Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Time to say NO

Today is Okhi day, a public holiday in Greece to commemorate Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas's rejection of the ultimatum made by Italian dictator Mussolini on October 28, 1940. The ultimatum was presented to him at dawn after a party in the German embassy (Fascists are nothing if not theatrical) demanding that Axis troops be allowed to enter Greek territory.

The answer, allegedly, was the single word "no".

In response to the Greek's not agreeing to their plans, Italian troops attacked the Greek border at 5.30am. See what happens when you don't invite all the dictators to your party.

On the morning of October 28th the Greek population took to the streets shouting 'okhi'. The day was officially named Okhi Day in 1942.

I like the idea of a day to say no for two reasons. There's so much happening that we should be standing up and shouting NO about. And saying no is not always very easy. My totally unrealistic work schedule is proof of that.

But there are some things that we should be prepared to stand up and refuse, regardless of the consequences. And one of those things is the current preoccupation with death threats in South Africa.

It may have been sparked by ANC youth league leader Malema and his asinine calls to Kill for Zuma, but more likely its something that has been simmering under the surface for a while now. What happens when ANC dissidents have a meeting? People toyi toyi outside, chanting "Kill Terror". (To an outsider it sounds like something Bush would chant, but actually it refers to Terror Lekota, hero of the struggle, champion of the people until he stopped toeing the party line).

The Khayelitsha Festival, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Cape Town's biggest suburb, was held last week. Some felt that too many whities were on the organising committee, so what's the response? Death threats!

And its not just a black thing. An Afrikaans journalist I know regularly receives death threats whenever she mentions evolution in her stories.

Why not just say no?
No, I don't agree with you.
No, I think the committee was not representative.
No, I am not going to forget the hurt of the past and I don't want you to live in my country.
or even, NO I am not going to follow the herd. I'm going to think for myself.

Talking about herds, my son Ben has a theory that cows don't moo. They stand in the fields shouting Nooooo! No, because they know they are going to end up as steak and shoes, nooo because their babies are taken from them at birth, nooo because they have no say over what happens in their lives and noooo because the only time there is any flavour variation in their diet is when they happen to eat a bug.

We could follow the example of the Greeks and the cows and run out into the streets, shouting our NOs for all the world to hear. But surely we don't need to kill those who don't share our sentiments?

Monday, 20 October 2008

rewarding the winners

So, is it a better idea to reward winners rather than censuring or giving encouragement to the losers?

Two things have got me pondering.

The first is the news today that Botswana's ex-president Festus Mogae has been awarded a US$5-million prize, designed to encourage good governance, because he stepped down after two terms in office. (Ag shame, Thabo... if the JZ-erites had just left you alone for a few more months, you could have been in line for the prize next year). He also gets $200 000 a year for the rest of his life.

You can read about it here

The second was a meeting I attended on Friday where Clem Sunter was teaching a group of health executives about scenario planning. Fascinating stuff, and I'll write about it here later, but more pertinant to this discussion was his recounting of how the Anglo American Chairman's fund rewards pockets of excellence in our education system.

"We give money to the winners," he said. "Those schools that are achieving good results get funding. That creates and incentive for the losers to improve."

"Does that mean that the poor get poorer?" he was asked.

"No, its often the poorest schools that get the money because they have a good principal," he said. "I've seen schools that have no proper classrooms leading the way academically because of the dedication of a good principal."

Maybe that's the problem with aid to Africa. The cash tends to keep pouring in, even if its not being properly managed or distributed. So the idea of rewarding the winners seems like a good one.

But I'm still worried about the prize Festus got. (Admit it... you can't read that name without thinking of the Addams Family...)I understand it is a great incentive, but what does it say about leaders in Africa that it has to be there at all?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Happy Birthday Noah

By all accounts Noah Webster was a crotchety old man when he started messing around with the spelling of English words and wrote his famous dictionary. If he was alive today, it may be difficult to see even the hint of a smile in all those wrinkles... he'd be 250 years old.

And talking of kissing wrinkly lips, his namesake "the' Noah (the Biblical one) begat three of his children when he was 500 years old. And while I can't be accused of ageism (mainly because I'll could be a victim of it myself before too long) can you imagine begatting anything with a 500 year old? Nasty!

Noah Webster was an enthusiastic begatter too... he and his wife Rebecca had eight chidren.

According to Wikipedia, he was determined to rescue "our native tongue" from "the clamor of pedantry" that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation.

For someone living in Africa, his work has done little more than to add to the confusion. In countries like South Africa the British English spelling is the one taught in schools, but it is the American spellings which have had the most cultural influence. I seem to spend half my time editing Americanisms out of my journalists' copy.

Webster can't be blamed for all the confusion though. Its the colloquialisms that make English so interesting. You can always tell a South African by their use of the words "just now", as in "I'll do it just now".

To most people, that means "I'll do it right away" but in South Africa it can mean anything from "I'll do it in a minute" to "I'll do it much later". The distinction is in how many extra vowels are put into the word "just" The longer the word (jaaast), the longer it will be before whatever it is is done.

I heard today of someone who is working on a dictionary of South African signs for people coming to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Seems like a good idea. I mean, where else do you have robots directing the traffic?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

interesting times

Lief Eriksson

I've always enjoyed the ancient Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times". I've loved the ambiguity of it... its the kind of statement that at first glance seems innocuous or even encouraging, but when you're not looking it comes back to bite you.

It seems doubtful that it actually was a Chinese curse, or if it is, it is like putting a phrase into babelfish or some other online translation site. You can translate it from Chinese to English but when you translate it back again, it looks nothing like the original.

If its not actually a Chinese curse, we have Robert F Kennedy to blame. He is credited with making the statement popular in South Africa, and possibly abroad. In a speech in Cape Town on 7 June, 1966, he said: There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May he live in interesting times'. Like it or not, we live in interesting times...

I like another story that came out of his visit: He saw the graffiti for the JFK gang and was touched by what he fondly believed were the frequent references to his brother!

When I was researching whether the curse actually exists I found this, even more sinister reference, on a site which was mainly in Chinese: "May you live in interesting times. May you get that which you prayed for. May you come to the attention of people in high places. May your friends always be at your back. And may your enemies be patient."

The same source pointed out that "interesting times" actually was the translation of the word for anarchy.

Scary stuff.

We're certainly living in interesting times in South Africa at the moment. I found an interesting take on the effects of Mbeki's ousting here and the transcript of Terror Lekota's speech about his "divorce from the ANC" is here

Who knows what the outcome will be? Anarchy and patient enemies? Hope not.

So why the picture of Lief Eriksson? Today is Lief Eriksson Day in the US (see, they don't just remember Columbus) and although he looks like a bit of a wally in this picture from Reportrait he certainly lived in interesting and often turbulent times.

Monday, 6 October 2008

leaving and cleaving

So, I'm still wondering about the whole white African thing, and a couple of things have caught my eye lately.

We were watching an episode of "Who do you think you are" recently. It's a TV show that really taps into people's obsession with their roots. The episode traced the history of Alistair McGowan, a comedian, who really thought he was Scottish. Well, he would, wouldn't he! Turns out he was Anglo-Indian, and he traced his Indian links back through about seven generations when the original (Irish) ancestor came to India.

I was fascinated to discover that the British had a presence in India from 1600 until the country regained its independence in 1947, 347 years years later. Surely there were whites who lived there who regarded themselves as Indian? And what happened to them? Are they contributing members of society, or did they all find their way back to the mother ship?

And, talking about people clinging to the past, or holding onto things way past their sell by date, how's this phenomenon? Women who buy baby-like dolls because they can't bear the fact that their children or grandchildren have grown up.

Seriously creepy.

I can honestly say that, while I miss my little boys, I wouldn't swap them for the men they've grown into.

But I do wonder, am I doomed one day to to wander in some other land, clinging to the remnants of my African past?

Will my gravestone, shaped like a braai grid perhaps, be sticking forlornly out of the Canadian snow?

Or is this really the rainbow nation, that belongs to all who live in it?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

where is my home?

I've been spending some time pondering, lately.

Is there such a thing as a white African? Or are those of us with only one passport destined to be rootless, stateless people?
Are we holding onto a land where we don't belong? And do the ordinary white South Africans have any real hope of understanding the revolution?

The pondering has been brought on by a number of things.
A few conversations in Uganda like this one:
Me: I'm South African. That makes me an African
Various delegates: No really, where do you come from?
Me: I'm South African
Delegates: No, I mean, where is your home country?

A snippet from an article in the St Georges Cathedral magazine this month, written by a Zimbabwean refugee:
"Economic Emancipation is the third and final stage of any liberation struggle; we still hear stories, about Kenya, and Mozambique etc. How people just left what they had and went with the clothes on their back, any where they could find refuge. In all these instances, the economy was aggressively dismantled. The underlying principle was to force out the oppressors and allow the previously disadvantaged minority access to the national wealth. Such an exercise is costly, economic decadence takes years to rebuild. The economic liberalization struggle impacts negatively on the surrounding countries, as it creates a black hole in the region. What took place in to Zimbabwe is not new to Africa. "

I'd never thought about it like that. And having read it, I got one of those lightbulb moments "Aaha! maybe that's what Julius Malema is talking about when he mentions the ongoing revolution!"

And if it is, what does it actually mean? Is there an agenda which is going to see us heading down the same road as Zimbabwe, where food production is less than 10% of what it was a decade ago, and people have to get up at 2am in the morning to get into the bank queues to draw enough money to buy a bread roll?

BBC News put out an interesting question here, asking which systems left the best legacy for Africa - an Anglophone, Francophone or Lusophone system of government. I was interested in how many of the respondents were calling for Africa to be left to the Africans.

Makes interesting reading, and gets back to my first question: Do white Africans exist?

I'd really like to know.