Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hard work and talent at root of SA’s ‘reverse colonisation’ of UK

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24 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

From salvage maestro Nick Sloane to SABMiller CEO Alan Clark and the UK deputy prime minister’s strategy director, South Africans are making their mark, writes Tony Leon

SCENES of horror from the weekend’s attack by al-Shabaab terrorists on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi dominated all news media in London, where this column originates, on Monday.

An almost forgotten footnote in the evolution of the al-Qaeda terrorist franchise is that three years before 9/11 internationalised its bloody brand, it killed hundreds of people in simultaneous blasts at the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.

But before the dark and grim headlines from East Africa defined the news cycle here, I was rather struck by the more cheering acres of news coverage originating from news makers from the southern end.

Superlatives abounded concerning South African salvage master — perhaps maestro is a better fit — Nick Sloane. The normally staid Daily Telegraph gushed that the rugged head of the multinational rescue team that righted the wrecked Costa Concordia last week off the reef of the Tuscan island of Giglio was "a cross between Prince Harry and Russell Crowe".

Given that the ship is larger than the Titanic and that Sloane’s international team consisted of more than 500 engineers, divers and welders, the sheer scale of his achievement goes beyond hype.

Since he famously called for a beer and a braai after his heroic effort, it was perhaps apt that the previous Saturday, The Times of London ran a page-length feature on relatively newly appointed SABMiller CEO Alan Clark. The article noted the extraordinary fact that this $35bn revenue generating company, which employs 70,000 people across the world, is now headed by a clinical psychologist.

Dr Clark is certainly the only global CEO to have been an associate professor in cognitive development — a post he held at the University of South Africa in the late 1980s. The fact that the CEO of London-listed SABMiller, the world’s second-biggest brewer, is South African is a consequence not of South African chauvinism but of homegrown talent.

On the subject of homegrown talent, at a rather pricey (with our depleted currency, that’s not saying much) and salubrious saloon in Soho, I enjoyed a weekend reunion with my former political strategist Ryan Coetzee. He now sits at the elbow of Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister of Britain, whom Coetzee serves as director of strategy.

Back in South Africa, he designed and implemented every successful opposition project, from the "fight back" of 1999 to more recent strategies. When we met, Coetzee had freshly returned from Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party congress in Glasgow, where the leader emerged with enhanced authority, even though his personal and party numbers are flatlining at the polls at about 9% (about half of what the party obtained in the 2010 general election).

I thought the Liberals’ conference slogan of a "stronger economy, a fairer society" bore something of the Coetzee stamp, which he confirmed. As the junior partner in Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government, this is an attempt to jab at both the Tories, on the issue of social fairness, and Labour, on the grounds of economic competence.

But South Africa’s contribution to current political life in Britain washes across party boundaries. In a weekend interview, Labour leader Ed Miliband, who might end up as prime minister in 2015, paid his own debt of honour to past South Africans. He recounted how among the many visitors to his parents’ "new left" home in the 1980s, presided over by his famous Marxist academic father Ralph, were Joe Slovo and his wife, Ruth First.

In fact, the assassination of First in 1982 affected him deeply. In a speech in 2010, he noted: "Some people wonder about why I got to care about politics. When something like that happens, it teaches you at the age of 12 that some things you cannot walk away from. It teaches you that political causes matter."

From the serious to the sublime and the saloons, the South African influence here — a sort of reverse colonialism — is pervasive. A Saturday night spent in the obscure hamlet of Moretonhampstead in Dartmoor led to the discovery that "Karen of Bellville", as she introduced herself, presided over its only hostelry. Same again at a sumptuous gastro pub in the city of Wells, except here the South African duo hailed from Benoni. A visit to the memorable West End production of War Horse yielded the fact that the play’s quite extraordinary puppets were created by the South African Handspring Puppet Company, founded by four graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town.

Seated next to another well-known South African here at a Sunday lunch, Financial Times columnist Lucia van der Post (daughter of the famous Sir Laurens), I asked her why South Africans did so well in the UK.

"It’s no mystery," she said. "They’re not afraid of hard work and they’re talented."

A winning combination, then, at home and abroad.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why the bad news is actually good news for South Africa

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17 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The impulse for some ‘obligatory optimism’ appears to have washed over these shores quite vehemently in recent days, writes Tony Leon

THE prize-winning Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, once wrote balefully of the "obligatory optimism of socialist society". You get the idea when you view some of the extraordinary movie footage — replete with smiling and well-fed children — in North Korea, a country where most people outside the governing elite exist on starvation rations.

On a visit to China some years back, I bought a large coffee-table book titled Chinese Propaganda Posters. At least its title told the truth of its contents. The front cover shows the "great helmsman", Mao Zedong, suitably dwarfing his thronged supporters below him. On the back is an idealised portrait of a young girl harvesting an abundant crop of mealies, appropriately with the chairman’s little red book peeking out of the pocket of her lilac tunic.

The inconvenient truths of his rule and the reality of years of starvation do not feature in the 250 portraits. One has to read such works as Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, to learn of the 38-million people who perished during "the greatest famine in history", a consequence of the "great leap forward" he thrust on his country between 1958 and 1961.

South Africa is far removed, in every sense, from China and North Korea, but the impulse for some "obligatory optimism" appears to have washed over these shores quite vehemently in recent days.

The acting chief operating officer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Hlaudi Motsoeneng, called last month for a quota of 70% of its news to be positive. As quotas have become de rigeur around here, doubtless applying this to news content might seem only logical. However, his own organisation’s bad news revealed in the latest annual report of the SABC might, on any objective basis, well exceed the proposed 30% allocation for negative news. This shows a R1.5bn hole blown in its own budget on "consultancy fees" that could not be accounted for; and the small matter of nearly R1bn of lost licence fees and R106bn in irregular expenditure. By the time the SABC has simply reported on its own impressive contribution to the bad news cycle, it would certainly crowd out other items jostling for national attention. Doubtless "GuptaTV" will take up the slack.

President Jacob Zuma recently added his voice to the "good news is best" chorus. He was reported, during a visit to media students in Cape Town last week, as saying that "whenever I travel abroad people have great things to say about SA, but when I am in SA, I feel like running away because of the media reports". It was famously claimed by insiders close to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, that "he never read the newspapers". While Mbeki never confirmed the truth of this assertion, someone in power who did not read the reams of negative coverage about her was Margaret Thatcher. She relied, instead, on a daily "news digest" prepared by her ferociously loyal press secretary, Bernard Ingham. Presumably, all of the personal items about her hectoring style of leadership were shorn from these reports.

While the Chinese propaganda-poster style of media reporting might have confirmed Mao in his echo chamber of ruinous certainty, there is a striking paragraph in Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s 1987 lecture, Food and Freedom.

Of the great famine in China that devastated the country for over three years, he noted: "It is quite remarkable that a famine of this magnitude could continue unrecorded without bringing about a major policy shift, and this failure is certainly one connected closely with the absence of a relatively free press and the absence of opposition parties free to criticise and chastise the government in power.

"It may thus be argued that the massive deaths connected with starvation and famine during 1958-61 relate closely to the issue of freedom of information and criticism."

The good news in the bad-news diet against which some in the local power elite chafe is precisely the presence of so many feedback mechanisms in South Africa, which are so noticeably absent from authoritarian regimes, where the policies of plunder and ruin have rampaged unchecked.

The "Arab Spring"-turned-winter provides another example. The authoritarian lid was blown off an entire region where, as US journalist Thomas Friedman reported, there were just "frail institutions, scant civil society and virtually no democratic traditions or culture of innovation". Only the mosque or the army seemed on offer outside the strongman leader, and Egypt’s unhappy swap from the one to the other has left its democratic experiment stillborn.

Our "boisterous, rowdy, sometimes cacophonous and often angry polity", as Judge Edwin Cameron recently depicted South Africa, is one reason for being optimistic about the future. It certainly bears reporting on and beats the obligatory alternative.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sage advice from usually reserved diplomats

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10 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive
Perhaps the parliamentary committee that is about to commence hearings on the MPRDA amendment bill should seek testimony from one or two key foreign ambassadors, writes Tony Leon

THE Indian ambassador to Argentina, Rengaraj Viswanathan, once counselled me: "An ambassador is someone who thinks twice before he says nothing." Fortunately, for the purposes of enriching a hot local debate, the German ambassador to South Africa, Horst Freitag, said something of real significance last week at the 40th anniversary in South Africa of the German-owned process automation group, Festo. Whether the warning from Berlin will be heeded, let alone heard, in Pretoria might be moot, given the tendency to cut off contrary or inconvenient views.

But, as Germany provides us with a significant slice of the R60bn in foreign direct investment that comes from the European Union, which has created more than 350,000 jobs, it might be prudent to do so. Given that most German investment is in the manufacturing sector, where many of its 600 companies operate, prudence becomes urgent.

According to a report in Engineering News, Freitag said: "An investor from thousands of miles away is as shy as deer and will always look for cover such as provided by bilateral investment agreements."

He was bang on the money, in all senses, when he warned against what he called "blunt instruments" and "unilateral steps", noting that "legal certainty was indispensable for an investor-friendly environment and for building investor confidence".

At play here are the bilateral investment treaties that have been placed on the chopping block by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies.

A flurry of treaties were signed in the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, when attracting and retaining foreign investment were front and centre of economic policy-making. But such imperatives have since yielded to the agenda of transformation. Apparently a few rounds in the Washington-based International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, where such treaties are arbitrated, convinced the government that the entire black economic empowerment (BEE) project could be at risk. In one case involving the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), in which foreign investors argued that its provisions amounted to an "expropriation", part of the settlement discounted the BEE-mandated percentages involved. Doubtless, this setback stung the 2010 review by the Department of Trade and Industry, one of whose key recommendations was to scrap the bilateral investment treaties.

South Africa’s reliance on foreign investment is hard-wired in our history, almost from the moment gold and diamonds were discovered. There has never been enough local capital to exploit them.

I reflected on this theme in the historic surrounds of the Brenthurst Library last week, when delivering a lecture at the seat of the Oppenheimer dynasty. In the very origins of the name Anglo American lies another important fact. Without the ability to attract funding from JP Morgan and other financiers, South Africa’s mightiest original mining house might have remained but a dream of its pioneering founder, Ernest Oppenheimer. Then, as now, foreign investment was the key to economic progress. So much for foreign direct investment.

But the short-term flows are equally vital if the government is to continue, in the face of a widening current-account deficit, to fund its ambitious and necessary fiscal transfers.

Scaring off "the shy as deer" foreign investors makes our present ratio of 16-million monthly grant recipients, on the backs of just 6-million personal taxpayers, unsustainable.

Quite what the global investment community makes of the revelations around the controversial Gold Fields empowerment deal can only be imagined. Commendably, when details of some insalubrious beneficiaries of its South Deep empowerment deal first emerged, then board chairman Mamphela Ramphele ordered an international law firm to investigate. Less commendably, she later told the media that the Department of Mineral Resources apparently "forced" the company to include certain beneficiaries, of whom the present chairwoman of the ruling party hit the jackpot, allegedly to the tune of R25m. For someone who aspires to provide political leadership in the fight against corruption and the rent-seekers who masquerade as agents of transformation, this sounds lamentably lame. Why didn’t she refuse or legally challenge this shakedown?

But at least she did not bury the report, or refuse to act on its recommendations. That is the accusation now levelled against the present board.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee is about to commence hearings on the MPRDA amendment bill, which seeks to widen, not reduce, the ambit of ministerial discretion, and hence investor uncertainty. Perhaps it should seek testimony from one or two key foreign ambassadors, of the sort who will actually say something.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Time to end ambivalence over human rights

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03 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

With South Africa’s position on the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict still deeply ambivalent, it is perhaps time to get on the right side of human rights, writes Tony Leon

A US policymaker once described North Korea as "the land of lousy options". If that taxonomy is accurate, then Syria must rank, for both the US and the world, as North Korea on steroids. Its civil war has killed about 100,000 of its citizens over the past two years, and just two weeks ago evidence emerged that chemical weapons were used in precision bombing in the suburbs of Damascus. More than 1,400 people were killed, including 426 children, many of whom were "gassed as they slept … and awoke gasping for breath", according to medical witnesses.

More than 90 years ago, the world — seared by the experience of poison gas in the First World War — outlawed the use of such weapons. Winston Churchill wrote of the "hellish poison of German mustard gas", which in the Battle of Ypres alone killed 5,000 and wounded 10,000. The escalation of tit-for-tat chemical attacks in the Great War ultimately killed 100,000 people. In the words of Samantha Power, a human rights scholar and the US ambassador to the United Nations, "the gases blistered the skin and singed the lungs. The deaths were slow, the last days of life ghastly". In 1925, the Geneva Protocol prohibited in war or conflict the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases" and it is widely agreed that this convention is part of international customary law. In 1930, South Africa became a treaty party.

More than a year ago, US President Barack Obama faced searing domestic and international criticism for his reluctance to take a decisive stand on the conflict in Syria. He was accused by some of "leading from behind". But last August he announced that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad would mean it had "crossed a red line". Of course, as Obama told his country this weekend, "Americans are war weary". The invasion of Iraq, essentially on a false prospectus of its possession of weapons of mass destruction, which ultimately turned out not to exist, has had profound consequences for the international order and some of its key protagonists.

Of course, the evidence of the use of such chemical weapons, and by whom, still remains to be proven conclusively. On Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry — ironically now with the support of France, a staunch opponent of the Iraq invasion, but shorn of British approbation — laid out a strong case that the Assad regime used such weapons. He offered "high confidence" rather than proof beyond all doubt and indicated that the US would respond. Obama now requires the US Congress to green-light a response which will hit the regime with precision missiles, although not with a full-scale invasion.

On any version, it is clear that the Assad regime possesses stockpiles of chemical weapons — including mustard, sarin and VX — and also has the warheads to launch them. Such possession and capacity are beyond the reach of its opponents.

South Africa’s position on the internationalisation of this conflict remains deeply ambivalent. Almost from the beginning of the "Arab Spring", South Africa has been — in the words of The Economist – "all over the map". Surprisingly, and to some of us pleasingly, in March 2011, we parted with Russia and China and supported United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution 1973, which established a "no-fly zone" over Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. But almost immediately, the government resiled from the consequences of its vote.

From the moment the fires of the "Arab Spring" were lit in Syria, our position down the road of inconsistency has gathered pace. Ignoring the brutal nature of the Assad regime and its energetic slaughtering of its own population, South Africa’s ambassador to Syria, for example, announced that the social media used by regime opponents to expose its excesses created "false distortions". The Department of International Relations and Co-operation has pursued in its public pronouncements an extraordinary policy of spectacular even-handedness between the regime and its opponents. This could be interpreted as temporising with tyranny.

Last week, while correctly condemning the use of chemical weapons as "wholly unacceptable", the government announced that any attack on Syria "without a UN Security Council resolution would constitute a grave violation of international law".

Of course, this standard for military intervention has been recently breached by South Africa itself. Our military intervention earlier this year in the Central African Republic had no council approval. The Nato campaign to prevent the ethnic slaughter in Kosovo was widely welcomed, but also had no UN imprimatur. In the latter case, of course, just as with Syria now, Russia’s veto would have crippled any such resolution.

The eminent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, no poodle of warmongers, put it best: "International law does not prevent action to stop international crime."

Time for us, perhaps, to get on the right side of human rights.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA