Monday, 26 November 2012

New poetry book, Connexions, is "evocative"

This month, November 2012, I have released my new poetry collection, Connexions. The poems in this book have been described as “challenging, evocative and beautifully crafted”. 

A good number of the poems contained in Connexions were presented at poetry readings in Johannesburg. 

Connexions is available online from Kalahari at: .

The back page blurb notes that: 

“In Connexions, Frank Meintjies builds on the wide range of themes that appeared in his previous work. The poems in this collection traverse a gritty urban landscape where people strive for meaning and, all too often, make do with mere glimpses of understanding”.
“Some poems deal with more familiar themes: dreams, musicians seeking transcendence, death that follows illness, the feeling of rain on skin and maneuvering around space and place. Others probe aspects of a changing South Africa. Using a mix of narrative style and non-linear trains of thought, Connexions surprises, provokes and forges quirky links between experiences, perspectives and phenomena”. 

My previous poetry book is My Rainbow, released in 2009.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Parker's photos: small things, ordinary people and powerful engagement

This week I attended the launch of Iris Dawn Parker’s solo photo exhibition in downtown Johannesburg. Although Parker describes the work as focusing on the ordinary, the experience of viewing the photos was far from mundane – the photos engage in powerful ways. Walking into the gallery, the large and framed prints immediately capture the attention - the size allows for light and detail to come to the fore.

In many of the prints, the figures look directly at you, their eyes engaging, their world(s) validated. They are in the world, the figures seem to be saying, and you must reckon with their presence and with the fact that they are a part of the unfolding story of things. As some of the titles convey, something of that firm stance is articulated in how the subjects communicated to the photographer: “Yes, you may take a picture”; “I do this (work the land) for you and me”. “I am beautiful”. Many of the images tell of vibrant community life: the people (as well as the settlements and practices that sustain them) are lively and appear to have a sense of determination to survive or overcome the pressures that abound. 

One of the photos features a large metal pot cooking over a fire. This pot stands alone in a small alcove of blackened zinc sheets. In the midst of informality, life goes on, the fire must be tamed, and – given the pot’s size – food must be shared. It is a picture of strength and resilience amid the precarious existence in settlements of this nature.

In another of Parker’s prints, a worker stands high up against the wall that he is building. Much of the photo is in a sense a void (a big expanse of sky) but the photographer suggests there is something in the elevation which has value. Her title “cloud work” helps to throw new light on what would otherwise be an unremarkable picture and a commonplace job. 

Initially I thought the colour photo of Zoo Lake a little flat. Parks such as Zoo Lake in South Africa are contested spaces:  different uses sometimes collide, notions of “order” differ, formal events vex the “peace” that regular users enjoy, residents are sometimes possessive of the space, the old Zoo Lake coffee shop died and a flashy restaurant rose up and, sometimes, children fall off the little boats and drown. These kinds of issues seem at odds with the idyllic picture on the gallery wall. But one looks again at the photo, and the realisation dawns that, despite the flipside of tension, Zoo Lake maintains a balance – a balance that in its own way is part of the essence of life.

Some of the photos contain representations of inanimate objects only: patterns, flow and juxtaposition that, working through the imagination, evoke certain feelings. Striking here is this image: in a cramped backyard space (possibly in Alexandra township), someone has washed three children’s soft toys and hung them on washing line.

Parker has a keen eye, and allows herself (and is allowed) to get close to the people she shoots; and she brings them closer to us – into engagement with us. They speak to us. Through their stance and their gaze, the subjects are narrating a part of their journeys within community life and within the bigger narrative that is Mzansi today.  

The exhibition: The Quotidian Life: The importance of small things. 19 August to 19 September 2012, Museum Africa, Johannesburg.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Zim Ngqawana, one year after his passing away

This week of 8 May 2012 was a difficult week for those who had been close to Zim Ngqawana and for ardent followers of his music. It was one year since his passing away. Many have not yet gotten used to the gap he left; for some, it is a matter of becoming more acutely aware of the big cavity that exists in the wake of his death.

One year after that fateful day, there are many coming out of the woodwork to “do something” – write, create or craft a tribute about the towering figure in arts and culture that Zim was. Of course, much of this desire to bring forth something creative comes from a good place and is spurred by good intentions. It is part of acknowledgement, but it is also part of the project of remembering, of reading and “re-reading,” and – through reflection – of forging deeper understandings.

At the same time, the week was marked by a lack of a major anniversary event. This, one guesses, is due to the complications related to family rights, issues which become more charged at a time when estate issues are still being settled, and when there is disunity among groups of potential beneficiaries. At such a time, private persons or groups of individuals are not rushing forward to host any event that bears the artist's name. In some senses, government institutions are better placed to mount a fitting event to honour Zim’s contribution. It is better placed to manage the various interests. Perhaps such an initiative will come in the future – or perhaps it will never come ... as government may find it too difficult to single out particular artists to honour in this way.

In the case of Zim, there is also (one year later) a great deal of nonsense being spread about him. Some of these views have been captured and disseminated in a new magazine called Discography which debuted with a major focus on Zim and his relationship to jazz. Amid pieces and comment lauding his stature and immense contribution, one finds the sniping remarks and vituperation aimed at Zim.

Without denying the encounters that specific writers had with Zim, these views must of course be seen for what they are: individual and partial views against a person who cannot give his side of the story. In some instances, those negative claims seem to arise, it seems, from the usual subterranean anger felt by those who are left behind, by those with unspoken fury at the loss they are experiencing. In other cases, such views come from people who undermined rather than supported Zim, and who now, being denied a chance to “make peace”, seek to use justification as some kind of balm.

One claim was that Zim underpaid the musicians who performed with him and another source in the magazine implied that Zim could struggled to work with other musicians.

Regarding the claims around payment of musicians, I know a different side. When I discussed business plans with Zim, he made it clear that all so-called door takings should go to the musicians who performed. I pointed out to Zim that  since bar takings would be insufficient  this meant the project would not be viable without funding and his answer was, “So be it”. I am also aware that Zim paid accompanying musicians straight after gigs, often getting his manager to transfer their payments in the middle of the night while the musicians were still packing up their instruments. Many of his overseas adventures may have seemed (to some) like they involved a great deal of money; but after flights, hotel bills and fees, there was often only a nominal amount left for him. As far as Zim went, reality was often the opposite (to the story of money accumulation). For far too many people, Zim was the rainmaker, a situation that, especially toward the end, had a draining effect on him.

The less said about the claim that Zim could not work with other musicians the better. The claim already rings hollow when – as per one quote in the magazine – it is claimed that what riled musicians most was the payment issue.

Let it be said, as an exponent of pure jazz (although he never used the term), Zim towered over most others. He was extremely professionally, he demanded a deep level of engagement from those he played with, and he was bold and assertive about his place in jazz. In many senses, Zim was uncompromising (with himself and others). What would you expect – we could not have had the magic that was Zim without that trait. Most other musicians understood and accepted these realities; the few who did not (and even now do not) should own their attitudes and responses to Zim.

Another charge made in Discography was that towards the end Zim was not creative enough, that he was no longer innovating and producing new work. In one sense, the answer to whether this is true or not will emerge once all Zim’s unreleased work comes to light. But what I know is this, Zim was always buzzing, musically speaking, with ideas and concepts, with narrative and counter-narratives. On his mind was always the seed of a piece that was germinating. A second truth is that Zim went through short stages when he struggled to balance the requirements of his artistic calling with other demands. But Zim pushed against it. Zim had founded the Zimilogy Development Institute, a groundbreaking initiative. At certain stages, however, he complained that the effort required to keep that undertaking going cut into time he needed to work on the further evolution of his art. Another truth is that as time went by, Zim’s understanding of “composing” changed. He eschewed the idea of sitting in a room (at a desk or piano) and composing. Composing took place elsewhere - in practice, in vibrating work spaces and performance. Only the blinkered – and those who fail to grasp his essence - will fail to see that Zim’s innovation and originality with music continued unabated.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

ANC 100 years: 'internal challenges & progressive pointers'

Here are some of my notes of a disscussion related to the Centenary of the ANC and held at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Johannesburg. The discussion was entitled ANC 100 years and the future of South Africa and was held on 20 February 2012. The speakers gave their views on the situation within the ANC currently and on whether new strategies are needed to keep the original values and objectives alive.

Susan Booysen

The ANC appears to lack a blueprint for South Africa. It appears to want to address a need for a major plan, for example, through emphasis on infrastructure in the (most recent) State of the Nation address. It is not clear if this (plan to emphasize infrastructure) is sufficient, and whether it will address critical issues.

The ANC faces the reality that, even in its own terms, there should have been more socio economic liberation than what we have.
But the organisation enjoys tremendous trust from the larger section of the populace. This trust is not always logical. Especially against this backdrop: During the struggle, although not perfect, things went well; thereafter, there has been progress but there have been major mishaps. Things have not always gone according to plan.

There have been compromises & even some gains, but there also have been flaws, deficits and disgraces. One has the sense of a declining colossus. But the ANC still has huge advantage over others – whether others be opposition parties and social movements. It will take a long time for others to catch up. There is no political collapse; there is no rising of opposition on the horizon. After being there for 18 to 20 years, it is still the main political determinant. There are problems, there are mistakes but its popular support remains strong, as does its electoral support. It can boast that, unlike governments in so many places its power and legitimacy is not maintained by force. (It has this strong position despite the flawed realisation of ideals when measured against transformation objectives and the bill of rights). Many people believe that, despite its problems and flawed leadership, is still more likely than other parties to bring them a better life. The ANC is skilled in communication; it is skilled in leveraging its history. It even has some elements of engagement with its popular support (imbizos) although this takes a very narrow form that is closer to staged consultation or co-option.

The organisation has legitimacy; it is enjoying a period of grace. There is also among its populace a remarkable tolerance. People are not put off by the contradiction between the high life and delivery; there is a tolerance of corruption and flawed leadership.

Where there is criticism and opposition, the ANC has managed to achieve the internalisation of opposition. At the grassroots level, people draw a line between the ballot and the brick. They will conduct angry service delivery protests the one day and vote for the ANC the next day. When asked they, community members reply that voting and taking up service delivery issues are completelt different issues. They hold this ambiguity.

From the point of view of alliance groups, there is also internalisation of opposition. In the past there were public spats between alliance partners; these days there are fewer “loud” and angry disagreements on issues of governance from COSATU.
Among the opposition, it will be a long time before any others catch up with the strength of the ANC. However there is a de facto and very ad hoc alliance which includes DA, Public Protector, Media, the Chapter 9 organisations. They pick on issues such as education, corruption and are sometimes given issues such as the secrecy bill and the role of the judiciary.

What happens to the ANC in the long term? The legitimacy is fraying at the edges and the factions are taking their toll. But big parties don’t go away – they go into coalitions and alliances, they merge with others, they transform themselves.

Denis Goldberg

Take note of Nelson Mandela’s statement in 1993 to a Cosatu rally debating the question of whether the ANC will sell out. The response by Mandela was they would not (given their history of militant struggle), but regardless of whether or not this was believed, the challenge for the workers was to organise, to strengthen their position and to convince others of their position. The real issue is not friendship but political and social forces.

The nature of the compromise: There was a need to negotiate to stop the bloodbath that was in progress. There was the reality of regional politics for Govt and defeat at Cuito Carnavale. For the ANC, there was the power of capitalists states globally as well as the fear that if the police and army engaged in a full-scale counter-revolution. In response to the question “did we sell out?”, the answer is this: it was not clear we could hold on to power; in some ways we achieved more than we thought e.g. to get the Nats to agree to a TRC.

Business: In the past, denial of political rights ensured cheap labour. Currently the granting of political rights ironically enables a system of cheap labour. Both BEE and white business have moved theoretically from the idea of exploitation of black labour - but the reality is, for many, one of a liberation non-dividend (unemployment and poor service delivery).

The ANC NEC: It includes elected leaders plus those from structures. The NEC structure does not allow it to properly and fully engage with the issues. With 90 people present (60 elected and 30 from structures), the kind of in-depth engagement that is needed is impossible. The proceedings are thus based on what the top leadership propose and recommend. This situation also means that the NEC cannot assess itself.

If you want progressive social forces to shape politics, you have to organise.

Buti Manamela

There were different phases in the ANC 100 years – from the period of picketing and petitioning through armed struggle through mass mobilisation. Now the liberation movement has become to a great extent an electoral party. We need to look at what remains of liberation parties after their entry into electoral parties on the continent after a decade or two.

The ANC is struggling with become a modern political party. There is a tension between old values and new materialist and individualist culture. There is also a tension between what may be seen as values in the mass culture versus the values of the new bureaucracy. This came to a head in the Polokwane revolt against Mbeki.

The attempt at Polokwane was to regain the trust of the grassroots as well as the values. This struggle over the identity of the ANC continues. Of course, there is also a challenge to the values from below. Which segments of membership (if at all identifiable) erode the values of the ANC? When the IFP shrinks and ANC grows at its expense, do the members who have crossed into the ANC display IFP values or ANC values?

We can thus ask: will there be “multiple” ANCs with different value systems or one ANC based on the old (but still current and relevant) values?

The way forward revolves around two pressing issues:
- Values and identity in the ANC (based on the resurgence of old values).
- Dealing with inequality

(Please feel free to comment on this post.)

Sunday, 8 January 2012

An approach for community participation in local government evaluation

I work as a consultant in South Africa. While most of my evaluation work has related to poverty reduction initiatives, I have also undertaken evaluation work on multi-year HIV and Aids programme.

The background to this 'evaluation insight' is the numerous ‘service delivery protests’ that occur each year in South Africa. Despite key government departments’ developmental programmes, people in communities take to the streets to demand that local authorities address their needs more effectively.

This ‘evaluation tip’ relates to mass participation in evaluation. I have written on participation and good governance (for example at Like many, I am a fan of Robert Chambers, the leading light on participatory methodology. But whereas his work is usually located in the rural and village context, I have used the principles of participation in the urban/industrial context. For the Office of the Premier of South Africa’s Western Cape Province, I ran a planning process involving well over 150 staff members. And while working at Deloitte Consulting, I conducted a structured mass planning session (strategy fine-tuning) at one of three key terminals at the Richards Bay Port. In developing this 'evaluation tip', I also cross-reference to approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry and People’s Participatory Planning, both of which I have encountered in the course of consulting and organisational development work. I also reference to Future Search methodology which balances a respect for diversity with notions of 'common ground'.

Now I am advocating for the use of a ‘large group process’ in public sector evaluation processes, with a particular focus on local government.

I suggest a 3-day engagement process – a process informed by prior field research and due community-level consultation. Day 1 is devoted to community representatives defining their own development indicators; it also allows for government to present its priorities and key indicators for the period under review.

During Day 2 participants are involved in a structured assessment of outcomes using participatory methods. The process includes the introduction of a rubric and a visualized scoring process. It also entails eliciting examples, substantiation and debate during group work. Given South African realities, the major focus of discussion will be on whether local government ‘delivery’ has brought positive changes to communities or to people’s lives.

Day 3 will feature 30 to 40 people, working more intensely. The participants will be representatives from sector groups, most likely 2 persons per sector. Using focus group methods, these participants will make comment on either a draft evaluation report or a specially prepared report on the outcome-level performance of the local authority. At a closing ceremony, the Mayor or municipal manager will thank delegates and clearly state how the community feedback will be used in the evaluation process.

The standard design allows for 250 participants, but with careful planning and the right facilities, the number can be increased to 300. Particularly during Day 2, the large-scale consultation will feature work in sectoral sub-groups representing, for example, youth, entrepreneurs/local businesspersons, people dwelling in informal settlements and homeowners. Sectoral groups are complemented by at least two, but often more, groups constituted on a 'max-mix' basis. All groups, which may also be termed 'table groups', will have facilitation support and will comprise about ten people. The particular perspective and experience of women is elicited during the deliberations of all sub-groups. It is important to note that the use of sectoral groups is not so they can focus on sectoral themes. Rather, the aim is to allow the plenary to see if or where scoring differs based on the experiences of certain sub-groups.

This kind of mass participation in assessing developmental outcomes can/should be a critical input local government evaluation. Such input would no doubt form part of a wider process using multiple data sources. Insight: The mass participation process described is designed to enhance dialogue between community and government representatives. In the Day 3 activity, community representatives will engage with government data and the official viewpoint regarding achievements in the period under review. During the Day 1 sessions, government representatives will have the opportunity to hear an undiluted community view of development priorities; they will also hear what indicators matter most to significant numbers of community members. Insight: Community participation methods used in planning can be adapted to ensure decisive grassroots input into official local government evaluations.

(Please feel free to comment on this post.)