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.