An iron rule grows rusty

Congressman Paul Ryan, who would have been a heartbeat from the presidency had things gone differently last week, was once quite sensible regarding the 50-year-old US embargo on Cuba. “It doesn’t work”, he told the Milwaukee Journal in 2002. He has voted some 20 times to ease or end it.

As Mitt Romney’s running mate, he had to be re-educated. It has been an iron rule of American presidential politics that you cannot win in Florida without pandering to the maximalist Cuban exiles in Miami’s Little Havana for whom nothing short of root and branch regime change will suffice. One of their number, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took Ryan in hand.

He can now safely return to his original conviction. Indeed, it would probably be in his best interest to do so should he aspire to the White House in his own right four years from now. The iron rule is getting rusty. Continue reading “An iron rule grows rusty”

SA is

If you’re reading this in the dead tree version of Business Day, and that is the version you prefer, there is a good chance the word Twitter will evoke an inward groan. Everybody seems to be talking about it, people are telling you you need to do it, but to the extent  you can get your head around it, the whole thing seems, well, somewhere between silly and unseemly, not to mention an enormous waste of time. A brain-suck, to use a current American phrase.

I would urge you to reconsider, especially if you have something nice to say about South Africa in 140 characters or less. In that case, your country needs you to sign up for a Twitter account. This can be done from any Internet-connected computer and will take less time than a round of solitaire.

Then you can start communicating with the world.  Tell it what you think about South Africa, being always sure to include in the message the code #SAis. This is known in twitter-speak as a hashtag. What it does is permit visitors to to locate your thoughts on South Africa via a simple search.  The search will turn up not just your insights but a constantly updated compendium of the wisdom of everyone else who has used the #SAis hashtag. The compendium can be inserted as a feed onto any website, blog or Facebook page, multiplying its visibility. Continue reading “SA is”


Early one Sunday morning, half a lifetime ago, when I was living in a still borderline neighbourhood of Washington’s Capitol Hill, the doorbell rang. It was a young man dressed for church. He said he needed five dollars for the collection plate. To get it, he had taken hostage my freshly delivered copy of the New York Times. I regret to admit I paid the ransom.

Such blackmail would not work today. The New York Times is still an essential part of my Sunday but it arrives in too many forms to be intercepted by a shakedown artist. I can read it on my PC, my  laptop, my cell phone, and this week at least on the Kindle e-book viewer the kind folks at, the giant online retailer, have lent me to review.

The Kindle lets you read books, magazine and newspapers bought from Amazon. Available only in the US at this stage, the device is about a centimetre thick and has the footprint of a full-size Moleskin notebook. A larger version has been announced. The screen of the present model is the size of the smaller Moleskin and renders text with the sharpness and quality of a printed page. Like a printed page, it requires external illumination but is readable and all but free of glare from any angle.  It is very easy on the eye, though less so, at $359 (R3 100), on the wallet. Continue reading “Kindle”

Mbeki’s Fate Memetically Sealed. Zuma’s?

A meme is an infectious chunk of information or prejudice that tells people what to think about subjects which they do not have the time, inclination or courage to weigh up for themselves.  You can tell that a meme has become particularly virulent when it shows up as media cliché.  Former president Thabo Mbeki, for example, is now memetically sealed as an aloof, pipe-smoking intellectual who coddled Robert Mugabe and whose apostasy on AIDS sent hundreds of thousands to a needlessly premature death.

Memes about Jacob Zuma and what his presidency means for the future of South Africa remain, mercifully, in a state of flux.  It is still an open question which ones will come to dominate in the minds of northern thought leaders.

Easily the most seductive are those against which northern immune systems are already weak.  The default master narrative has South Africa reverting, after the Golden Age of Mandela and the Silver Age of Mbeki, to what is assumed to be the brutish African norm.  Memes that seem to support that storyline are highly infectious. Continue reading “Mbeki’s Fate Memetically Sealed. Zuma’s?”

Tragedy and Hope

David Tswamuno is both the tragedy and hope of Zimbabwe. Tragedy because he is not at home, putting his very considerable talents and energy to use for his country; hope because he is minted from the extraordinary human capital with which Zimbabwe is blessed and which could, in shorter order than many expect,  undo the damage done by the gangsters into whose hands his country fell.

Tswamuno is a 20-something financial analyst at UBS in New York.  His resemblance to the actor Presley Chweneyagae is striking; friends call him Tsotsi.   He is from Mutare. There he received an education better than almost anything he could have had at a public school in the US. He came away with four or five good A-Levels.  Mugabe may yet be saved from the bottom depths of hell by his decision to stick with the English system.

Tswamuno’s next stop, with help from the US embassy in Harare, was Middlebury College in Connecticut. It is a very competitive school. He was two years ahead of his class when he arrived. Writing skills taken for granted as a basic A-level requirement in Zimbabwe his American professors thought he could only have gained through special tutoring. So poor are US standards. Continue reading “Tragedy and Hope”

We have the tools to fight corruption

Just over two-thirds of South Africans polled by FutureFact last year agreed with the statement “South Africa will over time minimize the scourge of corruption”. Some observers, noting the imminent spectacle of the country’s president going on trial for corruption, would say South Africans were an optimistic lot. Global Integrity, a Washington-based NGO which puts out what is increasingly regarded as the gold standard of international corruption indices,  gives grounds for a less cynical view in its latest annual report, released on Wednesday.

Transparency International, which pioneered corruption rankings, deals in inherently bias-prone perceptions. More empirical in its approach, GI deploys peer-reviewed field researchers to answer a comprehensive list of questions – 320 this time – from which it calculates what it calls an Integrity Indicators.

The focus is not on corruption per se but on what bulwarks a society has in place against it. Do citizens have access to their government? Can they see what it’s doing? Can they safely, affordably, and successfully seek redress when it does wrong? Can they hold it accountable at the polls? Can they rely on their laws and institutions to keep the kleptocrats at bay? Continue reading “We have the tools to fight corruption”

Correspondents Good for the Brand

The number of foreign correspondents based in Washington has never been higher, the Pew Research Centre reported this week, perhaps counterintuitively. Close on 1 500 journalists are accredited with the State Department’s Foreign Press Centre, strategically located in the National Press Building, six floors down from the National Press Club bar. 15 years ago it was under a thousand.

796 media outlets from 113 countries and territories have at least one correspondent here, up from 507 from 79 in 1994. The majority of the correspondents are full-time employees of the organisations they represent, which indicates the value their employers attach both to the Washington story and to having it told and put in context by own one of their own.

The growth of the foreign presence is rendered all the more striking by the simultaneous shrinkage of most domestic bureaus in the US capital.  Cash-strapped American publishers increasingly don’t see how having their own people on the ground helps their bottom lines. Why should they spend money on producing content that is already available to their audiences free on the Internet from any number of other sources? Continue reading “Correspondents Good for the Brand”


“I screwed up.” Not words you often hear from a politician, let alone an American president just two weeks in office. The phrase and variants of it were much on President Barack Obama’s lips last Tuesday afternoon in a series of interviews with America’s top television news anchors. A bad day for his fledgling presidency? No, I’d say a pretty good one.

Obama’s mistake was to imagine that former Senator Tom Daschle would be the right man clear the Augean stable of America’s health care system in spite of Daschle’s cavalier approach to paying taxes – taxes, worse, on income earned hawking his good name in the service of interests who like the stables as they are.

Most of Washington made the same mistake.  It came as a shock to almost everyone that Daschle changed his mind about becoming Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.   So ideal were his credentials , the consensus ran, the Senate would easily confirm his appointment, overlooking the R 1.5 million he hurriedly forked over to the Internal Revenue Service to square accounts before subjecting himself to public scrutiny as a presidential appointee. Continue reading “Change”