Thursday, January 21, 2016

Parallel worlds of South Africa's President Zuma and England's George I

The report in Business Day on January 19, ‘Gordhan vows to avoid downgrade’, raises arresting points about the de facto role of President Zuma’s dramatically restored but still nominally subordinate Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the implications for the possible longer term development of SA’s democratic institutions.
In Britain in 1714 George I ascended the throne. Back home in Hanover, George was an absolute monarch; Britain already enjoyed parliamentary government.
Poor George, unfairly or otherwise, was considered a dull fellow by the English, unable to speak the language, caught up in marriage difficulties and never really quite up to events. Not coincidentally, he was away on a distracting holiday break in Hanover when a huge financial crisis known to history as the South Sea Bubble exploded. There was widespread ruin of companies and individuals and, through a network of bribery and corruption, a threat to the solvency of the British realm.
Into these calamitous events stepped capable Sir Robert Walpole to save the situation. With George abdicating - if not personally, then effectively - the crucial functions of government, Sir Robert became de facto prime minister - Britain’s first. He did not have that title at the time: his official titles were First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer – that is to say, finance minister. Britain’s prime minister is still known by the first title, though not the second, another prudent separation of functions later.
These innovations led, in turn, to the eventual emergence in Britain of cabinet government. George I had always shunned cabinet meetings because he couldn’t understand what they were talking about; and the cabinet gradually came to see his presence as irrelevant anyway. The parallels to recent events and the general situation in SA, many would say, are marked.
This first appeared as a letter in Business Day on January 21 2016

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Things you must know before writing on Twitter

Professional writers, assisted and managed by experienced subs and editors, produced the traditional media. But times have changed. You and I produce the social media. And we're on our own. 

Before You Write

Understand that whatever you believe, someone, somewhere, will not agree with you. Lots of people do not believe in god; lots do. Some people support the soccer team you think are rubbish. Some believe everyone should own guns.

Some people are dedicated supporters of the political leader you can’t stand. Many don't know Charlize Theron is South African. Some will tell you Charlize Theron isn't all she's cracked up to be. A few don't know who Charlize Theron is. Others support England at rugby.

There is no accounting for taste.

Before you write one word, understand also it is like shouting it all out in the street and at work. Or, more accurately, like airing your views in the UK Sun, New York Times, on CNN and all of them together. Except that what you say on the internet will reach millions more people than all those media together, and reach more influential people than the people in the street or at work. And reach them all at once, there and then.

Remember things you write on the internet may be actionable at law. You may get yourself into serious trouble by a single ill-considered remark - you know about the famous and frightening examples in South Africa recently. You aren’t safe even if you’re hiding behind a pseudonym, or just clicking the ‘Like’ button. Someone may RT you, with dates and times and a critical comment.

Remember, above all, that what you write is permanent. It may come back to bite you from long ago and faraway.

After You’ve Written

Remember the first point in Before You Write and be prepared to encounter at least four types of respondents: [a] people who agree with you; [b] people who are prepared to have a rational disagreement; [c] people who are only looking for an argument; [d] people who like to insult and abuse anyone available.

You don’t need any advice on types [a] and [b] because these are presumably the people you wish to engage on your subject. But never get personal or rude, even if you find you strongly disagree and s/he scores a good point. S/he is entitled to her/his opinion like you and may be as smart as you. Maybe smarter.

Type [c] - amateur arguers (AAs) - are difficult to detect at first. They write something to snare you. It may seem reasonable, even polite. But as soon as you begin to suspect someone is in it just for an argument, watch for these tell tale signs and do not fall into the trap:

1. AAs will dispute anything you say but never answer any of your points. Watch for that particularly; it is the first sure giveaway. Do not repeat what you said or defend it. Do not deny accusations and say you did not say that; AAs will say you did. Remember you are being drawn into an endless argument, which is all the AA is about. Whether or not that works, AAs also try to escalate the argument.

2. Escalation can be detected in a number of ways. An AA will accuse you of saying something you did not say, and also of saying the very opposite of what you said. Another ploy is to switch the argument by moving on from the original subject. Be wary of answering remarks like - “So you’re saying that …?” or “Why are you defending such-and-such?” - when you are not saying or defending any such things and never would. Don’t start to do so with an AA then.

3. Here is a splendid way to remember all this. In one of his great sketches, John Cleese runs a ‘Buy-an-Argument’ shop. An argument costs you £5. A customer pays over his £5 but Cleese says and does nothing. The customer therefore says he wants an argument. ‘No you don’t,’ says John Cleese. 

4. Even if it gets that silly, never become rude or personal. That is not because the person who becomes rude loses the argument; it is because any fool can be rude back.  You are escalated into category [d] and set yourself up for insults.

5. Lastly, AAs always want the last word. It is what they are about and futile to try beating them at their own game by having the last word yourself. They will come back as long as you carry on, because - always remember - their aim is to have an argument. When you’ve said what you want, stop. Let the AA have the last word. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how feebly it reads, last.

6. Under no circumstances ignore any of these points. Unless, of course, you are looking for an argument yourself.  

7. In the same way, with regard to category [d], repeat: never resort to personal abuse. Unless you don’t mind personal abuse in return.

8. Add any points I’ve missed. These days we writers need all the help we can get.