Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tunisia: The Crystal Ball for South Africa?

An article arguing what a government is doing is wrong, and stating what it should be doing is in no way groundbreaking. However, this one, by the other Mbeki, Moeletsi, brought the wrath of the ANC down upon him. To paraphrase a favourite line, he touched the ANC on its studio when he wrote, “I can predict when SA’s "Tunisia Day" will arrive.”

However, even that idea, that South Africa will one day face a Tunisia or Egypt style uprising, is only a glib update of that classic rejoinder: "South Africa will be Zimbabwe." To quote the ANCYL on Mbeki & his article in their reaction, I’d merely dismissed such comparisons as a “prophecy of doom,” “very pessimistic,” & “consistently negative.” Whilst those descriptions I used to ascribe to those who made these arguments, with Moeletsi I can’t.

Be it, the state largely being able to foster a fair level of economic growth but unemployment remaining an endemic problem, or there being ‘youth bulges’ in all three cases, there are far too many parallels between the situations in Tunisia, Egypt & South Africa to dismiss the comparisons. However, the one similarity South Africans would most probably recognise more than any of the others, is how both in Tunisia & Egypt you had a symbiotic and at times corrupt relationship between business and government which also excluded the population at large.

It goes without saying that the ANC was not happy with Mbeki’s article, and the Youth League even less so.

Whilst Sipho Hlongwane , in his column on this topic, found the ANCYL’s reply to be besides the point, I can’t agree, if anything I found it to be an amplification of the ANC’s statement. Amazingly (after the usual bluster and ad hominem attacks) the ANCYL was able to create fair defence to Mbeki’s argument which was:

The Tunisia-like protests will not happen in South Africa, because the ANC government has made profound progress in placing institutions, structures and virtues of democracy, which allow the people of South Africa to freely and fairly choose public representatives after every five years. Besides entrenched democracy in South Africa, the ANC government is at the forefront of the attack in the battle against poverty, unemployment and starvation.

One cannot deny “the ANC government has made profound progress in placing institutions, structures and virtues of democracy,” & that it, “is at the forefront of the attack in the battle against poverty, unemployment and starvation.”

However, there is one point, which I’d say, were it true, would be the most important fact against any argument that there’re correlations between South Africa, Tunisia: “entrenched democracy in South Africa”.

Though the ANCYL's argument in reply to Mbeki was fair, it wasn’t correct, as that point, "entrenched democracy in South Africa" was incorrect.

If one takes that when the ANCYL say “entrenched democracy,” they mean democracy is accepted within our nation, you’re looking at the concept of a “consolidated democracy;” a concept used essentially to gauge the quality of a democracy.

I used to believe that South Africa was well on the road to being a consolidated democracy. Amongst fulfilling the other factors, I thought for SA, democracy was “the only game in town,” a necessary factor of a consolidated democracy. I believed we were only missing the final factor, "a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another after electoral defeat," however I don’t think that any longer.

In South Africa, a basic tenet of a consolidated democracy, that democracy be the "only game in town," is not satisfied.

When looking at the violent nature of the ongoing service delivery protests or strikes public sector or otherwise, how can we believe that people feel and accept that their grievances are best articulated through democratic channels.

As such, if the ANC and the ANCYL, or Hlongwane for that matter, feel that our being a democracy inoculates us from Tunisa-style revolts then there is a problem. Being a democracy – which we are – is not enough to spare us a Tunisia situation at some point in South Africa’s future.

When looking for a point when South Africans would – and it will happen – decide they’re no longer happy with the ANC, I’d always thought of a date far off into the future. Mbeki makes a case for 2020, but the question of when it happens is irrelevant; what we have to ask is "when it happens will it be through the ballot or violently?".

Nevertheless, to use Moeletsi Mbeki’s 2020 argument, should the day come “that the ANC government will have to cut back on social grants, which it uses to placate the black poor,”; I can’t agree with Sipho’s reply that “our burning man revolution will be at the ballot box,” for Sipho is incorrect in finding proof from the peaceful transition from ANC to DA government in the Western Cape that South Africa has proven itself to be able to handle transfers of power.

In the 2020 scenario, it’d be the nation as a whole where a transfer of power would have to occur & what we have seen in places like Khutsong or Thembisa, is that South Africans cannot be depended upon to express their dissatisfaction on the ballot.

More so, as history has shown, movements are catching. If the self-immolation of one man, Mohamed Bouazizi, can spark the fire that topples a regime, how can we then deny that an instance of violent protest, in the simmering anger of the 2020 scenario, it wouldn’t spread across the country, as happened in 2009?

If America, 235 years old, to this day still strives for a “More Perfect Union,” how can we, only 16yrs old or 26 years old in 2020, feel that we are safe?

The quest of entrenching democracy & democratic ideals within us as a nation is clearly not done. We all – government, opposition parties, civil society, the population as a whole – still have a lot to do in this regard or one day we won’t be watching a popular uprising in some distant land on Al-Jazeera, we’ll be witnessing it in the streets & public squares of our own country.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The ‘Bling’ Of South Africa

This was a blog I wrote at the time of Khanyi Mbau’s interview with Debora Patta, but never posted. With this debate, again, coming to the fore after the publication of this picture on the front page of The Times yesterday, I figured now is as good a time as ever to post it.


I can’t think of a single interview of Khanyi Mbau’s that doesn’t immediately spark off a slew of controversy and her recent turn with Debora Patta on 3rd Degree was no different. There more quotes there to achieve exactly what it was the indefatigable Ms Mbau wanted; to get her those headlines - for those who missed it, “blue cheese on a croissant,” is the 21st South African answer to Marie Antoinette’s cake.

Whilst of course, the interview was interesting in and of itself just because Khanyi Mbau, as much as it pains me to admit it, is fascinating as a character, if not so much as a person, there was a far deeper undertone to the interview. As 3rd Degree framed it, the programme was a look at the ‘bling lifestyle,’ of some of the South African elite. Though this is nothing new to the gossip pages, it burst into the wider public psyche after the Kenny Kunene’s equally famous and infamous 40th birthday party, particularly after Zwelinzima Vavi’s scathing attack on it and Kenny’s just as scathing open letter to Vavi.

From this a vociferous, yet important debate on where we, as a culture are going, and who we are erupted. To many, as shown by Vavi and his many supporters, Kenny, Khanyi and their ilk are a living, breathing, blinging representations of the pervesion of the South African democracy. Even I’m so tempted to say, that any sensible person would agree, amongst which I would number myself. However, I can’t.

Who Are We
The government oft repeats, these are foreign and alien notions to South Africa and yes; a South Africa where a small minority live a life of wealth and overt opulence, whilst the far larger majority lived a life of squalid poverty is not the status quo our constitution sought to engender.

However, the very system we chose to live by, the very system our constitution enshrines is a system in which the Khanyi’s and the Kenny’s flourish. However it may manifest, be it the football players and their WAGs of Europe or the starlets and rappers of Hollywood, where there is liberal democracy, our constitutional system, the ugliness of conspicuous consumption rears its head.

For me the irony of the whole issue was best illustrated on Twitter whilst the show was airing and the majority of South African Twitter users were watching and tweeting about the show, an American asked me what the big fuss in South Africa was about.

After I explained to him, his answer said it all, “Welcome to the United States.”

Is It Because They’re Black?
Thankfully, as the first salvo in this debate was shot off by a black man we can somewhat dodge the South African version of Alice’s rabbit hole, the race debate and though I hate to mention it, I would be remiss not to.

Why now, why when Kenny Kunene, a black man, is the one who is splurging his wealth about does the outcry arise? For years, both pre and post Apartheid, through the columns of Gwen Gill we were privy to the conspicuous consumption, often thinly veiled as charity functions, of white South Africans. One may do it ‘for charity,’ and the other may just do it, but be it Edith Venter or Khanyi Mbau, it’s all inconspicuously or not, conspicuous consumption.

Where Are The Parents?
Often these days where the Oprah’s and Dr Phil’s of this world explain our issues of why we are the way we are, we forget one simple thing, personal responsibility. Therefore, when Kenny, Khanyi and their supporters say, “Where are the parents, it’s not for us to be role models,” they are correct, but only to a degree.

The power is of the media and popular culture is pervasive, this we all know. Thus regardless how well a parent may raise their child, unless they raise their child locked in away from anyone and everything, not all aspects of who that child becomes is up to them. It takes a village to raise a child; sadly with the power the media holds in 21st century living, try as we may, we can’t choose who the villagers are.

When I was in university, I got heavily involved in a mentoring programme giving extra Maths and English classes to underprivileged kids. One day, talking to one of my kids, he pointed to my Puma backpack, my iPod and the clothes I was wearing. To me, these items didn’t mean anything, to Kenny Kunene even less, but to him, at 9yrs old, they represented an ideal of what he wanted to achieve, where to be one day in life.

In South Africa, where poverty is something that we face daily; be it saying goodbye to your maid at the end of the day knowing that she has a long trek to make back home, whilst you sip on your chilled chardonnay, or passing spare change to the beggar out in the hot sun whilst fiddling with the air-conditioning of your car, we all ‘spit in the face of the poor,’ as Vavi said of Kenny’s birthday. Granted, it’s at varying degrees, but just by living your average middle class lifestyle, it’s what we do. Perhaps the plain reason why Kenny Kunene, Khanyi Mbau and the others of the ‘bling culture,’ offend and anger us so is because what they do is a reflection of who we are, a grossly magnified reflection of course, but a reflection nonetheless.