Friday, September 30, 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.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 16 September 2005.

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.

Tuesday, September 20, 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.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 2 September 2005.

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

Wednesday, September 7, 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?

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.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 August 2005.