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).]

Amusement

I couldn’t help but find two posts from Jeremy Nell’s Trash Media to be absolutely hilarious.

The first is the text of a post entitled “Why I don’t hate American Idiots.” An excerpt won’t capture the politically incorrect, off-the-wall brilliance of the post, so I won’t give you anything more of a teaser.

The second post is the Ditwits that Jeremy included in “Manto‚Äôs piss-up in hospital.” As always, the post itself is well worth reading, but the Ditwits is just a cut above. Needless to say, Trash Media is one of my must-read feeds: it’s satire that I really appreciate.

Last, but not least, is a post from Jessica Hagy’s Indexed, another one of my must-reads. Again, her post Curses is one of her better ones. If you like dry (vicious) humour, you should really appreciate this piece of index card magic.

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.

Somewhere in Translation

I’ve not posted for a while and I apologise for that: I would prefer to post far more frequently. Of late, however, I’ve been thinking about my posts even more than normal. (I chose “Slow Thoughts” for a reason.) If you would prefer not to deal with postmodern angst, you should probably stop reading now.

The long and the short of my thoughts is that I’ve been contemplating the nature of my posts and the relationship they (and I) have to South Africa. There are two main issues that have been bothering me. The first of these is the tone of my posts. I find I have a very didactic, supercilious tone that implies something like omniscience on my part. (As postmodern readers, you should automatically find a tone like that suspicious. But many of you probably don’t, so I need to try something else.) The second issue is somewhat tied to the first in that my posts claim a closeness to South Africa that isn’t necessarily there. While I love the country, four years in the US has meant that I am not quite as in touch with home as I’d like to be. I’ve found some South African blogs that have highlighted my distance from life in South Africa, and it’s made me question my approach to writing about South Africa.

I am not going to be reactionary, though. I am still going to post about home. Because I’ve come to accept that my voice is (currently) not a voice from the inside. For the time being, it will have to be a voice from the outside, which will have to reflect the distance I do have to South Africa as well as some of the persepctives I’ve gained from being away for so long.

So stay tuned. There will be more to come. (And if you want to read some REAL South African blogs, I recently added a few to my blog-roll. Feel free to peruse them for slightly different perspective on SA.)

An Extrapolation of Thoughts from Paul Graham: (Un)Happiness

If you haven’t noticed the link on my blog to Paul Graham’s website, you should do so now. It’s there for a reason. (Imagine that?!) In all seriousness, though, it really is worth having a look at his site, especially his essays. He’s a well-known essayist who writes about intriguing topics in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. (Has that moniker reached the status of cliche yet? I would hope not, because it does describe his writing.) Most importantly, though, he has very original ideas and the essays are really worth reading. Some might not appeal to you due to their specificity, but there are a lot have a wider purview.

The essay that got me to writing this post was one that he released recently. The essay is entitled “Is It Worth Being Wise?” and deals with the difference between wisdom and intelligence and the role each plays in the modern world. More importantly, though, Graham raises the issue of whether happiness and/or contentedness are truly possible for intelligent people. As he puts it,

To me it was a relief just to realize it might be ok to be discontented. The idea that a successful person should be happy has thousands of years of momentum behind it. If I was any good, why didn’t I have the easy confidence winners are supposed to have? But that, I now believe, is like a runner asking “If I’m such a good athlete, why do I feel so tired?” Good runners still get tired; they just get tired at higher speeds.

People whose work is to invent or discover things are in the same position as the runner. There’s no way for them to do the best they can, because there’s no limit to what they could do. The closest you can come is to compare yourself to other people. But the better you do, the less this matters. An undergrad who gets something published feels like a star. But for someone at the top of the field, what’s the test of doing well? Runners can at least compare themselves to others doing exactly the same thing; if you win an Olympic gold medal, you can be fairly content, even if you think you could have run a bit faster. But what is a novelist to do?

It’s tough to isolate a quote in Graham’s essay that encapsulates his thoughts regarding contentedness, but I think the one I’ve chosen comes close. I think it’s really interesting to consider the question of happiness or contentedness in contexts other than those of intelligence alone. The one that I’ve been grappling with recently (and not only on my own account) is that of privilege. In a similar fashion to the inventor that Graham names above, I have the ability to make significant changes to the world and more specifically to South Africa. How should (or can) I reconcile myself to my current lifestyle whereby I am nowhere near South Africa and not close to making a difference any time soon? Should my lack of activity be cause for serious unhappiness on my part?

The moral implications of one’s actions (or lack thereof) are closely tied to one’s own morality. In my case, I am not unhappy in my current situation. For the time being, I am of the opinion that I won’t be able to make a serious difference at home at present. I am also still working out quite how my skills can be put to work in the real world, so that at a later point I may use them efficiently in some beneficial endeavour. But now comes the most interesting part of my thinking: I don’t think or feel that it is my responsibility to bring about change. I suppose that is where some of my existentialist leanings come into play, but that is how I think about the world: I would like to do good, but I don’t feel driven to it. I am still working out how I should feel about the unused potential that I possess…

I am currently happy, but given the above thoughts, should I not be? How do you feel about your happiness (or lack thereof)? Some comments would be interesting.

Oh, and does the fact that I am currently happy imply that I am not intelligent, but only wise…?

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.

Wow! Mobile Music Startup

Omnifone, a UK firm that I’ve never heard of, launched a really interesting product a few hours ago. There isn’t much up about it in the US (yet), but it seems like the company has come out of nowhere to announce a HUGE deal with many of, if not all, the music companies. Basically, their MusicStation software allows users to access music via their cellphone using a subscription service. According to a Reuters report I saw in the Mail and Guardian, “The catalogue is localised per country and averages 1,2-million available tracks.” That is a fair-sized catalogue of music and may make the service fly.

What interests me, however, is the fact that the service will be debuting in South Africa and Norway. I can understand Norway, given the strength of cellular/mobile technology in Scandinavia, but it will be very interesting to see how the service flies in the South African market. According to the company’s press release, it will have access to 690 million handsets through its partners, with most of those handsets capable of running their software. Access won’t reach all of those users instantaneously, but it will be interesting to see how the company deals with the computational demands of running a service that large and complex, especially without a (public) background in the field.

It was very interesting to listen to the company’s demo using a Motorola Ming. And I say “listen” because the narrator’s voice sounds very South African. It’s not an accent I’ve heard in foreign marketing, mainly because it’s not that easy to place (at least in the US). It might also reflect the mainly European market’s recognition of the accent, but I really have no clue.

My last comment on the service is that it looks a LOT like the interface of the Apple iPod. The software is being touted on a number of blogs as a “rival” to Apple’s iTunes/iPod/iPhone offerings. One thing it has in its favour is the similarity of the interface. If it looks anything like the demo on the website, your average user isn’t going to know the difference for the most part. That will be a big help in getting people to use the service: it will be straightforward and simple. And that is huge when you are selling something that has to work on a cell phone.

It’s a pity that it won’t be available in the US in the immediate future either. It looks like it’s going to beat the iPhone to the European market, but it won’t be getting a foothold in the US quite as early. Still, they do seem to have a large audience in the bag already, an audience that wants to play music on their cell phone. (And not quite the audience that wants to organise their lives using an iPhone.)