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How The NY Times Views South Africa Since Mandela—How Should We?


After serving as the editor of the New York Times, journalist Bill Keller moves onto a higher media order as an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for the Times and the values it upholds. Among the perks: regular access and top placement on the op-ed page with, seemingly, no restraints on the number of words at his disposal.

Keller decided to take a safari to South Africa to pronounce on that country “Since Mandela.”

He was not pleased by what he saw, writing, “I was not much surprised to find that this blessed and abused country has fallen short of the promise of Mandela’s days.”

Since I have also been there, working on a movie about Mandela, and with a history there that goes back to the 60’s, I can offer another view…

Keller’s big insight is that the country does not yet have a government that meets his criteria of credibility. And the reason: It came to power through a liberation struggle, and “history tells us that such liberation movements do not so easily make the transition to stable democracies.”

He then cites Cuba where a communist party rules, Zimbabwe, where a madman egomaniac clings to power and the Bolsheviks, of course, and even Kwame Nkrumam to whom the British ceded independence so he didn’t need a liberation movement to fight for it.

None of these parallels fit South Africa which has elections, a Parliament, a feisty opposition, a strong press, and a respected judiciary including a Constitutional Court upholding a Constitution that is probably the best in the world.

Keller seems oblivious to all this, and so his worries about an authoritarian order lead him to recycle his fears about the politics of liberation movements.

What Keller leaves out is how the interests of global capital have impacted on the country preserving deep inequality, as well as poverty and every bit as corrupt as the ANC politicians regularly outed for one transgression or another.

Is there corruption in South Africa? To be sure, but every bribe taken is also a bribe given.

Keller is exorcised by South Africa selling arms to Rwanda. He doesn’t mention that the US backed Angola as well as Indonesia and the Republic of the Congo (Democratic Republic? ) and Algeria as it fought many terror groups. He also doesn’t mention that for years, US companies and the Pentagon were aligned with apartheid South Africa.

South Africa has its own democracy deficits but not because of a government, but rather a liberation movement that no longer has autonomy and has demobilized the local civic and political movements like United Democratic Front that organized at the grass roots.

Today, that organizing continues, but in the form of protests against a lack of service delivery and labor issues. In one case, that led to the massacre at the mine at Mariklana.

Keller’s view of democracy is decidedly top down and invariably justifies bureaucracies more than popular mobilizations.

His essay about Mandela is misleading when he says Mandela negotiated without telling his movement what he was doing, or that the political negotiations were successful. He leaves out the secret economic negotiations that took place in that period, a process dominated by big business, international agencies like The IMF and foreign governments like ours.

If Keller wants more details, he should read “Lost in Transormation” by the Afrikaner economist Sampie Terrebranche.

Or read the recent columns by Jay Naidoo, the former labor leader and Cabinet member in Mandela’s first government. His is a bottom up vision more preoccupied with results for the people than the institutional state of the state.

He asks:

Where is South Africa today? Eighteen years into our democracy, we find ourselves like a teenager: unsure, unsteady and driven by hormones that are a rollercoaster of emotions, tenderness, brutality, glowing success and dastardly failures.”

Where did we go wrong?

As part of the collective that went into the seat of government in 1994, I acknowledge my role in the crisis we face today. We demobilized our most powerful weapon in the fight for freedom; a robust citizenry and flourishing civil society. Our misplaced notions of the “development state” made people bystanders in their own development. We, the “developmental state”, would deliver houses, jobs, electricity, water, sanitation and everything our people needed.

We found that we did not have the institutional and human capacity to translate money into bricks and mortar. We face that challenge even today.

Finally, Naidoo offers up a definition of democracy that one would rarely find in the rarified op-ed world of the New York Times or from the mouths of its distinguished gatekeepers:

“Democracy lies in our ability to protect the marginalised. To provide everyone with the dignity of labour, an education, and decent medical care to the aged and infirm. The real champions of democracy did not want accolades or streets named after them – they wanted to help the vulnerable.” 

News Dissector Danny Schechter directed six documentaries with and about Mandela and produced the series “South Africa Now.” Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org, He blogs at NewsDissector.net. 

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