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.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Exhibit comes to an end.

Image

 

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.

 

POLITICS: Sideshows and The Last Man Standing

By Ismail Lagardien

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 plush comforts that surround him and 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 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.

 

The Cruelty of Deliberate Forgetting

I gave a talk at the opening of a photo exhibition on 21 April 2017.

The 1980s — represented in the exhibition Between States of Emergency: Photographers in Action 1985-1990 — were a time when the country was terribly divided. The majority of the population looked at the state with fear and anxiety — our faces pinned to the ground by a military jackboot. These photographs remind us of those desperate times. The economy had all but collapsed. The government was in disarray. The ruling elite was fractured.

There were protests around the country, and the military and police had invaded the townships and our homes. There is cold comfort in the observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

So, yes, more than 30 years ago I photographed death and dying during that dark and brutal period of successive states of emergency between 1985 and 1990. I should not be disingenuous and add hastily that I was an average reporter and a rubbish photographer. (Read further)

 

Ethical lapses cannot be allowed to become normalised

By Ismail Lagardien

There can be no justice in revenge, malice or in the willful manipulation of legal systems. Ethical lapses cannot be allowed to become normalised, especially not in the education system, on the basis that bodies of knowledge are the preserve of one group and that access to these bodies of knowledge has to be policed (Read Further)

What the Image Says: Joy and Laughter

 

By Ismail Lagardien

This picture appeared on page 3 of the Voices and Careers section of today’s City Press (5 March 2017). The picture is of the looting that was part of the xenophobic violence against non-South African businesses in places around the country.

Reading the Image. The picture is of two people, laughing with joy for the booty they looted, apparently from a local shop. The picture shows no anger, no rage and no violence. It shows only what seems like joy and laughter. It demonstrates, in the least, the value of a caption.

 

Buried in a Bleak Place

There is a stark loneliness about this small cemetery on the side of the Prince Albert Road in the Karoo, Western Cape. It is a bleak, arid, sometimes sad place. I often wonder what it is that take settlers to some of the most desolate places in the world. The setting for this cemetery is bleak. Then again, cemeteries often are, they are, at least, when the flowers die.