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.