Marrying for the mob: What the DA can learn from Numsa

Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)

This article first appeared in the Africa Report. February 2014

Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)
Helen and Mamphele (Photo credit: Times Live)

Politically it was an audacious attempt by the Democratic Alliance to rebrand itself ahead of elections. In each poll since 1994, the DA has essentially stood for what is good for old suburbia. But this secure constituency is also a low ceiling. South Africa’s electorate is 80% African. To grow, the DA needs more Blacks to vote for them. Many Blacks, however, are wary of white intention and largely still appreciative of the steep moral, social and cultural elevation brought by national liberation. I suppose one could call it BSC – Black self-consciousness. Even if the economic dividends are meagre and even as the ANC subsides in a fire-pool of sleaze, to switch to the “Madam” is a ballot too far. (more…)


Every two years or so this really nice training gig comes up. I grab two boxes of files and some charge sheetbranded pens, get on two planes and head to Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

I’m hired to train a unit within the South African Police Service how to fire those within their ranks who contravene Regulation 20 (z) of their disciplinary code.

Regulation 20 (z) is reserved for murderers, armed robbers, rapists, fraudsters and, mostly, extortionists. Owing to a useful quirk in our law of evidence, it is easier and faster to dismiss cops who commit criminal offences than it is to put them behind bars; the latter hardly ever happening. The idea behind Regulation 20 (z) is that, even if a rogue cop demanding R300 from an illegal immigrant is never convicted of this crime, he will at least lose his badge and gun.

I should quickly admit that contributing to this high-minded mission is not why I enjoy the SAPS training so much. Mine are perverse reasons. (more…)

Van der Walt

originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2013

lillian ngoyi pic

I stood on the side of a street with a new name.  Van der Walt has become Lillian Ngoyi; a veldkornet erased for a comrade.  Sleek busses drone by.  A taxi double-parks without couth. Dark-green shade-cloth ripples up and down in puffs of air over scaffolding twenty stories high.  Below, pedestrians politely side-step each other. The Soil’s song Inkomo, clogs

the intersection.  Winter hurries everyone up just a little bit.

Inner city Pretoria has a pleasant human press about it at home time. Office-workers, soldiers and shoppers scurry past fruit and vegetable stalls, past take-aways, weave and dread salons, curtain and linen shops, mini-meds and stores selling ‘fashion’ in the form of Italian shoes or light-wood furniture. (more…)

PW Botha was defeated, Thatcher lives on

16 April, 2013    (in Le Monde Diplomatique)

Photo: Popperphoto / Getty Images
Photo: Popperphoto / Getty Images

Street parties thumped in Brixton and Edinburgh the night she died. Hundreds gathered.  Anarchists, Old Labour, miners, students. People carried signs, saying “Gotcha” and “Rot in Hell”. A riot was planned at Trafalgar Square during the funeral. There was a campaign to get Judy Garland’s song “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” to number one on the UK pop charts (It narrowly missed, placed at number two).

I don’t get the joy in celebrating the death of the witch. The air of victory is puzzling.  Granted, I did not live with her overbitten monologues on telly as PM every night. Nor did I have a dad turfed out of work by a pit closure or have her wrongly blame supporters of my soccer team for their own death. But the look-at-me-whooping from comrades in England at the passing of their erstwhile nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, sounds tinny to my ear.

The Social Movement Hustle

Originally published in New Frank Talk 13, March 2013

On 8 January 2013, Harvard International Review published an article by Heinrich Böhmke, the Social Movement Hustle, on its online journal.  Within hours, John Comaroff, a Harvard Professor of Anthropology mailed the editor opposing the publication.  The article was removed within a day.  The correspondence below, between Böhmke, Comaroff, editors of the Review and even Harvard’s security department makes for a fascinating study in censorship and a lively expose of academic hypocrisy.  

  1. Download that edition of New Frank Talk 13
  2. Correspondence between Prof John Comaroff and Heinrich Böhmke
  3. Correspondence between Harvard International Review and Heinrich Böhmke
  4. The Social Movement Hustle
  5. Introduction – Athi Mongezeleli Joja and Andile Mngxitama
  6. Abahlali base Mjondolo Press Statement regarding Mzonke Poni


Marikana: A lesson in late liberal democracy

Thirty-four miners were shot dead by police at a mine outside Rustenburg, South Africa last week. The 3000 rock-drill operators, from a Lonmin owned platinum company, had been gathered on a hill for four days, demanding a wage increase from recalcitrant owners.
Heinrich Böhmke, 22 August 2012            (originally in Africa Report)

marikanaThe leaders belonged to Amcu, a militant breakaway from the Cosatu-aligned National Union of Mineworkers.  In the days before the massacre, ten people were killed in skirmishes, including two police officers and a NUM shopsteward.  Police gave a final ultimatum for the workers, carrying pangas and spears, to disperse.  They refused.  Television footage showed a group of approaching workers sprayed with automatic weapon fire by police.  They fell in heaps upon the ground.


The girl with the Egyptian flag

As Egypt lurches towards democracy, South Africa lurches within it. A comparison between the two countries’ very different struggles. (in Africa Report) 09 February 2011

As a student of revolt I sat transfixed this week before television and computer screens, imbibing a riot of Egyptian coverage. In Cairo, Alexandria and Suez hundreds of thousands – first the youth, then older folk, Islamists and secularists, middle-class and poor people – poured onto the streets, into the face of beatings, bullets and tanks. They were there to reject resoundingly the rule of their dictatorial president, Hosni Mubarak.

These were unprecedented scenes in a country governed with a granite fist for 30 years by a pharaonic ruler. The Mubarak decades were an era of growth for the elite and stability for the loyal. For the rest, the costs were high. The domestic opposition was crushed, personal liberties whisked away in unmarked cars, corruption not only entrenched but flaunted, and all the while over 40% of the population descended into the kind of weary poverty that comes from surviving on less than $2 per day.


Branding of Social Movements

Heinrich Böhmke, April 2010


 For a few years, controversy has been bubbling beneath the surface among activists involved with social movements in South Africa about how these movements are represented in the academic and activist literature.  In short, questions are being raised whether the claims made about or on behalf of some of the movements are substantially accurate.  This controversy about knowledge production has been sharpened recently with the added critique that the movements’ politics, strategies and tactics have waned to a point where many of the best-known organisations are a spent force; more liberal NGO than radical movement[1].  When the historical propensity to exaggeratedly praise social movements faces their recent, marked decline as a radical political force in society, the gap between fact and mythology becomes problematically large.  This paper argues that the intellectual and media support given by a range of academics and activists to movements in South Africa has slipped into branding.  The branding is not only misleading, it has recklessly exposed movements to attack and prevented and even silenced sober assessments of the nature, strength and direction of social movements.  A range of authors skirted around the issue until the recent publication of an article that seized the bull by the horns.


The shackdwellers and the intellectuals

Abahlali base Mjondolo and the missionaries from the academy.
Heinrich Böhmke, 21 October 2010 Africa Report

Don’t talk about us talking about the poor

barbwire2When the ANC came to power it was on a mandate to implement policies to bring about a “better life for all”. The social inequalities bequeathed by apartheid meant that the new government would have to take dramatic steps to uplift the masses of the Black poor from desperate conditions. The ANC marked its arrival in the Union Buildings in Pretoria with the promise, on a mass scale, to build houses, provide water and electricity and to develop new infrastructure.

However, for reasons that will keep historians busy, the reconstruction and development of the new South Africa was conducted within the confines of a conservative macro-economic framework. At city-governance level, this translated into an insistence on cost-recovery for services and, when the poor did not pay, evictions and cut-offs followed. There seemed to be more continuity than caesura between apartheid and democratic-era urban planning and policy.

Protests arose five years into ANC rule when the honeymoon lapsed and affected communities started reacting to the squeeze. They were a tiny, almost heretical, minority complaining about a still massively popular government. Community organisations rose outside parliamentary politics and made demands in support of narrow and local interests, such as ending water cut-offs in their own area.


The Call For a Tribunal is Urgent and Correct

Published in Sunday Tribune, 22 August 2010

There is a class of citizen in our country whose occupation gives them enormous influence. They are capable of spreading unsolicited opinion and news that affects us all profoundly. What they say can cause stock exchanges to fall, reputations to be destroyed and fear and panic to be sown. Despite the destructive power they wield there are no formal qualifications needed to hold this job, nor do practitioners have to pass any professional enquiry into their moral fitness. They are appointed by their bosses and are answerable only to them.

Naturally, there is some oversight in the industry but it takes the form of self-regulation. This self-regulation is weak, if the work of their ombudsmen is surveyed. Unlike doctors and lawyers getting struck from the roll for misconduct, that does not occur to them. When wrongdoers are chucked out it is only into the recycle bin. Soon enough, they come back, either rejoining their old employer or, very often, a competitor.

Horror stories abound about how people in this unregulated industry conduct themselves. Brown envelopes are regularly exchanged. Outright lies are told. Conflicts of interest abound. As lamented above, this is only to be expected where accountability is weak and independent oversight and penalties for bad behaviour is absent.

Some say statutory regulation will stifle the independence of this sector which, whatever its faults, is essential to a flourishing democracy. Closer inspection reveals these claims to be hollow. It is not as if the trade is performing as noble a role as it would like us to believe. It is notoriously lacking in diversity and is beholden to all sorts of nefarious commercial and factional interests. It pursues these interests under the guise speaking the truth.

Time and again, people in this racket have been shown to be in the service of the powerful and wealthy. There are even cases where workers in this industry have blatantly served the interests of foreign powers, Washington, Moscow, Harare, Beijing. This business of theirs is exactly that – a business.

In service of their multiple hidden agendas and private efforts to amass wealth, operators in this trade pursue disinformation and character assassination. There is very little anyone can do about it. A victim of their abuse may approach a civil court for relief but this is expensive and many months down the line. A grudging apology may eventually be forthcoming but by then the damage has been done.

We expect howls of indignation at our proposal for sure. But, in light of what we have described, there is an urgent need for an independent tribunal to hand out prison sentences for irresponsible, unethical and dishonourable conduct within a cowboy industry.

We speak of course about politicians.

There are hundreds of them practicing their tawdry craft at all levels of society. There are the big nationals and the small community knock-and-drops. Without any academic bar to test their grasp of issues and despite often very serious ethical and criminal lapses, they continue to exert enormous influence in our society. They dress up their proclamations on social issues in the name of transformation and development. However, the regularity with which they cash in their influence reveals a different motive. From Smuts, (I did not struggle to be poor), Ngonyama to Tony (Armani) Yengeni, to their family members, nominee shareholders and shady associates, it is all the same thing. The bottom feeders at municipal level are just as adept in making a quick buck off a quick tender, “for jam”.

The regulation of the behaviour of the political sector is ineffective. Whatever one thinks about the sanction passed on Julius Malema by his parliament, there is no way he has undergone the prescribed anger management classes. The Speaker of Parliament, the chief whips and party ethics committees have been similarly woeful. Any civil remedies one may pursue after being at the wrong end of a politician’s tirade are expensive and without satisfaction. Those politicians who are disgraced know that it is only a matter of time before redeployment beckons. In this way, an Ebrahim Rassool is off on the most senior diplomatic posting and a Carl Niehaus will no doubt be given a spot on Board, the gambling or sharks board spring to mind.

We do not expect a Politicians Tribunal to get off the ground. But the politicians may well decree a Media Tribunal soon. The central complaint that the ANC has against the media is that reporters sometimes act irresponsibly and that the lack of accountability breeds further damaging conduct. But they have yet to mention what sort of irresponsible behaviour they have in mind, beyond the leaked hotel bills of their cabinet communists. The simple fact is that the ANC is losing its hero status, is riven with factions and is insecure about what new scandals may be exposed. There is nothing in itself wrong with increasing accountability in our society, including among journalists, but the Media Tribunal is being proposed for an ulterior purpose.

To be clear, the lack of diversity of ownership in our big media houses is real, dangerous and in need of fracture. Opposition to the Media Tribunal should not be understood as endorsement of the status quo. However, it is hardly open to the ANC to complain about business oligarchies or lack of ideological diversity. The proportional representation system creates levels of group-think that would have made Stalin proud. The Tribunal will not create diversity of ownership or opinion. It will merely police existing media outlets with greater severity.

Post-Polokwane we were promised a New Age of transparency and vigorous public debate on the major issues of the day. Today those promises are as dead as the Rand Daily Mail. It appears that the Media Tribunal is a fait accompli. What remains is to see which ANC linked landlord gets the lease to accommodate the new institution. But who will report on this?

Sunday Tribune, 22 August 2010