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”

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”

The Curious Pedigree of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award its annual peace prize to President Barack Obama has left a lot of people, even his admirers, slack-jawed. Some perspective might help. The use of flattery as a means of nudging the powerful has a long history. “Praise and counsel have a common aspect,” said Aristotle.

A notorious example was the attempt by the Roman politician and intellectual are Lucius Annaeus Seneca to set Nero on the straight and narrow when the latter became emperor at age 16. Seneca addressed an extended essay to his former pupil entitled On Clemency in which he obsequiously invested Nero with all the qualities of a great leader in hopes that the young autocrat might take the hint. It may have worked for a time. The first five years of Nero’s reign were generally remembered as something of a golden age. Things went downhill after he murdered his mother.

Former president Thabo Mbeki often attempted to use much the same technique (or so it seemed to me), congratulating not terribly deserving people — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, for example — as a way of rebuking them or at least of suggesting how they ought to behave. Whether he had any more success than Seneca is open to debate. On occasion, possibly. The way he applauded Namibian President Sam Nujoma into respecting his country’s constitutional term limits – when Nujoma quite clearly had other ideas — was masterful. Continue reading “The Curious Pedigree of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize”

A Life in Three Acts

When F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no second acts in American lives, he had been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He did not mean that Americans could not reinvent themselves. They do that all the time. He meant that in their rush to cut to the chase, they had a tendency to jump straight to the third act from the first. This rang true as America remembered Senator Edward Kennedy this past week before laying him to rest alongside his two older brothers in Arlington Cemetery.

The great, sprawling melodrama of Kennedy’s life has three well-demarcated acts. The first, encompassing his privileged childhood, hell-raising, playboy-in-the-making schooldays and easy inheritance of brother John’s Senate seat when the latter was elected president, closes with the assassination of brother Robert in 1968 and the question: does our hero have what it takes to assume the mantle of its two murdered siblings? Their courtiers certainly hope so.

Act two, the one that did not get so much attention last week, opens with a self-inflicted disaster that suggests the answer to the question posed in act one is a definitive no. Just as America is landing a man on the moon, completing the quest launched by John in 1961, a liquored up Teddy goes for a midnight drive with a young campaign worker and swerves into a pond. She drowns, he escapes and goes back to his hotel as if nothing had happened. The family machine goes into action. The victim’s family is compensated, the legal consequences are largely avoided, and the hero’s is neck saved. Continue reading “A Life in Three Acts”

The Way It Was

One wonders whether Wolf Blitzer, the CNN news anchor, cringes every time he has to say on air that his network has “the best political team in the business”. He should. Certainly, I cringe whenever I hear some marketing type insist on calling South Africa “world-class”. If you have to keep reminding people that you are world-class  or the best, you are almost by definition saying the opposite of what you intend.

Walter Cronkite, the legendary American newscaster who died at 92 on Friday, never had to brag or utter silly slogans for his network, CBS. Anchoring the evening news through two tumultuous decades, the 60s and the 70s, “Uncle Walter”, as America affectionately call him, was quite simply the best. In 1972, he was voted the most trusted man in the country.

Back then, there were only three US television networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, and watching the evening news, often round the dinner table, was still a national habit. Cronkite and his competitors had a lot of unsettling news to deliver. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev Martin Luther King, Vietnam, race riots, the shooting of anti-war protesters at Kent State University, Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the Three Mile Island nuclear scare and Iranian hostage crisis all happened on Cronkite’s watch. Continue reading “The Way It Was”


Aad Kieboom, a Dutch economist consulting on the expansion of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, not long ago decided  the time had come to solve the problem of accuracy in men’s rooms. His solution was to improve patrons’ aim by having flies etched inside the urinals as a target. In trials, the flies were found to reduce splatter by 80%.

Kieboom’s etchings are what  Cass Sunstein and Edward Thaler call a nudge in their book of the same name.  Thaler, a behavioural economist, and Sunstein, a legal scholar, were until last year colleagues at the University of Chicago.  Sunstein, after a brief detour to Harvard, was recently appointed by another former colleague from Chicago, President Barack Obama, to run the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. There, he oversees the flow of information from, into and within government and the crafting of federal regulations. Directors of OIRA have seldom been household names; Sunstein may prove the exception.

He first came onto my radar when he presented at a June 1992 conference in Washington on constitutional options for post apartheid South Africa. I forget his exact thrust that day. What I do know is that he became a great admirer of the constitution South Africans did finally work out for themselves. Continue reading “Nudges”


Back when I was a member of the Fourth Estate, I was always quite happy to bite any hand that fed me. If you offered me an expense paid trip, I would generally have no compunction about taking it, but you had better be prepared to count your fingers when I wrote it up.

When I mentioned this the other day to Steve Goff, the Washington Post’s soccer correspondent/blogger, he sounded quite appalled.  What shocked him was not my capacity for ingratitude when calling things as I saw them, but that I would have ever dreamt of accepting a freebie in the first place.

Our conversation, at this stage being conducted, with epithets, via e-mail, had begun more decorously at Washington’s National Press Club to which we had repaired as lunch guests of South African Tourism to hear Lucas Radebe talk about South Africa’s preparations for 2010. Continue reading “Sanctimony”


Recently in this space I wondered whether it was really in South Africa’s interest to make another trek into the weeds of wat verby is for the purpose of extracting money from foreign firms that may have aided and abetted apartheid crimes. That is where cases now before a federal court in New York are taking us.

Here is a journey of whose value I am much more certain. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, go and see the movie Skin, now winning acclaim on the international festival circuit and scheduled for release in the UK in June,  the US in August. Hopefully, you won’t have to travel that far but it rather depends on Ster-Kinekor which seems to be having trouble making up its mind.

Skin tells the true story of Sandra Laing, born in 1955 to Abraham and Sannie Laing, an Afrikaner couple from Piet Retief, he of German stock and she of Dutch, more or less. Somewhere along the line, their gene pools picked up a little indigenous DNA which, as if to present a raised middle finger to the social engineers of apartheid, blossomed forth in Sandra. Continue reading “Skin”


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 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”