Off the beaten track ….

October 16, 2006

W(h)ither Africa?

October 16, 2006

I was held hostage in
Nigeria. Why? Fundamentally for challenging the right of a local businessman warlord to do exactly as he felt fit – for challenging his autocracy and kleptomancy, and putting at risk his inalienable right to rape his insurance company funds at will.
Is Nigeria alone in
Africa in denying the rule of law and permitting – encouraging – sycophancy and autocracy? What about
South Africa?
Has not “our” country thrown off the oppressive and autocratic Afrikaner yolk and become a fully paid up member of the “democratic club”? Or has it merely been the replacement of one (Afrikaner) tribal elite with another, Xhosa?Let us consider the facts of both Africa as a whole and South
Africa in particular.
Let me start by parading my prejudices. I grew up in England in the 1960’s and 1970’s when “all things Mandela and black were wonderful in their dignity under extreme duress, and where the jackboot of the Afrikaner Nazi boot was hated, vilified and represented all things devil incarnate.South Africa has now moved into a “glorious age” of liberalism, individual freedom, press freedom and “democracy” – or has it, and if it is all so well in this Garden of Eden why have so many liberals either left, or express, generally in private but increasingly so in the more liberal press (Mail & Guardian and Business Day) real concern at the increasingly corrupt, centrist and un-democratic practices of a political elite echoing more and more alarmingly the behaviours so accurately and presciently predicted in Animal Farm?Business has compromised itself with it’s BEE devil’s pact deals, selling expedient profiteering resulting from crony capitalism deals whereby, in exchange for corrupt higher profits it sells a portion of itself to Government cronies, leaving individual liberal thought as the sole constraint on an ever more centrist-selfish thinking Government, intent on self-enrichment.Is this a “temporary pact of convenience” to enhance necessary structural change in South Africa, or should it be seen, as the most remarkable transference of significant wealth to the chosen, politically-advantaged few, as has ever occurred – equivalent only to that which has occurred in Russia over an equivalent period?South African logic goes that, in the case of South Africa, it is all OK as it is necessary to have a new black elite both as an aspirational new grouping to which young blacks can aspire, and as a counter-balance to “old” white wealth of the Oppenheimers, Ruperts et al. But does it really matter whether Abramovitch is white or black and is this “throwing in” of the old hoary chestnut of racism just a red herring?South Africa is at a crossroads – whither
South Africa a highly relevant question. A vibrant country striding forward confidently or a sycophantic, generally-corrupt, increasingly “African” country where biting one’s tongue, accepting new standards and ways of doing things become the norm?
Sadly, whilst the jury is still out, the latter is the more probable future path – quo vadis for white liberal ideals, thoughts and opportunity?

Shower thoughts

October 16, 2006

“Hello”, he got out quickly, ducking deep to avoid the gremlins dressed in Telkom techie clothes advancing from the east. “Must be quick” he muttered noting the building clouds of MTN storm troopers massing on the sky-line, feeling like bursting into “The Hills are alive with the Sounds of Music”… internet access, such a temporary and precious commodity in South Africa ….. 

Was it always like this he thought, realizing that the incipient chaos would give him time to get back to the machinations of “The blind man of Seville”, a most distinguished thriller of Robert Wilson that brings into perspective the distorting impact of the seminal events that have unfurled in Spain since the 1930’s, the pick through Antjie Kroeg’s body bereft and to explore Shakespeare’s Snowleg; after all he was certainly not a singular person and needed to feed the various cranial departments at once, at the same time … and was not there the matter of getting more words into Business Day. He reminded himself to do a Quirk search of the site to remind him of what had been penned and what next should be in his sights … he had made things far too easy for Uncle Tarbs recently … 

He thought of Jamielle now sitting down to supper in her boarding school on the other side of the World and heard her say to her friend Carol, “It’s bloody roast lamb again today – they are determined that we are going to single-handedly eat through each and every of the 60 million sheep on them thar NZ hills. Life can be so tricky being 14 she thought, looking forward to flying out in another seven weeks when “Chicken” would again catch up with Rooster .. “Dad’s are OK she thought, which made her feel guilty about her mum slaving away in that hospital in
Mongolia. “Wonder if flying to SA in Dec, then perhaps on to France skiing with Dad, and then flying out to see the Great Wall of China with Mum over Christmas before getting back to school will get me up to the next airline tier” she thought …..

Thoughts of a day filled planning the new waste strategy for Jo’burg began to crowd in and the splish-splosh of shower water that preceded the same…. Today was to be difficult, whilst the R100 million had been provisionally arranged with surprising speed so good was the project, getting the self-interested new black political elite to accept this was going to be uphill, logic being firmly pushed aside by the Egyptian dance of out-stretched black hands demanding “more-more!!!” – seemingly forgetting the inflated salary of millions recently awarded to “manage” their particular public enterprise. Was it ever so? He pondered, getting out with a bagful of stash before “they” saw you as an “ Emperor with no clothes?” 

He leapt like a coiled spring aiming his energy at the hot water showering down in the bathroom…..

South Africa has been a region of conflict for hundreds of year and despite progress being made in the last few decades remains so. “Us” and “them” permeate every sentence, with the issue always being “them”, be they bosses v workers, criminals v citizens, poor v rich, left v right, old privilege v new privilege and typically in a South Africa still riven through with race, black v white. So much conflict surrounds us, shapes us, permeates us, dictates who we are and how we react, eats into our soul and prevents us from seeing and thinking clearly. “We” are always right and “they” are always wrong. How we perceive “us” and “them” determines who we are, it labels us even before we have often even spoken. How can we break this cycle of ultimate destruction, this disease that eats at the soul of our country that consumes so much of our combined passions that could, and should, be driving our country on to 2010 and beyond? The phrase “rainbow nation” was encapsulated this “we” concept and for a time it seemed we almost had it, only for it to evaporate soon after the 1995 World Cup success and the elations of Bafana Bafana our successful African Cup champions faded. 

Words are the medium in which we think – they are the building blocks of ideas, yet too often it seems that we as South Africans are talking past each other. Simple words like Comrade carry fundamentally different connotations depending on the stance of the listener. Yet too much of our political discourse is driven by time-honoured words and phrases, zero sum thinking in which the underlying concept is less development and more re-distributive. Successful modern vibrant economies no longer confine and define themselves in political slogans – it is only in the
Zimbabwe’s of this world that you hear the tired old political mantras of the last century. Is
China capitalist or communist? Even a fairly superficial examination would cause any fair-minded person to define it perhaps as “progressive” or “dynamic”, and that perhaps it’s most over-riding feature to be cohesion.
China, and all other successful countries have grasped the fundamental of success and that is innovation and change. After stagnating for many years China finally threw off the yolk of political dogma and the slavish following of class-driven and divisive nineteenth century politics and moved into a high-gear growth mode – not seeking to enrich or advantage any particular sector but going for growth for growth’s sake. 

This philosophy – which is sometimes called the “rising tide” syndrome because it raises all boats – wastes no energy on determining whether “A” or “B” is more worthy but seeks to lift up the entire economy, and with spectacular success. Growth rates of 10% are seemingly commonplace and Asia as a whole, over the past 40 years has catapaulted past Africa – many parts of Africa had higher GDP’s per capita than much of Asia in 1960 – to leave Africa way behind in it’s wake. 
South Africa seems more “us” and “them” now than ten years ago; at a time when the “we” needs to be coming to the fore we are increasingly looking backward and thinking in zero-sum terms. 
Cosatu seems to be selfishly pursuing the interests of it’s members – a small fraction of the total South African population – and to be hell-bent on a confrontational – read that as wasteful – course and much of the white population to have retreated into a laager mentality be-moaning the inept police force and the rising wave of crime.  This is where old-fashioned “us” and “them” takes us – far from the economic high road we all as South Africans seek. 

In a changing dynamic globalised world slogans no longer apply and to be adaptive and responsive is the key to success. Politicians need to be change agents responding and continually re-positioning our country to maximise the advantages that such a dynamic world can bring. Two simple examples, one domestic the other more international.  Is the provision of a welfare system that provides crèche facilities for working mothers, to use old-fashioned words for illustrative purposes, capitalist or socialist? And does it matter? In economic – or economic value-added terms – the position is clear. Our society has invested for fifteen years in the education of all it’s citizens both male and female – surely therefore anything that we as a society can do to ensure that the over 50% who are female can add to our overall productive endeavours must be to our collective advantage and we should do all in our power, including tax breaks, to ensure this is so, particularly as those to whom it most relates are those women who can add most to our overall economic benefit. Our economy will grow, more jobs will be created and all over time will benefit, clearly a no-brainer for all except those locked into the “zero-sum” time-warp mindset who see it purely in terms of a woman taking a job that should be the “right” of a man. Is it capitalist or socialist to protect certain entrenched rights to the benefit of the few and the detriment of the significant majority, particularly when the protection so granted can only be temporary, will achieve no lasting benefit and is clearly just a Canute-like gesture trying to hold back an inevitable tide? This is the position on Chinese textile quotas. Are we going to throw up protectionist walls, ensuring of course there is no secondary leakage from India, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Thailand and and and …. Or are we going to re-train those workers, re-skilling them for an industry that has a future. Why do we have a UIF fund? Is not the logic of such a fund to provide a buffer protection fund to facilitate such re-skilling?  In a changing, dynamic world the importance of “joined-up” economic thinking is paramount.Can we not do away with the language and inherited thought patterns that divide us and think anew in “we” terms and become the winning nation that we all so desperately want yet by our actions and words are presently ensuring never will.


October 16, 2006

A word in favour due in part to Bill Clinton’s wonderful speech at the British Labour Party conference.

What does it mean? Some have said that it means – “I am because you are”, a somewhat altruistic interpretation.

It certainly has elements of inclusivity, but is closer perhaps to the Mugabe interpretation “What is mine is mine, and what is yours, we share.”

Africa – just that word conjures up such extreme emotions; primary colours, the smell of new rain, smiling faces, hungry bellies, cruel despots and Nobel Peace Prize winners. Such diversity in a single word.

Can it all be true? True in one sentence?

Yes and no. Like many complex issues the nuance is often hard to grasp and properly comprehend.

Starting somewhere – close to nowhere and in some ways close to heaven .. the Magkagadi Salt Plains to the south of the Okavango Delta; an arid flatland of subtlety and very occasional skin-piercing driving rain .. and this poem written under canvas in such a downpour ..



She was old; old as the hills. Formed when the earth’s crust had started She had watched the plates move forming continents. She had watched the skies darken and brighten,the intelligence that would someday be human slowly grow. 

She was power. She was knowledge.She was also bored.And she hated beingbored. 

He was the wind, part of the primevalforce, that had driven the seas into frenzies, 

Tossed and teased, typhoon and tornadoUnleashing tidal waves, shaped mountains, cleaved valleysWreaked havoc on the newly formed earth..Carried lava and dust across the wastelandsForming alluvial deposits, embryo of future life. 

Millennia of fun had now shaped the earth into a playground more to hispleasing, yet….….yet, he was yang without yin. 

The playground was ready, the earth crumbly, waiting. The sandswarm, rich with kinetic potential, yet still barren and dry. 

That grey unforgiving mother soil sought solace that only rainLashing, powerful, drumming drivingDeluges to unlock and reap the fecundity locked withinMaternity. 

The wind soft and gentle sensed this, and tested his resolve.The easy zephyr winds replacing the previous raging furies blewgently on the cheeks of mother earth, caressing and teasing.Rolling dry dust across the vast wastelands. 

More was required….he had rested long….had girded his loins, and was ready. 

The ocean , deep and inviting was to be his source.  

She waited and watched as he formed and whippedand even as caused havoc.She smiled.  The energy and force intrigued her.  

She thought, “I have waited long, but perhapswaiting is almost over? 

And she smiled again. 

Lightning ripped the heavens that night.Thunder rumbled and roared such that Zeus himself,riding high on the Northern clouds was awakened.  

He sensed the time was now. 

The easy breeze picked up force, to grumble and growlFoment and brew.Energy, raw naked energy blew throughout the night whipping the seasInto raging, primordial savageryLicked and drenched the dry and dusty shores. 

Yet still the winds howled….till as the new day dawned, light easy rain… 

As though feeling its way, it grew in power,until with pin-pricking savageryit beat down upon all the land. 

Mixing and churning it crashed down on the ever-moistening earth,churning and furrowing, driving, driving ’til the valleys ran lush withhis delivered wetness. 

She smiled again. 

She had known that the time was now.  

Had watched with increasing anxiety.yielding to tenderness the show of force throughout the night. 

Had felt in her core quickening tensions.Deep within molten lava flows that had so recently formed andshaped her rounded form,Began to mutter and flow… 

Feeding from the thunderbolts reigning down..Assailed from without and within …