Tuesday, July 27, 2004


I have a confession to make. I’m a stickler for matters of grammar and style. I can get a bit anal about it to be honest. I blame the parents. My mother actually – she used to be an English teacher, and some of it obviously rubbed off on me. Perhaps my ideal career is as a sub-editor. There is a particular type of mistake that I have noticed a lot of in South African publications, perhaps because English is often not the mother tongue of the writer.

The thing is, I don’t know what it is called when you garble the message by not understanding a phrase’s origin. This is what I am talking about:
Baited breath / bated breath
Tow the line / toe the line
To the manor born / to the manner born
It’s not quite a malapropism, but I don’t know what it is. That last one was from the Telegraph’s cricket coverage, so perhaps it was meant to be a clever play on the use of the word ‘manor’, meaning an area of London. Or perhaps the writer thinks that Robert Key looks like Penelope Keith. Who knows.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Wish I could be 

When you are at school, there are some guys who are good at everything – on all the sports teams, top of the class; teachers love them. The thing is that they are dominant because everyone is forced to go to school, and everyone is forced to compete, to a greater or lesser degree, in that arena. This is one of the things that makes school days about the worst days of your life for many people. Once you leave school and get out into the wide world, things change. We’re adults now, we can make our own decisions and judgements. Bollocks.

The same social forces that got to you in school will get to you as an adult. You are now in the business world. You have a job, maybe even a career, and you find yourself compared – by society, your friends, and yourself – with the class swots and jocks all over again. Since by definition, half of us are below average and only a few of us will win, this makes people miserable.

The latest stage I have noted is competing via your kids: mine can count to 20, mine is potty-trained, mine dresses herself, mine is in the play, mine is in the team. Bloody hell. Don’t fuck the kids up too – let it stop with you.

The only happy people you meet are the winners (and they’re not happy, they just think they are), and those who have finally figured out that there is more to it than banging your head against the same walls your whole life. If you’re not happy with who you are then change, but don’t try to make yourself happy in comparison to me – live your own life, then I’ll want you in mine.

Here ends the public service announcement. Just had to get that out of my system.

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...

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The beaten generation 

Being an occasionally homesick expat, I subscribe to the Telegraph’s daily email news bulletin. This contains links to the obituaries, which frequently catalogue the quiet deaths of some of World War 2’s heroes. These are men who led peaceful lives until they were thrown into the horrors of a war. After acts of, in many cases, incredible bravery, they went back to those peaceful lives. My generation, thank God, was never forced into that position, which leaves me wondering “what if?”. Would I have been able to do those things? Thankfully I’ll never know. It also leaves me with a concern that the people who have direct memories of such horrors are dying off, which makes it more likely that we will find ourselves in that situation again at some point. Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

South Africa has a more recent dramatic past , with the bulk of the protagonists on both sides of the struggle against apartheid still alive. Incidentally, apartheid is pronounced “apart-eight”, not “apart-hide” for people who care about such things. The old giants of the ANC are also dying off: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki; Mandela is still hard at it, thank God. The old bears of the National Party are also disappearing, as are their values, and anybody who remembers voting for them. The disappearance of the Nats and their attitudes is undoubtedly a good thing: people growing up into an integrated South Africa will simply be denied the opportunities to absorb the prejudices of the past.

The disappearance of the ANC old guard is a bit more of a concern. These are the ones, like Mandela, who spent years thinking through the problems of taking over the country, and all that entailed. The ANC currently has no serious political opposition, so I think there is going to be a tricky stage between the end of the influence of the conservative old timers, and the advent of that credible opposition. If we can avoid slipping into the type of problems faced by the rest of Africa (institutionalised nepotism, vanishing property rights, corruption...) during that period than we’ll be OK. If not, we’re Brazil: beautiful, but ultimately fucked.

Problem number two: one of the most scenarios for a opposition for the ANC is the IFP. What you get then is a Zulu based party, and a Xhosa based one. Tribe instead of skin colour. This makes the best hope for a stable political future an alliance between the communists and the unions. Oh the irony.

Listening to: Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues

Thursday, July 08, 2004

I’m guilty, but I don’t know what I’ve done 

There are parallels between the way that the South African mindset developed, and the way in which the British and American ones did. America is a country built by entrepreneurs, so it is the work ethic that is (Paul?) revered. The British system is built on class, guilt and Empire, so in the UK, who you are defines what you are, whereas in the States it is the other way round. The US has a culture of possibility – a poor man will look at a rich guy's BMW, and see that he too could be like that with a lot of hard work and a few lucky breaks. In the UK, there is a culture of resentment: the poor man will take his key to the BMW's paintwork. Nationally, there is the notoriously apologetic approach born of the vague guilt that we pillaged quite a lot of the rest of the world in the days of Empire.

In South Africa, the situation is inevitably more complicated. If you are white, then the massive advantages given to you by apartheid mean that you are at least as privileged as anyone born into the right circumstances in the UK. For the black population, however, the reverse was true: it was phenomenally hard to succeed regardless of how hard you worked, because the system was designed to work against you because of the colour of your skin. Now that South Africa has a democratic system, there is a white guilt similar to that felt by the British. This is all generalisation, but the position that the white South Africans generally find themselves in, in relation to their black compatriots, is due largely to the exploitation and imbalance of apartheid, hence the residual, collective guilt. The privileged position that Britain found itself in until fairly recently was due in large part to the exploitation of the Empire, hence a similar underlying guilt. The British, of course, have raised the self deprecation and apologetic nature to an art form in order to deal with this, while hopefully the white South Africans will grow out of it.

In the meantime, another one of South Africa’s problems is the culture of entitlement. The previously downtrodden majority feels that it is “owed something” by the state, the whites, the world, due to the suffering that they endured. In a similar fashion, the poorer nations of the world come, cap in hand, to the richer with a similar argument: “you exploited our resources and our people”, they say “now is the time to give something back”. This is a powerful force – for good in many cases. The inevitable danger is that people and nations starve waiting for a handout that doesn’t come, rather than getting off their collective arses and making things better for themselves.

What I hope for, and to be fair what is actually happening, is that the white South Africans will see that the best way to deal with their guilt is to make the country a better place for everyone. The government has to keep out of the way just enough to let them do it. Next, to deal with the entitlement culture, somebody needs to figure out how to create an entrepreneur with aid. That’s the tricky part. Shit, I’m glad I’m not a politician.

Listening to: Paul Weller, grand-daddy of British pop, so I guess that goes with yesterday’s selection?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

I'm an alien 

Our new house (how long until it becomes just “our house” – 6 months? A year? 3 months and counting…) is in an estate that encourages indigenous plants in the residents’ gardens. Given the (realtively) newly inclusive, all-embracing nature of South Africa, the attitude to alien vegetation is conspicuously xenophobic. Cape Town is probably unique in that its climate supports both oak and palm trees, and neither looks out of place. Both are probably considered alien, i.e. introduced at some point from abroad. If you follow this logic for the inhabitants of the Rainbow Nation, then of course any non black South African is also alien. Maybe the botany people are testing the waters for Home Affairs. There will be a bounty offered for bringing in aliens, double if your captive has a blue gum up his arse…

Anyway, there are some very good reasons for discouraging alien plant species, especially the nasty Australian ones, since they contribute to several problems. The first is water shortages: the foreigners apparently drink too much, in the grand tradition of ex-pats, which means that other plants struggle for moisture, and little grows in their shade. The second problem is when things burn, which they often do – the blue gums and wattles make better firewood, burning hotter and longer, and delaying the new growth after the fire. The native proteas apparently enjoy a good roasting every so often to help with seed germination from underground buds, but the aussies are too hot for them.

Back home, because it fits in with the general design ethos of the estate, or because the developers felt guilty about destroying a large area of hillside, or maybe just because it looks nice, we have detailed guidelines on what we are encouraged to grow in our garden. I’m not quite sure what “encouraged” means. Perhaps a scruffy bloke in baggy trousers comes around at the weekend to frown at your lavender (very thirsty and often French, apparently). Or maybe a middle aged lady with twigs in her hair pops over to tut at your oaks. (Too English, too big – rather like Martin Johnson. Must plant one.)

We’ve been quite good so far, mainly because we spent all our money, and quite a lot of the bank’s, building the house, so have none left over for greenery. We have therefore economised by nicking cuttings from the communal bits of the garden, and replanting them in our garden, with some success. Apart from the bit where the dog likes to flop. I wonder if cacti are kosher?

As I have said before, one of the fun things about South Africa is that the whole environment is exciting, certainly in relation to the UK. Apart from the spectacular scenery, the regular flora and fauna are fascinating, at least to this pom. On the way home from the movies the other night, we saw a couple of porcupines disappearing into the bushes on the side of the road. Even the starlings are interesting. On the greener side of things, the Cape is pretty impressive. The Cape Peninsular is classified as one of the world’s six floral kingdoms. Although it is the smallest in area, it is home to the highest number of species. Of the 8600 plant species in the Cape, 5800 are not found anywhere else in the world. There are more plant species to be found on Table Mountain alone than in the whole of the British Isles. Table Mountain isn’t even that big. It only qualifies as a mountain by about 90 metres, and you could drive right around it in an hour if the traffic wasn’t too bad.

In my parents’ garden in England, the most dangerous thing was the stinging nettle. This obnoxious little bush was good for some fun with visiting Americans. They had never seen one before, so would always get sent into the nettles to fetch errant balls. “Yow! That bush bit me!” The cure for a nettle sting, as every British kid knows, is the doc leaf, which was always growing nearby: problem and solution. I discovered the other day that there is a similar thing in South Africa. Walking along a beach, it is easy to step on the tendril of a “blue bottle” – a type of jellyfish (not an irritating fly, like in the UK). These little buggers sting like hell, but the remedy is again close at hand – usually in the sand dunes in the form of a small aloe plant. You snap off a leaf, split it open, and apply the goo to the wound to soothe it. Problem and solution again. These aloes are the same things that grow so well from cuttings pinched from our estate’s gardens, which is how I got onto this train of thought.

Every problem lies close to a solution: you just have to know where to look. I wish I had some more profound message to round off with, but really it’s as simple as that.

Listening to: Ocean Colour Scene – whatever happened to them?

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Growin’ up 

The dictionary definition of adolescence refers to puberty – the transition from youth to adulthood. I’m not sure what the right term is, but it seems to me that there are at least four such transitions. Maybe there are six – one between each of the seven ages of man.

The first that I have noticed is the one my daughter is working through at the moment: the terrible twos. The usual explanation for this is that it is the transition from baby to toddler – suddenly you are expected not to pee on the floor, and to be able to walk and talk by yourself. Scary stuff when you’re under three feet tall.

The next is the proper adolescence – hair, smells & girls. Here come the hormones, there goes the voice. Physically you are becoming an adult, with all the bits that come with it.

The latest one I have come across (and I reserve the right to add more) is moving from “adult” to “grown up”. This is when you realise that you can no longer rely on your parents to bail you out, indeed you can see the day coming when they will rely on you. You have a mortgage, spouse, children, not necessarily in that order. It’s all up to you. Oh shit.

Here comes the allegory… South Africa is busy growing up: 10 years of democracy and counting. For South Africa, read the ANC: Nelson Mandela’s political movement turned government of the people. For a bunch of “terrorists” and communists, they have done a pretty impressive job of running the country since 1994. The one big problem they face is that they suffer from a bit of an identity problem, and are hyper-sensitive to criticism, as President Mbeki rather conclusively proved the other day in a long speech explaining how he isn’t at all sensitive. Paranoid, moi?

The biggest problem the ANC faces, and the country as a whole faces in one way or another, is where first world meets third. What is entirely acceptable, if not expected, in Africa – poor service levels, corruption, nepotism – scares the crap out of the first world and its South Africa representatives, i.e. the white population and the business community. When the corruption rumours have got as far as the Deputy President, then you have a bit of a problem.

Or do you? The whiteys’ biggest problem is the perception that the grass is always greener, hence the “chicken run” to Australia, half a million South Africans in London, and so on. This phenomenon extends to a rather idealistic view of the way things are in the first world.

Large party donation in return for planning permission? Try massive donations in return for Iraq’s reconstruction. Jobs for the boys? Try the election for your brother.

Maybe it is all done bigger and better in the first world…

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?