Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bloodsucking is all the rage

The world seems hooked on vampires – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade the Vampire Executioner, Tom Cruise the Sultry Vampire, and the recent teenage angst-filled vampires in Twilight. I even admit to being slightly addicted to the 
stylised yet freaky TV series True Blood, which sees humans and vampires attempting to coexist in the deep south, in the US.

But why the obsession?

Firstly, the entire myth of vampires revolves around one thing – blood. Blood is a metaphor for so much about humanity: life, love, kinship, family, health, disease and death. Creating a fantasy creature whose raison d’ĂȘtre is blood is a recipe for human fascination. Throw in struggles between light and darkness, and good and evil, and the scene is set for decades of enthralment.

Secondly, vampires are, generally loners trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is no wonder hapless and pale teenagers wondering bedraggled about town in Gothic black can relate to them. Vampires make being an outsider cool and charming with a hint of danger.

Finally, vampires have a mysterious sexual 
magnetism. Vampires are tall, dark and handsome, or curvy, well proportioned and buxom. Short, dumpy and pimply vampires are few and far between. For mere mortals, vampires offer the hope of transformation, not only to something menacingly sensuous but, if all else fails, you can turn yourself into a bat and flutter off into the night.

So vampires give us something. They offer an escape from mediocrity, and no matter how disconnected or estranged from the world we feel, vampires offer a road to romantic 
immortality for a few minutes of neck pain and a pint of blood.

All this highlights what a fickle bunch we humans are, and how hard we are to please. In the words of James Bond, the world is not enough for most people. Instead of making the most of the here and now on earth, many people seem to prefer to escape into the 
sinister supernatural world.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a bit of entertaining escapism, but I am concerned that playful fantasy has turned into fixation. Searching the Internet, for example, for ‘vampire’ is scary business. There are people out there who think they are vampires, coming out only at night, drinking blood and filing their teeth into fangs for maximum effect.

At the risk of setting myself up for being mauled by a clan of angry wannabe vampires, this strikes me as decidedly ridiculous. Giving up garlic bread is one thing, but thinking you need to flee into a dark otherworld and be surrounded by haemoglobin-hungry nonhumans is just absurd, particularly when the real bloodsuckers are all around us – junk food peddlers who lure children in with toys made by underpaid workers in China; software companies that bring out new versions of software that do more or less the same thing but are not backwardly compatible, forcing us to buy upgrades; food producers who stuff 
animals with hormones for profit; psychics who use their so-called talents to make money rather than prevent terrible things from happening; ‘cheap’ airlines that are not cheap and keep inventing new ways to take your money; companies that sell extended warranties for goods already guaranteed; lawyers and consultants who charge by the second; private hospitals that bill for each swab; companies that pillage the environment and claim to be green; and, of course, who can forget 
bankers who have still not learnt their lesson and continue to get fat payouts? And don’t get me started on politicians’ expenses.

So forget the life of a night crawler – you can have just as much fun during the day and, what is more, you don’t even have to file your teeth into fangs. 
When it comes to being sucked dry of your cash, any old gnashers will do.

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, November 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 13 November 2009.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My book launch in New York


My book launch in New York on 11 November 2009 went really well in New York. A "conversation" about the book with about 50 people. Also inputs from Graeme Simpson, Ruti Teitel, Alastair Ager. Chaired and organised by Jack Saul (thanks Jack). Great to also see some CSVR people.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Give the gift of dignity, not column inches

One of the sad realities of the world is that, once a newspaper story breaks, it is impossible to stop its spread. The story of 18-year-old South African athlete Caster Semenya is a case in point.

As everyone on the planet now knows, Semenya is at the centre of a global row about whether she is, theoretically, a man or a woman. The controversy followed the revelation by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that it was carrying out tests on Semenya shortly before the women’s 800 m race at the recent World Athletics Championships. Semenya’s dramatic winning margin, coupled with the announcement, created a media frenzy. If you type ‘Caster Semenya’ into Google, you now get over 700 000 references.

But the situation has been disgraceful. The IAAF, presumably for a range of good reasons, made confidential information public, breaching numerous ethical standards. The world responded by feeling it appropriate to discuss Semenya’s physical characteristics causally and in public. Even those claiming to support Semenya often made their case by referring to how she looked or acted. The more this happened, the more she became objectified.

The result is that it seems everyone has now lost perspective and the debate continues unabated, when the priority should be to try to give Semenya back her privacy – not to heighten public interest.

The real issue in this case is how, and why, the case was made public and how this has been sustained – not whether Semenya is technically a man or a woman.

It is reasonable to ask: Why did the IAAF publicly announce that it was testing someone before full results were known? We can only speculate. Was it to combat a leak? A mistake? In a BBC report, it was claimed that preliminary test results became public because a fax was sent to the wrong person. And has the IAAF done everything to protect Semenya’s privacy since the announcement and offered adequate support?

I do not think that the primary issue, at least at this stage, is the nature of the IAAF’s rules and tests of what qualifies someone as a man or a women, and what this means for participation in different races. If one participates in a sport, and it has rules of this kind, no matter how obscure or unfathomable they are, one agrees tacitly to accept them and to be judged by them.

If one thinks the rules are wrong, that is a different fight.

Gender tests of this kind have been carried out in the past. Athletes from India, Poland and Austria, besides others, have been banned from competition after being ‘found to be men’. I wonder how many people around the globe can name these athletes? Most of us cannot because, generally, it is only after a ruling has been made that any public announcement (if any) is made about an athlete’s future. Until then, the person’s private life is kept out of the public eye. Semenya herself was apparently tested in South Africa in 2007 – this never hit the headlines.

The IAAF has launched an internal inquiry into the handling of the issue. Pressure should be put on the IAAF to ensure this is not a whitewash. An understanding of how this mess happened and who was responsible, and strategies to minimise its continuing impact on Semenya are needed. The emotional damage to her by the IAAF’s actions and how this can be rectified should also be considered.

Wider than this, constant public discussion and political grandstanding should cease. I feel guilty of this myself by even writing this piece. Seems we are all perpetuating the story.

Specifically, what is needed is an immediate moratorium on speculation and discussion about the outcome of the gender tests. We should all try to give Semenya back her dignity by keeping our opinionated mouths shut about this and let her deal with the ramifications in private.

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 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 September 2009.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cheating is now 
prevalent in many 
spheres of life

I have been thinking a lot about cheating recently – not the extra-marital kind, that is, but rather the act of breaking or bending the rules to have an unfair advantage over others or to beat rivals.
Cheating is everywhere of late. 
In Formula One motor racing, the Renault team admitted to instructing one of their drivers to crash so their other driver could be advantaged.
In another startling story, now dubbed Bloodgate, the director of rugby at 
Harlequins club, in England, asked one of the team physiotherapists to buy blood capsules from a joke shop and give them to players so they could fake injuries. 
A player was caught spurting phony blood on the field. But cheating, certainly in sport, is not new.


Race fixing in horse racing is as old as the sport itself. Tonya Harding got her ice-skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, clubbed on the leg just before the American championship in 1994. 
And who can forget cricketer Hansie Cronje’s match-fixing shenanigans? And I have not even started on doping scandals, financial fraudsters and vote riggers, not to mention where cheating is difficult to establish or is ‘normalised’. Soccer players fake injury sometimes dozens of times in a match. Acting skills are now essential to professional footballers.
Money now calls the shots, and getting ahead is increasingly competitive. This 
explains why a young driver would deliberately crash a car, risking his and other people’s lives, or a rugby player would gush ‘blood’ on request. 
Both knew their careers could be 
advanced if they cheated and, seemingly, the potential risk of being caught was dwarfed either by ambition or feeling they had no other way to advance themselves.
Some studies have found that 95% of students claim to have cheated at some point in their school career. 
In researching this article, I discovered dozens of websites dedicated to help-ing you cheat at school, including handy videos to demonstrate cheating techniques.
In a 2001 article by Donald L McCabe and others, entitled ‘Cheating in Academic Institutions’, the authors showed that cheating had increased in the previous 30 years at universities. 
They argued that students’ perceptions of their peers’ behaviour was the most powerful influence when it came to cheating. If lots of people are cheating, it becomes acceptable. If peers are perceived as cheats, others feel at a disadvantage and tend to eventually end up cheating themselves.
In other words, a permissive environment encourages cheating, which most of us know. The stock response to this is that there should be zero tolerance for cheats. But there is another way.
If McCade and his fellow researchers are correct, it is not merely context that matters but your peers’ behaviour and attitude that profoundly influence a decision to cheat. 
In the North American college system, this led to an honour code where integrity is valued in the faculty and among students. Research shows the system has fairly high levels of success.
The honour system does not solve all problems, but the principle is interesting. 
Creating an environment where people 
obey the rules because they think it is the right thing to do, not simply because they fear being punished, shifts the focus of responsibility from enforcement of rules to tak-ing personal responsibility to act with integrity.
 The more people act with integrity around you, the less likely you are to cheat.
All this is a bit of pie in the sky, but it does mean change starts with each of us. 
Spending time thinking about your own integrity, the holes in it, and how to plug them, seems to me to be a lot more productive than shouting self-righteously at the TV when it looks like another sportsperson or politician has bent the rules. 


Have you ever paid less tax than you should have? Have you ever massaged your CV to get a dream job? Have you ever inflated an insurance claim? Of course not.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 9 October 2009 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Use opportunity 
offered by rubbish

Research by the UK’s Institute for Public
 Policy Research has found that, in
 Ireland and the UK, the average person creates over 869 kg and over 603 kg of rubbish a year respectively. To deal with this, households in the UK and Ireland are expected to separate their rubbish, leaving it in appropriate colour-coded bins for collection and recycling.

Comedian Jack Dee categorises the current approach to recycling in the UK as more like filing than waste management. 
 Nonetheless, and despite some criticism that not all recycled waste is used, the recycling drive has contributed to a shift in the amount of waste in landfills.

In 2000, some 90% of waste ended up in landfills in the UK. In 2008 just under 60% of rubbish was deposited there. This is a significant change, but still behind countries like the Netherlands and Austria, where over 60% of rubbish is recycled.

In South Africa, formal recycling schemes are less common. I have noticed that most South Africans who visit us in Belfast are perplexed by our recycling rituals.

In the majority of areas in South Africa, if you want to recycle your waste, the onus is on you to sort your rubbish and then take it to the appropriate site. Most local councils do not collect rubbish, or demand that rubbish is sorted at home and left in differently 
marked receptacles for collection. As the South African website, Going Green SA, notes, recycling in South Africa “can sometimes be quite an effort”.

However, I would not want to paint a picture of Europe as being superior when it comes to recycling or reducing waste. When plastic bags were sarcastically referred to as the ‘national flower’ in South Africa, in 2003, government moved swiftly to charge for them. South Africa was one of the first countries to do this. The UK has still not adopted this practice.

Effective recycling can also rely on a 
degree of privilege, that is, having regular refuse collections, space to have multiple bins, running water to clean containers and mass education campaigns. The need to recycle can also be influenced by the amount of mate-
rial thrown away, in the first place. The 
developed world produces masses of refuse with its ravenous consumer culture and tendency to dispose of goods that might be 
reused in other countries.

Households in 
the UK throw away about 6,7-million tons of food every year. A study 
carried out by the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, which analysed 250 000 lb of refuse, found that it was paper, and not disposable diapers or fast-food packaging, that dominated landfill sites. Paper is largely used by industry and consumed by the better-off.

The poor are often the best ‘recyclers’. In fact, in South Africa, the more you look, the more you realise people are recycling all the time. Squatter camps are built from recycled waste. Toys and ornaments common in flea markets are often made of recycled wire, glass and bottle tops, and old machine parts, food and clothes never go to waste.

So the problem is twofold.

The developed world has more entrenched recycling awareness and better facilities, especially in countries like Holland and Germany. However, this is often limited to sorting rubbish for recycling. A more developed consciousness around reducing disposable waste by buying less and more appropriately, and reusing goods, is needed, especially in the UK and the US.

In the developing world, the recycling consciousness needs to take root, and adequate formal facilities to deal with this need to be put in place. At the same time, the poor’s ability to develop informal and imaginative pro-
cesses for reusing waste needs to be harnessed. The garbage business in South Africa remains a vast, untapped resource. Creatively using rubbish could be another aspect of building the economy and creating jobs, with the positive spin-off of environmental protection.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 21 August 2009 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Available: Transforming Societies after Political Violence

My book Transforming Societies After Political Violence: Truth, Reconciliation and Mental Health, now published by Springer in New York.

Transforming Societies after Political Violence offers a template for those tasked with providing truth, justice, reconciliation, and healing. This interdisciplinary study identifies complex relationships between recovery from political violence and the psychological processes that accompany widespread social change, showing how these can be integrated to strengthen both individual and society. Author Brandon Hamber draws on his extensive experience in South Africa and comparative examples from elsewhere to examine the centrality of mental health issues in transitional justice, and the social, cultural, and identity issues involved in meeting the needs of victims. In discussing reparations (what the author terms "repairing the irreparable"), the power of ambivalence, and especially concepts of closure, he eloquently sets out professionals’ roles in helping survivors move beyond the toxic past without covering it up or becoming mired in it. More information.

ISBN: 978-0-387-89426-3, Springer 2009

Available from...

Springer (Publisher)
Amazon (UK)
Amazon (US)
Kalahari (SA)
Springer Online

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Belfast and Johannesburg: peas in a racist pod?

I long to live in a society where there is no racism but, living between Belfast and Johannesburg, this is impossible.

About a year ago, xenophobia in South Africa hit the international newspapers. Foreigners, mainly from Africa, were driven from their homes, with over 50 people being killed. Over 100 people have been prosecuted for the attacks. But recently information surfaced that local businesspeople in some townships have been meeting secretly to ‘look at’ how to rid the community of busines- ses owned by immigrants. Sporadic attacks continue.

Belfast recently featured in international papers with a similar storyline. Some 100 Romanians were forced from their homes by mobs of young people claiming the immigrants were taking their jobs and houses and stealing from the local community. The attacks seemed to take on a neo-Nazi feel, with swastikas and Nazi salutes being prominent. Most of the Romanians have now left Northern Ireland.

However, attacks against foreigners in Northern Ireland are not new. They have been a consistent feature of the society over the last decade.

In 2004, for example, Bill Rolston, at the University of Ulster, highlighted attacks against Pakistanis, Chinese and Zimbabwean immigrants, besides others. He also reported on incidents where local minorities were greeted at night by masked men robbing their houses and telling them: “You won’t be needing these; you’ll be leaving soon.”

Police statistics show that, in 1996, there were 41 racist incidents recorded; in 2006 and 2007, there were 1 047. Research by Neil Jarman, of the Institute of Conflict Research, has found that such incidents, although perceived as taking place largely in working-class Protestant areas in Belfast and linked to far right groups, have been documented in Catholic areas and recorded in all major cities, towns and villages in Northern Ireland. Perpetrators of such inci- dents also vary and are not restricted to rightwingers and paramilitary groups, as some believe.

Of course, the increase in incidents of racism can reflect the growing number of immigrants, improved reporting rates and the increased visibility of the issue. But the numeric increase is undeniable and the figures are also underrepresentative because many incidents go unreported. Weighing up the research on the issue, the conclusion is clear: racism is a serious problem in Northern Ireland.

The public response has been interesting. As in South Africa, the majority have condemned the xenophobic violence, and a range of antiracism protests have been organised. These actions are commendable. However, there also seems to be social distancing from the problem. Routinely, commentators and the public make reference to “groups of thugs” being responsible and are at pains to point out that the majority are welcoming and want foreigners in the cities.

I agree that the incidents are the work of relatively small groups, but there also seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that prejudice is deeply ingrained across the society, as it is in South Africa. People in Northern Ireland, like those in South Africa, tend to take notice only when problems explode. In the times in between, most of us, including politicians, ignore low-level violence and racism. This reinforces the idea that there is an ‘acceptable’ level of violence and that some racism is toler- able. This creates the foundation for extremism.

I am yet to meet an African living in Belfast, myself included, who has not, at some point, been abused for not being from the society. Such incidents are generally not life threatening and most people are indeed friendly, but the hatred must be coming from somewhere and cannot be overlooked or seen as concerning specific individuals only.

In this context, surely, the majority of the population’s general avoidance of issues until they reach mammoth proportions, the ongoing use of segregated schools and housing, which inculcates a propensity for division, and the fact that most political parties continue to appeal to voters using narrow, single-identity politics and, in some cases, anti-immigration rhetoric, cannot be helping the situation.

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, July 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 July 2009.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Is man-made climate change just hot air?

It appears, as a species, that humans are prone to ignoring problems rather than dealing with them. Take for example the recent claim by Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment Sammy Wilson* that the hubbub about global warming is exaggerated.

Mr Wilson is “not of the opinion that climate change is happening at the rate that some would tell us it is” and he does “not believe that it is within the power of humans to change the climate of the planet through reducing CO2 emissions”.

Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on climate change commissioned by the British government in 2006, laughs off such claims. In his recent book, A Blueprint For a Safer Planet, he notes that what astounds him about the denial of man-made climate change and what needs to be done by humans to stop it, is that deniers are generally non-scientists. Mr Wilson is a case in point: he is a Politics and Economics graduate, and qualified teacher.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their point of view, and Mr Wilson is not an idiot and has no doubt studied the subject. We should also not squash dissenting voices as they can move debates forward. I also agree with Mr Wilson that the green debate can get a bit hysterical at times. But surely all us non-scientists can rely on are rational and scientific voices on certain issues.

Stern, who the Guardian describes as “soberly suited” and “grey”, does not fit the caricature of an alarmist green radical. Yet Stern remains adamant that given the robust nature of the science on the human effects of emissions, arguments by those that deny it are akin to denying an association between HIV and Aids or smoking and cancer.

Interestingly Stern goes on to analyse why some people deny climate change or paint those that talk about it as over-the-top. He concludes most of the naysayers do so for political reasons.

From Stern’s perspective some right wing thinkers want to deny climate change because they see it as a Trojan Horse for greater regulation of the free market. Some left wing thinkers tend to see environmentalism as a middle class preoccupation that diverts attention from the urgent need for economic growth in the developing world.

In Mr Wilson’s case he clearly holds the Trojan Horse theory, trashing the idea of green taxes which he sees as over-regulation and part of a raft of unnecessary “intrusive policies” around the environment.

But Mr Wilson aside, what is most interesting about Professor Stern’s analysis is how it applies to so many issues.

In Northern Ireland, for example, when it comes to integrated education between Catholics and Protestants, those with a right leaning disposition tend see any attempts to regulate and force integration as an imposition, and an attempt at regulating the social and cultural lives of children and communities. Some from the left rubbish the idea of integration as a middle class fancy. But in their actions both fail to face up to the truth—only 6% of children go to mixed schools and solid research overwhelmingly shows that sectarian attitudes from both sides are alive and well, and that contact between groups, under certain conditions, reduces prejudice.

Of course, everything is political. And those for and against integrated schooling, as well as those pro and anti the environmental lobby, have something to gain from different outcomes to the issues they feel passionate about. But surely common sense, at very least, should inform our perspective, especially if we are in a position of power.

As I have written before in this column, it does not take a scientist to know that spewing gases into the atmosphere that in certain doses can kill humans and animals is obviously problematic. But then again who would want logic dictating how we should live.

* In June 2009, Mr Wilson was moved from the Department of the Environment to become Minister of Finance and Personnel. This article was written prior to the reshuffle.

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, April 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 April 2009.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Where were you when the UK government imploded?

There is probably not a reader of this column who has not been part of a ‘where were you when?’ conversation. Where were you when Nelson Mandela walked free? When Princess Diana died? When the Twin Towers crumbled? 


The last few weeks, in the UK, has been a ‘where were you when’ sort of time. Events have not been as dramatic as the assassination of JFK, but rather a slow build-up towards a ‘where were you?’ crescendo that is on its way.

This accumulation has concerned the revelations by the Daily Telegraph about UK members of Parliament’s (MPs’) expenses. The culmination will, at the risk of making wild predictions, be the collapse of the once dominant Labour Party of Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown. The process will reach its pinnacle when Labour loses the general election next year.

The revelations of how MPs from all parties 
have used expense accounts have been damning. MPs can claim expenses for costs of running a second home because most have to live in two places, that is, in their constituency and also in London, to attend Parliament. MPs can claim up to £24 006 (in 2008/9) for this ‘additional costs allowance’. They can claim things such as mortgage interest payments on second homes and utility bills. However, officials have allowed MPs to claim for furnishings, maintenance and food. Until recently, claims up to £250 did not even 
require a receipt.


The most shocking claims have included a claim for £1 645 for a ‘duck island’ (a little wooden house where your ducks can sleep, if you are wondering), expenses to clean a moat around a large house, £1 000 for the removal of ivy from a wall, household maintenance and refurbishment worth thousands, new 
toilet seats, trees, bath plugs, trouser presses, TVs, carpets and mock Tudor beams, not to mention all sorts of food claims.

What is even more worrying is that an array of politicians have engaged in ‘flipping’. This is the process whereby they claim one house as their second home, carry out necessary maintenance and refurbishments, and then flip to their ‘first’ home, claiming it then as their second home. Expenses for that property then follow. Other politicians have been even more crooked, claiming mortgage interest for properties on which they no longer owe money, and couples who are politicians claiming for the same property.


MPs, however, argue that their claims are, generally, within the rules. 
The rules, however, state that costs can only be claimed for those “incurred . . . wholly, 
exclusively and necessarily to enable” them to “stay overnight away from my only or main home for the purpose of performing” duties as an MP. But anyone can see that MPs have been using allowances to literally feather their nests, increasing their property values and lowering their daily expenses through having their grocery bills supplemented. 
Are such claims necessary to perform governmental duties?


Of course, not all politicians have been 
engaged in such practices, although most must have known about the system and its excesses. A number of ‘more guilty’ MPs have resigned. Others are attempting to pay back
some of their 
extravagant claims. But even in making these repayments, most seem to continue to miss the point.

Many persist on defining their repayment as a benevolent gesture for an error in judgment that took place within the context of the rules. But, to the person in the street, this just smacks of 
insincerity because everyone knows the rules have been abused. There is the letter of the law, but then there is the spirit of the law. The actions of many UK MPs are, at best, ‘generally corrupt’, and, if such actions took place in Africa, no one would hesitate to condemn the whole system as endemically corrupt.

So, my MP friends, where will you be when the UK government comes crumbling down? Cleaning your duck pond or down on your knees begging for forgiveness?

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 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 June 2009.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Is the credit crunch the new Black Death?

Sometimes I find myself studying random and frankly weird subjects. My most recent foray has involved delving into the history of the Black Death. This makes me appear macabre, but I stumbled across a radio programme on the subject and it pricked my interest.

From 1340 onwards, the Black Death killed some 75-million people across the globe. In Europe it is estimated that 25-million to 50-million people died, meaning that one-third of the European population was wiped out. The scale of death had sweeping social consequences.

For example, the disease, or cluster of diseases, had a major impact on the Catholic Church. Not only were swathes of the church leadership infected and killed, with some sources putting the estimates as high as 40%, it also led to a decline in faith and religious allegiance. Many felt God had forsaken them. For others their loyalty to the church dwindled because promises by the church that the righteous would be saved, or a divine cure could be found, never materialised.

The result, as Samuel K Cohn, professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow, has noted, was that chroniclers of the plague turned from supernatural and religious causes to considering social, political, and even evidence-based medical causes. He argues this provides new insights into how the Renaissance came about.

Put another way, traditional orthodoxy, assumed knowledge and power, which at the time was monopolised by the church, were challenged and this led to innovation. Further, some argue that the decline in numbers of available workers resulted in improved wages and was one of the factors that contributed to the end of the feudal system.

Of course, I am simplifying a complex history, and there are many competing versions of what I have outlined above, but the point I am trying to make is that disaster can lead to progress. Obviously, pestilence and horrific disease is not what anyone would choose as a way of advancing society. But any process that challenges, for whatever reason, unjust power structures merits interest.

The current financial crisis is a case in point. For the last 20 years, the financial system has been the high church of Western society. Investment bankers were treated as demigods and free market radicals as purveyors of an ideology that was unquestionable. The market, as a self-regulating force that rewarded those who knew how to play it, was an irrefutable belief system.

But many bankers have been proven incompetent and some corrupt, and the world’s largest banks have had to be ‘regulated’ and bailed out by government cash. Financial orthodoxy has been shaken to its core.

However, another consequence of the Black Death in the 1300s was the tendency to scapegoat individuals as the impact of the disease spiralled. For example, Jews, and other minorities, were persecuted across Europe as rumours spread that the plague was caused by them, with some thinking they were poisoning the water.

Applying this to the present, I believe it is only right that the financial crisis should lead us to question perceived economic wisdom, but we should also show restraint and resist attempts to look for easy answers or assume only a handful of people are to blame. Most across the globe bought obediently into the system hoping to make a quick buck.

There are individuals who milked the system and large pension payoffs for those who failed to prevent the collapse are distasteful in the extreme. But campaigns to go after specific bankers miss the bigger picture.

There is a need to find a new economic order and energy should go into that. The system has failed not just individuals.

So, just as the Black Death led to change, the current financial crisis should be about finding new ways to diagnose and run a socially responsible economic system while curing the rampant disease called greed at its core.

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, March 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 13 March 2009.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

JZ cometh – am I bothered?

I have a confession that is unpopular in both South Africa and globally, and will probably result in my being ripped to shreds from all side. But here goes – I confess that I cannot make up my mind about how I feel about Jacob Zuma and I am not sure if it matters.

Apparently, JZ is either the anti-Christ or the saviour South Africa has been waiting for – the the man who will lead us into a new dispensation of milk, honey and BMWs for the poor this Christmas, or into a barren wilderness of economic decline and corrupt, banana republic politics where we will all be taking regular showers (if there was enough water) to protect ourselves from infectious diseases.

What is it about him that provokes people so much?

Is it simply that he does not fit the mould of the Mbeki, Clinton, Blair era of politicians – the great reformers who spent their time on a slippery slope to the right while pretending to care deeply about the welfare of the poor as the gap between the haves and have-nots was increasing? Or is it because JZ is a so-called traditionalist, and many whites in South Africa and in the Western world do not know what that means and it evokes racist stereotypes in them? Or that his supporters are still so unfamiliar with the liberal democracy they voted for in 1994 that they think, rather naively, that JZ is actually the vanguard of a new revolution and, therefore, worth backing, no matter what?

I am not sure. But I do know we should all be asking ourselves why we feel so strongly about him. This might tell us more about ourselves than him.

What I like about him is that he provokes a reaction in people, whether by design or accident. Anyone who can help stimulate debate and breathe life into politics, as the recent South African election proved is okay by my book.

Of course, I need to qualify this. Robert Mugabe provokes debate, as did Idi Amin and Pol Pot before him, and I not particularly fond of any of these gentlemen. But JZ is more of an enigma. There is something about him that is potentially hopeful and destructive at the same time. I am also a sucker for his rendition of his theme tune, Umshini Wami (Bring me my machine gun). It reminds me of my grandfather asking me to fetch his slippers.

Many whites are now quaking in their boots, and probably some of the new black middle class are wondering about their investments too. But what did South Africans expect? Given the economic disparities in South Africa, how could anyone but a populist have risen to power at some point and promise radical change? It would have been nice if the person chosen to do this was as unsoiled as Barack Obama, but life is mostly not like that.

So this is how I read it: Zuma is in a position where complacency is not an option. Given the corruption case, he has to be squeaky clean. The biggest threat to everyone is not what he will do, but rather that he does not do enough. He has to deliver for the entire country. Whether we approve of him or not, or his choice of song when it comes to public crooning, his mission to change the lot of the poor is in everyone’s long-term interest.

So maybe it is time we all stopped worrying about him as a person and focused on the big looming questions. How is South Africa going to become a fairer place? How do we ensure that democracy remains robust and human rights are protected for all? JZ will be part of this for a while, but, in a genuine democracy, politicians are temporary, whereas social problems can endure, and that is worth worrying about.

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 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 8 May 2009.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Shoe today, bomb tomorrow

There were not many highlights in the George W Bush Presidency. But one event, other than the occupation of Iraq, that stands out in my mind was the shoe-throwing attack on Bush by Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi.

As everyone knows by now, Zaidi, as an insult and a form of protest against the illegal occupation of Iraq by the US, hurled his shoes at Bush during a news conference in Baghdad last December.

For his troubles, Zaidi has been imprisoned, allegedly tortured and potentially faces two years in jail. He has also become an international icon. Zaidi’s internment has led to protests and shoe throwing has become a global phenomenon and a symbol of resistance.

Shoes were left at US embassies around the world as part of the demands to release Zaidi. Various protest groups have engaged in symbolic acts of shoe flinging. Antiwar group Code Pink tossed shoes at a Bush effigy outside the White House. Others have engaged in similar acts. Another creative initiative included building an enormous sculpture of a shoe to commemorate Zaidi’s bravery. The sculpture was built by children at an orphanage in Tikrit. Earlier this month, in a copycat attack, a protestor wishing to register his disgust at the Chinese human rights record threw his shoes at the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, during a speech at Cambridge University.

In short, shoe throwing is catching on and I am not surprised. There are so many global events that ordinary people have less and less control over these days. Wars are waged in the name of regular citizens when, in fact, many want nothing to do with warmongering. Many of us fantasise about doing things differently or forcing governments to be agents of peacemaking rather than peace breaking. But it is normally impossible to get your voice heard.

Peaceful protests are becoming increasingly ineffective against counterattacks from media agencies controlled by governments. Tight security makes it difficult to get near political leaders to express your opinions. Blogs, letters and email peti- tions are popular ways to register disagreement but they are often only read by those who share your views rather than those in power. There is a popular senti- ment that political leaders now live in a detached bubble and, even in democracies, the only time you can register your protest in a meaningful way is in the ballot box every couple of years.

People need an outlet and many are fed up with being disempowered from decision-making. Hurling shoes provides a relatively harmless way (well, as long as hobnailed boots are not used) of effectively registering your opinion. Shoes are readily available, easy to transport and simple to get through security checks since most of us wear them (unless you are Zola Budd).

Of course, I am not advocating unbridled shoe chucking every time we are unhappy. But we should salute the courage of those who choose to register their voice in a way that is direct, yet, broadly speaking, a symbolic gesture of disgust rather than a hard-core act of violence. I know such a comment is controversial and I wonder how Gandhi would feel about it. Is shoe tossing, especially if you miss, an act of peaceful protest? I do not know. I also acknowledge that Zaidi’s act was not particularly professional from a journalistic perspective, and he might have caused Bush a mild head injury, causing him to do something rash, like starting a war without planning it.

But, equally, we must acknowledge the frustration felt by ordinary citizens the world over who feel excluded from politics and marginalised from key decisions. We must find ways for average people to be heard and influence global events, whether in Iraq, South Africa, or the US. Without this, a shoe today will be a bomb or a gun tomorrow and that would be no laughing matter.

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, February2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 February 2009.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What I learnt in 2008

There is a saying in cricket that, if you are going to go for a big, shot go at it hard. This might sound obvious, but there is a tendency among batsmen, even when deciding to play a specific shot, of not committing to it fully, in the hope that they can prevent themselves from making a mistake as they strike the ball. But it is often hesitation, coupled with a lack of confidence, that can be a batsman’s downfall.

So what has this got do with what I learned in 2008? Let me explain.

The year 2008 will be remembered for the collapse of the global economy, with giants such as Lehman Brothers going under. But it was also the year of the bail-out, with governments pouring trillions into failing banks. Apparently, without the bail-outs, a ripple effect could have ensued, destabilising the entire economy and resulting in mass unemployment.

So the lesson is that, if you are going to undertake a business venture, do it on as big a scale as possible. The more people tied into your transactions and borrowings, the more likely someone will come to your aid. Being in R1-billion debt is not too different to being in R1 000 debt if you cannot pay your dues. In other words, and paying homage to McDonalds, if you are going to go for it, go large.

Robert Mugabe has successfully employed the 'go large' strategy too, coupling it with a passionate belief that he is doing the best for his people. But Mugabe, in the words of blogger and UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, proves that “there is no more destructive force in human affairs – not greed, not hatred – than the desire to have been right”. But believing one is right is often not based on rational thought.

Robert Burton, a neurologist and author of On Being Certain, argues that although we may feel we know something and we think it is a product of reason, this is generally not the case. Scientific evidence suggests that feelings of certainty stem from primitive parts of the brain. These parts of the brain are independent of reasoning and conscious reflection. In other words, the feeling of being right is about emotion and is a psychological state.

This suggests that we should be wary of our own belief in certainty, whether this concerns politics or economics. Sadly, however, 2008 taught me the irrational opposite. When it comes to making money and furthering a political ideology or cause, it seems that fortune favours those who believe, whether misguided or not, that they are right and pursue their goals with vigour.

At the end of 2008, the Israeli government put this into practice by killing over 500 people (most of them civilians) in ten days, apparently to prevent Hamas from sending rockets into Israel. But, according to journalist Robert Fisk, Hamas's home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, making the response savagely disproportionate. Of course, Israeli deaths are a tragedy too, but the overwhelming force used by Israel, besides other factors, seems to have stunned the international community into silence.

So this is my advice for 2009: whatever you decide to do, do it with the force of a hurricane and the confidence of a prizefighter, who cares nothing for consequence. The world likes single-minded arrogance, or at least does not act against it and sometimes even rewards it.

Fly as high as you can in 2009 and forget about bombed children, unemployed labourers and those with cholera in Zimbabwe because, after all, falling from 100 m has the same result as crashing to the earth from 100 000 m. What is more, flying at 100 000 m with gay abandon is a lot more exhilarating and seemingly no one will try to stop you, in case they crash and burn too.

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, January 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 15 January 2009.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Does it matter that Obama is black

The election of Barack Obama as President of the US was momentous and filled with historic firsts. The first black President of the US, the first woman moose-killing candidate running for Vice-President, and a record turnout of voters eager to make their mark on history. Importantly, and probably the first time in the Western world, the issue of race was also central to the election campaign.

Throughout the election, there was much talk of the Bradley effect. This is the tendency of white voters when choosing between a white or black candidate to tell pollsters that they will vote for the black candidate; however, when they enter the voting booth, they vote for the white nominee. In other words, when polled many white voters do not want to appear racist and, therefore, claim their preference is for the black candidate even if this is not the case.

What was interesting, however, was that there was little evidence of the Bradley effect in the election. In fact, the opposite might have happened. Some Republicans who said they would vote for McCain might well have decided at the last minute to vote for Obama. Obama got more white votes than most of the previous Democratic nominees. So does this mean race no longer matters in US politics?

I heard one commentator talk about a new “post racial” period in the US. What he meant by this was that race was no longer the electorate’s first point of reference. Rather it was competence and policies that drew people to politicians, not to mention the failures of previous governments.

This should be what we strive for the world over, but race, unfortunately, is still an issue. The fact that thousands of African-Americans turned out to vote, many because there was an African-American candidate, and the unambiguous elation many felt at electing a black man specifically suggest that race is still extremely important to many Americans.

The election of Obama shatters the myth that there is a racial ceiling in American politics. But Obama’s story is the exception rather than the norm. A 2008 United Nations Habitat report that focused on the state of the world’s cities found that race was still one of the most important factors determining levels of inequality in the US, as it is in many other societies. Electing a black President does not eradicate the legacy of inequality and discrimination that still affects contemporary life.

The ideal situation would be that Obama’s race, or anyone’s for that matter, is of no significance in politics. The fact that the Bradley effect did not come into play suggests that race is not as big an issue as before. However, at the same time, pretending that Obama’s Presidency has now moved the US into a “post racial” period is somewhat premature. Some real work remains to be done.

That said, I do not think we should undermine the importance of what has happened. Hope needs room to breathe and should not be crushed with cynicism at this early stage. If nothing else, it is of massive symbolic importance in the US and globally that the most powerful man on earth is black.

Of course, race needs to remain on the table and will need to be continually addressed in the US and elsewhere. I hope Obama uses his position to raise the issues of racial inequality and racism in the US and elsewhere, especially in relation to Africa.

But before raising even higher expectations of what Obama can achieve, I want to take pleasure in the wave of optimism that has swept the world through his rise to power. Whatever happens next, Obama’s story is inspirational and demonstrates, despite all the structural impediments in society, that sometimes individuals can change the world, and affect their and other people’s destiny in the process.

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, November 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 14 November 2008

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Launch of the Consultative Group on the Past Report

Today the Consultative Group on the Past launched its report, here is the speech at the launch. The launch itself was marked by controversy. I was present and it was all very calm until various victims groups started an argument about the recommendation for a "recognition payment" to all the victims of the conflict. The scenes were actually fairly distressing and the launch was delayed for some time (see BBC footage). The whole affair has left the future of the report in doubt. Although the recommendation payment is only one of 30, no doubt controversy will reign.

Download the full report here.

Healing Through Remembering, which I Chair, released a press statement before the launch. It is below.

HTR Response to Report of the Consultative Group on the Past launch


27/01/2009 

The report builds on the work of Healing Through Remembering and supports the view, long held by Healing Through Remembering, that there is need for society to address the issues relating to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland in order to build a more peaceful future.

Kate Turner, Director of Healing Through Remembering says “What we need is measured and reasonable debate on these issues. The experience of HTR is that honest inclusive debate in an appropriate environment can bring agreement on reconciliation, truth and justice by those who hold opposing views and opinions.”

Brandon Hamber, chair of Healing Through Remembering says “The report offers an opportunity to genuinely engage with the difficult issue of the past. Few places have consulted so widely in their deliberations on such issues. We should not squander opportunities for dialogue on these thorny issues on the back of political posturing. Let’s debate the recommendations and try and find a measured way of taking this issue forward.”

Healing Through Remembering continues to enable deeper discussions, forums and events on how best to deal with the conflict in and about Northern Ireland to build a better future.