25 May, 2012

The Politics of Victimhood

by Hussein Solomon

You have to hand it to Jacob Zuma – he really does know how to play the victim. In the run-up to Polokwane, South Africans were told that President Mbeki was engaged in a massive conspiracy to keep his dismissed deputy from succeeding him. We were to forget the corruption charges and the Schabir Shaikh judgement which implicated Zuma. We were to focus on the conspiracy. This was clearly a case of deflection from the weaknesses of a flawed character whilst blame was to be attached to a shadowy third force which had its origins in the Union Buildings itself.

With the current controversy surrounding the painting “The Spear” at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg wherein Zuma is standing with his genitals exposed, once more Zuma has donned the mantle of victim. Disrespect is shown to the person and the Office of the President. There is clearly racism behind this new conspiracy against Zuma. We are not asked to consider issues of freedom of expression in a liberal democracy. We are not asked to consider this work of satire as a commentary on the morality and ethics of the person occupying the highest office of the land. We are not asked to consider whether Zuma himself with his extra-marital affairs, nepotism and general incompetence has not brought disrespect onto the highest office of the land. We are not asked to consider “The Spear” in the context of other paintings in the exhibition at the gallery which expresses the commonly held view that the ruling party is suffering from a severe case of moral decay. Indeed, we are asked not to think – just to label as racist and dismiss. This is a strategy commonly deployed by autocrats everywhere. In labelling and dismissing, one need not reflect on the very flawed character at the centre of this controversy – racism, after all, explains everything!

To be sure, playing the victim serves a political purpose. One could rally the troops as was seen with the marches of intolerance on the streets of Johannesburg by Zuma’s sycophants or indeed at recent COSATU meetings. Zuma, will certainly benefit from this controversy in the short term. Racism is a good rally cry to boost the sagging fortunes of a party unable to deliver a better life for all. Conspiracies are good for a party which has lost its moral compass and where greed is increasingly institutionalised in the organs of state.

But, what happens tomorrow Mr. Zuma after Mangaung and you and your decrepit party is still unable to deliver. Charges of racism and new conspiracy theories will not create jobs, will not build homes, will not put food on the table. There will be more Ficksburgs’ as service delivery protests increase in scale and magnitude. Unfortunately there will be more Andries Tatanes’ too, but ultimately Mr. Zuma the tide of history is against you and your party.

24 May, 2012

Southern Africa in the New York Times

by Virgil Hawkins

Africa – the continent that always seems to have to go that extra mile or so in a bid to convince the editors of media corporations that its news is worth printing, airing and/or uploading (more often than not, the editors remain unconvinced). This post is a brief overview of the quantity of coverage by the New York Times of the sixteen countries that make up southern Africa for the first quarter of 2012 (January to March).

The following is the number of words (and the percentage of the whole) devoted to news primarily focused on each of the countries of the region, in descending order.

South Africa      9,247 words (56%)
D.R. Congo       3,683 words (22%)
Mozambique     1,219 words (7%)
Zimbabwe          1,023 words (6%)
Madagascar       963 words (6%)
Seychelles          273 words (2%)
Malawi                88 words (1%)
Angola                0 words (0%)
Botswana           0 words (0%)
Comoros            0 words (0%)
Lesotho              0 words (0%)
Mauritius            0 words (0%)
Namibia             0 words (0%)
Swaziland          0 words (0%)
Tanzania            0 words (0%)
Zambia              0 words (0%)
TOTAL             16,496 words

News about the region's major power, South Africa, accounts for more than half of the total quantity of coverage. Twelve articles cover a variety of topics, from the expulsion of the controversial ANC Youth Leader from the party, to the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, to social issues associated with the informal economy. The five articles devoted to the D.R. Congo cover the armed conflict and instability in that country, and questions over the dubious election results from the previous year. Perhaps most worthy of note here though, is that not a single drop of ink was shed over the events in more than half (nine) of the countries in the region, including relatively large and powerful Angola and Tanzania.

From another perspective, how does the total of 16,496 words devoted to the region compare to the New York Times' coverage other parts of world? Over the same period, Israel alone (one of the most consistently popular objects of media coverage) garnered 36,604 words – more than double the coverage for the entire region of southern Africa. That sounds fair, you might say. Israel is, after all, considering the possibility of bombing Iran, and violent armed conflict goes on in neighbouring Syria. On the other hand, the situation in the D.R. Congo, which attracted but a tenth of the coverage of Israel, is no small matter either. The country is the size of western Europe, and the simmering pockets of conflict, which are remnants of the deadliest conflict the world has seen in the past half-century, continue to serve as major security concerns to its many neighbours.

Let's try another comparison. In January 2012, a cruise ship called the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy killing some 32 people. Coverage of this single accident and its aftermath garnered 14,960 words in the New York Times, which is just slightly less than the total amount of coverage devoted to southern Africa. The incident was certainly a tragedy, but in terms of newsworthiness, did it deserve to rival the sum total of three-months worth of events in the entire southern African region, including the ongoing tragedy in the D.R. Congo? Certainly is worth a thought.

15 May, 2012

The Abbotabad Documents and South Africa

by Hussein Solomon

When US Navy Seals raided Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s Abbotabad compound last May, they seized a treasure trove of documents. Some of these documents have since been released by the Combating Terrorism Centre of the US Military Academy. Most fascinating from a South African perspective was that Bin Laden thought of South Africa as an open territory – an area where Al Qaeda operatives could target Americans. It is not clear whether Al Qaeda or allied groups tried to make good on its leader’s thoughts but what is known is that in September 2009 the US embassy in Pretoria and its consulates as well as the offices of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were closed for almost a week on account of a “credible threat”.

The fact that Bin Laden thought of South African as an open territory and one in which his operatives could operate relatively freely to strike at US targets should come as no surprise to those who have been following developments in the country. Porous borders, corruption in the Department of Home Affairs which allowed the fraudulent issuing of South African identity documents and passports to terror suspects and criminals as well as a highly politicized intelligence services focused more on sectarian political battles within the ruling party as opposed to growing radicalization and increasing terror threats all contribute to South Africa being seen as an “open territory”. As early as 1997, Al Qaeda had established a presence in South Africa. In October 1999, Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, part of the Al Qaeda cell which attacked the US embassy in Dar es Salaam in 1998 was arrested in Cape Town.

Not only was South Africa being used as a safe house by Al Qaeda but was central in the organization’s fundraising efforts. The case of Yassin al-Qadi, a US-designated terrorist financier who invested US $3 million for a 12 percent interest in Global Diamond Resources that mined diamonds in South Africa is but one such example. He also controlled New Diamond Corporation, an offshore company that had mining interests in South Africa. The case of Abd al-Muhsin al-Libi, also known as Ibrahim Tantouche also points to how terrorists secure financing in South Africa. He set up two Al Qaeda financing fronts – the Afghan Support Committee and the Revival of Islamic Society. Both operated as charities that raised money for orphans; however, in reality the orphans were either dead or non-existent.

The issue of South Africa as an operational base and a transit and conduit for international terrorists to their target country also emerged in the case of a Tunisian Al Qaeda suspect Ihsan Garnaoui in 2004. Garnaoui was an explosives expert who trained in Afghanistan and was ‘promoted’ to being an Al Qaeda trainer. He held several South African passports in different names (including in the names of Abram Shoman and Mallick Shoman) and traveled via South Africa to Europe where he was accused of planning bombings on American and Jewish targets. According to Ronald Sandee, most of Garnaoui’s preparation for these attacks took place in South Africa where he purchased sophisticated military grade binoculars with an integrated digital camera, diagrams and instructions for the assembly of detonators, as well as setting up networks in Berlin whilst still in South Africa.

The point being stressed here is that Bin Laden was correct to characterise South Africa as an “open territory”. Indeed in one way, the ongoing politicization and dearth of professionalism in the country’s intelligence services, it may be more of an open territory than when Bin Laden wrote about it. The Al Qaeda leader’s designation of South Africa as an open territory should be of concern to South African policy makers. They need to take the terrorist threat seriously and act on it. Whether they will do so given the ongoing leadership tussle within the ruling party is the big question. What is clear from past experience is that politicians from the ruling African National Congress has always put personal ambition above national interest.

12 May, 2012

Arab Spring in Slow Motion?

by Virgil Hawkins

One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia's ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt's iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.

The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.

It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration's grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).

But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they needed each time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia's main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government's prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.

As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata's Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.

This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.

The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party 'democracies' in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.

Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small 'victories' for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.

The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.

10 May, 2012

Freedom Day: Looking Back. Looking Forward

by Hussein Solomon

On Friday, the 27th April South Africans celebrated Freedom Day. It is a day which needs celebration. On that day in 1994 whilst South Africans celebrated our unity in diversity and whilst we finally ended the system of apartheid, the Rwandan genocide began. On the basis of ethnic identification, a million innocent people were to lose their lives in Rwanda in 1994. South Africans from all walks of life, from different cultural, racial, religious and ideological persuasions chose a different path of the Hutu militias bringing death and destitution to their land. For this reason, we should all be proud.

We should also celebrate our heroes which made this day possible – some paying the ultimate sacrifice. I think here of Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness Movement who ignited the flame of freedom in a new generation of youth. I think of Ruth First and her towering intellect and her gentle ways. I think of the leadership of the Pan Africanist Congress paying the ultimate price in Sharpeville as they burnt their passes. I think of academics like David Webster and Rick Turner who spoke truth to power and whose lives were cut short as a result. I think of clerics like Archbishop Desmond Tutu who reminded South Africans of our common humanity, Rev Beyers Naude who suffered the scorn of his community whilst he served as their conscience and I think of Imam Haroon who lost his life in the struggle against the evil personified by apartheid. I think, too, of a feisty Helen Suzman being the sole voice of reason in a parliament representing the interests of a minority unaccustomed to reason or being held accountable. I think of young black children on the streets of Soweto being mowed down by a ruthless regime. I think of the young white men of the End Conscription Campaign prepared to go to jail rather than serve in apartheid’s killing machine. And I think of Nelson Mandela being released from prison after three decades and still willing to embrace all across barriers of race, class, political parties and ideologies and expressing a vision of an inclusive and just South Africa, a beacon of hope for all the Rwandas’.

Whilst we celebrate all these people and thousands more, we also have to accept that South Africa under the ANC has moved away from that vision articulated by Mandela. We have moved away from the vision of an inclusive South Africa as the country’s institutions represent the whims of an increasingly venal kleptocratic elite. As for the vision of a just South Africa, this too has been killed off by an increasingly rapacious ruling party looting the coffers of state. Justice too, is in retreat given the growing authoritarianism on the part of the ruling party.

In other words, the ANC has destroyed all the ideals of April 27th 1994. Indeed, our very freedom in 2012 is in jeopardy.

How do we honour those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom? We reclaim our freedom by kicking this party of corrupt autocrats out of power at the ballot box in the next election!