Sunday, November 9, 2008

South Africa needs some loving

I admit I feel sorry for former President Thabo Mbeki. I know there are many out there who think he got what he deserved, but his summary dismissal smacked of retribution rather than mature democracy in action.

As I sat thousands of miles away listening to the news on internet radio one image came to mind: a ship of revenge-filled and rum-laden pirates forcing their former captain to walk the plank to jeers and applause.

This is not to say I am a die-hard Mbeki fan. As regular readers of this column will know I have criticised him on several matters. Then again I doubt I will be asking Jacob Zuma over for a cup of tea soon either. The way scandal follows him worries me, as well as his polarising politics.

Since when did South Africa start embracing the "you are either with us or against us" mentality of George Bush? These days it appears as if any remarks about the presidential brawl results in one being placed in the Mbeki or Zuma camp. How did South Africa come to this?

At the risk of reducing complex political shenanigans to the absurd, I see the furore, at least in part, as being linked to the politics of emotion.

It is a well-known story that when Thabo Mbeki met his father, the political stalwart and Robben-islander Govan Mbeki, after not seeing him for 28 years, the pair first shook hands and then briefly hugged calling each other comrades. When Govan was asked about what it was like to see Thabo he said: "Not much finer than seeing others. You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade".

At the risk of psychoanalysing the Mbekis, and notwithstanding decades of hardship, exile and harassment from the apartheid police that saw Thabo Mbeki's son and brother disappear, this incident speaks volumes. Mbeki was not a man prone to sentimentality and emotion, and this came through in his presidency.

On one level, he failed to deliver sufficient material progress, which was inevitable given the apartheid backlog. However, I also believe he did not demonstrate enough understanding and empathy. His continual denialism - whether about HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe, crime, or the importance of reparations to TRC victims - painted the populace as unable to deal with difficult problems, thus disempowering them. He seemed to feel that he could think his way out the problems rather than lead his way through them with the people.

I believe that his pragmatic and enigmatic persona, whether his true self or not, was an anathema to the South African psyche. We are an emotional people. This is captured in the Toyi-toyi dance used at celebrations and funerals. Emotions and politics are integrally linked, embodied in all the cuddly stereotypes projected on to President Mandela. Against this backdrop it was inevitable that at some point the emotional void created by Mbeki at the top of the political ladder would become unbearable. The result was mutiny.

But now what?

Emotionally speaking, Jacob Zuma is a much better fit for South Africa. He is said to be an amiable, charming and compassionate person. But the court cases and his ruthless ability to dispose of political opponents is hardly appealing making him a difficult person to warm to politically. I think he is, at best, a quick fix, emotionally speaking.

The new South African President, Kgalema Motlanthe, is said to be smart, likeable and exudes a quiet charisma. However, he has risen to power in the most inauspicious of circumstances.

So the emotional vacuum created by Mbeki is still gaping, filled momentarily by a cathartic rage and some bloodletting, and an affable caretaker President. But I fear that more needs to be done for a nation that is, at least at the leadership level, in desperate need of a damned good hug.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 October 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A war on terror or a war on reason

India defies description, especially after you spend only a week there and in one city, Delhi. Delhi is a great city of the world, embodying dozens of cultures, old and new. The city survives on teeming markets selling anything from bananas to electronics and a modern financial sector that is expanding rapidly.

The Indian economy has been growing at an annual rate of 8% to 9% recently, the second-fastest expanding economy in the world, behind China.

However, when I first arrived in Delhi, the signs of this new economic giant were hard to spot. The airport was underdeveloped – OR Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg, makes it look like a small regional airport time-warped in the 1960s. At first glance, the city looks like it is more in decay than development. Crumbling buildings, beggars and poorly kept streets with children in gutters and thousands of people peddling cheap small items is the norm.

However, as I acclimatised to the bustling capital, I started to see development everywhere. In the middle of a row of rundown buildings and behind people, cars, animals and bicycles are upmarket clothes stores, software companies and international banks. Once you start to head out of the city, it becomes even more evident: new shopping malls, office blocks and modern apartments for sale. This is a country on the move, although still with a massive underclass.

Billboards advertise "the lifestyle you want", complete with pictures of compact apartments, swimming pools, fully equipped with 'German kitchens' and a photo of a smiling family, which invariably includes daddy, mommy, son and daughter. The influence of the West is pervasive and growing.

However, it is not only the Western lifestyles that is being imported. Ethnic strife, marked by what George W Bush would call the 'war on terror', is also notably present in India.

This was made all too real on the last night of my stay, when a series of five bombs exploded across Delhi, killing 25 people and injuring over 100. Two of the bombs went off fairly close to my hotel. I had eaten in the bombed district and driven through the area numerous times. The attacks were claimed by a group called the Indian Mujahideen, which is said to be linked to al-Qa'ida.

Immediately following the blasts, eerily familiar debates began playing themselves out on television. Was the government tough enough on radicals, asked the media. And the word 'terrorism' was thrown about by the Indian government in a way reminiscent of a US Republican convention or Sunday lunch on the Bush ranch.

Of course, the bombs in Delhi are acts of terror. Blowing up innocent people is immoral. But is it helpful to lump every act of terror in the same boat? Those setting off the bombs and world governments are equally guilty in that.

It is comfortable for governments to frame all extreme acts of violence as being about the war on terror. Such language justifies tough military action and tighter police control, while often diverting attention from other problems, such as poverty, structural discrimination and long histories of political tension. Governments seem to take perverse pleasure in being part of the global 'war on terror' club.

The alleged perpetrators also like to oversimplify matters. In an email from the Indian Mujahideen, the bombs are said to be a response to the "hostile hatred" of Islam and justified punishment for the "sins" of the people.

But when did global politics and political ideology become so simple?

Bush wants us to believe that there is only one war, and the bombers that there is only one justifiable struggle.

The rise of the totalising discourse is of great concern. Surely, it denies complex local politics, individual power struggles and massive cultural variations in how the so-called war on terror plays itself out. Painting everything with the same brush is not only lazy, antiexplanatory and culturally vacuous, but dangerous.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, June 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 October 2008