Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


Letter from America - 6

First appeared
Thursday, 15 September 2011

Washington, DC has a new monument. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial opened recently, placing the famous civil rights activist (belatedly, some might say) in the august company of Jefferson, Lincoln, FD Roosevelt and other American icons – most of them former presidents – who are the objects of daily pilgrimage by visitors to the national capital.

When most people think of King, they have in mind his speech at the culmination of the “March on Washington” in 1963. That event, more than any other in the twentieth century, contributed to the association of Washington with the extension of “liberty” to African Americans – an association ostensibly confirmed when Barack Obama was inaugurated there in 2008.

Letter from America - 5

First appeared
Business Day
Thursday, 08 September 2011

As the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center approaches, American broadcasters and news publications are frequently invoking an infamous combination of numbers: 9/11. For most people in the United States, however, there is another (similar) figure that is more significant: 9.1%.

It’s the country’s current unemployment rate, a mark that is directly related to both accepted measurements of national opinion – such as the president’s approval rating – and to less tangible phenomena, such as the public “mood”. Even if these sentiments can be quantified, they can’t be generalised; after all, while most of the country was enjoying Labor Day this Monday past, large areas of Texas were being destroyed by wildfire and the south-east coast faced yet another storm, with the threat of more flooding.

Letter from America - 4

First appeared
Business Day
Thursday, 01 September 2011

New York City is a different place altogether when you’re travelling with a toddler. Not for you the noise and bustle, the leisurely hours at art museums, the Broadway shows, the late nights in famous cocktail bars. Instead, you see a lot of parks and playgrounds, you visit the children’s sections at libraries and you look out for “family friendly” restaurants.

This has its advantages. You experience the metropolis in the way that the majority of its residents do; you’re better placed to make the usual comparisons between Manhattan and Brooklyn or other boroughs; above all, you get a sense of the city’s innumerable public spaces. For South Africans who are used to living in relentlessly compartmentalised and privatised urban areas, the sheer number of well-maintained, well-used public areas in a place like New York is salutary.

Letter from America - 3

First appeared
Thursday, 25 August 2011

Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the USA (covering only 4000 square kilometres of land) but, as Rhode Islanders never tire of reminding visitors, “The Ocean State” is in the top five when it comes to length of coastline. That’s because Narragansett Bay, with its estuaries and natural harbours, cuts deep into the state, creating a complex network of islands, peninsulas and land bridges.

Some of the marketing powers-that-be recently came up with a tagline that many Rhode Islanders see as self-demeaning: “So small you can do it all!” Perhaps these particular tourism authorities would have done better to suggest that Rhode Island represents a kind of microcosm of the United States – that, just as one might track the intricacies of its coastline, the state’s fortunes have followed the nuances of American public life over the centuries.

Letter from America - 2

First appeared
Thursday, 11 August 2011

Barack Obama is, as they say in the US, getting it from all sides. The most feted president-elect in decades, the man who invoked comparisons to Lincoln, F.D. Roosevelt and Kennedy, has learned that the American people are impatient with leaders who can’t keep their promises. Nowadays, comparisons to predecessors are with Jimmy Carter – another Democrat president whose inauguration (in 1977) was billed as the beginning of a new era in American and world politics. Carter was unpopular as president and wasn’t re-elected; he became synonymous with an idealism that could not adapt itself to local and global realpolitik.

Letter from America - 1

First appeared
Thursday, 04 August 2011

It has been a steamy summer in Boston, with temperatures here (as elsewhere in the United States) hitting the psychological 100ºF (37ºC) barrier last month. But now that the worst of the heat wave is behind them, and with the odd refreshing thundershower breaking the humidity, Bostonians are getting down to the serious business of fun in August.

Zuma, the state and the church

First appeared
Wednesday, 16 February 2011

It’s not easy to offend – simultaneously – people from across South Africa’s ideological spectrum, as well as from every racial and economic demographic in the country. Yet president Jacob Zuma’s recent comments to the effect that supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) will go to heaven, while opponents will go the other way, seem to have achieved just that.

Zuma is not a man who places much value on the impact language can have on the material world; when he does speak carefully selected words, as his delivery of the State of the Nation address demonstrated, he doesn’t try very hard to communicate the significance of those words. Consequently, it’s difficult to say whether Zuma’s promises and threats about the afterlife were (as commentators such as Jason van Niekerk have observed) simply an exhibition of his capacity to produce “the rhetoric of a drunken uncle”, or whether there was malicious political craft behind these celestial musings.

When Mandela goes ...

First appeared
Friday, 04 February 2011

When Nelson Mandela dies, I won’t grieve.

Such a statement may seem disrespectful, offensive and perhaps even treasonous. But I have maintained for some time now that I (like almost all South Africans) will have neither reason, nor right, nor indeed the luxury to feel sorrow when Tata Madiba passes away. Recently, as the great man was admitted to hospital and then returned home to rest, the media frenzy and the outpouring of public emotion – earnest good wishes, fervent prayers, nervous relief at the announcement of his recovery – signaled to me nothing so much as a basic misunderstanding of what Mandela’s life and death might mean for our country.

COSATU, the strike and the split

First appeared
Monday, 06 September 2010


A few weeks ago I attended a colloquium at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) from which I gained new insight into the history of ‘the left’ in South Africa. As it happened, it was held on the first day of what would become the most disruptive strike this country has seen for some time.

A number of the papers presented alluded to the rift that developed in the early years of the twentieth century between ‘socialist’ and ‘labourist’ camps. Though one would expect them to share a broadly Marxist vision of the worker/proletarian imperative to challenge the oppressive alliance of ‘old money’ and new capital, it turns out they were often bitter opponents.


On Gulliver and "poor" academics

First appeared
Friday, 27 August 2010


Popular impressions of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels are probably best captured in the words of Samuel Johnson: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” Those who have read beyond the first two parts of the book, which recount Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput (the little men) and Brobdingnag (the big men), may also remember the fourth and final section in which the protagonist washes up on the shores of a country ruled by horses – a depiction of human-equine communication that predates Mr Ed and The Horse Whisperer by a few centuries.

Yet the often-neglected third part of the book offers some of the most intriguing resonances with our own time, foreshadowing a range of modern phenomena from genetically-modified foods to the infinite monkey theorem. It is in this section that Gulliver comes across an academy of “projectors”, a group of nutty professors with hygiene problems who are engaged in various forms of theoretically interesting but utterly impractical research. Their “projects” include extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, reconstituting human excrement as food and turning ice into gunpowder.


The patriotism problem

First appeared
Thursday, 05 August 2010


So, it’s Fly-the-Flag Friday again tomorrow. Will you wear a football or other sporting jersey? Good. Will your office building be adorned with the South African flag? Good. Let’s be honest: standard business attire gets a little dull, and most workplaces could do with some livening-up. But let’s also be careful: what do we mean when we say we want to “promote patriotism”?

A flurry of announcements and press releases, relating to various post-World Cup campaigns aimed at maintaining the national pride felt and expressed by most South Africans during the tournament, have given me pause for thought. The more I am told about the joy-inducing legacy of 2010, the more I feel somewhat sad – and somewhat uncomfortable too.


The World Cup Diaries - part three

First appeared
Monday, 05 July 2010


The quarter-finals have come and gone – and with them, Ghana’s participation in the tournament. Despite the reservations I expressed in my last post, I found myself cheering fanatically for the Ghanaians because I desperately wanted to see an African team progress to the penultimate round. 

The manner of their exit was, of course, mortifying. Luis Suarez (he of the illegal goal-line save that led to the penalty that led to ... well, we don’t like to talk about what followed) has demonstrated throughout the tournament that he is a particularly dislikeable footballer – such a skilled player, yet one who exhibits petulance and sheer treachery in equal measure every game. Come to think of it, he’s not entirely different to another South American handball specialist we all love to hate. 


The World Cup Diaries - part two

First appeared
Monday, 28 June 2010


As I type these words, the USA are preparing to take on Ghana in a second round clash that leaves me in something of a quandary.

Even before their surprise showing at last year’s Confederations Cup, I was a fan of the Americans – I like their effervescent energy and their never-say-die perseverance, their fluent passing game and the fact that their team does not depend on individual superstars (although of course they demonstrate some fine individual skills). 

Ghana, on the other hand, is a team that I intuitively want to support. Sure, I admire their on-field performance; but it’s their significance as the last remaining African team in the tournament that makes me want to get 100% behind them. I’m aware that ‘Africa’ is an historical construct – and a European one at that – rather than a readily definable place or concept (self-contained land mass or not) and I realise that, like all South Africans, I’m being rather duplicitous in choosing to affirm my African identity. Nonetheless, for the sake of ‘my’ continent, I really want the Black Stars to succeed. 


The World Cup Diaries - part one

First appeared
Monday, 21 June 2010


Fooled by the appearance of Sport versus Art into thinking that I am some kind of football fundi, Ben Williams (effervescent editor of the wonderful literary website Book SA) has asked me to keep an informal, infrequent World Cup Diary. Here's the first installment ... 


It doesn’t matter that Siphiwe Tshabalala missed a couple of opportunities, early in the match between South Africa and Uruguay, to set a different tone to the contest (with Steven Pienaar roaring for the ball on his outside, Tshabalala spooned both his shots high and wide of the goal). It doesn’t matter that Bafana Bafana are, as a result of the heavy loss that followed, highly unlikely to qualify for the knock-out stages of the World Cup. Heck, it doesn’t even matter if Tshabalala never scores another goal – that golden strike against Mexico was enough to secure his place in South African sporting lore and legend.


Sport versus Art - more thoughts

First appeared
Monday, 03 May 2010


The Times newspaper found out about my new book, Sport versus Art: A South African Contest (Wits University Press) and asked me to write something for them. I thought I'd said all I wanted to say on this topic in my introduction to the multi-authored book ... but there's always more to be said!


Last week, I tuned my car radio to Kaya FM and listened to the ebullient team from “Good Morning Gauteng” fielding calls. The phone-in topic was “Stalkers” – a subject that produced anecdotes about all manner of obsessive, dysfunctional or otherwise unhealthy relationships.