Thursday, March 23, 2006

Is South Africa becoming boring?

This year, perhaps because I like punishment, I spent considerable time poring over the 7 800 words of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address. It was not reading it, however, that was punishing, rather its central message. The text itself is a good read, filled with quotes from Shakespeare, the poet Ingrid Jonker, and a liberal smattering of the prophet Isaiah. Mbeki is eloquent and his speeches are often interesting. But what I missed this time round was the challenge and the controversy. The core message was just a little too mainstream for my anarchic brain. Remember Mbeki’s comment in 1998 that South Africa consists of two nations, one white and rich, the other black and poor. Now that got the nation talking. His challenges about ongoing racism at the national conference on racism, in 2000, and at other times too, have had similar effects. Mbeki’s message these days, if his State of the Nation speech is anything to go by, is a lot blander. He seems to think, while acknowledging challenges like corruption and poverty, that South Africa is a nation of patriots shaking off the past and happily working together in partnership on board the slow gravy train to transformation. Using Mbeki’s own words, “yesterday was another country” and South Africa is entering an “age of hope”. He feels “the years of freedom have been very good for business” and business need not fear for its financial wellbeing, as long as it is helping grow the economy. In fact, the word ‘growth’ is used a whopping 19 times in his State of the Nation speech. Mbeki also spends much time in his speech thanking the world, its brother and its former roommates for their contribution to the new South Africa, from ‘Bollywood’ actor Anil Kapoor to the millions who have tried to make a go of things since 1994. The only ones to get a lambasting are Bafana Bafana, who are singled out because they “did nothing to advertise our strengths as a winning nation” in the African Cup of Nations. Again, hardly a controversial statement, since 99% of South Africans probably agree.

Where has Mbeki the controversial gone? Although some parties criticised Mbeki for skirting issues concerning Aids, crime and corruption, they all, from the SACP to Tony Leon, liked the focus on the economy.

This I find worrying rather than encouraging. Have Mbeki’s years of being beaten by the local and international press, if he vaguely challenges the wealthy, muzzled him, or is South Africa becoming a boring middle-of-the-road sort of place, where fiscal man-agement and interest rates are hot topics of discussion? If I can put this another way: if we substituted the words ‘Bafana Bafana’ for the England football team (who also have a knack for falling from footballing grace given half a chance), there is something decidedly Tony Blair about Mbeki’s speech.

The standard New Labour mantra works in a similar fashion: sycophantic praise for various people, excessive mention of public–private partnership and a barrage of statistics to drive home how good the ruling party has been for the country, the economy and, largely, the middle class.

That said, I do not doubt the achievements of the ANC government, given the social problems facing South Africa, and it is great that South Africa has a literate president, unlike some superpowers. But I think a good president challenges the population. Mbeki has excelled at this over the years. I know some of you reading this probably dislike him intensely for that but, as they say, you have to break eggs to make an omelette. If the president is not going to cause a hullabaloo from time to time, and particularly challenge the wealthy and the complacent, then who will?

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 February 2006.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Obituary: Duma Kumalo

Duma Joshua Kumalo, who has died aged 48, in Johannesburg, was best-known as one of South Africa's "Sharpeville Six". Along with five others, he was accused, in 1984, of killing a councillor. Duma was at home at the time of the killing, but he spent eight years in jail, and for four of these he was on death row. He received a stay of execution in 1988, hours before he was to die. In fact, when he returned to his cell after receiving the news of his reprieve, his final meal was waiting for him. He ate the meal, but said that something inside him died that day.

Duma's experience, however, also lit a fire inside his heart. He left jail in June 1991 determined to clear his name. This was his only plea to the Truth and Reconciliation commission, where he appeared in 1996. His wish was not granted, but it never deterred him from his struggle for justice.

Duma spoke internationally about his experience. He was a strong advocate against the death penalty and publicly supported Amnesty International. He also told his story through film and theatre. His play The Story I am About to Tell ran for five years in South Africa and internationally. It was last performed in 2001 at the International Conference Against Racism in Durban.

He also made He Left Quietly, with Yael Farber, which was commissioned by the House of World Cultures in Berlin for the drama festival, In Transit.

When I met Duma over 10 years ago I was working at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. He was unemployed and still reeling from his prison experience. I offered him a job in one of our workshops educating local communities about the truth commission. Duma went on to be one of the founding members of the Khulumani Victim Support Group, a self-help group for victims of apartheid violence. Duma exuded warmth, and his sense of humour was legendary: if you met him once, you remembered him. He loved life despite all the hardships it had thrown at him. Duma inspired people. He may have lost some fights in his life, but he won a much bigger war. Muhammad Ali's words are a fitting tribute: "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before [you] dance under those lights." Duma, you were a champion of a man.

In all his endeavours, and throughout his time in jail, he was supported by his wife Betty, who survives him, along with their two sons, Lucky and George.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, Published in The Guardian, Monday March 20, 2006.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Getting to the Truth Through Talking

Conflict-transformation expert Dr Brandon Hamber asks what messages programmes like Facing the Truth convey and what else might need to be done to deal with the past

The recent BBC series Facing the Truth, which brought victims of political violence face to face with perpetrators, has got people talking.The dialogues, facilitated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are a stark reminder of the suffering caused by the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. It is sobering to think that the cases featured are a fragment of the thousands of stories that need to be told.

The programmes were a bold move and may have helped individual victims. They provide some hope for the future, along with the work of organisations that have fostered similar dialogues over the years, albeit behind closed doors. But we also have to ask what other messages such programmes convey and what else might need to be done to reckon with the past.

Although the programmes are not a truth commission but a dialogue, the central idea leans heavily on the South African experience. It draws on the idea of publicly airing grievances as a way of addressing the past, as championed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There are profound differences, however. The South African commission’s primary focus was on outlining the causes, nature and extent of the conflict through victim and perpetrator testimony. This testimony took place in separate victim and amnesty or perpetrator hearings. Although most amnesty hearings took place publicly, only approximately 2,000 of the 21,000 victims who gave statements to the commission gave testimony in public.

When perpetrators applied for amnesty in exchange for speaking the truth, victims or their lawyers could question perpetrators as to the veracity of their statements but this was not billed as a meeting or as necessarily reconciliatory. The South African commission was not primarily about victims meeting perpetrators and nowhere in its legal mandate does it say it was.

The BBC programmes, presented by veteran Irish reporter Fergal Keane, have now created this myth. Victim-offender meetings did happen on occasion as a result but largely outside the remit of the commission. In addition, such meetings and the commission itself were part of a more extensive political process. This leaves one wondering: Is Northern Ireland trying to walk before it can crawl or are high-profile encounters needed to move the process forward?

Given the stalled peace process, the programmes might get people to re-engage with resolving the conflict. The courage shown by participants can demonstrate what is possible despite the dense fog of political dilly-dallying. However, focusing on the victims can also inadvertently suggest that it is the responsibility of victims, rather than wider society, to reconcile as the first step to change, thus burdening victims with another liability. Some victims could feel pressured to forgive, or perpetrators compelled into expressing remorse they don’t really feel, especially on television.

The programmes’ focus is the stories of those directly affected by or acting in the conflict. There is no context provided or debate about the causes. There was no questioning of the statements given by offenders, thus allowing them to define the truth. Truth commissions traditionally question and try to reach forensic truth. Emotive television of this type also invariably draws one to the plight of the victims. This is important but conflict resolution is not only about sympathising with victims, important as that is. It demands that everyone across society recognises their own capacity for wrongdoing at the same time.

In the project Healing Through Remembering, a five-year-old initiative that brings together over 80 people from different political perspectives each month to wrestle with questions about the past, the issue of considering one’s own role in the past is discussed under the rubric of “reflection”. Reflecting on the past, not merely remembering it, necessitates that we consider not only victims’ suffering but also how we all supported or fuelled the conflict through direct action, our attitudes or our failure to act.

Resolving conflict requires reflection and public debate on levels of complicity and guilt, not only recognition of the hurt caused or confessions from direct actors. This process should be supported by public acknowledgment of hurts inflicted. This leaves no one untouched, and all institutions need to examine their role in the past — among others, paramilitaries, the governments, churches, the judiciary, political parties, the education system and the media.

The view of Healing Through Remembering is that there are no quick fixes and no one is neutral in protracted political conflict. A range of interrelated options for dealing with the past are required, such as a living memorial museum, a day of reflection, a network of commemoration projects, and collective storytelling. For truth recovery, an informed debate is necessary, evidenced by the misperceptions created by the recent programmes. To this end, Healing Through Remembering will shortly be launching five detailed options for truth recovery for public discussion. There is no doubt that the BBC programmes have stimulated debate on dealing with the past. Questions, however, remain as to whether the focus on victims and offenders, as in the first major media intervention on this issue, has not confounded the reconciliation discussion. It certainly has confused many as to what really happened in South Africa. A more complicated, nuanced and reflexive debate about the past is needed, with a healthy and functional political context and, of course, the media have a role in this. But in the long run, this will demand something more subtle than eerie music and darkly lit forums where victims and perpetrators meet in the glare of the camera, no matter how moving or personally transformative such meetings might be.

Dr Brandon Hamber is a conflict-transformation expert from South Africa living in Belfast and a consultant to the cross-community project Healing Through Remembering. His views do not necessarily reflect those of all the members of the project. Contact mail@brandonhamber.com. Visit the www.brandonhamber.com for more information

Copyright Dr Brandon Hamber, Published in the Daily Ireland 14/03/2006

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Reasons to be cheerful

According to Dr Arnall, of the University of Cardiff, January 24 is the most depressing day of the year, if you live in the northern hemisphere. He supports his claim, not by speculation or anecdote, but through science, and he has an equation to prove it. His model breaks down as: (W + (D-d)) x TQ divided by M x NA, where W is weather, ) debt, ) monthly salary, T time since Christmas, Q time since failed quit attempt, M low motivational levels and NA the need to take action. If the science makes no sense to you, what he is saying is that, by January 24, if you live in the northern hemisphere, the fun of Christmas has worn off, credit-card bills are coming in, the days are cold and dark, and all those resolutions you made for the new year have been broken. In other words, you're sitting around feeling sorry for yourself because you're fat, broke, living in a rainy dreary climate and probably smoking too much.

Of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere, then certain parts of the equation are defunct, particularly the weather. In fact, the condition of 'seasonal affective disorder', or SAD, as it is fittingly known, a type of depression that follows the seasons, is more common the farther north you go. Of course, you can still be fat, broke and too hot in the summer in South Africa but, scientifically speaking, South Africans should be happy people with all the sunshine.

However, the World Database of Happiness (yes, it does exist) rates South Africa as 'a middle-of-range' place when it comes to happiness. South Africa scores 5,5 on the happiness scale, along with Kenya, Lebanon and South Korea. Denmark and Switzerland are allegedly happy places, scoring over 8. Ireland and the UK score in the high range, with 7,6 and 7,1 respectively. Zimbabwe and Moldova are among the unhappiest places on earth.

Having said that, the database also highlights inequality in responses between those reporting high and those reporting low levels of happiness. South Africa has a high inequality score, meaning that, although South Africans are, on average, moderately happy, some people are clearly much happier than others. This is not surprising, given the disparities in the country. That said, I am not convinced by the science of happiness and I take issue with Arnall's equation, because it is not culturally and contextually relevant. So let me help him out.

If he wanted an equation for happiness in Northern Ireland, it would have to go something like this: (W + (D-d)) x TQ divided by M x NA, where W is the weather (of course), D downtime of the political institutions, d monthly salary paid to politicians for not participating in the downed political institutions, T time spent complaining that someone else has got more political concessions than you, Q time passed since blaming someone else for all your problems, M low motivational levels, owing to excessive intake of chips and Guinness and NA the time wasted watching too much reality TV.

And for South Africa, happiness could be measured as (W + (D-d)) x TQ divided by M x NA, where (W) is wealth (meaning having your basic needs met, not being affluent, because we all know money cannot buy happiness), D political downtime since the last corruption scandal or the firing of a Deputy President, d monthly salary spent on replacing stolen goods, T time wasted filling in insurance forms, Q time spent braaing on the weekends, M low motivational levels, owing to losing to Australia at cricket or rugby or watching Bafana Bafana crash out of a major soccer tournament, and NA time wasted believing everything you read in newspapers and magazines.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 February 2006.