KADER Asmal did not die a bitter man, but who would have blamed him if he had? His political career in South Africa after his return from exile followed two distinct trajectories. The first encompassed his participation in the drafting of the constitution and his service in the cabinet of Nelson Mandela.
During that time, Asmal helped construct one of the world’s foremost progressive societies, one in which the rule of law held sway, but within a framework of compassionate, humanitarian values aimed at advancing the position of the poorest in society.
During that phase, he enjoyed the unqualified support — and frequent public admiration — of Mandela, who saw in him a fearless proponent of reconciliation.
It helped that Asmal had a wicked sense of humour, for the society that was being constructed was one in which the humanity of the people stood in the foreground, with the machinery of state at their service.
Among his contributions beyond the constitution were the formulation of guidelines prohibiting the sale of arms to countries where they would be used to suppress democracy or wage unjust wars.
And he drove the drafting of rules on the declaration of private assets and the acceptance of gifts by public figures.
The second trajectory began when he found himself sidelined under former president Thabo Mbeki.
He resigned as an MP to avoid having to vote in favour of the disbanding of the Scorpions.
He was to witness growing challenges to his life’s work from within ANC ranks.
The constitution he had helped craft became an object of derision by a rising cohort of populist leaders.
Transparency and openness gave way to opacity as some public officials amassed vast fortunes while still in office.
The sale of arms to whomever became strategically significant swept away the high standard he had set in this terrain, and now South African arms and vehicles can be seen suppressing democratic protests all over the world.
Asmal found himself increasingly on the outside, one of only a handful of voices speaking out against the erosion of the country’s founding democratic values.
Finally he found himself outside the parliament he had helped to bring to life, addressing those protesting against the Protection of Information Bill about the need to fight against this pernicious legislation.
He occupied high office within the government, but that was a means, not an end. When the time came for him to stand with the protestors outside parliament, he did not hesitate to do so.
His was a life of service to the idea of a great South African society. Long may his legacy live.
*This is a draft leader for the Sunday Times
THE results of the local government election suggest that little has changed. The ANC lost a percentage point or two compared with it’s 2009 national election result and it held onto all the major metros it already controlled.
The DA gained, but more at the expense of other opposition parties, taking only marginal votes from the ANC.
But there are many more strands to this election than this superficial reading.
The ANC retained its influence by taking some dramatic steps to improve its image among voters. President Jacob Zuma went on record last weekend saying that he now “understood” why there had been such wide protests over service delivery.
This was a major acknowledgement following as it did on years of denial that was a serious delivery problem.
Zuma also hinted strongly that Sicelo Shiceka, the ineffectual minister charged with local government would go and the ANC dumped mayors who had failed, such as Johannesburg’s Amos Masondo, in favour of new faces.
All of these concessions resulted from the reality that the opposition DA has managed to re-imagine itself as a party which first and foremost cares about the delivery of services.
It was no longer a hollow claim made for propaganda purposes. The DA was able to point to a track record of success in Cape Town. It’s message lost some of its power as it dallied over the enclosure of toilets in Makaza, granting the ANC a desperately needed lifeline.
There can be no question that there will be an urgency in both ANC and DA-led councils to demonstrate probity and measurable delivery. The hot breathe of the opposition on your neck is, ultimately, the surest inspiration to properly represent the people.
The eradication of the smaller parties, including the IFP, Cope and the ACDP, by the DA, places South Africa on the path to a two-party electoral system. This will further focus electoral politics and bring more pressure on parties to meet their fulfil promises or face censure from voters.
The danger which now lurks is that parties might retreat into racial categories, with the DA representing minorities and the ANC representing the black majority. This would be tragic proof of the longevity of the apartheid paradigm.
It would ossify politics, limiting the opposition’s growth and it could push the ruling party increasingly into racial politics to bring out its base.
The rise of populist politicians who are not afraid to play the race card has already begun.
But the politics of delivery might yet prove more powerful than that of racial allegiance. Next time around, will failure be tolerated?
*This is a draft leader for the Sunday Times
THE killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals this week closed an awful chapter in global terrorism that began with the assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York a decade ago.
Bin Laden declared war and the bullets used in Pakistan were fired by soldiers he had declared mortal enemies.
But the shooting of one man, regardless of how powerful a cult-figure he might have been among extremists, will not bring about a lasting solution to the problem of terrorism.
The real solution has been unfolding before our eyes on the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen where a new generation is demanding a free open society in which free expression and democracy are guaranteed.
There is no certainty that this movement will succeed. Repressive regimes such as Syria and Libya are using their military might to crush the protestors, who are literally laying down their lives for their beliefs.
What is at stake is no less than a fundamental political realignment in a region where autocrats of monarchical, republican and religious stripes have kept democracy at bay for centuries.
While it would be wrong to conflate these dictators, inhuman though they are, with the evil that is al- Qaeda, they are responsible for creating an environment in which such extremists are able to thrive and recruit the ill-informed.
South Africans need look no further than their own country for a shining example of how an open, democratic society vanquishes political violence and extremism.
Militant extremism by the right-wing has faded with every passing year of democracy. Other movements, such as those involving underground cells in Cape Town, which attempted to begin campaigns of bombing terror have fizzled.
It is not possible to sustain destructive, underground guerilla operations in a society where the vast majority benefit daily from living in a democracy.
Our society is intolerant of terrorism and despises those who commit it in the name of ideology, religion or fanaticism.
It is not possible for fish with evil intentions to swim in a sea of openness without being noticed, to invert the old guerilla maxim.
What is vital is that the sea of openness not be infused with the murky legislation that is being proposed by government to “protect” the public from certain information.
In an open society secret intelligence reports of dubious intent are quickly exposed and are subject to legal sanction.
We must remain an open society. Our model of democracy ought to be our proudest achievement. More than that, it ought to be our greatest export.
*this is a draft for a leader article in the Sunday Times
IT was the week that the theatre of the absurd played itself out on television screens across the country.
In the dock sat the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema. He was being questioned, goaded and baited by an assortment of angry men with a palpably poor grasp of South African history.
They wished to prove to the court that Malema had intended to incite violence by singing a traditional struggle song including the line “shoot the boer”.
They must have imagined they would have it easy. A few pokes of the stick and Malema would lose it, breathing fire at the judge, the judiciary, the courts and their clients.
They were wrong. There is the Malema of the mass gathering — the populist who knows how to stoke up the fires of anger — and then there is the cunning politician, who calculates, charms and expresses himself with candour and seriousness.
Much to the horror of the counsel for Afriforum — the organisation bringing a charge of hate speech against Malema — it was the charmer who sat in the dock.
Malema would not be goaded. He adopted a sympathetic, slightly patronising attitude as he explained to his interrogators the history and meaning of the ANC’s songs.
As a court case, it sucked. As a reality television show, it gripped the nation.
It might have been given the title: “Can You Keep It In: The show where people you loathe try to get you to lose your cool.”
Beyond the farce of the television experience were more layers of absurdity.
There was the absurdity of someone having to justify the singing of a song before a court of law in a country where freedom supposedly reigned.
There the was the absurdity of Malema and the ANC’s leadership — advocates of statutory controls over the media and the “protection” of government information — now offering po-faced arguments for the unfettered freedom of expression because, they argued, the nation was mature enough to handle it.
What is clear is that somewhere along the path to freedom, this nation has taken a wrong turn.
Julius Malema has made statements that are outrageous and hurtful. He showed poor political judgment by singing the “Shoot the boer” lyrics at a time when there were so many farm killings.
He has been widely criticised for doing so — even by the ANC.
But making the singing of a song a matter of law is a grave mistake. It opens the door for the courts to scrutinise and rule on the acceptability of public utterances.
Today it will be “Shoot the boer”, tomorrow it will be commenting that “the minister is a corrupt, idiotic buffoon”.
In an open society, matters of public taste belong in the court of public opinion.
The developing culture of regulation and litigation will suffocate free expression with ghastly costs in the long term.
We will become a society where what can or cannot be said is decided by who has the most lawyers and the most money. We don’t want to go there.
*this is a draft leader for the Sunday Times
PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s decision to sue the Sunday Times and its cartoonist, Zapiro, over a cartoon, sheds more light on his jaundiced understanding of press freedom. Zuma’s complaint is that the cartoon was “degrading” and left him feeling “humiliated” because it suggested he was about to rape a figure representing Lady Justice and that his image suffered.
The most immediate question is: exactly how did his reputation suffer? After the publication of this cartoon, Zuma went on to become president of South Africa, which suggests that his image was, if anything, rapidly on the rise in the eyes of his political peers and the public.
Whatever revulsion Zuma might have felt at the cartoon, the reading public knew it was a metaphor for how he dodged the day in court on corruption charges he had once ardently wished for, and not an actual depiction of rape.
Only the most determined and humourless political hack would fail to make the distinction between a cartoon metaphor and reality.
In Zuma’s mind — and in those of the ANC’s less enlightened cadres — the press must “respect” the president who, according tothis view, occupies some sort of special status in society, akin to that of an unelected, benign monarch.
Unfortunately for them, we live under a constitution where the president enjoys no such privileges. In our democracy, the president is a servant of the people, and he must be held to account for the performance of government.
Of course, the president can earn respect through his actions, but he can lose this respect just as quickly by failing to live up to the public’s expectations.
One thing is certain: respect cannot be earned by attempting to intimidate a cartoonist into producing flattering drawings through a string of vexatious lawsuits. If anything, the lawsuit degrades and humiliates Zuma, showing just how thin-skinned, humourless and image-conscious he is beneath his devil-may-care exterior.
What Zuma is asking the courts to do is to decide just how cutting satire should be before it is banned from publication.
Would a cartoon depicting Zuma twisting Lady Justice’s arm behind her back be acceptable? Would a slap across the cheek be going too far? Perhaps an image of Zuma and Lady Justice earnestly discussing his corruption case over steaming coffee would make the grade?
Zuma’s thin skin should not be sufficient grounds for threatening the freedom of expression. He has been driving the ruling party’s demands for a media tribunal, openly contradicting other senior party members who have attempted to shelve the idea.
And now, in what will amount to the most ludicrous action by a head of state since P W Botha ruled, he will go to court to whimper about a cartoonist.
Here’s the interview with Jacob Zuma that we carried in the Sunday Times today:
President Jacob Zuma’s presidency is facing major challenges, including the public sector strike and growing dissatisfaction among some of those who helped place him in power. Ray Hartley and S’thembiso Msomi spoke to him at his office in Tuynhuys
RAY HARTLEY: The climate around the strike has been one of heightened rhetoric and there have been some exceptionally strong statements. Are you aware of the statements that Zwelinzima Vavi made about the “predator government” – that we are being run by “corrupt and demagogic political hyenas”?
JACOB ZUMA: The right for workers to strike is very important and we respect that.
The problem is then in the conduct of the striking people. I think that is where the problem arises of strong statements.
In old democracies, there are frequent strikes and it is not a big deal because they are purely industrial strikes. I think it important to accept that ours tend to be political and that is why the statements become very aggressive, very political.
It is an issue that the unions themselves have got to look at because of the changed circumstances from the struggle to now. How do you conduct a strike from that point of view – lest you are looked at as part of the opposition one way or the other?
The other element which I think is very important is: how do the striking workers respect the rights of other sectors or other citizens of the country? Do I as a citizen have no right to go to the hospital and get treatment – because the workers are striking?
Do we, when we strike, have to allow a strike to become violent – not just violent but actually have the lives of people being taken away? Read More…
THE disintegration of the ruling ANC’s alliance with Cosatu and, to a lesser extent, the SACP, continues to gather momentum. Is it good or bad for the country?
The argument can be made that the end of the alliance would lead to a breakdown in social cohesion as the lid is opened on a
viscous vicious contest between left and right.
The past two weeks might well have given South Africans a bitter foretaste of a future of protracted labour action which becomes dangerously politicised. It is not hard to picture the full might of organised labour unleashed on the state without the restraint of the alliance.
But would it have to end badly?
There is the possibility that the release of these tensions, which have been kept behind closed doors with diminishing effectiveness, into the public domain might be just the tonic for our moribund political institutions.
An open contest at the polls between a left-leaning labour movement and a realigned center would offer South Africans the political choice that they are presently denied by the continuation of the Alliance.
The political competition that would result would force parties to sharpen their policies and throw out unelectable leaders. They would have to measure every word against its consequences at the ballot box.
This would have a sobering effect on the national political debate which has deteriorated into an amusing but ultimately pointless exercise in chauvinist name-calling.
The nation got a glimpse of how political competition would sober up politics during the last election when Cope launched an assault on the ANC’s core constituency for the first time. Politicians were measured and the name-calling was kept to a minimum lest it offend potential voters. What was missing was any serious difference in policy between the ANC and Cope, which mimicked the ruling party’s “broad church” approach.
It would be different if a labour party were to stand against the ANC. In such a scenario there would be a clear distinction between the social-democratic left and the centrist nationalists. Voters would be making a choice that could result in a real difference to the way in which the country would be governed.
The ANC would have to think twice about allowing leaders to use public platforms to advocate nationalisation and land seizure without compensation as Youth League President Julius Malema did this week.
Helen Zille’s DA, which is going from strength to strength in the Western Cape, has showed how voters will choose one party over another based on their governance records if there is the real prospect of a change in government.
The DA would in all likelihood become a third “liberal” party in the national contest for power were the alliance to give way to open competition for power.
All of this remains academic as the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP continue to proclaim their loyalty to the alliance while privately plotting to diminish each other’s grasp on state power.
What is changing is the public perception of the alliance. There are few who continue to believe the love story when all they see is infidelity.
Several weeks have passed since our reporter was arrested, held without access to his lawyer for eight hours, awoken for interrogation at 2.30 AM and finally released on the orders of the High Court. Not one single person in the government has expressed regret at how this incident was handled. There has been not one whisper of sympathy from those who are in a position to take a stand on this matter. I find that sad.
It suggests to me that there is consensus in the ruling party and amongst those in leadership elsewhere in society that this sort of treatment of a journalist is acceptable.
But what makes me feel a terrible emptiness is the continuation of the legislative and administrative onslaught on the press by way of the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal because this is being done despite an incredible public outcry.
Opposition to these measures has come from every single newspaper editor in the country, from the World Editors Forum and the World Association of Newspapers – bodies which speaks on behalf of editors from the South China Morning Post to the New York Times – from the country’s leading authors, from diplomats including the US Ambassador to South Africa, from vice chancellors of universities, from the General Council of the Bar, which questions their constitutionality, from opposition political parties, from the business organisation representing our top 50 corporations and from countless others in civil society.
Yet there is a steadfast determination to proceed with these measures.
This suggests that there is a dangerous hubris taking hold within the ruling party. It believes that it alone is the arbiter of what is right or wrong in public policy. That the intellectuals and the editors are opposed to the measure merely feeds this feeling of standing alone for a righteous cause.
We are told that “the people” want this change and the intellectuals are resisting it. Apparently out there people are angry at the fact that corrections are published on page four instead of page three of the newspapers. Apparently the people are angry that documents are being leaked. We are supposed to believe that day and night they are begging the ruling party to take action and that this is now a national political priority.
In fact, nothing of the sort is taking place. There is no grassroots anger at the media, unless you include that which occurs when populist leaders call for it at meetings.
All of this is sophistry of the worst kind.
What is being manufactured in the mind of the public is a popular uprising against intellectuals. What is being concealed is an attack by a wealth-accumulating elite on those who questions their bona fides as champions of the poor.
It is deeply worrying. It is sad and it leaves me feeling empty.