Can Facebook help journalism?

Hitherto, to read an unpirated New York Times article online you had to click on an URL that took you to a site owned and controlled by the New York Times. Today that changed as Facebook began serving, at least to users of its iPhone app, selected content belonging to the Times and eight other A-list media properties directly from within its own walled garden.

The shift, some said, was tectonic, which may sound over the top to the average poster of cat videos and holiday selfies, but to someone with a son about to graduate from journalism school, the deal will be big if it pans out the way the Times hopes. Not everyone thinks it will.

Why would the Times — or the National Geographic or the Guardian or the BBC or Der Spiegel or any of the others who have signed up — want to participate in this “experiment”? (That, for now, is what they are calling it; the official title is Instant Articles.)

Do South Africa’s ideologues really want AGOA?

That the US Congress will vote to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act any day now apparently brings no joy to the heart of Sandile Tyini, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies’ man at the Washington embassy.

At a gathering of African Union ambassadors on Monday, Mr Tyini lamented the new “conditionalities” in the reauthorization bill, attendees said.

This, they also said, elicited no sympathy from the ambassador of Gabon, who was chairing the session, or other African colleagues. They want to see the bill enacted promptly. Uncertainty has been killing export orders.

Strictly, the language adopted by both Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees last month imposes no extra eligibility requirements. It simply makes it easier for interested parties to complain if beneficiaries are non-compliant and lets the US government apply the screws in more calibrated ways.

For most, the threat of greater scrutiny is a small price to pay for 10, as opposed to 5 or 3, more years of privileged access to the US market. But not, it seems, for SA.

Markets, not minerals

If you’re a student of China in Africa and haven’t read Howard French’s “China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa”, you need to remedy that.

French was probably the best correspondent the New York Times ever posted to Africa between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sahara. The newspaper then made him bureau chief in Shanghai where he mastered Mandarin and was struck by the growing flow of visiting African bigwigs. That led to scores of interviews in six African countries, and the book.

To see China’s involvement as a “raw materials play” is “a failed appreciation of China’s ambition with regard to Africa and, indeed, the world”, he said at a forum here this week. “What China is really after is the development of markets”.

To illustrate his point, he held up his iPhone.

Home to roost

It’s common to hear people who should know better call the African Growth and Opportunity Act an agreement. It isn’t. It’s a one-way grant of preferential access to the American market for African countries that meet certain criteria. The recipients made no binding concessions of their own to secure these preferences. The donor calls the shots. That’s life.

The US wanted to negotiate a free trade agreement with South Africa after AGOA went into effect.  The negotiations failed in 2006 leaving a sour taste in Washington’s mouth. South Africa says they failed because the US was asking for more than its South African Customs Union partners — Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho — felt able to give. That’s not an excuse that’s universally accepted on the US side. The feeling here is that South Africa preferred to keep getting without giving.

Now come the consequences. What’s given unilaterally can also be taken away unilaterally. The US is threatening denial of AGOA benefits to get what it wants. That includes a share of the SA market for frozen chicken legs and wings.  SA says US exporters were dumping their surpluses on SA at less that the cost of production before punitive duties were imposed in 2000.

Were it so inclined, the US government could take SA to the World Trade Organisation over those duties. Why hasn’t it? Two reasons. One, success is by no means certain. Two, Washington has another tool to work its will: the threat of dropping SA from AGOA.

Now, as a result of the chicken dispute, it looks likely that the US Congress will renew AGOA with a clause obliging the US Trade Representative (the person, Michael Froman, and the agency he runs) to launch a review of South Africa’s eligibility within 30 days of the the renewal legislation becoming law.

The legal language mandating the review calls for it to be conducted with reference to a specific subsection — highlighted in italics below — of AGOA’s section 104:

Wearying of the Zumacrats

“People are saying it may be time throw South Africa under the bus”. That’s what I recently heard from a household name in Washington Africa policy circles, closely associated with the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

The context was a conversation about AGOA, the centrepiece of America’s official engagement with the Africa Rising narrative. Specifically we were ruminating on whether and under what conditions SA would continue to enjoy AGOA’s benefits when it is renewed, as it must be by September.

What my interlocutor was picking up was not a tactical talking point. It was not a line designed to pressure Kevin Lovell and the SA Poultry Association into letting American Big Chicken violate his industry with surplus drumsticks. It expressed a larger and more important frustration.

The Zumacrats may treat this as a feather in their caps, but Washington, on a bipartisan basis (and to the extent it can be bothered), is growing tired of them, their sanctimony, their statism, their graft, their time-warped loyalty to the discredited ghosts of Bandung, their BRIC fixation, their pandering to autocrats and other violators of principles for which thousands of South Africans died, their ill-concealed resentment of the West; in sum, what is perceived as their utter lack of Mandela-liness.

AGOA Held Hostage

The African Growth and Opportunity Act will be renewed before it expires in September. That’s a solid bet. When, exactly? For how long? And will South Africa treated the same as other African beneficiaries? Those are questions awaiting an answer.

Holding things up is strong opposition from most Democrats, and some Tea Party Republicans, to giving President Obama “trade promotion authority” (TPA). This he needs to conclude his Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement with 11 “like-minded” nations — China is not on the list — that rim the Pacific on both sides.

Republicans are using AGOA as a hostage to obtain the Democratic votes they need to give Mr Obama TPA, on which he and they are in rare agreement. Without TPA, there will be no TPP. Japan, New Zealand and other partners have said they will not make final offers without assurance that whatever Mr Obama gives them in return will not be tampered with by Congress after the deal is done.

The Democrats may be in the minority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but because of dissension within their own ranks, Republicans need help from the Dems to give Mr Obama what he wants. They have yet to get it.

Unnecessary Meltdown

Frustrated by what they paint as President Jacob Zuma’s obduracy, President Barack Obama’s advisers are playing hardball to persuade South Africa to dilute or dispose of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) left over from its apartheid-era weapons programme.

Readers of the Washington Post, easily agitated members of Congress among them, awoke on Sunday to the front-page headline: “S. AFRICAN NUCLEAR PLANS UNNERVE U.S.” The subhead ran: “Quarter ton cache left over from country’s former explosives arsenal is seen as dangerously vulnerable”.

The thrust of the ensuing two-page spread was that the still mysterious November, 2007, break-in at Pelindaba was not, per the official version, a third-rate attempt to steal a few PCs. Little more than dumb luck, it was suggested, had stopped a professional gang from getting into the vault where the HEU was stored and stealing enough for six bombs “each powerful enough to obliterate central Washington”.

Developed for the Post by an independent investigative unit, the Center for Public Integrity, the six-month-in-preparation story had a lot of help from someone in or close to the White House. The CPI’s reporters had copies of letters from Mr Obama to Mr Zuma which they placed on the center’s website. Unnamed administration officials were quoted extensively.

Bad Behaviour

From this remove, the South African commentariat’s reaction to events in Parliament on February 12 seemed a little shrill. Who doubted that the Economic Freedom Fighters would cause a ruckus with the intention of being removed? Not the government and its heat-packing waitrons, obviously. Nor can any other half-way sensate observer have been overly gobsmacked either, if they were honest.

As for the jamming of cell phone signals, that can hardly have been aimed exclusively at the media. It must have affected every mobile in the chamber. In any event, there was nothing to stop people taking pictures and videos of whatever transpired for sharing immediately afterwards. Is the right to live tweet now sacrosanct?

Realising that these are matters that have already been well masticated inside and outside the local media bubble, I raise them simply to say what has been happening in the US Congress this past week has demonstrated that South Africa’s politicians have no monopoly on loutishness. Only in the US case, with respect, issues of a rather more global nature are at stake, the US being a substantial power which, whatever the prejudices of the SA establishment, many other countries still take seriously, look to for leadership and don’t sophomorically accuse of spying.

The Republican Party, or a goodly number of its members, have shown themselves to be motivated by a contempt for President Obama that leads them to acts some would — and do — say border on treason. That goes too far. Nevertheless, lines have been crossed.

History marches past the Zumacrats

“Communism”, said Lenin, “equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. For communism, substitute the creation of a new class of black industrialists. Swap ANC for Soviet. The result is President Jacob Zuma’s justification for wanting to commission a massive new fleet of nuclear power stations from, in what would be a delicious irony if true, Lenin’s latest successor.

Which begs the question: is the means suited to the end? Or will the Zumacrats land up on the wrong side of history, lashing the South African economy to an obsolete model and leaving the new class, benighted, with an albatross? Will they learn nothing from the success of their own renewable energy procurement programme?

There’s a revolution under way. Its equation might be liberation equals solar power plus batteries to store it by the megawatt for when the fusion reactor in the sky is occluded. In the vanguard — another lovely twist — are South Africans. Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame. His cousin, SolarCity’s Lyndon Rive. And, less well known, Mike Thackeray, a Comrades Marathon standout credited with a critical breakthrough in lithium-ion technology and now working at the US government’s Argonne laboratories outside Chicago.

Eminent emigrants

South Africa, says Brand SA, is the country of “inspiring new ways”. It has certainly produced people who fit that label. Nelson Mandela, obviously. Any takers for Jan Smuts? Among the living, Elon Musk and Patrick Soon-Shiong spring to mind.

Mandela inspired, for sure, but homage to his example, like Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s, is nowadays paid more in word than deed. Mandela’s chief of staff, Barbara Masekela, was willing to give Smuts his due when I had the privilege of serving her, but she is of the old, that is to say Mandela, school.

If, in this century, mankind kicks its carbon habit and starts to colonise Mars, Musk, product of Pretoria Boy’s High (where he was bullied mercilessly), will be remembered as we remember Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, Henry Ford and Werner von Braun.

And if, within the same timeframe, cancer is no more a death sentence than the common cold, Soon-Shiong, son of Port Elizabeth, graduate of Wits and now, according to Forbes, the richest physician in the world, may well join the pantheon of Hippocrates, Louis Pasteur and Francis Crick and make Chris Barnard look like a mere mechanic.

Notes on leaving Brand SA

When the rand crashed after 9/11, South A frica’s Business Day found it could no longer afford a  Washington correspondent. So, to the amazement of many, including myself, I went to work for the ANC government. I had come to admire President Thabo Mbeki and when his spokesman, Bheki Kumalo, asked whether I’d be interested in doing some writing for him, I said yes. Several months later, I had a new title: US Country Manager for South Africa’s newly minted International Marketing Council.

The IMC, later to be rechristened Brand SA, grew, I was told, from a suggestion by Niall Fitzgerald, then CEO of Unilever and a member of Mbeki’s international advisory council. In the new global economy, South Africa needed to up its game in the competition for investment, export orders, tourist dollars, skills and share of voice in international fora. Why not market the country the way Unilever marketed laundry detergent by building it as a brand?

I had no formal training in marketing, let alone branding. Seth Godin wrote a book with the punchy, ironic title “All Marketers Are Liars”. Wired as a skeptical journalist, I tended to agree. Branding was the art of seducing consumers by playing on their vanities and interior narratives so that they would pay for a Porsche Cayenne double the price of a Volkswagen Tuareg that came off the same production line. But I had not come aboard to brand or market, I told myself. I was there to help Mbeki get the better press which, at the time, I believed he and his team richly deserved. That, with their cooperation, is what I proceeded to do.

Privatise the selling of South Africa?

Once upon a time there was an organisation called the South Africa Foundation. It was a voice of big business in the apartheid era and it spoke in markets South Africa then considered particularly important. It had offices in London, Paris, Bonn and Washington. Its representatives in those capitals were cultivated, well-connected men who could speak confidently and credibly to captains of industry, policymakers and shapers of public opinion abroad and to those with ears to hear back home.

Yes, they lobbied against sanctions and disinvestment, but they did so independent of the then government. These were no apologists for a wicked system but they did take the unfashionable view that gumming up the economic engines of change was not the best way to go about ending it. What they wanted the world to understand was that, as dire as things looked, South Africa Inc. had the resources, human and physical, to transcend the beastliness of apartheid, and that the centre would hold.

After 1994, the Foundation’s corporate underwriters closed its international offices and rebranded the organisation as Business Leadership SA. They figured full-time overseas representation was now an unnecessary expense and that their purposes could be just as well served by parachuting in an occasional stick of CEOs. Amid the optimism of the Nelson Mandela quinquennium, who could blame them?