Monday, August 29, 2011

Putting Pinky in her place

The tendency of black South African columnists, with a few treasured rare exceptions, to paint our entire history - and hence white people's role therein - in as negative a light as possible, prompted me to again submit a letter for publication n the Sunday Times. Alas, last Sunday it was not used. Indeed, no letters critical of Ms Pinky Khoabane were used. Anyway, for the record, this is what I submitted:

Pinky Khoabane simply bristles with a Mugabe-like desire for revenge and retribution in “Sorry arch, but now it’s too little and too late” (August 21). And of course it is her white South African compatriots who are again in her sights.

I am always alarmed at the knee-jerk response of black South African commentators to the realities of a modern economic system in which they still do not feature as prominently as they should. Certainly, since 1994, the ANC has ensured that the bulk of state jobs have gone to people of colour – even if this has often been at the cost of efficiency as underqualified people have been promoted.

But it is the private sector that worries Khoabane most, as she again cites with disdain the fact that whites are still in the vast majority of managerial positions, while it is also still white farmers doing most of the commercial agriculture.

The way she writes, you would think that when whites first started arriving in this country over 350 years ago, there was already a thriving, modern economy which they then stole. The reality is that way back in history, Europeans explored and often colonised vast tracts of the earth. The British empire was immense, and South Africa was part of it for about 150 years. Before that, it was the Dutch who impacted on the Cape. The end result of this long, often ugly and discriminatory, association between settlers and natives was the development of modern towns and cities; the establishment of a first-world economy. Apartheid, from 1948, undermined what should have been a gradual deracialising of the economy – and drove a wedge between black and white.

Instead of blaming the ANC for failing, over the past 17 years, to institute a working education system which would have helped economically empower black people, Khoabane falls back on the old trick of blaming whites themselves. Whose fault is it that, despite throwing billions of rands at the problem, our schools are still not providing the vast majority of black children with essential skills?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The new South African propaganda

Was the wealth of South African whites acquired by "bloodshed and robbery"? Too often, today, black commentators in our media are expressing such views as "historical fact", when in reality our history was far more complex and ambiguous. I recently wrote the following piece based on the row over an editor being called a "black snake in the grass deployed by white capital", and that she would have been necklaced in the 1980s.

Truth or Propaganda?

The nature of propaganda is such that the more you repeat a lie, the more people begin to accept it as the truth.

A classic example was Nazi Germany before the Second World War, where the Jewish community was demonised by the fascist leaders under Adolf Hitler to such an extent that eventually they used this “truth” as justification for a policy of genocide.

So I write with a sense of growing concern at the direction in which the national dialogue has been moving of late. And something Veli Mbele said in his “In my view” column in the Port Elizabeth newspaper, The Herald, of August 22 encapsulates the way in which African South Africans have become so steeped in the “black is right, white is wrong” perception of our history that they refuse to see the many uncomfortable nuances, the vast expanses of grey.

Mbele wrote a largely commendable analysis of the row between City Press editor Ferial Haffajee and Sowetan columnist Eric Myeni, who was fired after writing a racially charged diatribe attacking Haffajee. We all know the most jarring aspects of what was written – things like calling her a “black snake in the grass deployed by white capital to sow discord amongst blacks” and that in the 1980s she would “probably have had a burning tyre around her neck”. Scurrilous stuff.

Mbele explored further Myeni’s argument about how the use of state tenders to enrich black people could be justified. Mbele commendably says the point is whether “when they get rich through state tenders ... they do so legally and ... use their wealth to materially improve the living conditions of African people in general”. On this point, of course, one has to ask: how many of the many state tenders awarded to BEE companies since 1994 have been above board? How many of the companies were equipped to do the job, and indeed completed it properly? One only has to look at the RDP housing fiasco – with houses crumbling – to realise that far too many of these companies were ill-equipped to tackle the projects for which they tendered. Often they simply sub-contracted the work to established (read white) firms, thereby increasing the cost of the project.

But that is an argument for another day. More worrying for me are Mbele’s comments with regard to our history. He notes that Myeni had stated that the DA “receives money largely from white business, which is the main economic beneficiary of the government tender system”. Firstly, that is a dubious claim, since white firms are by and large only given the contracts when, as noted above, black firms find themselves unable to do the work. In terms of the BEE loading formulae, contracts will go to black firms first. Indeed, the whole BEE concept was almost custom made to facilitate corruption. As soon as you put race above things like competence, price and track record in the awarding of tenders, you’re asking for trouble. So we are stuck with a system literally designed to promote just the sort of moral malaise which Mbele correctly identifies in Myeni’s argument.

However, what really concerns me is this sentence by Mbele: “It is common knowledge the DA is a historically white party and that our national wealth, which now resides in white hands, was acquired through bloodshed and robbery.”

He goes on to talk about “these historical facts”, as if his biased view – which is widely held thanks to decades of indoctrination – is holy writ. The historical reality is far more nuanced. There are indeed vast grey areas where Mbele sees only black and white, good and bad.

A brief resume of the counter-argument would go like this. Bantu-speaking people came down from central Africa and “colonised” what is now South Africa and was occupied by the Khoisan. European whites started “colonising” the same area, starting in what would become Cape Town, from 1652. That’s over 350 years ago. The world was a very different place. The great powers of Europe were taking to their sailing ships and exploring a world they had only recently discovered was indeed round, not flat. They were motivated by both a desire to find wealth through trade, and indeed colonisation, and among their scientists and intellectuals, by a fascination with the complexity of this planet. Charles Darwin is a fine example.

It was as much an age of discovery as one of imperialism. Yet imperialism did occur, and Britain was the key imperialist for a century and a half. Of course “weaker”, less advanced indigenous people were conquered and governed by settler rulers. (Just as the Romans did to Britain for nearly 400 years until 410 AD, the Normans did after 1066 and in a sense the Roman Catholic Church did to much of Europe for 1000 years up till the 16th century.)

The local populations of colonised countries were exploited and marginalised. But Britain did abolish slavery in 1833, and by the mid-20th century gradually loosened its grip and eventually handed over the reins to the locals in countries around the globe. A fine example is India, which is now a thriving democracy, though still beset by widespread poverty.

Most important of all, the European settlers brought with them – especially in the 19th and 20th centuries – all the benefits of the scientific, intellectual, industrial, agricultural and economic advances that had made their home countries the powerful states they were. These were introduced into South Africa as a direct result of colonialism, leaving us with an advanced, industrial economy that is the envy of the rest of Africa.

Certainly black people often suffered grievously, particularly under apartheid post-1948. But the broader picture is one of a country provided with the building blocks to succeed by the ingenuity of its white settler community in partnership with the indigenous population.

Mbele and Myeni can distort this history as they please, but each time they make use of anything that has its origins in the West – the products of centuries of rigorous intellectual endeavour – they should pause to reflect on whether they shouldn’t be just a little grateful for that legacy.

I suggest the Internet – a western invention – might be a place to start looking. Or computers themselves. Or cars, trains, internal combustion engines, cellphones, telephones, radio, television, CDs, DVDs, fridges, stoves, electricity. Look at the history of science and ask yourselves, should we not be grateful for these gifts, the atom bomb notwithstanding? Think too of things like freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, human rights, modern medicine, formal schooling, universities, police forces, democracy. All were, by and large, a product of this western European age of enlightenment.

We have a choice. We can accept this broader, more balanced, picture of our history. Or we can just swallow the “white is wrong, black is right” propaganda hook, line and sinker, until in the end all manner of cruelty is justified in addressing this supposed “truth” – as Hitler did in Germany and Poland.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nationalising South Africa's mines

Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League have been calling for the nationalisation of South Africa's mines. What sort of impact is this having? This is how a Reuters correspondent reported on the issue on August 10, 2011. Consider what effect such a report might have on potential investors overseas. This is the report:

By Jon Herskovitz

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s ruling
African National Congress is at war with itself over calls to
nationalise a mining sector that has been the backbone of
Africa’s largest economy.

Nationalisation could bankrupt the country and destroy its
credibility among investors. But the idea resonates with the
country’s poor black majority who see it as a way to spread the
wealth from a sector that grew powerful along with
white-minority apartheid rule.

Here are a few questions and answers as to what may result
of the nationalisation debate.


Not unless the ANC wants to ruin the economy by trying to
take over a sector that accounts for about half a million jobs
and 6 percent of GDP.

The country cannot afford to buy out listed mining firms
which have a market capitalisation of about 270 billion, equal
to about two-thirds of GDP or twice the annual state budget.

Running the mining firms would cost tens of billions more a
year and given the loss-making track record of state-owned
enterprises, nationalised mines in South Africa would place a
huge drag on the economy.

Threats to tweak laws in order to expropriate shares for a
fraction of their value would run up against international
investment guarantees that would almost certainly a trigger
severe backlash from South Africa’s trading partners.

The debate is largely kept alive to settle political scores
in the ANC and will stay on the agenda at least through the end
of next year when it holds a conference to elect its leaders.


The government has been clear on what it expects from mining
companies: more black ownership, more jobs and social justice
for the black poor who have been marginalised for decades by
mining barons.

Nationalisation will not happen but keeping the debate alive
provides leverage.

The government has created a state mining company which will
focus on strategic minerals including coal and uranium, although
it has yet to be decided how the firm would operate. Analysts
said this may be the extent of state ownership in the industry.


The government will likely apply more pressure on mining
firms to achieve a government mandate for them to have 26
percent black ownership and 40 percent black management by 2014.

Mining firms could be pressed into joint ventures with the
public sector in the downstream processing of minerals. The
government’s national growth strategy sees mineral processing as
a pillar of growth and job creation. It has laid out 10 mineral
commodities and five value chains it wants to develop, saying
mining firms will be called on to help.


Changes may come at the margins but there will probably be
nothing major. South Africa’s royalty system is considered one
of the more advanced among mining giants.


Probably not. Mining firms may face greater pressure to
increase shareholdings to local communities where mines are
located and pay a larger bill for infrastructure development.

The energy-intensive sector may see higher tariffs from state
utility Eskom, which is scrambling for funds to build much
needed power stations.

Mark Cutifani, chief executive of mining power AngloGold
Ashanti, said in an opinion article last month the mining sector
is willing to help end “inequality and the demons of its past".

Separate from nationalisation, mining firms could face a
huge bill from legal cases from miners seeking compensation for
deadly lung diseases, especially in the gold mining sector.


High-minded ideals of social justice could easily fall prey
to crass corruption.

Foreign investors, South Africans and the ANC's governing
partners have grown increasingly worried about the
implementation of a black economic empowerment policy introduced
by the ANC after apartheid ended 17 years ago.

BEE is aimed at righting the economic wrongs of apartheid
but critics say it has only enriched a few politically connected
businessmen in a country where millions live in poverty and over
a quarter of the work force is jobless.

An increased push for more black ownership could deepen the
pockets of a few while the impoverished majority see no gains.

Nationalisation could be used to bail out BEE firms that
made bad investments in the sector or to revisit mining rights,
which would deal a blow to regulators already being probed by
police over a sweetheart rights deal that benefited President
Jacob Zuma’s son and his backers.

Joint venture firms could end up as money pits that create
few jobs while piling costs on mining firms.

The biggest risk is that South Africa will place too high a
burden on mining companies, hurting the competitiveness and long term prospects for Africa’s largest economy.