Things worth reading on South Africa, Mandela and fake sign-language

With so much content being produced on the average day, it’s easy for some of the most worthwhile pieces to pass you by, no matter how good your network of curators might be. Today, three pieces were published that I think worthy of your serious attention, and to them I’d want to add something written earlier this week. These four columns are superb, and because I suspect that the regular readers of this website would agree, I’d like to highlight them here.

First, Ivo Vegter’s Daily Maverick column on the old South African flag that he keeps as a reminder of where we’ve been as a country, and how we got to where we are today. Ivo and I are less than a year apart in age, and my experiences overlap considerably with those expressed in the column. But it’s not the veracity of the historical details that is most important in this column, rather the way in which Ivo captures the  mood of the time, and the soothing effect that Mandela had on a fractured nation.

As I’ve written before, though, that balm came at a cost – any grand mythology tends to do so, because they encourage us to substitute honest (and painful) self-reflection with optimistic cliches (the “Rainbow Nation”) or an inflated sense of our value to the rest of the world (to think that we belong in the BRICs, for example). Honest self-reflection about South Africa is what the second column, by Chris Roper (Editor-in-Chief at the Mail & Guardian) focuses on. In “The lies Nelson Mandela taught us“, Roper reminds us that we’re not special nor exceptional, and that nobody in the rest of the world has an obligation to think we are. Mandela allowed us to believe the opposite, and telling us these lies, Roper says, might well have given us a

kick-start as a nation. But they have run their course. It’s time to trade Mandela’s lies for Jacob Zuma’s truths, hard truths though they be. The truths of our extreme ordinariness and of our distressing propensity for the three isms of the apocalypse – nepotism, despotism and cronyism.

Third, and in a similar vein, Sarah Britten brings us a Thought Leader column (also on the Mail & Guardian website) on “The eloquence of the fake-signing man” – a title that readers would surely recognise as darkly ironic, in that Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake signer” in question) could hardly be less eloquent (in terms of the job he was paid to do) than he actually was on the day. Instead, he speaks eloquently, and tragically, of lowered expectations and standards in South Africa – on how convincing bluster can win the day, even if you have nothing of consequence to contribute to a debate, to a classroom, a Parliament, or a Presidency.

Which neatly (almost as if by design!) brings me to the fourth column, by Tony Weaver in the Cape Times. This column is arguably about what happens when you do your job well, but offend those with power and thin skins in doing so. Weaver’s “Man Friday” column is a first-hand account of the Cape Times newsroom on the night and early morning that Mandela died, and of how well the editor, Alide Dasnois, marshalled the various resources at her disposal to produce what Weaver describes as “the best newspaper I have ever worked on”, and which was also voted as “one of the 14 best front pages in the world” by Time Magazine.

Dasnois was relieved of her position that morning, just as many South Africans were first hearing of Mandela’s death. In writing this tribute to her editorship, for the same publication, Weaver has effectively told Dr Iqbal Surve (chairperson of the newspaper group in question) that whatever his strengths might be, defending editorial independence – and judging the quality of an editor – aren’t among them. Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his column for saying so.

To the four columnists who wrote these pieces – thank you. I know that it’s sometimes rather frustrating to put such energy and thought into constructing a column, only to find that it serves mostly as troll-fodder. There will be (and are) trolls aplenty on two of the columns already, but also many who, like me, are grateful and feel enriched thanks to work such as this.

Mandela, atheism and “borrowed interest”

flagAs I remarked in a post on the day after Mr. Mandela’s death, his value to South Africa (in particular) was in the unifying effect that his words, character and narrative offered to us. And while there’s certainly a risk of overdoing the praise-singing and mythologising when an important figure leaves us, it’s arguably more distasteful when such a figure becomes the subject of attempts to illegitimately bask in some reflected glory, through claiming some sort of kinship with them.

In asserting that Mr Mandela’s “atheism” is another reason to celebrate his life, The Freethinker magazine (and, presumably, those who, like Richard Dawkins, retweeted the story in question) seem to be exploiting what I’m told advertising types refer to as “borrowed interest”, but which you might know better as simple opportunistic exploitation of largely irrelevant details about someone’s life.

I say largely irrelevant, because Mandela’s role involved highlighting what we have in common, rather than our differences and antagonisms. If any of the labels we use to describe religion and related issues could fit, the one that would have the best chance would be humanism, because his relationship to the citizens of the world seemed to transcend the quite limited boundaries offered by religion and its explicit opponent, atheism. The focus in religion vs. atheism is on difference, rather than commonality, and hardly seems either a good fit or a fitting thing to bring up while people are still mourning Mandela’s death. It’s crass, and opportunistic.

Furthermore, it also seems largely a fabrication, or at least a fantasy, that he was an atheist at all. The “evidence” offered in The Freethinker consists solely of a birthday wish to Mandela from a South African atheist, urging Mandela to “come out” as an atheist. In another piece, it’s asserted that “the other [after Andrei Sakharov] great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela”, but we’re given no reason to believe this assertion to be true.

We do now know that Mandela was a member of the Communist Party, and some might therefore think it follows that he was an atheist. On the other hand, we do know that he was baptised as a Methodist, and we have Wikipedia quoting an interview with Mcebisi Skwatsha, in which Mandela apparently confirmed that he was a Methodist. In Mandela’s book Conversations with Myself, he says “I never abandoned my Christian beliefs”, and a comment on Pharyngula points to a CNN story, where it’s described how Mandela would regularly receive blessings from Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Mandela also spoke at churches on a semi-regular basis, and in short, clearly seemed to have no antipathy to religion. Instead, his attitude to religion seems to have been exactly the right one for the leader of a nation to have – to hold it as a personal issue, and to devote himself to allowing others to exercise their religions, or lacks of religion, in the manner they see fit. In other words, regardless of what his personal beliefs were, he seems to have been fully committed to secularism in government.

When Christians or other religious folk try to claim deathbed conversions, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful [it is] to “claim” people for one side or the other. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same. In this instance, exactly because of Mr Mandela’s apparent reluctance to choose sides in this matter, it’s perhaps even more distasteful than usual.

Hamba Kahle, President Mandela

NYorker cover

My friend Jonathan Faull has already written a piece that captures the significance of Mr. Mandela’s death for most of us South Africans, and for many elsewhere in the world, better than I’d be able to. As 6000 remarked, British audiences could perhaps contextualise this as “the equivalent of a hundred – a thousand – Dianas”. Commiserations to all who are feeling somewhat bereft, today and in the coming weeks.

My contribution is simply to briefly state that if you’re concerned about honouring Mandela’s memory, or making his life mean something beyond the significance already captured in history, then remember that the symbolic force he generated was all about understanding why we are in disagreement, and trying to find a way out of that disagreement. It was about reconciliation, and hope, and progress. He offered a genuine source of energy for moral courage, and for effecting change.

Regardless of the details of history, and whether you think certain factual details should be emphasised or de-emphasised, that’s the effect of Mandela the icon rather than Mandela the man. So when idiots like those at the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) say that they will be coming to picket his funeral (Mandela supported gay marriage, thus will be in hell, thus WBC are happy), the last thing you should do in honouring Mandela is to threaten them with violence.

Some hyperventilating types from the tabloids and Twitter (often indistinguishable, I guess) are worried about the fate of SA now that Mandela is dead. But that’s bollocks – we’re in as good or bad shape as we were yesterday. We’ve been saying goodbye to Mandela for months if not years already, and besides, the South Africa he presided over is not the same one we have today.

Our success, or our failure, rests more in whether democrats (and generally, ethical voices) inside today’s ANC can rescue it from the likes of Jacob Zuma. Jacob Zuma is not my president. I’ve not had one since Mandela, but hopefully I’ll have one again, sometime soon. And if you want Mandela’s death to mean something, then consider using it as a motivation to think about what his life meant, and the legacy he left us, and then to buckle down and renew your efforts towards helping us achieve his vision.

Mantashe wants to help you “Know your DA”

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

130418daThe headline “DA’s campaign a desperate propaganda” left me quite sure that the text was going to be one of those overwrought reader-contributed op-eds, or at worst a product of Jackson Mthembu’s excitable pen. The content did little to challenge that assumption, leaving me quite surprised to see the name of ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, adorning the foot of the column in question.

The campaign he refers to is of course “Know your DA”, the first of the Democratic Alliance’s campaigns for the 2014 elections. The campaign attracted criticism right from the start, when Helen Zille’s launch speech neglected to mention Tony Leon, who led the party throughout most of its growth from 1.7% to 12.3% of the national vote.

I’d be annoyed by this if I were Leon (though not as annoyed as Rhoda Kadalie apparently was, in comparing Zille’s “airbrushing of history” to that of Stalin (she’s since deleted the tweet), but I think I’d nevertheless understand the reasoning behind leaving him out of the launch speech. The man who was the face of the 1999 “Fight back” election campaign – at the time, derided as the “fight black” campaign – would be quite a hard sell in a 2014 campaign that centres on the DA’s role in fighting apartheid.

Not because Leon played no role, of course, but rather because election campaigns are often about attention spans and caricatures rather than facts. In the case of Leon, we have “Fight back”, the merger with the New National Party, and support for the death penalty. In the case of Helen Suzman, we have the sole consistent voice against apartheid in Parliament for the 13 years from 1961 to 1974.

Suzman was a national treasure, and it strikes me rather bizarre that FW de Klerk has a Nobel Peace Prize while she (twice nominated) does not. But it was her principled contribution to ending apartheid that led Nelson Mandela to speak of the courage and integrity that marks her out as “one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa”.

It’s that association the DA is aiming for by showing the image of Mandela hugging Suzman, rather than the image being an attempt to appropriate Mandela as a DA supporter. For better or worse, most South Africans regard Mandela as a moral authority. His endorsement of someone’s character therefore carries significant weight, as the ANC – never shy of invoking the Mandela brand – seems to realise.

Mantashe claims that this is propaganda. On one level, of course it is, just as all electioneering is propaganda of a sort. Expecting the “Know your DA” campaign to talk about “all its history and not just the struggle parts”, as an anonymous “PR and marketing expert who has done political campaigns before” did in this weekend’s City Press, is absurd – we always try to present ourselves in the best possible light.

Not only because nobody has the time to hear or present a comprehensive history lesson in each speech, but also because the alternative is unreasonable. While electioneering, we don’t expect Jacob Zuma to remind us that he was charged with rape, or took a shower to avoid HIV infection. It’s not propagandistic to highlight the things one is proudest of, and if it is true that the DA of today still represents those values Mandela recognised in Suzman, it’s legitimate to point this out.

My view is that they represent fewer of those values than I’d prefer, yet enough of them to make a poster and campaign like this one risky, but nevertheless legitimate. It’s somewhat opportunistic to highlight Mandela’s recognition of Suzman, but it’s not dishonest.

If we understand propaganda to mean a selective presentation of facts to inappropriately or dishonestly influence someone’s beliefs, then I’d suggest that Mantashe himself has a few questions to answer following Sunday’s column. In it, he asserts that what has remained throughout the “evolution of whatever trend among the white minority … has been either brazen advocacy for white domination and privilege or some elaborate schemes for its retention in the guise of liberal policies”.

That’s Mantashe’s interpretation of DA policy, and some of you might share the interpretation. And while he and you are of course free to do so, there is of course another side to the story, and Mantashe knows it. That story involves not only those mentioned in Zille’s launch speech, such as Seremane, Balindlela and de Lille – but also a large group of emerging leaders from the youth structures, many of whom are not white liberals.

Mantashe speaks of the “disdain with which the DA treats transformation” as if it becomes true in uttering it, or perhaps through repeated refrain – and what would that be, if not propaganda? Again, the DA might be wrong in how it approaches transformation, but that’s an entirely separate question to whether they are sincerely wrong, or whether they are lying about their intentions to buttress white privilege.

As Mantashe points out, the “combination of desperation and dishonesty is a lethal one”, and if the DA’s “Know your history” will be perceived as an exploitation of struggle history, we’ll know about it once the ballots are counted. But 20 years after our first democratic election, it’s certainly possible to question whether the ANC are the sole – or more importantly, the best – custodians of our freedom and our future.

And yes, it is also an interesting and legitimate question whether Suzman would support the DA of today. Just as interesting and legitimate, in fact, as the question of whether or not Mandela would support the ANC of today.

Mandela Day and sustainable charity

As submitted to Daily Maverick

In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared that 18 July should be commemorated as “Nelson Mandela International Day”, in recognition of his “struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace”.

Though there are corners of the Internet that might dispute whether the honour is deserved, I’d imagine that most South Africans find it unimaginable that we’d be where we are today without his leadership.

Sadly, it’s nearly as easy to imagine Mandela himself looking on in dismay at where we are in 2012, and at the quality and character of those who now lead the democracy he helped to birth. And even though nation-building exercises like Mandela Day can frequently appear to be little more than an excuse for some warm and fuzzy sentimentality, my hope is that this year – and today, July 18 – can remind us that 67 minutes of our time, on one day of the year, will probably make no difference at all.

It’s perhaps not meant to make a difference in any case – at least not in isolation, and not because of any particular activity you might perform during the 67 minutes that we’re being encouraged to donate, in honour of Mandela’s 67 years of service to South Africa. The 67 minutes spent assisting some charity or another will be appreciated, but are unlikely to make a lasting difference unless we use the day as motivation to become more engaged in general.

The Nelson Mandela Centre reminds us that the campaign calls on us to “make every day a Mandela Day” rather than engaging in a box-ticking exercise on one day of the year, then thinking that you’ve done your bit. The latter sort of engagement is good for sentiment, and for giving middle-class folks an anecdote to tell over dinner, but not for much else.

The sort of sentimentalism that can result from encouraging (and engaging in) drive-by charity has more fundamental consequences than simply allowing us to imagine ourselves as humanitarians or philanthropists for a day. It might serve as a general mechanism for deferring responsibility for improving your environment, while being able to claim that it’s others that are negligent. What did they do on Mandela Day, after all?

It sometimes seems that we’re a nation of sentimentalists, who have learnt to wring our hands while (much of the time) also sitting on them. Furthermore, if Mazar and Zhong are correct, our occasional “virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours” due to the fact that we feel like we’ve paid our social dues and can now spend our credit selfishly.

Not that I’m intending to argue that you need to do something on Mandela Day, or any other day. The point is rather that if you do care, and want to do something inspired by Mandela or Mandela Day, it should perhaps be on your own initiative rather than prompted by Primedia or by our nostalgic memories of queuing to vote in 1994.

Any day can effectively be a Mandela Day, and that day can also simply be known as “Tuesday”, “Thursday” or “today”. I’m not disputing the symbolic value of standing together in an attempt to make a difference or show solidarity. However, symbols need to represent something to retain that value or force, and increasingly the representation seems to be entirely self-referential. We engage in symbolic gestures such as lighting a candle for Mandela (on the assigned “day”, of course), and then tomorrow, we go back to race-baiting in online newspaper comment threads. But long as your Facebook status mentions that candle, everyone will know that you’re Proudly South African.

There’s a simple thing that we can all try to do which costs no money and only a marginal increase (if any) in the investment of time. Many of the things that worked about the years after 1994 revolved around listening to and attempting to understand each other. I know that it’s less easy to build an advertising campaign around the subtleties of communication than around car headlights. But we didn’t need an advertising campaign then – let’s try to avoid assuming that we need one now.

The ANC’s election strategy: Blackmail

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

One way of thinking about the upcoming local government elections is as a session of couples’ therapy. While some disaffected voters are frequenting their local singles bar, either genuinely unattached or maybe ‘just looking’, and others are actively fleeing a situation they quickly realised they simply couldn’t cope with, many voters are still trying to make their current relationship work.

The ANC might hope that the (roughly) 66% of votes it attracted in the municipal elections of 2006 came from South Africans who remain committed to that particular relationship. But from the outside, where I find myself, it is sometimes difficult to understand why that might be the case, as the relationship seems increasingly one-sided, and sometimes even abusive.

This is not to say that it can’t be fixed, if both parties put the effort in. And perhaps the relationship is simply undergoing a short-term wobble – a 17-year itch of sorts. But when one party in a relationship – the voter – is treated with the sort of contempt occasionally displayed by people representing the ANC, it seems entirely appropriate to question whether both remain equally committed to making the relationship work.

In February, President Zuma told us that when “you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people”. As Sipho Hlongwane correctly pointed out, statements like these seem little more than diversionary tactics, intended to distract attention from dysfunctional local municipalities, corruption and the like. As per those oft-misunderstood and abused lines from Marx, religion is here meant to serve as the resigned ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’, and an opiate for the masses.

Beyond the cynicism of exploiting the religious beliefs of your citizens to retain votes, Zuma’s statement was also a lie. Not only a lie from within the belief system he was appealing to (for where in the Christian Bible does one find God’s endorsement of the ANC?), but also a lie from outside of those beliefs, in that it is telling voters that factors besides government performance should determine which boxes you cross on May 18.

Jackson Mthembu responded to the criticism resulting from Zuma’s statement by telling us that it was neither blasphemous, nor to be taken seriously. “South Africans – both black and white – fully understand the use of figurative expressions”, Mthembu said, after which he pointed out that those perturbed by this statement “are probably driven by jealousy for not having thought of the expression themselves”.

© 2010 Zapiro (All rights reserved)
Printed with permission from www.zapiro.com
For more Zapiro cartoons visit www.zapiro.com

These are probably also lies. With approximately 73% of South Africans self-identifying as Christians, and in a country where many outside of the middle and upper classes still take sangomas seriously, the claim that we all fully understand the distinction between literal and figurative speech is difficult to read as anything but an attempt at damage-limitation, where an apology and a retraction would have been more appropriate.

It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of eligible voters in the upcoming elections still came through a system where educational resources were unequally deployed, and – regardless of how well or how poorly you think we’re being educated today – would probably not have been taught that references to eternal damnation by Presidents should not be taken seriously.

Mthembu’s jealousy statement is also likely to either be dishonest (or simply naïve), in that we can well imagine other political parties as being capable of imagining ways to threaten voters into supporting them. The difference, of course, is that they would usually choose to spend their time more productively, or failing that, to not deploy those threats at all. The ACDP is of course the exception here, given that they seem to think that God wants to micro-manage all aspects of our lives.

Tony Ehrenreich, the likely mayoral candidate for the ANC in Cape Town, also exploited voters with a similar lie on March 6, when he told a community meeting that they needed to choose whether they wanted to be “on the side of justice” (by voting ANC), or “on the side of the devil”, which is what a vote for the DA (specifically Helen Zille) would apparently amount to. Zille must therefore be a satanic monkey, if you put Ehrenreich’s statement alongside one of Malema’s recent outbursts, in which he asserted that Zille would not be out of place in a simian dancing troupe.

But just in case not all voters are Christians, and therefore aren’t fearful of Satan or his monkey-minions, Malema recently upped the ante by telling us that not only would a vote for anyone other than the ANC send you to hell, it would also contribute to the death of a flesh-and-blood icon, Nelson Mandela. You would, in effect, be committing murder – perhaps even something like patricide – by voting for the for an opposition party.

Last week, Malema told the crowd at a Port Elizabeth rally that “President Mandela is sick and you don’t want to contribute to a worsening condition of Mandela by not voting ANC. President Mandela will never endure if the ANC is out of power”. Just as with Zuma and Ehrenreich’s statements (and, probably, similar ones made at smaller and unreported gatherings), no apologies or retractions are forthcoming, even though these statements amount to treating voters with utter contempt.

Contempt, because they don’t treat voters as capable of making choices based on genuine political issues, such as service delivery or which up-and-coming dictators we plan to supply weapons to next. Instead, voters are simply treated as a means to the end of retaining power – which is why this relationship is dysfunctional.

If you find yourself in a relationship where persuasion occurs through emotional blackmail rather than appeal to evidence or mutual interest, then the chances are good that the relationship is an abusive one. Emotional blackmail uses fear or guilt to create the impression that you have no choice but to go along with the abusers’ wishes – yet elections are meant to be all about choice, not about threats and intimidation.

At a certain point in such a relationship, friends and family would no doubt counsel you to cut your losses, and end things before more harm is done. We’re often reluctant to do so – not only because of genuine commitment or affection, but also because of cognitive biases involving escalation of commitment (in extremis, as typified in Stockholm syndrome). So instead, we might try to make it work, and give the abuser one more chance.

And this is of course our choice, and our right. We should however remember to try and not be distracted by threats and accusations. Perhaps, we should also remember how it works in other relationships, where claims of contrition and a desire to change require evidence – or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

Postscript: On the day this column was published, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe announced that they would not be announcing the names of mayoral candidates until after the election (except in Cape Town, where Cosatu has forced their hand. It’s a question of trust, I guess they might say. Others might say it’s evidence of confusion and disorganisation, and disregard for the interests of voters.

Mandela’s autopsy

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

Yiull Damaso’s painting of an imagined autopsy of Nelson Mandela has provoked outrage similar to that generated by Zapiro’s recent Mohammed cartoon. The outrage is similar in its severity, and unfortunately also similar in its knee-jerk thoughtlessness. Most troubling, the similarities extend to having to hear yet another argument in favour of the censoring of free expression on the grounds of cultural or religious sensibilities.

The painting, adapted from Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”, shows a deceased Mandela being autopsied by Nkosi Johnson, while FW de Klerk, Helen Zille, Desmond Tutu and others look on. It is, of course, the portrayal of Mandela as deceased that is causing most of the consternation, on the grounds that this portrayal consists, variously, of witchcraft, disrespect, a violation of dignity, and a “insult and an affront to values of our society” – at least according to ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

As with the Zapiro cartoon, we can and certainly should ask whether images like these are in unacceptably bad taste. If they are, we should say so, and hope that we can persuade artists of the legitimacy of our point of view. Having fewer offensive artworks in our purview would no doubt make for a more comfortable life. But one person – or one group, no matter how large – does not have the authority to define what counts as unacceptable and what doesn’t, except within their own cultural universe. Continue reading “Mandela’s autopsy”

Mandela’s Robben Island getaway (and other weirdness)

It isn’t often that I find myself agreeing with the folk at African Christian Action. Perhaps this is because I don’t do enough drugs, or because I like things to make sense – I don’t know. But when I recently came across their review of Invictus, I thought that we could finally agree on something, seeing as their headline of “Invictus Idolatry” made it clear they didn’t like the movie. Don’t be confused by the title tag of the African Christian Action review, which might cause your browser to tell you that the article is titled “PROLIFE: Aborsie – Die Feite”. The article is instead an account of why Invictus is evil. And this is indeed true, as I’ve mentioned before.

But while I thought it was a crap movie on the basis of being a mawkish, poorly scripted, glacially-paced and poorly acted account of a largely imagined period of South African history, the African Christian Action (ACA) reviewer didn’t like it because Mandela was a “terrorist” who didn’t really even have such a hard life while imprisoned. Continue reading “Mandela’s Robben Island getaway (and other weirdness)”

Eastwood does Oprah

A couple of nights ago, the Doctor and I watched a feature-length episode of Oprah directed by Clint Eastwood, titled Invictus. It was somewhat like going to a church service (at least as far as I can recall) where everyone is hopped-up on Ecstasy while trying to channel the spirit of the Dalai Lama – such was the overwhelming schmaltziness of this account of how Mandela saved South Africa with an oval ball. Parts of it were good – here in South Africa, much chattering occurs around the authenticity of accents when movies feature local characters, and both Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon did a good job in this regard. Also, some of the action scenes (rugby scrums and so forth) were appropriately animalistic (in general, though, the rugby scenes were rather devoid of tension or spectacle). But in what appears to be a concerted effort to win a couple of Oscars, Eastwood lays on the cheese to such an extent that at one point the Doctor remarked “this is more than cheesy – it’s an entire fondue!”. Continue reading “Eastwood does Oprah”