/ 29 November 2019


Can Eskom be fixed? This is one of the questions Jan-Jan Joubert asks in his book of 17 questions about our country
Can Eskom be fixed? This is one of the questions Jan-Jan Joubert asks in his book of 17 questions about our country



When Nolitha Fakude joined the Woolworths training programme as a young woman in 1990, she was asked about her aspirations for the future. “I want to become a director at Woolworths,” she replied. The black facilitator laughed. Woolworths, he said, didn’t even have a white woman, or for that matter a black man, on its board. Fifteen years later, Fakude joined the Woolworths board as a non-executive director. BOARDROOM DANCING: TRANSFORMATIVE STORIES FROM A CORPORATE ACTIVIST (Macmillan) traces her journey from a small village in the Eastern Cape to senior positions at Woolworths, Sasol, Nedbank, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Anglo American, Afrox and the Black Management Forum, with her driving transformation for the benefit of women and marginalised communities all the way. An inspiring story.

THE BOSASA BILLIONS: HOW THE ANC SOLD ITS SOUL FOR BRAAIPACKS, BOOZE AND BAGS OF CASH by James-Brent Styan and Paul Vecchiatto (Lapa) came out before Gavin Watson, the kingpin of Bosasa, died. It relies heavily on the testimony of Angelo Agrizzi, Bosasa’s former chief operations officer, as given to the Zondo commission probing corruption and state capture. With that and some additional information, such as the Watson family’s history, it gives a thorough account of what was known at that point about the company that, mostly by means of bribery, got R12-billion’s worth of state contracts. Adriaan Basson’s book, BLESSED BY BOSASA: INSIDE GAVIN WATSON’S STATE CAPTURE CULT (Jonathan Ball) goes wider, looking at the context and history of Bosasa (later renamed African Global Operations), and going inside the company to uncover the cult Watson developed within it to manipulate and control his employees, brainwashing and bullying them into submission — even as he went against his religious precepts by allegedly having an affair with one of his advisers. Basson has talked to a great number of the people involved, and derives fascinating perspectives on this huge scam operation and its front-style relationship with the ANC over the two decades of Bosasa’s existence.

In WILL SOUTH AFRICA BE OKAY? (Tafelberg), political journalist Jan-Jan Joubert tries to answer the question in his title by asking the “17 key questions” that he feels shed light on the chances of South Africa achieving the bright future it seemed to have 25 years ago, at the dawn of democracy. Among those questions are: “Why do people keep voting for the ANC?”; “What is wrong with the DA?”; “How big is the Ramaphosa factor really?”; “How can the ANC save itself?”; and, of course, “Can Eskom be fixed?” Drawing on information and contacts from all over the political spectrum, Joubert comes to some conclusions and, even if they aren’t definitive, offers his views on how everyone can help to ensure South Africa becomes a better place for all who live in it.

BALANCE OF POWER: RAMAPHOSA AND THE FUTURE OF SOUTH AFRICA (Kwela) is political reporter Qaanitah Hunter’s contribution to the great debate (or is it anxiety?) about whether President Cyril Ramaphosa, having reached the pinnacle of power, can actually deal with the corruption and bad governance that have so weakened and impoverished South Africa over the past decade. She looks in detail at how Ramaphosa fought his way to the presidency of the ANC at Nasrec in 2018, and, leading up to the 2019 elections in which he gained a larger majority for the ANC than his predecessor had been able to, what the delicate balance of power within the ANC’s top leadership says about how much room to manoeuvre Ramaphosa may have.

In PAPER TIGER: IQBAL SURVÉ AND THE DOWNFALL OF INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS (Tafelberg), Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield, both formerly of Independent Media, chronicle the demise of the company since it was bought by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Group. The events depicted are well known, with many column inches over the past six years having been devoted to the ongoing fallout: Paper Tiger brings it all together in narrative form. The choice by the authors to write themselves in the third person is understandable but deprives the book of personal reflections that could’ve added more depth. Nonetheless, a good gift for the journalist in your life — or anyone who cares about media freedom in South Africa.

YouTube star Lesego Tlhabi parlays her hilarious Coconut Kelz persona into a full book’s worth of tongue-in-cheek advice for the aspirational black person (aspiring to be just like a white person, that is) in COCONUT KELZ’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING THIS SHITHOLE (Jonathan Ball). In a whole lot of short, very sharp bites from this “Caucasian woman trapped in a black woman’s body”, Kelz advises on “how to live your best (white) life” in suburbia, including beauty tips, cultural practices (“and other nightmares”), how to be a madam, and how to “retain your Caucasity”, as well as giving a brief overview of South African history. “In short, corruption is what black people do. Corruption derives from the Greek word eruptos, which means black. So it is virtually impossible for corruption ever to be about white people. Also, white people are super-honest and just don’t lie, so there’s that.” 

Ronnie Kasrils’s autobiographical writings do not proceed chronologically: first it was his time in the struggle and undercover for the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe, then it was the interaction with Jacob Zuma, and now it’s back to childhood and youth. CATCHING TADPOLES: THE SHAPING OF A YOUNG REBEL (Jacana) covers his first 21 years of life, from growing up in Yeoville in the 1940s to his first visit to Paris, and tracing his growing political consciousness (by 24, as he reminds us, he was on the run from the police). Kasrils tells an engaging and often highly entertaining story.

The question Unisa psychology professor Kopano Ratele asks in THE WORLD LOOKS LIKE THIS FROM HERE: THOUGHTS ON AFRICAN PSYCHOLOGY (Wits University Press) is this: How does one practise a psychology that situates African realities and the experiences of African people at the centre of its theory? This fascinating and provocative book delivers its insights in 100 short, accesible sections that touch on everything from education as ethical responsbility to tradition, healing and conscientisation. Sure to be a game-changer in its field.

DURBAN POISON: A COLLECTION OF VITRIOL AND WIT (MF) is what the subtitle says: satirist Ben Trovato’s hilarious takes on all manner of South African situations, including being South African in Bali. He has been in most of the papers in this country by now, and has been fired by most, but he keeps going, apparently unstoppably. Keep this in the toilet, he advises: “Tests have shown that reading one of my columns takes exactly the same amount of time as it does to perform a standard bowel movement.” Good to know.

In WANTED DEAD AND ALIVE: THE CASE FOR SOUTH AFRICA’S CATTLE (Face2Face), Gregory Mthembu-Salter looks into South African’s relationship with cattle — the traditional mode, in which they’re almost part of the family, and the industrial mode of raising and slaughtering them in large numbers. It’s a detailed, very readable account, offering ideas about how South Africa’s cattle could show us a way of life that’s more sustainable in the long run.

THEY CALLED ME QUEER (Kwela), edited by Kim Windvogel and Kelly-Eve Koopman, collects pieces by a wide range of writers addressing the issue of being gay, lesian, bisexual or otherwise gender-non-conforming in South Africa today. Despite constitutional protections, there is pain and prejudice for many; in that respect, the struggle continues. In other ways, there is joy, celebration and affirmation. Essential reading, and a thoughtful companion piece to the fiction, poetry and memoir collection from Jacana, The Heart of the Matter, which came out early in 2019.

Achille Mbembe, the acclaimed author of On the Postcolony and Critique of Black Reason, is taking a leading role in theorising power, oppression and liberation in Africa today. NECROPOLITICS (Wits University Press) is the just-released translation of a 2016 work of his. It addresses the shadow side of liberal democracy, its death drive, sovereignty and borders. As famed theorist Judith Butler writes of this work: “Mbembe not only engages with biopolitics, the politics of enmity and the state of exception; he also opens up the possibility of a global ethic …”

Steal my data, feed me lies

Edward Snowden told Trevor Noah recently, during a beamed-in appearance on his show, that the United States government’s announcement that he was criminally liable for breaking his nondisclosure agreement with the state’s security agencies helped push his book, PERMANENT RECORD (Macmillan), up the bestseller lists.

So the US government shot itself in the foot a bit there. Surely it didn’t want Snowden’s story to be more widely read? But it gave him that publicity spike. And, surely, breaching his nondisclosure agreement is a minor offence compared to what he did when he revealed to the world the vast surveillance and data-gathering capability he had helped the US government to construct?

For that is what Snowden did, in 2013, and today he is trapped in Moscow because any travel makes him vulnerable to being snatched by the CIA, something it has shown itself quite willing to do. Being stuck in Moscow (where he was offered at least minimal protection) is why his appearance on Noah’s show was beamed in.

The descendant of American pioneers and the child of two people in government service, Snowden put a drifting youth behind him after 9/11 when he started working for the US security agencies. In the wake of 9/11, he felt he had to get involved in the US’s self-defence. Officially employed by computer company Dell, he was seconded to the agencies to help bring them up to date in a rapidly digitising world, to develop new data and surveillance capacity in the age of the internet.

“The agencies,” he writes, “were hiring tech companies to hire tech kids, and then they were giving them the keys to the kingdom, because — as Congress and the press were told — the agencies didn’t have a choice. No one knew how the keys, or the kingdom, worked.”

After 9/11, however, and the declaration of the “war on terror”, then-president George W Bush’s Patriot Act, along with other legislation, went way beyond the matter of helping the NSA and other agencies catch up with the new tech. The Patriot Act and executive orders such as the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP) ballooned into programmes to monitor and collect every bit of data about US citizens and their communications as it could, and to store that data (and metadata) for as long as possible. The PSP made George Orwell’s Big Brother look positively amateurish.

Snowden describes his growing awareness of why such programmes were wrong, and how they violated the rights of American (and other) citizens. They were in fact illegal in US law and contravened the Constitution, which led to various legal machinations such as the Protect America Act of 2007 to “retroactively legalise the PSP”, employing “intentionally misleading language” to do so.

When Snowden stumbles upon the deeply classified report of the NSA’s inspector general, setting out precisely what was really going on, the movement towards his decision to reveal all this publicly begins. In a detailed but straightforward way, and often with some eloquence, Snowden tells the story of that journey, and what happened when, in 2013, he finally told the world what the US security agencies were up to.

The fallout was immense, and not just for Snowden himself. He remains in Moscow, ironically the unwilling guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is perhaps the central figure in the “information wars” of the present. Putin has driven the Russian capacity for online surveillance, hacking and data theft, and its ability to infiltrate social media all over the world and thereby to influence the outcome of elections such as the 2016 poll that brought Donald Trump to power in the US. The techniques of international power plays have changed, and Snowden and his riveting story, at the centre of that change, help us understand this dangerous new world.

Likewise Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, who tells his story in MINDF*CK: INSIDE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA’S PLOT TO BREAK THE WORLD (Profile Books). Cambridge Analytica was the company, funded by right-wing US plutocrats and the odd Russian oligarch, that developed the means to manipulate voters in the US and in Britain (in the run-up to the Brexit referendum). It learned to get into their heads, as it were, and how to target them as voters — and look how successful that was. And it was all thanks to the data contained in the profiles of the 87-million Facebook users that was handed over to them by the social media behemoth.

Wylie, famously a pink-haired (or, latterly, green-haired too) gay man who overcame childhood disability to become a geek running election technology in his native Canada, tells a story that in outline is similar to Snowden’s: his gradual realisation that what he was doing was profoundly wrong, was undermining the democracy and personal freedom he believed in, and his progress towards blowing the whistle on the whole thing.

He’s more offbeat than Snowden, as a character and a storyteller, but he’s also deeply reflective on the subject of what he was participating in, indeed helping to develop, and what its political implications were — and are. It’s scary to see how little governments such as Britain’s were able to do about what was essentially an exercise in mass manipulation. Cambridge Analytica was shut down, but most of those who worked there are now embedded in Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. The data wars continue. — Shaun de Waal