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




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.