Friday, December 19, 2008

The Power of Addiction and The Addiction to Power

The scandals are flying so thick and fast around here that it is all a little reminiscent of the final act of Macbeth. The corpses have piled up so high and the murders so widespread, that you eventually loose count of the number and the motives behind each assassination. All you are left with is the primal force of the destruction: addiction to power.

On the political front, the arrest of Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder is currently centre-stage. The FBI affidavit underlying the criminal complaint against Blagojevich, whose state motto is “The Land of Lincoln” (an American avatar of political honesty and ethical probity), revealed wiretaps of conversations where Blagojevich and his associates schemed up various illegal ways in which he could profit from his authority to appoint Obama’s successor. In Chicago, which long-time resident Saul Bellow once indicted as a city representing “the overlap between politics and crime” this is known as “pay to play”. I actually thought that the seat-buying which characterised South Africa’s recently-euthanised floor-crossing was an extreme feature of our corroded culture. It appears, however, to have international application. The Illinois Governor is currently suspended in a sort of political-zombie zone – he remains in office but everyone from the President-elect to his own Lieutenant- Governor have called for his removal and he is now subject to impeachment petitions in the state legislature. But what differentiates the mop-haired Governor of easy virtue is that he hasn’t yet claimed that his “innocence until proven guilty” is a sufficient political defence to stave off the clamour for his departure. He is also likely to be hounded from office and certainly will not become the president of his country. In South Africa, of course, this basic right of the criminal defendant has become the political weapon-of-choice for the politically mighty, including our wannabe President, whose criminal charges are far more serious than those facing the sleazy US Governor.

The loss of faith in a local political personality here is nothing compared to the incredulity which has greeted the self-confessed mega-fraud of Wall Street titan Bernard L. Madoff. If it is possible to tarnish capitalism’s high street brand even further, then the 70 year-old with the once-Midas touch has done it. In what might be the largest financial swindle in history, he stands accused of orchestrating a $50-billion “Ponzi” con, on the good old pyramid scheme concept in which early investors are paid off with money from later investors, until no more money can be raised, and the scheme collapses.

In South Africa we would associate such a charming device (indeed, as Michael Lewis recently wrote, “something for nothing - it never loses its charm”) with a Nigerian criminal scam or with the founders of the ill-gotten 1980s Kubus get-rich-quick plot. However, Madoff’s alleged pyramid scheme was far broader than anything dreamed up by a Nigerian or South Africa crook. He drew in prominent billionaires, European banks and major American philanthropies, and he did so largely on the basis of the trust which his swanky Manhattan address, his Palm Beach Country Club membership and huge charitable giving engendered. His reliability was so great, that he was referred to, with affection, as the Jewish Treasury Bill. Madoff’s exposure is symptomatic of a much wider malaise, and one which goes far beyond personal embezzlement and corporate culpability. It is only slightly worse than the “legal scheme” which caused the wider collapse of America’s financial architecture, and many of Wall Street’s most famous houses.

Writing in the New York Times this week, Thomas L. Friedman pinpointed the parallel between Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and Wall Street’s “cheap credit, low standards and high greed.” On the one hand, you have Madoff cooking the books and providing consistently high returns regardless of market conditions. On the other hand, subprime lenders gave a worker who made just over $1000 a month a “nothing down and nothing-to-pay for two years” mortgage to buy a $750 000 home. They then bundled that mortgage with hundreds of others into bonds – which Moody’s or Standard and Poor rated AAA and sold them to banks and pension funds all over the world. A veritable pyramid scheme -writ hideously large.

But, of course, the link between the greedy Illinois Governor, the scheming Wall Street traders and the universal band of corrupt political brothers, appears to be addiction of one form or another – either to power, or greed or some combination. Just like Shakespeare gave forth Macbeth, Southern Africa’s local neighbourhood tyrant, Robert Mugabe, continues with his policies of national destruction. And South Africa, like a powerful yet indulgent relative, continues to coddle him from international sanction.

Last week I discussed Mugabe’s behaviour with my Durban boyhood friend, Jeremy Schmahmann. He now lives in Boston and has risen to great heights as Professor of Neurology at Harvard University Medical School. He has an interesting hypothesis, not yet proven, but one which has big implications for dealing with both national tyrants, and even the more common and garden financial fraudsters. It boils down to transposing “the tyranny of addiction” to the addiction to tyranny. As Jeremy put it the other night, society acknowledges “the tyranny of addiction” – the craving for drugs, alcohol or gambling that grabs hold of a person’s body and soul. Neurobiologists now have a fairly detailed understanding of the hard-wiring and chemistry of the brain that leads to this personal disintegration. With Mugabe, who cannot relinquish power even in the midst of a mass cholera epidemic symptomatic of the country he has now so comprehensively broken, “his brain reward system is in over-drive, addicted to power.” And like any addict, he cannot just be persuaded to stop. He needs to be removed from the addicting substance, and from the environment which supports it. Since our local politicians’ lack of political imagination and courage has led to consistently misdiagnosing Mugabe and his cravings, perhaps they should take a page from this eminent neurologist.

We are surprised and saddened when the oppression of Ian Smith metastasises into the brutality of Robert Mugabe. We are equally amazed that the frauds of Enron and WorldCom are repeated again in the form of Madoff. But, of course, they stem from the same impulses, and the same lack of internal or external correctives. The first step to healing, both the economic and political systems, is to recognise the addictions and to apply the corrective measures early on.

This being the last Washington column in the last Weekender edition of the year, allow me, with a touch of American ecumenicalism, to wish all readers “Happy Holidays”.

*Written for "The Weekender" in South Africa; publshing date: Saturday, 20 December 2008.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Best Wishes, and a Warning, to COPE

Last week, en route to a speech at New York University, I chanced upon a mural in Greenwich Village. It depicted Barack Obama as a white man and John McCain as a black. Underneath this arresting transposition was the legend:”Let the issues be the issue”.

The artist got his wish in the United States on November 4 when the Tsunami of economic woes and popular discontent with the presidency of George W Bush swept Barack Obama to power, and drowned any lingering attachments in the United States to racial politics.
South Africa’s sclerotic race-based politics, where every election since democracy could in various ways be predetermined on the basis of an ethnic census, is set for a shake-up with the formalisation of the Congress of the People (COPE) next Tuesday in Bloemfontein. Might South Africans hope that this most significant breakaway from the ruling ANC since the formation of the PAC nearly 50 years ago, leads to a localised version of “letting the issues be the issue”?
Having enjoyed (the verb endured might be more apt) the title of longest-serving leader of the official opposition in Parliament since 1994, perhaps I can offer some (unsolicited) advice to the late-joiners to the opposition patch.

First, in a mechanical sense at least, any worthwhile democrat in South Africa will welcome an addition to the scattered ranks of the country’s opposition forces. One of the reasons why our democracy has not fulfilled its early promise and the high expectations so many of us had for it ,is reflected in the last general election results. More than 50-points separated the ANC and the principal opposition that I then led. This allowed the governing party to ignore dissenting voices, sideline alternative views, however meritorious, and suck most of the oxygen out of the democratic space which the constitution, in theory, created for a multiplicity of players. Any reduction in that gap must be welcomed.

Second, it is commendable that COPE has clothed its somewhat threadbare policies in a robust defence of the constitution – our founding democratic settlement. Recent polls suggest that South Africans, retain an overwhelming faith in it, despite their misgivings about current politics and failing institutions. At this time of deep political uncertainty in South Africa and huge economic upheaval around the world, it is worth recalling the words of America’s investor sage, and its wealthiest man, Warren Buffett. He is fond of remarking in business, “it’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s swimming naked.” The same yardstick should measure political leaders.

It is therefore perfectly fair, to ask whether the leadership of COPE are the best guardians of our constitution and worthy stewards for its future protection. This inquiry yields a far from reassuring answer, despite the excitement at the prospect of a new challenger to ANC hegemony.

Brian Pottinger, in his excellent new work “The Mbeki Legacy” got it exactly right. He described the difference between the ascendant forces aligned to Jacob Zuma and the vanquished acolytes of Thabo Mbeki as being the difference between “ANC Classic” and “ANC Lite”. One should never underestimate the potency of the politics of resentment: that heady cocktail of hurt egos, withering resentments and loss of power. Indeed, it is difficult to discern any gulf of principle which separates the ANC from COPE. They both claim to be fighting for the real core, and the lost soul, of the governing party.

Ostensibly, the formation of COPE is not about getting even or bringing back the spirit of Thabo Mbeki through the back door. It is about the creation of an alternative based on principle. When I delivered my lecture at New York University, Breyten Breytenbach was in the audience. He gave me a copy of his recently published excoriation of the current South Africa in the latest edition of Harper’s magazine. It is subtitled “Notes of South Africa’s Failed Revolution”. As exhibit A of his deconstruction he presents the Marie Antoinette quote of Smuts Ngonyama “I didn’t struggle to be poor”. The words are entirely accurate, being the risible defence which Mr. Ngonyama [provided when asked to justify the R50 million he pocketed for his membership of a consortium that received a huge payola from the Telkom listing – in his case a result of “know-who” rather than “know how”. Breytenbach, however, inaccurately cites Ngonyama as “spokesman for the African National C0ongress”. Today, of course, he is Head of Policy for COPE. It is not his undeserved millions which concerns me. But in his new incarnation, is he still the staunch defender that he once was of the cadre policy and deployment strategy of the ANC? In 1999 when I revealed this document which stated that the accountability of all ANC cadres lay to the Party high command and not to the institutions in which they were serving, Ngonyama described me as “a childish but confused individual”. In fact, as events over the past decade have made manifest, the ANC’s decision to place its officials in every key post in every institution, especially those requiring robust independence, has led to the corrosion of the constitution which COPE has now vowed to protect.

Last week ,the New York Times highlighted on its front page a recent Harvard University study which pinned the needless death of more than 300000 South Africans on then President Mbeki’s refusal to accept the scientific consensus on AIDS and his promotion of crank remedies drawn from AIDS dissidents. When in 2000, the Democratic Alliance rolled out the provision of antiretrovirals in the Western Cape, and offered to extend the treatment in its municipalities, Ngonyama accused us of peddling “apartheid-era biological warfare”. His other colleague in COPE, Mbhazima Shilowa was at the time Premier of Gauteng. But that province resisted and fought the constitutional court case in July 2002 which the TAC launched to force birthing facilities to provide antiretrovirals to HIV-positive mothers and babies.

Thirdly, nothing has divided South Africa’s opposition forces more than questions of unity. It is therefore reassuring to note that COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota has pledged to work with other opposition parties, including my own, on the question of creating provincial governments where the opposition commands a majority. I have warm regard for Lekota, not least because of the very kind remarks he made when I stood down as leader of the opposition. But I also remember the entirely destructive role he played in 2001, in decimating opposition forces by luring Marthinus van Skalkvyk into the ANC in an attempt to monopolise all power in the hands of the ruling party. At one level, that’s politics. At another, it brings to mind the rueful remark of a famous British politician who said, “When you want to protect a principle, don’t look for protection from among the tramplers.”

My enduring hope for the new opposition party is that it will be staunch and resolute in its attachment to constitutional principles and practice: the very ideals its key leaders undermined when they occupied the seats of power.

* Written for Independent Newspapers in South Africa- publishing date: Sunday, 14 December 2008.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The New Secretary of State

Washington’s worst-kept secret was made official on Monday. President-elect Barack Obama announced – from Chicago, that his one-time deadly rival, Senator Hillary Clinton would be the next US Secretary of State. The furious flurry of chatter and swirl of speculation which preceded the announcement gave way, after momentary pause, to a renewed flurry and swirl: was this a master-stroke of inclusivity? A case of inspanning of a “team of rivals” to borrow the title of a much-touted new book on the cabinet of Obama’s distinguished predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, he also hailed from Illinois and like Obama, was a little-known Senator until his presidency, and the American Civil War which defined it, marked him out as an all-time great.
Or would the apparent enmity and distrust between Obama and Clinton, and the unfulfilled presidential ambitions of “Madam Secretary-elect” as we must now call her, doom the relationship?
The betting, at the moment, inclines to the masterstroke explanation. But the media immediately noted the apparent incongruity of this pick of the ultimate Washington insider by the man who promised to be the tribune of change. The simultaneous announcement of former NATO Commander and Marine Corps Commandant, General James L Jones, as Obama’s Security Adviser and his retention of President Bush’s Defence Secretary, the Republican Robert M Gates, means the untested President-Elect has surrounded himself with “two Cold War warriors” plus Clinton, all of whose records are far more hawkish than the liberal, change-oriented Obama.
Obama batted away the apparent contradiction (and his record of campaign disagreements with Clinton) by advising, “I’m a strong believer in strong debate and strong opinions”. Indeed to most, the selection signalled a president who is self-confident enough to surround himself with smart and capable people: a study in contrast to the incumbent Bush, whose moral certitude and the blind faith of his key advisers landed America (and the world) in many of its current travails.
Although Obama mocked Clinton during the campaign for a foreign policy resume obtained by osmosis through her presidential husband while First Lady, and chastised her judgement as a Senator for supporting Bush to go to war in Iraq, foreign opinion apparently reacted with optimism to her selection. In some circles this was not because of her record: during the primaries she warned that Iran risked “obliteration” in the event of nuclear attack in Israel – and also dismissed as “reckless and naive” her new boss’s plan to engage in talks with the dread Iranian leadership. She announced herself in favour of “coercive diplomacy” – whatever that might mean or entail.
But the global welcome to her appointment is attributable in part to her star power: “she’s a global brand”, gushed the New York Times. Even its waspish columnist, Maureen Dowd – a well-chronicled Hillary-hater – who had previously warned Obama not to pick Clinton as Vice President. (“She’ll put poison in your tea”, she wrote back in August) recanted. Last week she approvingly quoted another Clinton critic who concluded “she’s smart and tough and a lot better than any of those old hacks like Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright.”
However, I think the real clue to the apparent American and world receptivity to Clinton’s new incarnation probably lies in the acronym “ABBC” (“Anything Is Better Than Bush and Co”). A senior Russian MP was quoted this week as saying, “the most important thing is not who is coming in, but who is leaving.”
But Hillary Clinton, star wattage and stellar intellect aside, is weighed down with a lot of baggage. I was advised at a recent dinner by a veteran of her husband’s administration that “most of it is carried by Bill”. My informant was scathing on the excesses of the soon-to-return Clinton soap opera: the paranoia, the infidelities, the leaks, the volcanic tantrums. All of this seemed ill suited to the discipline and thoughtfulness of the “No Drama Obama” regime. Globalisation guru and veteran foreign policy watcher, Thomas Friedman opined that if the relationship between the president and his secretary of state sours or becomes remote (as it became between the much-admired Colin Powell and President George W Bush) then “foreign leaders will spot the daylight between them from a thousand miles”. And here the “big dog”, as Bill Clinton has been dubbed by some, enters the frame. He practically has his own foreign policy apparatus: his global philanthropy foundation employs 800 people. He earns R100 million in speaking fees annually, many of which are apparently thinly-disguised influence-peddling events sponsored by doubtful foreign potentates. He also has 200 000 (actual number) donors to his presidential library whose identity have never been publicly disclosed. But at the time of Hillary Clinton’s nomination, it was mentioned that he received a $10 million gift from the Saudi Royal family.
No doubt the new administration will resolve these conflicts of interest. But a conflict of interest of a different sort potentially looms between the new administration in Washington and the next government in Pretoria. This is the hangover from Thabo Mbeki’s penchant for temporising with African tyrants. If this pattern persists going forward then the Union Buildings can expect a serious early collision with another appointee announced here on Monday. Susan Rice, a close Obama confidante has now been elevated, with cabinet status, to the US ambassadorship at the United Nations. In contrast to Mbeki’s shielding of the Sudanese dictator and oppressor Omar al-Bashir from indictment by the International Criminal Court, Rice is a vehement and committed adherent to using “America’s muscle to protect human rights in Africa.” When Jacob Zuma recently visited Washington I suggested to him that we should change course away from the Mbeki approach of “never meeting a dictator he didn’t like”. I hardly expect our wannabe president to accept my unsolicited counsel .But as South Africa’s rights-delinquent term of office on the Security Council is about to expire, Pretoria might have consideration for the fact that many key people in the new administration in Washington consider our performance there to be more befitting of a “rogue democracy”.

* Written for the Weekender, to be published 6 December 2008.