Politics and “National Interest”

How does one define the “National Interest” for any country? (Does such a thing even exist?) And how does the “National Interest” differ from humanitarian interest? My interest was piqued a while ago by an article in the NYT about how increased regulations regarding proof of citizenship resulted in fewer US citizens receiving Medicaid and other federal benefits. The measures sounds like the result of a wonderful politico-bureaucratic idea: let’s exclude illegal aliens and spend less money by ensuring we don’t give Medicaid to non-US citizens: they must, for some reason, be less deserving. So everybody wins, no?

No: poor people, whether US citizens or not, lose out if they don’t have proper ID. And being a US citizen (which clearly makes some people more worthy than others) helps not a jot if the paperwork isn’t there to prove it.

In this case, it’s fairly clear that humanitarian interest lags way behind the “national interest” touted by politicians. While it’s fairly easy to claim that the moves taken to limit Medicare provision to non-citizens are beneficial to the US, they are not necessarily beneficial to the service’s intended recipients, the poor.

It annoys me no end when political expediency takes precedence over the needs and demands of people. (And it happens all the time at home: I need to be more in touch with news from home before I can comment on it, though.)



The situation in Zimbabwe has been deteriorating even further of late, culminating in well-documented state brutality. But the diplomatic “effort” of other countries have yet to make any impression on Mugabe’s rule. I don’t want to say too much, but will rather let the following video, put together by the Sokwanele Civic Action Support Group and first aired on their blog say more than I ever could.

Spread the word. Increase the non-governmental pressure.

Statehood and Violence

The question of statehood and arbitrary boundaries has really been bothering me of late. In particular, the violence that continues to exist as a result of state boundaries arbitrarily drawn by countries in the West really makes me wonder about the sensibility of retaining many states in their current form. There are some very obvious areas where tensions remain high as a direct result of arbitrarily drawn state lines, like those of Palestine/Israel, India/Pakistan, and Ethiopia/Eritrea, for example. The histories of these areas is more widely known to most people in the West: most people (I would hope) understand the importance of state lines in the continued problems associated with these areas. In these cases, the West’s decision to separate (or join) various disparate and/or arbitrarily defined groups of people has led to incredible violence that has lasted for decades. At this stage, Palestine and Israel look almost as far from a peace agreement as ever. Well, almost.

Still, the historical factors behind other hotbeds of unrest are rarely mentioned or made public. Reporters may be taking it as a given that their readers are aware of the background to their stories, but I get the feeling that they gloss over the historical causes of the violence and/or unrest. The news coverage I read of places like Somalia and Nigeria really highlights this. In Somalia, the historical relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia makes it much easier to understand why the country mistrusts the current transitional government (which is backed by Ethiopian forces). Not many reports refer to the fact that Somalia went to war with Ethiopia in the 70’s in order to annex the Ogaden so as to unite all Somalis. Even fewer refer to the terrible losses that Somalia suffered in social and military contexts.

Historical issues also underly many of the problems faced by foreign oil companies in the Niger Delta. Over the last few weeks I’ve read of dozens of foreigners being kidnapped in and around the Niger delta, where Nigeria’s oil reserves are concentrated. (According to one report I read, 55 foreigners have been kidnapped this year already.) What this report and many others neglect to mention is the serious poverty faced not only by all Nigerians, but by especially those in the area around Port Harcourt. It might seem odd for me to mention this region, in particular, but the history of the area directly impacts its poverty: in the late sixties, the region was the secessionist state known as Biafra. The Biafran War, like all civil wars, was crippling and left the region devastated. While that was more than thirty years ago, the effects of civil war can’t be ignored.

But before I digress into a lengthy description of similar areas that are or have been cause for wars or tension, I want to look at the reasoning behind statehood. I don’t propose to offer anything more than questions, but it bothers me that so many governments are incredibly unwilling to alter completely artificial boundaries. In some cases, where access to minerals or the like are in question (a la Biafra), I can see why a state would prevent the redrawing of boundaries. In others, however, it strikes me as odd that areas like the Ogaden (Ethiopia/Somalia) and Kashmir (Pakistan/India) remain subject to conflict and violence. Furthermore, it is hard to see why certain states continue to exist as separate entities. I understand national pride, but I don’t necessarily see the need for certain states to exist. And now will come some controversial examples, because I won’t deny my ignorance of the issues that may have driven separatism. My first two examples are Lesotho and Swaziland, which are both monarchies quite close to home. I understand the existence of their monarchies, but they are both very closely allied to South Africa: their currencies are pegged to the Rand and both Sesotho and siSwati are widely spoken in South Africa. Furthermore, both countries are economically dependent on South Africa. They both exist as independent entities because they were British protectorates separate from what later became the Union of South Africa. And nothing has changed since.

Perhaps someone else can provide arguments for why so many arbitrarily defined states remain bounded as they are, because I really can’t understand why they do. (As witnessed by this long and unfocused post that doesn’t quite lead anywhere…)

Some Thoughts on the State of the Nation

Before you start jumping up and down, I am referring to South Africa and more specifically to Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation Address from almost ten days ago. As with many such addresses, it skirts a number of issues, but on the whole it does address the state of South Africa as a whole and the progress made by the country over the last few years. Most importantly, Mbeki admits to a number of problems that the country still faces. (He also brings up many of the government’s successes, which isn’t surprising either.) But the real impetus behind this post is not a desire to critique Mbeki or the speech he made. Rather I want to look at some of the points he brought up in the speech and how much those points in and of themselves say about the country.

One of the things that really struck home for me was how far the country still needs to go before Apartheid is truly overcome. The spectre of poverty is one of the most accurate reflections of the lingering effects of Apartheid. Despite the number of people who have been provided with running water, “8 million people are still without potable water.” In other words, close to one in five South Africans doesn’t have access to water-related infrastructure. And much as the government may try to rectify the situation, it won’t be able to in the near future. Access to electricity is an even bigger problem. As Mbeki points out, more people lack access to electricity than they do to water. On top of this, however, South Africa has been having problems with demand for electricity as a result of improved access. There have been fairly serious black-outs and the like over the last few months due to Eskom, the state-owned electricity provider, not having the capacity to provide enough power to the country. (That is a topic on its own, wherein it would seem the government is partly to blame for preventing Eskom from expanding its infrastructure five years ago. See SA electricity supply ‘uncertain’ for more.)

Other areas that are truly worrying are the fact that municipal management is in disarray. Statements like

[I]n September last year, 27% of municipalities did not have municipal managers; in the Northwest Province, the vacancy rate at senior management level was over 50%

don’t inspire confidence in the government’s ability to meet the targets it has been setting itself in terms of basic service delivery (i.e. water, sanitation, electricity and housing). The above statistics don’t include municipalities that are mismanaged, which makes things even more worrying. There are simply not enough people on the ground making a difference on a local level for the government’s large-scale policies to have much purchase. I wish it were otherwise, and I really don’t know how things are going to change in the short term. One of the main problems, of course, is that non-whites in general, but blacks in particular, are the primary victims of governmental problems on a local level. Apartheid’s legacy is that people living in ex-homelands and in rural areas are those without water infrastructure and/or electricity. And they are the people who really do need services and infrastructure.

Arg. I get frustrated and think myself into circles. So I will stop that train there. I will, however, say that Mbeki does bring up two very interesting points. The first is that “South Africa is one of the few countries that spend less on military budgets than on water and sanitation.” The problem, of course, is that much of the money budgeted for these things doesn’t necessarily find its way to the right places. The other point that Mbeki raised was the fact that 11 million people receive social grants from the state (which is about 1 in 4), a serious statistic. I will have more to say on these grants at a later stage, but not quite yet. Also forthcoming are some thoughts that come out of response to Mbeki’s comments on land restitution and black ownership and management of companies. So stay tuned – I’ll keep the posts coming a bit more regularly than they have been.

Affirmative Action (Continued)

Thanks once again to ggw, one of my comments became a post. As I was going to point out in my response to his comment, long essays are necessary because the topic is so nebulous and wide-ranging.

In South Africa issues of race are NOT going to disappear in the near future. The question of whether affirmative action is effective in South Africa is a really interesting one that alters a number of the premises governing affirmative action in general. By that, I mean that there are serious differences between the South African situation and most affirmative action case studies. First and foremost of these is the fact that the policies benefit the vast majority of South Africans, and not a minority, as one would see with case studies on affirmative action. Technically speaking, affirmative action policies apply to previously disadvantaged individuals, and not only blacks. And that really complicates any assessment or comparison of policies’ effects.

The main issue is because it benefits far more people than it denies. The numbers involved make it hard to draw relations between case studies and the South African situation: 90% of people have been unfairly denied access to employment. It means that it’s difficult to relate it to gender-based discrimination, and it’s even harder to gauge the benefits people receive as a result. ggw mentions two examples in his comment, those of Aborigines in Australia and female orchestra players in western Europe. The issue of gender is tough, mainly because so many cultures have discriminated against women for so long that the social roles expected of women (by both men and women) make it harder for all women to even reach the point where glass ceilings or discrimination come into play. Race in South Africa is quite different, in that the vast majority of people believe non-whites are just as capable as whites and the social roadblocks are less substantial. The example does apply in some arenas, however, especially sports, where a number of hugely talented individuals don’t need any help to make a name for themselves. (Think Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince, Chiliboy Ramaphele, Breyton Paulse, Bryan Habana, …)

The example of the Aborigines, on the other hand, brings up interesting questions, though. ggw points out that Aborigines didn’t really benefit from affirmative action. The first of these is that of whether affirmative action benefits its recipients. In South Africa, you would be hard pressed to argue that affirmative action hasn’t been a boon to millions South Africans. The civil service and government, which used to be bastions of white employment, have changed radically. Because of the skills issues I highlighted before, business and sports et al have been slower to change, but they have changed – one can’t doubt that at all. One now reads of an emergent black middle class in newspapers and business communications, something that would never have been factored into business plans until recently. There have undoubtedly been tangible benefits, though there are some side effects that few foresaw, like serious demand for credit and low savings rates, but those are issues for another day. The end result is that South Africa now has millions of black, India, coloured and white people in a position to demand credit, services and goods. It would have taken much longer without affirmative action.

On the flip side of the coin, however, is the other question that ggw raises. Does affirmative action increase racial divides? In a South African context, that really does represent the flip side because a single racial group is effectively being discriminated against. If you think about it that way, it does constitute reverse racism. And that is where things start to resemble an ethical minefield. I don’t think I am philosophically qualified to tackle the problem of whether the current flavour of affirmative action practised in South Africa is ethical, but I do want to look into the results of this reverse racism. Because it definitely has had an effect: a lot of white South Africans have left the country after the end of apartheid for this reason, amongst others. It is harder to find a job, especially if you are a young, white male with an Afrikaans surname. I am at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the affirmative action crapshoot. And a lot of qualified/skilled whites left the country in order to protect their children from that. And I say their children, because in many cases their positions weren’t under pressure, though many might have believed they were. And the effect is serious: I’ve heard rumours that Perth has a Dutch Reformed Church, for example. [Note: the traditionally dominant white Afrikaans church.] I don’t know how many South Africans have left the country in the last few years, but I am sure it’s an extraordinary number.

And to return to ggw’s original comment about sport, it’s even leaked in there. A number of young, white sportsmen have left the country because of affirmative action policies, and have gone on to make a name for themselves playing for other countries. Kevin Pietersen, who plays cricket for England (and was the Aussies’ only obstacle in the Ashes), and Clyde Rathbone, who plays rugby for Australia are two such examples. Both played their sports in South Africa for a year or two before moving abroad to pursue their careers. Rathbone actually captained the South African U21 rugby team to the 2002 U21 World Cup before leaving South Africa to play for the ACT Brumbies in Australia.

And that was unnecessary paragraph. But the more you know… the more you know. That is more than enough for now.

Skills (and Affirmative Action)

Sorry about the break – my girlfriend, Kellie, was visiting for the weekend and I am also preparing for my maths comprehensive exams this week, so I haven’t had time to get back to the blog. This post was supposed to happen a few days ago, so accept my apologies.

After reading ggw‘s response to Exodus, my earlier post about how many people are working overseas, I came back to some serious issues that still plague South Africa. The problem is that of skills. In people above the age of 35, there are not many non-white South African professionals who have the same skills and experience as their white South African counterparts. Apartheid made sure that such equality was impossible. As such, many white South Africans have years upon years of experience in their fields, which makes them quite valuable to the country. That’s not to say that the last fifteen years haven’t rendered many of those skills completely defunct, but there is something to be said for twenty to thirty years of experience in a field. Furthermore, our education system is only now starting to produce students who’ve received (supposedly) equitable educations: schools became multiracial in the early nineties, making it possible for students to have been educated at schools and universities that aren’t designed to be bad. The result of this is that there is an entire generation of non-white South Africans who have been seriously disadvantaged by Apartheid, despite its collapse more than ten years ago. There are far too many non-whites who don’t have the skills or education to be eligible for skilled jobs. Furthermore, their white counterparts often have experience that outmatches theirs on many fronts: even if a non-white person managed to get a degree in engineering in the nineties, he or she would still be at a disadvantage to a white person with experience starting in the eighties.

Thus was the South African edition of affirmative action born. Given only the above synopsis of the situation, it should be clear to anyone that serious action needed, and needs, to take place. And that is before one takes into account the fact that less than 10% of South Africans are white. (At least in 2001, that was the stat: see 2001 Census in Brief for more.) That is why one sees “Affirmative Action Positions” advertised in public: drastic action is necessary to rectify the situation. That is why the South African government has tried to implement and encourage broad-based BEE (black economic empowerment) schemes between big business and non-white South Africans.

At times, however, things go too far. ggw’s comment about racial quotas on our national cricket team addresses that issue. With sport in particular, the issue of racial quotas has been discussed, argued, vilified and praised by all too many politicians to name. To some extent, that is a part of the problem: the suggestions and policies come from outside the sport because those participating in the sport aren’t trusted to change the sport. Business has been treated in much the same way: the government has enforced various policies encouraging or promoting businesses to transform its demographics. In both sport and business, the questions remain the same. Is the specificity of the reforms necessary? Are the reforms too drastic? And do the reforms cause more harm than good?

I hate solely delineating debates, so I am going to throw my two cents in. In my opinion, these questions about most of the reforms can be answered with a simple yes, no, and no. (In the case of sport, I think that sheer talent can’t be foregone, so a number of policies in that sphere are harmful.) As I’ve outlined above, South Africa has a serious skill imbalance. It also has a serious financial imbalance: whites are generally quite wealthy because of the aforementioned skill imbalance on top of their historically privileged position in society. As a result, drastic affirmative action and other policies are necessary. Without them, the country would have no clear incentive to change, so it wouldn’t. It will make life more difficult for many people for a number of years yet, but it has changed, and will continue to change the social structure in South Africa.

I am not a gung-ho supporter of all BEE/affirmative action legislation, however. More needs to be done to ensure that the average man on the township street benefits from BEE policies. Up to now, that hasn’t really been the case. A small number of people with the right connections have made millions that haven’t gone anywhere near the man on the street. And this needs to be guarded against.

Wow. That was long. And rambling. And it may or may not make a point. But I can’t try to process it all at once any more. I’ll shape my thoughts in the near future. Feel free to comment or contact me if you’d like me to elaborate or give examples.

That marriage thing

So it’s now official. South Africa has officially legalised gay marriage, which resulted in the first gay marriage happening earlier today. I was motivated to start writing my blog before things came to a head: at that stage, the South African Parliament hadn’t approved the Civil Unions Bill.

But now to the REALLY interesting stuff… Namely the outcry and misinformation that’s surrounded the whole situation. A lot of people are really angry about the idea of gay marriage: it’s supposedly un-African, un-Christian, un-democratic and who knows what else. The whole process has been a really interesting political one, and a short road-map would allow for a better understanding of the situation.

In December 2005, the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa, ruled that South Africa’s laws discriminated against homosexual couples wishing to get married. In addition, however, the court charged the government to enact marriage laws that comply with the Constitution before the first of December 2006. If such laws weren’t in place, the Constitutional Court was going to put them in place itself.

During 2006, the South African government had public meetings to discuss what was termed the “Civil Unions Bill,” which wasn’t well received by most people.

In October and November of 2006, people started getting upset because the Bill was to go before Parliament. Most of the fuss was because the Bill had been amended to include marriage as well as “separate but equal” civil unions, which was not the version put to the public earlier in the year. Most people also had no idea that the Bill was on its way: it came as a big surprise to a lot of people. The amendments were approved and the Bill was ratified by the two necessary sections of Parliament and put into law a few days before the December deadline.

And now we have legal gay marriage in South Africa. Voila!

The interesting parts start with the Constitutional Court ruling: the ruling casts a completely new light on the conservative American idea of “activist judges”! But the ruling is fair in terms of the Constitution, whether most South Africans agree or not. And that’s why the amendment was necessary: without the provision for marriage, the marriage law would be discriminatory. So the wording is now completely neutral. And the government only just managed to get everything done in time.

But everything is now all right. The law says that any two people can marry. It’s nice, simple and straightforward. Now we need to see how the law (and the reaction to the law) will impact upon the lives of gays and lesbians living in South Africa. Time will tell on that front.