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Hi! You have landed on the front page. So far, so good. On these pages you will find some of my personal scribblings – un-redacted, and unedited, in other words I write here what I like (things that newspapers or other online periodicals may not want to publish) and, well like most people I could do with a sub-editor, but can’t afford one…. It’s a personal blog, for goodness sake. Oh, and I post some visual curiosities, too. If you want to read some of my writing that has appeared in print, please go to the “In Print” Page. Click on text for the link, or use the menu button – above the banner.

 

The Political Calendar and Lack of Clarity

By Ismail Lagardien

15 December 2017 This week, the professional economist, Nazmeera Moola of Investec Asset Management echoed the argument I made in my Herald column, Economics and Reality, on 21 November. My argument was that the political calendar, which contains a series of celebrations and gatherings of the ruling party over the course of a calendar year, effectively grinds implementation of policies to a halt. Public servants appear to be “waiting,” constantly, for the ruling elite to complete their gatherings and celebrations, in order for clarity on policies and certainty to emerge. At the time of writing, this waiting game has the country focused on the ruling ANC’s elective conference, which starts tomorrow, and for clarity and direction to emerge.

This was how I described this waiting game in November:

“The political calendar is, arguably, one of the main reasons why there seems to be no progress in implementing of policies, and why the economy is slowly grinding to a halt… It may seem like a harsh judgment of the integrity of public servants, but the ruling elite created a political calendar that has embedded inertia in our political economy. (Read Full Column)

In an interview with News24, yesterday Moola provides some explanations for what she referred to as “complete sclerosis” in the “public sector” because of indecision. The following was what Moola said:

“I think we need to get the ANC elective conference out of the way. What’s happening right now, particularly in the public sector space is complete sclerosis. Nobody knows what is going to happen at the ANC conference – so as a result, nobody wants to make any decisions, nobody wants to take any risks and there’s a vacuum in leadership.” (Read Transcript of Interview)

Watch Moola’s full interview with News24, below.

The Hidden hands of Markus Jooste

13 December 2017. The analysis of pictures can be fun. Sometimes it can be a silly pass time, sometimes not. I am partial to the semiotics of photographs; the serious part. In theory the semiotics of images – the study of signs and signifying practices in a photograph – refers to any particular thing that is purposefully or unwittingly placed within a frame, and that refers to something else, or that conveys particular messages that were not initially intended by the photographer.

There are several signifying practices which refers to how, as opposed to what, meaning is produced within a photograph. When viewing photographs, or any other image, for that matter, we identify codes (the Star of David is traditionally identified with Judaism, the Crucifix with Christianity, the crescent with Islam and so forth) or we impute codes or meaning into pictures. In this way, we almost re-interpret pictures by reading meaning into them. We do so on the basis of preconceived cultural understandings, biases, or cultural markers, very many of which we may not be aware of consciously. In these ways, meaning is attributed to images on the basis of cultural convention or linguistic preferences, twists and turns.

The following two pictures of Markus Jooste, the former CEO of Steinhoff who is believed to be responsible for the biggest corporate meltdown in South African history, seem easy to read. They are black and brown all over, with the slightest touches of gold (wrist watch) and light reflections off his shirt buttons. His concealed hands draw my attention.

SOUTH AFRICA – August 2008: Markus Jooste, CEO of Steinhoff. (Photo by Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Jeremy Glyn)

SOUTH AFRICA – August 2008: Markus Jooste, CEO of Steinhoff. (Photo by Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Jeremy Glyn)

In both pictures – the main ones that have been used in reports (See here and here) about the meltdown – Jooste is presented in sombre (dark) tones that, on the face of things, purport to reveal very little. But, they speak volumes if you consider the meanings of the dark colours, and of his hidden hand in the one, and concealment of both hands in the other photograph. It is this second reading that is quite startling.

The dark tones in the picture, especially the blacks and deep browns suggest seriousness, masculinity and strength. The range of colours also suggest a consistency or reliability. The painting on the wall tells us that this is deep money that needs no explanation or garish symbols of avarice and ostentation. An art historian may be able to read more into the painting. In these pictures, there is nothing ersatz or nouveau riche about Jooste. But we used to have a saying when I was growing up: “Hy kneip die kat in die donker.” Directly translated, it says he abuses the cat when it’s dark, and nobody can see what he is up to.

Colour symbolism is heavily dependent on context, and can change over time. (This is an easy read on the subject colours across cultures).  Consider, in everyday life, stop signs are red (unless you’re a South African taxi driver, then it means go), green means go (except in South Africa it means wait for the taxi to run through the intersection). Some Muslims have a special affinity for the colour green, and if you believe rabid patriots the colours of their flag “don’t run”. The Christian bible (King James Version) uses colours to tell stories or give meaning. For instance the colour black is often used to refer to sin, death or sorrow.

Generally, yellow or orange is associated with sunshine or brightness; the sky with blue and green with vegetation. Brown, the most prominent tone in the Jooste images, suggest an earthiness, and also seriousness, comfort, material wealth and security. This is a neat combination of being “down-to-earth” – as Jooste has been made out to be – and an acute business mind. A combination of the settled, almost deadpan face, the brown and the hidden hands suggests that Jooste has done it all, seen it all, become stupendously wealthy and has nothing (further) to prove. There is also a “cleanliness” about the pictures, in the sense that it is devoid of anything ostentations; the slight view of a gold-coloured wristwatch is more suggestive than explicit. There are no bright colours in the pictures.

Jooste’s smile is unforced, almost absent, and his face is deadpan. His gaze is however cocksure. While there is little overtly triumphalist about the pictures, Jooste reminds me of the taciturn Big Paulie Cicero, Paul Sorvino’s character in GoodFellas, whose silent stares are, well, quite lethal.

Paulie is always cool and calm. He says very little, but he is a reliable boss. His only demand is that the mob’s code is never broken. Based on what his friends say of him, Jooste was well-loved, highly respected and, well, he made himself and others very wealthy – until he, himself, broke the code. I should probably add that his wrong-doings are all alleged. The pictures would be a fascinating study, more than what I have written, here. The easy part is the monotonous colours (the range is from black to brown) and the hidden hands.

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist explained that a photograph told a story in the same way as a newspaper article. If an object meant something it became a speech. These photographs of Markus Jooste tell the story of a man who was confident, accomplished, reliable and wealthy – but his hidden hands also suggest that he may be hiding something, or that he cannot be trusted. Maybe that is just pop psychology. Or, it may also be part of what social psychologists may refer to as non-verbal behaviour or nonverbal communication.

UPDATED 19:27

Catching up with the news this evening, I found another picture online, in which Jooste hides one of his hands. It appears to be from the same shoot. I took a screengrab from The Times. (Source: https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/business/2017-12-08-what-wikipedia-is-saying-about-markus-jooste-its-not-pretty/)

 

I WILL EDIT AND UPDATE AS NECESSARY.

LONG READ. War, Actually. Yes, Maybe

With United States President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un doing their best emulation of the Collins-Thomson drum-duel – sadly to the beat of war – enduring questions are emerging about war. Will we ever see war again? By this I mean a large-scale war among great powers or large countries with vast militaries? If so, what will it look like? How long will it last? Will it be the type of war that effects global systemic change – as did the Second World War? Will it be a just war? Will it be proportional; we know, for example, that the United States’ war against the Afghan people was disproportional and its legality has been questioned. All of this notwithstanding, and setting aside conflicts that range from Central Africa across the Middle East, in Asia and in South America, most of which can be described as civil wars, or conflict arising from state collapse, violent oppression of minorities or so-called drug wars, will we ever see war (among heavily militarised states) again? Well, yes, but it will not be long and drawn out and spread horizontally (across territories), but probably short and swift – maybe even vertically, should a nuclear device be detonated.

If there is one lesson that can be drawn from history is that war cannot be wished away. The most pacific among us may heed the words attributed to Leon Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ We cannot wish war away.

 

I was reminded of this by poster in the basement of a restaurant/laundromat I recently visited in Reykjavik, The Laundromat which boldly stated that “War is Over: If you want it” – the message that John Lennon and Yoko Ono sent out to the world as a Christmas greeting in 1969. Most people of a certain age and sensibilities may have seen the poster before, or at least recocgnise the slogan. Last month, looking again at the poster in The Laundromat – which is quite possibly my favourite restaurant in Reykjavik – the poster seemed terribly idealistic and romantic. In terms of its layout and presentation, the slogan is also terribly misleading. It avoids philosophical and historical questions. Surely not intentionally, it seems to rely on a belief that nobody really likes war, insinuating that some people may actually like it.  Anyway, in bold letters, the poster carries a simple slogan: “War is Over” and below the line, so to speak, in really small letters, is an almost theatrical chaser: “If you want it.” It has a Nancy Reaganesque, “just say no” ring to it.

A Pico-History of War

Let us deal with the historical matter, first. The sub-headline, above, should make it clear that this is a rather small historical overview. It may not rest easy with most of us but much of the history of the world, to paraphrase the British historian, Michael Howard, on war and the history of Europe, has been ‘hammered out on the anvil of war’. It is as true, of course, that trade across vast stretches of the world served progressive and integrative purposes, and it played a formative role in settlement and nomadism across continents. The end of the feudal period gave rise to greater economic forces in state formation – not all of which avoided large-scale mercenary warfare. It is, nonetheless, not terribly outlandish to make the claim, also, that there are very few modern states, at least not since the Westphalian Peace, that have avoided war or any kind of conflict at the time of their formation. In the now famous words of Charles Tilly, “war made the state and the state made war”. Personally, I would like to believe that humans have an inherent drive towards collaboration and co-operation. I should not be trusted with predictions, though.

For instance, one of my greatest miscalculations (about war) came while sitting in the bar of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in January 1991. A reporter from the US asked me if I thought that his country would go to war. Filled with romantic idealism, and a fair amount of that other stuff, I said: ‘No!’ I explained that the Cold War had ended, and that peace was breaking out around the world. (I really said that) I went to bed at around midnight, and was awoken by the ring of a telephone a couple of hours later, in the very early hours of 17 January, and told that the US had pulled the trigger against Iraq…. So much for my own idealism, then.

War is what we do, as humans

I can say with some confidence then, that I don’t believe that we have seen the end of war. It is, in some ways quite central to human organisation and reorganisation of society, and therefore, part of our evolution, of our inheritance and our cultures – notwithstanding how diverse cultures may be across time and place. It is too simple, according to my favourite former professor, Christopher Coker, to see war as completely right or wrong, and as the opposite of peace. I agree. War is as much a part of who we are as peace, and we cannot simply wish it away. What has changed over the centuries, is the way we have fought wars, and the changing ethos (and ethics) of war. This much is apparent in our cultures, very many of which have evolved through war and shaped our humanity – or lack thereof. To be sure, a survivor of the Holocaust or the genocides of Rwanda and Srebrenica, may have a different view of war than the young women and men who enlist to fight wars in foreign lands for some idea or another idea planted in their minds by politicians.

One of the most important books I prescribed to students was Chris Hedges’ book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Somewhere on one of its pages, Hedges wrote: ‘The enduring attraction of war is that even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.’

In Hedges’ view war is a deadly addiction, an unmatchable intoxication and a thrill that frees us from the boredom and sameness of everyday life and becomes a unifying force that provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and self-sacrifice. This meaningfulness is part of the myth that has been created around war; it remains, nonetheless, the basest form of aggression. War he explained is ‘organised murder’. It is what we do, and it has become part of our culture.

In his research Coker (who is, in my view, the pre-eminent scholar of the history of war and warfare) covers war and the warriors that wage war from ancient Greece to the Iraq War. He drew particular attention to culture; to the way war has influenced culture and culture has influenced war and the “warriors” who fight wars. Evolution, at the level of human culture, has been driven by war, and war, he explained, in great detail and supported by masses of evidence, that war itself has evolved with humanity. Culture and war, he postulated, shared a fertile relationship, where war inspires art and art in turn can inspire the warrior mentality. Coker draws attention to the way that popular culture, such as films or computer games, evidence the enduring presence of the warrior mentality. The same may be said, of course, about technology and geopolitics in that war may, someday, be fought by robots (a natural extension of today’s ‘drones’) and the geography of war may be changing – soldiers can drop bombs using drones from a computer thousands of miles away – but war itself remains. I am partial to Coker’s summation that we are rapidly approaching a period of post-human technology in warfare where ‘warrior geeks’ represent the ultimate amorality of a dystopian war. In such a war things like courage, cowardice, patriotism, or even pacifism will lose meaning. We will be faced with casual death, a rather boring sort war that is played out on a screen in a non-descript building anywhere in the word. Far from where drones drop their deadly bombs. In historico-normative terms, then (looking at the history of war as a means to learn how we may avoid it in the future), there is little to suggest that war is, actually, over.

Back to the Future

So what next, then? As I write, we have on the one hand, Kim Jong-Un who has promised to deliver ‘an unimaginable sea of fire’ on the United States mainland. Donald Trump first said a North Korean attack would be met by ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’. Then, of course, Trump told the United Nations General Assembly that the US would ‘totally destroy’ North Korea. We have reached a point, then, where the hawks, especially those in the US, believe that war between the two countries is, now, inevitable. We should probably not forget that there are people who think war can be a good thing, or necessary or useful. Anyway, the current climate is all too reminiscent of 1914, when Europe ‘slithered into war’, of which Ian Kershaw, in his masterful work, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 – 1949, wrote ‘for all the genuine hopes of most decision-makers that a general conflagration could be avoided, for all the confusion, hesitation prophecies of doom and last-minute cold feet… the will for war outweighed the desire for peace’.

To the extent that predictions can or should be taken seriously, if a war between the US and North Korea does break out it will be a short, bloody and very destructive war with masses of displaced people. It would be messy, geo-politically, in the sense that China and probably Japan, and most definitely South Korea would be drawn into the conflict. Domestically the peninsula’s divisions appear to be two-sided – and so it may well be. Internationally, is six-sided, between two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia

If Washington does decide to attack Pyongyang, the physical destruction will be enormous, and probably be directed at taking out North Korea’s strategic resources. This would include, specifically, communications and transportation networks, and zoom in on removing Kim Jung-Un and his closest circle. I will venture a wild guess and say that we may get to see a remake of the rather dramatic opening of the palatial residence of Victor Yanukovych, when the Ukrainian leader was overthrown in 2014. We saw similar revelations when Nicolas Ceausescu and Saddam Hussein were overthrown.  We should make no bones about the fact that any war against North Korea will be to remove Kim Jong-Un, as a first order priority, second to neutralise his nuclear capabilities and ultimately to re-unite the peninsula.

This is the only possible glimmer of good news that may come from such a war. Now, on paper, that (re) unification may seem as straight-forward and progressive as the reunification of Germany was a generation ago. Unfortunately, though, political economic and geostrategic transformations are easier to explain on paper than they are to effect on the ground. The social, cultural and customary difference between the two societies may be vast. North and South Korea have several things in common, not all of which are pleasant. The peninsula has for very many decades been a pawn of great powers. The end of nineteenth century was a particularly period for Korea, when it was a battlefield for the Sino-Japanese War, and then the Russo-Japanese War. At the start of the twentieth century, the Koreans people fell under Japanese colonial rule, and almost half a century later, at the end of World War Two, Koreans were liberated from Japanese rule only to be divided and occupied by either the US or Soviet Army.

Hope for re-unification rose after the historic summit of South and North Korean leaders in June 2000. The Japanese and North Korean foreign ministers met in October 2000 in Beijing. In the following year, the leaders of powerful countries were busy exchanging visits with their counterparts in the North and South Korea. President Vladimir Putin of Russia visited to South Korea in February. Seoul received another official visit from former Chinese Premier Lipung in March. Also in March, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met President Bush in Washington. In April North Korean leader Kim Jung-il paid visited Russia. A lot has happened between then and now; enter Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, and the threat of war.

The beating of war drums between the two countries may go silent, but they will most likely be replaced by the sounds of war. Try as we might, we can’t wish war away.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Exhibit comes to an end.

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By Ismail Lagardien

This is an old pic, taken two years ago by Gaia Manco. I am placing it online for two reasons; because the exhibit – Between States of Emergency which ‘honours photographers who risked their lives and freedom to expose the brutality of apartheid in the late 1980s’, has come to an end after traveling the country for two years. I am honoured that some of my work was part of this exhibition by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The other reasons is, well, not for public discussion, suffice to say that nothing can take away or detract from the sacrifices that we made during those desperately dark days.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu generously described our work in the following screen grab from the exhibit’s brochure.

When the exhibition came to Port Elizabeth, I gave a talk at its official opening. Follow THIS LINK for an edited version of my talk.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY: On the phone

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By Ismail Lagardien

It never ceases to amaze me what one can do with a cellular phone. I found these three frames in an ‘old’ file – old is relative in the digital photography age – and was reminded of how easy, how simple, and how terribly nostalgic I am for my D/SLR sometimes. The pictures, below, were made with a Samsung phone in 2013. I should search for better quality pics on one of my storage drives.

 

This was taken in a cinema before the film screening started. The quality is poor in this frame, but I suspect there is a better quality frame somewhere on one of my drives.

This was a random shot I made in one of the corridors of my office.

This was taken after the end of the film screening I referred to in the first picture. While the credits were rolling, I stood to stretch my legs and back, looked back, saw this and made the shot.