Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “politicians”

Why I’ve stopped buying newspapers

Twenty years ago I used to buy newspapers quite a lot. Now I may buy a Sunday newspaper once a month or so. Sometimes the newspaper publishers run surveys to find out why people buy or don’t buy their newspapers, but they usually ask all the wrong questions.

I suppose the main reason I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to is that since I retired I don’t get out much. Going out usually costs money. We do go out to church on Sundays, and on the way home stop at shops, and so for a while bought the Sunday newspapers most Sundays, but even that has dropped off, partly because of financial constraints, but also because of this — What is the Labour Party for? On the mystery of Jeremy Corbyn:

There is a preference in the media’s political coverage – and in political campaigning altogether – for symbol and personality over policy and fact. The media coverage of Corbyn, who despite being an MP and unusually active campaigner for over thirty years had not much figured in the press until the leadership contest, has been by any measure persistently negative.

Of course South African Sunday newspapers only rarely refer to Jeremy Corbyn, but in their coverage of South African politicians, the same general principle applies: The emphasis is on image rather than substance, personality rather than policy.

Almost every Sunday there will be a full-page article on some politician, and the article will usually be about some political rival threatening to take over their position. I rarely read beyond the first paragraph, because I know from experience that if there are no facts in the first paragraph there will be none on the rest of the page. The policies of the politician in question are not important. What’s important is that there is conflict, and that increases circulation, or so they say.

Jeremy Corbyn

The problem with Jeremy Corbyn is that he has no ambition, and it ambition that fuels the conflict that journalists like to write about. Corbyn talks too much about principles and policies, and not enough about his rivals or their voters. If he started calling Tory voters “a basket of deplorables” he’d probably get a better press, though whether it would get him more votes from Labour supporters is a moot point.

So where do we get our news nowadays?

A few days ago our TV was on all day on the channel showing the Constitutional Court hearings about the crisis in social grants payments. When it comes to the judges of the Constitutional Court, they are not interested in the fluff about personalities, they want the facts. And if they don’t get the facts, they ask. They don’t concern themselves with speculations about who might get Bathabile Dlamini’s job because she messed up, or how much sushi was consumed at her last birthday party. They want to know what she has done and what she hasn’t done about the payments of pensions and other social grants.

Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development

Even the Daily Maverick, which is usually better an more insightful than most, writes, Sassa grant crisis: In this game of thrones, can Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini survive? | Daily Maverick. The important question, you see, is not whether 17 million social grant recipients will get paid. The important question is the personality-cult one: the political survival of one celebrity politician, rather than 17 million people who might have no food on the table in April.

When it comes to the media and their predilection for personality cults, one wonders which came first, the chicken or the egg. The scramble for power of ambitious politicians makes great copy, at least in the opinion of journalists, and so if politicians want the publicity they crave, they must spend more time on polishing their images than on fine-tuning their policies. It’s a vicious cycle, the one feeds off the other.

And politicians like Jeremy Corbyn break that mould. That’s why the media hate him, and why I rather like him.

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Why do I support Putin?

I was gobsmacked to be told by another blogger recently that I supported Putin.

Tell Me Bill Maher Is Not an Idiot | Clarissa’s Blog: “Yet you support Putin whose belligerent war mongering makes both Obama and Bush look like babes in arms?”

That was news to me, and so I asked what made her think I supported Putin, and it was apparently because I had referred to the conflict in Ukraine as a “civil war”, perhaps in this earlier blog post: Some observations on the Ukraine crisis | Notes from underground.

Now she is Ukrainian, and I am not and I’ve never been to Ukraine. I have read a little of its history, and according to the history I have read, Eastern and Western Ukraine have different histories and this sometimes leads to differences of opinion. Blogger Clarissa denies this, says that there are no differences of opinion among Ukrainians, and all the problems are caused by outside interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs — from Putin, of course.

Well, to misquote Bob Dylan, Oh, no, no, no, I’ve been through this movie before. We were told during the era of the Verwoerdian dream that black people and white people in South Africa lived in perfect harmony, and any appearance to the contrary was caused by outside agitators from Moscow. And therefore anyone who spoke of differences of opinion was ipso facto a Communist, and was therefore supporting Stalin or Krushchev or Brezhnev or Andropov or whoever happened to be the head honcho of the USSR at the moment. We even had laws that defined “communist” in such terms.

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

I hold no brief for Putin. I don’t know what he’s up to most of the time, and I wonder if the citizens of Russia know what he’s up to most of the time either. To all accounts he’s an exponent of Realpolitik, but the same appears to be true or Obama, Cameron, Merkel and the rest of them. So I don’t “support” any of them.

The only political leader I might just possibly support is the President of Uruquay. José Mujica. If we had a politician like that, I’d support him. But in voting in our election earlier this year it was a matter of deciding which was the least of 29 evils, and it was a hard choice.

As for Ukraine, I just wish the Ukrainians would sort out their differences peaceully, whether or not they have any differences, with minimal interference from politicians in other countries, all of whom, I suspect, are using Ukraine as a political football.

 

Mamphela Ramphele for president?

Three months ago I wrote a blog post in which I said that one of my political dreams was that I would like to see Mamphela Ramphele as president of South Africa before I die. I conducted a straw poll on that blog post, and 80% of those who responded said that they would also like to see her as president. Of course that doesn’t translate into 80% of South African voters, but it still indicated that some people would like to see her as president.

Mamphela Ramphele

Mamphela Ramphele

And now comes the news that she is possibly thinking of forming a political party, or movement, or think-tank or something, and that this something will be explained later today.

I look forward to it with a certain amount of trepidation.

I rather hope that she isn’t going to form a new party.

The record of new parties in South Africa is not very good, and among the new parties have been one-woman parties, and their record had not been any better than any of the others.

I voted for Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats in 2004 and 2009, and where are they today?

The problem with the ID was that through Patricia de Lille seemed to have a fresh approach, and a willingness to tackle the problems facing the country, and a real vision for the future, the party itself seemed to manage to attract only a bunch of mediocrities who, like people in other parties, were simply trying to fulfil their political ambitions. Quite a number deserted to join COPE, which seemed to have nothing at all to offer except leadership squabbles. Patricia de Lille left the PAC because it was led by cobweb-covered fuddy-duddies who lived in the past and had no vision for the future, but she didn’t attract enough dynamic leaders to make a new party flourish.  Can Mamphela Ramphele do any better?

Mamphela Ramphele, like Patricia de Lille, is attractive as a political leader because she tries to analyse problems and look for solutions instead of mouthing platitudes.

When I wrote the blog post saying my dream was to see her as president, it was before the ANC’s Mangaung conference in December, and my totally impractical what-if wish was based on the thought that the ANC might come to its senses and elect her as leader and as presidential candidate. Totally impractical, of course. And the precedents also don’t look good. I think Mamphela Ramphele as leader of the ANC would have faced the same problems as Mvume Dandala did as leader of Cope — presiding over a bunch of squabbling ambitious rivals bent on providing the media with an endless succession of personality clashes to distract attention from policy issues. As I said, I don’t think Mamphela Ramphele really has a taste for that, and lacks the moral turpitude that seems to be a prerequisite for the job. There are still good people in the ANC, people with good ideas who retain something of its former vision, but they have largely been sidelined or have sidelined themselves.

But there is a precedent of sorts. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine withdrew from politics to found IDASA, the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa. IDASA has been a think-tank, and we probably don’t need another think tank. Perhaps what is needed is something between a think-tank and a political party — a bit less abstract than the former, and a bit more visionary than the latter.

Mamphela Ramphela is one of South Africa’s foremost public intellectuals, and it would be good if she could attract a number of others. But that is not enough. It also needs popular support. There is plenty of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo, and in the past organisations like the UDF and MDM effectively mobilised the dissatisfied into a popular movement. But a similar movement today would have a weapon that the UDF and MDM did not have back then — the vote.

Instead of service delivery protests, a new mass democratic movement could encourage people in municipalities plagued by corruption to organise their own local parties to elect their own local leaders to municipal councils and thus oust the corrupt ones. So perhaps what Mamphela Ramphele needs to do is to form not one new party, but dozens of new local ones, reviving the civic organisations of the past, and take back the cities, one by one. And the country would follow.

 

Political dreams

Now here’s a story that’s likely to have financial journalists and tenderpreneurs frothing at the mouth

Opinionated Vicar: Prophet of the Day: the President of Uruguay:

Think of a world leader, politician, or indeed anyone in power that you know, who gives away 90% of their income. Tricky. But there is one: But there is one: the President of Uruguay. He has personal wealth of just over £1000, which takes the form of an old VW Beetle, and living off 10% of his official salary means that his regular income is about the same as that of an average Uruguayan.

Look at the Uruguayan president’s house (his wife’s, actually) and compare it with Zumaville.

If there’s one thing that the “mainstream” media can’t stand, it’s a politician who isn’t on the make, and there are very few of those around. One of the few African politicians who was not on the make was Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and the Western media published lots of denigratory articles about him. There was one syndicated article, with a title like The “teacher” who reduced his nation to beggary, which did the rounds for about 20 years, and was reprinted again and again. I saw it several times over the years in South African newspapers.

I have a dream that before I die I will see Mamphela Ramphele as the president of South Africa.

It’s not likely to happen, of course, because the way our political system is constructed anyone who now wants to get to that position has to be prepared to devote all their time to the political infighting and backstabbing that constitutes out political process. Mamphela Ramphele is one of South Africa’s South Africa’s foremost public intellectuals, and I doubt that she has the stomach for that kind of thing. Moral turpitude seems to be a requirement for the job.

But I’m not alone in having this dream; it is shared by at least one other person.

Of course it is too much to hope for that such dreams can be fulfilled twice in a lifetime.

It should have been enough that in 1994 South Africa gained its freedom and was liberated from the evil ideology of apartheid. Back in the bad old days the enemy was obvious, and the moral choices were clear. The country was in the grip of an evil dieology, and if we were to be liberated that grip must be broken.

But now there is no single source of evil that one can point to; it is just the usual messy mishmash of human sinfulnes, greed, lust for power, incompetence and corruption. In a sense South Africa has become normal. It is what most countries have to contend with, one way or another.

It reminds me of a song that we used to sing in the early 1970s, buy a little-known British gospel rock group called Parchment:

Yesterday’s dream didn’t quite come true
We fought for our freedom, and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand.

Let there be light in the land, let there be light in the people
Let there be God in our lives from now on.

Politicians’ genitals: private or public parts?

In the same week controversy has erupted in both Canada and South Africa over the depiction of the genitals of politicical leaders of those countries in works of art.

In Canada ‘Well hung’ nude Harper painting sparks mixed reactions | Toronto SUN:

A nude painting of Canada’s prime minister has politicians and Tim Hortons employees cracking jokes, pundits crying foul and one federal department reportedly offering up cash.

Titled Emperor Haute Couture, the portrait hanging in a Kingston, Ont., public library shows a full monty Stephen Harper, leaning back on a chaise lounge chair surrounded by a doting team with a terrier at his feet, about to sip a steaming Tim Hortons coffee.

In South Africa, on the same day, came the news that ‘Portrait of Zuma is below the belt’ – Politics | IOL News:

The ANC is outraged at a portrait that shows President Jacob Zuma, in the pose of Lenin, with his genitals hanging out. And the party is headed to court to force the artist Brett Murray, the Goodman Gallery and the City Press newspaper to remove the portrait.

The Goodman Gallery said Murray will not comment and will let the art “speak for itself”.

The 1.85m-high piece, priced at R136 000 and titled The Spear, was first reported on by City Press and a picture of the portrait was printed and displayed on its website.

Perhaps conspiracy theorists will see something significant in the fact that both the above newspaper reports were published on the same day.

In South Africa attempts to have the Zuma painting removed have been criticised as attacks on the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

The Bill of Rights states:

16. Freedom of expression

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
    1. freedom of the press and other media;
    2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
    3. freedom of artistic creativity; and
    4. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

  2. The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
    1. propaganda for war;
    2. incitement of imminent violence; or
    3. advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

But in this case there is an earlier section of the constitution that might be in conflict:

10. Human dignity

Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.

So if the matter ever gets as far as the Constitutional Court, it will be interesting to see which constitutional principle prevails.

But it is certainly not the first time that politicians’ genitalia have been the subject of political satire. Back at the time of the Rainbow Warrior affair a newspaper cartoon depicted French President François Mitterrand with his fly open and a very erect nuclear missile protruding. He was flanked by the leaders of other nuclear powers, and I think the caption was “Mine’s bigger than yours.” I forget which newspaper it was in.

And of course in South Africa there is the political cartoonist Zapiro, who for a long time depicted Jacob Zuma with a shower protruding from his head, after Zuma had said that having a shower was his way of taking precautions against HIV/Aids.

But last week’s art offerings seem to have been of a somewhat different order.

And, like the Bill of Rights, I find myself in two minds over the whole thing.

On the one hand, I think that both as the State President and also as a human being, Jacob Zuma has the right to dignity and privacy guaranteed by our constitution. Even though he holds public office, he has the right not to have his private parts treated as public and exposed to public view.

And this is akin to the principle behind the recent phone hacking scandal in the UK, in which the former newspaper executve, Rebekah Brooks, has been charged with perverting the course of justice.

Can one by-pass this principle by calling it “art”? And where does one draw the line between the work of artists and that of paparazzi?

On the other hand, I recall the trial of Johannesburg artist Harold Rubin for “blasphemy” back in 1963. The Wikipedia article, however doesn’t do either him or his work justice, and omits to mention that his exhibition was opened by Brother Roger, CR, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, who was later pulled off a train to give evidence at his trial, and whose evidence probably played an important part in his subsequent aquittal. The picture in question, with the title “My Jesus”, did not, as the Wikipedia article claims, have the head of a monster, but showed a human being on a cross undergoing extreme suffering. This is not the way Orthodox Christian ikons depict Jesus Christ on the cross, but Harold Rubin was not a Christian, but a Jew, though the life and death of Jesus possibly had more significance to him than it did to most Jews, something that he tried to express in his picture.

The legal system at the time certainly did try to curtail Harold Rubin’s freedom of expression, but then at that time we had no Bill of rights. And the Bill of Rights we now have explicitly guarantees the freedom of artistic expression. But Harold Rubin was no paparazzo, and I believe, as did Brother Roger (who knew much more about art than I do), that it was a genuine work of art. I’m not so sure about last week’s offerings.

Moral regeneration redux

A friend recently wrote to me that he is in a quandary to know which party to vote for in next month’s general election that is:

  1. not corrupt
  2. not filled with monsters from the past
  3. not a joke

And I have to admit that I am in the same position.

COPE (the Congress of the People Party) in an apparently shrewd move, picked Mvume Dandala as their presidential candidate. A Methodist minister, and not a career politician, was perhaps a good choice to fight an anti-corruption campaign, but then they blew it by also choosing Allan Boesak. Of course the Pan African Congress (PAC) also chose a prominent Methodist minister, Stanley Mokhoba, in 1999, and still not no more than 1% of the vote.

In the 1990s, after the fall of Bolshevism, public opinion polls showed that in Russia the Church was the most trusted institution in society – above business, the army, politicians, academics. One resuly of this was that politicians were always looking for photo ops with church leaders, in the hope that some of the magic pixie dust would fall on them.

But when I was applying for a job at London Transport when I went to England as a student, and the only people I knew in England were clergy, they said that clergy were not acceptable as references. Anyone else but not clergy. Clergy, of course, as just as much sinners as anyone else, but in this case they were regarded as somehow more corrupt and even less truthful. So putting clergy as the public face of a political movement to show that it is honest can backfire.

A fellow-blogger and Methodist minister Dion Forster is involved in a new initiative to encourage ethical behaviour in all politicians, business people, civil servants and others, Unashamedly Ethical:

Unashamedly Ethical is a broad based, independent, initiative to promote ethics, values, and clean living among business and individuals. It challenges people to make a personal pledge to ethical living, and challenge others to do the same. In doing so we can turn the tide on corruption and poverty.

Now that could be a good idea, but I think some people are just too wedded to greed for it to make that much difference.

A pledge is a good thing. It is a good thing to encourage people to follow ethical values, and to agree to do so publicly. But perhaps something more is needed. Perhaps someone needs to record unethical behaviour as well. There are radio ads about not trying to bribe police officers, but how effective are they when police officers themselves solicit bribes?

Many years ago there was a court case when a Newcastle busnessman tried to bribe a traffic cop to quash a ticket. The traffic cop took the bribe, but the busnessman still had to go to court and pay his traffic fine, and he sued the traffic officer. The judge in that case threw it out of court, but not before making remarks about the unbelievable moral turpitude of both the plaintiff and the defendant. The trouble is that that kind of moral turpitude is now so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable.

As the Unashamedly Ethical web site says,

… people are tired of the injustice, abuse and lack of accountability we see all around us. People are constantly being challenged to change and to go public with their values and beliefs so that their peers and constituencies can hold them accountable.

But when foreigners are arrested and threatened with deportation by officials who threaten to destroy the papers that show they are here legally unless they get a bribe, it is often easier to pay the bribe. Thaking pledges are all very well, and can be good PR for business organisations, civil servants and politicians. It’s what happens when they break their pledge that might make the difference.

Niehaus: journos twist the knife — and the facts

When journos get the knife in, they really twist it (and the facts), and stab again and again.

Consider this report about the former ANC spokesman

News – South Africa: Niehaus has no degree: report:

Former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus does not have a doctor’s degree in theology as claimed, a newspaper reported on Tuesday.

According to Beeld newspaper, Niehaus did not get a doctor’s degree in theology from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, as he had claimed. This was during his stint as South Africa’s ambassador in Den Haag.

Note that the body of the story says that he didn’t have a doctors degree from Utrecht, but the headline suggests that that he has no degree at all, which seems to be a deliberate attempt to mislead.

Now perhaps that is because there’s a general election coming up, and the media believe that all’s fair in love, war and politics. If your political opponent is down, kick, kick and kick again. If he’s done one thing wrong, make it look as though he’s done everything wrong, and nothing right.

Max du Preez, a well-known journalist, goes even further, and is more specific: “He lied about having a degree and a doctorate… he apparently only has a matric certificate behind his name” (Pretoria News, 19 Feb 2009).

Now when Carl Niehaus was released from prison he visited the Missiology Department at Unisa (on 26 March 1991) and all the department staff gathered in David Bosch’s office to meet him. He was a student in the department, and was one of the very few to have been allowed to study for a Masters degree in prison. Willem Saayman, his supervisor, described the hoops he had to jump through to deal with all the red tape in order to visit him in prison to discuss his studies. I don’t know if Carl Niehaus was ever awarded the Masters degree, summa cum laude or not, but he would certainly not have been allowed to register for such a degree at all if he had “no degree” as the media are now claiming.

On the Emerging Africa blog there is a discussion on whether the important questions today are about authority, identity, morality or something else. And I would say that at this point in our history, with a general election coming up, and all sorts of stories circulating about corruption among politicians, that morality probably tops the list. I’m as disturbed as some journalists that people in the ANC seem not only to support people who have been involved in corruption, but also to approve of their behaviour (the demonstrations in support of Tony Yengeni are a case in point). Going to jail for fighting for truth and justice is one thing, going to jail for fraud and corruption is another.

But morality is also an issue for journalists. Carl Niehaus may have lied about some of his past achievements, but some journalists have also apparently lied about Carl Niehaus.

Greed, which used to be regarded as one of the seven deadly sins, is now regarded as a virtue by many of our political leaders, and that makes morality a hot issue.

And for those of us who are neither politicians nor the journalists who write about them, St Paul’s advice applies, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor 10:12). In ten days Great Lent begins, and we pray the prayer of St Ephraim:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages.

A plea bargain for Zuma?

Yesterday the media were reporting that Jacob Zuma’s legal representatives and supporters were looking at the possibility of a plea bargain in his impending corruption trial. They spoke of this as a way of going forward.

It seems to me that that would be the worst possible outcome. As I understand it, a plea bargain means making a guilty plea in exchange for a reduced sentence. Far from being a way of going forward, it is a way of moving rapidly backwards. We then have the opportunity to vote for a party whose leader is not merely suspected of being corrupt, but one we know is corrupt because he himself would have admitted it.

If, on the other hand, Zuma is tried and acquitted, we can go forward into the next election, knowing that his record has been cleared. If he is tried and found guilty, and the court determines the degree of his guilt, then voters can weigh that up with other factors in deciding whether or not to vote for the ANC. But with a plea bargain, one cannot escape the suspicion that the corruption goes far deeper than anything that has been revealed up till now.

But the biggest problem is not Jacob Zuma and the unresolved accusations of corruption. Corrupt politicians are a universal problem. Most countries have them. One almost expects them to be corrupt, and encountering a politician with a degree of integrity is a pleasant surprise.

No, what threatens our infant democracy is not Jacob Zuma and the suspicion of corruption. It is rather the attitude of some of his supporters. As one columnist has put it:

The Times – If Vavi is so concerned about SA he should allow us justice:

CONGRESS of SA Trade Unions secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi has me confused.

Last week he told us that the union federation is deeply concerned that if ANC president Jacob Zuma is brought to trial, then workers would plunge the country into chaos.

The only way to prevent this chaos, he told us, would be to dump the looming trial against Zuma.

He said: “We fear what could happen should something happen to him [Zuma]. The belief among workers and South Africans — that the ANC president is a target of machinations, runs very deep.”

This is shocking and preposterous blackmail by Vavi.

There is zero evidence that “workers” are angry that Zuma is facing the music, as any ordinary citizens would do, if there were such serious allegations against them.

Protests held to drum up support for Zuma (such as the marches on KwaZulu-Natal courts on Friday), draw pathetic responses.

The two persons who have threatened violence if Zuma is not let off are Vavi himself and the ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

So one is left wondering what revelations Cosatu has to fear from a Zuma trial that makes them so anxious to prevent it.

One of the problems in South African politics over the last few years is that there is so little choice. That may seem a strange thing to say when our elections have been contested by upwards of 20 parties, and we have a system of proportional representation, so that for the first year or two after the election we have a parliament that generally reflects the will of the people (that is, until the crosstitutes start their floor crossing, after which parliament represents no one but the politcians themselves — that is a corruption that has to be weighed against any possible corruption of Zuma).

But the fact is that Cosatu represents one political force that is not represented in parliament. If it were not part of the tripartite alliance with the ANC and the Communist Party, Cosatu could serve as a counterbalance to the Thatcherism of the ANC and its policies of Black Elite Enrichment (BEE), on the one hand, and the white racism of the Democratic Alliance on the other. Cosatu could be the voice of the working class and the poor.

But now that Jacob Zuma has become president of the ANC, in part with the support of Cosatu, one is not quite sure whether Cosatu thinks it has bought Zuma, or whether it has sold out to him. Before last December, if Cosatu had stood on a separate ticket I might have voted for them, but Vavi’s utterances since then have shown that that would have been a mistake.

I think I’ll stick with Patricia de Lille and the Independent Democrats.

US Presidential candidates unravelled

I get bewildered by discussions on blogs, newsgroups and elsewhere on the various US presidential hopefuls. I’ve no idea what most of them stand for or whether I should agree with people who laud them to the heavens or denounce them for their evil policies.

But then I found one of those web sides that asks about policies and links them to candidates, so now I can at least have an idea of who the good guys are (the ones who agree with me, natch!)

So if I was in the US and was a US citizen, these are the two guys I’d be tossing the coin between:

Ron Paul
Score: 28
Agree
Iraq
Stem-Cell Research
Abortion
Social Security
Energy
Death Penalty
Disagree
Immigration
Taxes
Health Care
Line-Item Veto
Marriage
Dennis Kucinich
Score: 28
Agree
Iraq
Immigration
Taxes
Health Care
Social Security
Death Penalty
Disagree
Stem-Cell Research
Abortion
Line-Item Veto
Energy
Marriage

— Take the Quiz! —

And if you can’t see it properly because it spills over into the sidebar, check it on MySpace.

A new history of the Liberal Party?

In a recent article Paul Trewhela calls for a new history of the Liberal Party

There is a major unmet need for a further serious, comprehensive history of the former Liberal Party of South Africa, especially while the younger of its former members (and some of its seniors) are mostly still alive and available for interview. Its neglect is a failing of the historians working on South Africa, and leaves a serious breach in an important and needed tradition. The current major history is Liberals against apartheid: A history of the Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953-1968 (Macmillan, London/St Martins Press, New York, 1997), written by a former senior leader of the party, Randolph Vigne.

The question that immediately comes to mind is whether a new history could add enough to Vigne’s work to find a market and make a useful contribution to South African history. The Liberal Party was always a small one; it never gathered a large membership, partly because its ideas were not popular, and partly because of repression by the National Party government. What is amazing, however, is that most of the political ideas that the Liberal Party stood for have been embodied in the present South African constitution. That in itself makes its history worth recording, though whether two histories are needed is a moot point.

One of the reasons a new history is needed, according to Trewhela, is the prejudice against the word liberal, which is just as prevalent in the new ANC-ruled South Africa as in the old National Party-ruled one.

It is all the more needed since in present-day South Africa the language of power now replicates the language of power of the apartheid regime, in the violence and uncouthness of its diatribe against the word “liberal”. One need only glance at the language and categories of thought available weekly on the State President’s personal website, ANC Today, to get a measure of this… All the issues of cruelty and obfuscation which gave concern to George Orwell in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language” of 1946, rise up in their sinister unclarity.

And there Trewhela has a point. Ignorance of the meanings of “liberal” and “liberalism” is rife. One only has to look at recent blog and general web postings to find examples. Take, for example, a blog post by Mpush a few months ago, entitled Liberal equivocations:

Liberal politics in South Africa, on top of their bankrupt political vision, have an uncanny habit of working themselves into tight a corner. First it was the DP (Democratic Party) ‘Fight Back’ campaign during the 1994 South African democratic election whose cynical tone rubbed most black South Africans the wrong way. Then in 1999, the DP merged with NNP (New National Party) to become DA (Democratic Alliance), and could only come up with a bland ‘South Africa Deserves Better’ slogan to fight elections with much success.

This embodies many of the current misconceptions, misperceptions and misinformation about South African political history. First of all, it is debateable whether the Democratic Party could accurately be described as “liberal”. The “fight back” campaign (which was in 1999, not 1994) was a blatant attempt to woo the white right with “swart gevaar” tactics. The message was clearly that people who were “gatvol” after five years of democracy should “fight back” against it by voting for the Democratic Party, which, it implied, would restore the status quo ante. There is no way that this kind of behaviour could be described as political liberalism. And shortly after the election, the Democratic Party united with the rump of the National Party to form the Democratic Alliance, and was responsible for introducing the abomination of floor crossing into our political system, which is very far indeed from being liberal. The Liberal Party stood for “one man, one vote” when it was unfashionable and dangerous to do so. The crosstitutes stand for “one politician, one vote” and to hell with the electorate.

Similar misconceptions and wrong information are found in the following, posted on a “white right” blog: ZAR: How the CIA defeated Apartheid & placed the ANC

The NP probably got a higher percentage of the black vote than did the Pan Africanist Congress, a relic of Cold War history, which received scant support in the election. Also disappearing into oblivion was the Democratic Party (DP),which was nothing more than the reconstituted old Liberal Party that Allard Lowenstein had backed. Once banned by the primitive white racist South African government, and later reinvented as the Progressive Party with the help of Harry Oppenheimer, the DP was basically the personal vehicle of Helen Suzman, who spent as much effort fighting the ANC as she did apartheid.

Faced with such monumental ignorance, perhaps a new history of the Liberal Party is needed — but would the people who write such rubbish bother to dispel their ignorance by reading it? If they haven’t learned it from Vigne’s book, it is unlikely that they would learn anything from a new history.

So let’s turn to people who might be expected to be better informed, like Barney Pityana, the principal of the biggest university in the country, in his recent Steve Biko memorial lecture:

The white liberal establishment, including white opposition parties in the apartheid parliament, the media, and institutions like the SAIRR [South African Institute of Race Relations], as well as NUSAS could not be entrusted with the task of liberation. They too were part of the movement that imprisoned the mind of the black people and created false hopes about what they might accomplish while at the same time participating in and enjoying the fruits of an evil system.

Their vision of South Africa was based on exploitative values, and the integration they espoused would entrench inequalities. There was also a connivance between all these forces: the apartheid regime and their Bantustan collaborators, and the liberal establishment, all had one thing in common: they applied and derived comfort and sustenance from a system of racial oppression, then they dared to believe that self-respecting black people would wish to be co-opted to their grand design, and finally to have their response to the condition of oppression programmed. That had to be rejected.

Now it is true that in this Barney Pityana does not mention the Liberal Party. It is also true that in its beginnings in 1953 it was mostly white liberals who started the Liberal Party (whether they constituted an “establishment” remains a moot point) and that initially it was largely white people who spoke for blacks, for example Margaret Ballinger, who was a “Natives Representative” in the South African parliament and so was indeed a white person who spoke for blacks. She was, however, elected by black people to speak for them, until even that voice was silenced by the National Party regime when it abolished the “Native Representatives”.

What changed the Liberal Party, however, was the introduction of simultaneous translation equipment at party congresses in the early 1960s. Black members, who had hitherto passively listened to eloquent debates in English, suddenly found their voice, made themselves heard, and had a real influence on party policy, and especially the policy of “one man, one vote”. Some of the more conservative white members left and joined the newly-formed Progressive Party, which adopted a francise policy that was nonracial, but reserved the vote for the rich and educated, effectively moving the criterion from race to class.

Perhaps what is needed is not another party history, but a discussion on what constitutes liberalism. Paul Trewhela’s proposal, however, has the effect of reinforcing what Barney Pityana is talking about, since he seems to be concerned only about the white members of the Liberal Party who formed the African Resistance Movement and turned to violence. That was a purely white-initiated movement, which was marginal to the Liberal Party as such.

What is missing from Vigne’s history, and it would appear, from Trewhela’s proposed history, is the role of black liberals. Why is it that in South African political discourse, the word “liberals” is almost invariably preceded by the epithet “white”? Barney Pityana does it, but so does Paul Trewhela — if it is not stated explicitly, it is understood.

In Vigne’s history black liberals play bit parts. They flit across the pages and disappear off them almost as quickly as they appear.

And yes, I agree with Barney Pityana and Steve Biko that there were (and are) white people who try to speak for black people and thereby suppress the voice of black people (as, of course, I am doing in this article!) I just question whether such white people are necessarily liberals. To characterise the Democratic Party in its “fight back” campaign in 1999 as “liberal” is stretching the word “liberal” way too far.

But we do need, somehow, to clarify the term “liberal” and the idea of liberalism, and to make a distinction between liberals (of any colour) and pseudo-liberals.

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Last year, when Yahoo removed my web pages on the Liberal Party, I posted some of this information on my blog at Notes from underground: The Liberal Party of South Africa

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