Friday, December 10, 2010

It’s a rip-off – get me out of here

It can be alarming when you realise you are not a nice person. This epiphany about myself came to me while watching (against my will, I should add) the UK television show I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here.

Let me explain. I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here, for those not based in the UK, involves dumping a group of celebrities in the Australian jungle for a few weeks. They are then subjected to various humiliating and seemingly dangerous trials. This normally involves being showered with insects or being submerged into tunnels with rats and snakes. A notable activity is the Bush Tucker Trial, which, generally, means eating worms, cockroaches and a mandatory kangaroo penis and testicles. The winning celebrity is the one who stomachs the most awful things.

Presumably, the audience, for some perverse reason, enjoy watching the celebrities being mildly tortured. The celebrities, seemingly, agree to the humiliation and simulated danger in return for the publicity.

But back to why I am not a nice person. The revelation came when I found myself, while watching I’m a Celebrity, being overwhelmed by a desire to see the participants being swallowed, one by one, by an enormous snake live on TV, then regurgitated and finally squashed by a bouncing castrated kangaroo.

I do not consider myself to be a violent person. So why my sadistic reaction? My reaction is linked to the duplicity implicit in the shows. Celebrities are never in real danger. Everything is carefully stage- managed to ‘entertain’ the public for money. There is no ‘reality’ involved.

Annette Hill, in her 2005 book on reality TV, notes that reality TV is a catch-all phrase for a wide range of programmes featuring real people. These range from ‘on-scene’ shows (like those set in hospitals) through to shows where real people are placed in different contexts, like I’m a Celebrity, and, most famously, Big Brother.

The latter are peculiar ‘reality TV’ shows because they are not about real life at all. Although they feature real people without scripts, the shows themselves are contrived and supervised by a vast crew. Each task that is filmed is planned, thought through, reactions anticipated, and guided to a predictable conclusion. The show is heavily edited to create characters – the villain, the coward, the nice guy, and so on. Once the ‘true’ characters have been revealed, viewers can decide if they like the characters or not, and then fully engage in the drama by, generally, voting, for a price, for their favourite.

This is where the real exploitation of viewers takes place. Viewers are taken on a so-called authentic ‘journey’ with the characters, and they are tricked into thinking they now know these celebrities. For this pleasure, they have to part with their cash in telephone voting.

Reality TV programmes cost about seven times less to make than drama. The programmers are making massive profits through advertising revenue. They then have the audacity to take money from the telephone vote process. Some shows go even further.

The X-Factor talent show, for example, has the gall to release charity singles for the public to buy. Of course, supporting charity is worthwhile, but this is yet another way the shows can hoodwink the public into participation (righteous this time). The programmers are so greedy they cannot donate themselves to charity from their massive profits. They get the public to do this without undercutting their bottom line.

I am not an anti-TV moralist. Adults can watch whatever they find entertaining and, with informed consent, participants are free to degrade themselves for others’ gratification if they want. Television is not the cause of all social ills.

So, if you want watch this type of reality TV, be my guest, but realise it is all about taking your money. So, at the very least, please do not lift the phone.

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, December 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 December 2010.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Responses to Cohesion Sharing and Integration Strategy

The Community Relations Council has been publishing the various reponses to the Cohesion, Integration and Sharing Strategy consultation document on its website. You can read the responses here. The CRC's own rather excellent response is also now available, download the CRC response.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Is cyber terrorism the new swine flu?

I would strongly recommend, especially if you are of a nervous disposition, that you avoid reading the Strategic Defence and Security Review released by the UK government recently. The document makes uneasy reading.

The UK spends over £33-billion a year on defence. This is the equivalent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana put together. It is ten times the GDP of Zimbabwe and is three times the GDP of Afghanistan.

To justify this massive expenditure, even with a proposed 8% expenditure cut, the defence review is at pains to point out the numerous security threats to the UK. The threats read like the scripts for the next generation of disaster movies.

The issues posing the biggest security risks include terrorism, instability and conflict overseas, cyber security, civil emergencies, energy security, organised crime, border security, and counterproliferation and arms control.

Interestingly, the area that seems to have drawn much media attention is the newly identified threat of cyber security, which the defence review sees coming from hostile States, terrorists and criminals alike. The document notes: “Enemies will continue to attack our physical and electronic lines of communication. And the growth of communication technology will increase our enemies’ ability to influence not only all those on the battlefield, but also our own society directly. We must, therefore, win the battle for information, as well as the battle on the ground.”

It is strange to read a document that so blatantly calls for a war over information. But the most perplexing comment of all is that the defence review, a document allegedly focusing on security, highlights that the new threats from cyber terrorism are also an opportunity. The threat of cyber warfare, the document notes, means that the “UK government and British businesses . . . will derive benefits from the protection that effective cyber security measures bring to the UK economy”.

Such a statement guarantees substantial com- mercial interest in new profit-making security ideas. But this has also left me wondering if cyber terrorism is going to be the new battleground for scaremongers.

Just as we were told to fear bird and swine flu, mad cow disease and the potential impact of sheep with blue tongues, will we now be periodi- cally subjected to public hysteria about cyber threats? I predict a steady flow of millennium buglike fiascos where threats are identified, millions invested and spent, and then threats disappear without a trace.

This is not, of course, to belittle the prospects for real cyber terrorism. Recently, for example, a computer worm known as Stuxnet, which damages computer systems, was identified on machines linked to Iran’s nuclear programme. This looks like one of the first successful and systematic attacks on a State installation presumably by a country or group of individuals trying to scupper Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The problem with all this, however, is that most of us know very little about cyber terrorism, hacking and computer security. The mere mention of cyber terrorism feeds into fantasies of computers slowly taking over the world as geeky James Bondlike cyber heroes battle their malevolent intent.

But computers do not make viruses or introduce them into systems by themselves – humans do. Most security breaches still happen through human error and through good old-fashioned security leaks like leaving documents unsecured.

The UK defence review acknowledges that “simple, common-sense security measures available to ordinary citizens and businesses would make a major difference if used widely”.

But I wonder, now that cyber terrorism has been put on the national security agenda, if common sense will prevail. Sadly, I suspect the business sector’s desire to make a quick buck and general ignorance about the limits of what computers can and cannot do will leave the taxpayer bamboozled and ripped off yet again as the UK government invests in all sorts of flashy, yet ultimately useless, new security technologies.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 29 October 2010.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making peace with the past in Northern Ireland

by Kieran McEvoy

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." William Faulkner

As with much of Faulkner's work, the context is a society struggling with a legacy of bigotry, violence and a legal and political system that failed to respect civil rights for long periods. While the parallels with the American south aren't a perfect fit, it's hard to miss Northern Ireland's ongoing struggle with its history of violence, intolerance and rights abuses. Twelve years after the Good Friday agreement, the past continues to cast a long shadow.

As Ian Cobain details, hundreds of people convicted of paramilitary offences are now appealing on the basis that they were tortured or abused into confessing. These challenges are one fragment of a confusing mosaic of processes and proposals that still dominate the headlines and local politics.

By way of illustration, a few months ago the Saville inquiry exonerated those killed by the British army on Bloody Sunday in 1972. David Cameron's moving and generous apology, apparently constructed in the face of civil service opposition, brought some closure to the families and significantly altered the mood music among republicans concerning "dealing with the past". The Wright inquiry recently found no evidence of collusion in the loyalist paramilitary's death. Two other inquiries involving alleged state collusion in murder are due to report soon.

The Historical Enquiries Team (Het), a police-led initiative, is going through the painstaking business of reinvestigating more than 3,200 conflict-related deaths. The Office of the Police Ombudsman (Oponi), the body that investigates allegations of police wrongdoing, has a backlog of conflict-related cases that it estimates will take decades to clear. The Disappeared Commission, established to deal with those killed and "disappeared" by the IRA, continues to oversee periodic digs for bodies across Ireland.

Approximately two dozen conflict-related inquests involving security force killings remain unresolved in the coroners' courts, and further civil actions such as those taken by the Omagh families are planned. Below the radar, a range of people are facilitating dialogue between former paramilitaries and victims looking to learn more about the deaths of loved ones.

In 2009, the Consultative Group on the Past, established by Tony Blair, recommended the establishment of a Legacy Commission to run for five years (a truth commission by another name), a Reconciliation Forum and various other measures concerning storytelling, remembrance and a declaration against violence for political ends. With some tweaking, essentially this report provides a way to deal with many of these issues in one place. The current government has published responses to that document but appears uncertain how to proceed.

In the current climate, it is all too easy to use finance as a smokescreen for doing nothing. In this context, however, interminable legal proceedings, the work of Het, Oponi and the rest will continue regardless, and will all cost money. To establish a new overall body would require political will, but it is a more efficient and effective way to actually manage the past. Crafting a time-limited process, engaging lawyers in order to curtail legal expenses, ensuring the voices of victims are heard and respected are all surmountable design challenges. Without such a holistic process, the drip drip of disclosures will continue to destabilise the process.

Barak Obama deployed the Faulkner quote above during his presidential campaign when the views of pastor Jeremiah Wright appeared likely to derail his presidential campaign. With intellectual rigour and moral courage, Obama transformed the issue with an incredible speech on race, the past and a vision of the future in America. Cameron has already shown himself capable of similar leadership in his response to Bloody Sunday. It is time for him to follow through on that logic and put in place a process to deal with the Northern Ireland conflict as a whole, once and for all.

Source: The Guardian, 11 October 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

I would rather be hung over than be a glutton

t is difficult to write on subjects like alcohol without attracting criticism. Mentioning the word in a column such as this can result in letters claiming the wrong sort of message is being promoted. I recall receiving an email berating me for noting in an article that I had paid for a large purchase with a credit card. The complainant felt it was problematic because I was advocating negligent personal finance. So let me begin by saying that I am not encouraging either irresponsible or responsible drinking, whatever that is.

In fact, I do not even want to write about the merits or demerits of drinking alcohol – rather I want to talk about hangovers, or, in South African parlance, babalas. I have, of course, never experienced a hangover and, for those of you wondering, the glass of wine sitting on my desk right now is only there to increase my bohemian literary credentials rather than assist in lubricating my vocabulary.

I hear, however, that, by all accounts, a hangover is deeply unpleasant. Apparently, there is nothing worse than waking up fully clothed (or sans clothes), dehydrated and with a piercing thud in your head that is only interrupted by waves of nausea that make seasickness seem desirable.

But are hangovers not inevitable if you really want to have fun? The mature among us would say, of course, that they are not. Everything in moderation is a more measured way to live. But is a little overindulgence from time to time not necessary for the human spirit to replenish?

It has not taken long for the word ‘hangover’ to become associated with the post-World Cup woes in South Africa. The Economist ran an article in its August edition titled ‘After the party . . . comes an almighty hangover’. The piece referred to the public-sector strike that shook the country to its core in the last few weeks.

Over one-million people took part in the strike. Horrific incidents hit the international media, including striking hospital workers leaving patients to die and picketing teachers beating children as they tried to attend school. Such stories are stomach churning.

I do not want to debate the machinations of the strike – there are more sophisticated political analysts than I who can do that. But, given the social and economic problems in South Africa, was a serious clash between government and workers not inevitable with or without the World Cup?

The World Cup might have temporarily diverted attention from the country’s underlying social problems, but they were always there. The tournament merely dulled the political senses for a while.

Personally, I think the country was right to throw the World Cup party. Some hangovers are worth it, even if the eupho- ria (which, in this case, came in the form of a reignited sense of racial unity and a reminder of what might be possible) is artificially induced.

Enjoying a party and tackling deep, underlying structural issues are different things. I know many would say this is a reckless comment, as the money spent on the World Cup might have been better used, but tackling social problems in South Africa is a long-term project. The World Cup is a blip in the history of this process, a tiny contributor, whether positive or negative. Only the naïve would have ever seen it any other way.

Remember, when dealing with the deep social problems – whether in South Africa, Ireland or the UK – it is not the occasional spending binge, like the World Cup, that is the problem, but the persistent drain on or misdirected use of resources. The main culprits are businessmen (they are mostly men) and politicians that continue to suck economies dry through greed and a lack of willingness to bring others into their gluttonous economic clubs and, lest we forget, corruption and political ineptitude.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 September 2010.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Is South Africa just one big vuvuzela?

There were moments of brilliance on the pitch during the 2010 World Cup, but it was what happened off the pitch that grabbed the most attention.

The media were obsessed with the presence of Diego Maradona as he minced about like a diminutive rotund action man squeezed into a suit against his will. The Jabulani ball and its tendency to balloon into the crowd when struck from a free kick (unless by Diego Forlan) also provided for hours of discussion. The cheating from players feigning injury to more serious incidents, such as the blatant handball by Uruguay to deny Ghana a place in the semifinal, also produced much chitchat.

However, the clear winner, when it came to off-the-pitch distraction, was the vuvuzela. For the entire tournament, pundits, fans and even those with no interest in football were talking about it. Everyone had an opinion on the noisy horn. There were Facebook petitions to have it banned as well as voracious calls for its recognition as the cultural symbol of African football and, hence, for its preservation.

Since the end of the World Cup, debate has continued. Several English Premiership teams have banned the vuvuzela from their grounds. At Wimbledon, there was much anxiety that someone might sully the Centre Court with a long droning honk, and it was hastily outlawed. There is also now a dispute over who owns the vuvuzela from a commercial perspective. Several companies have tried to register the trademark. Masincedane Sports, which has been producing the instrument since 2001, reached a compensation deal with the Shembe Church, in South Africa, about ownership, even though the final decision is still pending on whether Masincedane owns the trademark. The church claims that it invented the instrument in 1910 with a view to using it in religious ceremonies. The vuvuzela is, apparently, useful in driving out demons.

Practically speaking, however, the vuvuzela really belongs to the people of South Africa, and now the world. UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is said to have sold over 50 000 vuvuzelas. You can even buy them from online global retailer Amazon.
Perhaps the reason for its success is that, in many senses, the vuvuzela is a lot like South Africa.

The vuvuzela gets noticed. It draws attention to itself. It has touched the inter- national imagination. Just like South Africa. This is in part a result of apartheid, which captured the global consciousness for decades. But the focus on South Africa is also a result of the fact that South Africans, seemingly, like to voice their concerns. Whether talking about the demise of apartheid, the Rainbow Nation, crime, HIV/Aids or the state of the economy, we like the world to know what is going on. This is partly about being located at the southern tip of Africa, which results in a need to feel connected globally.

But it is also likely that the desire to externalise issues is deeply cultural. It is, I believe, how we, as South Africans, solve problems. This tendency has helped South Africa to deal with many historical challenges. But it has also meant that we, as South Africans, can be as much to blame for the negative coverage of our country as the international media.

We have all met the South Africans abroad who are only too willing to enlighten people about what a terrible country it now is (often with a racial subtext implying ‘now that apartheid has ended’), leaving listeners determined never to go there.

So, while verbalising our problems helped us in the past, the question is: How can we talk about real problems like wealth disparity and the relative crime problem while communicating all that is positive about South Africa at the same time? This may seem like a complex challenge, but, if a simple plastic trumpet can signal joy, exhilaration, celebration, exuberance, unity, disappointment, dismay, and alarm, then, surely, so can we.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 20 August 2010.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Consultation on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy launched

Today, OFMDMF launched the consultation around the long awaited Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document they have now released. The public consultation was launched on Tuesday 27 July 2010 and will run until 29 October 2010. For details on the consultation and how to make a submission visit the OFMDFM site. You can also download the consultation document.

Friday, July 2, 2010

South Africa 2010: Field of dreams?

By the time this article is published, the fate of Bafana Bafana in the 2010 World Cup will be known. South Africa will either be destined for the second round or will be the first host nation not to make it to the knockout rounds.

Like most South Africans, I am a naive optimist and dream of seeing my team progressing deep into the tournament.

Realistically, this will not happen. But does it matter? Of course, in the biggest global tournament of them all, winning matters, but something much more significant than victory on the field is at stake for South Africa and the African continent. Since the first Europeans set off for Africa hundreds of years ago and returned home with tall tales, Africa has been embedded in the European consciousness as the dark continent.

Colonialism not only devastated the continent economically, politically and culturally but left an idea of Africa as backward and incapable of getting its own house in order. Corrupt African leaders compounded the situation. This is where the World Cup in South Africa is important.

The World Cup may minimally contribute to South Africa’s economy and has, no doubt, created some employment, even if only temporarily, but it is in terms of image that it can have a real impact.

In a 2007 paper, in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy, Maenning and Du Plessis argue, after reviewing the impact of the 2006 World Cup on Germany, that the “public-image effects of sports events should no longer be neg- lected in cost-benefit studies of large sporting events”.

But how can image make a difference?
The World Cup highlights the dilemmas faced by many developing countries. Job creation and reducing poverty are a main priority, but selling your brand (your country) is part of building the economy in a globalised world. Poverty reduction is dependent on a strong economy.

Watching the football festivities from Europe, there is no doubt that South Africa, and the African continent to a degree, has received some positive marketing. Every day, for a month, South Africa is on television. I hope this leads to increased business and tourism.

However, I have another wish it terms of global marketing. I hope the event allows for a more nuanced view of Africa to develop and that South Africans get the confidence to embrace this. Let me explain. As I read newspaper articles about South Africa in the European press, they seem to oscillate between football, economic and political progress in South Africa, and visits by high-profile Europeans doing charity work. Implicit is often a simplistic script for what they think South Africa is about. In a nutshell, South Africa is in the initial postindependence phase but will, ultimately, go the way of other African countries. This will be characterised by corruption and civil war, with European do-gooders trying to help from afar. The World Cup offers some hope, but the big story will be when it comes to nought and the postindependence script plays itself out.

But I want the real legacy of the World Cup to challenge this. I hope the space can be found between all the vuvuzela blowing and soccer drama to see the real face of Africa, and of South Africa, in particular.

Africa is a continent that is more than war and starving babies but rather a place where deprivation and ineptitude exist alongside resilience, capability and determination. Development will never be linear on the African continent, given its history, and it is a mistake to measure South Africa and its progress within a pure Western model.

In this context, the test of the World Cup is not whether South Africa can show it is capable of hosting a world-class event, but rather that it helps South Africa realise it is not Germany and finds its own voice and path to political and economic progress.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 2 July 2010.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The curious case of voting for no one

The gap between my writing this article and your reading it will be an interesting one. Right now, I am sitting in Belfast, watching the outworking of the 2010 British election as it swings from one potential outcome to another. By the time you read this article, however, the question of which poli- tical parties will be ruling the country will, more than likely, be resolved.

The 2010 election result in the UK, as everyone knows by now, produced a hung Parliament. This means that, of the 650 seats up for grabs, no single party managed to secure a majority of 326. The Conservative Party won 306, the Labour Party 258 and the Liberal Democrats 57. Faced with this scenario, either the Conservatives could have formed a minority government or at least two of the parties had to form a coalition to make an overall majority.

At the moment, that is while I write and not as you read, there is no coalition deal or minority government. The Liberal Democra- tic Party is locked in negotiations with the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

The point I wish to make, however, does not concern my political soothsaying abilities (or lack thereof), or ultimately who gets into bed with whom, politically speaking, but rather concerns why Britain found itself in the curious predicament of a hung Parliament in the first place.

Clearly, no one really won the election. The coalition that is inevitably running the show as you read this article no doubt told the British electorate it has a mandate to govern, but the truth is this mandate exists only if the political parties in question work together. On one level, this is a ringing endorsement for consensus politics; on another, it points to the fact that the British public largely did not trust any one party to govern.

Given the recent history of British politics, this is not surprising. Tony Blair systematically undermined public confidence by driving home decisions that the majority did not support, such as the Iraq war. Gordon Brown was gifted the office of Prime Minister without an election, and dozens of MPs were shown to be systematically feathering their own nests during the expenses scandal. This has left many people in the country feeling profoundly distrustful of politicians, or, at the very least, the political parties they represent.

This distrust has even deeper historical roots. There obviously was a desire to do away with the Labour Party and Brown’s bumbling style of governance. But, equally, given the long shadow of Margaret Thatcher and the drastic impact her reign had on the poor in Britain, no one wanted to give the Conservatives an unfettered opportunity to dominate government either.

In Northern Ireland, the picture was similar. Although people continued to vote for the large parties like the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), at the same time, the people chose to decapitate some of the very same political parties. For example, the leader of the DUP, and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who has been defend- ing himself over various financial and other scandals, lost his seat after holding it for three decades.

So, I do not know what the new coalition in the UK will look like, but I imagine it is in place by now. No single party will be able to legislate freely. Compromise will be the order of the day. This could prove to be the ‘third way’ Blair was always looking for or an unmitigated disaster as previous political enemies try to work together.

Either way, the people have spoken. The message is clear: if politicians want an unequi- vocal mandate, then they need to govern for the people and not for themselves. I wonder how long it will take for the South African electorate to figure that out.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 21 May 2010.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Crying wolf and 
legalised theft

Recently, we bought a new family car. The car is great but the process was surrounded by numerous dodgy ways to part us with our money.

Several car loans, for example, came with hidden fees. 
Car dealers would offer a reduced interest rate to get your business and then, at the time of setting up the finance, inform you there is a set-up and closing cost to the loan. 
Fees in one case were equivalent to 20% of the total amount of interest one would finally pay. In other words, the discount was not real – simply redistributed.

Insurance is seemingly another way to fleece the customer. 
I could not believe the number of insurance policies thrown at us: tyre insurance, gap cover and sickness payment indemnity. 
Of course, insurance is necessary when buying a car, but all the additional products and the relentless attempts to flog them left me queasy. I think someone even tried to sell me insurance to insure my insurance.

But the insurance rip-off extends well beyond car dealerships. The extended warranty is the cream of the con crop in the retail sector, especially in the UK and Ireland. 
Extended warranties promise repair and sometimes replacement cover in the event of an unexpected breakdown of electrical goods after the normal one-year warranty expires. About £900-million worth of extended warranties are sold to consumers in the UK each year, according to Which magazine.

However, Which also concludes, after detailed investigation, that most of these insurances are worthless. It found that, in some cases, the extended warranty premiums cost over 50% of the value of the original products, some of which had a 97% reliability rate. Many of these electrical goods were also dropping in price and, in two to three years, a new product would often cost the same as or less than the insurance premium paid out.

And who can forget cheap airline scams advertising low-priced flights that exclude taxes, costs for paying with a credit card, additional fees if you do not check in online, not to mention charges for bags and seats? 
Ryanair is even considering charging for the use of onboard toilets.

Then, of course, there is the swine flu swindle. Some £11,3-billion was spent on the pandemic worldwide. The UK alone overstocked 30-million doses of the vaccine and spent £150-million. It now emerges countries that spent considerably less have similar infection rates.

Many now claim the pharmaceuticals companies duped the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the extent of the risk in order to make money. The European Council is investigating the matter. The WHO refutes claims that it was influenced and the drugs companies assert they responded effectively to an impending threat.

Two facts, however, are indisputable. Firstly, swine flu made some people very rich, or at least richer. And, secondly, public confidence in professional institutions has been severely undermined.

How can anyone take the scientific profession seriously after it cried wolf in relation to swine flu, bird flu, mad cow disease, holes in the ozone layer and the millennium bug, all of which largely came to zilch? 
How can one trust insurance companies when their profits outstrip payouts so obscenely?

But then again HIV threats turned out to be correct, and climate change scares are already proving accurate. 
If you lived in New Orleans in 2005 and failed to renew your household insurance, you would be blaming yourself, not wealthy insurance companies, right now.

The problem, however, is that making an informed decision about buying insurance or following professional advice is impos-sible when the process is constantly surrounded by a cacophony of truth and lies, good and bad science, informed and self-interest-driven guidance, as well as ruthless businesspeople and a constant barrage of advertisers aggressively selling us what we do not need. 
In this context, the issue is not about crying wolf, but spotting the wolf, in the first place.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 23 April 2010.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is bling the new opium of the people?

I recently spent time back home in South Africa. It was fantastic: family, friends, sunshine, fine food and wine. I also visited various community projects in areas such as Crossroads. The way many people are overcoming poverty through local sustainability projects, education and hard work is an inspiration. Progress is evident every-where, whether it is shacks that now have electricity or new low-cost homes for those lucky enough to get them.

But, at the same time, as everyone knows, serious problems persist. It seems that, for every person moving out of poverty, another person is languishing in squalor. In this regard, I concur with veteran journalist Allister Sparks that “it is not that nothing has changed, but that things have not changed for enough people”.

I do not, however, want to get into a debate about whether government’s economic policy is correct, or whether government is doing enough. Rather, I would like to talk about how people react to all this. And, if I am frank, and I acknowledge that what I am about to say may be a symptom of my own coming and going from South Africa – there is something about my home society that disturbs me deeply.

I lived most of adult life in South Africa. I know what it is like to be confronted on a daily basis by pervasive poverty, crime, violence and social disintegration. For most people, and I am not blameless in this regard, the best way to deal with this is to ignore it, get on with your work and life, and, perhaps, make a small difference where you can.

Obviously, this is inadequate, but there are trends in South Africa that I find more troubling than the ostrich syndrome of survival. It seems that people are using the trappings of wealth as a way of anesthetising themselves from noticing the poverty that is all around them.

Karl Marx thought religion was the opium of the people, but in South Africa it is bling and shopping malls that are the new temples. The bigger your car, the heavier your wallet, or the more flashy your house, the easier it seems to avoid everything around you. Wealth can insulate you from an insecure world, but I fear the obsession many people have with the green stuff in South Africa extends beyond the basic need for security.

Of course, people living in places like Ireland and the UK are materialistic, and most of us aspire to living well, but, in South Africa, I am always struck by how much people talk about their salaries, their cars and their houses, and how they like to show it all off. People clearly aspire to being rich, not to simply being comfortable.

I think this is because the apartheid system perverted the idea of what success means. Since the system was founded on privilege for some and not for others, it appears that being privileged has become the yardstick of success. If I am direct, for many black South Africans, overcoming the indignity of apartheid means one has to become superprivileged. For many white South Africans, the best way to defend yourself against potentially losing your gifted privilege is to not merely maintain a certain lifestyle but to become superrich.

The matter is further complicated in South Africa by the apartheid past, which has rendered people incapable of having a discussion about ostentatious wealth and the desire for it without it becoming a political or race issue.

But, surely, it does not matter whether you are black or white, a South African or an American, a politician, a popstar, a banker or a poor man made good – buying a R1-million sports car or wearing a R250 000 watch is downright sickening in a world where some people cannot afford one meal a day.

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 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 March 2010.

Friday, February 26, 2010

With great power comes great obfuscation

With great power comes great responsibility” is one of those lines that, despite being uttered in a Spiderman movie, will linger on in social consciousness.

The statement is a catchy version of a line in a Roosevelt speech (which, incidentally, he never gave because he died the night before): “Today, we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility”.

This may well, in turn, come from the Bible, which, in the book of Luke, states: “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Whatever its origins, the assertion is evocative and, as I sat watching Tony Blair give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, I could not get the line out of my head.

The quote came to mind for three reasons.

Firstly, the way George W Bush and Blair painted Saddam Hussein as the incarnation of evil and the West as the saviours of the Iraqi people was as fantastical as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Secondly, the full quotation in the movie, although cheesy, is rather profound in the context of the Iraq war. In the film, the line is used in relation to a school bully who used to torment the young Peter Parker before he transformed into Spiderman. Spiderman’s uncle warns: “But just because you can beat him up doesn’t give you the right to. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility”. This is a warning Bush and Blair would have done well to heed in relation to the bully, Hussein.

Finally, Blair’s blind obstinacy that he did the right thing and had no regrets about his actions has left me questioning if he really does take responsibility for his actions. In the Chilcot Inquiry, Blair claimed that “there is not a single day that passes” without him thinking about his responsibility. Blair claims he had multiple responsibilities, including the responsibility to protect the country. But everyone now knows that Hussein was not a threat to the UK. Yes, Hussein was harming his own people, but it is difficult to sustain an argument that you care about ordinary Iraqis with over 95 000 civilian deaths on your hands.

Based on Blair’s insistence (on another TV show) that, even if there were no weapons of mass destruction, he still would “have thought it right to remove [Hussein]” one can only conclude that Blair sees responsibility as being tied to his personal opinion of what was right or wrong. But taking a difficult decision because you think it is right and you have the power to do it, particularly when most ordinary people could see it was ill advised, does not negate the real responsibility that comes with such actions.

I find it hard to understand how one can feel responsible for, yet not regret or feel the need to apologise for, an ill-planned and ill-executed war that has by all accounts been a disaster.

When asked recently about the number of inquiries into the war by a US channel, Blair commented that he felt it was hard for people to simply disagree on a matter these days. Rather, he added, people had a tendency to think there was “some great deceit” or “conspiracy” rather than just to accept that people “have different points of view and hold them reasonably for genuine reasons”.

But what Blair does not appear to understand is that we are not talking about a disagreement about whether Pepsi is better than Coke, or whether Batman would beat Spiderman in a fictitious fight. Disagreement in the Iraq case meant that politicians, led by Blair, rammed through a political decision to kill thousands of people – a decision that millions of ordinary people in the UK and in the rest of the world opposed. Taking responsibility, in this case, means accounting for the deaths that followed one’s decision – not rationalising why you thought it was a good idea.

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, February 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 February 2010.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Raytheon to leave Derry

Raytheon, the arms manufacturer, has confirmed that it is leaving Derry. This is a major triumph for the campaigners and shows what one can do through protest. Tom Mellen writes: "US arms manufacturer Raytheon has confirmed that it would close its plant in Derry following several years of militant anti-war protests inside and outside the facility. Raytheon Business Development spokesman Robin Hughes said that the Massachusetts-based corporation would not renew its lease at the Northern Ireland Systems and Software Centre in Springtown and that it would be pulling out on February 15. Raytheon opened its Derry operation, which focused on software development for missile systems, in 1999 with a staff of 50. In recent years the number had declined to just seven.Mr Hughes said that the 'seven employees impacted by this action will be provided assistance on an individual basis by the company through the transition process.' Raytheon had repeatedly denied claims that its Derry plant made components for bunker bombs deployed by the Israeli military against civilians in Gaza. But in 2006 Derry city councillors distanced themselves from Raytheon following several visits to the plant and meetings with bosses", more. Departure date is set for 15 February 2010.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The big freeze and the politics of avoidance

Ireland is a temperate place by European standards. It does not suffer from the extremes (in weather, that is) seen in other Northern climes. In winter, the average temperature is 5 ºC; in summer, it is 15 ºC. This beats the – 40 ºC in Canada or northern Europe, but it does mean that the weather is just grey, cold and awful most of the time.

This year, though, the winter has been particularly cold, snowy and icy – 2010 was ushered in with heavy snowfall and a big freeze icing over pavements and roads for a few weeks. Apparently, it was the worst cold spell in 30 years.

That said, and at the risk of stating the obvious or egging global warming on, winter occurs every year. Winter nights fall below freezing point in December and January year in and year out. Given this, you would think people would be ready for whatever winter delivers. Of course, they are not.

There is never enough machinery to de-ice the roads, airports grind to a halt and it is common for schools to close after an inch or two of snow. One year, I even witnessed an airport worker sweeping snow off an aeroplane wing with a household broom. I was delighted when my flight was cancelled.

Basically, when it snows, a level of panic and bewilderment sets in. I am not saying that conditions cannot be treacherous on the roads, because they can be. But the way people react leaves one thinking it never snows and freezing temperatures are a very rare occurrence indeed.

In South Africa, things are no better. Every year, winter in South Africa is treated as some sort of alien that springs itself upon the masses unexpectedly. When I lived in Johannesburg, I was never prepared for it, despite its predictable arrival.
I would mope about a freezing tiled- floor flat, complaining about how cold it was. Every year, I had to buy a new heater. It never occurred to me to insulate better or install a heating system. I seemed, along with the rest of the country, content with complaining and feeling surprised by the obvious.

But why do we do this?

One possible explanation is that there is a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ when it comes to weather, both in the global North and in the South.

In Ireland and the UK, people believe that, there, the climate is not too different to more accommodating parts of the world. The notion of a temperate climate is equated with mild winters and balmy summers. In South Africa, the notion of a good climate is confused with the idea that there is no such thing as winter.

It was the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’, in 1817. He was talking about literature. A writer, says Coleridge, can put some “semblance of truth” into a fantasy story and readers often oblige by immersing themselves in the story, even if the storyline is far-fetched.

Just like a fairy tale, the majority, certainly in the UK and Ireland, believe the myth that they do not live in one of the grimmest climates in the world. These misguided beliefs help people survive the gloom, but they also, like the secondary gain of engrossing oneself in a fantasy story, provide entertainment.

The joy comes in the telling, especially when the story inevitably deviates from the fantastical narrative that summers are warm and dry, and winters reasonable. In the last few weeks, in Europe, the media has gone into overdrive. The same happens every summer when it rains, and it always rains – a lot.

All anyone can talk about is the weather in these circumstances. It seems the weather provides a distraction from concerning oneself with the daily deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, poverty in Africa and Europe, or why the weather seems extreme, in the first place.

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 2010.