Busting the filibuster

The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals is widely seen as second only to the Supreme Court in importance. It is where business comes to seek friendly interpretations of rules administrations write to execute the laws passed by Congress.

Federal judges are appointed by the president subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Of the seven judges currently sitting full-time on the DC Circuit, four were appointed by a Republican president, three by a Democrat. They currently are assisted by six senior, or semiretired, judges on a part-time basis. Of these, only one was originally named by a Democrat.

Rulings by the court’s three-judge panels have lately reflected this partisan split. The court has struck down business-opposed rules adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission to implement the Dodd-Frank act. It has sided with employers against organized labour, ruling that companies cannot be forced to inform workers of their rights. It has blocked enforcement of Environmental Protection Agency clean air rules. Continue reading “Busting the filibuster”

Cruz may bruise

Born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father who fought both for and against Fidel Castro, freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz wants to be the Republican party’s presidential nominee in 2016.

There is some debate over whether his having been born abroad might render  him ineligible for the top job. The constitution requires presidents to be “natural born citizens”. Mr Cruz says it’s enough that his mother is American and that location of birth does not matter. Asked whether he believes President Obama is a “natural born citizen”, Mr Cruz  refuses to give a straight answer.

To succeed, he needs to win Republican presidential primaries. He has been making the obligatory piligrimage to Iowa, site of the first presidential nominating heat.  His strategy is to get himself  nationally known and loved by voters who think Mr Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim Marxist and reviled by what is left of the grown-up Republican establishment. He is doing well on all counts. Continue reading “Cruz may bruise”

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?”

Obama’s Triumph — Some Stats

That Senator Barack Obama’s election as America’s 44th president is of historic significance does not need to be repeated.  Whatever the future may hold, November 4, 2008 now takes its place with April 28, 1994, as a date that stirs the soul.

Though not a landslide, Obama’s 53 per cent to 46 per cent defeat of Senator John McCain was the most lopsided win by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Until Tuesday, no Democrat, even in victory, had garnered more than 50 per cent of the vote since Jimmy Carter pulled past Gerald Ford in the first post-Watergate election. Bill Clinton never obtained a majority.

Another striking aspect of Obama’s triumph is that it was achieved despite white voters, representing three quarters of the total turnout, voting for his opponent by 55 per cent to 43 per cent, according to the exit polls posted on CNN’s website. Continue reading “Obama’s Triumph — Some Stats”


Break the placid surface of a pond with a stone, you will get a splash and ripples but calm will soon return.  The same stone will shatter glass irrevocably.  South Africa has the properties of the pond, not the window.

People who lose their nerve have nearly always been wrong about this country. If the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema scares you rigid, you probably don’t get it. If the machine gun song gives you the willies, you may want to think again. This is not to condone violent rhetoric, or to pretend that words don’t matter.  It is just to say that if you fixate on the scary stuff, you are likely to miss the big picture.

I had a small epiphany on this score in March 1994. I was part of the herd of journalists, local and international, covering events in Mmabatho and next door Mafeking as the curtain came down on Bophutatswana and its president, the quisling Lucas Mangope. Continue reading “Steady”

Painting Obama as the Status Quo

Is Senator John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate going to sink whatever chance he had of winning the presidency? A lot of commentators across the spectrum seem to think so.  But there’s method to his madness.

Until a week ago, when McCain announced his pick (it was not a total surprise, by the way; the Intrade.com prediction market ranked Palin the third likeliest choice), the election was going to be a contest between the past represented by the 72-year-old alumnus of the Hanoi Hilton and the future in the person of Senator Barack Obama.

The Democrats would argue, successfully, that McCain offered nothing more than a de facto third Bush term. Obama’s charisma would do the rest, trumping Republican charges of callowness and inexperience. Continue reading “Painting Obama as the Status Quo”

Mbeki, Mugabe and the Groot Krokodil

To understand what President Mbeki is trying to pull off in Zimbabwe you have to read his essay on PW Botha when the Groot Krokodil died.

In his Letter from the President of November 9, 2006 (am I alone in missing his missives?), Mbeki credited Botha with “having opened the door to the liquidation of the inhuman system of apartheid to whose construction and defence he had dedicated his life”. He ended, astonishingly, by putting Botha on the same plinth as Oliver Tambo. “Of them we can say…that they were partners in the creation of the peace of the brave that is our blessing.”

Apartheid was a crime against humanity – a crime whose enormity Mbeki himself had felt as personally as any human being can, in the loss of a child. Yet here he was, paying tribute to a man widely depicted, like Robert Mugabe today, as one of the most virulent monsters of his time.

In 1986, Mbeki recalled, Botha agreed to roll back the Pass Laws, the Mixed Marriages Act and the ban on multiracial political parties. For many in the ANC, the reforms were cosmetic, but not, Mbeki stressed, for Nelson Mandela. To him they were “a strong message that PW Botha represented more than the rather negative image…conveyed by the media here and abroad…He refused to be told by the media that to engage PW…would constitute a fruitless exercise.”

Likewise, Mbeki himself has long refused to be told by anyone that it is fruitless to engage Mugabe and the Harare junta, or to accept that there is anything to be gained by demonizing them, however wicked their behaviour may be. And Mbeki knows it’s wicked.

The only way forward, in Zimbabwe today as in South Africa in 20 years ago, is for the parties to talk and find a path to national reconciliation. Shepherded by Mbeki, that is happening. For it to succeed will require a readiness to look past the horrors perpetrated by the incumbent regime, examine their motivation and ultimately forgive.

In his tribute to PW, Mbeki decried the obscenities committed under apartheid but was able to see the world from Botha’s point of view. “Honestly and unapologetically he believed…he was acting in defense of the very survival of the Afrikaner people”. The ANC would find ways to accommodate that concern, as the MDC must now find ways to address the guilty fears of the junta.

It will be said, of course, that it was external pressure that forced PW Botha to open the door, so Mbeki is wrong to oppose further sanctions on the junta as negotiations get under way. Interestingly, Mbeki made no mention of sanctions or outside pressure as a factor in Botha’s becoming a partner for peace. He attributed it rather to the recognition of a common destiny, for good or ill: Botha and his fellow broederbonders concluded that “if all political formations in our country did not agree on its post-apartheid future by 1990, we would all be faced with… violent racial conflagration.”

Sanctions or no, the broeders knew apartheid had reached a dead end. The only people they could turn to for help were their South African brothers and sisters, whom they were finally obliged to recognize as such. So it is for the junta. Mugabe and his gang are out of options. No one in Africa, or beyond, is coming to their rescue. Only Zimbabweans can save them, which is as it should be. Mbeki has seen to that.

Two last points. First, the humanity and greatness of heart that shine through Mbeki’s letter on Botha, and a companion essay on Adriaan Vlok washing Rev Frank Chikane’s feet, are what get me up every morning to plead South Africa’s cause, for these are national traits.

Second, how is it just to laud Mandela for advocating forgiveness as the path to national reconciliation when the offensive regime was white, but to castigate Mbeki for doing to same when the dictatorship is black?

Attention must be paid

Samantha Power, author of a Pulitzer-prize winning book on genocide, had to quit as a foreign policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama last March after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster”. Now she would like President Thabo Mbeki to be equally forthright, and self-defeating, about Robert Mugabe.

Her column in this week’s Time magazine deals with Zimbabwe and what is to be done about it. She calls for a show of hands at the UN on which of Zimbabwe’s two elections so far this year should count: March 29 or June 27. That way, she says, the friends of Mugabe will be exposed.

Then what? As in so many such analyses the question is left unanswered.  But of one thing Power is certain. Mugabe’s friends include Mbeki, of whom she says simply:  “Mbeki is not a mediator; he is an ally to a dictator.” Continue reading “Attention must be paid”

Fathers, the importance thereof

It was memorable visit to the doctor for a couple of reasons, starting with the cause: a dodgy samoosa eaten at the  table of a senior official who likes to order in.  My symptoms would have triggered a gag reflex in  Florence Nightingale herself.

Then there was the conversation with the doctor after he’d prescribed an antibiotic generally regarded as the last line of defense against anthrax . We talked about AIDS. He had a lot of patients in Soweto infected with HIV.

He wanted me to deliver a message.  “We have got to have a campaign to restore fatherhood in this country.”  Fathers in the parenting rather than the simpler wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am sense could do a lot to stem the transmission of HIV, he believed.  But in SA they were scarce. Continue reading “Fathers, the importance thereof”

Obama and Africa

If and when Senator Barack Obama is sworn in next January as America’s 44th president and the first of African descent, whither US-African relations? It’s a complicated question. The answers won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Obama’s own relationship with continent begins, obviously, with his late Kenyan father, of whom he saw little but says this in a speech – to date his most extended utterance on Africa — he gave at the University of Nairobi in August 2006: “For all his education, my father’s life ended up being filled with disappointments”.

The source of those disappointments? “The politics of tribe and patronage” in newly independent Kenya. Obama Sr. was a Luo; the new elite predominantly, selfishly, Kikuyu. That and a propensity to speak his mind cost the Harvard-educated technocrat his career and landed him close to the gutter for many years. Continue reading “Obama and Africa”