Bird on a Wire

Here’s a good one. A prisoner in a Turkish prison goes to the prison library, and asks for a particular book. The prison librarian replies, ‘We don’t have that book. But we do have the author.’

Signs of the times, you might say – the modern dystopia. History has not ended – in fact, it’s back with a vengeance.

I saw this black-shouldered kite perched on the power-lines on the way back to the gate at Marievale the other day. I was afraid it would fly off, so I stopped, a way back, and turned off the engine, and carefully opened the car door, and took a couple of photographs. The bird seemed unperturbed, so I drove a little closer, and repeated the performance. The kite had other things on its mind, so I drew still closer. Even so, this photograph is a radical crop, using maybe a quarter of the original image.

Says something about the image quality of the Nikon, and that big sensor.

The original, in colour, is simply a picture: ‘this is what a black-shouldered kite looks like.’ I wanted to show something more, of the bird’s brooding power, it’s fierce beauty. I hope this captures at least something of that.


Black-Shouldered Kite

A week is a long time in politics

A week in politics is more than a long time, sometimes: it can mark the beginning or the end of an era.

It is hard to believe that it was just this time last week that the man who sold his country, former president Jacob Zuma, was flatly refusing to step down from office. By Friday, in the State of the Nation address, a new man, President Cyril Ramaphosa, was resetting the tone for the nation, and Zuma was toast. Those who had depended on Zuma’s favours, who had enabled his vices, who had grown fat and arrogant along with him, those whose dumb stupidity was enough to entitle them to high office, have looks on their faces these days of utter bewilderment as South Africans, with justifiable schadenfreude, await their fall from office and the day of reckoning.

Ramaphosa’s speech on Friday rose to the moment: he spoke of renewal, of hope, of the civic virtues; he put bad guys on notice and asked the good guys – men and women – to lend a hand, with an emotive and effective reference to Bra Hugh Masekela, the great jazz hero who has just passed on to the big blue jazz club in the sky. And if some of Ramaphosa’s speech was mere ANC pablum – the self-deluding soviet-style recital of targets supposedly achieved and miracles of revolutionary accomplishment – that can be forgiven, at least for now, as the nation feels the weight of nearly ten lost years lifted, if only a little, from its tired and disillusioned shoulders.

Perhaps the boiler-plate vacuity was necessary – a consequence of the shortness of time, the speed of events, the need to reassure the faithful and placate enemies. But sooner or later – preferably sooner – the new President is going to have to show what he is made of. As the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro famously wrote, in a paraphrase of Palmerston – ‘power reveals.’

His ascent to power will show us all, over this year and the next, who Cyril Ramaphosa is, and whether his presidency is simply an event, in the long chain of events, or the beginning of an era. But let’s be honest: as far as new beginnings go, SONA on Friday was about as good as it gets.

‘Inxeba’ – Distilled

Bergman-esque in its intensity, the South African film Inxeba – The Wound – has rightly won praise and awards around the world, along with the usual quota, for a film that speaks openly, and painfully, about homosexuality, masculinity, homophobia and ‘traditional culture’ in an African community, of threats and vitriol. In Cape Town, supposedly a bastion of the arts and enlightenment, the film was withdrawn by distributors Ster Kinekor, in an act of cowardice and betrayal.

All of which is to say, there is a moral imperative to see it, and a duty to support the actors and director. But over and above all this – the politics and cultural warfare – it is the film as a work of art, as a flawless exercise in controlled and yet passionate direction, acting by Nakane Toure, Bongile Mantsai and Niza Jay that is utterly invisible, and a story that transcends both its South African setting and its ‘gay’ narrative, that demands attention.

Inxeba represents the coming to maturity of South African cinema.

Director: John Trengrove

Verdict: Like the initiation into manhood which carries the narrative, Inxeba is painful to watch but a necessary rite of passage.

Five tipples. A half-jack of brandy is probably the most appropriate, with a quart of Castle to follow.

The President’s Keepers

‘The President’s Keepers,’ by Jacques Pauw, published by Tafelberg, has caused something of a sensation here, not least because of government’s clumsy attempts to suppress it – the best publicity that Pauw and his publisher could ask for. Copies of the book have sold like proverbial hot cakes – I had to place a copy on order, and picked it up at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park yesterday. I have hardly been able to put it down since.

Apart from anything else, it is damn well written – fast-paced, vivid, more best-selling thriller than sombre analysis. And yet the story – already so depressingly familiar – of Zuma’s utter corruption and malfeasance, surely treasonable as well as criminal? – comes off the page in a blaze of anger – the Zuptas and the rest of the whores who prostrate themselves before the gods of state capture naked in their greed and criminal impunity.

It’s in the anger and revulsion of the common citizen that South Africa’s hope lies. The rot in the system has gone too deep to cure itself. Let’s see what 2019 brings.

To remind you, and myself meanwhile, that there are still people who do honest work for a living – and as a reminder that there is more to this beautiful land of ours than scoundrels in office – here are some images of the crayfish boats and fishermen at Paternoster.



South Africa in the news

For our overseas family and friends: South Africa is in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. President Jacob Zuma’s “night of the long knives,” in which he purged a third of his cabinet, including the respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and Gordhan’s deputy, Jonas Mncebisi,  has caused consternation and a growing backlash, not least amongst members of his own party.

The country’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has spoken out openly against the decision, as has the party’s Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe. The South African Communist Party, which is in alliance with the ANC and has a number of ministers in Zuma’s cabinet, called on Friday for the President’s resignation. What happens over the next few days and weeks is likely to have long-term repercussions, and consequences for the ANC at the 2019 elections.

The project that has brought me back to South Africa from Canada is housed in the Government Technical Advisory Centre, a component of Treasury. Everyone we have spoken to has been acutely aware of the storm clouds gathering. And yet, what has struck me the most, perhaps, is the strong dedication one senses, amongst senior officials, to the Treasury as a key national institution and pillar of good governance. This is one of the things that gives one hope for the country.

The other, of course, is the pushback from ordinary people, who are sick and tired of incompetence and corruption, and are vocally reclaiming the space for democracy. At the funeral this week for struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada there was loud applause for Gordhan, and even louder applause when a former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, read from a letter that Kathrada had sent to Zuma, calling on him to step down in the interests of the country.

Listening to the talk shows on radio, and following the conversations on Twitter, one hears the occasional voice in defence of the President’s actions, but the overwhelming mood, it seems, is one of anger and defiance. South Africa may be entering perhaps the most decisive period in its post-apartheid history, and the currents of freedom and democracy are running deep and strong. Whether they are enough to turn back the tide is something we will no doubt find out, over the next year or two.

It is a privilege, meanwhile, to be here, in this country I love, with all of its faults and its troubled history, working alongside the proud public servants who have served this country so well and will continue to do so.


Support the Canada-Mathare Education Trust!


Charities and non-profit organisations come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are large, established, influential, international. Think World Vision, Oxfam. At the other end of the scale are the small, local operations, driven by the passion and commitment of a founder (or two), a small band of volunteers, a personal connection to the cause or the place or the people and communities that their work is targeting.

Of course, not all of these small operations are sustainable in the long term, and some don’t survive the initial enthusiasm. So the fact that the Canada-Mathare Education Trust will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year tells you something about the organization, about the energy and commitment of its founding members – still deeply involved, a decade later – and the creativity and sheer hard work of its loyal band of volunteers.

Mathare is the second largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, an often-overlooked sidebar to the problems of deprivation and poverty that the world associates with its larger sibling, Kibera, which is the largest urban slum not only in Nairobi but in the whole of Africa.

Kibera of course cries out for – and receives – a lot of attention, from charities, non-profits, international agencies and governments. But Mathare, with its population of between half a million and 800,000 people crammed into a sliver of land 2km by 0.3km, is also in need, and receives far less attention and support from the major agencies and actors.

The CMETrust is a scarce resource in a place that has few resources to start with, offering 4-year scholarships to over 120 secondary school students since 2006, and supporting the ambitions of the lucky few who are able to proceed to higher education. In addition to money, training and counselling, CMETrust offers hope and opportunity, not only for the students who pass through its hands but for their families and community.

Which brings us to the other, vitally important – indeed, fundamental – part of the equation: the value that the Mathare community places on the contribution that the CMETrust makes to improving their lives. Without the community’s support, and without the positive impact that CMETrust is having on the lives of young people, the Trust would be not much more than a vanity project – or worse, an exercise in futility.

But the CMETrust is neither of these things. It is a small, passionate community of people in both Canada and Kenya who want to make a difference in the world, who are making a difference, and whose ambition to expand the Trust’s outreach, so that more young people from the Mathare slum can have just some of the benefits and opportunities that we enjoy here in Canada, deserve to be supported.

To find out how you can help change the world, one child at a time, visit the CMETrust website, at


Capitalism and democracy: the strain is showing —

The big ‘isms’ – nationalism, socialism, communism, capitalism – of the 19th and 20th centuries have failed or are failing. New challenges have emerged – radical religious fundamentalism, climate change and environmental degradation, populist nativism in the democracies of the west, corruption, inequality on a national and global scale: where is the new and creative politics that we need? via Capitalism and democracy: the strain is showing —