Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What AB and Hash teach South Africa about hope

27 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  Rand Daily Mail

AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla are great examples of the rainbow dream that South Africans have been letting go of recent.

I won't offer an opinion on whether President Jacob Zuma or Zelda la Grange is right on whether South Africa's troubles began with the arrival on these shores of Jan van Riebeeck.

I also don't know the exact genealogy of the Pretoria-based De Villiers family. But I suppose that if it weren't for that consequential landing in the Cape on April 6 1652, South Africa might never have laid claim to the cricketing genius and force of nature Wanderers and the world saw last Sunday when AB de Villiers smashed his way into the history books.

There are, for once, too few superlatives to describe such an instinctively brilliant player, in any sporting realm. Dr Ali Bacher, no slouch at the crease himself and someone who knows a thing or two about high-pressure test captaincies, is not normally given to exaggeration.

His take on De Villiers scoring the fastest one-day international century hardly seems over the top, given that De Villiers scored 104 off just 31 balls, including 10 sixes. "In my opinion, AB is the most brilliant, innovative batsman the world has ever seen," Bacher enthused after watching De Villiers's demolition of the West Indian bowling at the Bullring.

With so few, if any, political role models to inspire South Africa these days, perhaps focusing on sporting heroes will lift the national spirit and light the load-shedding darkness soon to be thrust upon us, courtesy of either Eskom or apartheid, but probably not to be blamed on Van Riebeeck. He was a candles-only man.

Our great cricketing rivals, Australia, spend far more time and money incubating prodigies like De Villiers by fast-tracking them to state-funded academies and training camps at an early age.

Perhaps in the case of AB de Villiers it's just as well he was not spotted for one sport early on, because then he might never have taken up international cricket. His embarrassment of sporting riches includes junior records and national selection in practically everything else: rugby, tennis, swimming, athletics and badminton.

But the Aussies also have the order of things in life right - they revere sports stars and disparage their politicians. I witnessed this phenomenon at a Bledisloe Cup rugby test against New Zealand on a starry night in Sydney in September 2001.

One of the most successful captains of Australian rugby, John Eales, was to lead his team onto the field against New Zealand for the last time. The capacity crowd cheered him to the rafters when the stadium announcer reeled off his superb achievements.

The same disembodied voice then announced the arrival of "the prime minister of Australia, Mr John Howard". And the same capacity crowd lustily booed the man they had voted into office three times and would do so twice more.

De Villiers, of course, didn't write his name in the history books because someone appointed him to the position or because he fitted some or other sociological or demographic profile. He did it on sheer merit and the "10000 hour rule," which, journalist and researcher Malcolm Gladwell reminds us, is the backbreaking effort and temperament needed to supplement even outsized talent.

This point was underlined last year by none other than Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. At the costly 2014 SA Sports Awards he proclaimed: "I have never made an excuse for mediocrity. I will never shy away from pulling an extravaganza to celebrate the winning spirit of South Africa."

Alas, any of his ministerial colleagues, while not shy of extravaganzas, would have a problem with Mbalula's denunciation of mediocrity.

For a range of reasons, despite their celebrity status, few sports stars - no matter where in the world - do well in politics. Temperament and money might provide some clues here. But even when they take the plunge, few succeed unreservedly. Another sporting great named De Villiers, Springbok captain Dawie, managed to lose his marginal parliamentary seat in 1981. He found another one, but his winning aura was dented. The same thing happened to British Olympic hero Sebastian Coe. His global fame was no protection against the Tony Blair electoral tide which swept him out of the once-safe Tory seat of Falmouth and Camborne in 1997.

In Pakistan, cricketing legend-turned-politician Imran Khan has tried in vain since 1996 to translate his popularity into presidential power.

One MP here who has some sporting form from way back is the president of the almost lifeless COPE, Mosiuoa Lekota. It is from his soccer-playing days that he derived his nickname, "Terror".

Whatever his failures of political leadership, he is a certifiably non-racial player and a man of unusual eloquence and thoughtful insights.

In a letter to The Times this week he borrowed the powerful imagery of the Wanderers partnership of De Villiers and his other record-breaking teammate, Hashim Amla, to revive the all-but-buried nation-building of Nelson Mandela.

"Let's set aside victimhood and build bridges," Lekota wrote. "Like Hashim Amla, we can look to compile our societal gains incrementally, or like AB de Villiers we can seek to get over the confines of racism in a hurry by hitting it out of the ground so it disappears forever."

There's another point of light which the Amla-De Villiers partnership offers to a world dimmed by the fundamentalist violence witnessed in Paris and Nigeria just days before the match.

Amla is a devout Muslim and De Villiers a practising Christian. Their partnership inspires and builds hope. Which seems a better vision to celebrate than debating Van Riebeeck.



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why does Africa not incur our wrath?

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Something is far from kosher in Equatorial Guinea, but the ‘moralists’ are turning a blind eye to it

20 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  Rand Daily Mail

There’s a question, coupled with a riddle, designed to shake off the back-to-work blues: Which is the richest country, per head of population, in Africa? Theoretically at least, each citizen there should be more than three times richer than the average South African.

Clue: If you have not paid much attention to it before Monday this week, you should now know the country, as its city of Mongomo, home town of its president, was the site of Bafana's defeat by Algeria in the African Cup of Nations.

 Answer: Equatorial Guinea, the continent's third-largest producer of oil after Nigeria and Angola. Its population of just 650 000 people in this tiny country should enjoy a standard of living approximating that of the average citizen of Portugal, which it closely matched in terms of GDP per capita, at more than $20 000 (R232 000). South Africa's GDP per capita is just over $6 600.

The riddle: Why does 80% of Equatorial Guinea's population live in abject poverty? According to the UN, fewer than half its population has access to clean drinking water. About 15% of Equatorial Guinea's children die before reaching the age of five.

According to a recent article in the prestigious Foreign Affairs journal, it is "one of the deadliest places on the planet to be young".
The simple reason for the wealth gap was explained in the same article.

"Energy revenues, derived from pumping around 346 000 barrels per day, have flowed into the pockets of the country's elite, but virtually none has trickled down to the poor majority."

Of course, given the collapsing price of crude oil, the country's ruling elite might be soon be less rich than they are currently. But they've done pretty well since Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 in a bloody coup against his uncle.

Today he enjoys, along with his great riches, the awkward title of being "Africa's longest-serving dictator”.

That award, conferred on him last year by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, jostles along with others awarded to the great man and his regime.

"Worst of the worst" was Freedom House's description of the state of the country's political and civil rights. Reporters Without Borders, which monitors the state of media freedom in the world, described Obiang as a "predator of press freedom'', and Transparency International places Equatorial Guinea in the top 12 of its list of the "most corrupt states in the world".

But if you think the father is bad, the son is apparently even worse.

Teodoro Jr, recently installed by his dad as the country's vice-president, is also a prodigious collector of real estate across the world. This includes a home, recently condemned as rat-infested, in Cape Town's Clifton Beach. But this pales in comparison to his Paris mansion, estimated to be worth more than R1.35-billion.

The headline-catcher for "Junior" was his pile in Malibu Beach, California. It was seized, along with a Gulfstream jet, Michael Jackson memorabilia and eight Ferraris by US Justice Department officials. In court papers, the prosecution averred that his riches were a consequence of corruption and were "inconsistent with his state salary of less than $100 000 per year". Last year, to settle the criminal indictment, Obiang forfeited some $34-million of these assets to the US government.

Needless to say, back here in the more modest (even Nkandla seems a shack by comparison) South Africa, there is no "boycott, disinvest and sanction" campaign against Equatorial Guinea and its ruling family. Standard Bank, the sole African sponsor of the CAF — which is highlighting this benighted country — is not having any of its branches picketed or boycotted.

No, we reserve our ire and concern for human rights for one country, and just one chain store that stocks its products: Israel and Woolworths.

Strangely enough, Obiang and his dictatorship was once described by George W Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as "our good friend". Hardly surprising since, pre-fracking at least, most of that country's oil exports went to the US. But Bush had a more arresting phrase as the educational-reforming governor of Texas, before he became president. He said that accepting poor results in black and Latino schools was the consequence of "the soft bigotry of low expectations".

With all the current swirl and tweeting around racism, real and imagined here, one can only assume that holding Israel, for example, to the highest standard of human rights behaviour and expecting nothing of the sort in, say, Equatorial Guinea is the current and local equivalent of the soft, or loud, bigotry of low expectations. The local BDS crowd expect every human rights box to be ticked by Israel, and hold no mirror up at all to a slew of states far closer to us.

On the Woolworths issue, matters become even more interesting. It was with a sense of macabre fascination that last year we watched Cosas, going one better than the usual suspects in the anti-Israel brigades, deposit pigs' heads in the Sea Point branch of Woolworths. The basis for this act was to discomfort local Jewish shoppers using the kosher section of the store. The stand-out problem here was that there is no specific kosher section in the shop.

Yet just across the road, a gleaming new Checkers store has an aisle of kosher and Israeli products. But Checkers has been untouched by the boycott or any pigs' heads.

That's another riddle in a maze of inconsistencies in this selective targeting. Is Israel the only country worthy of protest action? And is it the fact that the chairman of Woolworths is Jewish, or is it that it is seen to be the place where the elite shop that makes it alone the target? As they say in the classics: "I think we should be told."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cape Town takes centre stage in the national conversation

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13 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The City of Cape Town seems to have taken centre stage in the national conversation since early this month, writes Tony Leon

IN THE shadow of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris, where crazed and violent fundamentalism reminds us of the fragility of the freedoms we too often take for granted, it seems trite to turn attention to more local matters.

But, in counting new year blessings and reminding ourselves of so many points that divide the often fissiparous South African society, it is pertinent perhaps that, despite the occasional pig’s head tossed into Woolworths, most religious communities in this country actually coexist in conditions of amity. If you look across the Middle East and now into the heart of Europe, and even at the cultural wars often revved up at election time in the US, this achievement is bigger than it often seems.

And we don’t coexist in conditions of religious freedom and acceptance simply because someone at Kempton Park more than 20 years ago decided it was a nice-to-have in the constitution, but because degrees of tolerance not confined just to religious coexistence are more hard-wired into our communal DNA than often appears in the daily discourse that seethes with apparent dissent and mutual recrimination.

Now on to matters of more immediate concern: the late, great Harry Oppenheimer once commented that "the difference between our two major cities is that in Johannesburg there is nothing to see, and in Cape Town there is no one to talk to".

Of course, matters have changed in more recent times as Cape Town seemed to take centre stage in the national conversation since early this month.

On the opposition side of the fence, in the only province controlled by it, Democratic Alliance (DA) leader and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille shocked her party by sacking her deputy provincial leader, Theuns Botha, from his powerful post as health MEC. In truth only the portfolios of health and education, alongside finance, amount to any budgetary and political significance in our nugatory provincial setup.

Exiling Botha, the previous Western Cape leader, to the wasteland of sport and recreation is pregnant with meaning, yet to be explained.

Predictably, the African National Congress (ANC) found much to moan about when it arrived in the Mother City to reaffirm its revolutionary credentials, alongside serving champagne and Chivas Regal in its hospitality suites.

The outpourings of ruling party bile and vitriol against the DA in Cape Town perhaps obscured the fact that, objectively viewed, and with thousands voting every year with their feet, the poor and the marginalised have a better chance of being better off in the Western Cape than in the neighbouring Eastern Cape. There many of the services are in an advanced state of collapse and atrophy. Ironically, it is the department of health here, the very portfolio from which Botha was ejected on new year ’s eve, that only three months ago won the award for the best performing in the Western Cape.

As for President Jacob Zuma’s claim that the DA cares only about "the whites" and the province is "governed by the wrong people", this is a decidedly odd statement for the president of the whole country and someone who constantly bangs on, as recently as in his New Year statement, that SA’s democratic credentials are unassailable. The province is governed by the "wrong people" precisely because the majority of them chose the "wrong" provincial government.

And when the "wrong people" in the form of the many ratepayers eye their monthly rates and services bills from the city council, they note with some consternation the very steep charges in the municipal accounts. And this is not to pour the proceeds into the leafy suburbs where the DA vote can be weighed rather than counted. But it is the result of perhaps, outside the city of Durban, the most aggressively redistributionist administration in the country. Despite the city channelling most of its funds into the townships, the ruling DA receives very few votes from its black residents in return.

Ironically, the party does much better in the townships of Johannesburg, where it has no power or patronage to parcel out. Perhaps it’s a case of what Karl Marx called "false consciousness". But then again, looking for consistency in local politics strains the imagination, if not the memory.

For example, giving equal voice to the grievance lobby in the run-up to the ANC’s 103rd anniversary bash in Cape Town was its dial-a-quote secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe. He added to the new year festive cheer by reclaiming the Freedom Charter for the ANC, in the 60th year since the document was published. Mantashe expressed his displeasure that "every Jack and Jill" (doubtless code for "Helen") and "hooligans" (not a stretch to transpose the Economic Freedom Fighters here) had wrenched the document from its rightful owners.

Back in 1995, the golden age of our Parliament as some describe it, an almighty fuss arose when the opposition challenged the fact that state funds were to be spent on the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown. Democratic Party chief whip Douglas Gibson was roasted by ANC luminaries, the voluble Kader Asmal at the fore, for daring to suggest that the Freedom Charter was a "party pamphlet".

Admittedly, the riot police were not called in to still this debate. But Asmal and other ruling party heavies were incandescent with anger at the suggestion that the document was anything other than a revered statement of national aspiration, way beyond the confines of petty party politics.

Twenty years on, and facing pressures on several fronts, and disappointment and open dissent in its ranks, present needs suggest that Gibson was more right than he ever imagined back then.

But conversations aplenty were also to be had in the quieter corners of Cape Town during the festive season.

The arrival back on these shores, temporarily at least, of so many successful South Africans, some of whom have become masters of the financial universe and corporate boardrooms across the globe, certainly improved the dialogue in ways of which Oppenheimer would certainly approve.

I was seated across the table from one such eminence, a senior executive at Eskom before democracy arrived, who then went out into the world and capped his corporate success by launching a hugely successful resource enterprise. Now he heads a significant fund overseas. Like many other temporary returnees, he remains passionately committed to this country’s success.

He kept the dinner riveted by not only crisply diagnosing the travails of our once mighty electricity provider but also suggesting a highly imaginative and cost-effective solution for this crippled giant. And it’s not just dinners by candlelight and shopping centres plunged into darkness that Eskom’s power outages forces upon us. As Brian Kantor of Investec described it a few weeks ago: "Eskom is the Grinch that stole Christmas." Because the one competitive advantage that could cause a surge in much-needed growth is the collapsing price of crude oil. But without sufficient and reliable energy supply, we cannot export our way out of economic difficulty.

After listening to the explanation about putting Eskom to rights, I asked the dinner guest whether he would, if asked by the government, return to do his national service by taking the helm at Eskom. "I absolutely would," he said. Perhaps if Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, now charged with rescuing this key state enterprise, wants an interesting and rewarding conversation, he might give him a call.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New brooms needed to sweep SA politics

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There should be an age limit on staying in the political arena

7 Jan 2015 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  Rand Daily Mail

CAPE Town in early January heaves with local and foreign tourists. In euros and dollars, at least, it ranks as perhaps the best and cheapest long-haul destination in the world. Hence the throngs of foreigners and temporarily returning expats now in the Mother City.

At the weekend, with matters other than the beaches and vineyards on its members’ their minds, the ANC gathers in Cape Town for its annual show of force. The ruling party — in-between bad-tempered jostling with the opposition-controlled city council — is marking its 103rd anniversary, a reminder of both its longevity and its power, which extends everywhere except in the city in which it will be celebrating.

Without boring readers with my recent social calendar, I was quite struck by the fact that, in four encounters last week, I broke bread with members of the British House of Lords holidaying in this city. They were a politically diverse bunch, Labour, Conservative and independent. They were united by the fact that they enjoy the Cape sun at the height of the British winter and have a huge regard for South Africa as a place to visit and as a beacon of both hope and unfulfilled promise.

The last of this quartet I met served in Tony Blair’s cabinet. I asked her about the article in The Economist, in its Christmas double issue, about her former boss,   the only Labour politician to have won win three consecutive British general elections. He is therefore objectively the most successful member of his and her political tribe in terms of power, if not accomplishment.

The article in question was headlined “The loneliness of Tony Blair”, perhaps an odd citation for such a successful politician and someone who in his political afterlife commands megamillions of rands to speak (as he will do here at February’s mining indaba). He also appears to do useful work in the Middle East and Africa, and in sport, in what is called “foundational do-gooding”.

The reason for the magazine’s description is that the former PM is “celebrated abroad and reviled at home”. And the reason for the latter can be summed up in one word: Iraq. Or in longer form, for having uncritically signed up his country to the regime-changing agenda of his close friend, if political opposite, US president George W Bush. And doing so on a false prospectus concerning (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction in the horrible hands, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein.

The guest offered a different explanation for the Blair’s lack of appreciation of Blair in his home country: “He came to office so young [he he was 43 when he became prime minister] and was still relatively young when he left 10 years later. Constructing your afterlife at such an age is quite a challenge.”

The opposite impulse seems to attach to local political leaders. For all that the ANC obsesses with making national demographics the be-all and end-all of public office and appointments, the one demographic it never measures is age.

Consider this, and apply it across the political spectrum: South Africa is a remarkably young country with a rather aged leadership. 

Overwhelmingly, South Africans are less than 54 years old. About 20.2% of the country is younger than 24 and the biggest age cohort (38.7% of the population) is between 25 and 54. Fewer than one in 10 South Africans is on the wrong side of 55 (this columnist among them, but I gave up political leadership at 50).

Now look at our leaders: President Jacob Zuma is 72, DA leader Helen Zille is 63 and, at the far end of the age spectrum, IFP president-forever Mangosuthu Buthelezi is 86.

The only exception is Economic Freedom Fighters “commander-in-chief” Julius Malema, a comparative baby at only 33. But, as I once observed, his policies are so antique that he is almost old by association.

Not that youth is the entire answer, but sclerotic policies are often the result of ancient ideas, the unwillingness to consider fresh ideas or the inability to open to outside voices.

The old cliche “old habits die hard” has some unfortunate application in a world of ageing leaders.

Zimbabwe is an even more extreme example of this mismatch between the ages of a population and of its leadership. Robert Mugabe quite incredibly holds the reins of power in his 91st year while his young country suffers from decades of his misrule.

South Africa sensibly limits presidents’ terms but does nothing to suggest that there is a retirement age for other political office bearers.

The perfect counterpoint to the obsolete older leader was perhaps provided in Blair’s home country when, in its hour of need and crisis, of the world, 1940, Winston Churchill took over, just in time, at the age of 65. But he did not operate in the era of 24/7 news, social media and the relentless demands of today’s information cycles and culture of openness.

I found an explanation for politicians exceeding their expiry dates in 2006, the year before Blair was shoe-horned out of his position by his impatient rival Gordon Brown. It was written of Blair by the thrusting Conservative journalist and now mayor of London Boris Johnson (today aged 50).

“It is a necessary fact of political biology that we never know when our time is up,” he wrote.

“Long after it is obvious that we are goners we continue to believe it is ‘our duty’ to hang on, with cuticle-wrenching intensity, to the privileges of our post. We kid ourselves that there is a ‘job to be finished’. In reality, we are just terrified of the come-down. There is no day that politicians find easier to postpone than the day of their own resignation.”

Does this warning voice from abroad ring any bells locally?