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”

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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”

An Unfriendly Act

South Africa, argues Michael Gerson, formerly President George Bush’s chief speechwriter, now a Washington Post columnist, has become a “rogue democracy” under President Thabo Mbeki. As exhibit A, he cites a private letter from Mbeki to Bush, dated late April, regarding Zimbabwe.

The contents were leaked to him by the White House, an unfriendly and quite possibly illegal act. He summarizes them thus in his May 28 column: “Rather than coordinating strategy to end Zimbabwe’s nightmare, Mbeki criticized the US, in a text packed with exclamation points, for taking sides against President Mugabe’s government and disrespecting the views of the Zimbabwean people.”

He then quoted two US officials.  Mbeki told Bush Zimbabwe “was  not our business” and “to butt out, that Africa belongs to him,” one said. The other added some commentary: “Mbeki lost it; it was outrageous.” Having not had access to the letter myself, I cannot comment on the use of exclamation points, but the general thrust, if accurately conveyed, seems anything but outrageous. What business does the US have in Zimbabwe nowadays? Continue reading “An Unfriendly Act”

Needed: politicians who represent

SAfm talk show host Eric Miyeni got it exactly right the other evening when he inveighed against the habit of referring to South Africa’s poor as “the masses”. It is a condescending, dehumanizing term, implying, consciously or not, a sense of lordly detachment on the part of the person using it.

Unfortunately, but for good and evident historical reasons, it has become deeply imbedded in South African political discourse. And not only there.

Not long ago I got an email announcing that South Africa was to exhibit at the annual flower show at Washington’s National Cathedral. This, said the writer, a member of the embassy staff,  was “an excellent opportunity to reach the masses with a positive message from South Africa”. Continue reading “Needed: politicians who represent”

Feeding lawyers

The attempt to extract $400 billion in reparations for apartheid from some 50 multinational corporations via the US courts over the strenuous objections of the South African government won a reprieve this week. The endeavour remains quixotic, nonetheless. The only redistribution of wealth ever likely to result is from shareholders to lawyers. There has been plenty of that already. There will be more.

The US Supreme Court was expected to put American Isuzu Motors, et al., v. Ntsebeza, et al., as the case is now officially known, out of its misery in short order. Then four of the nine justices unexpectedly recused themselves. Three have investments in defendant companies, a corporate who’s who of North America and Europe. The fourth has a son who works in one. It takes a quorum of six to hear an appeal.

So, by default, the case goes back to federal district Judge John Sprizzo in New York who dismissed it in 2004. Last year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals court found flaws in Sprizzo’s reasoning and told him to try again. That instruction must now be carried out. More years of litigation are in the offing, beginning with a hearing on July 8. Continue reading “Feeding lawyers”

Cuito Cuanavale — Alive With Ambiguity

So the battle of Cuito Cuanavale is to become a tourist site. May I suggest a slogan? Southern Angola – Alive with Ambiguity. It will be interesting to see what the plaques say.

I wonder whether they will reflect what Fidel Castro told the Cuban Council of State on July 9, 1989, a year after the hostilities ended. It is not a version that reflects particularly well on anyone except, of course, Fidel himself.

His purpose in addressing the Council that day was to endorse the death sentence imposed on General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, Cuba’s top commander in Angola from November 1987 until his summons home in January 1989 to face charges of drug-running. For obvious reasons, the portrayal of Ochoa is not flattering.

The Angolans and their Soviet allies do not come off so well either. In fact, as the story opens in late 1987, they are in headlong retreat, smashed by the South African Defence Force, Unita and their own ineptitude after a lumbering thrust at the Unita base camp, Jamba.

“Everyone was asking us to do something,” Castro recalled. He, as ever, was decisive amid the panic. “We ourselves understood that even though we were in no way responsible for the errors that had led to the situation, we could not sit still and allow a military and political catastrophe to occur…Many problems had to be solved.”

These included the paucity of lead in everyone else’s pencil. The fleeing Angolan army had paused at Cuito Cuanavale, but, in Castro’s telling, would have scarpered on north with Ochoa’s blessing had he not overruled the pusillanimous joint command in Luanda and taken charge himself.

He describes the frustrations of trying to command Angolans from Havana. They simply would not close up their defensive line with the result the South Africans were able to slice through and pin them against the Cuito river. Only a Cuban counterattack, so we are told, preserved them from annihilation.

And after that, it was Cuban leadership (minus, of course, Ochoa) that stabilized the line, saving Cuito Cuanavale, and freeing up Fidel for the real masterstroke: a grand demonstration of martial intent towards the Namibian border through Cunene province which, we are told, finally convinced PW Botha to say basta.

The Angolans, whose sovereignty Cuba was nominally there to protect, do not feature heavily in Fidel’s narrative at this point. Absent is any mention of Umkhonto we Sizwe among the Cuito Cuanavale defenders.

Castro’s version of events served a purpose, as all legends do. It enabled him to pull his troops out of Angola with honour intact, even enhanced, while disgracing one of his greatest generals, who, for reasons still unclear, he wanted dead.

The ironies abound. Castro could declare victory and bug out looking like a hero because of a bargain framed by Ronald Reagan’s Metternich in Africa, Dr Chester Crocker. South Africa would leave Namibia if Cuba left Angola. Fidel understood he could don the laurels for Namibian independence so long as he could first persuade the world he had saved Angola. A credulous world bit.

A corollary of the deal, which Castro readily accepted once his own glory was secure, was the ANC’s ignominious expulsion from Angola. President Eduardo Dos Santos and the MPLA had to go along with this as well.

One day, when it is as matter of purely academic interest, we may reach a consensus on what happened at Cuito Cuanavale. Today, perhaps, it is still too much of a Rorschach test.

As I look at it now with El Jefe in his twilight years, I would say he played his hand in Angola extremely well. As always he punched way above his weight. He exploited opportunities. He did not get hung up on sophomoric solidarities, let alone anything so bourgeois as the truth. He demonstrated his great strategic gift. He marketed himself and Cuba brilliantly.

He has always been a master at that. He’s had to kill of lot of people, one way or another, along the way. Others he’s had to torture and reeducate. I wouldn’t say, having been there several times, that Cubans are the happiest people on earth.

But you have to love the way Castro’s communism keeps the proletariat off the nicer beaches.