Gareth van Onselen: South African Journalist, Political Analyst, Author

This podcast is a little different. Ivan talks politics with guest Gareth van Onselen, South African political analyst, journalist and author.
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Gareth van Onselen

South African Journalist, Political Analyst and Author

Listen Now


South Africa’s road to democracy 

Jacob Zuma, fascinating character, demagogue, and parallel for you know who in the U.S.

Scandals unravel a demagogic presidency (and how Gareth thinks we’re making it happen faster in the U.S.)

The myth of the moderate majority (both in South Africa and the U.S.)


IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic.

Politics is not something we cover on this podcast, especially in this day and age when everywhere you look someone has an opinion about the state of politics in the U.S., an opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong, and even a dispute about what facts really are. Although we’ve had tangential discussions, it’s never been the focus of the show. Usually my hope is to talk to one person every other week about at least one of the deep interests that they have. I try to get just a little bit of history on the guest to set up their expertise, and more often than not, I’m interviewing someone that I’ve met before. It turns out that that’s where my comfort zone is. Although I am honestly trying to branch out to people I don’t know at all.

Most people I talk to are in the same industry as I am as well. After all, that’s what this podcast is about: technology, business and the humans in it. But for today’s show I’m trying something different. We’re going to talk politics. Not American politics, but rather, South African politics.

Although my guest is someone I went to high school within South Africa, I haven’t spoken with him in 25 years. I fondly remember our matric year at Greenside High School, and I remember Gareth being our Head Boy [like a class president] while I served as a Prefect [student monitor] with him. I also remember playing cricket with Gareth, something that likely sounds foreign to our mostly U.S.-based audience. Back then he was a quick-witted, kind young man who led with calm.

So, my guest today to talk South African politics is Gareth van Onselen. He obtained a master’s degree in sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand, my alma mater as well, and has worked in various capacities, mostly in communications and political analysis for the Democratic Alliance. That’s the official opposition party to the African National Congress, or ANC in South Africa. He writes a weekly column for BusinessLIVE in South Africa and sometimes for the Business Day. His work also appears in the Huffington Post. He is a liberal, a humanist and a published author. I’m so glad that he’s agreed to join me on the show live from Johannesburg. Gareth, welcome to the podcast.

GARETH VAN ONSELEN: Thanks so much for having me, man, it’s a real pleasure to be here and it’s really great to hear your voice again.

IVAN: It’s nice to hear your voice again as well.

GARETH: Yeah, it’s been a while.

IVAN: It has. Well, let’s start with a quick primer for our listeners. I want to set the stage for South African politics as it is right now. Let’s go back 20 or so years. Could you tell us a little bit about how South Africa became a democracy?

GARETH: Right. There’s a very long history to that story. South Africa was like most countries in Africa colonized way back in the early 1600s, and they followed 300 or 400 years of colonial rule. There were various independent unions formed in the lead up to 1994, mostly by a white Africans minority and that was formalized in the 1900s.

All the way up to 1994 it took on its most pernicious form which was apartheid rule, in which South Africa’s union was governed by a minority party, the National Party, which was essentially a kind of white Christian conservative party and obviously deeply enmeshed in racial politics that segregated the country along racial lines. Only white people could vote. And through a whole lot of pressures and international and domestic pressures, much of which was to do with sanctions and a lot of which was to do with the state of the economy, that system eventually collapsed in 1994.

And through a series of negotiated outcomes, it was agreed to have democratic elections in 1994. And in 1994, the African National Congress which had been suppressed and operated as an underground movement, it’s a hundred-year-old organization so for the vast majority of apartheid, was operating behind the scenes in underground and led by Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned, came to power in 1994, he became president, and South Africa adopted a constitutional democracy.

IVAN: And that constitutional democracy was in the works during those negotiations and in the lead up to the election?

GARETH: Yes. It was a period that took a couple of years. In 1990, the National Party government made a decision to unban the African National Congress and a series of other resistance movements at the time. That period from around 1990 to 1994 involved a series of intense negotiations in which all parties were brought to the table and all played a role in determining what a sort of shared constitution would look like. The elections were held in 1994, and the final constitution was adopted after the elections and formally adopted in 1995 after that.

So, the great South African story—and the reason why it’s probably so inspirational to a lot of people outside the country—is because of this transition period, this negotiated peace and settlement with constitutional democracy being the outcome and all parties playing a part in a peaceful process to democracy.

IVAN: I remember the process, and I remember being scared and worried that bad things would happen. You mentioned the years 1990 to 1994, which overlaps our years of high school exactly. And I remember what it was like living there at the time, and the fact that it turned out the way that it did in ’95 and thereafter is certainly inspirational, as you’ve said. So, Nelson Mandela was president for five years. That’s how long presidents get to be in power in South Africa, and since then there have been four other presidents, and currently the president is Cyril Ramaphosa, is that right?

GARETH: Yes, that’s correct. He was officially voted into power this year in the May elections. He had taken the role as a consequence of his predecessor Jacob Zuma being removed from office. He [Zuma] was technically removed as the president of the party, but that obviously had implications for his position as president of the country. So Ramaphosa was president for a year or so leading up to these elections, but his first formal term started this year.

IVAN: So, you just talked about Jacob Zuma and how he was removed as president of the party, which meant also that he would be removed as president. Talk about how those two are related. I didn’t think they were.

GARETH: There’s a good argument to be made that they shouldn’t be. One of the big debates in South Africa at the moment is this idea that you need an independent set of elections to elect a president who is not simply the president of a party, and de facto elected the president of the country in a block-voting fashion which is what’s defined every president in South Africa since 1994.

But that is the way in which the African National Congress is organized internally as a movement. It has a very strict what it calls a democratic centralism culture inside the party, where the president of the party becomes the president of the country. And is actually de facto ultimately accountable to the party ahead of the Parliament or whatever body it is that determines who should be president, and that’s a problem in the country. There is a gap between accountability to Parliament and the people and what parties decide internally in the implications thereof.

IVAN: So, as a voter in South Africa, when you go to the polls and you elect a president, you’re not actually voting for the person to be president, you’re voting for the party and whoever the party may elect as the leader of that party.

GARETH: That’s correct. There’s sort of a leap of faith because parties will campaign with their president candidate. In other words, their leader’s face will be on posters, and they will use that candidate to deliver their core messages. You’re not really in any darkness as to who the president of that party is, but it doesn’t mean that the system couldn’t be abused, that any party will decide who the president will be after the election. Obviously if you care about things like constitutional and democratic checks and balances, you want to prevent the possibility that any party could take disadvantage of that or abuse that. It is a problem, not having a direct elect to president, I think.

IVAN: Does that mean when Jacob Zuma resigned, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected by the ANC, became the leader of the ANC and as a result became the leader of the country?

GARETH: Well, yes, but it actually happened in reverse. What happened is the African National Congress had their internal elections to determine their next leader, which almost always falls a year before our national elections. They also have those on a five-year cycle. It’s set one year ahead of our national elections. The minute that Jacob Zuma was replaced, he therefore became the de facto president, Zuma resigned his office on the back of it being untenable for him to be the country's president and not the party president. And Cyril Ramaphosa took over from Zuma at that point.

IVAN: So, the ANC has been elected for numerous terms since the 1994 elections. So, four presidents, more than four terms. Jacob Zuma completed one term successfully, but resigned in the second term. What will he be remembered for? Why did he resign? Why did that happen?

GARETH: Well, Zuma’s a fascinating character. There’s a widespread and it seems ubiquitous uprising of a kind of demagogic conservative populist wing of politics across the world and various individuals that encapsulate this kind of move.

But honestly Zuma makes them all look like peanuts. The guy is the quintessential example of a populist, of a demagogue, of a kind of person who is primarily subservient to the party and the various ideological and cultural impulses that define National Congress which are often not democratic. Certainly not democratic in the sense of the South African constitution.

As a consequence of this, because he favored things like nepotism and patronage and essentially looking after the party's interest and consolidating power ahead of any other obligation to the citizenry, the state sort of fell apart on his watch, primarily because corruption spiraled out of all control, but the actual apparatus of the state, the ability of public servants of positions in the civil service to be safeguarded in terms of quality and excellence, all those things fell apart. And there was basically a widespread collapse of the state. I think that’s going to be his hallmark.

IVAN: You’re right. He is a fascinating character.

You’ve authored a number of books. You authored one in 2014, it’s titled Clever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla: The Real Jacob Zuma in His Own Words. And you were so gracious to mail it to me when I sent you an email begging you for a copy, and I’ve felt quite guilty [laughing] that I haven’t read it since you sent it. But I did pick it up for preparation for this podcast. So, I’m so glad you sent that to me, that I was able eventually get to read it. Could you spend a minute and just explain the title of the book for a second?

GARETH: Yes. Sure. Jacob Zuma is, as I say, a fascinating character. He says a lot of things that would defy belief through any kind of vaguely reasonable, rational, constitutional lens. And these things—as I find is the case with a lot of these kinds of international demagogues, to give them a general category—are often dismissed on their own terms. In other words, people make excuses when leaders say things that are outrageous or incoherent or seem to defy any sort of basic democratic principle, in the sense that they’re either being pragmatic, "Oh, it’s not really what they mean," or "They’re just playing some kind of game." In other words, underlying it all is some kind of pragmatic genius who is just using populism and sentiment to achieve some kind of hard political outcome, and you can’t see the real genius behind it.

There was a lot of that about Jacob Zuma when he was first elected. The guy would say the most crazy things, and this book is essentially a collection of quotes—some of his maddest quotes—of which he said various things about, "The ANC’s going to govern until Jesus returns."

IVAN: [laughing] I saw that.

GARETH: He said things about Nkandla—which we can maybe talk about in a second—which was  a homestead that he built for himself in rural KwaZulu-Natal, which is one of South Africa’s provinces, using state funds at the cost of R245 million which is about US $20 million. And he said a whole lot of mad things defending why it was that he deserved this mansion at taxpayers expense, and "clever blacks" is a reference to his absolute distain for intelligentsia. Because he was essentially a cultural animal, he was deeply invested in rural Zulu traditional culture, which had a whole lot of problematic belief systems and practices in terms of modern constitutional norms and standards. He showed a certain amount of disdain for anyone who demonstrated some kind of intellect and he would say, “Oh, you know, you think you’re a clever black. You know what you’re talking about because you’ve learned all these western values, but you don’t really know what the truth is."

So, the book is basically saying you need to take this guy on his own terms. He says these things that are mad, but he’s entirely consistent when he says them. He says them often, and these are really what he thinks. If you try to deflect from these things or pretend they mean something else, you’re missing something important about understanding who he is.

IVAN: I love that the book has his words in it verbatim. I love that they are well-sourced, well-referenced, and that you provide the context and opinion around it. I think it’s a very well-thought out way of laying out a reference. Is that how you hope the book is being used, as a reference?

GARETH: Yes, I think the purpose was twofold: the first one which I’ve spoken to which was to say you need to take people on their own terms. The second one was as a reference book, to be able to, not just to be able to source something that he’s said and to be able to verify that it’s true and where it came from, but to be able to demonstrate the degree to which these sentiments are repeated.

Because that’s the other great defense against demagoguery, like, "Oh, it was a one-off," or "The person was joking," or "There was a context to that." But when you repeat the same sentiment, five, 10, 15 times, it starts to become indisputable that that’s actually what you think, it’s nothing other than a true representation of your actual values. So, I hope the book kind of achieves that as well.

IVAN: I think it does. I’m glad now that I didn’t read it back in 2014, because I don’t think I would’ve appreciated it as much as I do now. And mostly it shocks me how much of a parallel there is between Zuma and the current president here in the United States. At some points I was reading the book, and I wasn’t sure if I was reading something that was directed at Zuma, or something that was directed at Trump.

There’s this one place in the book where you say, “He can fill a vacuum with empty rhetoric, but once it is all done, you’re left wondering whether he has said anything at all.” Then you also go on to describe him as something of an ethical black hole. How did such a man become elected? Not once, but twice?

GARETH: I would agree with you 100%. I think Jacob Zuma’s tenure is a brilliant template for what’s happening in the U.S. with Donald Trump. I think they are very similar in a lot of key respects. Not just in terms of the way in which they use or abuse popular sentiment to serve what is essentially an entirely personal political agenda, but in terms of the grand narrative of the entire tenure in office, and how these demagogues tend to affect the way in which society responds to them.

What actually happened with Jacob Zuma—and I think it’s not absolute, but in a lot of ways very similar is happening in the United States—is essentially you get elected on a wave of popular appeal, which takes various different forms and has various different causes, but that’s the outcome. There’s some kind of populist zeitgeist that manifests, and you’re swept along by it if you’re this demagogic leader.

There’s then a process of the shattering of the illusion. And that shattering doesn’t happen to the opposition who never had any doubt as to your unsuitability for office. It happens to sections of your own support base. The nature of public office starts to reveal who you are, the demands of making hard, often neutral and magnanimous decisions which you’re kind of incapable of doing, because you're demagogic, and biased in a certain way, start to reveal your true character.

Then there’s some fundamental problem, either a case of corruption or unethical behavior onto which your opponents then latch as a means to remove you from office. And it becomes a defining battleground along that particular issue. In the case of Jacob Zuma, it was his homestead in Nkandla, this abuse of taxpayers' money. In the case of Trump, it’s Russia and impeachment and the various things that go about it. But that becomes the mobilizing point.

You then suck in all of civil society and independent institutions to help you deliver the outcome you want, the judiciary and so on and so forth. And how that plays out is yet to be known in the U.S., but that’s the way in which the narrative tends to unfold. As I’m saying all this, I’m realizing I’m going slightly sideways from the original question you asked.

IVAN: No, please keep going.

GARETH: You triggered a thought with regard to the overlap between the two, and I think Jacob Zuma is a real case study for democrats and conservatives in the U.S. to look at, because the narrative is playing out in hugely similar ways on a lot of different levels.

IVAN: So, we’re recording this on a day in which Articles of Impeachment were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. And we’ve had all of this testimony and report writing up until now. So, the timing is pretty good to be speaking to you about this.

You had mentioned earlier that Jacob Zuma resigned, and that he was then replaced with Cyril Ramaphosa. Right now, if you look at what republicans are doing in the United States, they are still very much in support of Donald Trump as the president. They have circled the wagons, they are defending him, they are protecting him, and from an outsider's perspective it seems like that is not going to go away.

And the democrats have latched onto this fundamental problem of impeachment and this bribery scandal with Ukraine, and they’ve latched onto it, just like you said Zuma did with Nkandla. What I’m curious about is, how did the ANC feel about Zuma? Did they protect him for as long as possible and then give up on him? Why was there a change? What happened?

GARETH: No, absolutely. I think the critical point to bear in mind when I say these narratives are similar is a sense of perspective. Jacob Zuma was president of South Africa for nine out of a possible 10 years. It took an enormous amount of time to be able to turn the tide of opinion. The kind of trends that I talk about where sections of your core base become disillusioned with you, I don’t think can possibly happen in the amount of time that Donald Trump has been president for.

IVAN: Three years.

GARETH: These kinds of scandals the opposition latches onto—and they can last, driving them, driving the consequences of them, revelations that flow out of them—can last up to five years until you achieve your goal. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can compact it all. America, because I think it is a far more accountable democracy than South Africa, has managed to bring these things to the table much earlier. But the equivalent of an impeachment process in South Africa is what’s called a motion of no-confidence which is brought against the president, and you need a super majority in Parliament to pass it.

In other words, the African National Congress would have to vote for itself, and there were, I think 12 that were brought against Jacob Zuma, each one based on a different state of outrageous claims, or evidence against him, including things that are blatantly obvious, like a R250 million personal house.

It was only at the very last one, after nine years of pressure, that Zuma was removed from office early. And part of the play in that was the fact that he was facing another motion of no-confidence, and for the time the ANC caucus was cracking and it looked like he wasn’t going to get the kind of support he needed in the House to pass it, that definitely played a role. So, these things take a long period of time.

There are differentiating factors in South Africa to U.S. politics. The sense here, which is hardwired into all our political parties, it’s not particular to the African National Congress, in which your identity, and identity takes a number of forms, racial being a big component of South African politics, plays a primary role in determining who you’ll vote for, is a very powerful force in South African politics. It results in a hegemonic dominance with the African National Congress, which is seen as the true, authentic representation of black South Africans. Their particular struggle that has these grand and well-deserved liberation credentials because it played such a vital part in overcoming apartheid.

But these things all carry on through to democracy, and 25 years after our first election the ANC has failed to deliver on a number of fronts. But it doesn’t seem to matter to a lot of voters whether or not the president is corrupt or is failing to deliver to an adequate standard, these kind of things motivate a lot of voting behavior. And I think to arrive to the answer to your question in a very long-winded way, that’s why Jacob Zuma survived so long, because of those kinds of forces that underpin politics. And it takes a long time to wear them down.

IVAN: That doesn’t make me sound very hopeful for politics here [laughing] in America now. Thanks a lot Gareth. [laughing]

GARETH: [laughing] Well, it’s not actually true. America’s had democracy for hundreds of years. South Africa, we’re 25 years into the game.

IVAN: It is a different system.

GARETH: It is a different system. We don’t have the direct elections that you have in the U.S., which I think is a problem. But we have learned—I think objectively, looking at other democracies around the world and how they’ve taken time to take form and substance—we’ve learned a lot of lessons in a very short period of time. Actually, if you take a kind of detached view, we’re not doing too bad on that front.

IVAN: No, I don’t think you are doing too bad. I still see a lot of hope and prosperity in the future, but there certainly is this global trend toward demagoguery that is frightening, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that we don’t fall the way that we’ve fallen in the past. That’s certainly a risk.

Can we talk a little bit Nkandla? It sounds like Jacob Zuma spent state's money to build himself a mansion, in a nutshell. The government, the people, paid for a mansion for Jacob Zuma, and he got caught. Did people care when they found out at first, or were people flabbergasted? What was the reaction in general?

GARETH: This story had a very long lifespan and by that I mean we’re talking five or six years from the time that it first broke to its final outcome, which was largely responsible for Zuma’s resignation. Or certainly largely responsible for fundamentally tainting his brand as a reputable president. The problem with these kinds of stories is that they don’t break in an all-in-one package on day one.

So, it's not like on day one it was revealed in the newspaper that Zuma had a R250 million mansion. It initially started with a story about R40 million or so was being spent to upgrade his private residence in KwaZulu-Natal, and that this was being done in terms of the law. It was necessary that he have legitimate protection provided by the state security services because he was president, it was a rural homestead, and a very big homestead, almost farm-like. It needed a fence, it needed cameras, it needed a kind of quality control. The amount even then was a lot, and so people were quite shocked that this amount was being spent initially. But then over a period of another 18 or 24 months, it emerged that that amount was peanuts compared to what was really being spent. And what was included in these costs were a whole lot of entirely personal indulgences. Things like an amphitheater, a cattle kraal—which is basically a kind of a fenced off area for your livestock—rooms for guests, tuck shops for his wife, and a whole lot of mad indulgences, which systematically over a period of time pushed the cost up to R250 million. The problem with that kind of gradual incremental breaking of a story is that it doesn’t ever have the big impact that you want. So, sort of attrition and frustration builds up over time amongst the public, but there’s no dynamite moment where it’s like, this is insane.

IVAN: There was desensitization. It’s like when you say something outrageous and people are flabbergasted, but you keep saying it over and over again, people get desensitized to it.

GARETH: Yes, I would agree with that entirely. The problem in South Africa is that we have problems that are making Nkandla look mild. The state of our electricity or our national airways carrier, our national airline which has eaten up R57 billion over the last 20 years makes these things look small. So, we have a real problem in South Africa with digesting excess because there is just so much of it. We are desensitized and it’s hard to tell what really matters and what doesn’t.

IVAN: I read in an article in the Mail & Guardian that Zuma’s presidency was estimated to have cost the South African economy R1 trillion which is about US $68 billion with today’s exchange rate. Besides the financial cost, what other debt has the presidency incurred on the South African people?

GARETH: Economically, the problem with Jacob Zuma was the extent to which his administration centralized debt. They failed to invest in the private sector in any meaningful way. They failed to free up the economy to be able to attract entrepreneurs, small business and build a diverse economic base, a surplus when he came into power. By centralizing, they essentially made the government a central employer, to the extent that our public sector wage is now out of all control. It’s almost 39% of total GDP which is just an insane number.

And the lack of investment and freedom for the private sector means that the economy hasn’t burgeoned, the state is taking on more and more debt every year. And obviously your debt-to-GDP ratio grows exponentially every year to the extent that you stop being able to fund all the state-owned enterprises that run our electricity and our national airways, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

And so, we find ourselves now with a huge problem. We have a 40% unemployment rate, we have a huge debt-to-GDP ratio, we don’t have any economic growth. The rating agencies have cut down our credibility rating to "borderline," and in a lot of cases actual "junk" status. So, that has implications for your ability to be able to raise money to service your debts, and it all becomes a big vicious circle. That’s kind of the legacy of the last 10 years or so, and the foundations of that are both in Jacob Zuma’s tenure.

IVAN: In a recent column you talked about the myth of the silent moderate majority, and you were talking about the silent moderate majority in South Africa. But there is this myth of the same majority in the U.S. as well. Your lead in that column is, "What our politicians do—lie, cheat, steal—pales in comparison to what South Africans do—murder, rape, destroy and vandalize." And you go on to say "Our politicians are relatively very well-behaved." That’s a pretty amazing statement just to start out with.

So that means there’s a lot to unpack here. What I want to ask is, do you think that this is the model for what eventually happens to democracy? That eventually our politicians are actually not as bad as they seem. That they are actually only half as bad as the people that they serve?

GARETH: No. That is a very particular comment, particular to South Africa, and I think you must be careful to extrapolate it outwards. One of the things that sets South Africa apart is that it is a very extreme country. So, almost every attribute of the country—and this works in both directions—things that are great about the country, under massive financial duress and a country that is fundamentally depressed on a lot of fronts, we managed to win the Rugby World Cup.

IVAN: Yeah. I was watching that. [laughing] That was so great. [laughing]

GARETH: Yeah and I mean, rugby wouldn’t be a sport that most of your listeners are familiar with. It’s kind of like American football on speed.

IVAN: [laughing] Without any pads or helmets.

GARETH: Yes. But we won the World Cup and that’s a massive achievement. There was a real system of excellence in play, and a lot of people took a great deal of satisfaction out of that. At the same time, you could have the highest unemployment rate in the world. And these sort of things manifest on a whole lot of fronts. With regards to crime, we have a horrific murder rate which I won’t go into, but it really is insanely high. Poverty is out of control. Inequality is one of the worst differentials in the world. So, we’re this country of these really extreme powerful influences on society.

But I think the thing that’s missed in a lot of political analysis—and the reason why I wrote that column—is that, there’s an assumption that there exists out there a kind of democratic, moderate middle ground, that if only they could be ignited and infused and find some kind of savior, democratic, middle-of-the-way, inspiring leader, to take them, then everything would be transformed, because they would hold the majority and they would bring rationality and best democratic practices back to the country. It’s misleading.

I don’t think that there is a majority like that in South Africa. I think a majority does exist like that in other places, places like America and the United Kingdom, simply because the extremes are not that far apart. And so the middle is naturally bigger. But in South Africa I think we’re too far stretched, and the majority of South Africans are actually quite conservative. They are quite prone to deference to power, quite patriarchal in the way in which they conceive of the state as a kind of fatherly figure that’s there to look after them, indulge them, and protect them. They don’t have a real sense of agency or individual liberty. The truth is that’s why we don’t have a party or a leader who’s taking advantage of this, because it’s just not a majority.

IVAN: What do you think would be, and maybe this is the R250-million question, what is the solution to that then? How do you bring these extremes together and reduce the crime rate and reduce the poverty rate and equalize things? How do you do it?

GARETH: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. I don’t think we lack for actual solutions in South Africa in terms of policy. I think there’s a lot of sensible stuff out there. We’ve got a lot of NGOs that produce a lot of good things. I think a lot of political parties or political players across the board have good ideas on various things. The problem is actually the will to implement them, which is almost always held hostage to irrational political concerns, whether you've got to compromise some alliance partner, or upset a certain faction. And those are not particular concerns to South Africa, those are ubiquitous across the world in all democracies.

But I think this expectation that the state is ultimately the provider of your fortune, your welfare, your prospects, your opportunity has diminished the ability of South Africans to be able to think for themselves and act for themselves. I don’t know what the cure for that particular ailment is. I suspect it has something to do with time and education and democratic maturity. And to a large degree, economic growth.  I think if society becomes more prosperous, people start to behave more like agents that have more self-confidence. Those things take time.

A lot of established democracies had their own problems over 300 or 400 years. As I said, we’re only 25 years into it. So, you’ve got to take an objective view and say, Well, let’s see how things look in 10 or 20 years’ time. At the other end of the spectrum, you have to push for stuff to change now, because a lot of people are in deep and serious distress, and that’s the South African paradox. But I don’t have a silver bullet answer for you, I’m afraid.

IVAN: Maybe that’ll be the subject of your next book. Are you working on one right now? What are you doing right now?

GARETH: I’m not actually. I’m now in the world of market research. I work as a CEO for a market research company in South Africa, polling people and finding out what they think. I love that kind of stuff, surveying public opinion and so on and so forth. And it’s a new world for me. You deal with this kind of stuff in passing in politics, but to actually be in the thick of the fight is really interesting and I’m loving it.

IVAN: Is it research specifically geared towards politics and political campaigns, or are you branching out into other things?

GARETH: We’ll take on all comers. The service we offer is essentially qualitative market research, so, focus groups or in-depth interviews, or quantitative research, which is doing surveys of public opinion or particular markets, and whoever needs this, we'll provide the service to.

So, we do it internationally. We work with some political parties in Africa who want to see how a candidate’s looking, or test a particular message, or just on the corporate or commercial side of things. If there’s a product you want to see how it plays, or a particular market you want to see how it’s constituted, we look into that kind of thing.

IVAN: It sounds right up your alley. Are you still playing cricket?

GARETH: I’m not actually. I was in Cape Town for about 14 years and moved back up to Johannesburg. In fact, I’m a block away from our high school now, believe it or not.

IVAN: Oh, you are? [laughing]


IVAN: [laughing] You could use the nets there if you felt like it, I suppose?

GARETH: Yes. So, I’ve played socially in Cape Town, but I haven’t done anything since I’ve been up here.

IVAN: I started playing socially this year, and would you believe there’s a cricket league here in Minneapolis, in Minnesota during the summer?

GARETH: Oh really?

IVAN: Yes, it’s quite fantastic. There are two leagues, 10 teams on each league, and two tournaments that get played, a T20 and a T40.

GARETH: Oh, that sounds awesome.

IVAN: It’s wonderful. I never would’ve thought that that would’ve existed. So, I was quite shocked to see that, and it’s been a long time since I’ve played, so I'm still a little rough around the edges.

GARETH: I could imagine.

IVAN: [laughing] Well, thank you so much for spending your time with me today.

GARETH: No, not at all. Thank you so much for having me.

IVAN: Gareth van Onselen writes a weekly column for Business Live in South Africa. He’s a liberal, a humanist and a published author. You can find him on Twitter as @gvanonselen. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 podcast. Find us online at And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.

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