Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thoughts on a lifetime of opera

21 March 2018 at 12:20:30 AM
Life is full of surprises and I have just had such a lovely one seeing L'elisir d'amore for the first time in my life from The Met with Pretty Yende, South Africa's own.
It is such a happy, funny story, an absolute delight, and I enjoyed myself so much at an opera I would never have thought of going to see, but for this chance, in two or three lifetimes. It is because of Una Furtiva Lagrima, one of two arias I could not stand, the other being E Lucevan Le Stelle. A purely personal thing - or two things, I suppose, strictly speaking.
The Met Live in HD is on again and it is La Boheme on Saturday; I saw Tosca a week or so back with Sonya Yoncheva and she is singing Mimi. It seems to me that Act I of Tosca is Puccini composing at his peak, with Act III being really seriously deficient - out of inspiration. Boheme, though, is such a perfect masterpiece from start to finish, flawless. I can't wait to see it again.

Silly now how in our teens we would argue these things. One group of my friends were terrible Germanics - Bach, Beethoven and Brahms were the Gods and silly old Puccini was not worthy of discussion. I had to sit there sometimes quiet, feeling totally wrong-footed, if not just wrong, because I loved Tosca and Boheme and Butterfly. Now I see it was rather their loss in youth.

Yet I find it harder than ever to keep control of myself in these operas nowadays. They are so saturated in memories of times and friends and places and joy. The wonderful gift Puccini has for melody, one after another pouring effortlessly out of him, lays hold of me and wrings my eyes and heart.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

South Africa's African National Congress resolves to expropriate land without compensation

With politicians you have to distinguish between what they say and what they mean and between what they promise and what they do.

It is rash to assume that because the ANC conference this week passed a resolution about expropriating land without compensation, the politicians are now going to do it - even though Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, the new ANC president elected at the conference, appeared to endorse it in his speech.
A general policy of this kind, as Mr Ramaphosa will know, would ruin South Africa as it did neighbouring Zimbabwe. Why say it then?

We are dealing with politicians. If it all sounds contrary, look at it contrariwise.

In this case, you may be led to believe the ANC are going to do something bad that they 'promised'. But think of the times they did not do something good that they promised. Over the years they never did stop corruption and Jacob Zuma never did have his day in court.

It is a mistake to believe what politicians say. But that applies to everything they say.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017


My farewell to school at 18 before going on to university
text of the original on 'A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Dreamer'

It had been a long, hard climb but he was nearly at the top. Now, as he sat resting on the ledge with his companions, he could see more clearly than before - than ever before, perhaps.
The worst of the climb was over. That last difficulty which had seemed so insurmountable as he approached had been safely negotiated and not only he, but all his party had come through safely. After that final exertion he had earned these few moments' respite. The wild exhilaration and triumph which comes in the moment of achievement had passed and he sat calmly contemplating the climb he had made.
How many eager young people had set out at the start and rushed on blindly with the rest, very few - if any - knowing where or why they were going! The climb had been so easy at first that no one had bothered very much - indeed it was not necessary - but later it became more difficult and many had given up. He realised, looking round him, that not one of his original party was still with him. His four present companions he had met on the way, one of them not so long ago even now. He also realised that many of those original starters should never have attempted the climb in the first place.
The great difficulty his own party had so lately overcome had proved too much for them at their first attempt and only one out of their six had been successful. Now, it seemed, they were all to be successful in the end, although he, at least, had often despaired.
So many had started that long climb - so many had shared the early fun and reckless irresponsibility - but not so many had shared the later pleasure and pain, and very few had shared the final dangers and triumphs. Too many of his good friends were gone now and even some of the guides had dropped out. There had been one or two fatal accidents.
But he had almost reached the top; he and his four friends together. Had it been worth it, or had all that time and energy been wasted? No! - it had not been wasted - every second had been worth it! Here, almost at the top, he felt that his way was clear at last. The murky past with its hidden dangers and doubts was gone and the future lay before him. The final ascent to the very pinnacle was still beset with dangers, but now, at least, he could see the pinnacle and the dangers which lay between. He was relieved and contented at last. But it was not a smug contentment and he burned for the knowledge of what was really at the top and he meant to reach it.
He felt much older than when he had first begun the climb; it had seemed to take a life-time. The earlier part of the climb had been undertaken in the timelessness of youth, but of late he had suddenly grown up.
"There's plenty of everything in Life except Time," he thought.
"Coming on?" said one of his companions. "We've got to reach the top before nightfall. There's no going back now and there's not much time left."
"No, there never is," he said, half to himself and half aloud, as he got to his feet.
                                                                     P. W. WHELAN, 6A Arts

A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Dreamer

My farewell to school at 18 before going on to university
(tap and enlarge to read or see a legible text published as 'Chant du Cygne')

Monday, September 4, 2017

If democracy is doomed, where are we headed?

The world appears to be in more than its usual disorder. Religion is dividing societies and nations and, where religion is not doing it, poverty and inequality are. Ask Isis and M. Thomas Piketty.

Homeless millions are migrating. The globe is over-populated as well as overheated. Plastic is choking our oceans, antibiotics hardly work anymore and robotics are about to steal everybody’s jobs.

With Donald Trump elected as President for the next four years, the United States of America is thought by liberals to be doomed.

With Brexit scheduled for March 2019, Great Britain is thought by liberals to be doomed. The European Union is thought to be doomed by conservatives.

With North Korea's Kim Jong-un defiantly building his nuclear arsenal, people fear the world is doomed.

And here in South Africa, with President Zuma's African National Congress promising to rule till Jesus comes, the opposition are satisfied the country is doomed already. Everyone always said it would be once Nelson Mandela went.

The menace behind all these events is that something fundamental is doomed, not just the politicians and governments of the day. Democracy was supposed to take over and get things right when the USSR collapsed and that has not happened. The word nowadays is democracy has failed. The people are up in arms. Democracy itself is doomed.

If only by way of relief, we should ask ourselves if that is true.  If it is true, where is South Africa - where are all of us - in all of this?  What are the alternatives? Where are we heading?

At the end of the 1980s, as the Soviet empire dissolved in a matter of months before the world's astonished eyes, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History.

Briefly, the thesis of this much misrepresented book is that if there is such a thing as progress, society must be progressing somewhere, to a final stage of political and economic organisation. Following the thinking of the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, Fukuyama argued persuasively that the final stage is liberal democracy.

Let us deal with the obvious objection straightaway. The book is not just another instance of Eurocentrism, although that charge has inevitably been brought against it. The larger questions of whether there is a direction in History and where that might be leading are there whether you consider the future of Asia, Africa or Europe, especially in a world where ideas cross frontiers as fast as thought.

All the alternatives to liberal democracy are on offer throughout the world today: monarchy, autocracy, theocracy, imperialism. To the communist, the end is still the proletarian paradise; to the fascist, world dominion. If liberal democracy is not the predetermined end of History, which of these is? And if none is, where does that leave us?

China, India, maybe Brazil, are seen as the coming powers of the twenty first century. Assuming India is, as generally billed, the world’s biggest democracy, is the option the Chinese model? What is that model anyway? Soviet Russia, its originator, is no more, and post-communist Russia is looking more and more a second class power. However painfully and cautiously it may have moved, the vast country of China is slowly but surely leaving behind the original dream of its founders.

These questions are insistent because South Africa cannot avoid them in our globalised world. Apartheid South Africa tried to cut itself off and eventually failed because of the sheer impossibility of isolation. On a much smaller scale and more grotesquely, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe attempted the same thing and has gone the same way. You cannot get off the modern world.

Perhaps it is not History but our thinking that has temporarily come to an end. Even if in this century or the next, or the one after that, democracy should turn out to be the final organisation of the world’s affairs, it will not make a perfect world.

Democracy is not a destination in that sense, nor a panacea. It must be seen as a culture, a permanent work-in-progress whose values and institutions can only be appreciated when set against other forms and philosophies of government. You only see its worth by comparison.

If South Africa’s democracy falls far short at the moment, there is only one solution. “The cure for the evils of democracy,” wrote the American journalist and scholar H L Mencken, “is more democracy.”

Is that right? And will it be proved right again?
This article first appeared in Business Day, September 4 2017




Thursday, August 10, 2017

Who won and lost the vote of no confidence in South Africa's President Zuma?

There are two sides to every argument. They predictably followed as soon as the opposition Democratic Alliance's motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma failed to carry on August 8.

President Zuma elatedly assured supporters gathered outside the national assembly: 'They (the opposition parties) will never defeat the ANC.'  He refrained from adding that naturally included himself.

ANC reaffirmed as leader of society boasted the African National Congress's press release. Zuma's triumph was the leading article on Politicsweb.

Then the contradictions. 'The ANC may have won the No Confidence motion in Parliament yesterday, but it has lost the confidence of the country,' said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, and he called for parliament to be dissolved and for an early election to be held.

Well, which is it, what is the truth?

The governing party clearly needs to reject the idea that their president is in any way weakened by the vote or that the ANC is split (and therefore also weakened). So it runs the two issues together, deliberately to blur any firm conclusion about either.

The two issues are linked, certainly, but not inseparable. Let us look at it that way.

It is possible that Zuma has lost all standing but the ANC is not split: it could be that ANC MPs agree he has turned out a bad president and should be replaced. But then it stops there; that is all.

But that is unlikely from the circumstances. A vote of no-confidence was held that the ANC found it could neither resist nor insist was an open vote as usual. That does not suggest there are no divisions internally beyond President Zuma's performance in the job.

Indeed, we already know leaders have voiced criticisms and called for him to step down; now such opposition appears to have infiltrated the rank and file of the parliamentary caucus, normally a dependable body of lobby fodder. The figures are remarkable.

The final vote was 198 against, 177 for, referred to in the ANC announcement as a 'resounding defeat' for the motion. You either believe that or you do not. But if the party is not exactly split, at least we can say such figures do not support the claim the ANC are all of one mind with regard to their president or party. That is only the ANC spokespersons' version.

And, on the other hand, is Zuma weakened or strengthened by the support he received? The ANC spin is that 80% of ANC MPs voted for him; only 20% against.

A few odd opponents might be expected in a secret ballot, obviously. But what the voting has exposed is a significant proportion of ANC MPs are seriously concerned not only whether they are backing the wrong horse, but whether their party is taking the right direction.

That Zuma has emerged strengthened from this trial after all the others sounds more and more incredible. This was his eighth no-confidence challenge. This time it was not a nationwide but a worldwide story. Without counting in the numbers, his reputation is in shreds, and he has achieved nothing more than to survive again.

Close though the verdict is, however, none of this suggests, much less guarantees, all is over for the ANC in the 2019 elections. Politics is a fascinating study because it involves not black and white but grey areas, and defies augury.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Helen Zille, Mmusi Maimane and the DA: a matter of judgment

In my view, politics is about power; that is its nature and how I approach and look at the subject. This does not mean ethics has no role whatever and principle is always ignored.
But how and when they are ignored or observed is, inescapably, a matter of judgment for politicians, not one of obligation. Judgment of the situation is the essence of the politician's job; the successful politician is the one who gets it right more often than wrong.
I would say, by way of clarification, that the same judgment applies in business. Business is by no means a smash-and-grab affair, a game for 'a pack of crooks'. But neither is it a game for the naive or the saintly. To succeed, you have to know the 'rules' - or the lack of them. That is why successful business people are said to have a natural 'instinct' for business while others simply cannot get it right. Judgment, not ethics, not intelligence, nor even diligence, rules.

In the present case, Ms Zille, who I take to be a highly professional and principled politician, committed an error of judgment with her initial tweet. There was nothing extraordinary about that; we all make mistakes and very many of them are made in a careless moment on the internet.
But in her response she has probably made it a terminal mistake. She has set herself against the party she has played a leading role in building, which is to say she has divided it, and plunged its black leader into a terrible dilemma that was none of his making but which he must now address because it is his job.
As the bitter reaction of many Democratic Alliance members and supporters shows, Mmusi Maimane cannot win: he must disappoint or outrage some as he gives others the satisfaction of saying he has done the right thing. Motives are suspect and challenged, loyalties on raw display.
These arguments will continue, of course, and so they should. I am interested above all in how politics shapes things, not in declaring who is in the right. All of us will see in time the one if not the other.



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Theresa May calls surprise UK General Election

I disagree with the UK Guardian this morning and fully support the calling of a general election to settle how a seriously disunited United Kingdom moves on. It is clearly undesirable that an unelected prime minister, Theresa May, should be able to take the country out of the EU on the basis of a deeply flawed referendum last June.
Set up as consultative or pre-legislative only, the referendum was never the mandate to government that Leavers liked to make out it was. That a narrow 52%-48% split between the 72% of the electorate who actually voted represents the will of the people is also a crude distortion of facts, if not evident nonsense. 'The will of the people' is not recognised under Britain's constitutional monarchy besides lacking any existence in reality.
The looming danger of course is for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour. If the polls prove correct, the party will be decimated as an opposition, never a desirable development in a democracy. But that is in the hands of the voters again and democrats must accept there can be no more lamentations and grumbles after June 8 if Remainers do not get out and make their votes count given this second bite at the cherry.
Britain's representative democracy has been restored and both sides have a second chance after the last nine months of bitter argument and division. For this Mrs May is to be commended, however much her arm has been twisted and however self-serving her motives.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

An email to my friend about opera

I haven't seen or possibly even heard anything of I Puritani and I don't think I've seen a Bellini opera. Can't think of one right now. The superb films of The Met productions have given me wonderful evenings of entertainment at Donizetti and Rossini operas that I wouldn't have got to all my life either, with phenomenal singers like Juan Diego Florez, Natalie Dessay and JoyceDiDonato.
But my musical tastes, as you know, are later and for the orchestra, not the voice, and in opera, for all the music, not just the arias. I'll give you two exact instances how this came about for me. 
The first opera of which I ever heard anything (I know this for sure) was Boheme: my mum had bought at some time Heddle Nash singing Your tiny hand is frozen - yes, in English - and I must have known it by heart by the time I was 6 or 7. Boheme was also -  I am forever grateful for it - the first opera I saw on stage, age 17.
But when I started to read and find out about opera, it was the rest of the story, the bits around the arias, I wanted to know more about, not just the beautiful arias themselves that your husband introduced me to when we were at school. I can remember very distinctly reading the plot of Boheme and wondering what the music would be like when the friends are just talking to each other in the attic, not singing the aria I knew from childhood. Che fai ..? - those first words in Act I: how would the music go for that, after that? From the start that was the intriguing thing.
As regards the role of the orchestra, I heard the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod first without the voice, when I was 18 and had already moved on to serious orchestral music. It changed the whole world.

Shortly afterwards, because I was following up everything Wagner composed, I was listening to some man talking on the radio about Die Meistersinger, which I didn't know at all. I can't remember now who it was talking or anything else about the programme, except for this. He was saying that a critic at the first performance had hated the opera and complained he'd never heard anything as terrible as 'the awful bellowing of that cobbler'.
'Bellowing indeed!' exclaimed the speaker in mock reproach, and he put on Sachs' Fledermonolog to set the record straight. 
I can still remember as I type this how it seemed to me I had never heard anything more glorious and great, an orchestra weaving more wonderful music behind the human voice.

As I type this now, it is one of the very few moments to make me at least consider it, if some dark angel tempted me with the chance to live my life again.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why on earth would anyone not like the musical La La Land?

I emailed a friend enthusiastically recommending the movie La La Land. She replied:
Sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I didn't like it and found it trivial. I'm really surprised how much you enjoyed it but there you go. Seems to me, if you like opera as much as we do, you can't like or appreciate musicals 'cos I've yet to find one I like apart from West Side Story! xxx
To which I replied:

Oh dear, I'm sorry you didn't like it, but then I didn't know you didn't like musicals - I naturally thought you did like them when you said you were going to see it or I would have told you on no account go. You couldn't possibly like La La Land if you don't like musicals, because what are called 'musicals' are/were a very particular Hollywood genre and this is the first in many years to take it on again - as you know - to huge acclaim.
This can only bore you, I fear, but the 'Hollywood musical' is essentially a movie form - not, that is to say, a Broadway show transferred to film like Show Boat, say, Carousel, Oklahoma! My Fair Lady or even the blockbuster The Sound of Music, none of which I would personally call a proper Hollywood musical. 
The genuine (or, in fact, highly stylized) article is a frothy confection, best described as 'romantic', no more weighty than a chocolate eclair, that features songs and dance in circumstances and locations that suspend reality - living rooms, streets, rooftops, down by the river (the Seine, not the Potomac and definitely not the Thames)  - all to a fairy tale storyline ('plot' would be far too heavy a word) of boy-meets-girl, boy-girl-have-mild-misunderstanding, boy-girl-have-happy-ending ... generally to a reprise of the main number/love song.
Triviality cannot be a criticism of a Hollywood musical, therefore, because it is a requirement of it. It is pure escapist entertainment. 
The form flourished in the '40s, early '50s - titles like Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, Three Little Words, Two Weeks with Love, Rich, Young and Pretty, and reached its apotheosis, in the opinion of many, with Singin' in the Rain.
West Side Story, playing in Jo'burg now as I write, contains some very fine music and was a monumental success, but it was never a Hollywood musical as defined. Those films never presented a drama, but only beautiful and splendidly talented people who played themselves and were only intended to do so: Rita Hayworth, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra and, the most emblematic, Gene Kelly. 
La La Land is unmistakably in this tradition, with many allusions and nostalgic references to it. Among other things, it therefore swept me back to my teens when a school friend Mike was really the one who introduced me to a lighthearted movie form that has given me hours of pleasure, pretty girls to fall in love with, and happy memories all my life.  But, absolutely unlike opera though it is, absolutely like opera, you either love it or you don't.
I could go on more about this and about music if I don't stop right now. Perhaps I should have been there to hold your hand like they do in the movie. That might have made all the difference. xxxx
To which she replied: 
Just read a review by Mariella Frostrup and thought I'd quote it here:

"The multi-Bafta-nominated musical La La Land looks pretty enough, but this one-tune wonder with a couple of derivative dance numbers set in the world of make-believe they call Hollywood has to be one of the most banal movies of recent decades. If this forgettable musical scoops more awards then any other film in history it will only confirm our current desperation to escape the precarious real world..."

I have to say I agree with her every word but know you don't!
Love from dark and very cold GB xxx

To which I replied:

What interests me with regard to our little disagreement - if, that is, you remember bits and pieces of the things I've written - is not the difference of opinion, which we can expect, but the causes of differences over the mystery of music. Is its appeal and our reaction to it inborn? Are our likes and dislikes something we've learned? 
I believe it is a bit of both but, if that's certain, the proportions still remain an utter mystery. All my life I've met people who "don't like Wagner", whereas those who do are often fanatical in their devotion. One interviewee on Desert Island Discs raised much criticism and considerable mirth by taking with him eight Wagner pieces, I remember. In the film Hawking, our genius had an ongoing disagreement with his girl friend over whether Wagner or Brahms was to be preferred. What is this? Is it a question of the way our brains or ears are constructed, or our 'souls'? What about those who don't like music at all, or are tone deaf or, most strangely, are tone deaf and able to tell they are?
People like Mariella Frostrup go to The Merry Widow, we must imagine, and may well be stirred to write a dusty article afterwards because it lacks the metaphysical profundities of Tristan and Isolde, or spurn Die Fledermaus and Daughter of the Regiment for wanting the gravitas of the Messiah. Unjust though that appears to be, one must still account for why she (and you, in the case of La La Land!) can't stand certain types of music or musical entertainment. The answer cannot lie in the 'facts', for La La Land itself is the musical entertainment it is for all of us, delightful to some and not others - like La Boheme, which even Mariella, I trust, would not dare call banal make-believe.
It could be 'upbringing' then, environment and accident. I have acquired a broad taste in music propped with a tolerance - at least, that is what I like to think it is - for many varied performers. I love Johnny Mathis singing Begin the Beguine and Barbra Streisand singing Melancholy Baby, George Shearing and Hoagy Carmichael (he was mentioned in the film, along with many other heroes who have passed on, remember? Sebastian kept a stool he had sat on.)

But don't ask me to like that ghastly rock or heavy metal that seems to entertain millions, or ever to enjoy what is supposed to be the most popular pop song ever written, boring Yesterday. There are limits, dammit. xxx

To which she replied:

What an interesting email, Paul! You certainly have a gift for writing and putting things into context. However, it doesn't make me like musicals any more although I understand now what it's all about! xxx

I took that, gratefully, as a dead heat.




Saturday, November 12, 2016

Donald Trump elected in a democracy: is it the end of the world?

As the polls showed Donald Trump was likely to win the US elections, Gerard Araud, French ambassador to Washington and a career diplomat known for his outspokenness, tweeted:

After Brexit and this election everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes. It resonates eerily with Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary as war came in 1914: 'The lights are going out all over Europe,' he lamented.

While it would be idiotic to ignore the seriousness of all that has happened this year, it is important not to get carried away like M. Araud. In 2016, the world is not collapsing before our eyes; it is confronted with a challenge not seen in today's great liberal democracies since the 1920s and '30s: fascism.

Fascism - intolerance, bigotry, tribalism - is always present in society because these tendencies are always present in human nature. Two conditions above all are required for fascism to break out on a threatening scale: straitened circumstances for substantial numbers of people, and populist leaders who are prepared to cash in on their miseries. Other local grievances will feed the flames: defeat in the Great War in the case of Germany; a divided society resulting from apartheid in South Africa; foreigners coming and taking 'our' jobs in any number of countries.

In France, in Austria, in Holland, with frightening unexpectedness in the UK with the Brexit vote, now in the US, fascism threatens to break out. It threatens to break out, in the view of many, in SA too. The similarities between conditions and role players internationally are too obvious to require underlining.

However, the fight back by more enlightened leaders and ideas could only start once the threat was there, and the fight has duly started. Two leaders with unenviable jobs if they are to collapse the world are Theresa May and the demonised Donald Trump. The first is not a dictator, the second not the feared anti-Christ; they are voices amid loudly dissenting voices, in for a very challenging time.

Let us keep our feet on the ground. Democracy must plainly accept democratic decisions; it has no alternative. But it must always be on guard against the narrative that lingers from Marxist as well as fascist thinking: that the only way to put the world to rights is through radical 'change' or, more precisely, revolution, a sweeping away of the old 'broken' system and institutions and a 'cleansing' of society. The world has heard and suffered that story before from left and right. None of it had any more truth in it in the past than Trump's promise to make America great again today.

History - if the metaphor is not too trite - is a rolling river that is not to be dammed up nor run into the sands. For those who like a fight, there is a brave one on again, as what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature strive to turn the present current.

It does not look likely to - and certainly one hopes and prays it does not - take the lives it took in the old century, when a world really did collapse twice before their eyes.

Friday, October 14, 2016

South Africa under President Zuma: a call for pessimism, realism or optimism?

They say we live in a post-factual age where we decide things irrationally, purely on our emotional feel, and most of that is decided on line.
We don't study, read or think anymore, or even watch TV like we used to. Teenagers text endlessly - three times a night according to a recent report - and send each other selfies that can get them into trouble, while adults actually find themselves in trouble for what they Tweet or ReTweet. The luckless Penny Sparrow springs to mind.
You will have your own view how far that is a true picture of the times. On one reading of history, things stay pretty much the same the more they change, though in the middle of our global world's unremitting electronic and social media din, you can be forgiven for thinking things have never been worse. 
But could it all be just a case of temperament, of whether we as individuals are optimists or pessimists, see the glass as half full or half empty?
In a Business Day article titled Big Questions and a big day is upon us*, Peter Bruce editor-in-chief of BDFM writes: 'How does this all end? .. the war at the centre of our body politic?'
He presents the daunting list of so-called student protest that has burnt universities and their books; the alleged crimes and misdemeanours of President Jacob Zuma; the highly suspect case of fraud brought against finance minister Pravin Gordhan by SA's National Prosecuting Authority, which claims to be 'independent'. 
Bruce passes on too the disconcerting rumour that a Russian delegation is in South Africa to push ahead the even more suspect, astronomically expensive nuclear deal Zuma and President Putin are supposed to have signed and sealed between the two countries. He questions how SA's state-owned Eskom, designated to handle it, can be capable of handling it.
And the 'big day that is upon us' is the long-awaited day the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela publishes her interim report on state capture, with its putative 'damning evidence' of an improper relationship between SA's president and his wealthy friends, the Gupta family. At the last moment, Zuma and his faithful servant Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen are both trying to interdict it.
No wonder Bruce's gloomy conclusion is: 'Things have gone too far. The damage is too much. Jacob Zuma has broken the state.'
Yet is this where realism, with its different perspective and line of questioning, must come in?
The conclusion goes too far. The present major crisis has been incubating for years, the wholly foreseeable outcome of more than two decades of one-party government in South Africa.
As the local elections this year show and will turn out perhaps to prove, we are in fact in the throes of the most serious democratic challenge to ANC hegemony to date. It contains opportunities for better times as well as risks of worse. Democracy was and never will be a destination we reach. It is a way of life and, as with life, no one promised it was plain sailing.
US President Barak Obama said in his speech to the National Democratic Convention last month: 'It can be frustrating, this business of democracy. Democracy works, but we've got to want it. Democracy isn't a spectator sport.'
The state of South Africa is not broken. It is broken when the constitution is dumped and we have a Mugabe or Putin or a Julius Malema at the top of a new order.
You can argue what is going on is a widespread, enormously promising fight against such a development. So far at least, it is not the state but the ANC that is breaking. That was always certain to be a huge, noisy event.
Or is that not realism, but optimism?
*October 14 2016

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Brexit: Prime Minister David Cameron's personal and public failure

Politics in the end is someone's personal responsibility as well as the impersonal art of the possible.
Challenged by his own party's rebellious Eurosceptic right and by the single-issue United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), prime minister David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU: let the people decide whether to leave or stay.

It sounded plausible, a sensible compromise. Few chose to argue about it. After all, went the spin, asking the people would be real democracy in action, the truly democratic way to settle the Tory party's problems once and for all. And, as most of the political classes seemed willing to believe, also settle the country's problems.

It has not worked. Leavers and Remainers are sticking to their guns and both sides now know the simple majority vote for or against Brexit has settled nothing.

Both ran campaigns of threats, false promises and lies that grew increasingly bitter and divisive. The unelected populist Nigel Farage, the eccentric celebrity politician Boris Johnson, the opportunist Michael Gove among others, kept the media pack in full cry after personalities, not realities. Government and shadow cabinet ministers, caught up in an alarming neck-and-neck race, presented Brexit as either a wonder cure-all or an impending catastrophe.

Only after their apparent victory have Leavers realised they have no plan, no clear objective and no strategy to achieve one: debate about them has only started now.

The biggest argument is over how, when and - with supreme irony - even whether to leave the EU. Some  demand that it happens without delay; others insist government can only trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty after negotiating an entirely new set of terms with Europe. But what terms will satisfy all interests? The process seems certain to cause more division in a United Kingdom more divided on the issue than ever.

Remainers have not accepted the outcome of the referendum. Either 52%-48% was an unconvincing majority, or the referendum is not binding, or it is unconstitutional, or all three. Britain Stronger in Europe and Open Britain are campaigning as if it never happened.

Nothing to regret?
David Cameron's resignation on defeat was accepted calmly as inevitable but, more than that, as the typically British, right thing to do, a replay of the playing fields of Eton. (Those, incidentally, had also been the stamping ground once of Cameron’s flamboyant adversary, the arguably less sportsmanlike Boris Johnson.)
The view contrasts sharply with the question that flummoxed the prime minister at a press conference shortly after his defeat. The journalist asked, 'Do you regret what you've done to your country?'

As a professional politician, Mr Cameron carried and understood all the heavy responsibilities of his office and all his duties to his party; one can sympathise that there were the greatest pressures on him.
But he should also have understood, as a professional politician, that a referendum could never be a solution, that it had only the potential to divide people in any number of damaging ways. Young and old. Employed and unemployed. Haves and have-nots. British and 'them'.

'The people', as the pure Democratic Will, exists only in the minds of philosophers and the speeches of radicals like Mr Farage. In the real world, the British, like any other people, do not conform to populist stereotyping. They comprise a multitude of individual motivations, views and interests. They act in accordance with them, but do not and cannot govern the country in practice, much less decide its future by answering an obviously simplified question once.

David Cameron no doubt excuses the imbroglio he presided over by saying he is a democrat and acted democratically. But he was aware he was prime minister in Britain's representative democracy and that his prime duty was to work through its parliamentary institutions.

The people did not make a mistake: the mistake was to hold the referendum. The right thing for Mr Cameron to have done as a Remainer was to resign rather than agree to it, not after it turned out to be a wholly avoidable diversion and failure.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The EFF: no coalitions, no promises ... no future?

There will be minority governments in South Africa's major metros, coalitions that are led by either the African National Congress or the Democratic Alliance, but count the Economic Freedom Fighters out.

That was the message from Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema in a press conference today. He made clear the EFF would not join forces with either major party, but instead constitute the opposition in hung municipalities resulting from the 2016 local elections.
The coming cooperative period in local government, whatever it turns out to be, marks a fundamental change from the past. It will test and develop the professionalism, administrative skills and staying power of South Africa's political parties as never before.
After some well publicised days in conference, the EFF could not join them. In spite of the media billing it as kingmakers, the EFF is not a negotiable democratic party so much as a loosely knit Marxist-Leninist or fascist grouping, the breakaway far left or right of the ANC, depending on how people see and label it.

As a result, its mediocre election results have left it in limbo. Under the leadership of Mr Malema, the EFF has alienated the ANC, the majority party and its president, but has nothing to offer a democratic opposition, the DA, besides serious problems. Its revolutionary programme threatens to wreck government at the local level in the same way it has threatened government at national level, through calculated disruptions of parliament and inflammatory talk of meeting violence with violence.

With President Zuma remaining in office, the scene is set for these methods to resume more widely.

These are admittedly early days. But if the EFF is ever to become a tsunami the signs would be there now. The party apparently does not enjoy the confidence of voters; its manifesto cannot work except through coercion; it has no chance alone of demonstrating a sense of responsibility in government. The question going forward is how, and if, it can manage to hold together during a long period out in the cold.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

South Africa's local elections 2016: more questions than answers

After the 2016 local election results, John Kane-Berman claimed, 'The spell is broken.'* As the country speculated frantically about the makeup of future coalition governments that at least was certain: the charm of the ANC as South Africa's party of liberation will not work its magic in future - if, indeed, it worked in these elections.

The question, however, is whether the mould is broken, a whole generation's ingrained habit of voting ANC that can be handed down for a couple of generations more. We must wait for the results of SA's national elections in 2019 to know the answer to that.

And here are a few of many more questions to ponder before then.

1. The ANC has received not a defeat but a powerful wake-up call. Will the party learn from it as Cyril Ramaphosa was promising at the Independent Electoral Commission yesterday and stage a big comeback, or will it slide further among division and faction fighting? How much will that be affected by continuing to keep President Zuma in office, or starting now, rather than next year, to grasp the nettle of finding a unity successor who will also make a sound president?

2. The DA has received a remarkable boost from the voters. Will DA membership and the party’s future chances accelerate now and build faster than in the past, as more people think about what has happened and see that the change they were told was impossible, is possible? The ANC does not have to rule till Jesus comes again, as prophesied. Voting can change that.

3. The election has been like no other and an outstanding success for SA's young democracy, for due process and law and order. Even if the EFF continues to enjoy the media's support as it has so far, it has not out-performed in these elections. Will a ‘revolutionary’ party have any future in a strengthening constitutional state? Can the EFF change its platform without destroying itself? What are the political consequences of the EFF's fall, if it should happen?

4. Have we seen the end of dozens of tiny parties and a real move in the direction of a two-party democracy: government and opposition?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Brexit was not about 'ordinary people' being confused by the facts; not about expert opinion being superior to grassroots opinion; not about sovereignty and bureaucracy as if these are absolutes; not about 'getting your country back' and 'saving' £380m a week in EU contributions that will go to the National Health in future - not about any of the populist sloganeering and mendacity that passed for a serious national debate.

Fundamentally the problem was - and remains - how you run a democracy, specifically Britain’s democracy, in a responsive and responsible manner in a complex global world.

And that, very plainly now, is not by asking the public to decide a major issue by answering Remain or Leave to a childishly simplified question in a simple majority, one-off referendum got up to 'settle' the Tory party's internal problems. No number of referendums on the EU could ever settle those.

The evidence comes straight from the horse's mouth. A few weeks before the Brexit referendum, Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), an alarming right wing threat to the Tory government and party, was nervous about his chances. To guard against a narrow defeat, he claimed that a narrow victory for Remain - something like 52%-48% - would not end the argument. And, indeed, millions of people would find such a close finish unconvincing. Mr Farage was pointing out the obvious.

But the change was startling when in fact the Brexit side won by much the same margin. Now the referendum was, unarguably, a 'clear mandate' from the British people to leave the EU, presumably unconditionally and forever. And equally, of course, had the Remain camp won 52%-48%, we would now be hearing the British people had given a clear mandate to stay in the EU, presumably on existing terms forever.

Dividing the United Kingdom
Only those on whichever side won so narrowly would ever consider the matter closed. 'The people have spoken' does not describe an outcome where even the 72% who felt strongly enough to vote split almost down the middle. On another day, in different circumstances, even just different weather, the people clearly might give a different 'clear mandate'.

A referendum is arguably no more than a measure of a nation's mood, a manifestly unreliable way to determine what 'the people' want, and no way at all to run a country. That is why the UK evolved into a representative democracy with parliament sovereign, not a 'direct democracy', whatever that is imagined to be and however one is supposed to function.

By gambling on one throw of the dice, Britain’s political classes divided their country and people disastrously and to no avail, the more concerned citizens feeling the deceit sooner and more keenly than those happy to be left to get on with their lives.

What now, after the framers of the futile turmoil have quit and gone? Only the hope new leadership can restore stability and a sense of reality, as frightened and chastened politicians row back on the lies and false hopes they raised.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

British Government to follow up success of Brexit referendum

Following David Cameron's triumph in the Brexit referendum, which enabled the British people to vote for or against almost anything besides the issue - Boris Johnson's hair was a concern for many - the new Tory prime minister intends to follow up with three further referendums. These will decide:

1] Does God exist? If the people decide S/He doesn't, Boris Johnson will assure members of all faiths that government will not pull down churches, mosques and synagogues immediately. Rather everything will be alright after a period of time that will become clear to people as they go along. Mr Johnson cannot say how long that will be, nor when the process will commence, though he is sure things must not be delayed too long;

2] Should capital punishment be restored? In the certain event of a Yes decision here, executions will be made retroactive to 1910, to protect everyone's democratic rights and safety; 

2a] What is the best means of execution? After the Yes vote to 2], there will be a second referendum. This is not, as some people may imagine, to reverse the first one, but to guarantee strict democracy again by allowing people a free vote between hanging, poison injection and shooting. They will not be able to opt for public executions. Some MPs think that is going too far; 

3] Should England annex Scotland and Northern Ireland? That would guard against these awkward provinces deciding for themselves to stay in the EU or, indeed, deciding anything. If this regrettably calls for the use of force, the government wishes to reassure the world the Treasury and armed forces have been laying contingency plans for invasion since October last year.

However, an official statement confirms there is not going to be a referendum on whether the entire Tory government should resign. Though useful to pass the buck from time to time, referendums do not mean the people govern the country.



Tuesday, June 28, 2016

HOW BRITAIN COULD BAIL OUT OF BREXIT: some serious and not so serious thoughts

Serious thoughts 

After his inglorious defeat in the UK referendum, David Cameron has resigned as Tory prime minister. 

However, like him, a majority of MPs of all parties in the UK House of Commons are reportedly against Brexit. They could organise on non-party lines to threaten a vote of no confidence in any proposed new leader, whether Tory or Labour or coalition, who is in favour of Brexit. They would only support a new PM on the side of Remain.

The new majority Remain leader would select his cabinet and call a general election to secure a mandate from the voters to undo the referendum result. The opposition to this move in the House would be insufficient to block it, and the Labour Party would have little chance of winning the general election under the weak and divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

The UK's friends and allies in Europe would be informed and involved in the plan and take the pressure off Britain to make a speedy Brexit.

In neglecting to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to exit immediately after the referendum, the Conservative government may already have in mind such a plan, working through the backbenchers 1922 Committee and party whips.

It requires Cameron to go very soon, not to take three months; for Boris Johnson to be emphatically rejected as the new Tory leader - a distinct possibility; and for Remain MPs and any supporting ministers to stick together to pull the executive's chestnuts out of the fire. All that is extremely difficult, but not impossible to achieve. It requires only a commitment to the national interest instead of narrow party interest.

What would help also is a true parliamentarian once again: a John Hampden (1595-1643) with the courage and will to fight (in his time against the King) for the sovereignty of parliament. That is perhaps too much to ask for in this age of disciplined political parties.

But it already seems likely the country's MPs will find their own way to bail out Britain in a similar spirit.

Not so serious thoughts - hopefully

Following David Cameron's triumph in the Brexit referendum, which enabled the British people to vote for or against almost anything besides the issue - Boris Johnson's hair was a concern for many - the new Tory prime minister intends to follow up with three further referendums. These will decide:
1] Does God exist? If the people decide S/He doesn't, Boris Johnson will assure members of all faiths that government will not pull down churches, mosques and synagogues immediately. Rather they will all fall into ruin over a period of time that will become clear to people as they go along;

2] Should capital punishment be restored? In the certain event of a Yes decision here, executions will be made retroactive to 1910, to protect everyone's democratic rights and safety; 
2a] What is the best means of execution? After the Yes vote to 2], there will be a second referendum. This is not, as some people may imagine, to reverse the first one, but to guarantee strict democracy again by allowing people a free vote between hanging, poison injection and shooting. They will not be able to opt for public executions. Some MPs think that is going too far; 

finally 3] Should England annex Scotland and Northern Ireland? That would guard against these awkward provinces deciding for themselves to stay in the EU or, indeed, deciding anything. If this regrettably calls for the use of force, the government wishes to reassure the world the Treasury and armed forces have been laying contingency plans for invasion since October last year.
However, an official statement confirms there is not going to be a referendum on whether the entire Tory government should resign. Though useful to pass the buck from time to time, referendums do not mean the people govern the country.

(Also, Dave says privately he's relieved to be the hell out of it.)



Saturday, June 25, 2016


Cheer up - well, at least cheer up a little.
There will be some kind of renegotiation because it is unavoidable. Britain is 'in Europe' whether it likes it or not: it's called History and Geography. There is no way out of either of them.
The renegotiation will eventually agree issues that could equally have been dealt with by staying in and fighting for them: democracy has always involved doing that.

But prime minister David Cameron chose to solve his internal Tory party problems by referring them to 'the people', a cop out for party political ends, not to keep faith with 'democracy', and least of all to protect the national interest. It has backfired disastrously for him and his country and he has gone. 
The tragedy is all the pointless and avoidable waste and chaos, as we start solving the same problems over again. That's what people do. We're a dopey and fragile lot.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Would you say this is a successful blog?

Since I started my blog three or four years back, I've had by this morning 66666 reads - if that is what a 'hit' is.
I have no idea if that is a lot or a little for a blog, but it is certainly very many more than I imagined I would get when I posted my first piece.
A blog is of course online publishing; there are no hard copies to handle and browse in book shops and libraries, and maybe to glance through again from time to time at home. 
But I look at it this way. If I had written a book (non-fiction) and been read 66666 times, I think it would be something to write home about. I'm sure my publisher would be smiling. And there would be 66666 copies on shelves out there somewhere with a squared-up pic of me on the inside front or back dust cover.
So, late though it is, and for what it's worth, here's a pic. Hope it doesn't put you off reading in future.
Thanks for reading anything you have read so far.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Opposition: the new force the ANC must reckon with in South Africa

In a democracy, government and opposition co-exist openly if not comfortably.  Since people differ in their views and interests, it is accepted that government without opposition is impossible and that opposition will always find something to oppose.

South Africa is a democracy that is getting used to being one. After enjoying two decades of deference as ‘the ruling party’, the African National Congress looks vulnerable, no longer certain to rule till Jesus comes again as prophesied.

This novel idea is difficult for the new South Africa to manage. It is not being spread by a ‘white’ media, as the party always assured the faithful in the past. The storm of criticism comes, undeniably now, from a broad public that includes ANC supporters, well known and unknown.

People are not concerned firstly with ‘corruption’: Nkandla, the Guptas, President Zuma breaking his oath of office. They are protesting over government’s failure to provide adequate housing, health and education, plus many other ‘classless’ benefits that are popularly included under service delivery: freeways that are free; trains that run on time.

The problem is no longer confined to inefficiency: the derelictions of unchallenged ANC rule are obvious at local and national level. The problem is what to do about it. Can political parties change things or will people take matters into their own hands? The other half of the democratic equation is fully involved now: opposition.

People who have voted ANC for a generation have little to guide them on the subject. Doom and gloom merchants point out there has been ‘opposition’ for years. SA is a multi-party democracy - it says so in the constitution. The Democratic Alliance is even called the official opposition. What good has that done? Nothing changes. The ANC do what they like. Politicians are all the same, only out for themselves.

SA politics too has always misrepresented opposition. Either its aim was to bring back apartheid, an evident impossibility since 1990, or it was there to ‘keep the ANC on its toes’. This notion, like the denial of an effective role for voters implicit in the term ‘ruling party’, has been common among commentators who should know better. Opposition that is worthy of the name is not there to help out the ANC government: it is to provide an alternative to it.

The coming democratic elections are different from all others to date. They are the first in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion; the first to be so bitterly fought; the first to take place in such a heightened atmosphere of political and economic crisis: a discredited ANC president and a fiscus under extreme pressure.

They will also be the first to provide solid data about which way the democratic wind is blowing, to show if there is yet a discernible direction. Will they mark the start of a real transformation in SA?

Until very recently, opposition was seen as all of a piece. There was no segmentation of what was referred to as ‘the masses’. You were either for or against the ANC and ‘the masses’ were for the ANC. Opposition did not count.

This was confirmed by a plethora of tiny political parties going nowhere and others that came and went exactly as the ANC predicted: the PAC, Cope, Agang. The DA was more tenacious, but otherwise standing proof that opposition did not count.

The party had no chance of early popular success. It was a ‘white’ party - read counter-revolutionary, against transformation. It had a white leader. Analysts, white and black, generally agreed the DA had reached a ceiling of white racist support. When the number of DA voters continued to rise year on year, this view was adjusted: the DA would ultimately reach a ceiling of white racist support.
When Mmusi Maimane replaced the white leader, he turned white overnight; blacks would reject him. Also, he would inevitably cause the party to lose its white racist support.
Mmusi Maimane
All this is settled belief because of a supposed governing factor in South Africa called ‘identity politics’ - as if politics elsewhere is not identity politics and identity takes only two possible and permanent forms: poor black and rich white. In August, SA’s middle class vote may or may not endorse that scenario.

Exploding with everything else in the Big Bang of opposition are the Economic Freedom Fighters, already ‘the third largest opposition party’. The billing somewhat glosses over the fact that the EFF secured 6% of the vote in the 2014 national elections. The party claims to have doubled its support since then, but its debut in the coming local elections will be judged very critically. As a precaution, Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema has already warned the elections might not be free and fair.

As with the DA, there are questions about EFF opposition. Has it succeeded because any opposition to the ANC at present is better than none? Will that still work when President Zuma goes?

How are we sure ‘the youth’ support the EFF? ‘The youth’ is an undifferentiated abstraction like ‘the masses’, ‘the poor’ and ‘students’, all also said to be supporters of the EFF. In reality, youth is a bundle of identities and passions that segment along lines not only of colour but of gender and class, background, beliefs and aspirations that are in turn shaped and re-shaped by events. Who can say how young people will vote, or if they will vote in significant numbers?

Julius Malema
Julius Malema swears his allegiance to the SA constitution one day and goes on international TV the next threatening to remove the country’s elected government at the barrel of a gun. Are the 94% of SA voters who did not vote EFF relaxed about that?

One explanation is that Julius Malema need not be taken seriously. That is a mistake. Julius Malema needs to be taken very seriously, not for what he says, but because people believe him whatever he says.

That leaves the wounded but by far the biggest contender for power, the ANC. The party is hardly likely to surrender without a fight. The opposition is growing and formidable, but it has serious weaknesses and is divided. The ANC has impressive human and financial resources and an ability to close ranks and survive that has been tested and proved many times.

Forewarned of danger, the party will be getting its act together. Perhaps it will mount a brilliant election campaign. Perhaps it will find a way of getting President Zuma, the millstone round its neck, to retire. Perhaps ANC supporters will turn out to vote in greater numbers than ever before to defend the party they love.

In a democracy, opposition co-exists with government; the two contest and influence each other continuously and outcomes defy prediction.

You can see why you must get out and do your bit in August.