On Monday, The Times published my story about a somewhat famous house in Johannesburg where Mohandas Gandhi once lived (the accompanying video can be viewed here). The owner of the house, Nancy Ball, has been struggling to find a buyer with an interest in preserving the house’s historical legacy.

Hidden away on a quiet street in Orchards, north of central Johannesburg, the house was designed by Gandhi confidant, architect Hermann Kallenbach.Its distinct thatched roofs and rondavel style give the house its informal name “The Kraal”.

Gandhi lived at the house with Kallenbach for three years, beginning in 1908.

Ball told The Times: “He left a lot of his peace here. It’s a very special place.”

She tried to find a way of selling the house to someone with a historical interest in the property and enlisted Stephen Gelb, founding director of the Centre of Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, on a voluntary basis, to try to find a suitable buyer.

Gelb tried to solicit the interest of prominent Indians in South Africa and even explored the possibility of Wits acquiring the property for use as a residence for visiting professors.

Little interest among the Indian community has surfaced, and Wits was similarly uninterested, Gelb said.

The story has been picked up by a number of international news sources, including BBC, and a number of Indian newspapers. But one Indian article, in the Deccan Times, caught me by surprise with its aggressive slant to the story.

Invoking Gandhi’s name to earn a fast buck does not seem to have worked wonders.

Unlike the London auction, there aren’t much takers for the house, where the icon of non-violence began his experiments with Satyagraha. Even the Indian-origin community members have shown scant interest in buying the property.

Based on the inquiries I myself have received, in addition to what I’ve heard from the other relevant parties, there’s been a great upsurge in interest since the article’s publication. Somehow, I think such “wonders” could still be forthcoming. To be continued…

Quick quiz question: 2006, 2008, 2009 — What do these three years have in common in South Africa?

These were years when the public at-large, the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the media, the establishment, or whatever else you might call it, started paying attention, if momentarily to poor people. In those three years major instances of often violent protests erupted in townships and slums throughout the country.

Unfortunately for poor people, and for the greater understanding of everyone involved, the reasons for these demonstrations have often gotten lost in a fiery haze. In 2008, the protests took the form of xenophobic attacks on foreign-born store owners and other migrants living in South Africa.

Such violence was clearly reprehensible. It also gave middle classes an excuse to ignore the valid frustrations of poor people whose frustrations boiled over in a particularly disgusting way. Instead of being ashamed in its complicity with a system that deprives the poor, toiling in sewage-ridden, shack-filled, unsafe and unfit slums, the middle class could rest on its outraged high horse. How dare South Africans attack others simply for not being South African?

Such sentiments are all well and good, but they also smack of willful ignorance. The violence in places like Alexandra last year was not fundamentally about hatred of foreigners. The acts of hatred were symptomatic of a greater frustration with the lack of progress in many townships. Based on my interviews with a number of shack-dwelling residents of Alex over the past four months (and I will grant the limits of this kind of anecdotal evidence), a discussion of foreigners is always accompanied by the larger issue of the general state of living in the township. “How can all these foreigners come here when things are already so out of control?” “We can’t get any jobs. Why can they get jobs?”

The frustration is not so much with foreigners, as the overall state of living. So witness the protests in Thokoza and Balfour this past week as the latest example of protests that appear to have hit closer to the mark in terms of public perception. This, despite worrying instances of xenophobic attacks attached to the demonstrations. “Service delivery” is once again the name of the game.

I interviewed Udesh Pillay, an expert on “service delivery” at the Human Sciences Research Council. He points out that the ongoing protests have their roots not in xenophobia, but in the more fundamental struggle for human dignity in the 1980s against apartheid. Many of the protests of this time focused on specific issues like rent prices and utility services, while aiming to “render ungovernable” townships throughout the country.

In the case of apartheid, the government could not respond because it was born of a system that was inherently illegitimate. Now, the government has been elected through legitimate means, but does not have the structures that will allow for constructive engagement with communities. Democracy does not end with elections. Community engagement with elected officials is the real nuts and bolts of democracy, a way for the will of the people to be heard and developed in the public sphere.

“Service delivery,” Pillay told me, is then a stand-in phrase for the greater lack of accountability that currently exists in slum governance. I would argue that it is this lack of accountability that is totally anathema to the middle-class-driven public debate on this issue. The assumption is much more cynical, and anti-democratic. They elected Zuma and the ANC. This is what they get. Why are they so violent and xenophobic? Why are their leaders so incompetent?

In order to move forward, such questions need to be replaced by those informed by a more democratic point of view. How can communities engage consistently and constructively with local government? This is an issue that has never been practiced well in South Africa. The apartheid government enacted policies concerning the overwhelmingly black poor without consultation, and in the democratic era little has changed in many townships.

Currently up for debate is why the government is not implementing their policies properly. Instead the questions need to be about how the policies are developed in the first place. The likelihood of proper implementation would then be much closer behind.

From the global to the local, in no particular order…

  • For those who can read a bit of French, Radio France Internationale’s round-up of West African media reaction to the death of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo is fascinating. (I also have a piece in The Times that includes interviews with a couple of SA-based analysts about Gabon’s post-Bongo future.)
  • Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr writes in The Guardian about his recently settled case against Shell Oil in Nigeria.
  • Chris Blattman has a much friendlier take on Douglas Foster’s Zuma piece than I did a couple weeks ago.
  • Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch takes on the Philly news establishment, and has some wise, if unkind words that are applicable to all newspapers in this day and age. Newspapers should focus on “forging new connections with the communities, more open to citizen journalists and forging ties with local bloggers, rethinking the whole purpose of print.” Philadelphia is a city with a vibrant online, informal, citizen journalist / blogger scene. On the other hand, the ineptitude of the print newspaper situation killed the notion of the viability of daily print-based newspapers in my mind. My current attitude towards the medium? Fun and a highly enjoyable throwback, but ultimately near-useless.
  • And, for fun, what the hell is happening to the hangouts of my youth?!?!

I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m beginning to feel like some market research out there shows South African magazine operators that putting a picture of Jacob Zuma on the cover of your magazine will sell more copies.

If not, could someone then please explain what he’s doing on the cover of this week’s Financial Mail flanked by the blaring headline, “How long can Zuma last?” Jeez. The man’s only had two weeks worth of his presidential rooibos tea and he’s already a lame duck?

Needless to say, I was both curious and, admittedly, skeptical as to what this could all mean. Were there secret rumblings of the party preparing to take him out a la Mbeki? Is he ill? Is Baleka Mbete so pissed that she didn’t get the deputy presidency that she’s now decided to upstage Msholozi in a fashion coup? It’s colorful dresses and headgear versus designer suits … my more outlandish instincts give the battle to Mbete, but, as court cases go so do more sartorial struggles. Zuma: siyanqoba!

Actually, it turns out that there are no rumors of anything. Merely writer Ken Owen surmising from far-off France about how the ANC’s internal deliberations in Luthuli House are opaque. The rest of the article and the accompanying features by other writers don’t deal with these non-existent rumors at all (maybe because they are, in fact, non-existent) and veer towards the FM’s forte. Exceptionally strong analysis of the problems facing policy makers, and policy proposals that tend towards a hard-line liberalism (in the economic sense) only slightly tempered by the generally left orientation of South Africa (when ruling party rallies are punctuated by renditions of, “My father was a garden boy, my mother was a kitchen girl, that’s why I’m a communist,” you know you’re not in Kansas anymore).

There’s been a bit of a talk of the lack of honeymoon for Zuma. Witness DA leader Helen Zille’s ridiculous attacks (followed by the ANC Youth League’s perhaps even more absurd retorts), and the hysterical naysaying by some financial commentators over the weekend on the Vodacom / ICASA / COSATU near-debacle. Still, this FM cover almost takes the cake. Especially given that the accompanying article doesn’t justify the cover’s implications at all.

In fact, this is a perfect example of why not to use question marks in headlines. Here are some examples. Is Barack Obama a Muslim? No. Is Julius Malema just Hendrik Verwoerd back from the dead? Uh … no. How long will it take for Schabir Shaik to die? How long can Zuma last? I wouldn’t be surprised if the former’s death were not so imminent, and I also have no doubt that South Africa’s comeback kid will be sipping his pleasantly bitter presidential tea much longer than this kind of premature naysaying might imply.

I don’t want to make a habit of criticizing every foreign report about South Africa that gets something wrong, but an occasional missive in the subject area seems reasonable, no? There are some overused, unuseful tropes that Westerners use in their reports on almost anywhere in Africa. Douglas Foster’s profile of Jacob Zuma in the new issue of The Atlantic trucks in a few of these.

On the whole, the piece does a better job than many of explaining Zuma’s backstory, as well as some of the political machinations of the ANC that led to Zuma’s rise. I do think that in terms of this political intrigue he does readers a disservice by treading lightly on Thabo Mbeki’s role in much of the controversy that has surrounded Zuma. For instance, in Foster’s depiction, Mbeki avoided a constitutional crisis by accepting the ANC’s decision to recall him from the presidency. Mbeki created the potential for a different kind of institutional, if not constitutional crisis, by standing for the party’s presidency to begin with (let alone his clear political meddling in the pursuit of the corruption case against Zuma).

What struck me beyond the political analysis contained within the piece, which generally toes the Western “what does it mean for business? / who is this uncouth singing, dancing, tribal polygamist?” line, is his insistence on physical description as a substitute for hard analysis about this highly compelling political figure. Take for instance this second introductory paragraph:

Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions.

Okay, maybe a little physical description is helpful. I don’t have the print edition, but maybe there wasn’t room enough for a good picture to allow readers to size up the man. Maybe the description of his smile tells us something about his character. Otherwise, what do his “large bones,” “bullet-shaped head,” and “full cheeks” tell us except that he’s a big, fat black man? I’m surprised that a later reference to his “reptilian” facial features (and “cold-blooded” determination) didn’t slip into something more “elephantine.” Somehow I doubt that the second paragraph of a major feature on Barack Obama (recall the outcry when Joe Biden so tactfully reminded us was so “clean and articulate” … for a black man) or really any major Western leader would be so consumed with physical description.

Let’s give Foster the benefit of the doubt here. I’ll admit, Zuma does have a unique physical presence. Still, what does that have to do with his charm offensive to American businessmen last year — especially as it’s portrayed in this article?:

South Africa needed “balance,” he said, pushing his belly into the table. The economy would continue to require active intervention because the market still hadn’t corrected for historic patterns of race and class bias.

What?! I think I’ll leave that one stand on its own. “Pushing his belly into the table”? I’m no expert on body language, but the greater implications of that physical description are lost on me besides perhaps juxtaposing the image of, again, a big, fat, black man in a board room with the civilized U.S. bankers. I am left wondering, though, how Zuma got pegged as the fat guy in a room full of Wall Street “fat cats.” Ba-dum-chuh.

I admit, that on its own this criticism may appear frivolous. What is not frivolous is that this kind of crude reliance on physical descriptions is accompanied by an unwillingness to engage with the obvious infrapolitics of the ANC, and their implications during the election. Foster has a reasonable explanation of the Polokwane conference, clearly a watershed moment in post-1994 South African politics. So then why is he left so mystified at the end of the article?

When his dance was done, Zuma shimmied down the gangway, hands up and palms outstretched, lofted along by the cheers. He and his traveling companions quickly slid into a motorcade of luxury SUVs and BMW sedans. Sirens wailing, they zipped off. The woman with the large cross now had it wedged awkwardly beneath her arm. It struck me that her hero hadn’t explained to her why the ANC government had bungled the fight against AIDS or failed to create widespread opportunities for economic mobility.

For many South Africans, the answer is obvious. The Mbeki cohort within the ANC was gone. The grassroots of the party threw out the bums at Polokwane, the view goes. You don’t have to agree with the result to understand that this past election was not irrational. There were clear reasons — of policy, politics, and personality — why Zuma won. For international journalists, especially those with the access that Foster clearly had in writing this article, to omit to explain these to their readers is a disservice. To waste so much time on crude physical description is a failure.

So the White House announced over the weekend that Barack Obama would make his first trip to Africa in July, a short stayover in Ghana. Why Ghana? It is democratic and relatively stable. But, all things considered, it is not a political or economic powerhouse on the continent compared to countries like Nigeria or South Africa.

This is definitely all about domestic politics for Obama. First black president at the Ghanaian slave castles? OH MY GOD THAT’S POIGNANT. I’m not even joking. Those slave castles are probably the greatest historical draw on the continent for African-American tourists.

Still, surely there could be a visit to Africa that is about more than just a photo op. TexasinAfrica has some suggestions:

It’s interesting, though, that American presidents actively avoid conflict when traveling to Africa. This can’t all be attributed to security issues; presidents regularly travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and any number of other places where they’re much more likely to be assassinated. Why do they do this? Part of it has to do with a general fear of “Africa” on the part of the Secret Service, etc. But the postcolonial legacy also plays a role. African countries are generally viewed by American policymakers as immature basket cases, not as functional states. In some cases this is a fair assessment; in others, it is not.

More importantly, however, is the impact that a presidential visit could have on a less-than-perfect situation in a place like Kenya or Uganda, or, dare I say it, the Congo. If anything could force disputing parties to the table in most African countries, it’s a visit from Barack Obama. His presence alone would attract such a degree of attention and respect that serious, high-level negotations could occur. Here’s hoping the president will choose to take a risk on his next visit to the continent.

And now the next episode in my continuing ad hoc series on the hidden merits of the Daily Sun (part one is here). One story that you can read about a lot in the Daily Sun and little elsewhere is the persistence of vigilante justice in many townships and villages. This is, in many ways, a legacy of Apartheid where distrust of government-sponsored police led to community-based policing strategies.

I’ll aim for a little variety and admit that this story is not the sole domain of the Sun. The Durban-based Daily News reports today on some of the twists that the struggle to enforce community justice entails:

Mxolisi Mkhize, 21, the community policing forum member shot dead while pursuing suspected robbers in KwaMashu’s M Section on Tuesday, had been a member of the forum for only two days.

His aunt, Nonhlanhla Mkhize, 41, said Mkhize had decided to join the CPF as he had been a victim of crime far too often.

In April, he was robbed and stabbed on his way to work.

“They took all his clothes, and left him wearing his underwear,” his aunt said on Wednesday.

“After humiliating him like that, they still stabbed him. He told us that he was fed up with the escalating crime in the area, and that is when he joined the CPF.”

Forum members were patrolling the area on Tuesday morning when they saw five men robbing a man.

They rushed to assist the man, and the gang fired at them. Mkhize was wounded in the head and an off-duty policeman in the stomach. Mkhize died on the way to hospital.

Read the rest here.

Allow me to get back to something I let fly before I got caught up in the final dash of the campaign. The Daily Sun might be the most relevant newspaper in South Africa.

I’ve made this claim to academics, journalist colleagues, and — perhaps misguidedly — to editors of other South African newspapers. The first uniform response is a hearty chuckle followed by a “you can’t be serious” rejoinder. Oh, but I am.

To most upper/middle-class literate, educated South Africans, the Daily Sun is known for its fantastic tales of schoolgirls overtaken by evil spirits, tokoloshes, sensational revenge murders, and other sordid tales common to the tabloid newspaper genre. And when I say “tabloid” I’m not just talking about the size of the page on which these stories are printed.

So why do I find myself paying the two rand for a copy usually at least twice a week? Because the Daily Sun has stories about the real lived experience of the working-class and poor in this country that are often invisible to the rest of the country. I realized this first hand when the situation of refugees overflowing out of the Central Methodist Church hit the pages of the Sun a full day before it was picked up by any of the other newspapers. Page through the classifieds, and you can see that the sexual preoccupations of many blue collar South Africans — documented in Jonny Steinberg’s absolutely essential Three Letter Plague — are alive and well. The daily feature called “Home Affairs Horrors” documents how chronic mismanagement of home affairs offices has left many South Africans without the means to pursue basic employment and education. It also exposes a greater preoccupation with the bureaucratic machinery of delivery that dominates the lives of South Africa’s working-class. Mention allocation of RDP houses to a resident of Alexandra, for instance, and I near guarantee that this worry lies beneath whatever response you will receive.

Perhaps the greatest example of the Daily Sun‘s relevance as a voice for the poor is its coverage of the xenophobic riots last year. For those with any familiarity with the Sun’s coverage of that ugly episode, you might be apopleptic at this point. WHAT?! Isn’t the Sun the same newspaper that stoked xenophobic anger as the violence raged on?

To that I answer, “Yes, but.”

Wits journalism professor Anton Harber shows how the situation is much more complex than it may at first seem. In an essay eventually printed in a fantastic collection of essays about the riots, he compares the coverage of the affair in both the Sun and the Star. When I bring up this essay, most people tend to point to the fact that Harber notes that the Sun had rather inflammatory coverage while the violence was going on. I think this misses Harber’s greater point, which is that if you had been reading the Sun before the outbreak of violence, what eventually transpired would have been no surprise at all. Frustrations about immigrants taking jobs and houses away from South African citizens living in townships were clear for weeks leading up to the riots, as were the violent rumblings themselves.

The Sun is far and away the most popular newspaper in South Africa. It sells hundreds of thousands more papers than its nearest competitor. The vast majority of this consumer public is much poorer than readers of probably any other newspaper in the country (the Sowetan is probably the only other paper that can shake a stick at the Sun‘s demographics). It’s worth recognizing, then, that while perceived “low,” mass cultural productions may be flawed in terms of a given prescribed notion of social development, it is also important to cultivate those productions that give a voice to people who may otherwise be voiceless. The Sun contains a lot of sensationalist nonsense. At the same time, it expresses a viewpoint that has great currency among often hidden, and rather large swathes of the South African population. Put plainly, to dismiss a publication like the Sun is to do so at your own peril if you care at all to find out what is really going on in this highly complex country.

This hits the mark exactly. Especially for pointing out that, in some important respects, the Daily Sun is the most relevant newspaper in South Africa. I’ll drop that bomb and defend it tomorrow. More later…

I posted last week about a forum where SABC board member Bheki Khumalo said that he can differentiate between posts with SABC and as a sometimes-spokesman for the Department of Minerals and Energy. Having just arrived back in South Africa a couple days before I attended the forum, I was not yet up on all the conflicts of interests among SABC board members. These conflicts often concern dual roles with the government or ANC and the SABC.

A South African Press Agency article about a recent court case concerning mineral rights quotes a government press release that includes a statement from Khumalo. He is identified in the article as a government spokesman. Khumalo seems to have a lot of titles these days. Wits journalism professor called him “a deployed ANC cadre.” SAPA calls him a government spokesman. And, of course, he is a SABC board member.

So is SAPA wrong to merely identify him as a government spokesman? Not necessarily. That is the title making him relevant to the issues at hand in the article. Still, his numerous positions make me wonder whether the fact that his SABC role goes unmentioned leaves readers in the dark. In the case of this mineral rights case, are ordinary people affected by Khumalo’s dual interest in state-sponsored media and state-run mineral business dealings? Is the people’s case being made properly in the public space that theoretically exists in SABC’s media outlets?

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