Somme and the futility of war

Ekow Nelson, July 2016

Today, 1st July 2016 is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, perhaps the bloodiest in the ‘Great War’. Over one million soldiers died or were injured in less than six months with almost 60,000 deaths in the British army alone on day one. As I wondered what one could learn from this, one hundred years on, my mind immediately turned to Wilfred Owen and his celebrated ‘Dulce est Decorum est’ provided me with the angle I just needed.

For hundreds of years since the Roman lyrical poet Horace coined the phrase “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori “ in his third ode celebrating Roman virtues, the admonition – “it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country” – became axiomatic and for over a millennia, young men proudly volunteered to fight for King and Country. War was a patriotic duty and most countries celebrated it. It was a measure of your strength ; most leaders woke each morning wondering how they could project their power. Napoleon went on a rampage seizing much of modern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire from Aachen to Alsace.The Ottomans expanded their territory overrunning everything in sight. The Spanish Conquistadors brooked no opposition in Latin America destroying much that stood in their way and England and France did much the same in other parts of the world The battles of Waterloo, Trafalgar, the thirty-year and hundred day wars are all celebrated as part of European folk history. War was virtuous, and leaders were made or broken by how they fared in their conquests.

Until 1914: when opposition to war became less muted with many more conscientious objectors than ever before. Field Marshall (popularly known as Lord) Kitchener’s infamous advert calling on his fellow countrymen to sign up for war, signalled a clear shift in the population’s attitude, reticence even, towards war – fighting unquestioningly for one’s country was no longer as noble an ideal as Horace had glibly suggested. The impact of war and its deleterious consequences on individuals and families became an important consideration.

It was in this milieu that the young English Poet and WW1 soldier Wilfred Owen found himself and wrote most of his powerful poetry even as he lay and fought in the trenches on the Western Front. While his friend Siegfried Sasoon was an earlier well-known opponent of the Great War, Owen’s poetry, in my mind, went beyond mere opposition to articulating more powerfully, the futility of war. Apart from his graphically descriptive ‘Dulce et decorum est’ – arguably the most powerful war poem of all time (reproduced below) in which he described Horace’s axiom as “the old lie” – others like ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ were equally evocative in challenging the old notion that war was a noble thing.

The first world war is not only known as the War to end all wars (for its sheer brutality), it is also described as the last of the great wars of choice, in contrast with the second which, as is generally agreed, was a justifiable and a necessary response to the outbreak of European fascism.

Curiously, no other wars since are celebrated in the way many pre-nineteen century European conquests and wars – from the battles of Hastings and Stamford Bridge to Waterloo and Trafalgar – were, in triumphalist tones. The Vietnam War is now a byword for how not to poke your nose in other nations’ affairs. The two Iraq wars are anything but celebrated – they were disastrous and opposition to Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait signalled our lack of tolerance for unprovoked aggression. No one celebrates the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Traditional tribal wars like the Rwandan genocide are seen as barbaric and no one believes there is anything noble about the Syrian civil war or even the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Few, if any wars, in the 21st century are celebrated.

As a species we have grown not only weary of war; we have rejected Horace and are as concerned about the tragic consequences of war – the waste and vanquished futures of our youth.

That is what the centenary of the Somme reminds me of. We are better now than we ever were. We value individual lives and patriotism alone is not enough for us to sacrifice our sons and daughters on the smouldering pyres of the battlefields of meaningless wars. That, in large measure, must be credited to the young Shropshire lad, Wilfred Owen, whose antiwar poetry has shaped our thinking about war and stirred subsequent generations into questioning its utility. It is his tragic death on armistice day that I mourn on this anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the ‘Great War’.

July 2016, Abu Dhabi

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Dublin could be the winner!

Ekow Nelson

There are indications that large financial institutions like JP Morgan have started looking around for alternative bases to ensure their continued access to the EU Single Market, after Britain leaves the EU. Frankfurt and Dublin have been mentioned as possible alternatives to London. While Frankfurt has a well developed European financial services sector there is every reason to believe Dublin could become a more suitable alternative, over the long run.

Dublin is only about an hour or so away from London. And bankers could easily commute by air. Ireland, the land of WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, GB Shaw, James Joyce and JM Synge, is linguistically at least, as natively English as England. They speak and write English, the language of business and financial services that links the important markets of London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore, just as well, if not better, than the English. They have a first-class education system and a talented workforce – if they have not emigrated. And over the years, since their membership of the Common Market in 1973, have seen their economy grow with billions of investments from the EU. Like the UK, Ireland has a flexible labour market with a low (even lower) tax regime that has attracted many media and Tech companies to site their European HQs there.

The historic ties between the peoples of Ireland and UK go back a long way even if they are littered with periods of bitter and bloody conflicts. Before the Single European Act, Irish people could travel freely to the U.K. and vice versa for work and that will not change.

There has been no land border between the two countries for hundreds of years and despite the decision to quit the EU, it is inconceivable one is about to ever introduced. In fact I will bet everything I own on there not being one after we leave. The absence of a land or air border will enable the free flow of financial services talent between the two countries.

The U.K. is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and will remain so for a long time. So even if the UK does not negotiate favourable trade terms with the EU (which is understandable if the EU wishes to deter other member states), neither the EU nor Ireland will oppose favourable bilateral trade agreements between the UK and Ireland.

The UK’s trade deficit of some US$90Bn with the EU suggests it will remain an important market to EU member states. They sell more to us than we to them. We will still buy BMWs, Alfa Romeos and Bosch goods.

Ireland then, becomes the UK’s link to the EU and the backdoor channel for favourable trade with Europe. Dublin could well become Europe’s new financial powerhouse alternative to London.

Ireland, whose applications to join the EU were also rejected in 1963 and 1967 ostensibly because it was too underdeveloped and agrarian, could well play the crucial role of bridging the UK with the EU.

Dublin could be the winner and for the English (and even the Scots) that would be far preferable.

Abu Dhabi, June 2016


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The Single European Folly – of Britain

Ekow Nelson, June 2016

On Thursday Britain goes to the polls once again to make a monumental decision about its membership of the European Union and in many ways, its place in the world. Recent polls suggest supporters of Brexit will win but I hope common sense prevails. As the Economist put it in a rather pointed and blunt editorial this week, for all its imperfections “it would be a terrible error” for Britain to turn its back on the EU.

As I reflected on the possible outcomes of the referendum on a flight from Abu Dhabi to Pune in India earlier today, I wondered why it was that Britain has never really felt comfortable in the EU as Ireland for example has. What is it about Britain that makes the house of Europe an uncomfortable place to be?

Dean Acheson’s oft-quoted “Britain lost an empire and is yet to find a role” remains as true today as it was in 1962 when the former secretary of state made that observation. Fifty-four years on, the struggle for a settled place that befits Britain’s sense of itself and of its place in the world lies at heart of the uneasy relationship with our continental neighbours.

At the end of Second World War, Britain counted India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and much of English-speaking Africa and the Caribbean among its Dominions. Australia, Canada and South Africa were nominally independent but they continued to swear allegiance to King and Country. Many of these colonies mobilized armies to fight for Empire in far flung places from Aden to Burma. Along with the Allied powers of Russia and United States, Britain believed it ‘won’ the War and unlike France it did not capitulate nor was it run over. So while the French and the low-landers, along with the vanquished Germans and Italians and were picking up the pieces from the rubble of war, Britain looked outwards believing it would continue to reign over its imperial reach. It soon experienced a rude awakening when the prized Dominion of India secured self-government in 1947 after a protracted struggle. But that didn’t deter or undermine the delusions of Empire.

For over a century, much of the imperial power’s trade had been with the United States and its Dominions. Trade with continental Europe was limited. So when the French diplomat Jean Monnet and his Foreign Minister Robert Schumann proposed the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the EU, it barely registered in Whitehall. Instead, Britain continued to strut around the world stage believing it remained an Imperial power. Only a military setback would remove the scales of grand imperial delusions from Britain’s eyes.

A year before the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) was signed, Britain and France, with the connivance of Israel invaded Egypt to gain control of the Suez Canal which had been unilaterally taken over by Gamel Abdel Nasser. But the idea of re-establishing imperial control over a world trade route did not sit comfortably with President Dwight Eisenhower, himself an Allied Commander in Europe doing the War. Without American support, the invasion collapsed and the ignominious failure precipitated the fall of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his Tory government.

In the annals of contemporary British political history, failure at Suez marked an important turning point in British global influence and more than the loss of India, it signaled the decline of Empire. For many Mandarins of Whitehall that was when they finally heard the penny drop. It was a watershed that spoke to the limits of UK military power in a nation that for over a century since Drake and Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson of Trafalgar, prided itself in ruling the waves and the world beyond them.

Eden gave way to Harold Macmillan who presided over much of the decolonization process across Africa and the Caribbean; his ‘Winds of Change” speech (delivered first in Accra and later in Cape Town) acknowledged the new reality of an Empire in decline. Mindful of the impending decline he lodged Britain’s first application to join the EEC in 1963 but was rebuffed by General Charles De Gaulle. Undeterred, Britain under Harold Wilson reapplied for membership in 1967 but once again the response from the Grand Old Man of the Élysée Palace was ‘Non!’

For much of the 1960s the British economy, with ailing nationalized industries from British Leyland to British Coal limped along and eventually fell behind its European neighbours. The Labour party, the party of the working class and the Trades Unions were suspicious of the EEC as a rich man’s club and were dirt-cert against it. It would after all, erode workers’ rights and depress wages, or so they believed. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, believed it would break the stranglehold of vested and entrenched interests in the UK and advocated membership. But it was not until the death of de Gaulle that Britain filed its third application and finally secured membership under Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1973.

Hostility towards the EEC did not disappear altogether after 1973, however. There was a lot of resistance and clamour to leave, particularly from the Left who saw the EEC then as undemocratic. The veteran Labour MP, the late Tony Benn openly declared he “loath[ed] the Common Market. It is bureaucratic and centralised” he said. The divisions went all the way to the top of the government and so in 1975, Harold Wilson’s Labour government organized an in-out referendum just as David Cameron has done. Labour members who were champions of Brexit then, voted against but the majority Tory ‘Bremains’ carried the day. Soon afterwards Wilson resigned and within two years his successor was swept out of power by a hitherto unknown but formidable Iron Lady who was to dominate the political landscape for a generation.

It still did not settle the matter. Labour continued to oppose the EEC and in the 1983 elections stood on a platform for withdrawal from the Common Market. Its manifesto, described then as the longest suicide note in history, promised the electorate that “[o]n taking office [Labour] will open preliminary negotiations with the other EEC member states to establish a timetable for withdrawal; and we will publish the results of these negotiations in a White Paper.”

Around the time of Mrs Thatcher’s ascendancy, the EEC also elected arguably, its most consequential Commissioner since Monnet and Schumman – the French civil servant Jacques Delors. The genius of Delors was in his ability to turn the UK Labour Party into an avid fan of the EEC while at the same time luring the Iron Lady into embracing the 1986 Single European Act which more than any other Treaty, accelerated the path toward European Integration. The central tenet of the Single European Act was the creation of the Single Market across member countries with the freedom of movement of capital and Labour enshrined as a fundamental, enabling right. For Britain, the financial services capital of Europe, the freedom to move and trade capital around the continent freely was a boon. No one bothered with the freedom of movement for labour. Unlike the United States, it was argued, not many Europeans were likely to ‘up sticks’ and settle in any of the other 12 European countries, as they were then.

Delors did not stop there. He introduced the harmonization of monetary policy through the so-called Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) that tied currency values of its members to that of the German mark to bring stability to European markets and encourage trade and eventually lead to the single European currency. But that! was a step too far for the huggers of sovereignty and it triggered a backlash among previously, generally supportive Tories. Delors had to be stopped; his was an inexorable march toward a United States of Europe.

The British economy had long suffered swings in interest rates. And because of the high proportion of owner-occupied homes in the country, politicians were sensitive to monetary policy and keen to do whatever it took to keep interest rates down. For a while, unbeknownst to the Iron Lady, her Chancellor Nigel (now Lord) Lawson was also pursuing his own ERM by shadowing the Deustche Mark through various market interventions to maintain a 3:1 parity with the Pound Sterling. When the Prime Minister discovered this shadow monetary policy by the Treasury she was incandescent with rage and stopped it immediately.

The expansion of the EEC to include Austria, Sweden, Denmark and opening up to the reformed former Mediterranean dictatorships of Spain and Portugal broadened the export base within the Single Market; trade boomed among member nations with the ERM, as wealth in previously depressed European economies rose.

After a long struggle of trying to tame the high inflation beast of the British economy Mrs. Thatcher reluctantly succumbed to Delors’ charms once again and allowed her then Chancellor John Major (later Prime Minister) to seek membership of the ERM. Despite this, her attitude toward the EU hardened and she rounded on all its institutions. She famously denounced Monsieur Delors’ ambitions in perhaps one of her most impressive parliamentary performances saying: “The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.” Such outbursts alienated her from many in her party and in the end lost her sufficient support among her MPs and led to her downfall.

Within two years, Britain crashed out of the ERM. Not only had it been economically ruinous, the European institution had chewed, spat out and rejected Britain. For many, exiting the ERM was the best thing for the economy, as it later turned out, but the rejection of a once mighty world power by a club of ‘small’ and previously defeated European powers was deeply wounding. Never again! will Britain flirt with an EU economic institution.

So it was that when the new Prime Minister John Major went to the small Dutch city of Maastricht to negotiate the eponymously named Treaty that ushered in the European Single Currency, he put down a marker. John Major’s remarkable achievement there, was to secure an opt-out for Britain from the Single Currency (even though the UK met the convergence criteria at the time – more than Italy for example) and from the Social Chapter. Despite the privileges of the Royal Prerogative vested in his office, the Prime Minister presented his negotiated package at Maastricht for debate and a vote in the House of Commons and he carried the day- albeit with substantial support from the opposition benches.

Rumblings and murmurings among Euro-sceptics did not subside and a few years after his Maastricht victory, Major threw down the gauntlet to his opponents in his infamous “put up or shut up” challenge. While he survived that vote of confidence and remained Prime Minister, the rebellion did not cease and his weakened administration limped along until it was swept out of power by Tony Blair in 1997. Europe had toppled two Prime Ministers – and was proving to be destabilizing. David Cameron may well be the third Tory Prime Minister to be devoured by this issue.

In came Tony Blair the euro-enthusiast to stick it up to the Euro-sceptics. While Labour had become pro-EU and Blair succeeded in overturning Major’s opt-out from the Social Chapter, the new Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown was also sceptical about joining the single currency and despite Blair’s urgings, he too refused to join the club.

Meanwhile the Tories became even more sceptical with successive generations of MPs and more so over time. By the time David Cameron became Prime Minster, like his predecessor, he faced an open rebellion. With a rancorous chorus of Euro-sceptic MPs something had to give. To appease the sceptics baying for Euro-blood and to stem tide of hemorrhaged votes to the insurrection that had opened up on his right flank, he carelessly offered a referendum and with that, reopened the very issue that had brought down two Tory Prime Ministers. Except that this time the issue was immigration – an issue I would argue was created by Euro-sceptic Tory politicians and exacerbated by Blair.

To hold back the tide of ‘ever closer union’ and integration accelerated under Delors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, British politicians created an immigration rod for their own backs. After the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR disintegrated and Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe came to an end, British Euro-sceptic politicians, more than any other, cynically advocated for the rapid admission of former Eastern Europeans States into the EU. The likes of foreign secretary Douglas Hurd argued that the EU had an obligation to bring former Soviet-bloc countries like Poland and Hungary back into the European family of nations. The unstated but real objective of the Euro-sceptics was that accelerated admission of the accession countries would see the EU expand from 15 to 28 members and that would (a) slow down the high-speed march toward ever closer economic political union – after all you can’t have deeper integration and wider expansion at the same time and (b) dilute the dominance of France and Germany.

In the long-run, the unintended consequence of this cynical policy was that, that little used enabling right of Margaret Thatcher and Jacque Delors’ 1986 Single European Act, the freeedom of movement of labour allowed, even encouraged workers from newly admitted countries to flock to Britain and elsewhere in search of jobs without restriction. While workers in the old EU 12 or 15 were reticent about trading a relaxed existence in St Paul de Vence on the French Riveria for life in Scunthorpe in the UK, the same could not be said for Polish plumbers or Romanian bartenders. Recently liberated from the austere reality of the Communist East, they flocked to Britain in search of work and a better life as soon the borders were open and at the urgings of a political class who had little care for implications of their cynicism.

But perhaps that is what the policy of enlargement was designed to do. It has served the cause of the Euro-sceptics. High levels of immigration from Eastern Europe have taken many by surprise and riled the native population who have come to believe that their governments are no longer in control of their borders. It has raised anxiety that has been further exploited by the far right and Euro-sceptics to gin up support for Brexit.

The economic arguments against leaving are overwhelmingly incontestable. But this issue is more than economics. It is about identity and place. And even if Britain votes in favour of remaining in the EU on Thursday, the uneasiness in our relationship with Europe is unlikely to change. There may well be another referendum in another generation and another one the generation after, until Britain finds the contentment that has eluded it since it lost Empire.

Pune, India
June 2016

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The end of the United Kingdom as we know it?

Ekow Nelson, May 2015

The euphoria surrounding the Conservative victory in the recent UK elections that gave David Cameron a clear governing majority, is likely to be short-lived than most imagine. Despite his apparent clear mandate, the fragility of Cameron’s majority and the future of the unions with Europe and Scotland will conspire to weaken his administration over the course of the next parliament.

A governing majority of 15 is not sufficiently robust to sustain a government for a full parliament, particularly with the introduction of fixed five-year terms. As always deaths and defections trigger bye-elections which by tradition incumbents lose. John Major’s 1992 majority of 21 MPs was quickly whittled down to a dozen as members of his party defected to the late James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party – the precursor to today’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) – as well as the Liberal and Labour parties.

With a rancorous chorus of Euro-sceptic MPs (ranging from those who want to renegotiate the terms of UK membership of the European Union, to those in favour of outright exit) on his backbenches haranguing him over Europe, John Major’s effective majority was no more than one or two for much of that parliament. His government looked hapless and out of control and in the end threw down the gauntlet to his opponents in his infamous “put up or shut up”challenge. He survived that vote of confidence and remained Prime Minister, but it did not quell the rebellion on his back benches; rather his weakened administration limped along until it was finally swept out of office by Tony Blair in 1997.

David Cameron’s smaller majority exposes him to a much more perilous future than his Conservative predecessor. There is every possibility that the new Tory government could slide into a minority administration over the next five years; it will almost certainly find itself scrambling for votes over controversial pieces of legislation. This is especially so because of the two constitutional issues that loom large on the Prime Minister’s agenda: his promise of an in-out referendum on EU membership and the future of the union with Scotland.

Under pressure from his backbenches and growing political threat from the insurgent Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party, David Cameron has promised a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. So in 2017 the UK electorate will be invited to revisit the 1975 European Economic Community (EEC) mandate and decide whether or not they wish to remain a part of the European Union. The sceptics hold the view that the 1975 mandate was for joining a common market and a free trade area, not the economic and political union the EU is headed towards. What was meant as a sop to right-wing Euro-sceptics, has now the potential to re-open old wounds and throw the Tory party back into disarray.

Cameron has said the referendum will be based on a package of reforms he will negotiate with his European counterparts. If successful, he is unlikely to vote against his own recommendations but he will need the opposition Labour, Liberal parties and Scottish nationalists to secure the necessary majority to put an end to this long-running dispute over EU membership in Britain.

In the wake of Cameron’s ‘surprise’ outright victory, the European Commission President Jean Claude Junker reached out and promised to work with the Prime Minister to secure a package of reforms to address many of the publicly-stated concerns of the Euro-sceptics. Both Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the President of France, are determined to do all they can to keep Britain in the EU but they have also drawn their own red lines at anything that requires a Treaty change. Still, it is conceivable that the major European powers will give in to some of the UK government’s demands such as delaying, even curtailing, welfare benefits for EU migrants, but they will stop short at anything that abandons or undermines the principle of freedom of movement across the EU area.

An EU reform package based on eye-catching concessions on welfare and immigration, however, is unlikely to appease or silence many Euro-sceptics who have grown in number on the Tory benches since John Major’s time as Prime Minister.

The younger generation of Conservative MPs are more sceptical about Britain’s membership of the EU. Many want more substantial repatriation of powers and demand the right of veto over EU Laws and legislation, to reassert the primacy of the national parliament. France and Germany will, however, not accept any dilution of previous treaties and what they would consider a downward spiral toward an à la carte EU that ultimately unravels the entire European project.

Whatever package of reforms is agreed, the outcome of the referendum is far from clear. But one thing is certain: it will not satisfy Cameron’s backbench sceptics and there will be open rebellion. The Tories will either implode or at best split, with the more Euro-sceptic wing making common cause with the UKIP to champion English nationalism as a countervailing force to the tartan nationalism that roared loudly north of border on election day.

But even before that European referendum, Cameron will have to contend with the insurgency of the Scottish National Party, which all but wiped-out the Labour and Liberal parties in Scotland and established itself firmly as the third largest party in the UK. The transfer of additional powers to Scotland is now inevitable and a vote by a majority in England to leave the EU will only hasten the end of the already fragile 300 year-old Union. As the First Minister for Scotland Nicola Sturgeon warned during the elections, there will be renewed clamour for another referendum on Scottish independence if the UK votes to leave the EU and majority of Scots do not. And this time, the outcome will almost certainly be an emphatic yes.

Cameron’s fragile majority, the EU referendum and the future of the union with Scotland are a portent of the cataclysmic constitutional changes facing the United Kingdom over the next five years. These looming constitutional crises are, however, potentially propitious for the Labour party to rehabilitate itself. If it can get its act together and be the voice of reason and moderation on Europe and nationalist aspirations, its electoral prospects in 2020 may not be as dire as they appear today.

Whatever happens, the UK will not be the same as we have known it for over 300 years. Scotland may well replace the United Kingdom as a newly independent member of the EU with the rest of Britain cast adrift as an independent trading partner, much like Switzerland, but the good news for euro-sceptics is that parliamentary sovereignty will be restored fully to national parliaments.

Even if none of this plays out exactly as described, the bruising battles ahead of David Cameron suggest to me that in all likelihood, the victor of the 2015 elections will not see out his full term. Britain will have another Prime Minster before the 2020 elections.

London, 2015

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By Khulu’s side – The story of Nelson Mandela’s Afrikaner “boere-meisie”

Ekow Nelson, 1st September, 2014Zelda

“No person is born a racist. You become a racist by influences around you. And I had become a racist by the time I was thirteen years old. By that calculation I should not have been Nelson Mandela’s longest-serving assistant. But I did.” These words by Zelda La Grange pretty much sum-up her story in her recently published memoir, ‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela’* and are a tribute to the late President Mandela’s talent for persuading and power of transformation.

The memoir charts the unlikely journey and Damascene conversion of a conservative Afrikaner typist from the idyllic middle-class environs of Pretoria to the office of the first Black President of post-apartheid South Africa and later, as de facto Chief of Staff and spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation where for some 14 years she ran and organized the affairs of the most adored global political figure in the history of humanity. But as Miss La Grange is quick to point out, her book is neither about him nor is it a work of “great political insights or a thematic dissection of his life”. It is quite simply a peek into the most unlikely partnership anyone could have imagined possible in South Africa only a couple of decades ago.

Despite her close and proximate access, this is not a tell-tale book. Although it lays bare some of the rather ugly and unsavoury squabbles among family members, old comrades and staff towards the end of his life, and indeed during his funeral, one will not find any sensational or salacious revelations here. On occasions, however, one is let into the inner sanctum of Nelson Mandela such as when the South African ambassador and Barbara Masekela ushered an ’unknown’ woman into the Presidential suite of the guest house in Paris where he was staying during the first state visit to France, and left them alone together. The ‘unknown’ woman turned out to be Mrs. Graça Machel who was later to become Nelson Mandela’s wife. At the time few people, if any, had any inkling that they were an item. Or when East Timor’s Xanana Gusmão, was secretly taken in handcuffs to visit Nelson Mandela in the Presidential guest house in Jakarta where he was staying during a state visit to Indonesia. President Mandela had insisted on meeting his ‘fellow political prisoner’, then leader of the resistance movement in East Timor, as a condition for the state visit. That gesture alone is said to have contributed in no small measure to Gusmão’s eventual release and with that, his elevation to office as the first President of independent East Timor.

The Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, may have mocked Mandela’s sartorial tastes, with his trademark colourful shirts, but few knew that Nelson Mandela’s wardrobe was in part carefully put together by Stefano Ricci of Brioni, the famous high-end Italian fashion brand, in collaboration with his long-time South African tailor Yusuf Surtee. He was a frugal man too; always cost conscious. He would enquire about the cost of the hotel rooms they were staying at on formal government business and ensured that South Africa always maintained a small delegation of no more than 20 staff including security, on foreign visits.

So while the book does not betray significant inner-secrets, it is full of personal vignettes and nuggets that provide deeper insights into the public figure we came to know but whose personal life remained, for the most part, inscrutable after many years marooned on Robben Island in solitary confinement.

Zelda La GrangZelda and Mandela 2e, the Afrikaner ‘boere-meisie’ (meaning farm girl) as Mandela occasionally referred to her, was born in 1970 into a white middle-class family of Dutch and French Huguenot descent. Her parents and grandparents were not wealthy by any means. Her mother was brought up in an orphanage in Cape Town after her maternal grandfather died in a motorcycle accident. Grandma could not afford to bring-up all three children on her own on the salary of a clerk at the South African Railways and gave up her eldest. But the institutional privileges of apartheid, such as they were, trickled down even to average white folk like their family. Jobs were aplenty and the benefit of a decent and well-funded education for whites provided access to the highest-paying jobs in the economy. Whites lived in the best neighbourhoods and although much of their direct contact with blacks was limited to house helps, what they thought and believed about blacks in the turbulent years of the 1980s were shaped by news reports on bomb atrocities and recycled racial myths. As Miss La Grange recalls, “we were bought up to believe that [black people] were not clean as we were [and] smelled different”. Like her, many of South Africa’s whites were fed, clothed and tucked into bed by black nannies as babies, but they nonetheless believed, as they grew up, that “[t]ouching a black person was taboo”. White South Africans would “never think of touching a black person’s hair or face… [i]t was just unthinkable”, she wrote. In the political and cultural context in which she grew up, white South Africans like Zelda were made to believe that “all black people were communists and atheists” and they had good reason to fear them.

Although Zelda La Grange was not politically active in her youth, her political views were shaped by the conservatism of the minority Afrikaner community she belonged to. Given the opportunity (and privilege) to vote for the first time when she turned 18, the young Zelda plumped for the breakaway Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht because the dominant Afrikaner Nationalist Party (the Nats) favoured reforms to apartheid that would give blacks the vote and abolish obnoxious laws like the Group Areas Act. At the age of 19 she did not really know who Nelson Mandela was or what his release symbolized. Her father’s reaction to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 was “[n]ow we are in trouble … [t]he terrorist has been released”, to which Zelda responded: “[w]ho’s that?” Mandela’s influence was such that years later, that same father would volunteer to plant full-grown trees on Mandela’s farm in his village of Qunu to protect the view of his house from the road, for free.

In the immediate aftermath of the first multi-racial election that brought Nelson Mandela into power, Zelda La Grange, then 23, was among those in the civil service tasked with processing applications for blacks who wanted to join the civil service as part of an effort to make the government more representative. Some whites had voluntarily left the government and new positions were becoming available. The job of typist in the President’s office was advertised and although it was below her job grade then, she was keen to apply because it offered the prospect of spending half the year in Cape Town (where the South African Parliament sits) and the remainder in Pretoria when Parliament was not in session. What she did not bargain for was that she would end up “in an office … closer to the political centre of beliefs [she] still opposed” – the office of the new the President’s private secretary. Inevitably, she ‘bumped’ into the President in the proverbial corridor. She broke down in shock and confusion when the President spoke to her in Afrikaans but pulled herself together quickly and their relationship was unstoppable after that.

In the ensuing years as she came to know Nelson Mandela and many of the so-called ‘enemies’, her fears began to subside. She immersed herself in learning the untaught and untold history (to whites at least) of her country and gradually began to alter the fundamental beliefs she had been brought up with by her community, school and church. The process was not entirely painless however: not only were there fallouts with old friends and family members, she sought counselling from white anti-apartheid stalwarts like Rev. Beyers Naudé who helped her make sense of what was going on and resolve her inner conflicts.

It also became clear over time that President Mandela had consciously decided to co-opt his new Afrikaner typist into his inner-circle to give visible expression to his commitment of an all-inclusive South Africa, but surprisingly Miss La Grange did not object or feel used. As her disciplined organizational skills – including being a stickler for order and detail – became evident, they started working more closely together and Nelson Mandela’s decision to ask her stay in his employ post his presidency, did not come entirely as a surprise.

The memoir is organised in four parts and begins with a brief autobiographical sketch focusing mainly on the author’s early years as a child growing up in apartheid South Africa. The second part deals with Nelson Mandela’s years as President of the new South Africa. In part three, we get a backstage view of Nelson Mandela as a globetrotting global statesman and über-fundraiser for good causes including education and HIV/AIDS. The last part of the book recounts the final years dominated by family and staff conflicts that are both unedifying and regrettable.

Having spent nearly three decades in prison Nelson Mandela was a man in a great deal of hurry after his release. He was restless and wanted to meet as many people as he could possibly manage and travel to as many places, both to make up for lost time and to make a difference in the lives of many who depended on him, whether they were HIV/AIDS patients, people suffering oppression elsewhere or kids who needed the opportunity of a decent education. This made for a fast-paced travel schedule and a punishing itinerary into which Zelda La Grange immersed herself completely.

The memoir is her first attempt to share some of that experience with the wider world. On occasions, however, it does read like a travelogue. Passages like “[f]ollowing the visit to Burkina Faso we went to the United Kingdom…[a]fter a day’s official visit in London we went to Wales…[then] to Italy on a State visit” without much detail read like entries from a travel diary. Other than recording that they visited all these far flung places it wasn’t clear what the reader was to make of these trips. Visits to Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Japan provided insights into culture and state protocol that added to our overall understanding of those cultures but others could have been excluded without losing much from the narrative.

The book tells us more about Mandela’s ‘terrifying’ secretary who was not known much to the world outside South Africa. Her preternatural innocence about the ways of the real world comes across fairly early in the book. For example when then President Mandela asked her to be part of his entourage to Japan she responded with “[t]hank you Mr. President but I don’t have money to go to Japan right now”. President Mandela could not help but burst into laughter. She was doubly shocked to learn she would also be paid “an extra allowance for going on her first trip abroad. On another occasion she was called by the police to meet men from the National Intelligence who had ostensibly come to ‘sweep’ the President’s office. Taking them at their word, literally, she told them their services were not needed because they already had cleaners. It fell to the police to explain to her that ‘sweeping’ the President’s office was a euphemism by the intelligence services for searching and removing listening devices. Her capacity for self-deprecation is one of her most endearing attributes.

Mandela and MbekiWe get a glimpse of Mandela at work as President who saw his main job as healing and uniting his nation. He delegated much of the business of running the country to his then deputy and later President Thabo Mbeki. The choice of President Mbeki as his successor was not without controversy and revealed deep rivalries among the leadership papered over by Mandela’s presence. Later, his larger-than-life image risked overshadowing the new government led by Thabo Mbeki and that created tensions between the two offices in the immediate years after Mandela’s retirement, one of which was the famous standoff over the Mbeki administration’s stance on HIV/AIDS.

As President, he believed his raison d’être was to bring various factions and ethnic groups together and went to great lengths to ensure there was broad, if not equal, representation in everything he did: from the selection of his staff, schools he visited, to the mix of children invited to his Christmas parties. He did not believe in holding grudges and encouraged competitors and opponents from all walks of life to collaborate – the likes of Mercedes and BMW were encouraged to join forces on charitable projects and implacable political opponents in Zaire and Rwanda urged to work together.

His magnanimity and lack of bitterness after his 27-year incarnation shamed many world leaders but it also gave him the right to speak his mind without fear. Asked what he thought after he visited the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem he responded thus: “[t]his is a tragedy that happened to the Jewish nation, but one should never lose sight of the fact that this burden is carried by the German people too. The current generation of Germans suffer to rid [themselves of] the stigma they have had to carry as a result of these events for which they themselves cannot be held accountable at this time and age”. Naturally, some of his Israeli hosts were none too pleased with the tenor of reconciliation he struck but he could not be bothered. Jewish South Africans had been prominent in the anti-apartheid movement and many of Mandela’s closest friends and comrades like Ruth First, Nat Bergman and Joe Slovo were Jewish and his defence team at Rivionia included Joel Joffe, Harry Schwarz and Arthur Chaskalson (whom he later appointed Chief Justice). Still, it couldn’t have escaped his Israeli hosts that the man who led the charge against Mandela as state prosecutor during the trials in 1963, was the aggressive Percy Yutar, the first Jewish Attorney General under apartheid. But for the intervention of presiding Judge Quartus de Wet, the rottweiler Percy Yutar would have been all too happy to see Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg and others sent to the gallows. If Mandela could forgive Percy Yutar, even invite him to lunch as he did, then surely his hosts could not be offended by his comments about sparing a thought for the Germans too. In later years, Percy Yutar would even have the chutzpah to request Nelson Mandela’s help to sell the Rivonia trial papers for personal gain because he was in financial difficulty.

Would Nelson Mandela have been as conciliatory if he were elected in the heady-years of Africa liberation when he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe? We will never know. Whether as part of the natural process of maturation or otherwise, Mandela came back from prison less angry than he did going in. The arch-reconciler and uniter who emerged from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990 steered South Africa away from violent conflict ensuring that this beautiful but deeply divided country on our continent will always wake-up to a brighter morning and for that Africa and the world owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Ordinary people and small things mattered to him a great deal. As he wrote in one of his letters to his daughter Zenani, “the habit of attending to small things and of appreciating small courtesies is one of the important marks of a good person”. He insisted that those in his entourage, including flight crew and security, were always seated with everyone else at state banquets given in his honour. He treated everyone he met with respect regardless of rank or social standing. Showing respect meant not keeping people waiting without good reason and he was generally not late for appointments or meetings. He once berated Zimbabwean President Mugabe publicly for appearing at a South African Development Community (SADC) meeting an hour late. Their relationship soured and never recovered after that.

mandela freedomWhile Mandela became a global statesman he was close only to few world leaders and celebrities. He was fond of the Queen of England with whom he was on first-name terms as in Nelson to Elizabeth. Relationships with Hollywood stars were fleeting and ephemeral with the exception of the actors Robert De Niro, a regular dinner host in New York, and Morgan Freeman, who played Mandela in the movie Invictus. South African billionaire Douw Steyn and owner of Johannesburg’s luxury Saxon hotel – where Mandela wrote ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ – was also a close friend. Contrary to talk of ANC indebtedness to ‘Brother Leader’ Colonel Gaddafi for his unwavering support for the anti-apartheid movement, their relationship appears to have been strengthened only through Mandela’s involvement in the trial of the Libyans accused of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Mandela was instrumental in persuading then British Premier Tony Blair and United Sates President George W. Bush in holding the trial in The Hague under Scottish Law. Along with his trusted friend Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and his closest confidante and intellectual-cum-political guru, the late Professor Jakes Gerwel, Mandela persuaded the ‘Brother Leader’ to deliver the two suspects to the Scottish authorities for the trial.

Masekela makeba mandelaHe acknowledged the efforts of those who scarified their careers for the anti-apartheid struggle. People like Hugh Masekala, Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Musaka (of Pata Pata fame) whom he would meet for lunch every now and then or “raise cars” for (i.e. persuade donors to give them cars).

Miss La Grange similarly devotes a lot of space in her memoir saying ‘thank you’ to all those who helped her along the way, regardless of who they were. The acknowledgements section of ‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela’ – one of the longest I have seen – runs into several pages and reads like the World “Who’s Who”, featuring royalty, global statesmen, businessmen and women, politicians, media moguls, musicians, artists, Hollywood actors, renowned professionals in various fields as well as secretaries, security guards and house helps who played a part in Zelda La Grange’s fascinating journey.

The book is suffused with devotion and loyalty but one sometimes wondered whether Miss La Grange was not trying too hard to over-compensate for her guilt over apartheid. Comments such as “I couldn’t remember as a child being tucked in my bedroom by my parents, yet here the man we all feared in the late 1980s (when we became aware of his existence) was covering my feet, worried about my well-being” or “[h]e treated me like I was part of his people caring for me like you would for your own” made me cringe at times. Earlier in the book she tells us about her mother’s attempted suicide and how that had left her feeling “constantly terrified of being abandoned” and as a result, had a tendency to over-compensate. That emotional need to be there for someone also made her ideally suitable for Nelson Mandela who after 27 years’ incarceration needed someone to be there for him – constantly.

Overall, the book could have been edited a little more tightly. A number of themes and observations such as Mandela’s inability to handle money after his release was repeated many more times than was necessary. Sometimes the author’s effusiveness over Mandela’s capabilities led to claims that were somewhat in the realm of the hyperbolic. For example in explaining Nelson Mandela’s clash with the Mbeki administration’s stance on HIV/AIDS, she claimed that “Madiba helped people to get access to AIDS drugs – people who then recovered and led some quality lives”. That is quite a strong claim to make given that there is no cure yet for HIV/AIDS. I suspect she meant they got better and were able to lead more ‘normal’ lives as they gained access to anti-retroviral drugs. A final editorial point: readers like me would have benefited enormously from the inclusion of an index to make references backwards and forwards easier.

My biggest disappointment with the book, however, is the absence of any serious discussion about the Afrikaner, and perhaps the broader South African white community, post Nelson Mandela. Her father makes fleeting appearances at the beginning, during the 1995 Rubgy World Cup finals when then President Mandela famously wore the Springbok jersey and a couple of times later. Apart from a brief appearance at the start, mum hardly features. Tensions with white friends are mentioned here and there but there is no real discussion about the views of the Afrikaner people nearly 20 years after Mandela and the black majority assumed power.

The overall impression I came away with was that racial difference is far more seared into the South African psyche than I had imagined. As recently as 2013, even Zelda La Grange was surprised by a gesture of goodwill shown her by an unknown black man who hugged and comforted as she shivered and cried inconsolably at the loss of Nelson Mandela. After everything she had experienced over the past couple of decades she says gestures such as these “touched my inner core when strangers, black people reached out to me in this way.”

Zelda La Grange’s commitment to Nelson Mandela left her little room for much else. She joined Mandela’s office in her early twenties, threw herself into her job and never had time for relationships or a family of her own. While incomparable, her years with Mandela when she cared for him and organized everything from his office to charity events and travels across the world were as much a personal sacrifice. As she ruefully observes “I never had a normal relationship after I started working with Madiba… [and] never got in touch with mainstream youth apart from my colleagues but I was also never in the same place long enough to even maintain stable platonic friendships. As a result I still lack the emotional capability to deal with very ordinary things.” Still, she concludes, “I would never exchange the experience and opportunity of working for Nelson Mandela for any other privileges”.

Zelda and Mandela‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela’ is Zelda la Grange’s swansong for the man she called ‘Khulu’ (meaning Grandpa in Xhosa) to whom she quite literally devoted much of her adult life . His departure has clearly left a palpable void in the author’s life and one gets the sense that writing the memoir was a way of coping with her loss. One cannot help but feel sorry when she reflects on her future and asks rhetorically “[m]aybe I will find another job and perhaps I will find a man to spend time with, one who knows and will respect that a piece of my heart has already been taken…given to an old black man who was once my people’s enemy and is now lying like an ancient King, deep in the soil of South Africa’s golden hill of Qunu”. It is a beautiful story of a multi-racial partnership that was the quintessence of the man and emblematic of the change he brought about.

©Ekow Nelson, Abu Dhabi


*Good Morning, Mr. Mandela (2014), by Zelda La Grange is published by Allen Lane of the Penguin Group

Posted in Africa, Mandela, Percy Yutar, South Africa, Zelda La Grange | 1 Comment

Restoring the lustre of Obama’s fading promise of change

Ekow Nelson

19th September 2008

It has been almost three weeks since Senator John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate and it is fair to say that her arrival on the scene has rattled Senator Barack Obama’s campaign. It is unclear whether the Obama campaign has finally settled on a strategy for countering the impact she has had, although it looks like the crises in the financial markets may have altered the course of the race yet again. While her novelty may be fading, her selection represents a significant shift in the McCain campaign for which a strategic response is needed.

Sara Palin has indeed energised John McCain’s campaign but the decision to select her is lifted directly from a fundamental Rovian maxim defined loosely as: “there is little point in attacking your opponent’s weakness; that is evident for everyone to see. To win, you must attack your opponent’s strengths”. That, more than anything else that has transpired over the past few weeks, is what changed the dynamics of this race before the crises in the financial markets rode to Senator Obama’s rescue.

In this regard Obama campaign strategist Bill Burton was right at the outset when he suggested in his response to Palin’s selection, that experience had been taken off the table. He may have been slapped down for mocking Palin’s experience as mayor of a small town, but the campaign did not follow through the logic of Burton’s most perspicacious observation as remorselessly as it should have done. If experience had been taken off the table, what was it replaced with? It certainly was not just Sarah Palin; it was something much more fundamental than that.

Here is my version of what I believe transpired. Barack Obama built his campaign on the promise change and it resonated with the public who flocked to his rallies to hear what he had to say. His opponents attacked his platform suggesting he was inexperienced but more importantly, that he was a risky choice in a dangerous world in more ways than one.

There is not much Senator Obama could have done about the perceived risks associated with his race and the community in which his politics were nurtured. But after the primaries he sought to do something about the risks associated with his policy positions to reassure voters that he was a safe choice. His Iraqi pullout policy and timetable for withdrawal became nuanced; he voted for the federal telecom immunity bill despite having previously opposed what Wired Magazine described as “ retroactive amnesty [for] telecoms that helped with the President’s secret, warrantless wiretapping” which came as a disappointment to many of his grassroots supporters and groups like Increasingly he appeared less strident about saying no to more drilling as long as it was part of a ‘comprehensive energy package’; he went to Iraq, Israel and Europe to reassure voters that he could handle issues of national security and above all, he selected Joe Biden as his running mate to deal with his perceived lack of experience in foreign policy.

Incidentally I described his choice of Biden as a master stroke but on reflection, almost everything Senator Obama did between June and August, including his travels to Iraq to meet the troops and General Petreaus, was in response to real or anticipated attacks from the McCain campaign. His campaign was in effect responding to a McCain agenda rather than setting its own. After challenging Senator Obama to go abroad Senator McCain mocked his popularity with foreigners. Nonetheless, these were reasonable responses to the ‘experience’ alternative offered by his opponent then.

Senator McCain’s campaign team realised, however, that the ‘experience’ issue was wearing thin and concluded that it could not compete against ‘change’ given where the country was at. So what did they do? They pitched up at Obama’s parade and mounted their own tent of change with Palin their symbolic embodiment of their version of change. If Obama’s message of change had been successful against Hillary Clinton’s experience and electoral machine, why did his campaign, in hindsight, assume McCain had learned nothing and would continue that same line of attack? Whatever you say about Republican strategists they are not stupid.

The problem is, by this time, Senator Obama had been busy casting himself as a safe choice and in the process had removed the lustre from his soaring rhetoric of change. The fact that Palin was a Washington outsider made this even more poignant. So the excitement around Palin and her appeal to the right-wing base notwithstanding, the fundamental shift in the campaign was McCain’s abandonment of ‘experience’ for ‘change’ which caught Obama napping because by then, his version of change was too nuanced and mainstream to be exciting.

This election is clearly about ‘change’ but there is a risk that Senator Obama has become too safe to represent that ‘change’ and the charge of ‘elitism’, though perverse, reinforces a perception that he is part of the reviled east-coast liberal establishment. The task ahead therefore is to reinvigorate his campaign with the same level of excitement that characterized his candidacy in the first place. McCain has, in many ways, given Senator Obama carte blanche to take a little more risk; if the nation is willing to hitch a ride on McCain’s Palin gamble, surely they can’t at the same time say they are looking for a safe choice, especially given his age and health.

Incidentally I do not believe that Senator Obama needs to try any harder to make himself likeable or better known. That is code for Obama is different so we don’t trust him. Sarah Palin has been thrust on the national scene for barely two weeks and she is liked despite all the contradictions about her. So this business about ‘people do not know Barack Obama’ is just plain hogwash. No matter what Senator Obama does, he will not be any more likeable to those who do not like him already or wish to give him the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, empathy and likeability come easily to some people but my observation is that it is not very natural for a diffident and cerebral guy like Obama. As the former press secretary to Tony Blair would have said on his behalf, “we don’t do empathy here”.

For some people, ‘respect’ is as attractive in a politician as likeability. Senator Obama has the ability to project a stature that commands respect and he should stick to that while his surrogates, Biden, Evan Bayh – he incidentally comes across as very articulate on the economy and is attractive too -etc. do the folksy stuff. His should be the vision and not the small talk; he needs to preserve for himself the grand stage for major set-piece speeches in front of serious audiences to project a stature and image that is equal to the grand task ahead.

I believe it will serve his purposes well if he planned at least three thoughtful set-piece speeches (not at a rally but much like he did on race), in addition to the debates on three of the greatest issues that confront America and the world today namely: (1) America’s place in the world; (2) Energy and the future of our planet; and (3) The demise of an eighty year-old global financial markets architecture that is no longer fit for purpose.

Never in my lifetime have I seen America so weak – not even under Carter; from the Iraq war to the collapse of reputable financial institutions, America looks like a dilapidated house that is crumbing as a result of a minor earth movement.The era of uni-polar world domination is clearly coming to an end and America must prepare for a more competitive future with serious challenges on all fronts. “ Mission accomplished” was a celebration too soon.

One of the unintended consequences of globalisation, which America thought would improve its competitiveness at home, is that it has bolstered a number of emerging economies that are now competing for jobs and resources and challenging America’s dominance in many areas . Despite its drawbacks, globalisation has improved the living standards of many people in countries such as India and China and in the process increased overall demand and competition for the world’s resources. As a consequence, there has been a steady rise in commodity prices over the last few years which has exacerbated the economic hardship faced by many ordinary Americans. Reductions in America’s consumption of fuel as a result of higher pump-prices in 2008 for example, have not had as much impact on global oil price levels as would have been the case in 1973. Countries like China and India are generating enough demand to keep prices of commodities higher than they would have been only 20 years ago.

The recent collapse/rescue of venerable institutions like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae provide ample evidence that we are on the verge of tectonic shift that occurs once or twice in 100 years, as Alan Greenspan reminded us only last week. Perversely, quintessential symbols of American free-market capitalism are turning to central government for rescue with invisible help from undemocratic Communist China which, as one of largest foreign holders of US public debt, is effectively helping to fund the large US government deficit. Our global financial architecture is being redesigned in real-time but there is every chance that the architect for what replaces it will not be America, even if it retains a seat at the top table.

If the pillars of America’s financial institutions are crumbling, its ‘addiction’ to the oil that lubricated the wheels of its economic and industrial fortunes, is no longer sustainable. As Thomas Friedman analyses in his recent book – “Hot, flat and crowded”- assumptions about the inexhaustibility, affordability and the benign impact of high oil consumption have now given way to a reality that with over US$100 per barrel, oil is anything but cheap; it is exhaustible but more seriously it is toxic in more ways than one. Not only is an over-dependence on fossil fuel having a deleterious impact on the world’s climate, America’s addiction to oil makes it dependent on countries with unsavoury regimes some of which are sympathetic to Islamic terrorism while others like Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela use their leverage to challenge America’s long dominance in Latin America.

Russia’s newly found wealth derived from oil and natural gas rather than the free-market strictures it adopted under Yeltsin has restored a semblance of self-confidence and it has signalled in no uncertain terms that it will remain an important geopolitical player than it was in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Russia will make it awkward to pass Security Council resolutions against Iran for example and may demand a quid pro quo giving it more freedom to deal with neighbouring states in its new ‘sphere of influence’ and on its own terms, while Israel takes matters in its own hands in relation to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme.

Increasing dependence of some European states on Russian oil and natural gas suggests that many are unlikely to be as strident in their opposition when it clamps down on dissidents and / or neighbouring states. This, and America’s spectacular failure in the so-called war against terrorism, may have dealt a severe long-lasting bodily blow to Article 5 of NATO’s own founding treaty. With 140,000 troops bogged down in Iraq, Russia can strut around the Caucuses and much of Eurasia in the knowledge that America is limited in its ability to respond in any practical way, save sabre-rattle.

In short, America looks weaker than it has ever been and a pale shadow of the lone super power it believed itself to be only a decade ago. The phenomenal Michael Phelps notwithstanding, the performance of America at the 2008 Olympics Games, in track and field especially, is probably the most eloquent testament of the state it is in.

When ordinary Americans salute the flag or sing the national anthem they do so with a sense of what they believe in their heart of hearts to be America’s premier place in the world. It is to these people that Senator Obama needs to make the case that America is gradually losing its place as the premier country in the free world and he is the man to fix it.

The western world needs a serious conversation about where it goes next and I can think of no other world figure to lead this other than Obama. But I do not think that this is a time for detailed prescriptions; rather, a time for bold but clear principles of how Senator Obama would govern as President. I do not share the view of those who suggest Senator Obama should focus on explaining his policies in terms of the bread and butter or kitchen table issues. Quite frankly, there are others who are better at doing it than the Senator; he should send them out and let them do his bidding.

My own view is we live in extraordinary times and while US$1,500 here or there may go a long way to help with health care costs or tuition for many families, I do not believe it will be as decisive when people come to make up their minds about who should lead the change they are clearly hankering after. People are looking for something bigger and the circumstances could not be more favourable for Senator Obama and the Democrats than at any other time in recent history.

What he needs to do is what he does best: grand narratives that paint a picture of how he would restore America’s moral leadership and its place in the world, lead the debate on energy and the future of our planet, along with a vision for a new financial architecture that is not inherently risky but is safe for American homes, savings and pensions and fit for purpose.

As Senator Kennedy said at the Democratic Convention in Denver, we have entered a new era and the baton has been passed on to a new generation. The circumstances are propitious; it is up to Senator Obama to pick-up the mantle and set out a bold vision for America in the twenty-first century or risk dropping the baton as the US 100×4 relay team did at the Beijing Olympic Games- with deleterious consequences for all of us.

© Ekow Nelson, New York, 2008

Posted in China, Democratic Party, Financial crises, flat and crowded, Foreign Polciy, Globalization, John McCain, Karl Rove, Lehman Brothers, Presidential Elections, Sarah Palin, Thomas Friedman, US | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Super-Tuesday rant and wobble

Ekow Nelson, February, 2008

Earlier this year I wrote about the Clintons in response to my good friend Dr. Michael Gyamerah and suggested among other things that, “I won’t be surprised if they [the Clintons] played the race card by letting it be known that Obama would lose it for the Democrats because Americans won’t vote for a Black candidate. They are an unscrupulous lot in my opinion.” Barely a month later, Bill and Hillary Rhodam Clinton have not disappointed; they have done what they have always done since Bill contested in the Arkansas gubernatorial elections: resorting to any tactic, fair or foul, and with no moral compunction whatsoever, as long as they win. The attacks on Barack Obama may not have been edifying but they are not surprising for anyone who has studied the Clintons.

It is fair to say that with so-called Super Tuesday – on 5th February when 23 or so States hold their caucuses/primaries – round the corner, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Barack Obama will emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee. My prediction is that if the Republicans elect John McCain he will become the next occupant of the White House and that will in part be because Blacks would finally come to realise that the Clintons have never been on their side especially as many of them have mistakenly assumed. They are and have always been Waspish politicians who surround and ingratiate themselves with a few prominent African-Americans including the likes ofVernon Jordan to improve their street, dare I say, racial-‘cred’ but more importantly, they are politicians driven by a deep understanding of the electoral arithmetic.

What I have found objectionable in my support for Obama is the frequent question I get asked by Blacks, many of whom then go on to excoriate him for not being black enough: “is it because he is Black, they ask?” The fact that he is the son of an immigrant Black African brought up in a single-parent household for much of his life and that his father abandoned him and his mother at a tender age of two, appears lost on those who have an issue with him because he was educated at Columbia and Harvard and does not especially appeal to his ‘Blackness’. That he seeks not to define his politics or his identity as exclusively ‘Black’ appears to have offended many who still do not understand that elections are won by building coalitions and if you are part of a minority Black population in a country with an electorate that is overwhelmingly White, you cannot win by appealing to your “Blackness’ alone. The Clintons and Obama understand this but the Clintons have decided to exploit it.

What amazes me, however, are those Blacks who cheer Hillary and her husband on because they are seen as more authentic representatives of Blacks. But it annoys me more when those who ask if I support Obama because he is Black fail to ask if the women among them support Hillary because she is a woman and or if they support her because she is Bill Clinton’s wife. They would quite rightly find such inquiries objectionable but somehow it is OK to suggest that men of my race are influenced only by issues of colour and nothing else besides.

But what riles me most of all is the view that persists among many Blacks that Bill Clinton was the president that achieved the most for Black people everywhere. Toni Morrison famously dubbed him the “first Black President of America” and he has added to this perception by setting up shop in Harlem. But when I ask those who peddle this view that he has done better for Blacks than any other President to name a single policy or act he enacted exclusively for the benefit of Blacks I get no answers. Discussions about him invariably turn to his looks and charm confirming the fickle-mindedness of many of his so-called admirers.

If no one can give me any concrete evidence of Bill Clinton’s contribution to Black people, I will point to what he did not do for Blacks and or the harm he did to some of our people when he was in power:

1- Apart from Ron Brown as Secretary of Commerce he appointed no Blacks to his cabinet in his eight years in office in a period when leading institutions including America Express and Merrill Lynch had African-Americans on their Boards. Would Clinton have appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court? I doubt it! Did he appoint the equivalents of Colin Powell or Condelezza Rice as Secretary of State? No he did not!

2- According to Intelligence Reports released under the Freedom of Information Act, President Bill Clinton knew about the 1994 Rwandan genocide but sat on the information and claimed ignorance to justify his administration’s inaction. In the process over half a million Black Africans lost their lives and the most powerful nation on earth turned the other way. Bill Clinton subsequently apologized for his government’s inaction claiming he “did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” The evidence suggests something different.

3- For the people of Sudan, however, to adapt a quote from the New York Times “no apology has been made and no restitution offered… [nine] years after the ground shook and the dark sky over Khartoum turned light as the [pharmaceutical] plant was hit”. On August 20th 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered 13 Tomahawk cruise missiles to bomb the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Northern Khartoum ostensibly because it was “producing the ingredients for the deadly VX nerve” – when in truth it produced 50 percent of the country’s drugs – and had links with Osama bin Laden.

According to the UK Observer newspaper, prior to the bombing, “US forces flew a reconnaissance mission to test for traces of gas and reported that there were none. Nevertheless Clinton immediately authorised the attack.” Almost 9 years on, we are told that “American officials have acknowledged … that the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the [Al] Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980s.” (See” Look at the Place! Sudan Says, ‘Say Sorry,’ but U.S. Won’t” – NYT, October 20th, 2005).

Some will point to improvements in income levels and reduction in poverty amongst African-Americans under the Clinton administration but I would argue that given the general rise in the well-being of many Americans in the 1990s fuelled by the dotcom bubble, it is no surprise and especially since he had, to his credit, turned the US$290 billion budget deficit he inherited from George Bush Snr in 1992 to a US$230 billon surplus by 2000.

Remember too, that, despite all the attempts to claim credit for the Oslo agreement and the so-called shuttle diplomacy towards the end of his administration, Bill Clinton could and did not endorse, let alone advocate, a two-state solution in Palestine. It took George Bush – arguably the worst USPresident in recent history – to declare his support for this long standing UN resolution. Why? Because the Clintons thought that would alienate the Jewish lobby whose support they needed as Hillary sought to succeed the veteran Pat Monyhihan as the second Senator for New York State.

What many Blacks have never appreciated about the Clintons is this: theClintons have never loved them especially. They recognised the importance of the Black vote in general elections for the Democratic Party; they also recognised that voter apathy was highest then among Blacks and knew they had to do something about it if they were to capture the White House. To win and to break the Republican hegemony, they had to appeal and court the Black vote and they did so successfully. A fact acknowledged by the US Census Bureau which observed in 2000 that “African Americans were the only race or ethnic group to defy the trend of declining voter participation in congressional elections, increasing their presence at the polls from 37 percent in 1994 to 40 percent in 1998”. The Clintons are doing the same with the Hispanic vote now they believe the Black votes will go to Obama. I won’t be surprised if Hillary set up an office in a predominantly Hispanic area.

The Clintons have courted Blacks not because they especially liked them or that they were any different from other Whites; it was pure politics but unfortunately many Blacks mistook their appreciation of the American electoral arithmetic to mean affection. The only people the Clintons have an affection for are The Clintons; they will do anything, say anything to get into power as we saw in the South Carolina debate when Hillary Clinton chided Barack Obama for cavorting with the indicted Chicago businessman, Tony Rezko when she herself had posed with him in a photograph after he contributed funds to her husband’s campaign.

As for supporting Obama because he is Black, Whites do that all the time. Why is Obama likely to lose against any of the Republican candidates (or even Hillary Clinton), including a Mormon and Creationist? Because majority of Whites will not vote for him. In the next few days much will be made Obama’s share of the Black vote in South Carolina but no one will say anything of Hillary Clinton’s share of the White vote. The subtext is it is not right for Blacks to vote overwhelmingly for a Black candidate – that is cronyism because after all one can’t vote for a Black candidate for any other reason other than he/she is Black. If it is OK for Whites to vote overwhelmingly for a White candidate in preference to a Black opponent because they do not like the latter for who he is, then I say there is nothing wrong with Blacks doing the same. Let no one give me any bull about issues; the day when majority Whites vote on issues in a contest between a White candidate and a Black candidate, I will stop supporting Black candidates only because they are Black.

It is conceivable that many of the antics of the Clintons may have the opposite effect and Obama may very well win the Deomcratic nomination, against all odds. It remains a possibility that Obama can pull it off but even if he does not, three cheers to him for daring and changing the terms of the American political debate, mobilizing a large coaltion of especially young people for change and I hope he comes back in 2012.

© Ekow Nelson, London, 2008

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