Sunday, November 10, 2013

Are Julius Malema and the EFF fascists or not?


Mathew Blatchford's views on fascism in his letter to today's Sunday Times are no less open to argument than those of Imraan Buccus in his article in the paper last week, The EFF and the spectre of fascism, which Mr Blatchford declares 'extraordinarily inaccurate'.
 
In fact, there is no settled way to see 'fascism' anymore than there is 'communism', 'anarchism' or any other '-ism'. 
 
Adolf Hitler's Nazism in Germany was fundamentally racist; Benito Mussolini's fascism in Italy was not. The pre-Nazi extreme right in Germany and Austria attacked 'big business' as radically as contemporary Marxists, the small man, artisans and the petit bourgeois being its chief support.

Once in power fascism of course co-opted big business, destroying organized labour as the prime threat to the revolutionary, all-embracing state. But one needs always to remember Hitler and his murderous gang were national socialists, as opposed to the international socialism of Lenin's Bolsheviks in Russia, their ideological and 'natural' enemy. Unions that played ball could get by with fascism, as could Catholics and Lutherans.
 
In so far as any of this relates to Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters in SA today, it is because the Commander-in-Chief of the EFF is clearly a revolutionary and a nationalist, using any discontent and ideology at hand to muster support. The two Sunday Times writers at least seemed agreed Mr Malema is hostile to democracy, which should concern us if nothing else does.
 
It is not theory but how the Revolution works out in practice that people need to worry about.
 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Call Centres - or "Do call us, we won't call you"


I had to complain last week. To the Organisation. It isn’t the slightest business of yours or of any relevance here what my complaint was about or who the Organisation was I was complaining to. You will know the story. We all have a complaint sooner or later and want the Organisation to sort it out.

And we all know how the Organisation helps us nowadays. Whether your TV has gone on the blink, the engineer has cut off the phone, your email isn’t arriving, the electricity has gone down, the water has dried up or Security have blocked your credit card - even if (and here I confess I am speculating) the blood transfusion hasn’t been delivered to your sick bed - it is always the same. Your complaint is dealt with by the Organisation’s Call Centre.

The Organisation, of course, is totally dedicated to customer service and my call was important to them, like yours. The Organisation always smoothly assures you and me of this in between excerpts from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The Organisation is also always emphatically on side. It assures in the friendliest manner that all phone calls are recorded to help with staff training. (The staff? - there’s no whisper of any staff.)

Sometimes the Organisation plays a piece of original music, a daring change from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. It has bought this music off the shelf perhaps or, in an expansive mood, even had it specially composed by someone who had nothing better to do. The Organisation is proud of it. It wants to give it a good airing. It plays it to you once and then plays it again. And again and again. You hold the receiver away from your ear. Even the Sugar Plum Fairy was better than this.

Minutes, hours, days, weeks pass, your life ebbs away. From time to time a recorded message thanks you for your patience and confirms again your call is important to the Organisation. To make a change, the message suddenly breaks in to say you can contact the Organisation on their website and gives you the address. The address is harder to take in on one hearing than the Organisation’s recorded music track. You do not manage to pick it up or want to. You are on the phone to them right now. That’s why you phoned. At your expense. You wanted to speak urgently to someone - on the phone.

An eternity later, Beethoven is cut off in the middle of the Ode to Joy and a phone rings somewhere deep inside the Organisation. Ah - at last you are through.

You are not. ‘To help us’ - says the Organisation - ‘to deal with your inquiry, it is important to listen carefully to the following menu.  

‘Press 1 for important details about our times of opening and complaints policy. Press 2 if you have hearing difficulties. Press 3 if you are a foreign national.’

I fantasised: why not have Press 13? Press 13 could be if you wish to assassinate the first person who comes on the line now or you would like to blow up the Organisation.

I press 13. ‘Thank you for your inquiry. The Organisation is committed to customer service. An email will be sent to you to supply details. This is an automated response. Do not reply to it. Please leave your email address after the tone.’
 

 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Are the ANC right to complain the SA press is always negative?


Even those who are not loyal supporters of South Africa’s ruling party sometimes argue that the press in SA should be regulated or controlled in some way because newspapers are unfair to the ANC in never presenting any good news.
Is that reasonable? Do they have a point?

Let us suppose - impossible though this obviously is in the real world - that the government was perfect and doing nothing wrong or open to criticism by anyone. It would be pointless for the press to report political ‘news’ at all in those circumstances since there would be no bad news and no one would be unhappy.
The logical course for the press to pursue, then, given that things can never be perfect, is to point out what is going badly, not what is going well - that is, to appear critical rather than supportive (which is of course how a free press always appears anywhere in the world). 

The problem in SA, once again, is the party-state. If parties alternated in government, it would be unremarkable that the press criticises ‘the government’ whatever they do, as a kind of national duty or pastime.
But there is only ever one party of national government in SA.

That is why criticism of it can only ever appear one-sided.

This first appeared as a letter in Business Day, November 25 2011

Friday, August 16, 2013

Let the voters decide Julius Malema's future

 
 
Chester Missing, who needs no introduction from me, tweeted at the time: "Give your boyfriend millions and you get a slap and then redeployed. Comment on Botswana and you get expelled."
 
The famous puppet was referring to two sharply contrasting disciplinary actions taken by the ANC. The party punished Dina Pule for an extravagant life style with her lover at the taxpayers' expense by demoting her to a mere member of parliament.
 
But it eventually expelled Julius Malema from the party altogether for proposing the overthrow of the legitimate government of Botswana (an assignment presumably to be undertaken at some time convenient to them by Mr Malema and the band of brothers who have since those apprentice days matured into the Economic Freedom Fighters).
 
However, another issue more weighty than either of these transgressions seems to concern what are patronisingly referred to as ‘ordinary South Africans'. They have been astonished to see the South African Revenue Service publicly testifying against Mr Malema for what appears to be tax evasion.
 
If readers' letters to the newspapers and comments on the internet are anything to go by, many people are uncomprehending, if not outraged, that 'Juju' has not already been tried and imprisoned for this, among a menu of other misdeeds, real or imagined.
 
The law's delay aside, a cogent explanation is that it would make a martyr of him. All populist leaders and dictators need to appear as not only speaking for 'the people', but also as suffering for them. They feed and grow on anything that can be presented as persecution, a word Mr Malema uses calculatedly when addressing his followers.
 
Indeed, students of Mr Malema's public speeches will have noted signs that he would not mind, might even welcome, being locked up for a little while in the undemanding conditions the political elite enjoy in SA. He knows a spell in prison would confirm his status, fuelling the fires of publicity he relies on and enshrining his cause as nothing else could. In case he should be so lucky, he is now shrewdly positioned as Commander-in-Chief, an icon above the fray, ready and able to be sacrificed - and immortalised - while his Economic Freedom Fighters bravely soldier on.
 
In short, it would be the worst thing the ANC could let happen.
 
But perhaps the leaders of the party have finally accepted that, just as they could not patronise, mollify or discipline Julius Malema when he was one of them, they cannot intimidate him now he is an outcast revolutionary with nothing to lose.
 
Showing neither malice nor deference, the ANC should allow Mr Malema to follow his star and prove himself in the 2016 and all future elections on the basis of his revolutionary programme.
 
Julius Malema and what he stands for can only be beaten at the ballot box, or not at all. Fear of the ANC no longer works; times have changed.
 
It is over to the South African voter now.
 
 
This is a slightly edited version of an article appearing on Politicsweb on August 12 2013.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A brief look at some of the political possibilities in South Africa

 
[This first appeared as a letter in Business Day on August 1 2013. My internet 'exile in space' is BDlive]

Dear Sir

May I return briefly from exile in the trackless space of the internet to drop off some unorthodox political views:

* Times are hard - but, then, when were they soft?
* The ANC may not be in decline - only sorting out where it stands at last.
* President Zuma isn't as bad as they say. Former president Mbeki was at least as bad, but no one was allowed to say.
* The party is not the collection of crooks and nitwits many complain about. It will mount a powerful election campaign for next year.
* The tripartite alliance is crumbling - but it has been for years. And in-fighting among trades unions helps strengthen government - though it creates major problems for law and order.
* We all need law and order - even 'the masses'. Only a tiny minority who say they speak for 'the masses' need a revolution.
* Instead of 'millions' flooding to vote EFF, EFF may cause 'millions' to flood back to the ANC.
* That could be bad for the opposition DA.
* It could be bad for all opposition - but only temporarily. Opposition is here to stay. It’s the quality of opposition that counts now.
* These points are not prophecies. Every one may be proved wrong by events. Just like all those that contradict them.

 Paul Whelan


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why the ANC has always supported Zanu-PF: morality and self-interest in SA's foreign policy


The Treasurer General of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, Roy Bennett, asked on Politicsweb on March 25: Why is the ANC still supporting Zanu-PF?

His question was prompted by ANC spokesman Keith Khoza's statement confirming that to be the official position of SA’s ruling party on the forthcoming Zimbabwe elections under its new constitution. Mr Khoza justified this outrageous and undemocratic intervention - before elections had even been called, let alone conducted freely and fairly so that Zimbabweans can decide the matter - by claiming Zanu-PF has ‘government experience’.

Well, no argument on that point at least. By fair means and foul, the party of President Mugabe, age 89, has been Zimbabwe’s government for over thirty years, which explains why many more besides Mr Bennett are not as keen as the ANC to repeat the experience.

But only on the face of it is the ANC's position ‘simply incredible’, as Mr Bennett writes. In his heart, he must know the answer to his question, for it has always been the same. It involves history and geography and, more than either, the age-old story of self-interest.

Remember how the SA press beat up for years on former president Thabo Mbeki over Zimbabwe, how immoral his policy was? They were less vocal about a Human Sciences Research Council report back in 2008 that suggested elements of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change were undergoing military training. Whether that was fact or ruling Zanu-PF propaganda, no doubt SA's patriotic papers were conscious of a more disturbing problem: that SA's undermanned, sickly and perhaps less than neutral National Defence Force was in no shape to take on a peace-keeping role, let alone a serious outbreak of fighting in our next door neighbour.

Here is a crucial consideration in any balanced view of what is plainly the new South Africa's settled policy towards Zimbabwe - though 'supporting Mugabe' was taken to be and widely condemned as President Mbeki’s personal policy choice back then. It is easy to see why.

The start of Mugabe's farm invasions was a time when President Mbeki automatically got his way. In one SABC interview he dismissively asked how he was expected to stop things that were going on in another country. Zimbabwe, he said, was not SA. The ugly events broadcast on TV night after night created no pressure on Mbeki at home or, at first, from abroad. In those early days of violence, he did not need to claim, as he notoriously did later, that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe.

As Mugabe went from bad to worse and international outrage grew, this bland approach had to be adjusted. But to admit there was a problem would mean having to take action and the visionary leader who preached the African Renaissance was well aware of another stumbling block. Mugabe enjoyed strong support inside the ANC and SADC. Not only was SA’s military backup unreliable: the political will to impose western-style sanctions on a former ally was altogether missing. The presidency had no answer to the insistent calls to do something - except to assure everyone that quietly, behind the scenes, Mbeki was using diplomacy.

This understandable side-step was soon labelled 'quiet diplomacy', two words that would eventually help to destroy Mbeki. Intended only to fend off charges of inaction, they fatefully suggested Mbeki was 'handling' a brother and comrade and could settle everything peaceably. No one pointed out that diplomacy, quiet or otherwise, is not a 'policy' at all, but a method. No one asked what Mbeki was using quiet diplomacy for.

Was it to rein in Mugabe's tyranny or to get him to stand down? Was it to uphold human rights? Was it to ensure fair play for the MDC in elections, even if that brought an untried opposition in another country to power?

It should be obvious that no SA government could have seriously entertained any of these aims, if only because diplomacy unsupported by coercion cannot achieve them. Whatever South Africans thought about it, the Zimbabwe crisis for President Mbeki was about the direction of SA's foreign policy. The prime aim at all times was to preserve SA's security and regional stability. In Mbeki’s terms that meant keeping out the west and avoiding any action that needlessly divided the ANC.

For Mugabe, the matter has always been simpler: Zanu-PF must stay in power at all costs. The Zimbabwean autocrat threatened publicly that the MDC would never govern in Zimbabwe and must have said the same to Mbeki in private. Powerless before naked power and more weakened than strengthened by SA's membership of the divided SADC, Mbeki's only option was to persist in trying to confine the fallout to Zimbabwe. He kept SA's borders closed (at least technically) and never wavered from lending Mugabe's regime full diplomatic support internationally, despite its brutal abuse of its citizens and contempt for all democratic standards.

A common accusation was that Mbeki was Mugabe's lackey or that the two leaders were cut from the same cloth, even shared shady financial interests. But once more these views miss the point.

While Mbeki is a proud son of Africa and dedicated foe of neo-colonialism, he is also every inch a politician. As state and ANC president, and with Mugabe's excesses giving him every justification on moral grounds, Mbeki had the authority to distance himself from the Zanu-PF leader, if only rhetorically. Zuma did so immediately after his election at Polokwane; what stopped Mbeki doing so earlier?

It is not because as SA president and later as SADC mediator Mbeki could not take sides: the MDC regularly complained of his bias against them. Nor can it be explained away as incurable stubbornness: post Polokwane Mbeki changed direction when he knew he had to - on keeping the Scorpions and on bringing Motlanthe into his cabinet. 
 
With politicians, always look for the political motive. Maintaining the regional status quo brought with it a major domestic benefit for Mbeki. As his problems with Jacob Zuma and his union allies deepened at home, it ended any chance of a post-liberation opposition coming to power on SA’s doorstep, the very last thing Mbeki or his party wanted.

Domestic and foreign affairs are never separable. Jacob Zuma is ANC president now and following tried and trusted policy towards Zimbabwe. Only the names and the form of apologia have changed.

 

 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Does First National Bank have the right to speak for you?


Is a major business like First National Bank a corporate citizen with responsibilities to society as a whole? Yes, of course it is. It is part of and operates in society.

Does that mean FNB - and any other bank or business for that matter: a car or food manufacturer, mining company, retail chain and the rest - should be a good citizen, not only pay its taxes and follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law, but also be free to play a positive role, even take the lead on issues in the general interest? Again, yes of course it means that. Companies may choose to run a publicity campaign, for instance, suggesting we eat healthily; urge us not to waste water or litter the countryside; propose we consume alcohol wisely; purchase safer, more fuel-efficient cars as opposed to bigger and faster ones. Behaving as a good corporate citizen can mean business doing all these things, where appropriate and where both parties, the general public and the particular company, can be said to benefit - even if who benefits most (or at all) is always disputed.

Doesn’t it follow, then, that FNB is also entitled to criticise the government of the day if the government is doing a bad job? Ah, well now, just a minute, hang on.

Why it is worth thinking twice about that question should be obvious. We have left the area of the general good, strayed outside social and environmental issues, and entered the contested and deeply compromising realm of politics. The view we have to take here, as calmly as we can manage it, is not that of the corporate citizen’s rights and responsibilities, but of our own as individual citizens. That includes all of us.

Incomprehensible as it seems to those who think the ANC is doing a bad job, many, perhaps most, SA citizens have until now always decided the party is doing a good one and elected it repeatedly. For which side does FNB speak? More to the point, who gave the bank the go-ahead to speak for either side? It is not likely to be FNB shareholders even if they could have been consulted. A safe guess would be FNB shareholders are presently the most unhappy of all SA citizens in this, because what makes corporate and individual shareholders happy are not beau gestes but beautiful profits and dividends. The ANC top brass showed its willingness to punish both by threatening to withdraw the party’s business.

That leaves FNB customers, who will include, we should remember, FNB staff. Though their money is also funding the board’s ill-starred initiative, customers had no say in approving or disapproving the ad campaign before it ran and, if the public response to date is anything to go by, are as divided on its merits, not to mention its wisdom, as everyone else.

The conclusion is not so much depressing as baffling. This latest FNB campaign is not the first seemingly intended to call the governing party out for its shortcomings, only to be withdrawn abjectly at the first sign of the ANC’s anger. It raises questions that contradict even the lame and misguided defence presented by FNB chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels: that FNB’s advertising was meant ‘to galvanise’. Galvanise who? FNB customers? ANC opponents? The young? Everyone? To do what?

Never mind such hazy communications objectives; the overall direction here seems to lack a hold on reality. Do at least some among SA’s most senior executives suppose they are more democratic than the citizen body of SA and hope to speak for them? Do they sincerely believe they can spark off some kind of spontaneous civil society ‘movement’ to bring government to heel? Many media commentators are fond of indulging that idea, of harking back to the exciting days but vanished world of the United Democratic Front.

If this is the explanation in the FNB case, those responsible should perhaps ponder that ‘democracy’ is said to be here now, not something still to be won. And that what SA democracy needs today is an organized, which means well-funded, political party of opposition, not a commercial bank at odds with itself. They might conclude that is something they are free to put their money behind without giving themselves and everyone else so much trouble.

Repeated from Business Day, January 29 2013