Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why you needn't lose hope if President Zuma gets a second term

Mangaung approaches fast. Let's take a realistic, not prophetic look at it, leaving out the wailing and gnashing of teeth. They only make the head spin and the eyes lose focus.
The doomsayers declaring a second term for Jacob Zuma a sign of the End of Days should be heard with scepticism. The president could respectably announce his retirement - or, unlike former president Thabo Mbeki, respectably be 'recalled', an honourable job done - any time after 2014, having splendidly led his party to an historic election victory.
If only we were seers. Perhaps the deal has already been struck in the corridors of the ANC-tripartite alliance that our likeable and beleaguered president's stay will not extend to anything like seven years.
What is clear to see is that re-electing Jacob Zuma president at Mangaung improves the ANC’s chances of holding on to power not only beyond 2014, when victory is certain, but beyond 2019, when it may not be quite so sure. Whether the party’s fortunes continue downhill or pick up from today’s low, the top men in the suits can time a 'better' replacement for the president at the best moment. Which is another reason why President Zuma's re-election at Mangaung is probably now a shoo-in.
Helen Zille says it is and she, after all, is the leader of SA's putative opposition. We should listen. Ms Zille knows the ANC is unchallenged democratically and that a small caucus will decide 'the leadership contest' to suit the party.
Published on BDlive Letters, November 20 2012

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SA obviously needs political opposition, so what is the problem?

It is maddening, among SA’s many other serious problems, that President Zuma is able to shrug off the vast expense of his Nkandla homestead, posing as helpless before the prodigality of his security people and Public Works, while those two departments blame each other for the R200m+ of ‘renovations’.

A directly elected president would not have accepted a new home in SA today at that price. And a party that faced real opposition would never have ok’d it.
But we must endeavour to keep our heads when all about us are losing theirs.
In an article In the national interest to build a strong opposition - BDlive, October 24 - Allister Sparks clutched at straws when he took Helen Zille's kite-flying of a coalition among opposition parties to be the solution. He also looked for, alternatively or perhaps simultaneously, the revival of some sort of ‘movement’, along the lines of the old United Democratic Front. It is a familiar, even popular idea. But it raises another question: can a movement any longer work? Haven’t we just seen a ‘civil society movement’ to get rid of e-tolling fail?
On the issue of a coalition, Bantu Holomisa has already made clear that all parties to one must remain independent, an early warning to putative partners of icebergs ahead. That aside, can we really see him, the fiery Mr Lekota and liberal Helen Zille all working together for long? Who would be the boss when the tough decisions started crowding in? Who would be able to say, ‘This is the way we’re going on this, guys’? Someone has to in every firm. How long before it turned into another Cope? Or, as some will add, into another ANC?

It is an even bigger mistake to draw conclusions from how the UDF worked way-back-when, in an entirely different world. The UDF joined together a range of disparate, largely disenfranchised interests in what was then a single, clear and patently just cause: to overthrow apartheid. Conditions today bear no comparison.
What is required to check and balance the ruling party now is political competition - something like an equally powerful opposition party. That is no ad hoc thing, a group or breakaway got together overnight. It means a party credible enough to convince a fully enfranchised people it will serve them better than the ANC they rely on and support for giving them the benefits they enjoy. It means a party the majority of South Africans believe they can trust to provide an alternative government.

No such party, which would have to be indisputably black-led as a minimum qualification, exists or is in prospect. If either were the case, Ms Zille, a professional politician and realist, would not fly a kite for a coalition.

Another frequently heard complaint is that party lists are the cause of all the problems and must be replaced or modified by introducing constituencies. No one explains how this can happen unless the ANC agrees to it, but let us ignore that for a moment.
Before deciding that constituencies are the cure-all that will make our politicians accountable at last, we must understand the fundamental reason the system lacks accountability is that SA has not yet developed a democratic culture. The republic has a democratic constitution and democratic institutions, but they do not constitute a democratic society. As I have argued on Politicsweb* before, SA is a monocracy or party-state - arguably has never been anything else.

Many are clearly happy with one-party rule and some, increasingly, are not. But for all interests, the die is cast at present. The monocrats will not support any electoral reform that weakens their control until they are obliged to. That is why the Slabbert report gathers dust.

It is notable the DA, SA's so-called official opposition, has not taken up Slabbert and does not campaign for direct elections by constituencies either. That can only be because their strategists know that in present conditions it would almost certainly make things worse than they are.
The majority of SA's voters would simply continue to vote as now for ANC candidates, probably reducing the number of opposition seats in parliament. More obviously, all ANC candidates would continue to be approved, one way or the other, by the party bosses and therefore continue to owe their living to them. The fundamentals would not have changed at all.

*This article first appeared on Politicsweb on October 29 2012




Thursday, September 27, 2012

Is a second term for President Zuma really such a bad idea?

Although we must welcome South Africa's newspapers vigorously taking political sides at last - it is an essential part of building a democracy - what is the purpose of the general and relentless press campaign against President Jacob Zuma when the ANC will be returned to power anyway?
If it is to influence public opinion against him, we must remind ourselves the SA public have no direct say in the selection or election of their president. None of the supposed, or shortly to be proposed, ANC candidates says anything that suggests he has different policies to offer and all defer to what they are pleased to call the collective wisdom of the party. Indeed, Kgalema Motlanthe, punted as the best available alternative, has demonstrated he does so in practice, when he acted - or as many would see it, failed to act independently - as stand-in president.
A second term for President Zuma has for some considerable time been looking like the soundest way forward. There is no candidate evidently more acceptable within the divided and in many ways demoralised ANC and alliance. A second term would at least provide a measure of stability for the party and country, which is what Cosatu evidently settled and voted for at their congress last week.
And most important, a second term would allow for the orderly development of opposition, even accelerate it, while Jacob Zuma’s supporters would be pacified by their president getting a deserved second chance to prove his detractors wrong.
How does change for change’s sake beat all that?


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shakespeare, Brando, Branagh and an African 'Julius Caesar'

[Thoughts to a friend who has just seen the RSC's all-African Julius Caesar]
I am no expert on Shakespeare, but I know him reasonably well and long ago stopped trying to get my mind round his huge intelligence and profound insight into character, his breadth of interests and imagination and dazzling, glorious poetry, the sublime use of language. It is all as close to superhuman as you can get. Like Wagner in music, in the end just ... astonishing.
More by chance than choice, Julius Caesar is one of the plays I have seen most, I would guess, along surprisingly perhaps with The Winter's Tale. Both were set-books at school and our class went or were expected to go to performances as part of our studies, which put the two ahead on count early in life. We never really lose our first loves; they stay with us always.
And I do love Julius Caesar, especially up to the end of Antony's great speech, for its excitement and pace and Shakespeare's observations about power, how it operates and what it does to people: timeless and universal. I am sure you do not need me to tell you how relevant that message is for Africans and in Africa today, a continent where democracy is only at the beginning of its endless struggle for justice and human rights.
You say the African cast, especially Cassius, spoke very quickly, though of course I cannot know how that bruised the verse: it is, for me, still important to have it spoken with regard for its beauty as well as the drama. Having heard Ralph Fiennes, an actor I consider to be among the best, rattle off 'To be or not to be' in under a minute, presumably just to do it differently, I do find myself on the side of tradition at times. I go for Kenneth Branagh's approach to the Bard: 'my mate Shakespeare' -but knowing all the while he has in him a very remarkable mate.
I remember with special fondness the James Mason, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando film version of Julius Caesar, the one we saw at school. I fancy it sticks in my mind also because I was sat next to a very pretty six former called Janet Williams, though even Janet did not manage to take my attention off the screen for long. 
Marlon Brando looked every inch the educated Anglo-Saxon's idea at the time of a Roman patrician, a beautifully sculptured bust, and spoke his lines thrillingly and, to all the critics' great wonder after his mumblings in A Streetcar named Desire and Viva Zapata, perfectly clearly. But I regret I do not find him now the person Mark Antony really was, or that Shakespeare had in mind, a wild and passionate man who 'revels long o'nights' and loves his friends.
At least you are in no doubt about that last quality from Marlon Brando's performance. Left alone in the Capitol, if you should manage to catch the film one day on TV, is his finest moment, speaking over Caesar's bloody corpse - 'O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers ...'
Phew. Wow.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Zuma, Motlanthe, Malema: anyone for President?

Here are a few political thoughts. They are only thoughts: not necessarily personal opinions and definitely not a plug for any side in our fissiparous and floundering ruling party/alliance. They will accordingly be a laughing stock, safely ignored, or found completely unacceptable. In short, they offer something for everyone.

Jacob Zuma is not a bad president, but a weak one. Thabo Mbeki was a strong president, but a bad one. To grumble too much either way is to miss the point. SA takes the presidents it gets. That is current procedure.

Whereas people could rarely understand what former president Thabo Mbeki said, President Zuma has always been clear. He explained from the start he will do what the party decides and since the party has difficulty deciding anything, he does not know what to do.

Though that sounds a joke, it is serious, but in quite another way. The constant calls for leadership can be seen as a yearning on all sides for someone who would crack the whip, sort things out, bang some heads together, ride a little roughshod, maybe. Someone of stature.

Do we unconsciously want a Big Man, perhaps? In what is SA’s essentially one-party state, there’s a joke that could turn out to be serious indeed.

Our outcast national-socialist Mr Julius Malema is telling anyone desperate enough to listen that no leader is any good. Once it was Mr Mbeki; now it’s President Zuma and, gratuitously, Cyril Ramaphosa. How long before it’s Kgalema Motlanthe and there’s no one left with credit, or credibility, at all?

Perhaps SA’s problems are too much for any one person. They are certainly too much for any one party.
Letter published in BDlive, August 24 2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Herheim's answer at Bayreuth for opera lovers puzzled by 'Parsifal'

As people get older they start to look back and talk about the past, as you must have noticed.

They contact former school mates, old friends and flames and, as it seems, try to relive things that are beyond recall. It is why reunions of all kinds and websites like Friends Reunited are so popular. They keep up, for everyone, the illusion that we can go back: that time has not passed and we are able to find things again as they were.

Most attempts at recovery are not only fruitless but extremely painful. Life is a river and, as the philosopher reputedly said, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Nevertheless we would not be human if we did not reflect, in private moments, on our own tiny history, on what we’ve lived through and dealt with, and try to make some assessment of it all. Out of the jumble of events, only a blurred outline and an indistinct course take shifting form. In some, this leads to their critically reviewing their lives and loves and one-time automatic convictions and sometimes also to their 'reforming'; it is a famous theme in art and life. The composer Richard Wagner, a most thoughtful intelligence, would certainly have gone through it. More important, he had every means, as a great artist, to put down his personal journey and his conclusions about it for posterity.

Even from him, perhaps particularly from him, we must not expect clarity. Parsifal is a work about understanding, forgiveness and redemption, not, as it has been said to be, about a very powerful and, by many accounts, often unpleasant personality starting to lose it in his dotage. There is no resignation or acceptance in Parsifal, nothing in it ‘failing’ - except for Evil failing. Along with Wagner's well-known lifetime obsession with Redemption has come the wisdom that is supposed to come to us all, but which is probably no more than our grasping at long last that there is, after all, a bit more to life than we thought at 25, or even twice the age.

Is this reform, is this a spiritual awakening or renewal, is Parsifal a religious work? There is no reply that will suit everyone (though many will think it was simple-minded of Nietzsche to say this final music-drama with its rituals of the Mass was Wagner ‘falling weeping at the foot of the Cross’). You find the same conclusions in the case of another huge and elusive intelligence, Shakespeare, in his beautiful Winter's Tale and The Tempest. I saw a play about Shakespeare in his later years once and in one of the scenes the character of the contemporary, controversial playwright - and younger man - Ben Jonson, bursts out in exasperation to Shakespeare: ‘The Winter's Tale! - what was that all about!’ The audience laughed happily at the joke. Most of us were also younger than the poet when he wrote his play.

In the same way, it is frequently pointed out that Parsifal simply baffles many people (as well as boring very many more rigid). Leaving aside the slow pace, and everyone's different tastes in music, they have been known to ask nervously, even after sitting diligently through the full four and a half hours: ‘Er - what is it about?’

Stefan Herheim’s marvellously imaginative production of Parsifal at Bayreuth answers unforgettably:

The person’s whole life, a people’s entire history, are in the end the means to redemption.

Monday, August 6, 2012

If Marx was wrong, can Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters be right?

Stop reading now if it seems like this article is going to attack the leadership of the EFF personally or go on about how Marxism killed millions of people and what a terrible thing that was. It is not about that.

Karl Marx was an extraordinary and original thinker.  He wove many of the radical intellectual ideas of his day into what he and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels held was a scientific explanation of history and socialism. In the nineteenth century, very many clever people thought that science could explain, even solve, every problem eventually.

Speaking at Marx’s graveside in March 1883, Engels made clear that both men saw their ideas as proven beyond argument. He called Marx ‘the man of science’ and declared: ‘Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.’

The law of development of human history? Discovered it?

Among Marxism’s many contentions, two are foundational. One is that capitalism is destined to destroy itself through its own contradictions; the other is that history is not just random events randomly following one another, but a process. History is something working itself out.

If these assertions are true, if history is a predestined process, there is no reason why ‘capitalism’ - whatever we understand by the term - is not on course to destroy itself along Marxist lines or for some other reasons we cannot foresee. It could be - and there would be nothing anyone could do about it. On the other hand, if history is not predetermined, then there is no reason why the fate of capitalism is sealed. People in that event are not puppets and there are things they can do about it.

In the years since Marx’s death, and not only in Europe but across the entire globe, observation and experience, the two basics of science, do not support his predictions. In spite of two hugely destructive world wars, the great capitalist powers survived or later recovered; more significantly, new world players are now following their example; one mass impoverished industrial class has not emerged; the state has not withered away; and capitalism has gone through repeated crises, but each time come through.

The leaders of the EFF, like all revolutionaries, are entitled to point out that is only true so far. But the fact that they have come to rely on prophecy shows that they cling more these days to faith than science. No science showed Marx had discovered, much less proved, a ‘law’ shaping human history. Even if such a law existed, science does not explain why its presence would have been vouchsafed, without experiment, to Marx alone, especially as his own thinking as a member of the bourgeoisie should have made that, by his own theories, impossible.

Human conduct is not reliably measurable or predictable and even if it is predictable in some respects, as some behaviourists would argue, experiments never manage to place it beyond doubt. Local circumstances always vary enormously and laboratory conditions are practically impossible in a world that is in a permanent passage of change. That is why psychologists and sociologists are guarded in saying how people will behave as individuals or in groups and why economists are even more careful to hedge their bets. They speak of tendencies; possibilities; opportunities. Not laws.

Some familiar conclusions and some conclusions worth thinking about stem from this.

For a century and a half, ‘communism’ has enjoyed an apparent moral superiority that derives from its claim to have detected and to represent inevitability. The status quo, indiscriminately labelled oppressive and sinning ‘capitalism’, no matter how modern societies differ and representative governments successively adjust to change, is always by contrast not only defective, but also damned.

This thinking in its classical Marxist form - and in its Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Freudian, neo-marxist and New Left, Maoist and other variations - is systematized belief, not science. Communism was never and is not scientifically inevitable; communist parties do not speak for a permanently excluded class and no longer speak alone for the poor. If they ever did.

But if they wish to speak for those currently excluded, they must give the real people they call ‘the voiceless’ a voice, by submitting themselves to elections. Unlike the South African Communist Party, sheltered by its alliance with the ANC, the banished Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters have had to take that risk, avoided by revolutionaries till now as counter-revolutionary.

Despite all the media hype, despite the inequality and evident injustices in SA society, it is anybody's guess how it will work out for them without History on their side.

Revised article that first featured on Politicsweb on August 1 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who said we can say what we like in the new South Africa?

If you think about it, we do not all have ‘freedom of speech’ in the careless way we like to say we do.

The numerous international conventions that recognize this great individual freedom today, the ‘national’ Declarations and Bills of Rights over the centuries that established it and the modern constitutions that enshrine it, all recognize there are limits to our right to say anything we choose. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 stated that ‘every citizen shall be responsible for abuses [of freedom of expression] as shall be defined by law.’ The right, in other words, came with responsibility: there are always going to be others to consider.

How much greater is the need to make citizens ‘responsible for abuses’ in the enormously more complex, multi-ethnic and democratic world of today. You are not free to incite genocide under international law. In the new South Africa, you may not legally indulge in hate speech against gender, race, ethnicity or religion. The famous First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing free speech is not taken to include, among other things, obscenity and criminal speech (threats and menaces, for example). The most open societies in the world restrict pornography and circumscribe what may be said or published to protect children, people's reputations and privacy.

If there are many areas where the law forbids ‘free speech’, there are very many more where custom dictates we restrain ourselves. We all know we are expected to speak kindly and considerately to our partners and children, relatives and friends, hard though that sometimes is to manage. We try, though we fail even more often here, to address business colleagues and associates civilly. Even internet posts manage from time to time to make a point without personal abuse. The examples seem trivial. But social life would be intolerable if we did not voluntarily hold our tongues in all kinds of ways every day.

Where on earth, then, did the idea come from that we are free to say anything we like?

One source is certainly Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ (though his famous ‘quote’ comes from a biography and  sums up Voltaire's overall attitude rather than reports his actual words).

This piece of eighteenth century Gallic gallantry is impossible for us to accept now - and would no doubt be impossible for Voltaire also were he here to see what it would oblige him to die for: nasty and mindless racist talk from both sides over apartheid; support for and denial of the Holocaust; broadcasts in Rwanda not so very long ago that urged people to ‘kill the vermin, kill the cockroaches’. Would the most celebrated advocate of human reason from the European Age of Reason really have gone along with any of it?

When Noam Chomsky goes even further by claiming, ‘If you believe in freedom of speech, that means you're in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise,’ it does not follow that we must approve glossy brochures promoting paedophilia. It is only the unqualified claim to the right that gives rise to such grotesque ideas.

It seems much more likely that what we are insisting on when we insist on our right of ‘free speech’ is our right to speak out freely on the two subjects of religion and politics.

Now that is an altogether proper demand in a democracy. And it makes the question we should be asking ourselves a quite different one: can we really be living in a democracy, when we are so far from agreed on the answer?

Friday, June 29, 2012

What will the next President of SA have to do with you?

Delegates attending the ANC policy conference yesterday rejected suggestions that the party change the way it handles competition for positions - the opening words of a front page news item in Business Day on June 29 - ANC keeps lid on succession battles.

Are citizens seriously asked to believe that vote, in a faction-led party-state, was not managed? Why would anyone in the new SA not wish to hear what candidates, who believed they are fit and proper to be the president and leader of the country in future, have to say about the job?

Who is fooling whom this is democracy?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why SA's democracy isn't working

It is impossible to glance at the headlines, let alone open a newspaper or turn on the radio or TV news these days, without meeting some fresh story, editorial, article, cartoon and any number of readers and listeners complaining about the ANC and some party official or other.
People the world over blame the government for their troubles, don’t we know it. But you would have thought by now this really is too much. Even amiable President Zuma managed to look concerned over the weekend and said something to the effect that it is all getting a bit out of hand.

In case you thought this must make the party get a grip at last (and credit where it’s due: it did manage to expel the headlong Mr Malema in the end: at least for the time being), the view is that this week’s ANC policy conference will not change a thing. How can it? Very often general discontent cannot be traced to specific policies while specific discontents are generally forgotten with time. If you want a trip down memory lane, try to recall the uproar over 'quiet diplomacy'. Remember how angry we were with government policy on Aids? Are they weighed in the balance now?

No: understandably, the public are more aroused by the things that touch them closest: by cronyism, by the incompetence and maladministration of government. Some intellectuals may go on about the separation of the powers, threats to the independence of the judiciary and other arcane matters, but it is the shambles in Limpopo education, lawlessness amid the blue-light brigades, the Mercs and the jollies at home and abroad that really get at people where they live.

It is worrying because many seem genuinely lost for an explanation of why 'democracy' should have brought all this down on our heads. Wasn't it supposed to usher in a better life for all? Some even issue dire warnings that SA is inevitably going the way of the rest of Africa - whatever it is they mean by saying that. Or that we've followed in the footsteps of President Robert Mugabe next door and all is already lost.

What disturbingly few do is draw the obvious conclusion: cast your vote for a different party next time. 

Now before scoffing - or exploding - at the very suggestion, consider. However unkind we are to one another on the matter, most of us know about the struggle and the injustices of apartheid. We have read our learned professors' analyses about legacies and identity politics. We understand when they tell us we are stuck with the way things are because that is the way things are.

Nevertheless it is still you, after all, who are complaining more and more about the government these days and it is only you, after all, who have the means to do something about it: you can change your individual vote in a secret ballot. (It may seem a terribly cynical thing to say, but if the idea of that seems unacceptable, close your eyes, make your cross somewhere else next time, and don't tell anyone about it.)

Of course, at this point the usual objection is 'my vote will not make any difference.' That is very possible the first time and even the second time. But how will you ever know if you don't make a start? And if you worry that the 'other lot' won't be any different, remember you are free to switch your vote back again. That's right. Be really hard-faced about it. Meanwhile you'll have given the current lot a shock that will do them as well as the whole country good.

That's the point the doomsayers always miss. It is actually their job, your job, our job, to give the good guys in the ruling party (as we dutifully call it) the motivation they need to clear out some of the bad guys we are forever complaining about.

It's a tough call, but in a democracy we are all called upon to make it. A lot of what is wrong in SA today is down to you.

This article was first published in Politicsweb on June 25 2012

Friday, June 1, 2012

'The Spear': the politics of art and the art of politics

'In our communities, to refer to someone as a private part is … war,' declared Blade Nzimande, a piece of flagrant stirring relayed with every sign of sympathy by Stephen Grootes  (The Spear may yet lead to a process of healing, Business Day, May 29).

For heaven's sake! To refer to someone as a private part is a casus belli in any darn community! But the angry artist's intention was to rouse his fellow South Africans to anger, not to war. It is honourable to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Mr Murray's act of provocation has been stoked on the one side by tripartite alliance elements who stand to gain by causing a furore and on the other by a media equally well served by another round of 'public outrage'.

Who knows if the 'furore' reflects what the majority think about it. The majority appear more worried about where the next meal is coming from. What the newspapers love to call our 'leaders' often claim 'the people' are up in arms because, when it suits them, our leaders possess powerful means to make sure the people are.

The truth is there is no way of knowing, or showing, how this obscene painting is generally received. But we do know from recent polls that a large proportion of the black majority has its doubts about President Zuma and could well be as pleased at his discomfiture as his open enemies.

What is clear is Mr Zuma loses if he does not attack the painting and may still lose now he has ‘won’. 

Society is what it is. The main questions from the uproar are political. Has it helped the President's  chances of re-election or not? Has it done the ANC more harm than good?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is Brett Murray's 'Spear' teaching us the same as Yuill Damaso's 'Anatomy Lesson'?

 Forgotten all about that other notoious painting two years ago?
Refresh you memory about the politics of art and the art of politics:

Yuill Damaso’s painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, after Rembrandt’s 1632 masterpiece of the same title, has not caused a storm (even if it is one in a teacup) because of its artistic merit or lack of it. His choice of subject is condemned as tasteless and, as always when cultures collide, racist; as an abuse of Nelson Mandela and his family; as an affront to African values, which - so the ANC complained to Mr Damaso - consider it witchcraft to show a living person dead. Cosatu also felt obliged to express their disgust at the painter’s exploitation of an icon to increase ‘profitability in the sale room.’

Ignoring for a moment whether Mr Mandela is abused, these are cultural and political objections. It makes sense then to look at the two paintings from the opposite viewpoint, as visitors do in a gallery, to see if there is anything they have missed.

Mr Damaso has pointed out that African culture is not his culture and he does not see anything wrong in what he has done. He might have added Rembrandt himself ‘profited’ from his work: it was a commission from a wealthy surgeon, Dr Nicolaes Tulp, who is shown conducting the anatomy class in the original painting. There is no outrage in one artist openly finding inspiration in another, or in Mr Damaso hoping his updated version of a famous Rembrandt might also prove profitable, albeit these days ‘in the sale room’. Artists have always had to earn a living one way or the other.

Other moral certainties look less certain on closer examination. In 1632 Amsterdam was the thriving centre of a new country. The United Provinces (Holland today) had emerged victorious after decades of war against an imperial power, the Spanish Hapsburgs. South Africans know better than most the pride and energy that releases in a people. The city bustled with trade, with a new-found confidence and freedom, and was a centre for the new ‘scientific’ thinking, the investigation of the natural world and ideas. Even so, cutting up a human corpse was still at the cutting edge. Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’ bravely as well as brilliantly records a rare event, conducted only with special permission.

No one can deny what a SA reader posted on a news story about this subject. ‘It is not fair,’ he wrote, ‘to expect Africans to accept that which they deem taboo (in order) to be politically correct in terms of freedom of expression.’

That is right as far as it goes. But more is involved in this than freedom of expression. The anatomy class Rembrandt painted would have excited and been supported by ‘progressives’ - and condemned as profanity by conservatives. Rembrandt was not sensationally exercising ‘freedom of expression’ and publicising an abomination, as can happen in our modern media-driven age. He was recording one of the ways men were working to understand, and eventually to improve, the human condition. This ideal is shared by ‘Africans’ as well as other ‘cultures’.

Those who criticise Mr Damaso’s work might just take another look at it. Is there nothing in the idea that all our politicians would profit from finding out what makes Nelson Mandela tick? Has Mr Damaso actually done anything worse than add an insightful little twist to this remarkable man’s certain immortality?

As to whether Mr Mandela feels personally abused by this presumption, an ANC spokesman interviewed on etv brushed aside any need to ask him. The party has spoken and, not for the first time, the party considers the debate closed. At times it must seem to Mr Mandela that he has been anatomized and abused all his life. Happily, he is wise enough to know that is the fate of everyone who accomplishes extraordinary things.

In Rembrandt’s original, the anatomy class is held by the distinguished burgher Dr Tulp; in Mr Damaso’s adaptation, by the innocent child Aids victim, Nkosi Johnson, from whom the grown-ups indeed had much to learn. Both tutors look out of the picture to address a wider audience beyond the students around them.

The wider audience is us. Only we, in the end, can see if there is anything important to be learned here.

This article first appeared on Newstime, July 10 2010

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hearing 'Tristan and Isolde' for the first time

On May 4 1954 I heard the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and the Liebestod for the first time. Words remain as helpless as they always were to describe the shattering effect it had on me. After some more fruitless runs at it as a way to start off this postscript*, I give up on all attempts for good. I should have known better by now than to try.

But lying awake several nights recently, I have found myself with enough words at last to tease out from that overwhelming experience strands that are intelligible, at least to me. In with my soaring wonder at this totally new music, the tumultuous onrush of feeling that swamped and swept me away, there mingled a sense of something fathomless and frightening happening to me: an intimation that everything was changing, would not be the same again. I was hearing all there could ever be and nothing you could ever have.

This intuition was uncannily in accord with Wagner’s intention but it worked in me the other way round. When my reason reassembled I had not learned that Bliss lay elsewhere. I concluded that the world was full of wonders and that I enjoyed special privileges, even special powers, to come by them. Unable to express or share it, but never doubting it, I lived in expectation that ineffable beauty would recur, be there for me, not often perhaps but as a matter of course, throughout life. The thought that I would be looking for it in the wrong place never crossed my mind. 

As the busy years went by, I came to know that May 4 1954 would not repeat. When I thought of it I felt no sense of loss. Rather I felt a tinge of guilt, mild unease at something lacking in me that the highest point of all had been this music one night alone. I see now those feelings were more mistaken than if I had felt loss. My out-of-this-world experience changed and magnified my life in this world. It does not relegate any part of it, even though it is more than any part of it. It is not unfortunate that you never have the moment again. It is supremely fortunate that you have it at all.

There is nothing on earth like Tristan and Isolde. Wagner composed it after he came to see ‘the world’s nothingness’. But to see the world as nothing means he must have also seen it as everything - and his to create. On May 4 1954, unprepared, uncomprehending, I shared in with the rest of my experience that frantic intensity of need to exist and exist for - that if this, this, were the only thing the world is to offer, you would live and die to get in to have it.

As for The Twilight of the Gods, I saw an ENO production years ago myself. In it the producer simply refused to accept that Wagner had ever stopped being a young revolutionary. At the end, when the gods had fallen, Valhalla and the world burned, the ring had returned to the Rhinemaidens and the final chord of music died, the curtain did not fall. Instead half-lights came up. The entire cast had come silently back on stage and now stood in the dimness with their backs to the audience. They turned to us as one, putting to us the unspoken question: What kind of world should we be living in?

Not even genius can tell us what to think. When I see young Dave and me in the shop in Enfield now buying Act III of Die Walkure, you are with us; we are all chatting away.

* This is the last part of Wagner Notes for Holly, complete on this site dated April 2007 

Monday, May 14, 2012

South Africa's problem is not a lack of leadership

You cannot fail to have noticed how the media keep going on about leaders or the lack of them. South Africa, editors and commentators constantly complain, needs leadership and President Zuma is not providing it.

They forget that when President Mbeki was very definitely providing it - on Aids and on Zimbabwe to take just two examples - SA supposedly did not like it at all. Or could it be most South Africans are realistic enough to know they have in fact little say or influence on how their leaders handle issues?

To throw some light on the subject, David Bullard recently asked on Politicsweb* if it matters who leads the ANC, which gave everyone a chance to pitch for their personal favourite. Mr Bullard could have spared himself the abuse and his readers the trouble.

In his book Eight days in September, Frank Chikane, who worked one way or another with all the presidents between 1995 and 2009 and should therefore know what he is talking about, admits: 'Polokwane did not radically change the policies of the ANC ... it was more about the removal of Mbeki.' And he goes on to add: 'Those who were thinking .. it would be easy to change policies .. failed to take account of the fact that the party's policies could not be changed without the approval of a national (party) conference.'

In short, SA's problem (or, if you prefer, 'challenge' - we all seem more comfortable with that word these days) is little or nothing to do with the quality of individual leaders. It is due to the fact that SA is not the 'democracy' it is said to be, but rather a monocracy or party-state.

In a democratic state, the function of political opposition is not 'to keep the ruling party on its toes'. That would not be enough even if it happened, and in SA it plainly does not happen. The expression is a coinage of commentators who do not wish to explore SA's political situation more fully and expose how it works against both governing and governed. Here are some of the points always glossed over:

1] Opposition is failing if it is merely a cosmetic to present the state as a multi-party democracy: it must be a reality that presents the people with an alternative national government. In the same way, the vote must amount to more than the freedom to vote or to abstain. To have any force, it must imply the electorate is able to change the government at the polls.

2] Both conditions are missing in SA. Presently around two-thirds of voters do not see existing opposition as an alternative government. As a result, citizens as a body do not play (or again, if you prefer, do not choose to play) their assigned social role of agents of change.

3] With two essential democratic institutions - opposition and the electorate - 'non-performing', SA is not a democracy but a monocracy. Political power is largely unchecked and the outcome is cronyism, widespread corruption and periodic moves or attempted moves on basic democratic freedoms that threaten the elite. Patronage replaces merit as the social bond and cadre deployment keeps the system going. Cadre deployment is not the cause of SA's democratic deficit, as commentators routinely suggest. It is one more result of it.

4] However, it is not only unjust but seriously mistaken to see these problems in terms of the ANC's general moral decline, as if the party’s entire membership all of a sudden lacks the virtues of politicians everywhere else. We will not find solutions if we insist on looking in the wrong place.

Under democracy, political parties do not maintain discipline either by recruiting saints or by sermonizing about morality. They remind members that any obvious lack of integrity reflects on the whole party and puts it at risk at the next election. Shape up or ship out.

As we see with the drawn-out drama of Julius Malema, the ANC leans over backwards to avoid a hard line. It does not follow that the current leadership is weak. Thabo Mbeki may be lamented in some quarters as a lost strong leader, but in office he had much less to say about corruption than President Zuma has.

The truth is no ANC leader can go to war over the issue of members' conduct; it would be the finish of him as leader and of his already divided party. But it would be a different matter altogether if ill-discipline and misconduct placed the ANC at risk of losing the next election. We will see leadership soon enough, and see it on a whole range of issues, the day SA has an alternative government waiting in the wings.

*Politicsweb first published this article on April 12 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Understanding what Julius Malema means for South Africa

You may feel the current imbroglio over discipline serves the ANC right. The party has only itself to blame for Julius Malema. He is the product of its heady promise of a ‘revolution', but is somewhat out of favour with the leadership at the moment because he is doing things that could actually bring revolution about.

After the alarming upheavals across Africa recently, Mr Malema cannot be indulged anymore. Socialism was ruled out as a system post apartheid, if indeed it was ever in the ANC's plan: different interests can read the Freedom Charter as for and against. What has counted since 1994 is that SA settles down to earn a living in a capitalist world and that ANC loyalists are well provided for in the mixed economy they preside over.

Mr Malema does not understand or care about such compromises. As a young man with nothing to lose and much to gain, he can easily rock the overloaded ANC boat - and in what is euphemistically called SA's ‘party-dominant democracy' that imperils the entire ship of state. If it's not socialist revolution, what other kind of revolution could Mr Malema intend - or, horror of horrors, unwittingly unleash? That is the question.

Many are suspicious he is the champion of people whose lives he visibly does not share. In everyday language, they cannot understand how he can be a ‘communist' and a commonplace capitalist at the same time. Not that people are lost for words. They can explain how he contrives to speak for the poorest of the poor when his personal preferences are clearly for the richest of the rich. They can interpret the expensive cars, watch and whisky, the veiled threats and menaces against ‘whites': Mr Malema is a hypocrite, a populist, a demagogue - are three of the more polite ways his opponents put it.

That still leaves a political explanation outstanding. Can Karl Marx in any way go hand in hand with what some openly call Mr Malema's fascism?

Before venturing a view on that very sensitive subject, let something be absolutely clear. Nothing is more mistaken than to lift experiences from other places and times and suggest they necessarily or even might follow here and now. History is not a set of laws or the moral tale it is often said to tell. It is a hugely complicated and constantly changing passage of interacting events that, with study, can leave you a tiny bit less than totally ignorant of the human predicament. That is all.

In that light, we can agree Marxism springs from the highest ideals of humanity - the community of all, internationalism and peace - and that fascism is not an ideology in any sense. Fascism is a politics of coercion which, if it entails anything besides verbal and physical violence, promotes extreme nationalism cultivated through a fervent nativism shading into racism, with all three being embodied in a messianic leader ready to be martyred for the sake of ‘the people'. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer.

However, such theoretical differences have always had a way of vanishing in practice. Certainly in Europe communism and fascism were implacable enemies: their street brawls in Germany after World War I finally ended in the World War II fight to the death between Comrade Stalin's USSR and Herr Hitler's Third Reich. But in both cases, the revolutionary party-state had extinguished civil liberties much earlier. The difference in reality was only between a dictatorship of the proletariat and a dictatorship of the Volk.

Outside Europe, communism readily teamed up with new and growing national feelings. In China in the early 1920s and in the long war against Japan, communists and nationalists were on the same side. Later the two worked together to end French rule in Indo-China and to replace the corrupt regime in Cuba; in SA the story was the same. Nativism-nationalism fought to free lands from colonial rule; communism fought to free peoples from capitalism. Both marked out the imperial west, and its apparently hypocritical democratic values, as the permanent enemy and threat.

Julius Malema plays with a complex inheritance: African and European; white and black; cultural and universal. Imperialism, Marxism, democratic centralism, fascism, all driven by a crusading zeal to dominate, hold out deceptive ends. Whether the intrusive former youth leader means good or ill for SA, we must decide. He cannot tell us when he cannot tell the outcome himself.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Shrien Dewani and Jacob Zuma: two takes on trial by media

The majority of people with an opinion on the subject evidently decided for themselves that Shrien Dewani is guilty of murdering his wife on holiday in South Africa; those with no view are generally not much interested either way.

Mr Dewani’s family and close friends insisted he is grief-stricken and cannot be guilty, while the open-minded in SA and in the UK became increasingly baffled by all the claims and counterclaims. They want Mr Dewani to return to SA and face the music. If he is innocent all will be well; he must take the rap if he is not.

Is it really as simple as that?

Not so long ago, most of SA made up its mind that president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma was or was not guilty of corruption, by association with his former friend, benefactor and financial adviser Mr Schabir Shaik. Mr Shaik was found guilty of the charge and briefly imprisoned.

People did not need to know the law, follow a trial or hear out all the evidence and a judge’s detailed verdict to reach their decision. They decided according to whether they liked or disliked Mr Zuma and his alleged politics. They decided on the basis of stories and innuendoes in the newspapers and from the conclusions they freely drew from all the gossip and mud-slinging.

Such is democracy. Who would have it any other way? How can it be any other way?

To check the rush to judgement where it went against their interests, President Zuma’s friends and political supporters launched a counterattack. Their policy was to repeat, until everyone was tired of hearing it, that in the new SA everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Remember the campaign? It caught on. It led to newspapers getting the blame. There were endless denunciations of ‘trial by media’, as if the media were somehow conjuring the entire drama out of thin air. The public was prepared, the context carefully created, for a legal loophole to be found.

Mr Schrien Dewani cannot match the influence President Zuma was able to bring to bear to avoid trial. He is not a candidate for the presidency, a high-up in the ANC, or even a South African citizen.

But he has one advantage. He could afford to hire the well-known UK public relations consultant Mr Max Clifford, along with top legal advice. And it finally dawned on the authorities here that the plan from the outset was to suggest by every means possible that Mr Dewani will not get a fair trial in South Africa, or is in no condition to face one even if he did.

Whether either was true was not the issue. The issue was could Mr Clifford and the lawyers make the idea stick? Could sufficient objections be found, enough seeds of doubt sown, to prevent their client’s extradition?

Mr Clifford did his job and, though we may not like the job or Mr Clifford, he did not do badly for his client.

Of course, he received every help from his opponents. Early on, the alarmingly titled head of SA’s civil police ‘General’ Cele - whose job specification, one liked to hope at the time, covered arresting suspects but not pronouncing them guilty in advance - informed the world that Mr Dewani was a 'monkey come to SA to murder his wife'.

As if that were not enough, Judge John Hlope - of all judges - took the stage as another PR gift to Mr Dewani's supporters. Shadowed by a list of controversies over his own professional conduct, Judge Hlope sentenced Zola Tongo, Mr Dewani’s taxi driver on the night of the murder, to prison for 18 years.

SA journalist Michael Trapido dealt with this in an article titled, ‘Hlope can’t preside but Dewani would get a fair trial'. He explained that Judge Hlope was legally ineligible to preside over any further trial in the case - including a trial in future of Shrien Dewani in SA. But didn't Mr Dewani now appear quite definitely guilty by association? And, if he did, what had that to do with the media?

The extradition process drags on in the UK, leaving us to ponder if there is any such thing as the 'trial by media' politicians complain about. 

After all, no politician is heard to say Mr Dewani is innocent until proven guilty - suggesting once again that newspapers are the way they are because people are the way they are.

A look behind Zapiro's cartoon of Muhammad

It is obvious from the way Jonathan Shapiro’s cartoon immediately divided opinion, if it was not already obvious from common sense, that there is no right answer in the new SA to the question, Should we be able to picture the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)?

The answer is Yes or No depending on your religion and how devoutly you follow it, or - if the word is still pc - on culture. In short, it is a question of belief and belonging.

Although radicals and dissenting sects as ever dispute it, the few violent ones with violence, the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all hold to the universal values of peace and the equality of man. However much they are divided politically, world spiritual leaders today do not presume to pronounce on the symbols and rituals of different faiths and have long known better than to profane things that are sacred to others. That was the way in earlier societies in an unenlightened age.

If religion has mostly moved on in understanding, how strange that reason all too often has not. After all, reason is humanity’s progressive faculty. Its brilliant offspring, the natural and social sciences, are supposed to have left religion behind, not the other way around. As its advocates confidently point out, reason uncovers the real truth and rescues people from superstition and prejudice. For everyone's sake, it must pursue that end - and nothing should be sacrosanct in the no-holds-barred, ‘robust debate’.

The difficulty is this is self-evident only to those who agree with it. Also most people can tell you, from everyday experience, that reason is ill-equipped to settle differences involving fundamental beliefs, which come awkwardly tangled up with loyalties and love.

Forget for a moment whether it really makes sense to try to talk others out of their religious convictions. If a family turns down more money to move abroad, is it the ‘reasons’ they give, or something stronger, that decides them to stay at home? Does it help to expose and mock it? How many parents refrain from ‘reasoning’ sons and daughters out of making an unwise marriage? Are they cowards? On a lighter note, how many supporters go on backing their soccer or rugby team however regularly they lose? Now that really does go against all reason. We just smile and understand.

Into a far future, SA society at large - a multicultural society in a globalized world - cannot escape its own moral challenge: how we all live together. We have forgotten, or never remind ourselves, that the glorious ideals of modern liberal democracy enshrined in the dry words of SA’s ‘advanced’ constitution took two thousand years and more to put on paper. The notion that all are accountable, including the powerful; the sanctity of the individual ‘soul’ and the resulting imperatives of equality and social justice - these and other values are not simply the bequest of great leaders, but are passed on to us by generations of ordinary worshippers out of their humble faith.

The theories and institutions of liberal democracy are the achievements of educated minds, but they took centuries of sacrifice by everyone to construct. Above all, they required the imagination to foresee that a more inclusive future would come - and would demand them. Written constitutions, representative bodies, Acts of Toleration, Bills of Rights - these are the products of a long, infinitely complex history of give-and-take, of endless compromises by unnumbered people who struggled to come up with peaceable solutions to the problems raised by change in their times.

The satirist at his work owes no duty to any of this, or to anything or anyone else. Nevertheless this does not mean his barbs can never go astray. We do not have to see this particular cartoon as an artful move to boost sales and circulation of a weekly newspaper. It can appear better and worse than that - as a misguided effort to accelerate enlightenment that in fact sets it back. It can appear one more part of a crusade - a term of obloquy associated not with progressive Reason at all, but with a zealous, unreformed religion best left in the past.

This article was first published on Newstime, May 26 2010

Do you believe in Nostradamus?

To us, he is a symbol or presents a question - either a Merlin-like figure of supernatural power or the eternal charlatan. What is the truth about the man?

Michel de Nostredame was born in Provence in 1503 and died in 1566. He was clever: he could read and write. Perhaps his young dream was to be a physician, but an outbreak of plague closed the university he went to and he became a self-taught apothecary or herbalist. He developed a ‘rose pill’ that protected against the plague. Sadly, it did not save his wife and two children, who appear to have died in a later outbreak. This may have made him more determined to fight the plague across southern France in the 1540s. He became well known and married again - provident chap, to a rich widow this time - and had six more children. He adopted a Latin name: it marked out a man as a scholar and helped his reputation. How has such a normal history made that name - ‘Nostradamus’ - a byword for the paranormal?

In those days, high and low believed in what we would call, broadly, ‘magic’. People met and talked to ghosts. The Roman church taught they were the restless souls of those in Purgatory or, more terrifyingly, demons sent by the Devil to lure the unwary to hell. People also feared the fairies. Though not evil, fairies were not the innocent children’s playmates we know. Their mischief might stop the milk turning to cream. They might kill your pig or steal your baby and leave behind a changeling. People put food and drink out for the fairies at night, to keep on the right side of them.

There was no difference in the mind between the material and spiritual. The church bells were rung in a storm to drive off the devils that were making the thunder.  Magnetic rocks, the hills and valleys changing with light, the dark forest and splashing waterfall, were alive with sprites and spirits. Eclipses and comets in the sky, a frog hopping across your path, a chair collapsing under you, were seen as omens. In times of ceaseless civil and religious war, famine and plague, these signs could only portend worse to come.

Every village had a ‘cunning man’ or ‘wise woman’. They offered comfort and cures with magic charms and séances, herbs gathered at some sacred spot by full moon, and countless other age-old remedies science would deem mumbo-jumbo. The rich would pay well, the poor what they could, to recover their health; to find out who had stolen a hat or a saucepan; to locate buried treasure; to trace a loved one who had gone missing.

Records show these magic consultations concerned very human problems. Young maids wanted to know which man they would marry, wives when their husbands would die, and husbands when their wives would.

A learned writer had a living in all this. Nostradamus began to produce almanacs. These were enormously popular publications. They predicted the weather for farmers and pointed to changes in politics and personal lives, brought on by changes in the heavens. Almanacs are the distant ancestors of the ‘Stars’ you read in today’s periodicals for fun. But astrology was a serious matter in Europe in 1550.

There was nothing unusual in Nostradamus prophesying then: the difference was, he was famous. Borrowing from biblical sources and collections of ancient occult writings, he made thousands of prophecies for people who wanted to look into the future. As with forecasts today, things did not look good. One of his most famous quatrains - four line verses - allegedly foretold that the French king Henry II would be killed in a joust, and is said to have proved Nostradamus’s miraculous powers to everyone when the disaster actually happened on June 30 1559.

The story is certainly a later invention. Besides inviting the charge of witchcraft, it was terribly dangerous to prophesy the death of a reigning monarch and Nostradamus would hardly have been so foolish. Earlier he had met the king, whose patronage was obviously priceless, and dedicated some of his prophecies to him. Also, Henry’s Queen, Catherine de Medici, made Nostradamus her court seer, advising her and her sons, the future kings of France.

What Nostradamus foretells, tells as much about us as about him. Envy, gossip and rumour over the years have built on our love of mysteries; and despite centuries of science, we find it frightening to be all alone in a cold universe from which the living spirits have departed.    

Do you have to be an Englishman to like Brighton Rock?

I made a point of going to see Brighton Rock, a re-make of the 1947 film of Graham Greene's novel that starred - I think actually first 'made' - the young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie.

I wanted to see it above all for nostalgic reasons. I never saw the original film but read the book long ago and the story's most unlikely reappearance as a movie now intrigued me no end, even though the director, so I read, has moved the setting to the '60s in Brighton instead of the '30s.

I especially wanted to see what they made of that Brighton visually - they achieve such amazing things in film today. And as I thought it would, the film presented a soulless, seedy working class resort of decaying once-graceful buildings and hideous contemporary highrise. The sea crawls sluggishly and black, the pier with its tawdry entertainments never invites brightly by day or night. The town is desirable again today, commuter country, and one rakes around in one's mind to remember the Mods and Rockers who terrorised the south coast resorts for a while in the early '60s. The movie reminds of things you've forgotten or never knew at all. Old fashioned, bent 'coppers', capital punishment, the flick knife.

Most of all, though, however odd this sounds to you, it is deeply touching for me to see 'ordinary' English people now, re-visit their pub with them and hear the accents that I once of course never heard, taking them for granted - Rose, the pathetic, innocent waitress in the dreary little tearoom; the slimy, successful yet somehow still tinpot crooks and brutal English thugs; the awful pretentiousness of the 'posh' Brighton hotel where the middle class gathered to take afternoon tea or indulge in an expensive whisky to the background of  a 'Palm Court' quartet. When I saw Atonement - last year I think it was - I found myself in tears during the Dunkirk scene - a sudden rush of feeling for all the things I had never noticed about England and the English as I grew up an Englishman in England - the soppy bravery and resilience, the satisfaction and pleasure taken in poor and very simple things, the magnificent history in spite of all that.

I'd guess Brighton Rock is not for many women - I went alone because Tess will not go anywhere near anything violent. But Sam Riley, who looks astonishingly like Leonardo di Caprio, I'd guess would stir her woman's heart. Pinkie is an affectionless psychopath, but the film is about love, as everything seems to be in this world in the end, and about how even the very worst of us, the most nightmarish of all, does not live entirely without it.