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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Freedom at what Price?

There will be no academic freedom lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on August 11.
But the TB Davie book that bears the name of speakers since 1959 will not be blank.
It will carry an “appropriate” entry to record vice-chancellor Max Price’s withdrawal of the invite to free speech activist Flemming Rose.
Last week’s decision to uninvite the controversial Danish cultural editor 16 months after first approaching him has split the academic fraternity and exposed ideological power play on the campus.
While some have sided with Price, many have slammed him – even those who have questioned why Rose was selected by the Academic Freedom Committee in the first place.
I was taken aback when the UCT executive intervened and rescinded the invite. Rose’s decision to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad 11 years ago was insulting and blasphemous.
But being a free speech adherent within the bounds of our Constitution in post-apartheid South Africa, it would have been apt to hear him critique the issues and to hear him answer to his critics.
In his letter to the Academic Freedom Committee, Price argued that Rose’s presence would “divide and inflame” an already volatile campus.
The embattled vice-chancellor also rehashed the mantra of Rose’s critics, even though he conceded that these claims “can be contested, and the precepts of academic freedom should require us to hear him out”.
UCT had considered canning the lecture, but retaining the panel discussion that the committee had sensibly planned so that the event would not be a one-sided affair.
“However, Mr Rose is seen by many as persona non grata and while most would protest peacefully against him, we believe there is a real danger that among those offended by the cartoons, an element may resort to violence,” argued Price.
The inflamed climate – globally and in South Africa – is perhaps not ideal for such an intellectual exercise right now. It has also been enlightening to hear arguments against giving Rose a platform in the first place.
Sensitivities aside, Academic Freedom Committee chair Jacques Rousseau aptly concluded that while Price’s decision may be “understandable”, it was also “deeply regrettable”. The narrowing of university space to be informed and to contest ideas owing to fear and amid a threat of violence – or the “assassin’s veto” as Rose’s supporters put it – is deeply worrying.
The UCT fraternity has been denied an opportunity to engage with Rose, who has lampooned multiple religions. A brave crusader against self-censorship, the author of The Tyranny of Silence, has not bowed down to pressure, even at risk of death.
The ruckus about the Danish satirical publisher will subside, but the irony of Price’s vexed decision to not hear him out at the flagship academic freedom lecture will be recorded for posterity.
This article first appeared in Media 24 titles. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Kick up bucks for women with balls

Banyana Banyana go up against Sweden at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on August 3, the day of our local elections. When the players take to the field, they will be underresourced and neglected – much like the rats-and-mice political parties struggling for our attention against the dominant players on election day.
It will be a feat if the national women’s soccer team get to their second consecutive Olympics at all. A month ago, coach Vera Pauw put out her begging bowl. Appealing to Fikile “Mr Razzmatazz” Mbalula to extend a financial lifeline to women’s soccer, she said: “My big call is to the minister of sport. Help us – not afterwards, not at an awards ceremony. Instead of awards, help us prepare.”
She said the team had already lost five weeks of preparation because of a lack of funds for a national camp.
Since then, football association Safa was reportedly due to give the team a few million rands to at least complete their preparations, and test their skills in friendly matches.
The team has soldiered on, clutching on to support from solo sponsor Sasol, which created a league in 2009 to nurture women’s football from club level upwards.
Despite disparities in funding and development compared with men’s soccer, Banyana have not performed badly. Ranked a few notches higher than Bafana, the team has produced superstar Portia Modise – the first African to score more than 100 international goals. She delivered a 41m wonder strike for Banyana in the 2012 Olympics before retiring last year.
Imagine how the quality of women’s soccer would improve if sporting bodies did not just pay lip service to equity; if they supported a proper professional league with sponsors and live broadcasts.
But from my narrow experience as a soccer mom, transformation and development need to begin at school level. My daughter, Ella, had the opportunity to learn soccer six years ago, but it was during a one-year family stay in the US, where girls’ soccer is taken seriously and is paying off, with the US women’s team the current World Cup champs.
In South Africa, girls’ soccer is an afterthought on most school calendars – if offered at all – and an also-ran at award ceremonies. Even when a school shows commitment, as is the case now where Ella, aged 14, plays defence for her high school’s only girls’ team, it is a battle to find competitive teams for matches.
But the girls press on with passion and gusto, just like the Banyana women who, at 6pm on election day, will give their all for their country.
Even if the powers that be fail them, there is time for us to get behind them.

Parliament missed opportunity to up its game

2016-05-29 20:38

If Parliament wants to avoid being upstaged by 6% of the members in the House who are spoiling for a fight, it needs to up its game.
For one thing, it could ensure that the format is relevant and current, especially when it comes to holding the slippery executive to account on urgent matters of the day.If Parliament wants to avoid being upstaged by 6% of the members in the House who are spoiling for a fight, it needs to up its game.
When Parliament rose this week for an extended constituency period that will last until after the local elections on August 3, it missed an opportunity to put mechanisms in place to do just that.
While a committee that revised the rule book for the National Assembly tightened up measures to deal with unruliness, it failed to deal decisively with the unforgiving reality that 48 hours – not a week – is an aeon in South African politics.
In terms of the rules, for instance, MPs need to submit questions for President Jacob Zuma at least 16 days before he takes to the podium for oral replies, and at least nine days before Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa replies.
The yawning time lag means that the executive not only has an inordinate amount of time to sculpt answers and prepare for possible supplementary questions, it also means that by the time of the actual response, the question has all too often lost relevance, or the answer has been recycled so many times that viewers have switched off the parliamentary channel – in the absence of live-action tussles courtesy of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and parliamentary bouncers.
The failure to introduce oral questions without notice was one of the reasons the DA kicked up a fuss in the rules committee – belatedly it seems – on the day the report was approved this week.
The new rules, which have been undergoing revision by the committee for more than two years, were subsequently passed by majority vote in the National Assembly on Thursday.
So, for now, the country is stuck with a fragile Parliament and a stale format.
This was evident when Ramaphosa presented his oral replies on Wednesday. He delivered his memoirs of a trip to South Sudan – 10 days earlier – and reported back on a gathering of the World Economic Forum in Kigali that took place before that.
A question about the abuse of food parcels for votes came 20 days after the Public Protector’s report had been released.
The EFF escaped this plenary and other goings-on this week after being forcibly removed and suspended during President Zuma’s oral replies the previous week.
By so doing, the young rebel party had the last laugh, even in its absence.
While MPs of other parties – except the Congress of the People, which has waged an extended boycott of Parliament over its handling of the Nkandla saga – were sweating it out in the House and fulfilling their duties, the EFF sneakily got a head start on the election campaign.
+ This article first appeared on in City Press and Media 24 publications

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Spinning the yarn on Nkandla

Doris Dlakude and Jackson Mthembu address the media
After two years of dizzying ANC spin and opposition antics, there were high hopes on April Fools’ Day that the protracted Nkandla affair might finally stop dominating the Hansard reports on Parliament.
This might have been feasible if the president had done the honourable thing and agreed to – or, even better, insisted on – stepping down after his drubbing from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Amid President Jacob Zuma’s bold alert that he would address the nation, a wizened colleague advised me not to cancel my dinner plans. Seeing through the frenzied hype, she anticipated Zuma’s stand-to-attention as a foolhardy move.
After Zuma confirmed he was going nowhere, the Nkandla circus once again became the only show on the precinct on Tuesday, when Parliament resumed after recess. Distracted MPs – from both the ANC and opposition caucuses – rushed through important portfolio committee meetings to konkel (get together and scheme) before the 14:00 sitting of the House.
When new ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu convened a media briefing the following day, he defended the majority party’s decision to block the opposition’s motion to remove the president.
But he also showed humility, and even regret, that the ANC had rammed through the infamous resolution passed in the National Assembly by Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, which absolved Zuma from complying with the remedial action set by the Public Protector and which the Constitutional Court order has now nullified.
His deputy, Doris Dlakude, took a harder line in her insistence that the process that Parliament had followed was not faulty.
Then she rehashed the nonsensical narrative that Zuma had always planned to pay back the money. “The president didn’t say he wouldn’t pay … He waited for advice as to how much he should pay,” she insisted.
But Dlakude overlooked Zuma’s report to the Speaker of the National Assembly in August 2014 – five months after the Public Protector’s damning findings were released.
He stated clearly that a determination needed to be made as “to whether the president is liable for any contribution in respect of the security upgrades”.
And the president asked Nhleko to determine this question of liability. He also tasked the police minister to report back to Cabinet on a determination, instead of Treasury, as stipulated by the Public Protector.
The subsequent report by the little-known, newly appointed minister absolved his master, made a laughing stock of Parliament and irked the Constitutional Court.
Amid the spin, there are some indisputable facts from the past two years that cannot be expunged. The governing party should consult the records.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan after the opposition's failed motion against the president.
The Hansard and other archives have documented what must be the lowest performance in Parliament since the advent of democracy in 1994, and the sorry chapter is not yet over.
This column first appeared on Media 24 platforms in April:

No-nonsense Pravin cuts back on budget snacks

A routine Treasury advisory to the media about arrangements for the budget speech on Wednesday may not be what journalists want to hear.
The advisory cautions that due to “cost-containment measures, there might be scaling down on the refreshments provided”. Poorly paid, on-the-go and nutrient-deprived hacks covering the Budget are advised to “come prepared with additional snacks” for the long hours that they are in lock-up from 6am - unable to leave the parliamentary buildings until Gordhan tables his speech in the National Assembly.
While journalists can anticipate leaner fillings on their sarmies on Wednesday, the advisory sends a strong message that the finance Minister means business, and is intent on trimming the fat everywhere.
It is also apparent that the Minister knows the importance of leading from the top. While some ministers struggle to defend the hundreds of thousands of Rands spent on overseas jaunts while the economy is on the skids, the finance Minister earned praise when he was photographed travelling on an economy flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg after the State of the Nation address  (SONA).
Although lavish and unchecked personal spending was evident on the red carpet on 11 February, it was a marginally less grandiose occasion. The celebratory post-SONA dinner was canned, a casualty of fiscal prudence which saw the budget for the event almost halved from two years ago, down to R3.5 million.
The customary media cocktail network session hosted by the presidency was also shelved this week. Parliament has been forced to tighten up generally, with virtual tea-on-tap services curtailed for MPs forced to sit through lengthy committee meetings. It has also been reported that Parliament’s building plans to enlarge the precinct are also on hold.
In his state of the nation address, Zuma glibly set the tone for Gordhan’s cost-cutting budget. Overseas trips by government officials will be approved only if they are able to motivate what the benefits are for the country, and the size of delegations will be reduced. Zuma also announced that dinners traditionally hosted by government departments after budget votes speeches will be scrapped.
These overdue interventions emphasise that every cent counts. But these savings are minuscule compared to the excessive bleeding of state resources from the top - in Zuma’s Cabinet and at state owned enterprises - and also in provinces and municipalities.
Gordhan has the will to make a difference. While journalists munch on their Tupperware leftovers on Wednesday, the true test will be if the second-time round Finance Minister has the power to stop the rot and rein in the big spenders.
This column first appeared on Media24 platforms in February:

Hani's killer to be freed into country he tried to prevent

I felt my whiteness as I walked through the crowd. I was outside Chris Hani’s home in Boksburg in 1993 after he had been gunned down by right-wingers. Shattered mourners glared at me suspiciously. As an idealistic young reporter inspired by the nonracial ethos of the United Democratic Front, I felt an unfamiliar unease.
Now, more than 21 years since the birth of the rainbow nation, I have felt the stereotype of my whiteness again. I am aware that, even when I write, I may be judged not as a South African, but as a white person.
It is true that many white people are cocooned from challenging realities. They share the blame for the rise in mistrust and anger among black South Africans. In many families, racial superiority passes down – unchallenged and unchecked – to the next generation.
This is why commentator Justice Malala appealed this week for white people to show empathy. He urged them to acknowledge, once and for all, that “those days under apartheid were worse than you could imagine”.
But it is foolhardy to peddle the notion that Penny Sparrow represents most white people, or that whiteness is still responsible for the country’s current crop of woes.
When I spoke at my old school, Camps Bay High, for Founders Day recently, I choked back tears as I stood before a hall-full class of black and white kids. How different would things have been if this hall looked like that when I wore my green-and-white uniform 30 years ago?
And yet, despite these transformational moments of hope and pride, the vengeful claw of extremism, cynicism, vitriol and finger-pointing has gripped social media.
Amid the wake-up call of recent weeks, we have an opportunity to break free. A starting point would be to stop being defensive and to open up and interact – about our roots, our prejudices, our differences. Let’s talk about our whiteness and our blackness.
Parliament has a role to play. Why not encourage honest dialogue in a mini Truth and Reconciliation Commission moment? MPs who have crossed the line with inflammatory racial hatred should be accountable to the public. Dianne Kohler Barnard should answer – in an open forum – for her Facebook blunder hankering after apartheid.
It is not good enough for the DA or a parliamentary ethics committee to deal with the matter behind closed doors. The same goes for ANC MP Bongani Mkongi, who called for people to be burnt to death in retaliation for the erection of a billboard in Cape Town pronouncing that President Jacob Zuma must fall.
To cool hot heads, and the air, we need leadership. We need another Nelson Mandela, who called for calm after Hani’s assassination.
Instead of a race war, Mandela led a broken nation into a new order filled with hope, goodwill and possibility, idealistic as it may seem right now.
This column originally appeared in March on Media24 platforms:

Monday, January 11, 2016

If only the ANC would heed its own call on SABC?

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians made laws that they would like to have in place even when they are not in power?
Former SABC board member and head of radio news Pippa Green advised the ANC to do just that in her reaction to Communications Minister Faith Muthambi’s proposed amendments to the Broadcasting Act.
The most troubling amendment is that nonexecutive members of the SABC board will no longer be appointed on the advice of Parliament, but by the minister of communications. In one fell swoop, the vital role that Parliament has played to at least try to ensure that the broadcaster is accountable to the public will be extinguished.
Not yet in power during the dying days of apartheid, the ANC was at the forefront of efforts to transform the all-mighty SABC from being a state propaganda tool. The need for an independent SABC was so pressing that the current Broadcasting Amendment Act was enacted in 1993 to enable free and credible elections to take place in April 1994.
Describing the uphill battle at the time, then ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa said in a 1992 speech that the National Party had been trying to convince negotiators that its SABC appointees, “many of them with links to the Broederbond and to the SA Defence Force’s Directorate of Military Intelligence”, had somehow transformed and were no longer propagandists.
Now, after more than 21 years in power, similar ruling-party arrogance has been displayed, this time by an ANC president who believes that the former liberation party will rule until Jesus comes back.
Although Cabinet – in its jittery and divided state – approved Muthambi’s Broadcasting Amendment Bill last month, tensions are evident, with alliance partner the SA Communist Party openly trashing it.
But if ANC MPs continue the pattern of closing ranks when the bill comes before Parliament next year, they will abandon yet another pledge from their glory years.
“The ANC is committed to public broadcasting which is independent of the government of the day, and which owes its loyalty not to any party, but to the population as a whole,” Ramaphosa said in 1992.
The current ANC leadership does not care to take advice from others, but you would think they would heed their own advice. Or perhaps Muthambi and her cohorts are too drunk with power to notice that in the party discussion documents for the National General Council 2015, there are repeated recommendations for the SABC to have “strengthened accountability to Parliament”.
But after this week, we can’t expect any common sense or for-the-greater-good advice to be taken into consideration.
So, after the foolhardy decision to axe Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, I won’t be holding my breath.
* This article first appeared in various Media 24 titles on 14 and 15 December 2015. 

Parliament gets a seismic wake-up call

The snotklap that Parliament received from its support staff this week should be a wake-up call for the institution’s bosses.
Although the unprotected strike was about performance bonuses, hundreds of protesting staff members who disrupted Parliament throughout the week were also attempting to reclaim their space.
Although they took their protest too far by overpowering committees, it was a defiant act against a new culture that has been sweeping through the precinct. This new order has been characterised by creeping paranoia and a chipping away of the multiparty democratic space that has been celebrated since 1994.
Spurred on by the #FeesMustFall protests, the unprecedented standoff by staff has been building up for some time.
Staff members have been mumbling about the consequences of a regime change in the fifth democratic Parliament.
The arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which have punched above their 6% weight, changed everything. This coincided with the death of Parliament secretary Michael Coetzee – a democrat who had earned the respect of all parties – and the arrival of Gengezi Mgidlana.
Granted, the troubled institution has been in an invidious position. It has battled to maintain order, is forced to constantly put out fires and fight many battles as its policies have been rudely rubbished.
Unable to manage the disruptive newcomer party and under increasing pressure from the ANC majority, Parliament’s leaders have been on the defensive, administering the institution with a firmer hand and a different intent.
The securitisation at Parliament has caused deep rifts. Staff members are increasingly reluctant to interact with journalists for fear of reprisals, and amid warnings that their social media and chat lines were being monitored.
But Moira Levy, a content manager in the communications service who was once an active member of the ANC, spoke out against the new security vetting procedure imposed on staff by the State Security Agency in an article in the Mail & Guardian. “I was employed to serve Parliament, not the ruling party … My job is to inform citizens about what their Parliament is doing, not keep information from them,” she wrote, prompting a warning from Parliament – via the media – that she could face disciplinary consequences for speaking out.
This week there was a seismic shift in the atmosphere as staff broke ranks and rebelled en masse. For once, it was not the whining DA or the unruly EFF that were the opstokers. The agitation was from Nehawu members in the ANC’s ranks.
As staff occupied Parliament and interacted precariously with riot police through the week, the message was plain and simple: watch out.
* This article first appeared in various Media 24 titles on 24 and 25 October 2015

Out of step parliament bumbles on regardless

Parliament’s esteem has taken a few knocks over the past 18 months. Last week, its reputation sank further, owing to its somnolent response to the #FeesMustFall crisis.
How can it be that this pillar of political relevance, accountability and democracy has only scheduled an “urgent debate” on Tuesday on a crisis that has gripped the nation for two weeks?
The debate will be a farce. Not only will its relevance have been overtaken, but it will take place without Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs, who were ejected from the National Assembly and suspended for five days after agitating for Parliament to deal with the matter immediately.
Parliament’s stubborn determination to put procedure first matches the slow-footedness of an otherwise competent finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. Timing is everything in politics. To earn public respect, ministers need to be intuitive and adaptable.
They should at least acknowledge the burning issues and recognise the discontent, even if it falls on an auspicious day in their calendar – set aside for the medium-term budget policy statement – and amid the glare of ruthless international credit ratings agencies.
Yet in spite of the outpouring of anger and frustration on the streets by the youth of this country, it was business as usual at Parliament on Wednesday. Journalists covering Nene’s speech dutifully arrived after sunrise for the “lock-up” to get access to the documents before Nene’s 2pm address. Phones were locked away and all copy was embargoed until the address in the National Assembly began.
In the hefty finance documents, the omission of any solution to the tertiary funding problem was glaring. When hard copies of Nene’s 15-page speech were distributed, just one lame paragraph was devoted to the #FeesMustFall matter. The formalities of the budget lock-up proceeded like clockwork. Street protesters, who are regulars at these occasions, arrived at lunchtime, this year with #FeesMustFall paraphernalia.
Presiding officer Thoko Didiza opened the 2pm sitting of the House. She was rudely interrupted by the EFF’s appeal to postpone Nene’s speech so the House could respond to the crisis outside. Other opposition parties joined the ANC in voting against the EFF, which, although opportunistic, was in tune with the mood on the ground.
In what has become routine in the fifth Parliament, journalists anticipated covering the ejection of EFF members by the enthusiastic “white shirts”, the term used to describe parliamentary security. But the real drama erupted outside the House in the parliamentary precinct. Incredibly, Nene rattled through his speech, oblivious to the chaos outside. Not even the thunderous boom of stun grenades, which were flung around the Madiba statue, interrupted him.
It didn’t disturb President Jacob Zuma, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande or ANC and opposition MPs who remained cocooned in the House.
A missed opportunity, it will be hard to push aside these contrasting images of a parallel universe when MPs take to the podium on Tuesday to tackle the hashtag on everyone’s lips.
* This article was first published in various Media 24 titles on 25 and 26 October 2015

Political parties must break silence on funding

Transparency is important, until it comes to us.
This was the apt observation by the spokesperson of the Right2Know Campaign, Murray Hunter, about the hypocrisy of political parties in the wake of this week’s Constitutional Court dismissal of an application seeking to enforce the disclosure of private political funding.
The DA preaches transparency and accountability in almost all its public discourses.
Yet it would have quietly joined the ANC in welcoming the ruling that served a body blow to the campaign to get political parties to reveal who their funders are via Parliament.
The DA has been putting out many fires this week – from Dianne Kohler Barnard’s shared Facebook post praising PW Botha to the axing of convicted abaThembu King Dalindyebo.
But this distraction would not have been the reason for its masters of spin neglecting to issue a statement after the ruling on Wednesday – a day in which the party churned out at least six media statements.
The uncharacteristic coyness on the My Vote Counts ruling might have had more to do with the fact that the DA is reluctant to voluntarily advertise the awkward reality that when it comes to its coffers, the party is not brave enough to support transparency.
Much like the ANC, which has dithered for more than eight years on taking the promised action on this vexed issue.
When pushed to comment on the ruling, which ironically fell on the day of anti-corruption marches on Parliament and the Union Buildings, the DA’s James Selfe told Media24 that “in a perfect world”, there should be rules enforcing the disclosure for donations over a certain amount. But he said the ANC was intent on remaining in power at all costs.
“Therefore, there is a real or perceived belief by donors who give money to opposition parties that if their identities were disclosed, they would suffer real personal or financial danger.”
It would be naive to dismiss this, but the negative consequences of secrecy for voters are more severe.
Political donations are the common dirty thread that run through too many of the corruption scandals that have dented South Africa’s moral standing. This week’s revelations about murky multimillion-rand exchanges between Hitachi and the ANC’s Chancellor House are a case in point.
The DA is not a virgin to scandal either.
In 2002, a team of journalists led by the Cape Times’ Tony Weaver lifted the lid on shady financial exchanges between senior Western Cape DA leaders, and German fugitive and con man Jurgen Harksen.
A commission set up afterwards failed to uncover if Harksen’s generosity had extended to the party’s coffers.
The campaigners behind this week’s failed court bid are on the money on this principled issue. If politicians are serious about stopping the rot, they must stop waiting for a perfect world.
They needed to have acted already to unmask the sources of their privately generated incomes.
* This article was first published in various Media 24 titles on on 3 and 4 October