Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book tour hiatus: Smart politics

Apologies for not having a new blog.  Michael and I are on tour down the West Coast of the USA. Currently in Portland.  Excellent event last night at the amazing Powell's.  Tonight is at Murder by the Book.

The reprise below has special relevance because South Africa is defending its Rugby World Cup title at the moment.  We play Australia on Sunday (NZ time).  Go bokke!!

Smart politics - an oxymoron?  Not always.
Very few people who knew South Africa in the 1980’s would have predicted that the country would have made such a peaceful and successful transition from the oppressive apartheid (pronounced apart –hate) regime to the current democratic one, which became reality in the mid-1990s.  Indeed huge numbers of white South Africans couldn’t face the uncertainty and left for other countries, notably, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada.
So it is reasonable to ask why this happened.  Why didn’t the South African Blacks follow the path of retribution and revenge?  After all, by legislation they were prevented from receiving a decent education; by legislation they could not vote; by legislation they were told where and where not they could live; by legislation they were not allowed to take skilled jobs; and by legislation they were treated as inferior human beings.
The reasons are both sociological and political.  In this blog I want to highlight some of the political decisions that had a big influence on making the transition happen without violence.
Of course a lot of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of my hero, Nelson Mandela.  After decades of imprisonment for trying to change the apartheid government. Mandela emerged as almost a god to the Blacks, and to a few Whites also.  Most Whites were extremely nervous as to what he would do, especially they had generally regarded him as a terrorist.
But he emerged from prison without apparent hate for Whites or for Afrikaners (who made up the majority of the pro-apartheid National party).  Indeed he immediately advocated that he wanted a South Africa for all, Black and White; and that South Africa would only prosper if all its citizens pulled together. 
Four political decisions had a decisive influence on how South Africa moved forward.
First, Black South Africa was not monolithic.  In fact there were multiple Black groups living within the country, with differing cultures and different languages.  The Whites, too, were splintered into the historically conservative Afrikaans speaking (generally pro-apartheid) and slightly less conservative English speaking, who typically opposed the government in elections but were very happy to benefit from the cheap labour and lack of job competition.  Rather than go down the path of divisiveness, Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress preferred to be inclusive.  So they passed legislation that gave South Africa 11 official languages.  None of the Blacks were left out, and the Whites, particularly the Afrikaners, had their languages officially recognized as well.
The second decision that had a big impact was also in the area of inclusivity.  Historically, under the apartheid regime, the National anthem was Die Stem (The Voice), almost always sung in Afrikaans, even by English speakers.  The new national anthem starts with two verses of the beautiful Nkosi sikilele iAfrika (God save Africa).  Then there is a verse from Die Stem in Afrikaans, followed by the refrain of Die Stem sung in English.  So the national anthem has two totally different melodies, sung in three languages.
The third decision was the most momentous, in my opinion, and one that countries around the world would do well to follow.  It was the establishment at the urging of Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  The background to the TRC was that crimes were committed during the fight for democracy by both the apartheid government and its minions, as well as by the freedom fighters.  The basic premise of the TRC was that anyone who came before the TRC would be pardoned and be free of future prosecution if they fully confessed the crimes they had committed.  This is a mind-boggling position to take.  In the interest of building a new country, using the talents of all its peoples, they new majority was willing to forgive.  The new leadership in South Africa showed the world there was another option to take other than revenge – the option of forgiveness.  And it seems to have worked.  Of course not everyone buys into the philosophy of forgiveness, but overall the TRC was a remarkable success.  The transition to the new South Africa has been relatively free of the violence of retribution.
As an aside, Public Television in the United States has a two-hour documentary on the TRC.  I watch it every opportunity I can, and sit with tears streaming down my face for the duration.  I cannot recommend more strongly that you watch it too.
The final political decision that had a big impact on the country was in the field of sport – rugby to be precise.  To most White South Africans, rugby was the national sport.  Most Blacks disdained rugby and favoured football (soccer).  Rugby was dominated by Afrikaners, even though there were some outstanding English-speaking players.  For many years all South African sporting teams – named the Springboks – had been ostracized from world sport.  With democracy came the opportunity to be part of the world sporting stage again.  One of the first major events was the Rugby World Cup, which was held in South Africa in 1995.  South Africa won the final against the New Zealand team.  The political decision that had such an impact was that Nelson Mandela arrived to cheer on the Spingboks, wearing the No 6 shirt of the team's Afrikaans-speaking captain, Francois Pienaar.  With Mandela behind the team, the whole country, White, Black, Coloured, Asian, were behind the team too.  This amazingly simple act united the country like nothing else.  The enormity of the impact can’t be overstated.  A movie, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, has just been released to critical acclaim.  It too offers an insight into the South African psyche.
I, for one, have an strong dislike and distrust of politicians in general.  It’s a pleasure to report on something they did that had a truly positive impact.
Stan – Thursday
Postscript:  Following my earlier blog on The Merry Wives of Zuma, it was reported in the South African press last week that Zuma has another, previously unreported child, this time by the wife of a friend of his.  This makes 20 the number of children he has fathered.


  1. Nelson Mandela is an amazing person. If I asked my friends or even people I just meet who is the main hero in the world today, they would say Mandela.

    The TRC is very controversial among many in South Africa and elsewhere. Since I did not live there under the horrific apartheid regime, I should say that it was up to the people who were the most oppressed who should have decided this question.

    The movie about Donald Woods and Steven Biko showed the brutal beating and murder by the police of Biko. That alone should have merited heavy sentences for his torturers.

    However, I learned something from the marvelous movie Invictus that was starkly shown -- that Mandela was trying to stop a civil war led by the former apartheid forces, including those who had been in the state apparatus.

    That he incorporated former apartheid security guards into his staff, in spite of opposition by his appointees -- and rightfully so, I'd say, was a strategic move.

    Everything he did was strategy,and of course, wanting to eradicate the horrors of apartheid and bring justice to his people.

    I wish that economic equality, jobs and housing would be solved, too.

  2. As said by the previous poster, economic equality, jobs, and housing should be solved. Unfortunately, the United States, with all its wealthy, has a miserable history with regard to addressing those issues.

    Suggest economic equality and, immediately, someone starts screaming about socialism. Being aware of the social gap in education, jobs, housing, and the fundamental needs of everyone gets a politician labeled as un-American. Witness the health care debacle. Seemingly most Americans don't think they have an obligation to the sick and the dying. Could there be anything more revolting than the reaction of the audience at the mention of the man who was dying because he didn't have health insurance? Does anyone think that the health care received by Steve Jobs wasn't paid for out of his own pocket?

    Housing is hampered by the NIMBY mentality. Not in my back yard eliminates any creative use of the housing left empty, that becomes direlict because the neighbors are terrified that offering housing to "undesirables",i.e.the poor will reduce the value of their homes. Can anything reduce the value of housing in a neighborhood that has housing left empty for years? The housing issue effects everything. When a child lives in a situation that requires frequent moves, the child is changing schools as well as address. The lack of continuity in schooling plays havoc with a child's ability to learn; they are too concerned about the fragility of their place in society.

    Lack of education means lack of jobs. One of the announced candidates for the Republican nomination for president suggested that unemployment can be corrected if those who collect unemployment were required to attend classes so that they could become the computer scientists we need desperately. He clearly has no idea just how far behind we are if he thinks ninety-nine days of training will make someone qualified for job in nano-techology.

    To our shame and the bewilderment of every other country in the world, we live in a political atmosphere in which the political party not represented in the executive branch has been clear that their goal is to make the president fail. If you don't listen to Rush Limbaugh, don't start now. If you do, why do you accept the hate and venom he spews everyday? The failure of the president is a failure of government and a betrayal of the people who most depend on the assistance of the many. Supporting the local food pantry is a good and necessary thing but it can't possibly replace programs that people can count on. If you know you can put dinner on the table tonight that is nutritious, then thank God for it.

    Every point Stan makes in this post is about the majority of people in South Africa putting country first. The US doesn't have a Nelson Mandela because party, people, and prosperity are secondary to the country rallying around a leader. The US doesn't have a Desmond Tutu because, should anyone be offered as the moral center, the majority would scream about separation of church and state. The people who would scream the loudest as those that have the least understanding about what that part of the Constitution means. It doesn't mean that religion doesn't belong in the lives of the people or that religious leaders cannot have the same right to freedom of speech. It was put into the Constitution to guarantee that their would be no state religion, that everyone would have to belong to the same church or risk punishment. Freedom of religion guarantees that no one can be forced to participate in a religious group of, if they choose to do so, they can actually choose. Quoting the number of an amendment to bolster a political platform doesn't mean much if there the quoters aren't familiar with the history behind the amendment.

  3. I agree with a lot of the previous post about education, health care, etc.

    I do think the majority of people, thankfully, are for poor and unemployed and low-wage working people to get health care. The 50 million who have no health insurance would agree, those on Medicaid would agree, and some on Medicare would agree -- those who don't have a "me first and only me" attitude.

    On jobs, the problem is that corporations and banks which have money aren't hiring. Young people are in the highest unemployed category.

    Even college graduates now, who have tens of thousands of dollars in debt, due to the high cost of an education, have no job prospects.
    They're angry and disappointed and expect much more than they're getting.

    That's what is fueling part of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the growing income disparities, the haves and have-nots is spurring more people nationally to protest.

    This is only going to expand and deepen as more people are hurt here, in Europe and elsewhere.