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Letters to the Editor: January 28

Staff Reporter

M&G readers weigh in on Cope, Serjeant at the Bar, the Cabinet report card and more.

Copers should become the change they want



It is tragic that the Congress of the People (Cope) and its leaders could not live up to the expectations of millions of voters (’Copers recross to ANC”, January 14).

Now that it is not clear who represents the real Cope or even whether Cope still really exists, Cope voters should consider their options carefully. To become politically apathetic and not register their votes in this year’s local government election, or simply to revert to a default position of voting ANC, would be stupid.

Cope did not fail because opposition politics in South Africa is somehow illegitimate, unable not to revolve around the axis of ‘Planet ANC”. In fact Cope never really left the ANC’s axis—Cope was merely a ‘black-led” alternative to the ANC.

The problem with that selling point (which appealed to black and white voters) and the absence of any other substantive and distinguishing ideology or policy is that the ANC already owns the racial label.

A major reason the government under the ANC remains ineffective, elitist and self-serving is racial identity politics, which is still the reason for the party’s existence. If South Africa is ready to move beyond the failures of the ANC in education, jobs and basic services, voters will have to stop rewarding leaders simply for their race and other immutable and, frankly, less relevant characteristics.

Although racially diverse leadership is important to any party that plans to govern South Africa, because of our divided past and the challenges of addressing that past, diversification is likely to be a bottom-up instead of a top-down process.

The more people of a certain background support and become involved in a political party, the more people of such a background will begin to be represented in its leadership.

Instead of feeling hopeless about the prospect of political change or going backwards, back to the ANC, Cope voters should become the change they want to see. If a significant number of Cope voters decide to switch to the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the 2011 local elections it will almost certainly change not only the course of South African politics but the face of the DA.

The DA has the ideological framework, based on an open society with equal opportunity for all, the organisational capability and the leadership to set a new countrywide standard of effective government. But the party needs new support.

For Copers to vote DA and perhaps even to join the party will be a risk and a leap across decades of history but it would be far better than doing the same thing and expecting a different result.—Cilliers Brink, Pretoria

The law’s prayer



Boris Weismuller (’Do the right thing”, Letters, January 21) commends the City of Cape Town for its new liquor by-law. But the by-law, which forces pubs and clubs to close at 2am, could have a devastating effect on the local economy (which relies heavily on tourism) and is likely to have little impact other than to encourage people to flock to establishments such as Grand West casino (which, thanks to a special dispensation, is entitled to sell alcohol 24 hours a day) and to establishments that can argue, inter alia, that the bar was kept open to sell cool drinks and that patrons caught with alcoholic drinks in their hands ordered them shortly before 2am and were slow to finish them.

I speak from experience. In the early 1990s I traded without a liquor licence for 24 months in Sea Point, paying a total of R400 in admission-of-guilt fines, and from 2000 to 2003 managed The Edge in Observatory, which, like so many other pubs, had little choice but to ignore the smoking laws.

The serenity prayer (‘Lord give me the courage to change those things that can be changed, the serenity to accept those things that cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference”) should be mandatory reading for the Democratic Alliance, which soon will be fighting a pivotal municipal election. The devil, as usual, is in the detail.—Terence Grant, Cape Town

Diplomats needed now more than ever



I read the article by my two former colleagues, ambassadors Gerrit Olivier and Herbert Beukes, with some astonishment (’Diplomats—who needs them?”, January 14). While one cannot disagree with the information on which they base their comments, the conclusions are hardly what one would expect from two academics-turned-diplomats. Beukes spent most of his working life, as did I, in the erstwhile department of foreign affairs.

They claim that ambassadors no longer make foreign policy. Yet ambassadors were always plenipotentiaries or representatives of a potentate or president, empowered to conduct the day-to-day relationships between the sending and the receiving governments.

Ambassadors may certainly have influenced negotiations but never officially made foreign policy—neither do ordinary diplomats. They are and always have been advisers to political authority and executors of the wishes and decisions of those authorities.

Olivier and Beukes link the rise of technology and the speed of communication to their claim that diplomats are not needed. But rapid communication has been available since the adoption of the telegraph 100 years before the internet and, even more efficiently, when telex machines were introduced in the 1930s.

The personalities listed, with the exception of George Kennan, were politicians playing a diplomatic role—not career diplomats as the term is understood today.

Simon Barber, former Business Day correspondent in Washington, DC, opined during Beukes’s term as ambassador there that South Africa did not need an embassy in the United States—a fax machine in a suburb of Chicago would have been just as effective.

Like your correspondents, he missed one vital point—the human, face-to-face factor. Electronic messages are notorious for causing misunderstandings, leading to disputes. The absence of body language and the opportunity immediately to correct a mistake in word usage are the cause.

Then there is the importance of understanding local custom and culture. Only by having people on the ground, who have come to know and understand local practice, can ‘visiting firemen” (Cabinet ministers, officials of specialist government departments, even business people and journalists) be advised on tactics to be used or avoided to achieve the results desired.

Ambassadors do not make foreign policy, I agree, and they never have. Politicians do. But politicians need well-informed advisers—diplomats—who can bring their diverse specialist knowledge to the table when policy is being formulated. This is very often acquired while serving in various capacities in embassies abroad.

Negativity pervades Olivier and Beukes’s representation of a career in which they too found professional satisfaction and where they were well paid and cosseted. Diplomats—we all need them!—Tom Wheeler, South African ambassador to Turkey 1997-2001

Thanks for Ndebele and good education pieces



In welcoming back the Mail & Guardian after the December break, I should like to commend your last edition of 2010 and especially the inclusion of articles such as that by Njabulo Ndebele, ‘Toxic politics: Diary of a bad year”.

This is not a matter of agreement with his views but pleasure at an article that is more thoughtful than descriptive and more analytical than those that assert generalisations. I hope that this year we are provided with his articles on a ­regular basis.

It is for the same reason that I welcome the two articles in your first edition of 2011 (January 7) on the matric examinations. Though I regard matric as antithetical to real education, it was a relief from all the earlier dust to read Martin Prew’s identification of possible trends evident in the matric results. He has provided us with ideas and insights that we can think about and that should influence policy.

The accompanying article by Sarah Gravett and Gillian Godsell seeks to dispel myths and stereotypes that certain of the private schools use in part to justify their existence. The juxtaposition of the two articles on the matric examination raises the quality of thought and debate about this pernicious system.—Michael Gardiner, Observatory

Spud fails reality test



Serjeant at the Bar (’Debate is the answer to prejudice”, January 21) makes the telling point, in his/her analysis of the homophobia debate about the movie Spud, that this is predominantly a white middle-class issue.

But if the readers and viewers of the Spud book and film were literally confined to this group it would probably have been okay to ignore political correctness in the interest of authenticity. So, not only would homophobic and racist jokes have been included but also the widespread same-sex activity in schools such as the one Spud attends.

Yet both film and book ignore this reality—not out of political correctness but from adherence to the myth that ‘heterosexual” and ‘gay” are distinct human realities, and ‘ne’er the twain shall meet”. The truth, however, is that not only in boys’ boarding schools but also in armies and on ships they meet and mix so effectively that the differences blur and vanish. (Napoleon, whose success depended on the happiness of his army, had his lawmakers legalise homosexual activity.)

I was a boarder at St John’s College for nine years during the 1940s and 1950s and in the 1960s spent two years as an ordinary seaman in the British Merchant Marine Service, and have direct experience of this reality.

The Spud story fails the authenticity test because the author and filmmakers had necessarily to exclude racial jokes—and should also have excluded homophobic ones, given the South African context, as Judge Edwin Cameron pointed out. It fails too because it neglects the vibrant undercover sex life of boys in such boarding schools.

On which planet did John van de Ruit go to school? Not Earth!—Oliver Price, Cape Town

Despite Serjeant at the Bar’s partial defence of Edwin Cameron’s unctuous comments on Spud‘s alleged ‘homophobia”—what a wonderful catch-all and escape from rational analysis that abstract noun has become—Cameron’s intervention, as a senior judge, let alone the content of his intervention, is contentious.

It smells of the thought police, a tyranny of the minority (homosexuals will always be a very small minority of the human race) and a tendency to totalitarianism. He should be ashamed of himself.—Graham McIntosh

What about our Legion?



It was with interest that we read your evaluation of the various ministers at the end of last year (December 23).

The South African Legion of Military Veterans noticed that you mentioned the minister of defence and military veterans with regard to the department of defence in fair detail, but did not mention anything about the new department of military veterans.

This is our area of concern. Hence we wondered why you had not mentioned the new department and all the work that has been done in this regard. The year 2010 ended with a new draft Bill for military veterans, which could affect thousands of South Africans.

It is hoped that you will pay a little attention to this in future.—Godfrey Giles, national president, SA Legion of Military Veterans

I read with great interest your year-end Cabinet report cards. As usual, there were plenty of things there that horrified me, but perhaps the one that sticks out most was the fact that R10-billion in social benefits money is unaccounted for, according to the auditor general.

Has the M&G done an investigation into that ‘loss”? If so, what conclusions were reached? It is, after all, a lot of money. South Africa could have built one million RDP houses (costing R10000 each) with that money.—Steve Jones

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