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. Continue reading “Wearying of the Zumacrats”

An Open Letter to Steve Hayes

Steve Hayes, CEO of the US Corporate Council on Africa, gets alarmist. Wearing my Brand South Africa hat, I respond:

Dear Steve,

If nothing else, it takes courage to go public with a piece like your latest column on the US News and World Report website. One has to assume that dues-paying members of the Corporate Council on Africa might prefer its CEO to abstain from sounding shrill alarums about the continent’s most advanced and diversified economy particularly when that economy’s president is due in Washington in a few weeks time.

You lament what you see as South Africa turning away from the US and Western Europe and towards its partners — China, India, Brazil and Russia — in the BRICS grouping of major emerging markets. Could you blame us if the analysis in your article accurately reflects thinking in America’s boardrooms? Happily, I don’t for a moment believe it does. Nor, I would argue, is it correct to see the BRICS partnership as necessarily hostile to US or European interests. That smacks of Manichean oldthink.

South Africa — and on this you are right — is presently in a difficult place. But the one place we are not is in denial. The woes you list we fully acknowledge. Have you read the diagnostic on which our National Development Plan based? Were you listening when the ANC embraced Goldman Sachs’ “Two Decades of Freedom” evaluation not just for the laudatory sections but in its warts and all totality? Have you been keeping current with everything our government has been saying, especially since the election? You do not have to listen that closely to hear genuine urgency in the voices of our leaders. The ratings agencies are not telling us anything we don’t know or that we aren’t addressing. Continue reading “An Open Letter to Steve Hayes”

Dear Professor Dershowitz

I caught you on CNN the other night doing your talking head thing on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympian who runs on carbon fiber blades in place of amputated lower legs, for the murder of his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp.

Your Wikipedia entry reminds us why Piers Morgan had you on his show. You are a media star. In 1967, you became Harvard’s youngest ever full professor of law. You held the Felix Frankfurter professorship for 20 years until your retirement in 2013. You have successfully represented a stellar cast of celebrity defendants, including two, O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow, charged like Pistorius with killing women they had once supposedly loved.

South Africa, you told Mr Morgan and his audience with what seemed invincible certainty, was a “failed country”. Now I recognize the on-air rules of the game for professional talking heads include expressing yourselves in ways that might be considered unprofessional in a Harvard lecture hall. That said, your comment about South Africa would have been outlandish in any setting. In spite of his English tabloid roots, even Mr Morgan was taken aback.

Happily, Kelly Phelps, a live resident of the “failed country”, was on hand to help straighten you out. “Failed countries” do not generally boast institutions of the calibre of the University of Cape Town where Ms. Phelps teaches law. Nor do they retain talent such as hers. Her resume is worth a read. Her rebuttal that South Africa is “fundamentally sound” should command your respect. Continue reading “Dear Professor Dershowitz”

Show them the money

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sir Richard Branson, former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and several dozen other current or soon to be emeriti last week asked the government of Bangladesh to stop bullying microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank. The New York Times did not consider this newsworthy.

It did, however, join the parade of influential publications – Forbes, the Atlantic, Fast Company, Slate, Harvard Business Review and the Washington Post – to publish glowing pieces about Columbia University economist Paul Niehaus and his philanthropic start-up, GiveDirectly (www.givedirectly.com)

Move over, Grameen. With Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes on its board and a $2.4 million Global Impact Award from Google, GiveDirectly, looks like becoming the next big thing in development circles. Continue reading “Show them the money”

Bezos and the Post

My son wants to follow his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps into newspapering. Until last week, I feared he might just as gainfully launch a buggy whip business. Then Amazon founder Jeff Bezosdecided to spend some pocket change, $250 million of his estimated $25 billion net worth, to become a press baron.

Washington Post Co. chairman Donald Graham, son of the legendary Kay Graham, grandson of Eugene Meyer who bought the Post in a bankruptcy sale in 1933, and uncle of the present publisher, Katharine Weymouth, has always tried to do the right thing.  He has never let vanity get in his way.

He served in Viet Nam when he could have avoided the draft. He became a beat-trudging cop to get to know his readers and their city at street level. And when it became clear the family could not take the business from the analogue to the digital age, he went looking for someone who could. Continue reading “Bezos and the Post”

Africa’s Lincoln

Of Nelson Mandela’s many chroniclers few are more astute than the journalist John Carlin who covered South Africa’s democratic transition for the London Independent, then wrote Playing the Enemy which became the film Invictus. “Mandela”, he wrote in the Cairo Review in 2011, “is Africa’s Lincoln”.

He was referring to the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, thanks to whom the swath of territory between Canada and the Rio Grande is today occupied by one United States rather than a constellation of disunited ones, and Barak Obama is its president.

“Mandela, like Lincoln, achieved the historically rare feat of uniting a fiercely divided country,” Carlin wrote. “ The feat is rare because what ordinary politicians have always done is seek power by highlighting difference and fueling antagonism. Mandela sought it by appealing to people’s common humanity.” So did Lincoln. Continue reading “Africa’s Lincoln”

A stake through the heart of the Alien Tort Statute

In 1821, the captain of a US warship off West Africa ordered his crew to seize a schooner, La Jeune Eugenie, for transgressing Congress’ ban on the international transport of slaves.

The French owners demanded their boat back protesting they were not subject to American law. US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, an ardent foe of slavery, ruled against them, but not without misgivings. What gave him pause was the idea of the US assuming the role of global policeman.

“No nation has ever yet pretended to be the custos morum (guardian of the morals) of the whole world,” he wrote. Continue reading “A stake through the heart of the Alien Tort Statute”

Too Diverse

South Africa is Mandela and Marikana, miracle and mayhem, ubuntu and femicide,  Square Kilometre Array and Limpopo textbook scandal, King III and corruption, a member of BRICS but not, in the Goldman Sachs sense, a BRIC. It has an identity problem.

So does South African wine, certainly in the US where not only is the stuff still relatively hard to find, it comes in so many varieties and permutations that even knowledgeable imbibers are perplexed by it.

And that, says Wines of South Africa’s dynamic new US representative, Annette Badenhorst, is a big part of why it has struggled to gain a foothold here since sanctions were lifted in 1991. “There is not something you can distill out of our offering and say “Voila! This is South Africa!” We are so diverse, and that is what the trade finds confusing.” Continue reading “Too Diverse”

Rebranding Brand USA


Brand USA, under attack from the Tea Party and working hard to rebrand itself, scored a public relations coup on Sunday as the subject of a friendly lead article in the Washington Post’s business section headlined “A campaign to lure back foreign tourists – and their money”.

From its launch in 2010, America’s first federally funded destination marketing organisation has been under fire as “corporate welfare” for the US travel and hospitality industry, representatives of which, by law, occupy each of the seats on its 11-member board.

Supporters say it is a badly needed and cost effective effort to recoup America’s share of the international travel market. This fell from 17.2 per cent in 2000 to 12.4 per cent at the end of the decade, more than partly due to the increased hassle, post-9/11, of getting across the border.

The Travel Promotion Act of 2009 under which Brand USA was created specifically requires the organization to “develop and implement a plan…identify, counter and correct misperceptions regarding United States entry policies around the world.”

The US waives visa requirements for passport holders from 37 countries – not, alas, South Africa as yet — whose citizens are judged friendly and not an inordinate risk to overstay their welcome. They still need to obtain a “travel authorization” for which they must pay $14 (much less than the $160 others have to pay for a 90-day tourist visa). It can done online, but payment is by credit card only.

The $14 fee was created solely to fund Brand USA. $10 of it goes into a Treasury account from which Brand USA may draw up to $100 million a year. The remaining $4 goes to the Department of Homeland Security for administering the fee.

Congress was determined that Brand SA should be a public-private partnership in more than name.

Initially, Brand USA was permitted to draw two dollars from the Treasury for every dollar it raised via its board members, each of whom, by statute, represents a specific segment of the travel business. This fiscal year, the matching requirement is one for one.

The private sector contribution can be up to 80 per cent in kind rather than cash. The definition and valuation of in-kind contributions have inevitably been a source of controversy.

Senator Jim DeMint, a now retired Tea Party icon, and his Republican colleague Tom Coburn, a fierce deficit hawk, issued a report in October blasting Brand USA and its board – all appointees of President Obama — for lavish spending and dodgy accounting.

Among the things that stuck in their craws was board members’ first class airfares, limousine bills, baseball tickets and tips to porters being treated as a matchable donations.

“It is immoral to ask the federal government to shell out $100 million every year to pay for high ranking executives to enjoy parties in London and luxury suites at major league baseball games in the name of ‘travel promotion,’ “ Coburn thundered.

DeMint’s soundbyte: “Only Washington could think that taxing tourists will increase tourism or that we need a new bureaucracy to duplicate our vibrant tourism industry’s advertising budget.”

Brand USA relies heavily on outside contractors – PR agencies and the like – to do much of its work. Some, it is alleged, padded their bills and then agreed to forego full payment so that they difference between what they said they were owed and what they were actually paid could be booked as contributions.

Questions have also been raised about that quality of Brand USA’s management. The Daily Caller, a conservative news site, obtained a copy of an internal audit which stated “a majority of the staff did not have any idea what the mission was” and “staff spends money without any checks and balance or funds tied to a budget”. Staff turnover appears to have been high.

Brand USA’s business plan for 2013 implicitly acknowledges shortcomings. Among other changes, accounting standards of in-kind contributions, including “earned” media, are being tightened. Marriot International CEO Arne Sorenson, who joined the board in December, told the Post that “if we had to start the whole thing over again, some…hiccups would have been avoided.”

Travel to the US is picking up, especially from markets on which Brand USA is starting to focus. Arrivals from Brazil were up 26 per cent in 2011, to 1,5 million, from China up 36 per cent, to 1.1 million. Between them, they spent an estimated $16,2 billion.




The Pistorius Effect

Oscar Pistorius has put South Africa in the US media spotlight to a degree not seen since 2010. The coverage has been less flattering. The killing of Reeva Steenkamp is cast as a symptom of a nation in crisis.

Charlayne Hunter Gault occupies a special place in American journalism. In 1961, she became one of the first two African American students to attend the hitherto segregated University of Georgia.  For many years she was a correspondent and anchor on what was then the country’s most respected news show, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

Today she contributes regularly from South Africa to the New Yorker magazine,  whose website published her take on the shooting the weekend after it happened.  She saw it in the context of Anene Booysen’s rape and evisceration and of SA’s having, according to the World Health Organisation, the highest reported rate of domestic violence against woman and children in the world.

She  told her readers that while President Jacob Zuma had expressed horror at the savagery of Booysen’s butchers,  “he himself was once charged with rape and testified that it was his duty as a Zulu man to satisfy the woman who accused him.” Continue reading “The Pistorius Effect”