Monday, October 18, 2010

Native Nostalgia: the curious case of one Thabo Mbeki

Do you remember the politically late Thabo Mbeki? Yes, the pipe-smoking Aids denialist who has read only one poet whom he relies on rather slavishly to sound ‘deep’. Isn’t it funny – this is what I actually want to say – how everyone is suddenly missing the man? Or, at the very least, remembering him with fondness? A case of jarring native nostalgia.

I read all the coverage this past week – including every weekend newspaper – of Mbeki’s launch of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (based at Unisa) and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. Almost every article about Mbeki this past week dripped with nostalgia. (A welcome exception was Makhudu Sefara, Sunday Independent editor). The praise that was heaped on him for his famous native intelligence was almost sickening. A case of bestowing honour on Brutus. My considered use of sarcasm is something I would happily defend. We’ve got to ask ourselves, folks, whether the summers really were hotter during the times of one Thabo Mbeki?

The answer is ‘no’.

A conservative estimate of preventable Aids-related deaths that can be attributed to government-sponsored Aids denialism (with Mbeki at the helm) is about 330 000, according to an academically well-received study at Harvard. It is neither here nor there whether Mbeki should be held legally accountable. What is beyond dispute, however, is that he is morally blameworthy for this macabre fact.

Yet, a not untypical response to this recent historic fact from many Mbeki lovers seem to be, “But...besides the Aids denialism, what else did he do wrong? And what about his positive achievements??!!” Holy cow! That’s a little bit like saying, “I know Verwoerd was responsible for Apartheid and stuff...but what ELSE did he do that was wrong? And what about his positive achievements?” Actually, the politically late Thabo Mbeki DID have positive achievements; and he DID have failures unrelated to Aids.

But what I find shocking about these retorts (even though I have answers available) is that they show a callous disregard for just how spectacular a case of moral failure Mbeki’s Aids denialism amounts to. We need not construct a complicated balance sheet about the rest of Mbeki’s leadership narrative to already conclude that, on balance, his was a presidential failure of gigantic proportions. So it is a moot point whether or not we can point to other weaknesses or strengths. And if you think otherwise, I invite you to speak to the families who remain affected by loss and suffering as a result of Mbeki’s wayward intellectualism getting in the way of the early provision of life saving drugs for his people – when such drugs had already been shown, through rigours peer-reviewed scientific processes – to be effective.

For what it’s worth, here is a terse hint at the rest of the ‘balance sheet’:

a) on the negative side, Mbeki might not be solely responsible for failing to bring about a change in the organisational culture of the African National Congress, but, dammit, as a power-wielding leader he COULD HAVE – had he not suffered a large dose of insecurity – take deliberate steps to make the ANC a more internally democratic, and open, party, fit for a modern, liberal democratic space ---- contrary to its liberation history and ethos;

b) furthermore, the later Mbeki (there was an early Mbeki who understood identity much more sensibly, more sensitively....) developed a pernicious racialism that hindered, rather than helped, the development of a healthy intergroup dialogue, and sound race relations ;

c) on the plus side, I have consistently argued (and still do) that Mbeki’s greatest achievement was being, in effect, Prime Minister of SA from 1994 until 1999. He was responsible for day-to-day pragmatism while Madiba was smiling, and attending to photo shoots . For example, the economic policy transformation from RDP madness to GEAR – which I think was the right move – was in part due to Mbeki’s centrist, pragmatic thinking. Beyond that, his work on the continent remains praiseworthy.

What, then, is the ‘on balance’ conclusion? He had some good moments, yes. But the bad moments – including the most important ‘bad’, Aids denialism – were so spectacularly BAD that it is madness to remember him with fondness, and nostalgia. We are better off without the politically late Thabo Mbeki.

Does this mean that president Zuma is doing a fine job? No, not at all. But perhaps it is most apt to end this note with a very mundane cliché – two wrongs don’t make a right.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blade's illiberal offensive against the print media

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande reportedly said last week that the print media constitutes a “huge liberal offensive” against “our democracy”. He suggested instead a “revolutionary” defence of the constitution. Yet again an interlocutor in the current debate on the media is here simultaneously making a sensible and a daft point. So it is worth separating the good from the bad.

First, the constitution itself drips with liberal ideology. The liberal majority in the print media certainly do not have a monopoly on liberalism. Minister Nzimande’s implication that a distinction be drawn between a liberal media and a revolutionary constitutional order is misplaced. Unless the minister wants to reject the inherent liberalism within both the constitutional text and our constitutional jurisprudence, he had better distinguish criticism of the mainstream print media from liberalism as such. Liberalism is not the enemy; irresponsible journalism is.

Secondly, “our democracy” is not really at issue here. For one thing, it is rather naughty to refer to “our” democracy and thereby leaving it conveniently unclear whether the media is, in the minister’s heart and mind, part of “our” democracy. The underlying motif is that of “us” and “them”.

More importantly, however, it is irresponsible to exaggerate what is at stake in this debate. It is not true that our entire social and political edifice is threatened. We are having a healthy debate about a particular aspect of living in a democracy, that of deciding what the moral limits are on general liberal freedoms such as freedom of the press or freedom of expression. This debate comes and goes in all liberal democracies, as particular cases arise at particular moments in time. It is an old philosophical chestnut. We should not fear this instantiation of the debate.

Many in the print media fear this debate. Indeed, one editor in their weekly column took pride in confessing an utter disinterest in engaging the ruling party on this question, as if open sulking is virtuous. Imagining the ruling party as beyond the moral pale is not just ill- considered but also a strategic blunder. Fortunately most print media editors have realised at least the pragmatic justification for engaging the ruling party on this issue even if many secretly (and some openly) also unhelpfully frame the debate in Orwellian terms.

What we see here from minister Nzimande is a variation on the theme from the solipsist editor who desists from engaging politicians. Nzimande himself is rendering the debate larger than life. That is unnecessary, unhelpful and simply inappropriate. It is, in a sense, merely a pedestrian internal dialogue within our country about a balancing of legitimate competing interests. It is not democracy that is at stake here, Mr Minister; it is simply democracy that is being rehearsed here. In fact, it is called, in that alliance phrase that should be familiar to you, a “contestation of ideas”.

There is, however, an important grain of truth lurking in the minister’s illiberal offensive against the print media. The mainstream print media is, indeed, liberal. Actually, Xolela Mangcu put it best when he unpacked the media’s portrayal of Jacob Zuma in the lead up to the 2009 elections as a harsh portrayal informed by a liberal, cosmopolitan, middle-class consensus that clashes with Zuma’s life narrative and public image, that of a conservative, traditional, pro-poor, non-English speaking herdsman. In a very visceral manner, Zuma constituted a jarring image for the liberal print media. That, more than his more obvious flaws, was the real motive for discontent with his presidential candidacy.

Of course, there are differences between our various newspapers. These include ideological differences. City Press is slightly more Africanist than, say, The Sunday Times. And Business Day is pro-business in a way in which The Sowetan probably is not. But these marginal differences belies a broader middle class cosmopolitanism cutting across these differences. The truth is that the poor black majority can only see themselves in the exclamation marks of Daily Sun. This reality is perpetuated by the print media’s lack of willingness to reflect on the inherently ideological nature of news construction.

There is a myth among many of my friends and colleagues in the print media that it is only on the opinion pages that you find value-laden material. This is either dishonesty at work or shocking ignorance about the unconscious ways in which our own personal narratives influence even the reporting of a seemingly value-neutral story reporting on a court case.

Minister Nzimande is therefore right in his implicit suggestion that there is a lack of ideological diversity within the media. That truth, however, gives the minister no basis to tell the electorate and African National Congress members that the print media is effectively an enemy of democracy. Such gross exaggerations are, in fact, the real threat to democracy.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cosatu's a sucker for punishment

Cosatu is suffering from battered spouse syndrome -- the more it is maltreated by its partner, the ANC, the more it believes it is best to stay within the union. Sadly, like many victims who suffer from that kind of false consciousness, the imprudent decision to stick it out is supported by coherent but ultimately misguided reasoning.

The essence of the justification to stick it out is that it is in the best interest of Cosatu's children -- the poor workers -- to fight for reform from within the union. Yet, 16 years after democracy's advent, the policy landscape remains stuck in the logic of neoliberal economic thought.

That might not be a bad thing, of course. After all, communism is long dead and would be even less sympathetic to the interests of the proletariat than a form of capitalism that is softened by whiffs of welfare and strategic state regulation.

But what is undeniable is that Cosatu's own vision of how the economy should be structured -- setting aside the question of whether that vision is sensible -- finds little expression in current ANC and government economic policy. Therefore it is mind boggling that Cosatu should speak of a "contestation of ideas" when clearly it has not won any fundamental debate battles since apartheid's demise.

All of this struck me as I mulled over Cosatu's recently released document outlining its distinctive and alternative path to economic growth. They argue in favour of a job-centred, redistributive growth path. It has, of course, become fashionable to predict the imminent collapse of the ruling alliance. That prediction remains a mere commentarial trope. Cosatu simply lacks the political courage to try its electoral luck. It will not serve divorce papers in our lifetime. But an important, different question is seldom posed: Should Cosatu go it alone?

The answer is yes. The document it released last week is a critique of ANC economic policy more devastating than any even the Democratic Alliance could whip up in a "fight-back" campaign. It correctly points to the immoral reality of a society that continues to experience gigantic unemployment levels, not to mention a society that is the most unequal in the Milky Way.

Add to that gratuitously high levels of poverty and you have a spectacular failure to deliver on the ANC's much-promised "better life for all".

These uncomfortable truths, however, are well known and acknowledged even by the ANC -- sometimes. So a rehearsal of these facts in the Cosatu document is not in itself newsworthy.

Rather, it is the diagnosis Cosatu provides for why this state of affairs exists that is important.Going back to the 1990s, the document posits the beginning of the end as the moment when the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) was replaced by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) blueprint. It describes this shift as founded on a lie -- the promise that if one focuses on economic growth first and foremost then somehow employment levels will magically increase and along the way inequities will vanish.

This thinking, so the diagnosis ends, is proof that the neoliberalism of the "1996 class project" is not pro-poor. It simply facilitated the creation of a narrow class of black elites instead.

And, make no mistake, Thabo Mbeki and his followers are not the sole targets of criticism. The document points out that this misguided economic project continues even after Polokwane. This is an unsubtle message to the Zuma government that it has betrayed the leftist consensus that underpinned the ousting of Mbeki at Polokwane in 2007.

Without even assessing Cosatu's recommendations on how to (re)structure the economy, one wonders how such a brutal attack on both ANC policies and their ineffective implementation could be squared with a decision to stick it out in the alliance forever and ever.

The only winner here is the ANC. It can continue to claim to be a broad church, belying the fact that it preaches a gospel that resonates only with the material interests of those sitting in the front row -- tenderpreneurs, capitalists and rent-seekers. The rest of the churchgoers remain poor but are calmed by the opiate of ANC religiosity.

If Cosatu's unhappiness was restricted to how the state is doing practically, one might make a case for sticking it out on the grounds that there are no fundamental philosophical tensions. But this document renders that defence unsustainable. Why? Because the package of alternative economic moves that Cosatu advocates is inimical to the centrist thinking of ANC policy gurus.

For example, Cosatu wants to introduce a new tax that redistributes even more money from wealthy South Africans to state coffers -- this despite the fact that the top 8% of income earners already account for 51% of personal income tax. The ANC has little appetite for further disincentivising investment and entrepreneurship.

Furthermore, Cosatu hopes that the relaxation of exchange controls might be reversed. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan would no doubt fight such a move because it would drive up the cost of doing business in South Africa. That would damage job creation.

Cosatu wants interest rates kept low, but the Reserve Bank would not do so without keeping an eye on inflation. After all, low interest rates coupled with a high rate of increase in the cost of living would be bad not just for the rich but even more so for the poor.

Cosatu also wants the state to stop caring about "fiscal austerity", which is its way of encouraging the government to go further into debt. The idea is to throw money at the axis of evil -- poverty, inequality and unemployment. Again, government spending on social services is already very high and one cannot imagine the ANC risking the medium- and long-term consequences of a giant fiscal deficit, which the next generation of voters would be angry about having to service.

Cosatu's key recommendations are both ill considered and, more to the point, diametrically opposed to the economic consensus that is emerging in the ANC about important elements of the macro-economy (barring the issue of nationalisation). The ultimate failure in Cosatu's analysis is that it assumes a lack of resources to be the greatest problem the state faces. That is not true. It is the lack of state capacity, the failure to implement policy effectively and a lack of political will to give the fatal blow to cronyism, corruption, underperformance and tenderpreneurship that explain why the majority still does not experience economic uhuru.

This is not to deny that inequality is unjust, or that the state needs to be caring in responding to structural obstacles that prevent the very poor from being entrepreneurs and self-sufficient, autonomous citizens. But the truth is that existing policies speak to these realities. They are simply not effectively implemented.Nevertheless, if Cosatu truly believes its economic ideas should replace existing ones then it should form a political outfit that argues that case outside the alliance. Only then will a more honest "contestation of ideas" happen. But don't hold your breath -- few battered spouses achieve self-actualisation.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Nelson Mandela will probably not be around in ten years’ times. This fact is so hard to accept that some of us would literally kill anyone daring to assert it. Just ask Yiull Damasa, a local artist who recently enjoyed fifteen minutes of infamy for producing a painting that depicts the body of Mandela as undergoing an autopsy. He received death threats for daring to imagine Mandela as human. But why should Mandela’s mortality be such a big existential deal for so many of us?
The uncomfortable answer is that Mandela has become a myth onto which we have projected the apparent resolution of fears and disagreements which, in reality, we have not even really confronted. And so, at the risk of inviting similar scorn as that heaped on Damasa, I found myself trying to make sense of why many react to a Damasa painting with such melodrama.
If we don’t reduce our obsession with both Mandela-the-man and Mandela-the-myth, then we will find ourselves confused, disoriented and deeply depressed for many mornings after His departure.
First we need to get a grip on what, exactly, is going on. South Africans from across the racial, political and class divide have a psychological dependence on Mandela. Their – our - sense of comfort about this post-democratic space of ours, with all its trials and tribulations, require the distortions of reality that Mandela myth making is about. In that sense, Mandela has become a slate on which aspirations are inscribed.
These aspirations include such lofty ideals as non-racialism, forgiveness, moral fortitude, hope and sheer longevity, that sense of a dream that must be kept alive until Jesus comes. In a very visceral sense, the death of Mandela means, for many, the death of these aspirations.
The brutal truth, however, is that there are effective concrete steps we ourselves can, but never did, take towards achieving most of these “national goals”. If non-racialism is an ideal worth striving for (and this is a ‘truth’ which itself goes uncontested for fear of upsetting the fragile intergroup harmony we all conveniently take as a given), then we must ask whether we are closer now to a non-racial society than in 1994 and, if not, what the stumbling blocks are, and how we might overcome them?
Instead of engaging these questions dispassionately and honestly, we revert to colourful motifs that offer comfort and a sense of resolution. Mandela-the-myth plays that role. Supported by other motifs like Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, and bolstered by events such as Afrikaners sitting on beer crates in Soweto waiting for a photographer to capture the Ayobaness of it all ahead of a soccer match, this myth making allows us to avoid discomfort by dismissing such discomfort as the mere figment of doomsayers’ imaginations.
But we are lying to ourselves. And we are lying in His innocent, elderly name. Of course some strides have been made in small pockets of post-apartheid life – think, for example, of that multicultural darkie bobbing to Bon Jovi as if he has long blond hair waving through the air and his white friend dancing awkwardly to Mandoza’s Nkalakatha . The more lingering truth, however, is that much more has to be done before the Ayobaness of the Soccer World Cup fame can be declared real.
The desire to roll Mandela out in front of 90 000 fans and millions watching on television is an act of grand self-deception. Though his absence at the Soccer World Cup opening event was brought about by profound familial tragedy, hopefully it will mark an end to the inappropriate clinging onto yesteryear’s hero.
Instead, we have to reflect harder on some tough questions about privately held suspicions towards one another; non-violent but poisonous remnants of racism; a deep sense of alienation among sections of the white community; a deep sense of disappointment among countless black South Africans who are not sharing in the economic spoils of political freedom. To imagine Mandela as no longer alive is to imagine the centre of our fragile sense of community giving way. No wonder the thought can lead some to perform violent speech acts.
Thank goodness no actual violence followed the threats to deal with Damasa, as one caller promised, as one might deal with a poisonous snake. It cuts to the existential core of the proverbial new South Africa to ask what we will all do when Mandela goes. How did we even get to the point where an old-timer has come to take on such a larger than life role in our collective lives?
Myth making is not intrinsically bad. Myths, not unlike religion and opiates, can play a useful role in our lives. If making your toddler believe that Santa Clause will bring her great gifts will get the brat to calm stop crying, then you should certainly force-feed her the myth. Similarly, we needed Mandela-the-myth during the early years of democracy. But we must now move on. Myths are not a sustainable substitute for authenticity. Authenticity requires us to keep our eye on both the material and psycho-social challenges that need to be overcome as a precondition for, and in fact as the very definition of, meaningful nationhood. This requires of us to work harder at reducing inequality, eradicating poverty, and learning to be honest about, and speaking sensitively to, our differences and different lived realities.
That is, as opposed to sustaining the lie of a monolithic national people created in the singular, comforting, smiling image of one Nelson Mandela. But we need not wait for Mandela’s bodily demise to bury Mandela-the-myth. We must let go already.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

De Zille: a marriage of inconvenience

It is probably mean to be disparaging about the chances of newlyweds staying together long after the honeymoon bliss has worn off. Yet the latest local political marriage, that of the Democratic Alliance and the Independent Democrats, faces massive challenges.

The ID leader, Patricia de Lille, feisty as ever, anticipated scepticism from unnamed "self-appointed analysts" about the prospects of her love affair with the DA leader, Helen Zille, lasting. Tellingly, however, she failed to set out the reasons for this scepticism. Furthermore, she gave no reason for these challenges being a mere figment of analysts' imaginations or, if they are genuine, why they will not prove to be a barrier to marital longevity. It is worth looking at each of these challenges in turn.

The ID captured only 0,92% of the national vote last year. When combined with the DA's 16,66%, the two parties jointly excited 17.58% of all South Africans who cast a vote. These numbers speak for themselves. The ID does not bring many voters to the DA table. De Lille is not a massive vote-pulling political ­magnet despite her penchant for bright orange.So, if the cold facts offer cold comfort to these newlyweds, where else might well-wishers look to sustain the proposition and hope that the synergies of the merger will defy recent electoral history?

Some argue that the DA will become more attractive to black and coloured voters because of De Lille's presence in this party. The thinking here is that De Lille will add much-needed colour to the leadership structure and this, in turn, will be rewarded by voters at the ballot box.

This line of analysis is as unconvincing as it is crude. Although many South Africans rightly admire De Lille as one of the best MPs we have had since the advent of democracy, the DA brand is much stronger than that of De Lille. The DA remains the party of Tony Leon and now Madam Zille, the party that offered disillusioned South Africans, mostly whites, a "fight back" motif. One swallow, in the form of De Lille, does not a summer make. Change requires much more. It requires an ideological and tonal shift that was not even hinted at this past week. In the absence of such a shift, the merger with the ID will yield small to zero returns.

Furthermore, racialism in South African politics remains a big deal. The DA handles this fact clumsily. Right or wrong, the black African majority is more likely to react favourably to a Bantu Holomisa occupying a senior position within the DA than a maverick coloured politician whom most of us view as a decent parliamentarian, but someone essentially belonging to the political battlefields of the Western and Northern Cape. The DA's recent failure to elect blacks into senior leadership positions at its federal congress cannot be undone by a merger with De Lille's ID.

Most importantly, however, there are ideological differences that cannot be wished away. Either the ID will forget about its roots in the Pan Africanist Congress or it will continue in that Africanist tradition. The latter position means a commitment to social justice that is crafted in a language and a set of policies that are unashamedly racial and based in a historical, materialist analysis of existing inequities. This means that the DA mantra of "an equal-opportunity society" should give De Lille's conscience a tough time. One cannot imagine the De Lille of old times agreeing to the DA's recent wish, for example, that its members classify themselves as "South African" on state documents rather than as individuals with particular racial identities. How else will we measure transformation?

These are not mere ideological differences. They entail differences in policy. It means, for example, that the earlier De Lille would be more likely to endorse quota benchmarks in various sectors of society, not as a bean-counting end in itself as the DA often implies with its scathing use of phrases such as "racial mobilisation", but rather as a means to achieving substantive equality by dealing with structural inequality in the racial terms in which such inequality was brought about in the first place.

It is pretty obvious then that an Africanist, historical approach to social justice founded in the ideological convictions of the earlier De Lille would not go down well in the debate chambers of the DA where former (New) National Party folks with ahistorical intuitions still wield influence. If De Lille does not forget her own past, it is difficult to see how the libertarian, colour-blind approach to social justice at the heart of DA thinking will not spoil her appetite for growing old with Zille.

One possibility is that De Lille might, somewhat prudently, under emphasise these differences. After all, the DA is essentially doing her a favour by rescuing her from a political party that almost certainly would have died in 2014. This pact is best seen as an unspoken promise to give De Lille a DA lease on political life in exchange for her putting up with core DA principles. The DA hopes to shed its white image in the process.

There is little wrong with that kind of politicking. Political leopards have a right to change their spots and ­voters will then indicate what they make of it all.But if it does turn out that the political philosophy of the DA remains unchanged, then this political marriage will not attract additional black voters. After all, it is the well-founded perception that the DA remains a middle-class party, which partly accounts for its failure to make major inroads into black communities across the country. So either De Lille will rattle the philosophical foundations of the DA (and thereby cause trouble that could lead to divorce papers eventually being served) or she will be living in false consciousness like a self-deceiving battered spouse (in which case political history will judge her to have become, in the end, something of a political prostitute). That would be a terrible fate for someone with an earlier career that brimmed with ­admirable, principled politics.

The real significance of this political pact, ultimately, is not that the opposition will, in general, become stronger. Rather, it is a confirmation that multiparty democracy is pretty much dead. We are headed, within the next few years, towards a two-party political system.

Sadly and ironically, however, the two dominant parties that will remain, the DA and the ANC, are cut from the same ideological cloth. The ANC is also a middle-class party. This truth is hidden behind the veil of ­alliance politics and a massive welfare budget that obscures the neoliberal economic structure dominating the policy landscape. All of that, however, requires another day's reflection.

In the final analysis, the fact that more parties might be subsumed under the DA banner, including the Congress of the People and the United Democratic Movement, is a less interesting development than appears at first glance. Only when a party that is truly based in principles and policies that speak to the material needs of the poor majority, as well as their conservative outlook on the social and moral universe, will we have reason to be excited about the ANC's hegemony being threatened. Until then, polygamous political marriages between opposition parties will remain but a curiosity for the news cycle of that week to get excited about.

Monday, August 16, 2010

ANC must come into the open

If you were a brilliant freedom-fighter does that guarantee you will also be an exemplary champion of freedom? That is a question one cannot help but raise, with increasing sharpness, in respect of many within the African National Congress. It is far from clear that the answer is a happy, obvious and unequivocal ‘yes’. The ANC’s single greatest challenge in the upcoming National General Council will play out in the session focusing on its organisational culture and leadership renewal.

Put bluntly, while the ANC’s capacity to ensure a better life for all is not nearly as woeful as many opposition parties and critical media and some analysts would have us believe, nevertheless, the ANC has failed dismally to successfully transform itself into a classic – boring, even - parliamentary party. In short, it is stuck in the organisational ethos of liberation politics. It is worth reflecting on this shortcoming, thinking through its implications for our democracy and having a stab at a constructive way forward.

The ANC’s greatest organisational challenge is less a structural one than a cultural one. It needs to allow for greater internal disagreement. It also needs to allow for greater public transparency about such disagreement. That is not to say, as defenders of the party wrongly respond when that suggestion is put to them, that it must air all of its dirty laundry in public. Not so. Of course no organisation is ever that transparent. It would be self-destructive to be brutally honest about deep differences.

However, keeping some lid on differences of opinion about ideology and policy does not mean that complete secrecy is the answer. Take, for example, the culpable silence from many within the ANC (including the Zuma-ites now pretending to be veteran champions of scientific orthodoxy) with regards to the politically late Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism not too long ago. One simply cannot believe the flimsy claims that behind closed doors the ANC is a debate society more robust than the Oxford Debate Union. If that were the case, the rest of us who are not allowed inside those secret debate chambers should at least see occasional evidence of such, such as a clear victory of rationality (Aids orthodoxy) over irrationality (Mbeki having an African identity crisis at the cost of his country’s health - literally.)

This lack of internal democracy continues. Polokwane was not a panacea for the ANC’s organisational challenges. It got rid of one symptom, Mbeki, but not the problem, liberation ethos’ uglier reach. The print media got horribly excited a few days ago, for example, when cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale made vague noises in pseudo-support of the media. This was seen as lethal criticism of the mooted Media Appeals Tribunal. Yet Sexwale had to be vague about his support.

But, given just how dangerous the idea is, why does the ANC not have a culture of internal debate and disagreement that would allow a Sexwale or a Jeremy Cronin, the deputy minister of Transport, to not hide behind unclear, ambiguous language which not even a skilled diplomat could decipher?

In short, the ANC remains internally undemocratic. It has yet to internalise the norms of democracy. It is little wonder that when it comes to respecting such norms outside the party, individuals like the Defence Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, has a tough time engaging parliamentarians. After all, she is used to a top-down approach within the party to key debates.

This lack of transformation has bad consequences for all of us.

First, it acts as a disincentive for talented youngsters to enter politics. South Africa is no place for young politicos. If you grew up after 1994, went to a multiracial school, and belonged to a debate club and an environment where disagreement was cherished within the confines of logic and evidence-based reasoning, then ANC politics would turn you off. The winners are corporate companies and the losers are political parties and state departments.

Yet, we need a state bureaucracy that is highly skilled. But when the organisational culture of the most powerful political party is unforgivably ugly, and has an impact on the civil service as a result of the control wielded by these same politicians over the state machinery, then you have a government and a state system that young South Africans are not keen on being a part of unless forced into that system due to lack of alternatives.

Second, the lack of organisational transformation within the ANC negatively impacts our body politic. Democracy is not just about formal benchmarks like free and fair elections every five years or simply about respecting court judgments against the state, most of the time. It is about substantive norms; it is about democratic culture.

This means, for example, not introducing legislation that may result in whistle blowers being locked up or journalists who act in the public interest not having recourse to a legal defence on that ground when they let an important, even classified, state document come into the public space. It means not arresting a journalist just because he or she is tjatjarag. It is obvious that this lack of respect for democratic culture within the wider political system is directly related to the lack of an internal democratic ethos within the ANC.

So what is the solution? To be fair, the discussion document on this organisational question makes the right noises. Cadre deployment for its own sake retards development in cases where those cadres lack the skills for jobs, especially at local government level. That should be eliminated. At the root of it all, ultimately, lies money. It is understandable that none of the so-called cadres aspired to freedom-with-poverty. But that should not entail money driven politics.

The ANC should therefore try to come up with mechanisms that will aim at two things: first, diminishing the possibility of corruption and the impact of money-driven politics; second, it needs to adopt and enforce rules that allow for the open – public, even – contestation of ideas, policies and leadership positions.

A secret debate society is no debate society. Liberation politics and ethos have no rightful place in a multiparty, liberal and open democratic society. Ke Nako!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

McBride was convicted - period!

If someone was convicted of murdering people but later granted amnesty for their action, does that mean we should no longer call him or her a murderer? The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) thinks not.

It argues that because amnesty aims to achieve reconciliation and nation-building, that requires that we no longer describe someone as a murderer if he or she is granted amnesty. But the Constitutional Court is about to have the final say.

The SCA made a serious mistake. Not only did the court wrongly conflate law and political morality, but there are also perverse consequences that would follow if the judgment is confirmed. It is worth summarising the key facts in The Citizen and Others versus McBride, the case that has given rise to this legal question.

From 2003 onwards, there was a series of articles in The Citizen arguing that Robert McBride was not fit for the post of Ekurhuleni Metro police chief. One of the grounds on which it argued against it was that he had been convicted of murder.On September 11 2003, for example, the newspaper asserted that McBride "is blatantly unsuited, unless his backers support the dubious philosophy: set a criminal to catch a criminal. Make no mistake, that's what he is. The cold-blooded multiple murders which he committed in the Magoo's Bar bombing [in Durban in 1986] put him firmly in that category."

In a later piece they conclude that McBride's deed was "the act of human scum".

These articles often neglected to add a crucial fact: McBride had been granted amnesty in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. His action was politically motivated. It was part of his work for Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC's armed wing. In terms of Section 20 subsection 7(a) of the Act, McBride's "conviction shall be deemed to be expunged from all official documents or records and the conviction shall for all purposes, including the application of any Act of Parliament or any other law, be deemed not to have taken place".

The key legal question is whether labelling him a murderer offends the Act. The SCA majority argued that "once amnesty had been granted to the respondent he could no longer be branded a criminal and murderer in respect of the offences in respect of which such amnesty had been granted to him".

But they add that "that is not to say that the respondent's actions and the consequences of his actions are to be considered not to have taken place. It is a fact that the respondent placed the bomb that killed a number of people and it is a fact that he was convicted of the murder of those people. The amnesty granted to the respondent could not obliterate those facts or erase them from the historical record but had the effect that the respondent is no longer considered to be a criminal in respect of the deeds committed by him."

The court's reasoning is knotty. First, the distinction between "being convicted of murder" and "being a murderer" is unsustainable. A murderer is someone convicted of murder. Because the court does not, by its own lights, interpret the Act as requiring the "obliteration" of historical fact, then why does it contribute to such an obliteration by curbing the use of the most widely used noun, "murderer", for someone convicted of murder?

Second, the court confuses law and morality. Some might deem it a stroke of interpretive genius that the court distinguished "branding" someone a murderer from describing them as having been "convicted of murder". The latter has no overt moral content. But the label "murderer" is both a factual legal claim and simultaneously a description dripping with moral indictment. So one might preserve the aims of amnesty by banning the morally loaded term "murderer" but permitting the description "so-and-so had at one stage been convicted of murder but was then granted amnesty".

The most important legal aim of amnesty is to protect someone who was granted amnesty against any possible criminal or civil liability. This is why McBride was released from jail. It is also why victims of the Magoo bombing cannot pursue a civil case.The aim was not to protect someone such as McBride from moral judgment. If someone wishes to argue that the liberation movements had unjust moral aims, then so be it.

Or, as The Citizen attempted, someone might agree that aiming to overthrow the apartheid state was a just aim but could nevertheless claim that McBride chose a means that was immoral.

These debates should not be legally circumscribed. The SCA judgment inadvertently does exactly that. That cannot be what drafters of the Act intended.The SCA also slips sloppily between the purely legal and more overtly moral use of the term "murderer". Recall that it argued that McBride should not be "branded' (as opposed to "described as") a murderer. The court sounds compelling here, but only because "branded" is itself a morally loaded term the court is carelessly bringing into its analysis, giving its arguments ad hominem weight.

But if the court played fair argumentative ball, it should have done more to justify why the irritating moralism of The Citizen constitutes illegal speech. A newspaper's moral analysis, whatever one thinks of it, is a legal red herring. As Judge Kenneth Mthiyane implicitly points out in his dissenting view, these articles constitute fair comment despite the use of "robust language" (given the historical facts, which the majority agreed had not been obliterated).

Lastly, other undesirable consequences will result if this judgment is upheld. The burden on the media to provide context about every historical fact that led to amnesty is impractical and therefore unreasonable. It is hard to see how nation-building is undermined by the reporting in The Citizen. There are more serious obstacles to nation-building.

The sheer volume of discourse on our history ensures that the full and complete story about all actors exist or will come to exist in various places over time. No single reporter or report can be given that burden. And, if truth itself was central to the amnesty process (hence the requirement of full disclosure), then we should cherish debates that keep the facts and social memory alive.

Furthermore, victims of the apartheid state would have to think twice about how they describe apartheid foot soldiers who injured them or killed their loved ones. Should human-rights activists Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge's family also watch their language when referring to those granted amnesty for killing the couple? Or is the Mxenge family to be exempted because they are on the virtuous side of the struggle? That would defeat the very aim of transcending our past, which the SCA used as a yardstick for assessing the word choices of The Citizen.

Hopefully the legal philosophers at Constitutional Hill can negotiate this intersection of law, morality and memory with greater jurisprudential skill than their Bloemfontein colleagues managed to.

Nation-building requires truth to be kept alive. And the legal consequences of amnesty should not be confused with wider moral political battles about our past.