Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


The EFF, the Tea Party and the end of left vs right

First appeared
Friday, 02 May 2014


On the whole, I’m glad that the Economic Freedom Fighters are a part of our political landscape – if for no other reason than that they present South Africa’s voters with another option at the polls. As the controversial “Vote NO” campaign has shown, voting options are precisely what many South Africans feel they lack.

For those dissatisfied with the government, it’s better to vote for pretty much anyone (apart from the ruling party) than it is to spoil a ballot deliberately. High-minded spoilers are really just indulging in a form of political onanism when they walk into the voting booth: they feel good about themselves and can claim to have participated in the democratic process but theirs is essentially a private – dare one say selfish – act with no public consequence. 


The Problem with the Pale Male Commentariat

First appeared
Tuesday, 11 March 2014


White men love to complain. We’re very good at it. Some of us even make a living out of it; you could call us the Pale Male Commentariat. We write regular diatribes about everything that’s wrong in South Africa. Mostly they have to do with the African National Congress. Sometimes they have to do with sport.

Every now and then, however, the Caucasian stars align and the white male finds himself with nothing to moan about. The Proteas beat Australia in a test cricket match. The Lions win two Super 15 games in a row. The Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters launch their election manifestos which, irreconcilable though they may be, become a combined attack on the ruling party’s electoral majority. 

Mandela's many deaths (Madiba via Shakespeare)

First appeared
Sunday, 08 December 2013


South Africans have been mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela for a long time now.

With each successive “health scare” in recent years, we became more accepting of Madiba’s mortality – more pragmatic, more reasonable, and less obsessed with the idea that his death would mark a turning point in the nation’s history. Before that, we reluctantly conceded to his desire to step out of the limelight: no more charity work, no more smiling photos, no more speeches in that inimitable voice, no more benevolent presiding over public events. 

Winnie and Me

First appeared
Monday, 04 November 2013


Am I the only person who doesn’t like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela?

This is a question that I am forced to ask periodically when, against all rational expectation, I find myself isolated in a crowd (actual or virtual) of single-minded Winnie praise-singers. Again and again I raise what seem to me the obvious points: the woman is a convicted crook and kidnapper, not to mention a negligent parliamentarian and a generally reckless politician. Each time I do this, I am made to feel guilty for lacking some kind of patriotic fervour that should lead me to celebrate “the mother of the nation”.

Barney and the Public Service

First appeared
Monday, 30 September 2013


Like many parents of young children, I’m more familiar than I’d like to be with the musical output of a purple dinosaur called Barney – that nasal voice, those facile rhymes, the saccharine sentiments. But here’s the thing about kids’ music: it’s actually full of good advice. If my daughter grows up to follow the exhortations of her singing heroes (naive and idealistic though they may sound) she’ll be more productive, more caring and more competent than most of the adults I know.

My current favourite is a song that shows surprising insight into the importance of the public service; it’s a tune that has been on my mind since the much-publicised assault on a teacher by a pupil at Glenvista High School. 

Don't despair about South Africa's public intellectuals

First appeared
Wednesday, 21 August 2013


They’re funny things, titles. When you work in an academic environment, you get used to navigating the sensitivities around “Dr” and “Prof” (although the most accomplished scholars are usually the ones who care least about how you address them). In the business world, there are lots of people who are just “Mr” or “Ms”, but still insist on adding letters like MSc or MBA after their names. Then there are the surgeons who prefer to be called “Mr” or “Ms” rather than “Dr”.

Things get really complicated in countries where the very wise are addressed as “Doctor Professor” or “Professor Doctor”. I recently received a letter from a German academic who used the abbreviation “Dr” twice in a list of impressive titles. In America, you become “Professor” the moment you address a class at college or university. In France, of course, every teacher is un professeur. And that’s really all that “professor” means: one who professes, who shares knowledge. 

SA News Media's Sally Field Moment

First appeared
Wednesday, 27 February 2013


“Oscar fatigue” is starting to set in. Following the 400-metre sprint of the Pistorius bail application, we can expect an appreciable change of pace; after all, it will be a long wait until June, when the slow marathon of the actual trial begins.

To switch from a sporting to a sexual metaphor, you might say that – once bail was posted and the weekend coverage seemed to exhaust every angle on the story – South Africa’s purveyors of news media paused for the customary post-coital cigarette after their ten-day orgy of self-congratulation and mutual masturbation.

Still, when Monday morning dawned, the general libidinal gratification continued: Oscar was due to report to the Brooklyn police station in Pretoria, Oscar reported to Correctional Services elsewhere, Oscar went back to his uncle’s house in Waterkloof. There were further revelations about the State’s case, about police bungling, about the sordid history of the greater Pistorius clan.

On Tuesday we heard more of the same, but it was no longer the lead story. And so began its gradual (albeit temporary) disappearance from the headlines and news bulletins.


Louis Luyt - forgive but don't forget

First appeared
Wednesday, 06 February 2013


The last thing written about Louis Luyt before he died was not particularly flattering. In a Daily Maverick article sparked by further revelations about The New Age newspaper’s financial dependence on the ruling party and on certain parastatals, Brooks Spector reminded readers that this was an all-too-familiar South African story. Four decades years ago, the characters were different but the narrative was more or less the same: a deeply-distrusted but much-feared government trying to change public opinion by purchasing column space with public money.

This is not Zuma's pipe

First appeared
Thursday, 24 May 2012


One of the more annoying aspects of the controversy surrounding Brett Murray’s “The Spear” is the lack of appreciation for context: that is, for the artwork both as part of an exhibition and as an addition to the artist’s already-substantial portfolio (never mind as a contribution to a pre-existing national discourse). Reading the diatribes of the artist’s sternest castigators and staunchest defenders alike, one could be forgiven for thinking that Murray woke up one morning, decided to draw a penis – a black man’s penis, the President’s penis, Jacob Zuma’s penis – and asked the Goodman Gallery if he could hang the picture on a wall, quietly assuming that nobody would be upset.


American perspectives on the ANC

First appeared
Monday, 16 January 2012

Does this sound familiar?

“The African National Congress was more intent on celebrating its anniversary than addressing serious issues.” The organisation, led by a president who regularly demonstrated an inability to control his own financial affairs, “suffered from graft” and was “ineffective” in addressing the true needs of the people it claimed to represent. On the occasion of its anniversary, speakers took a “defensive line at the outset”; the “whole tone” of the event was one of “looking back to past achievements”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a description of the ANC at the start of 2012. Indeed, numerous commentators have criticised the party’s centenary celebration for a partial account of the organisation’s role as liberator-in-chief and for selective presentation of its record as a ruling party. They have observed that this exercise in self-congratulation was designed, firstly, to distract South Africans from the many failings of the current ANC; and, secondly, to continue the revisionism by which distinct anti-apartheid movements and individuals are slowly being erased from both formal and informal national histories.

On "blackness" and the problem with "Black Tuesday"

First appeared
Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Let’s be candid: for the most part, South Africa’s parliamentarians are an uninspiring lot. From travel scandals to endemic absenteeism, they’ve disappointed us again and again in recent years. Add to that the fact that parliamentary process can be, at times, terribly dull. It’s not surprising that little attention is usually paid to what actually happens in the chamber.

The vote on the Protection of State Information Bill changed all that; renewed interest was shown in the pompous-but-puerile behaviour that is customary in parliaments around the world. The jeering and booing eventually faded away, however, and the smugness of the African National Congress representatives in carrying the Bill will soon be forgotten. The Members of Parliament will return to that part of our collective consciousness reserved for anonymous, generic party politicians whose work seems far removed from our lived reality (even though the opposite is true).

Letter from America - 10

First appeared
Business Day
Thursday, 13 October 2011

This week, the people of Illinois have been enjoying an “Indian summer” – a golden stretch of time when the chilly descent from autumn into winter is put on hold. In Chicago, the warm weather has tourism entrepreneurs rubbing their hands at the prospect of full boats on architecture-admiring river cruises. In the countryside, visitors to Fall festivals are indulging in the heady excesses of pumpkin displays, hay bales and corn harvesting demonstrations.

Amidst all the fun, few people give much thought to what “Indian summer” may actually mean. Those who do tend to disagree over the origins of the phrase. Some say it simply refers to the time of year during which Native Americans harvested their crops and made the most of pre-hibernation hunting opportunities. It’s equally likely, however, that the term equates “Indians” with deception – as in “Indian giver”, someone who takes back a gift – and is thus a warning against being fooled by a false summer.

Letter from America - 9

First appeared
Business Day
Thursday, 06 October 2011

There was a time when being white and working-class in Chicago was as bad as, if not worse than, being (for example) a black farm labourer in Alabama.

In the 1880s, railway tycoon George Pullman created a town to the south of Chicago that was billed as an urban utopia to house the employees of the Pullman railcar construction company and their families. He called it – in a fit of modesty – Pullman. It boasted libraries, churches, public parks, shopping boulevards and, the self-styled philanthropist claimed, it would be an idyllic working-class district where “strikes and other troubles that periodically convulse the world of labour need not be feared”.

Letter from America - 8

First appeared
Friday, 30 September 2011

There is no such thing as irony in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This pleasantly-situated town, on the northern edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park, is more or less the American equivalent of a quaint Swiss alpine village: it has the flowerpot-lined roads, the heavy wooden architecture, even the cable-car rides up steep slopes covered in pine trees.

But they don’t do “quaint” in Tennessee. They do tattoos and motorbikes, long beards and cowboy boots, Hard Rock Cafe and souvenir shopping, neon lights and “family amusement” courtesy of Ripley Entertainment Inc. In short, they do bold and brash – unselfconsciously and unashamedly “Southern”.

Letter from America - 7

First appeared
Business Day
Thursday, 22 September 2011

Irish eyes are smiling after last week’s Rugby World Cup victory over Australia – even in the United States. It’s a little-known fact that the US are the current Olympic rugby title holders, having won the gold medal in 1920 and 1924 (the last time the fifteen-man sport was endorsed by the International Olympic Committee). Although Americans today are largely ignorant about rugby, there is a small but enthusiastic rugby-following community here; a handful of cable TV sports stations are covering the travails of the national team in New Zealand.

Admittedly, however, the American citizens watching the World Cup are far outnumbered by the Australasian and European expats who (with a smattering of South Africans) crowd the Irish pubs to be found in each major city across the continent. These watering holes are perhaps the most prominent manifestation of the peculiar place that Ireland occupies in the American imagination; from the exuberant St Patrick’s Day celebrations of the “Boston Irish” to the old saw that country music has its roots in the Irish fiddle, there are plenty of pseudo-Irish elements in the multiple strands of American cultural identity.