Monday, 22 August 2016

Poem in honour of Elaine Rosa Salo

Elaine Salo, who passed away on 13 August 2016, lived a full and dynamic life. She made a huge intellectual contribution and simultaneously built communities of friendship, practice and deep personal connection with a wide variety of people.

Read my poem in her honour at .

Frank  Meintjies

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Katlehong Arts Centre - a journey filled with challenges and great achievements

The Katlehong Arts Centre played a critical role as a community arts centre over three decades from the mid-70s.

Despite turbulence, institutional tension and, at times, ambiguous political positioning, it made outstanding contributions on many fronts.

Read my full account here:

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Development & effective delivery requires cooperation between social partners

Government should be doing more to enrol civil society as it struggles to overcome massive backlogs and a surge of new demands for delivery of services.

Government policy frameworks and the constitution require that government meets a wide range of basic human needs or – if it cannot do so immediately – produce plans for their progressive realisation. In addition to socio-economic services, government also has the obligation to ensure access to justice, community participation in shaping society and the effective functioning of democratic systems.

In a developing country context, it is a heavy load for government to carry, even if government was working well on all fronts.

Civil society organisations such as NGOs and CBOs represent a national resource. They are as much a part of South African fabric as the new government, and in their work and existence preceded the democratic government. Most want to see changes in people’s lives – and are prepared to work to bring it about. They can play a bigger role in advancing development objectives.

There are those on opposite ends of the spectrum who will not be in favour of government and civil society organisations (CSOs) working together to realise development objectives.

Conservative forces within government would advise government and the ruling party to stay clear of CSOs. Government is in charge and should just press ahead, working directly with communities. In the spirit of a strong and developmental state, government should just go ahead and implement as it sees fit, or so that view goes.

Leftwingers would argue that any collaboration with government would be “doing the work of government”. It would be supporting the right wing ideology that argues that the state should play a smaller role in national development.

But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Problems in development countries are huge but headway can be made if sectors work to find common ground. Furthermore, the constitution, in its understanding of governance, envisages that we all combine our efforts to achieve developmental objectives.

Government spokespersons will no doubt enumerate their own requirements for partnering. However in my engagement with CSOs, they emphasize the following about partnership:
  • Collaboration should not be premised on the idea that CSOs must give up their voice and right to undertake advocacy. In fact, governance could benefit if there was more proactive and critical feedback from CSOs rather than eruptions of grassroots protests that sometimes turn violent.
  • There should be an acceptance that CSOs have different strategies and that a CSO may use different strategies at different times. CSOs acknowledge that government is not monolithic and one government department may be more open to collaboration on projects while another may be hostile to the idea of co-operation.
  • Some CSOs desire no role in implementation; preferring to focus on advocacy and campaigns. For example Equal Education, although it is involved in establishing libraries in schools, puts the emphasis on campaigns. NGOs that adopt such positions should be respected and form a vital part of civil society.
  • For CSOs, there are many ways to collaborate beyond being entangled in implementation; CSOs can assume roles in monitoring, in data gathering and research, in programme formulation and as participants in oversight bodies set up by departments.'

Of course, relationships will not always be plain sailing. In a society plagued by race and class conflict and where fierce intra-party and inter-party rivalries coexist with daily community protests, CSOs and government will also have tense standoffs.

Nonetheless, there are many areas in which specific government departments and CSOs can work together – or increase collaboration – as partners to find solutions and advance objectives set out in the Freedom Charter. 

We can draw lessons from, and possibly expand on, interesting examples of collaboration such as these:

– The Department of Labour in some provinces engages community-based advice offices to ensure workers get access to information and assistance related to labour rights.
– The Department of Social Development and its provincial counterparts works with CBOs to roll out victim empowerment services to those affected by rape and domestic violence. (Sadly, however, government keeps slicing away at NPO funding for critical activities such as post-rape services while government's own unit costs for such service continues to climb).
– During the recent xenophobic violence in Durban, NGOs and government had to work together in providing relief. Many NGOs were first on the scene and spent days and nights working to provide assistance to victims. Furthermore, government must work through CSOs in rolling out community-level campaigns to raise consciousness and counter xenophobia.
– NGOs and some units based at universities play a sterling role alongside CBOs supporting farmworker struggles and providing information about labour and tenure rights.
– In health, the Treatment Action Campaign plays a role in monitoring services to people living with HIV and Aids. The Black Sash is similarly is engaged in a joint programme with national government to monitor service delivery at provincial levels.

Outside of collaboration on specific programmes and issues, our constitution envisages a broader interdependency between CSOs and government. Civil society organisations should for example have a voice in national discussions on key policy issues and future direction, in the same way that trade unions and the private sector do. This could be done through apex organisations (network bodies) supplemented by good representation of organisations that directly represent the views and spirit of the grassroots. In this regard, there are huge gaps partly based on dismissive attitudes in many parts of government and on fragmentation and the scarcity of strong networks within civil society.

The need for such strategic-level engagement must be addressed, even as attention is paid to gaps in partnership at local and provincial levels.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

New poetry book launched: Unfettered Days

I make a contribution to Book Week 2015 by launching my poetry book, Unfettered Days. In this work, I continue to grapple with private and public concerns and to foster deeper understandings by trying to grasp truth and understanding by examining of the particular.

In the book's afterword, poet and cultural commentator Lisa Combrinck notes that the poetry’s strength lies in “seemingly insignificant observations” that  “provide the reader with an intimacy that leaves an unease yet also, strange as it may seem, a feeling of deep fulfillment.” She also writes that: “The small revelations are what give the poetry great inner strength and significance”. Read all of Combrinck's comments in the afterword here: .

Unfettered Days contains poems about jazz music, the landscapes of childhood, the fluid nature of memory, images of nature and the connections between urban and rural spaces.

Copies of the book can be obtained through the Melville branch of Bookdealers (
Frank Meintjies

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sharp criticism levelled at SA's book industry and its bias against black writing

The issue of the literary system and the bias against black writers has been under the spotlight since the Franschoek Literary Fair in May. It was again the subject of intense discussion at Wits University 9 May week when Thando Mgqolozana, Siphiwo Mahala and others took part in a panel discussion. The event was organised by Jacana and was under the heading Decolonising the Literary Landscape'.

Mgqolozana told the meeting that, after seven years, he was tired of working towards acceptance by the establishment. Referring to a comment by another speaker that it was important for blacks to attend these festivals, he said he hated hearing the words "we need you". He said by putting them on the programme, the organisers were creating a space for "performance of black rage". 

He also argued that black people "do read" and that it should be recognised that every book purchased by a black person was read by many people. The problem was lack of access"to reading material. Most bookstores were in white areas, and the only one in black area -- at Maponya Mall -- had closed down because the offering too closely resembled what was sold at Sandton branches of the same bookstore. In addition, books were expensive when seen in relation to average household income.

Mgqolozana called for reading to be viewed as a basic need and for government to scrap VAT on the sale of books.

Mgqolozana said he hoped to break free away from discussing white people and how they responded. It was much more important to "├»magine an alternative book industry". Although he would not attend any more festivals, for now he had no option but to still rely on white controlled publishing houses and bookstores. 

Writer and Department of Arts and Culture official Mahala said he decided in 2011 to stop attending events like the Franschoek Literary Festival. He described Franschoek as an initiative set up by private individuals linked to the white establishment who then invited black writers because they "needed black monkeys to entertain them".  Mahala deplored the fact that all aspects of the publishing business – from editing to sales to reviews –  was under white control.

During discussion many audience members prefaced their comments with the words "I am angry". Several of the young black audience members lambasted another speaker Corina van der Spoel of Wits University for stating that, due to the damage caused by apartheid, blacks do not read and that the black elite should buy more books. The audience members argued that it was not her place to make such remarks. "I use my money to buy books and I have been doing so since high school", another student said, adding that as far as he knew, young white people also needed to be encouraged to read.

Van der Spoel's input generated repartee between from the young black audience. At one stage, van der Spoel asked "where is the Huisgenoot" for the black community?" to which audience members shouted, "Bona, Bona".

In discussions such as these, of course, defining the problem is easier than finding solutions.

One of the audience members, Allan Horwitz of Botsotso Publishing, tried to provide a different perspective. He argued that the problem was the capitalist system and that socialist approaches were needed.  In his view, the democratic government should do more to curb the profit motive in the book publishing and distribution system. He also called on government to make sure libraries held books of local writers and hosted regular events where writers could discuss their work with community members.

Some in the audience strongly favoured "blacks only" literary festivals (although Mahala spoke out against this). Mgqolozana wondered whether writers should release and sell their work chapter by chapter, which would make literature easier to buy. Speaking from the audience, academic Pumla Gqola argued that greater use should be made of alternative distribution strategies, making use of new communications technologies which put more power in the hands of citizens. She also reminded people of how kwaito music emerged outside the formal system for music production and distribution. 

The panel discussion leaves many more questions than answers. On the one hand, there appears to be wide agreement that, 20 years on, the publishing industry has made too little progress in terms of transformation. On the other hand, it is unclear who will lead a new push for fundamental changes.  It remains to be seen which institutions or coalitions of organisations will step up to drive a new agenda of radical change in the publishing industry.

Frank Meintjies

Monday, 18 May 2015

The evil that men boast about & issues of accountabilty

Alistair Sparks’ Verwoerdian slip gives me an opportunity to pick up on the issues of accountability, including accountability for our apartheid past.

Evil people know what they are doing. Indirectly, Sparks indirectly draws attention to how intentional and bloody-minded the architects and key implementers of apartheid were.
And so they must be held accountable. They must face judgement; they must be subjected to a process where all is laid bare and clear findings are made about their deeds. Even though ‘tactics of transition’ and political considerations may in the end influence the actual punishment, they must be made to answer in public for the system they imposed.

My take is that Sparks’ action in praising Verwoerd was not an accident. He is clever enough to know what the fallout would be, but I don’t think he could stop himself. He was venting his bitterness or what talk show host Hajra Omarjee called “his hostility towards the ANC”. But in doing so, he became less careful, artful or gaurded about his attitudes and consciousness regarding a thoroughly dehumanising and violent system.

His comments also reflect a general sense of disengagement from black people.

Sparks has done us a favour. He has reminded us that black people – together with ardent democrats and anti-racists from other groups – are sometimes and in some senses on their own. 

In this regard, it cannot be taken for granted that everyone who happens to be liberal understands the depths of apartheid. It cannot be assumed that, at some points, those of liberal bent do not dismiss or miss the utter seriousness of what happened.

This is not about blame. If I were born into a white and 'liberal' context, I would be in the same boat – unless I proactively opened myself to authentic engagement with black people about the pain of racism. It about taking responsibility for the present; it relates to seeing things as they are and taking responsibility to work for deeper levels of transformation than we have had so far. 

This brings me to the man who is sometimes regarded as the superspook, Niel Barnard and his new book Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss. I again reference Sparks when I say Barnard knew very well and precisely the evil of the apartheid system. He was advisor to the highest decision-makers of the apartheid system, and typically provided the information on which executive decisions regarding repression were based. He played this role in the repressive eighties. This was the period when the Cradock four were killed, when massacres took place, when apartheid assassins roamed at night and when government fuelled the bloodbath between Inkatha and the UDF.

Barnard presents an urbane and sugar-coated view of those times, even as he does concede, when pressed, that he saw the need for a “tough security hand maintaining stability” and the need to “keep the country under control” in those times. As Barnard sees it, he and PW Botha should actually be viewed as the icons of negotiation. He plays up the role that he played in negotiations – it was he rather than De Klerk who was there from the beginning.

The Sparks issue also allows me to refer again to the big men of the old order whose likeness and form are captured in stone or bronze. There are people who would have us believe that the misdeeds of these men can be ascribed to “the times”. In those days, as one caller to a radio station put it, many people were doing it – seizing land, killing off people and treating black people as inferior (a la Cecil John Rhodes). So Rhodes should not be judged by what this caller termed “standards of today”.  

But it isn’t true that those driving colonial domination were innocent or naive. People had choices then as they have now. This is why Olive Schreiner condemned Rhodes. She saw him for what he was, a man who knowingly perpetrated evil in the form of atrocities, enslavement and plunder. A man who built his own power through robbing others of their humanity and their lives.

Considering the numbers of people involved in implementing apartheid’s harsher measures, one can ask: why were so few people made to account via the Truth and Reconciliation Process) or through the application of the criminal justice system. Why is there so much impunity? Small wonder that, according to a report in The New Age recently, Eugene de Kock once said: “(I) just want other people to be here with me (in prison). I don’t deserve to be outside, they deserve to be here. We all deserve to be here”.

Although I use Alistair Sparks’ comments to advance my concerns about accountability, I concur with those who have expressed disgust at his remarks. I deplore the fact that, of all South Africa’s leaders, Sparks chose to doff his hat to Verwoerd, and that he cites only white people among those he considers clever politicians.

I align myself with columnist Onkgopotse Tabane when he tells Sparks in an open letter: “You probably also have no idea what the fuss is about when people are outraged at the Wits SRC President stating that he admires Hitler for his ‘organisational skills’. Your statement is a version of the same.” 

When liberals are under pressure and forced to surrender their privileges, (for some) a great gulf develops between their liberalism and their actions in the present. Others, thank heaven, find a deeper meaning of true liberalism – one that aligns with the marginalised, one that calls for sharing of the country’s wealth and one that demands redress for historical wrongs.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Year of government since elections: buffeted by crises and lacking a sense of urgency

The government elected in 2014 has faced inordinately tough conditions in its first year. Worse, these conditions come at a time when South Africa's ruling party seems less agile, affected by the sins of incumbency.

This year has been very busy in political terms. The Eskom crisis hit, affecting all South Africans and pushing up the levels of frustration. Government faced an unprecedented situation in Parliament, where new Economic Freedom Fighters disrupted the normal way of doing things and gained significant public support for it.

The economy continued to be afflicted by poor performance. Global factors are largely to blame, but our omissions and mismanagement with respect to Eskom also play a part. As a result of electricity supply problems, one economist cut his GDP growth forecast from 2.9 to 1.9.

Government has also encountered problems in parastatals, generally. The problems at South African Airways do not impact on South Africans broadly (although the costly bailout will affect all in unseen ways). Not so the Post Office (where services broke down due to strike action) and SASSA (where for-profit service providers continue to unlawfully strip money out of bank accounts of grant beneficiaries).   

At the same time, protests of different types continue to flare up. There are the numerous community protests that erupt and die out. There are also student protests and several waves of xenophobic violence. All this upheaval points to an increased demand for redistribution or for more dramatic transformation.

Faced with such challenges, government departments cannot operate at the usual tempo. They have to accelerate on all fronts if government aspires to notions of responsiveness and effective governance.
In several key areas, we see bold ideas and innovation. In relation to both the Department of Cooperative Governance and SALGA, we have seen strong moves to ensure better management and less misuse of government resources in local government. Despite negative responses from many mayors, Pravin Gordhan has put the need for urgent reform at the top of the agenda. SALGA is pressing ahead with key measures. It wants to ensure there are “consequences” for managers and other staff who fail in their duties at local government level. It also wants to see stronger community oversight over key projects.

In health, Aaron Motsoaledi continues to work tirelessly to improve hospital services, to chip away at inequality in the health sector and to lead health promotion campaigns.  

The Gauteng Province also stands out as a government unit that is formulating bold plans to overcome problems of delayed redress. The premier David Makhura launched his programme for revitalising township economics and its Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has unveiled ambitious plans to improve schooling in the province.

Numerous civil servants and government units are continuing to do important work. Daily, hundreds of South Africans get their identity documents and passports in good time (even though the department concerned is sluggish when processing permit applications for migrants and refugees). The Department of Basic Education continues to provide daily learning to over 13 million learners in over 30 000 schools. Without denying the massive infrastructure gaps (many sustained by provincial shortcomings), the national department is pushing programmes to help teachers implement the new curriculum and to face up to shortcomings.

Nonetheless, the surge of disenchantment from unemployed youth, those waiting for RDP homes and those caught between rising costs and modest wage increases means that performing at the same pace is not enough. It means the old level of service delivery, even from good departments, will not be sufficiently recognised. For hundreds of thousands of South Africans – many of them angry – business as usual does not cut it.

And if governance means ‘the capacity to formulate and implement sound policies and systems that reflect the interests of local citizens’, continuing in the current mode translates into deepening of governance problems.

The ANC government has several policy options that it could use to respond to tackle the pressures, but it does not implement them fast enough. For example, government is winding down delivery of RDP houses and is, at least in policy terms, ramping up the provision of rental housing. It has, again and again, vowed to increase beneficiation and has most likely considered making selective use of tariffs to nurture certain economic sectors. In relation to electricity, government has aeons ago talked about facilitating access to equipment that would allow hundreds of thousands to make greater use of solar energy. Government has gained brownie points for reopening the land claims process, but the surge of new applicants will add to backlogs.

Even where there are good ideas that can have transformative impact, implementation is usually far too slow. Often implementation is held up by squabbles between competing interests (the set top box story), by massive costs overruns (building costs for schools in the Eastern Cape), by constant changes in key staff (various departments) and by a widespread and politically-motivated unwillingness to hold functionaries accountable.

During the last year, government has come face to face with major fiscal constraints. Many government programmes are inadequately funded. Many departments and municipalities try to manage this by slowing down delivery and waiting for further funding rounds.

As the ruling party, the ANC’s main challenge is to get ahead of the game. With looming problems in the labour arena, frequent conflict in parliament, an upsurge in xenophobia, ongoing community protests and infighting in the security cluster, it is easy to be constantly distracted. It would be easy, especially with over 60% support in the last national elections, to rely on a few good departments to keep government support up in perception surveys. But a more effective strategy would be to increase the number of bold, transformative initiatives and to push government departments to implement their many good plans with a much greater sense of urgency.