Wednesday, 27 July 2016

BBC Neutrality on Right Wing Fascism

On the fourth of July 2016, media diversified issued an open letter to the BBC entitled “Open Letter: The BBC must stop uncritical coverage of fascists”, which implored the BBC not to let fascist statements and opinions go unchallenged on its news network. The BBC’s response was perplexing. The BBC stated that they have a “duty to reflect these views and allow our audience to make up their own minds”.

Either the BBC misunderstood what was being communicated, that is, they understood the petition to be against the screening of all fascist views (which the letter clearly did not lobby for) - or the BBC did not feel the need to acknowledge that its coverage of fascist discourse could be handled better. Either way, they did not take the petition seriously enough to acknowledge its core message.

The open letter from Media Diversified merely petitions the BBC to apply the same critical standards that it does to other forms of extremism such as Islamic extremism. The BBC often laments the radicalisation of young and/or impressionable or vulnerable people due to their lack of critical insight into extremist Islamist propaganda, and hence seeks to challenge it at every turn. Rightly, it does not regard itself as neutral in the face of the Islamist extremist threat.

It is therefore difficult to understand why the BBC would adopt a standard of neutrality when right wing fascist views are being aired on their media platform (as was the case in the BBC’s letter of reply). Whether reporting is concerned with Brexit, or any other major political discussion, the viewer expects to be presented with a diversity of opinion on values and beliefs and ideas about society and the world we live in, so that they can contextualise the information that is being relayed to them. That is what helping viewers “make up their minds” should be about; not merely adopting a neutral position and abdicating the great responsibility that comes with being a heavyweight global media platform such as the BBC.

The BBC, precisely due to the vast reach and formidable power it possesses, and the reputation it enjoys, cannot pretend that it can adopt a neutral stance. It is a ludicrous position because; purely by virtue of the global power that the BBC enjoys, it elevates whoever is on it, and whatever they are discussing, onto the global stage, and acts – in many ways – as an authority device for filtering opinions and political ideas (e.g. such as Brexit).

If all the viewer desires is unfiltered opinion they can just as well get that from social media platforms themselves. They do not need the BBC to merely regurgitate unchallenged the opinions and ideas that they encounter in social media and societal spaces; what they need is a diverse critique of them so that they can make an informed judgement for themselves.

By adopting a stance of neutrality towards right wing fascist views, and not actively challenging them, the BBC is – by default – aiding in legitimising and manufacturing consent for these views. It is not performing its duty as a public broadcaster; as it is not upholding the same standard for all extremist views that it encounters as a global news and media platform. Neutrality, in this case, is an abdication of journalistic ethics and standards. It’s not difficult to venture a guess why some extremisms would be regarded as ‘more equal’ than others at the BBC, but that is a topic for another discussion.

In this light the BBC’s letter of response can only be regarded as facetious at best; it reads as though it was written by a PR or “communications” unit, and not a serious and considered response by a group of senior journalists. This is corporate media at its worst, pandering to the worst sentiments within society merely to boost ratings. Jerry Springer can get away with remaining neutral and allowing the circus to take centre stage on his reality television show, but it is a sad day when the BBC casts itself in the same light and forsakes journalistic standards for ratings, or is reluctant to challenge right wing fascist views and ideology with the candour that the subject deserves.

Corporate media often does not exercise the care and caution that is commensurate with its power. In the chase for ratings, and advertising revenue, keeping viewers glued to the screen has become the main driving force behind the media’s content, presentation and curation. Sensationalism sells. Titillation, provocation and awe entertains well. They keep an audience riveted, hanging off every word. Indeed, we may expect this level of engagement when watching entertainment news, or a movie on the big screen.

When it comes to the news and current events of the world, however, the integrity of the news is sacrosanct; journalistic principles and ethics must be upheld. Where there are slip-ups, they should be acknowledged; where there is room for improvement, advice should be eagerly received and carefully mulled over, and when it is determined that a significant correction is required in order to improve the news and empower the audience it should be welcomed, and not fobbed off with a cursory dismissal.

It is no wonder that so very many people – especially among the youth – have grown disillusioned, not just with political establishments, but the media establishment that plays along with its dangerous game. Perhaps this, more than anything, is a sign of things to come.

Long live citizen journalism!


Friday, 22 July 2016

The Rise of the Celebrity-Populist

The recent rise of “rock-star” anti-establishment politicians ranges across the ideological spectrum of 20th Century politics. In developed world democracies such as the United Kingdom, both conservative and labour have endured the rise of anti-establishment figures, with Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership of the Labour Party, and Boris Johnson effectively carrying out a mutiny upon the sitting prime minister – and the Conservative Party leader David Cameron – by leading the now successful campaign for the UK to leave the European Union (i.e. “Brexit”). In the democratic contest for presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders campaign had such impact, that his rival in the contest, Hillary Clinton, was forced to adopt more left-leaning anti-Wall Street rhetoric in her campaign in order to bridge the gap between new, younger democrat voters and the establishment-oriented democrat base from whom she enjoys great support.

New anti-establishment figures emerging from society is a good thing; it ensures that society continually questions itself, identifies its weaknesses and inadequacies, and works towards improving itself. And as society itself increasingly questions the status quo, and the establishment that enforces it, the more it moves towards a critical mass that can drive the transition to a better future. Yet, capturing anti-establishment sentiment, and wielding the power offered by that kind of political mandate – when it reaches critical mass – is a very serious responsibility. If you run on a ticket to bring about change, then that is exactly what people will expect, and if you do not satisfy them adequately you are bound to endure harsh scrutiny and treatment in turn. 

Today, significant frustration and anti-establishment sentiment exists in the US (as well as in societies across the world), yet there is an equally significant political vacuum; there is a scarcity of viable political options and alternatives for voting citizens. At the same time, celebrity has permeated every facet of modern existence. Celebrity, is increasingly playing a role in politics as well, as it shares the media base off which politicians access and influence their networks of supporters i.e. television, movies, social media, internet, and so forth.

In a sense, celebrities can be regarded as a “monarchy” of sorts in the popular imagination; in that they are ranked as equivalent to the political class and political elite, and occupy the political sphere, even though their membership stems from celebrity, wealth, fame and social status – i.e. they are those who have celebrity status in the entertainment media, who are wealthy, and who have amassed or inherited both in great quantity. They can mobilise funds for humanitarian causes, they can attract attention to worthy humanitarian, environmental and spiritual campaigns, and they can become politicians. From Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the transition from entertainment to politics has often worked out for those willing to take the gamble.   

The "celebrity-populist" is only one special category of rock-star anti-establishment politicians. The celebrity-populist, however, is a phenomenon that threatens to emerge in greater numbers early on in this new Century, precisely because of how media works in this era. What then, is this celebrity-populist? How can they be better defined?

The celebrity-populist entertains the electorate successfully, and through a variety of media platforms, but in the quest to keep the drama alive, and the converted focused on them, the drama can turn ugly, especially when it becomes about targeting imaginary enemies. By preying on the fears of ordinary people and amplifying them by using their celebrity as a platform to amplify fears, the celebrity-populist corrals ordinary people who are frustrated with the world they live in, and who harbour significant anti-establishment sentiment, in order to obtain power. Once laagered in, they look to the leader with greater hope and dependence, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation. The celebrity populist therefore offers them a competitive, protectionist and isolationist vision of the world, rather than one that values cooperation, diversity and inclusivity.

In the end, it is a simplistic politics that the celebrity-populist offers, but they can get away with it because they are not from within the existing political establishment and are oblivious (even disrespectful) of the political conventions of the establishment. In the end the equation of power, for the celebrity-populist, is a blunt, linear one. People are easily controlled when they are in a state of fear and anxiety about the world, so the drama revolves around existential threats and imminent crises, and they do not have to connect in any meaningful way to reality. That, after all, is what entertainment is all about; drama does not have to be real for the drama to be captivating. It is easy, in such fertile terrain, for alarmism to grow to outsized proportions, as it is the most basic dramatic ploy, and easily adapted to the political stage.

In America, for example, the emergence of the tea-party within the conservative Republican Party, and the recent rise of Donald Trump in the run-up to the US presidential elections are a case in point. In this fearful new world, migrants and minorities are once again relegated to the realm of the threatening “other”. Urgency and fear are the key messages, not hope; and progressive aspirations to a diverse, inclusive society are deemed to be a “liberal” threat to traditional values and the American “way of life”.

To be fair, there was also a great sense of urgency during the Obama campaign in 2008, but it was entirely justified; the US economy (as well as the global economy) had collapsed under George Bush. The dearth of regulation in the financial sector led to risky financial propositions being rated as safe as blue chip investments, and the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage crisis effectively brought the easy liquidity bubble of the early 2000s to a crunching end. America had blundered into an ill-advised war on Iraq, at great cost, and with little success to speak of, destabilising the region and energising the Sunni jihadist base in the region and across the world. It was also over-extended in Afghanistan. US debt had risen to staggering proportions, and the dollar’s role as a global currency was being questioned. Obama inherited a mess from the republican government, yet ironically, his presidency effectively took the blame for it from the very first day of his presidency, and continues to. As far as securing US interests are concerned, Obama’s presidency did far more than George Bush’s to revive and consolidate America’s economy, its place in the world, and its role as a global superpower. However, the radicalisation of the conservative right, has done everything it can to create the impression of an America under siege from terrorism, migration, minorities and the rest of the world.

Good political leadership for a modern society is in stark contrast to that practised by the celebrity-populist. When people assemble behind a vision that they can believe in and work towards as a society more freedom is required, and less direct control of society is necessary. Real political leaders navigate change and uncertainty by galvanising society and increasing its confidence in itself, thereby strengthening it in the face of change, making it more resilient, adaptive and innovative. They help society achieve what it may consider impossible, and enable society to transition to greater cohesiveness, unity and sense of purpose and belonging. Good leadership increases freedom in society because due to its cohesiveness it self-regulates more effectively. Moreover, it is a mark of civilised politics that leaders can debate and attack each other’s ideas and track record without necessarily attacking each other.

Good leadership is not about demonising minorities, building walls, professing “greatness” or bullying neighbours and competitors around the world. All nations and societies in this world cannot escape the fact of migration and socio-economic change; that societies are more diverse, fluid and interconnected than ever before. It is a fact of 21st Century existence; one that can only be undone by the collapse of global civilization in its entirety; an end of 'civilisation' scenario from which no recovery is possible.

Every nation state draws its boundaries, yet it is not necessarily isolationist and inward looking as a result of it. Its boundaries are there to regulate the fluxes into and out of it (i.e. whether demographic, commerce, trade, finance, energy, raw materials, species, etc.). Its boundaries are best negotiated, not imposed, or extracted under the threat of protectionism or aggression. Every nation is, in some sense, defined by the nations around it and by the existence of other nations around the world; being a nation state necessitates recognising others. They need to look to each other, not only for their own survival and prosperity, but also for their existential rationale. Simply put, we exist as a nation or country because others do; the same is true of individuals, communities and societies.

Amnesia about the fragility of nation states, regionalism and cooperation is perhaps a consequence of the distance that contemporary society enjoys from the horrors of the World War II. Yet those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Sowing division, amplifying fear and caricaturing those who do not look and sound like us, are precedents for serious conflict and instability. This is especially the case when individual and group fears of imaginary threats and enemies extend to the leadership of the nation state.

Whether countries are drawn into trade wars, violent wars conducted to secure resources such as oil, water, land, etc.), currency wars and other forms of conflict. Loss of life and livelihoods are never far off when complex and intricate relations – whether internal or with the rest of the world – are forgotten by the leaders of nations. With this in mind, it is worth casting a careful, considered eye upon the words, actions and policies of the celebrity-populist. After all, as entertained as we may be by the celebrity-populist, the last laugh may ultimately be on us!

Trump Now, Kanye Later!

I’m going to make a prediction; if Donald Trump manages to win the election for president of the United States, it opens the door for Kanye West to become president in the future. It may seem a large stretch of the imagination, but events of late have confounded notions of what is probable and what isn’t in American (and global) politics. Indeed, who could have imagined that Donald Trump would prove to be the clear frontrunner in the Republican race, and would receive the largest ever endorsement from the Republican Party as its nominee for president? All the pundits and statisticians (yes; even Nate Silver) got it wrong, and badly!

The truth, it seems, is stranger than fiction. It is a new century, and a new era is beckoning. As the complexity of transition has taken hold, the 21st Century is defying the political logics of the 20th Century. In colloquial terms, as the obsessions with all things “extreme” became popular in the late 20th Century, many who occupy the ranks of the traditional establishment failed to notice that ‘extreme politics’ was busy rooting itself in societies across the world. And it is not just the emergence of an anti-globalisation sentiment, however, even though globalisation is widely viewed as presenting an existential threat to many traditional groups and societies around the world. Rather, what is emerging, is a profoundly anti-establishment sentiment.

Twentieth century politicians, analysts and commentators, who drew on increasingly outdated ideologies to assess society’s political trends failed to read the undercurrents. Consequently, they were unable to adequately frame what has been emerging as a profound and sizable anti-establishment sentiment in societies across the world. People all over the world appear to have grown disillusioned with the establishment’s politics, politicians and institutions – as well as the leadership and governance modalities – of the late 20th Century.

In democracies, this means that leaders are chosen without much thought, and crass populism “goes viral” very quickly and effectively. In authoritarian states, the powers that be crack down heavily on dissent and any emerging diversity of sentiment and opinion. In some democracies, which dangerously straddle both worlds, a combination of the two take root irrespective of their incompatibility (e.g. President Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Duterte in the Philippines).

Anti-establishment sentiment, however, has had few viable political vessels through which to find expression. The reason for this is how rigid, staid and disconnected from social reality conventional politics has become. All who are party to it are expected to “play the game”. Yet this is exactly what is undermining the political sphere and opening up the gaps for extremists and populists to capture large swathes of disgruntled electorates and groups all over the world. The “game” it seems, is undergoing some profound changes.

Yet there is cause for concern. The last time the United States reacted without adequate and sufficient analysis to a political crisis it went to war on Iraq in 2003. The consequences, over a decade later, have proved disastrous not just for America but for the Middle East and the rest of the world. The decision to go to war on Iraq not only boosted Al Qaeda’s ranks, it led to the formation and expansion of Daesh or “ISIS”. ISIS’s extremism has devastated Muslim-dominated countries and thrown the entire region into crisis. The “blowback” from the war on Iraq may yet last for many decades to come.

The lesson in all of this is simply that short-sightedness often has dire long-term consequences. Frustration with the status quo, or with intractable challenges, should never be cause for rash action. Action, especially political and military action, is not always superior to ‘inaction’. Pausing to reflect can often prove to be the most important and critical action that individuals, groups and nations can take. More recently, the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union (i.e. “Brexit”) took everybody (the British included) by surprise. Many took the referendum as a “protest vote” on the European Union and woke up surprised at the result they voted for. Voting in contemporary society, it seems, has taken on the significance of reality-television game shows i.e. it has become a way to express sentiment rather than actual political will.

When one considers the very likely prospect of a dystopian future characterised by superficial reality-television styled politics, with politicians pandering to the lowest common denominator within the electorate for quick and easy votes, spouting all manner of invective and prejudice in a circus enactment of ‘realpolitik’, it is not difficult to imagine that politics as we know it may become seriously derailed, but not in service of the emergence of a new, more relevant politics.

Instead of leaders who present new, bold visions for society, and plan meticulously and adapt intelligently to changes in global and local contexts, the future may well prove to be one where politicians and power pivot between entirely contrary positions and collude to spin counter-narratives in the corporate media to great effect (much like the capricious Mr Trump). The result of this is likely to be a confused, divided and thoughtless society that cannot effectively rally against the very establishment it sought to dethrone, effectively swopping one form of establishment for another more entertaining but ultimately less desirable and more dangerous one.

Both Kanye and Donald Trump are celebrities whose celebrity and public appeal have been greatly expanded and multiplied by reality-television. Donald Trump broadened his celebrity significantly through his well-known role on the reality show “The Apprentice”, where he became known globally for his delivery of the phrase, “you’re fired!” Kanye being linked to Kim Kardashian has broadened his celebrity and public appeal in a vastly more mainstream space than he would have enjoyed purely as a rap-artist and musician, no matter how famous he became for his music. His persona has become familiar to society at large in the US. Even his music and clothing line have no doubt been boosted by being on the Kardashian show.

And it is precisely the preoccupation with and desire to be entertained that may effectively hijack politics for a good few decades. It is not unimaginable that Kanye West, with his extraordinary gift for speaking and engaging people, and working off an already large and secured audience and social media platform, may one day find himself in the oval office. Even though he proclaimed that he would run for election next time round, it may take a few elections before he ascends to power, as was the case with Trump. Indeed, it may be that – as was the case with Bush senior and junior – Trump and his son may yet create a dynasty of their own, and as was the case with the Bush’s, leave the United States indebted and the regional and global economy in tatters, before a candidate like Kanye West begins to reach the ears of American voters.   

The model is already being put in place. It consists of using media celebrity, self-aggrandisement, glamorous lifestyles and wives, and exhibitionist reality-television credentials to transition into public office. Packing arenas and eliciting applause takes precedence in the realm of entertainment. Principles, ideology and track record fade into the background in this model, where the ability to hog the limelight and the attention of the media and the electorate become more important than actual politics. In this arena, Kanye can outdo the best, and to be fair to him, his understanding of the world is far more hopeful and visionary than Donald Trumps could ever hope to be.

Perhaps after the Trumps are done with the US, voters who have become conditioned to the new political norms that are emerging may actually come to view Kanye as an inspiring and viable option. Should he harness the imagination of the youth of today, as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn (in the UK) have managed to, by leveraging social media and widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment, as well as presenting a desirable vision for society, he may yet emerge as a worthy leader.

Kanye West is only 39 years old; he has plenty of time to chart a course towards the presidency, and to lay the foundation for a political career. And should the emerging political norms of the 21st Century set in over time, it may just become a reality. In the end, the President Kanye West of the future may actually have more to thank Donald Trump for than he may yet imagine!


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

South Africa: Legitimacy of Local Elections Jeopardised by SABC Attack on Press Freedom

The embattled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has found itself on the wrong side of the constitution, the law and press freedom when its maverick COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, supported by a now defunct board, made the decision to cease broadcasting “footage of destruction of public property during protests”. That is, it made the choice not to broadcast local service delivery protests that have spiralled out of control across the country over the past decade, as well as the more recent riotous protests that have erupted over the ANC’s choice of candidates in various locales across the country in the run-up to local elections in August.

Yesterday, however, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) issued a legally enforceable order – in terms of the ICASA act – to the SABC leadership to lift its blanket ban on coverage of protests that involve violence and unrest in South Africa because it constituted a ban on an “entire category of conduct”. The judgement stressed the importance of protecting and ensuring the communication of all “matters of public importance”, and especially information that is concerned with the performance of sitting governments. Banning an “entire category of conduct” was not provided for in SABC legislation or the licenses the organisation enjoys. The judgement directly compared the decision taken by the SABC board to Apartheid era censorship.

It is important to note that “service delivery protests”, as they are known, are about much more than simply service delivery. They are an expression of public discontent, not only at failures of central and local government to meet their needs, but also because they feel unheard and invisible to those in power. They feel that there is no other way to call government to account than to take to the streets to make local government “ungovernable” until their voices are heard. Many communities erupt after long periods of pursuing pressing local issues through the conventionally available channels, to no avail.

So the term “service delivery protests” has become a catch-all phrase, and it can sometimes be inappropriate. A case in point, the most recent protests in South Africa have emerged over the ANC’s choice of local candidates for the upcoming local elections in August. Many communities have resisted the ANC’s choice of candidates and have embarked upon violent protests in response to them, insisting that candidates that are preferred by their constituencies be appointed instead. So in this case, service delivery is not what the protests are about at all. It is worth keeping this in mind when one makes reference to service delivery protests in South Africa.  

Peaceful and violent “service delivery protests” have risen steadily under the Zuma presidency. Whereas major service delivery protests were under 20 (i.e. around 13) in 2004, they rose to over a 100 by 2009, and peaked at over 400 in 2012 (note that these are approximate values taken from different sources to be used for relative, approximate comparison with care)***. Although estimates of protests vary they constitute – rightly or wrongly – a critical indicator of political dissatisfaction with local and central government in South Africa. These protests are one of the key means of political expression in a political landscape that is dominated by the majority ANC government. It constitutes the (re)emergence of a culture of political protest that dominated the political landscape under the Apartheid government in the 1980s.

So it is with great irony that the SABC made the choice not to show visuals of violent local protests, claiming that people took to destruction of public and private property when television cameras were present. Led by Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the SABC board have, without seeming to realise it, made an explicitly political decision that is sure to have far reaching political consequences. Indeed, they may inadvertently jeopardise the legitimacy of the upcoming local elections by denying South Africans the right to critically important information; information that may have a direct impact on the upcoming elections. In effect, the SABC made the same decision as the apartheid government made i.e. to censor protests in black townships in order to keep the South African public in the dark about the true extent of political dissatisfaction with the Apartheid regime.

Surprisingly the SABC leadership has claimed that the decision was solely editorial, and judging by Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s response to the ICASA judgement he did not seem to understand the difference between censorship and editorial decision-making. To him they are one and the same, and he stated as much. It is a shocking state of affairs and the SABC has been plunged into turmoil as a result of it, with several senior journalists protesting the decision being faced with disciplinary action, and the resignation of the CEO Jimmy Matthews, whose resignation letter (in which he apologised for not acting sooner) made mention of the “toxic environment” at the SABC.

Moreover, the SABC leadership failed to recognise and acknowledge that the ICASA ruling was not a “recommendation” (as Hlaudi Motsoeneng put it), but a legally enforceable order. His response was confusing on a number of levels, most significantly that he threatened to take the matter to the constitutional court, even though he viewed the ruling as a mere “recommendation”. Were the ruling just a recommendation, it would not be legally enforceable and there would be no reason to involve the courts in the process. Logic is no obstacle to Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s power of reasoning; he reasons in service of his own convictions, however far from reality they may be.

The South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) expressed its shock at the SABC’s response to the ICASA ruling. Yet while it is shocking on one level, it is not shocking when one considers the precedent that has been set by the ruling political elite in South Africa. A culture of impunity has arisen amongst politicians and the politically connected, who attempt to intimidate or spin their way out of whatever resistance they may encounter from the media, civil society and chapter nine institutions that are tasked with ensuring that constitutionality is upheld and practised.

The ‘blueprint for survival’ has been written by the president himself, who evaded, misrepresented and attempted to scupper the Public Protectors findings on undue benefits that were wrongly obtained from state expenditure on his rural homestead. The unrepentant and combative Hlaudi Motsoeneng appears to have taken a page out of the president’s book. He has perhaps gone a step further, however, by not bothering to take sound legal advice (or perhaps a second opinion) on an issue that is critical for maintaining constitutionality and political legitimacy in the run-up to local elections.

It is therefore a very serious matter that has arisen, and the SABC’s response has not been well received. According to Ruben Mohlaloga of ICASA, ICASA would take the SABC’s response under legal review and made a determination over what further actions should be taken on the issue. The SABC is at risk of being subjected to a fine, or alternatively – and more seriously - the SABC’s license to broadcast can be suspended or revoked altogether.

To make it absolutely how clearly far off the mark the SABC board and Hlaudi Motsoeneng have drifted, even the ANC itself is outraged over the decision to censor and have called the communications minister Faith Muthambi to account for what is transpiring at the SABC. The National Working Committee (NWC) of the ANC met yesterday (11 July 2016) and today ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe denounced and lambasted the act of rebellion taken by the SABC COO and the board. It is worth noting that, quite unusually, minister Faith Muthambi did not attend the meeting of the NWC.

Lastly, in addition to these forces, which have mounted against the SABC leadership, the Public Protector is also investigating complaints against the SABC board. The COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng has already been the subject of a previous investigation by the Public Protector, of which the outcome was essentially that he lied about graduating from high school, had hounded out senior people from the public broadcaster (through suspensions and terminations), had engaged in irregular raises of salaries of his own as well as other staff members, and was not fit to run the SABC (the Public Protectors report was entitled “When Governance and Ethics Fail”). While the court ruled that the Public Protector’s report was legally binding, he managed to dodge the recommended consequences of that investigation when a court ordered disciplinary hearing into his conduct exonerated him and he was re-instated. It is widely speculated that political support from president Zuma and his camp has helped secure Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s position of power.  

This time his luck may run out however. Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s “me against the world” approach is fast becoming an escalating self-fulfilling prophecy, as he embarks upon simultaneous wars on many fronts; even with the ANC itself (or, as some are of the opinion, with that faction within the ANC that are attempting to wrest control of the ANC back from the Zuma faction). His bravado, self-congratulatory “shoot from the hip” approach has not endeared him to many within the political establishment, as his opinions and decisions fly in the face of the liberal democratic constitution that South Africa’s democracy is premised upon.

Yet the key point is this; whether the SABC’s license is revoked or not, as long as the decision to censor protests is upheld by the SABC, the upcoming local election may well be declared invalid as a result of the unilateral decision taken by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his board, and their refusal to respect the judgement. Either way, the public would be denied critical access to information that is necessary to inform their decisions at the ballot box. It appears as though the SABC board and its dissident COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng have embarked upon an ill-advised trajectory; one that is sure to jeopardise the upcoming local elections, and along with it South Africa’s international standing and the legitimacy of the sitting government with South Africans themselves.

As South Africa limps from one self-imposed crisis to another, it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain the aura of institutional and constitutional superiority that it wielded as a new African democracy. Under the Zuma administration, the erosion of public confidence in central government and local authorities has risen to epic proportions, and the protests are a key political indicator of public dissatisfaction. Ultimately, the SABC’s censorship will not prevent news of protest from reaching the electorate, especially in the era of social media and citizen journalism. It will, however, mark the point at which South Africa takes a significant leap backwards into the realm of political denialism that the Apartheid government squarely located itself within before its collapse became an inevitability. And as surely as bluff and bluster rarely appear unseparated, it is, more than anything, a sign of the weakening of government in South Africa.

**Assessments of service delivery protests vary between sources and different criteria are used to classify them, so the figures accounting for service delivery protests in South Africa are to be regarded as rough approximations of a general trend i.e. the figures for different years are not directly comparable. The figures cited in this article are taken from an Institute for Security Studies media briefing entitled "Community Protests 2004-2013: Some Research Findings" released on the 12th of February 2013 by the Social Change Research Unit, Authors Prof Peter Alexander, Dr Carin Runciman and Mr Trevor Ngwane (see and search for report). Note that the other often used data set is called Municipal IQ (see reference 3 below).

Some additional sources are listed here for the reader:



Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Century of the Trump?

The ‘Trumpification’ of politics is not difficult to understand. It is a product of an undeniable global trend that has seen the bureaucracies and leadership styles of late 20th Century politicians lose touch with the societies they are meant to serve in the 21st Century. This in turn has opened up opportunities for right and left wing exploitation of the yawning gap between power and people in democratic societies.

The ‘Trumpification’ of global politics is nothing new. The soundbyte politics of the 1990s has met new media and reality television, and led to the creation of a superficial political discourse that aims to capture and hold the short attention spans of 21st Century citizens. It achieves this by gross oversimplification and the capture of political territory through the use of one-dimensional sloganeering and surface level analysis (think George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi). In the quest to “keep it short”, the finer details are lost. Yet it is precisely these details that are so important to consider when undertaking political decision-making.

It appears as though the primary reaction to the globalisation, is to send society’s groups scrambling back into their enclosures. Instead of becoming more at ease with the broader world they appear to feel threatened by it instead. Opening up to a brave new world has – understandably – proved difficult for many societies and groups across the world. Change is always difficult to navigate despite how inevitable it may seem, or may actually be. 

The changes in 21st Century societies across the world are taking place in a climate of economic and resource uncertainty. Since the 2008 financial collapse, the world and many regions have struggled to grow and improve living standards in their composite countries at the rates and magnitudes they would ideally have hoped for. Urbanisation and the primacy of the city in modern economies – where the city acts as a fast-growing attractor for goods, services and industries, as well as the main site of hyperfinancialisation – has also impacted on the viability and survivability of secondary and smaller towns, as well as rural areas.

Some of the key threats that change promises to deliver in this century consist of the conflicts that emerge with respect to the following: economic and technological change, migration, resource scarcity and economic sustainability, global climate change, urbanisation, the changing nature of war and terror, socio-cultural changes with respect to identity as well as values and beliefs, as well as the nature of work and unemployment.

With respect to the projected changes in work and unemployment, in particular, it is important to clarify; the jobs of white and blue collar workers are shrinking and are under threat. This threat extends significantly into a range of occupations that lie outside of automation (i.e. in manufacturing and industry), extending to the development of products and the provision of services (e.g. media, software development, data capture and processing, modelling and simulation, etc.). The internet, artificial intelligence and robotics are bringing about sea changes in economies and employment throughout the world.

The inequalities between classes, races, genders etc. – i.e. whether social or economic status, or political power – have deepened in many parts of the world. These inequalities are the product of systemic weaknesses in the economic modalities of modern democracies, yet they have been exacerbated by the post-2008 global financial crisis, which has lingered on for eight years now. Despite the late 20th Century promise of a neoliberal paradise that would yield economic prosperity into perpetuity, the global political, economic and environmental outlook for the 21st Century appears dire.

On the social and cultural fronts, urbanisation and migration in an increasingly globalised world has placed many traditional and homogeneous communities, groups and societies under pressure to absorb migrants from various parts of the world, and to assimilate their values, norms, beliefs and behaviours into their places and societies. The rise of right wing parties in electorates across the EU has, in large part, been driven by fears of immigration. The “threat to our way of life” narrative is one that people across the world can easily lapse into (or fall prey to) when they feel that the social arrangements, norms, values, beliefs and behaviours that they are accustomed to, and which have become convention, encounter change. Yet these changes are inescapable in the era of globalisation, and are not bounded by space and co-location; even the virtual world presents a serious threat to existing “ways of life” in many parts of the world.  

At its very outset, this century appears belaboured by serious, even intractable challenges. When political and economic insecurity meet socio-cultural insecurity, the results can be potentially explosive.

This has opened up the space for populist politics to thrive. Instead of greater, techno-assured security and stability, the citizens of the 21st Century find themselves working harder for less. They are less able to maintain the living standards their parents were able to. Youth unemployment is skyrocketing in many parts of both the developed and developing world. General unemployment is also a major challenge for countries that have struggled to grow. Economic insecurity, and uncertainty over the future is occurring in a political environment where leaderships have lost touch with their electorates and are failing to respond to their main concerns. As a result, the space is easily captured by those who know best how to exploit this insecurity and uncertainty for political and economic gain.

Yet there is a duality to the potential that resides in these changing arrangements; on the one hand they can create and innovate new socio-economic, political and environmental trajectories, while on the other they can lead to loss of social cohesion, suspicion, increased conflict and a retreat into the safety of groups or the private realm. Leaders who can successfully exploit the fear of change, such as Trump, don’t spend much time on communicating their bold new vision. They are populists, who are more concerned with rallying the crowds against others, than providing the bold leadership that is required in order to navigate the complexity of the futures they face, and their role in creating a new future that is better for all. “Strength in diversity” is not their motto!

Yet Trump himself may only be a precursor of things to come. He may not be the worst, nor the most powerful; he may – in the end – only become known for being a precedent to what follows in the politics of the remaining eight decades of this century. By capturing the most powerful office in the world, he would have demonstrated what can be achieved through adopting this style of politicking in 21st Century society.

Successful leaders spawn copy-cats; and the more successful they are or appear to be, the more copycats they spawn. Recently, the rise of the populist hard-man Rodrigo Duterte to the presidential office of the Philippines, illustrated that the Trump-model of appealing to the electorate with tough talk can work wonders. The current Hindu nationalist president of India Narendra Modi also has a history as a hard man, but his ticket to the presidency was on a prosperity narrative; he was a man who could “get things done”. The rise of the right in Europe, particularly in France, the Netherlands and Austria, are in large part based on anti-immigrant and Islamophobic messaging (i.e. the “way of life” narrative).  

All these inclinations are embodied by Trump. It is almost as if they have recombined in his leadership style to yield a scary new precedent; one that effectively targets all outsiders, whether they belong to a religion, nationality, racial group, country, gender, or any other convenient label; one that looks inwardly to preserve what is familiar to a particular group. Populist charm, reality-television dramatism and cheap publicity stunts are the tactical basis of Trump’s politics. There is no strategy to speak of, only tactics, as this allows him to pivot with fluidity. It fits in easily to contemporary culture, where the attention span of voters has been whittled down so that they can absorb only simple narratives, grand rhetoric and conjured and manipulated ‘evidence’ or ‘facts’.

All this bodes ill for the future of global politics.  As a lesson in sobriety, it is worth considering what self-serving, attention seeking leaders do when the going gets rough. The recent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union is a case in point. The lead campaigners for the “leave” campaign, UKIP head Nigel Farage and pretender to the throne of the conservative party – Boris Johnson – both took every opportunity to make grand proclamations as to the independence and importance of Britain; it’s history of ‘running the world’ as evidence of its ability to operate independently, and that the EU needed the UK more than the UK needed it. They easily and comfortably slipped into their roles as over-the-top grand contrarians, who could spin and bluster anything to suit their argument. Both were not above peddling fictions as facts in order to win over the public.

Yet now that the realities of “Brexit” have dawned, and the political mess they made has landed on the doorsteps of both the UK and the EU, they have ducked out the back door. Nigel Farage grandly proclaimed that his life ambition had now been fulfilled and that there was nothing left for him to do. Boris remained silent after the vote for a prolonged period. When the landscape of contestation became apparent, and he was effectively betrayed by his “leave” campaign compatriot Michael Gove (who unexpectedly announced his candidacy for prime minister), he declared that he was not the man for the job of managing Britain’s transition out of the EU.

It is reminiscent of an earlier, much more telling disaster in global politics; the Iraq war. George Bush and Tony Blair’s war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction has resulted in the rapid expansion and reach of extremist terror that groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL. As was the case then, when the dust cleared and the enormity of the destruction and folly became apparent, they simply washed their hands of the debacle, blamed everybody else, and sauntered off into the sunset. The mess was left to the leaders that followed and the next generation(s) to clean up, and that is currently the reality that is underway; we are living in a world where the oppressors of yesteryear and today are being asked to settle their debts.   

When self-serving, attention-seeking leaders create a mess they do not take responsibility for cleaning it up. They pass the buck on to the next leader, or the next generation. In short, they are so self-consumed that it is easy for them to take a large crap on your doorstep and move on casually to the site of their next mess without a care in the world. They explain away their errors by denying them, blaming others, or through creating diversions. They cannot see themselves as failures; they are in deep denial about their capabilities and their limitations. They are governed by hubris and are prone to cognitive dissonance. They are not leaders, they are pied pipers who charismatically lead society into turmoil, fuelled by foolish and capricious decisions, all propped up by prejudice, recklessness and an outsized dose of pride.

Casting diversity and regional cooperation as a threat, building walls to keep migrants and refugees out, and labelling minority groups and ‘outsiders’ as “rapists” and “murderers” – or terrorists, in the case of Muslims – is hardly likely to bring about the kind of societies and the kind of world that is necessary for a better global future. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the end of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 have become powerful symbols of the folly and human tragedy of divisions, and the necessity for an approach towards diversity and globalisation that recognises our common humanity as a starting point. The politics of division has only one objective; to divide and conquer. And in this kind of politics, even the supporters are divided and conquered, even though they remain oblivious to it.

Right now, the world needs the kind of leadership that can face up to the serious challenges that we face as a global community, as well as the challenges of local communities, which overlap and cannot be separated. When considering the multidimensional nature of the changes that are projected in the 21st Century, it is not difficult to imagine that the transitions that societies and economies need to undergo may be problematic, even painful. What the world needs now, are visionary leaders who can navigate an unprecedented and complex global future that manifests at the local level in myriad ways, exerting pressures but also opening up opportunities to do things differently. More of the same leadership style of the late 20th Century is hardly likely to make a significant difference.

The political establishments of the 20th Century are under threat everywhere around the world in the 21st Century. The winds of change are blowing. Yet there is great uncertainty as to where these winds will lead us. It appears as though the democratic process – in many parts of the world – is proving to be more of a popularity contest than a political contest. Democracy is fast becoming a reality television show characterised by fickle groundswells rather than truly sustainable grassroots political mobilization. Now is the time to get the politics right, or the planet may embark upon a series of half-baked and ill-informed political and economic trajectories for the next few decades. If the Trump phenomenon proves to be a catalyst for rapid reproduction of similar-styled politics in democracies around the world, we may be living in a century where things get much worse before they get better.

We live in a fragile world. History shows how easily we can bring about ruin and destruction, and how long and painful the processes of recovery are. It is time for widespread grassroots political mobilization that can help constitute the kind of political spaces of action that can respond to the challenges societies around the world face, and empower people to take constructive political action to improve their futures, as well as that of their neighbours. The changes that the 21st Century have brought are irreversible. There is no going back, and anybody who professes grand returns to “greatness” and “independence” are selling the public a fantasy. It’s time to move forward, and a significantly profound political vision is required; one that can help realise a better future for all. Let’s get on with it!