Dec 042013

There is a prevailing myth in South Africa today that the old National Party government did a pretty decent job of running the country. Sure there were apartheid but the politicians were honest, had good intentions and built up the country and it's infrastructure.

The origins of this myth is not hard to trace: it's exactly what the Nats were telling South Africa during the more 50-odd years they were in charge. What is more interesting is the side effects of it:  The contrast with current government scandals – both corruption and service delivery related.

And tied into this – the core question we must answer: why does this myth persist to be able to create these contradictions ? We cannot only attribute this to effective National Party propaganda, the more right wingers will talk of how Bantu education budgets exceeded white education budgets (and ignore realities like how Bantu education systems were designed to suppress rather than uplift it's receivers – culminating in the June 1976 unrests) showing that the propaganda was believed – but the ANC is certainly no less busy spreading it's own propaganda and bragging about it's supposed achievements – so why the difference ?

Why do ANC propaganda have a limited impact, while National Party propaganda – unheard since the 1980's continue to be beleived ? 

We hear about service delivery failures, protests around them and even many rightwingers feel a twinge of sympathy for the protesters (well sometimes) yet somehow they don't make the connection that exactly the same failure happened under the NATS at a much grander scale ? After all – the NATS simply did not try to deliver proper services to the bulk of the population.

Can it really be explained pure by the fact that those believing this were mostly from the section of the population that did receive services (and, on average, still receives far better) ?

I don't think so – that doesn't explain the over-all myth, though it certainly (and significantly) contributes to it's prevalence. It doesn't explain why there is a sincere belief that misguided as they were, NP politicians were honest, hardworking and well-meaning – while corruption is a cancer of the ANC only.

Especially since no historian actually agrees with that- in fact the NP's history of corruption was severe, excessive and certainly no less egregious than that of the ANC.

The real difference I believe is these few facts:

1) Until 1976 South Africa had no television service, and the only radio service was government run.

2) When a television service was introduced, this was also government run – no private vendors were allowed to broadcast television in South Africa until 1986 when M-Net got a license and they were prohibted from broadcasting news.

3) The largest newspaper group in the country (which controlled nearly 90% of all printed media) was, while not government owned extremely government aligned (in fact – it's long time chief Piet Steyn was chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond).

4) What little private media existed, as well as international media companies, were tightly controlled by a web of censorship laws that made bad news and scandals essentially impossible to reveal.

Despite all this there was one, well-known corruption scandal in the NP years – the infogate scandal of the early 1980's – but it's the only one that came to light and many NP members of those days actually considered that one to be a fabricated scandal that was created to frame Connie Mulder in order to clear the way for P.W. Botha to become executive state president (a conspiracy theory lent some creedence by the fact that Mulder was found innocent during his later criminal trial – but had been kicked out of the running by then).

Only one corruption scandal in 50 years -and that one quite possibly never happened. It's simply not possible – it defies all experience of politics throughout human history. Sure you can get a good, honest leader now and then  -but 5 decades full of government without a single bad apple ? Just not possible.

But when that government essentially controlled every piece of media in the country – it would be quite possible for a completely corrupt government to never, ever get caught. That is a lot more plausible. I posit that the Nats were as, if not more, corrupt a government than the ANC (and that there is no such thing as an un-corrupt government) – they just never let the public be allowed to find out about it.

There was a lack of scandal – not a lack of corruption. The product of censorship and media control – and exactly why these are such vile things.

The scandals in our country is a sign of hope -our politicians did not magically become more honest (and I don't think that will ever happen on this earth) – but they are finding it a lot harder to keep it secret or get away with it, and that is a good thing.

It is also why the continuing protests against the secrecy bill are so, so very important. Because the last thing we need – is to allow the ANC government to gain the power the Nats once had: the power to stop us from finding out when they are corrupt.

May 302012

This past week it made frontpage news (at least in one newspaper) that there was a certain unhappiness because a ccoffee-shop on the UCT campus was selling coffee in mugs printed with Axe logos – specifically logos consisting of bra-clad female breasts.Student Olivia Walton was apparently particularly offended by this marketing campaign and her complaints led to the university administration banning the coffee-shop from further use of these cups. The story reminded me of one from 2009 when a group of feminists in the UK, inspired by the movie calendar girls, did a nude calendar to raise money for feminism – which their chosen feminist charity then refused to accept on the grounds that they don't want to encourage the objectification of woman through nudity.  This in fact appears to be a running debate in feminist circles these days – with about one half of them convinced that feeling free to be naked or nearly so, openly sexual and unasshamed is a celebration of womanhood and the culmination of the feminist ideal, and the other half of them equally convinced that all recognition of woman as sexual beings detract from them as any other kind of beings (notably intellectual beings) and is therefore harmful to their cause.

Both seem quite assured that their view represents equality for women. Personally I'm not so interested today in who is right,. I  have a much bigger concern: why is it that the group which aims to censor public discourse is so incredibly successful ? When the ANC wanted to censor male nudity used for political critique there was a major outcry from pro-freedom-of-speech folk all over the country. There were questions raised about it as racism – but nobody ever suggested that using a penis as a political symbol may be denigrating to men. More importantly – there was no counter-cry-out against UCT admnistration or the esteemed Miss Walton's demands that the coffee-company change their mugs.

Why not ?  I'm the first to admit that using boobs to sell coffee is probably not as important an act of free speech as political art (although that is debate-able, some of those calendar girl type feminists may even think it's more important) but that isn't actually a consideration. Fundamental to a believe in freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of speech is a recognition that this means I fight for the right of other people to offend me. I have the right to respond to their offensive behaviour, to be critical there-off, to shout at them… but I do not have the right to prevent them from saying it.

Miss Walton and her kind of feminists are hardly alone in wishing to use pressure to prevent the public from hearing speech they don't approve off, the C.A.N.'s successful pressures preventing two satelite  TV companies from launching porn channels in South Africa to date is exactly the same thing- but again, while they succeeded at least there was an outcry from those who love freedom. What I don't understand is why nobody seems willing to say to Miss Walton: I know you don't like this, I respect your right to say it-  but you are not allowed to demand they stop, neither should the university administration have that power since academic institutions above all else must be centres of free speech, the very concept of academic and scientific freedom falls apart otherwise. 

Somebody need to ask Miss Walton and her fellow anti-nudity feminists: "What about the right of people to disagree with you ?"  At least in theory your primary cause is the recognition of your rights, but then should the golden rule not apply ? How can you in one breath demand rights for yourself, while denying basic liberties to those who don't share your point of view ? A point of view even your own philosophy is divided on at that !  And how did feminism gain so much social-clout that nobody in a position of power is ever willing to say "sorry, we respect your views but we won't censor dissenting views."

This may come as a shock to Miss Walton but many people of both gender's think breasts are rather beautiful things which should be celebrated, I would argue that it's basically impossible to take a picture of a breast without it being artistic because the sheer beauty of your subject will always be undeniable. I don't deny Miss Watson her right to wish she lived in a world where boobs were not beautiful to most people, I don't have the slightest desire to deny her the right to say that to anybody who will listen-  hell go camp out in front of the coffee shop with a sign complaining and I will support your right to do it… but the moment you asked the university administration to intervene and prevent these mugs with the rulebook – you went too far, you went outside the realms of defending your freedom and began to intrude on everybody else's freedom. Exactly there is the line drawn and the moment you were prepared to even consider doing so, you lost my support. I will never support a cause that sees censorship as a valid weapon in achieving their goals because there is no end so noble as to justify censorship as a means.


Feb 082011

Ouranophobia is the fear of heaven. Now of course that sounds a bit unusual – of all the things people can be afraid of heaven doesn't exactly jump to the top of the list. Those who believe it exists, after all, believe it to be an ultimate reward – life beyond death and opposed to eternal suffering beyond death… it doesn't sound like something most people would be scared off now does it ?

Well the phobia exists, there is pretty much nothing on this planet (real or conceptual) that somebody, somewhere isn't obsessively afraid off. It's just one of those weird quirks of the human mind – reinforced by the fear-based advertising and news of the consumer-culture that people have a tendency to develop obsessive fears of things. The classic joke among atheists is that Ouranophobia is a very valid fear – after all heaven is where all the Christians hang out and the thought of an eternity in their company would scare the hell (see what I did there) out of a lot of people…

Well now Ouranophobia has gained even greater legitimacy.  In South Africa our esteemed, brave and fearless dealer has announced to us that the way to get to heaven is to vote for the ruling party. That in fact rather than checking the mystical book of St. Peter – Heaven's gates can be opened simply with an ANC membership card. A sort of "my name isn't on the list mister bouncer but look I got a platinum credit card" at the nightclub approach to religion I guess.

So if hanging out with the self-righteous (I always found that one odd – doesn't being self-righteous directly remove the very reason somebody would be a believer in the first place ?), judgmental hypocrites of organized religion for all eternity wasn't scary enough – now you'll have to join them with the self-righteous, self-enriching disciples of the ANC's church of tenderpreneurism and the majestic priests of cabinet… yep… suddenly heaven became a great deal scarier. 

Between the penguin-suited elders and the penguin-suited black diamonds the place would resemble Sandton City on a Sunday afternoon – and while there are definitely some scarier places in the world – right now, I'm having serious trouble thinking of more than one or two. 

Dec 122008

Just one week before his untimely death, Uwe mailed me a copy of a short story he had written entitled “Two old men”, asking me to read it for him and provide constructive critique and editing. It was, as I had told him at the time, a wonderful story – a story that truly understood the difficulties of people who had lived through the liberation struggles in Africa on both sides of them, and are trying to come to terms with the world of today where they have to live together and learn to overcome those old ideas to build a better place for their children.

Uwe was writing from his deepseated love for his adopted continent and country and it spoke to me from every word. Uwe also told me that it was intended to be the first of a series of stories that would follow his two old men on their journey. Unfortunately, he never had a chance to write part two. For six months I kept my copy safe, wondering what to do with it. I knew he wanted to publish it, but I also know it was not the final draft yet and that Uwe was not entirely satisfied with it yet.

Finally, in the past week, I spoke to Joris Komen about it. He had also been a close friend of Uwe’s and after some discussion we agreed that I should publish it. Even if it’s just on this blog. Perhaps somebody will read it and do it the honor it deserves, to be more formally published in a collection or a magazine, perhaps not – but at least some people will get to read it. I highly recommend it, I generally scorn pretty much any writing about African politics for being shallow and missing without exception at least half the picture on whatever it is about – in that pile of muck, Uwe’s last story is a shining diamond and I hope that my publishing it here will get it at least a bit of the recognition it so richly deserves.

So without further ado, here is a link to the story in PDF format.

Dec 082008

Now as some of you may know, I haven’t voted since the 2000 election. Generally the first reaction I hear upon telling people that is that I am apathetic and not fullfilling my responsibilities as a South African citizen. Actually that is far from true, my refusal to vote is not a matter of apathy but a carefully thought out and well discussed decision based on a matter of principle.

That principle is that before I will indicate my support for a party, I must believe that (1) they represent my views (2) they are honest in their promises and will in actual fact rule according to the principles they espouse.

So why don’t I vote – firstly because one major disillusionment of my life has been learning that nobody worth voting for would ever become a politician. By the mere virtue of wanting power, you make yourself the worst possible type of person to give it to. Politicians want power, they want to pursue their careers and they don’t actually give a damn about the things they say they stand for – all that matters to them is that voters give a damn about those, enough to vote for them.

Whether they will actually do anything about it is a whole other kettle of fish – and worldwide the experience has been they won’t – unless the balance of power is so narrow that failure to fulfill even one promise is a guarantee of not being reelected. Keep in mind – I don’t think the government is in charge, this is a republic – not a monarchy, they do not rule us, we rule them – they’re job is supposed to be representing OUR values, OUR ideas and OUR interests.

This does not conflict with my Christianity at all (despite the views of my Theologian brother in law) – quite the contrary, I still believe in honoring the law and the rulers – I just disagree about who God’s appointed rulers ARE. They are US – the citizens and taxpayers – every single one of us. And when you think like that, breaking the law is far worse – because now it’s not somebody else’s laws you are breaking, it’s your own – our own and the people you harm through it is every single other person in the country, up to and including your own family.

The government is supposed to work for us. Their job is not to tell us how to live, it’s to make sure we are able to live the way we tell them we want to.

So that’s one reason – politicians are liars, cheats and thiefs without exception (if you weren’t at least two out of three, you wouldn’t want to BE a politician so the only exceptions that exist are those who got thrust into politics against their will – which is when you get leaders like Ghandi) – and I refuse to tacitly accept this or endorse any politician who is well… like a politician as a matter of moral principle.
The other reason is that before I vote for a party, before I endorse them – I must feel the represent my views and beliefs about how the country should work.

Sorry, voting for the opposition just because it’s important to limit the party in power’s strength is just not good enough for me. I have to be voting for an opposition I at least mostly agree with – thus far, none of South Africa’s parties have even remotely resembled my views.

They go for popular appeal with that side of the population which is most vocal – the religious right and push their agendas without concern for what is good for society as a whole. When all you care about is the vocal ones, you are bound to ignore the whispered cries of the voiceless suffering – and I cannot endorse or promote that.

Some have told me that if I feel this way, I should spoil my ballot on purpose… but what does that do ? There is no distinguishing count for obviously spoilt ballots – there is nothing to tell my ballot apart from people who just cannot read it or whose pen spilled in. If the ballot had a “none-of-the-above” option – I would be voting on that though. Instead, I still believe I am doing my duties as a citizen despite my refusal to vote by participating in the democratic process in other ways. I write letters to newspapers, I write articles on this blog, I read the papers and comment on them – I call into chat shows and point out stupidities.

One of my recent favorites was the reaction to the Julius Malema debacle – I must have been the only person who called in and didn’t say either “Julius is right” or “The ANC should order him to shut up”. Neither of those points have anything to do with the discussion. The important thing as far as I’m concerned is that Julius Malema is a citizen of South Africa and thus has a constitutionally protected right to free speech. If you don’t like what he says speak out – LOUDLY – complain and state why it’s wrong. But do not call for censorship.

The answer to bad speech is more good speech. It is never to demand less speech of any kind. I completely despise what he said, and I said it out loud – but I will also defend to the death his right to say it – because if that right goes away, our country is doomed to the worst things that can happen to countries, every single one of them.

So then why the title of this post ? Because, for the first time in eight years I’m considering voting again. If I vote, it will be for COPE. Jonathan Endersby’s post about COPE quite neatly sums up a lot of why I might vote for them.

Their stated policies make sense, they inspire people – and their criticisms are based on things that really are wrong, not emotional responses to appeal to some or other groups moral beliefs. Now unlike Jonathan, I don’t think this has anything to do with them being good people – they are politicians, as scummy as the rest of them – but it comes out of need. The very existence of COPE has finally created a true democracy in South Africa – a democracy where real issues need to be addressed and debated and people’s actual needs have to matter -because one vote lost could be one too many.

Finally we have a system that can work – because finally, if a politician screws up – we the people (his boss) can fire him. So will I vote ? And will I vote for COPE ? I don’t know yet, but I’m watching with interest, we still have some time to register – before the time runs out I will decide and register if I believe that the hope expressed in this post has been justified.

Sep 222008

What a morning… the blogosphere and news sites here in SA are abuzzing with the sudden resignation of the South African president Thabo Mbeki last night. Odd though, because it’s pretty much been on the cards for about 2 weeks. From the moment the court dismissed the charges against Zuma the newspapers were predicting that this would spell the end for Mbeki. By last week Friday we all knew that the ANC’s National Executive Committee was meeting to discuss the event and it was an open secret that they intended to use the meeting to decide not if but how to fire the President.
They had essentially three choices. The first option was to impeach Mbeki, this would require a two-thirds majority vote in parliament (and I suspect even now Mbeki might have been able to muster up enough supporters in there [or at least people who knew if he falls they go with him] to avoid them getting that). The second option would be cast a vote of no-confidence in Mbeki, this requires only a vote of 50%+1 to pass and I suspect both they and Mbeki knew they could do it. Either of these are pretty undignified ways to leave the office of the president though, and likely to do longterm damage to our economy, regional standing and international image (which, some would say, would require advanced mathematicians to invent an entire new type of complex negative numbers).
Bringing us to option 3: Simply asking him to resign.
Of course, that by itself wouldn’t have worked outright – except that he knew options one and two still existed and particularly option two wouldn’t be hard. So it was a simple case of: leave, or we kick you out.

All in all I was entirely unsurprised by the events.
Having said that, this is a great day for South Africa. Mbeki was one of the worst things to ever happen to our country, he had been in power too long and he allowed personal feelings and greed to influence his judgment on critical matters like Zimbabwe and the AIDS crisis. Getting him out of power now was a good thing.
Having said that, I don’t think Zuma is a better person, or even a better politician though. He may or may not be guilty of corruption and I think he was, but I think Mbeki was very corrupt himself so this is not a major change in the status quo. What does set Zuma appart is that he was not in power for a long time, he has never been president and in order to get back into power he had to adorn a “champion of the little guy” image. The simple reality is that he is likely to do a better job at this stage because he needs to distinguish himself from his predecessor and he cannot do that without some radical policy changes. His best bet would be to make these changes on exactly those points where Mbeki was the least popular such as the AIDS crisis.
I have always felt that all politicians are corrupt, only the amount varies and the best of them are still more corrupt than the worst average citizen. This is a bit of a generalisation but if you believe, like I do, that only a corrupt person could ever have any desire to hold power over others, in fact that the very desire to have power is corruption then it follows that nobody who isn’t already corrupt would even become a politician in the first place. Once power is attained, the corruption changes focus not nature.
So this being the case, it makes sense then that there are only two things which can help society to get the service they need from politicians. The first is an educated electorate who will fire them if they mess up too badly … well we’re pretty short of those worldwide. The second is enlightened self interest. Create a situation where it becomes in the politicians own best interest to do the right thing. Where doing the right thing becomes the best way to secure his own position.
That is the position we find ourselves in with Zuma now – his only option if he wants to become president and get two terms is to do good things where Mbeki did bad things, and that is good for the country. If we assume that he won’t make too many other mistakes (notice: “too many”, the idea that he may not make any is not even worthy of consideration) then this is a good day for South Africa.
Heritage day is this Wednesday, and this country should party. Much like in the classic movie we can say: “Mona Deary is dead ? We should celebrate !”, those of us who particularly suffered under Mbeki’s semi-tyrannical rule such as people suffering from HIV may even take it a step further, I suspect the treatment action campaign is busy singing “ding dong the witch is dead”.

May 052008

After nearly 3 months of very hard (and secret) labor, I can finally reveal my latest project. GeekBling a South African based online T-Shirt shop with a specific focus on computer programmers, savvy users and other geeks of various degrees.

It’s all about pride, and living life passionately. Check it out.

Apr 162008

Laptopmag just published a story about how the ‘window of opportunity’ for Lin… it’s GNU/Linux darnit, has ‘closed’. Something attributed to a few small changes in the market. Several bloggers have already taken the article apart for the degree to which it over-blows both a few small victories and losses, I felt that somebody should take it apart for it’s sheer ridiculousness.
How do you take something ridiculous apart ? Easy, you make fun of it.
Well how do you make fun of somebody who says GNU/Linux is dead ? Well you tell him it’s not dead, it’s undead. Hell I’ve seen so many ‘GNU is dead’, ‘Linux is dead’,’GNU/Linux is dead’,’It’s dead, we really mean it this time’ and ‘Linux is so dead it was never even there to start with’ articles over the years that by now the only reasonable assumption is that GNU/Linux in fact passed away sometime in the 1980’s and have returned from the grave.
Ever since then it has been eating the brains of all the FOSS developers out there, using their smarts to keep it’s accursed form alive and acquiring their skills as new powers…erm i mean features.

First Balmer called us ‘a non-issue’ and didn’t really ‘see it as a threat at all’. Then we were the enemy.
Now, they are at least admitting the truth: we scare the shite out of them. Which is appropriate, zombies are scary and just like our horror-movie kin, the problem is, the no matter how many you kill, three more are waiting to take his place.
So far, we’re winning, actually we’ve always been winning. It’s just that journalists like stories that happen really fast. I’ve said it before, changing the desktop status-quo will take at least a decade to complete, we’re getting there. As Neil Armstrong taught us, sometimes a small step is a big leap. Every small step for GNU/Linux is a big leap for software freedom and mainstream acceptance (even dominance though I shudder to use that word in anything but an absolutely joking sense: the whole point is to not dominate the users).

So the window for Linux to suddenly replace all the windows desktops (sheez try saying that ten times fast) hasn’t closed, it never existed. The windows platform was basically the first graphical interface most people ever knew. It spread fast because the only other one was much more expensive – and it had almost 20 years to build up inertia. You do not replace something like that in a few months.
You replace it, one computer at a time, even if it takes ten years. We’ve had some really epic wins lately, and a few epic fails along the way. This is not new. When egcs split up from gcc that was an epic fail too. Not egcs – the very fact that a split was required to light a fire under gcc’s ass. When they remerged, that was an epic win. Basically, you win some, you lose some. But something with the momentum of GNU/Linux, the drive and passion behind it. Something that ultimately really is better for most people must ultimately win.
I see the GNU/Linux revolution in the fact that: every single day percentage of people for whom it is better is growing. I think it may already be a majority, if not it’s very close. The bigger it gets, the louder the voices of that small part that can overcome their inertia becomes, which drives more people to switch yet again. Ultimately, GNU/Linux will win the desktop because we’re getting better – every day, and nobody else can really say that. But it will take a few years.

PS. I actually started writing this post a few days ago, but a power failure cut me off halfway and I hadn’t even realized there was a draft until today, when I decided it was worth resurrecting it.