Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Where there’s smoke 

There are a couple of articles in The Times today that prompt further analysis. By a couple I mean two, as opposed to the South African usage, which is anything up to a dozen. I’d link to the articles, but the Times seems to have a policy of denying access to its site if you are outside the UK, and therefore unable to buy the paper. You could argue that the other way round might make more sense, but maybe not from a financial perspective. When all of us expats move home again, we’ll be reading the Telegraph instead. Apart from the Times version I download to my Palm. Whatever.

Libby Purves writes about the smoking ban in workplaces in Ireland. I thought this would be a big flop – there was no way the Irish were going to stop smoking in pubs, surely? Apparently it has worked very well – a 97% compliance (whatever that is), and a 16% drop in the sales of cigarettes. What they did was to offer help for those who wanted to quit, and simultaneously hike the tobacco tax. It all sounds as if – whisper it – someone thought through the whole thing first, and it was co-ordinated and well implemented.

Contrast this with the way that a similar piece of legislation was passed here in South Africa. Our esteemed Minister for Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, advocator of the African potato as a cure for AIDS, and general dangerous loony, forced through a ban on smoking in bars & restaurants about 3 years ago. Any restaurant that wanted smokers as patrons was required to construct a separate air-conditioned area for them, or face large fines. There was no simultaneous increase in tobacco taxes, or anything other co-ordination. To be fair, a well planned implementation is not what we have come to expect from Manto, who needed a court action to be forced to roll out anti-retrovirals instead of potatoes. What has happened with the smoking ban for bars & restaurants is resistance all the way, settling down to a vague compliance where it is easy, and ignoring of the laws where it isn’t. Much the same as everything else then.

The second article that caught my eye was by Michael Gove, about the 70 or so men currently incarcerated in a Zimbabwe jail, charged with plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea. They stopped off in Zimbabwe en route, and are due to be tried soon, with the possible result that they will be exported to Equatorial Guinea for execution. A majority of those held are South African, and the group is apparently led by one Simon Mann, formerly of Executive Outcomes, the SAS and Eton. What is interesting to me is the different approaches taken by the South African and British media. The SA approach is to question whether the group are mercenaries at all, and to demand their extradition to SA. This is backed up with the odd personal interest story about the worried families back home.

The Times article, though, takes a different angle: sure, they are mercenaries, security personnel, or whatever, but let’s look at the bigger picture. This is that as a group of about 70, they are more likely to be involved in protecting the return of the exiled opposition to Equatorial Guinea’s current dictator than in a direct coup, and are therefore facilitating democracy. Rather like the Americans in Iraq? Regardless of your feelings about dictators and mercenaries, Gove raises the interesting point that Mugabe is simply doing his bit as a key member of the African dictators club. Enforced democracy is a dangerous precedent when you are in his position. The democratic SA government is, in the meantime, far less sympathetic to this kind of thing than the apartheid one was when Mad Mike Hoare's men tried to invaded the Seychelles.

Doing some web searches on this issue, though, turns up a lot of fascinating material. There are certainly cases where using mercenaries makes sense in political and practical terms. Helping to get rid of dictators is almost always a good thing. Then there’s the reason behind all of these actions: money, usually from natural resources, since there is a high correlation between rich oil & mineral reserves and poor government. The next step is that the Americans decide that the oil reserves off Africa are easier to get at than those in the Middle East. Maybe they would be more subtle in getting involved next time: no more flag-draped coffins. Who is the biggest oil company in Equatorial Guinea? Exxon. Makes you think...

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