March 31, 2007

Land of the Free

Editor's note: To those loyal friends who frequent this site, my apologies for my recent absence. I am exploring South Africa and not always able to connect to upload new posts. But ah, what a trip it is! There is much I would wish to share.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- I'm here to attend the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and to explore this great and glorious country, still in the fresh raptures of a social and political revolution that is one of the bright spots in this grim age.

(A very abbreviated summary of some of the highlights of this trip is posted at

There is so much to tell. South Africa is one of the most amazing places in the world today, in my humble opinion, and its most extraordinary qualities are things that could do Americans much good. At a time when it is blossoming in a new renaissance after the incredible overthrow of apartheid in the early '90s, the U.S. has been moving in the opposite direction. And it's very encouraging to see that good things are still possible in this world. The Bush-Cheney New World Order does not have the power and reach to make every place as dark and creepy as it has made the U.S. in recent years. Americans can take a measure of inspiration from South Africa at this time when any sign of hope for humanity is sorely needed.

In fact there is a great deal of hope in the U.S. as the lords of torture, falsely declared war and corruption writhe in agony and their regime totters. Bush has now hovered at 30% approval ratings for a year and a half, reportedly the longest any president has achieved such an abysmal rating for so long.

They are finally getting theirs. They have shown they can steal elections, drive the nation to war on false pretenses, give lucrative no-bid contracts to their friends, thumb their noses at everyone and everything, but they cannot get away with everything they want forever. At some point, after screwing practically everyone they come in contact with for years, it's all starting to catch up with them. What a pleasure to see it!

Meanwhile across the sea at the southern tip of Africa, a new republic has been born out of the ashes of an oppressive regime, and of course it's far from perfect. But what excitement to see a country that has thrown over one of the most brutal systems of oppression known, and has done it without striking back in kind and perpetuating the cycle of violence and hatred.

When you are here you feel all of that. You feel the tremendous electricity of democracy unleashed, of human potential set free. It is stunning. It recalls De Tocqueville's description of the stark difference that could be perceived when passing from the free states to the slave states in early America. Immediately when entering the slave states, that sense of oppression set in and the vibrance of the democratic society of the north was squelched.

Now, in a bitter irony for Americans, the contrast between the U.S. as it moves rapidly toward a more oppressive government and South Africa as it bursts forth from the starting gate toward greater freedom, is striking.

These are not isolated theaters of activity. The people on the rise in the U.S. in the post-2000 period are essentially the same as those vanquished in South Africa. Dick Cheney was one of the few U.S. congressmen who voted against a resolution in 1986 to call for the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the symbol and leader of the anti-apartheid movement. (See Commondreams) The resolution passed, but Reagan vetoed it. Cheney considered Mandela a terrorist and never backed away from his position, though he said something during the 2000 election season that Mandela had moderated, which was absurd.

At Nelson Mandela's home in Soweto (now a museum), there is a proclamation from the state government of Michigan apologizing for the fact that the CIA was involved in capturing Mandela for the apartheid regime. (See "U.S. Aid to Africa: It Takes a Child to Raze a Village") When South Africans asked President George Bush to issue some sort of apology for the incident, he would not do it, but Michigan did, and the proclamation stands in Mandela's home.

I visited Robben Island, the prison where Mandela was kept in a tiny cell, sleeping on a mat on the floor, condemned to the hard labor of breaking rocks into gravel with a hammer. One of the former political prisoners of the prison, Eugene Mokgoasi, guided us through the prison. For being involved in the struggle against apartheid, in an incident of civil disobedience, he said, he was called a terrorist under anti-terrorism laws, which meant that he could be detained without trial and put away indefinitely. Sound familiar? If this is too subtle, this is exactly what Bush and Cheney have given themselves power to do under new U.S. anti-terrorist laws named the USA Patriot Act, a name that shows contempt for logic itself, not only patriotism.

The similarities go further, and should make any decent American hang his head in shame. At the prison, Mokgoasi encountered a Pakistani man, he told us, who had suffered the same fate as he, being picked up in Afghanistan, taken to Guantanamo and tortured. It was exactly what Mokgoasi had experienced.

"Because of the terrorism act, I was given detention without trial and tortured," he said. "You don't know when it is going to end, so you sign a confession. You realize that your life is in the hands of your torturers, so you will tell them whatever they want to hear. So I said I was a terrorist."

All of these things are closely connected, not isolated incidents by the farthest stretch of the imagination. Ghandi's first exercise of nonviolent resistance was when he was a lawyer and activist in South Africa. Martin Luther King learned from Ghandi and applied his philosophy and methods to the American Civil Rights movement. South Africans saw Martin Luther King and were inspired to a belief that they too could overthrow their own system of institutionalized racism and segregation. Now it is time for Americans again to learn from South Africa.

Mokgoasi said he never believed the apartheid regime would be overthrown in his lifetime. He of course never dreamed of the world he now lives in, the job he now has guiding people through the "hell hole" where he was once held captive. A man whose bitterness cannot be ignored, he still had the capacity of a small child to acknowledge that the overthrow of apartheid was "a miracle".

"Fortunately things have changed for the better," he said. "The one thing we held onto was our dignity as human beings. We refused to let it go. And there is something new about this country. We are slowly regaining our dignity, both black and white."

There is hope. Every day in Washington there are signs that the brutal, contemptuous government of Bush and Cheney is collapsing. Let's not let it go half way. Let us see justice restored. Let us not allow this path toward tyranny go any farther down. Let's not let the U.S., which was once a beacon of hope for democracy and human freedom, become known as the symbol of shock and awe a.k.a. state terrorism and repression.

Let us see to it that these criminals face justice for their crimes.

May 19, 2007

Back from South Africa -- As the wicked Bush administration loses its ruthless grip on power, the United States looks much better to come home to. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the immigration officials seem much more human and less uptight than a while back. Getting a ride back from JFK airport to Hoboken the driver went over the Verrazano Bridge, a magnificent structure, but it's strange to see a sign posted that says "No pictures no videos". The Home of the Brave is scared of its own shadow under the Bush regime. Imagine not being able to photograph the beautiful bridge! The image is intellectual property. The Neocons in their attempt to establish rule of the world have tried to turn the country into an armed camp. How wonderful to see them begin to recede into history, or so it appears.

On the 18-hour flight from Johannesburg I read a large chunk of Leonard Thompson's A History of South Africa. Thompson is a Yale professor of history and the book carries an impressive endorsement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who says, "I did not think it was possible for a white person to write a history of South Africa which a black South African would find to be a fair and accurate account of a beautiful land and its people. Leonard Thompson has disabused me of that notion." And indeed it is a dramatic story well told.

It was fascinating to read how the National Party through skillful political mobilization had taken control of the country in 1948 with only 12 percent of the population behind it. Their program was apartheid, and they very systematically implemented their cruel agenda, ever tightening the screws on black Africans as well as Coloureds and Indians, while favoring and cushioning the whites, who had the vote and the economic power and thereby increasing their support. At the same time they controlled the media.

"The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), a public corporation controlled by government appointees, had a monopoly on radio broadcasting and on televiasion when it began to operate in South Africa in 1976," writes Thompson. The SABC "became an instrument of officialo propaganda. Other government appointed bodies exercised wide powers of censorship. In 1977, for example, they banned 1,246 publications, 41 periodicals, and 44 films. Most of those banned poublications were books and pamphlets dealing with such radical opposition movements as the African Naitonal Congrss, so that it became difficult for South Africans to find out what opposition movements were doing and thinking." Hmmm. Sound familiar? It sure does to me.

The whites who formed the main body of support of the regime did not really know what they were supporting. "Few whites ever saws an African, Coloured or an Asian home," writes Thompson. They were in a bubble. But at the same time, "apartheid society was also riden with mental stress and violence. Suicides were exeptionally frequent among white South Africans... South African society was very different from the benign picture produced by the government's information services and presented by official guides to visitors."

However, this counterhistorical regime, as remarkably adroit as its exercise of power was, could not maintain its fantasy world of "racial purity" and perfect separation of ethnic groups forever. The world was moving onward. "By 1978, the apartheid regime was in trouble," writes Thompson. The regime became increasingly corrupt. The economy was faltering. The world increasingly turned against apartheid. The colonial powers receded from Africa and black nationalism rose all over the continent. The world moved on from racism as the norm. Its grip on power became ever more desperate and tenuous and finally fell apart all together, leading to the explosive release of pent-up cultural energy that is now driving a glorious social renaissance in South Africa, one of the brightest spots on the planet in the grim 21st century New World Order.

I liken the difference of South Africa before and after the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s to the contrast Alexis de Tocqueville outlined in Democracy in America in the 1820s and 1830s. I can't resist quoting a chunk of it in which he describes the observable difference between the slave and free states on the two sides of the Ohio River.

These two states differ only in a single respect: Kentucky has admitted slavery, but the state of Ohio has prohibited the existence of slaves within its borders. Thus the traveler who floats down the current of the Ohio to the spot where that river falls into the Mississippi may be said to sail between liberty and servitude; and a transient inspection of surrounding objects will convince him which of the two is more favorable to humanity.

Upon the left bank of the stream the population is sparse; from time to time one descries a troop of slaves loitering in the half-desert fields; the primeval forest reappears at every turn; society seems to be asleep, man to be idle, and nature alone offers a scene of activity and life.

From the right bank, on the contrary, a confused hum is heard, which proclaims afar the presence of industry; the fields are covered with abundant harvests; the elegance of the dwellings announces the taste and activity of the laborers; and man appears to be in the enjoyment of that wealth and contentment which is the reward of labor.

The state of Kentucky was founded in 1775, the state of Ohio only twelve years later; but twelve years are more in America than half a century in Europe; and at the present day the population of Ohio exceeds that of Kentucky by two hundred and fifty thousand souls. These different effects of slavery and freedom may readily be understood; and they suffice to explain many of the differences which we notice between the civilization of antiquity and that of our own time.

Upon the left bank of the Ohio labor is confounded with the idea of slavery, while upon the right bank it is identified with that of prosperity and improvement; on the one side it is degraded, on the other it is honored. On the former territory no white laborers can be found, for they would be afraid of assimilating themselves to the Negroes; all the work is done by slaves; on the latter no one is idle, for the white population extend their activity and intelligence to every kind of employment. Thus the men whose task it is to cultivate the rich soil of Kentucky are ignorant and apathetic, while those who are active and enlightened either do nothing or pass over into Ohio, where they may work without shame.

It is true that in Kentucky the planters are not obliged to pay the slaves whom they employ, but they derive small profits from their labor, while the wages paid to free workmen would be returned with interest in the value of their services. The free workman is paid, but he does his work quicker than the slave; and rapidity of execution is one of the great elements of economy. The white sells his services, but they are purchased only when they may be useful; the black can claim no remuneration for his toil, but the expense of his maintenance is perpetual; he must be supported in his old age as well as in manhood, in his profitless infancy as well as in the productive years of youth, in sickness as well as in health. Payment must equally be made in order to obtain the services of either class of men: the free workman receives his wages in money; the slave in education, in food, in care, and in clothing. The money which a master spends in the maintenance of his slaves goes gradually and in detail, so that it is scarcely perceived; the salary of the free workman is paid in a round sum and appears to enrich only him who receives it; but in the end the slave has cost more than the free servant, and his labor is less productive.

The influence of slavery extends still further: it affects the character of the master and imparts a peculiar tendency to his ideas and tastes. Upon both banks of the Ohio the character of the inhabitants is enterprising and energetic, but this vigor is very differently exercised in the two states. The white inhabitant of Ohio, obliged to subsist by his own exertions, regards temporal prosperity as the chief aim of his existence; and as the country which he occupies presents inexhaustible resources to his industry, and ever varying lures to his activity, his acquisitive ardor surpasses the ordinary limits of human cupidity: he is tormented by the desire of wealth, and he boldly enters upon every path that fortune opens to him; he becomes a sailor, a pioneer, an artisan, or a cultivator with the same indifference, and supports with equal constancy the fatigues and the dangers incidental to these various professions; the resources of his intelligence are astonishing, and his avidity in the pursuit of gain amounts to a species of heroism.

But the Kentuckian scorns not only labor but all the undertakings that labor promotes; as he lives in an idle independence, his tastes are those of an idle man; money has lost a portion of its value in his eyes; he covets wealth much less than pleasure and excitement; and the energy which his neighbor devotes to gain turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat. Thus slavery prevents the whites not only from becoming opulent, but even from desiring to become so.

Many have observed that the rise of the Republicans under Bush and Cheney is like the resurgence of the Confederate south, and there is certainly much basis for thecomparison. Cheney, remember, was one of the congressmen who would not support a resolution to free Nelson Mandela, and Bush Senior staunchly refused to issue a formal apology for the CIA's involvement in the capture of Nelson Mandela. The parallels could go on and on. Now as South Africa goes through its stages as as a young free society, the U.S. has been going through a dark, regressive period. But maybe we are seeing the signs of its end. We can only hope.

More on South Africa

  • Dispatches from South Africa
  • South African Dispatches: The Unpublished Last Four
    Dispatch 8 GoodHope
    Dispatch 9 Robben Island
    Dispatch 10 Cape Town Jazz
    Dispatch 11 Leaving South Africa
  • South Africa: A Moment in Time
  • Cultural Tourism in South Africa
  • South Africa: Indaba and Lebo M
  • A Visit to Shamwari

    More on Africa:

  • Bungee Jumping at Victoria Falls
  • Back in the War Zone (Home from a Peace Conference in Zambia) [2.17.05]
  • Uganda [10.29.04]
  • Existential Africa: How I Learned to Love the Wildebeest
  • Good Vibes in Uganda

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