Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Famous Grouse: June 25

 Latest Weekend Argus column. As submitted. -- AD

TO Mahogany Ridge then with heavy hearts and there dust off the old Victrola to replay the drinking songs and ballads on treasured Pogues and Christy Moore albums and root in the darkened corners for the better whiskeys, the bottles we were perhaps saving for less solemn occasions, and bid farewell to Kader Asmal and reflect on both his extraordinary achievements and the challenges he faced in this vale of tears.

It is true that I didn't know the man well but, importantly, I believe I knew what he stood for, and perhaps I’m not alone in thinking that with Asmal now no longer with us, our own struggle to safeguard the constitution he helped draft has overnight grown immeasurably more daunting. The forces of basket-case totalitarianism are massing.

Many of the tributes have noted Asmal’s tireless pursuit for human rights and justice. Many have pointed out that it was only last week that he spoke out once more against his own party’s maddened efforts to scramble into law the Protection of Information Bill.

In his tribute, his colleague and comrade, Trevor Manuel, the minister in the Presidency, told the National Assembly that, for that very reason, it was sometimes “very  tough” to be friends with Asmal.

“He continued arguing . . . against the government of which I am part, albeit on a few issues that he considered fundamental,” Manuel told MPs. “Such has been our comradeship, premised on values that are far greater and bonds much stronger than the tactical issues about which we need to differ.”

Let’s not mince words here. Asmal’s principled stance did not endear him to many ANC members. He had bitter enemies.

Perhaps it is churlish to dredge up such memories, but readers will recall the alarmingly tasteless statement released by Kebby Maphatsoe, the national chairperson of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’Association, and Mangaliso Khonza, the association’s spokesman, in response to an address by Asmal to the Cape Town Press Club in October 2009, in which he had poured scorn on the political ambitions of the then deputy police minister, Fikile Mbalula, who, it was speculated, was rather keen on becoming the next ANC secretary-general. Asmal had said that he hoped he would be dead before that happened.

Maphatsoe and Khonza, like good little corporals, immediately sprang to Mbalula’s defence, accusing Asmal of arrogance. Fully aware of his battle against cancer, they added, “We advise Kader Asmal to go to the nearest cemetery and die if that is the choice he has made.”

Mbalula’s own view of Asmal was that he was “a raving lunatic” and a “latter-day Don Quixote” for having the gall to oppose the militarisation of the SA Police Service.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe also joined in the fray, warning Asmal, rather cryptically, that “self-destruction can bleed you to death”.

In his response, Asmal said of Mantashe’s “extraordinary” comments: “I think it justice and confirms the prejudice that if you are questioning a policy which is regressive, that means . . . [it would be] helpful if in fact you just died from your cancer.”

Moreover, he was adamant that he was not going to shut up about anything.

And, boy, could he talk. My fondest memory of Asmal was of the time I first met him. It was in 1993, and, oddly enough, at a record company beano on board a motor launch out at sea in a very choppy Table Bay.

The Irish rock band, Hothouse Flowers, were in Cape Town to promote their Songs From The Rain album, and their label here had organised a boat trip with journalists to Robben Island. I was rather surprised to learn that Asmal had insisted on joining the party. “Oh,” he told me, “I know the boys very well. That’s Fiachna [Ó Braonáin], that’s Liam [Ó Maonlaí], that . . . ah, that is somebody else. They hang around my local in Dublin. I’m a very big fan. Very, very big fan. Fantastic music.”

As we ploughed off towards the island, the band stripped off their shirts and lay about the upper deck trying to catch a tan. Downstairs, in the cabin, Asmal, a glass of whisky in his hand and an audience of awed journalists at his feet, held court with tales of Dublin and Trinity College, where he had taught, and shared with us his vision of our new country.

We never got close to the island -- the sea was too rough -- but it didn’t matter. Asmal had made the trip worthwhile.

That was an incredible time, I now realise, of promise and hope. It’s gone now, that optimism, and there’s a grimness and uncertainty in our lives once more. We’re going to miss the guy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Famous Grouse: June 18

Latest Weekend Argus column. As submitted for publication. -- AD

A STUDENT from the University of the Witwatersrand emailed this week with a query about Julius Malema. Was it I who had first called the ANC Youth League president “Jelly Tsotsi”, and if so, could I provide her with the background to this appellation?

I happily replied that, yes, I was the clever pants who came up with that one, and explained that the play on words -- slapping “tsotsi” into the brand name of popular children’s sweets -- suggested that, as a political figure, Malema was both rather immature and something of a thug.

Now that I think about it, there could be other inferences. The “jelly-like” nature of this fruit-flavoured confection -- they’re soft and chewy -- suggests, if not spinelessness, then a certain lack of foundation. A wobbliness, if you will. Figuratively and literally. In Malema, that is, and not the sweets.

But the email pleased me. Not only had she carefully selected the best person to help her with her homework, but here at least was one student who was learning something useful. I began to re-evaluate my opinions about the youth -- perhaps they were not all rubbish and crap, as I’d imagined at the beginning of the week.

What sparked the rancour was a television interview with ANCYL secretary-general Vuyiswa Tulelo ahead of the league’s national conference, in which she burbled on smugly that the youth could no longer be ignored because they have arrived, or some such inanity.

More’s the pity, of course, but the self-importance and arrogance that tripped from the mouth of this slug-like woman was almost too much to bear, and the slough of despond into which I was unceremoniously plunged was yea deep to say the least.

It got worse. Naturally. Jelly himself was all over the place in the run up to the conference, full of belligerent posturing as he lashed out at the Cosatu and SA Communist Party leaderships, accusing them of failing to lead the workers and having the temerity to to criticise the league’s mines nationalisation policy, which they claim is nothing more than a scheme to bail out debt-laden BEE fat cat mine owners.

Another of Jelly’s targets this week was the Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel, presumably because he holds the view that, when it comes to the economy, the youth league president is perhaps something of a half-brained, jumped-up windbag who has somehow convinced himself that, because he has an opinion about something, he is an expert. I’m guessing here, of course. I could be wrong. Perhaps Manuel secretly believes that Jelly should be managing the International Monetary Fund.

But moving on, as we must. The youth. What good are they?

Not much, according to the overview of the country recently released by Manuel’s National Planning Commission. Here, indeed, was bleak reading. That slough of despond? It just got slougher. We are deep in the brown stuff.

We have failed to give them a decent education, according to the report. “Apart from a small minority of black children who attend formerly white schools, and a small minority of schools performing well in largely black areas, the quality of public education remains poor. Literacy and numeracy test scores are low by African and global standards, despite the fact that [the] government spends about 6% of GDP on education and South Africa's teachers are among the highest paid in the world (in purchasing-power parity).”

Learners in historically white schools do better, but at most schools with black learners, “the learner scores start off lower, and show relatively little improvement between grades three and five’, the report states.

“[Though] there have been some improvements, as measured by the pass rate of those who sat the 2010 matriculation exam, which was 67.8%, this hides the fact that only 15% achieved an average mark of 40% or more. This means that roughly 7% of the cohort of children born between 1990 and 1994 achieved this standard.”

All of which means that we have another “lost generation” here, a whole bunch of casualties destined to wander the dusty byways of the country, incapable of doing much other than stare at people in cars. It’s a bloody horrible thought.

But there is hope. Consider this: about 40 000 youngsters crammed into Soweto’s Orlando Stadium to celebrate National Youth Day. About 35 000 of them left in disgust before President Jacob Zuma bothered to pitch up, four hours late. They’d learnt a very valuable lesson -- politicians utterly despise people, they really do.
And maybe as he arrived at the almost deserted venue, with its red carpet strewn with rubbish, the president had learnt something as well.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Famous Grouse: June 11

As submitted to Weekend Argus for publication. -- AD

IT was perhaps predictable that there would be opposition to the Gender Equity Bill which ludicrously proposes giving the government to power to meddle in the affairs of private companies by forcing them to appoint women to half of all their top positions.

Some of the reactions to the bill, which is due to be submitted to cabinet in March, have, however, been depressingly prosaic, to say the least.

Here at the Mahogany Ridge, we’ve noted a common theme in the letters to the newspapers, usually prefaced with declarations from correspondents that not only are they women, but they are feminists to boot and they firmly believe in all the usual stuff about gender equality, that women should get the same income and employment opportunities as men, and so on.

This is then followed by some sort of irrational qualifying statement which, all too sadly, doesn’t do the cause much good at all. As an example, I quote from a letter in one of the dailies: “I am all for women who deserve promotion through hard work and proper qualifications for the job, but I think top jobs should go to the best candidates. Many women are not interested in working, and if their husbands can afford it, prefer to stay at home and look after the kids.”

Naturally, there are the corollaries. Many women are, in fact, interested in working, and many men, myself included, would rather not work at all but stay at home instead. Alas, life is an often difficult thing, and well, let’s just leave it at that.

It is noteworthy, however, that those objecting to the Gender Equity Bill have not singled out the most glaring example of the sort of disaster one can expect as a result of such ham-fisted interference in the workplace -- and that is the dowdy klutz hoping to drive this abomination into law, Lulu Xingwana, the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities.

Dear God in heaven, if there is such a thing, but our Lulu has not exactly covered herself in glory as a member of government, has she? It is something of a mystery as to why the Presidency persists in keeping her on board, pushing her from the one portfolio to the next. Perhaps the thinking is that, with enough time, she’ll eventually shine at something. So far, though, the results have been dire.

Readers will remember how, in 2007, as Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister, Xingwana claimed that white farmers routinely rape and assault their workers. This hardly endeared her to said farmers and the former president, Thabo Mbeki, was called in to resolve the rowdy dispute that followed with the agricultural unions.

Then there was the matter of Xingwana’s special mobile toilet, which she dragged hither and thither to various ceremonies in rural areas.

According to a report in the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport, the loo had gold trimmings and was imported at a cost of R500 000. Xingwana’s spokesperson denied the claim, but confirmed that although she did have a specially-reserved toilet it was no different to those used by grubby common folk.

Our fondest memory, however, of Xingwana concerns the incident in August 2009 when -- as the Minister of Arts and Culture, her next job -- she fled in disgust from the Innovative Women exhibition at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, because she had been offended by photographs of embracing black lesbians couples.

An arts minister apparently terrified of art? Now there was a thing, and duly approached for comment, Xingwana explained her silly behaviour thus: “Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation-building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building.”

As we put it here at the Ridge, but not without some rebuke from the women present: “Social cohesion? Can we watch?”

But moving on, as we must. The problem with Xingwana’s present portfolio -- minister of everything soft and fuzzy except white men -- is that, as opposition MPs pointed out this week, its mandate was vague and lacked substance. No-one knew what the minister was supposed to be doing, apart from being a waste of time and money. Which, come to think of it now, is something she’s quite good at.

However, if government really wanted to get cracking in its quest for equality in the workplace, then it should get to grips with the basics -- spare no effort in ensuring that firstly, girls go to school where they will be offered a first-rate, excellent education and, secondly, they remain at school until they have received that education.

Get that right, and the rest will follow. But then that is another matter altogether.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Famous Grouse: June 4

Latest Weekend Argus column. As submitted for publication. -- AD

TO Kampala, where our chap there, Jon Qwelane, may or may not be taking time out from the diplomatic swirl with diverse members of the Bagandan royalty and their obsequious courtiers to ponder his future in the service now that he has been found guilty of hate speech by the Johannesburg Equality Court.

There’s a rich irony here, something that won’t be lost on Qwelane, a former journalist who fell foul of the apartheid security establishment on several brutal occasions.

He may even find it amusing that he should be censured for some homophobic crap he penned almost three years ago -- especially now that he is ambassador to a country that until very recently was hell-bent on broadening the criminalisation of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty for such offences as being HIV-positive, or engaging in sexual acts with people of the same sex or with those under 18 years of age.

Compare that degree of homophobia with the sort found in Qwelane’s Sunday Sun column and you’d find it hard to believe we’re on the same planet as Uganda, let alone the same continent.

Which in no way excuses the blimpish gay-bashing exercise in which Qwelane railed at the “rapid degradation of values and traditions by the so-called liberal influences of nowadays”.

Everywhere he looked, Qwelane saw “men kissing other men in public, walking holding hands and shamelessly flaunting what are misleadingly termed their ‘lifestyle’ and ‘sexual preferences’.

“There could be a few things I could take issue with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, but his unflinching and unapologetic stance over homosexuals is definitely not among those,” he continued. “Why, only this very month -- you'd better believe this -- a man, in a homosexual relationship with another man, gave birth to a child!”

If, gentle reader, you feel that this last point strains credulity, you must remember that Qwelane was writing for a readership that is accustomed to seeing photographs of what appears to be large turnips or sweet potatoes on the front pages of their newspapers and being told that these were, in fact, the tokoloshe.

Qwelane concluded that he would be praying that the constitution would be rewritten to outlaw same-sex unions. “Otherwise, at this rate, how soon before some idiot demands to ‘marry’ an animal, and argues that this constitution ‘allows’ it?”

It is understandable that there are those who have welcomed the court’s ruling that Qwelane apologise unconditionally to gays and lesbians, and that he pay R100 000 to the SA Human Rights Commission for awareness and education of homosexual rights, and have urged the government to recall him from Kampala.

Government will probably do no such thing. This, after all, is a “personal matter”, according to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

Perhaps it’s best that Qwelane remains in Uganda, swanning about the cocktail parties in his pith helmet in search of drink. He’s doing no harm up there, and no good will come of hauling the lumpy-brained troglodyte back to Pretoria.

You’re not going to change his mind -- or the minds of those who support his views, and believe me, there are many, as I discovered by scrolling through the moronic comments posted under the online reports about the court’s ruling.

Some, like the outraged claims that the SAHRC would be using Qwelane’s hard-earned tom to actually train young people in “gayness”, are so gormless that you feel compelled to wash your eyes out after reading them lest your own mind be corrupted. Here, for the stout-hearted, is one such offering, verbatim: “Practitioners must not run to schools and convert our children. We have became imoral country and abomination filled country. Very soon the rath of God will befell.”

God, some readers may believe, has probably done more than enough in the making trouble department. In Uganda, the motion to introduce the harsh anti-gay laws was, according to news reports, inspired by a conference in which in which evangelical American Christians declared homosexuality a direct threat to the cohesion of African families.

But other postings include attacks on the court by those who suggest it only ever tried black people, Africans in particular -- it never heard cases involving white people -- and that it had no authority because it was “drunk” when it ruled against Qwelane in absentia.

The language, the racism and the attitude of obdurate ignorance is that of the ANC Youth League, in particular its brattish president, Julius Malema. It’s like PW Botha all over again, and the boorish bluster is finding currency as the lingua franca in every aspect of our public life. It’s very sad, the hatred of the new dumb.

Dylan at 70

A piece for the Johannesburg Sunday Times on June 5. -- AD

ON August 9 2002, a newspaper published in Buffalo in New York ran an enthusiastic piece on Bob Dylan. The following week, the singer, amused by its contents, had a member of his stage crew read an adapted version to his audience to start a show. Since then, that running joke has opened most Dylan concerts. To wit: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned make-up in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen - Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!"

Well, the poet laureate came in for some stick in April, criticised on tour in China for failing to condemn the detention of artist Ai Weiwei and accused of allowing himself to be censored by Beijing. How the times they have a-changed, went the headlines.

Those that leapt to his defence pointed out the criticism was misinformed: Dylan was never a "protest singer" or "political" and had, in fact, turned his back on "topical songs" in 1965. Besides, his supporters argued, Dylan never did the expected thing, and banged nobody's drum but his own.

Recently he did the unexpected, and posted his response on his website, rebutting reports that he had been previously barred from performing in China, that his shows had been poorly attended and those that did turn up were mainly expat Westerners.

"As far as censorship goes," he wrote, "the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There's no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous three months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me and we played all the songs that we intended to play."

Then came the interesting bit: "Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them."

Snarky tone aside, there are indeed many Dylan books about to hit our shelves, mainly as 70th birthday tie-ins. Some of the better ones are the updated Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, by Howard Sounes, the revised No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, by Robert Shelton and the expanded Behind The Shades: The 20th Anniversary Edition, by Clinton Heylin.

Shelton's book, first published in 1986, is considered by many to be the best, if only because it is the only biography written with Dylan's active co-operation. Shelton, a critic whose New York Times review of a folk club performance in September 1961 helped launch the singer's career, passed away in 1995 and his book has been overhauled by editors armed with his original manuscript.

Heylin's book, meanwhile, has grown like a tumour. It ran to some 550 pages upon publication; the second edition, published in 2000, some 780 pages; and the new one 928 pages. Heylin's two-volume treatise of the entire Dylan canon, Revolution In The Air and Still On the Road, was published last year.

At the other end of the spectrum is When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan, by Gary Golio and Marc Burckhardt. A children's book, it tells the story of the young Dylan's quest to find his hero, the folk singer Woody Guthrie, and their meeting in a New Jersey asylum, where Guthrie was stricken with Huntington's Disease.

Writing in The New York Times, historian Sean Wilentz -- author of last year's acclaimed Dylan in America -- noted that although the story of Guthrie and Dylan's meeting was "familiar to baby-boomers", it would come as "news to their grandchildren".

Moreover, When Bob Met Woody was the story of "the folk process" itself, in which songs were handed anonymously from one generation to the next.

What was happening here was that the voice of the promise of the counterculture was about to pass, like Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill and other historical figures, into the mainstream of a fabled and idealised American mythology, and this may well explain Dylan's testiness over these and other books.

An intensely private person, it could be that, at 70, he feels control of his legacy slipping from his grasp. Perhaps it's more simple; the books have become a burdensome embarrassment. At any rate, in his own memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, he has bluntly distanced himself from the "spokesman of his generation" hoopla: "What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing."

For many, Dylan's best albums were Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, all released in a blaze of creative fury from May 1965 to August 1966. It was a time when "the singer stood at a world crossroads", as the critic Greil Marcus noted in his extraordinary The Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes.

"For a moment," Marcus wrote, "he held a stage no one has more than mounted since - a stage that may no longer exist. More than 30 years ago, when a world now most often spoken of as an error of history was taking shape and form - and when far older worlds were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant - Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes or even his whim; the fact was, for a long moment, it did."

There have been other great albums -- neophytes may consider John Wesley Harding, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, The Basement Tapes, Oh Mercy, Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft" and Modern Times -- but Marcus was right about that long moment. It was gone, all right, but its presence lingers faintly, like a dying echo, in the performances that Dylan is now giving, 46 years later.

In June 1988, he began what is now known as the Never-Ending Tour, a ceaseless performing schedule that averages about 100 dates a year around the world.

Dylan didn't think much of the title, and in 2009 told Rolling Stone magazine: "Critics should know there is no such thing as forever. Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never-Ending Car-Builder? Anybody ever say that Duke Ellington was on a Never-Ending Bandstand Tour? These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don't necessarily need to retire."

Nevertheless, the grind is gruelling, and his touring schedule would floor artists half his age. In April it was China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. This month it's Europe, and in July, the US.

And so it goes. His voice now ranges in tone from a grinding rasp to a reedy honk. His detractors have noticed, and they've charged that the iconoclasm is now directed at himself; that he seems hell bent on exploding his own myth through poor performances. "Not as good as he used to be," is the general complaint. "He can't even sing any more."

It's true the live songs barely resemble the recorded versions. This is perhaps a desire to rework his songs to make up for his battered vocals. But that doesn't mean the concerts are bad. I saw him at a festival in London in 2004 and it was a tired mixed bag of songs. But the following year, at the Brixton Academy, he was astounding. You pays yer money, as they say, and you takes yer chances.

And our fascination continues. These days it's not the new music we look forward to, but the latest volume in the Bootleg Series, the release programme for the rare and unreleased material from all corners of Dylan's 50-year career.

We know the best is yet to come -- the 128 or so songs recorded in a basement in a Woodstock, New York, house in the summer of 1967 with musicians that would later be known as The Band. But that is another story.

So, Dylan is 70. What does it mean? Way back in 1965, he told a press conference: "I'm just a song-and-dance man."

He's now older and still the song-and-dance man, but unlike any other song-and-dance man we know.