Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ba Humbug to Christmas cynics

For 12 months now, I have been trying to think of something interesting to say about Christmas. This has proved no straightforward task. Currently, like at the end of most years, I feel exhausted and am struggling to say something out of the ordinary on any subject, let alone remember all the witty things I thought up about Christmas in March. On top of this, Christmas is much the same each year, making it almost impossible to say anything original about it.

One option would be to spend the rest of this article complaining about Christmas, cataloguing all the things that make the silly season excruciating.

But we are all familiar with the list, including overbearing family members, cold stringy turkey, uncontrollable shopping, incessant Christmas jingles and, of course, flatulence-inducing Brussels sprouts. But that would be too easy and the last thing I would want to be is one of those people who pretend that they hate Christmas but really love it because they can spend a few weeks rattling on about how much they hate it.

A second option would be to get serious about the subject and throw myself into the debate about whether Christmas is politically offensive to people from non-Christian faiths. Better still, I could become a campaigner for a secular world carrying out acts of sabotage on Christmas trees in shopping malls. Or, perhaps, I could swing to the other extreme and become a Christmas freak decorating the garden with a 30-ft model of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other paraphernalia. Public responses to such actions would give me lots to write about. But, sadly, I have bigger fish to fry, not to mention a turkey to baste. Besides, I feel unmoved by the political-correctness discussion about Christmas, whether from pro-Christmas zealots or those who find it disconcerting. I am tired of people going out of their way to be offended. Then again I could abandon any concern about the meaning of Christmas and throw myself headlong into the commercialism of it. Christmas would make the perfect time to write about new products on the market from Robosapiens to buying goats for friends that then get donated to poor people in Africa. I could even make a list of all the things I want from Father Christmas. But I don’t need anything more. So this year I will say what I don’t want. So what I don’t want for Christmas this year is any more bombs a-dropping, the subtlety of Robert Mugabe, Jacob Zuma’s legal bill, a voucher for a polonium- laced sushi bar in London, and poultry of any description in pear trees or any other foliage.

That said, I fear that complaining about Christmas, exploring its political significance or shopping myself silly will not move me any closer towards finding an attention-grabbing angle on Christmas. However, when I shared my woes with my wife, she reminded me of a simple fact: people like Christmas precisely because it is the same. Christmas provides continuity from one year to the next. It is a constant across one’s entire life. As WJ Cameron said, “There has been only one Christmas – the rest are anniversaries”.

So I guess those of us who celebrate Christmas are stuck in an unending tinsel-laced time loop, for better or for worse.

To deal with this, I have decided, drawing on the immortal words of Monty Python, that, although we might all be individuals, I am not. So bring out the reindeer, sleighs bells, mistletoe, carol singers, babies in mangers, donkeys, lowing cattle, school nativity plays, credit cards, wise men with weird gifts, Christmas pudding with hazardous coins in it, terrified turkeys and, of course, as many Santas with polyester beards a person can find, because, if you cannot beat them, join them.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 15 December 2006.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

International Journal of Transitional Justice

Call for Papers – Submission Deadline – February 1, 2007

The International Journal of Transitional Justice is now accepting submissions for its second issue to be published July 2007.

For further information see the journal’s website or contact the editorial team directly at

About the International Journal of Transitional Justice

The International Journal of Transitional Justice is a forthcoming Oxford University Press journal which will be launched in March 2007. It is intended to provide an analytical bridge between intellectual and practitioner, and facilitate sustained interaction across the range of disciplines encompassed by the topic of transitional justice.

IJTJ publishes high quality, refereed articles in the rapidly evolving field of transitional justice; that is the study of those strategies employed by states, civil society bodies and international institutions to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses and to effect social reconstruction in the wake of widespread violence.

The journal is envisioned as a central site from which to house and build upon the array of research and writing currently available in this field. The journal encourages analysis and study of current and innovative approaches to transitional justice and welcomes papers that explore such questions as the appropriateness of the reconciliation paradigm for transitional justice, the relationship of truth-seeking and legal justice to reconciliation, the choices and timing of transitional justice mechanisms and methods to evaluate their success. Topics covered will include (but are not limited to): truth commissions, universal jurisdiction, post-conflict social reconstruction, victim and perpetrator studies, international and domestic prosecutions, institutional transformation, vetting, memorialization, reparations and ex-combatant reintegration.

South based submissions are particularly encouraged as are practitioner pieces. In addition to traditional length articles, the journal will feature shorter pieces in the ‘Notes from the Field’ section. This section will house new research from the field, reflections from practice, responses to previous articles, and discussion pieces.

IJTJ is housed at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg, South Africa in partnership with the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley. It will be published three times a year and will target an international readership including academics, research institutions, national and international policy makers, development professionals and civil society practitioners.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sport and politics uncomfortable bedfellows

Oddly, it was the old chestnut of whether sport and politics mix that came to mind while watching the golf Ryder Cup recently. This was not because the Ryder Cup is particularly political, but because it appears so apolitical. The two world super economic powers, the EU and US, competing is presented as a jolly good struggle going back for decades. On one level, it is simply that, yet on another the tournament is laden with symbols. The ostentatious economic power driving the event, the lack of racial diversity on the course (sorry, Tiger) and in the stands, George Bush Snr relaxing and taking in the action, and that it is one place where people can chant “USA! USA!” these days without starting a riot, all belies a wider context in which the event took place.

Of course, one would not want to turn such events into political footballs. The tournament’s acontextual and trouble-free environment is exactly what makes it easy watching. But it does beg the question – how closely should sport and politics be related? The Olympic Charter opposes political abuse of sport and athletes, a point with which most of us would agree. Take, for example, the recent Formula One Grand Prix in Turkey. The Turkish government abused the occasion politically. Mehmet Ali Talat, who presented the winner’s trophy, was introduced as the “President of the Northern Turkish Republic of Cyprus”. This was a piece of political theatre, as it is only Turkey that recognises the northern part of Cyprus as a separate entity. The result was a $5-million fine by the sports governing body.

The tricky issue, however, is not about the political abuse of sport, but whether political abuse can be prevented by sport. The most notable case was the sporting boycott against South Africa, aimed at ending apartheid. The South African case set a precedent, and it continues to throw up complications today.

Arguably, the South African sports boycott was made easier because apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. But where do sports boycotts stand in relation to other types of abuses and actions? Should the US have been prevented from playing in the Ryder Cup because its government is engaged in an illegal war in Iraq? Should there be a sports boycott, as many lobby groups profess, against Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians? I do not want to get into the validity of such cases, as I will upset someone and I am not very fast over 100m, but the cases clearly demonstrate the intricacy of the relationship between sport and politics. The mere mention of these examples is, no doubt, enough to make some people spitting mad. Perhaps, the real question then is: why does the issue of sport and politics evoke such an emotive reaction? One reason is that sport is a way of taking refuge from the world of politics. Sport pretends there is no wider context. The sports arena is allegedly an uncomplicated place, where the best person wins. But the best person does not always win: socioeconomic status, political conditions and equality of opportunity, not to mention drugs, can all influence your chance of success. Sports have also always been mixed with nationalist fervour. They can also be used to cement political projects. Think of the impact of Nelson Mandela’s donning the Springbok rugby jersey in the early 1990s. So, believing that sport is unrelated to politics is about as unrealistic as thinking Tiger Woods is going to miss a six-inch putt. The so-called gap between sport and politics is a false distinction.

The question, therefore, is not whether sport and politics are linked, but how we can discuss them in a rational way. Or is looking for a constructive and unemotive approach to the sport and politics debate as dim-witted as attempting the pole vault with a matchstick?

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 6 October 2006.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Get rich or die trying

In the US and Canada, each State has a slogan under the number plate of cars registered in it. For example, Washington, DC, plates have the phrase ‘Taxation without representation’ on them, making reference to the State’s lack of voting representation in Con-gress. Nova Scotia plates have the less political ‘Canada’s Ocean Playground’ emblazoned on them. On a recent trip to South Africa, this got me wondering what might be an appropriate slogan for Gauteng, where Johannesburg is located. After a short drive through the city, the answer was clear: ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’. Desperate poverty sits uncomfortably next to excessive and unabashed wealth. South Africa is now 120th out of 177 countries on the UN index that measures the rich-poor gap. It has dropped some 30 places since 1995. Yet, as Abraham McLaughlin, of the Christian Science Monitor, reported recently, nearly 7% of all new cars bought in the country are BMWs. This makes it the second-highest per-new-car sales of BMWs in the world, fractionally behind Germany’s 8%. Car sales in South Africa increased by 25% last year, the biggest increase in the world. But is this not a good thing? On some level, it reflects the rapid economic growth in the country, which is getting close to 5%, according to some sources. Wealth is slowly deracialising. Life is booming for those who can get a seat on the gravy train. Johannesburg is going through a second gold rush. At the same time, this has led, according to President Thabo Mbeki, to wanton consumerism. At the fourth annual Nelson Mandela Lecture recently, he noted: “The demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a real- isable dream and nightmare . . . with every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity, ‘Get rich! Get rich! Get rich!’ And, thus, it has come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side is written the words, ‘At all costs, get rich!’” South Africa is not the only place in the world where consumerism is all-encompassing, but it specialises in pretension. As a friend mentioned to me, life is measured by the three Cs – car, credit card and cellphone. It is a national obsession.

Although the term ‘conspicuous consumption’, coined in 1899, is somewhat outdated, it seems alive and well in the not-so-new South Africa. The term, according to Wikipedia, is used to describe lavish spending on goods acquired mainly for displaying wealth as a form of social status. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman sees consumerism as even more insidious. He talks of a ‘consumerist syndrome’. Gratification has to be immediate and consumerism is all-pervasive in our relationships, attitudes, thoughts and visions of happiness. This is typified by the way liberation is sought through the power of ‘things’. It may sound melodramatic, but has liberation in South Africa been commodified? Of course, I do not bemoan people’s success or regret that more people are sharing in the profit pie. Economic growth is needed. I am also not laying the blame for consumerism with the government, or the rising black elite. It is much more pervasive than that. Ostentation knows no racial or class boundaries in South Africa. But it has its cost.

As Mbeki notes, the ‘get rich’ mantra is doing something to the essence of humanity in the country. Rampant consumerism and the ‘get rich or die trying’ mentality are great bedfellows. Violent and white-collar crimes are the natural extension of this. At the risk of sounding like a conservative moralist, Mbeki is right when he calls for an RDP, or reconstruction and development programme, of the soul for all South Africans. Luxury cars, flashy houses and cellphones can never be enough.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 18 August 2006.