Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Send Tony Blair a Christmas Card

Why not send Tony Blair a Christmas card this year. The Make Poverty History campaign is offering this opportunity until 31 December 2005. Visit www.makepovertyhistory.org to create your own Christmas card and send it to Tony Blair. It’s easy to do and a reminder to the Prime Minister to put poverty at the top of his agenda in the New Year.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Psychologists and torture: War on Terror?

I was recently contacted by colleague and friend Brinton M. Lykes from the The Ignacio Martin-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights. She drew my attention to the fact that there is an increasing national concern in the US over the growing evidence that psychologists and other mental health workers have been directly involved in interrogations, and in some cases torture, of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. In response a campaign has been launched against this.

She wrote: "In response to these realities of deep concern to many of us as psychologists and as US citizens, the Fund has launched a two-pronged petition campaign calling on both Congress and the American Psychological Association to commission independent investigations of this situation, and to take concrete action to put an end to these practices...We are seeking support not only from those who are professionally involved in mental health issues, but from everyone who is concerned about these issues. You need not be a psychologist or a member of the American Psychological Association to sign the APA petition, although if you are a member -- and want to let the APA know -- you can include this information in the "Affiliations" field of the response form.".

Both petitions are available from the Fund's home page: www.martinbarofund.org and from the petitions to the signature page.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Does the past have its price?

Recently, I visited the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. The museum, which focuses on how war shapes lives, is impressive in design. The various parts of the building are said to resemble the shards of a shattered world. But, despite all the symbolism, it was a minor incident at the museum that stuck in my mind. While perusing the various World War II artefacts, I noticed a group of schoolchildren who seemed mesmerised by various Nazi-related items. They seemed drawn to them, snapping photos of swastikas and a large gold Nazi eagle. Of all the objects that could draw their interest, from fighter jets to tanks, it was these symbols that captivated them.

Of course, this need not be negative. There is a growing focus on the horrors of genocide and research continues to unearth the causes of Nazi tyranny. More school curricula now focus on learning about the Holocaust. This helps us understand the past and not repeat it.

But there is also a downside. Why would such symbols intrigue children? Is it curiosity or research for a school project? Or is it the allure of the power and abuse linked with such symbols? The line between fascination with the macabre and genuinely learning from a repulsive past seems a thin one, not only for children but for adults, too. This is evident in the continuing debate about collecting Nazi memorabilia. The American writer Susan Sontag writes that collecting Nazi memorabilia gives the collectors a type of thrill similar to doing something forbidden or breaking social taboos. Consequently, the Nazis remain big business. An autograph of Hitler can fetch up to £2 000. Paper with his initials and Nazi insignia on the letterhead can fetch up to £50 a sheet. Recently, Hitler’s Nazi party membership badge, engraved at the back with the number one, was stolen from the archives of the Russian Federal Security Bureau (formerly the KGB). If it is the genuine article, it could be worth up to £2-million.

A few years ago, following public pressure, eBay had to put restrictions on what could be bought and sold on online auctions. It claims that items bearing symbols of the Nazis, including authentic German World War II memorabilia, are no longer allowed on the site. However, a quick visit to the US site revealed a plethora of items for sale, including an allegedly genuine Nazi battle flag for $750. So should eBay and others be prevented from selling such material? Many collectors claim that collecting such items is purely historic. But, if collecting was a historic exercise, then why the hefty price tags and why are such items not handed over to museums for proper archiving, explanation and display? It is deplorable that people should continue to make money out of such memorabilia. It also makes me think that it is time we South Africans started to think about our past. A quick scan of eBay suggests there are only a few items from the apartheid past available at the moment, including a few anti-apartheid records, T-shirts and badges, and old South African flags. But it may be a growth industry.

And what if more inflammatory items started to find their way to auction? Such items could include infamous instruments of torture or soldiers’ photos of their dead enemy, as was allegedly the case recently in Iraq. I do not want to sound like a prophet of doom but, surely, given the lessons from the Holocaust, this should not be possible. Are South Africans prepared to make their past available to the highest bidder? Should trading in some items be regulated or should we just let the market take control.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 9 December 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Namibia: mass graves

Since it is a country that get very little focus I thought I would post a link to a recent article on Namibia. There has been an ongoing process of uncovering and discovering mass graves said to be those of SWAPO soldiers. The events seem to have sparked a debate about transitional justice options there. To date, the SWAPO government has preferred to attempt to draw a line under the sand. Some NGOs are calling for a truth commission. The recent article was published in the Sunday Times and can be accessed by clicking here. I also posted this on a new blog that I am part of called the Transitional Justice Forum.

Monday, November 28, 2005


OK, its Monday morning and sometimes you gotta just laugh. Here is a new search engine, presumably care of Craggy Island, www.doogle.org.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Conference: Storytelling as The Vehicle?

Following the launch of the Healing Through Remembering (HTR) Storytelling Audit in October, HTR are hosting a one-day conference on Storytelling entitled "Storytelling as The Vehicle?". The one-day event will take place on Tuesday 29th November in the Dunadry Hotel and will run from 9am to 5pm.

Two keynote speakers, Samsun Munn and Kevin Whelan, will address key topics, "Storytelling and Encounter" and "History, Memory and Testimony", with the aim of encouraging debate and discussion. The main objective of the conference is discussion and dialogue amongst those present in trying to answer some of the questions raised by the issue of storytelling, especially the concept of a collective storytelling process to deal with the legacy of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland.

The conference is targeted at those both working in the field of storytelling/ personal narrative and related areas and also those who have an interest in the role of storytelling in dealing with the past relating to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. For more information click here.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Facts about Jozie

Was surfing about some of my favourite blogs and came across some statistics on Johannesburg on Fodder. Fodder notes that Johannesburg is the only major city in the world that was not founded near a major water source such as a river or ocean; it is the largest urban forest in the world with 6 million trees and that 40% of the world's gold has been mined in Johannesburg. Food for thought indeed.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!

Now that I am stationed here in the Northern hemisphere I have to partake in these strange rituals. So Happy Halloween, whatever that means...as for me I am preparing for the deluge of children who will beseige the house demanding sweets. I am going to try a mixture of fruit and sweets on them this time round, although might find the fruit comes flying back...

Monday, October 17, 2005

James Antonio Werge Hamber

Please join me in welcoming James Antonio Werge Hamber to this planet. Born on 17 October 2005 at 11:55pm, weighing 7.4 pounds and all of 55cm tall! And if anyone needs an explanation of the rather strange choice of names, I will be happy to oblige.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Fancy borrowing a homeless person?

Recently, I read that it will soon be possible to 'borrow' living people from a public library in Holland. The library, based in the town of Almelo, will 'lend out' people of various descriptions, including drug addicts, physically-disabled people, homosexuals, asylum seekers and Roma people. The idea is that you can reserve a person and meet them for 45 minutes, asking them anything you want and hearing their story. Jan Krol, the library's director running the programme, hopes it will reduce prejudice and break down barriers between groups as people learn more about the lifestyles of others. Moreover, for those of you worried you might forget to return 'your book', or perhaps 'your book' might have such a good time with you it forgets to return itself, resulting in a hefty fine, you can only meet the person in the library café for safety reasons. Also, in case you are wondering, Krol says you do not have to have a library card to take out a person.

Krol, who based the scheme on a project running in Sweden, is swamped with requests and has had to get his team of 'living books' together hastily. He told London's Telegraph, “I've got several gay men, a couple of lesbian women, a couple of Islamic volunteers. I've got a physically-handicapped woman and a woman who has been living on social-security benefits for many years in real poverty.”

Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Any so-called oddity you have been too afraid to approach in the street or strike up a conversation with at work is now freely available for questions and answers. Libraries have a reputation for being stuffy boring places and maybe this is just the thing to bring people back to books (or at least to library cafés). It is an indictment of our society that we are too busy to talk to one another and have to visit a human zoo to learn about each another; but, if the scheme promotes libraries as institutions that are part of communities, I'm all for it. Finding ways to bring people into the library, whether with a library card in hand or a camera to take a snap of the exotic person they're meeting, can only be positive. Obviously, in Africa, literacy and the availability of books is also a problem, even if you manage to steer the person away from their meeting into the actual library. The general anti-book culture the world over is another hurdle. Recently, I read that Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, has never read a book in her life, despite writing a 528-page biography. Some role model there.

In addition, as sympathetic as I am towards Krol's scheme (which I know I've spent too much time thinking about, instead of reading, a good book), it does throw up several questions, such as: who is really taking out who? Who is more of a curiosity, a drug addict or a person who feels they are so deprived of chances to meet people from all walks of life that they need a library to facilitate the meeting? Also, are only minorities available for loan and does the inquisitiveness only flow one way? Can a liberal-minded person ask to meet a right-wing bigot? Can a poor black man ask to meet a middle-class white man? And, the biggest question: can you ask that certain people be removed from society and made available only on loan for all eternity? I have a few politicians in mind here.

But I'm hooked and I'm going to sign up. I've been wracking my brain all day trying to decide who I will take out on loan. And, finally, I've got it. I wonder if you can borrow a Dutch librarian; I've never met one of those before.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 14 October 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

3rd International and Interdisciplinary Trauma Research Net Conference

TraumaResearch.Net has just put out a call for papers for their £rd Conference, entitled Conference theme: Trauma - Stigma and Distinction. The Social Ambivalences in the Face of Extreme Suffering (14-17 September 2006, St. Moritz, Switzerland). I have been lucky enough to have been invited to the last two. If any of you are interested, I think it is worthwhile. Deadline for proposals by e-mail: March 31, 2006. Decisions will be announced by e-mail before June 1, 2006. Provisional programme and registration information will be publishing at www.traumaresearch.net closer to conference time. For more details click here.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

New Research: A Place for Reconciliation?

Grainne Kelly and Brandon Hamber, OPSI consultants, recently published a study on reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The report is entitled: A Place for Reconciliation? Conflict and Locality in Northern Ireland. The report includes a definition of reconciliation that has now been adopted by the EU PEACE II Programme and it explains the definition and the research that supports it in detail. The research for the report was conducted in three case-study areas in Northern Ireland, where interviews were conducted with elected representatives, council officials and NGO representatives. It found ambivalence among practitioners on the ground towards the communalist politics of the council chamber and, amid some confusion as to the meaning of reconciliation, a willingness to embrace the definition we developed.

 To download the report click here.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The perils of a political vacuum

Recently, I tuned into South African talk Radio 702 over the Internet. To my surprise, I was greeted by a Northern Irish accent or, more precisely, a Belfast-based academic trying to explain the recent riots in Protestant loyalist areas in Belfast to a bemused South African presenter. The interview reminded me of my attempts to explain cricket to Americans: by definition, the conversation goes nowhere. It is no surprise that someone living on the other end of the world would find the situation confusing. What is more surprising is that people here seem equally perplexed.

In the days following the rioting, a bewildering array of explanations was offered. Spokespersons for the affected Protestant areas say they are being shortchanged in the peace process. They argue that Catholics have got more resources and concessions (such as the release of politically-motivated prisoners) as part of the process. Others blame high levels of socioeconomic deprivation and lack of educational opportunities in Protestant areas. Other commentators counter these claims by pointing out that two-thirds of the 20 most-deprived areas in Northern Ireland are Catholic and Catholics are still more likely to be unemployed than Protestants. That said, inner-city deprivation in some Protestant areas is acute by European standards. Still others blame a generic feeling of alienation and insecurity that somehow started with the peace process. Dire socioeconomic conditions can cause feelings of alienation and make people feel powerless to do anything positive, opening the possibility for violence.

But alienation in itself does not result in violence. It is the political context that does that and mainly the rhetoric of politicians. In a normal society, if faced by harsh socioeconomic conditions you first express your dissatisfaction to your political representatives. They express these for you in the public democratic space of government. If you have no success you may vote out your representatives or resort to peaceful protest.

And that is the problem. The Northern Ireland Assembly, which was the product of the 1998 peace agreement, was suspended in October 2002. Power still rests with the UK government. Unionist politicians, who largely represent Protestants, currently refuse to participate in the Assembly. They claim distrust of Sinn Fein (the largest Catholic party and so-called political wing of the IRA). So, without any normal political channels to air grievances, the media have become the sole vehicle for expression and analysis. But using the media in this way is risky. The media are easily manipulated by politicians who want to stoke the flames of hatred and division. Also, the bigger the protest, the more airtime you get. This feeds the illusion that protest, particularly violent protest, pays.

Ironically, while some Protestants protest about there being no peace dividend, the IRA continues to disarm and disband. The society is economically more stable than ever. Politically-motivated killings across communities have all but stopped. So one can forgive outsiders like the 702 presenter from struggling to understand just what the problem is.

In reality, the explanation for recent turbulence in Belfast probably lies in a combination of these factors. This is compounded by the inclination of unionist politicians to focus on what has been lost, rather than gained, in 11 years of ‘peace’. Combine these perceptions with the absence of a local democratic forum in which issues can be raised and dealt with and the powerlessness this causes, and Belfast’s loyalist areas become a tinderbox. This will remain a problem as long as the political vacuum, for which politicians are to blame, remains. As for socioeconomic deprivation, it is part of the same problem. Surely, it is obvious that, in a globalising world, the only possible option for this tiny island is for all to learn to pull together to get more for everyone. And if that is not happening at a political level then what chance is there of it happening within communities?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 30 September 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Monday, September 26, 2005

IRA arms decommissioned

Just in case any of you had not heard I thought I would post a link to the Guardian website focusing on the decommissioning of IRA weapons. Today, John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general responsible for overseeing the decommissioning process released a statement saying all IRA weapons had been put beyond use. For more visit the Guardian articles on the issue.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Review of The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation

I have been meaning to put up a link to my review of 'The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation: From Terror to Trauma' by Michael Humphrey for some time. I have finally done it on the Book Review Page, or you can download a copy of the review by clicking here. If you want to simply find out about Michael Humphrey's excellent book visit Amazon in your area US UK CA SA

Friday, September 16, 2005

Is it coz i iz black?

It was the infamous catchphrase of UK comedian Ali G – “Is it coz i iz black?” – that perversely came to mind as I watched the desperate scenes unfolding in the US in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

It was not the most politically correct thought to have, since Sasha Cohen, the Cambridge-educated white man who plays Ali G, a misogynistic black man, has been criticised for his strange brand of humour by some black comics – but in Katrina's aftermath his little adage is worth considering.

To put it another way; was the slow response by the US federal government because those mainly affected were indeed black and poor?

Some feel convinced about this. Well-known Rapper Kanye West stated at a recent benefit concert that “George Bush doesn't care about black people”.

Jesse Jackson weighed in with his usual emotive language, comparing the situation of many of the evacuees to “Africans in the hull of a slave ship”. The reply from the US administration has been to fob these criticisms off. Bush supporters brand such views Leftie hatred for Bush and nothing more. But let's face it, the initial response was pitiful. If the areas most affected were upmarket Boston or even George W Bush's beloved Texas would there have been such a lacklustre attitude? I doubt it.

But I do not want to get too deep into the blame game. Although one can blame Bush for many things, one cannot hold him responsible for the weather. We also have to be careful, whether initial responses were fuelled by racism or not, that all the finger pointing distracts us from what Katrina really exposed – the reality of hidden America: black and on the breadline.

As I watched the television reports I wanted journalists to ask one question of the officials they interviewed: why were almost all the television images of African Americans?

The evasive response would be that 67% of New Orleans residents are black, and much of the coverage focused on New Orleans. But anyone watching the television coverage could see that it was not only race that was an issue, but class, too. Nearly 30% of New Orleans residents live below the poverty line, and these seemed to be the people left behind. Some were too poor to get the money or transport together to evacuate. They, unlike their affluent counterparts who also lost their homes, will more than likely have no insurance to help them rebuild and certainly no job to ease the burden when the waters subside.

So this is the great US; a place where race and class do intersect, after all, despite the decades of official silence on the issue. This raises the question: why are we so scared of talking about the intersection of race and class, whether in South Africa, the UK and Ireland or the US? Perhaps those with power and wealth, who are mainly white, are too terrified to face the prospect that Ali G's jesting plea might just be true.

But the US administration batters on regardless, turning the disaster into yet another call for patriotic action without a moment of reflection or analysis. We, the American people, will get through this, assures Bush. Fox News, the bastion of conservative America, responds with telethons and its new TV logo, "America's Challenge”. What is the challenge, I find myself asking? To get things back to the way they were? I think the challenge facing the US is bigger than that.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 16 September 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, September 2, 2005

Private healthcare still hurts

Recently, I underwent knee surgery and found the whole experience decidedly sombre. I know it is a truism to say hospitals are clinical and sterile, but they are. They are dens of suffering and the environment contains too much public discussion about bodily fluids for my liking.

Then, again, I am one of the lucky ones. My operation went well, the treatment was superb and the hospital room was comfortable, with couch, en suite bathroom and 24-hour satellite television to dull the pain. This is the benefit of private healthcare, whether in the UK or South Africa.

But most people in the world do not get this treatment. About 60% of spending on healthcare in South Africa is in the private sector, with less than 20% of the population benefiting from it. The State spends R33-billion on healthcare for 38-million people; the private sector spends some R43-billion on 7-million.

The South African healthcare system is an ‘either or’ arrangement. Either you have medical aid and go privately, or you use public facilities. The system in the UK is more of a hybrid. If I had braved the waiting list the same consultant who performed my surgery would have done it free, albeit in two years’ time. The long waiting list meant I had little choice but to max-out my credit cards to see the same consultant privately. Strangely, this concoction of a system means that doctors, who are technically independent contractors paid at a reasonable rate by the State, work in the public service and the private system at the same time. This seems better than in South Africa, where doctors migrate to the private sector the day after graduation. Only 23% of specialists work in the public sphere in South Africa.

But the UK system is also hardly ideal. The best scenario would be to get all doctors committed to the NHS, bringing waiting lists down. When the public system works it is fantastic. As a South African used to private care, it has been a real eye-opener to use a ‘without charge’ public system on other occasions. The free NHS maternity care and GP services we have received so far have been first-rate.

But the challenge of shorter waiting lists is fostering a general slide towards more private care in the UK. In South Africa, the slide has long since turned to a freefall. Four years ago, there were 161 private hospitals in South Africa; now there are 200, which means ten new private hospitals a year. Who is winning? Private healthcare fat cats, that’s who. Profits in the private healthcare business are astronomical. Medical aid premiums have consistently outstripped inflation and the services they cover decrease each year. It is all good and well if you have medical aid or are wealthy. But no one is asking the bigger questions: when will the private healthcare avalanche end and at what cost? The desire for private healthcare in South Africa has become the norm, with everyone aspiring to a job that provides it, rather than thinking about how to improve public healthcare. Attempts to curb private care and bring doctors back to the public system seem abandoned. What happens when the premiums become even higher, the medical-insurance companies even more powerful or when the State system collapses? We will probably need a lot more than satellite television to dull the pain.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 2 September 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Fat is an African issue

It was the doughnut I was eating while pondering a topic for this week’s column that got me thinking about fatness. The doughnut helped me recall an article I read last year. ‘South Africans as fat as Americans’, the BBC reported gleefully. The article focused on a conference on obesity that took place at Sun City. Despite the ironic choice of Sun City, the temple of overindulgence, as the setting for discussing obesity, the research coming out of the conference was no laughing matter.

South Africans do not match US heavyweights on the obesity stakes but are not far off. Almost 50% of South African adults are overweight or obese, compared with 61% of Americans. About 20% of people fall into the obese category in South Africa, close to the US level of 27%. Obesity also shows no racial boundaries. Across all racial categories in South Africa, the incidence of obesity ranges from 21% to 30% for women and 9% to 20% for men. But how can this be possible in a country where 40% of South Africans are income-poor?

Vish Kumar and Ronald McDonald
Credit: Teamvish / CC BY-SA
The World Health Organisation points out that obesity can coexist with undernutrition, and overnutrition does not necessarily coincide with good nutrition. Obesity brings problems associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke and cancer. As many people die of malnutrition in South Africa as from diseases associated with obesity. This is because food high in saturated fats and sugars, coupled with sedentary lifestyles, is steadily becoming the norm in urban South Africa for many, rich and poor. Peddlers of junk food, mainly the domestic and international fast-food outlets and cheap supermarkets, are growing at an alarming rate. Their aggressive marketing is legendary.

In the film Super Size Me, featuring a filmmaker who eats his way to ill health by living on McDonalds food for a month, there is an amusing scene where five-year-olds are asked to name various people from pictures. Most cannot recognise Jesus or George W Bush but all know Ronald McDonald. What do you think the odds are of more South African kids recognising Colonel Sanders than Thabo Mbeki?

At the same time, surely this does not mean South Africans have to be turned into fanatical diet freaks, as in the West. I like returning to South Africa, especially if I am carrying a few extra pounds, and being complimented by black colleagues on how well I am looking. Weight gain is a sign of living the good life and doing well. This beats the hell out of dieting yourself into oblivion just to meet some Western stereotype of stick insect beauty. There must be a happy medium. My concern is that, as the hype about the issue of obesity grows, we might turn everyone into weight-obsessed calorie counters. According to Fat: Exploding the Myths, by Lisa Colles, Americans spend up to $50-billion each year on diet programmes. I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonalds branches off into flogging diet muti soon. Then again, given that $50-billion is close to 10% of the South African GDP, perhaps the government could sell diet products to the overweight (even if their kids cannot recognise Thabo Mbeki) to generate public funds. We need a home-grown solution to South Africa’s battle with the bulge and to return to basics like adequate nutrition, limited advertising to children and moderate exercise. There is a lot at stake; if we don’t get this right the stereotype of the ‘fat American’ will seem a bit too close to home.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 12 August 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Monday, August 8, 2005

Hamba Kahle, Robin Cook

Earlier this year I was giving evidence at a Parliamentary Hearing at Westminister when I saw Robin Cook for the first time in the flesh. He was a slight man, but strode, needless to say, across the floor of Portcullis House confidently. On seeing him I had to supress my somewhat school-boy-like instinct which was to bound over to him, shake his hand and thank him for the stance he took on the Iraq War and his resignation from the UK Cabinet over the issue. I am sure he got that all the time. He was undoubtebly close to Labour, and involved in creating the new Labour spin, but when it came down to it, he acted with principle. His recent and sudden death is a loss. Hamba Kahle. To read more about him click here.

Friday, July 29, 2005

London bombings are not a movie sequel

Everyone has their theory about the London bombings, which killed over 50 people and injured some 700. We’ve all read them: it’s Al-Qaeda, home-grown British fanatics, revenge for British involvement in Iraq, and even those who think it is a response to London winning the 2012 Olympics. But more than anything the situation is starting to sound like a James Bond film. If Bush and Blair are to be believed, the cause of the terror is an evil genius who seeks world domination and wants to change civilised people’s way of life – whatever that means. Those responsible for the carnage in London, or in Madrid, Bali and New York, suffer from the same grandiose thinking. They think that murdering people across the globe will alter international relations and further their ideology – whatever that is. But the problem with both these views is they draw us into generalised thinking that only makes things worse.

This is not a movie that will have a neat ending. The number of deaths committed in the name of justice, no matter how it is defined, has real consequences. That said, the Western media seems more concerned about the deaths of British or American civilians than Iraqi or Afghan civilians killed by allied troops. But bombing commuters or killing civilians in illegally occupied countries are both wrong. One is not morally superior to the other. Both are abhorrent. Revenge as a solution only works in the movies. The enemy will not be beaten into submission in a swashbuckling finale, and no one is going to live happily ever after. Thinking that a global war can defeat terror or, conversely, that global terror can win the day, will only intensify the problem. One-dimensional views are everywhere. Some commentators want us to believe that poverty is the sole cause of acts of terror and the US is the root of all that is bad. Western politicians want us to think the driving force behind the bombers is ideologically vacuous and pure evil. Others argue that withdrawing troops from Iraq, as much as I am for that, will make it all go away. But the situation is more nuanced than that. There is no military solution to this problem. There is no simple answer.

Let us pull back from our grand theories and stop pontificating. Those who kill indiscriminately must be brought to justice, but we need to understand what is going on here. If the perpetrators of the London bombings are found to be Al-Qaeda fundamentalists, what is needed is knowledge from those that can fully articulate the root causes of what we are seeing. This can only come through closer alliances with Muslim countries and communities. But how is this possible if Muslim countries are not even invited to the G8 talks? How can we understand different perspectives if everyone is continually emphasising difference rather than commonality between cultures? It is not going to be possible to have an informed debate about causes and prevention as long as all sides engage in the polemic of good and evil. Now is not the time to hand over more power to the military and secret services – the same people who apparently miscalculated regarding Saddam’s weapons cache. Insights and guidance from those closest to the heart of the problem must be sought. It is the diplomats and those who can open the channels of communication and listen to one another that are needed, not more soldiers.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 29 July 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

IRA ends armed campaign

Yesterday, as most people know, the IRA leadership ordered members to stop the armed campaign. Read the full statement by clicking here.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Let's stop moralising about corruption in Africa

The big debate in the UK and Ireland at the moment is whether debt relief will help Africa, given that many African governments are corrupt. President Mbeki’s recent move to axe Deputy President Zuma because of a ‘generally corrupt relationship’ with Schabir Shaik, a Durban businessman sentenced to 15 years for corruption and fraud, seems to have offered a rebuttal. The Western world has declared its support for Mbeki’s approach, emphasising how he has set an example for the rest of Africa. To some degree, he has, but what is annoying is that everyone seems so surprised that an African leader would take such a step. Granted, many African countries are appallingly corrupt, but Mbeki is a world leader, not only an African leader. Making bold inferences about the importance of his actions for the rest of Africa reinforces the idea that somehow Mbeki is an exceptional black man and that Africans are somehow endemically corrupt or incapable of simply doing the right thing. We would all do well to remember that Mbeki’s actions set a precedent the world over and not only for Africa. Mbeki is also not alone. A recent anticorruption campaign in Nigeria has resulted in the firing of several senior officials. The Kenyan government is allegedly investigating 18 officials highlighted in a British government dossier. This is not to say Africa does not have a serious problem with corruption or that a dash of scepticism about recent anticorruption initiatives would go amiss. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index confirms that 18 of the 50 most corrupt nations are in Africa. Corruption has damaged investment and poverty-relief efforts. According to the World Bank, widespread corruption can cause the growth rate of a country to be 0,5 to 1,0 percentage points lower than that of a similar country with little corruption. But no country has the moral high ground on this issue. Transparency International points out that corrupt international business transactions involve both those who take and those who give. According to the 1997 United Nations World Development Report, 15% of all companies in industrialised countries have to pay bribes to win or retain business. All countries also have their corruption scandals. Tax evasion from the small scale to the grand is the corrupt vice of many wealthy people.

From a cynical perspective, if Zuma was in Tony Blair’s Cabinet he probably would have jumped before he was pushed. A well-timed resignation, perhaps when allegations about Shaik first emerged, may well have saved his skin, just as it has for ministers in the Blair Cabinet implicated in various scandals. Once the storm has passed, Blair has a tendency to reinstate ministers suspected of wrongdoing.

Of course, just because everyone is doing it does not let Africa off the hook, and the problem is dramatically worse in parts of the African continent than elsewhere. But in every society, as Transparency International points out, there are those who try to ‘beat the system’ and, if the system is vulnerable, there will be more of them. For Transparency International, the issue is not one of ‘moral superiority’, but developing the ability to control the menace. The debate on corruption must move beyond proselytising about corruption and Africa, as if they are synonymous. The result is that the continent as a whole is treated dismissively, rather than nuanced solutions for each unique country context being sought. So let us stop the moralising about Africa and its leadership and find ways to join the battle.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 July 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, June 24, 2005

In my day, young people had respect

Sometimes I feel the world is stuck in a time warp. Every time I open a UK or Irish newspaper someone is complaining about the so-called wayward youth of today. Typical complaints include a lack of respect by young people for social norms, excessive drinking and a penchant for violence and vandalism. Recently, I scanned a copy of the UK Sunday Times and was overwhelmed by the range of articles focusing on so-called solutions to the perceived rise in antisocial behaviour.

One article focused on a government report apparently recommending targeting potential criminals from the age of three. Another blamed violent 'sheroes' such as Uma Thurman in Tarantino's film Kill Bill for influencing thuggery by girls. Yet another considered reinstating harsh boot-camp-style reformatories to bring young offenders into line. There seems to be a growing trend towards seeing the solution to troublesome youth as being about tougher policing and tighter control. This is typified in the UK by the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). These are civil orders made against those involved in continual antisocial behaviour. They can result in a person being banned from a specific area or associating with named persons.

A recent MORI poll found that 89% of the public support them. It is no wonder the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner suggested that the UK was suffering from 'Asbomania'. But is antisocial behaviour really sweeping the nation? A recent King's College London study found that antisocial behaviour by young people has little or no effect on the quality of life of the majority of the population. That said, one in five people surveyed felt they were affected. These problems, mainly associated with rowdy teenagers in the street, were described as acute and were highest in areas of social deprivation and inner cities. So the problem is not as bad as the media would have us believe, although, if you are affected, it can be deeply unpleasant and, like most unsavoury phenomena, mainly affects the poor. I wonder if every generation feels the youth are out of control. Think of the hippies of the 1960s, punks in the 1970s, skinheads in the 1980s or, in the 1990s, rappers and Pantsulas in South Africa.

Somewhere I read that, after you lose your membership in it, the younger generation invariably seems pretty bad. Is the older generation in Europe, who are wealthier and more comfortable than ever before, simply out of touch? I know I certainly am. When I see groups of young people on the street drinking and chatting, I no longer know what they talk about or what worries them. We should ask this basic question first before passing judgement. I think this is as true in the UK as it is in South Africa.

Criminalising young people is not helpful. Only 39% of people in the UK feel ASBOs are effective, even though they support their use. Talking about young people, especially black youth, as is often the case in South Africa and elsewhere, as if they are a bunch of criminals in training is hardly useful.

Let us take one step back and diagnose problems properly and build solutions on that. Out-of-control youth do not cause social degeneration, but economic and social degeneration can create out-of-control youth.

If we know anything about young people it is that continual prohibition by adults leads to resistance. If things continue the way they are, very soon having an ASBO or criminal record will be as fashionable as having the latest mobile phone.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 24 June 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Political Apologies and Reparations Website

A new website has been launched focusing on political apologies, which those responsible for the site at Wilfrid Laurier University, define broadly as apologies by a political or social entity (governments, religious organizations, or other bodies) for events that have harmed identifiable groups. To visit this interesting site click here.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Warning - this article may contain nuts

Despite the incessant rain, apparently, the summer has begun in the UK and Ireland. People are flocking to the stores to rekindle their passion for the braai, or barbecue, as it is known in northern climes. Recently, I decided to join them and bought a new braai. It came wrapped in plastic with a cardboard picture on the front of the self-same braai garnished with some sizzling steaks. Below the picture was a range of warnings. The first stated that the plastic wrapping should be disposed of carefully, as it may be dangerous to children: fair enough. But underneath, a further message read: "Warning – food not included". How many people have actually returned the braai to the shop complaining the steaks on the picture were absent from the package?

"Asbo Kids" by Commonorgarden is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

This is an excellent, albeit idiotic, demonstration of what is known as the compensation culture. If a warning or disclaimer is not present on a product then all sorts of legal avenues for compensation are left wide open. Many fear that a US-style litigation system, where you can sue for just about anything, is developing in Europe.

But this is a complicated issue. The British government's Better Regulation Task Force feels that the notion of a compensation culture in the UK is a myth. The UK is nowhere close to the US, and accident claims for injuries, for example, are dropping rather than increasing. Some companies have an interest in increasing the hype around the so-called compensation culture, as it can potentially discourage claims. Some may even try to use it as an excuse to weasel out of paying genuine claims. Ambulance-chasing lawyers operating on a "no win, no fee" basis and attracting clients through adverts offering easy money can be equally dubious.

So, like most things, a balance is needed. We need to accept that the idea of suing for minor mishaps can reach the level of the absurd if not regulated. Tony Blair, in a recent speech in which he attacked the compensation culture, cited the example of a local council removing its hanging flower baskets from a street because of fears they could fall on someone's head.

At the same time, compensation cannot be dismissed as a dirty issue. In South Africa, Paula Howell, of Pretoria's Legal Resources Centre, has commented in the Business Report Online that possibly tens of thousands of compensation claims from the Workmen's Compensation Fund cannot be finalised because employers have not completed the correct forms. Avoiding responsibility in this way is as problematic as making a spurious compensation claim. The law can force people to take responsibility for protecting workers and take to task those who make overstated compensation claims. But the law is a blunt instrument. At the end of the day, the issue boils down to personal responsibility and fairness. Putting workers or consumers in a situation where they may be in danger implies accountability from those placing them at risk. Equally, expecting companies to fork out if you do something stupid or exaggerate injury is hardly reasonable. Warnings on packaging can be useful; take, for example, health warnings on cigarette packs. A few more warnings in South Africa may not go amiss, such as cautioning people of the dangers of carrying workers on the back of open vehicles or overcrowding taxis. But let's not go overboard. As I fired up my new braai this weekend, opened a beer and a bag of peanuts, then came the clincher: "Warning – this product may contain nuts!"

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 10 June 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Phoney Tony gets his knuckles rapped

Australian golfer Greg Norman is quoted as saying, “It’s not the victories that count to me. It’s the quality of how you deliver your losses and the quality of how you deliver your victories”. For Tony Blair, whose Labour Party won the May 2005 election in the UK, the quality of the victory was dismal. Granted, Blair won a historic third term and is the only UK prime minister since the war, with Margaret Thatcher, to have triumphed in three successive general elections. But his majority of 161 seats was cut dramatically to 67; less than half of what it was in the landslide victories of 1997 and 2001. More alarming for Blair is that his party now has the lowest share of the vote for a UK ruling party in modern times. Due to the “first past the post” electoral system, Labour holds 55% of the seats in parliament. However, it has only 35% of the share of the vote, with the Conservatives holding 32% and the Liberal Democrats 22%. So, although Blair won the election, the electorate has rapped his knuckles. Blair acknowledges that Iraq was ‘deeply divisive’, and commentators put it and the lack of trust in Blair generally at the core of the slump in the Labour vote. A recent Populus poll found that close to half of the public who claim to have once trusted Blair feel this has now been lost. It is no wonder that taunting names such as B-Liar and Phoney Tony have stuck in the public consciousness.

Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council
Paul Morse / Public domain
But will Blair go? No one really knows. There are strong calls for him to hand over to Gordon Brown, his most likely successor, sooner rather than later. Blair insists he will see out his term of office and is already trying to rush legislation through on controversial issues ranging from immigration control to identity cards. Blair is obviously a fighter, but he is also driven by concerns about his own legacy. This is partly what drove him into his fated relationship with George W Bush. I think he rather fancied the idea of waging a Churchillian-style global war and writing his name indelibly into the history books. His ambitions got the better of him.

For Africa, however, there may be a silver lining in Blair’s gradual demise. If I am correct and Blair worries not only about his current reputation but how history will write about him, he will have to do something spectacular before he leaves office to set the record straight. In that regard, he will have his eye keenly on his forthcoming role as chair of the G8. In a perverse way, coupled with growing pressure from campaigns such as Make Poverty History, perhaps he will choose the current context to make a move on African debt relief. Not only will this balance his blunders in Iraq and increase his international standing, at least in his mind, he will also steal the thunder from Brown, who has championed the Africa debt issue. So, as Blair scrambles to save his tarnished image, now is the time for antidebt campaigners to turn up the heat. Who knows, for some of the wrong reasons (and hopefully some right ones too), maybe Blair is ready to agree to sweeping debt relief following the G8 Summit in July. Like Blair’s election, the quality of such a victory may not be entirely satisfying for antidebt campaigners, but this will be of little concern if its impact makes a real difference in Africa.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 27 May 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission

The Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission is now available online. The report was released on April 22, 2005 and deals with the work of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) appointed in May 2002 to investigate past human rights abuses in the country. To view the report, click here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Do drug companies and the media make us sick?

When I studied clinical psychology I recall one of my professors warning our class of the dangers of ''medical-student syndrome'. The condition is suffered by students who experience unsubstantiated fears and symptoms of illnesses they are learning about. They become what the average person might consider a hypochondriac. So, seemingly, if you study illness you start to think you may have that illness. This seems to be infectious in more ways than one. Recently, British doctors warned of what they call 'telly belly'. Immediately after watching health items on television or a soap opera with a character experiencing a particular illness, 'patients' with allegedly similar symptoms tend to appear at doctors' offices.

This can be a good thing. Television helps shape how people feel and can raise awareness about health problems.

MorgueFile : see [1] / CC BY-SA
But, at the same time, it tells us how susceptible we are to media manipulation. There is a fine line between health education and educating us to constantly think we are sick. But does this matter if it means the potential for early diagnosis? To some degree it does. It is a waste of money, stretches State services and pushes up premiums for health insurance. Worse, it opens the door for various commercial interests to continue to persuade us into availing of their services and products.

Take your average bookshop. The health section is generally extensive, dozens of books promising to help you diagnose your problems and alleviate them with the purchase of some product. But is it not ironic that the average person who can afford to buy books these days and who tries out the cures has never been healthier in world history? Drug companies do the same. According to Marcia Angell, author of The Truth About Drug Companies, about 75% of new medications are 'me too' drugs which are no better than drugs already on the market to treat the identical condition. So three quarters of medications on the market are not necessary, but they have to sell. This explains why drug companies spend two-and-a-half times more on marketing and administration than on research. To increase the market is simple: tell people they are increasingly suffering from a range of conditions they did not even know they had and turn normal experience into illness. No doubt, certain people suffer from clinical depression and may need medication but, increasingly, unhappiness is being painted as a disease needing pills. Is illness creating the need for certain drugs or are drugs helping shape illnesses? I am not advocating a world without medication.

We all know the importance of antiretroviral drugs in treating people living with HIV/Aids. There is also a critical place for genuine health education through programmes such as Soul City in South Africa. But what concerns me is that average people who are generally well are being sucked into a commercialised medical universe. The flagship of medicalisation is the media, which continually report on the slightest health scares and tempt us into self-diagnosis through relentless entertainment with medical themes such as ER and reality hospital-based TV shows. Let us not turn everyone in society into 'patients' with health obsessions. The more we do this, the more we lose perspective. While the middle class snap up the latest health-related books and drug companies roll out their new ad campaigns, people in genuine need of medication are dying. It seems that Mark Twain was right when he said: "Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint".

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 13 May 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Sick of politics? Then read this...

Politicophobia is the fear or abnormal dislike of politicians. Common symptoms include, according to US-based phobia experts CTRN, panic attacks, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and overall feelings of dread. Now I know what you are thinking: is your dislike of politicians abnormal or about average? At this moment, mine feels severe. Elections are everywhere. South Africa has just come through municipal by-elections, Mugabe just pulled off another fast one, there has been the Papal election, and the UK is in the grips of election fever. I suspect I am not the only one feeling queasy at the sight of too many grinning politicians kissing babies and pressing the flesh with the masses. Do I suffer from politicophobia? I suspect not. Phobias are serious business but, certainly, I am feeling the first pangs of distress here in Northern Ireland that accompany the arrival of election posters on lampposts. I imagine I am not alone.

Elections seem to create as much apathy as interest these days. About half of the young people in the UK under 25 voted in the 2001 election. In contrast, ten-million people, mostly under 25, voted in the Big Brother reality TV show. The problem is not as acute in South Africa, but apathy is growing. The turnout of registered voters in 1999 was 89% and in 2004 it had dropped to 77%.

So what is the problem? There are many factors, but political campaigning as it currently stands is certainly one of the biggest turnoffs. I read most elections like this: they are 25% about real issues, 25% about worthless promises, 25% about taking media pot shots at the opposition and 25% about self-promotion. On top of this, elections imply choice, but political conservatism is slowly robbing the electorate of this. If you are lucky enough to live in a democracy, your 'choices' generally range between the centre-right and the right wing, and perhaps the odd lunatic on the fringe. In 1966, UK Conservative politician Quintin Hogg noted that the moment politics becomes dull, democracy is in danger. I seldom agree with a Conservative politician, but how true! In many countries, elections must be re-energised. But how does one do that?

Certainly, it does not involve Bill Clinton playing a saxophone or TV ads showing politicians in open-neck shirts and baseball caps trying to look average. Here are my ideas: politicians should be fined 10 000 votes every time they use the word 'promise' or slate the opposition; all politicians should be compelled to live with a poor family for a month prior to the election (while being filmed); no political party should be allowed to use a public relations company; there should be an option on the ballot where you can make your mark if you do not endorse any candidates; and, finally, politicians should not be allowed anywhere near babies or hospitals while campaigning (unless sick or suffering from politicophobia themselves).

Now, do not get me wrong – I am not apathetic. Voting is important and we should all do it. Look at the US as an example of where every vote counts. But politicians must realise they are part of the problem and part of the solution to voter apathy. They have a responsibility to transform the plastic distrustful world of politics.

As for the rest of us, if we are feeling a little bit overdosed with politicians right now CTRN offers a 24-hour fear-of-politicians programme with 100% money-back guarantee. And, remember, it could be worse – you could live in Zimbabwe.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 22 April 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, April 8, 2005

Simple lesson from 9/11 and reprisals

A few months after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, I visited the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. I was drawn to it out of a desire to turn the almost celluloid television event that was Hollywood-like in its magnitude into reality. On one level my visit did this. The enormity of the calamity was immediately apparent. The gaping space where the 110-storey Towers once stood was a poignant marker of the size of the disaster. The heart-rending messages on the fence surrounding the site and posters of the missing a reminder of the human loss.

At the same time, however, my visit was decidedly unreal. Tourists clamoured for the best view of the site. Some disturbingly posed for photographs smiling in front of the rubble. An array of tasteless souvenirs were up for grabs. You could procure a roll of Osama Bin Laden toilet paper with the message 'Osama Kiss My Butt' for a few dollars. The pyre was still smouldering and people were making money. Nothing felt sacred about the place. It was a sad mess.

9/11 Memorial Under Construction
Rebecca Wilson / CC 
Recently, on a trip to New York, I found myself drawn to the space again. I was hoping for something different a few years on. I arrived at the site via the newly-renovated World Trade Centre station, a large clean area with stainless-steel finishes. The whole site was cleared, contained and ready for development. The hawkers had been shunted elsewhere. Signs urged visitors to keep the site special and not to buy any items. Makeshift memorials and posters had been removed. Memorial plaques had been erected, listing the names of those killed. Of course, there were tourists, even those posing in front of the site. But tourist buses shuffled people on and off the site without much commotion. Everything seemed more subdued and ordered.

But something remained amiss and reality still felt distorted. This might be inevitable, considering the site is in the midst of an energetic city with little time for reflection. The scale of the devastation remains overwhelming. The attacks are also still recent. How can we memorialise history while it is in the making?

But the most startling realisation I had on my second visit was that, although Ground Zero now seems more ordered, this too was an illusion. The mess has not gone away but has been transferred elsewhere, namely to Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes this worse is that the US reprisal attacks, especially on Iraq, regardless of the commercial advantage to various US concerns, really boils down to misguided revenge. In fact, the whole sorry situation, from the attacks on the Towers to the US invasions, reek of vengeance justified by a whole range of perverted moral claims.

These claims seem tragic in the true meaning of the word. In literature a tragedy is a story in which a character is reduced to ruin because of moral flaws in their character. There are those who feel that the US has reaped what it sowed; its penchant for interfering in the business of other countries, commercialism and exploitation has meant that it finally got what it deserved. Equally, the "you are either with us or against us" mentality advocated by George W Bush is used to justify any action against those labelled as morally-bankrupt 'terrorist', no matter the consequence.

But, really, it is the mentality behind both of these views that is deeply tragic. They teach us nothing about how to deal with fundamental difference constructively and they do not enhance our ability to address complex social problems one bit.

As I walked away from Ground Zero for the second time, the message I took away was simple: two wrongs just don't make a right.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 8 April 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Gerry Adams address to the IRA

Many of you have been emailing me regarding the recent developments in Northern Ireland concering the death of Robert McCartney and the campaign for justice by his family. This is, of course, a very complicated situation. I did, however, find Gerry Adams recent statement, entitled "An address to the IRA" particularly interesting, thought some of you would appreciate a link to it. Click here to read it. Comments welcome as always.

Friday, April 1, 2005

A Shared Future Policy Document

In Northern Ireland the policy document "A Shared Future Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland" has now been launched. According to the introduction of the the document "This policy document sets out that we need to establish over time a shared society defined by a culture of tolerance: a normal, civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals, where violence is an illegitimate means to resolve differences, but where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere and where all people are treated impartially". It remains to be seen how this will be embraced and developed. Download the document.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

New Report - Reconciliation: Rhetoric or Relevant?

Grainne Kelly and myself, as Democratic Dialogue Associates, have recently put together the first of two DD reports on the theme of reconciliation entitled Reconciliation: Rhetoric or Relevant? This project, funded by the EU Peace II programme via the Community Relations Council, generated a workable definition of what has hitherto been a rather nebulous concept, on the basis of a round table drawing together international and local experts and practitioners. The Special EU Programmes Body has found this a very useful piece of work. Hard copies are available for £7.50 (£4 unwaged, £10 institutions) plus postage and packing from DD, send an email to info@democraticdialogue.org. A PDF version can be downloaded by clicking here.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

And finally...I read the Da Vinci Code

If you haven't heard of the book the Da Vinci Code then you have probably have been on another planet. In fact I suspect I might be the last person on earth to have read it! The Da Vinci Code certainly does live up to its reputation. It is an entertaining thriller about deception, the church, religious intrigue, secret societies and the quest for hidden truths. Lots of people are getting very excited about this book because of its focus on various religious sects and conspiracy theories about them (see for example the Yahoo! Da Vinci Code page), but in the final instance it is nothing more than a fantastic read and a great thriller set within an intriguing setting. Next time you need a page turner to pass the hours, try this one. In its genre, highly recommended and dare I say, great fun if nothing else. More information on the book at Amazon, click your location US UK CA SA.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Charity presents one-dimensional view of Africa

I am now an official survivor of the unmitigated blitzkrieg people in the UK call Red Nose Day. I suffered the relentless onslaught of weeping celebrities begging me to part with my cash to help starved Africans. I just managed to stomach the general public going berserk for a day, colouring their hair red and jamming 17 fat cross-dressers into a Mini Cooper, all in the name of charity.

But, despite the absurdity of it, Comic Relief's Red Nose Day works. The charity extravaganza and telethon that happens every two years have raised more than £337-million since 1985, with 60% going to causes in Africa. That said, there is also something about this feel-good frenzy and media juggernaut that is Red Nose Day that makes me feel just a little uncomfortable. Am I the only one who feels the bitter irony of engaging in a pie-eating contest to raise money for the starving?

I do not want to be a party pooper or discourage philanthropy, but how much thought is really going into this type of giving? I have no doubt that those working at Comic Relief have a sophisticated strategy for selecting projects and sustaining them. Their Website convincingly describes the long-term impact the money makes. But is there similar strategic thinking when it comes to the general public?

The media machine behind Comic Relief, although successful at getting donations and sensitising the public to the plight of individuals in dreadful circumstances, also distances us from the bigger picture. The average public donor is sold a package, complete with red nose, hair gel and funny fundraising ideas, with no thinking required whatsoever. The message is simple: watch the TV insert about the plight of Africans, see what a difference Comic Relief makes, feel emotionally moved, dial a number and, faster than you could order a pizza, your money has bought a meal for a starving child.

You would expect, after 20 years, the campaign message to be a little more sophisticated. I do not want to take a cheap shot at Comic Relief or those millions of generous people out there. I also recognise the pragmatic argument that if a zany media campaign is needed to bring in the money then so be it. But there are other issues to consider.

In an effort to present a snappy media message, there is a tendency to paint Africa as an amorphous mass. It really doesn't matter if the project being supported is in Sudan or Sierra Leone. It is all Africa - and it needs help. Media-wise, this works, but it leaves the UK public with a very one-dimensional view of Africa. It acontextualises why poverty and conflict came about it the first place. It lets governments off the hook and writes multinational companies out of the picture.

I know that Comic Relief tries to tackle this in its own way. Its educational materials for schools deal with questions of debt and fair trade. It encourages students to take a stand and write to MPs. But, sadly, this is not the public face of Comic Relief. It is a social indictment that charity has to be funky to get a public response.

Disturbingly the slick celebrity-driven marketing does not challenge the public to think about the root causes of poverty and do something more substantial than dipping into their pockets every two years.

Surely the campaign should include a focus on the need for fundamental political change to alleviate poverty and not just the importance of making an individual difference.

Comic Relief should be commended for all it has done and the world would be a better place if there was a red nose under every bed, but I only wish the whole thing was just a little more political and a lot more challenging.

To find out more on Comic Relief visit http://www.comicrelief.com

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 March 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Update on Greensboro TRC

As some you know this blog has been following some of the developments of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is focusing on the 1979 "Greensboro Massacre" that took place in broad daylight and was taped by local television news crews. It is the first TRC in the US. Recently the Washington Post published a piece on it that tells of the progress so far. To read the article, click here.

Friday, March 11, 2005

British society should modernise some traditions

Few issues could throw the British media into the frenzy created by the pending royal wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles and the newly legislated ban on fox-hunting.

While ostensibly separate issues, the debate on both has centred on the same principle, namely that, in each case, national tradition is 'under threat'. The moral standards of the country will crumble, cry some commentators, if an adulterous divorcee becomes supreme governor of the Church of England, a position to be bestowed upon Prince Charles when he becomes king. Fox-hunters too cry foul, claiming that another great centuries-old tradition is being undermined. But is tradition a good enough reason to retain the status quo? And is tradition beyond change? For centuries, in Western culture, it was traditional for women not to be educated and for universities to be all-male institutions. Witch burning and female circumcision are traditional practices still carried out in parts of Africa today. Tradition hardly seems an appropriate reason to retain any of these customs. Just because we have always done something does not make it right. Such thinking implies certain practices have always been there, or at least been around for a long time, and have not changed since. This paints traditions as timeless, innate and static by nature. Yet the most enduring traditions evolve in order to fit the changing society in which they are practised, just as, in nature, adaptation is often the key to their endurance.

Franz Amling / Public domain
Both fox-hunters and royal enthusiasts would do well to remember this before their refusal to evolve renders their traditions extinct. While the ban on fox-hunting and the latest royal wedding might signal the end of something, they are also the start of something new. The reality is that the tradition of fox-hunting has not been destroyed completely, but has been overhauled. Fox-hunters can still ride out red-coated on horseback, take part in drag hunts, exercise their dogs and even shoot foxes if they want. The aspect of the tradition which has been outlawed is the final tearing to pieces of the fox by hounds. This might be precisely the change needed to make fox-hunting less brutal and more acceptable and appealing to a wider cross-section of the population. Equally, perhaps if the supreme governor of the Church of England is an adulterous divorcee many who have had a similar life experience may feel less estranged from the church as a result and be more inclined to see it as relevant to them. None of this is to say that traditions are not important. They have value because they connect us to our past and give us a sense of identity. But it is healthier to see traditions not as a stagnant force in society, but as mirrors of positive change.

It was not so long ago that some people said the old South African flag would never die. As I watched England play cricket in South Africa recently, stands awash with the new flag, I wondered if anyone was seriously longing to see the old flag again. Perhaps someone out there is, but the vast majority seemed proud to display the new flag with its overtones of diversity and progress.

Introducing a new national flag has meant hope, not dissolution, for South Africa. Banning fox-hunting with dogs and allowing a fallible divorcee to hold an important spiritual office will not signal the end of all that is British. To be honest, I am not that interested in fox-hunting or the royals, but British society would do well to think of modernising some enduring traditions to reflect the sensibilities of their time. Perhaps seeing tradition in this way could, in itself, become a new tradition that Britain can be as proud of as South Africans are of our new flag.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 11 March 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, February 25, 2005

You can kill burglars...can't you?

"You can kill burglars," screamed the UK tabloids. Such headlines were promoted by a comment by Sir John Stevens, the outgoing police commissioner, that the public should be allowed to use whatever force is necessary against intruders in their home. His statement was swiftly followed by a pamphlet produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service reaffirming that "reasonable force" can be used against burglars.

Much public debate then ensued about what householders can and cannot do if someone breaks into their home. Radio talk shows ran tiresome debates about the acceptability of belting someone over the head with a baseball bat when they make off with your television.

The frenzy about it hardly matches the degree to which it is a major social problem in the UK. What is fascinating about this issue in the UK context is how it has even made it into the news. In the past 15 years there have been eleven householders prosecuted for excessive use of violence against intruders. Of these only five were prosecuted for using violence not deemed self-defence. One of these prosecutions included a man who set a trap for a burglar, captured him, beat him to death and then set him alight.

According to the British Crime Survey, the total number of domestic burglaries in England and Wales in 2002/3 was around 974 000. This means in the UK the average homeowner has a roughly one in a million chance of ending up in court associated with the use of excessive violence against an intruder.

So what is going on?

On one level the hysteria is closely linked with the UK elections that will take place in May. The focus on this issue is another dimension of the growing politics of fear that pervades the West. Highlighting the rights of citizens helps convince the electorate that the government is on their side and will allow them to enforce their individual rights at any cost.

But on another level something more sinister is afoot. While the public debate what their rights are in a fair fight with a burglar, the British government is busy whittling away at their more substantive civil liberties.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 was quickly cobbled together by the British government. This new law meant that foreign nationals could effectively be detained without trial at the discretion of the Home Secretary. Twelve individuals have been detained on this basis since December 2001. But last month the House of Lords ruled that such practices were not consistent with European human rights law. The response from the British government was astounding. Since they can no longer detain people without trial in prisons, the government decided to seek legislation that will put terror suspects under house arrest using 'control orders'. Such orders would entail suspects not being able to leave their homes, banning them from the use of phones or the Internet, electronic tagging and the enforcement of curfews. Under these proposed plans both British citizens and foreigners suspected of 'international or domestic' terrorism could be detained as a 'preventive' measure without charge or trials potentially indefinitely. In other words, while the debate rages about what rights people have in their home, the British government is drafting legislation which will erode rights and turn houses into prisons.

Now if there is one thing South Africans can teach the British about it is prisons, and specifically the vagaries of detention without trial. In the 1980s in South Africa over 80 000 people were detained without trial, some for up to two-and-a-half years. Although it may be argued by some that the practice temporarily removed some alleged threats, in the long run it served as a tool to create anger and animosity, and fuelled cycles of violence. The practice left a generation who had little respect for the law because they had only ever experienced it as partial and inconsistent. Is Britain heading the same way? Only time will tell what the full impact of the control order and associated proposals will be, but right now, the message is loud and clear. The law is there to be manipulated by government and European human rights laws disrespected.

The youth, in this case mainly young Muslim men who are the most likely victims of the proposed laws, will grow up seeing the law as a weapon to be used against them. As a consequence the law will be resented and not respected. Treat people with respect and the chance of them respecting you is all the more likely. Treat them as terrorists without a fair trial and more terror will be the result. Instead of creating a safer world through laws that promise more security, greater levels of global insecurity will prevail.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 25 February 2005.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Crabwalk by Günter Grass

I recently read Crabwalk by Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize winner. This book once again grapples with Germany's past and is superb. The book focuses on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, a German cruise ship used as a refugee carrier. Some 9,000 people were killed in the attack by a Russian sub. In addition, to telling the story of this disaster, the book focuses on the lives of people affected by it in modern day Germany. The book essentially focuses on cycles of 'victimhood' and the way victimisation (or perceived victimisation) turns into violence decades later. A compelling book that delves into the heart of contemporary Germany and the contradictions within it. I think it is a must for anyone interested in how countries deal with their past and how contemporary problems arise when this process is not properly completed. For more information on the book link directly to it at Amazon US UK CA SA

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Healing Through Remembering: Dealing with the past

On the 12th of March the Corrymeela Group will hosting a conference in London entitled Healing Through Remembering: Dealing with the past. I will be speaking at it focusing on the South African and Northern Ireland and mechanisms for dealing with the past. It will be held at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. More information and flyers can be found in the Corrymeela site.

Monday, February 7, 2005

What is reconciliation?

The "Community Reconciliation in Northern Ireland", a Democratic Dialogue project, explores how the term 'reconciliation' is conceptualised within a range of community organisations and local authorities and how this understanding is translated into practical strategies for action in engaging various sectors of Northern Ireland society. We have just started to publish some of the papers from the project. They may be of general interest as myself and Grainne Kelly have attempted to define reconciliation in them. The papers are available on the Project Section of the site. Or you can download the paper, A Working Definition of Reconciliation, directly by clicking here. Longer reports are due in the coming months.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Mbeki stirs the ghost of Churchill

So South African President Thabo Mbeki is back in the news again. But this time the focus is not on substantive issues such as Aids or African peacemaking, rather it is the ghost of Winston Churchill.

In a speech to the National Assembly in Sudan, Mbeki made reference to the writings of Churchill noting that he felt the great leader held racist views. This is evidenced for Mbeki in Churchill's book entitled the "The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan" which chronicles the British campaign in Sudan.

Referring to African Muslims, Churchill writes: "Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live".

Africans as lazy, incompetent and fanatical . . . sounds fairly racist to me.

Following Mbeki's speech, headlines pronounced "Mbeki slams Winston Churchill" and "Mbeki blames British imperialism for Sudan's problems". On the radio the British public took exception to Mbeki's approach to their war hero. Newspapers such as the Telegraph criticised Mbeki's "extraordinary weakness" at laying the "present problems at the door of the late 19th century".

The incident is a curious one, though.

Headline in the Guardian
Surely, no one can take exception to the fact that Churchill, like many contemporaries, looked upon Africans with views that by today's standards were undeniably racist. His writing confirms this.

Something else is going on when people get worked up about a reference to Britain's colonial past. Mention of the reality and legacy of colonialism seems to immediately hit an emotive nerve.

Besides those who wish to deny Britain's colonial history altogether, some commentators seem to take from Mbeki's speech what they want to hear.

The Telegraph hears Mbeki blaming all current problems in Africa on the past. Others hear an accusation that whites today still have to pay for what their forefathers did even though that was generations ago.

But Mbeki's speech, if anyone takes the time to read it, is doing none of this.

He is not lambasting whites en masse. His target audience was not the former colonial powers. He is not just taking a cheap shot at Churchill. When reading his speech it is obvious that, given he was speaking as a South African on an anniversary celebration of the 1956 Sudanese independence, he is attempting to make a link between Sudanese and South Africa history.

Sudan was the first African country to receive independence from its colonial masters; South Africa was the last, in 1994. Mbeki's message is simple. Both countries share a troubled history, sometimes linked with the brutal exploits of the very same men, such as Kitchener, who Churchill glorifies in his book, and this history means much has to be done to set the present right.

"In the end the point I am making is that our shared colonial past left both of us with a common and terrible legacy of countries deeply divided on the basis of race, colour, culture and religion. But surely, that shared colonial past must also tell us that we probably need to work together to share the burden of building the post-colonial future," Mbeki says.

His message is forward looking. He does not hide from the responsibility of African countries. He is not trying to divert attention from Africa's failings by playing the race card as some commentators seem to think.

I do not intend to write a defence of Mbeki. His approach to Zimbabwe, Aids and a number of other issues are problematic. Mbeki could have used the opportunity in Sudan to question the Sudanese government's human rights record. But, interestingly, this is not what the mainstream media seem to focus on either. Rather, it is his comments about a dead Prime Minister that get them talking.

The reaction to Mbeki's views on Churchill tells us more about those that reacted to it than Mbeki. Sadly, these reactions are still influenced by stereotypical views of Africa, as Mbeki implies.

Some journalists, not to mention certain politicians in South Africa, seem to be obsessed with trying to look for a chink in Mbeki's armour that is going to expose him as another African despot. Are they looking for echoes of Mugabe in his comments? This seems to be what they perversely want to hear.

Few take the time to listen, reflect and grapple with the reality that colonialism does still affect the African continent, whether those of us alive had anything to do with it or not. Would it have not been more remarkable if Mbeki did not mention colonialism in a speech on an occasion celebrating African independence?

Sometimes I wonder if Mbeki's critics see him as politician with the strengths and weaknesses as any other or if they are still struggling to see past his skin colour.

As a politician he has made mistakes. As an African leader, surely he is correct in continually pointing out the failings past and present of those that colonised the place and continue to exploit it.

Churchill made a massive contribution to history, but, like all people, Mbeki included, he clearly has flaws. Being precious about Churchill's legacy is hardly being true to the complexity of history. Treating Africa as if it does not have a colonial past and that this does not impact on the present is equally as myopic.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 January 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Original article, here.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Instilling fear into scaremongers

According to pool safety expert Stephen Tate, there are 27 ways that you can be killed or injured in a swimming pool. An interesting, although somewhat irrelevant, fact I learnt the other night while watching 'So You Think You're Safe?' on television. The programme claims to explore 'the hidden dangers of going about your daily routine, and offers advice on how to avoid those dangers'.

The show focused on the terrible things that can happen to you while on holiday. It offered essential advice. It issued warnings such as do not swim in crowded swimming pools, avoid pools if floating faeces are present and try not to make yourself into a human antenna by carrying an umbrella with a metal spike on top in a thunderstorm.

Such programmes, besides offering invaluable and practical advice for the desperately stupid, highlight the obsession there is the West with personal safety.

Last year a school in England banned parents from bringing homemade cakes to the school cake sale. The school requested that parents bring only shop-bought cakes, as it could not be guaranteed that homemade cakes would be produced in accordance with health and safety regulations.

Every second advert tells us that our houses are germ infested. We are urged, in the interests of our families, to buy new products to destroy them. A different food scare hits the media every month from radioactive salmon through to toxins in animal feed.

There used to be a Red under every bed - now there are microscopic organisms bent on wiping us out.

Of course there are things to fear in this world. If you live in South Africa it is healthy to have a consciousness about crime. If you live in the UK it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that hanging out outside of pubs at closing time can be hazardous to your health. We do not live in a risk-free society.

There are, of course, those who live in desperately insecure environments, notably the poor. But my gripe is with those who are largely secure but feel they are not.

It is striking that never before in the history of world have particular populations, certainly those in the West, been more secure in terms of shelter, food and basic safety, yet fear of germs, crime, foreigners and terrorists is increasing.

Does relative security make people lose all perspective?

Only in the Western world can someone have the luxury to be preoccupied by the potential for food poisoning from a homemade cake or have the time to count how many ways you can be injured in a swimming pool. Or find the mental energy to worry that their detergent only kills the germs on the surface of the toilet and not those under the rim.

Do you know you can sign up to get SMS messages from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK to get instantly notified next time there is a food scare?

I do not have problem with the FSA. It is right that they inform the unsuspecting public if something dangerous is out there. But their SMS system tells us more about those that subscribe to it than those offering the service.

Who really wants to walk around with what amounts to a mobile-Grim Reaper in their pocket? The last thing I want is my mobile phone reminding me that a killer bag of crisps is on the loose. Next people will be checking for FSA messages while shopping, just in case.

I am sick of being told I should be scared. I am tired of companies marketing their products using threat and panic. But what I am most worried about is that advertisers and the media soften us up for the politicians who use the same tactics to frighten people into voting for them.

Advertisers alert us that there are germs out there. Politicians tell us our enemies are breeding them and waiting to unleash them on us as soon as they get the chance. It is part of the same cycle of scaremongering.

I want the media to stop telling me about the dozens of ways I can die and instead focus on all the ways I can live life more fully. A little bit of risk is part of the human condition and should be celebrated, not exaggerated. Let's fight back against fear.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 21 January 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.