Sunday, December 10, 2006

How much of the future is digital?

I just watched Happy Feet in South Africa's first digital projection cinema - being trialled at Sandton City.

I must say it was very impressive. The Christie CP 2000x projector shows 35 trillion colours in phenomenal high-definition.

It also means we're a long way to a fully digital movie process - unbelievable animation all the way through to distribution and projection.

I remember some years ago watching a program about the future of movies and forecasting the return of legends like Marilyn Monroe - as digital actors in movies.

PS: the highlight of the movie for me was as the Amigos (pictured above) sang Chicago's If You Leave Me Now, they reached the point where the chorus kicks in "ooo-ooo-woo-hoo no, baby please don't go" the Amigo's paused slightly longer than the original and two guys in the back sang out "ooo-ooo-woo-hoo" in perfect unison. The entire audience fell off their seats in appreciative laughter!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Do men imitate James Bond or does James Bond imitate men?

You've got to wonder how much Ian Fleming's writing has sculpted modern man. To what extent do we aspire to animal magnetism, fast cars, gadgets and that "Peter Stuyvesant" lifestyle - ski-slopes, casinos, 6 star hotels - due to the iconic lifestyle of an improbable superspy?

I recognise it it in myself and some of my friends. Of course it's more acceptable as a twenty-something gung-ho student than a thirty-something married man with kids (not that I'm that!) The irony is that if the Bond lifestyle was achievable at all it would be in our thirties or forties.

So what does the change in the action-hero/spy-genre say about modern man? Casino Royale marks the rebirth of Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. We've had the suave in Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. We've had the more masculine before in Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton. The previous return to a more realistic, gory action pic in the Living Daylights proved to heavy for most audiences. And people grimaced at the prospect of the more raw, less attractive Daniel Craig as the new Bond.

But since the Living Daylights we've had The Bourne Identity and Supremacy. Perhaps these more than other movies showed the potential for success of a good action / spy / thriller story.

Also, we've reached the second millenium. The date that prefixed many of the science fiction stories that gave glimpse to futuristic gadgets has come and gone and today's audiences are much less awed by fancy toys.

So Casino Royale redefines Bond and it is welcome and well pulled off. Daniel Craig is the new rugged.

What does this mean for us guys? We need to be able to fight. Not with guns or mamby-pamby shit like that, but in hand-to-hand combat like Matt Damon in the Bourne Identity or Supremacy (yeah dude, who needs a gun when you've got a rolled up magazine...). We need to work out - Matt Damon and Daniel Craig's physiques are part of their movies. We need an Aston Martin. Ok, that requirement hasn't realy changed in the Bond movies. We need to play poker. Right, that might be the worldwide Texas Hold-Em phenomenon influencing Bond rather than the other way around. Also, we only need to attract one super model (in Bond's case - just Franke Potente in Bourne's) per movie, rather than the multiple number of Connery's days. Perhaps that's a concession to to more modern day political correctness. Also, we need to show feelings. We actually need attachment!

Ah well, martial arts here I come...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

How fast can Karma oscillate?

So when I thought Karma was beginning to turn in my favour, I crash my car.

Fark. Friend's wife asks if I can take her for a spin, 'cause it's a sports car, and the back spins out on a corner I took too fast. Result is that I went up on a pavement on which the thoughtful house owner had mounted those little wooden bollards. Hitting them took out what at this stage appears to at least be my aircon and some damage to the bumper.

With my final presentation to my client tomorrow and Monday and a big interview this week, I thought things were turning my way.

All that I can do to avoid feeling the victim of a karmic downturn here is to say, "Karma, smarma."

But the thought of the wasted money on the cost of the damage is just killing me. Aaaargh!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The real Matrix?

Second Life is hitting all the headlines.

It's a virtual world where anybody can participate in building an online life through a graphical world like that seen in computer games such as Quake and Doom. In fact it is interactive like those but in the mold of SimCity.

But it is more than just a SimCity with other players interacting with you. Yes you can build your own virtual house, etc, but you can also set up a virtual frontend to your real business!

Stores in Second Life do millions of US Dollars of transactions each month.

Perhaps this is the next step in ecommerce. Books may sell through the traditional browser, but goods demanding a more tactile experience such as clothes have battled to achieve the same level of success.

There are over 1 million residents of Second Life. Quite a market!

Here it is in their words:

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by a total of 1,049,836 people from around the globe.
  • From the moment you enter the World you'll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity. Once you've explored a bit, perhaps you'll find a perfect parcel of land to build your house or business.

  • You'll also be surrounded by the Creations of your fellow residents. Because residents retain the rights to their digital creations, they can buy, sell and trade with other residents.

  • The Marketplace currently supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions. This commerce is handled with the in-world currency, the Linden dollar, which can be converted to US dollars at several thriving online currency exchanges.

Welcome to Second Life. We look forward to seeing you in-world.

Picture: Second Life

Now imagine where this could go. I firmly believe that we are not far away from having sensors create visual overlays to what we see in the real world. These will replace monitors. Already, you can buy glasses with a display built in. Certain games overlay graphics over your real surroundings for a kind of hybrid real / virtual version of your favourite shoot-em-up.

Think of what a limitation the 2D 15-inch (or even 19-inch) monitor is in front of you. Imagine rather seeing computer documents on your physical desktop.

The idea of a person's mind taking over the graphic display is old. It has of course featured in the Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mneumonic and most famously the Matrix. I am sure there are many more.

The best I ever saw, however was the virtual information system in the movie Disclosure. It took the most tried computer concept - the computer as a filing system - and built a virtual world that made the concept a richer experience.

Now combine that with a world like Second Life and the computing paradigm is changed forever!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

UPDATE: Baboing?

The Cape Town baboon war has been reported in National Geographic and then linked to in that directory of wonderful things, Boing Boing.

The Boing Boing entry mentions the problem but not the latest sad news regarding the poisoning of the baboons and through transmission, head of Baboon Matters, Jenni Trethowan.


What do you call these guys?

Who are these friggin heartless creeps?

Monday, October 16, 2006

So which celebrity chef are you?

I'm a bit of a food nut. Not that I'm all poncy about food and restaurants, I just love good food and get cross about wasting money on bad food.

I'm getting better at cooking too and really enjoy myself in the kitchen. I'm from a line of chefs, so perhaps it is in the blood - except that my cheffing is purely for fun and remains mostly aspirational.

So I watch quite a bit of BBC Food - the food channel on DSTV in South Africa. Tonight was Gordon Ramsay night and featured the first episodes of "The F Word" and "Ramsay's Boiling Point." The latter was filmed when Ramsay struck out on his own as a 32 year-old two-Michelinned star chef looking for his third in 1998. The former is more recent.

Ramsay is infamous for his foul mouth and fiery temper. Boiling Point exhibits this well!

Watch the beginning of Ramsay's Boiling Point Episode 1 here From the Biography Channel

Regardless of how nice a chef is, kitchens are typically where tempers are raised. Those who have watched Jamie's Kitchen will have seen exactly this with all-round nice guy, Jamie Oliver. A friend is a chef and has told me about how she had pots thrown at her while training in one of South Africa's top kitchens!

Watching made me think about my natural leadership style. I have to admit, my natural (although repressed) leadership style is more like Ramsay's. This is not good and therefore the repression.

I wondered about this and why I have that streak. Perhaps it is because my first job was as a waiter with a boss like Ramsay! It is also because I have been bred in a high-stress environment - management consulting - over 10 years (7 longer than the average consultant lifespan). Because of all of this and my natural makeup, I cannot abide poor standards and excuses. I also demand total commitment which sometimes pushes people to breaking point. I have been responsible for my share of tears and frayed tempers although these have been evoked through my quietly stated disapproval rather than Ramsay's brand. People either sought to work on my teams or desperately tried to avoid them.

Ramsay grills a contestant in Hell's Kitchen, a game show he hosted

All of that said, I seldom lost it and don't think I ever swore at anyone. That probably wouldn't have worked with the over-achievers / prima-donnas I managed. But sometimes I wanted to! Watching Ramsay made me remember that.

Gary Rhodes Picture: BBC
It is funny how self-awareness also makes one more aware of a more appropriate aspiration. My aspirational celebrity chef? Gary Rhodes, the once-spiky-haired nice-guy chef. I'll bet he gets more out of his staff too.

Which celebrity chef are you?


Ramsay's biography
Gordon Ramsay's website
The BBC Food website
The Gary Rhodes website

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Has Google done the math?

Picture: Peter Forret
$1,6bn. Wow. It made the mainstream headlines of South African news. It is a lot of money for a business that's not making a cent. That's what Google paid for YouTube.

Google has made other big purchases - including a stake in AOL from Time Warner at $1bn for 5% [source]. But I guess this one has all the romance of another dot com fairytale.

Speaking of fairytales, is Google too good to be true?

Google’s market capitalization at $110 billion is larger than Coca-Cola’s $98 billion and over twice Yahoo’s $46 billion [source].

If Google were an established business, one branch of theory would expect it to return earnings equal to its weighted averaged cost of capital (WACC) - basically the average of what shareholders and creditors expect back on their funds invested/lent to Google. Using the Capital Asset Pricing Model, Google's WACC could be estimated at 14,7% [source]. That would imply (based on Google's market value of $110bn) that Google would have to return $16,17bn per annum in earnings.

Google earned $6,139bn in revenues and $1,465bn in earnings for the financial year ending in December 2005 [source].

For 2006, Bear Stearns raised its revenue estimate to $6,8 billion from $6,55 billion. For 2007, Bear raised its revenue estimate to $10,1 billion from $8,3 billion (in April 2006 - prior to the YouTube acquisition) [source].

This after the 2005 earnings disappointed the market and resulted in a 20% knock to Google's market value.

But the numbers above show that market value to be inexplicably overstated. Even if you could guarantee Google's future earnings at $16,17bn (which is many a mile from today's $1,465bn), you'd have to reduce the company's value based on the time it woud take to achieve those heady heights. Would anybody guarantee earnings larger than those of Microsoft? And when would they be achieved? For every element of doubt, investors reduce the value of a company. There hasn't been any of that wisdom in the valuation of Google's shares.

Google's most recent acquisition was funded through shares issued to YouTube investors. Effectively this has increased Google's valuation by the same amount - as opposed to a cash acquisition which would have resulted in a commensurate outflow.

Based on the same Cost of Capital theory as above, the additional capital invested in YouTube requires an additional $243m in earnings or an additional revenue of $7,1bn (based on the same net margin as 2005) per year.

So let's recap:
  • Google currently makes $6,139bn in revenues and $1,465bn in earnings.

  • On Google's current market value, Google should earn $16,17bn per annum in earnings implying revenues of $472bn -based on Google's current net margin (ridiculous of course - investors expect Google's net margin to improve over time, reducing the implied revenue figure - still compare those revenues and earnings to those of Coca-Cola for 2005: $23,1bn and $4,9bn respectively or for Microsoft for 2005: $39,8bn and $12,3bn respectively - ridiculous?)

  • The YouTube acquisition increases that required revenue and earnings figures by $7,1bn and and $243m respectively.

Let's try and put those earnings figures in perspective:

  • Advertising makes up 99% of Google's revenues. Advertising has accounted for an increasing share of Google's revenues for each year since 2001 [source].

  • Google pays cost of acquisition costs (payments to Google network members of roughly 40% of those ad revenues, dropping from 48% in the first quarter of 2004) [source]. This is a strong motivation for bringing companies like YouTube inhouse or developing their own traffic (which they tried to do unsuccesfully through building Google Video as a competitor to YouTube).

  • The entire US online advertising market was projected to be worth $15,6bn in 2006, up from $12,5bn in 2005 [source].

  • Online advertising spending accounts for 5% of total media spending and is forecast to grow to $55bn by 2010 [source].

  • Search is by far the most lucrative area, accounting for 40 percent of the total online ad spending in the U.S., according to JupiterResearch [source].

  • The amount being spent on Internet advertising is growing, but the rate of that growth in the United States is slowing slightly, from 32,5 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2005 [source].

So could Google get its $16bn of earnings from the search market? Unlikely without it owning the whole market, that market growing substantially and Google massively increasing its net margin.

Clearly Google are focused on improving their margins and this must be the primary reason for bringing a network site like YouTube inhouse - it avoids that 40% they pay to acquire those eyeballs.

So let's look at the revenue potential of YouTube.

Around the world, people watch videos on YouTube more than 100m times daily. About 65 000 clips are uploaded on to the site every 24 hours and the monitoring agency Hitwise says YouTube accounts for 60% of all videos viewed on the net [source].

While Google operates a variety of advertising placement methodologies, let's simplify things and assume only a cost per thousand impressions (CPM) model (a cost per clickthrough - CPC - model is favoured by advertisers).

Let's assume (generously) that YouTube users view 2 YouTube pages for each video they watch, implying that the site generates 200m page impressions per day. On Google's CPM model of $5 per CPM, that's $365m in revenues per year - saving the 40% cost of acquisition is a $146m saving per annum. You'd have to subtract any costs of running YouTube's business from that. However, ignoring that and discounting the full $146m figure into perpetuity by Google's cost of capital arrives at a valuation on that saving of $993m. And of course, that $146m in savings is a long way short of a cost-of-capital derived figure of the additional $243m in yearly earnings that YouTube needs to bring in.

So unless YouTube's business model offers some other exciting business opportunities, their founders made out like bandits - much like Google's founders it would seem.

Read more about YouTube's founders here.

Note: turns out I know someone involved in the deal (who made a bundle). It marks another dot com bonanza to someone I know. My dot com planning reignites this weekend...

Friday, October 06, 2006

Are you a bigot too?

I must say that the pending civil unions bill has brought every bigot out of their closet.

From the members of parliament who feel they cannot approve it (despite a constitutional court interdict), to the verious members of the various churches, to Jacob Zuma, to Jon Qwelane, to The Marriage Alliance.

This is not a South African issue. The gay marriage debate has raged all over the world and surprisingly few countries recognise gay marriage. In many countries is it still illegal to be gay.

What is a bigot?

Merriam-Webster defines it as:

Main Entry: big·ot
Pronunciation: 'bi-g&t
Function: noun
Etymology: French, hypocrite, bigot
: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
- big·ot·ed /-g&-t&d/ adjective
- big·ot·ed·ly adverb

All the people and groups mentioned above qualify.

It is surprising that the issue has drawn such heat in a country as open as South Africa (we have come a long way since 1994!) The attitude seems to be one of, "If you keep it in your bedroom and never confront me with it, I'll ignore it."

Which again is amazing. I mean, when Pieter Dirk-Uys had a massively public fight with his boyfriend in the town of Darling (don't you just love the aptness of the location, daaahling? For those who don't know, Darling is a small, very Afrikaans farming town in the Western Cape), the whole town had an interest. After all, not only was he their most famous gay resident, he was their most famous resident! I wonder how they feel about gay marriage?

Now this is no argument for Gay Pride. Give me a break. I find the thought as redundant as Black Conciousness (although, more on this soon in another post - I understand the need for prejudiced groups to understand the prejudice, who they are and to fight prejudice, but pride?) Kissing your gay boyfriend or girlfriend in front of someone because it makes them uncomfortable is provocative and unlikely to win them over.

But back to gay marriage. Just read this Jon Qwelane claptrap: "It's unnatural," "I like homosexuals," " I would condemn and disown [my offspring] if they turned out to be homosexuals."

"I like homosexuals?" - that sounds like, "I have many black friends." How do you usually respond to that Mr Qwelane?

And then there was the out and out hate speech by Jacob Zuma: "When I was growing up an ungqingili (a gay) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out."

The Sowetan quoted Zuma as saying that same-sex marriages were "a disgrace to the nation and to God."

Which brings us to perhaps the crux of the matter. Religion. Many if not most of the groups protesting gay marriages do so at least partly on religious grounds. People seem to forget both the idea of seculism and the Christian requirement to treat the Bible as a book of rules for them as an individual - "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck out of your eye when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." (Matthew 7:2-5)

Jesus demonstrated love for all mankind, Christian or not. He loved those of other religions, Jews who did not recognise him as the son of God and spent time with undesirables such as lepers.

Yes the Bible is clear on homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 - even though there remains much debate). That remains a homosexual person's issue to deal with should he/she consider Christianity, and not for his fellow Christian to stand in judgement of him.

The same would apply to any part of Christianity or any other religion as it applies to those who do not follow their religion. Must Islam be outlawed because it is not Christian, or vice versa?

Which comes to law. Should law be the popular view? I wonder. I wonder if the measure of good law is that it prevents someone from doing you harm and protects your rights. On that measure, it is difficult to argue against the civil unions bill. It proposes nothing to harm Christian, Moslems or anybody and their beliefs.

What Christians and other religions might argue is the right of a Church or priest to refuse to marry them. Hey, I hear them on this one. In any case, why would you want a religious ceremony for a religion that condemns your actions?

There may be one good thing coming out of this. It seems that Jacob Zuma's supporters could accept possible corrupt dealings on his part. They could accept his regard for a woman's dress as a sexual invitation. But, if the papers are to be believed, they might not be able to accept his homophobia.

Maybe we're making progress after all.

Why the Web 2.0?

I've been involved with the Internet since 1994. Those were the early days when the ANC was one of the pioneer Internet users in South Africa and I used DOS prompt FTP to get their latest economic thinking on the RDP.

In 1995 I started ecommerce development and in 1996 built an eCommerce server. I went on to be an eBusiness consultant and head up an eBusiness consulting unit.

I lived through the Dot Com crash and due to my aversity to hype, missed joining many Dot Com startups but then also missed the millions some of my friends made.

In my job I often had to speak to Blue Chip CEOs and their executives about the Internet. A few bought into the hype (that I didn't sell them) and wanted to explode their legacy and go from blicks to clicks. Some were desperate not to be taken apart by an agile competitor operating from a garage - even some of the Big 4 SA banks.

We know what happened. Those of us who truly live the Internet also know what was true, what wasn't hype. We are the future consumer. We see our kids growing up as reflections of us and living differently - be it through teaching us things on the Net or being addicted to MXit.

We get Web 2.0. While others fight over definitions, we see a site and know, "That's Web 2.0."

But some of us - OK maybe it's just me, wish someone hadn't coined the term.

I'll tell you now, if I walk into an executive's office and try and sell him on Web 2.0, he's going to be thinking, "Yeah like it was with the Dot Com boom, huh?"

Just the fact that new web tendencies have been named is the problem.

The preferable route? Just build it into what the Web should be. Talk about what Amazon are doing, what the BBC are doing, what the New York Times is doing. What Google, Wikipedia and Flickr are doing.

I'll tell you what. In the late nineties, when we were looking for a way of conveying the goal, we'd often talk about the "" experience. If the executive had ever used the Internet, they knew what we meant. If their eyes didn't flicker with recognition, I'd schedule an hour to take them through's website.

I wouldn't do much different today. Maybe I'd say that there are some new tools and best practices that are worth noting, but I'd avoid saying, "You need to be Web 2.0"

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Will a tide of media attention help turn the tide against crime?

Something somewhere has changed. South Africans have had enough of crime.

And for a change they're not whinging and emigrating. They seem to want to be part of a positive change.

This was marked by an unprecedented front page editorial in this week's Sunday Times:

This is a crisis, not just a problem

THIS coming weekend the high minds of the ANC’s leadership will gather for their regular National Executive Committee meeting. On their agenda will be important policy matters, organisational issues and lots of discussion about the presidential ambitions of the country’s favourite karaoke performer.

Very low on the agenda, if at all, will be South Africa’s out-of-control crime situation.

The reason for this is that the ruling party and the government it controls merely see crime as a problem, not the crisis that it is.

Like the proverbial ostrich, they refuse to accept that this country is under siege from criminals. They seem to believe that it is a problem affecting pampered whingers in Sandton, Durban North and Claremont, forgetting that the residents of places like Tembisa, Manenberg and Clermont are as much at the receiving end.

The past year has seen the undoing of the work of the past few years when we seemed to be winning the war against criminality.

Crime statistics revealed this week showed that nearly 19000 people were murdered in the past year, nearly 55000 were raped and there were almost 120000 robberies.

It is these horrendous statistics, and the horrific violence that accompanies South African crime, that drove Judge Gerhardus Hattingh to deliver what some considered an injudicious political statement in court this week.

Sentencing the killers of four-year-old Makgabo Matlala, Hattingh told how he wished he could condemn the killers to death.

“In my experience, all right-thinking members of the community, regardless of race, are in favour of the death penalty. Government must take responsibility for ending the rampant crime wave engulfing our country ... and it’s now time something drastic is done about crime. Just like South Africa was freed from the yoke of apartheid, South Africa must be freed from the yoke of crime,” he said.

Hattingh had earlier heard the confession of the killers, who had tied the four-year-old’s hands with shoelaces, suffocated her with her own panties, blindfolded her with trousers and strangled her before taking turns in raping her 58-year-old nanny.

While we strongly disagree with the learned judge’s views on the death penalty, we concur that, as with Aids, the government’s response to crime amounts to a gross dereliction of duty.

Can we as South Africans really proclaim that we are a free people when we live in fear of the thousands of monsters who roam our streets?

As renowned author André Brink points out on the pages of this newspaper, South Africa is a normal society that should not be tolerating such an abnormal situation.

Fortunately the citizens of this republic are not tolerating this state of affairs. South Africans have not thrown their hands in the air and said, as is the case in some societies, that this is the way it is. South Africans are fighting back and want their government to fight alongside them.

But the authorities seem to believe that it is they who are under siege from a mutinous citizenry and have come to regard the public — not the criminals — as the enemy.

Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi has become increasingly arrogant and unaccountable, believing that it is fine to yell statistics at us once a year.

This newspaper would like to suggest that, in-between the mandatory back-stabbing sessions at this weekend’s gathering, the ANC’s high-ups reserve some time for an
in-depth discussion on this crisis.

If they do not do so, it will confirm our worst fears: that they do not care.

Today's Business Day carried a balanced and thoughtful piece from the always good Hilary Joffe:

Crime statistics show we need a range of solutions, and urgently

Hilary Joffe

IF CRIME were coming down, would anyone believe it? The response to last week’s crime statistics suggests not.

The statistics compiled by the South African Police Service (SAPS) show decreases in crime rates across a broad front in the year to April. Almost all of the 22 serious crimes the police report on declined, both in absolute terms and relative to the population. Car theft did increase, after coming down in previous years, and within the key “aggravated robbery” category there were worrying jumps in crimes such as cash-in-transit heists and car hijacking. For the rest, those crimes that increased were supposed to, in the sense they reflect better policing or better reportage rates — driving under the influence and drug-related crimes, as well as commercial crime.

But from reading much of the media and opposition party comment on the crime stats, you could be forgiven for believing that crime rates in fact went up. People don’t seem to feel that much safer.

It’s not too hard to explain why, despite the statistics. Even if overall rates are declining, each year a whole lot more people have become new victims of crime. There’s likely to be a long lag before perceptions catch up with any improvement. Low conviction rates add to the sense of insecurity. But the scepticism is fuelled too by the police’s own communications. Their response last week to the calls to release crime stats more often was legitimate — few countries do release national crime statistics more than once a year, and one quarter’s figures may reflect short-term blips. Even so, one wonders why they don’t just publish quarterly stats and have done with it. The police might gain more credibility for their stats if they rushed them into print, whether good or bad. We need numbers on prosecution and conviction rates, too.

Not that the police could be faulted for the detail and comprehensiveness of last week’s information. Nor could they be accused of playing down the failures. They drew attention to the increases in cash-in-transit robberies and car hijacking, which reversed the declining trend of previous years. SAPS’ statisticians highlighted too that the 2% decline in the murder rate was much slower than in the previous two years and fell well short of the targeted 7%-10% annual decrease in contact crimes.

Oddly, though, they didn’t do a convincing job of highlighting some of their successes — an 11% decrease in aggravated robbery in Gauteng, for example. Perhaps good news is always hard to sell. The problem with knee-jerk negative responses is they tend to prevent us listening to what the crime stats are really telling us. For the stats raise crucial questions, not only about policing and law enforcement but also about South African society.

Take murder, usually seen as the most reliable indicator of crime because it’s the most accurately reported. The murder rate has declined sharply over the past 11 years, falling from 66 per 100000 people in 1994-95 to 39,5 in 2005-06.

In absolute terms that’s still 18528 murders, the mark of an extremely violent society. But while the level of random violence perpetrated against strangers is exceptionally high, the number of murders committed by victims’ friends and relatives is much higher. A recent SAPS analysis of crime dockets shows 81% of murder victims knew their murderers. The figure rises to 90% in assault cases and is about three-quarters in rape cases.

The police argued last week that these “social contact crimes” could not be curbed by conventional policing methods, because they reflect social and economic conditions, as well as high levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Cynics note the police are more likely to blame murder on social ills in years when the rate isn’t decreasing fast enough, while taking credit when it falls. One could speculate, too, that the decline in the murder rate in the past decade might have had more to do with improved socio-economic conditions and a more peaceful society than with better law enforcement. But the social nature of violent, contact crime is a crucial issue, and is one that was raised this year in the Presidency’s macro-social report. The police can’t be let off the hook and they clearly can do a lot more to improve their conventional policing. But there is an important debate here about where that fits in relative to other, broader strategies to combat social breakdown. It’s important to establish why success has been achieved in the latest year with bringing down rates of social contact crime.

At the other end of the spectrum are those areas of crime, such as cash- in-transit, car hijacking and bank robbery, that are dominated by organised crime syndicates. Many of those crimes had been coming down nicely, reflecting the success of a focused, integrated approach between the police, the National Prosecuting Authority and business. Clearly, though, something has gone awry, more so since April. If the crime stats show anything, it is that there are many different problems on the crime landscape, and they require a range of different — and urgent — solutions.

‖Joffe is chief leader writer.

Today's crime headlines - just those from IoL:

Ministers' Cape homes robbed
Shop owner traps robbers inside store
Man fatally wounded in clothing store robbery
Man accused of raping four-year-old niece
Burglar cleans house but leaves clear trail
Argument leads to taxi owner's death
Officer killed during assault investigation
Cop seriously wounded in early-morning attack
Armed robbers target Joburg bank
Sirens stop heist robbers in their tracks
Man held for perlemoen poaching
Woman 'duped' by witch doctor's money plan
Cops nab heist suspects after shoot-out
Teen chases down mom's torturer
Attack victim blogs his painful recovery
Makgabo murderers' second trial postponed
Ramokgopa 'authorised irregular' payouts
North West police nab bank robbery suspects
Police probe officer's shooting spree
Man strangled, wife assaulted in raid on home
Unionists' case postponed to November
Huge cash haul as robbers hurt guard in heist
Gang of 20 makes off with education computers
Man on porn charges cuts R300 000 deal
Roadworks firm latest victim of N2 hell run
Day the hijackers should have stayed in bed
KZN police launch crime blitz in the suburbs
'I had no idea my son was a bouncer'
Ex-Comrades boss on trial after muso's death
Killer priest takes his secret to jail
Scorpions prosecutor gets nasty sting
Alleged paedophile 'filmed attacks on girls'
Murder suspect is unstable, says psychiatrist

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What are you (and your supporters) scared of Mr Zuma?

There is a question that nobody appears to be asking.

Many of Mr Zuma's supporters have protested his unimpeachable integrity in the face of his rape and corruption trials.

Judge Msimang struck Mr Zuma's corruption case from the roll after considering a number of bungles made by South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). And probably correctly so. Still, those worried of the specter of a Zuma presidency gave a collective shudder at the verdict.

But I have this one question. Mr Zuma and his defense have been desperate to keep evidence seized from his home out of the trial. The court had barred the evidence based on an improperly issued search warrant and the matter is still on appeal. The NPA still introduced the evidence into the trial and this was one of the reasons that Judge Msimang struck the case off the roll.

My question: if your integrity is unimpeachable Mr Zuma, if you are innocent, why are you so determined to keep the evidence seized from your home out of the trial? What are you scared of? Surely the attitude of an innocent man is to welcome every investigation by the prosecution?

Do you support the death penalty?

Unless you have strong emotions on the issue, I think it's a difficult question.

On the one hand, some of the totally inhuman crimes committed in this country seem to deserve nothing less. Crimes in South Africa often involve violence, and we have often heard of criminals torturing their victims. Often the victims have been old, children or women. Criminals have pored boiling water over old people living on farms, hit people over the head with hammers, melted plastic onto the skin of children in front of their parents, raped and killed babies, and raped pregnant women. Such horrific crimes might occur once every few years in places like the United States and make national front page news. In South Africa, every one of those crimes happened in the last year and sometimes didn't make the newspaper.

It is difficult not to be emotional about crimes like those - especially if you know the victims.

Even if one is brutally rational, you might support the death penalty on the evidence in nature, where animals not contributing to a herd and driven off to their certain deaths.

Of course there is also arguments to the contrary. The following artilce presents such an analysis.

What do you think?

From the Guardian Unlimited in the Mail and Guardian

'For eight minutes we sat there, waiting for him to die'

Decca Aitkenhead

23 September 2006 07:24

Eric Allen Patton stabbed his victim to death with a set of knives, a barbecue fork and a pair of kitchen scissors. She was Charlene Kauer, a white, middle-aged businesswoman from Oklahoma City who had once hired him as a handyman. He was a black labourer in his 30s, with a long record for violent burglary. In December 1994, he came to Kauer's door demanding money. She offered him $10. He attacked her, ransacked the house, butchered her to death and made off with $24. When her husband came home, he found Charlene lying naked on her back, smothered in blood, the scissors still sticking out of her chest.

The crime scene photographs presented in court resembled stills from a low-budget horror movie. It was the kind of monstrous killing that reaffirms in Oklahomans' minds the necessity and justice of capital punishment, and a jury duly sentenced Patton to death for first-degree murder. After spending the past decade on death row, exhausting his appeals process, at 6pm on August 29 Patton was scheduled to die.

The visitors' centre at Oklahoma State Penitentiary is a squat little building in the shadow of towering white prison walls. On execution days it doubles as the media centre, and peanut cookies and fresh coffee had been laid out on wooden tables alongside neat piles of factsheets detailing Patton's crime. When I arrived shortly after 3.30pm, nobody else was there.

In due course, two other journalists showed up. Executions were a fixture of their beat, and while we waited the two men chatted idly about the nuisance of faulty air conditioning and the difficulty of giving up smoking. The key detail of this job, they said, was the prisoner's choice of last meal. Readers enjoyed comparing it with what they would choose for themselves -- a culinary variation on Desert Island Discs.

A spokesperson from the department of corrections arrived with the press release listing Patton's final meal request. A tall, lean Southerner with a quietly thorough manner, Jerry Massie took evident pride in the dignity of an execution, and found the fascination with last meals faintly distasteful. After all, he sighed, this isn't a game. "Besides," he said, "you can't get all that much for $15 anyway." Fifteen dollars? The budget for a last meal used to be $50, he explained evenly. But when the public read about men getting steak and lobster, there was such an outcry that the state parliament passed a Bill cutting it to $15.

Patton chose a large pepperoni pizza with extra mushroom, and a large grape soda. It was served between noon and 1pm -- which meant that somewhere now inside that great white fortress, he was sitting alone, waiting, with nothing left but his final statement to make in the death chamber.

Executions, like awards ceremonies, prefer to keep the speeches brief though, and his time limit would be two minutes. What would they say to stop him if he kept talking? "Well, nothing," replied Massie, puzzled to have to spell out the obvious. "We'd just start the execution."

By 5.30pm nobody else had arrived. The victim's relatives had decided not to attend. Patton's family weren't coming, either, having said their final goodbyes that morning by telephone through a glass partition. All visits on death row are conducted that way, and their last had been no exception. A few years ago, protesters would have been staging a candlelit vigil at the gates, but they no longer turn up in any numbers. Death penalty supporters used to come along and taunt them by celebrating, but they don't show up any more, either. Massie did warn of a possible commotion from prisoners banging their cell doors as the clock ticked towards six. Not any more, the reporters corrected him. They hadn't bothered to do that in ages.

In the hot, late Oklahoma sunshine, a van drove us around the perimeter wall to a side entrance at 5.45pm. Guards with bristle moustaches and round mirrored sunglasses didn't say much, just searched us and led the way along a long, grey tunnel of a corridor. Halfway down, they pointed us into a slender room just deep enough to accommodate two rows of 12 metal chairs. These were lined up facing a glass wall obscured by white blinds.

Patton's legal team of four sat in the front row, beside his priest. A few places away sat two officials from the department of corrections. Two men in navy blazers stood holding phones to their ears, lest a final reprieve were to come through. At the door, a pair of guards leaned against the wall, silently chewing gum. The two reporters and I sat in the second row. Nobody breathed a sound.

At 6pm the blinds slowly raised. And then there he was -- suddenly right before our eyes, so close that, were it not for the glass, I could probably have touched him. Patton lay strapped on his back on a gurney, an IV drip running from each arm to a hole in the wall behind him. He looked composed but intensely alert, like a patient about to go into theatre. His was the first black face I'd seen all day. He turned to look at us and started to speak.

Most family pets are put down with greater sense of occasion than the execution of Eric Patton managed to marshal. You would be forgiven, therefore, for thinking American prisons must be killing their inmates every day. Before becoming President, George Bush executed more than any other state governor, and under him the country's moral politics have shifted farther and farther right. One would expect the death penalty to be enjoying an all-time high. In fact, the figures tell a different story.

In 1999, America executed 98 people -- a record total for a single year. The annual figure had been climbing steadily since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 -- as had the number of death sentences issued every year, which reached a peak in 1996. Public support had grown from an average of around 65% to more than 80%.

But in 2000 the numbers changed direction. Executions fell that year, and have continued to fall ever since, so sharply that this year's total may not even pass 50.

Death sentences have more than halved, and support for capital punishment has slumped back to around 65%. The US Supreme Court has removed entire categories of criminals from death row. Two states have imposed moratoria while they review their death penalty, and moratoria legislation has been introduced in over 20 more. New York has abolished its death penalty altogether, and New Jersey is expected to follow suit. Even in Oklahoma, one of the more prolific states left, Patton was only the third inmate to be executed this year.

Quietly but unmistakably, the anti-death-penalty movement in America has started to win. Less of a movement than a patchwork of pressure groups, its campaigners have no centralised leadership and no recognisable public face. Their offices are staffed largely by interns, in grey buildings housing warrens of lobbyists, some in Washington DC but most scattered across the country. They are chronically underfunded and unfashionable. How can they be winning when America's liberals are losing every other culture war? Certainly not by telling anyone that killing people is wrong. The argument they prefer to employ, activists say, is that America is killing the wrong people. Or it's killing people the wrong way. Or killing them at the wrong price. America just isn't killing people properly.

Richard Dieter runs the Death Penalty Information Centre in DC. A wry, softly spoken activist in middle age, he has been fighting capital punishment all his life and remembers when they used to talk about its wrongness. "The thought was, well, this argument is so right it'll catch on." He chuckles fondly. "We thought, you know, it's so obvious! And so people would go and hold candles at executions and what not. But it was found that an equal number of people would show up shouting for the execution, and it just got really rowdy. Nobody was moving. It was going nowhere."

"In the 80s, we started trying to persuade people about the system's arbitrariness," says Marshall Dayan, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) death penalty project in North Carolina. "The racism, classism, the poor quality of counsel, the prosecutorial misconduct. But none of that had any traction either. People just said, 'Who cares if the system isn't perfect? These people are murderers.'"

What changed everything was the emergence of the innocence movement. In 1998, Northwestern University's law school in Chicago hosted a national conference on wrongful capital convictions. It brought together 31 former death row inmates who had been found innocent and released. One by one, each man stepped forward on stage to introduce himself with the words, "If the state of such-and-such had had its way, I would not be here today."

"It was just an extraordinary event," Dayan recalls. "People all over America saw this on the evening news. And once exonerations started reaching their consciousness, all of a sudden all the things we'd been talking about for years started to gain traction. When they find out some of the people on death row aren't, in fact, murderers, but innocent people, then they ask how does a wrongful conviction happen? And the answers to that question are: racism, classism, etc -- all the things we'd been trying to talk about. Only now, everyone started listening."

Soon, students at Northwestern had uncovered 13 wrongful capital convictions in Illinois alone. One man had spent 15 years on death row and come within two days of being executed before the students found evidence that proved his innocence.

By 2000, the state of Illinois had exonerated more death row inmates than it had executed, at which point its governor -- a Republican and long-time death penalty supporter -- declared a moratorium. After conducting a full review, he then commuted the death sentence of every prisoner in the state. "Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error," he said frankly. "Error in determining guilt -- and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die."

"To be honest, no one thought of switching the argument to innocence strategically," Dieter admits. "We didn't plan on Illinois happening. It just kind of fell into our lap. But innocence has completely rewritten the political rules of the death penalty. What's an acceptable number of innocent people for a state to kill a year? None is the acceptable number. Politicians just can't say they support the death penalty no matter what any more."

He ticks off the victories with a kind of wonderment. Jurors have become reluctant to use the death penalty unless DNA evidence proves guilt beyond all doubt. In every state except one, they now have the option to sentence life without parole, instead of death. For the first time ever, the Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence because of the poor performance of the defendant's counsel. "And his lawyer wasn't even that bad!" Dieter marvels. "He wasn't even one of the ones who've been caught sleeping through a trial or turning up drunk. That's how much the court has changed." In the past three years, the court has made juveniles and the mentally retarded exempt from the death penalty. A new campaign is under way for the court to exempt the mentally ill as well.

Many states are beginning to wonder whether the death penalty isn't just costing too much already. A typical capital case costs at least three and a half times as much as lifetime incarceration. New Jersey has passed 60 death sentences, overturned 50 on appeal, and still not executed any of the 10 men left on death row. Having spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars executing nobody, it's expected to abolish its death penalty this year.

Other states have had to halt all executions while their method is challenged in the courts. Lethal injection, the method used in 37 of the 38 death penalty states, consists of three different drugs -- an anaesthetic, a paralytic and a potassium chloride to stop the heart -- and is supposed to be painless. But there is growing evidence that, in fact, it inflicts an excruciatingly painful death. The American Medical Association has condemned the practice, many doctors now won't participate and practically every prisoner on death row is filing a suit. A court in Missouri has already ruled in one's favour, effectively outlawing lethal injection in the state, and a court in California will consider the next major test case next week. California has the largest number of people on death row in America -- but, for now, it cannot execute anyone.

"If you look at every single indicator," smiles Dave Elliot, spokesperson for the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty (NCADP), "you see that the death penalty is literally withering on the vine." One by one, he predicts that more states will impose a moratorium while they try to solve all the flaws in the system. In the process, they'll come to see that those problems just can't be fixed. And then, faced with an intractably unworkable policy, they will simply abandon it.

"It's not so much a question of whether we will win any more, but when," Elliot claims. "Will it be five years or 15? I'm not sure, but I promise you it will be somewhere between the two. We are on the eve of abolition."

But not everyone in the movement agrees. Some worry that they have been here before. They thought the death penalty was about to be abolished by incremental logic more than 30 years ago. And just look, they say, what happened then.

In 1972, the Supreme Court declared every state's death penalty statute void. Death sentences were being imposed so arbitrarily, ruled the judges, that they violated the Eighth Amendment. "These death sentences are cruel and unusual," one justice famously declared, "in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." Jubilant activists assumed it would mean all-out abolition.

"What else were we to think?" one recalls. "We thought it was all over. We thought we'd won."

But the court had not declared the death penalty per se unconstitutional. It had merely said it wasn't being administered properly. Almost at once, states began drafting new improved statutes, with clearer sentencing guidelines. In 1976, the Supreme Court examined three states' revised protocols and agreed that, yes, all the problems had been fixed. So eager were many other states to start executing again that they recalled their parliaments from summer recess the very next day, just to pass a new death penalty Bill.

Bill Wiseman was a young representative in Oklahoma, one of the states that rushed its legislature back into emergency session. He didn't believe in the death penalty, but he was afraid of losing his seat if he voted against it. "I was just having such a happy time being a politician," he smiles sadly. "It was the most fun. And here this damned thing comes along and it has the potential to just crap all over this wonderful time in my life. So I was faced with a decision -- and I was a wuss about it."

He voted yes. "But afterwards I came to the conclusion that if we were going to do the wrong thing, we might as well do it the right way." Wiseman set about inventing an alternative to the gas chamber and the electric chair. "Something," he winces, "that would be more humane."

Today, Wiseman is an Anglican priest in a grand old church in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is more opposed to the death penalty than ever. But he has a wolfish, twinkly smile, and it's easy to picture his ambitious younger self back in 1976, loving the limelight while trying to salve his conscience. He describes how the state's medical examiner heard he was looking for ideas, and offered to help. The pair more or less cobbled together a cocktail of intravenous drugs on the back of an envelope. The examiner had no specialist pharmacological training, Wiseman's medical knowledge was zero. But he wrote down what the examiner proposed, called it lethal injection and put it before the house.

"I was going round like I was some angel of mercy, really starting to believe my own bullshit, when I ran into a reporter friend of mine one day. I was like, 'How do you like my Bill?' And he just shrugged. It was the very first feeling I had of, 'Uh-oh'. He said, 'Bill, I'm afraid this'll make it too easy for them to pass death sentences.' And on the outside I said, 'Oh no, I'm sure that won't happen.' And on the inside I'm going, 'Oh God, what if he's right?' So what did I do? Nothing. I was enjoying the momentum and fame and the clips on the Today show too much. Everybody liked me. Hey, I was fixing up the death penalty, wasn't I? I was making it humane."

More than 30 states soon copied Wiseman's lethal injection Bill, many word for word. In 1982 Texas became the first to implement it, with the judge happily predicting that, "1983 will bring some more [executions] ... This humane way will make it more palatable." He was not wrong. Wiseman had certainly fixed up the death penalty; his "more palatable" method has now killed more than 800 prisoners. And, he says quietly, he shares responsibility for every single one.

The dilemma for the anti-death-penalty movement today is obvious. By challenging lethal injection in the courts, they have put a lot of executions on hold. They may force some people to think about what it really means for the state to take a life. If they win, they'll give legislators the disagreeable task of finding another way to carry out an inherently ugly act.

But to argue that lethal injection is "inhumane" implies the possibility that a humane alternative could exist. For some activists, talk of a humane execution goes hand in hand with demands for a moratorium instead of abolition. It smacks to them of the 1970s all over again, and they don't like it. "The parallels with what happened in 1976 are certainly very strong now," an ACLU activist in San Francisco warns. "We need to be very careful not to let the progress we've made slip through our fingers again."

Mona Cadena, of Amnesty International in California, puts it more bluntly. "Moratorium scares the hell out of me. It opens the door for people to think there's a way to fix the death penalty -- and that's exactly what happened in 1972. The Supreme Court said it's not working. The states changed it. They said it'll work now -- and the court said OK. So we've already tried a moratorium. We should be saying it's not appropriate under any circumstances for the government to choose who is going to live and who is going to die."

Cadena is the only activist I meet who volunteers a moral objection to the death penalty unprompted. "But I get called a super-crazy liberal pinko communist for saying it -- by people in this movement. It's so bizarre. These days I find myself allied with the Catholics just because they're the only abolitionists who'll talk about right and wrong. I think some people feel the moral argument should be left for the churches, and that a moral discussion is not for us."

The debate between pragmatists and absolutists has been raging within the abolition movement for nearly a decade now. What is quite clear is that the pragmatists have won. "The debate is over," the NCADP's Dave Elliot says firmly. "There is no disagreement. The abolition movement has matured." He refers to experiments conducted on pro-death-penalty students, which presented arguments framed around flaws in the system. The approach generated significant movement in the students' minds. Arguments framed in morality did not merely fail to change minds, but reinforced students' original opinions. Elliot drums the table as he spells out the message: "If you address the death penalty as a moral issue, you ... do ... not ... "

What is less clear is exactly how far this is a matter of purely strategic discipline. It would never have occurred to me to ask activists whether they believed it was wrong to execute anyone; I took it for granted. But then one happened to mention that he thought, in principle, it could sometimes be right. He could definitely think of extreme circumstances in which certain people deserved to be put to death, he said. The trouble, he quickly added, was that his "deserving" case would be different from mine, and from the next person's and the next. As we'd never all be able to agree whom to kill, there was no point having a death penalty.

I put the question to everyone. Could they ever support the death penalty? And with very few exceptions, each answer was essentially the same. Yes -- but only for Hitler. Oh yes, if you knew someone was guilty and irredeemably wicked -- only, you could just never be 100% sure. Yes, of course, loads of murderers deserve to die -- it's just that you can't trust the state to tell which ones. Yes -- but it's for God to punish them, not the government.

If this is a tactical position, it is certainly very clever. It gets you off the defensive and opens up space to negotiate. But I'm not sure that everyone did say it for purely tactical reasons. Some of them seemed to mean it.

"We've brought a lot of people into this movement who seem able to negotiate the thing like that in their own heads. And it's been a huge, huge frustration to me." Lance Lindsay runs Death Penalty Focus in San Francisco, and reflects on the strange, bittersweet price of the movement's success. "It's focused us on saying, 'the system's broken', and thinking, 'If we put in enough reforms, if it ends up just being a few monstrous people who are killed, I can live with that.' To me, that's completely missing the point."

In the end, the purest articulation of what it should be about comes from the inventor of lethal injection. "I'm opposed to the death penalty because of what it does to us -- not what it does to the person who dies," Wiseman says. "That's what it's all about. How it changes and identifies us as a society when we make a corporate decision to take a life. All that stuff about how it's incompetent or unfair, that's all very interesting, but it's not the point. The point is, we must not do this because it eats away at our soul."

I'd wondered a lot about what it might do to the soul to attend an execution. Whenever I'd pictured it, it was the final statement I dreaded most. Patton's execution had been selected at random to witness, so I had no idea what he might want to say. When he opened his mouth to speak, it was obvious he'd thought hard about the words, for he had memorised an entire speech. Mindful of the time limit, he had to rattle through it quickly. And so its impact, in the end, was strangely unaffecting -- like hearing someone recite a shopping list

He thanked the prison guards on death row. "They've been like family to me." He thanked his legal team for fighting his cause. He thanked the prison warden -- the governor -- for taking care of him, and he thanked his parents for bringing him into the world -- "And for loving me, especially through this trying situation." His life, Patton said, had been "a blessing and blast", but he was ready to meet Jesus Christ his saviour, "for now and all eternity". At the very end he paused for breath. "That's all," he said.

The drugs are administered by three executioners in the room next door, hidden from view. Only the warden knows their identity; they are not employees but volunteers who answered an advert for the position in the local newspaper. They cannot see the person they are killing and nobody can see them.

Patton closed his eyes. He let out a deep, noisy breath as the anaesthetic entered his veins. As the second drug followed seconds later, paralysing him, his ribcage slowly stopped rising and falling. The third drug was the one that would kill him -- but by then there was nothing to see. If he did suffer pain, nobody would have known. For eight minutes we all sat there in absolute silence, staring at a frozen body, waiting for him to die.

Nothing could have looked less like what was actually happening. I kept having to remind myself that I was watching someone being killed -- because none of the evidence would agree. There was no violence, no resistance, not even the appearance of an act of will. From the look on everyone's faces you'd think we were witnessing a rather sad but unavoidable law of nature -- not a decision deliberately taken, or one that could have been reversed.

After a while people's gaze began to wander from the body. Each of us stared into a different private space, as frozen as Patton, like actors arranged on stage into a tableau of human alienation. The old-fashioned black-and-white clock on the wall above Patton's head ticked slowly by, and at 6.11pm a doctor pronounced him dead. The blinds were lowered, everyone got up and we filed out into blazing sunshine.

Back at the media centre, Jerry Massie asked how I'd found it. Surreal, I said. That's funny, he said -- a lot of people tend to use that word. I wanted to say it was traumatic, or horrific, or revolting. But it wouldn't have been true. Had Patton been electrocuted, that would have been traumatic -- to watch him jolt to death, even burst into flames, and have to smell his burning flesh would have been unthinkable. It would have had the merit of seeming real, though, and no one could have walked away lightly.

But the American justice system has perfected so brilliant a denial of death that the horror of it is how calmly one can watch. In that sense, you could say it really was a humane execution. But the people for whom it has been made humane are the ones carrying it out.

The media centre felt like a TV studio green room after a show is over. Prison staff munched on cookies, the reporters cracked some jokes and somebody gathered up the piles of unused press releases. Massie was disappointed to hear that Patton hadn't apologised for his crime. His expression suggested he found the omission rather rude.

- Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Friday, September 22, 2006

Have you seen "Dirty War?"

Oh my goodness. What a bone chillingly scary movie.

The plot is simple - a group of moslem extremists linked to Al Qaeda create a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is one made of low grade radioactive waste or bio-hazardous material and traditional explosives.

The bomb is detonated in central London and the movie deals with the response.

The chilling part is the likeliness of the plot and the realism of the movie. I could imagine tuning into BBC or Sky and seeing those pictures. As I saw the similar ones during last year's bus and subway bombings.

What a world we live in!

The movie was made by HBO and BBC and is currently on MNET in South Africa. The movie's HBO microsite can be accessed here.

Picture: HBO Asia

Friday, September 08, 2006

Could we be wiped out by a virus?

Watching movies like Outbreak and Twelve Monkeys no doubt encourages such thinking.

But we have heard the fear that HIV could mutate into an infectious rather than contagious disease, or combine to form a killer combination with some other virus.

Two diseases have always been watched with caution as potential HIV disaster catalysts: Ebola and Tuberculosis.

So it is with great alarm that medical experts noted two critical alerts in KwaZulu-Natal this week:

Deadly new TB 'must be stopped'

The extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) in KwaZulu-Natal must be dealt with urgently, said international health experts here on Thursday.

"There is no time to wait before we embark on decisive action," said the World Health Organisation's Dr Ernesto Jaramillo, explaining that an epidemic could have a "deadly impact".

"It's imperative that we don't allow this to go unmitigated," said Dr Ken Castro, of the United States Centre for Disease Control.

"The emergence of XDR-TB poses a threat everywhere in the world."

More than 100 medical experts and policy-makers from around the world were meeting to discuss the XDR-TB which emerged in KZN recently.

Fifty-three cases were identified and 52 of the patients have died. The HIV/TB co-infection rate was high.

KZN's shocking HIV rates

Medical researchers are finding "unbelievable" rates of HIV and Aids infection among women in several parts of KwaZulu-Natal, with provincial prevalence levels varying between 38 and 50 percent.

Professor Gita Ramjee, of the Medical Research Council in Durban, said that in one area of the South Coast the HIV prevalence level in women was as high at 70 percent, while in the Embo area near Botha's Hill researchers found a prevalence level of more than 66 percent.


Thursday, August 31, 2006

What is positive activism?

There is a saying that the price of freedom is eternal vigilism. That wise old guy Plato also once said that the price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.

When we suffer from crime, poor service, corporate exploitation or poor governance, many of the roots can be found in our very own apathy. When our actions are negatively impacted, we very well might be ruled by evil men - and I'm not necessarily talking about someone in government here.

How often do we not say that we just don't have the time to do anything? Or to claim that there is no point in trying because those in authority will not do anything? Or to claim that it is not our job to get involved - that's why we pay taxes?

From my early involvement in analysing crime, it is apparent that previous years' success against crime in South Africa drew on community involvement. As crime in Gauteng was reduced in the late nineties, apathy grew and community involvement dropped.

But the effects of apathy are not confined to increasing crime. They can be felt in the service we receive from public institutions or at retailers. They can result in lack of representation in government.

Activists are not born, they are made. Be it through an upbringing that encourages standing up for one's beliefs or through circumstance that convinces them to say, "Enough is enough."

I believe we need positive activists. People who are not dragged into confrontation and negative criticism, but constructive engagement. People who want to be part of the solution and not the problem. People who understand that there is a personal cost to enjoying progress.

The positive activist's manifesto is:
  • I understand that positive engagement yields quicker, better results than negative attack

  • I understand that should I wish to enjoy the benefits living in a community then I must contribute to that community

  • I understand that my contribution includes taxes and moentary contributions but is likely to require personal involvement

  • I will seek to be involved in solution before criticising

  • I will act rather than pass by

  • I will give positive feedback - where this is not possible I will ensure my feedback is constructive

  • I will escalate rather than give up.

The positive activist's goals are:
  • To promote action rather than argument

  • To promote accountability and results

  • To promote community involvement

  • To make a difference.

If you agree and want to be involved, then feel free to post the following code on your blog / site that links to this article:

<a href=""><img src=""/></a>

This will put the following logo and link onto your page:

Update to a question: Corporate Criminals?

Just over a week ago (on the 21st August), I posted about illegal signs. I had informed the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council and been encouraged by their response.

I am happy to report that the signs have been removed (minus two that are on a servitude behind a fence, but the removal of those is in progress).

Congratulations to Jerome Thomas, Henda Boshoff and the Metropolitan Police for their swift action.

In addition, I have emailed the directors of the companies involved, and it appears that the Sandhurst Chronicle will run a story about illegal signage and this incident.

Lesson? YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE! Complaining at a dinner party and criticising authorities without doing your bit is not on.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How calm and collected are you?

"m'Lord, I'm sorry, but there is a snake next to the accused."

HA HA HA HA! Brilliant. This guy, a court interpreter in Ramsgate, KwaZulu-Natal, takes the cake for taking things in his stride.

For my overseas readers, a boomslang (Afrikaans for "tree snake") has a very dangerous neurotoxic venom. They grow to about 2 metres and their victim's only saving grace is that they are back-fanged, meaning they often don't get a great bite and inject a full load of poison. Nevertheless, they remain one of South Africa's most dangerous snakes, and they are quite common in all of sub-saharan Africa.

An African Boomslang Picture:

From News24

Sssilence in court!
28/08/2006 23:13 - (SA)

Lucia Swart , Beeld

Durban - It wasn't a snake in the grass that caused all the drama at Ramsgate magistrate's court on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast on Monday - it was one in court.

Court interpreter R S Madlebe was speaking just after noon on Monday when he suddenly switched to English: "m'Lord, I'm sorry, but there is a snake next to the accused."

Magistrate Charlotte Dickinson said a green boomslang slithered into sight.

"It was hot and the case was becoming quite drawn-out just before lunch.

"The interpreter was droning on in a monotone. He was in the middle of a sentence when suddenly, without moving a muscle or blinking an eye, he apologised and told me there was a snake," said Dickinson with a laugh.

She adjourned the court and everyone scurried out. The accused was taken back to the court cells.

The court orderly caught the snake (which was about half a metre long) and released it outside."

Just another day in Africa!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Could you overcome your pride?

Former apartheid minister of safety and security Adriaan Vlok's gesture towards repenting for his role in apartheid is striking. He washed the feet of someone who he felt symbolised apartheid victims, the Reverend Frank Chikane.

Even if you are not a Christian, the symbolism is moving. In a statement released jointly with Chikane today, he descibes the importance of giving up his pride in the action.

Vlok did not seek any publicity for the move - Chikane discussed the meeting after it happened, and when approached by the press, Vlok deflected questions to the Reverend.

The action has since been praised by President Mbeki, who described Vlok's actions as an extraordinary and moving gesture of reconciliation.

The meeting follows a statement by Archbishop Tutu some months back criticising whites for their lack of contrition for apartheid wrongs.

Well done Mr Vlok.

More on News24.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Is corruption a white issue?

My last couple of posts have focused on the role of race in argument and the credibility thereof.

Tony Yengeni Photo: IoL
Today saw the admission of Tony Yengeni into prison to begin a four year sentence for not declaring a discount received on a Mercedes Benz from Daimler Crysler - a bidder in the arms deal Yengeni was party to.

There has been much outcry. Western Cape provincial ANC chair James Ngculu said that it was not as though Yengeni had stolen something - he had merely failed to declare a discount. Well Mr Ngculu, next time an agent of yours, perhaps in a housing deal, takes a cut from the other party to your prejudice, tell me they merely made a mistake. As an elected representitive, that is what you are - our agent.

President Mbeki chose this time to comment on a tough stance against corruption in his newsletter, ANC Today. Congratulations to him.

And after the shocking news that convicted criminal Brigadier-General Ernest Zwane had been appointed the South African Defence Force's director of prosections, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, who arrived back in South Africa on Thursday, announced that Zwane had been sacked. He has launched a probe into the selection procedures. Well done Minister Lekota.

Also in the news today is that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has told Jacob Zuma to do the honourable thing and forget about the presidency. While Tutu acknowledges that Zuma is a likeable man, he believes his sexual misconduct is inexcusable. Well done Archbishop Tutu.

What's the point of this post? Each of these issues is well removed from the struggling township dweller. They are seen as largely white issues. The calls for men of the people to be jailed are seen as racist in nature and the reaction is one of opposition rather than logic. For logic to prevail and South Africa to progress, debate for and against cannot be white versus black. Well done to Minister Lekota, President Mbeki and Archbishop Tutu for taking the moral high ground.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Do you work for a criminal firm?

The intersection of Sandton and Grayston Drive has become a veritable forest of billboards and signs - illegal and legal.

Controversy reigned about two years ago when one of the billboard companies merely chopped down the trees along the road in order to give motorists a clear view of their sign.

Others have proved equally bold - merely erecting massive signs on the pavement to advertise their services.

Enough is enough. We can complain about crime yet become complicit by acts like these - or working for companies with these ethics.

Further, most people are "too busy" to do anything. It's easier than you think to take a stand. After some trouble (20 minutes) phoning Joburg Connect (011 375 5555) I was put in touch with a very helpful gentleman called Jerome who asked me to note the names of the companies and email these to him. He would then do a site visit and begin the process against the offenders.

You might say, "Oh but he's probably too busy to care."

I would say not from his helpful attitude. Further, the DA informs me that the special court dedicated to Johannesburg bylaw transgressions only saw 13 cases for the whole of last year (DA representative - community crime meeting, 31 August 2006). 13!! If you want to see the amazing list of bylaw categories, click here. Then tell me the problem is not resident apathy.

Well I believe the time has come for positive activism. I'll post a separate thread on that.

In the meantime, let this post act as a name and shame catalogue for the companies involved. By all means, phone them and tell them what you think. Imagine you lived on the adjacent properties and let them know how you disagree.

Here's the astounding photo evidence:

And here are the telephonic details of each firm involved:

Interprise Broadband - 0861171717
DTZ Leadenhall - 011 2742300 - Natasha - 0829049631
Pam Golding - Pam - 0827759598
Sotherbys - Derek Ballantyne - 0827456390
Bradford McCormack - 0114429111
Chelsea Manhattan - 0117832111 - Mark - 0829406856
Auction Alliance - 0114305555 - Craig Hean - 0824449598

If you think the signs behind the fence might be OK, you're wrong - they're on a servitude. This I know from researching the area on (awesome website) and the Joburg GIS - An activist needs to know what tools are at his disposal!

Here is the map of the relevant area from the GIS* with the signs' location indicated by a red dot.

It is time to fight. Do not accept wrongs through apathy. Become an activist for positive change.

* As an aside, the GIS has all sorts of useful information, including tagged 2001 census data.

UPDATE: My email was sent to the Johannesburg Council at 20h00 last night. By 12h00 today I was copied on emails instructing the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department to remove the signs and begin legal proceedings against the companies involved.

Would it make a difference if Tony Leon was black?

Interesting question. Posed by Cyril Madlana in his Business Day column.

It seems that the Business Day has unwittingly hosted a thread of would the argument be received differently if the person was a different colour columns - which I have consciously picked up on (see my comment on Professor Xolela Mangcu and Professor Anton Harber's articles).

Madlana's commentary is interesting. He quotes Roger Burrow's (head of the Democratic Alliance for KwaZulu-Natal) retirement speech, in which Burrows laments that many followers of his party believed votes would come to them "because our policies and principles are so right." This did not happen.

Madlana says that, "Much has been made of Leon's abrasive and confrontational style of opposition politics and how Africans' sense of respect for authority is violated when he challenges the president, for instance."

Despite Leon's style, Madlana draws attention to the fact that the DA (while remaining small) has grown while many traditionally black opposition parties have struggled.

Madlana ends by saying that, "There are signs that some communities want to be ungovernable again in protest at failure of the authorities to deliver on promises. Would the country rather burn than pause to think whether there is any sense in what a white, DA-supporting Burrows, Leon or Eddie Trent are saying?"

I found the article interesting in light of my recent contact with the DA and Tony Leon in particular. Post a meeting regarding crime, I approached Mr Leon to offer my opinion on the DA performance during the evening. I introduced myself and noted that I had found the experience of the DA statements and comments during the evening an incredibly negative one. The DA national spokesperson on safety and security, Ms. Dianne Kohler-Barnard, had devoted much of her speech to attacking the Minister of Safety and Security, Minister Charles Ngakula, and National Commissioner of Police, Jackie Selebi. I mentioned that I was not a DA supporter for precisely this reason - I disagreed with the DA's style of negative opposition politics. I wondered if the DA might attract more voters like me (young, proudly South African) if they played a more constructive role.

Mr Leon appeared to lose interest and said he thought he had made quite a positive speech. He suggested that I continue to vote for whoever I did.

The lesson in all of this is, I hope, that the manner in which arguments are received is not merely an issue of race. It is one of commonality. When I made my observations known to Mr Leon, I had unwittingly been drawn into the DA style of engagement. Skilled negotiators know that we all tend to be drawn into the dominant style of an interaction. That style might be established through body language, tone of voice or turn of phrase. It takeconsciousious effort not to be drawn into a negative spiral.

As I mentioned in my comment regarding Professor Harber's article, we look for commonality or difference in the characteristics of the person we disagree with. Difference allows us to feel safe in our different point of view.

Tony Leon and the DA have different points of view to the African National Congress. Their style of engagememphasizesises difference and makes no attempt at establishing commonality. The fact that they are largely a white party provides their dominant characteristic to become the notable point of difference.

Commonality then defines the ebbs, flows and ultimately the outcomes of arguments. We look for commonality how others' views are put forward against our own. Failing to see this we look for differences in the critic's character, to justify why we might have a different point of view. And finally, our interaction style follows the dominant style or argument.

I regret that I fell into the trap - it is one that I try to avoid. I regret that my observations made to Mr Leon (and Ms. Kohler-Barnard) came across to them as negative criticism.

It is a failure that characterizesises politics. Mr Madlana's fears are appropriate. We need politicians skilled at building constructive dialogue. Whose views find common ground rather than negative space. Failing this (where the race of the sides is different), arguments deteriorate to the point that race becomes the accepted reason for disagreement.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Should your race affect the merits of your argument?

In an astonishing counterpoint to the article from Professor Xolela Mangcu who argued that race often stands in the way of things being said, Professor Anton Harber writes of arguments in an online forum that were questioned once the contributor's race was questioned. She claimed she was black and questioned many black contributors' claims in the forum. When they disputed her race, her arguments were then also questioned.

It is fascinating reading the two articles (both from the Business Day). To my mind it illustrates the very roots of discrimination. We naturally look for commonality or difference. It defines the earliest social interactions we have. At pre-school level kids might find themselves part of a group or out of it based on a subtle attribute such as an accent. That grouping becomes all the more stark when we argue and instinctively look for support from those like us. When the argument itself is about discrimination, we become intolerant of those like us taking a different view - because it threatens our sense of who we are.

Professor Anton Harber's article can be found on his blog, The Harbinger.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Do you understand black conciousness?

This article appeared in today's Business Day.

It is one of the best written pieces I have read in some time.

It decries the labeling - in order to quash argument - of the originators of different points of view as racist, and calls for greater tolerance.

It is balanced and introduced me to a commentator I did not know of. Professor Mangcu, thank you for a very well considered point of view.

From the Business Day:

A tribute to two good white men who fondly remembered Biko
Xolela Mangcu

THIS is a belated tribute to two good white men who died recently — journalists Robert Amato and Barry Streek.

I had an indirect relationship with Amato through an interview about my resignation from the Human Sciences Research Council. Towards the end of the interview he caught me off guard with what I initially thought was a rather cheeky rhetorical question: “But Dr Mangcu, it is generally believed you are difficult?” I was still mumbling something about standing on principle when he offered an answer to his own question: “Is it perhaps part of the black consciousness quest for authenticity?”

It was clear to me that his understanding of authenticity was far more sophisticated than the stock-in-trade racial nativism we have now.

After all, black consciousness never had an essentialist approach to political authenticity. Authenticity was always a matter of choice and identification, not birth or ancestry. I am sure our nativists would have been disappointed to learn from Kwame Anthony Appiah that etymologically the word “native” refers to all individuals born in a country, and not, as is often assumed, to those who claim authenticity on the basis of biology or ancestry. In that sense, we are all natives now.

There is also another reason why we should move away from nativist conceptions of authenticity. The ideal of authenticity has been central to the modern democratic revolution.

Or as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it: “To see what is new in this we have to see the analogy to earlier moral views, where being in touch with some source — God, say, or the Idea of the Good — was essential to full being. Only now the source we have to connect with is deep in us. This is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths.”

However, freeing oneself from vertical hierarchies was never seen as a way to sever horizontal relations with society. Our individuality has always been dependent on the social relations we have with others. Hence Taylor’s assertion that “my discovering my identity doesn’t mean I work it out in isolation but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internalised with others... my own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others”.

Kwame Appiah expresses the same idea this way: “Individuality pre- supposes sociability.” In isi-Zulu we say umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. To wit, horizontal relations are vital to the formation of both individual and national identities.

My concern is that in our country we have developed an intolerant culture in which we disqualify those we disagree with by labelling them racists. We often do not know and have never met the people we accuse of racism. Nor do we want to inquire about the reasoning behind their arguments, lest those arguments deprive us of the favourite pastime of throwing racial epithets.

This argumentation by epithets is one of the most dreadful aspects of the new political culture. Instead of engaging in a dialogical process by contesting ideas as ideas we opt for racial clairvoyance and reflexive dismissal of our critics even before they speak on account of their race. Unfortunately, this seems to be working, especially among white people.

Throughout the times I have organized public lectures I have always been struck by the silence of white people. They are afraid to speak, lest they be insulted or marginalised. And so they resort to anonymity, or to expressing outrage in the privacy of their homes or in bar-room talk.

What we all lose in the process is the ability to fashion, through open dialogue, an inclusive, authentic national identity through the horizontal relations of our civil society.

This national identity would come out of what Steve Biko called the “joint culture” comprising both the black and the white experience. Whether we like it or not, our fates are inextricably tied to each other.

Unfortunately the culture we breed now is also the culture we bequeath to our children — a bifurcated political culture in which black kids feel entitled to speak in public and white kids feel automatically disqualified from speaking. We need to inculcate in our children that this country belongs to all of them, and that none of them should feel less native than others.

If there is anything I admired about Amato and Streek it is that they never shirked their responsibility to speak in public. I will never forget the day Barry assembled a whole group of former National Union of South African Students members at his house so I could interview them about Biko’s impact on white student politics. Even though Biko was the fiercest critic of their liberalism, they respected his intellect and remembered him fondly. That’s because he never insulted them.

‖Dr Mangcu is visiting scholar, Public Intellectual Life Project, Wits University. He is also a nonresident WEB DuBois Fellow at Harvard University.