Ramaphosa, and the soft tyranny of low expectations

South African social media have been even more intemperate than usual since Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC leader – and yes, I realise how implausible that might sound.

It nevertheless strikes me as true in light of the volume of comment I read calling for President Zuma’s head (sometimes quite literally), now that he was effectively a lame duck,  alongside the counter-claims of JZ’s supporters (or even simply the supporters of codified procedure, rather than fictions like a “recall” having any legal force).

Morality Politics

Zapiro and the rape of South Africa

If you are reading this, then you have likely seen today’s Zapiro cartoon. If you haven’t, you can see it on Daily Maverick. I’m not going to reproduce it here, both because I haven’t asked for permission to do so, and because some folk who I hope to engage via this post might think it’s needlessly provocative to do so.


South Africa: Brief notes on a meltdown in confidence

In 2012, I asked “when should South Africans begin entertaining the possibility that we have an illegitimate government?” – and even though I certainly don’t claim this was a unique or original thought, I’d imagine many more South Africans would share this sentiment today than did then.

Since that time, we’ve had Nkandla, al-Bashir, the acquittal of Andries Tatane’s killers and more to add to Marikana. I of course don’t mean to make any comparisons of scale here, but rather to note that many South Africans might well be feeling somewhat inured to bad news by now, given its regularity.

People Politics

Zuma, Obama and misreading intentions

You’re all familiar with that asshat driver who speeds up to close a gap you were about to merge into. Maybe you are that driver? If so, you’d also be aware of those occasions where you did so accidentally – perhaps you hadn’t noticed the other car trying to merge, or perhaps you suddenly realised you were late for an appointment, and sped up.

Of course, perhaps you’re just an asshat. But let’s assume not, and instead use this as an example of what is called the “fundamental attribution error” in social psychology. This error describes our habit of assuming intention or motive to explain behaviour, rather than considering external factors like the two listed above.

The same error has been in evidence in some reactions – especially in the intemperate world of social media, to this photograph of Presidents Zuma and Barack Obama.

zuma+phoneFor some who distrust or dislike Zuma, whether for good or bad reasons, the photograph is evidence of his arrogance, or simply an opportunity to mock or criticise him (because he was obviously talking to someone more important than Obama, like the Guptas).

But there’s no reason to assume anything sinister, or anything worth mockery or criticism here. A still image, taken out of a context, tells us nothing about what either man was thinking. Obama could have approached Zuma while the latter was already on the phone, as the former was on his way to another table and thought to just quickly say “hello”.

We don’t know. What we do know is that people can reveal their own attitudes, pretty clearly, in how they respond to images such as these. Criticism is good, and necessary – but let’s try to keep it evidence-based.

Daily Maverick Politics Religion

Jacob Zuma, wives, and the wrath of God

JZOver the weekend, I had a chat with a man from Nkandla (who will remain anonymous). As you no doubt know, that’s where Jacob Zuma is building his palace private residence, and it’s also the place that his own spokesperson (Mac Maharaj) didn’t want to visit because he feared he’d be unable to defend it once he had (at least, if you trust the interview recorded in Richard Calland’s book, The Zuma Years).

We didn’t talk about the residence, but I suspect that this man from Nkandla would be opposed to the deception surrounding the expenses incurred there, as well as the quantum of the expenses. Another point of agreement between us was with regard to the irrelevance of the number of wives Zuma has, both in terms of his political credibility, as well as to negative judgements regarding what Zuma costs the people of South Africa.

The political credibility part is less controversial, and unless you insist on monogamy for whatever reason, I imagine you agree that this shouldn’t impact on our judgments regarding Zuma (assuming, of course, full volition on the part of the wives and so forth). As for the costs incurred on the public purse, my interlocutor and I agreed that if the law allowed for polygamy, and for public support of the President’s wives, then it’s the law that needs to change, rather than Zuma that needs to change.

One could argue that Zuma should set the example, and defer the marrying of anyone other than who he was already married to (when taking office) until after leaving the position. But this would mean a less than full acceptance of Zuma’s cultural values, and would to my mind run contrary to the cultural inclusivity our Constitution demands. It would be an assertion that norms other than Zuma’s were standard, and that he’s allowed to contravene those – and practice his own, (implied) aberrant or inferior culture, so long as it’s done in a way that’s convenient to the rest of us.

It may be that we don’t want to be as culturally inclusive as the Constitution demands. But that’s not the argument here – instead, this would be an instance of insisting on the primacy of a particular set of norms under the guise of financial concerns. Instead, we should say that financial concerns disallow one set of cultural norms from being as well supported as others (if we wanted to be honest about the matter). Or even more honestly, we could say that culture X is somehow inferior to Y.

But until we do either of those things, the point is that it’s not Zuma’s problem that his wives cost more to support than Mbeki’s did. He could act in a supererogatory fashion, and choose to save us all some money, but he’s under no obligation to, and we shouldn’t judge him more harshly if he doesn’t choose to save us that money. That, at least, is what the man from Nkandla and I agreed over the weekend.

We didn’t talk about Zuma’s frequent insertion of religious rhetoric into political discourse, and I suspect that on that point, we would probably have disagreed. As he’s done in the past, when asserting that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back, or claiming that “humanity has vanished” without fear of God, Zuma again inserted God into the National Elections in an address to the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo, on Sunday. Zuma is quoted as saying:

If you don’t respect those in leadership, if you don’t respect authority then you are bordering on a curse. Whether we like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church. That’s why he says you, as a church, should pray for it.

It’s easy to say that he’s appealing to a lowest common denominator here, in that an estimated 80% of South Africans are Christians. But this goes further than simply drawing on the support of like-minded people in claiming that he is “doing God’s work”, for example. This is divisive and judgemental (on spurious, metaphysical grounds, rather than principled ones), in that he’s threatening voters who might be tempted to vote for someone other than the ANC with being cursed.

Contrary to the entire point of the democratic process, whereby we freely choose our representatives based on their positions and performance in delivering what they promised us, here your mortal soul is in danger if you don’t vote ANC – regardless of positions or performance. Even if Zuma believes this to be true, threats that would be more suited to Medieval times are surely unbecoming of the President of a nation?

Furthermore, the opportunism of the rhetoric is perhaps even more clear in the next sentence, where he asserts that God has made a connection between “the government and the church”. By this, he has to mean that this government is looked upon with favour by a particular (his) god. He can’t mean God smiles on “governments” in general, because then God must also have approved of PW Botha’s government; and he can’t mean that God is only “connected” in some non-judgemental way to governments, because if so, what’s the point of highlighting an arbitrary connection, even as you say voters should pray for the government?

In today’s Business Day, Peter Bruce wonders “how much more can the ANC take“. While Bruce mostly addresses the political processes by which Zuma could be ousted as the ANC leader, this question can also be raised with respect to those who vote ANC. As he did in 2011, he’s blackmailing voters into supporting him through claiming that it’s only through him, and his party, that their souls will be safe.

Shame on him.

Morality Politics

Does Zuma read? Does it matter?

JZIt’s slightly amusing that it wasn’t his book, The Zuma Years, but rather Richard Calland’s comments to the Cape Town Press Club last week that drew fire from Mac Maharaj, President Zuma’s spokesperson. Maharaj says that Calland claiming Zuma “doesn’t read” is “incorrect, unfortunate, and misleading”, and also “serves to perpetuate stereotypes”.

Amusing, because when I read Calland’s book on August 17 and 18 this year, I noticed that chapter 3 opens with one of Zuma’s cabinet ministers being quoted as saying “Zuma doesn’t read”. So, I suppose we can conclude that regardless of how much Zuma or Maharaj might read, they at least hadn’t read this book. Or, they didn’t feel it necessary to comment on this outrage until they had heard it reported by the press, rather than having seen it in its original printed form – attributed not to Calland, but to Zuma’s anonymous minister.

So, you might say that this becomes further evidence for Calland’s claim, in that the details of a case like this matter, and the details can’t be conveyed by selective quotes from a Sapa newsfeed. Calland could be accused of fabricating the quote if you like – but that’s a different matter to chastising him as if he had made the claim himself.

Also, the claim crops up in chapter 3, after Calland begins the book with Mbeki. Mbeki is fairly uncontroversially known as an intellectual (whether pseudo or legit is up to your definitions, but he was certainly bookish). The detail regarding Zuma not being a reader is inserted by way of contrast, and by way of presenting Zuma as an entirely different sort of political operator to Mbeki (specifically, one who engages mostly with practical details rather than philosophical nuances).

Accusing Calland of making an “incorrect, unfortunate and misleading” statement is, therefore, an instance of a non-intellectual engagement (which isn’t necessarily meant to mean an incompetent, or incorrect engagement) with the situation, akin to what Calland describes as being the “house style” in the chapter on Zuma.

However, discussion about the Calland speech at the Press Club and Maharaj’s reaction have raised the question of whether it matters if Zuma reads or not, and if it does, whether it matters what he reads.

When Brooks Spector, Associate Editor of the Daily Maverick (disclosure in case you didn’t know: I wrote for them for three years) asked for recommendations for JZ’s reading list, I was quick to suggest Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Not because I thought Zuma in particular needed to read it, but because I think most people would benefit from reading it (someone who I won’t name here can confirm that I also suggested it as a gift to all the members of the Western Cape Provincial Cabinet).

So that makes my bias quite clear, I suspect – I would like for our political leadership to be readers, and to be thinkers. If I were an American, I’d be one of those Americans wishing I could have the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet as my President. But I’d also like to resist insisting on being a reader as a requirement, because it’s a) not too surprising that someone who has been in a university for 22 years would like an intellectual president, and people like me are hardly representative; and b) because being an intellectual force is only one way of leading, and not necessarily the best one in all circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong: if you’re not an intellectual president/leader yourself, you sure as hell should be smart enough to surround yourself with people who are. Decisions need to be made regarding allocation of scarce resources, managing crises and the like, and you can only get so far with a smile and a handshake, or even with some backroom-backstabbing. But so long as you inspire confidence in those you are charged with leading, and meet some basic standard of competence (while stocking your cabinet with people who can do the things you can’t do), it would be inappropriate for us to demand that JZ, or any president, be a thinker themselves.

Zuma’s life didn’t allow for decades in a university. It didn’t allow for a day at a university, and if I recall correctly, he didn’t finish secondary school. But there are different ways of being smart, or capable, or inspirational. When we criticise Zuma, or anyone else, we should be careful to not assume the priority of any one of those particular ways, leading us to reject someone’s efforts simply because they don’t fit our template of one sort of ideal leader.

In Zuma’s case, my lack of confidence in his leadership is not because he doesn’t read. It’s mostly thanks to the fact that he doesn’t seem to have stocked his cabinet (or elsewhere) with people who make up for the skills and knowledge he lacks. Instead, he appears to stock the relevant bodies with whomever will serve to keep him in place and out of prison, all the while displaying the sort of superficiality and vanity more akin to a 3rd-world dictator (think Zapiro, Daryl Peense, or Brett Murray, or Chumani Maxwele) than to a credible and respect-worthy statesman.

In short, it’s not that he doesn’t read, but that he doesn’t lead.


Mugabe’s “thuggish, incompetent and corrupt” Zanu-PF

20130727_LDP004_0The title of this post quotes a leader in The Economist this week. It’s worth reading, as is a more substantial treatment of Zimbabwe’s state in the same newspaper. It’s good to see the international media focusing on Zimbabwe, because the South African government – in particular “Number 1”, or Jacob Zuma – seem quite reluctant to do so. For those of you who have forgotten, and for some foreign readers, bear in mind that the current president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe (on the Iron Throne for 33 years now) comprehensively lost the first round of presidential elections in 2008. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) also won the parliamentary poll.

But, the leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, declined to compete in the second round of the presidential elections, because Zanu-PF supporters had in the meanwhile murdered around 200 MDC campaigners. And as The Economist reports, the army, the police, the media and the courts are all sympathetic to Mugabe (or perhaps, sympathetic to staying alive) – so little can be done to end these injustices.

On top of that, the electoral commission, and the registrar of the voters’ roll, also seem to be in cahoots with Mugabe, who has sprung a surprise by moving the election date forward, making it more difficult to police that voters’ roll, in order to remove the suspected thousands of dead people who are listed on it, and who will surely be ‘voting’ for Zanu-PF come July 31.

So, what is South Africa – the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and supposed exemplar of democratic best-practice doing about this? Well, as in 2008, the answer is … nothing. Or worse than nothing, in that even mild criticism of Zimbabwe’s readiness to hold elections has been suppressed by our President, the reliable embarrassment that is Jacob Zuma.

The South African Development Community (Sadc) is monitoring the elections, and the Sadc’s mediator in Zimbabwe is Zuma. Last time around, the Sadc declared the (obviously tainted) elections free and fair, and there seems little doubt they’ll do so again, at least with someone as morally flexible as Zuma at the helm. We must pity folk like Zuma’s foreign-policy adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, who last week raised concerns regarding the legitimacy of any election in Zimbabwe before the 2008 electoral reforms were implemented.

Mugabe responded by calling her a “stupid, idiotic woman” and a “street walker”. The South African Presidency’s response? A statement “distancing itself from Ms Zulu’s, ‘unauthorised’ and ‘regrettable’ remarks”, to quote a Business Day report. And today, I read that Tsvangirai’s election organiser has been arrested, just days before the election. Yes, regrettable indeed to point out election-rigging and corruption, Mr Zuma – after all, we don’t want people to think too hard about issues like the latter one, do we?

Outside of election-rigging, Mugabe is more generally an man who routinely says things like “Tutu should just step down, because he supports gays, something that is evil. We say no to gays” or “Obama is one of us – African – but his support for gays is very wrong. The Americans want us to embrace gays. I say go away with your money as long as you support gays”. Odious, in other words, and worthy of general condemnation.

But, after July 31, I have little doubt that the elections will be declared “substantially free and fair”; fear that Mugabe will most likely hold on to power; and am fairly certain that Jacob Zuma will never say a word about how his big man friend up North embodies the opposite of much of what South Africa’s Constitution holds dear. And why would he, when he’s appointed a Chief Justice who seems to hold similar views?

EDIT: Just spotted on Twitter – an account of documents allegedly detailing exactly how Mad Bob plans to steal next week’s elections.

Culture Morality Politics

Maiming, killing and dying for “culture”

Originally published on SkepticInk

Parts of a 17-year-old boy’s feet from Bonita Park, in Hartswater had to be amputated, after he ran away from an initiation school in Pampierstad in search of food.

After he was tracked down, he was thrashed with a sjambok, while his feet were burnt with fire. He was later abandoned along the side of the road, where he was left for dead, naked and bleeding, until a passing motorist noticed him and alerted the police.

Due to extensive nerve and muscle damage, his toes had to be surgically removed.

667532_612441This boy, and thousands like him, are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, “through ritual circumcision and cultural instruction regarding their social responsibilities and their conduct”. Ever year, children die in the course of “becoming men” – and in South African society, being a man correlates quite positively with thinking you can dictate the course of the lives of women.

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools, with poor hygiene and cultural instruction from previous centuries, is that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a community. If the average adolescent knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d probably be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural indoctrination.

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse of all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it becomes remotely respectable. And even then, it should never be an explanation or justification for doing or believing something. As I tell students, appeals to culture, tradition and the like get the causality entirely backwards: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable one or not.

Free Speech General Politics

The disappeared ANCWL post on Zapiro

Earlier today, the ANC Women’s League released a rant about the latest Zapiro cartoon, which I won’t reproduce here for fear of being shot. But the rant has now disappeared from their website, although you can read Jackson Mthembu’s (typically reflective) opinion if you like. I happened to have a browser page open to the rant, so it’s posted below. I took the liberty of making a couple of corrections to it.

ANCWL condemns latest Zapiro excuse for satire

6 July 2012

The ANCWL condemns in the strongest possible terms the disgusting and completely distasteful depiction of the President in the latest Zapiro cartoon. David Jonathan Shapiro has taken his attempts at satire too far. He clearly does not understand the reasons for the public outcry over “The Spear” and why it was hurtful to so many people. The cartoon is an insult to those who suffered under the indignity of Aapartheid and a slap in the face to real efforts for advancing the social cohesion of our fragile society. Shapiro is showing his disregard for the healing process which is currently underway in South Africa after the divisive era before democracy.

The furore created by “The Spear” is a clear indication that we still have a long way to go. The Zapiro cartoons rely on their shock value to make an impact, but by calling the President of this great nation a “dick” is unacceptable and the WL would like to know who the we he is referring to in the cartoon actually is, as the majority of the population who voted for the PresidentANC clearly did not think this of Zuma. This cartoon is a clear attempt to fuel divisions in our society and should be condemned by all proud South Africans, regardless of race or political affiliation.

The right to freedom of expression is a right enshrined in the Cconstitution, a constitution pioneered by the Multi-party Negotiating Process and Constitutional AssemblyANC, however this right is not absolute and one must always remember a founding principale of our constitution is the right to human dignity, which was denied to so many during apartheid. The cartoon like the painting before it, is a violation of the President`s right to dignity and an insult to the people of South Africa. It serves no public interest whatsoever and was clearly just an attempt to insult and defame the President further.

Zapiro has gone from being a sometimes controversial, yet relevant satirist to a sensationalist arbiter of attentionseeking properagandaer released purely for its shock appeal, and serves absolutely no purpose in society. DavidJonathan Shapiro has declared a hatred for South Africans with this insult to the President, of not only the ANC but the entire country. This disturbing cartoon was released the day the President will be addressing a massive delegation of women from across all sectors of society who are deeply disgusted by this terrible portrayal of our country’ies President.

Issued By:
Troy Martens (on behalf of the ANCWL)
ANC Women`s League National Spokeswoman

Contact: 078 120 9880
e-mail: [email protected]

Troy Martens
ANC Women`s League National Spokesperson
078 120 9880
011 376 1055
[email protected]

P.S. A (somewhat) corrected version of the statement has now been released. ANCWL CONDEMNS LASTEST ZAPIRO EXCUSE FOR SATIRE

Free Speech Morality Politics

Did the #Zumaspear bullies win?

Here’s Ferial Haffajee explaining why she took the decision to remove images of Zuma’s Spear from the City Press website. Peter Bruce, editor of Business Day, said (on Twitter) that he would never have published it in the first place (on grounds of taste). That I can understand, and even agree with – an editor makes choices as to the character of their publication, and it would be a legitimate choice to never display this painting. (Today, Bruce argued that Haffajee should remove the painting.)

Zuma’s Spear is not obviously in the public interest, it reveals nothing we don’t already know, and it certainly always seemed likely to offend – perhaps for little gain. And causing offence just for the sake of doing so is not (to my mind, at least) a laudable action.

But Haffajee published a photograph of the painting in the course of covering the Murray exhibition – it was one of many paintings reproduced in the City Press. I’d imagine that she knew it would cause offence, even though she indicates (in the first link, above) that she had no idea the rage would be this extreme. She should be free to do so, just as Murray should be free to paint disrespectful images of the President. Having said that, I’d previously argued that the freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do.

Once one has “done it”, though, you’ve chosen to take a stand. In this case, a stand for free speech, and a stand that entails asserting that differences in cultural sensitivities and norms are subject to a Constitutional override which allows for us to offend each other through artworks such as Murray’s. And here’s the problem regarding the decision to take the painting down: it’s impossible, now that that choice has been made, to separate the possibility of it being premised on cultural sensitivity (which can often be a good thing, even though it’s sometimes not), or whether it’s simply another instance of allowing the hypersensitive to win the argument, simply because they shout louder than everyone else, or threaten you with violence.

City Press staff have received death threats. Religious idiots have called for the artist to be stoned. So now, as much as Haffajee was perhaps mistaken in ever choosing to run that image, her self-described “olive branch” is (in part, and perhaps in large part) a reaction to intimidation, and fear of reprisal. Some have asked about the apparent inconsistency of the Goodman Gallery (under different ownership, note) refusing to display an earlier Murray work (pictured above), and Haffajee’s previous decision to not run content that Muslims would find offensive. But  note what’s happened – the inconsistency has been resolved.

In the case of offending the religious, a pre-emptive decision was made that the situation was too volatile, and the physical threats too real, to ever run the offensive material. Haffajee and the Goodman Gallery made the mistake of thinking that our democracy could handle some robust debate around cultural norms, freedom of speech, and whether it’s okay to show disrespect for the President. The reactions to this (by those offended) ended up being entirely consistent, and have forced a consistency in response by those who caused the offence. I guess they’ve all learnt their lesson now – Haffajee and the Gallery now know of yet another topic that isn’t open to debate, and others have learned that it remains true that you can win arguments by threatening violence.

I realise that Haffajee had a difficult choice, both in running the painting and in retracting it. And I can understand why she chose to remove it from the website. An extract from her explanation reads as follows:

I hope we are not crafting a society where we consign artists to still life’s and the deep symbolism of repressed artists like China’s Ai Weiwei in China. A society where we consign journalism to a free expression constrained by the limits of fear. This week society began the path of setting its mores on how we treat presidents in art and journalism; what is acceptable and what is not.

This could be interpreted in various ways – let’s hope that in noting how we’ve begun to set these mores, she realises the role this explanation will play in doing so. I’m sure she does, and that she (and all of us) will continue to probe the boundaries of free expression in light of cultural (including religious) sensitivities – rather than allow the latter to gradually swallow the former. Removing the painting was motivated in large part by threats, and to some extent by wanting to make a contribution to nation-building. Those who issued the threats – including Zuma, Mthembu et al, should think carefully about the nation they’re helping to build through bullying others into silence.