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Dear All,

(Posted Aug 2015)
I thought you may find the rather haunting 1945 film footage of Berlin, at the following site, of interest. Pay particular attention to the sound track.
This link has prompted a wide response from friends to whom I have sent it, including a suggestion that I watch the documentary, Night Will Fall, (apparently about the holocaust); but unfortunately, in my dotage, I no longer have the emotional resources to watch stuff like that.
Incidentally, my reaction to the hollow expressions* and the only words you hear in the clip – Hitler ranting about “totalen krieg” – was to be reminded of the view expressed by Albert Hirshman in, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970). In that work Hirshman suggests that people in large, declining and/or decadent organisations generally respond to the degeneration in one of three ways, viz, 1) they give up the struggle and Exit, or 2) they use their Voice to speak out against what they see is wrong, or 3) they remain Loyal to the organisation by keeping quite and compromising along the way.
Freeman Dyson, in a Physics Today interview, listed three examples of physicists (and their approach to the use of physics by Nationalist and Fascist Europe in the 1930s) to illustrate this view by saying that “Bruno Pontecorvo chose to Exit, Albert Einstein chose a Voice, and Max Planck chose Loyalty”; going on to say that “each of them paid the price for his choice.”
The Hollow Men – T S Elliot

Mistah Kurtz – he dead
A penny for the Old Guy


    We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer –

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

(Written July 2015)

Dear All,

In considering what the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be, I have taken a great deal of what I present here from, The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science, by J. Bronowski, (MIT Press, 1978). In particular, the inspiration is drawn from the description of a mathematician in the company of scientists, “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives”.

For it is the imaginative mind that sets us apart from the animals. Certainly animals use ‘words’ and gestures to communicate, but they do so in a restricted, contextual way; a particular bark or signal is always understood by others in the troop, herd or pack in the same way.  Humans are different in that, in our minds eye we can recreate and reinterpret the past, we can imagine and plan the future, and we can convey ideas through a range of complex symbols – any one of which may allow for more than one sensible interpretation. Most importantly for this discussion, we can express our manifold imaginings by way of extremely abstract representations. But we are not born with these skills, we have to learn them. To communicate and to succeed in a civilised, ordered society, we need to be educated; and from this point of view, all teaching is directed at making it possible for humans to ‘visualise’ their experience in mental models and mental images, and then to turn what was imagined into fact. Incidentally, an appropriate and extremely useful theory of human cognition – in terms of mental models, mental images, and propositional reasoning – was developed by Philip Johnson-Laird in the 1980s (see Mental Models, Cambridge, 1983).

The key idea here is that the ability to create and manipulate images in the mind is the basis of reasoning; and irrespective of whether we are experimenting with logical concepts or with artistic materials, we are engaging in imaginative processes that use the same mental faculties in all cases. Further, if the above is true (which I believe it is), then there is no intrinsic difference in the way in which we use the concepts of ‘energy’ and ‘mass’, as Einstein did in the equation E = mc2, and the way in which we use the words ‘sad height’ and ‘fierce tears’, as Dylan Thomas did in:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Both of these expressions convey a very deep understanding of the world as it may be experienced, but neither is obvious from the outset. A considerable amount of effort may be required to rediscover what these two authors meant, an effort that is well worthwhile; but in the process of doing so it would be a mistake to believe that in order to grasp the meaning of one compared to the other you need to have ‘a different kind of brain’. As Bronowski puts it (p. 21):

We do a great harm to children in their education when we accustom them to separate reason from imagination, simply for the convenience of the school timetable. For imagination is not confined to wild outbursts of fantasy. Imagination is the manipulation inside the mind of absent things, by using in their place images or words or other symbols.

Both science and art are imaginative processes in which we are constantly rediscovering for ourselves what the experimenters, theorists, authors, sculptors, painters and poets have discovered before us; and the point has to be emphasised that it is not possible to appreciate the deep conceptions created by science and art “unless we do something to recreate them for ourselves”. Each of us has to engage in this journey of discovery with whatever idiosyncratic set of imaginative tools we have at our disposal – irrespective of the field of human endeavour. And in every case we do so for the same reasons, viz.: 1) to experience the pleasure of exploring imaginary situations, and 2) to give expression to something that is entirely personal. In short, we do so because we delight in our own creations.

This motivation, that ‘we delight in our own creations’, lies at the heart of whatever we truly learn; and this is as true for a babe in arms, an opsimath, and everyone in-between. It follows that if we are ever to have effective educational institutions then they have to speak directly to this motivation.

Does the phrase ‘our own creations’ imply that there should be a free-for-all approach to the way in which we approach the acquisition of knowledge, an, “I did it my way” approach? Certainly not! In considering the idea of having the freedom to act, we note that “you cannot be certain how to design something well, but you can be certain how to design it badly”. This is true of every human endeavour and so the foundation of every creative ability requires an investigation into the existing body of knowledge in that field. It is only when one understands the underlying structure of whatever it is that is being explored, before setting out on the journey, that one may be found in a position to extend that knowledge. Here also it is necessary to deal with a misconception that has found a place in some quarters; it is the idea that in some way science is constricting, while art is liberating. Quite how this view gained traction is not clear to me, but a little thought will show it to be a bogus notion for we need to recognise that freedoms and limitations have a deep connection and are never separated. With every creative act we are met with liberation on one hand, and simultaneously, limitation on the other. Bronowski again (p. 51)

Each of the great intellectual revolutions has broken through (the boundaries of our contagious anxieties, the rigours of convention and social institutions) at its time, and swum into a new sea of freedom in art, science, and society together. But beyond each isthmus there is another; each sea in turn is landlocked; there are natural limits to action in the new age too. The pride of the best men is to probe for these limits by the adventure of their work. These are the pioneering minds, who press forward in the new freedom and create those works which, in exploring it, discover (because they reach) the new frontiers. Lincoln Cathedral is such a creation, and Albertini’s Rimini, the craft of Dürer and Grinling Gibbons and Wedgewood, the Circus in Bath and the Chrystal Palace. And equally the plays of Christopher Marlow and Newton’s Principia, Coleridge and Cézanne and Rutherford, all stretch out and fill the freedom they themselves created, to its limits. The new age ends only when these limits in their turn become fixed and conventional, and wait to be cracked by another discovery toward the next freedom.

This brings me closer to the question of what I think the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be. I think a simple model that shows the interaction of four components in a creative process should be a recurring theme that would be a reminder to both teachers and learners that it is the act of “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives” that lies at the heart of the understanding of anything.

Model of creativity

With the imaginative mind at its centre, this simple model illustrates how we combine our experience with what we know of the existing body of knowledge to give expression to our thoughts and conclusions. And in doing so we go through an iterative process whereby we enhance our experience and our understanding to be able to express more clearly what is known, until we reach that limit where new knowledge is created, where freedom comes into its own.

It is my view that it is the task of teachers and the like to bring about educational institutions that forefront the idea that ‘we delight in our creations’; and then to bring about an environment that allows for the imaginings of the creative minds of the youth to be turned into fact.



(Written on 26 April 2015) Dear All, UCT alumni, friends and acquaintances who know I work at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have asked the question with concern; why did UCT’s management cave so easily when a relatively small group of students went on the rampage? Where will this end? Now that Rhodes has fallen…, will UCT also fall? To answer this question it is necessary to consider what the actual social problem at UCT may be, as well as to consider what it may mean for the university ‘to fall’. There is no doubt that there is a portion of the black student population at UCT who suffer from a sense of cultural alienated at the university. To quote Prof Mohamed Jeebhay’s view published in the special edition of the Monday Monthly, (April 2015), “the changing demographic patterns in the undergraduate student population… has contributed towards the creation of a growing critical mass of black students who articulate an increasing sense of alienation due to the (university’s) pervasive Eurocentric institutional culture”. There is some truth in this statement. My observation is that those students who come through what may be usefully described as a “model-C school experience” adapt readily to the institutional culture of UCT; while those who come from a township or rural school are at first bewildered, but those who cope with the work and adapt to the institutional culture generally go on to success. Unfortunately for those who find the academic work tough, the experience soon turns to something of a cultural shock. As these students battle to recover the characteristic ‘white impatience’ and the occasional expression of indifference with which they are met – sadly something that is part of the institutionalised culture – is interpreted as colonialist, imperialist, racism. The culturally shocked student’s reaction may range from a simple crestfallen shake of the head and a sad “eish wena”; to emotively irrational rants like that by Ntebaleng Morake about a “white supremacist capitalist misogynist system” where “nappy headed Black women (are) suffocated by the shackles that celebrate white supremacy and male entitlement”. (Why decolonising UCT is imperative, even after the fall of Rhodes statue, News24, 15 April 2015). Black students at UCT who experience this sense of cultural dissonance ask themselves, quite rightly, why they feel so uncomfortable at an indigenous institution? After all, they are Africans in Africa at an African university? Why do they feel like foreigners? Who or what is to blame for their state is readily described as colonialist, imperialist, etc., etc. Here I must point out that it is my observation that while the proportion of UCT students who struggle with what is essentially a Western culture is growing, they are not in the majority…, as yet. My observation is that the majority of students – and here I mean the black majority – have embraced what Jeebhay calls the ‘Eurocentric institutional culture’. The clothes they wear, the music to which they listen on their iphones, and the pictures of cult-heroes they paste on the covers of their books are largely Eurocentric. So for example, while a group of some 200 or 300 Rhodes-Must-Fall supporters would be singing and chanting and protesting at selected spots on campus, the significant majority of students, including black students, could be seen to be going about their usual business without much more than a passing interest in the protest. It is clear that the dissonance of some does not resonate with most, but this does not mean that there isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed. As the proportion of UCT students who come from township and rural schools increases the need to assuage this cultural dissonance becomes more urgent. Having acknowledged the cultural difficulty experienced by a growing portion of the black students at the university, what of the perception that in accommodating this cultural change the university will ‘fall’. The perception of the failure of South African institutions has become our daily experience. Eskom was once a financially A-rated, reliable generator of electricity; now we are reminded every other day of its fall as the lights go out. The South African Post Office was once the place where you opened your first savings account; today they cannot be relied upon to deliver a parcel. Even our parliament has been seen to degenerate into the kind of shambles that was once a risible news-item associated with lesser countries. Alumni of the Cape Technikon are presently at pains to point out that they graduated from an institution quite different from what became the Cape Peninsula University of Technology; as industry’s perception of the kaput CPUT’s qualification is a shadow of what the Technikon’s once was. After UCT’s management was seen to cave to the unruly student behaviour shown on national television we are left asking if this is UCT’s fate? What now? Will the management cave to other demands? Will UCT’s alumni also have to make the case that internationally recognised degrees conferred in 2000 are not the equivalent to some down-rated UCT qualification conferred in 2030? Of course, we have to ask ourselves if it really matters whether UCT ‘falls’ or not? Perhaps – to make a dent in the massive unemployment problem facing the country – esoteric research should be trumped by the need for vocational training at any price. From figures published by Stats SA in 2014 we know that in South Africa there is presently some 5 million unemployed black people between the ages of 17 and 24 years; and to this must be added the 16 million who will be coming through the school system over the next 15 years. Over the last five years the black population has grown at a rate around 11%, but the annual economic growth rates have been around 1.5% – so there is no way that a considerable proportion of these people will ever be employed. Under these dire social circumstances, does it matter that the country should have a university among the world’s top 150? (Incidentally, at present rates it is expected that by 2030 whites will make up less than 2% of South Africa’s total population.) So, we probably agree that it is inevitable that UCT should transform into an African university. Now we have to figure out what that means. How is an African university different from what would, worldwide, be considered a university worth the title? Rhodes PosterAs far as I can see, this point has not been clearly communicated simply because it appears to be poorly defined in the minds of the agitators for transformation. Yes, there has been a clear expression of what is broadly described as ‘black pain’, and specifically described as the sense of failure ‘to make it’ at what is seen as a European (colonial, imperialist) university. But what is not clear is what the transformed university would actually look like. The Rhodes-Must Fall campaigners have festooned the university’s notice boards with posters happily proclaiming, “Transformation has taken a leap forward”, while its companion poster shows a jumble of words that convey no specific meaning…, reminding one of the central problem with China’s Great Leap Forward; it destroyed but put nothing in its place. As agitating students, staff and supporting newspaper reporters resort to defacing symbols, demanding changes (inter alia for easier curricula and academic race quotas), occupying administrative offices, and mindlessly repeating slogans, one wonders if this is what they believe the ethos of an African university should be. In the Monday Monthly Special of April 2015 we are shown a picture of a demanding student proudly posing in front of an occupied building with a slogan and a clenched fist, but he has placed duct tape across his mouth… one wonders if he has any notion of the deep contradiction this image presents at a university, whether an African university or any other sort of university. Unlike some of my friends who have taken the view that the Rhodes-Must-Fall program will energise a wholesale change in the institutional culture of UCT, I expect that there will be some shifts to becoming a bit more African (however that may be manifest), but the university will nevertheless remain much on the same course as it is now. The reason for this is because UCT has a significant international exposure and connectedness which steers it away from the parochial. One is reminded of how, as the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the 1960s, Albert Hertzog tried in vain to prevent television from being introduced to South Africa. Hertzog’s self-serving motivation was to preserve his specific brand of culture but ultimately the internal and international pressure prevailed and all his efforts were swept aside. So I expect it to be as with email, twitter, pop music, sneakers and tee-shirt slogans. I expect that despite the present cultural dissonance experienced by a section of the black student population, the youth at the university will adapt to the ethos of a pervasive International institutional culture…, I believe that UCT will remain a university for the foreseeable future, with some African flavour. I guess only those who will be around in 2030 will find out for sure. Regards Jeff

(Written 26 Dec 2014)

Dear All,

When Siobhan Mulligan recently told me that she had enrolled to do a course in creative writing at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, (USA), it struck me as a marvellous way to start a career as a writer. Perhaps it was because I had found the Eternal City to be such a fascinating place that Rome, Georgia, was always on my list of places-to-visit> And while I came close on occasions, I never actually got there. Nevertheless, I am just prejudiced enough to make all sorts of conclusions as to why the open spaces of Berry College would be just the right place to have great thoughts and to meet with all the conservative claptrap that makes for the tragedies and comedies of fine writing. Berry College may just be the place of which writers’ dreams are made.

Well positioned in the Bible Belt and with so much Civil War history, I found the northwest corner of Georgia (USA) to be a haunting place. The serenity and beauty of the Chickamauga National Military Park, just to the north of Rome, GA, belies the stupidities and motivations that led to the battles that were fought there; something underscored when I witnessed a fallen soldier being interred in the carefully manicured Chattanooga National Cemetery in 2008. (It seems that he had been killed in Iraq.) I remember how the spectacularly misty views from Lookout Mountain left me with a strange sadness as I looked down onto the loops of the Tennessee River from which the Yankees arrived to slip through the back door in 1863. And I thought for a moment that I heard the whoops and galloping of Nathan Forrest – just as one can hear the clatter of running-away hooves of Christiaan de Wet’s commandos (2nd Boer War) across the vlaktes of the Orange Free State – as these icons struggled heroically in an already lost cause…, it is a place of romantic dreams indeed.

Of course, dreams provide a fertile space for creative writing. Not just the idea of the way in which Life’s dreams are made and broken, but that dreams can be interpreted in any way you please. Here I should point out that I subscribe to Bronowski’s view (The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature, and Science, MIT Press, 1978) that works of art are never complete in themselves. Art requires that the viewer or reader should complete the work by ‘creating’ a response at the time of the viewing or reading thereof; and in this sense, the author may well write creatively at the time of putting pen to paper, but the act of ‘creative writing’ only comes about when the reader actually interprets those words for themselves. For example, Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965) has always held meanings for me that I am sure the young Robert Zimmerman never intended, and who has not sighed in sympathetic relief when the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe (1882) comes to an end. Or how about the twists and turns of Lewis Carroll’s subverted Fit the Sixth – The Barrister’s Dream from The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in 8 Fits (1876). See The nonsense nature of these writings gives us the opportunity to ascribe deep meaning to the stuff of dreams.

Incidentally, one must chuckle at the thought of Queen Victoria, who, having enjoyed Alice in Wonderland, commanded that she be presented with other work by that author. One expects she could not make head or tail of the mathematics of Charles Dodgson, but perhaps she acknowledged the cleverness in Carroll’s the Fit the Second – The Bellman’s Speech:

The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies—
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”

So I look forward to reading Siobhan’s work that I think may somehow maintain the bridge between the histories, sceneries, and dreams of the puritans of Southern Africa and those of North-Western Georgia.


Eight friends who made a difference

Written 1 June 2014

Dear All,

Have you ever asked yourself who – apart from your immediate family: parents, spouse and children – have been the most influential people in your life? Of course, we learn something from everyone we meet along the way, but there are those who stand out, those one has known for more than say 10 years and who’s influence has changed the way in which you have actually lived your life. When considering the question I come up with eight names; and in reading about my thinking on this topic, it is useful to know that for all my life I have wanted an education. So, my choices have focussed on those long-standing friends who have contributed to what I have learned.

In their youth, almost everyone has had an inspiring teacher or two, but for me there was no-one from my schooldays I ever wanted to emulate. On the contrary, if I learned anything from my Witbank teachers, it was what not to become. In short, my schooling was an abysmal failure and my army days were no better. By the time I had reached the age of 19, and was about to launch into the wide world, it was as if I had spent the first part of my life in a social and an educational wilderness. So it was as a naive bumpkin that I met Giles Tayelor, who was to become a life-long friend. When we met on board the Safmarine ship, SA Vergelegen, early in 1971, we were most unlikely to get along. I was a complete prude who had never ever been out on a real date, he was already something of a rake. Giles wore a red scarf jauntily tied to one side while every item of clothing I owned was a piece of a uniform of some sort. Giles had been schooled at SACS, I had been nowhere. How I admired the way in which he could recite poetry, chat up the girls and order wine with aplomb; meeting him, and learning from him, was the start of what I could call having a social life.

In the mid-1970s Jill and I moved to Cape Town where three people were to play a significant role in shaping my early adult life. In the Marine Automation Department at Globe Engineering, Frans Spit and Louw Smit were a pair of technical geniuses in their own right. In my mind’s eye I can still the way Frans would push his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he would point out whatever was wrong with some or other control system, always explaining his reasoning with an astonishing clarity. And I remember the way in which Louw could make adjustments to controllers that were ‘just so’; and how he could fabricate intricate bits of machinery with such precision that left me breathless on occasion. The two of them were generous with their knowledge and one way and another, taught me the bulk of whatever technical skills I have today. At the same time, away from work, my cousin Fred Hebbert introduced me to music, art and literature. Everyone should have a ‘Fred’ in their lives. He introduced me to opera, the world of drama, and rugby. Fred’s general knowledge is as varied as it is entertaining and with it all he is as unassuming as one can be. His company is always easy-going and enlightening. So, for more than 40 years, much of what I have read has been at his recommendation, and much of what I have thought about, has been at his prompting.

To say that my career in the early 1980s was in the doldrums would be a kindness, but then, as luck would have it, I met two engineers who gave me the direction I lacked. The first was Ralph Rosenstein, the factory engineer in charge of African Products in Belleville. Ralph was larger than life in every way and to a rudderless 30-something year-old he was what I decided I should become. It was not just that Ralph was a superb factory engineer, but he had a clear sense of what he wanted to achieve and could communicate his expectations to those who worked for him. He inspired everyone and with it all he had a wry sense of humour. I well remember him speaking to a contractor on the phone while scrunching up a piece of scrap paper near the handset, “do your hear zis?”, he would say in his heavy German accent as he winked at me, “zis iss your invoice…, you haf sold me a shree-veeled car!” I set out to be like Ralph and in some ways succeeded. The other engineer was Bryan Mulligan. We met when I took a job with Murray & Roberts where Bryan had just been appointed as the group’s youngest engineering manager. He is, without doubt, the sharpest person with whom I ever worked. His solutions to technical and business problems were often astounding in their scope and execution, and it would be safe to say that it was his originality that makes him such an outstanding character. We subsequently entered into a business relationship which lasted a number of years and in that time I learned a great deal from him about money and business. My approach was simply to support him in every way I could in the belief that all would turn out for the best in the end, but sadly, our partnership did not reach its full potential. Nevertheless, we kept contact and I still hear myself saying things I know Bryan would have said.

As has been noted, my schooling was a miserable experience and I remember thinking in 1969, as I walked out of the schoolhouse for the last time, that if these were supposed to be the best years of my life, then I did not want the rest of them. Having been through such a hopeless system I have a great deal of sympathy for students who arrive at a university from what is described as an underprivileged school, but I have always been encouraged by the view that it is never too late to have a happy childhood. The opportunity to make up for lost time arose when our sons went to Wynberg Boys High School. As the chairman of the Governing Body it was my good fortune to meet and befriend Keith Richardson, the school’s headmaster. I have often said that Keith has probably forgotten more about educating boys than most parents will ever learn, so it has been a privilege to have had the opportunity, through our friendship, to have been part of a great school, even though I was not actually a product of that school. In a strange way I have been able to put the misery of my own schooling behind me and to replace it with an association that makes me proud. More importantly, Keith has taught me about the things we needed to have learned as young people, the things that schools are supposed to teach; things like “playing up, and playing the game.”

And finally, in 2003, when my appetite for managing projects and running factories had come to an end, and our sons were on their own path in life, it was time for me to attend to that nagging problem of getting an education. In February of that year I found myself sitting in lecture theatre ‘C’ in the R W James Building at UCT, having enrolled for the 2nd-year physics course in electromagnetism. I had not done any mathematics for 28 years and it was not unreasonable to expect that the odds of my coming to terms with the calculus of Grad, Div and Curl were slim, but the punters would not have accounted for the inspiration of Professor David Aschman. David, to my mind, is everything a professor of physics should be; erudite, unconventional, a bit intimidating, irascible on occasions, and (although always well hidden) never taking himself too seriously. Many was the day I walked out of an Aschman lecture with the bewildering sense that I had understood very little of the complexities of what was said, but I knew I had enjoyed every moment of it. He, more than any, represented being educated simply for the sake of being educated. He presented an image of an academic to which one could aspire. He, more than anyone I know, could get you to ask yourself a good question every day.

In retrospect, these eight long-standing ‘characters of influence’ have provided me with an interlocking framework within which I interact with the outside world. Each of them has offered some unique skill and particular role model upon which I rely to figure out what I should do in whatever situation I find myself. I am grateful for all of them.

Perhaps you also have such a list?


(Written March 2014)

Dear All,

It has been suggested that systematic corruption thrives on organisational weaknesses in which the perpetrators can exploit conflicting incentives; discretionary and monopolistic powers; and a culture of impunity. And it can be seen that in some societies systematic corruption has become the norm; while in others, when (for personal gain), the political leaders of that society are prepared to take the government down that slippery slope, the general population has been able to reject this influence and opt for ‘clean administration’.

It is not clear to me what it takes for a population to rid itself of systematic corruption when it is at such a watershed…, just as it is not clear to me whether or not a sufficient number of honest members can presently be found in the ANC to counter the systematic corruption that has been encouraged by the Zuma administration.


It was while reading extracts of the Public Protector’s report on how the South African president had managed to spend over R200 million from the public purse on his private home at Nkandla that I was reminded of another leader who, also through an insidious system of patronage, had rebuilt his family home with “his accumulations in office”. The thing that reminded me of Sir Robert Walpole (1676 – 1745), the ‘First Minister’ of Great Britain, was paragraph 6.35.1 of the Nkandla Report; a section detailing minutes of meetings to show how Zuma had lied about his not knowing how any of it came about. And the minutes that caught my eye were those in which the president’s personal architect, Minenhle Makhanya, “indicated that he was advised by the President that the households to be relocated (to make way for the expanded Zuma homestead) ‘is waiting for a family member to arrive before relocation can take place’”, and later, that “(Zuma) had requested to be informed about the delay in their relocation from the site”. These minutes were noted not because they provide yet further evidence that the South African president was lying, but that this was not the first time the little guys had been moved away because they spoiled the view from a grand house.

In 1722, then at the height of his powers, Robert Walpole had the original Village of Houghton demolished…, to make way for the lawns that were to surround his lavishly rebuilt home, Houghton Hall. In the BBC series, A History of Britain, Simon Schama can be seen next to the stone marker that shows where the original village had been located, certainly since 1086. And what links these two events in my mind is that in both cases they reflect an astonishing arrogance on the part of the owner of the mansion. Was it not enough that these men had helped themselves to obscene amounts of public money to serve their self-interest, to live in excessive luxury, and to make a grand show of their personal power? Did they really have to rub it in by getting rid of the little guys? See

The site of the original Houghton Village

The site of the original Houghton Village

Of course, Walpole’s political power did come to a sad and lonely end when, in 1742, he was pushed out of office. The sycophantic network he had created vanished into thin air but by then he had made a significant contribution to his country. He had stabilized a nation exhausted by war and the travails of royal succession. He really did lead and allowed for the development of the first modern parliament. Under his watch, Britain prospered as never before and the words “Rule Britannia” took on a meaning that spawned pride, nationhood, and prosperity. Zuma, on the other hand, has presided over a shrinking economy in which the personality of the country’s president is a very bad joke. The dancing, smiling, beguiling president of South Africa offers no leadership, nor does he instil confidence in the people who are at a political crossroad. Worse, there is a very real danger that the Zuma legacy may well be that of systematic government corruption in which the ANC’s Protection of State Information Act will play a pivotal role in keeping future presidents out of jail… unless there are sufficient numbers of good people in the ANC to put an end to this abuse of power.

The critical question at this time in South Africa, is whether the membership of the ANC has what it takes to return to its ideals and to elect a President who does not need to spend millions on lawyers to keep him/her out of jail? Does the membership of the ANC have what it takes to elect a President who does not give his/her friends special privileges to land their private aeroplanes at the country’s military airbases, and a President who does not have the arrogance to push the little people off the land…, as an expression of personal power?


Written 12 Jan 2014

Dear All,

Last week, quite by chance, I came across a copy of Herman Charles Bosman’s Uncollected Essays by V. Rosenberg (Ed.), Timmns Publishers, 1981. As always, Bosman’s off-beat view of the world and wry sense of humour comes through beautifully and for the first time I was struck by the very strong views he expressed about poetry. For example, he wrote, “The essential characteristic of the psychologist is that he knows nothing about life. Otherwise he would not be a psychologist, but a poet” (p. 55), and I think he was quite right. Of course, I don’t mean being a poet in the sense of having the skill to know your trochee from your spondee, or your enjambment from your caesura. I am speaking of being a poet in the sense of being able to write a phrase or verse that gives a voice to that unutterable moment; the ability to assemble an otherwise incoherent word structure that makes perfect sense. Read any Bob Dylan lyric and you will know what I mean.

The expression of these unutterable moments is often associated with times of heady love or wonderment, but they are mostly prompted by upheaval and despair, wars, deaths, and so on… One such poem that caught my imagination, when I was still a boy, was Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang (written abt. 1918). I do not know the exact circumstances described by Sassoon – it certainly was to do with World War I – and perhaps it really was about Armistice Day. No matter, in my mind it is about the triumph of the human spirit of those miserable soldiers in muddy trenches who had to endure the nightmare described by Churchill in the Commons as “every 24 hours nearly a thousand men are knocked into bundles of bloody rags”. And in the midst of this horror:

EVERYONE suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on- on- and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

I was reminded of this poem in 2007 when I had the opportunity to visit the Civil War battle site at the Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee. . Incidentally, it was my great privilege, in the 4 years during which I lived in the USA, to get a sense of how that Nation was formed by the European immigrants who first turned on their Colonial masters in the War of Independence (1775 – 1783), then they turned on their neighbours in the Mexican War (1846 – 1848), then they turned on one another in the Civil War (1861 – 1865), and then finally they did for the indigenous population in the Indian Wars ending around 1890. All pretty brutal stuff with plenty of cause for poetry, as was the case in the battle at Shiloh which took place over two days in April 1862, the first day going to the Confederates and the second to the Yankees. Some 20,000 men were killed or wounded in that battle as the shocked and inexperienced men “saw the elephant” (colloquial for “experienced combat”) for the first time. And as I wandered around that site I tried to imagine what would have gone on in the minds of the poor wretches who were thrown into that melee.

Before the battle, the attacking Confederate soldiers were reminded of their duty. They were told that what was required was “a decisive victory over the agrarian mercenaries, sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property, and honour… remember the dependence of your mothers, your sisters, and your children on the result… with such incentives to brave deeds your generals will lead you confidently to the combat”1. As it happened, despite the belief that everything in their world was at stake, the Confederates lost. And so I wondered how that sense of loss could be expressed.

Semiotics is the study of the signs and symbols that we use in communication. Just as words are signs and symbols by which we communicate, so gestures convey meaning and while it is not an area that I have followed too closely, I have no doubt that if poetry can be expressed in words, so to, I believe, can poetry be expressed in gesture. After all, we speak about the fine performance of an athlete as being “poetry in motion”. So you can imagine my satisfaction when, while pondering the plight of beaten Confederate soldiers, I saw what is shown in the following picture. It is a piece of semiotic poetry, that expressive gesture that, for me, captured the unutterable moment.

Conferate soldiers on Shiloh Memorial

Conferate soldiers on Shiloh Memorial

The picture is of part of a larger Confederate Memorial at Shiloh that shows on the right, the men going into battle on the first day, heads held high, weapons in hand; and on the left, men coming out of battle at the end of the second day, heads down, swords gone. Actually, I found the whole piece rather uninspiring because the message was all too obvious, but look at that open hand. It says exactly what I thought the defeated and bewildered men would have felt. In modern parlance, perhaps, you could hear him whisper with a slow shake of the head, “W.T.F.” For me, it is pure poetry.



1McPherson, J. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, p. 407.

(Written 15 December 2013)

Dear All,

With the demise of Nelson Mandela still dominating everything in the news this week, including the advertising, South Africans return again and again to the question, “How did it all go so wrong in the new South Africa? How did it happen that we started heroically with the ANC of Mandela, and a brief decade and a half later, we are saddled with the corrupt and incompetent ANC of Jacob Zuma! At the same we ask rather dolefully, “What can be done to right the ship?”

In thinking of this, the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens came to mind. I first heard this poem recited in 1971 by my good friend Giles Tayelor. We were steaming across the Indian Ocean at the time and I remember the dramatic moment vividly. The two of us were engineer cadets on the SA Vergelegen and he, being a SACS boy and all, had been taught poetry at school. (I had had no such luck having been sent to a technical school.) On that afternoon the blue-black sea was quite rough with storm clouds overhead and we were looking out over the aft deck at the wake of the ship when he told how, in the poem, “the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud, and gurley grew the sea. The ankers brak, and the topmast lap, It was sic a deadly storm”. He recited how the sailors tried valiantly to keep the ship afloat until (depending on the version you read) “a bolt flew from our gude ship’s side, and the salt sea it came in…”  And as every well-educated schoolboy knows, Sir Patrick and the good ship did not survive, the poem ending poignantly, “Half-owre, half-owre to Aberdour, ‘Tis fifty fathoms deep; And there lies Sir Patrick Spens, Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet!”

Of course, what makes the story so heroic is that it all started out with hope. Hope that the treacherous journey to bring the king’s daughter back from Norway could be achieved, the poem beginning: “The king sites in Dumferline town Drinking the blude-red wine; “O whare will I get a skeely* skipper To sail this ship of mine?” O up and spak an eldern knight, Sat at the king’s right knee; “Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor That ever Sail’d the sea.”  ”    *skilful

In 1994 we started out with hope, but when we look at the storms gathering in all quarters of South Africa today we see that the “lift is growing dark and the wind is beginning to howl”; and to illustrate the warning signs I draw your attention to the rather strange case of Thamsanqa Jantjie who was appointed by unknown to sign, for the deaf, the speeches at Mandela’s memorial service on 10 December 2013. It is a case that epitomizes the strange world of Jacob Zuma; something captured perfectly by Zapiro.

Zapiro and the interpreter

Zapiro and the interpreter

 Now, before you say the president cannot be responsible for everything, may I say that  I know that Jacob did not appoint the interpreter personally, I know that mistakes happen, and I know that in the bigger scheme of things, Thamsanqa Jantjie’s blatant lies about his being a qualified interpreter for the deaf is a relatively small thing, albeit a sad one. I know that there are fraudsters and shysters all over the world, but consider the circumstances of his appointment.

 The Sunday Times of South Africa, dated 15 December 2013 (p. 3) informs us that the head of the ANC’s religious and traditional affairs desk, Bantubahle Xozwa, happens to own South African Interpreters, the company that employed Jantjies. For these ‘services’, South African Interpreters included in their bill an invoice from another company, Asange Image Studio. The reason being that images are required “for all appearances” of SA Interpreter’s workers. You may well ask why another company is required to provide something that could so easily be acquired in-house until you find out that Asange Image Studio is owned by Cikizwa Xozwa, Bantubahle’s wife. Cikizwa also happens to be the office manager for Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesman; small world this. It seems that SA Translators and Asange have done quite a lot of business with the ANC and here is the cherry on top, their “invoices to the ANC all have the same false address and registration number”.

If all of this sounds a bit like everything else that surrounds Jacob Zuma, but you are not convinced, here is the clincher. When it was asked who Jantjies was, remember, this is a man who had been given top security clearance to be in the inner circle with people like the President of the United States, and it was asked how he came to be appointed…, nobody knows! The ANC’s Jackson Mthembu tells us Jantjies’ “services were secured by the government”, but conceded that the ANC has “utilized his services over the years”. Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the government’s deputy minister of women, children and the disabled (by every account a totally dysfunctional department) is quoted as saying that her department did not hire Jantjies. Furthermore, she “did not know who had”; adding that “somebody, somewhere, is lying”. Err, yes, that is one of the few things we worked out pretty quickly.

As noted, this little episode epitomizes Jacob’s administration; everything about it is “so totally Zuma”. In the Zuma world it is OK to provide a mediocre service and defraud the public. We have ample evidence of how those in the inner circle of ‘number 1’ have license to feed from end-to-end through the country as though it were a trough. In the Zuma world it is OK for cabinet ministers to cheat on travel expenses and to botch substantial tenders (Joemat-Peterson), no matter what the cost to the country’s natural resources. And if you get found out, well, just hang in there, the Secrecy Bill is just around the corner to protect the government’s flops. In the Zuma world it is OK to spend an unauthorized MR200 (US$20,000,000) on yourself while pretending it is for your security because if you are the president surrounded by a sycophantic coterie of security ministers, you can have your private home in the rural midlands at Nkandla declared a national key point; while at the same time your friends can land their private airliners at the Waterkloof Airforce Base, a real military installation in a built-up area, because that can be declared… “not be a national key point”. And all the while those actually responsible will know nothing! It is pure Zuma.

So we ask ourselves again, how can the hope we had be saved? Where will we find a skilful skipper to sail this ship of State for we have seen ‘the new moon with the old moon in her arm’, and we know that if we are to continue this way ‘we’ll surely come to harm’. Who can sail South Africa away from the storm that is the accumulation of the corruption, lies, mediocrity and feigned ignorance that characterizes the administration of Jacob Zuma; an administration spectacularly symbolized by the mumbo-jumbo of the delusional Thamsanqa Jantjies?



The dawn of a new era in South African rugby?

(Written 27 October 2013)

Dear All,

For many years, mainly in the 70s and 80s, I was a big rugby fan. Even if it was just Bellville vs. Police (club rugby), I was at Newlands almost every Saturday afternoon. I still remember the after-match party after watching, from the Railway Stand, as Robbie Blair’s conversion sailed over the poles in the dying moments of the 1976 game in which Western Province thrashed the All Blacks, 12-11. Certainly, as a WP fan, there were many enjoyable moments and much camaraderie but then, while world rugby had moved to become a more intricate game, it became difficult to watch the stodgy approach adopted by most South African teams. The ‘not losing’ approach by Western Province over the last five years or so has been most disappointing, especially given that the team has so many fine players. So, why should the outcome of the 2013 Currie Cup signal the dawn of a new era in South African rugby?

 Well, if you want a predictor of the possible success or otherwise of an organisation, take a look at the management. It will come as no surprise to find that if mediocrity is in charge, mediocrity will be the result. Exceptional results are only achieved when there are exceptional people at the top. It turns out, incidentally, that the character and personality of an organisation is that of the person at the top…, and this goes for all environments. If you want to know how South Africa was saved in the late 80s, look at Nelson Mandela; and if you want to know where South Africa is going now, look at Jacob Zuma (and sigh once more for the beloved country). Then think about the masterful way in which the Sharks dismantled the Western Province in the 2013 Currie Cup final.

 It has been suggested that the recent appointments of John Smit as the CEO of Natal Rugby and Jake White as the Director of Coaching heralds a new dawn in South African rugby. I believe it…, now more than ever…, even if they do not manage to find a place for Brendon Venter in the mix. The way in which the Sharks took control of the game was, I believe, the first signs of the influence of the new men at the top. To illustrate the point, I would like to use an example that is a little closer to home. It was with great satisfaction that I learned that in a curtain-raiser at Newlands last Saturday there were two Wynberg Old Boys in the Under-21 team, one of them the team’s captain. It has been many years since Wynberg Boys High School was so well represented at the provincial level in rugby and as someone who has been able to watch that organisation from close up, I know that this outcome is directly attributable to Wynberg’s men ‘at the top’.

 Wynberg Boys High School represented in WP U-21 team

Wynberg Boys High School represented in WP U-21 team

Sadly I think it will still be many years before I can look forward to saying that Western Province rugby is a leader in the game. The Western Cape schools will certainly continue to produce great players who will make a space for themselves on the world stage, but as a Rugby Union, the stamp of mediocrity that is the management of the Western Province will leave the team playing ‘catch-up’ to the Sharks for a long time to come.



(Written on 23 December 2012)

Dear All,

‘A bit over the top’ was my immediate reaction on noting a report quoting Richard Dawkins as saying, ‘Being raised Catholic is worse than child abuse’, see

Certainly, in the panoply of organisations that have been in the business of thought control, the Catholics stand out as one of the great successes. The symbols of Papal control can still be seen all over Rome, and here I am referring to the constant reminders above inscriptions and monuments all over the Eternal City, the symbols that remind the viewer as to who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven. It is, to my mind, a symbol of mental terrorism to remind you who is supposed to have the power to “loose and bind” your very soul to either Paradise or Hell.

Papal insignia - showing the keys to looe or bind

Papal insignia – showing the keys to loose or bind

Before I am misunderstood however, I must declare that I am not a religious man. As with Michel de Montaigne, I “would easily carry, in case of need, one candle to Saint Michael and one to the dragon”, but may I hasten to add that I hold this a-religious view not because I have insight into whether or not a Spiritual Reality of this kind exists – and therefore a gatekeeper to Heaven is necessary – but because I do not know if it is so. It may be that there exists a God who is more interested in the minutia of human life than say in the minutia of ant life, but I cannot see any evidence or reason for such a state of affairs. The only interest I have ever come across when considering this matter has been that of the people peddling the idea. So, this post is not about a belief in a God, but is confined to a comment prompted by Dawkins, that the Catholic Church is or was a great menace.

It is not a simple thing to show that the Papal symbols are not instruments of thought control, but it is easy to show that Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious systems that employ psychological blackmail. Throughout history the industry of priests has been to exert a form of mental terrorism through promises of Heaven and or threats of Hell, be they in this world, the third world, or the next world. And while most civilisations have got over it, we still see this manipulation of the minds of people by pastors, priests, rabbis, mullahs and sangomas all over the world; the bedevilment of life in the Middle East in this way is a case in point.

When our younger son was about 10 years old he had the misfortune of having a junior school teacher who was a dreadfully religious, reborn spinster. Not only were her obligatory sex-education lessons very confusing for the boy – mainly because this miserable woman was telling of what she had heard, not of what she knew – but because she solemnly declared if a child had not been baptised in a church, and should they die, then their souls would go straight to Hell and Damnation…, for eternity. As we didn’t believe in that liturgy, my wife and I had not bothered with the ritual of baptism and so now, simply to assuage the child’s deep anxiety, we arranged for the lad to be baptised at the local church; something I expect the Church and the teacher had in mind in the first place. As it happened, the baptism was a happy occasion and in the end no harm was done, but the iniquity of frightening a child in this way is, to my mind, quite unforgivable. In that respect I am in agreement with Dawkins.

But is or was everything about Catholicism as bad as he seems to suggest? Well, I am not a Catholic, and I am mindful of H G Wells’ view that in the question of the dissemination of knowledge, “It was not the Roman Republic whose heir the Church esteemed itself, but the Roman Emperor.” It may well be that the intention of Church education was to facilitate the subjugation of the common minds by the clergy, but in the end, the fact is that it did open up the prospect of the modern educational state. And as I hear you cry, ‘Oh yeah, what about Galileo’, may I point out that no matter whether the leaders of the Church planned to enlighten or oppress thinking in the world, it was indeed the organisation of that Church that provided the vehicle for the general dissemination of knowledge throughout the Globe for hundreds of years.

Perhaps more importantly, as pointed out by Kenneth Clark, “The great achievements of the Catholic Church lay in harmonising, humanising and civilising the deepest impulses of the ordinary people.” One of the ways in which the Church did this was by presenting the virtues of tenderness and compassion to a barbaric world through the introduction of a female principle of the form of the Virgin Mary; a key figure in Catholic worship and to my mind a most enlightened idea. After all, why should we take seriously an all-male Divinity? Male and female principals are characteristic of every stabilising world religion and perhaps, if the Judaic religions had included a female principle, we would not be witnessing the present and protracted fighting in the Middle East.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child

Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child

And then of course there is confession… as noted, I have never made confession (if that is what you do with it). By the same token, I have never been on a psychiatrist’s couch, so in that sense I am not much better than a virginal sex-education teacher, so I will quote Kenneth Clark on this topic.

The historian cannot help observing how the need for confession has returned, even – or especially – in the land of the Pilgrim Fathers. The difference being that instead of confession being followed by a simple comforting rubric which has behind it the weight of divine authority, the modern confessor must grope his way through the labyrinth of the psyche, with all its false turnings and dissolving perspectives… because as a rule it is the act of confession that matters, not the attempted cure. (Civilisation, BBC and John Murray, 1971, p. 177)

It is quite true that through the dogma, bigotry, corruption and secrecy of the Catholic Church’s Councils and Inquisitions, a large number of people have been damaged over the years – and for that the Church stands rightly accused – but the Roman Catholic Church ultimately, in my view, did more good than harm and is therefore not deserving of the Dawkins headline.