Brief Discussion on the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture

Selfie hiding behind the mike in Cape Talk’s Greenpoint Studio

I was guest host of a two hour slot on Cape Talk on Tuesday night. This is a clip of a discussion with the insightful Dr Ivor Sarakinsky of the Wits School of Governance. I dragged Ivor from a well-deserved vacation to talk to me.

In discussion with Dr Ivor Sarakinsky on the Zondo Commission.

Die dood hang in die lug op die Kaapse Vlakte, maar gee iemand om?

WOENSDAG het ek vriende en familie besoek op die Kaapse Vlakte: van Athlone tot Manenberg, Mitchells Plain tot Delft. Die geluide van die Flats, die gekreun van verbrandingsenjins, die gekraak van eenvoudige skuilings, die skynbaar misplaaste geskreeu van ’n seevoël, die onophoudelike toetgeluide van taxi’s, die reuk van kos, en op plekke die dampe van imbawula, ou verfdromme met gate waarin daar vuur gemaak word om te kook … (Lees Verder)

Call me coloured. It’s easier.

Picture by Kim Gurney

I have been following Afua Hirsch’s explorations into her family origins – on her mother’s side – after reading her book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. (Read a review, here) While I enjoyed the book, and admired Hirsch’s courage, there was little in the book that was surprising or revealing – at least not to me. The specificities of her life in London were interesting, but again, my own experiences in London – mainly North London, I should add – meant that much of what she wrote about was at least familiar. I attended the London School of Economics twice and spent much of the 1990s in London.

The parts of Brit(ish) I found most intriguing, as well as insightful and educational, were the explorations of her African heritage – in West Africa. I wrote a lengthy review of the book which was truncated and published in Business Day. This is a link to the review. The stand-out parts of the final review ran by Business Day were the following passages:

There is some truth in the claim that all politics is identity politics. It is also true, however, that across history, the most unjust political systems — such as apartheid or the Holocaust — and the contemporary persecution of the Roma in Italy and the Rohingya in Myanmar, started with identifying “others”, and then dividing or destroying people, families, and communities on that basis.

As an account of a Londoner, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging provides great insights into Hirsch’s life and times, woven superbly into history and society. To anyone who has felt the full force of oppressive systems driven by racial exclusion, she offers little new or original. Others may get insights into the 2011 riots in Tottenham, and the Boy Scouts.

The search for identity or origins can be harmless, but approached with romantic idealism it can be somewhat ignoble, tending to go in search of differences, purity and nativism, and when none can be found traditions are invented.(Source)

I should not traduce the work Hirsch put into the book, nor its messages, but I felt that the parts about her life in Britain did not improve or enhance what I already knew about London, or about identity politics. Let me say, at the outset, that I have always found identity politics most loathsome. It was the basis of apartheid’s segregation, and of the Nazi’s persecution and murder of millions of Jews, gays, Roma and communists. 

And so, as a person of mixed race, mixed heritage, “of colour”, “coloured” (there have been so many attempts at classifying me and people like me – it becomes tiresome) who grew up in apartheid’s “coloured” community, and associating myself with the black consciousness movement against an oppressive system, it stands to reason that much of what Hirsch wrote was familiar. What did stand out was the African lineage that she traced. It piqued my interests. 

After reading Hirsch’s book, I started watching Henry Louise Gates’ series, Finding Your Roots, in which he used genetic and genealogical research to trace the family heritage and origins of people in the US. While the entire series is fascinating (and not without controversy) I was especially interested in African American stories – although the others were very insightful, too, especially those white family stories that included slave ownership. Like most people, maybe with some justification, I always assumed that all white people in the US could trace their full genetic background back to Europe, with colourful touches from the Middle East or North Africa. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the story of Harry Connick Jr (and Brandford Marsalis) two of my favourite musicians

The African-American story is interesting for many reasons. My first encounter with the idea of “African American” was probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Given how divisive South African politics was, and how we (in the black consciousness movement) sought to do away with the multiplicity of racial categories that the apartheid system established, I had difficulty accepting how people could take pride in calling themselves “African American” or “Italian American” or “Irish American”. I was terribly naïve. What I learned, quite early on, was that because of slavery, most black people of African descent did not know where in Africa their forebears came from. This was the nature of slavery it reduced all African slaves to docile bodies without individual identities – other than being a slave with a name given by their owners. There are some homologies with the slavery story in South Africa, as those of us who are descendent of slaves know only that they were brought from South East Asia (possibly what is now Malaysia and Indonesia)

I enjoyed the episode of CNN journalist, Don Lemon’s, family background, especially the difficulties his family faced during the Jim Crow era. It is also so similar to what we experienced under apartheid. Read a couple of articles by Lemon here and here. As part of the Finding Your Roots episode, Lemon travelled to a slave dungeon in Ghana. Watch the clip, below, for a sense of the retraumatisation Lemon and his mother experienced when they visited the West Coast of Africa.

The big take away for me, though, was just how little I knew about the facts of my own family background, other than the stories we heard from family and friends. The facts have always been sparse. It also does not help that there is a lot of revision underway in South Africa, and that people who are dismissed as “non-Africans” are sometimes treated as alien. Only the most ideologically blinkered – mainly those loyal to the ruling alliance’s public relations statements about “non-racialism” – tend to be duped into accepting that all is well in South Africa, and that we can all hold hands and dance in circles singing kumbaya. What is poorly understood (and expediency dismissed) is the history of the slaves – mainly from the Nusantaran world – who were brought to South Africa by colonial powers from about 1652.

I should add that there have been some outstanding academic work, most notably What is slavery to me? by Pumla Dineo Gqola, which is described by the publisher as:

“the first full-length study of slave memory in the South African context, and examines the relevance and effects of slave memory for contemporary negotiations of South African gendered and racialised identities. It draws from feminist, postcolonial and memory studies and is therefore interdisciplinary in approach. It reads memory as one way of processing this past, and interprets a variety of cultural, literary and filmic texts to ascertain the particular experiences in relation to slave pasts being fashioned, processed and disseminated.”

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book is exceptional, but does not help me, or any other person of Malay heritage (those of us who are not scholars and academics) understand our history and origins. And so, out of curiosity, I have begun to explore my family heritage.

Actually, let me take a step back a couple of years. In about 2011, after more than a decade of roaming around the world, I returned to South Africa, and was confronted by new waves of identity politics. It was bizarre. I (naively) thought we had abandoned all the racial classification systems of the apartheid state, but no. I had to declare my racial classification “coloured” and was now relegated, once again, to second class citizenship. While I understand some of the thinking, it is difficult to accept, as some scholars have observed, that there was a time when we, coloured people, were not white enough and now we are not black enough. I avoided that topic.

I noticed, however, the swelling of racial and ethnic pride that had crept into South African society. A notable point was on Heritage Day, 2012, when a Jewish friend, a Xhosa friend and another (white person of British descent) asked me what was doing. I said I would spend the day sleeping or reading…. A conversation ensued about Jewish and Xhosa heritage, and I dug up some old stories about my Malay ancestors, the earliest ones who were brought to South Africa as slaves. But, I said, I had no family gathering to attend as I had distanced myself, for most of my adult life from racial, ethnic or religious identities. I used a descriptor of Edward Said, and referred to myself as a non-identitarian humanist.

The penny dropped, that year, when, as so many times over the past two or three decades, someone asked me where I was from. When I was in Europe, the Americas or Asia, I would say South Africa, and they would ask, but where are your family from (stunned, always, by my green eyes and fair skin), I would say South Africa, and the question would be rephrased any number of ways… The point was that I looked white, had an Arabic name, and declared that I was not European. That confused everyone. In South Africa, too, questions were asked during every talk I gave, as part of my job, whether I was white or coloured.

Then, in January this year, one of the students in the Public Economics course I taught at the Wits School of Governance, approached me and asked, apologetically: “Professor,” she said, “I am not trying to be rude, but where are you from?”

I have had an answer to that question filed away for years. The student was from Zambia. She was intrigued that I looked white, spoke a little isiXhosa, and behaved differently. I am coloured, I said. And in that way, I bought into a coloured identity – again – as a way to kill the conversation. Saying that I was born into a family who traced their origins to the Malay slaves that were brought to South Africa more than 300 years ago, and that there was (quite obviously) a European in the family somewhere – hence my green eyes and pale skin – that the apartheid state and the democratic state had classified me as a second-class citizen, was a mouthful.

And so, I said, call me coloured. It’s just easier

Until next time. When I will write about my genetic and genealogical background; that which I know for sure, and that which relies on myth, legend, fables and fantasies before I dig deeper for some scientific and actual genealogical and historical evidence in the coming months.

Would Barney Pityana, former head of the Human Rights Commission, have voted for Nazi Youth?

South African society bears the most burdensome legacy of its racist and often totalitarian past. While it is easy to reference that past, and reflect on what seems to be a collective neurosis of our time, there is a powerful undercurrent that threatens to rip the country apart. More correctly, there are powerful social forces that threaten “outsiders” – people whom African nationalists, chauvinists and neo-puritans (those who would insist that non-African blood is poisonous) – with pogroms, erasure and possibly expulsion from the country. 

Two things about these forces stand out. The one is the permissibility of “revenge,” based on past suffering, and now couched in terms of restorative justice and rolling back the iniquities of the past. The other is that the threats are concealed beneath what have become quite tiresome rhetoric and discourse of “non-racialism” democracy or constitutionalism.

These are strong claims, but members and leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), its allies (as well as cadres they have deployed across institutions) have repeatedly showed some of the worst, most violent and often quite dangerous tendencies and traits – then hastily covered them up with platitudes. One key to their thinking is probably the way they have retained the apartheid state’s population registration laws, which established a sliding scale of privilege and justice, based on racial hierarchies in democratic South Africa. What this means is that if you’re non-African (or you have not fought with the ruling ANC in the struggle against apartheid) you cannot enjoy freedom and justice – or you qualify for lesser quantities of justice and freedom. Some leading figures in the ANC alliance are less subtle in their endorsement of the worst kind of dangers and threats to society.

Barney Pityana’s Endorsement of the EFF

There was a most horripilating revelation in an article written by the founding chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Dr Barney Pityana, who said that he had previously voted for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the crypto-fascist and totalitarian movement that has led the threats of violence against non-Africans, and that has come to represent the politics of revengein democratic South Africa. The cynosure of those forces in South Africa that are committed to erasure, pogroms and explusion on non-Africans.

The expulsion of non-Africans will probably remain undesirable, so to speak, because the biblical politics of revenge (where the children have to be punished for the sins of the father) would insist that non-Africans remain in the country, so that they may be punished and suffer the way that Africans have suffered. The most public expressions of this politics of revenge are from among the leadership of the EFF – most notably Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu – who have expressed their loathing of non-Africans, non-African ideas, and revealed their own crypto-fascism and totalitarianism in the subtlest and most insidious of ways. They have on various occasions referred to “white bitches” to Indian people as “dogs” (Malema specifically referred to Pravin Gordhan, as “a rotten fruit from a rotten tree”) or “sell-outs” and threatened non-Africans in the most blood-chilling manner. This is the political formation that Barney Pityana, founding chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, voted for. It probably makes sense that the Human Rights Commission has ignored most of the EFF and Malema’s rhetoric and threats.

Picture available publicly – online.

Whereas the EFF are quite overt in their propaganda, Pityana has shown that there are members of the ruling elite who live vicariously through the words of Malema, Shivambu and Mpofu. Also, the ANC and its allies have in recent weeks romanced Malema, and urged him to return to the ANC where they would have us believe he belonged. This is the context in which Pityana’s vote for the EFF may be viewed. 

Picture available publicly – online.

In subtle and overt ways, the most senior members of the EFF have threatened political opponents, journalists and public figures with violence and bloodshed, while politicians, police, prosecuting authorities and even politically independent bodies like the South African Human Rights Commissionhave remained petrified. The Human Rights Commission was established under the Human Rights Commission Act 54 of 1994, as provided for by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 200 of 1993.  The SAHR describes itself as “the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour,” but has failed or refused to address Malema’s rhetoric of violence and carefully phrased threats of bloodshed. 

In an opinion-piece published a week before the country’s sixth democratic election, Pityana admitted to having previously voted for the EFF, because he believed that they “brought dynamism and chutzpah to our national politics and I admired young people who believed passionately in what they were doing. For that [the] EFF had my vote,” Pityana said

Picture available publicly – online.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) present the clearest and most ominous of dangers to South African society. In any constitutional democracy, the EFF’s policies, expressed by their leader, Julius Malema, in chilling language, rhetoric and vulgarity, and reminiscent of the worst dictators of the past 100 years, should drive their politics to outer periphery of discourse. When one compares the similarities of propaganda and populist recruitment of Malema and Adolf Hitler, it becomes clear that the EFF pose a unique and very violent threat to South African society.

A combination of bravado, patriotism, sanctimony, notions of racial superiority and hatred of “others” Hitler’s Nazi youth believed that “the future belonged” to them. Similar tendencies are found among rank and file EFF members

The question now, is this: Would Barney Pityana Have Voted for Nazi Youth because they brought “dynamism and chutzpah” (bad choice of words on his part) to German Politics in the 1930s?

In the same way that EFF members have danced to the rhetoric and exhortations of Malema, “the quality of singing [by Nazi youth] during propaganda marches” was praised. In the same way that Malema has attracted dynamic young people, the Nazis capitalised on the natural enthusiasm of young people, their craving for action”

This, the reader may recognise is not terribly dissimilar to Pityana’s statement that the EFF brought dynamism to South Africa’s national politics. From the 1920s the Nazi Party specifically targeted German youth as a special audience for its propaganda. “These messages emphasized that the Party was a movement of youth: dynamic, resilient, forward-looking, and hopeful.” 

A memorial stone for Betty Bernstein who was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Picture by Ismail Lagardien

Hitler, like Malema and the EFF, “projected purpose and dynamism”. Hitler “issued an endless stream of slogans to win potential supporters over”  and promised to give Germans jobs, revive the country’s industries rusting industries crushed by earlier policies and promised to crush the alien ideologies. The German historian and journalist Volker Ullrich historian explained how Hitler used “used vulgar comparisons” during speeches. Consider any of the crude insults and slogans Malema has used against political opponents, journalists and inividuals, and you get a sense of the danger he represents to society.

Perhaps Pityana and Malema’s ANC paramours should take time to reflect on the parallels between Hitler’s mobilisation of disaffected young people, and the EFF leaders insults of opposing politicians, journalists and people who disagreed with him, in general. Recall that he told a political opponent, quite recently, that he would place two necklaces around him.

The question, again, is would Pityana have voted for the Nazi youth because they brought “dynamism and chutzpah” to German national politics in the 1920s, and because the “believed passionately in what they were doing”? These were the words Pityana used to explain why he voted for the EFF. We should remind ourselves that in May 1928, Hitler was a political nobody. The Nazis gained less than 3 percent of the vote in national elections. Within four or five years – by July 1932 – they won 37 percent of the vote, and six months later, Hitler was in power. We know what happened next. 

South Africa is on the cusp of very significant historical changes. The single most dangerous political formation is the EFF. And Barney Pityana, the founding chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, voted for them. Like most ANC leaders, Pityana probably does not care what anyone thinks. It’s their time to eat, and the time for non-Africans to suffer for the sins of their fathers – or whatever else they use to justify the creeping fascism, apparent cruelty and blood-chilling threats of violence. Barney Pityana voted for them.

Reading the Image: 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. The semiotics is 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, (when no-one 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.


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:


Politics: Sideshows & The Last Man Standing

13 June 2017 It’s always amusing when the people who got us into trouble assure us they can get us out of trouble. It’s amusing, also, when they tell the poor that things will get better, someday, and always they speak with full bellies. Bertolt Brecht explained that a lot more eloquently.

Before us, now, we have a Cabinet Minister, Malusi Gigaba, freshly risen from the gaudy comforts that surround him, telling us, the great unwashed, the toothless peons, the lickspittles and sycophants, all of us, that things will get better. If only we ignored the putrid stench of corruption, cronyism, prebendialism, avarice, greed, the sounds of crying, chests clogged with smoke along the Southern Cape, wells and dams that have run dry, and the never-ending ricochet of  shots fired in the fields of Marikana. These, he tells us, are “sideshows”. What is important, ah so conveniently the truth can be sometimes, is getting the economy working again. Of course, he is right, but it is he, and his party loyalists, who got us to where we are. Mr Brecht gave us insights into this.

The echoes of that other, “sideshow” are powerful; the truth about Washington’s secret and illegal war against the people of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973. Those other odious fellows, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, treated Cambodia as a sideshow. They claimed that secretly bombing people in Cambodia was necessary, and tried to deflect the truth: that the bombings spread the conflict, and led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent massacre of a third of Cambodia’s population.

In a review of Kissinger’s White House Years, William Berman cut close the bone.

“This obsessively detailed, shrewdly propagandistic, maliciously discerning, and artfully self-serving work is surely a most important contribution to the historical literature of our time. … the man’s vulgarity and amorality … remind us, again, of the obscene role he played in the early seventies in promoting fresh disasters in Indochina, Chile, and South Asia.”

Like the old dog Kissinger, when Gigaba speaks, I quiver. I laugh, also, sardonically, whenever he speaks. The minister is a bespoke-tailored fellow. He will have nothing to do with that standardised and quite tasteless clothes of utopian inelegance; that prozodezhda is not his style. Clothes are not for wearing, it is for making ideological statements.

Some people rise to the task before them, others remain in its shade, and quite unable, themselves, to cast a shadow. There are a few marvellous passages from The Fool, by Gilbert Chesterton, that really sums up the fellow, Gigaba.

“For many years I had sought him, and at last I found him in a club. I had been told that he was everywhere; but I had almost begun to think that he was nowhere. I had been assured that there were millions of him; but before my late discovery I inclined to think that there were none of him. After my late discovery I am sure that there is one; and I incline to think that there are several, say, a few hundreds; but unfortunately most of them occupying important positions. When I say “him,” I mean the entire idiot…

He was very well dressed… his clothes suggested the City and his gray moustaches the Army; but the whole suggested that he did not really belong to either, but was one of those who dabble in shares and who play at soldiers. There was some third element about him that was neither mercantile nor military. His manners were a shade too gentlemanly to be quite those of a gentleman.”

Where, you might ask, does all the wisdom come from? Surely that which he spews is mere frippery. It is, at best, lexical legerdemain; he knows how to arrange words cutely. Like a swaddling infant he speaks in sentences that only he can understand. He is like those among us who can recite passages of script in Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic, but really have no idea what we are saying. We know, only that we are the voice of our god. Gigaba is unimaginative, unoriginal, uncreative, and complete in his mediocrity.

Everywhere he goes there is that “powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity” and “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!” Big Daddy Pollitt reminded us, in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Mr Gigaba, alas, he is the counter-point of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the one who is willing to risk everything for the enhancement of humanity. He is, in some way, Nietzsche’s “last man”, whose sole desire is to increase his own comfort and is quite incapable of creating anything beyond what he wants for himself. (Donald Trump is probably the best exemplar)

The only value of his life is his own value, projected, as Mr Chesterton said, a bit too gentlemanly to be a gentleman. Nietzsche’s last man is incapable of shame, he is the shame. Like a camel, he cannot see the hump on his own back. The sideshows tell us more than the main attraction, to which our attentions are forced.