Monday, 28 April 2008

Freedom in Africa

This week has the most public holidays I've ever seen. Today (Monday) is "Freedom Day" to celebrate the end of apartheid. Then Thursday, May 1st, is Labour Day, which is apparently such an important holiday here that Friday is a continuation, another public holiday. Kinda weird, but who am I to complain? (Don't worry, though, Jeff - I'm working from home!)

But speaking of Freedom Day (and not to beat a dead horse, but...) here's an article I saw on the New York Times this morning. Not going into too much detail, the article is about the rising amount of violence being reported in Zimbabwe against those (mainly peasants) who supported the opposition party. There are roving gangs of government-supported youth thugs, as well as soldiers and police, beating and destroying the homes of people who were known to have been supporters of the MDC. Apparently, it's all part of "Operation Where-Did-You-Put-Your-X?" - a terror campaign to scare people away from voting in the probable upcoming run-off presidential election.

While South Africa is obviously not DIRECTLY to blame for this, it's leaders (specifically now President Mbeki) have completely refused to say a single negative word about Mugabe in public. While Mbeki claims to be using "quiet diplomacy" to try and help the situation, we can see how well that is working. There's just something the slightest bit hypocritical about proudly celebrating your own freedom while helping to prop up a neighbor's violent dictatorship (and no, the analogy with US foreign policy is not lost on me).

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Faith in Zim-anity?

Perhaps cynicism need not always win.

I had mentioned in a previous post that the election in Zimbabwe seemed to be on its way towards more dictatorship. They had had both presidential and parliamentary elections a month ago, and while the results from the presidential election had not (and still has not) been released, the parliamentary ones HAD been - and the results were in favor of the opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - for the first time since independence in 1980. This seemed like great news, and possibly the beginning of the end for Mugabe's Zanu-PF ruling party. However, lo-and-behold, the government controlled Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) decided that 23 ridings needed a recount, most of those being seats lost to the MDC. As Zanu needed only 9 turnovers to retake parliament, and as the (corrupt) government had had the ballots in their custody for some time, the natural assuption (at least for both me and the MDC) was that Mugabe would have the ballot boxes stuffed, and rig the election.

However, the ZEC has been slowly releasing the recounts over the course of this past week, and it now seems that enough have been recounted to confirm the MDC parliamentary victory! Somehow, democracy has won the day, despite the repressive and corrupt government that's been in power for 30 years. Perhaps my faith in humanity can be restored...

Relatedly, there has recently been quite a bruhaha about a shipment of arms from China to Zimbabwe (where it has been claimed that the weapons would be used in suppressing Zim's own people during potential run-off elections), but through the protests of upstanding African citizens, its delivery to the oppressive Mugabean regime has at least been delayed, if not stopped altogether. Since Zim is a landlocked country, the Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, has to dock in another close-by African country and transport the arms overland. It was due to dock in South Africa, in Durban, but thanks to the conscientious organization of unionized dock workers who refused to unload them, and protests by human rights organizations and ordinary people, they were unsuccessful in transporting through South Africa. This specifically after the South African government had no response to the shipment - "government spokesman Themba Maseko said they could do nothing to stop a perfectly legal and properly documented transaction between two sovereign states." Not an unreasonable statement until you remember that the shipment had to be transported through your country. I'm no legal expert, but it seems pretty obvious to me that that puts you right in the middle of the transaction, with obvious ability to do something about it. A comment I found particularly interesting was made by the Secretary General of the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi

Mr Vavi said much of the problem was rooted in the challenge that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) presented to the older political leaders who view themselves as standard-bearers of the liberation movements.

"It’s because of the fear that the MDC is led and supported by trade unions and civil society. They worry that initiative may just go on from one country to the next," he said.

"There’s paranoia and fear that suddenly the liberation movements are going to be coming under lots of pressure from these formations. That’s why there is this unwillingness to openly condemn what is wrong in Zimbabwe."

This doesn't seem like a crazy statement here - particularly, Thabo Mbeki, the president of SA, has been, and continues to be, seemingly unreasonably supporting Mugabe's regime, and the only reason I can suss out for this is because of revolutionary loyalty, since Zimbabwe under Mugabe played a very important role for the revolutionary ANC during apartheid in the 80s. He (and much of the ANC) doesn't seem to want to condemn an obviously horrific regime because they see them as old-school heroes, and don't want to give up the mantle of revolution.

In any case, country after country here has refused the Chinese ship access to their waters, and so it has been unable to dock and send in the weapons. It was seeming like a great success of popular righteousness, until the ship was finally allowed to dock in Angola. The Angolan government has said that they will not allow the unloading of weapons, only allowing transport of goods intended for Angola. However, Angola is a close ally of Mugabe, and it is not clear that they'll stick to their word.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Not the brightest bulb in the robot

One thing that I've found particularly stupid/annoying about the constant "load shedding" power cuts (which have started up again full swing, after a brief period of full electricity) is the traffic. Absolutely no effort is made to keep the traffic lights active when a particular area gets shed, or indeed to make any acknowledgment of traffic difficulties at all. While slightly annoying, this is not really a problem at small intersections - of course you just treat a burned out light as a stop sign. Where it becomes an issue is at MAJOR intersections, with multiple entry points, in an already poorly designed set of roads. And by major, I mean the actual HIGHWAY right next to my house. It's an intersection of one huge traffic artery and a minor traffic artery, and when the power goes out, that's it. I've been remarkably impressed with the restraint that people show, but it backs traffic up something awful (especially at rush hour, which is when they have decided to shed the load in that area). Not to mention, I'm very curious about how much traffic accidents have increased due to this.

The thing that really boggles my mind is just that it's not like this is just a traffic light being burnt out - loading shedding is constantly happening all over the country, so for example, in Cape Town, at any particular time, there is one area where the lights are all out for two hours at a time. The whole thing is just crazy to me.

By the way, for those Americans who don't understand the title of this post, "robot" is how they say "traffic light" here. Too bad they aren't as cool as the Jetsons...

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Will this help me get a job?

All I can say is... wow. One of the more gruesome things I've heard of recently. Apparently there has been a significant increase in "ritual killings" in the country of Gabon, in Western Africa, preceding local elections. It is explained that

"These politicians drink the blood and eat the bodies of their victims. They do this as a ritual to keep themselves in power."

Now that is seriously twisted.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Rumble in Zimbabwe

One thing I'm becoming more and more interested in as I stay here in Africa, is African politics, especially in Southern Africa (for obvious reasons). I've been trying to get a handle on the history of post-colonial Africa, more-or-less exclusively by reading this book "The State of Africa," by Martin Meredith. It's a great book, though it covers such an enormous subject that it's bound to be a little shallow. But considering I had zero knowledge before I started reading this, it's exactly what I needed. It covers the major events/coups/governments of pretty much every country in Africa since the 1950s, when Europe began to give up their games of colonialism and allow independence. Overall, I'd have to say it's pretty damned depressing. It pretty much reads as one psychotic, greedy, evil dictator after another. Some are less psychotic/greedy/evil than others, but suffice it to say that it is a relief to read about the countries which merely fail due to benevolent socialist intentions, rather than intentional massacres and looting.

Anyway, the upshot is that whatever the politics of the continent of Africa may be, they are certainly not boring. There's pretty much always some kind of crisis or tragedy going on somewhere, and it continues to be true in my tenure here. Aside from the constant war-torn tragedies of Darfur, DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, etc., in the 9 months I've been here there have already been several specific difficulties. In December - now, there was a massive crisis in Kenya (one of the most stable and strongest economies on the continent), which has subsequently settled down (at least for the present - everyone is hoping that the new shared government will be able to stave off more violence). South Africa has unveiled a large scale electricity crisis, a dire prophecy regarding the 2010 FIFA world cup here. And the current exciting piece of political turmoil is the election in Zimbabwe.

Ever since I've been here, I've been learning more and more about how shit has hit the fan in Zim over the past few years. The President/dictator for the past 28 years (since independence) is Robert Mugabe, who was a great revolutionary hero (and is still considered to be so in much of Africa). Apparently, he began his rule with much world optimism, and I think he was a not unreasonable leader for the first ten years or so. From what I can tell, problems began around the early 90s, when he became more and more disillusioned with the state of land reform in his country - much of the farm land, etc., continued to stay in the hands of the white, British farmers, or at least was not transferring quickly enough for Bob's taste. So he nationalized everything, took the land from the white farmers and gave it mainly to his political cronies, family, revolutionary buddies, etc. Subsequently, the food production, economy, public welfare, etc. plummeted. And rather than question the validity of his policies, he blamed (and continues to blame) the economic woes of Zimbabwe on a global, Western conspiracy. Of course, in addition to all of this, corruption became endemic, political freedoms are smashed (for the good of the country, of course), there was a continued attack on free business and industry, and life continued to get shittier and shittier.

When I arrived here in South Africa, it was immediately clear from talking to people and watching the news that there was a massive problem. There is enormous illegal immigration from Zim to SA, people trying to achieve refugee status with extremely low rate of acceptance by the government here. People were fleeing Zim like crazy to try to find work and send money back to their families. I remember soon after arriving here, I saw a sign down at the touristy waterfront for a boat trip, listed as costing US$30, ZAR 200 (south african rand), and one BILLION Zimbabwean dollars. That's how bad the inflation was/is - I think it is the highest level of inflation in the world now (this after being one of the best economies in Africa, earlier in Mugabe's rule).

Anyway, about 3 weeks ago, there was an election in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe (now 84 years old) was of course running, along with really only one opposition candidate - Morgan Tsvangirai. Elections are of course not even close to free and fair there - independent media is completely disallowed, constant threats are levied against the opposition, a history of political violence and intimidation stares any of Mugabe's political opponents directly in the face. Despite all of this, people are obviously EXTREMELY unhappy there, and as something like 1/3 of Zimbabwe's population lives outside of the country, often in some communication with those back home, people are able to get some reasonable outside information. So when the election resulted in

a) the first time an opposition party took majority in parliament (official) and
b) a clear majority vote in favor of Tsvangirai (unofficial, due to exit polls and posted results at individual polling stations)

there has been much hope aroused. However, true to form, Mugabe has refused to release official results for the Presidential race in over three weeks, and subsequently decided that there were "irregularities" at polling stations, calling for a "recount" of the parliamentary polls. Of course, his government has taken possession of the votes long ago, and it's pretty clear he plans to stuff the ballot boxes in his favor. Together with government-sponsored violence in opposition-held areas, over 400 arrests and a number of murders of MDC members (Movement for Democratic Change - Tsvangirai's party), and the fact that Tsvangirai himself has been forced to flee the country, this has resulted in the current highly interesting political situation here in Southern Africa.

The other crazy thing is the South African governmental response. There is huge public outcry against Mugabe's shennanigans from the SA public. However, President Mbeki is old revolutionary friends with Bob, going way back. Throughout Mugabe's reign of terror over the past years, Mbeki has been conducting what he calls "quiet diplomacy." What exactly this entails, I'm unclear on, but what it clearly does NOT entail is any public denunciation of Mugabe whatsoever, or any real results involving political freedoms. Into this election situation, amidst international outrage at Mugabe, Mbeki has continued his "quiet diplomacy," leading to his recent famous statement that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe." This has created a media furor here, increasing both the hilarity of the situation, and its sadness.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Multiple Stab Wounds

PG-13 Warning: The following blog entry contains scenes of graphic violence, and parental guidance is suggested.

So, my friend Lisa was here in SA for several weeks, traveling around, seeing the sights, helping ease the dental pain of rural Natalians. She justifiedly decided to take a little sightseeing break and head down to the beachside town of Muizenberg (pronounced with a "mu" as in the greek letter) which is about half an hour from Cape Town. She got more of the South African experience than she bargained for...

After checking into her cutesy B&B with the very nice surfers/owners, she took a walk around town, checked out the beach, etc. etc., and was heading back to home base around 6pm (still light out). Climbing up the alley stairs to her apartment, she heard a beggar ask for money. After traveling for 3 months in Southeast Asia, she was relatively used to people asking for change, and wasn't particularly phased. She told the guy she didn't have any, at which point he pulled out a knife and threatened her. As world-traveled as Lisa is, I guess the little girl from rural Alberta wasn't used to such intimidation methods, and promptly screamed for help, partially without thinking, and partially with the idea that he would run when he realized people would start to come running. Not so. He attacked.

And by attacked, I mean he didn't hold back. He was serious with the stabbing, giving her three separate (and vicious-looking) stab-wounds in the arms - one in the upper left bicep, and two in the right forearm. That it WAS in the arms I think is testament to Lisa's a) ass/groin-kicking abilities and b) great luck - the arm wounds came from blocking the INTENDED neck/head wounds which would undoubtedly have been a hell of a lot more medically serious. After inflicting these wounds (and several other bruises from glancing blows) he ran off when her B&B owner came running out yelling that he'd called the police (more on the usefulness of that call later). Obviously, she was, at this point, rushed to the hospital, bleeding extremely profusely. Apparently this kind of thing is not incredibly common in this posh area of Muizenberg, because the hospital staff were all horrified, and she was immediately sent to the head of the queue. Stitched up and pain-killed, she was sent back to the B&B, where the owners were very sweet in trying to make her feel comfortable.

What Lisa described as one of the more frustrating aspects of the whole situation was the absolute incompetence of the SA police force. Multiple calls to the station down the road garnered no results the night of the assault, and they eventually had to wait until the next day to get the cops to come (they said they couldn't find the flat, despite exact directions and an address). When they finally did arrive (after much yelling over the phone at the unreasonably defensive officer in charge), the cops were totally useless. They made no effort to get the story (Lisa had to offer it to them independently), they took no notes (even as to the location of the attack, description of the attacker, etc.), and after the whole interview was concluded, the statement they asked her to sign was along the lines of

Lisa M. [they didn't even bother to include her surname] was attacked on Sunday, April 13th. We explained to her the forms she has to fill out to file a report.

If the whole thing weren't so appalling, it clearly would have been hilarious...

Anyway, the long and the short of the situation is that she came out of it alright. The most worrying thing was that she didn't have full range of motion with her right thumb (leading to multiple jokes about the usefulness of opposable thumbs), but otherwise she was pretty ok, even a surprising lack of frazzledness. She came back to Cape Town to stay with me for another few days, and left for Australia on Thursday. She made attempts to seem as pathetic as possible to the airline check-in crew to try to get bumped to business-class, but apparently with no success. I guess these kind of attacks are old hat for South Africans...

Monday, 14 April 2008

Crazy Town

It's been quite a while since I've put up any posts, and my excuse is that it's been pretty crazytown here for the past month or so. I'm gonna try and give a broad outline of the things that have been going on to keep me so busy, but I get bored easily, so it might get abbreviated.

A friend of mine (Janius Tsang) from McGill came to Cape Town about a month ago for a conference in anesthesiology (sp? never mind, spell checkers rock). I only got to hang out with her once, but it was really nice to catch up, as I hadn't seen her in probably at least five years. We went down to Camps Bay and had sundowners (cocktails as you watch the sun go down over the ocean - not bad). Funny how people you haven't seen in years can still be your friends. Well, I guess it's not that funny, just pretty cool.

Then Kristen came to visit for a week and a half in mid-March. That was just fantastic. We had a really nice time exploring and relaxing and everything. The time obviously seemed to go by way too quickly, but it just made me more anxious for her to move here in the winter... I mean summer... errrr... late July. Anyway, for those of you who don't know yet, she's moving here around then, hopefully on a volunteer visa. As she has been working virtually non-stop for the past 7 years, sometimes two jobs, she is definitely getting a little tired of doing what she's doing (online advertising management). So she's saving up money, ditching the ol' rat race, and moving to Cape Town to do some volunteer teaching in the townships (Khayalitcha) and spend time writing. And good for her! But damn, I probably should have taken more advantage of
her big bucks job while I could...

Very soon after she left events occurred that were of a much less pleasant nature. Sheina Weltman, the mother of a very close friend of mine in Cape Town, Amanda (my boss Jeff's fiancee), had a sudden and completely unexpected heart attack. After five days of stabilization in the hospital, she passed away with her family at her side. They have all been extremely sweet and kind to me since I've come to SA, and I've felt just terrible for them for the past few weeks. They sat shiva for her for a week, and I tried to come to the mourning prayers most nights, to show my support for them and to do whatever I could. Obviously there isn't much that anyone can do in such a situation, but at least I was able to take Jeff's classes for the week so he could take care of her. They are all still suffering, and I just wish I could do more to help/distract/comfort/whatever them.

During that time, ANOTHER friend of mine from university, Lisa, came to visit. She has been traveling the world (well, Southeast Asia) for the past 2-3 months with her friend, Muffy, and finally split up with her to come to SA. She met her mom in Jo-burg and then went to KZN (KwaZulu-Natal, a province of SA where the city of Durban is) to do some volunteer dentistry. Even though neither she nor her mom are dentists. Whatever. But they did that in some rural town for a week, which sounded pretty interesting. Then they both flew down to Cape Town, and met up with me for some wild times. We first went to the Cape Wine Country over last weekend - to Franschoek. It was really cool (and by cool I mean totally sweet). We drove out there in the Midge, went to three different wine farms (each of which were delicious and fun, with mostly wacky owners, especially Hildegard), ate dinner at a really phenomenal restaurant (le Bon Vivant) where we got a five-course meal with matching wines for a pretty unreasonably cheap price (especially for pretty much the most ritsy/touristy area of Cape Town), and ended up randomly staying at this great B&B/villa overlooking the mountains. Fantastic.

After that, Lisa and her mom continued to potter around Cape Town together for a few days before Linda (Lisa's mom) headed back to Alberta, at which point Lisa came to crash on the kick-ass leopard-print couch of my apartment. We did a bunch of cool shit over the next few evenings and then went to the town of Langebaan, about 150 km north of Cape Town. There they have a cool lagoon with crazy wind and a crazy restaurant that serves ten courses of fish on the beach, listening to a (hammered) guitarist sing songs and harass the clientèle. Such harassed people included me and Lisa, which was particularly funny as he
a) insisted on speaking Afrikaans to me, even after I told him I speak none
b) singing intently at our table while staring intensely into my eyes
c) convincing a larger and larger cross-section of the clientèle that we were Afrikaans, until seemingly no one believed us (including the owner, who had previously been speaking to us in English)
d) finally settled on hitting on the quintuple of 20-something blond Dutch chicks, whom he regaled with a stunning rendition of "Barbie Girl."
Fun was had by all.

In Loving Memory of Sheina Weltman

Very recently, the mother of one of my closest friends, Amanda, passed away completely unexpectedly from a massive heart attack. Sheina lived in Cape Town, and she was one of the sweetest people I've met. She was instantly extraordinarily welcoming and friendly to me when I arrived in SA, and really treated me as part of her large and friendly family. She was very intelligent, and it was always a pleasure to have any conversation with her, on any number of topics. Not to mention that she was extremely open minded, and would listen to whatever you had to say.

It's totally unbelievable that this could have happened so quickly out of the blue, and I feel just terrible for my friend and her poor family. My heart goes out to all of them, and my best wishes to them on getting through this incredibly difficult time. Sheina was a wonderful woman, and she lives on in the hearts and minds of everyone who ever met her.