The HSF: Losing Focus

by The Editor

FEATURE: For a period of time during the late 2000s, the Helen Suzman Foundation seemed to lose its ideological direction somewhat. Today it is once again on a firm liberal footing. The reason was that its Director, former DA MP Raenette Taljaard, seemed so concerned with ‘facilitating debate’ that the HSF effectively became a platform for government policy, as opposed to liberal thought. To illustrate the problem, in 2009 I wrote the following article, which looked at one edition of Focus (The HSF’s flagship publication). It contained no less than five speeches by Jacob Zuma. And that was just the beginning of the problem.

The HSF: Losing Focus

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012


What is the purpose of the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF)?

The preamble to the Helen Suzman Inaugural Lecture Series states that its objective lies, among other things, in “advocating measures designed to promote the ideals of liberal constitutional democracy in South Africa”.

That would seem like a fairly straightforward exercise; and an invaluable one at that. Outside of the Democratic Alliance, liberal values and principles are in short supply within South African civil society. There are only a handful of high quality research institutes and non-governmental organisations; fewer still dedicated to upholding “the ideals of liberal constitutional democracy”.

But is that really what the HSF does?

There is a strong case to be made that it does not; rather, that under the directorship of Raenette Taljaard, the Foundation has lost its direction – seduced by the ruling party’s omnipresent political paradigm and the temptation to indulge an executive with an agenda that stands in stark contrast to that of a liberal constitutional democracy.

Losing Focus

Consider the July edition of the HSF’s quarterly flagship publication, Focus Magazine (Issue 54), by way of illustration.

Here is a breakdown of its contents:

• Page 1: Editorial (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 4: Analysis (By Sipho Seepe)
• Page 8: Analysis (By Aubrey Matshiqi)
• Page 12: Interview with Helen Zille (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 16: Interview with Athol Trollip (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 20: Interview with Mosiuoa Lekota (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 24: Interview with Mvume Dandala (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 28: Speech (By Jacob Zuma)
• Page 30: Speech (By Jacob Zuma)
• Page 34: Speech (By Jacob Zuma)
• Page 36: Analysis (By Patrick Laurence)
• Page 38: Analysis (By Mac Maharaj)
• Page 42: Debate between David Unterhalter and Paul Ngobeni
• Page 46: Analysis (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 50: Speech (By Jacob Zuma)
• Page 62: Speech (By Athol Trollip)
• Page 66: Speech (By Mvume Dandala)
• Page 70: Speech (By Pravin Gordhan)
• Page 74: Speech (By Trevor Manuel)
• Page 78: Speech (By Jacob Zuma)
• Page 82: Analysis (By Tony Leon)
• Page 86: Analysis (By Pierre de Vos)
• Page 90: Analysis (By Yvonne Muthien)
• Page 94: Summary of M&G Critical Thinking Forum
• Page 104: Focus Book Corner
• Page 108: Book Review: ‘Fool’s Gold’ (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 110: Book Review: ‘Zumanomics’ (By Raenette Taljaard)
• Page 112: Book Review: ‘Dead Aid’ (By Kate Francis)

It contains no less than five speeches by President Jacob Zuma, each one printed in full.

They include: his speech on his election as President-elect; his inauguration address; his speech to the World Economic Forum; his state of the nation address (which runs to 12 pages) and his closing speech at the end of the debate on the state of the nation address.

This is a fairly remarkable fact; even more so when one considers they are published by an organisation dedicated to promoting liberalism, as opposed to the racial African nationalism that defines the African National Congress and its programme of action, both inside and outside of government.

Quantitative analysis doesn’t always give you the full picture, but it certainly tells you something: all in all, Zuma’s speeches take up 24 pages. The combined number of pages dedicated to Helen Zille, Athol Trollip and Tony Leon amount to just 16. And that is before you include the speeches by Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel, which takes the ANC government’s total page count to 32. Add Mac Maharaj (not in government but certainly ANC) and you are up to 36.

I would be so bold as to suggest the ANC itself has never produced a publication with five full speeches by the President, not even under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki (a visit to the ANC’s homepage for some of its journals, Umrabulo or Sepadi, reveals even they do not indulge the President to that extent). The GCIS too, would be stretched to justify that sort of promotional extravagance. Indeed, the entire endeavour is difficult to explain.

(Remember also, these things are hardly difficult to come by. The HSF would do well to visit HANSARD’s website, home to the parliamentary transcript unit dedicated to providing “a substantially verbatim report” of what happens in Parliament; or even the government’s website, where every one of those speeches is readily available.)

But perhaps that is to downplay the extent of the problem. Five speeches? That really is pretty spectacular.

Of course HANSARD doesn’t have pictures. Supplementing the speeches are a wide range of colour photos of Zuma – I counted no less than 13 – a number of which are full page. Admittedly there are glossy photos of all the main protagonists throughout the publication, but they are not there to illustrate a point, merely promotional, and as Zuma occupies the most space when it comes to the written word, in turn, he occupies the most pictorial space too.

It says much about the quality of the publication that it is so overly reliant on speeches, simply lifted off a publicly accessible website – a sign of weak journalism and an editorial staff unable to generate original ideas of its own. But even if one were willing to overlook the speeches, there are a number of other qualitative problems with the edition as well.

Consider some of the contributors: both Sipho Seepe and Paul Ngobeni are intimately linked to Jacob Zuma – part of his inner circle of advisors.

Seepe (who also serves as an HSF trustee) has vehemently defended Zuma in the press and derided the ‘campaign’ against him as devoid of substance (see this defence of Zuma by Seepe, for example). His current position represents a marked shift away from the liberal values he flirted with a few years ago. He told the M&G his advice to the ANC President was for the benefit of the ANC and he has been cited as a key part of Zuma’s political brains trust. And so it is with his Focus article, Seepe tells us there is “no need for alarm”, with regard to a Zuma presidency – a good opportunity to champion his man, and berate Mbeki.

Ngobeni too, has repeatedly put up a strong public defence of Zuma and is a close ally of the President. Significantly, he has a number of substantive legal questions hanging over his own head, which he has yet to properly answer; indeed, Ngobeni is a wanted man in the United States (this point is important, because Focus presents his debate with David Unterhalter as if both men occupy the same moral ground, only that their views differ). The M&G has reported that he joined the Zuma campaign in April 2008, when he wrote a litigation ‘cookbook’ in defence of the ANC president. Much like Seepe, he uses the space in Focus to defend Zuma and criticise the case against him.

One shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the prominent coverage given to COPE either. Remember this is a party borne of a defence of Thabo Mbeki; it may still have to earn its credentials but its leadership served for decades in a nationalist movement and African nationalism, not liberalism, runs through its veins.

The speeches aren’t the only thing lifted into the magazine. At the end of the article by Yvonne Muthien – a former advisor to President Mbeki, on the Advisory Council on National Orders (she was subsequently awarded The Order of the Grand Counsellor of the Baobab in Silver) – the magazine states: “This article first appeared in The Thinker magazine. Volume 3/2009. Many thanks to Dr Essop Pahad for allowing us to reprint it.”

Essop Pahad, together with the ever-present shadow that follows him round – one Ronald Suresh Roberts – have spent much time over the past decade trying to promote Thabo Mbeki’s agenda in the mainstream media. When the media has not delivered the desired result, he and Roberts have turned to other avenues. There was the failed magazine ‘Molotov Cocktail’, a government sponsored biography of Mbeki by Roberts and, more recently, ‘The Thinker’. How pleased they must be that Focus is picking up its copy. Mission accomplished.

The legal ‘analyst’ Professor Pierre de Vos is no fan of liberalism, or liberal politics. He sees it as a cold and detached philosophy, which protects minority interests at the expense of the majority. He detests Tony Leon and has used his blog to attack Helen Zille on numerous occasions; often badly overextending himself in the process.

The obsession with all things presidential extends even to the book review section, with Raymond Parsons’s ‘Zumanomics’ getting a substantial write-up. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but in a publication with five full presidential speeches in it, you have to ask the question, why this book?

And what of Taljaard herself?

Her main article is an analysis of the new ministries in the Presidency; in particular, the National Planning Commission. The DA has criticised this development as further evidence of the ANC’s obsessive drive to centralise power in the executive. Taljaard’s take on things differs, certainly she is not critical of the development but rather offers what is best described as a promotional splash piece for the whole idea, centred around a series of proposals to make the Presidency work better and for the Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel, to consider.

Quite where the liberal principle of small state features in her analysis is hard to tell.

But perhaps the most revealing thing about the publication is not what’s there, but what’s not: where is the analysis of the ANC’s developmental state and how it stands in stark contrast to a liberal democratic government; what about the SABC and its meltdown; our public entities are collapsing – what’s the liberal take on that; a burgeoning central administration suggests the state, and not the market, is creating the most jobs in South Africa, what is liberalism’s response to that issue; the DA just won the Western Cape (the one province outside of the ANC’s hegemonic grip), why not generate some liberal policy proposals for the province; and so on and so forth.

There are hundreds of debates, central to promoting and understanding liberal values, ideals and principles in South Africa. Why is Taljaard discussing how to make the National Planning Commission work? Why is she using Foundation money to print government speeches instead?

How is it that Focus Magazine has come to this?

The ruling party’s warm embrace

The answer, perhaps, lies in Taljaard’s deferential attitude to the ANC; and with her understanding of liberalism and the HSF’s mandate.

For example, Taljaard has always had a soft spot for Trevor Manuel – her opposite number when she served as a DA Member of Parliament and spokesperson on Finance – to the extent that her profile on the HSF website revolves in large part around a glowing tribute to her by Manuel – “I think that her role in the committee and in this House has defined what I would consider responsible opposition,” he writes.

I wonder if Manuel and Suzman would agree on what exactly constitutes a ‘responsible opposition’? Or the ANC and the DA, for that matter?

At any rate, hardly the kind of liberal endorsement one might expect of an HSF Director.

This penchant for all things executive has had some practical consequences for the HSF.

Subsequent to her appointment, in May 2006, and just after Taljaard had acted to remove Patrick Laurence as the editor of the Focus (February 2007, to be replaced by Taljaard herself), I wrote an article titled ‘Where have all the liberals gone’. In it I argued that, after a few months in charge, a survey of the various round-table debates the HSF had convened suggested that Taljaard was “going out of her way to accommodate the most virulent critics of liberalism and liberal discourse” (see here).

As evidence in support of my argument, I pointed to the way in which the Foundation was increasingly making space for people hostile to liberalism (like Kader Asmal – a person with a well documented history of attacks on liberalism and liberal democratic practice) and, indeed, the noticeable absence of any liberal intellectuals from a number of its discussion panels.

At the time, the Mail & Guardian – always on the lookout for a bit of sensation – suggested the article was evidence of a ‘war’ between the DA and Taljaard; and reported Taljaard as saying in response:

“…that liberalism tends to be defined in a narrowly economic way in South Africa, that there was a “myopia” within the DA on the matter, and that people tended to appropriate the term to serve their own agendas. The foundation, by contrast, was trying to promote a broad discussion of the liberal values entrenched in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, such as tolerance and respect for different views.” [That is not a direct quote, the newspaper paraphrased her position.]

Compare that response to the HSF objective I outlined at the beginning of this piece: “advocating measures designed to promote the ideals of liberal constitutional democracy in South Africa”. The difference is subtle, but profound. Taljaard sees the HSF’s purpose as providing a platform for the exchange of ideals, as opposed to promoting the liberal cause. It is true that those two ideas are related but they are by no means the same thing.

If one is dedicated to promoting liberalism, one has to have a clear idea of what defines liberalism. In other words, one’s internal analysis must be coherent and consistent and one must be able to apply that analysis to the world at large. And, obviously, one must then set about applying it. It is perfectly possible, at the same time, to facilitate debate. But facilitating debate, in and of itself, is not promoting liberalism. In fact, it is only of use if that debate is placed in the proper context, in this case, within a liberal analysis. Simply reprinting speeches, five of them, won’t achieve that.

Nor does a greater quantity of debate translate into a greater commitment to or a more effective means of promoting liberalism. The conflation of those two ideas is misleading. Taken to its extreme, one could argue that by providing a platform for the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging one is facilitating debate and, therefore, promoting liberalism. And the more opportunities one gives them, the greater the service one is doing the liberal cause. Well, hardly.

In that sense, and if Focus is anything to go by, Taljaard’s response was as revealing as it was a concession. It masked a misguided purpose: the creation of a public platform for the biggest enemies of the liberal cause, primarily the ANC, to strengthen their hegemonic grip on civil society and occupy a space that might otherwise have belonged to liberal thought.

There is one final point worth making. A review of the original copy in the latest edition of Focus (i.e. those articles which are not simply lifted from the internet) suggests that the HSR is mismanaging its resources. In 2007, explaining the decision to remove Laurence as editor, HSF trustee Richard Steyn said the decision was made for financial reasons, as the foundation had to downsize.

But compare the look and feel of an edition of a Focus produced by Laurence (see here) with the latest edition (see here). The former runs to just 32 pages; is produced in black and white, on modest paper; contains just 12 photographs; comprises nine articles, each one by a different author (including liberal thinkers like Patrick Laurence, Peter Leon, Lawrence Schlemmer and Raymond Louw) and it covers issues like the state of education, service delivery at local government level, the relationship between the state and the fourth estate and judicial independence.

The latter runs to 112 pages, is produced on high gloss paper, in colour; contains an extraordinary number of colour photographs (63 in total, including four full page photos and 37 half page photos); contains 28 articles, eight produced by Taljaard herself, 10 which are simply reproduced verbatim and eight of which are straight from the ANC government.

Put another way, if Laurence was removed to save costs, the lavish (but rather vacuous) current version of Focus suggests that any money saved was ploughed into securing the rights for glossy photos, rather than commissioning quality analysis by liberal thinkers.


The Foundation recently announced that Taljaard would be stepping down as Director in mid July, to be replaced by Francis Antonie. The statement announcing her resignation does not set out her reasons for doing so, or her future plans.

One is led, almost inevitably, to ask the question, where exactly is Raenette Taljaard headed, now that’s she is finished with the HSF? If the latest edition of Focus – the last under her editorship – is any indication of where the ideological path she is currently lost on seems to be headed, one could make a strong argument that she will resurface in the Presidency, or thereabouts.

One way or the other, you can be sure about one thing: there is every indication that, as it stands, Focus Magazine in particular and the HSF’s programme of action more broadly, do not reflect Helen Suzman’s vision for that institution. It was never supposed to be a platform for government policy.

There is a very real possibility that, as a consequence of trying to be all things to all people, it has become increasingly difficult to identify exactly what the HSF is. Indeed, as its ideological underpinnings have become infused with African nationalism and the ruling party’s particular paradigm, it could well be argued that the HSF has surrendered rather than promoted its readily identifiable character, as a bastion of liberal principles.

If the last edition of Focus is anything to go by, Francis Antonie has his work cut out.

This article was first published on 22 July 2009

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.