Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Politics of Omission: The Good, The Bad and the Unsaid

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Silence of the Wolves

In politics, what isn’t said out loud is often more important than what is. This has certainly been the case with the African National Congress’s recall of the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma. It may seem incredible, but the entire recall process occurred without the ANC actually stating what President Zuma had done to provoke such a drastic action. The new ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule – a Zuma loyalist – went so far as to say that President Zuma did nothing wrong at all! Not to be outdone, President Zuma himself also took to the microphone, stating – in a television interview designed to reach his base – that he had not been given any reasons for his recall.

The reality of course is that there are many clear and indisputable reasons for recalling President Zuma. The Constitutional Court found that he had violated his oath of office when he refused to abide by the binding recommendations of the Public Protector over upgrades to his homestead. He has 783 charges pending related to his involvement in the arms deal of the early 2000s. He – and his son – have been implicated in “state capture” activities, along with a network of private sector, intelligence, government and state actors. Under his leadership, parliament and government have been hamstrung by protest. The state is failing badly in many areas. ‘Service delivery’ protests skyrocketed under his leadership, and a culture of disruptive, often violent protests have seeded in communities who feel that they only way they can draw attention to matters that plague them is by taking direct action. Political assassinations, intimidation and corruption have spread at the local level.

For all intents and purposes, Jacob Zuma should have exited power a long time ago. It was the ANC that kept him in power, refusing to act upon his many transgressions, scuppering all attempts to depose him. Many who were calling for his removal now were deeply in bed with him and his cronies and enthusiastically enjoyed the spoils of his wayward leadership. And so it was, that even when they decided it was time for him to go, they could not bring themselves to speak out loud the many and varied transgressions and failures of his leadership and his government. It is ironic, but in keeping with the tradition of duplicity, rhetoric and double-speak that became entrenched under his leadership. That is, to say one thing and do another.

Yet, in order to heal an illness, is it not true that it must be diagnosed? That it must be named? The refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for the disastrous situation the ANC created, simply means that it cannot enter into an honest period of self-reflection, healing and renewal. It is still stuck deep in the mud left behind by its own floodwaters; the waters that broke when the dam wall that was supposed to hold power in check and to account was summarily detonated under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. It will take government and the state a long time to recover. Yet it will not recover until the truth is spoken out loud and acknowledged, and those who allowed this mess to occur take responsibility for their ill-advised actions. Blind loyalty and self-interest, when combined, has proved to be a disastrous model for the exercise of power in South Africa.

The grave danger that the state of the ANC places the country in should not be underestimated. The spectacular unravelling of the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and its descent into factionalism and discord, should concern every South African. By standing by Jacob Zuma through all his misadventures, the ANC dragged itself, the government, the state and the country into a lengthy period of decline.

Yet, whenever the ANC was previously called to act upon Jacob Zuma’s misdeeds they resisted. They argued that a ‘second recall would fatally wound the ANC’. In reality, this second recall has proved quite the opposite; it has resulted in widespread jubilation and celebration (even if premature at this stage), and has proved rejuvenating and hope inspiring for the majority of South Africans. The ANC threw South Africans under the bus when they needed to put the country first and self-correct from within. They simply cannot be trusted just because one leadership position has changed.

The ANC’s refusal to acknowledge the reasons why Jacob Zuma’s leadership was a failure is telling. It tells us that it is incapable of conducting an honest dialogue with itself, let alone with the rest of the country. Simply translated, this means it is incapable of self-correcting in an open, transparent manner. Instead, behind the scenes Machiavellian power will be exercised to purge undesirables, and these undesirables will be determined by those who hold the most power. It tells us that we can expect more of the same type of leadership from the ANC, that is, a leadership that makes decisions and takes actions behind closed doors and pulls strings behind the scenes to retain power; a top-down elitist model of leadership where rhetoric reigns supreme but decisions are made according to the prescripts of a cold and calculating ‘realpolitik’.

What We Don’t Want?

The question South Africans need to ask is simply whether this is the kind of democracy we want? To celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa as the ‘hero’ who has come to rescue us from the villain, is to perpetuate the very same ‘big man’ leadership model that created the room for Jacob Zuma to abuse his power. Surely this isn’t the road we should be going down again? Surely we should be going back to the drawing board and examining how power, elite networks, institutions and government functions operate? Surely if we speak of radical change then it must be deep rooted, and not merely superficial? Yet the politics of omission is the very definition of keeping things superficial, vague and non-committal. We already know what this produces. And it is up to us to prevent it from happening again.

To be sure, a purge of the ANC’s ranks is necessary, but it is unlikely. The need to ensure unity within the ANC will likely take precedence, and a fine balancing act will ensue. The technocrats will take charge again and there will be no end of great strategies and plans for a great future. However, without critical insight into the systemic and embedded fault lines within the government and state, ensuring robust and resilient progress in the long term will prove difficult. Deep reflection is required.

South Africans have had their fill of inspiring visions. What we need now are reliable, accountable implementation agencies that do not squander state funds in meandering bureaucratic processes and half-baked plans that ultimately entrench maladministration and corruption. The South African state is unique among countries of its ilk because it collects its taxes successfully, and consequently has a significant fiscal basis from which to carry out its mandate. The steady erosion of the state’s capacity to deliver on its mandate, and government’s ability to function coherently, has left the country wounded. As it limps on into this next phase, let us not fall prey to the same euphoric guff that created the space for Jacob Zuma’s leadership to lead the country astray in 2007. That is, let us not see only our hopes, dreams and desires into this situation. Let us see it for what it is; a difficult new beginning that must be closely guarded and monitored. We should not entrust power without safeguards. To do so would be to ‘do the same thing again and hope for a different result’, the very definition of insanity.

Where To From Here?

Political analysts have been swept up by the moment, making all kinds of proclamations about a new era of transparency, accountability and visionary leadership that returns South Africa to the international prominence it once enjoyed under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Of course it is only natural that the public would want to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing president Zuma go, and to begin to hope and dream again, but it is quite another thing when political analysts begin feeding sentiment rather than providing sober analysis.

This is without doubt a critical moment. However, pretending that all it takes is this moment to turn the country around is deeply disturbing. Much more is required to turn the ship around, to get it back onto the right course. A great deal of damage has been done, internally and externally. It is not simply a matter of getting the economics right; it is a matter of doing the hard work of transforming institutions so that they cannot easily be hijacked or ‘captured’ again. It is about addressing the key systemic deficiencies of the South African state, government and economy. It is about rebuilding society’s confidence in a broken body politic. It is also about awakening the South African polis.

Instead of losing ourselves in premature celebration we need to exhale for a moment – and indeed enjoy it – but then move quickly to ensure that the pressure that existed before Jacob Zuma departed from office is still being exerted. This necessitates challenging, at every opportunity, the ANC leadership’s inability to admit to and acknowledge its deep internal troubles and problems, and how these have manifested in patently disastrous outcomes for the country. Skirting around this central reality is – in my view – not political diplomacy, but duplicity. Good leadership acknowledges, confronts and deals with its central challenges; it does not speak with two tongues but provides clear explanation of what is wrong and what needs to be done about it.

By speaking out loud what the ANC refuses to, we can force them to acknowledge the great distance between the reality they profess, and what we know to be true. And as this distance grows, like a wedge between the ANC and the people of South Africa, they will eventually be forced to humble themselves before us and confess what they know to be true in their hearts; that they are no longer an organisation that serves the people but an elite of self-serving opportunists (with some exceptions) who take power for granted. While we celebrate the possibility of change, we should not forget how we ended up here. We must consolidate our will and action to guarantee that the future we desire and deserve comes to fruition. And the first step in that direction is to air out loud the good, the bad and the unsaid.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

All The President’s Men!

Some interesting developments are unfolding since the election of Deputy President of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, to the presidency of the ANC. Two key contradictions have emerged in the wake of Ramaphosa's ascendancy to power; (1) contradictions within the ANC and (2) contradictions in the public discourse. The former is more obvious and has been readily picked up by the media and those who are politically engaged, while the latter is much less obvious and appears to have gone unnoticed for the most part.

The Obvious Contradiction

First, let’s account for the obvious contradiction; the one that everyone has been focused on. It is not the main subject of this piece, but it provides a useful background to the discussion that follows, especially for readers who may not be entirely familiar with recent events in South African politics.

The sitting president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is approximately a year away from the end of his second term, after which he will have to depart from office. However, there is a precedent that the ANC set when Jacob Zuma was elected as ANC president while the sitting president Thabo Mbeki still held office. When Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency of the ANC the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC argued that it was untenable to maintain “two centres of power”. Thabo Mbeki had to go, and they eventually recalled him in what was widely regarded – across the Continent and the world – as a deep humiliation. Indeed, his departure speech, which was televised to the nation, although dignified, betrayed a deep hurt at the way in which he had been treated. He was proud, educated and highly literate leader who was booted out of office despite having served the ANC for 50 odd years of his life at that time. Yet the ANC NEC insisted that it would work against the ANC and the country’s interests to maintain “two centres of power”.

All that appears to have been forgotten now that Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected president of the ANC while the embattled, lame duck president Jacob Zuma still holds high office. Indeed, it has been a lesson in political spin to watch ANC leaders find creative ways of explaining to the public why the same treatment shouldn’t be dealt out to Jacob Zuma. The most bizarre explanation is that they are trying to find a way of ensuring his exit without humiliating him. The irony of this is that President Jacob Zuma has proved largely immune to any form of humiliation; his presidency has been deeply controversial. He is accused of corruption[1], involvement in “state capture”[2] as well as violating his oath of office[3]. The reality is overwhelmingly converse; Jacob Zuma’s presidency has humiliated the ANC and him and his cronies should have unceremoniously been shown the door a long time ago.

The media and political commentators have been quick to identify the “two centres of power” contradiction that the ANC now finds itself in. It has taken a particularly cynical joy in drawing ANC politicians out and challenging them for their duplicity. It’s all a bit of a song and dance, a predictable routine that the media go through with the ANC leadership; baiting them into difficult corners and watching them weasel themselves out of them.

The Less Obvious Contradiction

Yet this blatant duplicity is not the strangest phenomenon emerging in the South African political realm. Indeed, there is a much deeper and more disturbing pattern emerging, one that reveals a particularly undesirable continuity between the presidency of Jacob Zuma and that of his successor Cyril Ramaphosa. In my estimation it is a deep problem, one which warrants attention. I won’t pretend to understand exactly why it exists, so I will simply diagnose it and guard against the dangers of it.

When Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president recently in December of 2017 many South Africans, loyal ANC members and stalwarts, private sector actors and the intelligentsia celebrated it enthusiastically. Confidence in the ANC, which had been at an all-time low, began to surge again. Cyril Ramaphosa is widely being touted as the person who will save the ANC and turn it around. There are very many reasons why this is debatable, but nonetheless, South Africans – who have been living with political and economic uncertainty, and a president who has roundly embarrassed and humiliated them – desperately needed cause for hope.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC has undoubtedly provided that hope. Many in the public and private sector have rallied around him, and he has received endorsements from many commentators, ANC leaders and stalwarts, as well as private sector moguls and big-shots. Yet although this booming hope in Cyril Ramaphosa’s abilities are not without merit, the truth is that he faces an extremely difficult challenge. The ANC NEC and the top six are still divided – almost fifty-fifty – between his slate and that which supported Jacob Zuma’s candidate (i.e. his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma). The forces of internal factionalism within the ANC are still playing out, and he has a very tough challenge on his hands (indeed, some view them as near insurmountable).

The internal friction between camps is playing out in spectacular fashion now that Ramaphosa has been elected president. After years of inaction the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) has sprung into action and appears to finally be acting on corruption matters that it has long ignored. The NPA sunk so low as to allow itself to be used as a political pawn to harass and intimidate Jacob Zuma’s detractors and accusers. The bogus cases against the South African Revenue Services (SARS) “rogue unit” (a special investigation unit that looks into financial crimes at the highest level) and the ex-Minister of Finance and ex head of SARS Pravin Gordhan are cases in point. There were many others as well, too many to go into here.

Now, suddenly, it appears as though the NPA is ready and in position to take action against those who have been widely accused , even by the ex-Public Protector, of being engaged in “state capture” (i.e. influencing and rigging state tenders and deals for the gain of a network of politically connected private sector actors). Headlines have rung out with huge muster and bluster that those engaged in corruption will now face the music and have to answer the charges against them.

And the strangest thing of all is that Cyril Ramaphosa is being enthusiastically credited with the new surge to ensure accountability in the political realm and private sector in South Africa. “Cyril is making things happen!” his supporters gleefully exclaim. It is indeed more than strange, particularly because agencies such as the NPA and the Public Protector’s Office are supposed to act “without fear, favour or prejudice” and service the constitution. As such they are not supposed to be unduly influenced by any political leader or government in their decision-making.

Indeed, in the case of the Public Protector’s Office, it is a Chapter 9 institution. The first and foremost responsibility of Chapter 9 institutions is to the constitution and the public of South Africa. They are subject only to the Constitution and the law, and answer to the National Assembly, not the President. In the case of the NPA its mission is similarly defined, although it is not a Chapter 9 institution, that is;

“Guided by the Constitution, we in the National Prosecuting Authority ensure justice for the victims of crime by prosecuting without fear, favour and prejudice and by working with our partners and the public to solve and prevent crime.”

The fact that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is being credited with these recent but long-overdue actions is truly bizarre. The fact is that they should have been doing their jobs all along, as they are sworn to do. Who is in power should not matter at all! Indeed, it is deeply worrying, because all it means is that should we – for whatever reason – end up with a new leader who exerts undue influence on them to delay or ignore certain cases, it is highly likely that they will yet again be placed on the back-burner or even scrapped entirely. In short, we should not be celebrating the idea that it is Cyril Ramaphosa’s influence that has enabled them to take actions that should be taken without fear or favour in any event.

Celebrating Ramaphosa as an agent of change within the ANC, and possibly within government, is one thing. Celebrating him as an agent of change in respect of constitutionally independent functions of the state is quite another! We should not be celebrating these recent developments uncritically as it means that instead of bringing about systemic changes in the way our state functions – especially those functions and powers that are independent of government – we are merely feeding into the same destructive “follow the leader” phenomenon that landed the ANC and the country in this mess in the first place.

The Importance of Systemic Change

In the clear light of day, the entire state cannot be regarded as “all the president’s men”. The ANC perhaps can play ‘follow the leader’ as much as it desires, but certainly not the state in its entirety. Separation of powers has – in reality – proved to be the last resort for those who sought to ensure that justice is served in respect of government and private sector corruption (and especially that where the president and his network of operators are concerned). It is the courts, leading all the way up to the Constitutional Court, that opposition parties and civil society groups have had to go to in order to ensure that justice is served and that constitutionality is upheld. It is the Public Protector’s Office – under its previous leader Thuli Madonsela – who fearlessly spoke truth to power and held the powerful to account as equals before the law.

The valorisation of leaders in South Africa – and on the continent as a whole – is one of the largest obstacles to actualising true democracy. Yet it is a difficult mind-set to shake. Indeed, even the ANC’s mantra that “no single person is above the ANC” went out the window in the case of Jacob Zuma. And now, some of us are celebrating Ramaphosa’s ability to wheel and deal and manipulate matters of state behind the scenes (allegedly, I should add). This is antidemocratic in its essence. When constitutionality is sacrificed for ‘political pragmatism’ and ‘realpolitik’ in this manner, we open the door to the forces that undermine constitutionality and democratic process. In order to hold power to account, we cannot – and should not – elevate our leaders above the law and the constitution.

There are those, some masquerading as “saviours of our democracy”, who would sacrifice principle and constitutionality to ‘hold those who threaten the integrity of state’ to account. This kind of change is ridiculously shallow and difficult to sustain. What we need is deep-rooted systemic and structural change that helps ensure that the processes by which the state is run and governed can effectively mitigate abuse of power. We are a relatively young democracy. As such we have to interrogate the system we have and make changes that can improve it over time. Superficial change that is merely the product of a change of leadership is hardly the route to a resilient democratic state that – along with an active citizenry – can self-organise and self-regulate power on its own terms, independent of this or that leader or leadership.

This should not be difficult to understand. The long struggle against the authoritarian Apartheid state was precisely geared towards empowering the people and the state to hold power to account. All that has become blurred now, and our focus is on larger-than-life leaders and their particular qualities. The era of new populism that has taken hold across the world has elevated “the big man” instead of levelling the scales between those in power and those who elect them. While it is easy to understand the enthusiasm behind the notion that “Cyril is getting things moving now”, it is an enthusiasm that loses sight of the basis of our democracy and the long hard-fought struggle to actualise it.

If we are serious about making lasting political changes that can strengthen our democracy we need to go beyond quick fixes and dig deep into the systems that reproduce the conditions for those who would abuse power to do so willy-nilly and get away with it. We need to interrogate the bureaucracies and the processes and principles by which they function, and make the changes that are necessary to ensure that good governance is ensured – and where failures occur, that they are quickly corrected.

Accountability, transparency, sound principles and rule of law cannot ever be replaced by the election of a benevolent leader, no matter how good or trustworthy that leader is. The real test of a democratic state is how well it is able to cope with a variety of potential leaders, good or bad, and ensure that all types are held to account when it becomes necessary. That, more than anything else, should remain front and centre of our efforts to build a real, lasting democracy. But we’re all too busy celebrating the first mile of the marathon without pause for thought that there are many more to go.

The danger in allowing our polis to evolve in this piecemeal, superficial fashion is that the effectiveness of the state will vary, and remain dependent on whether good and bad leader and leaderships are in power. Having never bothered to address the fundamental structural and systemic factors that reproduce undesirable leaders and leaderships we are bound to relive them and suffer their main effects. That is, keeping us in the doldrums of progress towards real democracy, as has been the case with much of the rest of the continent.

[1][1] i.e. 783 charges in the arms deal of the early 2000s
[2] i.e. a facilitator of “state capture” by private business interests to whom his son is intimately linked
[3] As per the Constitutional Court judgement on his handling of the Public Protector’s findings on illegal upgrading to his rural homestead, Nkandla.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Obsessing Over Day Zero

"Merely thinking about what the world wants gets you nowhere: you have to think about what the world ought to want, and just doesn’t know yet that it can’t live without."
Theodore Gray 

After three years of drought, Cape Town’s taps are set to run dry within the next few months. “Day zero”, as it has been termed, is ostensibly approaching unless some kind of “miracle” occurs. It is with great curiosity that I have been observing the prevailing obsession with “day zero”, which has quickly become the centre-piece of social media, news media and social conversations.  The only other topic that is receiving as much airtime is the ‘who is to blame?’ brigade, that has gradually grown in chorus as middle class outrage has grown.

Cape Town’s middle classes are used to living in a relatively well-run city, and apart from electrical blackouts and load-shedding that occurred years ago, and the avalanche of summer fires that spark up every summer, there has been little that directly affects their lives in a debilitating way. Of course, the same is not true for the poor and working classes, who struggle with service delivery, affordability and access to infrastructures. The lives of those living in informal and semi-informal settlements are undoubtedly worlds apart from their middle class counterparts; temporary outdoor sanitation, shared water standpipes, illegal electricity connections, shack-fires and un-managed waste, pollution and drainage plague their daily lives. You won’t hear much about that however. Instead, as journalist Chris Bateman put it (somewhat hyperbolically),

“The indigent, who’ve always collected water from communal taps – might finally have something we don’t – running water”.

Yet while the plight of the poor evokes sympathy from the middle classes, it rarely evokes the same levels of outrage that have unfolded at the imaginary of day zero as it quickly approaches. Images of Armageddon scale end-of-days disaster scenarios unfolding are heatedly aired and rapidly amplified on social media. Everything will grind to a halt, we are told. The city’s economy will implode. Do we know what we are in for?

Well prepare for long-queues of outraged residents jostling, fighting and spitting bile, an unholy urban mess requiring martial law style intervention by the military to contain. Prepare for the death of tourism, agriculture, industry, schooling and the closure of all official local government offices and businesses. Prepare for serious damage that will be done to bulk water infrastructures as water pressure and regular supply are denied, destabilising infrastructure due to irregular flows passing through the system (this concern is entirely valid and foreseeable).

Cape Town’s middle classes, who are typically unschooled and inexperienced in undertaking efforts that necessitate collective action are falling over themselves, spluttering with prescient rage  at the denial of their ‘basic human rights’. There is even a petition to the United Nations that has done the rounds on social media; a truly ironic and self-centred undertaking given the patent invisibility of the plight of the poor and marginal in the city. In a spectacular act of real-time revisionism of history in the making, we are reminded, more than anything, of the particular middle class predisposition to render themselves ‘more equal than others’. First among equals so to speak.

In my daydreams I picture the middle classes rising up, appropriating Ses'khona’s “poo-protests” and laying waste to City Government buildings with mountains of portaloo poo that has gone uncollected for too long. Perhaps the DA will move Herman Mashaba down to run Cape Town in the wake of Mayor Patricia de Lille’s soon-to-be departure. Anything’s possible it seems, when a city runs out of water.

I am labouring the point, but it is particularly bizarre to observe how the discourse over day zero has emerged. Day zero is being treated as an end-point, an insurmountable eventuality that will cripple all the key functions of life, work and service provision in the city.

The reality, however, is that this drought has been three years in the making, and for many years now, those who understand that the climate is changing, and that the Western half of the country is steadily drying, have been making the case for adaptation. For over a decade many of us have been actively engaged in educating and informing leaders, policy-makers and planners that there is a pressing need to begin preparing for water-scarcity conditions to unfold in the city (i.e. whether they occur gradually or abruptly). The need to adapt to the new reality has been made abundantly clear, not just to those in power, but also to the very same middle class citizenry who now appear to be caught totally unawares in the cross-fire of the impacts of a severe, long-term drought.

The issue that should be provoking outrage is the slow progress of efforts towards adaptation. We know what is happening with the climate in the Western Cape. Why have we been so slow to prepare for it? And yes, the bulk of the blame should be going towards local and provincial government for their lack of preparation and their inadequate communication and planning for adaptation. However, middle class ignorance must also be taken to task in this respect, as an active, educated citizenry who are themselves pushing for adaptation and embracing behavioural change would go a long way towards speeding up the transition to a more water resilient city and province. This is a fact, it is not speculative. We’ve been slow to act and we’re paying the price.

I for one am glad that day zero has sparked up the fears and imaginations of the city’s middle class residents (as well as businesses and industries they own and/or work in). This is simply because the greatest difference in potable water consumption and sanitation can be made through their actions and forward-looking investment in water efficiency measures. It is they who – with the support of local and provincial government – can make the largest difference in ensuring the long-term sustainability and resilience of the city and provinces water supply. Yes it is true that industry and agriculture are the largest consumers of water overall, but there is a lot that can be done simply by adapting middle class households and residential properties, as well as businesses, to the realities of water scarcity.

If day zero is the tipping point that will help catalyse this transition then it would have served a good purpose. However, if it turns out that day zero comes and goes within a month or two - and private sector water providers spring up and take the gap (which is a high likelihood) - then it is likely that all the hype around it would have proven largely ineffective, as the middle class citizenry return to ‘business as usual’ yielding little long-term behavioural, infrastructural and systemic changes to speak of. It would all have merely been another storm in a teacup and it might even result in a push-back and distrust of ‘disaster narratives’ that emerge in the future. The upshot of ‘crying wolf’ may be an even more disengaged and apathetic citizenry, who have many other pressing concerns in their daily lives to attend to.

We have the attention of the broader citizenry right now. It is worth making strategic and visionary use of it to seed and catalyse the transition to a new understanding of climate change, resource scarcity and the need for adaptation in the city and province. It is worth capitalising on the attention that is being drawn to the issue to stimulate broader engagement and involvement of the citizenry, business, industry and agriculture in the processes of planning and development in the city and province.

This is a key moment for the city. It can unlock a wholly new, constructive trajectory for the city and its residents. It is an opportunity to increase mutual understanding and dialogue, and forge unity in the citizenry and the various sectors of society in the Western Cape. We can begin learning how to work together, and to actively take control of the processes of preparing for the future. We can become more engaged and socially cohesive at the local level, and learn to work together to safeguard our communities and work-places from the eventualities of the 21st Century. Ultimately, we can strengthen local democratic practises through this crisis.

The problem with how the day zero narrative has been unfolding is that it has been bereft of stabilising, visionary leadership. Rather, the city and province miscommunicated the extent of the crisis for a few years in the run-up to day zero in order not to ‘panic’ the citizenry and the various sectors of the economy. Moreover, there were some industry and business actors who simply refused to believe local government’s projections, relying instead on their own internal experts who made false assumptions and made incorrect calculations as a result. I recently spoke to a senior official in government who was exasperated at having to wade through bogus calculations and correct them. There are even industry players that decided to escalate production, in a ‘tragedy of the commons’ styled set of logics. There is little doubt that strong, concerted leadership could have diminished these challenges and helped to forge a broader consensus on how to mitigate water scarcity.

While the proverbial glass may not be half-full in reality, it is worth considering what can be gained through this crisis. It may well not last much longer, but it will undoubtedly revisit us because we live in a province that is extremely sensitive to climate change impacts. 

The Western Cape Premier’s Helen Zille’s very latest piece was all scare tactics and alarmist bluster, sounding the alarm about the great emergency that has descended upon the city as if we didn’t know it was coming for ages. It was absolute guff, and for more reasons than I can deal with here! The fact is that these ‘crises’ and ‘anarchy is on the horizon’ narratives are part of the problem. Calm down, plan and do your job. Moreover, do what you should have been doing ages ago when you learned that climate change would ultimately impact the Western Cape severely, even if there wasn’t a clear idea of when exactly each crisis would take place. It is not only disingenuous; it is blatant lies to suggest that this crisis somehow ‘crept up’ on officials (as she puts it “Suddenly, after months of coaxing”). The truth is that there have been very many studies and documents that have warned of the eventuality of drought and water scarcity in the Western Cape. And all this has been written about and communicated many years ago when Helen Zille herself was Mayor of Cape Town.

Yet for all the 'coaxing' (and now the turn towards punitive measures), the average citizen has precious little at their disposal to meet the city’s new 50 litres per person per day limit (i.e. now reduced from 87 litres), simply because the tools to monitor, adapt and limit usage have not been put in place. Indeed, how does an average citizen actually know how much water they are using, and simply at the household level at that? Many are already making courageous efforts to save water, but what enables them to know how much they are using? How much does a dishwasher use? How much does a washing machine use? How much water does a shower or a bath use up? What about cooking, making tea and coffee? How do you calculate your usage; does it include the flushes at work, or the teas and coffees you purchase. How much double accounting is going on? How much is being left out that should be counted? Is there an app that one can use to get an estimate at the very least? If these tools exist, why are they not widely publicised?

Placing the blame on a confused citizenry that has been misled about the real nature of this crisis in the run-up to the crunch point is – simply put – ridiculously poor leadership. It appears that even when we are deep in substantive crisis, our politicians are more likely to think about how it affects their votes, and as befits them, put their effort into scripting a narrative that conveniently casts them in heroic terms. The average citizen should, at this point, feel fully justified in telling them to take a hike. They screwed it up; they should rather be honest about it, humbly beg forgiveness and get on with the job of fixing things. And to be sure, the fixes need to be constituted of more than just short-term disaster risk management planning and implementation; it needs to be constituted of a clear set of actions that will help build resilience of the city and province into the long term.

Failure to take actions, implement plans and put the tools in place to reduce water usage, have more accurate monitoring and evaluation, and significantly transition our bulk and local water infrastructures to high-efficiency recycling and reuse will – in short – be a charade of leadership designed to cope with short-term crises and not addressing long term systemic vulnerability. This failure would essentially mean that while the middle classes invest in boosting their resilience (and as private sector water services expand), the real crisis that is building – where the poor and marginal are increasingly squeezed by higher tariffs and service delivery failures, ultimately leading to outbreaks of disease, deaths and unconscionable and inhuman living conditions – will largely remain unaddressed. In the end, a lack of long-term planning may mean that “let them drink wine!” might well end up being the only recourse the middle class takes in respect of the poor and marginal in this city, as has been the historical tradition in the Western Cape. 

P.S. After posting this blog on 26/1/2018 the City of Cape Town has put out a guideline to how to achieve 50 litres per person per day in the form of the infographic below. Better late than never they say, but this piece argues otherwise ... nonetheless, please share it widely, even if you're not in Cape Town!

Saturday, 13 January 2018

On Practice: Ritual and its Benefits

In August 1996 the Dalai Lama visited South Africa. I was twenty-two years old at the time, studying for my honours in physics. When I heard that he would be speaking at a local university – then called the University of Durban-Westville – I knew I couldn’t miss it. Buddhism had intrigued me since the age of 14, and I felt compelled to hear him speak first hand. It was, as it turned out, an opportunity of a lifetime; one that has never happened again.

The lecture hall was packed to the rafters. He entered, dressed in maroon and yellow robes, accompanied by a small entourage of monks and organisers. He looked healthy, his skin shone, and when he spoke we were all captivated. He was very pragmatic in his speech, and nothing he spoke of seemed far-fetched or esoteric. His magnetism was undeniable; one could sense his clarity and essential good-heartedness. He laughed easily and possessed a cheerful disposition.

Earlier, the master of ceremonies – a monk – had asked the audience to write down any questions they may have for the Dalai Lama. These would be collected, and some would be selected for the Dalai Lama to answer. I had a burning question; one that I had been contemplating for a relatively long time in my short life. It was a simple question, but I did not know the answer. I wrote it down and sent it along with all the others. The question was,

“What is the role of ritual in religion?”

When the question-and-answer session arrived I listened closely, hoping that my question would be fished out of the lot somewhere along the way, but it was not to be. The question was never asked, and my 21 year younger self didn’t enjoy the good fortune of having his burning question answered by a luminary whose opinion could be trusted and respected.

Yet, all these years later, I am coming to an understanding of what the answer to my years-old question is. And it has surprised me, as it seems the answer was there all along. I just didn’t have the lived experience to discern it. The answer, it appears, lies in understanding the nature of practice. It is an ironic discovery, as it is in my nature to take to disciplined practice with relish. When I enjoy something, and get drawn into it, practice comes without much effort. When I establish a routine it generally sticks. I may waver from it occasionally, but I inevitably return to it.

I have practiced martial arts since I was a child. I’ve always loved it. I enjoy the movement, the strengthening of spirit, and the clarity of mind I acquire through practicing martial arts. I’ve changed what and how I practice, moving from Karate in my early years, to full contact Kung Fu for the majority of my teens and early twenties, to boxing, to Tai Chi and Chi Gung in my later years.

About twelve years ago I began running long distances. I was never a good long distance runner, but after I began to understand it better I became hooked. I still run, and although I vary the distances I run, I still run pretty regularly. Between 2005 and 2010 I threw myself into Tai Chi and Chi Gung training, but I have to admit that I found it very challenging. I had to undo a lot of the external martial arts training that I had worked so hard over the years to programme into my neural system and psychology.

Tai Chi, in particular, required a sensitivity that just did not exist in the hard martial arts realm in which I had been trained. It went against all my previous training; in Tai Chi one had to engage in push-hands without trying to win ... suspending that will to win proved very difficult for me. I had been trained to think that the psychology of winning was critical for victory in the martial arts. Now I was being asked to let go of that and it proved very difficult for me to get my head around.

To add to this, I discovered, while studying Tai Chi, that despite my ability to generate powerful and speedy strikes, with both my hands and legs – both of which I thought required extremely good balance – that my understanding of balance and movement in Tai Chi was that of a novice. I felt hopelessly ill-equipped; and I could tell that my master could sense how much I was straining to find the movements and perform them effortlessly, so that they flowed from me.

I fared better at Chi Gung, and I could feel that I took to it more naturally. I had not had any previous experience of being trained at meditation, so I embraced it without any preconceptions. As a result, my Chi Gung training proceeded a lot better than my Tai Chi training. I felt the benefits of both, although I have to admit that I felt a bit inadequate in my Tai Chi training; as though I would never really understand it properly.

After five years of training I quit classes to focus on completing my PhD studies. I continued with my Chi Gung meditations at home, but my Tai Chi training was on and off. I would train every now and again, usually over holidays, to remind myself of the Tai Chi short form, and would abandon it for long periods. Nonetheless, I would return to it occasionally; something about the practice of it had made it a part of me.

My master was – and is – an exceptional individual. He is the only true martial arts master (i.e. in all senses of the word) that I have had the pleasure of training under. He would tell us not to worry about how good or bad we were; but just to keep training. One day, if we were lucky, all the training would sink in. One day if we trained hard enough the “chi” would “come”. It can take 10 or 15 years, he would tell us. He was asking us to put our faith in practice; that mastering Tai Chi was a matter of doing, not of thinking or understanding.

My uncle is a jazz musician. Since I was young he would compare my martial arts training to that of a musician’s. “You have to practice your chops,” he would say. You learn one move – or chord – then you learn another, you practice them over and over, then you string them together – practice that over and over – and what emerges is a song. Harmony is not just a matter of chance; it is a matter of practice.

My grandfather turned 90 recently. He has been a South Indian classical musician since he was a teenager. His instrument is the clarinet. About a decade ago I bumped into him by chance at an airport. He had just returned from a trip to Australia to visit my uncle. We had an amazing conversation. He told me that after many decades of playing the clarinet his playing had gone to a new level. I cannot do justice to what he was describing; but he was essentially saying that he could now move fluidly between the masculine and the feminine; that there was a continuity and harmony between the voices he played – alto and soprano – that he had now mastered after many years of playing.

This conversation with my grandfather gave me the strength to continue writing; at the time I was writing a lot but I was struggling to break through a find my own voice as a writer. This chat with my grandfather was, in retrospect, an early indication of the value of practice. That devoting oneself to practice is the key to unlocking one’s own voice.     

It is only recently however, that I’ve come to a new understanding of the value of practice, and how intimately tied practice is to ritual. Indeed, practice – in order to be regular – becomes ritualised to some degree. Whether I think of long-distance running, martial arts, music, art or writing, regular practice becomes ritualistic in nature. Ritualising an activity makes its practice more entrenched, a part of everyday life; you begin to live with your practice instead of trying to figure it out.

In June last year I suffered a terrible shock. A long-term work relationship that I had thought was beyond question became very questionable very quickly, and it became very clear to me that I was not valued in the manner I thought I was. Accepting this was difficult. Letting go was even harder. My anxieties arose and I automatically began to train Tai Chi every morning. It helped a great deal. It lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of clarity. It strengthened my spirit. I needed no further justification to engage in regular practice; every morning I awoke and after a cup of tea or coffee, I would immerse myself in the Tai Chi short form.

My Tai Chi practice became a ritual. The more I practiced the more I reaped its benefits. For the first time in my training I began to feel rooted and my movements became effortless. Each movement emerged of its own accord. There was no forcing it. One movement flowed into the next without effort. There was a natural line of movement that the body takes through the form that I had not been able to find for years. Now – seemingly all of a sudden – I had found that line and it made all the difference. No matter how I felt before training, after thirty minutes of training I would begin to feel the natural flow of the movements of the form. After training my body felt released from all the middle-aged aches and pains it carries, my body felt light and my mind was calm but focused.

The act of ritualising my Tai Chi practice transferred into my other daily activities. Everything from the way I cooked, to the way I worked and drove around the city changed. Daily practice of this kind allowed for an awareness to emerge; one that enabled me to navigate the anxiety and uncertainty of change in a manner that I had been unable to before. Whenever I felt the walls closing in or my thoughts running astray I immersed myself in the ritual of Tai Chi practice and emerged level headed, released from reliving the senseless chatter of the mind.

So I’m finally beginning to understand why so many religions embrace ritual. I wasn’t able to understand it before because I was focused on the symbolic acts of ritual and their meaning, and not what their practice entailed. I thought ritual was just mind-numbing, symbolic devotional routine. I failed to understand that ritual entrenches practice. It is about doing; embedding oneself in practice and not philosophising about it. Ritualising activities takes one deeper into practice and yields a deeper awareness. This enables meaning to emerge from practice; meaning that goes far beyond the symbolism of ritual. Rather, meaning emerges from devotion to practice, taking the form of a new awareness; a way of being in and with the world that is not a product of the agitated mental gymnastics of philosophical introspection but a product of letting go of thought and immersing oneself in doing.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Politics of Short-Term Gratification: All Eyes on the ANC!

More Hype, Less Media!

Media, media everywhere, and not a thought in sight!

The ANC is firmly back in the spotlight, commanding centre-stage as the most important act on the South African political stage today, whether for the right or wrong reasons. However, much like the eclectic US President Trump, it is working to the ANC’s advantage. The extent of media coverage that the ANC is currently receiving effectively blocks out other political actors and groups and reinforces the notion that the ANC alone is the sole political force through which South African politics and economics is brokered. Indeed, this is what ANC spokespersons tell us all the time. It is what they would like us to believe.

It is hence thoroughly in the ANC’s interest to continue occupying the media spotlight, and with the next national election due for April 2019, keeping the focus on the internal dynamics of the ANC – however tumultuous and dramatic – will likely serve to reinforce the idea that the ANC alone is the key political force in South Africa and that votes for opposition parties are essentially wasted on the vain hope that power will change hands one day. Opposition votes will continue to be viewed as symbolic expressions of disillusionment with the ANC rather than what they are becoming, that is; a growing force that is increasingly able to effect political change at the highest levels in the country (albeit through coalitions).

In this sense, the media itself has fallen hook, line and sinker for the ANC’s crude gambit. In their exuberant attempts to secure ratings through continuous live coverage and play the role of 'watchdog' they have effectively granted the ANC the kind of media primacy that US President Donald Trump enjoys. Secrecy, controversy and intrigue can work wonders on an unsuspecting and ill-informed public, and it is the media’s job to remain critical – not just of its targets – but also its own coverage. It is incumbent on the media to have a sense for what impact its coverage ultimately has. There is a point at which continuous, repetitive and unenlightened coverage – replete with long, hypothetical discussions based on gossip and hearsay – begins to resemble mere hype rather than cogent political opinion and analysis. 

December 2017 ANC Conference: Turning Point or More of the Same?

In December 2017 the ANC’s internal party presidential, top-six leadership and National Executive Committee elections were held at the 54th National Conference of the ANC. The dynamics that played out put the ANC squarely back in the public spotlight, as the country hankered after news that trickled out from the conference. The media were denied full access to the conference, and kept separated from delegates by a fortress of temporary fencing. This lack of access worked wonders, as intrigue, speculation, debate and titbits of gossip dominated the media panels that sought to provide all-hours coverage of the event. 

Dramatic changes unfolded with the changing of the guard, with the Deputy President of the country – Cyril Ramaphosa – emerging victorious as the new ANC President. Yet the drama was not because sweeping changes came about in the leadership composition, but rather that the two competing slates were so close, yielding an almost equal mix of each in the final results. These results mean that the ANC is likely continue limping along as a divided house, with internal conflicts and Machiavellian skulduggery dominating its politics.

Embattled, outgoing ANC president (and President of South Africa), Jacob Zuma, supported the slate headed by his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The opposition slate was headed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President of South Africa.

The core campaign message behind Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign was that the ANC and the country were long overdue for a female president, and she enjoyed strong support from both the ANC Women’s League and the ‘Zuma faction’ as it has become known. Detractors of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma saw her bid as compromised by her ex-husband’s alleged involvement in widespread corruption and “state capture”. In short, her ascendancy to the presidency of the ANC, and soon the country, would ensure that the sitting president is protected from being held to account for his alleged misdeeds.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s main campaign message revolved around saving the ANC from corruption, healing the deep divides (nay, fractures) within it, and revitalising the economy. His detractors point to his great wealth (he is a billionaire) as a compromising factor (he is favoured by the private sector), as well as his involvement in the Marikana massacre, which led to the death of 34 miners who were fired upon by the police (78 were seriously injured). Although he has apologised for his role in the events that led to the massacre, his detractors see it as just a ‘band-aid’ attempt to regain public trust and rise to power. He is nonetheless, widely respected across society, and critically, he commands the respect and trust of the private sector.

Both candidates have paid lip service to the ANC’s new political vision of radical socio-economic transformation, although it is unclear to what extent their proposals are radical in the sense of being deeply rooted in the quest for structural and systemic change. My view is that both candidates would service the status quo while shoring up support (for the 2019 election) through heightened rhetoric rather than radical action. Neither candidate is in any sense truly radical.

Ramaphosa is a former trade unionist who has extensive experience in managing divisions. He was a key in formulating the constitution, and enjoys the faith and respect of the private sector. Dlamini-Zuma was once Minister of Health, represented South Africa faithfully at the UN and more recently was the head of the African Union. Neither candidate would likely have shaken up South African politics and economics to the extent that the rhetoric of "radical socio-economic transformation" would imply.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is no doubt a result of the ANC’s very genuine concerns that its electoral support base is set to decline significantly in the upcoming 2019 elections. They need to stay in power, and to retain a majority; Cyril Ramaphosa was the only candidate that could effectively ‘guarantee’ these outcomes.

Yet, with a middle-of-the-road presidential candidate, a split-slate top-six leadership and NEC, more of the same is likely to unfold. So why all the attention, and to what end?

The Dangers of Continuous, Unfettered Coverage

The problem is that the ANC’s internal politics are largely becoming more important than the democratic, constitutional parliamentary processes through which political change should be administered in South Africa. Instead, parliamentary actions are increasingly fought through the courts, and the ANC’s internal politics, processes and interests take precedence over that of government.

All eyes remain fixed on the ANC and opposition parties and other political actors – such as civil society organisations and foundations – appear to be a secondary feature of the political realm. They are hardly receiving any media coverage at present, and when they do it is as though they are an afterthought or sideshow to the ANC’s publicly unfolding political soap opera. Both the fiery Economic Freedom Fighters and the litigious Democratic Party appear to have receded into the background as the ANC’s internal processes have taken centre-stage in the public eye. This is damaging – in my view – for many reasons.

Firstly, instead of the embattled, split ANC being held to account for its refusal to act upon corruption and constitutional violations by the president over the past 8 years, it is now being viewed as the great hope for renewal of the South African polity. All reasonable indications are, however, that the ANC’s infighting, lack of accountability and poor transparency is set to deepen and that the internal splits within the ANC will continue to render it effectively dysfunctional as a governing party. The ANC is being rewarded, instead of penalised, for failing the South African people.

Moreover, the relevance and importance of opposition parties and opposition politics is being diminished. They are simply becoming increasingly viewed as secondary to the ANC’s internal politics and processes. This, in effect, renders parliament and constitutional processes secondary. The ANC as a political party has effectively usurped its role. And it has unfolded with precious little critique of this ‘switch’ from political analysts and commentators. With the exception of very few analysts (e.g. Angelo Fick comes to mind, as his analysis always links back to constitutionality and parliamentary process) the majority have uncritically reinforced the notion that the ANC’s internal politics are paramount.

The narrative typically unfolds in the following manner, that change can "only be administered from within the ANC" and that one has to "look to the ANC’s internal processes and political dynamics" to understand what is transpiring in South African politics (e.g. with respect to recalling Jacob Zuma and countering government corruption). Analysts relish in having inside information from within the ranks of the ANC as to what is transpiring at any given moment in time. They hang on every word that comes out of the ANC leadership, interpreting and reinterpreting their utterances ad-nauseam. It is as if only the ANC exists in the South African political spectrum. Everyone else is irrelevant.

It smacks of the same empty celebrations that accompanied Zanu-PF’s recent removal of its long-term president Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, in what was effectively a palace coup. Should the ANC finally take long overdue action to remove President Jacob Zuma it would effectively amount to the same thing; that it took a palace coup within the ANC to remove a president that was found by the constitutional court to have violated his oath of office, a president who is widely implicated in a network of unscrupulous business and political operators who have engaged in corruption on a grand scale, and a president who the courts have ordered should answer for 783 charges of corruption brought against him for his alleged wrongdoings in the now-infamous arms deal of the early 2000s.

When celebrating political action, it is important to understand what one is celebrating. In my view, the celebrations that are unfolding in South Africa early in 2018 are premature and misleading. We are not celebrating true democratic action and transparent, responsible governance. Instead, we are celebrating the desperate actions of a deeply compromised majority ruling party that – until now – was facing the prospect of severe losses in the upcoming national elections in 2019.

We are also celebrating the irrelevance of opposition party and civil society politics and ignoring the massive efforts they have made to shift the ANC onto a more responsible political trajectory. The ANC are not our saviours. They have not self-corrected, despite having had many opportunities to do so. They have merely changed tact in order to ensure their own survival. We would be fools to believe otherwise; the proverbial proof of change must surely lie in real, meaningful actions to effect change and not in symbolic transfers of power.

The upshot of all of this is that the ANC is back in the spotlight and is being presented by the media (albeit unwittingly or uncritically) as the key mover and shaker of South African politics (or as the ANC labels themselves; the "centre of power" in South Africa). It’s every move and utterance is being slavishly amplified through the media, without thought for the displacement of other political actors and groups that have fought tooth and nail to counter-act the effects of the decline of the ANC. The ANC is no doubt celebrating because in the run-up to the 2019 elections they loom so large in the public imagination that it is likely to translate into continued support from the electorate.

Simply put, if the over-riding narrative (or implication) is that the country’s woes can only be fixed from “within the ANC” then voters get the impression that there are no alternatives that they can look to through which they can effect meaningful change. Reinforcing this notion by treating the ANC’s internal politics as all-important and all-powerful in South African politics is short sighted and – in my view – inaccurate.

The ANC is beset by deep internal turmoil and in-fighting. It is no longer the ANC that possessed a coherence that justified its large electoral majority. In a short-term perspective it is true that what transpires within the ANC is bound to have a great impact upon the country, but treating the ANC as though it is the be-all and end-all of South African politics is mistaken. The ANC’s politics and coherence has declined while the opposition has gained ground and is on the ascent. This is not just an empirical fact; it is the objective reality.

The ANC long ago became an unsustainable and untenable alliance of ill-fitting partners; it simply cannot survive in its current form and remain useful to the South African people. Continued unchallenged political power will likely remain useful only to the ANC itself, and the private sector cronies that line up to oil the hinges of the revolving door between politics and business that has become central to the ANC’s administration of its political power.

The Politics of the Short-Term: An Uninformed Public and Political Realm

Today, the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) is convening, yet again, without direct press access. It is a matter of great interest, as President Jacob Zuma’s future will likely be discussed. Rumours that he will step down are already doing the rounds, as they always do in the run-up to these large ANC NEC gatherings. The press has taken the bait. To be fair, coverage of discussions around impeachment that are unfolding in parliament is also being given airtime, but the end result is that it simply juxtaposes ANC internal processes against parliamentary processes. If the ANC NEC decides – in a large majority – to retain Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa it is unlikely that any parliamentary motion for impeachment will be successfully passed.

Yet again the nation is being held hostage to internal ANC processes and dynamics. We are all watching and waiting to see how divided the NEC is over Jacob Zuma’s leadership, and if it could feasibly translate into enough ANC members siding with the opposition to remove Jacob Zuma in an impeachment attempt. If this feels like déjà-vu, it is. We’ve been here before. The question, “where to from here?” has receded into the background of affairs as we all watch and wait to see what the next big announcement will be; glued to screens in anticipation.

This ‘politics in real time’ is, in many ways, killing off the politics of the long-term. That is; the politics that is essential to providing vision, promoting national unity and stimulating public dialogue and debate on matters that are critical to socio-economic well-being and sustainability are taking a back seat to soap opera styled politics a la Trump. Will he be there today, tomorrow, or the next day? Ooh, the anticipation! Cue the next rapid-fire panel discussing speculative hype, replete with constant downward eye glances at their mobile phones so that they can catch the next tasty morsel as it hits the twitter-sphere and WhatsApp groups.

To be sure, there are those who will justify all this by emphasizing that a ‘new way’ is emerging amidst the broader changes that the media are subject to and that they need to remain current. I for one don’t buy it and will continue to cast a wary (at times weary) eye over it all as it unfolds, ad nauseam, into infinity, with no clear end in sight. In this day and age it is becoming increasingly important to separate the signal from the noise, and it appears that all the benefits of technological and online development are merely translating into more noise than signal. And even the media ‘watchdogs’ appear not to be keeping watch on this!