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”

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”

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”