Category Archives: Leadership

Fiddling while The Capital burns?

Why do our Presidents have a tendency to disappear when the poor rise up?

What South Afica Needs is Muhammad Ali

My latest column:

The First Comrade I Ever Knew.

On an unusually cold day in August 2014 we laid a Comrade to rest. Not comrade as in friend but a man who had earned the title of Comrade in the trenches of the struggle for the emancipation of the people of South Africa. ‘Com’ in spoken language or Cde in writing, not used lightly but with reverence when referring to freedom fighters. This was the chosen form of showing respect to a fellow freedom fighter during the struggle.

Such funerals happen every weekend in this beautiful country of ours but this one held a speci al significance for me. The man we were sending on his last journey had lived right across the street from our house, ‘front opposite’ in township talk.

When the then President of South Africa PW Botha, the last true defender of apartheid as president declared a state of emergency in 1985 the man we were laying to rest was the most practical evidence of its enforcement for me. Comrade Stanley was detained without trial during that period.

I remember reading hastily written graffiti on walls: “Realise Stanley”. My grasp of the English language back then was not enough to understand that the author had misspelt the word “release”. It didn’t matter though because I read the misspelt word as it was intended.

Even though I was barely a teenager when that state of emergency was declared, I understood the state of the country because of the constant skirmishes with the police and army in the streets of our township. I too grew to know the searing smell of teargas and I grew accustomed to young white soldiers jumping fences in pursuit of comrades. The kind of comrades that Stanley was part of.

In 1986 my parents decided to ship me off to boarding school in the homelands, far away from the burning streets of Johannesburg. In the week I was due to leave Stanley the Comrade requested a meeting with my father. He was already in high school and a member of the Student Representative Council of the school. Very well spoken and convincing. Back then he spotted quite a big Afro in the mould of the Black Panthers of the United States.

“Sending your children away from the raging battles we are fighting in the streets of Tembisa is just what the Boers want you to do. It reduces our numbers and weakens our structures. You are also playing into the hands of the regime by sending them to the homelands, that’s what they want”. I cannot recall word for word what Comrade Stanley said on that day but I recall my dad listening intently and engaging him. My respect for the high school pupil grew. See, he was presenting his case clearly and without fear, and at the same time doing a lot to ensure that even I could grasp the state of the struggle at that time. My dad’s mind was made up though and off I went to boarding school.

When I heard of Comrade Stanley’s passing it had been a while since I had last seen him. My mind raced back to the days of my youth and I knew, I just knew that I had to make his funeral to pay my last respects to the first comrade I ever knew.

In the week leading up to the funeral on the weekend there were reports of gunshots by some of his comrades as they came to pay their last respects at his home. You are right, it’s very irresponsible to set off a gun in a residential area. But this was something else, this was Stanley’s comrades telling the world that a soldier had fallen. One of our own is no more. So with my irrational fear of guns I still set off for the funeral that Saturday.

On my arrival at the local church that hosted the funeral service I was left in no doubt that Comrade Stanley’s funeral was not going to be an ordinary one. In a scene reminiscent of the many marches of the 1990s a group of ‘freedom fighters’ in full millitary regalia were congregated at the gate of the church. They were part of a group singing freedom songs that took one back to the heart of the freedom struggle in the1980s. I felt really overdressed in a formal jacket and pants. One didn’t go to marches dressed formally.

The fence of the church was draped in flags of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and Orlando Pirates, the football team that meant everything to him. Freedom songs reverberated inside the relatively small church. As I had already guessed, there were no empty chairs so I settled for following proceedings through an open window.

Every speaker prefaced and ended their speeches with shouts of “Viva Comrade Stanley Viva”. When I arrived the current provincial Minister of Education was on the podium. These were the bigwigs. I strained my neck to look at who else had turned out for the funeral of the first comrade I had ever known. It was a who’s who of political personalities in there. And that’s when it sank in, Stanley, Stepisi as we had come to know him, might have been my local comrade, but he belonged to South Africa at large.

He represented all the youth who had stayed defiant at the sight of a brutal regime that was determined to do anything to stay in power. See, Stanley and his generation had attended clandestine organisational meetings, and as many a speaker testified at the funeral, Stanley was a brave MK. That shocked me to the core, and you’ll find out why shortlyStanley.

I left the church window to join a group of friends I had grown up with, so many of whom I had not seen in years. We all had stories to tell about the man we were laying to rest that morning. Most of them humorous. See, later on in his life, when the struggle for political freedom was over, Stanley had taken to the bottle a bit, and when he had had a few he would threaten anyone who got into altercation with him with the words: “I will shoot you right now, I’m not a coward”. He never shot any of those people though or took out a gun on them. So we concluded he was deluded, thinking himself more capable than he was.

So imagine our collective shock when my friends and I discovered for real that Stepisi was MK, a member of the now defunct military wing of the African National Congress, umKhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). All these guys owned guns, Ak47s and the like. So all those threats, “I will shoot you right now” were empty insofar as carrying them out but he had the capabilities to carry them out!

The funeral procession itself was taken over by his comrades,  they chose the songs that were sung and made sure his favourite freedom songs were on the menu. One has to spare a thought for his family and his parents who were gracious enough to let Stanley’s comrades send him off in the way they wanted to. The cemetery that he was to be interned at was a good 4 to 5 kilometres away. We got ready to get into our cars for the drive there but his comrades chose to march there on foot. And the gunshots started ringing again. A comrade was on his last journey.

Having witnessed the funeral service and how it was conducted, I had no doubt that Stanley was going to be laid to rest in the Heroes Acre section of the cemetery. This section is reserved for those members of the community who have given selflessly to the cause of the liberation of the people of South Africa.

A proper 21- gun salute was given at the cemetery. We stayed silent for that period. A special person had left us. There was a celebratory mood to the whole procession so it was no surprise that we all partook in the now obligatory “after tears”, where we all took time to catch up with one another and marvel at this giant who had appeared ever so ordinary to the rest of us.

This scene probably plays itself out in several communities throughout our country whenever people deem it necessary, but this particular Saturday was our turn to say goodbye to a comrade. The first comrade I ever knew.


(Published with the permission of the Mathebula Family. Thank you.)

Thank You Nelson

20131209-155140.jpgI must admit, like a lot of South Africans I always wondered what a post-Mandela South Africa would look like. Would the centre hold? Or would the country go down ‘like the rest of Africa’ as those who live here reluctantly are very quick to point out. Tata, I’m very glad to report that everything is as you left it. Not necessarily good or bad, but there was no major catastrophe that followed your passing. Whatever good you left here is still intact and whatever mess you couldn’t fix is still a mess.

 It’s hard to believe that it’s been one whole year since you passed on. But the flurry of activities to commemorate your passing has reminded us of your painful absence. One immediate benefit of the anniversary of your passing will always be the welcome break from the incessant Christmas advertising that we are bombarded with from as early as October. Phew, I look forward to the 5th of December now. Not to say we don’t miss you, Tata. We do. I do. Look, I know there are some fellows who would have us believe you failed us.

 They claim Nelson Mandela and his comrades sold out the black people of South Africa during the negotiations for a new government in the 1990s. I hope this doesn’t disturb you at all because I look at those fellows the same way I look at a bunch of Khakhi-clad Afrikaaner rightwingers who still think FW de Klerk sold them out to the black majority in this country. My heart is filled with pity when I look at them and listen to their rants. They are rather detached from reality. The less said about the right wing lunatics the better.

 The bunch that alleges you sold them out are a curious lot though. I mean, just a casual look at the political landscape of our country will tell you that they were born yesterday. Literally. I’m not an ageist but I believe those people who claim you sold us out were actually born in the eighties and nineties. They did not live through the turbulent seventies and eighties, they were also far too young to remember the deftness with which you and your team of negotiators sought to restore value to black life in South Africa.

 These people have no recollection of a South Africa in which people simply disappeared and were never found again. No recollection of a South Africa in which a yellow police van could arbitrarily stop anywhere, grab whoever they came for, beat them up and take them away for six months or more during the state of emergency. They have no recollection whatsoever of a police force and an army that spread fear into the heart of every black South African. That your mandate was to end that madness is immaterial to them.

 I was fortunate to have lived through an era in which when the news spread through the township that Inkatha is coming you genuinely feared for your life. Fortunate because it has made me appreciate what you and your comrades did. A period when a simple T-shirt could result in your death if you happened to go through the ‘wrong’ side of Thokoza township. This was no different from the no-go areas that existed in KwaZulu Natal. Villages were torn apart by violence so barbaric you would sometimes just throw your hands up in the air and stop caring. You Nelson, never did that.

 When it looked like the violence would never end, when political assassinations through letter bombs and drive-by shootings were still rampant, you kept your eye on the ball. There were massacres right until the 27th of April 1994 was declared the day on which we would hold our first democratic election. On the eve of the election, bombs planted by the right wing hell-bent on derailing the election went off and yet more people died. KZN was on knife-edge, the whole country was on tenterhooks. You, Nelson, never despaired.

 You could have. There were times when I feared you would. The Boipatong massacre in 1992 is a case in point. Women and babies were hacked to death in the most barbaric ways. In the middle of the night. 45 people lost their lives to a rampaging group of hostel dwellers and apartheid security policemen that day. When the ANC pulled its team from the negotiations I feared for the worst. That we were destined to live in that fear, violence and blatant racist discrimination.

 But like the talented, gifted and crafty negotiator that you were you retreated and came up with a set of conditions necessary for continued negotiations. You, never despaired. And we drew strength from you.

 Those who are so determined to convince everyone else that you were a sell-out would never understand why I put up simple quote from Thabo Mbeki on my dorm wall in 1992: “It would be nice to wake and read in the newspapers that nobody was killed in political violence yesterday”. Such a simple wish, I don’t remember it happening until you took over government in 1994. You brought about the “New South Africa”.

 Your detractors argue you left economic power in the hands of the white minority in this country. I cannot argue with that. But to brand you a failure because of that is very short-sighted. How do you fight for economic freedom when chances are that you might lose your life every single time you leave your home? First things first. You chose to focus on keeping us alive, alive to fight for that economic freedom.

 You chose to give us dignity. The dignity to make us want to live better lives, the dignity to fight for that which they are accusing you of not having achieved. They forget, Nelson, that you were offered early release from prison. A conditional release that would banish you to the homelands, far away from public life and centres of decision-making. In 1985, your daughter Zindzi famously read that letter at a rally in Orlando: ‘…your freedom and mine cannot be separated’. I still get a lump in my throat when I watch the video of her reading that letter. And No, it isn’t because she took after her mom in the looks department. Yes Nelson, some of us young men appreciated the fine eye you had for beauty, but I digress.

 Today, those short-sighted kids for whom you chose to sacrifice rearing your own kids and looking after your own family because you loved and chose to serve your people, those kids whose fathers and mothers could stay at home whilst you languished in prison, those kids, have the audacity to scream Nelson Mandela sold us out. The cheek!

 Let me whisper something in your ear my leader, a month ago a self-confessed racist Afrikaaner musician has-been chose to tell the world that ‘Black people were the architects of apartheid’. He put this on Twitter. Your detractors could only come up with Facebook and Twitter anger. Not even a hint of let’s do something. A puppet took up the fight on their behalf, calling the racist out on his bluff. Where was the Twitter and Facebook brigade that says you failed them: why couldn’t they take up their own fight and show that racist that we refuse to be cowed. We will not be insulted and our dignity impaired. No. They were nowhere to be seen.

 They were still pointing out the faultlines of the negotiated settlement you brought about. The irony of it all is that the racist Afrikaaner is using the freedom of speech that you brought about Nelson, saying what he wants knowing fully well that he enjoys the protection of the constitution that you brought about, how twisted is that?

 Nelly, I can call you that can’t I? After all I’m here defending your legacy, and although I know this nick-name was used by only a few of your comrades, please indulge me. Nelly, your brand of magic is still at work in this country. It still is, believe me. I see it when I put on my springbok Rugby T-shirt and watch those who used to think they owned rugby in this country squirm. Not all of them do, some manage a tense smile, but I have no doubt that without your magic I would have had a few expletives thrown in my direction each time I walked in it in public.

 There are some prophets of doom amongst our melanin-deprived section of our population, granted. But the majority of us want to see the Rainbow Nation work. We are a bit short on detail and visionary leadership but that appears to be a worldwide problem. A Nelson Mandela comes once in a generation, if at all.


The other day ‘the honourable’ members of parliament insulted each in parliament and very nearly came to blows. They didn’t, but it could have been worse. Know what the fight was about? The opposition were fighting for the right to bring the president to parliament to account for building an outrageously expensive homestead on taxpayers money. Stolen money. Transparency, Nelson. That’s what you promised us. However twisted the motives of the opposition, in my book, your legacy lives on each day an opposition leader knuckles down to fight corruption.

Nelly, Madiba, Rolihlahla, you might have left us with a president who got booed at your memorial service but all those that booed him got home safely that evening, no witch hunt followed although some non-entities like the Minister of Higher education screamed in a high-pitched voice that the booing brigade must be hunted down, it made me laugh. But that’s your legacy right there. Free political expression.


I would like to tell you that the majority of the citizens of this country are grateful for all the sacrifices you made. You didn’t have to. And that matters.

 And those claiming we are turning you into a can-do-no-wrong-saint, well I’ve got news for them. You were always at pains to ensure we did not give you undue credit. You had your love problems, you got a divorce, you remarried. Your children and grandchildren fought and still do. What more evidence do people need that you were far from being a saint, far, and you pointed this out through numerous stories in your public life. You never sought personal glory.

 I cherish the brilliant moments when you called George W. Bush a warmonger. I’m certain you would have told Obama off on his continued use of drones to eliminate people America don’t like in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You would have given him advice on how to tackle the institutionalised racism that still haunts the United States decades after desegregation.

 Know something? There is no Nelson Mandela Theory of This or Theory of That, no, you kept it simple. People were at the centre of all you did, always.

In your typical direct style, you would “urge Bill Cosby to come clean”. Ok, so you wouldn’t have, fine, I’m allowed to dream a little. I’m grateful, truly grateful for everything. So long Nelly.





Headed for a Pyrrhic Victory?

Embed from Getty Images
Nkandla: The Presidential Homestead which is the focus of our national elections, to the detriment of the African National Congress


One of the ‘nice’ things about writing is the research one gets to do for each piece. Take for instance, the phrase, ‘to turn a blind eye’, would you believe that it originates from a real-life story of a general at war? The said general is handed a telescope to watch his troops engaged in a battle. He proceeds to place the telescope on the one eye blinded in past wars, and obviously misses the fact that his troops are losing the war badly, but he announces that ‘there is no problem’. In other words he turned a blind eye to a problem that was there for all to see. Amusing, don’t you think? Didn’t know any of this till last week.

This got me thinking. In light of our national elections happening exactly a month from today, which other phrase can one use to describe our nation’s pulse right now, what’s is the governing party doing? Are they turning a blind eye to problems or are they perhaps doing what ostriches supposedly do: “bury their heads in the sand”. Having been inspired by suddenly knowing the origins of “turning the blind eye”, I immediately set to work researching the origins of “to bury your head in the sand”. Ok ok, so I Googled it, big deal, it’s still research.

It turns out that the phrase “to bury your head in the sand”(refusing to face a problem) is based on a myth perpetuated by an ancient Roman writer who observed that Ostriches “hide their heads in the bushes”. I have not studied ostrich behavior but Google further assures me that ostriches do not hide their heads in the bush nor in the sand. The only exception is when they feeding that they lower their heads to access food, but then again which bird doesn’t lower its head to reach its food?.

What does this have to do with our May 7 date with destiny, an election marking exactly 20 years since the dawn of democracy? Everything. This election should have been about measuring the strides our young democracy has made since 1994. The question should be whether we are moving at the right pace in the fight against poverty? Are we still on course to eliminate it? Have our democratic structures like the Constitutional Court stood the test of time? In other words, we should be taking stock.

But here we are, 30 days from the election and all we are hearing over and over again is one swearword. Nkandla. Other variations of the word include the word “Nkandlagate”, President’s compound and “Homestead”. I challenge you to Google it and you will discover it means corruption, maladministration and a whole host of other negative things.

How did we move the spotlight from issues like unemployment, education, poor service delivery, housing backlog, police reforms, human rights abuses, worker’s rights and economic growth to focus this high-powered laser beam of national debate on one man’s home(homestead, compound, dwelling…you pick)?

The answer is we “turned a blind eye” to a festering wound. The leadership of the ruling party chose to “bury their heads in the sand” when confronted with a problem. No, not like ostriches, because we have established that ostriches do not do that. But like “refusing to face the problem” which is what the phrase means.

There is always a danger when people think with their hearts when they are supposed to think with their heads. In 2005 when the current president was removed from his post as the then deputy president for having an “obviously corrupt” relationship with convicted fraudster Schabir Schaik, most of us felt affronted. We felt this humble servant of the people was being victimized and humiliated because the then president was elitist and not a man of the people. We sympathized with the victim, thinking with our hearts, and damn, did he pull those heartstrings?

Had we used our heads instead we would have thanked the learned President Mbeki for getting rid of a cancer in its early stages. We could have further used our heads to reason that the learned President Mbeki could be replaced by someone else who could take the people into his/her confidence as they went about ruling our country. But no, we went with our hearts, forgave an obviously flawed leader at own expense. How do you use your head when you’ve buried it in the sand?

I mean, the man tried to warn us, he was divisive without even trying, the consequences of which we are still feeling today. You were either in his camp or the enemy. In the ruling party. In its youth league. In the workers unions. In the ruling of the provinces. He couldn’t keep out of court, either as a defendant or suing. He had questionable morals, the result of which is a child out of wedlock. Yet our hearts said, he is a victim, we must support him. We dug the sand deeper to keep our heads buried.

The brain drain that followed the ousting of President Mbeki gave us further warnings that the cancer was growing, starving us of principled leaders who were not prepared to serve under an obviously flawed leader.

Whilst I use the collective noun “We” to include everyone in the election of a leader who went on to turn a blind eye when a R20m security project at his home ballooned to R250m, blame needs to be put squarely on the leadership that surrounds the President and continues to enable him to keep up the pretenses that everything is fine.

Edmund Burke is credited with having said that “Evil is enabled when men of good conscience choose to keep silent”. In our case, men of good conscience like Cyril Ramaphosa and the departing Trevor Manuel have been cowed into silence from the obvious fear of being seen to divide the movement, when the movement has long been divided by the actions of the faction that has sought to defend evil at all costs. Yes, it’s evil to take money intended for poverty alleviation projects and divert it to the homestead of a president “who never asked for it” as he reminded us last week.

And thus Nkandla took centre stage. And having missed the growth of the cancer whilst it was still growing into the monster that it is now, the upcoming election has forced the leadership who had previously buried their heads in the sand to surface and defend the President at all costs. In the mistaken belief or assertion that an attack on the President is an attack on the African National Congress. They could not be more wrong. People still love the movement with all their hearts and most have an emotional attachment to it for what its history stands for.

What people hate is having to be seen to endorse the actions of a leader who not only turns a blind eye, but chooses to refuse to see. “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. In his refusal, he has spawned a network of leaders of good conscience who are forced to defend evil.

Because the majority still loves the ANC, they will return them to power. Victory is certain. But as I put those words down, Victory is Certain, another phrase comes to mind, one I learnt many years ago watching a movie, “Lean on Me” if I’m not mistaken: Pyrrhic Victory.

Although I know its meaning, in keeping with my ‘research’ spirit(read Google), I researched it origins and found that “The phrase Pyrrhic victory is named after Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War”.

In other words, a Pyrrhic victory is a “hollow” victory, a victory that’s not worth it. And I asked myself: When leaders of good conscience are compromised in defence of one man, when a historic movement closes ranks behind a hugely flawed leader, are we not headed for a Pyrrhic Victory? Are we going to bury our heads in the sand and turn a blind eye until a historic movement is obliterated? One of my favourite songs is Bob Marley’s “Time will Tell”. Only time will answer these questions.

Close Encounters With Nelson Mandela


At age 15, in the eighties, I was sent on an errand to the centre of Johannesburg. The city centre was more manageable in those days, with lots of open spaces for one to do window shopping, even those averse to the idea like myself. As I edged back towards Park Station for my train ride back home, I noticed a vendor who sold books, and I decided to end my window-shopping at his stall, if I can call it that. He had a few adventure novels spread out on the pavement.

As I looked closer, he whipped out two little booklets, looked at me and said, “a clever young man like you would surely be interested in these?”. I looked at the titles, ” The Communist Manifesto” and “Nelson Mandela’s Speech from the Treason Trial”. I couldn’t afford both so I settled for the Nelson Mandela Speech, and I immediately felt adventurous and part of some clandestine activity. Such works were banned at the time, and the gentleman selling them just said “be careful with that one”.

I dared not take it out of my shopping plastic bag on the train ride back home for fear of being spotted with a banned booklet. That evening I laid my eyes on Nelson Mandela’s words for the first time. “I am the First Accused. I hold a Bachelor Of Arts Degree….” I was to use the second line in all my cover letters when I applied for jobs. “I hold a Bachelor of Science Degree….” My first close encounter with Nelson Mandela.

On the 2nd of February 1990, I gathered along with the rest of my school mates in our TV room at our boarding school. When FW de Klerk made the announcement unbanning the ANC we all went mad, we were screaming so loud that I missed his next few words, only to catch “…will be released”. It could only have been in reference to Nelson Mandela because his comrades, Walter Sisulu, Wilton Mkwayi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and others had been released in 1989.

When his release came on 11 February 1990, we were packed into the same TV room. Not to start with anyway, we had a soccer game between ourselves the students, and the cooking staff at our school. We won the game 1- 0 but my mind could not understand how we could have chosen such a day to engage in a soccer match. In retrospect, it was a wise decision because although a time was not given for his actual release, people endured a long wait in front of the television. The soccer game had cut short our waiting time.

And then he came out. The hours of waiting were worth my second encounter with the man. Goosebumps, hairs on the back of my neck standing up, a hint of tears. The First Accused was out.

A couple of days after his release in 1990, our boarding school organized buses that were to ferry us to Orlando Stadium for his first rally in Soweto, Johannesburg. It was quite a hot day but singing struggle songs in the bus on the way to Orlando made the journey somewhat tolerable . We all knew we were part of history in the making. We got to the stadium and found thousands of other equally eager people and we joined together in the anxious wait for Tata. When the word finally filtered through that this was not to be the day we all went back to our buses deflated but still hopeful.

I was to miss the actual homecoming rally at Soccer City a few days later, but I kept a picture of the welcoming rally at the stadium on my wall. I had never seen the iconic stadium so full in my life.

In the early nineties protest marches were so common I cannot recall the exact march where I was in his presence for the first time. But I know that each time he took to the podium, it was the stuff of goosebumps, organized chaos and almost religious fervor. You always felt he was not an ordinary leader.

In 1991 the African National Congress(ANC) hosted a political meeting at the City Hall in Johannesburg. When I saw the posters with Nelson Mandela’s name alongside Thabo Mbeki and Bridget Mabandla I just knew I could not miss this one. The city hall, although rather large, provided a more intimate atmosphere than a soccer stadium. Bridget Mabandla spoke first, followed by Thabo Mbeki who quipped that he “didn’t understand how he allowed himself to be sandwiched between two lawyers”

When Nelson Mandela’s turn to speak came, the crowd literally brought the roof down with chants of “ANC,ANC,ANC!… for what seemed like an eternity. I hung onto every word he said. He had a very easy-going but deliberate manner in which he made his points. He ended this talk with a joke that he was to adapt and repeat to various audiences later. “Joe Slovo, Oliver Tambo and I were walking on a beach in Durban. We encountered a group of young ladies who listened as we explained things to them and seemed suitably charmed. They seemed very happy to have met us. As we turned to leave, one young lady asked me, Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo we know, but who are you?” I went home in awe of the self-effacing manner of a colossus who remained humble to the end.

During 1992, after negotiations between the ANC and the then apartheid government were suspended following the gruesome Boipatong Massacre, the ANC launched what was referred to as “rolling mass action”, a series of protest marches aimed at the government’s reluctance to deal with the obviously high levels of political violence in the country. Nelson Mandela maintained that there was a “Third Force” that the government was using to unsettle the party to ensure that the ANC always negotiated from a position of weakness.

Nelson Mandela addressed a dozen of the marches that followed.

In April 1993, following the assassination of ANC and South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela was beamed live into our living rooms from the South African Broadcasting Corporation studios to calm the country. The country was on the verge of a racial civil war, which was the motive of the right-wingers who planned Hani’s murder. Black people, for a few hours, were placed in a position where attacking everything white seemed justified.

That was until Nelson Mandela reminded us that “yes, it was white right wingers who assassinated Chris Hani, but it was also the eyes of a white woman who ensured that the assassins were apprehended”. That day, in 1993, Nelson Mandela became the de facto president of the country.

The rather sad event of Chris Hani’s demise was to provide me with my closest encounter with Nelson Mandela. The Young Christian Students(YCS), of which I was a member, were signatories of The Peace Accord, which was an attempt at stemming the tide of political violence across the country. As part of our activities, we became peace Marshalls at political events and you could identify us with our brightly coloured peace stickers with their dove-and-olive branch symbol.

As a clearly marked peace Marshall I formed part of the cordon that kept the general masses away from the dignitaries around Chris Hani’s grave. At one point the only thing that separated me from Nelson Mandela was Chris Hani’s grave. He had spectacles on, the kind that darkened in the sun, and I remember wondering if he could see me through those, amongst thousands of other mourners of course.

An unforgettable encounter I had with Nelson Mandela came in 1994, the year he officially became president. See, Mandela’s inauguration itself had been declared a national holiday, meaning we could all partake in the activities of the day. Sadly though, we had a very bitter Electrochemistry lecturer, a man from Eastern Europe who was always very quick to remind us that politics did not do him and his country any good, so he didn’t see the point of postponing an important test scheduled for the day after the inauguration.

The saddest part for me was that we had classmates, sadly white, who voted to not postpone the test. I was bitter and mad. But I was not going to be denied. I made the conscious choice to not study and be part of the inauguration. I went to a soccer match at Ellis Park, we played Zambia on what was to be an annual Nelson Mandela Challenge. He was inaugurated at the Union buildings in the morning and came to Ellis Park at half-time. It became the longest half-time break of any soccer match I’ve attended. He inspired South Africa to a 2-1 victory, at a time when we were the whipping boys of Africa. That game I believe, turned our team into continental champions two years later. People talk about Madiba Magic, that inexplicable bout of inspiration that he always seemed to impart onto sport stars whenever he came into contact with them, I believe that magic was born that day.

My Electrochemistry lecturer had wanted me to miss the birth of Madiba Magic. He was mad. I promptly failed his test but earned a memory I would not exchange for the world. I believe I’m not bitter at that Electrochemistry lecturer and my classmates because my politics were shaped by that man Mandela. He taught me to hate the system, never the people. That’s why I’ll always be grateful, and it’s a gift I’m passing onto my kids. No one is born evil.

You must be waiting for my encounter with him where he shakes my hand and says to me: ” Pleased to meet you young man”. I hoped for it, wished for it, alas, it never came.

I was to encounter him a few more times after his inauguration. Memorably at the 1996 Africa Cup Of Nations finals at the Soccer City stadium. By then, Madiba Magic was in full swing, with him having inspired our rugby team to World Cup victory the year before. Watch the Morgan Freeman/Matt Damon movie, Invictus, for the details.

I basked in Madiba’s magic at the soccer final. Kept the ticket stub and the memories.

I look back and think of instances where it could have gone horribly wrong, and I’m grateful. Grateful that he came out of twenty-seven years of incarceration without even the slightest hint of bitterness. He came out an even better leader than he went in. And I thank God for him. Because I’m a believer, I’m led to believe that the twenty-seven years were part of God’s bigger plan.

A plan to preserve Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for South Africa and the World. A plan to preserve the man who dined with Kings and yet retained his common touch, as Rudyard Kipling says in his poem If.

When Nelson Mandela passed on last Thursday, I was in a cinema watching The Long Walk to Freedom. A fitting final encounter with a man I had idolized from my teenage years. And you thought you had to meet the man in person to have a close personal encounter with him? Think again!

Hamba Kahle , Madiba. You inspired me and millions of other people.

Not Again!

Two weeks ago a horrific truck crash claimed the lives of 24 people in an instant. The crash, in Pinetown just outside Durban had all South Africans decrying the horrible death statistics on our roads. This past Monday an army reservist shot and killed 12 people in a mass shooting in a Washington Navy yard. Two incidents, two weeks apart in two totally different countries. Do you know what struck me the most about these, their similarities. Ok, so the truck was not driven by a man with mental issues like it has been alleged about the Washington Navy Yard shooter, but I want to suggest to you that the reaction they elicited from citizens in both countries are exactly the same. “Oh, another one, I feel so sorry for the families of the victims. Yes, they should change the laws, I mean, it’s crazy what’s going on”.

And then, the usual focus on the victims, what they did, how many kids they had. A mother in South Africa wished she’d never sent her daughter to town that day. A neighbour to one one of the shooting victims said “this is a tragedy for so many reasons”. I say give it another week or two, it’ll all blow over, and things will be back to “normal”, until another crash or mass shooting occurs. I could not help but agree with the assertion that mass shootings have worked themselves into the culture of the United States. Similarly, truck crashes, bus crashes and minibus taxi crashes are now a part of the South African culture. We know the rituals we follow when these happen. Even President Barack Obama agrees. He had this to say about the mass shooting.

“I do get concerned that this becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings. Everybody expresses understandable horror. We all embrace the families and obviously our thoughts and prayers are with those families right now – as they’re absorbing this incredible loss.

“And yet we’re not willing to take some basic actions that we know would make a difference.” Substitute the words “mass shootings” in his statement with “car accidents” and you will get a typical statement from our Minister of Transport, whoever happens to wear the mantle at the time.

Seeing as these sort of incidents are now part of the cultures of both these countries allow me to take it a step further. Here’s what I think South Africa’s tourist brochure should include: “Welcome to sunny South Africa, alive with possibilities, the land of Nelson Mandela a.k.a The Miracle Rainbow Nation. We pride ourselves with our potpourri of cultures, our Unity through Diversity, and Oh, by the way, it’s December, our roads need to meet their target of 1500 deaths this month, it happens every year like clockwork!”

How about this one for the USA: “Welcome to the United States of America, the land of the Brave and Free, the land of dreams. Our constitution and rule of law are unmatched in the industrialized world. But wait for this, every couple of months we have a mass shooting! It’s been a couple of months since the last one but anytime now a ‘crazy’, PTSD-tormented, sometimes racist, anti-Semitic, bullied gunman will kill 12 or more people! Anytime now!”.

The rituals go something like this, mass shooting/bus crash occurs: Everyone screams about changing the laws, enforcing current laws, gun laws and traffic laws. And you and I, will look at ourselves and think “I drive safely, I obey all the rules, in fact I grew up around guns and have never had the urge to discharge it in a public place, let alone shoot unarmed people, nobody I know would drive like those maniacs on the road”. Listen, it’s not about you. It’s about that kid in Grade 1 who may be shot by someone we don’t want to acknowledge are own society created. Or that poor girl whose mother sent to town and never came back because our culture of bad driving took her away.

I feel you, you were shocked and disgusted by the latest incident but what can you do? I’m certain you’ve heard the story about the frog being boiled to death in an open pot, the frog doesn’t jump out because it acclimatises to the rising water temperature. Until it dies. Or you’ve seen the fly repeatedly banging itself against a clean window pane, because it doesn’t realise it’s not going anywhere. That’s what happened to our societies. We are now used to these mass deaths. We issue the same statements after each incident, we are horrified, we want to change laws but obviously it’s not working. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, who said that again. Oh Yes, that genius of a man called Albert Einstein. He must have had us in mind when he said that.

So, why is it so difficult for governments to take decisive action over something as terminal as a massacre or a truck crash?

Let’s do something DIFFERENT. Our current reactions to the incidents are not working. Imagine this. An incident like the Pinetown truck crash happens. Our president calls an emergency meeting,on the agenda, only one item: the crash. His most intelligent and trusted advisors are there. He’s also called the chairperson of the Pinetown Residents Association, they bring along their road accident reconstruction experts and copies of their online petition. The Minister of higher education has brought along a thesis by a Doctorate student at The University of The Witwatersrand on Road Deaths in South Africa: The solutions”. The meeting lasts 4 hours. At the press conference the President announces that the stretch of road has now been declared a truck-free zone as the residents have been requesting for the past 10 years. All heavy-duty truck and bus drivers under the age of 30 to be retested. All bus drivers who have ever caused fatal accidents to be retested. It sounds crazy I know, but it’s different!

We’d be shocked! Is that our President? We would also request whatever he’d had that morning for breakfast, but most importantly, for once, he would have broken away from the culture represented by this statement: “It’s time we begin to thoroughly assess and fully comprehend the cost of crashes to our economy”, that’s Dipuo Peters for you, our current Minister of transport. Really, 100 000 deaths later(since 1994) and it’s only now that “it’s time”. Ag Nee!

Across the Atlantic, President Obama would have called a similar emergency meeting. News reports coming out of the White house are going something like “Rumour has it that he’s never been as furious as he was on Monday following the massacre. He called the head of Departmnet of Psychiatry/Psychology at Harvard to the meeting. He wanted to understand why so many mental issues are going undetected in the general population, what can be done on a mass scale to correct such high levels of anger in the nation. Thorough psychological examinations would now be part of acquiring a gun licence, not only semi-automatics but all guns. The right to self-protection would now be superseded by the right of others to life. He even enlisted the help of Hollywood director Michael Moore, wanting to understand why his peers gave him an Oscar for his documentary, Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 Coumbine High School shooting. At the press conference, he’s expected to announce brave and drastic new measures that will change the culture of owning guns throughout the country”.

I hear you saying “Dream On”. John Lennon answered you a long time ago, he said “you might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. Imagine.

I despair at the thought that none of the scenarios I’ve painted above will play themselves out at either the White House or the Union Buildings in Pretoria anytime soon. After all, our presidents have got countries to run(yeah right!). But another mass shooting will happen, another tragic bus/truck accident is coming. I would rather my leaders work to change things than run governments, if you know what I mean. Even with the suggestions I’ve made, change would take a while, but I’m certain the culture of being used to mass death would be changed. Let’s keep on agitating for change, for leaders who will think out of the box.

Begging For Embarrassment

There are moments in history when great individuals, organizations and governments are faced with really tough decisions. At that moment in time, deciding one way or another would appear to be giving in to popular sentiment. Failure to take decisive action  ultimately leads to embarrassment. History is littered with such examples. I’ll explore some of them below, but the main thrust of my piece here is that our government is facing such a time with e-tolling and the National Prosecuting Authority(NPA).

Students of history will recall that the US were embarrassed by having to pull out of a war in which they went in ill-prepared, ill-advised and a bit cocky if you ask me( Vietnam in around 1963). One online commentator put it this way: US forces fail to be effective in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and others because they lack respect for local culture and people,they rely too much on military might, they lack a  clear strategy or political will. The US forces fought a guerrilla force using the only tactics they know, conventional warfare. Schools of thought still differ today on whether they pulled out voluntarily, or were forced to pull out, or were simply defeated. What is clear though is the US went into Vietnam to help protect French interests(and help stop the spread of communism) but left with their tails between their legs: humiliated and embarrassed by a guerrilla force, internationally and on the home front.

Our government is going ahead with the launch of the unpopular e-tolls despite opposition on all fronts. The main proponents of the system argue that the user-pay principle has to be enforced no matter what. Some ministers, like Blade Ndzimande, have gone as far as saying that people who are opposed to e-tolls are those individuals who can afford to pay but don’t want to pay. They further argue that OUTA, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, is a front of the Democratic Alliance. What they choose to ignore is that, COSATU, an ally of the ruling party has been the voice of the poor in all of this. When the party that should be ‘pushing back the frontiers of poverty’ is helping advance them, another organization will step in and do their job. The truth is, you would have to be living on Mars to fail to realize that e-tolling is the most unpopular government policy since, well, apartheid. Never has a system garnered so much negativity from so many sections of our society since the advent of democracy in 1994. Even the self-emasculated churches have been stirred to life by the prospect of this system. Which begs the question: who is advising the government on its ill-fated attempts to go ahead with this? The most amazing aspect of this whole debacle is, most of us, the citizenry, are willing to pay, just not to a company that’s going to take 70% of the revenue generated out of South Africa. No one in government has put papers on the table and refuted this. Show us that no money from e-tolling is going to foreign companies and I for one, would gladly pay! Any continued efforts towards implementation would be the same as the American government claiming victory in an un-winnable war in Vietnam: embarrassment.

There are very few things as disconcerting and painful as listening to an intelligent individual defending mediocrity. The past few months have seen the Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe defending the indefensible:  Comrade President in Guptagate, and then following that up by defending the recents going-ons in the National Prosecuting Authority. Truth be told, Gupagate would never have happened if the Guptas did not have our First Citizen as a buddy. The less said about the Guptas buying our country the better. Of more or equal concern is the gradual erosion of our trust in the organs that administer Justice in our country. Jeff Radebe says it doesn’t matter that the killers of Andries Tatane, captured on camera, are still roaming free. He says it doesn’t matter Anene Booysen’s killers case seems to be going the same route. He says don’t worry that we are spending so much time and money pursuing one of our own, Glynnis Breytenbach when all evidence points to her being a hard-working, corruption-hating, innocent prosecutor. Yes, there are still such individuals in our midst you know. Another one goes by the name Thuli Madonsela. Corruption-hating. Yep. Best appointment Zuma made.  Minister Radebe says our jails are full because  the NPA is effective. Puleeezee Mr Radebe, convicting a house-breaker can hardly be compared to convicting Glen Agliotti or the killers of Andries Tatane. Convicting offenders in high-profile cases builds confidence in the whole system Minister Radebe! The concerned and  informed amongst us know that what causes overcrowding in SA jails are awaiting-trial prisoners, not the convicted prisoners as the minister would have us believe. As the NPA wobbles from one embarrassment to another, I’m left wondering, isn’t our government trying to hard to garner embarrassment?

As an unknown student of history once observed: “History teaches, but it has no pupils”. Those familiar with the embarrassing defeat of an elite American Helicopter Unit in Mogadishu in 1993 will tell you that however mighty you are, lack of respect and understanding of local conditions will leave you open to a sucker-punch. The movie Black Hawk Down tells the story of how Somalian Militia, armed only  with hand-held weapons of war shot down, not one but two state-of-the-art US Black Hawk helicopters. History taught the US in Vietnam to do their research to avoid such embarrassments but obviously, the lesson was not learned. History teaches, but it has no pupils.

Our government continues to go to court in opposition to OUTA,  clearly disregarding popular sentiment. Mediocre appointments in the NPA continue to be the order of the day. There is a looming threat of a KZN magistrate being appointed to head the NPA, clearly forgetting the embarrassment brought on by the Menzi Simelane saga. Simelane, a man who was proven to have lied under oath at the Ginwala commission was appointed to head the NPA. Really,  Mr Radebe, what lengths will our government go to to ensure our legal structures are emasculated, disempowered and left embarrassed? Clearly someone is afraid of a strong independent NPA. The question is who? Only the guilty are afraid.

It’s so sad that every appointment made by the President, Minister of Justice and the Judicial Services Commission will now be viewed through the opaque prism of previous embarrassing appointments. If there’s anyone out there who can help, when was the last our President made a clearly well-thought-out, confidence-building appointment? Any guesses, anyone? Our leaders just continue to beg for embarrassment! And we’ve got another five years of this coming!?!

When Leaders Err

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office” said Dwight D. Eisenhower ages ago. Integrity: I’ve been taught it means who you are in private and in public is the same person, that you are a man or woman of your word. That’s what Eisenhower said has to be unquestionable for you to be a real success as a leader.

I am sad and disappointed as I write this. Something happened this week that has left me feeling the course of the battle against corruption in our country has taken a major knock. The most vocal voice against urban e-tolling and government corruption was compromised. His integrity shattered. His public persona is now questionable. Follow this link for details. ( Also, see these earlier blogs Thinking Critically and Begging for embarrassment to appreciate his place in South African society.

I would like to make it clear from the onset that I do not wish to stand in judgement against Zwelinzima Vavi and the apparent sexual indiscretion that he is facing. The tabloids and social network banter have done enough of that. My beliefs do not allow me to stand in judgement. In fact, if I knew him personally, my beliefs dictate that I should offer him support that he doesn’t lose his way further or completely. What I wish to do here is reflect on how a leader’s faltering can compromise a whole cause.(Please note that His organization, COSATU, has withdrawn the internal disciplinary charges against him)

Back in the early 90’s, as idealistic varsity students dreaming about a ‘new South Africa’ we always stressed the need for a very vocal, very active and vibrant civil society that would safeguard our victory after freedom was attained. We were worried that South Africa would go the way of most if not all recently liberated countries in Africa where democracy seemed to herald an era of unlimited looting of the country’s resources. So we agreed that a vocal civil society would ensure that never happened. What was needed we said, was what is now referred to as active citizenry.

Democracy came in 1994 and Nelson Mandela became president. The moral high ground that had carried the country from the brink of a racial civil war seemed to permeate through all society and government. The need for that vocal and active citizenship seemed to disappear. The world looked at us as the Miracle rainbow nation. We ourselves could hardly believe that we had looked into the eyes of the monster and survived. Our democracy was indeed a miracle.

Exit Mandela. Enter the arms deal. Rumours of corruption started doing the rounds. The rumour mill had it that everyone, and that means EVERYONE in government had benefitted improperly from that deal, hence the reluctance on the part of government from pursuing the matter. If everyone was tainted, who could raise their voice in anger, who would protect the interests of the poor. Mind you, there was a subtle change in language during the early 2000s. Where we once called on ‘the people’ to govern, we now wanted to protect ‘the poor’, not the people anymore. ‘The People’ who had voted the government in were now ‘the poor’, to be ‘protected’, on whose behalf decisions could be made.

Enter Mr Zwelinzima Vavi and his Congress of South African Trade Unions(COSATU) . Those idealistic wishes that we had of an active civil society seemed embodied in this man’s approach to things. He led workers and ‘the people’ in this country to believe that they can stand up to corruption without fear. That when those who chose to defend ‘the poor’ failed them, the poor needn’t feel voiceless, the poor can become ‘the people’ again and challenge their own leaders.

Many in government and the ruling party were obviously unhappy about Mr Vavi’s spearheading a campaign against his own comrades, after all COSATU and the governing party are all part of the alliance that achieved democracy in this country. But here he was, ruffling feathers without fear and challenging those who had given themselves the role of defending the poor whilst stealing from them. Many in power wished he could be unseated, there were even death threats against him.

Then came the sexual revelations this weekend. Mr Vavi has, by his own admission, engaged in sex outside of his marriage. I’m gutted, not because I placed my hope in an individual, no, but because that individual represents everything that is good in the ‘new South Africa’. The hope that the poor, the people, have a voice again. I could be wrong but I get the sense that a lot of people felt let down. To his credit he issued an immediate apology on Twitter. But the damage was done.

I was reminded of a recent retreat I attended where our Bishop reminded us that walking in our destiny requires vigilance. If necessary, put measures in place that will ensure that you are not robbed of that destiny by the kind of indiscretions that Mr Vavi finds himself in. It might sound laughable and simplistic but a simple rule like compulsory open office doors at COSATU House would most probably have saved our most vibrant civil society leader from losing his voice.

Unfortunately, once compromised, the moral authority goes. Your words ring hollow, people can choose not to listen. Your position remains but the authority goes. I don’t know about you, but for me your legacy too is compromised. I cannot remember Bill Clinton’s major achievements without thinking of Monica, can you? Most of what I remember about his second term is him fighting a long battle against impeachment.

In fact, in this world that knows about forgiveness but does not know how to forgive an indiscretion such as this one can follow you for life. When Bill Clinton lent his wife a hand in her campaign against Obama a couple of years ago, the effects of the scandal were still there. Some even suggested he was costing her votes.

A few years ago when our current president was facing his own challenges of sexual indiscretions, Senzeni Jokwana of the National Union of Mineworkers said at a conference: “We are not Christians. We don’t listen to the 10 commandments and we don’t have to listen when Christians tell us adultery is wrong.” There was all-round applause from those in attendance.

What they failed to realize is that it’s not only about being a Christian, it’s about being a leader who is taken seriously. There are very few people who will follow a leader whose personal indiscretions will compromise their overall cause. After all, being a leader is about being more disciplined than the ordinary person. People are not judging you when they are disappointed in your actions, it’s more that they hold you to a higher standard, because you are their leader.

People, even those who are not Christians realize that sexual indiscretions not only hurt their cause but hurt the family members of those involved. Their children. Their spouses. Their closest friends and colleagues. There are real lives involved, and you as the leader have failed to protect those closest to you, what more of the whole cause?

So in the end, for the sake of the cause they represent, it’s better to recognize that the Ten Commandments they are rejecting are the building block of any successful public life or cause for that matter. In any game there are rules, written and unwritten. In the leadership space the written rules that govern your integrity, and in the end, your effectiveness, are the Ten Commandments, in whatever form you may choose to present them.

With his integrity sacrificed for close to nothing, Mr Vavi is left clutching at an elusive reputation. He is reported to have said “…we are looking at possible criminal charges(against his rape accuser) …the damage done to our reputation and good standing… is beyond any material value”. My feeling is that the reputation and good standing were damaged by none other than the person Mr Vavi sees when he stands in front of a mirror.

Again, the are murmurs of “Vavi’s leadership has never been on morality, it is against corruption”, says Irvin Jim of COSATU, a Vavi ally. This unfortunately displays a shortsightedness and poor understanding of leadership. I fail to see how you can divorce morality and integrity. How would a leader who has been shown to have poor judgement when it comes to private matters be able to exercise good judgement in public office?

Unfortunately, one unwritten rule of effective leadership is that public trust in you, once broken, can never be fully recovered. Trust and integrity are two sides of the same coin. People trust because they believe the person you present to the is the same person who goes home to his loving wife and family.

So what’s the real damage you might ask. These were two consenting adults, the wife has forgiven him, who are we to meddle? Well let me tell you why. Every time something as huge as this occurs and you are tempted to think there are no real victims think again. Sometimes it seems there are no real victims because ALL of us are victims. Mr Vavi, the young woman,her family, his family,the public,the workers and the people/the poor . All victims. The weakening or silencing of that one voice leaves those wishing for his demise free to continue the feeding frenzy at the through of public funds unhindered.

It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth that in South African politics we are left to choose between leaders based on how less corrupt or compromised they are. “My leader, although accused, was never convicted so he’s better than yours!”. Really, what happened to insisting on clean, trustworthy leadership? Leadership strong enough to say I’m not afraid of the Ten Commandments because I’m clean. Let’s stop idolizing leaders who have been caught enriching themselves with public funds through tenders, have questionable integrity or think morality is a choice.

Let us continue working and striving for people with integrity to lead us. Our country and our children deserve better.

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