Why South Africa should support Palestine at the United Nations this week

As I write this, leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations (UN) in New York to attend the General Assembly.  Among the many issues being addressed, the one story stealing the show is the possible declaration of statehood by Palestine, much to the distress of the United States and Israel.

The struggle for a Palestinian state and the freedom of its citizens is not dissimilar from that of South Africa.  For a start, many of the problems facing the region are of British origin, whether it is the Balfour Decleration in 1919, or their hasty retreat without resolving the issue in 1948.  The Palestinian lands are being illegally occupied (by UN definition) and its citizens persecuted by discriminatory policies and brutal and disproportionate repression by Israeli state security.  The worst of them all is the ambivalence shown by the international community and its liberal organizations that claim to stand up for and defend human rights.  Sound familiar enough?

The Gaza Strip is effectively a concentration camp, breeding extremists who are willing to give their lives in the name of their cause.  This is hardly unsurprising when many of these young Palestinians have watched their own family and friends killed by Israeli strikes.  I have never travelled to the Gaza Strip, but in many  ways it reminds me of Soweto in the 1970s: the air heavy with the smell of revolution and the feeling that world opinion was slowly turning in their favour.

The Arab Spring represents to Palestine what the 1974 Lisbon Coup, or even the fall of the Berlin Wall, meant to the struggle against Apartheid.  It changed the regional dynamics, whereby long standing threats disappeared overnight, but new ones appeared elsewhere.  The South African government, and the African Union for that matter, should embrace this new era and continue its policy it as shown with Libya, by pledging support for an independent Palestinian state.

This also represents an opportunity for South Africa to diversify its foreign policy.  South Africa has always leaned towards conflict mediation on the continent, although it is still trying to escape the failure of ‘quiet diplomacy’ with Zimbabwe.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a failure of talks, mediation and peace accords.  By South Africa supporting Palestinian statehood, they would be making a statement that although they support peace talks, there is clearly a limit to what they can achieve until something drastic has to be done.

This is also an opportunity for South Africa to forge a foreign policy that does not obediently fall in line with United States or British policy.  At a time when sub-Saharan Africa is divided on the Palestinian issue, a firm stance by South Africa could unite opinion and send out a strong message of unity and integrity.

The irony has not escaped me that the end of Apartheid was brought about through peace talks and not through declarations of statehood or all-out war.  But the dynamics were very different then.  The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union not only destroyed the threat posed to South Africa by Communism; indeed it showed that there wasn’t a threat at all.  The dynamics of the Hold Land have changed too in recent times; Israel no longer has allies in Egypt and Turkey and world opinion has never been stronger against their occupation of Palestinian territory.

There were many times in the fight against Apartheid that the struggle seemed dead in the water, when the global powers talked tough about helping but in fact were quite happy with the status quo.  The Palestinians must draw strength from the perseverance shown by the people of South Africa; their freedom will be achieved and the lives lost will not be in vain.  Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the Palestinian struggle has been their lack of leadership, a figure like Nelson Mandela who would unite all Arabs behind the cause.

But South Africa should not only support the Palestinian bid because of a historical context, but also of diplomatic and economic benefits that would come with it.  The Middle East offers major trade and investment opportunities, which would not come with the baggage that dealing with former colonial powers does.

But any move to statehood, if even made, is likely to be vetoed by the United States and possibly Great Britain and France, in another move to show just how out of date the UN Security Council is.  But South Africa should make a principled stand not only out of support for the beleaguered Palestinians, but as a sign of confidence for the region that represents serious opportunities for the future.

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Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 8:45 am  Comments (2)  

One year after South Africa’s world cup triumph and the criticism continues

It was with a great sense of nostalgia that I watched the closing ceremony of the Soccer World Cup in 2010, knowing that it would be some time before South Africa would host anything of that size again.  Like many others I’m sure, I was also overcome with an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing that South Africa had defied so many critics and nay-sayers who questioned their very ability to host the World Cup successfully.

A year on, people are reflecting on the event and what South Africa gained from the experience.  The usual suspects in the English media, still seething from their own world cup snub by FIFA, have taken it upon themselves to once again drag the name of South Africa through the mud.  Perhaps this forms part of the larger battle the FA is fighting against FIFA, whereby they try to discredit the process of venue selection, but it’s high time they built the proverbial bridge and ‘get over it’.

A particular article in question was in yesterday’s Times.  The headline ‘World Cup legacy leaves South Africa with issues to address’ looks like it was thought of during the closing ceremony and then dusted off for the one year anniversary.  In it, the writers Matt Dickinson and Jonathan Clayton claim that this may have been FIFA’s greatest world cup, but ‘others take a different view’.  (Interestingly, a search through their archives shows a long history of cynical articles relating to South Africa’s World Cup).

The article is riddled with outlandish and provocative statements, of which a couple are worth examining.  ‘Poor have yet to reap any award from last year’s spectacle’ is a common allegation leveled at South Africa, and a fair point.  But when in the years leading up to the world cup was it ever claimed that they would?  South Africa is an extremely uneven society, and it will take a lot more than a soccer tournament to change that.  But to claim that none have benefited is disingenuous, ignoring the obvious employment opportunities and facility improvements  that took place across the country.  Nobody expected these problems to go away overnight, but the world cup certainly went some way to improving them.

Another criticism is of the ‘white elephant’ stadiums that are dotted around the country.  This cannot be said of Soccer City, which if anything is suffering from overuse and the local Golden Lions Rugby Union are soon to move their from Ellis Park Stadium.  It is only a matter of time before the magnificent Cape Town stadium is used by the Western Province Rugby Union for their home games as they grow out of the small Newlands ground they currently use.  Empty stadiums do exist, such as the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, but this stadium was always going to suffer from this as it is based in a fairly low populated area.  Lets not forget that it was FIFA who ordered the building of new stadiums rather than the use of current ones, not the South African government.

A recent documentary on Al Jazeera told the story of Global Girl Media, which trained a group of young Soweto girls in the basics of journalism and allowed them access to cover the tournament, and one year on they all describe how the experience changed their lives.  South Africa is already a popular destination for movie filming, and as Time reports this industry is expected to expand in the wake of the publicity it has been receiving.

There are two important points that this article, and other nay-sayers completely misunderstand.  Firstly, how the perception of South Africa has changed because of the World Cup.  Tourism over the next few years is expected to dramatically increase because of the positive publicity broadcast over the world for those six weeks, as explained here by the South African Tourism Minister.  Every person I talk to in the UK speaks positively of South Africa’s World Cup, that has to count for something.

Secondly, if these writers had bothered to ask ordinary South Africans how they felt about the World Cup, I’m sure they would have received a positive response.  It was not that long ago that Soweto was the centre of the battle against the Apartheid regime, and in 2010 it was the scene of the Soccer World Cup Final – the very thought of it brings back goosebumps.  The joy and celebration of the World Cup cannot be measured, it is something that has to be experienced.  Even the disappointment of Bafana Bafana not reaching the next round did not dampen the spirits of South Africans during those magical six weeks.

South Africa does have major issues that need addressing, these existed before and after the World Cup.  It is a young and vibrant democracy that, in my opinion, is doing phenomenally well in the wake of it’s traumatic history.  South Africa should be saluted for the successful host ing of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and I hope to see the Olympic Games being hosted there in my lifetime too.

Published in: on June 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Egypt rips off the shackles of dictatorship

I’m sure there are as many blogs being written about the revolution in Egypt as there were people in Tahrir Square last night, but that does not make the events of the past two weeks any less special.  Some punters were saying that last night, when the long serving dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down, could be as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall.  With so many dictatorships still in place across the Middle East, only time will tell.

We have been reminded yet again of the power of social media in mobilising the masses.  When all the main news broadcasters were stuck showing the same elevated blurry image of Central Cairo for hours on end, it was Facebook and Twitter that gave us an insight into the cauldron.  When waiting on Mubarak to make a live speech on Egyptian television, his delayed arrival prompted the Twitter trending topic #ReasonsWhyMubarakIsLate, leading to thousands of hilarious responses.  Even revolutions have senses of humour.

Despite this, we have also been reminded that it was not Facebook or Twitter that caused this revolution.  It was people, in their masses, flooding into Cairo and demanding a better life.  The sight of the descendants (however distant) of one of the most ancient and advanced civilisations the planet has ever seen sent shivers down my spine.  There was something truly organic and wholesome about the entire event.

Egyptians, and Arabs across the world, celebrated last night.  But today and for many more days they must pick up the pieces.  They have to restore their government and try and return to normal life, and very importantly get the tourists back in again.  Now the worlds attention turns to Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to see reactions there.

So what does this mean for the rest of Africa?  South of the Sahara, very little.  Dictators there will be assessing Mubarak’s mistakes, like continually giving ground to the protestors that eventually led to his removal.  But Colonel Gadaffi of Libya should not be so comfortable, if there is anywhere in Africa that is ripe for a repeat of events in Tunisia and Egypt it is there.

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (1)  
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The Mo Ibrahim Index

Yes folks, it’s that time of the year again when the Mo Ibrahim Foundation releases its findings on African governance, development and economic growth.  The main findings of this year’s report is “an increase in economic and human development” but disappointing reverses in democracy.  Press release here.

These sort of indexes and rating systems should always be taken into consideration within their context, but it does serve as an interesting marker for where the continent is, in the grand scheme of things.

The top order has a familiar look to it, with Mauritius, Seychelles and Botswana coming in first to third.  It’s also a case of the usual suspects holding up the table, with Somalia, Chad, DRC and Zimbabwe fighting it out for last place.  Although Zimbabwe has made improvements in many areas, it can take some time for this to show up on the Mo Ibrahim Index.

The recent gains by the continent by way of democratic reforms appear to have fallen behind, but I don’t think this is a huge cause of concern.  Governments across the world are in turmoil; the Democrats in the United States are about to get a walloping in the Mid-Terms, there is an uneasy coalition government in place in the United Kingdom, several other European states have stronger right-wing influences than ever before, and rising power Brazil is heading towards a run-off in its presidential election.  This may not be a reflection on global democracy, but in a young continent like Africa these global trends have a more noticeable effect.

The news about economic growth is very pleasing.  Some reports show African growth higher than anywhere else in the world.  Perhaps this has to do with Africa’s vast wealth of raw materials which will always be in high demand, unlike the collapse of the US motor industry last year, or the struggling Japanese electronic market.  Africa weathered the ‘global’ recession very well, and now is in a good position to make further gains for itself.

Africa’s position of economic gains but democratic losses is not unique.  In fact, India can be seen to be going through a similar situation.  Economic growth is through the roof , but it still suffers from a hugely decentralised government that appears unable to keep up with this growth.  An example of this can be seen in India’s rather disappointing preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

All in all I think things are looking positive.  But there are events on the horizon which are going to attract more attention to the continent, such as the possible succession of South Sudan, elections in Zimbabwe, and the white elephant in the room that is Somalia.  Come on Africa, lets prove the pessimists wrong.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 5:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Africa and the Commonwealth

There have been  several distinguished guests to speak at the Royal United Services Institute’s (RUSI) Nelson Mandela Africa Lecture, and in July 2010 it was no different.  Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma was invited to speak this year as 2010 is seen as a significant year for Africa with several elections due to take place and the hosting of the Soccer World Cup bringing increased publicity to the continent.

The Secretary-General’s lecture was split in two, speaking firstly about democracy in Africa and then development.  He started out by discussing the historical connection between Africa and the Commonwealth, and how it pushed hard for decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s,  But it was tough going, as many member states resorted to one-party democracy or military rule.  The last ten years, however, has seen a return to multiparty democracy in many members states, and the Commonwealth has assisted in the post-war reconstruction in states such as Sierra Leone.  The Commonwealth’s work is now largely focussed on constitutional and parliamentary work and other institutions of democracy, as seen in Swaziland, Zanzibar and Tanzania.

When it came to Zimbabwe, he said that he would ‘welcome’ their return to the Commonwealth, and pointed out that Zimbabwe was never expelled but rather left on its own terms.

On the topic public relations, the Secretary-General stressed that the above work which he refers to as ‘best practice’ is indeed the bread and butter of what the Commonwealth does in Africa, but this does not always make international headlines like other organizations.  He stressed that the Commonwealth prefers to offer a ‘helping hand’ rather than a ‘wagging finger’.

In the second half of his lecture, the Secretary-General turned his attention to development in Africa, and pointed out that much of Africa’s economy is informal and unrecorded, therefore making it difficult to measure development accurately.  He shared his positive outlook on Commonwealth Africa’s development, saying that the cup is certainly half full, of which the Commonwealth has poured in its fair share of good cheer.

The Commonwealth is said to have instigated the process of debt relief; even though it does not have the capacity to provide huge amounts of aid to Africa, this way it has donated billions of dollars of unquantifiable work.  The Secretary General then turned his attention to the future, suggesting that the focus of the Commonwealth’s efforts lie in the treatment of HIV and AIDS and assisting in the shortage of teachers across the continent.

In his concluding remarks, he noted that democracy and development are ‘inconceivable apart’, to complete a fascinating lecture.  It was a shame that more time wasn’t given to the audience to ask questions, as I had several that I was hoping to put to him.

As far as my own thought go, I believe that his lecture went over the heads of a good few people there.  The Royal United Services Institute, by its very name, is a military think tank, and one of the first questions posed to the Secretary-General was that of military intervention.  The audience appeared to be made up foreign policy hawks and people largely ignorant of the continent of Africa, so it made for some uncomfortable questioning.  Although questions and answers remained off the record, the Secretary-General reiterated what he said in his lecture; that the Commonwealth is an organization made up of equals and it is there to discuss and assist, not issue ultimatums.

This could prove to be a very important lecture in the long run.  The new coalition government in Britain only a week before had pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the ‘FCO’ (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), so it is significant that this lecture was taking place at RUSI and in Whitehall.

The Commonwealth is probably the most important institution binding its African member states together: not only is this part of an important historical bond but they have much work to do together in the future.  If there is only one thing that comes out of this RUSI Nelson Mandela Lecture, lets hope it is a more positive British foreign policy towards the Commonwealth and Africa.

A full transcript of the Secretary-General’s speech can be found here.

Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Africa’s World Cup

I know by now that even hardened soccer fans must be getting sick of news of the world cup and ‘how much it is doing for Africa’.  But as an African in exile, I admit to have been quite moved by events over the past few weeks.

The opening ceremony was spectacular, and rather than than just the usual dull moving arrangements of oddly shaped objects, this ceremony had a real Africa vibe to it.  But what really raised the hairs on the back of my neck was the sight of Bafana Bafana lining up in the tunnel, about to take to the field to play Mexico in the opening game.  As the Mexicans stood motionless, facing the front with dead-pan faces, the South African team were singing, dancing and clapping with huge smiles on their faces.  This moment captured the very reason why Africa deserved to host the world cup; because they offer something completely unique that no other continent could come close to.

If the first goal of the tournament was anything to go by, I began to think that Bafana Bafana could surprise everyone and perhaps make it past the last 16.  But unfortunatley that was not to be; their draw with Mexico and loss to Uruguay put them out of contention.  Their final match against France brought them within 2 goals of making it out of their group, but events did not go their way.  They won 2-1, but goal difference ruled them out of the competition.  The reaction by the South African public to Bafana Bafana’s early exit was admirable, they were genuinely proud or their team and thanked them for three exciting matches, completely different to the witch-hunts and damning media reports faced by some European teams.

It was during this match that I realised how much everybody wanted them to go through to the next round, including the British television presenters who unashamedly threw their objectivity out the window.  I think this was a proud moment for South Africa; although the hosts had not done was well as they hoped, they had won the hearts of many people; what more could they have asked for?

Once the final 16 teams had been determined, Ghana had the responsibility of carrying Africa’s hopes.  But their exit on penalties still makes me ill when I recall it.  It was not only their loss, but the manner of their loss which prompted so much disappointment around the world.  A deliberate hand ball by a Uruguayan player led to a penalty that could have won Ghana the game, but it was missed and the ensuing penalty shoot-out went the way of the South Americans.  For all FIFA’s efforts of publicising the concept of fair play during the world cup, I could not think of a more unfair exit from the world cup.

The final has come and gone, with Spain rightfully lifting the trophy on Sunday night.  The congratulations and applauds towards South Africa for their successful hosting of the event are refreshing.  There was no shortage of cynics and nay-sayers in the weeks leading up to the event, with talk of terrorist attacks, unfinished stadiums, machete-wielding gangs roaming the streets and even danger of snakes to the English team at their hotel in Rustenburg.  The disgusting journalism that promoted these ideas has been shown up for what it is, illustrated by the arrest of a Sunday Mirror journalist  for orchestrating a break-in of the English changeroom after their game against Algeria.  I hope this has taught the media to be less cynical of South Africa and its readers to be more wary of what they read.

On the radio after the final, one person questioned when next the world cup will be held in Africa.  I thought this was a very poignant question to ask after the final.  It will be many years until South Africa can host it again, so which other country has the money and infrastructure to host the tournament?  Unfortunately not a lot of places spring to mind.  Nigeria has the money and the fan base, but it also has massive problems with corruption and oil-related violence.  Perhaps a joint East African tournament could be held? This is unlikely after the recent bombing in Uganda.  Hopefully in a few years this will not be the case, and South Africa has shown that the benefits of hosting this event are well worth the effort.  I look forward to that day, and the day an African team lifts the coveted trophy of the soccer world cup.

Published in: on July 15, 2010 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Damaging Democracy in Commonwealth Africa

Below is a paper on Damaging Democracy that I will be presenting at the Democracy in the Commonwealth conference in London in June 2010.  More information on the conference can be found here.

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Democracy and Africa are two ideas that have not always fitted together comfortably.  Having survived colonization and decolonization, it has only been in the last 20 years that most parts of Africa, including the Commonwealth countries, have had democratic governments running them.  The legacies of dictators like Idi Amin and Sani Abachi still form western ideals of what democracy looks like in Africa.  But in the past few years there have been several elections in Commonwealth countries which have been widely regarded as free and fair by the international community.  Democracy is a fine balance than needs constant attention and maintenance, and this paper intends to show the constant dangers posed to democracy in African Commonwealth states.  But what exactly is the term ‘democracy’ being referred to mean?  In the strictest sense, it refers to the peaceful method of changing governments.  But there is more to it than that, as states have to fulfill many obligations before they can begin to be defined as democratic.  There is, of course, the holding of free and fair elections that lead to a representative government, consisting of politicians that are committed to serving the people rather than themselves.  A free and independent media is vital to a democracy, as an outlet to analyse and criticize its politicians and their decisions.  Democracy can also be measured by the freedom its citizens have, regardless of their age, gender, colour, ethnicity, and so on.

The most obvious starting point for looking at the dangers posed to African democracy is the elections themselves.  African Commonwealth countries do not have a distinguished history when it comes to elections, and 2007 was a particularly bad vintage.  Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa with a population of over 150 million people, has had its fair share of disputed elections.  It’s most recent, in 2007, proved to be no different.  Although Umara Musa Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Democratic Party won with 70% of the vote, there were reports of widespread fraud and violence.  The Commonwealth Observer Group called the election a ‘missed opportunity’, saying that they were even worse than the disputed 2003 elections.  Nigerians deserve much better than they are getting; the vast oil wealth it contains requires a strong and fair government to manage this better and to benefit the people better, but this is yet to happen.  At the time of writing,  Yar’Adua had just died from a long suffering illness, adding more drama to next year’s election which is due to vote in a Muslim northerner as part of the system of rotation in place.  For sub-Saharan’s second biggest economy, it is vital that a free and fair election is held.   Presidential elections in Kenya in 2007 made world headlines for all the wrong reasons, after widespread violence left over 1,500 people dead.  Elections held there in 2002 were widely regarded as democratic, voting out the ruling party that had been in power since independence in 1963.  After what was described as Kenya’s most competitive elections, Raila Odinga was said to have beaten president Mwai Kibaki, but official results that were delayed eventually announced Kibaki the winner, with large question marks being left over the handling of the final results.  Unrest lead to violence that took on ethnic divisions, requiring former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to intervene and assist the setting up of a coalition government.  Although much of the violence was based upon historical land and social injustices, the questionable election served as a catalyst to bring tensions to the surface.  The coalition government is still intact today, although progress has been slow and worries remain about the possibility of further violence at the next presidential elections in 2012.  As Kenya is the commercial hub of East Africa, it is also vital that elections in 2012 are free and fair.  These two elections were in two of the most significant countries of the continent, which has ramifications in each of their regions.  If Nigeria and Kenya are to encourage democratic elections in each of their sphere of influence, they had best start with their own.

In his book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Richard Dowden likens corruption in Africa to a cancer, where it ‘has taken over the body.  It is the system’.[1] This forms what appears to be an unshakable image of Africa, such as the 419 internet scam that has its origins in Nigeria.  Guy Arnold has argued that Africa is probably no more corrupt than other continents, yet this has constantly been used as a tool for the West to ‘manipulate economic and political behavior’ of African states.[2] Like much else with Africa, corruption is not a uniform problem in each state.  When huge quantities of aid are poured into countries without the infrastructure to deal with it are in place, it is difficult to avoid people trying to take what they consider their ‘fair share’.  This has been highlighted in recent literate like ‘Dead Aid’ by Dambiso Moyo.[3] In the Transparency International corruption index of 2009, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Kenya come up worst for African Commonwealth countries (tied 146th out of 180), followed by Nigeria, Uganda and Mozambique tied on 130th.  In a global perspective, this is not a relatively bad performance, but in countries with developing economics, corruption still represents a major hurdle.  Corruption, money-laundering and patronage politics are problems that member states have to resolve by themselves, as the Commonwealth is a collection of member states, not a police force.  Some improvement has been seen recently, such as recent arrests of prominent government officials by the Anti-Corruption Commission in Sierra Leone, and the setting up in most states of some form of anti-corruption organizations.  However, the continent still has some way to go to remove this ‘cancer’.

The Commonwealth, as it is widely known and celebrated, is phenomenally diverse, with many different languages, cultures, ethnicities, and so on.  Africa is no different, and how some of the smaller sections of a society are represented is important to a healthy democracy.  Rhoda Howard wrote in 1986 that the rights of minorities in Commonwealth Africa have been ignored in favour of the national majority in the nation-making process.[4] Since then Africa has made improvements in the treatment of minorities, such as the empowerment of women in the post-war reconstruction of Sierra Leone, which the Commonwealth has assisted in.  But other minorities have not fared so well, such as homosexuals.    Homosexuality goes against many traditional African beliefs, to the point where governments are taking action against it.  Gay sex is illegal in 37 African countries, and Commonwealth states such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda there are strong views against homosexuality being accepted by society, largely due to religious beliefs.[5] A recent attempt by the Ugandan government to pass a bill that would bring about the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ drew international criticism, although the law has yet to be passed.  Malawi too is taking strong action against homosexuals, with Malawi church leaders describing homosexuality as ‘sinful’ and the high profile arrest of two men after their wedding ceremony.  Perhaps this perceived increase in homophobia has more to do with a greater dialogue taking place in the respective countries, but how the issue is dealt with puts a spotlight not only on democracy but on human rights standards, something the Commonwealth is sworn to uphold.

A free press is another fundamental institution in a democracy, and with African Commonwealth states having relatively high literacy levels, newspapers in particular are a popular way of keeping up with politics.  When a seemingly unpopular government is in office, it is the press that provides the greatest criticism of their actions and can often take the role of the official opposition and is thus the first target for retributions.  Zimbabwe, before it left the Commonwealth in 2003, provides a fascinating case study of this.  Newspaper editor Geoffrey Nyarota founded the Daily News at about the same time that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was galvanizing support against Robert Mugabe’s government, and although they were never officially in collusion, the Daily News and MDC became vital allies in the fight for democracy, which unfortunately ended in the bombing of the printing plant in January 2001, closing the newspaper.[6] A bizarre case in Zambia recently highlighted the lengths that some papers will go to when criticizing the government.  In an effort to highlight the damaged to the health system being caused by a nurses strike, The Post published pictures of a woman giving birth outside a hospital after being refused admission, which Zambian president Rupiah Banda took issue with.  The news editor, Chansa Kabwela was arrested for the distributing obscene images, but the case was eventually dismissed.  It is not an uncommon sight on the streets of African cities to see groups of people huddled around various newspapers every morning, discussing and arguing about the front page.  This is perhaps one of the greatest pillars of democracy in Africa, and is also one of the first to be attacked by undemocratic forces.  Any attempt to suppress the media in these countries should serve as the warning sign.

Africa is ‘blessed’ with an abundance of natural resources, some that have been around for a while and some that are new.  The difficulty facing those states with oil, gold, diamonds, uranium and the like is how to let the wealth of these areas make its way down to the general population, rather than letting the ruling parties line their pockets with the profits.  This is a challenge that is not unique to Africa, and for some states this new found wealth puts them in unchartered territory.  One such place is Uganda, which recently had oil discovered in Lake Albert.  Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is said to have sent officials around the world discovering how best to manage this new commodity, in a bid to avoid some of the problems that somewhere like Nigeria has experienced with oil.  But this new found wealth also has the potential to fuel corruption and to encourage the ruling party to hold on to power – Museveni has already abolished presidential term limits.  Ghana too has recently discovered oil deposits, but is being more transparent than Uganda in its efforts reap the rewards for its own citizens.  Nigeria is the obvious example of how not to manage oil; its Niger Delta is riddled with piracy, the environment around the oil wells has been ruined and too few Nigerians have benefited from the tremendous wealth the country possesses.  There is a growing international interest in Africa’s resources, including the likes of Iran, Venezuela and China, for which African states must be prepared to do business with their citizen’s interests in mind.  It is still too early to say for certain that Africa’s natural resources are a ‘blessing’; it is vital that the lessons from South Africa’s gold to Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds are learned and that these commodities are managed properly.

African Commonwealth states enjoy cordial relations with each other, and conflict between them seems highly unlikely.  The major security problems that are faced by these states come from non-Commonwealth neighbours.  Kenya has suffered from its proximity to Somalia, not only by way of the dangers of maritime piracy, but by soldiers fleeing over the border to escape the war.  Kenya has been forced to reinforce its border security after a series of abductions and a growing refugee problem.  The newest member of the Commonwealth, Rwanda, is still engaged in conflict with forces from the Democratic Republic of Congo in a war that goes back to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and was one of the main objections to them joining the Commonwealth in 2009.  Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia all suffer from refugee problems as a result of the continued war in the Congo.  Some of Africa’s security issues have global implications, such as the Nigerian born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab responsible for the attempted bombing of an American airliner in 2009, and the rumoured growth of Al Qaeda in East Africa.  These security dilemmas show that it is not only important that these Commonwealth states maintain their good relations with each other, but that they work on their relations with their neighbours and with the international community.

No discussion on damaging democracy in Africa would be complete without reference to Zimbabwe.  Although not presently a Commonwealth member state, it is likely to resume membership in the coming years as its unity government begins the repair work after a decade of devastation.  Zambia and Botswana were the most vocal when it came to denouncing Mugabe, but the silence from South Africa was deafening.  Former president Thabo Mbeki’s policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ did eventually produce the Global Political Agreement (GPA) between the three main parties, but it came at a huge cost, in both humanitarian and economic terms.  With roughly a quarter of the population of Zimbabwe displaced, it is imperative that the diaspora are encouraged to return, and that all conditions agreed in the GPA are met.  The credibility of both South Africa and the Commonwealth have suffered over the situation with Zimbabwe, so bringing back stability to this once prosperous country will go some way to restoring that.  By doing so, the Commonwealth will reaffirm the principles set out in the Harare Declaration of 1991, such as the belief that ‘international peace and order, global economic development and the rule of international law are essential to the security and prosperity of mankind’.

Africa has much to be optimistic of; its destiny is in its own hands as to what the future holds for it.  Many people condemn the increased presence of China in Africa, because of their questionable record on human rights and their policy to do business with anybody, but it is entirely up to these states to do choose who they do business with.  African’s Commonwealth states share a similar history, but are very diverse, and so too are the dangers posed to these democracies.  As we have seen, these dangers can be in the form of fraudulent elections, corruption, persecution of minorities, a stifled media, misused natural resources, conflict and failed states.  At the closing of the World Economic Forum in Tanzania, South African President Jacob Zuma called for ‘the strengthening of oversight institutions that can support and maintain the entrenchment of democracy in Africa’.[7] This is illustrative of the important role the Commonwealth has to play in Africa, especially where regional organizations like the African Union and Southern African Development Community have disappointed.   If these pitfalls can be avoided and reversed, then Africa has a bright future.


[1] Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (London, Portobello Books, 2008).

[2] Guy Arnold, Africa: A Modern History (London, Atlantic Books, 2006).

[3] Dambiso Moyo, Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa (London, Allen Lane, 2009).

[4] Rhoda Howard, Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa (Totowa, Rowman and Littlefield, 1986), p. 92.

[5] The Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press, Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality (http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=765).

[6] Geoffrey Nyarota, Against the Grain; Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman (Cape Town, Zebra Press 2006).

[7] South African Government Information, ‘President Jacob Zuma concludes working visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’, 7th May 2010 (http://www.info.gov.za/speeches/2010/10051009051002.htm).

Published in: on May 18, 2010 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  

South Africa’s bad week

With the Soccer World Cup only weeks away, the world’s press has been fixed on South Africa for some time now.  They certainly got their fix of news in the past seven days.

Last Saturday night I was just on my way to bed when I received news about the death of Eugène Terre’Blanche.  I knew straight away that this would be big news, especially with Julius Malema and his ‘kill the boer’ song causing problems at the same time. 

Don’t get me wrong, I despise Terre’Blanche and the AWB, and everything they stand for. I think it is sickening to see children walking around with AWB banners, too young to know what it means but old enough to be brainwashed by their parents.  But the timing couldn’t have been worse with other events that are transpiring.

The South African media have not covered themselves in glory in the past week.  In a country with a young democracy and sometimes fragile racial tensions, I believe they have a responsibility to treat certain stories with a degree of sensitivity, as they are aware of the ramifications of their actions.  But they treated Terre’Blanche’s death with the same sensationalism that they would any other story, with talks about ‘race wars’ and making links between Malema and Terre’Blanche that would only worsen the situation. 

An example of this was the allegation over a condom that was found at the scene.  Reading the entire story, it was clear that this was a rumour but they decided to run it as a main headline anyway.  A few hours later the police denied the existence of any condom, but the seed of doubt was already planted.

The British media, as usual, has made a complete meal of this too.  They showed loop after loop of an old video of Terre’Blanche mounting his black horse, whilst they too talked of ‘race war’ and questioned South Africa’s ability to host the world cup.  The Star newspaper even ran a story about ‘machete wielding gangs’ running amok in the streets of South Africa.  I’m sure they’ll even use the Terre’Blanche story as an excuse when their team exits the competition early.

In reality, Terre’Blanche and his AWB represents a minority of white South Africans and a minority of Afrikaners.  South Africa is still a fragile democracy, it’s hard to believe that 20 years ago it was will under Apartheid.  Events like this show how fragile that democracy is, and how every South African has a responsibility to protect it.  That includes the media, Jacob Zuma, the ANC and the DA.  Perhaps even a few representative voices of the white community could have spoken up during this time, but their silence was deafening. 

As Terre’Blanche’s body is laid to rest, what he stood for will still linger for much longer.  After a week in the spotlight, South Africa still has many questions to answer about itself.

Published in: on April 11, 2010 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  

The interesting stranger

As posted below, I recently returned from a quick trip to South Africa.  When I got onto my connecting flight at Doha, I noticed that someone was sitting in my window seat, but I didn’t mind the aisle seat anyway.  The fact that he was a scary looking man in South African army uniform had nothing at all to do with my decision, none at all.

We didn’t speak apart from the customary hello at the beginning, as I got out my book and he fell asleep.  But once we were about an hour from Johannesburg we got chatting.  I didn’t want to press him too much into the reasons for travelling, but I was dying to know where he was coming from and where he was going, as is my fascination with all things military.

He was a sergeant in the South African Army, in the intelligence department, and was currently serving with the United Nations peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan.  He was on his way to Durban for the funeral of his grandmother, so it wasn’t a pleasant trip but he appeared glad to be away from it.  I asked him how things were in Darfur, and his short answer seemed to tell more than a long one would.  “It’s bad.  It’s very bad”.  He told me of the frustration he and his troop’s experience out there, as they are unable to intervene in the daily attacks by rebels on civilians.  From the first day they were stationed there, every morning more and more refugees appear at the gate asking for protection.

I inquired how long he (I was told his name but for obvious reasons won’t disclose it) had been in the army.  His answer surprised me.  Born and bred in Durban, he became involved in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the military wing of the ANC) from a young age and rose through the ranks.  By the age of 19 he was wanted by the South African Defence Forces (SADF), and when they killed his brother – thinking it was him – he was forced to flee the country.  He joined up with several other wanted men and was sent to Lesotho and then Tanzania.

He spent several years in one of the dozens of training camps in Tanzania, living on rations of beans and rice for months at a time.  He said that they ate meat about twice a year, a luxury that he never takes for granted even now.  It was here that he became involved in intelligence, and even served with Jacob Zuma and several other prominent ANC figures.  He was eventually sent back to South Africa, but had to operate under a disguise for 3 years, during which time he was unable to visit his family who by then had presumed he was dead.

He didn’t divulge into what he got up to when he was back, but spoke of the difficulty of the integration by both MK and SADF into the South African National Defence Force, and how close it came to civil war.  He told me that sometimes he and his troops are inspected by generals who he served with, and there is an uncomfortable recognition between the two because they both know of “very bad things” that they got up to before 1994.  He spoke of a system of favours that exist in the army still, between higher up generals and those below them who threaten to divulge what that person got up to in the 1980s.

He was not a young man, but had served in almost every sub-Saharan country, most recently Sudan and the Congo.  He still had another 3 months on his tour, but said it had already been extended several times to facilitate a smooth handover to the new forces.  He told me how much he was looking forward to seeing his wife and three sons, all of which were either in good high schools or studying at university. 

No sooner had we started talking he disembarked in Johannesburg to fly to Durban, and I continued on to Cape Town.  His story astounded me.  I felt I could write a book on his life, but there were so many other like him with their stories untold.  He joked that one day he would write a book on his life, and I joked that I would love to be the one help him tell it.  But I wasn’t joking, and I hope he wasn’t.

Recent books like “32 Batallion” and “The Days of the Generals” have begun to tell the stories of some of the covert wars that were taking place across southern Africa, but there is a market for some of the individual stories too.  His story is one of thousands yet to be told, and they deserve their moment to tell it.  I hope one day they do, and South Africans can hear another angle of their fight for freedom and democracy.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  

A quick but insightful trip to South Africa

I have recently returned from South Africa, where I popped over for a quick 10 days to attend a family wedding.  It is nearly a year since I was last in South Africa, apart from a few hours in Johannesburg on my way back from Zambia.  Being away for that long, whilst still keeping up to date with the news from South Africa allows for an interesting perspective on a quick visit.

My arrival in Cape Town International Airport was an eye opener.  Since I last flew out of there in April 2009, the entire international wing has been rebuilt and is impressive and spotless.  The domestic wing is still under construction, but judging by the rate they build at it shouldn’t be long before it is up and running.  I immediately made my way north up to Yzerfontein via the R27, with even more construction taking place here, this time a bus route in the middle of the two lanes.  Just in the few days I was there I noticed progress in the building, unlike in the UK where roadworks and construction take forever, as there never seems to be anybody working on them.

On my way over I must have passed Jacob Zuma in the sky, as he was on his way to England for an official visit by invitation of the queen.  The reaction of the British press to his arrival was disgusting, including one particularly distasteful article by the Observer.  They found it necessary to dig up every issue that Zuma has faced in his past, including rape and corrupction charges that he was proven not guilty of, rather than focussing on far more important issues facing the British South Africa relationship.  The reaction of the South African press was interesting, they are never shy to shower criticism on Zuma but in this case they leaped to his defence which was quite refreshing and patriotic.  They all agreed that what had been the most obvious and disturbing feature of the British press to South Africa and its president was their complete and utter ignorance on display.

On an internal flight up to Johannesburg, I read the latest copy of the Financial Mail and some very upbeat reports on the South African economy.  This was on display when I drove out to my old neighbourhood of Weltevreden Park.  The entire area has exploded with building along the Hendrich Potgieter road out to Krugersdorp.  What used to me veld and farmland when I first moved there is now a cluster of townhouse complexes, shopping centres, car dealerships and petrol stations.  What I was particularly impressed with was Silversands Casino, an enormous casino that wouldn’t look out of place on the Wild Coast or V&A Waterfront.  Inside was a collection of restaurants, shops and a hotel built around a dam that has an elaborate musical fountain display every 30 minutes.  All this made an interesting contrast to the doom and gloom of the recession in the UK and Europe.  There didn’t appear to be any signs of a recession from where I was sitting that night.

But it is not all good news.  On a drive back from the Magaliesberg I was taken through a new township that had sprung out of nowhere on the outskirts of Honeydew.  My driver used some colourful language to describe the problems that this had brought the area, but judging by the atrocious conditions that these people were living in this is hardly surprising.  It took us nearly 10 minutes to drive from one side to the next, and what struck me most was what appeared to be the lack of South Africans I saw.  It was clear that this new township consisted mostly of immigrants from all over Africa, from the other side of the Limpopo to West Africa.  As we were driving, we came across some more construction, this time an elaborate footbridge over the road we were on, connecting one side of the township to the other.  I found this a perplexing idea; most of the houses here were built of tin and held down by rocks on the roof, and there was no sign of toilet facilities to cope with these huge numbers of people.  But here was a government funded project to build a footbridge! Surely that money and effort could have been put to better use by building toilet blocks, a school or daycare centre, or even a police station.  Perhaps this is illustrative of South Africa’s attitude towards the large amounts of immigrants now in the country; it is not that they are failing to deal with them, but they are severely misguided!

Sitting at Cape Town Airport waiting for my return flight was an awful feeling.  It is never nice saying goodbye to Africa, knowing that it would be at least another 10 months before I was back again.  Instead of getting used to my frequent departures, it seems to get harder every time.  I get a feeling in my gut, like something reaching in and grabbing me, urging me to stay.  I know that I will be returning for good soon, perhaps in about two years, but it is still difficult.  If absence does makes the heart grow fonder, then I am a perfect example of that.

Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 9:19 am  Leave a Comment