Tag Archives: corruption

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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Should I go or should I stay: the South African’s conundrum

Have you ever thought about leaving South Africa? Do you feel like spitting on someone who would even consider it? Or have you already left?

At one point or another, I’ve been all three. So perhaps that’s why I’ve found “Should I stay or should I go”, a collection of writing about leaving South Africa (or, in some cases, returning or staying put), has a special resonance.

The stories are always riveting, always compelling, sometimes infuriating. Andre Brink’s piece was written after the brutal murder of his nephew. He wrote why he chose, in the aftermath of such a tragedy, to stay in South Africa. Brink harbours no illusions about this country – and he captures, with brutal precision, the corrosive decline of our young democracy, weakened by corruption and its leaders’ contempt for the rule of law. But his decision to stay is because of his love for South Africa – a love that even this most seasoned of scribes struggles to define or explain, but which so many of its citizens, myself included, have experienced.

I relished Ways of Staying author Kevin Bloom’s appreciation that South Africa is the best possible place to map out his own identity. It is in this place of bewildering complexity and excitement, that the writer can determine his own place in the world.

Journalist Gillian Tucker’s grappling with homesickness is understandable, but the conclusions drawn from her visit back to South Africa after living for 14 years in Canada, were not. She contrasts the opulence of her accommodation with the shoddy service she received. To her, this somehow embodies what South Africa has become. I found that strange – poor service is an issue in many parts of the world. Her bad luck to experience it both in Johannesburg and Cape Town is more indicative of insufficient research on TripAdvisor than a meaningful truth about the country.

I wondered whether this was merely the excuse she found for finding the country she had longed for no longer “worthy” of that longing. South Africa has changed hugely in the years since she left. In some ways it is a different country – one that she may simply no longer have an affinity to.

Another excruciating piece was by Barry Levy, who dedicates much of his article on establishing his anti-apartheid credentials and undoubtedly genuine love for South Africa. One wonders why he hadn’t bolted back to Mzansi ages ago. He devotes merely a cryptic line to answer that – claiming “life had conspired against me”. That doesn’t wash.

I wonder whether, like Tucker, he can’t quite come to terms with today’s South Africa. Despite him loving it and wanting it to do well, perhaps there’s a subconscious impulse to remain anchored in Australia’s safe, if staid harbour, far from the storms and raging uncertainty that can beset his homeland.

Only one contributor (to my knowledge) was black — the indispensable Jacob Dlamini, whose eloquent musings in Business Day every week are a must read. The ensemble’s lack of ethnic diversity amongst its contributors is my main gripe about the book. In some ways this is understandable. Emigrants tend to be from the middle class (those who can afford to leave if they want to), and because of our tragic history, that middle class is overwhelmingly white.

Nevertheless, there are many of a darker hue who have left South Africa. Some went during apartheid – apparently Golders Green in London is a haven for exiled ANC apparatchiks lacking the stomach to return home. Others went later: lured away to Perth and other pastures when the democracy dividend didn’t quite deliver what had been hoped for – or because opportunities arose overseas that weren’t available back home. It would have been nice to hear these voices.

Angst and political tones tend to shade South African emigration, regardless of why people have left. Perhaps this is because some of those that have left are embittered racists that can’t bear blacks attaining political power after centuries of oppression. Then there are those who have gone because they’ve lost faith in the new South Africa – or in its capacity to provide a safe and secure environment for their families. Others (like me) have departed for more prosaic reasons — I moved because I was offered a job here in London.

Regardless of the reasons for people leaving, South Africans – of all races – face huge uncertainties. They live, after all, in a country where crime is rampant, corruption has become endemic, law enforcement is toothless and basic services often remain inadequate or continue to deteriorate. Meanwhile, ruling party demagogues get away with murder (or at least urging it — “I’ll kill for Zuma” springs to mind). If certain factions in the ANC have their way, then nationalism is on the cards, agricultural property rights are threatened, and media freedom is on the verge of being neutered.

Against this backdrop, staying or leaving is a valid conundrum for anyone with the means to consider it. But it is a conundrum made all the more complicated by the kind of place South Africa is. It is a nation of warmth and colour, vibrancy and breathtaking beauty. It also has superb quality of life (the space, the food, the weather!) for those privileged enough to afford it.

We easily forget that emigration — and migration generally — is a global phenomenon. As contributor Daniel Ford points out, most people don’t have the same hang-ups about it — and leaving one’s country is not interpreted as a sign of betrayal. Perhaps South Africans should attempt to be a little more liberated about this vexed issue. No one should feel forced to stay or go; it’s up to them, and their own circumstances.

My favourite philosophical approach to emigration was summed up in the piece by peripatetic English teacher Anne Townsend. “Life,” she wrote, “is just too short to spend it all in one place.”

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Zuma’s parole for pals

Many people, myself included, had suspected that convicted fraudster and pal of President Zuma, Schabir Shaik, managed to get medical parole through having friends in high places.

Only terminally ill prisoners qualify for medical parole; it seemed hugely doubtful that notwithstanding Mr Shaik’s medical issues, he was most certainly not terminally ill, or about to die, when he was released early March 2009.

This was view further solidified when, over the past few months, reports continually emerged of Shaik being out about, at restaurants and playing golf. It also seemed a little odd that a man who was ostensibly suffering from a terminal illness and on the verge of dying, hadn’t passed away yet.

Today the M&G provides us with some sad, unsurprising answers. They have obtained documents which clearly show that Shaik was not terminally ill and that his parole release was politically motivated.

Read the M&G‘s expose here.

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The poephol shall govern!

Short of an Mbeki groupie’s assassination attempt on ANC leader Jacob Zuma (which is unlikely to happen considering the R1 million of taxpayer’s money spent each month for protection), come April, the great man will be state president.

Rumours abound that South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority is set to drop the case against old JZ. He must be dancing — it wasn’t necessary for his umshini to be brought to him, after all!

Slavish Zuma loyalists like to paint objections to the man’s accession to the presidency as being bigoted and irrational — more a knee-jerk response stemming from childish abhorrence than from grave reservations about the man’s morality and legal standing.

This slots in neatly with the belief that Zuma must be let off the hook regardless of whether he’s committed any wrongdoing because they claim he’s been viciously persecuted, ensnared in a political conspiracy to prevent him from becoming president.

But even if he has been a victim of former president Mbeki’s Machiavellian machinations that does not justify absolution. Advocating such a sinister agenda illustrates how absolutely desperate certain elements of the ANC are to ensure that their man gets to the top. So much personal interest is at stake that they will, it seems, quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system and the very concept of the rule of law and legal processes, which form key components of our constitutional democracy, to ensure that Zuma moves into the Tuynhuys.

The most eloquent articulation of this policy comes from ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who, with his trademark profundity, told a rally: “If Zuma is corrupt, then we want him with all his corruption. We want him with all his weaknesses.”

We cannot underestimate the potency and determination of this sentiment, a sentiment effectively endorsed by the ANC because like everything outrageous and anti-democratic that Malema says, it is not contradicted or refuted by the party. And why should it be — when, after all, they agree?

Continuing with Mbeki’s tried and tested methods, the post-Polokwane elite will do everything in their power to ensure Zuma becomes president, using every legal and political avenue at their disposal.

Despite demanding he have his day in court, Zuma and his coterie of backers have tried everything they can to prevent this. Their obstructionist approach only seems to imply that the man is as guilty as he says he isn’t. But guilty or innocent, Zuma needs to face his charges (all 783 of them!) and battle it out in court — as one would expect any other South African to do. There are no excuses, no validity in creating an exception for Zuma.

South Africans who want our democracy to continue and prosper need to challenge this exceptionalism. We cannot give Zuma a free pass, ignoring the rule of law and judicial process, because if we do so we are effectively destroying not only the judiciary’s credibility and constitutionally-mandated powers, but also striking at the very heart of our democratic system. We will be dismantling the very order that people fought for so hard and suffered so much to create.

The survival of our constitutional democracy is at stake.

An edited version of this post was published on Thought Leader.

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Our president’s arms deal bribe

For years I’ve suspected that the president was implicated in the arms deal’s corruption scandal. Ducking and diving, the president has clearly had much to hide. Today, however, we have more than conjecture (and an incriminating encrypted fax the DA has been in possession of) to go on. The Sunday Times bravely broke the story that Mbeki received R30 million from the German shipbuilding conglomerate MAN Ferrostaal in return for awarding the SA Navy’s submarine contract to the consortium it led. Apparently Mbeki gave R2 million to Zuma and the rest to the ANC. No wonder the arms deal probe has been a whitewash!

It will be interesting to see how the following weeks unfold.

Click here to read the story.

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SA politicians could learn from Olmert

Ehud Olmert, the beleaguered Israeli prime minister, has announced his resignation and plans to leave office in September. The Economist neatly wraps up his corruption-related problems:

Mr Olmert’s reputation was irreparably eroded by the recent lengthy courtroom testimony of Morris Talansky, a New York businessman said to have made improper cash contributions to him for a decade, before he was prime minister. Allegations of double-billing for flights and hotels were also made. And there are long-running police inquiries into his appointments when he was minister of trade and into his purchase of a flat in Jerusalem, apparently at a knock-down price. Mr Olmert insisted his hands were clean. Yes, he made mistakes in his long years in politics, and regretted them. But they had been blown out of all proportion by “self-appointed crusaders for justice” bent on ousting him as soon as he had taken office.

I only wish that South African scandal-smeared politicians had the political maturity to do the same.

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Corrupt fat cats are enemies of the poor

The Eastern Cape is one of our most beautiful provinces. It is a
place where many of our revered struggle luminaries — Madiba, Chris
Hani, Walter Sisulu, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo — were born and spent
their formative years.

Fourteen years after the dawn of democracy, it remains one of our
poorest provinces, wracked by Aids and woefully underdeveloped. Little
has changed in the years since the Transkei and Ciskei homelands were
dissolved: the economy in rural areas is stagnant, forcing thousands of
people to go to Cape Town and other urban centres in the hope of
employment. Infrastructure is creaky, while many schools and hospitals
suffer from a severe lack of resources.

Now the explosive Pillay commission report has been leaked,
revealing in chilling detail the pillaging of resources that were
supposed to be utilised to aid the poor. R200-million was pocketed by
party fat cats including our Minister of Sport, the former premier
Makhenkesi Stofile. The provincial minister of economic affairs and
finance at the time, Enoch Godongwana, and the CE of the Eastern Cape
Development Corporation, Mcebisi Jonas, are also implicated. A further
R250-million has disappeared, unaccounted for.

The Daily Dispatch phrases things perfectly in its editorial on the day it published the report:

It is a document that makes for appalling reading
because it illustrates the innate disrespect with which elected
officials held the poor of this province by reallocating funds intended
to uplift the poor.

The Pillay commission report was passed from the now-fired Premier
Nosimo Balindlela to President Thabo Mbeki more than a year ago. No
action has been taken, and the report has not even been officially
released — it has only seen the light of day thanks to a leak to the Daily Dispatch.

What does this mean? That Mbeki was covering for Stofile and his
criminal cronies? Or is Balindlela fibbing when she says she passed on
the report? Either is plausible, especially in the light of the
Presidency’s prevarication over Jackie Selebi.

By refusing to take action on the rampant corruption in its midst,
the ANC is effectively condoning the behaviour of politicians whose
unscrupulous, criminal behaviour reveal a callous indifference to the
future of impoverished South Africans.

Millions of South Africans were oppressed and denied the
opportunities for socioeconomic emancipation by the previous regime.
This is a trend that, for the greater part, the ANC has failed to
reverse. Instead, certain of the movement’s members — as illustrated by
the Pillay commission’s findings — have been using the public purse to
accrue illicit wealth with impunity. This is stealing, and — indicative
of our ruling party’s moral bankruptcy — it seems that such criminality
will go unpunished.

Is it any wonder that we have an endemic crime problem when there
are those in power who are crooks? These criminals are enemies of the
poor. Hani and Biko and the many others who sacrificed their lives
fighting for a better life for all must be turning in their graves.

This was first published on Alex’s Thought Leader column.

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