Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


Malema, the AWB and the new right

First appeared
Tuesday, 20 April 2010


Within the space of a few weeks, the AWB has morphed from a moribund and fragmented collection of white supremacists headed by a widely derided ex-convict into a ‘viable’ political party experiencing a ‘leadership crisis’.

Not entirely coincidentally, it has become evident to even the most myopic members of the ANC top brass that the ruling party’s Youth League is also experiencing a leadership crisis which – having already decimated the League’s credibility – is undermining the entire organisation.

It seems to me that the solution is simple. Julius Malema should be ‘redeployed’ and placed at the helm of the AWB, thus solving both problems.


Of academic journals and Shakespeare in SA

First appeared
Friday, 29 May 2009

The first scholarly journal, it is commonly believed, was the Journal des Scavans (in modern French, savants: “those who know” or, more prosaically, persons of learning). It appeared in January 1665 and was followed, a few months later, by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. As networks of “learned gentlemen” – encompassing both major and minor figures in Europe’s so-called Age of Enlightenment – became formalised on either side of the English Channel, similar publications accommodated a proliferation of scientific theories, political tracts and historiographical miscellania.

Critics such as Zygmunt Bauman have shown, however, that these self-styled hommes des idées et des lettres were not disinterested promoters of reason and the quest for knowledge. For Bauman, as “the Enlightenment reached its full maturity” in the eighteenth century, an age began in which “a managed society, a society consciously designed, planned and supervised by the centralised power [of the state]” was an implementable reality. Who would design the model? Les philosophes, of course – the intellectuals. Who would transfer it to the people? Les professeurs – the educators.


Satire in South Africa

First appeared
Saturday, 25 April 2009

We tend to think of the ancient Greeks as a serious bunch: bearded men in flowing robes engaged in earnest conversation about life, the universe and everything. This, certainly, is the image bequeathed to us by Italian Renaissance painters – Plato and Aristotle discussing philosophy at the Athenian Academy and so on.

But life in Athens had another side. The Greeks, like the Romans after them, preferred being entertained. In the theatre, comedies were written and staged more often than tragedies. While tragic tales of the suffering of noble individuals were depicted for moral or religious edification, the experiences of everyday citizens were portrayed comically. Moreover, commentary on current events was the terrain of comedy rather than tragedy.


Ditch the Struggle-speak

First appeared
Saturday, 08 November 2008

Some time ago, I spent a week with a group of journalists from Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic. After a few days, conversation began to dwindle – and, in a misguided attempt to fill the awkward silence one dinnertime, I remarked on the twentieth-century connections between South Africa and Eastern Europe, and Russia in particular. I went through a brief list of apartheid-era exiles who spent time in Moscow, mentioned the support the resistance movement received from the Soviets, and concluded by observing that the SA Communist Party was an ally of the current ruling party and active in matters of government.

Perhaps I had seemed too light-hearted or too smug in rattling off these facts, because my Russian colleague wasted no time in telling me off: “You think that’s good? I can tell you, it’s not good. You ask any of the people at this table – we all lived behind the Iron Curtain. Communism was terrible! Communism is terrible!”


Art and Social Conscience in South Africa: "Paying Attention"

First appeared
Saturday, 05 April 2008

They were, in many ways, two exquisitely South African scenes. In the first, Vusi Mahlasela sang songs of forgiveness and joy and mourning to a multiracial – although predominantly pale – multigenerational audience. A cloudy Table Mountain presided over the occasion. It was the opening event of the Kirstenbosch summer season of outdoor concerts, and it was good. In the second, arch rocker and alternative-Afrikaner icon Karen Zoid and her band jammed with Selaelo Selota, whose acoustic guitar and lyrics fuse jazz with the music of mineworkers on the reef and traditional Pedi songs. The landscape was the same, although the weather was better: bright sunshine and blue skies. It was near the end of the Kirstenbosch season of concerts, but it was still good.

To the careful observer, however, both occasions were also replete with (specifically South African) moments of irony.


Prison Break, Hamlet and Patriotism

First appeared
Saturday, 02 February 2008

Wentworth Miller, who plays Michael Scofield in the hit series Prison Break, has candidly admitted that his role (like those of his co-stars) requires a lot of ham acting. And yet Prison Break has captivated audiences across the globe, not least in South Africa. I’m one of those who can’t wait for the third season to be broadcast locally. Still, in trying to understand the great appeal of Prison Break, I find myself looking beyond the obvious criteria of Miller’s good looks, Scofield’s brooding intelligence and our inverted sympathies in the cops’n’robbers chase. Instead, it seems to me that Prison Break draws on the archetypal themes of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark


Brent Meersman: Primary Coloured

First appeared
Saturday, 17 November 2007

Primary Coloured: A Novel of Politics
Brent Meersman
(Human & Rousseau)

Brent Meersman hasn’t taken any chances. Readers who can’t quite figure out – after making their way through the 400 pages of his debut novel – why its fictional characters seem so familiar, can punch in the web address printed on the back cover. It’s the book’s blog. There they will find, amongst other things, a link to the Wikipedia entry for roman à clef: “French for ‘novel with a key’. A novel describing real-life events behind a façade of fiction.” Included in the list of examples is Primary Colours, Joe Klein’s book (later a movie starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson) about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, from which Primary Coloured takes its punning title and narrative premise.


Rugby World Cup 2007: The less said, the better

First appeared
Saturday, 27 October 2007

The night of the World Cup final started out quietly for us. We had a braai, watched the game, tensed up, cheered, laughed; then, fatefully, we decided to head out into the streets of Cape Town to join the public celebrations. Soon enough, we found ourselves amidst a small but highly inebriated crowd spilling out of pubs and nightclubs onto Main Road.


Heritage Day 2007: South Africans and the Symbolic

First appeared
Saturday, 22 September 2007

Monday, 24th September 2007: another public holiday, another chance for South Africans to pursue their separate agendas. Politicians will take advantage of the feel-good factor, echoing a statement issued by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1996 claiming that the creation of Heritage Day would be “a powerful agent for promulgating a South African identity, fostering reconciliation and promoting the notion that variety is a national asset”. Some will be participating in National Braai Day. Some will be commemorating the day of King Shaka’s death in 1828.


Youth Day: a new approach

First appeared
Saturday, 16 June 2007


It goes without saying that June 16th will always be remembered in South Africa as a symbol of energy over oppression, of tragedy turned into victory, of struggle successfully fought. Or does it? Apart from a few well-attended rallies and the odd festive gathering, last year’s thirtieth anniversary celebrations were fairly low-key affairs. In many instances, the average age of participants suggested that most of those commemorating the student uprising were contemporaries of the class of 1976, again raising the familiar question: should we be concerned about the political apathy of South Africa’s youth? This is a difficult question to answer, phrased as it is in generalisations.