aside - is the fact that criminals know they can get away with their crimes for various reasons: an overstretched police force, an inefficient justice system, plus, of course, the knowledge that you can possibly bribe yourself out of trouble.

Criminals need to know that, if they commit a crime, they will be caught; if they are caught, they will be convicted; if they are convicted, they will serve all their time in prison. They need to be held accountable for their deeds.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 19 January 2019)

Quotas are necessary until everyone has opportunities to show their worth

Cape Town - One of the highlights for me about watching cricket at Newlands last Saturday, day 3 of the Test match between South Africa and Pakistan, had nothing to do with what was happening on the field of play.

It involved injured Proteas fast bowler Lungi Ngidi, who was mobbed by young boys, probably between 10 and 12 years old, as he walked past the north stand, where we were sitting. He patiently signed their cricket bats, books and T-shirts, and took selfies with them, while a burly security guard was desperately trying to get him to move on.

I am not sure who the security guard was more concerned about, Ngidi or the boys, because they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I thought about this as I read the articles this week about Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi’s reported comments about transformation.

Replying to a question from a Japanese journalist, Kolisi is reported to have said that Nelson Mandela would not have supported transformation quotas in sport.

Kolisi said that he would not want to be picked for the Springbok team because of his skin colour. “Surely, that would not be good for the team.”

He reportedly said that transformation should start at grass-roots level in township schools.

“Imagine if I did not go to an English school. I wouldn’t have been eating properly, I wouldn’t have grown properly, and I wouldn’t have had the preparation that the other boys did.”

While Kolisi should never have presumed to have an insight into the mind of the late Nelson Mandela, his comments about transformation are important and reflect what black sports people in South Africa have to deal with on a daily basis.

I doubt whether the media would have asked Proteas captain Faf du Plessis, or any other prominent white sportsman, what Mandela thought about transformation quotas.

But often, when many white sports lovers see black players who excel, they only see quota appointees. Black players often have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as their white counterparts.

This is why the scene that played out in front of me, involving Ngidi and the little boys, was so special. Ngidi is black. Most of the boys were white. They were not idolising a quota player. They were idolising a good player, one of South Africa’s cricketers of the year for 2018.

But the reality is that Ngidi and many other talented individuals like him might not have received the opportunities to excel if the cricket bosses had not imposed quotas on the Proteas selectors.

I thought about the Ngidi scene also when I saw the pictures on social media of white and black children being separated at a primary school in Schweizer-Reneke.

The teachers of those children are probably among the people who oppose quotas in sport, but they don’t realise that their actions are perpetuating the need for quotas.

No one can dispute the need to transform South African society - at all levels and in all areas - from one in which whites had access to opportunities denied to blacks. Transforming society requires us to create opportunities for blacks, sometimes to the detriment of whites who are used to having such opportunities.

The denial of opportunities starts when children are young. It starts off with seating children in the same class at different tables.

As we celebrate 25 years of democracy this year, we need to remember that we come from a divided past. It is in the interests of all South Africans for more people in our society to have access to opportunities, whether this is in sport, business or arts and culture.

Those who oppose quotas talk about choosing teams on merit, but before you can do this you must create an environment in which everyone will have opportunities to show their worth. This is the role of quotas, nothing more, nothing less.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 12 January 2019)

New Year's resolution: try to be a better person, at least for a few months

The problem with New Year resolutions is that once they are no longer new, they tend to be forgotten or discarded. Until the next year, that is. This is one of the reasons why I do not really believe in making New Year resolutions.

Over the past week and a bit, it has been interesting to notice the effort some people put into framing their festive messages and New Year resolutions, with some looking like a lot of thought went into it before pen was put to paper, as we used to say in the old days.

Nowadays it is probably more appropriate to say before finger was put to keyboard.

But in the end, most messages and resolutions have to do with the same things: relationships, health (including weight and exercise), financial stability and career enhancement.

Sometimes the resolutions might even include some politics, which is not unusual for an election year, which is what South Africa is having this year.

But the political ones have been mainly boring, with most people expressing their intention to vote for a certain political party and imploring others to do the same.

With regards to relationships, it appears that many people are searching for love, which has proven elusive to many.

My understanding is that Cupid works overtime during festive seasons, but maybe he is shooting the wrong arrows: filled with lust instead of love.

If my social media feed is anything to go by, it appears that more people are single, divorced or widowed and, in many cases happily so.

But one can never underestimate the importance of societal norms which implore us to be in relationships.

Throughout history, if you were not in a relationship, it was as if something was wrong with you. My wish is that people will be happy with themselves, whether they are inside or outside of a relationship.

In fact, even if you are single, you are still in a relationship with yourself and you need to treat yourself with respect.

One of the New Year resolutions that get broken very easily and early has to do with health, particularly with relation to weight loss and exercise.

Gyms are normally packed in January - and maybe into February - but the decline in numbers starts soon after that.

Maybe at the beginning of the year there is a need to get rid of excess weight put on during the festive season, especially if one is confronted daily with pictures of super-slim model-like people who spent the whole year getting their bodies in shape to display them at beaches at the end of the year.

But having a slim body does not necessarily mean having a healthy body, which is much more important. My wish is that people would focus more on their health than on their weight, even though the two can sometimes - but not always - be related.

Financial stability and career enhancement often go hand in hand. Many people think about their future during the festive season and try to find ways in which they can improve their financial situation.

Quite often, the only way to do this is by changing jobs and, in some cases, even careers.

I have always believed that you must do what makes you happy and money will follow.

Maybe I am not the right person to talk: I have never been a millionaire (only in Zimbabwe, where I was a billionaire, but I suppose that does not count).

I have always followed happiness rather than money. Too many people are miserable in their jobs but have no other choice because they depend on their earnings.

If I am forced to have a New Year resolution, it would simply be to try to be a better person. Ultimately, this is what everyone is saying in their messages and resolutions. It is doable, at least for a few months into the year. Compliments of the season to all.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 5 January 2019)

#OccupyCliftonBeach: The more things change...

One of the most abiding memories of my childhood was travelling with my dad past several beaches, each looking more pristine than the next, and then finally stopping at a beach where we could swim. It was never one of the pretty beaches, but my dad made up some story about why we should swim there.

He never told us - my brothers, sisters and me - that we were not allowed to swim at the other beaches because, I suppose, he was trying to protect us against the realities of apartheid.

Or maybe, like so many people at the time, he just found it difficult to explain what apartheid was about.

It was customary for working-class people to go to the beach during the festive season, but for many reasons, mainly economic, most poor people, including my parents, could only go to the beach once or twice during this period.

The popular days were Boxing Day and Tweede Nuwe Jaar.

We ended up at beaches such as Kalk Bay, Soetwater, Mnandi, Strandfontein, Harmony Park, Long Beach in Simon's Town and Maiden’s Cove, Clifton.

Beaches like the rest of Clifton, Gordon’s Bay, the Strand, Camps Bay and others were out of bounds for people like me, who were classified non-white under apartheid.

Non-white: what a disgusting term to describe people, but maybe I will deal with that at a later stage.

Years later, I participated in protests at beaches reserved for whites, insisting that all God’s beaches should be for all God’s children.

Granted, we already saw the dead signals for apartheid, even though the regime fought hard to maintain this vile and inhuman system.

Our beaches - or rather the beaches we were not allowed to frequent - became sites of struggle during that period, leading to the Nationalist Party eventually agreeing to open all beaches to everyone.

I thought about this this week because of the reports of people being told by private security to leave Clifton beach at 8 pm on December 23, apparently on the instructions of the City of Cape Town, which has now denied giving such an instruction.

I felt angry that 24 years into our democracy there are still people trying to implement divisive apartheid tactics in order to keep black and poor people from enjoying the natural beauty of our city.

It is possible that the City did not give an instruction to the private security company.

It is likely that they were acting on behalf of some of the rich people who live in Clifton and who think that they deserve to have privacy on “their” beaches.

They probably do not realise how sensitive we still are about being deprived of using these beaches until apartheid was on its deathbed.

To this day, I still sometimes get angry when I visit Gordon’s Bay or Fish Hoek, two of my favourite beaches, and realise that the first time I could go there legally was when I was already over 30 years old.

I grew up in Cape Town but could not go to some of its beaches until I was already married with two children.

If it is true that residents of Clifton instructed the private security to remove people from the beach at 8pm, then they need to remember that the beaches do not belong to them.

In fact, it is highly possible that the property they are living in used to belong to a so-called coloured family who was forcibly removed from the area under the Group Areas Act.

Sometimes I deal with white people who ask me why I cannot forget about what happened under apartheid.

They would never ask Jewish people to forget what happened during the Holocaust.

But when I hear reports like what reportedly happened this week - blatant racist and economic discrimination - it brings back all the worst memories of apartheid.

We should not allow anyone to go back there, especially not in a divided city such as Cape Town.

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

Not everybody is lucky enough to celebrate Christmas or the festive season

And just like that, it’s Christmas. It didn’t sneak up on us, but literally jumped in the road in front of us and shouted “Surprise”. Maybe it has something to do with age, but it feels like Christmas 2017 was not too long ago.

For the past month and a bit already, the shops in the malls have tried to warm us up to the idea of Christmas and the festive season in general. The strains of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas and Boney M’s Mary’s Boy Child have been playing at full volume in many supermarkets.

In Cape Town, the city that I call home, Christmas has always been more than a Christian religious holiday. It is a day that is celebrated by many people who would not describe themselves as Christians, including many who might not even describe themselves as believers.

The day has always had a unifying role in Cape Town, maybe because Capetonians have always in the main been reasonably tolerant and accepting of people who are perceived to be different from them. The growth of the interfaith movement in Cape Town is evidence that while religion is an important identity marker in Cape Town, it’s important not to use it as a divisive tool, but rather to look at ways it can be used to unite people.

Many, if not most, people on the Cape Flats, where I grew up, have families where relatives practise different faiths, mainly Christianity and Islam. It is not uncommon for brothers and sisters to practise different religions, with some changing faiths because of marriage. Some people change faiths because of conviction, believing that they will find greater salvation in one faith over another. In many families, changing religions is frowned upon, and families have been known to split because of relatives changing religion. But this remains a minority.

One of the most frustrating things for me is when people assume their religion is better than others and they spend most of their time trying to convince everyone that this is so. Contrary to popular belief, people are not born with religion, but are assigned a religion by their parents, and this then gets affirmed by the rest of their family and, later, peers and friends.

For me, Christmas has always been an opportunity to reflect on the things that I value most in life, such as family and friends. Because most people tend to take a break during this period, it becomes easy to arrange family and friend get-togethers. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on the many friends and family members we have lost. But it should also provide an opportunity to reflect on society, and especially the inequality that exists, and appears to be growing, in a country such as South Africa.

In what has become the commercialisation of a celebration meant to mark the birth of Jesus Christ, how many people reflect on the needy in society? More importantly, how many people decide to do something, to make a small difference in the lives of those who don’t have the luxury to spend like crazy, and for whom the season could not be more unfestive?

As some of us sit down with our families over Christmas lunches and dinners, spare a thought for those who might not be so lucky, who might have lost their families, or lost their livelihoods because of the downturn in the economy. Not everybody is lucky enough to celebrate Christmas or the festive season. Those who are able to do so should always bear in mind those who are less fortunate or those who have calculatedly decided not to celebrate for whatever reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’d do well to do so.

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

Put yourself in the media’s shoes before criticising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journalists are guardians of democracy; they must not be intimidated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering the amazing power of HHP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May his soul rest in peace.

Media freedom is an issue for everyone, not just journalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people are saying that an apology is not enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden agenda behind #TrainArson attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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