Liars, damned liars and committed journalists – OPINION

Liars, damned liars and committed journalists

Trevor Grundy |
18 October 2017
Trevor Grundy on the role played by John Reed and Walter Duranty during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution

BETWEEN NOW and the end of November, there will have been so many such programmes on BBC radio and television about the Russian Revolution, that I’m starting to believe that it’s still going on and that Lenin will pop up somewhere in North London, wave in the tanks and take-over the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn.

Mass executions to follow.

So far, I’ve watched an hour-long (BBC Two) one-off special called Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution. Respected writers about Russia and Communism crossed ideological swords about not the one – but the two – revolutions that took place in 1917.The first was in February, without a significant Bolshevik leader in sight. Lenin was in Zurich, doubting meaningful change would come in his life-time. Trotsky was in New York. Stalin was the only one on home turf but unable to participate because he was doing time in one of the Tsar’s guest-houses in Siberia.

The second revolt – the October Revolution – is the one that has so warmed the cockles of the collective liberal heart. “Ah, if only it had been Trotsky instead of Stalin.” How many times have you heard that at supper tables where you live?

In the BBC drama-doc actors played the parts of the trio that changed the world. Some had cockney voices, others were Geordies from Northumberland. All the reactionaries had posh voices; all the revolutionaries seemed to be from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Action shots and stirring music and songs were provided by courtesy of Sergei Eistenstein, lifted from his 1927 propaganda masterpiece, October 1917.

Those taking part in discussion about 1917 included a cross section of Britain’s ruling intellectual class: Simon Sebag Montifiore, Helen Rappaport, Orlando Figes, Bridget Kendall, China Mieville, Victor Sebestyen, Martin Amin and Tariq Ali.

How long this lot would have lasted under Stalin is debatable.

For those driving to work or just waking up there was an early morning ten-part adaptation of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World on BBC’s Radio Four. Those of my generation will remember the 1981 film Reds starring Warren Beatty as the American author/journalist and Diana Keaton as his wife, Louise Bryant.

And in the afternoon, in case Russian Revolution withdrawal symptoms have set in – a series by the Russian-speaking journalist and author, Vanora Bennett called Babushka Dolls about high-achieving Russian women.

One of them was the German princess who became known as Catherine the Great. Between 1762/63 she settled thousands of her country men and women in different parts of Russia in order improve Russian agriculture. They were the ancestors of the men and women who became Russo-Germans who maintained links with the Motherland. In the 1930s they knew what was going on in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union even if the rest of the world didn’t. They reported back to friends and relatives in Germany and helped fuel middle class Germany’s terror of Communism. Hitler took advantage of that fear.

John Reed is the sort of person who pops up regularly when revolutions break out.

There were quite a few of them around when the first waves of Uhuru crashed on the beaches of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1957. In South Africa between 1990 and 1994 you couldn’t move far without meeting a John Reed think-alike, some well-educated “committed” Brit or Americans longing to be liked or loved by men who squeezed triggers and blew up people and who might one day hug them and call them “Comrade.”Jo


John Reed was born in Portland, Oregon on October 22, 1887. He died in Russia in 1922, the year that saw the Victory of Fascism in Italy. He came from a well-off, middle class family, was privately educated. At Harvard University his contemporaries labelled him a poet-playboy. In 1915 he met his future wife, Louise Bryant, a loud and lovely member of one of the more radical group of socialists in Greenwich Village. After their marriage, they received financial backing from rich Americans eager to find out what was going on in Russia. American Jews were particularly interested because of their loathing of tsarism which had launched so many pogroms and scattered so many of them around the world, the majority ending up in USA. The couple left America and went to St Petersburg. Their timing couldn’t have been better.

Reed might have been a man of heady optimism about Socialism/Communism giving birth to a brave new world; but he was also a man of physical courage and moral daring.

In 1915 her toured and wrote about some of the battlefields of the Western Front. He soon reached a conclusion that the only people who liked and benefitted from war are arms manufacturers/ dealers and the politicians who live inside their pockets. He wrote: “I could fill page after page of horrors that civilized Europe has inflicted upon itself. I could describe to you the quiet, dark, saddened streets of Paris, where every ten feet you are confronted with some miserable wreck of a human being or a madman who had lost is reason in the trenches being led around by his wife.”

His eye-witness accounts were second to none in terms of eye-catching phrases designed to attract Americans who knew little about the outside world. The American (Marxist) historian Theodore Draper said: ”He (Reed) went to Russia purely as a journalist but he was not a pure journalist. He could not resist identifying himself with underdogs, especially if they followed strong, ruthless leaders.”

For the almost unknown Bolsheviks (inside and outside of Russia) Reed and Bryant were useful oddities and they were treated as such by Marxism’s Holy Trinity.

Reed spent the day with Lenin. He described the Communist leader as a strange man – colourless, humourless, and uncompromising and detached without picturesque idiosyncrasies but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analyzing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity.” He interviewed Trotsky who he said was Lenin’s intellectual equal and who the long-term planner and schemer, Stalin, despised. The names of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin became household names in America thanks to John Reed.

But when he returned to New York City on April 28, 1918 he was in for a shock. He was immediately arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act by publishing anti-war articles and cartoons in The Masses which was banned and for a while replaced by Max Eastman’s magazine The Liberator which continued to publish Reed’s writings.

Reed wrote his famous book in a frenzy of activity. It took him exactly ten days to do the job. Eastman saw him at work –“unshaven, greasy-skinned, a stark sleepless half- crazy look on his slightly potato-like face.”

When the book came out in 1919, some of his critics, including the write Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906) attacked Reed as a Bolshevik propagandist because of his refusal to write about the growing number of Bolshevik acts of terrorism. Sinclair also described Reed as “the playboy of the social revolution.” But Reed never pretended to be a neutral. In the book’s preface he said that in the struggle “my sympathies were not neutral. The American diplomat George F. Krennan was no friend of Bolshevism; but he praised Reed’s book for its “literary power, its penetration, its command of detail.” He said that it would be remembered when all the others are forgotten and that it was a reflection of the writer’s “flowing honesty” that injected in it “a purity of idealism that did unintended credit to the American society that produced him (Reed), the merits of which he himself understood so poorly.”

Reviews were mixed but not in Bolshevik circles. Lenin said “unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.” A more balanced view came from Walter Lippman, one of the most influential American journalists of the last century, who commented:”Reed was a great talent, the great descriptive journalist of our era but as a descriptive, romantic writer, not a political thinker.”

Reed did not stay long in America and returned to Russia where he was sick and troubled about his past beliefs.

Louis Bryant went to see him in September 1920 and wrote that she found him “older and sadder and grown strangely gentle and ascetic.” She said: “He was terribly afraid of having made a serious mistake in his interpretation of an historical event which he would be held accountable before the judgment of history.”

Reed died on October 19, 1920 and was given a state funeral and buried in the Kremlin Wall, a place normally reserved for communism’s big wigs.

The year after Reed’s death, Russia’s new rulers opened its doors (just a bit) and allowed in a collection of men and women who might be likened to virgins in a brothel whose job was to tell the world about the wonders of this brave new world.

Enter George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and the two founders of the Fabian Movement, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Tourists of the Revolution turned up in Moscow and were given the full treatment by Stalin who they saw as some sort of secular saint and an inspiration to socialists everywhere in the world.

Enter, too, a devil – an Englishman called Walter Duranty.


Walter Duranty was the flamboyant, controversial newsman from England who became head of The New York Times’s Moscow bureau from 1922 to 1936. He soon found out which side his caviar was on and played a curious game of privately seeing through the Bolsheviks while ignoring the horrendous world they had created which was all around him – well, almost all around him. At a time when millions were starving, the four room Moscow flat of the ebullient bon vivant Duranty was ever stocked with rare vintage liquors, caviar, exotic shellfish and the opium to which he was intermittently addicted.

He was hailed as a “comrade” by well-heeled Soviets in the supposedly egalitarian Bolshevik state. He dismissed most of his media colleagues as bungling useful idiots of Western press barons while he covered up by ignoring up one of the great man-made disasters of modern history – Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture and his extermination of the kulak class through wholescale slaughter and state-imposed starvation.

Duranty dismissed first hand reports by the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who, in 1930, had been a foreign affairs adviser to the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

In 1933 Jones – a fluent Russian speaker – toured various parts of Ukraine where he kept diaries of the man-made starvation throughout large parts of Russia.

On his return to Berlin in March 1933 he published an article in the Manchester Guardian and The New York Evening Post which revealed the scale of horror he’d witnessed.

“I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.’ The cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, White Russia, the North Caucasus and Central Asia. I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.”

At this time, Malcolm Muggeridge (originally a left-wing journalist but later a forceful anti-Communist) wrote in The Fortnight Review (May 1, 1933) under the headline War on the Peasants that on one side of the Russian coin there were “millions of starving peasants, their bodies often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldiers, members of the CPU (secret police) carrying out the instructions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a storm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert.”

On March 31 Walter Duranty wrote an article in The New York Times defending his new masters in the Kremlin. Under a headline that read Russians Hungry but Not Starving he lashed out at Gareth Jones who, he asserted, knew next to nothing about Russia and had undertaken only a forty miles work through the one famine- hit neighbourhood and found the conditions there “sad.”

Duranty wrote: “To put it bluntly, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and the Bolshevik leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive towards socialisation as any general during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to allow his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit. In fact, the Bolsheviks are more indifferent because they are animated by fanatical conviction. The Soviet Union is too big to permit a hasty study and it is the foreign correspondent’s job to present a whole picture, not part of it.”

He reeled out “the facts” which told Americans readers that Yes there were sometime shortages but not a famine. “The big cities,” he reassured his readers, “and the army are adequately supplied with food. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”

The lies were well rewarded.

After an exclusive interview with Stalin – one that softened Washington’s hard line against the Bolsheviks – Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for the thirteen articles he wrote for The New York Times which analysed the Soviet Union under Stalin. “They were,” said the Pulitzer Board “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity.”

Duranty’s Pulitzer is seen as an insult to millions of Ukrainians who have launched a series of initiatives to persuade the Pulitzer Board to revoke the award to Duranty.

Muggeridge went on to describe Duranty as “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in half a century of journalism.”

In his great and courageous book Assignment in Utopia (George Murray &Co 1938) Eugene Lyons said that what Duranty wrote for The New York Times became “the classic example of journalistic understatement. It characterizes the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932/33.” He wrote: “The circumstances that the government barred us from the afflicted regions may serve as our formal excuse. But a deaf-and-dumb reporter hermetically sealed in a hotel room could not have escaped knowledge of the essential facts.”

In her book “Stalin’s Apologist” (Oxford University Press, 1990) S.J. Taylor described Duranty as a man “untainted by so much as the specter of a belief in any political or humanistic ideal, solely motivated by the goal of his own celebrity.” She nailed his deception by revealing a meeting Duranty had with an official from the British Embassy in Moscow in the autumn of 1933 after he had made a short tour of some of Russia’s starving areas.

He told the British that “the Ukraine had been bled white” and estimated the number of deaths at ten million.


While the British public is being treated kindly by so many confusing interpretations of the ten days that shook the world in irony – even laughter – isn’t far away.

Putin’s Russia faces problems. The judo-addicted Russian leader is reluctant to repeat romantic myths about revolution and the glory one hundred years ago attached to overthrowing tyrants who have corrupt, national resources grabbing, friends in high places.

And the colourfully–clad Russian Orthodox priests and monks he hugs so tight to his publicly displayed manly chest have their doubts about praising Lenin who authorized the murder of Nicholas II and his family. The late tsar has been declared a saint by the national church.

Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin. Not as seen by liberals in West London but by the great great grandchildren of the men this trio dominated and slaughtered all those years ago.

As Oscar Wilde said: A halo doesn’t have to fall far to become a noose.

Hopefully all of this will interest those in South Africa anxious to rid themselves of people once with halos round their heads but now with nooses around their necks.

While the so-called “Fallists” hope to see the removal of all statues and pictures celebrating the lives of colonialism’s “ baddies” the Russian Government has approved the erection in Kirow, five hundred miles east of Moscow, a giant statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish-Lithuanian aristocrat founder (on Lenin’s orders) of the brutal post-revolution secret police.

He was Stalin’s willing executioner who oversaw the “Red Terror” in which secret policemen and state-paid torturers carried out the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of Bolshevism.

No doubt the students, lecturers and others in South Africa who want to see the removal of any trace of Cecil Rhodes, his imperialistic predecessors and successors and all other imperialist baddies from public space and viewing will have a thing or two to say about that.

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996. He lives in Kent England where he works as a writer, broadcaster and researcher


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Only 43% in SA employed

Cape Town – Only 43.3% of South Africans of working age are employed, says Gabriela Mackay, employment analyst at the Institute for Race Relations (IRR).

“This figure is lowest for black South Africans with only a 40.4% absorption rate in the labour market. These figures are low, especially when compared with similar economies,” according to Mackay.

The labour market absorption rate measures the proportion of people of working age who are employed and is a gauge to measure the health of labour markets in various economies.

Mackay says South Africa’s labour market absorption rate depends largely on a person’s level of education. “For example, the absorption rate for people with a tertiary education is 75.6%, while it is 50.3% for those with matric as their highest level of education."

According to the latest quarterly labour force statistics released by Statistics South Africa on August 8, unemployment is 27.7% for the second quarter in a row – the highest level since the data series started in 2008.

Fin24 earlier reported that the expanded definition of unemployment was recorded at 36.6%, up from 36.4% in the first quarter of 2017.

The unemployment rate for the youth younger than 25, using the expanded definition currently stands at 67.4%.

Using Statistics South Africa data the IRR found that:

– The number of unemployed people (according to the expanded definition, which includes discouraged work seekers) has increased from 3.7 million in 1994 to 9.3 million in 2017.

– Of the 9.3 million unemployed people, 6 million are under the age of 35 and young people show far higher rates of unemployment than older people.

– Of the 9.3 million unemployed people, 8.3 million are black and the unemployment rate for black people is between 4 to 5 times higher than that of white people.

“We estimate that reducing South Africa’s unemployment to international norms will require doubling the number of people with a job over the next decade,” Mackay says, “which will require sustainable growth rates in excess of 6% of GDP.”

She points out, like South African Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago earlier, that there will be limited job creation at the current rate of economic growth.

At a parliamentary briefing in August, Kganyago said although it is possible to have jobless growth, it is not possible to create employment in a contracting economy.


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Demise of mining in SA

CAPE TOWN – As South Africa commemorates the fifth anniversary of the Marikana shooting, Lonmin – which saw police gun down 34 mineworkers at a koppie outside the platinum producer’s Marikana Mine – today is a shadow of its former self and the platinum sector decimated.

Around 80% of platinum mines in South Africa are under water and earnings negative at current spot prices.

In the past five years 70000 jobs have been lost in the industry as companies grappled to stay afloat, and another 20000 mine workers face the prospects of losing their jobs as AngloGold Ashanti, Bokoni Platinum Mine and Sibanye Gold flagged that they would mothball shafts.

Since 2012 Lonmin once valued in billions, has lost most of its market capitalisation and is now South Africa’s worst performing platinum stock on the JSE. On August 14, 2012, its market cap was £18.32bn (R317.38bn) and yesterday it was only at £307.85 million.

Lonmin’s share price has plummeted 98% mainly as result of a R5.7bn discounted rights issue to keep afloat in 2015 after being battered by protracted wage strikes, rising input costs, a weak platinum price and slowing demand for the metal in tandem with its peers.

Rene Hochreiter, a mining at Noah Capital Markets said yesterday that the platinum price had plummeted from around $1300 an ounce in August 2012 to the current $980 an ounce level.

“In that time, the best performing share has been Northam Platinum with a 33% rise in its share price, and the worst performer has been Lonmin with a 98% drop in its share price. Anglo American Platinum, Royal Bafokeng Platinum and Impala Platinum are down between 45% and 68% in that time,” he said.

Hochreiter also said that capital market financing for South African platinum mines had dried up. “Banks realise they are not going to get it back,” he said, adding that there was not much that mines could do about the state of affairs.

“They (mines) are struggling to keep costs at zero. The only thing that can help them is for the government to drop taxes, and royalties, and maybe give a tax break for new investments, and maybe drop the empowerment requirement,” he said.

“With the latest mining charter proposing to add 1% on revenue as a cost is a killer,” he added.

The charter, which was gazetted in June, requires that mining companies pay 1% of their annual turnover towards the Mining Transformation and Development Agency which is yet to be established.

The Chamber of Mines, which represents 90% of mining, approached the court to have Mining Charter III reviewed and set aside.

It blamed Mineral Resources Minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, for not consulting the chamber and that the targets contained in the charter threatened the viability of the industry.

There have been several calls by organised labour for Zwane to step down, following the gazetting of the charter.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) said last week that Zwane had not given much direction since he was appointed.

Amcu’s archival, the National Union of Mineworkers president Piet Matosa said last month that the union was planning talks with President Jacob Zuma about the removal of Zwane as the minister.

Lonmin’s share price yesterday slid 6.23% to close at R13.55 on the JSE.



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Government will turn Vodacom and MTN into the next SAA or Eskom

Following the announcement that government would officially begin regulating a plan around “data must fall” in South Africa, the Free Market Foundation (FMF) has warned that it will likely have the opposite effect.

According to the FMF this is because government does not have a clear understanding of what drives the data market in South Africa.

“There is indeed scope to reduce data prices – if government relaxes regulation, allows free competition and releases more spectrum,” it said.

“Price control is not the answer, nor is the proposed Wireless Open Access Network (WOAN).”

The FMF highlighted that while it supported the idea of “data must fall”, it was unfair to make comparisons between South Africa’s data prices and those of other countries.

“Prices vary from zero to hundreds of rands, from regional or national providers, from once-off packages to contracts, from in to out of bundles, from voice to text, and so on,” it said.

Other factors affecting data prices include country size, population density, coverage, geography, regulations, subsidies, licensing fees, spectrum availability, quality and level of development.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, so costs associated with ‘free’ data must be passed on to consumers,” it said.

“Data is not a public good or a human right. Vodacom and MTN between them have spent around R20 billion over the last year or two on new infrastructure.”

“That money comes from profits. No profit, no infrastructure. Data traffic and innovation continue to explode, demanding continued and significant capital investment.”


According to the FMF there was no concrete evidence of anti-consumer collusion in the communications market and the biggest issue in the sector continued to be government regulation and the Wireless Open-Access Network (WOAN) proposed by the ICT Policy White Paper.

The WOAN is an effective nationalisation of the telecommunications infrastructure, it said.

“A WOAN might create the illusion of lowering data prices in the short-term, as government might artificially force the price down through price control,” it said.

“Prices will, however, drastically rise, as the government infrastructure monopoly is unable to expand quickly enough to meet market demand, or adopt latest technology in the fastest developing area. It will fail along the lines of Eskom’s inability to expand, leading to declining supply, and SAA’s inability to correct management chaos.”

“Such failings are virtually unheard of in the private sector, where the market demands efficiency.”

The FMF praised the current communications industry, highlighting that over 95% of the population enjoy network coverage – ahead of some of the world’s most advanced countries.

In addition, South Africa currently boasts more active cell phones than citizens.

“It isn’t broken. Don’t fix it,” it said.


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Vice Pres supports National Democratic Revolution

South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, hit most of the right political buttons when he addressed the 14th national congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in Boksburg last week. And he was rewarded with headlines such as "Ramaphosa on the warpath" against looting, state capture, and corruption.

According to some news reports Mr Ramaphosa "left no doubt" that those involved in state capture, including President Jacob Zuma, would be prosecuted – not "if " he became president, but "once" he got the top job.

In addition to denouncing the Zuma regime, Mr Ramaphosa said that "we cannot advance transformation to any meaningful extent unless we create employment on a massive scale, particularly for the youth". To achieve growth, "far higher levels of fixed investment" were necessary.

This was a speech aimed at mobilising political support, so Mr Ramaphosa could hardly been expected to enter into the political minefield of explaining in any detail what should be done to encourage more investment. Instead, he urged the SACP congress to "provide crisp, clear direction, on the urgent measures we need to take to reignite growth and create jobs". The SACP will be happy to oblige – although Mr Ramaphosa helpfully reminded them that economic "wealth, power, and control" was concentrated in mainly white hands.

Given his audience, it was natural that Mr Ramaphosa should also have reminded them that both the SACP and the African National Congress (ANC) were "inextricably bound to the success of the National Democratic Revolution" (NDR). This is the blueprint for socialism and black nationalism adopted when both parties were still in exile, and which forms the leitmotif of policy and legislation since they came to power in 1994. Among its key components are radical redistribution of income and assets, racial preferencing, and cadre deployment to capture all centres of power.

A bow by Mr Ramaphosa in the direction of revolutionary policy was de rigueur for the SACP congress. Given the pressures (not yet triumphant, as it turned out) within the SACP to enter the lists against the ANC in the 2019 election, this was not the occasion to mention the ANC’s National Development Plan, which is hated on the Left. But Mr Ramaphosa endorsed the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) no fewer than four times. Was his purpose to warn the SACP that any repudiation of its alliance with the ANC would undermine the NDR? Was he mainly concerned to burnish his revolutionary credentials? Or does he personally remain as strongly committed to the NDR as ever?

Although Mr Ramaphosa is sometimes seen as a great reformer, he has seldom said anything that suggests that he is not a true believer in the NDR. So it is odd that virtually none of the enthusiastic press reports about his speech to the SACP congress made any mention of his repeated references to the NDR. Headlines such as "Ramaphosa warns SACP not to jeopardise NDR" or "Cyril declares allegiance to NDR" would have been justified by the content of his speech.

By now, most political commentators and other journalists see Mr Ramaphosa as the great hope to displace the Zuma regime. Fortunately, the Internet makes the full text of politician’s speeches easily available so that the power of journalistic gatekeepers and aspirant kingmakers to shape public opinion by selective reporting is limited in ways that did not apply in the past.

This column has previously pointed out that the mainstream media and most on-line commentators have long ignored the NDR. Yet without the NDR policy of using cadre deployment to capture all centres of power, "state capture" is unlikely to have happened. If Mr Ramaphosa is able to oust Mr Zuma, he will do the country a great service. But his renewed endorsement of the NDR at the recent SACP congress suggests that he may be much less of a reformer than many people would like to think.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires – Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, were recently published by Jonathan Ball.


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Africa’s just one big joke to the world

At the bottom of the pile of Thabo Mbeki’s speeches published in the book titled Africa: The time has come, is a speech that has haunted me for two decades. It is not the beautifully crafted I am an African speech. And no, it is not the speech about South Africa being a country of two nations.

Nor is it Mbeki’s brilliant farewell speech on the occasion of Madiba’s retirement from Parliament. Rather, it is a brief, little-known and seldom invoked speech which Mbeki made in 1998 titled Stop the Laughter.

He delivered it in Swakopmund, one of the most scenic settings in the Southern hemisphere, home to an indomitable people, the Herero and the Nama.

Bewitched by the magnificence of that Namibian coastal city where sea, desert and sky embrace, Mbeki delivered one of his best speeches, to my mind.

Maybe he was stirred by the knowledge of the violent colonial past of that beautiful place, to make a speech that was bitter and sweet.

And yet it is written in elegant prose, sprinkled with fragments of humour, punctuated with dazzling pearls of wisdom and delivered with the proverbial sting in the tail.

Perhaps by way of contrast, Mbeki chose to construct his speech around the the story of the 2000 or so inhabitants of Dead Man’s Creek, Mississippi, US. Among the citizens was one Stevie Wonder, the only black man in town.

With no access to the most basic forms of entertainment and little connection to the rest of the world, the boring lives of the inhabitants of Dead Man’s Creek, revolved around the "nightly" television news. When they heard on the news one day that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was preaching the gospel of African renewal, they said "Hallelujah!" because "they would no longer have to contribute some of their personal money to famine relief in the African Republic of Kalakuta".

And Stevie Wonder said "Amen", for the welcome respite from being called upon daily to explain embarrassing African experiences he knew nothing about.

But soon enough, the news from Africa reverted to the usual doom and gloom. One day it was about the Somalian relapse from modernity back to feudalism. Then the familiar stories of famine and war in Africa became regular again.

Then came the story of how one Gnassingbé Eyadéma stole the 1998 elections in Togo – a country he ruled from 1967 until he died in 2005.

Museveni is alive, so he is still president of Uganda, 31 years later. Seemingly, Paul Kagame intends to remain president of Rwanda, as long as he lives.

And the citizens of Dead Man’s Creek started to laugh saying: "African politicians must be the best comedians in the world."

Stung by that scornful laughter, Mbeki begged his fellow African leaders saying: "Let us stop the laughter."

But dear Mr Mbeki, I have news for you. The mocking laughter has returned, louder and bolder. It is no longer Dead Man’s Creek alone that is laughing. Villagers in the backyards of China are laughing at, and joking about, Africa. The entire world is in stitches over our fantastic ability to wound ourselves.

They see our leaders, including Mbeki, angrily frothing at the mouth about the blunt and punitive justice of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet all over Africa, state institutions are either being destroyed or non-existent. Instead, crooked individuals, family dynasties and cronies are consolidating their power.

Do we think these family dynasties will either enable the emergence of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, the ICC equivalent for Africa? How many Bashirs, Laurent Gbagbos, Joseph Kabilas and Yahya Jammehs must we tolerate and appease and for how long? What’s wrong with simply asking for leaders who will respect the will and lives of the people they lead?

Our country, South Africa, has become the laughing stock of the world again. In fact, I am not sure if the laughter ever stopped. Not even during the Mbeki presidency.

After all, is it not Mbeki who gave us president Jacob Zuma?

The inept and embarrassing attempt to pull South Africa out of the Rome Statute must be one big joke in Dead Man’s Creek.

Last week when the ICC ruled that as a signatory, South Africa was obliged to arrest Omar al-Bashir, which South Africa ought to have known, they must have been rolling on the wooden floors with laughter.

All indications are that if South Africa needed the ICC before, you can be sure we will need it soon – what with the emasculation and deligitimisation of key state institutions! Key instruments of the criminal justice system such as the former Scorpions, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate have been under siege for a long time with a view to turn them into mere tools in the hands of politicians.

We have seen state-owned enterprises (SOEs) being systematically turned into the cash cows of "the family" and its strategic allies. Why should the world not deride us?

When it emerged that Public Protector advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane had decided to oppose President Zuma’s application to set aside the state capture remedial actions of her predecessor, a television network issued a screaming headline, saying: "Breaking news, Mkhwebane criticises Zuma." Ought this not to be the normal, though not the only, job of the public protector? Clearly there is growing desperation nationally, for the incumbent public protector to demonstrate her independence.

Across the land, there is a palpable fear that, as well as the National Treasury and the SOEs, the office of the public protector might be in danger of being "Guptaed". When the public protector finally criticised the president, all the people said: "Amen! Hallelujah!"

We fear that the repeated jibes at the judiciary by the some of our senior political leaders, as well as the recent burglaries at the offices of the Hawks, the NPA and the chief justice might be part of a planned, albeit sinister, effort to intimidate and weaken the crucial institutions.

At the recent ANC policy conference, the ANC reminded me of my grandmother, who was nearly the same age as the party when the gods called her.

She would look everywhere for the container in which she kept her tobacco, to the point of dispatching us kids to help with the search everywhere. And all the while, she was absent-mindedly holding it in her hand.

Similarly, ANC policy conference delegates huffed and puffed about everything else, looked and searched everywhere, except whence their problems emanated – the absence of a moral and ethical leadership at the highest level of the party.

When the Gupta wedding Airbus A330-200 plane landed at Waterkloof Airbase in 2013, we resented the ruthless audacity of violating a national key point in that way. We were disgusted by the opulence of a luxury motorcade that ferried the family and their guests to Sun City, under the watch and guidance of our police.

It was nauseating.

To add insult to injury, we have recently learnt the South African taxpayer might have paid for it all, including the lavish wedding.

Surely, we deserve to be laughed at.

* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria and an extraordinary professor at the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter handle – @ProfTinyiko.


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The madness of the DA

In his classic work “Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, published in 1841, Charles Mackay observed:

“In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

In our time social media allows for the rapid transmission of critical information (such as the latest leaks on corruption), but it also creates conditions whereby mob psychoses, such as that described by Mackay, can rapidly develop and then expend themselves.

In South Africa the failure of the ANC’s racial nationalist project, which has brought us to the brink of a kleptocratic dictatorship, has acutely sharpened racial sensitivities, particularly amongst the primary beneficiaries of that project. There is a repeated pattern now whereby the latest outrage from the Zuma-Gupta cabal, over and above the ongoing failure of the ANC to deliver growth and good governance, leads to a building up of simmering nationalist anger and resentment. An emotional release for this is then found in online racial mobbing of someone or other – usually goaded on by the same narrow group of race-ultras – amid strident demands for punishment.

This can be for a genuinely anti-black comment or action – such as that by the poor, old and pathetic non-entity Penny Sparrow who made a crass racial comment shortly after Nenegate– but as often as not the preferred target is some prominent white person (or institution) seen to have done something that could be construed as racially insensitive or impertinent. Zelda la Grange, Allister Sparks, Chris Hart, Dan Retief, Gareth Cliff, Dianne Kohler Barnard, the Koeitjies & Kalfies crèche, Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG), among others, have all been victims of this pathology of our time.

Once the storm has passed, however, it is often difficult to reconcile the intense outrage of the moment with the often trivial offence that provoked it (if there was an offence at all.) Institutions which get swept up in this mob hysteria and forget their principles, or fail to stand by their people, end up disgracing themselves and looking ridiculous in hindsight.

Unfortunately, it now seems that the Democratic Alliance leadership too has, as a result of one of these passing storms, lost its senses and moral bearings and fixed itself upon the object of driving Western Cape Premier and former party leader, Helen Zille, out of her elected office.

On Saturday DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that the party’s Federal Executive had decided that it would be moving to suspend Zille from party activities, though she would continue as Premier. An insider informed City Press that move was a “a warning shot to her that we are still in control and Mmusi is tired of being seen as not taking action when it [was] the processes and Helen herself holding him back from doing what he wants to do, which is to fire her.”

In persisting with this endeavour the DA seems oblivious to the extreme and unnecessary self-harm that it is busy inflicting on itself. The only recent parallel that comes to mind is President Thabo Mbeki’s decision in early 2000 to publicly challenge the Western science of HIV/AIDS (which was also, incidentally, excused and applauded at the time by many in the media).


The basic facts of the original incident are as follows:

In early March 2017 Zille visited Singapore for the first time. By her own account she was hugely impressed by what she saw in the South East Asian city state – as China’s Deng Xiaoping had been when he visited in 1978 – which has been ruled uninterruptedly by Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party since 1959.

In a series of early morning tweets on her return to South Africa on 16th of March, while in transit at OR Tambo Airport, Zille asked what lessons could be learnt from this former British colony. She suggested that some of these were: “1) Meritocracy; 2) multiculturalism; 3) work ethic; 4) open to globalism; 4) English. 5) Future orientation. Other reasons for Singapore’s success: Parents take responsibility for children, and build on valuable aspects of colonial heritage.”

The reference to valuable aspects of the “colonial heritage” in Singapore provoked an angry response from some of her followers on Twitter. One commented: “South Africa would be better if all your people left and we drive forward Africa instead of embracing colonialism heritage.” Another that “There was nothing valuable in the colonisation of South Africa… NOTHING!”

In reply to such responses Zille then replied: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.” When she realised that this and other Tweets were being misread – including by a number of DA public representatives who were wildly condemning what she said on Twitter – she commented, just before 9 am: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

A few minutes after this Mmusi Maimane himself responded: “Let’s make this clear: Colonialism, like Apartheid, was a system of oppression and subjugation. It can never be justified.” This triggered a series of further denunciations of Zille by DA MPs on social media.

A couple of hours later Maimane took some time off from the DA’s parliamentary caucus meeting to go on Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 talk show and announced that disciplinary action would be taken against Zille for her “completely unacceptable” sentiments. This was given effect to a short while later.

On this show Maimane again suggested, despite her clarification that this was not her intention, that Zille was trying to justify past oppression (for what reason she would want to do this is unclear) by arguing the case for development. “I think systems like colonialism, apartheid were fundamentally evil. And at their core can never in any ways be praised or justified.”

Over the course of the interview McKaiser repeatedly pressed Maimane to declare that he agreed that Zille’s remarks made her a “bigot”. Maimane refused to go this far but he did declare them “unacceptable and indefensible, without doubt”, “ahistorical”, “completely unacceptable, indefensible”, and “completely unacceptable, and indefensible.” McKaiser then put it to him, in the context of the DA’s social media policy, that “if someone tweets about colonialism’s legacy having some positive elements is such a tweet insulting?” “It is”, he replied.

Despite Maimane’s protestations in the interview that the DA’s internal disciplinary processes should now be allowed to run their course – one of the party’s founding values being “fairness” – he had very publicly prejudged the entire matter. He had moreover done this on the basis of a misreading of what Zille had been trying to convey.

The following weekend the Sunday Times reported too that Maimane wanted Zille out as Western Cape Premier. The week after that Maimane announced that the party’s Federal Executive had “decided to institute formal disciplinary action against Ms Helen Zille, following recommendations presented by the Party’s Federal Legal Commission.”

Due process in the DA now apparently entails: verdict first, then sentence, and then trial.


It is worth noting here what Maimane could and perhaps should have done. Before announcing anything he should have called in Zille, heard her out, then severely carpeted her for complicating his work and the party’s electoral project. The DA should then have crafted a strategy for putting the controversy behind it as quickly as possible. This would require inter alia all DA leaders not to give it any further oxygen, after which the outrage would soon enough burn itself out. A social media policy requiring ALL DA public representatives to clear their Tweets with someone else before posting – as would be routine with a press statement they issued – would also have been a useful innovation.

Instead Maimane committed himself to a course of action, on the hoof, without having given himself time and space to properly apply his mind, take counsel, or weigh up the long term consequences, or let the temperature cool down. By going the disciplinary route Maimane has ensured that the controversy will last months. By publicly condemning and attacking Zille he put her in a position where she had little choice but to defend herself publicly. And by trying to use this incident to drive Zille out of office in disgrace, he gave her no choice but to stand her ground and take him on.

Here Zille would have been remiss not to learn from the experience of Kohler Barnard. In 2015 the then DA Shadow Minister of Police went the abject-apology, no-public-defence-of-herself, plea-agreement route – now being demanded of Zille by those with very short memories – and for her pains was treated horrendously unfairly, escaping expulsion only by the skin of her teeth. Given that under Zille’s leadership the DA drifted away from its liberal ideological moorings, in its as yet unrewarded efforts to win over African nationalist voters, it is also morally incumbent on her to stand and defend the non-racial and liberal soul of the party from internal assault.

The party itself, and prominent party loyalists who should know better, are now in a position where they are under considerable pressure to support the DA leader’s course of action for fear that if he doesn’t triumph in this battle he’ll be made to look ‘weak’ and not ‘in charge’ and this will affect the party’s prospects in 2019. Those currently enabling Maimane in this regard are not doing him any favours however.

In his rush to show how strong and decisive he is, the DA leader is breaking every rule of political leadership in the book. He is displaying real weakness by bending to the demands of the race-ultras, failing to show loyalty to those who were loyal to him, and, in moving to trash his predecessor’s reputation, is undermining the underlying authority and legitimacy of the party he now leads.

Moreover, in politics as in war, if you don’t want a fight to the death then you must leave open a path of retreat for your opponent. Or to put it slightly differently, if you back someone into a corner and pull a knife on them then you and your allies shouldn’t go on a massive whinge-a-thon after you then get punched in the nose.


At the time the controversy broke, and the social media outrage burned white-hot with all its distorting effects on people’s sense and reason, Zille’s Tweets may have seemed providing cause enough to effect her removal from office. But as this outrage has faded this becomes a more-and-more untenable position, given the potential repercussions.

It is significant that in all the numerous DA communications dealing with this matter, directly or indirectly, the party has yet to either quote or accurately summarise Zille’s offending statement, logically explain what is wrong with it (beyond clumsy phrasing), or set out how it contravenes the values of the DA. Maimane and the DA have also failed to explain how the converse position is compatible with either reconciliation, non-racialism, the party’s values, or indeed the Constitution of South Africa. This requires that we:

Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. (My emphasis)

There is no contradiction or even tension between any of these. But it is impossible to comply with the third requirement if you claim that the economy, infrastructure and institutions inherited by the democratic state in 1994 – the collective product of the skills, capital, enterprise and labour of generations of South Africans of all races – are too tainted by the ‘colonial’ past to have any value; or, the fourth, if one persists in peddling the dangerous claim that one racial minority is the cause of all a particular majority’s misfortunes.

Zille is the democratically elected Premier of the Western Cape. She was re-elected for another five year term in 2014 with a 59% majority. By all accounts her administration continues to perform with distinction. Most of the voters who put her into office are unlikely to have a profound principled objection to her comments, though they may have thought them ill-advised, given that their very existence is but one of many ‘legacies’ of the colonial past.

It is only the result of South Africa’s PR electoral system, which gives party bosses ultimate control over all their public representatives, that the DA even has the option of pushing her out of her position as Premier. This is the same pernicious system that has, thus far, prevented ANC MPs from rebelling to save their party by voting President Jacob Zuma out of office in parliament. It was adopted and retained by the ANC precisely in order to ensure that the party’s top leadership could exercise the same type of Soviet-style command and control over its cadres that it had once wielded in exile.

Though the DA can use the system for the same purposes – once it has jumped through some hoops internally – does not mean it should, given its values. The party’s own constitution states that “The government must reflect the will of the people and our elected representatives must be directly accountable to the people.”


If the DA leadership fails to step down from the effort to “fire” Zille – rather than provide her with a dignified path to retirement in two years – they are going to cause severe and enduring harm to the party. It will result in internal fracturing from top to bottom, just at the moment when internal unity and cohesion is critical, and release a Pandora’s Box of hatreds and resentments. It will also destabilise the Western Cape government, the primary showcase of what the DA can do in government. The basis on which this is being done – namely her failure to pay proper obeisance to a narrow Africanist view of our past – may delight the race-ultras but it will shock and disturb many of the party’s loyal supporters.

There is still significant momentum propelling the party forward into 2019, especially as the ANC continues to implode, but the DA will now be in the precarious position of the monocycle rider who falls over the moment he stops moving forward. The DA leadership would also be foolish too to rely on the fact that there is as of yet no real alternative to it among its core minority support-base. There was also no credible alternative to the National Party for (non-ANC supporting) minority voters post-1994, until there was.


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