Archive for May, 2012

(Written on 27 May 2012)

Dear All,

In 2004 George Ellis was awarded the Templeton Prize and in an interview titled Science and Hope (July 2005) on American Public Media’s  Speaking of Faith, in which he discusses a wide range of important topics, he speculated that had George Bush reacted differently to the al-Qaeda 9/11 attack in 2001, the outcome could have been quite different, and by implication, a much better one. The full interview is well worth listening to and can be heard at

George Ellis – Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Complex Systems at UCT’s Department of Mathematics

In essence Ellis suggested that if the attackers had not been demonised as they were, but had been engaged in a way that goes something like, “I don’t understand why you did this. I want to meet with you in some neutral country so that you can tell me why you acted in the way you did”, the outcome may not have been the terribly destructive Iraq war that followed. I think Ellis was quite right, but sadly George Bush was a president looking to punch someone on the nose in revenge. Anyone’s nose… and Saddam Hussein fitted the bill. I was living in the USA at the time and well remember the rhetoric in which the Rambo mentality swamped rationality. In a ghastly, numbing way the Hollywood (entertainment) model of simply killing people as a solution to conflict became an awful reality. For leadership to move a nation in a way that is bigger than the need to hit back calls for what Ellis describes as ‘kenosis’, and it certainly is a much more difficult route to take, calling for a real President.

Nelson Mandela was such a President

After all the injustices meted out by Apartheid and almost unimaginable personal sacrifice, Nelson Mandela proved to be bigger than all of that. Who can ever forget the way in which he spoke to the Nation on the 10th of April 1993 on the assassination of Christ Hani?  

We are a nation deeply wounded by callous, uncaring men who plot such heinous crimes with impunity.

The cries of our nation are heard from old men who bury their sons and daughters, wives who weep for their husbands, communities who endlessly bury young and old, infants and pregnant women.

This killing must stop.

Chris Hani championed the cause of peace, trudging to every corner of South Africa calling for a spirit of tolerance among all our people.

We are a nation in mourning. Our pain and anger is real. Yet we must not permit ourselves to be provoked by those who seek to deny us the very freedom Chris Hani gave his life for.

Let us respond with dignity and in a disciplined fashion.”

Once again South Africa was saved by a greatness that is still astonishing.

And now?

South Africa’s current president

Now we have a president unable even to defuse the crude parodying by an artist. We have a president who when accused of soliciting a bribe in the heady days of the New South Africa’s ‘arms race’ demanded his day in court so as to clear his good name… only to make certain that that day never came. We have a president who has left the country, as Julius Malema described it, on auto-pilot; and all the while an industry of toadies seeks to dismantle the Constitution in order to hide their nefarious activities and to become the new BOSS* of South Africa.

Surely the ANC still has enough good men and women in it to give us a President once again.



PS: *BOSS: Bureau of State Security. See South African Public Service Amendment Act of 1969 and the State Security Council Act No. 64 (1972)

PPS: Some months ago I had the opportunity to sit next to George Ellis at lunch and was dying to ask him about that interview, but didn’t. I was so concerned about making a fool of myself that I never spoke a word to him.


(Written 19 May 2012)

Dear all,

It is a sad day for a country when its president can be represented in a work of art in a way that may be described as ‘distasteful and vulgar’, and yet, it is a piece that works on many levels.

‘The Spear’ by Brett Murray (2012)   —   A propaganda poster of a heroic Lenin

According to Times Live at the ANC considers The Spear to be “a clear calculation to dismember and denigrate the symbols and the representatives of the ANC, chief among them, the president of the ANC”, and while I have no idea what Murray intended by this work, it certainly is one that has resonance in the land in 2012.

‘MK’, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC, was established in 1961. It was formed amid lofty ideals with its first High Command being the now revered trio of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo. There is good reason to believe that MK was never an effective fighting force, but there is no doubt that it carries great symbolism in South Africa in that it holds a romantic position in the liberation of the country. 50 years ago The Spear was a knight in shining armour that offered “a better life for all” and as depicted in the ANC logo, a fist holding a spear “represents the power of a people united in struggle for freedom and equality”. The Spear used to be a symbol of something honourable.

The ANC logoThe ANC’s logo

Let us assume that Zuma really is the best that the ANC can offer by way of leadership and let us assume that the majority of members of the ANC identify with this man. By extension we have to assume that Zuma symbolises who we are as a nation. Now let us ask the question, “Does this painting represent what has happened to South Africans over the last 10 years?” Does the corruption of The Spear as depicted in this painting reflect the corruption of every other aspect of life in this country during the Zuma watch? Does this painting symbolise a Zuma administration that systematically seeks to appoint cronies as senior police officials, that seeks to do away with  judicial bar councils, and all the while seeks to protect the corrupt through the Protection of State Information Bill? Sadly, I think so.

Of course, Jacob is not the first president unable to keep his ‘dick in his pants’, Bill Clinton springs to mind. And in this regard, I think that what happens between Jacob and his wives and girlfriends in their respective bedrooms should stay in their bedrooms. Further, whether he is or isn’t well hung is also not of public interest; so in this sense I do find Murray’s painting a personal insult to the man. As much as I consider Zuma morally unfit to lead a young struggling democracy, I agree with the ANC that it is a denigration of the person that is Jacob.

But at the same time I strongly believe that Murray’s The Spear symbolises the dismemberment and denigration of the moral fibre that once was the ANC… but that corruption was not done by the artist, it was done by the rapacious leadership of the ANC.



(Written 5 May 2012)

Dear All,

I have, over the last few months, been involved in the moving of physics journals from a relatively secluded library space into a communal room; a room of collegiality, a room with atmosphere, a meeting place with some warmness and a little gravitas. It was an involvement that gave me great pleasure as it was on the way to giving expression to the sense that one would expect to get when visiting a revered department of physics at a fine university. So you can imagine how appalled I was when I saw that the warm wooden panelling around the bookcases – panelling that was imperfect, a bit faded, and so brought a sense of character and age – had been painted white! And even though this space is merely some small corner of one of many buildings, it was important to me. So when I saw it I felt the same gut-wrenching sense of desolation experienced whenever I have had occasion to consider desecrated works.

Over the centuries there have been many occasions when creations that give expression to our humanity and personality have been mindlessly or dogmatically destroyed. I well recall the outrage expressed in 2001 when the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, apparently on the instruction of the ‘Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’. Despite the world’s offerings and pleadings to preserve those 6th century statues, it did not occur to the narrow-minded mullas that cultural landmarks such as those could never be replaced. And while the pleading with the Taliban at the time was in earnest, it was perhaps not quite with the intensity conveyed in Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1650 in which he wrote, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” (Incidentally, it has not escaped me that at the time Cromwell himself also claiming to be doing ‘God’s work’). But sadly those in authority at the time paid no heed to the intersession and today the empty spaces in the hillsides in the Bamiyan Valley are a reflection and reminder of the sterility of that kind of thinking.

After the destruction of the Buddha

On a happier note, there are some expressions of human creativity that are beyond the reaches of barbarians, one being the Watts Towers in California. In 1959 the Los Angeles City Building Department attempted to demolish the towers that had been lovingly built by Sabato Rodia over some 33 years. Fortunately they gave up when, in a wonderful moment of irony, it was the crane that was to topple the structures that broke down. Rodia had built the towers for no purpose whatsoever other that he wanted to do something “big”. He had had no assistance during the construction for, as he said, he couldn’t tell others what to do because he did not know what he was going to do next. All the materials that went into the towers had been collected from the surrounds and he just put them together as it occurred to him on the day; what a wonderful expression of his humanity and creativity.

The hands of Simon Rodia (

In the BBC series, The Ascent of Man, Bronowski tells us that “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill” (Futura, 1981, pg. 72), and in this Bronowski is quite right, we do delight in our achievements; but I would like to add that it not just a question of the technical skill with which we achieve whatever we do, it also depends on the sense of style with which we do so… what Italians would refer to as “con garbo”, with grace, with finesse. We have all seen how the twists and turns of acrobats are always that much more remarkable when they appear to be done effortlessly, with panache. And as it happens, the opposite is also true. Achievements without style, “senza garbo”, are achievements greatly reduced. The boorish delivery of otherwise inspiring words do not move us, just as the building of purely functional spaces that look, as Voltaire once described Blenheim Palace, like “a great heap of stone, without charm or taste”, are a betrayal of might have been.

In the Preface to St Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments (1884), John Ruskin wrote,

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children: but its art, only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.”

May I put it a bit more simply, it is not just about what we do or what we say, it is important how we do and say things we do; using the Italian phrase once again, “con garbo”, with style. So now, when I go to tea in the communal room I have to divert my gaze from those painted panels in the way that I imagine a 17th century traveller may have avoided a gibbet. Looking away to minimise that shock of what for me has become a reminder of the exasperation and helplessness experienced when considering the destruction of great and small expressions of creativity… “senza garbo”.