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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reconciliation is not for sissies

The world has watched the rollout of South Africa’s remarkable experiment for 20 years. Reconciliation has been the essential bedrock after centuries of violent conflict, divisions and racism. Thanks to the unfaltering guidance of Nelson Mandela in the early years, the experiment had huge promise.  The country was held up as a global symbol of hope.
The commitment to reconciliation was so strong that South Africa introduced a national public holiday to honour it – a global rarity. The significance of this was noted by Mandela on the inaugural Day of Reconciliation on December 16 1995. He said that the transition was a decisive and irreversible break with the past. “The rainbow has come to be the symbol of our nation. We are turning the variety of our languages and cultures, once used to divide us, into a source of strength and richness.”
December 16 brought together two seemingly irreconcilable commemorations. To Afrikaners, it was the Day of the Vow, when in a land conquest the Voortrekkers conquered the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River in 1838. To the African majority, it was the day in 1961 that the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was formed to overthrow apartheid.
Celebrating  the special day this week,  the world is watching as our remarkable reconciliation experiment wobbles. Hotheads spew vitriol online and on social
media and intolerable, racially motivated attacks occur in the suburbs. We are becoming a nation of blamers, pointing fingers and seeing the world increasingly as us vs them.
Instead of opening up and showing empathy, we withdraw into our enclaves, looking after our own narrow interests. Instead of reaching out to learn about different cultures and communities, we form insulated echo chambers to shut out challenging points of view, with only our own limited world view boomeranging back at us.
And incredibly, we seem to be forgetting where we have come from.
Releasing its SA Reconciliation Barometer this month, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation reminded the nation that for unity to work, black South Africans needed to be willing to forgive and to create new relationships with those who previously supported their oppression. But for this to happen, whites needed to acknowledge the unjust and oppressive nature of apartheid and be willing to change and accept the need for redress.
Yet, according to the barometer, only 53% of whites agree that apartheid was a crime against humanity. In this climate of denial, and with right-wing hotheads like Steve Hofmeyr frothing hysterically, there is a tendency to become cynical about whether there is a genuine commitment to build an equitable country together.
While some look back now and say Mandela must have been naïve, he had in fact warned in his speech on December 16 1995 that “healing the wounds of the past and freeing ourselves of its burden” would be a long and demanding challenge.
Madiba never wavered from his belief that reconciliation meant working together to correct the legacy of past injustice. It takes sturdy leadership to help steer the way, and this is sorely lacking today. The paralysis of leadership has led to increasing apathy, creeping despair and a hardening of attitudes. But now is not the time to retreat and allow distracted, self-serving leaders to destroy everything that this country has stood for.
South Africa is a remarkable experiment because of its diversity. Twenty years into democracy, it is still possible to renew our pledge to Madiba – to keep his vision of a rainbow nation alive. It will be our loss if we allow his words to become just another battered cliché.
* This article first appeared in media24 titles.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


South Africa take stock,  20 years after democracy

The desire for a united South African identity has decreased by almost 18% over the past 10 years, to just 55% of the population.

Racial identity is also increasing in importance, with race moving from the third-most selected identity (11.8%) in 2003 to the second-most selected identity (13.4%) in 2013. At the same time, South African identity as a choice dropped from 11.2% to 7.1%.
Yet in spite of this growing disillusionment and increased racial identity, trust between people from different race groups has consistently improved over the past decade. Reported mistrust of other race groups has decreased by 12.5% over the past decade, to 28.1% last year.
These are among the findings of the 2014 annual South African Reconciliation Barometer released by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town this morning.
Interpreting these apparently contradictory results, the barometer’s author Kim Wale said that there was a need to develop a more nuanced understanding of identity “which allows for diversity within unity”.
She said the reconciliation barometer was like a metaphor for light and shadow.
“As we progress, the more we are able to see the shadows.”
“Perhaps with an increase in trust also comes an increase in the honesty required to confront the continued forms of inequality and injustice that remain in South Africa, thus resulting in increased disillusionment with the idea of unity and an increasing desire to challenge continued forms of racial inequality,” said Wale.
Other findings over the 10-year period include:
» 76.4% of South Africans agreed that apartheid was a crime against humanity, almost 10% down from a decade ago. There are stark differences among the race groups, with about 80% of black people, 77% of Indians and 70% of coloureds agreeing, and only 53% of whites.
» 23.5% of South Africans reported socialising with people from other races, a 13% increase from 2003. However, racial integration was much more prevalent among higher income South Africans.
» 27.7% of white South Africans, compared with 60.3% of black South Africans, agree that “reconciliation is impossible if those disadvantaged by apartheid are still poor”.
» 53.8% of black South Africans have trust in the national leaders, a decrease from 62.5%.
Wale said that for reconciliation to work, white people needed to acknowledge that they were previously advantaged, and black people needed to be willing to forgive and participate in creating new relationships.
It was imperative for the country to develop an antiracist white identity, she said.
“If white South Africans are unable to acknowledge apartheid criminality and redress the legacy of racist oppression in the present, this negatively impacts on the reconciliation relationship.”
This article first appeared on City Press Online:  City Press

Monday, November 24, 2014

The dirty politics across the road from the sex shop

Tense standoff between police and EFF members August 21 
 In the beginning, the fifth parliament took shape slowly and predictably, except for a minor distraction - the opening of an adult sex shop across the road. 
After the May elections, the ANC had been returned to power with a leaner, but still comfortable majority of 62% of the vote, its vexed president Jacob Zuma in place for a second term. The DA had a chunkier minority voice with 22% of the vote.
The wildcard was the arrival of the flamboyant, in-your-face Economic Freedom Fighters. However, with 6% of support, the jury was out on how much clout Julius Malema and his sidekicks could wield on the parliamentary precinct.
So when the garish red and yellow signage popped up between two cafes on Plein St in the early days, the ANC had time to make a noise. The ruling party  objected that the sex shop had no right to be situated outside Parliament as it “does not augur well for the integrity and standing of such a constitutional body”.
But the ANC quickly abandoned the trivial battle against the shop across the road as it got consumed by the dirty business that has rocked parliament – and the country - since August 21. The trigger, of course, has been the elephant in the room – the president of the country. And the EFF shook things up with a new method of up-yours agitation which has transformed the business of parliament.
In the past six months, the fifth parliament notched up a string of firsts. On August 21, the EFF brought the house to a shutdown after a standoff with the speaker, Baleka Mbete, over its spirited #paybackthemoney protest.
On 17 September the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu showed his middle finger at deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. 
On November 13, armed riot police burst into the chamber to remove a recalcitrant EFF member Reneilwe Mashabela who had refused to withdraw a comment that Zuma was a thief.
The EFF stage a sit-in at parliament on August 21
On Thursday night, the house had what is believed to be its longest session  since 1994 – from 2pm to 4am – though this included a 6 hour adjournment while parties tried to figure a way forward after the ANC was accused of unilaterally altering the order of the parliamentary programme.
In what is surely another first, Jan Pierewiet and Jingle Bells were sung in the house while DA politicians amused themselves during the extended wait.
In the past few weeks, South Africans who were suddenly hooked on the parliamentary TV channel  (when it wasn’t rudely cut)  became familiar with the term filibuster as the DA adopted US-style delaying tactics.
When deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa stepped in to broker a truce, one would have thought that exhaustion – if nothing else – would have got parties to see it through. Though there are questions about Ramaphosa imposing a truce on parliament, it seemed like a win-win interim plan to bring the temperature down. The deal would restore order and decorum to the house, parliamentary rules would be applied fairly and executive accountability (which includes Zuma) would be enforced.
But it was shattered within a day. Attempts to revive it are under way this week.
Now as the third term draws to a close, the fifth parliament is unpredictable, its integrity undermined (and it has nothing to do with the shop across the road).  But judging from the vibe in the corridors of parliament lateon Thursday night, many MPs are looking for a way from the impasse. Even inside the house after a 6-hour standoff, there was an air of camaraderie as parties slugged it out on normal parliamentary matters till 4am.
And here lies the hope amid the mud bath. MPs are in it together, and equally dependent on each other. That
ANC supporters fill the upstairs gallery in support of Jacob Zuma
is what multiparty democracy is about - even when it gets downright dirty. 

* This article first appeared in Beeld.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parle-monium: the day the riot police moved in on parliament

The morning after riot police stormed the National Assembly to forcibly remove a recalcitrant EFF MP, I joked on twitter that I was considering wearing a flak jacket and takkies to work.
The unprecedented display of force has sent shockwaves through parliament and the country, with threats by the opposition to seek recourse in the courts.
After 10pm on Thursday, members of the Public Order Policing unit - wearing protective gear from head to toe - pushed and shoved opposition MPs in the house.  The MPs, who had endured a marathon sitting since 2pm, had intervened as police tried to remove the EFF’s Reneilwe Mashabele, who, dressed in a domestic worker uniform, insisted that President Jacob Zuma was a thief.  As parliament descended into chaos, the live parliamentary TV feed was cut.
 The warning signs were in fact evident earlier that day, with Public Order Policing unit vans lined up on the precinct outside.
There must be a degree of sympathy for presiding officers who have been battling acts of extreme rudeness lately - all of it triggered by the #paybackthemoney Nkandla saga. But as a reason to haul in the riot squad, it is a shocking disgrace and unbelievably paranoid.
A visual timeline of the drama as it unfolded, Die Burger
It makes it harder now to laugh off DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s warning earlier this week – before pandemonium broke out - that there were “rumbling plans to militarise our parliamentary precinct”.
The cracks in South Africa’s hard-fought democratic parliament have been creeping up - insidiously – in the 5th parliament.
There was the incident of August 21 – when police also moved on to parliament. After a tense stand-off, they withdrew from using force to remove protesting EFF MPs.  Again, the media were ordered to leave (many refused) and the TV feed was cut.
In the National Council of Provinces a few weeks ago, I was among a number of journalists refused re-entry to the upstairs press gallery while President Jacob Zuma was delivering his 50-minute speech on 20 years of democracy. I was confronted not by parliamentary security, but, it is believed, a member of the Presidential Protection Unit who had taken it upon himself to rule over the house.  
Although it was reassuring that parliament issued an unreserved apology and an undertaking to investigate as journalists always have free access to enter and exit the gallery, it was chilling to witness  parliamentary officials, whom I had called on to assist, being brusquely over-ruled by the bully-boy security official.
There are other worrying tendencies. The increasing secrecy and attempts at blocking journalists from accessing reports emanating from portfolio committees – the Nkandla ad hoc committee (of course) a case in point. Parliamentary security has tightened, signing-in bureaucracy has been increased, and more police officers have been deployed to parliament.
There are also some trivial incidents. This week, a reporter who has covered parliament for four years was ordered to not drink water – from a parliament-labelled bottle nogal - while sitting in the press gallery upstairs. Minutes later, her colleague was also given an order - to not stand in the gallery (even though he was in nobody’s way). 
When I moved into media offices at the parliamentary precinct in May, I walked through the entrance of parliament thinking what a privilege it was to be based at such a deeply-loved institution that has been the symbol of the country’s liberation and democratic principles.
I didn’t feel quite the same way when I walked through the gate on Friday morning.
* A version of this article first appeared in City Press and Rapport on 16 November 2014


Sunday, May 11, 2014

ELECTION WEEK at the IEC (pics) and what it means for parliament

Gwede Mantashe speaks to the media on the open floor of the IEC centre

Zuma does a victory walkabout at the centre before the results are out, greeting rivals including Bantu Holomisa
The EFF dazzled in red at the IEC centre
Terror Lekota eats a hat after the dismal performance of his party, Cope

Miss Teen SA (yes) rocks up at the IEC centre. 


The elections results now out, the focus shifts to whether new MPs will add some muscle to parliament, which is perceived to have become increasingly lame and lacklustre in the past decade.

The MPs who will be make up the National Assembly include 249 ANC members (down from 264,) 89 Democratic Alliance representatives (up from 67) and 25 members from the Economic Freedom Fighters. A number of other rats and mice parties make up the 400 seats.

Robust, relevant parliament

An overriding challenge is for MPs to overcome innate structural flaws ‘’which tend to give the ruling party and its bosses an undue amount of power”, political analyst Richard Calland writes in his book “The Zuma Years”.
It was likely that the ANC – which was returned to power with a majority vote for the fifth time - would conduct itself in pretty much the same manner as before, said Calland during an interview at the weekend.
However, the potential for a more robust, relevant parliament was possible now that the main opposition party, the DA, had increased its share of the vote. “The DA, with more MPs, can spread themselves more thickly across the various portfolio committees and have more oversight”.
The impact of newcomers the EFF, the third biggest party, was unknown. Will they move beyond a ‘’noisy sound bite approach”, or organise themselves more seriously to navigate the painstaking terrain of complex parliamentary structures, he asked.  
The EFF would need to take ‘’strategic decisions’’ on which of the many portfolio committees to focus on. However, a single MP who was committed to the job could make a big impact.  For example, the DA’s David Maynier fought doggedly for transparency and answers in issues around defence and national security during the fourth parliament.  ‘’He was effective in an oversight role and in holding ministers to account because he used parliament committees, he dug deep for information and tabled difficult questions.’’
The key for an effective, accountable and transparent parliament was whether it could respond to the important political issues of the day. The pressing issue was job creation, and an immediate test for the new parliament was how it responded to the Nkandla saga - unfinished business from the fourth parliament, said Calland.

Business as usual

Political analyst Steven Friedman predicted it would be business as usual after May 21. “The ANC is returning with only a few less members. There will be a few more voices with one key new entrant, the EFF. This will bring more noise from MPs dressed in red overalls, making things literally and figuratively more colourful.”
However, the EFF’s lack of experience in parliamentary affairs could limit their effectiveness. “It is one thing to be on the campaign trail. Parliamentary business is hard work. It entails asking hard questions and reading documents.’’
Speaking from the floor of the IEC results centre in Pretoria, Friedman cautioned that there had been some “alarmist” responses to parliament’s handling of Nkandla, when the ANC used delaying tactics to stall a parliamentary process established to scrutinise the R246 million upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s homestead. “Any ruling party in a parliamentary system in the world, who is fighting a corruption scandal will use their majority to kick the ball into touch. This is not unusual.”
The very fact that the ANC chose to delay the debate illustrated that parliament was a powerful, relevant institution, he said.
But at the end of the day, Friedman said it was unrealistic to expect vigorous oversight in a system where representatives were not directly elected by voters. ‘’ As long as you have a system where MPs are dependent on party leadership to be selected, you will have weak oversight.’’
By far the biggest challenge for parliament was the gap between formal politics and marginalised communities. ‘’Politicians, both from the ruling party and the opposition, are good at making speeches, but they need to listen and acquaint themselves with what is going on the ground.’’

Missing Mandela era

Leader of the Freedom Front Plus, Pieter Mulder, does not expect much change.  Mulder, among a handful veterans who has been in parliament since 1994, said that the ANC remained dominant and could still use their majority vote to ram through legislation, as they did with the Protection of State Information Bill.
Mulder, who has been Agriculture Deputy Minister, misses the early days of post-apartheid South Africa when Nelson Mandela was president. “Mandela would consult parties, he would compromise and negotiate behind the scenes in the best interests of South Africa. That atmosphere has now gone. The ANC has become arrogant.’’
“Our experience is that once in parliament, the ANC gets instructions from Cabinet. MPs do what cabinet tells them.”
The DA had not helped either, he said, adopting a “tit-for-tat’ style’’ instead of cooperating with other parties.
But he agreed with Calland power could lie with individuals. For example, the late Helen Suzman had demonstrated during the apartheid era that it was possible to make a difference as a lone opposition MP. However, Mulder felt that experience and knowledge of parliamentary process was dynamite. “If you don’t have members with experience, you are wasting your time.’’

Activist parliament

ANC parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo brushed aside criticism that parliament was at risk of losing relevance. The 2009 parliament was ushered in as an “activist parliament” he said, where all MPs were tasked with playing an oversight role over the executive “without fear or favour’’. There was always room for improvement, he acknowledged. “Any MP will be doing a disservice to his or her constituency if he or she does not take their job seriously”. Parliament consisted of multiple parties, all of which needed to work together to make the institution effective, powerful and accountable, he added.
On May 21, 400 MPs will be sworn in to this pillar of democracy with high expectations from the electorate.
·*An edited version of this article appeared in Rapport on 11 May.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I had my first article published in Afrikaans this week, in Die Burger and Beeld - on the eve of the country's fifth general elections. 

This is before the translation.
The faces of Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Julius Malema and other party leaders look worn and weathered on street poles – a sign that the time for bluster is over.
It is time for them to take a backseat and for voters to do the talking in the most significant election since our historic poll 20 years ago.
The weathered look extends to leaders and party campaigners who have breathlessly campaigned through big cities and small towns all year. They have vied for media space – not always successfully - with the sensational Oscar Pistorius trial. They have serenaded voters and hit out at opponents at rallies, on social media, in debates, and even in the court room during the rumbustious buildup to Wednesday’s fifth general elections.
Their campaigning done, politicians’ hands are tied as millions of voters head to the sanctity of the polling booth to make their cross at one of about 22 000 voting stations around the country.
Among the more than 25 million registered voters, I will join the queue with my tattered green bar-coded ID. I feel a great sense of occasion that my 18-year-old son, Tyler, will also stand in line with his crisp ID book which he collected from home affairs in the nick of time.
In truth, Tyler may not have made the effort to register if I hadn’t persisted. Like others from the “born free” generation, he can relate to the disconnect that the youth in all communities feel about political parties.  Encouraging him, I reminded him of the saying: “if you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never spent a night in bed with a mosquito.”
While Tyler may not be as committed about voting, he has no doubt about who to vote for. Not influenced by sentimentality, nostalgia or a sense of obligation to a particular party, he has decided to vote for the party that he – and his peers – relate to most.
I am among an estimated 10% of voters this year who are undecided, according to the latest Ipsos poll. I have felt conflicted. Twenty years after freedom, innocence is lost. It is easy to feel disappointment and outrage at the current crop of leaders. But it would be hypocritical to sit on the sidelines. Withdrawing does nothing for the democratic process, only adding fuel to the doomsayers who believe South Africa is on the verge of a failed state.
Like millions of South Africans - 79% of adults according to an HSRC poll - I feel obliged to vote.  The HSRC observed that this was an encouraging finding “that sets us apart from more mature democracies in Europe and North America, where there has been a diminishing sense of electoral duty in recent decades”.
Everyone who voted in 1994 will recall their sense of wonderment. In the build-up to these elections, I travelled through rural towns as a freelance journalist in a 1973 VW Combi. A time before cellphones, we were equipped with a laptop, fax machine and generator. On April 27, there was no voters roll, no need to register beforehand. I joined the winding queue along a dirt road at Waterval Farm School near Van Reenen in the Free State.  Aged 28, I was a “virgin voter”. At the station, first-time voters, “many colourfully dressed in thick blankets and woollen caps, arrived on the back of tractors, in cattle trucks and on horses. Men and women formed separate queues as they patiently waited in the chilly morning,” I wrote in City Press at the time.
Twenty years after freedom, it will still be a moving experience to stand in line, and to make my selection from the eclectic line-up of political parties – 29 on the national ballot.
On Wednesday night, exhausted leaders and party organisers will gather under one roof at the IEC nerve centre in Pretoria as results filter through overnight. Similar gatherings will take place in the 9 provinces. There will surely be a measure of camaraderie as South Africa achieves another milestone in our multi-party democracy, a democracy that depends on an engaged electorate and an accountable government with a robust opposition.
On May 21, ruling party and opposition party members will be sworn at the first sitting of the fifth parliament. Days later, the president – certainly to be majority party ANC leader Jacob Zuma – will be inaugurated. Thereafter, the real challenge begins in parliament and provincial legislatures. The new team – some old faces, some new, some good, some bad - will be tasked with stopping the decay and honouring Nelson Mandela’s legacy. If politicians work together and invest the same voomah into their day job as they did on the campaign trail, then our votes were treated with the respect they deserved. But if they trample on them, real trouble lies ahead.
·        Heard is parliamentary editor at Media 24

Footnote: Today, I voted in Harmony in Central Pretoria. It took 50 minutes from start to finish (see pix). Tyler voted in Lakeside, Cape Town. It took him a few minutes. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On a poor road to an out-of-the-world place:Cederberg

Taking the back road - IOL Travel Western Cape |

Interviewing John Kani

Background notes
I interviewed John Kani on the eve of the premiere of his new play, Missing. We chatted for 50 minutes at the Baxter Theatre. Photographer Jeffrey Abrahams took photos. It was a special moment when he shook hands with John, and introduced himself, saying that he grew up in Veeplaas near Port Elizabeth. "That is my home, where I come from," replied John warmly. Jeffrey said that his father was the local pastor during those turbulent years, and that John Kani was a local hero in their family.

Five minutes into the premiere the following night, the lights went out and the theatre was plunged into darkness. Eish, it was Eskom's blackout due to loadshedding. The audience was silent. Two minutes later the curtain went up again and the stage was lit with the help of a generator. The show went on with no sound effects or music, giving the production a gritty, authentic old-school feel. The cast did a superb job of improvising where necessary, by standing in for the lack of sound effects.
Take a bow, Kani and co..

SA deserves better: John Kani - Cape Times |

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wraparound argument a sideshow - Cape Times |

Wraparound argument a sideshow - Cape Times |
This was not an easy column to write. I have been silent, publicly, about the removal of Alide Dasnois as editor of the Cape Times the day after Madiba died. But this week, this frog had to reluctantly jump out the mud as a matter of principle.