Friday, August 27, 2004

I saw it on TV 

Everyone else is doing it so here goes…
You get a very twisted perspective on the Olympics depending on where you view it from. As far as South Africa is concerned, the Olympics so far is all about swimming, since our boys won gold in the 4 x 100m freestyle, breaking the world record and – bonus – beating the Yanks and the Aussies in the same race. In a day or two, our attention will move to the athletics arena (it may have already, but I have spent far more TV time with the James Bond festival on eTV), and our girl Hestrie in the high jump and a couple of runners: Hezekiel Sepeng and somebody else. As far as the Brits are concerned, it’s all about sailing and Paula. There seems to be some rather impressive boxer too, who I haven’t been able to catch from over here yet. It’s weird how every four years a couple of beers and a remote control makes you an expert on the straight right with a twist, the tumble turn or the Fosbury Flop.

From a statistical perspective, if you were a multi-talented athlete, you would have to go for swimming as your best option for a medal. You’ve got dozens of options at various lengths with different strokes, plus a set of relays. If you are, say, a sprinter, you have two. There is no 100m backwards, or 50m hop. On the other hand, if you want to focus it may be worth picking something that only a tiny portion of the world’s population bother with. Everybody runs at some point in their lives, so there is a reasonable chance that the 100m champion (an American again, I believe) is the fastest guy in the world. Lots of people have tried it, found out they are too slow, and gone back to whatever they do better. If you go for a sport like rowing, or horse-riding, then you immediately cut down on the potential opposition, since only a tiny portion of the world’s population bothers with these sports, due largely to their cost.

If money is all that matters, then forget the Olympics – play golf. If you make it, you’re sorted. Have you heard, for example, of Kent Jones? Me neither, but he is number 122 on the PGA money list, and has made more than half a million dollars playing golf this year alone. There are 72 who have made a million bucks already, with plenty more to come before the tax year closes. That’s the way to do it – do something you love, at which you can make a good living from the age of 20 until about 60 – you even have a caddy to do the heavy work. Now if someone would just pay me to write…

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Finesse and grace 

One thing about living abroad is that it gives you a different perspective, and new appreciation for, your own country. One of the great things about the Brits is that we don’t take anything too seriously, including ourselves. I’m sure that this urge to undermine everything with deprecation or witticism must get on the nerves of everybody we deal with, especially most of the European Union, but that’s life. I think that this state of perpetual mild amusement with life is the ultimate, or perhaps only the latest, stage of cultural evolution.

The South Africans are still at that stage in the party when they are being terribly polite, desperate not to offend anybody. They know that they have arrived with a bad reputation, so they are doing their best to get rid of it. The Americans are working the room, collecting business cards, and working out how they can use their new contacts to further their own requirements. The Brits at this multi-national gathering are slumped on the sofa, making sarcastic comments and drinking too much, while the French are in the kitchen with your sister, pretending to help with the cooking.

I reckon that the Brits were in the same cultural mindset as the Americans at about the turn of the century, when God was an Englishman, and half the map was pink. That attitude of knowing what’s best for the smelly foreigners, which coincidentally is best for us, is what Rhodes brought to Africa, and Bush is taking to the Middle East. The South Africans are further advanced, in that they are in the apologetic stage that England was in about 30 years ago, where they are well aware of recent misdemeanours, and are looking to make up for them, and make everybody love them again. The smarter, more culturally aware Americans are here too, but they are still waiting for the rest to catch up.

What America needs is something like the Truth & Reconciliation Commission on a cultural level so that its citizens can realise what they are responsible for, and can set about fixing some of the mistakes they have made. Yes, you are the biggest, and the strongest, and the richest, now sit down, put your gun away, and let’s talk about your issues, dude. If you’re an American reading this, please vote for John Kerry. I know he’s only the lesser of two evils, but that’s a step in the right direction.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Working for the man 

When we had the turf laid for our new lawn, we diligently selected the cheapest operator who returned our calls, then got them to come and do the job. They didn’t ask how far the lawn is from the road, so we didn’t offer the information. When they arrived, they were dismayed to discover that the road is a steep climb away from the lawn, and the lawn itself is an awkward shape across 2 levels. There followed a depiction of traditional South African work in miniature.

The bloke driving the truck was about the fattest guy I have ever seen. He must have someone else to do his shoes up for him. It was all he could do to haul his bulk in and out of the cab. My immediate concern was that his inevitable heart attack would happen on my driveway, since I wasn’t sure I could manoeuvre him into a sitting position, let alone carry him anywhere. There was no way he was even going to climb our driveway, so he spent his time leaning against the truck whilst his “boys” did the work. There are still plenty of South Africans who refer to grown (black) men as boys. The habit should have died out by now, but almost everyone I know talks about their “garden boy”, meaning the man they employ to mow the lawn. Anyway, Mr Fat Bastard Grassman stood sweating in empathy while his team hauled 30 or 40 barrow loads of turf up the hill. In this case, unskilled labour is cheap and black, and those who own and run the businesses are still white.

At the other end of the pay scale, the reverse is, in some cases, true. South Africa has some “level the playing field” legislation around affirmative action – positive discrimination which encourages companies to employ those who were previously disadvantaged. It’s hard to discuss it without blurring things with euphemisms, but basically the theory goes that the way to improve the lot of the non white population who were so horrifically treated by apartheid is to provide an unequal advantage to them in the new world. The effects of this are many, not all predicted by the economic planners. For the black professional, life is good: he is in demand, and many are promoted fast and far. This means that some are promoted beyond their competence, and some are given opportunities that they grasp firmly, and do better and flourish more than they ever would under different circumstances. The effect on the white professional population is also interesting. Many have left the country altogether in a sulk. Many more have become entrepreneurs, through choice or otherwise, and are in turn helping the economy by generating new jobs, and attacking their working lives with a newfound vigour.

You might expect, then, that the situation with the grass guys is reversed in business. Maybe you should see a black guy promoted out of his depth surrounded by competent white guys doing the work for him. This is actually pretty unusual, and no more likely than a clueless white boss in the same situation. This suggests to me that the affirmative action is working, and is further evidence of the enormous potential in South Africa. This is not to say that there aren’t clueless bosses supported only by their egos and the competence of their staff – there are, and as a consultant I see lots of them, black and white, but that’s universal. It’s the dynamic, smart guys who are the rarity, and in South Africa, a disproportionate number of them are black. Perhaps it’s because they have a greater hunger for success than the soft white guys who have had it all on a plate for so long. I once heard that one of the Australian ex-coaches of the Springboks lamented along similar lines: he had to chase the South Africans to do their individual training, whereas the Aussies are used to hard work, and are happy to put it in. The competition gets everyone going, which has to be a good thing. It even seems to be working for the Springboks lately.

Listening to: The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Waiting for Bonaparte. Rollicking stuff!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

It’s raining again 

This past weekend marked the end of Cape Town’s dry winter. At one point, famously soggy Newlands had 100mm of rain in 4 hours. The damp caused no end of inconveniences chez nous. The pool overflowed. My car leaks. Our new house leaks in a couple of places. The dogs leave muddy paw prints all over the house. The garden is like a paddy field.
In other news, 15,000 people on the Cape Flats are homeless. The Flats are the low lying land between Table Bay and False Bay which a few hundred years ago were marshland, and are always the worst hit by strong winds and rain. Needless to say, this is where the poorest of Cape Town’s population lives. And here’s me with my damp patches. There’s no place like South Africa to give you some perspective on life.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

It’s been a year 

You can see how it would happen. It's the silly season, a slow news week, and the Sunday Times needs a scoop. Our intrepid reporter searches through the week's press releases, desperately seeking something newsworthy, and comes across a note from Home Affairs. The note says that a review of South Africa’s public holidays is being carried out, and nothing is off the agenda. A quick phone call brings the comment that Christian holidays reflect the priorities of the apartheid era government. Bingo! You end up with a headline like this: “Christmas may be cancelled”. It looks more impressive in 40 point type over your Sunday cornflakes.

South Africa currently has 12 public holidays a year. We also get a freebie when there is an election, so everyone can vote. The current list includes Christmas, Boxing Day, Good Friday & Easter Monday, New Year’s Day, plus a series of significant dates. The dates were changed when the democratic government came in, so they are now landmarks in the struggle: the anniversaries of the Soweto uprising, the Sharpeville massacre, the first democratic elections, and others. They have kept one or two old ones as well: December 16th used to be celebrated as the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, when the Afrikaners made their pact with God, who enabled them (with the aid of superior firepower) to massacre 3,000 Zulus. This date is now Reconciliation Day, marked by separate and tense ceremonies on opposite banks of the river in question. How’s that for a metaphor?

Anyway, the problem with public holidays that are specific to certain dates is that they often fall in the middle of the week. Worse, they can fall on a weekend, in which case you don’t get the full benefit. Nobody likes losing a public holiday to a Sunday, and the business community don’t like the disruptive effects of holidays that break the week up. The plan, therefore, is presumably to consider celebrating certain anniversaries on the closest Monday or Friday. Sounds logical and pragmatic to me. Sodding newspapers.

Listening to: Blondie. Yeah!

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