Sunday, 8 December 2013

So it has been quite a weekend. I was in East London when I received the message that the Old Man was gone. I immediately called a friend in Zimbabwe for confirmation who very quickly replied that Robert Mugabe was alive and well. I called my source back to rebut the rumour and he corrected me that the old man in question was Nelson Mandela.

Minutes after that, breaking news was scrolling on SABC's ticker tape advising the public to  standby for an announcement of national importance. I immediately called my wife and as many close friends as possible to alert them to the impending news. The confirmation soon followed with a sombre Jacob Zuma addressing the country. I only managed to sleep at 3am.

I was due to drive to Mthata in the morning and after struggling to get up and checking the news once more, I hit the road struggling between focussing on the road and responding to messages from friends in Zimbabwe. I only had one objective in mind. To get to Qunu. When I got there, apart from a few policemen and three military trucks, there was a small team of journalists interviewing an MEC who explained that the crowd had not yet gathered because they were waiting for the Chief to be informed of the death.

Qunu when I arrived
I proceeded to an event where the government was handing a school over to a rural community in Libode. There I got my first first hand view of the love that the people of South Africa have for this icon as they sang "there is no one like Nelsom Mandela" a song I was to hear throughout the weekend. I flew back to Johannesburg in the evening envious of my wife who had taken my two teenage sons to Mandela's house in Houghton.

The next day we headed to Soweto, to the street and house where Mandela lived and what a scene. It is one thing to see the outpouring of love for Madiba on television, it is quite another to experience this in person. The singing, toyi toying, interest from the international media and tourists was palpable. As my wife said in her journal which she made me read, "you could not be an observer, you had to join in" and there we were in and among the crowd drinking it all in and participating in the singing.

Sky News interviewed my wife and sister in law for the Zimbabwe perspective
Later that day, we went to Houghton where another multi-racial crowd (probably less tourists and therefore representing more of a genuine South African mix)  kept coming and going. I saw Black, White, Asian, Coloured paying tribute with their children and singing together even they did not understand all the words they were singing. There was something special going on.

Bikers livened up the scene in Vilakazi street with their special tribute

At a given moment, Mandela's grand children emerged from the house to distribute apples to the gathered crowd which kept swelling by the minute.

I was struck by how many people specifically brought their children as if to teach them something special and this is the challenge for South Africa: How to keep the rainbow nation alive beyond sports events, occasions such as this and television advertisements.  The second challenge is to get the minority who respond to love with hatred, to stop poisoning their children with doomsday messages every time there is a significant event in the country: release of Nelson Mandela, the assassination of Chris Hani, advent of majority rule after the '94 elections, death of Nelson Mandela and whatever is next. The last challenge of course, is to transform this society to one in which poverty is greatly reduced in those sections of society that were previously oppressed and to create a genuinely strong and growing middle class so that all can have fair share in the wealth of this special and unique country.

"Everyone" came. "Everyone."

One thing is for sure, the love for Madiba is genuine. The respect that the people have for him is real for the vast majority of people in South Africa. Madiba was the first to rebut any suggestion that he was a super being who saved the struggle and the country single handedly but naysayers would do well to watch the countless documentaries and anecdotes over the next few days and years to come to appreciate what a genuinely special man this icon was. As the Indian Prime Minister said in his tribute, it is very unlikely that we will see another like him in a very very long time. I love my history. I do not know of any historical figure who has elicited such a response from literally every corner of the globe from small villages in India to Times Square through to Presidents, corporations and celebrities at the news of their passing. Not one. Even countries that labelled him a terrorist and conspired in his arrest in Howick are honouring him. Such is the justice of time.

I mistakenly thought that Robert Mugabe had died. It remains to be seen how Zimbabweans, Africans, Black people the world over and the rest of the globe will react to his death. History will be the judge, in the fullness of time. To each their own legacy. "Light a candle, instead of cursing the darkness."

Friday, 4 October 2013

This morning, October 4th, the news broke that 144 out of 450 people on board a vessel lost their lives off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, after the boat sank. All of the people on board were would be African immigrants looking for a better life in Europe. According to media reports, since 1994 (the last liberation date of an African country, South Africa) and last year, 6500 people have perished while attempting to make it across the Mediterranean. You will probably find similar statistics in the waters between Asia and Australia.

How can African countries stem this embarrassing outflow of potential human capital?

An Engineer friend of mine has been wondering aloud why skill sets are not being created in a manner that sees wholesale transformation of previously disadvantaged people in South Africa and what can be done to address this.

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the Zimbabwe of 1980 to 2000.

The first point is Robert Mugabe and his government invested heavily in education. Much more than investing in dollars and cents, he advanced a strong cultural bias and attitude towards the love of books and a formal education. He began by saying things like man for man he could line up his cabinet against any other in the world and his team would more than hold their own in terms of academic achievement. It was not unusual in Zimbabwe to find street vendors hawking, not fruit and vegetables but textbooks! It was a revolution in terms of mindset. Then of course, the teacher training colleges were not only retained, they were also expanded as parents urged their children to become Nurses, Doctor's and Teachers in a wave of post independence euphoria. At the same time, it was a common sight to see young men and women soaked in diesel, I believe, tied to some post in city centres across the country as part of the graduation ritual towards becoming artisans. This group went on to make more money more quickly than their counterparts who headed to University, but I digress. Everywhere you went in the country, at one point or another at various intervals, you came across proud graduates wearing their graduation gowns far from campus on their way home with beaming parents by their side. Many a Bull or cow, depending on the type of qualification, lost their lives in many a homestead because of the successful conclusion of study. In some case, girls who had been sent to tertiary institutions but who fell pregnant saw their children being named Diploma or some such Zimbabwean oddity because their irate parents who say, "I sent you to college to get a diploma and you came back with a child!"

Before long, black Zimbabweans such as Nigel Chanakira, James Mushore, Will Nyemba, Doug Munatsi and many others were actually starting and running black owned and competently managed banks. Other black Zimbabweans were doing equally well in senior management in every aspect of the Zimbabwean economy and, in those days, many Zimbabweans who left the country did so on their own terms and on to bigger and better things elsewhere as global citizens.

To answer my South African friend, therefore, here is what I say. Look to the Zimbabwean model of 1980 to 2000 ( it is too early to evaluate the post 2000 model) and take from it what you will. Among my suggestions are:

  • bring back the teachers' colleges
  • while I believe in moral suasion rather coercion, I would suggest that BEE be backed up by strong compliance policies and laws that are enforced rather than a checklist
  • actively promote a culture of artisans through the FET colleges and polytechnics
  • use charisma to initiate, grow and imbue a culture of reading and love for education country wide 
  • lead by example by creating networks that help educated black people to thrive so that the value of a good education is not only seen but highly sought after 
  • give black owned businesses the chance to prove themselves through business networks
  • employ as many black interns as you can and give them the opportunity to get experience
  • mentor as many people as you can make time for
  • create wealth in your activities rather than (or while) amass(ing) wealth for yourself
Zimbabweans are highly sought after globally because of several reasons among them work ethic and a good educational background. During the crisis, Zimbabweans' ability to "make a plan" came to the fore and saved the country from much much worse. The one thing I know for sure, is many Zimbabweans pursue education for education's sake and the rest follows.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Terrorism and Pawns

RENAMO, UNITA, Super ZAPU, Boko Haram, Al Shabab: what's in a name? A terrorist by any other name would destroy just as many lives. We have been here before. Innocent people killed and economies derailed for years (and taking even longer to recover) by the actions of "rebel" groups fighting a proxy war far from the real theatre of conflict. Let's be clear, in many cases, the reactions of the local authorities have in been disproportionate and even reckless. We have seen that in Israel's operation in Lebanon in 2006 and Zimbabwe's Gukhurahundi. In Zimbabwe's case, you may need to read the full series of to get the context of the conflict. The same contextual approach to what assails Somali must be applied even beyond the context cited in this link:

I despair at the superficial analysis that I see in some sections of the press who then help to shape popular opinion and subsequently do a disservice to the public. One thing is certain, an information hungry public constantly fed bad "events" news moves from one horror story to the next reacting emotionally with shock and horror at times and with a shrugged numbness at others depending on the ranking of the event on the Richter equivalent of the spectacular scale. The public does not have the time, nor the will in instances, to connect the dots and we, therefore, put a plaster on a cancerous pimple instead of addressing the root cause of the problem.

The world has changed. Africa must change with it and since the demise of the Gaddafi regime, I have sensed a greater and more deliberate effort by the AU to move in a direction that suggests we will no longer be taken advantage of, nor be used to fight proxy wars. It is incumbent upon the AU, regional groupings, individual governments and every day citizens to start pushing for a greater awareness and (re)action on the way the world of geopolitics works and how it can affect a mother, business person, child on a Saturday morning shopping outing in a mall with devastating consequences. The Kenya episode has been replicated in a hotel in Mumbai, a pub in Uganda, churches in Nigeria, the eastern DRC and many other places where the only crime of the innocent victims is to be caught in the crossfire while they go about their normal lives. Apart from these losses of human life, I for one, do not want to worry about whether I can fly to a country on business or pleasure and which airline is safest. Getting the best air fare available should be my only concern.

It is unacceptable.

The first port of call is UN Security Council reform for it is from there, many a time in our recent history, that abuse of the UN has led to grave consequences for civilians the world over. Gone are the days when you hear about a war in far off countries between two belligerent foes. Today, those wars are fought in your neighbourhood when you do not even know whence the feud started. We must demand that this stops and signal our very strong disapproval of the chess games of a few merchants of death in a few powerful capital cities far from our shores. As Dag Hammaskjold said, "Never for the sake of peace and quiet, deny your own experience and convictions." You might be in the next conflict zone.

Friday, 20 September 2013

So I spent an incredible enriching evening two nights ago in King Williams Town. My travelling companion for this particular trip, Simphiwe, ran in to Nkosinathi Biko at the airport while I made my way to the terminal. The next thing I knew, we had a dinner date about 60km from East London.

As the GPS got more confused, we came across a large building round about 7pm and I said to Simpihiwe, it must be around here somewhere near that shopping mall. Well, the "mall" turned out to the the Steve Biko Centre, smack in the middle of a township and I thought, "whoa!"

What followed was a magical evening. Nkosinathi met us at the entrance and proposed a guided tour of the facilities. I was suitably humbled and privileged.

Before we could begin, we met a group of young people who had just finished rehearsing a production in one of the facilities at the centre. A young lady gathered the guts to ask whether Simphiwe would sing with her and she obliged willingly and with grace. A magical moment, enriching in its simplicity and purity followed. Superstar meets township with no airs and graces.

We then went off on the tour and that is when I discovered Nkosinathi. Modest, humble and yet with the deepest sense of self, comfort in one's skin and centred. His knowlegde and thought process is as massive as the place. It is imposing, the facilities impressive and the vision enduring. I saw an arena for theatrical productions, an amphitheatre with great acoustics, children's library, adult library, periodicals section, conference section, kitchen and restaurant (doff hat) and an admin section. The permanent exhibition is as good as anything I have seen elsewhere. Certainly a wealth of enrichment. Context is key.

Then followed (I am cutting a long story short) an excellent dinner conversation. We treated subjects ranging from the meaning of Mbeki, Zuma, Mandela, Zille, Gadaafi and, of course, Robert Mugabe in the context of Black Consciousness. I listened, spoke and shared. I came away enriched beyond words.

Before we knew it, it was midnight and we had to drive back to East London for other assignments the following day. I will be donating a book, from my father's collection, and I will be encouraging as many people to visit as possible. There is great work being done there and I can only but support it. Bravo Nkosinathi. Your father is proud of you. We are proud and we will support your work in our own modest ways. There is work to be done: "A ship in the harbour is safe, but that is not what ships were built for."

Sunday, 28 July 2013

As much as I can, I make it my business to talk to locals wherever I am lucky enough to travel. Taxi drivers, waiters and vendors provide a wealth of local knowledge that add to a pleasurable experience. I was on holiday in Inhambane, Mozambique a few weeks ago where we were greeted every morning and late afternoon by locals selling everything from Tiger prawns, crayfish to local clothing and wrist bands. One vendor set himself apart because he was selling portable Xylophones thereby setting himself up as an exclusive supplier.

After he explained to us what it was made from, how to tune it and how his grandfather taught him to make it, I switched the conversation to current events and asked him about RENAMO and renewed threats for a return to war.

I have to say, I was quite moved by the change in voice tone as he, kneeling in the sand by his instruments, literally pleaded with heaven to not allow a recurrence of the civil war.  He used the word "pray" several times as he narrated how his grandfather had told him about how bad the civil war was. He talked about his fear for his safety and, of course, the potential loss of his livelihood as unrest would mean the loss of tourists and the drying up of his business.

Some wars are necessary. When you fight on principle, for something that is universally acknowledged to be right such as taking on Hitler or fighting for independence you have a just war. When wars are driven by an insatiable appetite for resources or simply because oil and gas have been discovered in a region of the country, you have an evil elite causing untold misery to human beings like you and I.

I have a huge problem with this. And who do I think I am? A human being who has seen far too much avoidable suffering and one who appreciates that such misery can easily be inflicted on me, my family and society in general. I am one who has seen fear in the eyes of a xylophone vendor and I can imagine the fear of those who hear or spot drones flying overhead.

I am also one who agrees that for "evil to triumph, all it takes is for the good to do nothing." We will always have evil, it is part of the yin and yang of life itself. It is for this reason that it is demanded of us to exert out influence, however small, for good with what Covey called an abundance mentality, than simply passively give in to the machinations of those with a scarcity mentality.

Neutrality never works. In Zimbabwe for instance, when an estimated 20 000 people perished at the hands of the Fifth Brigade there was little public or international outrage because the majority of Zimbabweans were not affected or the cold war was still running its course. When the chaotic land reform process started a lot of urban people were unconcerned, arguing that some farmers deserved it, until the hordes arrived at the factory gates and started extorting money from business executives. Then of course, you had the widespread violence of the pre and post 2008 elections. Suddenly everyone discovered human rights and called on the world for help.

After the supermarket shelves became full again, the same people do not care for Bahrain, Darfur or Egypt today to cite a few examples because they are simply too far away. They are news items, not "our issue."

I hope the prayers of the xylophone vendor will be answered. Otherwise we will continue to hear from the news of about 300 dead in an incident, then to make ourselves feel better thirty dead since Ramadan or Easter instead of saying 330. All these numbers are human beings.

A single man wrote a letter to the press to complain about the arrest of students in Portugal who had raised a toast to freedom and Amnesty International was born. That same single man and woman is you. Here, everywhere and in Mozambique. We must defend what is right, wherever evil wants to wreck havoc.

Thursday, 18 July 2013


I like the Eastern Cape. It's rural areas are like no other I have seen. The rolling hills and valleys, painted huts and the young men on horseback looking like Mongols on the Steppes of Asia and the women with their bundles of firewood inching their way up a steep slope to their homestead. It is a poor area with a wealth of experiences on offer.

It is here that a young Nelson Rolihlala Mandela on the cusp of adulthood, biting back tears of pain after the snip, grit his teeth together and exclaimed "Ndiyindoda!" - I am a man!- only to find to his shock that he really wasn't a man because the land before him, the land of his ancestors was firmly in the grasp of a settler regime. There was no Mandela ville, only King Williamstown, Port Elisabeth and this young son of a chief was more serf than royalty in practice. It was a defining moment for the young Nelson before he could spell the words "long walk to freedom."

But "character is what you do when no one is watching" and young Mandela's journey in to politics arguably started on that day. The rest, you know. He is a global icon and, today, he turned 95.

How great it would be if every African nation celebrated its political icons in much the same way with 67 minutes of this and that. Instead, we are forced to revere our sportsmen and women: Gebresellassie, Weah, Drogba, Bwalya, Milla, Eto, Abedi Pele, Mutola and others.

Madiba and South Africa's liberation would not have been possible without Ben Bella, Cabral, Machel, Kaunda, Mugabe, Nyerere, Neto, Tambo and his other colleagues. Madiba has said so himself on several occasions.

Africa must reprise her history. She must tell it like it has never been told before. As we rightly salute Madiba for the man, politician, leader and icon he is, it is incumbent on us to celebrate our history in its proper context, in our own words and with our own experiences. Every country must have its own "Qunu" sign pointing to a repository of living history that our children can learn from.