You need only check the date of this post and the previous one to realize my lax upkeep of this blog. There are a few excuses that I have for this fact. They vary in legitimacy. One week I had a cold. Then I changed jobs. Then I visited the USA for a few weeks. Then I started a new job. In between somewhere there was a second cold. I’m still not sure if I’ve had H1N1 yet, but it is something of which I persist in perpetual fear.

It would be ridiculous to try to catch up on all blog-worthy thoughts (yes, I know that the bar is rather low on this count) and all the stories I had published by The Times. Before I resume regular posting in the here and now I figured I would highlight a couple choice stories that I enjoyed working on and perhaps you might enjoy perusing as well.

I posted previously about a competition of la sape that I witnessed in the Yeoville neighborhood in Johannesburg. I ended up going back there to speak with organizers and the eventual winner of the competition. In all honesty, it was one of the most fun stories I have ever worked on. My hope was that this showed through in the audio slideshow that I produced about the event.

Well, the whole fiasco about the Gandhi house came to a close, though the seller, Nancy Ball, never ended up divulging the details about who bought it. It appears none of the people fingered as the final bidders actually bought the property. In the meantime, I wrote a piece about Gandhi’s not-so-simple legacy in South Africa.

Especially in his early days in South Africa, Gandhi’s activism was much more parochial than the universal non-racialism of the ANC. In attempting to secure fair land rights for Indians in the new, bustling Johannesburg, he protested in 1905 that “kaffirs” (a term he used often in his early writings) were being allowed to live in what was then known as a “coolie location”, theoretically reserved for Indians.

The 1906 incident in the train portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic film Gandhi is also troublesome. Gandhi was advocating that just upper-caste Indians be allowed to use the train, not people of all races.

His views did appear to evolve over time and it is hard to deny his inspirational fight against British colonialism in India.

In South Africa, his influence as a freedom fighter persists. Annual marches in KwaZulu-Natal celebrating his legacy attest to this.

Still, no South African besides Gandhi’s granddaughter, Kirti Menon, came forward with an offer for The Kraal compelling enough for the Ball family in terms of both money and historical preservation. According to Nancy Ball, the final three bidders were Menon, Malaysian e-commerce tycoon Vijay Eswaran, and a late entry by the Indian government.

Eswaran told The Times that if he buys the house he plans to create a museum that would “remind this South African nation of the great legacy indeed that they have”.

Menon echoed this sentiment. “Gandhi’s period in Johannesburg is of particular importance in his own development,” she said.

Gandhi’s time in Johannesburg was clearly influential. But its “legacy”, as Eswaran calls it, is a complicated one. His philosophy inspired, but his activism, limited in its universality, echoed throughout later Indian-black relations during the struggle against apartheid and discrimination. Mid-20th century riots in Durban are examples of violent tension between Indians and blacks. Some chafed against the ANC’s insistence on non-racialism and tying the Indian cause to the greater anti-apartheid one. Even now, it is an issue that hits a raw nerve.

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.

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.

Not much is going on at the IEC, with election results only being finalized tomorrow. The ANC is currently on the razor’s edge of a two-thirds majority, but we’ll see how it turns out. I ran into an electoral observer from Burundi last night who told me that from the viewpoint of other officials in his government (he is the interior minister, I think — I had a little trouble with his accent, as we were speaking in French), this election is more about the legacy of the ANC in South Africa than Jacob Zuma. This is an interesting point of view, given that Zuma was a major mediator in Burundi in the mid-90s.

I attended two briefings by the Southern African Development Community and African Union electoral observer missions today. Both groups had much praise and little criticism for South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission:

Hailing the South African election as an example to the rest of the continent, observers from the African Union and Southern African Development Community noted what they perceived as only minor glitches in the process during back-to-back briefings today.

Long queues, the issue of voting in an area where one is not registered, and the “display of party identities” and campaigning at polling stations, were issues cited by both groups as deserving review by South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission.

The murder of one COPE official in the Eastern Cape was of concern, but did not diminish the overall success of the election, said Salim Ahmed Salim, former Prime Minister of Tanzania and leader of the AU observer mission. “In our opinion, in any election you are bound to find incidents of this nature.”

Radio Botswana’s head of current affairs Sakaeyo Jannie wondered if the SADC mission was too quick to praise the results. “Have you ever not declared an election free and fair?” he asked mission leader Balefie Tsie, a professor of political science at University of Botswana.

Tsie noted that SADC had refrained from issuing a comment during last June’s run-off election in Zimbabwe, which was marred by politically motivated violence.

The mission leader proposed that the IEC use transparent voting boxes so as to avoid confusion about whether a ballot box was full or not. He also praised the media for having upheld a more metaphorically transparent political campaign.

Read the rest here.

Only hours to go until a truly historic day in this young country. No matter how it turns out, this election, the wounds it has exposed, and the promises it holds will reverberate for a long time to come. I have been privileged to witness two elections of great historical magnitude — this one with a different kind of front row seat — in such a short period of time. I can only hope that I continue to be under the spell of that old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

I will likely be away from blogging during the next few days, as I will be doing a lot of actual work while election results filter out. For now, read on to see some pictures that I’ve taken over the last month or so of the campaign.

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There are very few polls that come out here, leading to a lot of uncertainty about where the electorate actually stands. Of course, the question is not whether the ANC will win a simple majority – that’s a foregone conclusion – but if it will get the two-thirds majority that would theoretically allow the party to make changes to the constitution.

It’s too bad that it’s near-impossible to know exactly how likely this is. Of the polling data that does come out, there is little on which one can rely. Newspapers almost uniformly report what surveys do exist as a statement of fact, rather than a statement of probability, and the polls themselves often use questionable methodology. This extends to the questions asked to the cross-tabs used to analyze the data — what is the use of breaking things down by race, when one category is %80 of the population? — to reporting margins of error, sample sizes, and sample breakdowns.

On the other hand, there are some things that seem to be common to many of the most recent polls. The ANC generally gets in the mid-60s, while COPE and DA are closer to between 10 and 15 percent. I spoke to a number of political and media analysts earlier today to get their pre-election prognostications (less than 48 hours to go!). Unsurprisingly, no one can predict for sure whether the ANC will make DA leader Helen Zille’s worst nightmares come true, but no one is ruling it out.

You can find my article and a series of audio interviews here.

Of course, I’d be remiss in not even mentioning the ANC’s “Siyanqoba” (translation: we are winning) rally in Johannesburg yesterday, where I worked reporting from about 6:30 in the morning. As is now well known, Nelson Mandela made a surprise appearance. Of course, this was not a surprise for me. I accurately predicted this to my father, my skeptical editor, AND the twitter-verse, somehow making a pre-rally best-of-SA twitter roundup at breakingtweets.

Anyway, enough of the self-congratulation (one of the cardinal sins journalists commit everyday — I promise my critique of media in this election is coming). I co-produced a fun video documenting the rally. I have to say that I laughed when I saw how star-struck all the media — both domestic and foreign — was by Mandela’s appearance. Fighting through a crowd of journalists trying to catch a glimpse of Madiba on one camera for work and another for themselves was quite a scene. I can’t say I was entirely immune to the hysteria, but, come on. Probably the earliest vague memory in my life is sitting with my parents watching the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour the day F.W. de Klerk announced his release from prison release. Or some part of the prison release. Like I said, it’s a vague memory.

Alright, I’m off the crazy train like Baleka Mbete on a bus in Soweto. Doesn’t make much sense except I did somehow end up following the deputy president as she rode a double-decker bus through primarily big shopping malls in the historic township. Here’s a video piece I produced today about the bus tour.

To complete this round-up of recent work, I have a an article and video about my time spent with the three main political parties here as volunteers went door-to-door campaigning in Johannesburg area townships. Below are full-size versions of the pictures that I took now up on The Times website.

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Now that the NPA has dropped the government’s corruption charges against Msholozi aka JZ aka Jacob Zuma, I’m nursing a fascination with the whole “Umshini Wami” phenomenon. The song is from the ANC’s days in exile, and was a song of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). “Umshini Wami” roughly translated means “bring me my machine gun,” and the song is Zuma’s near-official theme song. Crowds have sung it at ANC rallies, after his acquittal on rape charges, and the last couple of days since the NPA gave up his prosecution. I heard it for the first time when I followed a group of ANC volunteers going door to door in the Klipspruit area of Soweto.

Mosuia Lekota, leader of the opposition COPE party, referred to it in his initial announcement of the party’s break from the ANC late last year. Regardless of his chiding of Zuma for continuing to sing the song, its popularity appears to have not abated. I went searching for some videos of the song, and this video from the key Polokwane conference in 2007 seems to tell the tale of how it all went down that fateful December. Thabo Mbeki looks a potent mix of disgusted and crestfallen. Zuma is thrilled with himself. Strangely, Lekota, standing by Mbeki’s side, appears to be enjoying the spectacle as well. Maybe he’s just laughing at it instead of with it.

Without even beginning to judge the man in terms of his worthiness for the office of president, Zuma’s credentials as a performer are strong in this mesmerizing rendition of the anthem. He seems reluctant initially to sing along with the crowd, but soon launches into the song with full energy, waving his arms around his head as though he has been totally overtaken by the tune. As I joked to a friend recently, if I could vote, I may or may not choose to vote for him, but I would definitely be first in line at the record store if he released an album.

I’m midway through a report following around different political parties campaigning in the Johannesburg area. My general impression is that people in the townships are frustrated with the pace of change here. At the same time, many still feel tied to the ANC and its legacy in the anti-Apartheid struggle.

In Alexandra, people were almost uniformly furious about the lack of progress being made in alleviating their absurdly horrible housing conditions. They complained about cronyism regarding the handing out of RDP houses, the inadequacy of RDP houses, and general lack of attention paid to the struggling township. Shacks are literally on top of shacks, while dirty sewage, heaps of garbage, and unclean port-o-potty toilets line many of the streets. People openly admit, however, the ANC is the only party they will vote for if they vote at all.

In Klipspruit, a predominantly colored section of Soweto, most people were unhappy with the progress of the ANC and professed a support for the range of opposition parties: DA and COPE, as well as a smaller party with a colored candidate standing for president: the Independent Democrats and former ANC member Patricia de Lille. Klipspruit aside, Soweto, which is a predominantly black township (can’t we just call it a city instead of sticking to these Apartheid-era anachronisms), will almost certainly turn out overwhelmingly in favor of the ANC.

This election does not look to be shaping up as representative of  a sea change in perceptions of the ANC. Still, I think “All we are saying is give the ANC a chance,” doesn’t resonate like it used to. Instead of representing a clear move from past affiliations, this election points to new alliances of the near future. ANC President Jacob Zuma is considered by many a blank slate in terms of policies and who he might appoint in his cabinet. Similarly unknown are the prospects for opposition politics. Will the DA and COPE join together in an alliance? Would such an alliance include smaller parties?

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?