When the watchdog lost its bark

The DA must never forget that regardless of its ambitions to govern South Africa, it is an opposition party, with a mandate from its voters to hold the government and the ruling party vigilantly to account. Its clearly defined vision of an Open Opportunity Society for All, and the values which flow from this, should guide its response to every piece of legislation that appears in parliament.

Even after Helen Zille’s very public about-turn on the party’s astonishing support in the National Assembly for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, it is still pertinent to question what on earth were its MPs thinking. How could such an important and dangerous law, one which runs so contrary to the party’s values, be given the thumbs up? Where was the scrutiny – the vigorous interrogation of the Bill’s ramifications, and of its (in)compatibility with the party’s values?  Despite the significance of the Bill, and the significance of the party’s support for it, a press statement explaining its support was not provided (until much later). Why the subterfuge? Was the party hoping the public wouldn’t notice its “yes” vote?

And, if they’ve screwed up on this bill, what else are DA MPs supporting that runs counter to the their party’s vision and ideals? Is it too much to expect the DA’s parliamentarians to have a thorough understanding of what the party stands for? That while it strongly values redress, it believes this should not be achieved on the basis of race – that the key criteria for redress should be disadvantage, and not a racial proxy?

The confusion around this legislation is deeply concerning. Several DA MPs have — somewhat incomprehensibly — spoken on record in favour of it. And yet, it should be manifestly clear to the party’s MPs that it is contrary to its values. If they can’t grasp that, how can voters be expected to figure out what on earth the party stands for? If DA public representatives support racialism, they can always join the party defined by it – I’m sure the ANC would be happy to have them.

The DA’s parliamentary caucus should stop taking those who voted them into power for granted. They entered the National Assembly to serve. To scrutinise. To uphold the values which the DA espouses. They are not there to sleepwalk their way to entrenched racialism.

I hope the DA soon realises that while broadening its support is important, basing this growth on a foundation of principle is essential. It’s unfortunate if some of its members believe that the only way to increase black support is to support racial engineering. Indeed, it’s an insult to the very people they are trying to attract.

The DA has long talked about offering voters an alternative. In parliament three weeks ago, it came perilously close to abandoning this ambition entirely. In a bid for power, pragmatism should never erode principle. If it wants to achieve its vision of a South Africa in which reconciliation and redress are achieved, delivery is successful, and diversity is valued, then it is time for the party to not just talk about these values, but for its parliamentary caucus to start living them.

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Creativity can make South Africa great

What kind country would you like to call home? I think I know what kind I want to live in: one in which the rule of law is respected, people have access to quality education and health; a country in which citizens have the opportunity to make the most of their inherent potential – and do so. A nation which is at peace with its diversity and tolerant of difference.

South Africa’s histories – its many jangling narratives, each contradicting and conflicting – have led to a bewildering present. The longer I live here, the more complex and inscrutable it appears. But perhaps that is a good thing. Searching for solutions to our problems cannot be predicated on the assumption that we fully understand this country. Those solutions, if you can call them that, are likely to fail because they are too tightly bound to our own perceptions, which do not necessarily match reality.

We need to take a more humble position, one based on curiosity and empathy. One based on the understanding that our own mindsets have been shaped (although not rigidly so) by our own education, history, class and culture and these can lead to fundamental differences in perspective. While we should never let our identities constrain our opinions and beliefs, we need to be aware of their influence over both ourselves and over others.

But acknowledging South Africa’s complexity, and that we do not have a monopoly either on understanding it or on knowing how to solve its challenges, does not absolve us from the responsibility we have to contribute to solving these challenges.

Given what South Africa faces – widening inequality, rampant malfeasance and maladministration, high crime, a stagnant economy – each citizen has an obligation, I believe, to do their bit.

But let us set responsibilities aside for a moment and look briefly at the past, a past in which the vast majority of South Africans were marginalised and oppressed. Bantu Education was designed to perpetuate a system of white supremacy, and to inhibit the realisation of the cultural, intellectual and economic value locked inside each citizen. Democracy arrived in 1994 but almost two decades later, the education delivered to South Africa’s children remains horrendously poor because the government has failed to effectively address apartheid’s educational legacy.

According to a recent article in The Economist:

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd for the quality of its science and maths. In the Department of Basic Education’s national literacy and numeracy tests last year, only 15% of 12-year-olds scored at or above the minimum proficiency on the language test. In maths just 12% did.

The Economist also points out that only 20% of schools have libraries. But, even worse, only 8% of schools have ones that are actually functioning. These failures do not be appear to be the result of insufficient spending – a sixth of the government budget goes to education and since 1995 between 5 and 7% of our GDP has been spent on education each year.

I’m sometimes asked whether the government is deliberately perpetuating a failing education system – much in the same way the apartheid state engineered one. Some wonder if the system is designed to keep citizens ignorant of alternatives and unable to grasp the basics of democracy and democratic change. These cynics wonder if there is a strategy in place to increase dependency on a state that is being artfully conveyed by party spin-doctors as representing a benevolent ANC dishing out grants.

It’s might be tempting to believe this, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, I do not believe poor education has led South Africans into a state of subservience to ANC hegemony – while the party’s electoral support remains high for a number of reasons, the opposition to its governance is evident every time you open a paper – in the spate of so-called delivery protests that have been occurring across the country.

Instead of being something wilful, I believe education failures are rather a consequence of distraction. Most people in government are not there to serve the people. They are there to amass power and money. That is the priority. The ANC’s cadre deployment strategy is designed to put loyal members of the party in positions where they are expected to deliver – and that includes education. In this patronage system, kickbacks and tenders are the reward – the sweeteners to ensure fealty to the reigning faction in Luthuli House. But of course the pitfall of deploying someone on the basis of loyalty and affiliation as opposed to merit is that often people who do not have adequate skills or experience are placed in positions where those two elements are essential for delivery to succeed.

According to Business Day, the results of the 2011 census show that:

There are 10.9-million under-fives, 9.3-million children aged 5-9, 8.8-million aged 10-14, and 9.6-million aged 15-19. The second-largest sector of the population is between the ages of 20 and 24, accounting for 10.4-million people.

Clearly we are a nation of youngsters – people who need skills to gain employment and compete in the global economy against their international brothers and sisters who are invariably receiving a far better education than they are.

But education is more than simply about skills and jobs.  I recently interviewed Tamar Garb, a South African art historian based at University College London and she told me:

Education is not just about vocational training… visual literacy, verbal skills, powers of argument and reason, critical thinking, independent judgment – all the things that an education in the humanities and in art give are also absolutely vital for the running of a society.

Tamar Garb warned against creating a society of “philistines and technocrats”, arguing that:

The imagination is crucial to imagine what a future might be: you can only build and imagine what a future might be if you can think of what a future might have been and that negotiation of the future and the past in creative dialogue is a survival; it’s not just like wellbeing and the froth on the top: it’s absolutely central to a culture’s survival – especially a culture recovering from trauma which has to reinvent itself. This is a society which has to imagine new ways of being, new ways of identifying itself, new ways of delivering to all its people the dignity, the prosperity, the identities that make for a productive way of life.

So how do we create a society that converses with itself? The answer lies in the humanities. It lies in the excavation and interrogation of our past and present, using words, imagery, action and even music.

For this to flourish, it is essential that the humanities be nurtured at a school level in subject areas such as English, history, drama and art. Our appalling maths and science rankings deservedly garner headlines. But we also need to recognise how reading, writing and art help children to escape the realities of their own situation, and dream up new ones for themselves. Books connect children with other worlds, other lives, new ideas. Drama encourages empathy. Collectively, creativity fosters aspiration and inspiration, promoting curiosity, understanding and tolerance.

Creativity and critical thinking help the healing of a divided country. We need a nation of scientists, engineers and accountants. But we also need a nation of dreamers, thinkers and storytellers – people who can help us first make peace with ourselves, and then with others, so that instead of being threatened by diversity and difference, we are rather nourished by it.

On some metrics, particularly in housing, water and sanitation, government has achieved some positive changes. But is run, however, by an increasingly undemocratic and self-enriching elite who are steadily tearing at the fabric of our hard-won constitutional order.

Education is not going to improve overnight. If anything, it may continue to deteriorate. But there is no use in despairing. I received some comfort from the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who told me in an interview in last year, that “we mustn’t fall easily into despair” about the things that have not been achieved since 1994.

In her most recent novel, No Time Like the Present, she writes: “Brought down the crowned centuries of colonialism, smashed apartheid. If our people could do that? Isn’t it possible, real, that the same will must be found, is here somewhere — to take up and get on with the job, freedom. Some must have the — crazy —faith to Struggle on.”

So South Africans must ask themselves – how do they plan to struggle on? What is the contribution they can make to building South Africa up into the kind of country they want to live in?

It is easy to be a passive grumbler. But we should rather recognise the power in each one of us to contribute to positive, lasting change. This is a recognition which powered revolutions, which revved up social movements, pulling down the walls of apartheid, and building up our constitutional democracy.

We need to be inspired again – inspired by those who refuse to accept that the vicious cocktail of corruption, incompetence and mediocrity is to be our country’s destiny. There are plenty of examples. The NGO Equal Education is campaigning for a library in every school. Dance for All teaches dance to kids from Khayelitsha and other Cape townships. The Light from Africa Foundation uses ceramics to provide art therapy for orphaned children.  Rock Girl SA teamed up with Plascon and the Cecile and Boyd Foundation to create a beautiful art room at a Manenberg school. The Boundless Heart Foundation brought together corporates, non-profits and local government to install a container library in Blikkiesdorp – providing a safe learning space for the community’s kids. Both help2read and the Shine Centre have armies of volunteers sharing a love of reading with children across the country.

Forging a nation of critical thinkers and creative dreamers will not happen overnight. But if we are serious about becoming a nation that is truly united in its diversity, then it is something we must aspire to.  While there is much being done, there is still much to do.

Each South African should consider what their contribution can be; they must realise their power, value their experience, skills and time. What can we do? Is it campaigning for better education? Is it reading to children? Is it fundraising for new libraries? Is it helping to set up grants for writers and poets? Or collecting art supplies for kids who don’t have?

It is up to each one of us to decide.

A modified container library for the Blikkiesdorp community donated by the Boundless Heart Foundation.

A modified container library for the Blikkiesdorp community donated by the Boundless Heart Foundation.

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ANC silencing debate about power, patriarchy and the president

Brett Murray’s defaced The Spear stands as a monument to intolerance. After thousands of ANC supporters marched to the Goodman where the painting the had once been on display, the gallery has agreed it will not be displayed publicly again.

While representations of the painting now enjoy the ubiquity of the web, what price have we paid for the original painting’s removal from the gallery’s wall? In the aftermath of the fury unleashed by the ANC, will artists still dare to challenge and provoke? Or has South Africa accepted that culture and “acceptability” is something determined only by its ruling party?

It has become impossible for the ANC to mask its totalitarian instincts: if it hadn’t already, the mask slipped this week. When the party feels threatened, the Constitution no longer matters; neither do the courts: it is only the power of the raised fist to invoke fear and unleash retribution that is of consequence.

While opposition was relatively muted — whether in the arts, on the streets or the benches of parliament — the ANC could maintain the pretence of supporting the concept of a constitutional democracy, one in which robust criticism can flourish. Now the party is under siege, both internally (through its vicious faction fights) and externally, thanks to ebbing support, increasing disillusionment at persistent poverty and a growing political opposition.

Will a gallery in South Africa ever again be brave enough (or even be permitted) to display art condemned by the powerful as outrageous? Or will controversial culture be exported – onto the web, and to exhibition spaces abroad? Are our artists to become exiles once more, hounded for daring to question or expose?

Freedom is difficult, sometimes painful. Freedom guarantees being able to question, comment, criticise – even if by doing so insult and outrage is the result. Art must provoke, must make us argue and discuss – even if our feelings get a bit bruised in the process. If we are so fearful of causing offence, we will become blinkered; how can we search for truth, or inspire debate, if we are so afraid of the consequences?

“The norm” needs to be constantly unpicked and explored, and the powerful scrutinised. Not long ago, slavery, denying women the vote and jailing gays was “the norm”. It was through exercising freedom of expression, culturally and politically, that these practices were banished (although tragically in some parts of the world today these practices are still considered acceptable).

In a country in which rape and the abuse of women and children are rampant, it is vital that we have a conversation about gender, power and patriarchy. It is vital that art catalyses a discussion on the way women are treated, and a discussion about the need for us all — male and female, black and white — to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The backlash against The Spear threatens to silence that much-needed discussion. The ANC’s and its supporters’ rhetoric implicitly suggests that commenting or critiquing the president’s version of masculinity and the actions that stem from it is simply taboo – especially if the critic is white.

If genuine freedom and equality for all South Africans is to be attained, no culture should be sacrosanct or off limits. Rather they should be interrogated and explored.

This week South Africa’s largest news site, News24, voluntarily removed an image of The Spear not long after City Press, the Sunday newspaper embroiled in a legal battle with the ANC over the image, took it off its website too.

News24 claimed it was doing this “in a spirit of healing and nation-building”. This is at best misguided. Nation-building is defying those who seek to dictate what is culturally acceptable and what is not. It is standing up to attempts to quash creative expression. Nation-building is fighting for the rights enshrined in our Constitution. In the long term, little can be gained (least of all “healing”) by surrendering to intolerance.

South Africa will not overcome fear by giving into it. The nation can only grow if the right to provoke, question and criticise is vigorously defended.

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The ANC’s bullying will fail to quash freedom

There has been much gnashing of teeth at the decision made by the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, to remove a photo of Bretty Murray’s The Spear from the newspaper’s website.

When it comes to the media, the ANC has brought all its indignant fury down on one publication – it has been useful to do so, as its single-minded bullying is reminder of who’s boss, a flexing of muscle that menacingly reminds both the media and South Africans generally of the even greater fury the party can unleash should it take umbrage to a paper’s contents.

The ANC certainly has the power to intimidate the media, fostering a climate of fear, hysteria and hatred. Its behaviour can certainly inculcate a mindset of self-censorship amongst the nation’s journalists – which is so much easier and more effective than employing the cumbersome mechanics of official censorship, although through its artful manipulation of the Film & Publication Board you could argue it is using this approach too.

But what the ANC, the City Press and the brow-furrowed chattering classes have lost sight of is that this is a changed world, one in which the old mediums (print, TV) still have an important role, but are far from being the only means through which ideas and information can be conveyed.

Indeed, these entities have become absorbed into a chaotic web in which information (and that includes presidential penises or at least the depiction thereof) is being shared and streamed with lightning speed and astonishing reach.

The ANC might be able to scare the City Press into removing The Spear, but it won’t be able to do the same to the thousands of other sites that have posted the image, or to the people that have shared it on social networks or emailed it to their friends.

It is for this reason that the ANC has failed in its attempt to quash creative freedom, even as the party has exposed its contempt for the constitution which guarantees it. It will again fail when, in the months and years ahead, there emerges artworks, writings, films and more that critique, satirise, mock or hold the ANC or its leaders to account.

As the events of this week has shown, the ANC’s strategies to shrink the space available for dissent and freedom of expression might sometimes seem effective. But we need to remind ourselves that this space has expanded into the online realm and beyond, to where it is out of the party’s reach.

The Arab Spring proved that social media has become a remarkable, unstoppable force to keep information and free thought flowing; a means to challenge and criticise power. In the future, we will see this being wielded by more and more people as social media tools becomes more affordable and accessible. The massive success of Mxit in South Africa is an exciting harbinger of this social media explosion.

And, thankfully for our democracy, this means that the ANC’s control of the public broadcaster and its coercion of “old” media will become increasingly irrelevant.

The genie is out of the bottle – and we’re all the better of for that.

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The sheriff rides into town

Anti-corruption activist Andrew Feinstein will soon be in South Africa for the launch of his must read-exposé of the global arms trade, The Shadow World. There will be a number of events in Cape Town and Jo’burg to mark the launch.

Be there!

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RW Johnson has got it wrong

I have always held RW Johnson’s insights in great regard. However, his latest article is simply a personal agenda masquerading as public analysis. It does not reflect well on him or on his status as a political commentator. His suggestion that the DA is becoming untethered from its liberal moorings in its bid to enlarge support is bizarre. Liberalism remains very much the bedrock that the party’s policies and processes are built upon and there is every indication that this will remain so.

I know this because my participation in the DA’s Young Leadership Programme in 2009 gave me the opportunity to observe the party at close quarters. The DAYLP seeks to develop leadership amongst young South Africans, as well as rigorously deepen the participants’ understanding of liberal values and how they apply to the South African context. Expecting Young Leaders to be familiar with both A.C. Grayling’s treatise on liberty, Towards the Light, and Nobel Prize -winning economist Amartya Sen’s extraordinary Development as Freedom is hardly indicative of a party on the verge of being consumed by communalist mayhem.

Across the country there are growing numbers of graduates from this course who are profoundly committed to a liberal vision of South Africa. Many of them now represent the party in legislatures, in city councils or on student leadership bodies at universities. But the DA is not only committed to enlarging the pool of liberal-minded future leaders. The party places enormous emphasis on the constant training and development (both politically and personally) of its public representatives and employees. In addition to workshops and coaching, the party also has an online training course called Umothombo which aims to broaden their knowledge about liberalism and how it applies in SA.

It is disappointing that Johnson appears to believe that, with the exception of Chief Albert Luthuli, being black and being a liberal are somehow mutually exclusive. That is nonsense. The DA’s black members are genuine liberals and leaders, not an politically expedient shade of window-dressing. Johnson trumpets the role that Anglophones have played in providing the DA and its antecedents with intellectual heft and moral muscle. But this is changing: liberalism is no longer confined to the halls of Magdalene College, Oxford, or the drawing rooms of the Cape Town Club (if indeed it ever was). As the DA’s branches grow across the country, staffed by those who genuinely believe in the party’s vision for SA, liberalism in this country is becoming far more pervasive in villages of Limpopo or on the streets of Mitchells Plain than it is in those supposed bastions of the enlightenment.

Of great concern is Johnson’s suggestion that in appealing to black voters, the DA is in danger of embracing a kind of politics which he argues as being typical of the African continent – “tribalism, bossism, warlordism, racial patronage politics”. He appears to see the foregrounding of Lindiwe Mazibuko as part of this problem.

But Mazibuko is no token warlord. Her rise within the party has certainly been meteoric but it is demeaning and unfair to ascribe this to her race and gender. Mazibuko may be young and relatively inexperienced but she has a sparkling intellect, boundless energy and a fearsome work ethic. She also has a charisma: people like her, and they want to be led by her. She is a natural leader: not just confident and eloquent, but also warm and able to empathise. Far from being Zille’s puppet (as her detractors are inclined to depict her), she is forthright and independent-minded.

It is not surprising that a politician with these qualities is likely to stand out from amongst the DA’s parliamentary ranks. Save for a few bright stars, the DA parliamentary party of the post-Leon era has been moribund to say the least. There are one or two headline-grabbers, but most MPs have kept a low profile – lower, even, than in the days when their numbers were far fewer. This state of things hasn’t been helped by Athol Trollip’s lacklustre leadership. I have no doubt that Trollip is a genuine liberal, devoted to building a better South Africa. But he has failed to energise or inspire the DA caucus and his tenure shows he has neither the intellect or the charisma to do so.

The emphasis Johnson places on age and identity within the parliamentary leadership race is disconcerting. In trumpeting the alleged benefits of “maturity”, he does not bother interrogating who is truly the better candidate for the post. Trollip’s age and experience does not make him better able to lead the party in parliament.

Johnson can be rest assured that Anglophones will certainly continue to make a valuable contribution to the DA’s growth, and the future of our country. It is time for him to accept, however, that the face of South African liberalism and, by extension, the DA, is changing. That it is becoming a predominantly black one does not mean the death of liberalism, but rather its acceptance into the South African political mainstream.

This article was first published on Politicsweb. Read RW Johnson’s response here.

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The ANC’s new election slogan?

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