A Lingering Effect of Apartheid

Apartheid lingers on in South Africa in so many more ways than just racial tension and structural inequalities. I don’t find this in itself surprising, but I haven’t come across much analysis of many current events and trends in terms of the past. More specifically, I haven’t seen much written in public, mass-consumed media that concerns itself with the relationship between the past and specific aspects of more subtle South African social trends. There are some areas like health, poverty, employment and education where the effects of Apartheid are widely and openly discussed, but there are others where this is not so much the case. (Well, at least that I know of – please do correct me should you find something I have missed.)

The widespread strikes over the past few months struck me as one such area that didn’t receive attention in ways I thought it might. The strikes were undoubtedly headline news and there were large numbers of articles dealing with the current political motivations and economic ramifications of the various strikes, but I didn’t read anything tying the violence that attended the strikes to the historical nature of labour unions and strikes in South Africa. The strikes of the 1980’s were violent in large part because of the Apartheid government’s response to the mass actions, but I found it really interesting to see how that carried through to the strikes while I was at home. Teachers, doctors and nurses in many places countrywide were seriously intimidated into not attending work during the public workers’ strike, and some were physically abused for daring to “defy” the strikes. The same held true for the metalworkers’ strike that followed the public workers’ strike. In these strikes, however, economic motivations drove the strikes rather than political disenfranchisement, so I noticed how many of the strikers took the same approach as for the strikes of two decades ago. To tell the truth, I am rather worried by how undemocratic the strikes were in some respects. I am not at all alone in that, but I am still surprised at how little I’ve read about the way this year’s strikes resemble those of the 1980’s in spite of the many changes that have occurred in the country.

I can actually see some very interesting theses and/or dissertations being written on exactly this topic, despite the trade union movement itself being such a rich vein of material. Nonetheless, I think there are other social phenomena that have roots in Apartheid but haven’t received any attention in the media I’ve been exposed to. I will post on those in the near future, so stay tuned.

[Historical side note: The 1979 legalisation of black labour unions in South Africa was one of the steps that allowed blacks to voice political and economic power. Trade unions were instrumental in organising mass protests against the Apartheid government throughout the 1980’s and their continued power is evident in COSATU’s role in the ANC’s tripartite alliance. COSATU = Congress of South African Trade Unions).]

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The Cost of “Safety”

I read a recent email on Dave Farber’s Interesting People mailing list that surprised me somewhat. The email was in reference to the extreme level of phone tapping used by the FBI in fighting the “war on terror”, but the thing that surprised me was not the content of the email but the quotation the author, Ken DiPietro, referred to in the email. The quotation reads as follows:

Those who would give up ESSENTIAL LIBERTY to purchase a little TEMPORARY SAFETY, deserve neither LIBERTY nor SAFETY.

The quotation is generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but may be due to Richard Jackson or another member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Irrespective, much has changed in the nature of the United States in the last two and a half centuries. Given the way in which the current US government has continually encroached on the liberties of US citizens and non-citizens alike over the last few years, I am hugely surprised that I have never seen or heard this quotation used by anyone opposing the current government.

I don’t know what context the quotation was originally used, so that may well explain why it’s been left to languish out of the spotlight, but I doubt that given the current political climate. The very reason the current government is able to infringe upon the “essential liberties” of its citizens is widespread ignorance and the fear it breeds. Were the quotation’s context not politically relevant to a pro-liberty politician, that self-same ignorance could allow the quotation and it’s possible originator to wow millions of people into a different viewpoint.

Unfortunately, I think that’s just a pipe dream, despite being an interesting thought experiment. The nature of life in the US has changed too much since the 1750’s, when the quotation made it into print, for it to have the same effect. The fervour with which people fought for freedom has disappeared. 9/11 made people realise that their freedoms and liberties could be taken away: freedom is taken as a given and the urge to fight for liberty has been misdirected. Instead of pursuing personal liberties in the US, people have been recruited to generate “freedom” for Iraqis and fight against terror as opposed to for freedom. So the quotation still raises an interesting question: what price is the US truly paying for its temporary safety?

Thinking about “Progress”

In the wake of my parents’ recent visit to the US, I started thinking about the situation faced by many peoples the world over. In particular, I thought about the Western idea of progress and how that conflicts with other approaches to the world. My thoughts were sparked by some of the generational differences between people I know from the area around me at home. The older generation I am thinking of wants something of a return to “more” traditional ways of living while maintaining a connection to Westernisation. The way of life they are moving towards contains very few of the creature comforts of modern life, like electricity and telephones. In light of that, I wondered whether the “progress” by the introduction of these amenities actually translates into a better life for all people. And by “a better life” I don’t mean “better quality of life” – rather, I mean a more meaningful, fulfilling life. Do telephones and electricity (and computers and cellphones and and and) make our lives more meaningful? I somehow doubt it. I think they definitely distract us from finding any meaning or focus in our lives, and, as a result, may well make our lives more meaningless in that they prevent us from focusing on ourselves and our surroundings.

Of course, what constitutes a fulfilling life is itself a huge question, to which huge volumes of literature are devoted. But in and of itself, does the fact that there is such a huge demand for such material in the West not indicate some issues with Western society? Or is that just a symptom of any society? Does it need to be “progressive” to reach such a point? I don’t know.

Perspective

I’ve been traveling with my parents since they arrived in the US on the 21st of May, and being with them has been very interesting. They have never been to the US, so it’s been very good for my sense of perspective to hear their take on what they’ve seen. After four years here, I’ve become jaded towards some aspects of society in the US, and my parents have reminded me of the differences between home and the US. Furthermore, I closely watched their interactions with my (American) girlfriend, though there were also other motivations for that: they had never met each other…

Beyond the personal aspects of perspective, there were still some marked differences between the ways all four of us perceive and interact with the world around us. I would love to elaborate on some of the conversations that revealed these differences, but I am not going to go that far – the conversations weren’t meant to be public. Still, I think I gleaned a lot from them that isn’t specific to my parents and girlfriend.

One of the things that has struck me throughout my time in the US is the amount of waste that is produced here, as well as some of the unnecessary consumption that drives the production of that waste. My parents came to Amherst for one of the worst weekends of the year for waste: when all the graduates leave college, they discard all manner of items that they’ve accumulated over four years, including large and expensive items like sofas and televisions. Beyond that, each student throws away all sorts of knick-knacks, papers and such-like in leaving his or her room. The amount of rubbish produced is quite mind-boggling, especially to people like my parents, who are used to items being specifically handed on to new owners. They were also shocked to see how much waste is produced through the use of disposable cutlery, plates and the like for many kinds of catering. Just about everything is thrown away. And what is worse, much of the food itself is also discarded. At a number of restaurants, portions are really large. At home, we are used to eating whatever is put in front of us. In the US, though, the level of wealth and waste makes it possible for many people to discard whatever they don’t feel like at the time: they have funds available for a later purchase of food. The result – lots of discarded food. As per the college example, this situation extends to all sorts of possessions. It marks one of many differences between home and the US. I think going home again will be good for my perspective, because I will again be with an outsider seeing things at home from a different perspective to my own. It won’t be the first time that’s happened, but it is always good to reconsider how one looks at the world.

P.S. I am aware that I haven’t seen poverty in the US, such as it is. My time in the US has not involved seeing the hard side of American life: I don’t deny it’s existence, but it’s nowhere near as prevalent or as intense, I would argue, as the poverty at home.

P.P.S. My parents left the US today, but I think I will be thinking about their impressions of the US, and my reactions to their impressions, for quite some time to come.

International Diplomacy and Impotence

For quite a while now, I’ve been fairly interested by the failure of all too many international diplomatic efforts. Diplomacy has failed on far too many fronts for me to believe that sanctions and some stern words have any real effect on countries set on following their own path. See, for example, Iran, which has been cocking a fairly large snook at the international community for some time and has continued its nuclear power (or armament…?) programme. That excludes its actions in taking fifteen British sailors (now released), which was a circus in which the nation managed to ignore all diplomacy for a good part of two weeks. (Whether the return was the result of diplomatic action isn’t particularly clear to me.) But similar situations are playing out elsewhere. The impasse reached in North Korea is a very good example. Much ground has been made, but North Korea’s refusal to move forward before it receives frozen funds (from Macau, if I recall correctly) has thrown a huge spanner in the diplomatic process in east Asia. Zimbabwe is another case in point: Robert Mugabe hasn’t wilted in the face of diplomacy or international sanctions. If anything, he’s used comments made (or not made, as the case may be) by international parties to reinforce his position. The recent extraordinary meeting of the Southern African Development Community is a case in point: their public silence has meant that his rule and actions can be construed to be legitimate, which is NOT the case. (See numerous snippets from the Zimbabwean state media for myriad examples of this.)

The situation in Sudan is equally bad, if not worse. Diplomatic pressure has yielded few tangible results, while attacks and mass displacement have continued in (and beyond) the country’s western regions. The list of similar countries/regions continues: Israel/Palestine, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, …

And I’ve now run out of steam. I’ve definitely lost most of the minimal faith I had in diplomacy. Given that so many countries are flaunting international pressure, it is becoming easier to do so. (It’s no longer the preserve of major world powers to flex their might.) My loss of faith extends further, unfortunately. The issues originally at stake in the WTO’s Doha talks and the Kyoto protocol are two such issues where most of the large players are unlikely to change their positions in the near future.

That said, however, the aims of diplomatic efforts are in many cases to be lauded, especially in missions to many of the countries I’ve mentioned above. In others, however, national interest takes over, and nothing much is achieved.

Whew. Sometimes I think I am something of an anarchist at heart. (Though in my case, my thoughts on the matter are less developed and less focused.)

An Odd Take on Religion

I’ve been incredibly busy of late studying for a huge exam, so do accept my apologies for my silence. My blogging will be picking up again, which will hopefully be a good thing for everyone.

Back to the main point: Our on-campus Christian Fellowship ran a very interesting quiz/poster/stand thing in our campus centre this week. The stand, for want of a better word, was titled, “How much of an atheist are you?” On our campus, which is quite liberal and outwardly a-religious, I find this to be a very novel approach to religion. Instead of asking questions about whether people are Christian, the idea was to look at how much people are opposed to religion. It was interactive, and you had to respond to statements according to how much you agreed with them. The statements were all quite interesting, including ones from Martin Luther King (“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”) and Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion. There were also simple barometers of how people felt about life and spirituality, making it a really interactive experience.

On the whole, it was a thought-provoking experience, which was a very good way for our Christian Fellowship to approach students on campus. Instead of putting students on the defensive, it made it really easy for people to voice their opinion, even if they were rabid atheists. I think it says a lot about our campus that these tactics are quite acceptable: in other, more Christian, places, I don’t know how well the quiz would have been received. What would you do if you saw people asking strangers how much of an atheist they are?

Zimbabwe

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.