Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Municipal Elections - Reflecting an ANC Identity Crisis?

TO foreigners we must sometimes appear to be a strange nation. Warm and hospitable one day, we are capable of unspeakable violence against each other the next.

We were able to host the World Cup, our banking system is the match of any developed country, and yet, a five-star tour bus – travelling from a five-star hotel – can as easily disappear into a pothole outside a squatter camp on the way to the airport.

These crazy contrasts are what I think it means to be South African. We’re a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and medium-size nation that sometimes doesn’t know itself.

We have 11 official languages, but double that number is spoken on a daily basis by about 20 nationalities now resident in our country. Thirty or so tongues in a population of 45 million indicate diversity – a ratio of one language for every 1.5 million people.

Of course, we know that more than 1.5 million speak Zulu, for example, but the crude maths does make a point.

Indeed, if anything, the idea of a “rainbow nation” – an axiom coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu – has in 2011 become a confused smudge of rich-poor and racial divides.

This was brought home strongly to me after the IEC announced the results of our recent municipal elections. The DA had made significant inroads in urban areas, winning a clear majority in the Cape Town metro.

The ANC, a big church, found itself under pressure for lack of service delivery in the poorer Black areas, and for neglect of its Indian and Coloured wards in others. In spite of this, the party still managed to win a 62% national majority.

Perhaps one could argue that the ANC was “lucky”. Cope, the first ANC breakaway party, had proven to be more a coalition of clashing egos than a focused opposition challenging the status-quo, and the fragmentation of ANC branches around the country.

How many ex-Cope voters went back to the fold of the ANC (or the DA) after the party’s public shenanigans, is an open question. The more likely scenario is that the ANC’s ever-loyal voters were hopeful, once again, for effective local government.

But one thing is very clear from the elections: serious self-introspection is something that the ruling party needs to countenance, especially if it wants to halt a perception that it is fast becoming an identity party in which minorities perceive themselves to be in the political wilderness.

What I’m talking about here is the ANC’s inability to reign in those who shoot it in the foot by indulging in racial identity politics on the local and national stage.

Even if GCIS head, Jimmy Manyi, said coloureds should “leave” the Western Cape for work in jest, or even if his statement was taken retro-actively out of context by the DA, he should surely have known better than to venture into such sensitive territory on a public platform.

The jibes from certain party representatives, following Minister Trevor Manuel’s critical response to Manyi in the media, sent a negative message to those affected by Manyi’s sentiments that employment equity – a burning issue in the Western Cape – was over-subscribed by coloureds.

Leaders such as Julius Malema also need to realise that calling white opposition leaders "cockroaches" is as obscene as the dreaded "k" word.

He needs to know that belittling other population groups (and no, I’m not referring to "Kill the Boer") was never the way of Nelson Mandela or Walter Sisulu, who were both once members of the ANC Youth League.

He needs to know that reducing political discourse to its its lowest common denominator - as he often does - is not debate, but semantic thuggery.

But in South Africa today, a growing lack of comprehension of what really constitutes a democratic majority is, by far, the most urgent political question that young people like Malema need to fully understand.

It was, I believe, the biggest deciding factor in the destiny of the 2011 municipal elections; elections where national issues came on to the table. The communities who felt marginalised by Malema and Manyi either withheld their votes, or supported another party.

That is why wards such as Mayfair in Johannesburg and Rylands in Cape Town went from being ANC strongholds to DA ones.

Those of us who can recall the United Democratic Front will remember that during the anti-apartheid struggle, democracy was never defined by group identities. In the spirit of non-racism and non-sexism, every person was equal and every belief was equal.

Political identity was not determined by your face, but by your principles. Democracy was understood as a principled collective demanding representative governance. Policy and perspective was debated as principle, not identity, which allowed for the equal participation of all players.

Therefore, what the ANC needs to understand is that increasingly – due to the irresponsible utterances of Malema and his ilk – Indian, Coloured and White voters are seeing the ANC as an exclusive “Black” majority party, a contradiction of the truly democratic values it originally stood for.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Befitting Democracy

WHAT could our 2011 municipal elections have to do with the North African political earthquake, or, recent events in places such as Cote d’Ivoire or Uganda?

As I watched the results unfold at the Independent Electoral Commission’s results centre in Bellville South last week, I realised that the answer was “everything”.

Described by political analyst Prof Adam Habib as “world class”, he said in an interview that our local elections were a model of participatory democracy. Our 2011 municipal election set the bar at the highest notch, not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world.

Like so many commentators, Prof Habib measured the IEC as one of our most treasured national institutions.

He agreed that one of the hallmarks of our local electoral process was that nominated independent candidates only had to submit a list of 50 signatures, and to pay a small deposit. This meant that they would not be overly disadvantaged against the more muscular parties, such as the DA or the ANC.

Of course, most of us will concur that the playing fields in politics will never be perfectly level, but a fighting chance is – well – a fighting chance. Voters in some wards were spoilt with a selection of more than 20 candidates, something unimaginable in a big democracy such as the US.

For me, Election Day in South Africa means that I get to see the smiling face of my nation; the same one that graced the 2010 World Cup and created the “gees” that enchanted so many millions of people.

However, as South Africans self-absorbed in our daily struggles, we do otherwise tend to be hugely self-critical too. Hence the paradox that the ANC – still with a whopping 62% majority – will beat itself up about the results, and possibly even depose the President in a year’s time.

In South Africa this dynamic of public self-introspection is more profoundly noticed, because when elections do occur in other parts of the developing world, they have a poor record. When stuffed ballots, bribery and corruption are the bane of the honest voter there is only room for anger.

It is no wonder that the electoral process can often become overwrought, leading to frustration and even bloody violence. This year’s Nigerian presidential ballot, only considered “free and fair” by Nigerian standards, resulted in 800 deaths.

The stand-off in Cote d’Ivoire between former President Laurent Bgabgo, and Alassane Outtara, is as a sharp lesson for Africa as the Middle East is – where its tinpot dictators, unchecked for decades, cannot comprehend that their time is up.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni – entrenching himself as President for life – was recently re-elected against a background of discontent. And if Robert Mugabe – already President for life – goes to the polls any time soon, it’s guaranteed that his Zanu-PF thugs will beat up opposition voters.

Contrast this against South Africa (three Presidents since 1994) and another shining, but forgotten example, Somaliland (two successful democratic elections) and the picture is clear: those aspiring for a genuine political voice on our continent will obviously look to its best examples.

Whilst Somaliland (a breakaway territory of colonial Somalia) battles for international recognition on the Horn of Africa, South Africa’s positives are the envy of the continent. We are the only African welfare state, and our ARV roll-out for Aids sufferers is probably the most extensive in the world.

And whilst basic service delivery for the poor is a burning question, it can’t be denied that millions of houses have been built, electrified and supplied with running water. Yes, it’s not perfect (and our Gini-Co-efficient ranking is a disgrace) but if you’ve been living for 50 years in a post-colonial slum in central Africa, our post-apartheid era doesn’t look too bad.

In fact, my own experience is that right across the African and Arab world, the victory of the anti-apartheid movement – and the iconic status of Nelson Mandela – have been beacons that have lit up people’s hopes, and in difficult times, bolstered their courage.

For the international community, “Madiba Magic” is not about us winning the World Cup, but rather the values of honest political struggle, personal sacrifice and national reconciliation. And even in 2011 people haven’t forgotten this – as I was reminded by a Khartoum-based journalist just last week.

But where we have the most impact is through our imagery. As much as freedom in Egypt will now be about Al-Jazeera’s depiction of Tahrir Square, South African elections have been about the wire-service queue pictures – wide-angle shots of shadowed lines snaking around shacks.

It has become a cliché; but this imagery is still figuratively powerful. It’s powerful not because the poor are seen to be voting, but because our polling stations are not guarded by tanks, armoured cars and guns. Troops do not patrol barbed-wire perimeters, combat rifles at the ready.

The normality of it all is, ironically, abnormal for the many countries who watch us on their television screens via satellite.

But let it be said: with all the good cheer about South Africa, there is a stern caveat. Voters have expectations, and South African voters now have high ones. Politicians will have to stand and deliver against an uncertain climate of global economics, and a highly limited tax base.

The only answer to this is jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs – not created by government (which doesn’t have the capacity) but by the ingenuity of South Africans themselves.

Finally, the Malema’s of this world need to understand very quickly that their foul-mouthed identity politics merely nurtures a culture of entitlement; a culture of entitlement every bit as repulsive as that of the Afrikaner Nationalists who held this country to ransom for 46 years.

They need to realise that in a true democracy, the majority can only be defined by principle, and never by race.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Halal Industry: a Call for Common Sense

THE other day I wrote an article about the halalisation of our consumer space by Halal bodies. They were more concerned, I suggested, in making a fast buck than acting in public interest.

The piece, which appeared in a mainstream publication, was a response to complaints by non-Muslims that they had to pay for the Halal certification process.

For those who might not be aware: the retailers who fork out hundreds of thousands of rands annually for the Halal certification of toothpicks, water, fish, coffee, milk or nuts merely pass on their expenses to the consumer.

To say that there’s a growing of cynicism in South Africa of the multi-million rand Halal certification industry is an understatement.

With Halal traditionally centred on the slaughter of meat, and pork derivatives in foodstuffs, it truly boggles the mind that our scholars could suspect that a humble cashew – halal for thousands of years – would now suddenly rub shoulders with piggy en-route to market.

To this effect, an American scholar has even argued that as shocking as it may sound to us, the Halal industry is making a mint out of pork.

In my article I argued that some of our scholars had perverted the very foundation of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. I said that they had rendered upside down the maxim that the ‘asl (source) of things was their ibahah (permissibility).

In this surreal world, Allah’s Halal Creation has to be deemed inherently impermissible so that some Halal mufti can arrive godlike on the scene with his rubber stamp to deem them permissible.

We have to remind ourselves too that ghuluw, or extremism, was something detested by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). He would happily dine at the tables of Jews and Christians without inspecting their kitchens, or peering into their pots.

I also argued in my article that had these bodies created public institutions, poverty relief programmes or educational opportunities out of their profits – which they have not to any meaningful degree – we could forgive the Halal industry for taking our money.

I made the point, too, that public interest had to be served here; the benefits accruing from the Halal industry could not be exclusively Muslim, as non-Muslims paid for the certification as well.

Response on Facebook, and other social media platforms, indicated that I had touched a nerve. Some people felt I had attacked particular organisations, and actually named them. This I had not done.

So before I proceed further, let it be said that my aim was to interrogate the principle of the matter. I’m not interested in names, organisations – or the mad-hatter conspiracies surrounding them.

And I seriously don’t advise the indulgence of shoe-fitting. We are dealing with broad issues here that are better dignified by being discussed in a neutral space. Labels only serve to specify, personalise and emotionalise the thrust of the argument.

I have to say, as well, that my critique in no way suggests that Halal certification be done away with. Far from it. We need the Halal process, but what I’m calling for is some commonsense.

The word “Halal process” is used here deliberately. For halalisation in the market place is indeed a process, from the moment the meat is slaughtered – or the product manufactured – to the time it reaches the consumer’s shopping basket.

Historically, the Muslim market-place was governed by the institution of hisbah – the protection of personal honour and public safety. In this scenario a muhtasib, a qualified official, would police corruption and monitor the professional guilds.

He would also check on the ethics of business practice, inspect the quality of goods and ensure that there was no profiteering at the expense of the poor.

“Halal” in this application was far more embracing than just the make-up of the goods on display. It dealt with every facet of commercial life.

Amongst the traditional scholars who’ve studied the role of the muhtasib are Imam al-Ghazali, Ibn Taimiyyah and Imam Taqi Ad-Din as-Subki. The muhtasib played an institutional role in Islamic society from the 8th to the 19th century.

According to Imam al-Ghazali, the muhtasib had to be an accredited scholar – in fact, a Qadi. His duties, which focused on public morality and economic activity, even covered environmental issues. In the modern sense, the muhtasib would be something in between an attorney general and an ombudsman.

Perhaps our Halal sultans, the lords of the supermarket shelves, should be obsessing less on the obscure details of how a particular product is manufactured. They should be indulging more in the spirit of hisbah, and questioning the morality of how things are marketed and sold – and how excessively rising prices, for example, affect the consumer.

For how halal can an over-priced product be if it contains carcinogenic substances and artificial hormones? How halal is clothing that has involved the use of child- labour? How halal can something be if its sale is the consequence of excess interest?

It could be argued – somewhat simplistically I know – that where Muslims live as minorities (as we do in South Africa, the US or Europe) our judiciary bodies’ primary role should be to play the role of a modern-day muhtasib. These responsibilities are enormous.

Hisbah requires large doses of wisdom, as much as it does knowledge of the application of Sacred Law and social custom. It is not a job for the faint-hearted.

The “morals police” of so-called Islamic countries are, for example, an insult to hisbah. Yobbos patrolling the streets and markets with nightsticks and guns are definitely not muhtasibs.

Each society enjoys its own unique customs, and juridicial opinions applicable to Cairo may not be as suitable for Cape Town. But where there’s universality of application is the market-place. That’s where the principles, as reflected in the Qur’an, become the most comprehensive.

And for as long as something with a halal stamp on it is sold to me by a liar, a thief or a cheat – or the goods have been produced by damaging the environment – I will not buy that product. Stamp or not, I will not consider it halal.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fisk: Bin Laden was a "Has Been"

ROBERT FISK, the Beirut-based correspondent for The Independent, knows his way around the geopolitics of the Middle East better than most.

But more than that, Fisk speaks with the rare authority of having been there. Over the last three decades he has covered most of its major conflicts.

His political nous is also honed by a critical understanding of colonial history, a rare quality in today’s world of event-driven, embedded journalism. His books, Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilisation, are classics of the genre.

My brief encounters with Fisk (in radio interviews) have revealed that he can be abrasive. He is a dogmatic man who does not suffer fools.

For somebody who must be pestered day and night by all manner of people, I’ve found him to be extremely generous with his time – but, understandably, wary of being exploited for his views.

I remember some years ago he put the phone down on me as we were going live on Voice of the Cape’s Drivetime. After the show I sent him an angry e-mail in which I accused him of being inconsiderate to our listeners.

To be honest, I didn’t expect a reply. But reply Fisk did. He said he gave time to community broadcasters across the world, but when he heard we were a Muslim broadcaster (via the station ID) he’d had to bail out.

Nothing against Muslims, he said, but he didn’t know us. He couldn’t risk being used to further potentially hidden agendas. I then realised that we’d been remiss not to adequately inform him about VOC, and having done that, he graciously agreed to do the interview.

I read later that Fisk had even walked out on a lunch with diplomats in Beirut. It was during the civil war and it was an act that saved his life. Agents for one of the factions in the conflict had told him afterwards he’d been monitored, and that any public bonhomie with a hostile foreign entity would have put him into his grave.

This principled awareness of a reporter’s role is what has sustained Fisk’s career. To be able to reflect the truth you need access to all sides of the story, and to be fair and consistent, you can’t afford to belong to any camps.

Fisk’s generosity of spirit, and nuanced understanding of events, would come to the fore in dramatic fashion in Afghanistan when an enraged mob would set about him after the US post 9/11 invasion.

Fisk was injured in the attack, and could so easily have basked in self-pity. Instead, he penned one of his most moving frontline dispatches, saying that he understood exactly why he – a symbol of the west – had been assaulted.

If I were a lecturer, I would make all my students read that piece. It’s not only informative journalism; it’s also a great instance of humanity.

It’s for all these reasons that I take commentary by Robert Fisk seriously. And when it comes to Bin Laden, I pay attention, because he is the only English-speaking journalist to have interviewed him three times.

Bin Laden’s demise, ten years after 9/11, has evoked a polarised response across the globe – from the Taliban threatening to avenge his death to the triumphalism of President Barack Obama.

There was also extensive comment about Bin Laden’s location in the heart of Pakistan, and an outcry about the nature of his “sea burial” and the refusal by Pakistan and the US to show his body.

But if you speak to Fisk – which I had the privilege of doing on air recently – these are merely distractions to more pressing international issues, such as the Middle East political earthquake.

After crustily accusing me of sounding like “an American radio-show host” when I used the cliché “icon of terror” for Bin Laden, he told me that the al-Qaeda figurehead was a “has been”.

He was a “middle-aged nonentity” who had never done anything. Bin Laden had wanted a Caliphate across the Middle East, but he’d completely failed in everything he tried to do.

“I would love to ask him what he thought of Egypt,” he said.

According to Fisk, al-Qaeda had become irrelevant and that Pakistan – who always knew where Bin Laden was located – had possibly felt he had no more use. He suggested that Bin laden had been betrayed for reward.

When asked about Bin Laden’s funeral at sea, and fears of a shrine being erected at his grave, Fisk answered that his marine entombment was “as creepy” as al-Qaeda and Bin Laden.

“Bin Laden was a Wahhabi, a man who didn’t even support the idea of a marked grave, so how do we understand that? It’s fairly obvious that it (Bin Laden’s death) was an execution mission, and perhaps we were not meant to see that,” he said.

On the question of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, being pro-Taliban (and al-Qaeda sympathetic) he replied that open US support of India in Kashmir had caused huge resentment in Pakistan.

“I’ve been told by various sources, some even in the Pakistani military, that US policy on Kashmir is unpopular, and seen as about as biased against Pakistan as Israeli policy is against Palestinians,” he said.

The US saw India as a bulwark against China, and this foreign support of Indian Kashmir was a deep-rooted, if not sufficiently appreciated issue in Pakistan.

“The sentiment of the Pakistani generals is: (for Kashmir) let the US bleed in Afghanistan via the Taliban,” commented Fisk.

And, finally, how did he feel about the demise of Bin Laden?

“Well, he was responsible for thousands of deaths, so there you go. He probably got his just desserts. But then, just desserts are not the same as justice, are they?”

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden's Death: Surprise and Cynicism

PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s announcement that the US’s most-maligned figure, Usama bin Laden, had been killed in a covert operation 50 kms north of the Pakistani Capital, Islamabad, has caused surprise and cynicism in the Muslim world.

There are many Muslims, in capitals such as Cairo and Tunis, who regard it as ironic that the rallying icon of the “War on Terror” for a neo-conservative American president, George Bush junior, has provided the fuel to re-ignite the fading career of Barack Obama, a neo-liberal.

The surprise has been that it has taken ten years to locate Bin Laden, who in 2001 had just enough time to flee his Tora Bora mountain hideout in Afghanistan before US forces destroyed it with Tomahawk missiles.

That he was discovered by Pakistani intelligence, living a comfortable suburban life in the leafy rural town of Abbottobad, is another surprise. The stereotype of him huddling in dark cave in Waziristan was finally proved to be a myth.

Also surprising was that an Arab, a foreigner, could live undetected in a Pakistan rural community. The question is: how long did he stay there? In small towns, where gossip travels fast, secrets are extremely difficult to keep.

Part of the answer definitely lies with the Pakistani intelligence service. Its operatives have been known for their alliances with the Al-Qaedah sympathetic Taliban, whose Pashtun identity enjoys blood ties amongst Pakistanis, and Peshawar’s Afghan refugee camps.

The cynicism in the Muslim world is based on several factors, not least the timing and the nature of Bin Laden’s demise. By not bringing the Al Qaedah leader to legal justice, the US has done itself no favours.

Whilst not denying Bin Laden’s bloodthirsty legacy, many argue that two wrongs do not make a right.

Then there is the issue of his burial. By dumping his body at sea – in an obvious attempt to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine – the US authorities have insulted the dignity of the Muslim dead, even a man of terror such as Bin Laden.

It will be puzzling to mainstream Muslims that the US was unable to realise that the extremist Salafi-Wahhabi sect, to which Bin Laden belongs, does not permit shrines. They seem to have forgotten that Al Qaedah was responsible for the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

But with the US in the midst of an economic crisis, and led by a Democrat forced to seek favour with Republicans, the demise of Usama bin Laden – the world’s most-wanted bogey man – is a huge, morale-boosting victory.

And whilst the Muslim world – a world threatened more by Al Qaedah’s rigid extremism than the West ever has been – does not regard Usama bin Laden’s passing as insignificant, it does perceive Obama’s triumph as being symbolic.

For many, Bin Laden has been the ghost of an ill-contrived and erroneously perceived clash of civilisations – a man created by the CIA during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and re-invented in another role after that.

The fact is that the international Islamic community has had to bear the brunt of an Islamophobia caused by 9/11 where Islam, and all Muslims, were unfairly seen as adherents of terrorism. This in turn informed the perception of a conspiracy that the US was locked in a war with Islam.

And whether one liked it or not, Bin Laden was able to touch the nerve of many poor, disenfranchised and down-trodden people.

However, in recent years, Al Qaedah’s profile has diminished considerably. Its last major accredited act of terror was London 2005, and the involvement of Bin Laden and his second-in-command, Dr Ayman Al-Zahawiri, more distantly ideological than hands on.

Then there are the uprisings that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East. In spite of leaders such as Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi blaming Al Qaedah for their woes, evidence on the ground has pointed more to social movements yearning for democracy.

The final question surrounding the death of Bin Laden are the multitude of myths that now have to leave the shadows of his being. The abstract nouns of the “War on Terror” need some serious scrutiny. Al Qaedah, for example, was never the multi-continental organisation it was so often said to be.

Al Qaedah was always an idea. It was a tragically literalist, fundamentalist one in which the world could be conveniently divided into a domain of Islam and a domain of Unbelief, and that the domain of Unbelief had to be conquered so that Islam – a victim of secularism and colonialism – could be the victor.

The world needs to know that Al Qaedah’s worldview – a total travesty of the Islamic creed – was always an unwelcome extremism that for a brief historical moment, managed to hijack one of God’s most beautiful faiths.