Does our Constitution protect polygamy? I don’t think so.

March 1, 2010

I agree with columnist Justice Malala that polygamy is a selfish and predatory practice – but is it, as it now seems widely believed, a constitutionally protected practice?

I am not a constitutional expert, but I can read, and I can’t find any reference at all to polygamy in the constitution. What the constitution does is to protect cultural practices that do not clash with other protected rights in the Bill of Rights (see Section 30). In other words, you may live according to your culture, as long as you do not trample on the rights of others.

Polygamy was legalised by the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998. But the mere fact that the practice of polygamy (and polyandry) is given legal status by statute does not mean that it is constitutionally acceptable. No aspect of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act has , as far as I can ascertain, been challenged in the Constitutional Court. In my view, a strong case could be made the polygamy constitutes unfair discrimination on the basis of gender (especially in forms which grant different hierarchical status to wives).

Perhaps a constitutional expert out there would care to comment?


No Mr President, it is not unconstitutional to criticise your culture

February 23, 2010

President Zuma has called for a national discussion about our “moral code” as a nation because, he says, it is unconstitutional to judge others by the standards of one’s own culture.

“Each one of us must be respected,” Zuma said, according to “That’s what our Constitution says. No matter how you feel, some of us have very strong feelings about some of the things, but we respect the Constitution, no matter how we feel… It is about redefinition of ourselves. Who are we? What are our values?

“For, there is no standard that is agreed. The Constitution says there are diversities. It recognises this. And that we should respect cultures of others.

“No-one has a right, therefore, to use his or her own to judge others. It’s unconstitutional if you do so.”

In one sense, I agree with the president. There is a tendency among some South African and foreign observers to judge African behaviour by Western standards, and to belittle some apsects of African culture. We should respect cultural differences. But when Mr Zuma argues that it is unconstutional per se to criticise the cultural practices of others, he is wrong (and I suspect the fact that his own so-called cultural practices have come in for severe criticism has something to do with his this).

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Billions of rand later, Old Mutual may be returning to its roots

February 23, 2010

So Old Mutual has slapped a for-sale sign on its US business. Speculation is rife that the insurer may also offload its European business Skandia, to concentrate on expanding its presence in Africa.

Wouldn’t that be a rich irony? After pouring billions of rand down the drain in disastrous overseas ventures, the geniuses who run Old Mutual may find themselves back where they started: at the helm of a (highly profitable) South African life insurer.

The share price tells the story: reacting to the news of the planned sale, it jacked up more than 3% to R13.22, what it was at the IPO. If you bought Old Mutual shares five years ago – in the midst of one of the biggest market booms in history – you would still be down 10% today. If you’d bought Sanlam, which chose to stay in South Africa, you’d be 85% better off.

Improving journalists’ understanding of international criminal justice

February 22, 2010

Should former President Thabo Mbeki be charged with genocide for denying HIV-Aids sufferers access to anti-retroviral drugs?

When Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela made such a call in November last year, it led to weeks of debate in the media, much if it, unfortunately, ill-informed. If journalists understood the law relating to genocide, and the international criminal justice process involved, we would have been spared an ultimately distracting debate: the real question is around accountability for political actions, but that got lost in the emotive war-of-words ignited by the term “genocide”.

Any journalist who looked at the definition of the crime of genocide, as stated in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, would have realised immediately that Mbeki’s HIV-Aids policies could not constitute genocide, however much we want to hold him (and his cabinet colleagues) accountable (see below). But how many South African journalists had heard of the Rome Statute, let alone bothered to look it up?

A group of journalists, academics and activists met in Salzburg last week to draft a model curriculum for reporting on international criminal justice issues. The project, supported by the Salzburg Global Seminar, the Open Society Initiative and the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, is aimed at giving journalism students a better understanding of international criminal law, and to help them identify stories and analyze events.

The fruits of their labours – a draft curriculum outline – is available on the group’s website, together with other useful resources. The curriculum is flexible – it can be adapted and fleshed out for different countries and levels of study. Participant academics will devise detailed syllabi and teaching resources, which may be shared on the website and, perhaps, a follow-up meeting later this year.

Genocide, by the way, is defined in the Rome Statute, Article 6, as:

“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a) Killing members of the group;
b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

What’s with Business Day and the “internet thing”?

February 12, 2010

Business Day is a great newspaper and a must-read for me every day. Strong on news, great on opinion and analysis – but boy, when is it going to move into the digital age?

More than three months ago, editor Peter Bruce announced the newspaper’s new online strategy. But nothing has changed: the website remains a mess. Still having Monday’s column by your editor as the headline piece on your opinion and analysis page on Friday is no good. And if you are going to blog, then the least you should do is post from time to time. After promising readers a daily blog, Bruce last posted on December 13, and some other staff writers seemed to have thrown in the towel after just one attempt. What’s more, there is no information about the writers on their blogs, and the blogs are in now way mainstreamed as part of the newspaper’s offering to readers. It is as if someone decided to tack on staff blogs, and then forgot about them. Shoddy.

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Newspaper bungled story of police ‘incompetence’

February 5, 2010

On Wednesday, Beeld  ran a story about a police reservist who was shot three times by a robber at his Pretoria home, and claimed he had phoned the 10111 police emergency number three times without getting help. Turned out the real reason why the man couldn’t get help was that his girlfriend had phoned the wrong number – not once, but three times, as Beeld somewhat lamely revealed in its follow-up story today. Instead of dialling 10111, she dialled 082 911 and got through to the emergency call centre of her cell phone company.

The initial story made the police look very bad indeed:

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The answer is… yes, Dan Roodt is a racist

February 4, 2010

Some months ago, I asked in a blog posting whether Dan Roodt, the self-styled “Afrikaner Freedom Figher”, is a racist? I asked readers to follow his blog and judge for themselves.

In the past week, that blog posting has been attracting a storm of traffic, for reasons unknown to me. Roodt has in past had kind words about me, so I had a look at his blog for clues. I found none, but I did come across the following statement in one of his posts, which I offer as evidence for the benefit of readers still making up their own minds:

“…black failure and white success may be ascribed to a difference in attitude. But just like two individuals may differ in both attitude and ability, it is certainly admissable that races, too, may differ not only in attitude but also in ability. How much of the one can be explained by the other?  (…) Blacks generally prefer parties and festivals because a lot of them lack the mental ability to excel at such demanding subjects as mathematics and natural science which require logical reasoning and cognitive ability.”

I rest my case.


Ah, the mystery is solved. Dan Roodt appeared on television this morning talking about the failure of the government’s BEE policies. His words must have struck a cord, because it prompted a host of Google searches on his name, which brought people to my blog. Thanks, Dan.