Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Old-style oppression has new adversaries

Josef Stalin cynically said: “A single death is a tragedy — a million deaths is a statistic.” He prosecuted his tyranny, replete with mass murder, according to this formula.
There is some accuracy in the tyrant’s observation. Perhaps that is why one 12-year-old boy, Hector Pieterson, is the iconic embodiment of the June 16 uprising against apartheid. Although hundreds of lives were lost when the riots spread into intractable national unrest, Sam Nzima’s photograph of the shot boy being carried by his sister and a fellow student was the freeze-frame that catapulted this event into the consciousness of the world.
Two Saturdays ago in Tehran, a 26-year-old woman was shot dead by an Iranian government militiaman. The video clip of music student Neda Agha-Soltan’s dying moments captured on a cellphone was bounced across the globe by satellite and through new media such as YouTube, stamping her instantly as a symbol of the anti-government protests.
The Iranian opposition proclaimed her as a martyr for freedom in a society that, as Nazila Fathi noted in the New York Times, “is infused with the culture of martyrdom”.
Two days after her death, there were already 6860 entries for her on the Persian-language Google search engine. Perhaps the potency of the new media is revealed by the fact that Mirhossein Mousavi, the main opposition candidate in the disputed, probably rigged, presidential election in Iran, has used social network Facebook to mobilise his supporters. Twitter is another new tool of communication against the theocrats in Tehran, who base their authority on a religious tradition that is more than 13 centuries old.
The incompatibility between old-style repression and newfangled media is only one of many contradictions that the tumultuous events in Iran have highlighted.
Another is the fault line which the poll, and the protests against its outcome, revealed between the two plates of the Iranian revolution — one theocratic and the other democratic.
Most power in Iran is wielded by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and various religious bodies such as the Guardian Council.
Lesser authority lies in the hands of the democratic parliament and the popularly elected president.
Under the rule of populist conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there was little to separate the outlook and approach of the two branches of the Iranian revolution. But reformist challenger Mousavi became a lightning conductor for the young and disaffected, especially marginalised women, who have spearheaded the protests in the firm belief that massive fraud prevented their candidate from winning.
The signs of splits and fissures, even within the previously united religious leadership, are clear, although the direction in which the 30-year old Iranian revolution will head is not. There has been a stirring of a moderate revival elsewhere in this most combustible arena of geopolitics, in Lebanon and in next-door Iraq, for example.
But, of course, the issue in Iran — and one with huge consequences for this troubled neighbourhood — is its nuclear potential.
Although Ayatollah Khamenei has the final word on nuclear and security matters, both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, and most Iranians, apparently see the development of nuclear power as a totem of their sovereign independence. However, there is obviously a difference in approach between the president, who threatens to “remove Israel from the map of history” and announces that Iran has successfully tested a new solid-fuel missile with a range of 1900km, and a challenger who denounces his opponent’s “foreign policy adventurism”.
This then brings in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Before the Iranian election, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, in an authoritative article, stated that Netanyahu’s actions are “shaped by a profound conviction that Israel will be in danger of extermination if Iran has nuclear weapons at its disposal”.
It also quoted a recent interview, which the prime minister gave to an American journal under the headline Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran or I Will.
Influential Middle East watchers in the US have suggested that Netanyahu far prefers to face the anti-Semitic Ahmadinejad, who has suggested the Holocaust was a hoax, as president than his rival.
As one of them expressed it: “Israelis believe he reflects the true and immutable character of the Iranian regime. If a moderate were to take over, it would not herald any real change in Iran or its nuclear ambitions, but simply disguise it better.”
The repression of the pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Tehran suggests that Netanyahu will be granted his wish in the choice of his opponent. After all, bullets are more powerful, in the short term at least, than Twitter. But, over time, the ineradicable human craving for freedom is more difficult to suppress.
We can only guess how much time will lapse between the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan and the arrival of the freedom she now symbolises.

*Published Sunday Times 6 July 2009

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Meaning of the f-word to be a battle zone over the next year

IN A recent interview, Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka raised the question: “Do we need provinces?” and suggested that a definitive answer would be given by the government next March. I thought it significant that his ministry had once enjoyed the title of “constitutional and provincial affairs”. Perhaps its renaming is a harbinger of things to come.
The minister’s speculation, coupled with his demand that “nobody is expected to be out of tune” with the country and its president, brought to mind how central the provinces were to the Kempton Park negotiations, which led to the inauguration of democracy in SA, and how comprehensively the African National Congress (ANC) out-negotiated its opponents on this issue. This was due to both the balance of forces and the burden of our history.
The f-word during the negotiations was not a vulgar expletive, but the politically loaded idea of federalism. Democratic Party (DP) negotiator Colin Eglin — whose party’s central plank was the promotion of a federal dispersal of authority as an alternative to untrammelled majoritarianism — recalled how the Bantustan policy of the National Party (NP) “had given federalism a bad name”. He therefore, during negotiations, tiptoed around the topic by using code: “I tried to avoid using the word federalism in advancing my arguments, preferring to use the cumbersome but less repellent phrase, ‘constitutional decentralisation’” to advance the case for provincial powers in the new constitutional set-up .
Inkatha’s position at the negotiations was the opposite of the prevailing political wind: it wanted a federal SA to give it more power, given its lock on support in Natal. The ANC wanted a unitary state precisely to prevent that eventuality. The case, however, was never properly prosecuted since Inkatha was boycotting the negotiations in pursuance of an issue — the role and place of the k ing — which today, seems remote and obscure.
The NP, which during the negotiations still held the formal reins of power, made a confused and enfeebled fight for federalism. It understood it was likely to be knocked off its national perch of power in the elections, and reduced to a regional redoubt in the Western Cape. But its strategy was far more focused on dividing the spoils of office at a national level through power-sharing than in according the provinces significant, and original, powers. As the most reliable chronicler of the negotiations’ process, Patti Waldmeir described it: “After 45 years of ruling a highly centralised old South African state, the NP seemed to have little idea of what federalism meant, and only a weak inclination to fight for it.”
With the NP confused, Inkatha absent and the DP speaking in code, it was little wonder that the ANC prevailed. Indeed Waldmeir obtained an accurate assessment of the location of power in the new SA from a key negotiator: “Joe Slovo, speaking freely out of exhaustion and drink on the eve of the deal, insisted that the new state would be ‘not remotely a federation ... we’ve managed to give them devolution, without losing control’, he told me with considerable satisfaction.”
Slovo was to die within a year of the establishment of the new order; the NP received in Hermann Giliomee’s apt phrase a “prostitute’s funeral” after the 2004 elections; the Inkatha Freedom Party has been ousted from power in KwaZulu-Natal and the DP has morphed into the Democratic Alliance, but won control of the Western Cape .
But just how accurate and prescient Slovo’s boast has proven to be was on display in Cape Town this week. Provincial Premier Helen Zille — political boss of the only province in the hands of the opposition — was reduced to taking legal advice and writing a letter to the newspaper to explain that the Provincial Commissioner of the SAPS, Mzwandile Petros, refuses to meet with her and the provincial MEC for policing, Lennit Max. Given the agenda Zille had in mind for the meeting, including the allegation that the police had sexed-up the crime statistics in this crime-ravaged province, the commissioner’s coyness was understandable. But, of course, he is answerable and accountable to Pretoria, not Cape Town.
A glance at the exclusive powers which the constitution grants to the provinces yields a decidedly threadbare list. Schedule 5 grants it sole jurisdiction over such matters as abattoirs, ambulances, and culture and veterinary services. But in the areas of delivery, the provinces currently are the public’s interface with both hospitals and schools. Little wonder, then, that when he was minister of national education, Kader Asmal once remarked to me that, in comparison with his provincial counterparts, he felt “like a eunuch in a harem. I have the desire to act, but not the power.”
Interestingly, as the ANC moves to further centralise power, the DA is moving in the opposite direction. Its key parliamentary staff, including national strategist and MP Ryan Coetzee have taken leave of Parliament and relocated to the provincial government and the Office of the Premier.
The battle of the provinces — and the meaning and extent of the “f” word in our constitutional arrangements — is likely to be a key battleground arena over the next year. It remains to be seen whether the federalists are more successful in the next, perhaps final, round than they were at Kempton Park.

*Published Business Day 4 July 2009

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