African Arguments – Keith Somerville and Desne Masie

Following the response to Keith Somerville’s ‘Mines, Malema and Mangaung’ piece, from Desné Masie and Simon Freemantle, Desné and Keith continued the debate via email. We thought the discussion sufficiently illuminating to warrant publication on African Arguments in its own right. The debate has been lightly edited by an impartial non-participant.

From: Keith Somerville
Sent: 18 September 2012
To: Desné Masie
Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments
Hi Desné, thanks for the e-mail.
I was confused by your piece, to be honest, as it seemed to be more a bit of a rant along the lines of ‘how dare these foreigners criticise the ANC after all it’s done’. I couldn’t find anything of substance where you weakened my argument or really challenged it… It seemed that you objected to the tone more than anything else.
I was not predicting apocalypse, but South Africa and the ANC are approaching a watershed and the ANC will either lose support or…[require] an amazing resurrection which will involve a purge of corrupt elements and place-seekers.
My analysis is strongly supported by much of what [Zwelinzima] Vavi [General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions – COSATU] has said in recent years, the conclusions of Martin Plaut’s excellent book Who Rules South Africa and Moeletsi Mbeki’s recent analysis.
…my analysis is from the left, lamenting the ANC’s undoubted descent into greed, corruption and what seems to be a policy vacuum. I sympathise strongly with the miners who are striking…the company and the union…are both failing them.
Regarding Malema, he is a force. He is not just hot air. He can appeal cynically to the young, unemployed and downtrodden (just as Hitler did) without any intention of helping them in the long-term but as a means of gaining power or influence. Youth League leaders have frequently affected the direction of the ANC (Mandela/Sisulu/Lembede but also Mokaba throwing his weight behind Mbeki and shafting Ramaphosa).
Malema helped unseat Mbeki and now wants to unseat Zuma in favour of either Motlanthe or Sexwale (who has proved to be a disappointing, unprincipled opportunist). He now has ample opportunity to say that he was wrongly kicked out of the ANC by a leadership that has lost its way.
Best wishes,

Desné Masie says:
September 20, 2012 at 11:01 am
From: Desné Masie
Sent: 18 September
To: Keith Somerville
Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments
Dear Keith
I would say we meant largely to engage with the negative synopsis and tone of your article. There was insufficient space to go into some of the finer points, but this is a country that [still works], and mining is not as important to the economy today as it was historically… In my opinion, [your] piece, which was relentlessly negative in tone and outlook, was an example of increasingly negative commentary in the wake of Marikana, and [is broadly representative of] the manner in which South Africa is written about generally.
This is also partly the fault of the South African media, which enjoys a robust culture of debate that is also prone to exaggeration. This, of course, also spills into international press networks. So, I would say that saying the country is “descending into into a morass” would fit into a broader apocalyptic narrative that is extant in the international press in terms of its consumption of African news.
But this is subjective and open to interpretation, and you may feel, contrary to the aims of your body of work as a journalist. I would, however, say that, in my opinion, the international press and its role in observation and informing is welcome. I take issue, however, when the Global South is framed in these accounts. And these countries are forced into a permanently defensive position, constantly having to prove they’re not about to tank.
Where we agree is that the event should prompt the government into taking meaningful action on inequality.
Which brings me to Who Rules South Africa – which I reviewed here, and also interviewed the authors. While the book makes some good points, provides a snapshot about South Africa, you will see I asked Paul [Holden] and Martin [Plaut] similarly, if they did not think their synopsis was far too negative and reliant on the negative SA media sources I mentioned earlier…I am appealing for a framing of South Africa that is not prejudged by a doom and gloom outlook that is … too rife in opinion and analysis …and contrary to the views of South Africans who feel that there is still much to be positive about.
That being said, Paul pointed out that…in his opinion, countries such as Italy are more corrupt than South Africa, but of course we must speak out on corruption anywhere it rears its ugly head.
…In a personal capacity, I have voted against the party in elections, since I feel it is complacent about its majority. I would say though that while it has failed in some aspects, and the stink around Zuma needs airing etc, South Africa has enjoyed many milestones – significantly that it has had free and fair elections and is developing a welfare state, the grants from which have lifted many people out of poverty. Houses have been built, the economy has been stable. I do not think that current media analysis local and domestic in that regard is balanced.
…by no means am I saying that foreign correspondents should not write about South Africa. I also know that the media and international community played significant part in liberating South Africa, but I am also saying let’s not be so soon to damn it, even though we all would be disappointed after its extraordinary transition to democracy that it would not succeed. This is why I mention that I write in a personal capacity – if only because I think the ability of South Africans to galvanise around the good of the country is a testimony of their commitment to democracy. But while I am saying let’s give the country a chance, I’m not absolving the government from its responsibilities.
Re: Malema
I have written on him as well – and agree with some of what you say as well as that he speaks some uncomfortable truths, but largely I think he is an opportunistic PR machine afforded too much attention and that is what has made him seem truly powerful. Essentially, I feel he is ruthlessly self-serving. Time will reveal if he truly is a kingmaker, but my feeling is not.
Re: Moeletsi Mbeki
I think he makes some good points, and the abuse of BEE does require some introspection… While I feel BEE is an insufficient response to years of unequal opportunities, somehow racial inequality from the past needs to be addressed? I think that white South Africans make an enormous contribution to South Africa, but economic power does need to shift. Moeletsi’s views on the state of the South African economy are not entirely correct though. South Africa has continued to enjoy GDP growth, and this is remarkable considering the contraction in trade and investment due to the global financial crisis.
Kind regards

Keith Somerville says:
September 20, 2012 at 11:02 am
From: Keith Somerville
Sent: 18 September 2012
To: Desné Masie
Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments
Dear Desné,
My generally negative analysis, is I think supported by the trends within South Africa since the early years of the millennium, when the ANC began to appear very divided (rather than being a broad church that enabled and encouraged different views and an element of compromise) and the Zuma-Mbeki conflict started. I don’t believe strong criticism necessarily equates with an apocalyptic view – South Africa is in a negative phase but one that is capable of reversal. But at the moment, the ANC does not seem united, to have coherent policies, a process of realistic planning or the will to reform. That may come at or after Mangaung, or it may need further breakaways, perhaps on the left and from within Cosatu.
Perhaps the best thing that could develop is a left-wing party taking in elements within the ANC, Cosatu and civil society groups – maybe the ANC has served its purpose, however noble that purpose it was.
Certainly mining is not as key to the overall economy as before, but it is a major employer and one where there has been no trickle down of benefits to workers, let alone redistribution, and in which the worst results of BEE can be seen. But beyond mining, the situation seems no better. There is no serious attempt at investment in infrastructure and much private investment goes into the top end of the economy – things like malls, rampant consumerism for those who have stayed rich or benefitted since 1994, and housing in gated communities for the beneficiaries of 1994 and those who have remained rich.
The poor majority are as poor or poorer than ever – as shown by the poverty level wages paid at Marikana. Service delivery is indescribably bad – whether provinces are under-spending on basic education for the poor or the Limpopo textbook scandal. Unemployment is high and workers are as poorly paid as under apartheid.
Finally, there is seeming impunity of ANC leaders and their cronies before the law. They can be accused and charged, but how many actually have their political careers affected or are convicted?
The host of accusations against Malema were not followed up until he turned against Zuma and now suddenly the Hawks are after him. Zuma has a score of investigations or corruption-related charges outstanding, but will he ever stand trial? As in Berlusconi’s Italy, those close to power and able to harness support from ANC grandees or use the intelligence services, are immune from the law. The rule of law is shaky; the police corrupt and tinged with the brutality of the apartheid in their standard operating procedures against strikes or demos and the judiciary is subject to political interference.
This may not be Armageddon or terminal but it is something that must be reversed or it will lead to mass alienation from the political process, and the growth of industrial, communal and political violence. South Africa still works for some, but it fails to work for the majority.
Best wishes

African Arguments