Walking near the Goukamma

That day, we laboured long up the blinding beach towards the oyster beds, past Sandkop and Spitoukop, towards Goukamma, the wind pouring relentlessly into our faces and stopping our ears, the sand-built boulders and dark green-forested ancient dunes on our left, the ocean tapping at the shore with hammer waves on our right. Fine spray flew towards us in a constant slow torrent till it dropped from our hands and our foreheads and soaked our shirts. Continue reading Walking near the Goukamma


My relationship with Saddam Hussein

Saddam-TIME-1990My relationship with Saddam Hussein has taken a difficult turn – he was hanged at dawn five days ago.

We first met through the pages of TIME magazine in 1991. No, not a personal ad. He had just invaded Kuwait and by some trivial coincidence my own military career had just started. I was scurrying about, a very small and miserable mammal, in a dust-bowl artillery base near Potchefstroom, living by the commands of the capricious moribund apartheid military.

It is as an ordinary soldier that one can see most clearly just what a pathetic thing an army is; it is here that we unzip our fragile cultural suspensions and lose all manners. For it is simply not polite to kill someone else, whatever the excuse; worse still, to order someone else to do so. To accept the order is the greatest act of cowardice. Continue reading My relationship with Saddam Hussein

A footnote on electoral systems

In today’s Observer, columnist Nick Cohen describes closed-list electoral systems in rather unflattering terms: “Straw wants a modified version of the closed list system, the neatest swindle ever dreamt up by machine politicians.”

While I think there were good reasons for introducing a closed-list system in South Africa in 1994, the time has come to revamp it. The flood of talent that entered Parliament then has now largely departed, and measures to renew standards are urgently needed.

MPs, Electoral Systems and Accountability in South Africa

Published in the Cape Times in September 2006

President Thabo Mbeki addresses Parliament; the weariness of the speaker suggests he’s been at it for a while. Pic: The Presidency

It’s not unusual to hear South Africans smugly declaring the globe-straddling superiority of our constitution – but when did you last hear someone saying, “We’ve got the world’s finest Electoral Act and the most independently-minded, accountable Members of Parliament: men and women who know their minds and speak them without hesitation.”

The Constitution specifies that we have an National Assembly, and that we all get to vote for it. But it’s the Electoral Act that defines the process by which our Members of Parliament are selected – the accuracy, or crudeness, with which our desires as voters are translated into representives – and we don’t have one.

Well, we do, sort of. We have the left-over, provisional arrangements made for the 1994 election. When the framers of the Constitution finished off their work in 1996, they also said a new Electoral Act must be in place by 1999. But somehow, no one quite got round to it.

Which is why Dr F Van Zyl Slabbert, who headed the Electoral Task Team (ETT) which made proposals for a new Electoral Act in 2003, could write then that, ‘Technically speaking we are without an electoral system’. Continue reading MPs, Electoral Systems and Accountability in South Africa

Lovely beyond any singing

A photograph I took in the Eastern Cape in late 2003 was chosen by my friend Helen Moffett for the cover of her collection of South African landscape writing, Lovely Beyond Any Singing. A news article about the book and its author appeared recently on the University of Cape Town website.

The photograph was taken just before dark with a Pentax K1000 through the front windscreen of a VW Kombi minibus being driven by a crackhead at 140km/h. The setting sun was directly behind us, streaming through a tunnel formed by the land, low dark clouds, and lines of hills on either side.

On being bipolar

Published in the Mail & Guardian, 28 July 2005, under the somewhat misleading title ‘Mindful of Mania’

To have the levels of carbamazepine in my body tested, I caught the train from Muizenberg to Fish Hoek at 5pm today, and walked a kilometre to have blood taken. It’s not a walk that would usually tire me, but today it’s exhausting. The lab office should be open till 5.30pm, but it’s closed and dark. I experience a surge of rage, imagine smashing the darkened windows. It would be a relief to give in to my ungovernable emotions, to finally ‘prove’ that my appearance of coping is practised acting.
Continue reading On being bipolar

A briefing against war on Iraq

First published on an earlier blog on 18 November 2002, months before the actual invasion of Iraq. I think the only assertion I made that is in retrospect dodgy was the claim, made in passing, that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, which we now (30 April 2013) know to be a propaganda claim, much like the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Interlocutor: So you think war on Iraq is a bad idea? Why?

Peacenik: Yes. Because war is wrong.

The great London march of over a million people against the Iraq war, 15 February 2003. My own pic.
The great London march of over a million people against the Iraq war, 15 February 2003. My own pic.

I: Cute notion, but neither fashionable nor persuasive. Try again.

P: There are many arguments, and many who argue, against war on Iraq. There are a very few courageous souls who do so on the basis that war might actually be An Inherently Very Bad Thing, or even Wrong. Are they correct? Confusion on this point has beset humanity for too long. But let us (copping-out perhaps) stick to practical arguments against war — there are more than enough of them.

All wars are messy and brutal, cause death and great suffering and have nasty unforeseen consequences. A war on Iraq will be no exception.

I: Surely the consequences of allowing Saddam Hussein to continue as World’s Nastiest Dictator will be great suffering if he is allowed to continue amassing, and uses, weapons of mass destruction?

P: If he attempted war, he would face overwhelming military force from the US and allies. He leads a moderately-sized country with a devastated economy, and armed forces stuck, for the most part, with ageing military technology. He cannot possibly hope to gain anything from going to war.

The CIA considers the risks of an unprovoked attack by Iraq on the US “low”, but suggests he might lash out with WMDs in advance of an imminent US attack (thus preempting the preempters). (32)

I: Saddam went to war with Iran in the 1980s, and invaded Kuwait in 1990. He’s waged brutal war internally against the Kurds and marsh Arabs. What’s to stop him doing it all over again?

P: He has shown no signs of external aggression since the Gulf War. His means of waging war are smaller than during the Gulf War; the US has spent another 10 years developing ever more sophisticated weapons. He can have no doubt that any external attack would end in overwhelming defeat. His regime, morally bankrupt as it is, is a state. States tend to behave far more rationally, particularly with respect to self-preservation, than the likes of al Quaeda. They can be, and are, deterred by the threat of force. His motives for hanging onto weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), if he is, are now probably the same as US motives for having such weapons: he wants to deter attack (being none too popular with the neighbours).

It has been argued that Saddam only invaded Kuwait on the nod from then US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. In other words, that the US is directly responsible for one of his major acts of past aggression. Continue reading A briefing against war on Iraq