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OPINION: SA government is tilting at windmills

Last Friday legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was laid to rest in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Everything about Ali's life has already been said. He "floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee" and he was "pretty". As President Barack Obama said, "he shook up the world".

Well, in fact it was Ali who said that first. It was easy to forget all these years later that Ali remained an emissary for peace and a symbol of global tolerance. As his friend the actor Billy Crystal said during his moving eulogy, there were some things which could only happen "because of Muhammad"; the arts centre in Jerusalem which brings together Jews, Arabs and Palestinians for instance, "...because life is better when we build bridges not walls". Crystal's words hung heavily in the air. That was a clear message to GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump given his absurd suggestion of building a wall between the US and Mexico - at Mexico's expense.

So even in death, Ali's message of religious tolerance and principle resonated so clearly with a present sorely in need of peace and understanding between peoples.

It is therefore deeply ironic that mere days after Ali's funeral and the many pleas for peace, a gunman walked into a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and mowed down 49 people. In France a policeman is slain and the killer puts the footage on Facebook, live. Trump was quick to seize on these instances and call for a ban on Muslims entering the US. Quick talk stokes hatred. In England immigration seems more and more to be driving the 'Brexit' debate.

The answers to a world seemingly unhinged are not immediately obvious. Enemies to peace are disparate and often disorganised, so-called 'lone wolves' driven by distorted ideologies and hate. Old pacts within the United Nations, the EU and Nato seem worn out and unable to deal with new threats.

Closer to home, warnings about terror attacks seemed to only confuse our government further. Is South Africa really a target for terror? It's hard to tell, though most likely nowhere in the world is completely safe. But, we have our own set of gnawing challenges and terror seems last on our list.

Our government's response wafted between defensive and then confused. Our International Relations Minister seemed to obfuscate and then blame. Perhaps it had to do with that "hole in her head"? Our State Security Minister David Mahlobo unsurprisingly did not offer much comfort either. One always gets the feeling that Mahlobo is too focused on the internecine battles within the ANC to really get into the nuts and bolts of his job which is after all about keeping us safe and gathering intelligence. He accompanies President Jacob Zuma just about everywhere; Saudi Arabia, Niger and on local trips.

During the #FeesMustFall protests it was Mahlobo who seemed to be ever present. Are students now viewed as a threat to national security, one wonders? Indeed, his repeated comments on the threats NGOs pose and their plots at 'regime change' have brought a chill to the spine. Recent reports suggest that government intends introducing legislation to restrict foreign funding for local non-governmental organisations and to compel international NGOs (INGOs) operating in South Africa to be licensed by the government. One can see where that might lead. The Presidency denies that the legislation is emanating from its office, when it ought to be the remit of the Social Development ministry. Yet, Mahlobo, Zuma's close confidante, is likely to have a hand in this given his consistent talk of NGOs "destabilising" the country.

Again, this government seems very good at tilting at windmills. Mahlobo inspires little to no confidence when it comes to keeping us safe. The only person who seems safe on his watch is Zuma himself.

The world is changing and with that comes new threats. One wonders whether our government has the intelligence to measure such threats and also the wherewithal to deal with a threat if it should arise?

We need to keep asking those questions.

In the meantime though, it's understandable that for most South African citizens terror is something which does not make the 'A' list of threats or challenges. This week we heard of a preferential deal cut for the Guptas regarding coal contracts. Someone needs to be following the money. And without the slightest bit of shame our Social Development Minister, the hapless Bathabile Dlamini, proclaimed that it was quite feasible for someone to live on R753 a month. Dlamini clearly does not inhabit the real world; a common trait among the political classes so used to summoning luxury at our expense. Dlamini has spent 31 nights at the plush Oyster Box hotel in KwaZulu-Natal at a whopping R11,000 per night. It is this sort of shameless excess which is the ANC's problem. But then the president is in no position to reprimand Dlamini for these expensive stays when he himself has wasted hundreds of millions of rands on Nkandla. And so it goes on. Who will hold Dlamini to account for this expenditure and rather more, when will she herself develop a conscience?

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan can be forgiven for thinking he is on his own as far as reigning in his colleagues is concerned.

So life down south continues apace with our own insular concerns. Unmoored we are too, of course. It is tempting to navel-gaze and ignore what is happening elsewhere. We do so at our peril. The global outlook is sombre, we live in devastatingly complex times and South Africa probably needs a better grip on that now more than ever, lest we be found wanting and left behind.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judithfebruary_

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