Monday, December 22, 2008

Why I prefer pizza to bankers

Whenever there is a disaster, jokes start doing the rounds pretty quickly. Recently, I heard this one: What’s the difference between a pizza and a banker? A pizza can feed a family of four. Of course, the economic collapse is no laughing matter. But why then are some people poking fun at it? The answer is easy: there is a popular sentiment that the wealthy in society are oblivious to the poor and deserve their comeuppance.

As it stands, it appears that it is those with massive investments in the stock exchange that are taking the initial hit. Since the beginning of 2008, holdings in the US stock exchange have dropped from $20-trillion to $12-tril- lion. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average loss in stock exchanges across the globe is 40%. In other words, those who are feeling the pinch are the wealthy, at least for now.

The word on the street is that greedy investors have got what they deserve for years of excess and self-indulgence. It was largely bankers and those selling mortgages who wooed in cash-strapped borrowers, making a cut for bringing the financial institution business and essen-tially tying the borrower into a form of debt bondage for life. Everyone was so busy making money that nobody stopped to think about the consequences.

But the direct economic impact is only one aspect of the disaster that capitalist gluttony has left in its wake; the other part is psychological. The financial feeding frenzy of the last two decades has instilled a set of distorted beliefs. CEs who earn six-figure bonuses believe they are worth it and think that the wealth they create will somehow trickle down to the poor. Workers at the bottom of the financial food chain have started to believe it is their fault they are destitute.

Polly Toynbee and David Walker in the book Unjust Rewards demonstrate that the exact opposite is the case. Firstly, they show that where you are born is the biggest predictor of financial success. Class largely determines your chances of succeeding, not hard work as so many like to think. Secondly, they show that many top earners have no idea about how the majority live. Toynbee and Walker held focus groups with bankers and lawyers in the UK whose earnings are in the top 0,1%. They found that interviewees struggled to understand how people in the UK can live on under £40 000 a year when in fact 90% do. One of the interviewees thought his salary was average. He earns £200 000 a year.

Taking pleasure in the banking sector’s humiliation is, of course, short sighted. There is more to come. According to Forbes.com, in recent times, the average economic decline has lasted for 14,4 months. Further, the process might start with high stake losses on the stock exchange, but will eventually translate into the loss of working-class jobs as the whole economy slows down.

That said, the philosophy that unbridled capitalism is the only option to grow an economy has taken a major knock. One can also only hope that the crisis has left the banking sector humbled and more in touch with its limitations. The so-called financial banking giants of this world, The Guardian estimates, have needed $2-trillion to $4-trillion from the public purse around the globe to bail them out. They should be ashamed, repentant and embarrassed. But have lessons been learned?

Toynbee and Walker point out that the total salary packages of CEOs of the 30 biggest UK companies rose by a staggering 33% in 2007/8 as the reality of the crisis was hitting home. What is more, I have not heard one banker that oversaw this catastrophe apologise or thank taxpayers for the money. So what is the difference between a pizza and a banker? At least a pizza knows it is nothing more than fast food.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 October 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

South Africa needs some loving

I admit I feel sorry for former President Thabo Mbeki. I know there are many out there who think he got what he deserved, but his summary dismissal smacked of retribution rather than mature democracy in action.

As I sat thousands of miles away listening to the news on internet radio one image came to mind: a ship of revenge-filled and rum-laden pirates forcing their former captain to walk the plank to jeers and applause.

This is not to say I am a die-hard Mbeki fan. As regular readers of this column will know I have criticised him on several matters. Then again I doubt I will be asking Jacob Zuma over for a cup of tea soon either. The way scandal follows him worries me, as well as his polarising politics.

Since when did South Africa start embracing the "you are either with us or against us" mentality of George Bush? These days it appears as if any remarks about the presidential brawl results in one being placed in the Mbeki or Zuma camp. How did South Africa come to this?

At the risk of reducing complex political shenanigans to the absurd, I see the furore, at least in part, as being linked to the politics of emotion.

It is a well-known story that when Thabo Mbeki met his father, the political stalwart and Robben-islander Govan Mbeki, after not seeing him for 28 years, the pair first shook hands and then briefly hugged calling each other comrades. When Govan was asked about what it was like to see Thabo he said: "Not much finer than seeing others. You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade".

At the risk of psychoanalysing the Mbekis, and notwithstanding decades of hardship, exile and harassment from the apartheid police that saw Thabo Mbeki's son and brother disappear, this incident speaks volumes. Mbeki was not a man prone to sentimentality and emotion, and this came through in his presidency.

On one level, he failed to deliver sufficient material progress, which was inevitable given the apartheid backlog. However, I also believe he did not demonstrate enough understanding and empathy. His continual denialism - whether about HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe, crime, or the importance of reparations to TRC victims - painted the populace as unable to deal with difficult problems, thus disempowering them. He seemed to feel that he could think his way out the problems rather than lead his way through them with the people.

I believe that his pragmatic and enigmatic persona, whether his true self or not, was an anathema to the South African psyche. We are an emotional people. This is captured in the Toyi-toyi dance used at celebrations and funerals. Emotions and politics are integrally linked, embodied in all the cuddly stereotypes projected on to President Mandela. Against this backdrop it was inevitable that at some point the emotional void created by Mbeki at the top of the political ladder would become unbearable. The result was mutiny.

But now what?

Emotionally speaking, Jacob Zuma is a much better fit for South Africa. He is said to be an amiable, charming and compassionate person. But the court cases and his ruthless ability to dispose of political opponents is hardly appealing making him a difficult person to warm to politically. I think he is, at best, a quick fix, emotionally speaking.

The new South African President, Kgalema Motlanthe, is said to be smart, likeable and exudes a quiet charisma. However, he has risen to power in the most inauspicious of circumstances.

So the emotional vacuum created by Mbeki is still gaping, filled momentarily by a cathartic rage and some bloodletting, and an affable caretaker President. But I fear that more needs to be done for a nation that is, at least at the leadership level, in desperate need of a damned good hug.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 October 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A war on terror or a war on reason

India defies description, especially after you spend only a week there and in one city, Delhi. Delhi is a great city of the world, embodying dozens of cultures, old and new. The city survives on teeming markets selling anything from bananas to electronics and a modern financial sector that is expanding rapidly.

The Indian economy has been growing at an annual rate of 8% to 9% recently, the second-fastest expanding economy in the world, behind China.

However, when I first arrived in Delhi, the signs of this new economic giant were hard to spot. The airport was underdeveloped – OR Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg, makes it look like a small regional airport time-warped in the 1960s. At first glance, the city looks like it is more in decay than development. Crumbling buildings, beggars and poorly kept streets with children in gutters and thousands of people peddling cheap small items is the norm.

However, as I acclimatised to the bustling capital, I started to see development everywhere. In the middle of a row of rundown buildings and behind people, cars, animals and bicycles are upmarket clothes stores, software companies and international banks. Once you start to head out of the city, it becomes even more evident: new shopping malls, office blocks and modern apartments for sale. This is a country on the move, although still with a massive underclass.

Billboards advertise "the lifestyle you want", complete with pictures of compact apartments, swimming pools, fully equipped with 'German kitchens' and a photo of a smiling family, which invariably includes daddy, mommy, son and daughter. The influence of the West is pervasive and growing.

However, it is not only the Western lifestyles that is being imported. Ethnic strife, marked by what George W Bush would call the 'war on terror', is also notably present in India.

This was made all too real on the last night of my stay, when a series of five bombs exploded across Delhi, killing 25 people and injuring over 100. Two of the bombs went off fairly close to my hotel. I had eaten in the bombed district and driven through the area numerous times. The attacks were claimed by a group called the Indian Mujahideen, which is said to be linked to al-Qa'ida.

Immediately following the blasts, eerily familiar debates began playing themselves out on television. Was the government tough enough on radicals, asked the media. And the word 'terrorism' was thrown about by the Indian government in a way reminiscent of a US Republican convention or Sunday lunch on the Bush ranch.

Of course, the bombs in Delhi are acts of terror. Blowing up innocent people is immoral. But is it helpful to lump every act of terror in the same boat? Those setting off the bombs and world governments are equally guilty in that.

It is comfortable for governments to frame all extreme acts of violence as being about the war on terror. Such language justifies tough military action and tighter police control, while often diverting attention from other problems, such as poverty, structural discrimination and long histories of political tension. Governments seem to take perverse pleasure in being part of the global 'war on terror' club.

The alleged perpetrators also like to oversimplify matters. In an email from the Indian Mujahideen, the bombs are said to be a response to the "hostile hatred" of Islam and justified punishment for the "sins" of the people.

But when did global politics and political ideology become so simple?

Bush wants us to believe that there is only one war, and the bombers that there is only one justifiable struggle.

The rise of the totalising discourse is of great concern. Surely, it denies complex local politics, individual power struggles and massive cultural variations in how the so-called war on terror plays itself out. Painting everything with the same brush is not only lazy, antiexplanatory and culturally vacuous, but dangerous.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, June 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 October 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Viva the orange revolution

According to the publication Grocer, the number of oranges being sold in the UK is falling. Orange sales are dropping by about 2% a year, whereas the sale of easy-to-peel fruit, such as tangerines and satsumas, or naartjies, to South Africans is rising. Writing in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, Aislinn Simpson reported the sales of satsumas and tangerines rose 35% and 60% respectively.

Some have postulated that sales have decreased because it is difficult to carry a large bag of oranges about when shopping, compared with a neat little sack of naartjies. Others have commented that oranges are going out of fashion because they take too long to eat and people simply don’t have the time.

Stefanie Marsh, writing in the UK Times, feels it all boils down to the fact that Britons are too lazy or thick to eat oranges. She quotes a survey noting that 7% of children between the ages of 9 and 13 have no idea how to eat an orange. Consequently, Marsh laments the inability of so-called busy parents to pass on the “craft of orange peeling to the next generation”. To help, she provides a useful step-by-step guide on how to peel an orange, worth googling, if you feel your skills are on the wane.

However, I am not surprised to read these stories. I have long thought there is a correlation between oranges and the state of human civilisation and its discontents.

For example, it was the humble orange that facilitated the spread of colonisation with its miraculous ability to prevent diseases like scurvy. It was the orange that allowed explorers to circumnavigate the world, leaving oppression in their wake. However, it was, as is widely known, also the orange that finally overthrew apartheid when foreigners decided to stop eating Outspan oranges as part of the sanctions campaign.

I have also always found it telling that there is no word in the English language that rhymes with orange, suggesting its unique place in human evolution.

Thus, it is only fitting that the orange and its declining sales are the first marker, at least in the West, of the next major social upheaval: the lethargy revolution.

Seemingly, we have enough time to Facebook with friends, order pizza online, text until our thumbs go numb or spend hours playing computer games but not enough time to get to grips with the complexity of peeling an orange. What have we come to?

The orange is being squashed out of the market by the fast-food and consumer culture, which is, in turn, changing our understanding of what food should be. Do you know that, despite all that is said on cereal boxes about their enhanced fibre content, it would take seven cups of cornflakes to give you the same amount of fibre as one orange? Many of the vitamins cereals contain, such as vitamin C, have been sprayed on and are not naturally present.

Sadly, most citrus-related traditions seem to be on the decline. As a boy, I revelled in the ancient long-dead South African tradition of throwing oranges and naartjies at the opposition and players during rugby matches. My transition to manhood was also marked by the imparting of the secret of the abundance of citrus fruit at rugby matches. Oranges injected with alcohol made the perfect undetectable vessel for transporting vodka and had the added benefit of being delicious to eat, making you drunk and providing a good but harmless projectile once the alcohol had been sucked out.

So it is with great sadness that I read of the decline of the orange. I believe the time has come to start a campaign to save the orange. Let us break this cycle of lethargy and start peeling. Oh, unless the oranges are from Burma, China, Israel, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Florida or Iran.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, June 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 20 June 2008.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The ghost of Jeffrey Benzien lives

One of the most chilling moments during the South African Truth and Reconciliation process was when Jeffrey Benzien, an apartheid era torturer, was asked by one of his victims to re-enact, without doing harm, the torture he had administered. The image of Benzien clutching a bag over the volunteer’s face while sitting on his back will stick in my mind forever.

Benzien, who eventually received amnesty, was the infamous master of the ‘wet bag’ torture technique. This form of torture involves placing a wet bag over a victim’s head, which results in suffocation and the sensation of drowning. Benzien claimed he could break most prisoners in 30 minutes.

Disturbingly, variations of this technique, euphemistically called ‘waterboarding’, have been used in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay by the US military. It was, at least in part, the condemnation of the practice of waterboarding that led me to take part in my first protest on US soil.

In August, while at the American Psychological Asso-ciation (APA) conference, in Boston, I joined fellow psychologists to protest against the APA’s current refusal to ban its members from participating in or observing interrogations in any capacity whatsoever.

So how does this relate to waterboarding?

To cut a long story short, two years ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross raised the alarm about the involvement of health professionals in US interrogations. The APA set up a committee to investigate this. The committee endorsed the use of psychologists “in consultative roles” in interrogation processes “for national security-related purposes”. It transpired that six of the nine members of the committee were military psycho- logists.

This caused an outcry. In late 2007, the APA issued a statement condemning the role of psychologists in torture and said it was unethical to participate in 19 coercive procedures, including waterboarding. However, the APA did not forbid psychologists from being involved in interrogations; rather it felt their presence could ensure ethical interrogations took place, safeguarding the welfare of detainees.

But is it possible to be an ethical observer in an interrogation? Why are ‘safety officers’ needed, in the first place? Clearly, there is a systematic problem in the US military if they are worried about potential torture.

Apathy clearly runs rife. At the APA protest, there were only 200 people out of the possible 14 000 delegates attending the conference. Most psychologists do not seem bothered that their profession is being associated with torture, or that individuals may be harmed.

This links to a second point: why and how certain sectors been vested with so much power? And why, when the mantra of national security or a threat against the country is touted, whether in the US or any country, for that matter, it seems that most of us just sit back and let governments do the thinking for us? Or we end up debating technicalities rather than taking action.

For example, in the APA case, is the bigger issue not the condemnation of centres such as Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the disciplining of psychologists who have partici- pated in torture so far?

The sad truth is that torture and abuse are happening around us all the time, and should never be tolerated.

Every day, across Europe and Africa, immigrants are abused and robbed of rights, often detained in asylum centres, prisons or worse. Torture of criminal suspects still happens routinely in South Africa. So-called terror- ists continue to be kept in hidden ‘black sites’ across the world by the US with the tacit agreement of other governments.

We all seem to have explanations for such abuses. After all, asylum seekers need to be properly vetted. Criminals and terrorists will ultimately reap what they sow. Or a psychologist being present during an interrogation is ethical. But these are fantasies, and each time we think such thoughts, another part of our humanity dies and with that another Jeffrey Benzien is born.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 5 September 2008.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Passing of Dan Bar-On

It is with great sadness that I heard today about the passing of Dan Bar-On. Dan was an inspiration. Dan embodied the importance of dialogue and contact between people in times of conflict without romanticising what this entails. He will be missed. He touched many people’s lives with his compassion and sharp intellect.

Dan Bar-On was born in 1938 in Haifa to parents of German descent. He was a member of Kibbutz Revivim for 25 years where he served as a farmer, educator and Secretary of the Kibbutz. After completing his M.A. in psychology in 1975, he worked in the Kibbutz Clinic, specializing in therapy and research with families of Holocaust survivors. In 1981 he received his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1985 he launched a pioneering field research in Germany, studying the psychological and moral after-effects of the Holocaust on the children of the perpetrators. His book Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich was published in 1989 by Harvard University Press and has since been translated and published in French, German, Japanese and Hebrew. Since then, Bar-On has brought together descendants of survivors and perpetrators for five intensive encounters (the TRT group, shown by the BBC on TimeWatch, October, 1993), as well as students from the third generation of both sides. His book Fear and Hope: Three Generations of Holocaust Survivors' Families was published in Hebrew, English, German and Chinese .His last book The Indescribable and the Undiscussable was published in 1999 by Central European University Press. In 1998 and in 2002-3, Bar-On was the Ida E. King Chair for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton College of New Jersey. He is currently a Professor of Psychology at the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, where he served as Chair of the Department in 1993-1995 and again in 2003-5. He is the co-director of PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East) near Beit Jala, PNA, together with Professor Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University. He is married, and has four children and four grandchildren.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Let’s face it, holidays are strange

Currently, I am on a northern hemisphere summer break, although I should say an alleged summer break. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, in Ireland and England, there is no summer. Summer is something you know everyone else is having while you sit in the rain, trying to remember what sunshine feels like. The easiest way to deal with this lack of summer is to travel abroad, but this is costly in these credit crunch days. So I find myself sitting at a British family resort trying to learn the difference between light showers, squally showers, rain and heavy rain. Secondly, I must admit, I also struggle with the whole concept of a holiday.

It is not that I am one of those grumpy people who do not like holidays. I love them – it is the idea I find weird.

People not only work to pay bills, but also so that they can have a break from work. Apparently, to enjoy your break, you cannot simply have a break – we are all so conditioned that we must do something with it. This something is called a holiday. Holidays cost money. So, in other words, you work to get money to pay others for the pleasure of not working. This strikes me as logical as banging your head against a wall because it feels good when you stop.

Of course, one option is to choose not to work at all and then go on holiday, which then means you are paying others to add something to your otherwise empty schedule. But being unemployed is not a comfortable state of affairs and makes buying time at a holiday resort rather difficult. The result of this is that it makes those of us who are employed happy enough to continue to pay not to work.

There are further problems. If you choose to stay at home on your break, now dubbed the ‘staycation’, it feels as if you are not on holiday. And if you choose not to stay at home, and if you are not lucky enough to have a second home at the beach or in the mountains, your choices are limited. Either you have to book a holiday home in some remote spot, or you have to sell your soul to a hotel group.

In exchange for money, hotels are happy to provide you with all the structure you need in your day to prevent you from feeling too far from work. They also promise endless entertainment from belly-dancing classes to parasailing and, unlike an isolated holiday cottage, guarantee your children can get to interact with others in play parks and swimming pools. This, in turn, helps your child learn valuable social skills.

For example, this holiday, my two-and-a-half-year-old son learned that one should never trust anyone, especially someone who wants the same toy as you. This valuable lesson was brought to him by a covetous toddler who attached himself to my son’s cheek with his teeth in an unprovoked playground attack. This left us wishing we had opted for the isolated holiday cottage.

For me, this sums up the core dilemma of holidays. Either you have to share purpose-built spaces and activities with others who might turn out to be little Mike Tysons, more interested in biting off ears than cooperative play, or you have to seclude yourself from the world, losing the advantage of having someone else laying all the entertainment you need at your doorstep.

So there is no perfect holiday, only moments of bliss and disaster. Every holiday has its price, whether it is inclement weather, a nasty souvenir bite, a little bit too much isolation, or too many structured activities that leave you exhausted and in need of another vacation. I long to find the balance, but I just don’t have enough free time to find it.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 22 August 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beware: SOHF is spreading

Sometimes it is not only horrific crime stories or Thabo Mbeki’s quiet (twiddling-your-thumbs-while-Rome-burns) diplomacy on Zimbabwe that creep out of South Africa for international consumption. Recently, I heard the story of KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Peggy Nkonyeni, who suspended rural doctor Mark Blaylock for throwing her picture in the bin. He claims to have been incensed by her visit to a rural hospital where she apparently commented that rural doctors cared more about profit than people and that AZT was toxic.

My favourite part of this story was that the Health Department tried to charge Blaylock with malicious damage to State property. The local prosecutor threw the case out of court, not because the department is clearly insane, but because Blaylock had not damaged the photo.

Of course, Nkonyeni has feelings and I sympathise with that. But getting worked up to the point that someone is almost forced into court strikes me as being sensitive in the extreme. You would think that a person holding public office would be more robust.

Blaylock subsequently apologised. Graciously, Nkonyeni has now lifted the suspension and, in return, is investigating “racism, ill-treatment of staff and abuse of departmental facilities by Dr Blaylock and some doctors operating at some of our rural facilities”.

If the new allegations are true, these should be looked at. But why suspend Blaylock for ‘photo abuse’ and think about racism, a much more serious charge, as an afterthought?

When I heard this story, it reminded me of the tale that used to do the rounds when I worked on the Wits Student newspaper in the 1980s. It concerned Mark Douglas-Home, editor of the student newspaper. The young Douglas-Home, a Briton studying in South Africa, ran a cartoon featuring a small girl peering into a toilet, asking, “Is that the Prime Minister?” The Prime Minister at the time, BJ Vorster, not renowned for his sense of humour, was outraged. Douglas-Home was deported to England in 1972.

Now, of course, I am not making direct comparisons between Nkonyeni and Vorster, which would be ridiculous. It is impossible to compare anyone or anything to Vorster, except, maybe, a toilet.

But I do want to question why deference to political power, whether a photograph or an irreverent cartoon, is even expected, whether in the past or the present.

The whole notion of heads of State or government functionaries being adorned on walls or commemorated through statues, the world over, is something I cannot fathom.

Those in office are paid by you and me. They work for us. If anyone’s face should be on the wall, it should be those of the people. I appreciate that putting a picture of a few million people on a wall is a tad tricky. I am also not condoning disrespectful behaviour to leaders. A President or a pauper deserves respect. But respect is something which is earned, not created through plastering pictures of the President, or whoever, all over the place.

Also, what is it about being in a position of power that causes one’s sense of humour to expire? There seems to be an inverse relationship between political power and a disease called SOHF, aka Sense of Humour Failure. And what worries me is that SOHF is spreading rampantly in South Africa.

Last I heard, Jacob Zuma had caught the bug. He is suing Zapiro for depicting him in cartoons as having a shower attached to his head, a not-so-subtle reference to his comments that he showers after sex to help prevent HIV/Aids transmission.

Zapiro, my friend, my advice is: apologise now and cooperate fully with the commission of inquiry that follows. Better still, flush your pens down the toilet and, why not, deport yourself. I have heard that censorship is the only cure for SOHF.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 May 2008.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Zimbabwe - not a crisis, but a little mix-up

Lately, words have been distressing me and increasingly alienating me from the world. This is because our world is now filled with words whose meaning is distorted unrecognisably. We live in the age of euphemisms.

Cars are no longer second-hand but preowned. The world economy is not in free fall but is correcting itself, with staff being rationalised, not being fired. No one sells products anymore but rather solutions. The American justice system does not poison people to death but administers a lethal injection. Civilians are not murdered by armies but are subjected to collateral damage. And who can forget Janet Jackson revealing parts of her upper body to the audience a few years ago and the act being referred to as a wardrobe malfunction?

A euphemism, according to the Webster Online Dictionary, is the substitution of an agreeable or less offensive expression in place of one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant to the listener.

But why have we become so hooked on the euphemism? Euphemisms serve multiple functions. They can shelter us from the truth, especially when it might be difficult to deal with or make us feel psychologically uncomfortable.

I recall my nephew asking, when he was about four years old, what we were eating for dinner. His mom replied, saying we were going to have lamb. He asked, "like lambs in the field?" She truthfully said yes, but he simply laughed in reply, saying, "No way." In other words, he did not believe that it was possible that lovely fluffy lambs had been recycled as dinner with mint sauce on the side. He instinctually protected himself from an uncomfortable reality.

What is remarkable about our ability to distance ourselves from reality is that this continues unabated into adulthood. Cow flesh gets converted into beef, pig meat into bacon and the poor become disadvantaged, not destitute or starving to death. This helps us cope.

Euphemisms, however, have a more cynical use that extends beyond psychologically protecting oneself from horrid realities. Politics is infused with euphemism.

George Orwell, in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, talks about 'B vocabulary', that is, language "deliberately constructed for political purposes – words . . . which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them".

Robert Mugabe has been using B vocabulary of a sort for years now. In the mid-1980s, he deployed the Fifth Brigade, euphemistically known as Gukurahundi, meaning 'the wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rain'. The Fifth Brigade killed thousands of Zimbabwe's minority Ndebele speakers.

Today, in Zimbabwe, the doublespeak (incidentally, a term attributed to Orwell but which, in fact, he did not use) continues. President Thabo Mbeki is still apparently engaging in 'quiet diplomacy' and Mugabe continues to use his 'war veterans' (henchmen) to terrorise the population into submission.

On the wider international stage, condemnation of the Mugabe regime has become stronger recently, but sanitising language prevails.

Following the election of Mugabe as President for a sixth term, in June, after the opposition pulled out of the running because of intimidation, a spokesperson for United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon had this to say: "The secretary-general has said repeatedly that conditions were not in place for a free and fair election, and observers have confirmed this from the deeply flawed process. The outcome did not reflect the true and genuine will of the Zimbabwean people, or produce a legitimate result".

This was a welcome development, but, I think, it warrants a more honest translation. What Ban Ki-moon meant to say is: "The secretary-general is sick and tired of saying that Mugabe's thuggery has turned the elections into a sham. Observers have seen people being forced to vote for Mugabe against their will and brutal violence has been used repeatedly. The election process is damaged irreparably. The people want Mugabe out and the election outcome is corrupt and criminal in the extreme."

Need I say more?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 July 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Raytheon 9 Acquitted

I have been following this story closely as it concerns arm manufacturing in Derry. A very active group of protestors have been running a campaign against Raytheon for some time now. This resulted in prosecutions after the group occupied the Raytheon offices. But on 11 June 2008, 6 people, who had occupied the offices of Raytheon in Derry and destroyed computers, were acquitted of criminal damage by a Belfast jury, writes Danny Morrison.  He continues: "Raytheon is a huge US arms manufacturer, with sales of $20 billion in 2006 and over 70,000 employees worldwide.  It makes Patriot, Tomahawk, Cruise and Sidewinder missiles, and much more besides". You can read the full story here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A little less conversation, more unity, please

Currently, it is not possible to write about anything else other than the violence that has gripped South Africa over the last few weeks. Barbaric images of foreigners being burned alive and assaulted by xenophobic mobs have been splashed across most international newspapers and TV.

It has been sobering, leaving one feeling powerless, distraught and deeply ashamed. I imagine most South Africans feel the same way.

As I write, 56 people have been killed, 342 shops belonging to foreign nationals looted and 213 burnt down. Figures vary, but at least 25 000 people are said to have fled their homes, or, put another way, are now internal refugees. The police have arrested 1 384 individuals suspected of participating in the violence. When this article is printed, I fear these figures will be drastically out of date, but also a grave reminder of how quickly a life can be taken.

Everyone has a theory about the roots of the violence. Many say poverty is the major cause. Frustration of unmet expectations for economic change in the lives of the country’s poorest has finally bubbled over. The media has also been blamed for hyping up the illegal immigrant issue over the years, opening the door for a violent response.

Immigration authorities and the police have also received stick for their constant harassment of illegal immigrants, which has set a poor example. Still others say the violence is an orchestrated strategy to destabilise the ruling party, the African National Congress. Government is also blamed for ratcheting up anti-immigrant discourse on the one hand, but having an ineffective immigration policy on the other.

Thabo Mbeki’s dilly-dallying on Zimbabwe, according to others, was the tipping point. Zimbabwe’s implosion, in which the South African government has failed to intervene, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean refugees flowing into the country.

There is probably truth in all of these explanations. But what is interesting, reading the different theories from afar, while knowing where different South Africans stand politically, is how one-sided and hollow most of the explanations seem.

Mbeki opponents are quick to jump on his ineptitude as the key issue. The unions and the Communist Party are quick to blame global capitalism, which has meant, they argue, that economic progress for the poor has been stymied.

Many in the ruling party are quick to roll out the counterrevolutionary discourse and propose that there is a hidden hand behind the violence bent on trying to pull the State down. And I have no doubt race or, more to the point, racism, typified by the meaningless label black-on-black violence, has been used as an explanation by some whites.

A discussion about the causes of the violence is important, but I was amazed when reading the editorials and commentary, one step removed from the reality on the ground, how self-serving they currently seem.

There have been rallies to call for an end to the violence, many have donated money for the people forced out of their homes, and public condemnations have been extensive. But what worries me is that as the condemnations fly, opportunists are seeing new openings.

Criminals can loot and rob on the tailcoats of xenophobic vigilantes, political parties can all have a dig at one another, and the newspapers are selling in their thousands. As for the majority, myself included, we can beat our breasts with exasperation and outrage, making ourselves feel better, but no-one else.

So what is to be done? I don’t have an easy answer. But I do know the constant mudslinging between different political parties and the media, all looking for the best analysis or who they can use as their next scapegoat, is counterproductive. Just as attacking foreigners will not bring the poor more jobs, vitriolic attacks and blaming political opponents will not bring an end to violence. Surely unity is more important now than division?

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 6 June 2008.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Do we just not like inconvenient truths?

The issue of climate change is now big news. This was brought home recently with the Nobel Peace Prize being given jointly to Al Gore and the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has helped drive home the dangers of climate change to the public. The Norwegian Nobel Committee felt Gore was 'probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted'. In turn, it praised the UN panel, made up of some 2 000 members, for achieving an 'informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming'.

The road to this recognition has, however, not been easy. Gore's controversial defeat by George W Bush in the 2001 election aside, those advocating the link between human activity and climate change have had an uphill struggle. The UN panel, which was set up in 1988, has consistently released hard-hitting reports into a disbelieving scientific community. Only recently has broad scientific and public acceptance of the threat of climate change been accepted. Science, coupled with cool-headed publicity on Gore's part, triumphed. But why did it take so long?

Obviously, developing rigorous science took time. But was inconclusive science the issue? Or is there something in human nature that rallies against common sense, especially when it implies taking responsibility. Do we just not like 'inconvenient truths'?

Remember the public debate about whether smoking was bad for health. I recall scientists saying smoking does not cause lung cancer; it is only correlated with it, so do not panic . There are still those who might take this view. From a purely scientific perspective, this may be correct, but one does not need to be a scientist to figure out that inhaling smoke into one's lungs cannot be good for you. Equally, it does not take a PhD to realise that spewing gases into the atmosphere that we know in certain doses will kill humans and animals is ill-advised. Science can help us to figure out exactly what the problem is and solve it, but it is the denial of the obvious that I find interesting, yet disturbing at the same time.

Denial has its benefits. It keeps anxiety and potential distress at bay, and can often save us from embarrassment. Denying a problem can also mean we do not have to expend energy or resources on it. Refusing to accept that a wider social problem is present, especially when you are not affected, also helps preserve the personal illusion of immunity or safety.

This is not to say that coming to a consensus about problems such as climate change, or HIV/Aids for that matter, is not challenging. Many people are rightly sceptical about what they read in the media. Dare I mention the millennium bug. Even on the climate change issue, there have been alarmist reports at times that have not helped the cause.

Scepticism has its place and can drive good science. Scepticism is a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind. It is constructive questioning. However, these days scepticism has been replaced with cynicism.'

Cynicism is defined as an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity marked by a general distrust of the integrity of the motives of others. Although trusting others is difficult in our world, it is fashionable these days to usurp healthy questioning with derision and sarcasm. People build their careers on pulling others down publicly.

When it comes to debates about climate change and other issues of public concern, it seems that proving someone is wrong is not always about advancing a solution. Rather, it is about scoring political points, getting as much airtime as possible or proving intellectual prowess. Surely, in a world faced with multiple crises, humility and cooperation are the only show in town.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 October 2007.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Environmentalism, war and diet coke

Unrestricted development and pollution are the best known ways of destroying the environment. However, war is also a major contributing factor that has, at least to a degree, been ignored in the debate so far. War wipes out lives and livelihoods through destroying farmland, resources, and environments necessary to sustain life, such as food, forests and water sources.

Conflicts over resources not only spur wars on but also lead to the plundering of other resources to fund the war machine. Then, immediately after wars, countries can be so desperate to rebuild their economies that they sanction unchecked development and the wanton mining of natural resources.

There are also the direct impacts of war. The first Gulf War resulted in an estimated 11-million barrels of oil being intentionally released into the Arabian Gulf. This destroyed coral reefs and more than 15 000 birds, besides other forms of marine life, and habitats. Did you know that, in Vietnam, biodiversity is still recovering from the use of Agent Orange over 30 years ago?

Even more disturbing is that it is also now clear that global warming will create further wars, leading to a vicious circle of environmental destruction. Two of the European Union's senior policy advisers, Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, outlined warnings to this effect in a recent policy paper. In the document, they warn of mass migration and north-south conflicts as perceived injustice between those causing global warming and those affected increase, as well as wars over competition for water, energy and other natural resources.

An 'optimistic' view is that climate change will not cause such instabilities but be a 'multiplier, that is, it will make bad situations worse, such as destabilising unstable States and fuelling existing conflicts, leading to local and global insecurity. What is scary is that this process is already under way. According to Solana and Ferrero-Waldner, every humanitarian crisis the United Nations dealt with in 2007 was connected to climate change in some way.

This paints a depressing picture. It makes you wonder why we have been in a state of denial about the environment for so long.

One reason for this, argues George Marshall, on his blog, 'Climate Change Denial', is that environmental issues are painted as global and feel beyond reach. I guess even talking about war and its link to environmental catastrophe has this effect. It calls on us all to stop wars, but this can have the opposite effect. That is, ordinary citizens feel powerless to stop war and so do not worry about its worldwide impact.

Marshall feels we need to drop language like 'save the planet' because it allows us to create distance between ourselves and difficult issues. 'Save the planet' means we talk of 'climate', not 'weather'; polar bears, not hedgehogs; African children, not our own, writes Marshall. 'The planet' locates the problem miles away from your community and somewhere in the solar system, and ‘save' speaks to abstinence and sacrifice. As humans, we naturally shy away from them.

As an antidote to this, Marshall feels we should replace phrases like 'low carbon emissions' with 'light living' and other positive messages, such as 'Live light because it will make you feel complete and free'.

Marshall acknowledges that this sounds like ad-speak (and a Diet Coke ad, in my opinion), but he feels it is a lot better than stock phrases like ‘save the planet', and will result in more people taking action.

I agree with Marshall that positive messages and localising the impact of environmental damage are needed. There is something off-putting about tired slogans like ‘save the rhino' or whatever celebrity animal has hit the endangered list in the last six months. However, my worry is that human denial is even more resistant than Marshall thinks. There is a tendency to only react when a tsunami rushes through your own backyard, and then it is too late.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 May 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where is the light at the end of the tunnel

The word that South Africa is famous for introducing into international parlance is 'apartheid'. However, as power outages continue in the country, its next big export will be ‘load-shedding'. South Africa did not invent the term, but it is claiming it.

Every time I speak with someone at home, load-shedding finds its way into the conversation. Load-shedding is a nice way of saying you are sitting in the dark for a stretch of two to three hours, eating whatever can be consumed cold from your fridge while the power company uses your electricity elsewhere.

For those like me, sitting comfortably in front of a power-guzzling computer in the northern hemisphere, this is an unthinkable scenario. For those in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is typical. In fact, having no power for only four hours a day would be a luxury.

The fact that others in the world have the same or worse problems does not make it any easier for South Africans. A support group for victims of power cuts is hardly going to help. People should not be wandering around, saying how long it has been since their last electricity fix. In a country with the wealth and scientific knowledge of South Africa, you would think the issue could be sorted out.

In my quest to learn more about load-shedding, I visited the Eskom website. It offers helpful information about what load-shedding is, and tells you about how electricity is made (or, in South Africa's case, not made). There is even a cute little graphic warning of the next blackout.

This, of course, is all well and good, if you have electricity and a computer to view it. Everyone knows the attractive layout masks chaos. Stories abound of traffic pandemonium, a massive dent on business productivity and personal impacts like individuals using emphysema oxygen-generating machines being left gasping for air in the dark.

The optimistic view is that load-shedding may result in cleaner energies in the long run and greater reliance on solar technologies, something South Africa has in abundance. Some say, tongue in cheek, generator expansion and candle production could bring in millions. Others point out that load-shedding is the product of economic growth, not decline. The pessimistic view is that nothing grows in the dark, especially an economy, and that this is the beginning of social and economic meltdown.

It is a shame that this discussion is even happening. Load-shedding is impacting on the one thing South Africa has produced in bucket loads since 1994, namely pride. South Africa was seen as the powerhouse of Africa. Now no one can find the house without a torch. It seems as if load-shedding is, outside the day-to-day consequences, creating disillusionment. The light at the end of the tunnel is lost in a bureaucratic botch-up.

But the world should take note of what is happening in South Africa. It is a global warning. The South African situation is the product of bad management, but it is also about unchecked growth. Industry, especially international companies offering investment, have been given, especially over the last decade, a free hand to build as much and as fast as possible. Regulation of power use and energy efficiency has been largely nonexistent. This is happening in countless economies across the globe. It is unsustainable.

If South Africa wants to regain some pride, either we have to beat Australia at cricket or take the easy option and find an innovative way to raise electricity supply without increasing emissions significantly. So power to the people, and for everyone's sake I hope a leaner, cleaner and more efficient and regulated solution can be found quickly. For now, good luck and remember baked beans are as good served cold as hot and red wine is best at room temperature.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 April 2008.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Learning from a trip down memory lane

The Tenement Museum in New York tells the story of a tenement building in the city used as low-income rental apartments for immigrants coming to the US between 1863 and 1935. Over these years, the building housed over 7 000 immigrants from more than 20 countries.

The museum takes you back in time through the re-creation of the apartments and tells the stories of the different people who lived in them. On visiting the museum recently, it was the life of Natalie Gumpertz, a Prussian immigrant, which touched me. After her husband went missing in 1874, she raised three girls alone and pulled her family out of poverty through dressmaking and a small inheritance. Focusing on stories like Natalie’s helps you realise that everyone has a story, even those who are seemingly forgotten.

Visiting this museum got me thinking about my own history. I am lucky because I have a dedicated relative who has spent an enormous amount of time tracing the family roots. As a result, I have information about my relatives, at least on one side of the family, back to 1769.

Without boring those who are not interested in my background, what has been significant about the process is to see how the family has changed over time. There are successful relatives as well as those who had problems, like alcoholism. However, what is undeniable is that even after periods of hardship and some relatives sinking into poverty, the family recovered and moved forward.

I understand this might not be the case in all families, and appreciate that in the South African context it has been difficult for many people to lift themselves out of poverty because of apartheid. However, one of the other impacts of apartheid and colonisation is that many people have lost touch with their history. Most South Africans know little about their families beyond the memories of living relatives.

Families were separated because of apartheid migrant labour and even whites were often cut off from their country of origin. The result of this has been a simplifying of the South African story. The dominant view is that all whites are somehow descendants of privilege, and diverse cultures in the black community are perceived as homogenous.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that in South Africa, whites, largely because of apartheid, ended up being more advantaged than most black South Africans, who were shamefully discriminated against by whites. But thinking of South African national identity through the prism of the present can be limit- ing.

Many extraordinary historical stories of everyday resilience in the black community have been lost, or superseded by the bigger story of fighting against apartheid. That many white immigrants to South Africa were fleeing persecution and poverty is also underemphasised. Of course, this cannot hide the larger story of how many of these individuals then persecuted black South Africans. But my point is that losing touch with one’s history means one is more prone to repeat its negative aspects rather than learning from them. This results in those who were mistreated maltreating others, or those who make it out of poverty even today forgetting about their fellow citizens in the poverty trap.

I am not advocating a sanitised and sentimental trip down memory lane or suggesting that having poverty or discrimination in one’s background justifies one’s actions. But, rather, the process of uncovering my own family tree has taught me how change happens and to appreciate resilience, and that all history is marked with imperfection.

South Africa, not to mention Northern Ireland, could do with more complex and nuanced historical storytelling. It is only when we become aware of the indivi-dual journeys we have all travelled, and particularly how flawed these are in most cases, that we can really get to know one another and transform the present with a sense of humility and purpose.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 April 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The bluetongue blues

Since the infamous war hero, Tony Blair, resigned and Gordon Brown took over, the news in the UK has been fitting for the most virulent of blues riffs. Brown’s Premiership began with floods, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and an economic downturn fuelled by a US housing crisis. The Gordon Brown blues then reached their apex with the discovery of bluetongue.

When I first heard the report, and showing my urban upbringing, I thought it was a joke or a new technology not too dissimilar to bluetooth but somehow related to cows. However, after hearing interviews with distraught farmers who had little time for gadgets or their livestock getting blue tongues, I realised it was no laughing matter.

For those of you living in countries spared the ongoing reporting of the disease, bluetongue is an illness transmitted by a specific midge. Sheep or cows bitten by the midges can suffer from fever, swelling, congestion, lameness and depression. A discoloured tongue, needless to say, is common and sheep whose lips and nose swell can apparently take on a ‘monkey-face’ appearance.

Most infected animals do not die but lose weight and, consequently, value, although in some species up to 70% can perish. The good news is that humans cannot get bluetongue (unless they drink too much cheap read wine) and animals cannot pass it to others animals (even if one sheep bites another after being teased for looking like an ape).

Bluetongue was first discovered in South Africa, which was the principal site of study for many years, since the disease was not present in other countries – but now it can be found in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the US. Some scientists relate the movement of the midges to climate change.

In South Africa, a so-called ‘weakened’ vaccine is used against bluetongue with some success, but in Europe the vaccine is not considered safe and is still undergoing testing, presumably, because Europeans have the luxury of wealthy governments to assist farmers while a more tested vaccine is developed. This means that bluetongue, like climate change, media hype and terrible British summers, will be around for a while.

So understanding the spread of bluetongue or preventing it is shaped by a north–south divide, money, inconclusive science, environmental destruction and occasionally bad luck. Such a plot line is fitting for any gloomy blues tune. That said, I must admit, blues music cheers me up. I think this is because it alerts me to the fragility of our existence. Realising how flimsy life is, in turn, reminds me that I should use my time wisely.

To this end, I am becoming intolerant of media hype and public panic. I know bluetongue is serious, but the more I listen to the news in Britain, the more I think the media, and, perhaps, some overly comfortable suburbanites, long for the so-called good old days, when diseases sounded really nasty, like the Black Death or bovine spongiform encephalitis. There is an underlying nostalgia in some quarters for woebegone days, when people pulled together as German bombs rained down, and for the daily discussion, not about the weather but about some terrifying apocalypse-like uninhibited terrorism or rampant bird flu.

This might sound cynical, but I don’t think I can cope with another health scare in the media, and the exaggeration and hysteria that follow. It is interesting to learn about the challenges of livestock diseases and how this might affect the welfare of farmers, but that is not the story the media wants to tell. The desired story is about fear and uncontrollable pestilence, and fear sells newspapers and gets governments re-elected.

So here goes my own little blues riff: “Woke this morning, now my chickens got flu; woke this morning, Brown’s gonna see it through. Woke this morning, my sheep’s tongues were blue; woke this morning, jabbering media starting anew.”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 October 2007.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prejudiced and proud of it

A few weeks back, I wrote an article that highlighted some of the findings of the ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey Northern Ireland’. According to this survey, Northern Ireland was found to have the highest proportion of bigoted people in the western world. Following the recent release of the South African edition of the ‘World Values Survey’, it seems that South Africans are as bad as their northern counterparts.

On the positive side, the survey found that over 95% of South Africans of all races are now proud of their country. But the survey also found high levels of intolerance. Although racism, which remains a problem, could be expected to be high, given the history of South Africa, the findings about other groups, such as homosexuals and those who are HIV positive, were also alarming.

Gay neighbours were seen as unacceptable by 48% of black South African respondents, 39% of Indian respondents, 37% of coloured respondents and 26% of white respondents. Having a neighbour suffering from Aids was considered problematic by 21% of Indians, 13% of whites, 9% of coloureds and 6% of blacks.

In the Human Beliefs and Values Survey, nearly 36% of people from Northern Ireland said they would not like a homosexual living next door. Across Europe, about 20% of people had this view. So South Africans, when it comes to the minority groups mentioned above, are equally intolerant, if not slightly more intolerant than the people of Northern Ireland.

Clearly, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland and South Africa share some problems. At the risk of conflating the experiences of two very different societies, this leaves one asking: Is a consequence of political conflict a legacy of intolerance and a lack of respect for other people’s human rights? And does this generally extend beyond groups to which you differ politically to other groups?

Both societies, for example, suffer from fairly high levels of xenophobia against new immigrants. This could be a result of an increase in the number of people coming into the societies after peace. However, the rise in violence against foreigners in both societies generally outstrips the proportional increase in new arrivals, suggesting a more sinister conclusion. It would seem logical, if not disturbing, that, if a society has for several decades used violence and exclusion as a way of dealing with problems, some residue of this will remain after peace.

There are many different theories about why minority groups are targeted in this situation. One argument is that aggression is a common feature of social and political conflict, a survival mechanism and a means to achieving power. In postconflict societies, when power relations are rewritten, a displacement of aggression takes place because old channels are no longer there. New avenues for reasserting power are found. The victims of this violence are those with seemingly less power in the new dispensation, such as foreigners and gays, not to mention women.

This means society has to protect the rights of minority groups vigorously. Minority groups have to have not only equal rights, which they largely do in South Africa and Northern Ireland, at least on paper, but also access to social, political and economic power. Put simply, minority groups are bullied because they can be. They are the weak kid on the playground, which is generally exacerbated by their social and economic position.

So, although some of you reading this might not like my saying this, minority groups, essentially, need a more proportional and equitable share of the economic pie. This confronts the fear that foreigners are taking local jobs head-on and pushes the situation to the extreme. But, if we truly believe in equality and a free and fair society, then access to jobs and opportunities should not be constrained by borders, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. Sadly, I suspect this is still the case.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 21 September 2007.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How to talk about books you haven't read

In this article, I would like to talk about a book I have never read. Strangely, though, I feel justified in doing so, since the book is entitled How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read – it was written by French academic Pierre Bayard.

The book, which I have read about second-hand, is a bestseller in France. In the book, the author, apparently, admits that there are many books he talks about that he has not read. In fact, he says he has given lectures on books he has skimmed.

Bayard’s book is, allegedly, filled with invaluable advice. To talk about a book you have not read, Bayard reckons, you should avoid precise details, put rational thought aside and let your subconscious express your personal relationship with the work.

Bayard claims his coming clean is part of an attempt to break down the pretension that surrounds reading and makes nonreaders feel less guilty. It would seem that Bayard has a point, or has at least hit on something, given the sales of his book.

Then again, perhaps, people are buying Bayard’s book, not in support of his general thesis, but because they would like to join the pompous book-loving sect. They see Bayard’s book as a self-help guide to faking erudite literacy.

Either way, this tells us something – for some reason, books have become mystical. They represent something beyond what they themselves are – mediums for transmitting information. They are rated higher than film, documentary or a good lecture. They are seen as a cornerstone of civilisation.

It is largely true that knowledge, so-called progress and the written word are entwined. But is it not possible that the veneration we attach to books is the exact reason children are put off reading? Is bookish snobbery not one of the reasons those who struggle with reading often end up in a declining self-esteem cycle, which results in their avoiding books rather than trying to overcome their difficulties?

About one-million new books are published each year, and a book is published every 30 seconds, according to Gabriel Zaid, author of So Many Books. This suggests that it is not possible to read all books and that many are rubbish. This links to one explanation for the pretension about books. The well read take it upon themselves to distinguish the good from the bad. Sadly, however, reviewing books has become an elitist sport.

Bayard suggests that, when it comes to reviewing a book, put the book in front of you, close your eyes and try to perceive what may interest you about it. Then write about yourself.

His advice is frivolous, but I like the idea of using books as a platform for imagination and to learn more about one another. Because there are so many books in the world, reading is, by its nature, selective. So we should celebrate the fact that we have not all read the same books. We should spend less time seeking the ‘must read’ book of the year and eulogising about it, and more time in imaginative conversation with one another, learning about what we have not read and what else tickles our respective fancies. As Bayard notes, “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books.”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 31 August 2007.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hotels, life and everything else

I have not had a good rant for ages. The sad thing about this is that, when I had this realisation, I was sitting in one of those places where complaining seems just about inane. I was in a hotel.

I have a love-hate relationship with hotels. This is caused by the fact that I have stayed in too many. I feel uncomfortable about this because it is a privilege to stay in a hotel. I feel compelled to say that the reason for my excessive frequenting of hotels is almost exclusively due to work, and paid for by other people’s money. That said, I do embarrassingly consider myself something of an expert on hotels.

Hotels can be charming places. It is wonderful to have someone to make your bed, clean your bathroom, let you borrow a bathrobe and give you free pens and stationery at will. However, there is also something deeply disturbing about them.

The hotel myth rests on buying into the pretence that you are an important person. You must convince yourself that you are the first person to sleep in the crisp clean bed, not the thousandth, and that when you are called ‘Sir’, people mean it. In turn, one pays an inflated amount of money for participalting in this illusion.

To make the delusion real, the hotel staff engage in mind games that trick you into an alternative reality. They fold the end of your toilet roll into a triangle. They fold down your bedcovers just before you go to bed, and leave you a wafer-thin little mint for your delectation. These activities are pointless, but serve to confirm that something special is, indeed, going on. In any other context, an obsession with triangles and folding of this kind, not to mention stalking a stranger with sweeties just before bedtime, would be considered a committable offence.

But it does not end there. The first time you turn on your TV, it welcomes you personally with a message. The TV ‘remote’ has too many buttons and works sporadically. The plugs in the bathroom are never – well, how can I put this? – plugs. Rather, they are those odd modern metal things that take days to master. The shower is too hot or too cold, and the shower curtain has a life of its own and a fervent desire to cling to one’s body.

Put another way, if you landed in a hotel from outer space, you would think civilisation is downright weird. Alternatively, aliens might feel at home. If you have watched Star Trek, the entire spaceship is like a hotel – nothing is out of place and everything works perfectly.

But enough of this frivolity. What I mean to say is this: a realisation which came to me the other night in a hotel after my third bag of overpriced bar fridge peanuts is that, despite my tetchiness about hotels, they have something to teach us. Hotels are like life (and, perhaps, politics). You spend all the time you can over the course of your life trying to make it just right, struggling each day for an ideal existence in a box that you call your home with a climate-controlled atmosphere. Everything should be painstakingly tidied away.

However, when it all comes to an end, you realise that all the time spent on getting the conditions right was time wasted. After all, when you stay in a hotel, it is not the room that matters, or the politeness of the service staff, or how amorous that shower curtain is, but the reason why you are there in the first place.

Remember, it is what you do with your time that counts, not the variety of snacks in your bar fridge, the warmth of your complementary slippers or if people speak to you courteously. So stop fiddling with the TV remote control and get on it with it.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 14 March 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The art of outsourcing frustration

In the UK and Ireland, almost all telephone queries, helplines, and even booking some domestic services, such as flights, are outsourced. Seemingly, it is cheaper to hire people in the developing world than to carry out such tasks locally. Last week, however, I reached the end of the road with the infamous call centre.

After struggling for a week with a terminally slow Internet connection, I made the dreaded call to the so-called help desk. I was greeted by a cheery voice, presumably in Bangalore. I explained the problem and was passed from person to person for 30 minutes, repeating my story. Eventually, I was told someone would call back within 48 hours. Someone phoned two days later with the joyous news that an engineer would visit between 8:00 and 13:00 the following day.

The next day no one arrived. I called at 13:00 to enquire and was told to call back at 14:00 because they could only investigate the matter from 14:00 because then it could be conclusively established that no one had arrived. I called back at 14:00, armed with the irrefutable knowledge there was no engineer at my house. I was shunted for 45 minutes between different departments, as they endeavoured to verify that indeed someone had not arrived. I was told to call back at 18:00 to check if someone could come the following day.

During the 18:00 call, which lasted a mere 20 minutes, it was established that someone might appear the next day. I was told to call at 9:00 the following day to confirm. I called at 9:00 and, after 25 minutes, was told an engineer was not available. As I wrote this article, it was still unclear whether the connection would be repaired.

Having said all this, I do not like to complain about call centres. Complaints in the UK and Ireland about call centres often have protectionist undertones that border on racism. Cursing foreigners for stealing Western jobs is a national pastime, even though only 5,5% of all jobs lost across Europe in the first quarter of 2007 were because of work being sent abroad, according to the Work Foundation.

That said, there clearly is a problem with call-centre outsourcing. How anyone can call the debacle I have been through ‘efficient’ is beyond me. It does, however, suggest that Indian workers are being paid so poorly that using 45 minutes to establish someone is not going to make an appointment is value for money for the employer.

This highlights the real issue, which is the exploitation of call-centre workers by multinationals and the brazen neglect of customers who, they know, have no option but to call repeatedly to resolve their issue.

This is not to say I oppose outsourcing – it has benefits. The West is naive to think the help desk is the flailing pinnacle of the outsourcing revolution. Outsourcing other services, such as software development, is big business. India’s high-tech sector is growing at 30% a year, largely because of outsourcing. It is not just cheap labour that is attracting business to the developing world, but the brain power in countries such as India and China. There are lessons in this for South Africa.

That said, as much as I like to see the developing world winning business from the West, we have to be aware of its price. I shudder to think of the mental impact on call-centre workers who spend each day getting an earful from people like me millions of miles away. Surely, there is a better way that could benefit worker and customer alike. If you want me to explain how this could be done, then call me between 9:00 and 21:00 during weekdays, press 1 to hear more about option 2, or press 2 to hear more about option 1, and when the frustration really sets in, press the hash key.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 August 2007. To comment on this article click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

INCORE Summer School 2008

INCORE is pleased to announce that the 2008 International Summer School will be held from Monday 16th June to Friday 20th June 2008.

INCORE will offer three separate one-week courses:
• Evaluation and Impact Assessment of Peacebuilding Programmes;
• Reconciliation in Societies Coming Out of Conflict; and
• ***Transitioning from a Post-settlement to a Post-Conflict Society.

The school provides an intensive week of training, networking and discussion in the field of conflict resolution. It attempts to bridge the gap between policy, practice and research.

The INCORE Summer School is recognised by UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) Programme of Correspondence Instruction in Peacekeeping Operations, and may form part of The Certificate-of-Training In Peace Support Operations (COTIPSO) Programme.

The closing date for applications is 29 February 2008. For further information on module details and how to apply, please click here.

***New module - it will draw on findings from INCORE's current Journeys Out project - for further details click here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Save the world, buy nappies

If you have a small child, nappies can become an obsession. This is fuelled by marketers who draw you in with promises of super absorption and all-night comfort for your little darling. However, the marketing has taken a creepier, yet seemingly benign, turn.

While recently perusing the nappy aisle, I noticed that now, when you buy nappies, you can, it seems, simultaneously save the lives of other children. A brand of nappies, which will remain nameless in case they sue me, promises that they will donate 2,5p (35 South African cents) to charity to provide a pregnant woman in the developing world with a tetanus vaccine. To be fair, the company has managed to sell at least 7,4-million of the nappy packets and millions of vaccines have been administered as a result.

I am glad lives have been saved, but the more I think about this campaign, the more it just does not add up.

The average pack of nappies that makes this promise, in the UK, costs about £6, with some as high as £8,50. On the conservative sale price of £6, the amount going to charity is, therefore, less than half a per cent of the cost. If we assume that the company makes a modest 20% profit on the product (and it probably makes more), it is donating 2% of the profit. And how would we ever know whether it has increased the cost of the nappies by 2,5p to cover this?

As a result of this particular campaign, website traffic for the product in question increased by 40%, along with profits. The company has also managed to divert attention from the fact that its product, disposable nappies, is a major threat to the environment. The average child will use 5 000 nappies over its nappy-wearing life. This equates to 130 bin-bags full of nappies. In the UK, three-billion nappies a year are thrown away – the vast majority are not biodegradable (and if I am honest, I am no angel in this regard).

So all things considered, although this campaign was helpful to some in need, it is hard not to treat it cynically, given the enormous profits involved. I doubt the company felt the sting of giving to others one bit as a result of this campaign.

Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the business opportunities afforded by shoppers’ desires to be ethical. At Christmas, I bought charity Christmas cards. On opening them, I noticed that only 10% of the cost went to charity. The cards were 20% more expensive than ‘noncharity’ cards. In other words, the charity component was carried by the consumer, plus a bit of additional profit on the side for the company.

This smacks of a sinister form of marketing that uses good will as a way of reeling in business. The nappies campaign appeals to parental emotion. It tugs at the heart strings when you think of other babies in need, when you are spending on yours. Buying ‘charity’ nappies eases the guilt. The mental comfort comes in thinking you have helped, and those with corporate power have assisted too.

However, if you placed £2,50 into the correct charity box that would have bought 100 vaccines instantly. Or better still, a $10-million anonymous donation given by the nappy manufacturer’s parent company (which generated $76-billion is sales in the last fiscal year) would have done the job much more effectively.

The company involved, and the charity administering the vaccines, would probably argue that the publicity generated by the campaign was vital in raising awareness of the unknown scourge of tetanus. Far be it from me to pooh-pooh all corporate social responsibility. But although the old adage says, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’. I think the corporate gift horse could do a whole lot better and be a lot more transparent.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 22 February 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Report on the Commission of Truth and Friendship

ICTJ recently released the publication of “Too Much Friendship, Too Little Truth: Monitoring Report on the Commission of Truth and Friendship in Indonesia and Timor-Leste”. The report focuses on the Commission of Truth and Friendship.

The report reveals according to ICTJ:

  • The CTF was created not with truth-telling and interpersonal reconciliation in mind, but as a means to ignore calls for international criminal justice already made by the UN and the international community.
  • The process for creating the Commission was insufficiently transparent and consultative, resulting in a body that has failed to reflect international best practices and the views of Timorese victims and communities.
  • The CTF’s Terms of Reference are fundamentally flawed, and included a mechanism for recommendations of amnesty while prohibiting recommendations for new judicial processes;
  • The Commission’s public hearings failed as a truth-telling activity. Most took place in Indonesia and gave accused perpetrators of serious crimes in Timor-Leste opportunities to provide self-serving accounts that charged the UN with responsibility for the mass violations and promoted factually incorrect versions of events. The UN Secretary General made a decision not to cooperate with the Commission due to its flawed mandate, so UN personnel were not able to respond to the serious allegations made against themselves and the organization in the public hearings.

The ICTJ adds thar "the Commission’s final report will be the final opportunity for the Commission to achieve some level of international credibility, which has been seriously compromised. This can only be achieved if the report places the principles of truth and justice ahead of the political factors which have marred the process to date". To download the publication click here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Transitional Justice Data Base Project

A new Transitional Justice Bibliography of over 2,000 academic sources organized by theme and country has been made available by the Transitional Justice Data Base Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The bibliography can be found here.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Truth a stranger, fiction the norm

For South Africans, what happens in Northern Ireland probably seems tangential to everyday life. However, living in Belfast means that I cannot escape it. Currently, as the new power-sharing government beds down, the issue of dealing with the past is taking up much media space. This marks a major shift. A few years ago, the question was off limits.

That said, exactly how society should deal with its past remains unclear. Some still favour ‘drawing a line’ under it. There is much talk of the South African approach, but few takers.

Last year, the British government set up a Consultative Panel on the Past to provide a way forward. The fact that it was a panel appointed by the British government, which is a player in the conflict, means that some people question whether it is the best vehicle to chart a way forward. Nonetheless, work has begun, with most adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Recently, the panel burst into public view with controversies about whether amnesty should be granted and whether the conflicts of the past should be labelled a ‘war’ or not. To South Africans, this might sound strange. Although this is an odd place for the discussion to start, it belies wider questions familiar to South Africans. In terms of amnesty, what compromises will be needed to deal with the past? As regards the ‘war’ question, this is significant in terms of acknowledging the extent of the conflict, and determining whose actions were legitimate.

South Africa was forced to confront these questions, given the scale of deaths, but in Northern Ireland, where 3 600 people lost their lives, it seems as if people think confronting the past is a choice. That said, the population is only 1,5-million, so 3 600 deaths is proportionally close to the number (roughly 25 000) of those who died in South Africa from political violence.

It seems, however, as if Northern Ireland has not reached first base. One critical question needs to be answered at this stage: is truth about past violations a right? Do we think knowing about the past from all sides is important, in principle? If so, then the next step is not to list all the reasons why this will never be possible, but rather to ask how society can ensure truth can be delivered. This needs political and social backing, independence and integrity.

South Africa, at least at political level, opted for the idea of truth as non-negotiable. This resulted in the truth commission. However, as I write, I am struck by the fact that much business related to the past is still not finished in South Africa. For example, those who failed to take the opportunity to apply for amnesty during the life of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have not been prosecuted for crimes such as murder and torture, or told the truth. For most victims, truth and justice remain elusive. Most continue to live in poverty.

So, as Northern Ireland confronts the question whether it should engage in truth recovery for the first time, perhaps, South Africans have to ask the question for a second time. Some of you reading this will roll your eyes at such a suggestion, but, if we think truth is a principle our young democracy should embody, have we done enough about uncovering and addressing the horrors of the past?

In turn, is the lack of a principled and unrelenting quest for the truth about the past emblematic of how we pursue truth in the present? It seems that when we suspect a cover-up, we establish a commission with much fanfare and promises of truth recovery and justice, but over time such endeavours lose focus and grind to a halt. Remember, to paraphrase writer HL Mencken, truth would cease to be stranger than fiction, if we were as used to it as to lies.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 February 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Masculinity and Transitional Justice

The latest copy of the International Journal of Transitional Justice is just out and it focuses on gender and transitional justice. The issue was guest edited by Judge Navanethem Pillay of the International Criminal Court and former President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I have an essay published in the journal entitled: 'Masculinity and Transitional Justice: An exploratory essay". If you would like a copy of the article send me an email, or the Table of Contents of the journal to get see all the articles in it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tips for riding a Zumanami

There is no doubt Thabo Mbeki was hit by a ‘Zumanami’ at the African National Congress (ANC) conference. He was trounced by Jacob Zuma, who seized the mantle of ANC president. The story is great reading, containing sleaze and power politics. Not since 1994 has so much been written about South Africa. I am not even sure whether I should weigh in on the debate.

But, as I sit staring at my screen, I am inevitably drawn back to the overanalysed story as surely as a jolly smiling fat bloke will always defeat a dull, short and grumpy technocrat when it comes down to a popularity contest (especially at Christmas).

On reflection, the whole affair was poetic (if you were not Mbeki). It was a magnificent demonstration of democracy with the people (well, ANC members) and the underdog winning the day. In an instant, Mbeki crumbled. Suddenly he seemed feeble, nattering on for two hours to a crowd who were not listening but sharpening their voting pencils, ready to make their fateful mark. And, indeed, a mark was made on history.

Zuma, the populist, the come-back kid, and an earthy soldier from the grass roots, has made it to the pinnacle of power (well, almost). He is seemingly destined to be the next South African President. Corruption charges and being acquitted of rape have propelled him forward and added wind to his people-powered sails.

So is this how we like our politicians these days? Fallible but personable? With a weakness for making dodgy friends, but indestructible? Four weddings down and still no funerals? Or is Zuma’s triumph merely a protest vote against the waBenzi – that Mercedes-Benz-driving new elite?

However, unlike fairy tales that end happily ever after, this story still has more pages to burn. Will Zuma shrug off corruption charges? Will Mbeki supporters roll over? And how long until the masses notice that Zuma himself probably has a Merc, if not a fleet? Who knows?

What I do know is that the event received massive international coverage. And, as in South Africa, reviews were mixed. International newspapers such as the New York Times and the UK Financial Times hailed it as a cautious triumph for democracy. The UK Guardian was more sceptical, asking whether South Africa deserved “a better choice than a dubious populist as its leader”.

But what is certain is that South Africa did not collapse with Zuma’s victory as some predicted. Even the rand managed to hold firm. Is this is a sign that politics does not really matter any more and that South Africa is just becoming another boring democracy? Or, as the Financial Times noted, is it because there is no need to worry (if you are a big shot financial investor, that is) because, despite the rhetoric, Zuma “is no radical left winger”.

So the Zumanami has come and gone. On one level, it seems radical. Yet, on another, as the waters subside, I am left feeling the process may be similar to that of a flood. Although a deluge can change everything in its path once the water recedes, people tend to build their houses in the same place. Will that much change?

Any prediction is doomed to failure, it seems. It is like gambling on whether global warming will or will not eventually result in floods sinking New York. Mbeki’s undoing was his remarkable ability to deny the impact of issues such as crime to HIV on ordinary people’s lives. Is a little compassion and affability all that the masses need? I suspect not.

So, JZ, my friend, you had better start waxing your surfboard. It is one thing stirring up a tidal wave, but surfing on the crest for a few years while trying to outwit the anticorruption squad and building several million houses at the same time is another matter.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 January 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Contribute to Conflict Trends

The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) is presently soliciting contributions for Conflict Trends 2008, Issue 1. This General Issue will cover a range of topics related to Africa (conflict, conflict resolution, peace, security and development, politics, specific regional and/or country case-studies/analyses etc). It is a more open-ended Issue and contributors are encouraged to submit articles on any topics of interest.Articles must be 2500-3000 words in length, and the deadline for the submission of the complete article is 15 February 2008.Should you wish to submit an article for publication consideration in this issue please refer to the Guidelines for Contributors on their website.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Handbook on Reparations launched

I have been meaning to post this for ages but last year (or maybe the year before), the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) launched its Handbook on Reparations edited by Pablo de Greiff. The ICTJ press statement "announced its global launch of The Handbook of Reparations, a groundbreaking collection of essays analyzing massive reparations programs for victims of human rights violations published by Oxford University Press. Over the coming month, events in The Hague, Brussels, Geneva, and New York will publicize and celebrate this tremendous accomplishment, reaffirming the Center’s deep commitment to working on reparations programs all over the world as an integral part of its holistic approach to transitional justice. At more than 1000 pages, this comprehensive study is the result of more than three years of intensive international and interdisciplinary research and the collaborative work of 27 authors from 14 countries. Written from a transitional justice perspective, the book employs a unique approach in examining national reparations programs by analyzing the experiences, needs, and impacts on victims". To read my chapter Narrowing the Micro and Macro: A Psychological Perspective on Reparations in Societies in Transition, email me and I will send you a copy. To find out more on the book click here, US or UK.

ICTJ New York Transitional Justice Essentials Course

ICTJ New York Transitional Justice Essentials Course 2008 is now taking appllications. Applications are due no later than January 14, 2008. Decisions on these applications will be communicated by January 25, 2008. The New York City-based Essentials Course is run by International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in partnership with New York University's School of Law. The course will be held from 25-27 February, 2008 at the beautiful Greentree Estate, an exclusive venue with 400 acres of rolling hills, gardens and woodlands on the outskirts of New York City. The course is intended for mid-career and senior staff of multilateral agencies, governments, NGOs, foundations, and universities who wish to undertake an intensive course on cutting-edge developments in this important and expanding field. For more details click here.