Trevor Manuel is my hero

Trevor Manuel was an anti-apartheid activist and community organizer, and detained several times under the old South African regime. Mandela appointed him as minister of trade and industry, and within two years switched him to minister of finance — a job he would hold for more than a decade. Manuel was remarkably successful, kept financial markets calm, and has always been a voice of reason. It appeared he would leave government when Mbeki was forced out, but has stayed on under Zuma as minister of planning.

His has been a stunning career, and luckily for South Africa, he has not yet been snatched up by a high-paying investment bank or international organization. Instead, as reported in the Mail and Guardian yesterday, he continues to speak his mind to hypocrisy and destructive discourse. As I’ve written about a few times before, the South African state has recently made several moves to control the flow of information in very undemocratic ways. In a few snippets pasted below from a meeting with South African newspaper editors, Manuel challenges those around him to be  more modest in their view of power, and to engage more with those from other perspectives

The idea that we have now been elected to supplant all leadership must be wrong in every aspect of the word… We need a different quality of discourse. We need to raise the level of interaction … and it is not a venture that is possible without the press actively applying its mind…How do we find each other? Because if we don’t, I think that there is a vacuum that lays the basis for creating a society that becomes increasingly less informed about itself.

Hard to disagree with any of that. But in the current political discourse, such verbiage has been pretty rare.

South Africa won’t nationalize mines

The specter of Zimbabwe’s failed state often looms large for (white) South Africans. Fears of nationalization of productive industries, land takeovers, etc. came to the fore especially after the election of Jacob Zuma.

Well, this week, the mineral resources minister reiterated that the ANC has no plans to nationalize the mines, and will maintain pragmatic policies for the benefit of the economy. Rather, and I think quite correctly, the government is interested in regulation of safety issues, especially in the wake of several recent fatalities.

from BuaNews

If the ANC is able to hold the line, resisting populist pressures to nationalize — for example, as expressed by the recently ousted youth leader, Julius Malema — it will have taken a major step in the direction of good governance.

Governments tend to be judged for what they do, but in this case, what they are not doing seems to be more important.

DA party’s provocative campaign to break down race boundaries in South Africa

Check out Baas DeBeer’s post on the Democratic Alternative youth league’s campaign promoting the idea of breaking down race and other boundaries: So, the DA made a poster….

From a marketing perspective, I think it was a risky move, but most memorable campaigns are. It has created a buzz, prompted conversation regarding not only the campaign but also the product, and most importantly it engaged a wider audience than it’s standard crowd. It has made a bold statement, and the youth league’s target market generally appreciates bold statements.

Such a campaign will never be without criticism

We ARE one nation, isn’t it about time we start acting like it?

Stormy skies for weather amendment bill

I recently wrote about the South Africa Weather Service Amendment Bill. I admit that I posted about this because I thought it was kind of cute that the SA government was banning non-official weather forecasts. Maybe a bit silly — I hear that’s what blog-readers sometimes like in the middle of their otherwise very serious day solving the world’s problems. Perhaps the issue was even somewhat reflective of other SA government initiatives to control the circulation of information. But not because I thought it was a real, honest-to-goodness political issue.

Turns out that it is.

The Democratic Alliance circulated a press release describing how the amendment will limit information to those whose needs are not met by the South Africa Weather Service (SAWS). They argue,

A number of local operators provide excellent weather services for customers with specialised needs. For instance, crucial fire danger rating data may be available only from highly localised sources. Farmers need this information at the drop of a hat; it is therefore wrong that these sources may be in danger of breaking the law if they provide the information without permission.

A member of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, however, explains why the bill is necessary:

To further put these provisions into our current context  one of the accepted impacts of climate change is the possible increase in the frequency, intensity and range of extreme weather events. In order to ensure that we build our resilience to these impacts, we must ensure that our warning systems are efficient, effective and, most importantly, credible. With the real possibility of increasing extreme weather events, the potential for false, misleading and/or hoax warnings significantly undermining public confidence in, and/or appropriate public reaction to, warnings is of real concern.

He also notes that SAWS has been the only official provider of severe weather warnings, and this bill simply seeks to punish those who violate a rule that has always been in place.

No one likes a bad weather forecast when the weather turns out to be nice; and vice versa. But while we still live in a world where no government weather agency has anything remotely approaching a perfect forecasting track record, the SA government might do better to try to build trust in its own information, rather than banning competing ideas and predictions, even erroneous ones, from circulation.

Mbeki down on twitter

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki — often perceived as overly-intellectual and removed from the people during his tenure — made disparaging comments this week about Twitter, as well as other forms of internet-based communications.

If you want to discuss knowledge which has got to do with the betterment of society I don’t think it (twitter) is appropriate.

Even the internet in general, blogging and so on, is not the place where you can put all these things under theories.

Well… as I am writing here on a blog, one that sends out auto-tweets, maybe I should be offended. He’s certainly right that some bad information can get spread pretty quickly in the unregulated blogo-twitter-sphere — which relates to my earlier post about concerns for false weather reports. But given all of the fantastic ways in which Africans are beginning to use information technology and social media to improve their lives, once again, Mbeki is missing the big picture. Ironically, he developed his own absolutely wacky fascination with radical theories of HIV and AIDS treatment through discoveries he made on the web. So maybe this statement is a backhanded mea culpa?


Punishment… for unauthorized weather forecasts!

The South African Weather Services Amendment Bill will see citizens issuing any “severe weather or pollution-related warning” without written permission from the South African Weather Service, facing a multi-million rand fine and a possible 10 years imprisonment. (M&G)

Hmmm… I recognize that if citizens raise false alarms about severe weather, this can be a costly public bad… but why must the various arms of the South African state keep toying with instruments of information control? Seriously, fines or jail for unauthorized weather reports!?

A century of the African National Congress

Whatever one thinks of the current incarnation of the ANC as a ruling party, its history is inspirational and transcends present conflicts in South Africa. The passing of 100 years since its conception is something to celebrate. Opposition parties are complaining about the money that will be spent on the festivities, but frankly, it might do the country quite a bit of good if the country’s current leaders take some time to reflect upon the organization’s history and get back in touch with its core values. The nature of the celebration is bringing elder statesmen such as Tutu back into the fold, even if temporarily, as the history unites more than recent policies and actions have divided. At least for the moment, the political rhetoric has returned to that of the early Mandela years — of reconciliation, non-racial nation-building, and an emphasis on “the will of all people.”

Does this kind of nation-building rhetoric matter at all? Or should governments just focus on efficient service delivery? Much of my own research has led me to believe that the former can really have an impact on the latter. Whether President Zuma’s statements at internationally-observed events will actually manifest themselves into policy and practice in the coming months and years is a different story.

Assessing race-based affirmative action in South African universities

A thoughtful essay today from Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town about the dilemmas of affirmative action. While acknowledging many adverse consequences, he ultimately concludes the policy is still necessary, and I think rightly assesses broad consensus about this. Nonetheless, the debates in South Africa are obviously reminiscent of those in the United States, where we also continue to wrestle with how to address a history of institutionalized discrimination without contributing to the furthering of group division.

…There are two fundamental arguments against the use of race. The first is that racial categorisation undermines our national commitment to nonracialism.

It forces us, and especially youngsters born at the time of the first democratic elections, to view the world, themselves and others in terms of racial categories.

The second argument against race as a basis for affirmative action is that it may include black students who are certainly not disadvantaged, may come from wealthier homes than most whites and may have had the benefits of 12 years of private-school education.

These are the reasons we ought to move away from a race-based policy. We should accept it in the interim only if there is no ­better solution and only if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Unfortunately, the University of Cape Town’s experience is that this is still the case.

If the task were only to identify economic disadvantage, this could be done by asking about income or by looking at the school a potential student attended. But the problem is that educational disadvantage has been the consequence of many determinants — including, but not limited to, economic disadvantage..

Mandela will miss ANC celebrations

Sad news reported this morning in BusinessDay that because of weak health, Nelson Mandela will not be able to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the African National Congress (ANC). I believe he is now staying in Qunu, the village where he grew up in the Eastern Cape Province. Very depressing to contemplate what this means.

Coke, Taxes, and Dictatorship in Swaziland

First off, the coke of which I speak is the cola varietal, not the white powder. The Swaziland Democracy Campaign has accused the Coca-Cola company of propping up King Mswati III by maintaining its largest African manufacturing plant within the borders of the Kingdom.

Interestingly enough, Coke moved to Swaziland from neighboring South Africa in the face of apartheid-era divestiture calls. Now, various Swazi groups are using similar language, insisting that the company must leave the country, in the hopes of forcing similar political change (see Mail Online).

I have been writing about the struggles in Swaziland for a few months now, and I am no particular fan of Coke’s empty-calorie products, but it does provide quite a few jobs in a region with staggering unemployment, and supports various social services through its African Foundation, based in Swaziland. So what of the claims? It’s not clear that Coke is doing anything directly to support the King except paying taxes.

Activists claim that the company is simply doing business with bad people, and that seems fair enough. While denying that they are paying Mswati directly, they have hosted him in Atlanta, which is standard fare for a multi-national doing business in a small developing country. But should Coke go?

I think it’s a bit early for the company to take that potentially crippling step. Public revenues do still pay the salaries of teachers and support HIV/AIDS care. Mswati has an estimated $100 million in wealth, so I don’t think he would be personally hurt – on the contrary, to the extent that there is any separation between the individual and the state, only the latter would be bankrupted.

The democracy activists would do better to build more support from within society and from activists in South Africa before advocating removal of a major manufacturing facility.