Friday, September 15, 2006

The times they are not a-changin’

The musician Burt Bacharach wrote a song, probably at the time I was entering this world, called Knowing When to Leave. It contains the clich├ęd lines, “Go while the going is good. Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing anyone can learn...Sail when the wind starts to blow.” Simple advice, but many people pay no attention to the wind, and sometimes even miss a hurricane when it is blowing in their face. Take, for example, Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister – the writing has been on the wall for months that his time is up, but he insists on dragging out his Premiership for as long as possible. Seemingly, he wants to hit the magical ten-year mark next year before throwing in the towel. It reminds me of lying in bed in the morning trying to kid yourself that five more minutes in bed will make all the difference.

What is it about leaving that is so hard? Love and passion are the most difficult things for humans to walk away from. But hanging in there for such noble endeavours is always excusable, even if it is downright stupid at times. But Tony no longer loves his people – how could he, they do not love him? That said, in the words of Dan Quayle, “This isn’t a man who is leaving with his head between his legs.” Power also has a hold over us mortals. I do not need to rattle off a list of dictators addicted to power to make the point. But what is it that makes people like Robert Mugabe think that being in power for over 25 years is good for him or his country? Perhaps, however, it is not leaving that is the problem but, rather, the anxiety that change provokes that causes people to stay put. Change hurts. As Saul Alinsky, the American community activist, wrote, “Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.” The result is that most people do not like things to change. Being in a rut seems preferable to ploughing through a new field, even if it offers a better harvest.

Yet some people seek change. Recently, the European Space Agency completed its three-year mission to study the moon by deliberately crashing the Smart-1 orbiter into the lunar surface. They assured the world that progress is being made in understanding the surface of the moon. They say their research will pave the way for a moon colony.

The mission sparked a debate about whether such science was worth the bother, given the poverty on earth. Such critics have a point. But, at the same time, there is something about a moon colony I find enticing. It conjures up images of Star Trek, the sci-fi TV series that has now been running since 1966, a mere three years longer than Libyan leader Gaddafi has been in power. What is it about this show that makes it so appealing? The answer is simple. Unlike what those that cling to power can offer, and even if Star Trek is light years from reality, it is filled with promise. The line “to boldly go where no man (sic) has gone before” is the most tantalising line ever.

Right now, however, it feels like the promise of a new world has been lost somewhere between the Iraqi desert and the recently wrecked space probe now polluting the moon. If change was needed, now is the time. As science-fiction writer, Alvin Toffler, notes, “Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life.” So now I am raising money for a one-way rocket ride to the moon for Blair, George W Bush – the dictators of the world – and all those who think killing civilians enhances their cause. Donations are welcome.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 September 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Exporting hope or foolish dreams?

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has been exporting many things to other African countries it never exported before. South Africa’s DStv dominates the airwaves across the continent. It is not unusual to meet Africans thousands of miles away from Johannesburg who have an intimate knowledge of Egoli, the South African soap opera. Security companies run by South Africans are major players in the private security market. On an unsavoury note, South African mercenaries can also be found peddling the destructive skills they learned during apartheid. At the same time, South Africa is also exporting another commodity which stands in stark contrast to this, namely the promise of a peaceful transition. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is core to this. The concept is a benchmark of how to build peace in many countries. Liberia is one of the more recent recruits to the methodology, following Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.

Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, from where I write this article, has suffered terribly over the last few decades. Civil war which started in 1989 has devastated the place. Locals refer to the various bouts of fighting as World War I, II and III, and they are not far wrong. It is estimated that over 200 000 people died, out of a population of just over three-million.

Monrovia still carries the scars. Ruined and bullet-marked buildings dominate the capital.

A high number of war-disabled people are visible on the streets. The average life expectancy is just over 40. There is no mains water or electricity. This has been the case since 1990, when Charles Taylor’s rebels knocked out the electricity plant. When he became President in 1997, he vowed to restore it but, instead, more war followed. Taylor, who lost power in 2003, is now awaiting trial in the Hague for a list of offences that could stretch from Cape Town to Cairo. Since the end of Taylor’s reign, there has been some progress. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman head of State in Africa, was democratically elected in January. Reconciliation is high on the agenda and the South African model is the talk of the town. Liberian truth commissioners visited South Africa recently and are now beginning their own TRC.

But what is it about the South African model that is so alluring? The answer, despite the problems South Africa still faces, is that it offers hope.

When you drive through the streets of Monrovia, as someone not worried about where your next meal might come from, over potholes and past children playing in squalor, you, invariably, wonder what makes people continue each day. The answer is simple – they have no choice. Families must be fed. But, despite daily struggles, people also care about the bigger picture. There are over 30 newspapers and dozens of radio stations. Talk shows are dominated by discussions about hope for the future. The country wants its dignity back. The image of South Africa is of a country that achieved political peace through creating a common vision through compromise. We can debate for eternity whether this has been realised or not, but the basics are undeniable. A route was taken post 1994 that circumvented cycles of retribution. Cycles of retribution destroyed Liberia.

So whether the view of South Africa abroad is rose-tinted or not, it is hard to dismiss some lessons. Of course, part of me wants to run out on to the streets of Monrovia and proselytise about the dangers of importing goods from another country that is still in the throws of change. But, as I write, frantically hoping the generator won’t run out of fuel and crash my laptop that is probably worth more than many people’s yearly income, I just don’t have the heart. And, after all, surely hope and the virtues of a compromised peace are not the worst things to be selling.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 September 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.