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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Notes from the 2010 World Cup Debate at London’s Southbank Centre

Last month, for the London Book Fair, I took up the whistle to “ref” a panel of exciting young South African authors “kicking the ball around” on what the World Cup means to the home team.

Fascinatingly, and unexpectedly, the match turned out to be between the South African panellists on stage at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, and the audience in the auditorium. And the way it all came to a head prompted me to buy a ticket home.

Volcanic ash meant that several of the participants were unable to make it to the book fair, which had a South African focus this year. But I was pleased to announce that we could call off the bench the former ANC MP and arms deal-buster Andrew Feinstein and the award-winning playwright Nadia Davids (both of whom live in London), and that, for one match only, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, the Lucas Radebe of South African letters, would be coming out of retirement to play at being a young South African author.

On stage, they joined fiction writers Zukiswa Wanner and Henrietta Rose-Innes, and we began to talk about how we felt about the World Cup. Feinstein and Davids, in particular, criticised the expenditure on the tournament, Davids citing the subject of her latest play, the activist Cissie Gool: “How can you build a stadium in a sea of poverty?”

We spoke about South Africa’s obsession with reputation (“world class!”), and about the manic-depressive nature of the South African psyche: we’re either “the world’s greatest fairytale” or the next Zimbabwe. We spoke about how patriotism sneaked up on us: Feinstein wept at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Wanner is gobsmacked that she finds herself singing the national anthem along with the team. And we spoke – how could we not? – about winning and losing.

When it was Ndebele’s turn, I regretted immediately comparing him to Radebe: his soft, sure touch made him nothing less than a Pelé. He began obliquely by talking about one of the great loves of his life: Moroka Swallows. The worse they played, the deeper his affection ran: “They play, they lose, and I love them.” His manner, self-effacing yet authoritative, made the point: you don’t need a team to win to love them; you don’t need a country to be “world class” to think it’s great, or that you’re OK.

It was masterful, a beautiful pass across the somewhat cranky critiques of the others (myself included) on stage. But not clear enough, yet, to set up a goal: in question time, the audience took the ball in another direction entirely. Our critiques might be valid and informed, a Londoner said, but weren’t we missing the point? Was the World Cup not a celebration of both Africa and the Beautiful Game? How could you put a price on that?

Several audience members made the same point. I looked around the hall and clocked the demographic: most of those present were either South Africans or – the greater part – progressive Londoners passionate about football, or the kind of African upliftment that the World Cup promises, or both. An older woman, clearly steeped in the culture of international solidarity, urged us to consider the importance of national happiness in South Africa; a “Saffer” asked us, plaintively, to talk about the “mood on the ground”, which she believed was more ebullient than we allowed. Why, she wanted to know, weren’t we more celebratory?

I offered that, while the US constitution guaranteed the right to happiness – a fabulous thing – the South African one entrenched the right to dignity, as did the German one; testimony to the two nations’ traumatic histories. I suggested that a successful World Cup would have to offer both happiness and dignity to South Africans: those rich enough to attend a match, and those too poor, even, to have access to a television.

But it was “Pelé” Ndebele who saved the day. Davids had spoken about how, back home, you were compelled to be “for” the World Cup or “against” it, and how she resisted such binarism. Now Ndebele took the notion a step further, converting it – in this humble referee’s opinion – into a goal. What we were doing that night, he said, was precisely the kind of celebration the audience members seemed to be longing for. The gathering and the discussion was precisely the reason why South Africa was “world class”, with or without an international commercial jamboree; with or without a winning team.

This is what I understood from Ndebele: what the world needed to celebrate about South Africa – what we needed to celebrate in ourselves – was the way we had talked our way out of civil war and into freedom; how we continued to hold – on every corner, around every table – the national conversation on freedom. This, rather than the rah-rah of a football win or the sparkle of a stadium, is what defines us; this is what makes us South African. This, rather than the billions squandered on bling in the bushveld, is a future we can bank on. This is our “brand essence”.

I’m not sure if anyone noticed that my voice cracked a little as I blew the final whistle that spring evening. During the discussion, I had repeated what my friend Mario, a German, had said about seeing the 2006 World Cup in Berlin at a time when the wall still stood firm, metaphorically, between East and West: “Watching those matches in the fan zones gave us the opportunity to imagine, for a few brief weeks, the Berlin of our dreams.”

My anger at both Fifa and the South African government remains unstemmed: for the obscenity of the World Cup expenditure, and the lie that it is going to provide some kind of economic redemption. But the way things panned out in the Purcell Room made me feel that I needed to be back, if at all possible, for at least some of the World Cup. So I’m coming home in June: I want to imagine the South Africa of my dreams.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Jacob Zuma’s Britain Visit Shows the President is Weak and Embattled

Jacob Zuma is an affable man justly lauded for attempting to recreate Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory style in the aftermath of Thabo Mbeki’s deeply divisive tenure. In this context, the new South African president’s prickly attack on neocolonial British attitudes towards “barbaric” Africans was remarkable. It was reminiscent of Mbeki himself, and even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

The column that provoked the attack, by the Mail’s Stephen Robinson, was indeed an instance of the kind of sarky condescension with which Zuma takes issue. But by rising to the bait at the outset of his most important foreign tour yet, Zuma manifested a dawning truth about his fledgling presidency: he is weak and embattled, not least by the latest revelations about his messy personal life.

A month ago, the South African media revealed that Zuma had a secret child born out of wedlock; after brazening it out for a few days with the “this is my Zulu culture” defence, he was forced to offer an apology. This was not because of an uproar from white racists, but rather, because of the disquiet and outrage of black South Africans, who understood that he was abusing traditional customs to justify his own goatishness. There is no question that he had broken the very strict rules of traditional African polygamy by impregnating the daughter of Irvin Khoza, a close personal friend and South Africa’s football supremo.

The episode compromised Zuma’s authority, already weak by virtue of the fact that he is in power thanks to the sponsorship of a disparate group of ANC leaders with little in common. These include leftwing trade unionists, ambitious businessmen, Zulu ethnicists, and spooks and provincial strongmen sidelined by Mbeki – all of whom saw in Zuma a route into power, and now would like to call in their bets.

Most of them lined up behind Zuma for the simple reason that he was not Mbeki, and was willing to take the man on; many, now, are reckoning with their bad call. Observing Zuma deliver his state of the nation address in parliament a week after his apology, the South African commentator Richard Calland wrote that he could “smell the sense of distance and disdain” towards Zuma from ANC parliamentarians:

“You hear it in the conversations of longstanding ANC members and activists, who remember the days when the ANC’s grand mission was not only to conquer apartheid, but also to do so with a compelling sense of modernity, of non-ethnicity and non-sexism, to set a new standard as a paragon of decency and dignity that would surprise the world and win Africa new-found respect and intellectual status.”

Much remains good about Jacob Zuma presidency: rational leadership at last on Aids; a talented and heterodox cabinet held to account by performance appraisals; a lack of the defensiveness that characterised the Mbeki era. Zuma’s populism has rendered the South African government more responsive and accessible than it was during the aloof Mbeki’s tenure. But it has also meant that Zuma presents himself as all things to all people – and he seems unable to be the kind of decisive leader South Africa needs, if it is going to combat its huge problems.

Caster Semenya, Sarah Baartman, Eudy Simelane: Two Articles

South African Angst

As the outrage grew in South Africa last month around the treatment of the athlete Caster Semenya by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the name of another young black South African woman was repeatedly mentioned: Sarah Baartman.

Ms. Semenya is the masculine-looking 18-year-old runner who won in the 800-meter at the recent World Athletics Championships in Berlin but had her medal withheld subject to sex-verification testing. Humiliated, she returned home a hero, with thousands greeting her at the Johannesburg airport, and with leaders ranging from Winnie Mandela to President Jacob Zuma clamoring to defend her.

Baartman was the “Hottentot Venus” of the early 19th century, a singer and dancer of the Khoi people who was born into slavery and brought over to Europe by impressarios who put her on public display because of her unusually large buttocks and genitals. After she died at the age of 25 her body was dissected displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris; her remains were repatriated to South Africa in 2002. Today, she has become an icon in South Africa of the way colonialism dehumanized black people and pathologized black sexuality.

The way Ms. Semenya’s humiliation evoked Baartman’s offers fascinating insight into South Africa’s defensive self-image, and how the country projects itself in the world. It tells us much about how, in the shadow of a turbulent past, South Africans aspire toward the diversity, tolerance and dignity laid out in their Constitution — and how distant the lives of many of them are from such aspirations.

Given South Africa’s history, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the political support for Ms. Semenya has been expressed in racial terms: The A.N.C. youth leader Julius Malema labeled the sex testing a “racist attack on a beautiful woman,” and the South African athletics head, Leonard Chuene, asked: “Who are white people to question the makeup of an African girl?” When a newspaper noted that South Africa’s head coach was Ekkard Arbeit, a former coach in East Germany — where women were frequently administered anabolic steroids — Mr. Chuene raged that South Africans would never “allow Europeans to define how our children should look …”

But if the adulation of Ms. Semenya is partly rooted in jingoism or wounded pride, perhaps it also celebrates something more salutary — a wish by many South Africans to live up to the values of the Constitution’s core statement that “all persons have the same inherent worth and dignity.”

Mr. Zuma gave voice to this ideal when he declared that not only had Ms. Semenya “showcased women’s achievement, power and strength,” she had “reminded the world of the importance of the rights to human dignity and privacy.”

These rights have been expressed most forcefully in South Africa’s legalization of same-sex marriage, putting the country streets ahead of its African neighbors and even the United States. In terms of transgender rights, South Africa leads even the Netherlands in its recent passing of a statute allowing people undergoing sex-changes to alter their gender officially without having to show proof of surgery.

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Castigated and Celebrated

Two highly accomplished, young, black, female South African athletes are currently in the news. One came home to a hero’s welcome and got to meet the president. The other is dead, her alleged assailants in a Delmas court this week on trial for her rape and murder.

Blessed with masculine looks and physiques, both women chose the sportsfield over more feminine pursuits. Both experienced ostracism because they challenged stereotypes and both appear to have dealt with this by devoting themselves to their codes.
Caster Semenya, 18, won the 800m at the world athletics championships last week; Eudy Simelane had been a member of Banyana Banyana, the women’s national football team, and was training to be a professional referee when she was murdered in KwaThema aged 29 last year.

Both women appear to have been punished — one in the most severe way possible — for their difference and their excellence. Semenya has been dealt the humiliation of having her gold medal withheld until she proves she is a woman.

And although the prosecutor failed to establish a connection between Simelane’s sexual orientation and her murder, her friends are convinced she was the victim of an epidemic of violence against lesbians, who are subjected to what is sometimes called “corrective rape” by men seeking to punish or cure them; or who feel that butch women are competing with them by straying into their territory.
According to Phumi Mtetwa, director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, at least 20 women have been killed, in ways similar to Simelane, over the past five years.

In the shadow of such violence, what are we to make of the extraordinary surge of emotion and patriotism in support of Semenya?
Much of it seems driven by grievance, by the sense that South Africans have been denied a rightful reward. There was conscious reference, by parliamentarians, to Saartjie Baartman, and perhaps the national anger at Semenya’s humiliation arises out of what we might call our Bartman Complex, a particularly South African anxiety, that we will gain notoriety for our alleged abnormality rather than celebrity for our excellence. Or, worse yet, that we will be revealed as Mugabes rather than Madibas; that the world will take away our gold medal and label us freakish instead.

But the upside to this anger is the acknowledgement that we strive towards a society based on something different than the repressive notions of gender roles inherited from colonial law-makers and patriarchal African society.

Welcoming Semenya home this week, Jacob Zuma gave eloquent voice to this: not only had the athlete “showcased women’s achievement, power and strength’’, but she had “reminded the world of the importance of the rights to human dignity and privacy’’.
And so there is a way that the current adulation of Semenya — even if it is fuelled in part by jingoism and wounded pride — vindicates the memory of Simelane, and other young women who have been victimised because they are too butch for comfort.
This is not to suggest, for a moment, that Semenya herself is a lesbian, or a transsexual, or intersexed, or anything other than a shy and determined young woman who is a demon on the racetrack. Rather, it is to acknowledge the way our society’s response to the difference she represents — the language it uses to protect her — signifies a significant shift in social norms since the advent of democracy.

Listen, for example, to Leonard Chuene, the blowhard South African athletics chief: “I am not going to let that girl be humiliated, because she has not committed (any) crime whatsoever. Her crime was to be born the way she is born,” he said to one journalist in Berlin. And to another: “Why must she be subjected to this? How you look and behave is a God-given thing. You do not have a say in that.”

Leaving the nature/nurture debate aside (is how we behave a ‘God-given thing’?), Chuene’s comments acknowledge that Semenya’s gender identity is inherent and integral rather than perverse and pathological. And in acknowledging this, he is using (even if unwittingly) a template provided by the struggle for gay equality in South Africa. The winning argument, in this struggle, was that to discriminate against people because of gender identity or sexuality was to punish them for inherent qualities, and was tantamount to discriminating against them because of their race.

But Zuma, who spoke out for Semenya’s rights to privacy and dignity was also quoted as saying in Zulu last year, that in his youth he would “knock out” any effeminate boy he saw before him. He subsequently apologised for any offence caused and claimed he had been mistranslated: what he meant, he said, was that “if you saw a boy who was effeminate, a sissy, he was beaten up because everyone had to learn to fight and be strong”.

How, in a macho culture that accepts such behaviour as normative, does one entrench the values of dignity and privacy Zuma alluded to when he welcomed Semenya home this week? And is there more than a little expediency to her current adulation ? We are perfectly happy to have our women be butch so long as they bring home the medal, but when they actually attempt to live lives independent of men, they are often subject to the most extreme violation and abuse.

Profile of South African Artist Nicholas Hlobo

When I went to visit Nicholas Hlobo in his downtown Johannesburg studio in April 2009, I was struck by a quick, elegant sketch in a corner of the vast “visual diary” tacked onto the walls. In contrast to Hlobo’s often elusive style, it was startlingly direct: one figure mounting another from behind.

The artist had written two words above the drawing: “the soma”. Ukusoma is the traditional Xhosa practice whereby adolescents are encouraged to have non-penetrative thigh-sex as part of the umtshotsho rituals that channel their libidos before adulthood. An umtshotsho is actually a peer-regulated youth organisation of adolescents, which holds parties where mock-fighting, dancing and dating take place; a dry run, as it were, for lives of war and procreation.

One obvious feature of ukusoma is that it is a crash course in traditional Xhosa gender relations: the active party gets all the gratification, while the passive party learns to serve. Another, more radical, feature, however, is that the passive party is not necessarily female.

And so the figures in Hlobo’s sketch are in fact more elusive than they might originally seem: are they a boy and a girl, or are they two boys? And the artist intends his work to be allusive, too: “This sketch is just for me to understand the bodies underneath,” he told me. “When the work is finished, all you’ll see is the blanket covering them, and just the suggestion of bodies …”

Hlobo, winner of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art, did not, in the end, make this particular piece for his exhibition, Umtshotsho. But the dynamic he describes when talking about it offers a key to understanding his work.

Hlobo explores his identity and his sexuality, and the way these connect to his inner world and his biography, expressing the paradox of being both out in the open and under the covers — an insider and outsider — in all the worlds he inhabits: Xhosa son, Eastern Cape homeboy, gay cosmopolitan, art world rising star.

His genius, in Umtshotsho, lies in the way he has stitched together “blankets” from rubber and ribbon, leaving it to us to imagine what desires and dramas — what flesh and blood — might lurk beneath (and among) the multivalent, amoebic, hermaphroditic figures populating his Umtshotsho dance.
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My Marriage Rites

Earlier this year, I went to the Edenvale Home Affairs office, on a strip of auto-repair shops and scrap yards northeast of Johannesburg, to book my marriage. “Same sex or opposite sex?” barked the young black woman, gold hoops in her ears to match her attitude.

It took me a moment to respond. “Same sex,” I said, a little too loudly, looking around to see if any of the other clerks would look up in shock, or perhaps just interest. They did not.

“The marriage officer likes to do the same-sexes early in the morning,” the woman said briskly, consulting her book. “Too much paperwork, you people. You’ve made our lives much more difficult.”

Three years previously, the South African Parliament passed a law permitting gay marriage, upon injunction from the highest court in the land. My partner and I had been together for nearly two decades. We decided to marry now because it would facilitate our move to France, where he had been offered a job. It was, we told each other, just an administrative matter.

We could have done it more easily — through a gay judge I know, for example — but I wanted to see the system work for us. And so far I was not encouraged. Like all Home Affairs offices, Edenvale was grimy and arcane, contemptuous and chaotic — the last place on earth you would want to marry. In the old days, Home Affairs was the processing room of apartheid: it told you who you were and where you could be. These days, it was still a place of a million frustrations and rages a day. And I was about to have one of them.
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London Launch for A Legacy of Liberation

Mark Gevisser UK Book Tour

A Legacy of LiberationThabo MbekiDear Friends and Colleagues

I will be in London to launch my book, A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream.

It would be great if you could join us at Foyles Charing Cross Road on Thursday May 21, where I will have a public conversation with the BBC’s Fergal Keane on current South African politics, or at any of the other events. Please see the invite for details, and forward this link on to anyone who think might be interested.
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How Zuma became Mbeki

Watching the dramatic events that set Jacob Zuma free this week, I could not help but feel we had come full circle, and that we were witnessing an action replay of the unsavoury event which started the whole thing: Bulelani Ngcuka’s notorious 2003 announcement that although there was a “prima facie case of corruption” against Zuma, he would not be charged because the case was “unwinnable”.

Is that not, in essence, what the current National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), Mokotedi Mpshe, told the nation on Monday? That although there was nothing in Zuma’s representations to cause the National Prosecuting Authority to reconsider the “substantive merits” of the case, the “abuse of process” by Leonard McCarthy had rendered the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) hands dirty and thus the case unwinnable?

Now, as then, a political decision by the NDPP has been cloaked in legalese. Now, as then, one of the country’s key organs of state — the law itself — has been compromised.
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Obama’s Inauguration: A moment recalling all that we achieved, all we have lost

‘It’s just like 1994!” Over and over again this week I have heard these words used by South Africans, and Americans who know the SA story, to describe the way they felt during the inauguration of Barack Obama.

“Finally!” one of my US editors said to me. “We too get our Madiba moment!”

Even Obama’s distressing decision to offer the inaugural invocation to a notoriously homophobic preacher was filtered through this prism: “If Madiba’s inclusivity enabled him to have tea with Verwoerd’s widow, I guess we can tolerate Rick Warren.”

The emotion pouring out from my usually-cynical US friends and colleagues is deeply moving, and is indeed reminiscent of our own “Madiba Moment”.

“I never thought I’d have a president I could actually believe in,” one SMSed me.

“I keep on having to pinch myself,” another said. “I’ve lived my entire adult life, even under the Clintons, defining myself as being in opposition to the powers that be. I’m going to have to change the way I understand power and my relation to it.”

As I watched the inauguration this week and thought about the ways that the “Obama Moment” was a reiteration of the Madiba Moment, I remembered a passage from Obama’s luminous memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which he wrote that he found his own political voice through the anti-apartheid movement, at a rally calling for divestment from South Africa while he was an undergraduate in the ’80s.
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Obama: Echoes of South African Redemption

Nation graphicThe next president of the United States found his political voice, he writes in Dreams From My Father, through the antiapartheid movement–at a rally calling for divestment from South Africa while he was at Occidental College, to be precise. He discovered that he could use the South African freedom struggle to demand that his fellow students choose sides: not “between black and white” but between “dignity and servitude,” “fairness and injustice,” “commitment and indifference,” “right and wrong.”

Obama’s story points to the symbolic significance of the South African struggle, particularly in the United States, where the antiapartheid solidarity movement inherited the mantle of the world’s great moral cause from the civil rights movement. If the last great redemptive moment in global politics was Nelson Mandela’s liberation and ascent to power in the early 1990s, then Obama’s election has provided the next. Once more, a choice has been made: if not quite between “dignity and servitude” or even “right and wrong,” then certainly between “commitment and indifference”–and, accordingly, between hope and cynicism, engagement and alienation.

    Complete article in The Nation (signing up for a free trial required)

    Mbeki’s world elsewhere

    I was at Polokwane and, like most observers present, I witnessed it as both exhilarating and brutal: the rough practice of democracy but also something of a regicide. This article on Mbeki’s annus horribilis appears in the Mail & Guardian.

    “You common cry of curs … I banish you!

    And here remain with your uncertainty ….

    There is a world elsewhere!”

    With these words, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus storms out of Rome, after having been exiled by the tribunes of the people. The play of the same name is one of Thabo Mbeki’s favourites, and I could not stop thinking about it as I watched his downfall over the past year.

    Coriolanus was banished from Rome for refusing to bend to the will of the people. Similarly, Mbeki was banished from the ANC at Polokwane for his perceived high-handedness and aloofness, which came across as callous and disconnected. His alleged victimisation of Jacob Zuma might have been the rallying cause, but this accusation fell on fertile ground because of his perceived lack of responsiveness to his comrades and their aspirations.

    Mbeki performed the spectacularly self-destructive feat at Polokwane of telling the very people whom he wished to vote him back into office that they were a rabble, not worthy of being at the conference in the first place — suggesting that they had been easily misled and manipulated because they had “very little familiarity with the history and traditions of the ANC”. So he confirmed to the delegates what the Zuma camp had already told them: he was an elitist who was contemptuous of them because they were not as educated and as informed as he.
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