Friday, December 7, 2007

Are all excuses poppycock?

I am a sad individual who likes making New Year's resolutions. I enjoy the challenge and think it contributes to personal growth. As the excess of Christmas approaches, I find reviewing my resolutions from the year before brings me down to earth, reminding me how inept I can be at times. I believe being reminded of one's ineptness is a sure road to humility, humility a path to personal enlightenment.

So in early December this year I began my retrospective reflection of last year's resolutions. However, this year my shortcomings were obvious before I even started. To be honest, I could not remember what my resolutions were at the end of 2006.

I am sure they must have had something to do with health, fitness or more quality time relaxing, but the specifics elude me. In fact, I cannot even remember if I made resolutions. When this dawned on me, I immediately found myself trying to think of excuses why I had let myself down. Could inebriation, at a New Year's Eve party, have impaired my capacity to remember? Or is my mind just deteriorating with age?

This questioning, in turn, led me to thinking about excuses. This helped me to realise that, even if I could remember my resolutions, I probably would now be making excuses about why I did not follow through on them. I was too busy to attend the gym regularly, and important work commitments prevented me from taking more time off, and so on.

Making excuses is deep in the human psyche. It all started when Adam blamed Eve for making him eat the apple and Eve, in turn, blamed the snake for leading her into sin. Highlighting so-called extenuating circumstances to account for our own failings protects our sense of self from a negative self-image. Not taking responsibility appears easier than being honest.

Remember Tony Blair's defence about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Essentially, his only mistake was he believed, being the trusting man he is, intelligence reports that were wrong. Or what about Bill Clinton's famous line: "I tried marijuana once – I did not inhale"? This is the best example of a half truth ever.

As the ANC conference approaches in mid-December, where the new ANC president will be crowned, I wonder what excuses will flow from that. If Thabo Mbeki is derailed, will it be because he was undermined by populist ethnic politics? Or, if Jacob Zuma finds himself in the political wilderness, will it be because he was demonised by his rivals, who undermined his cuddly image?

Bob Wall reminds us that the one common denominator in every mess you find yourself in is you. Much mud is slung in politics, but sincere politicians will shine through. No politician, especially of the stature of Mbeki or Zuma, or our friend Mugabe, who insists on blaming others for his failings, is a hapless victim. More than anyone else, politicians have the power to shape their and other people's destiny – they should not need excuses. To quote Shakespeare, "oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse".

I wonder what would happen if everyone owned up to their flaws. Would the world fall apart if we knew Clinton had smoked dope? Or that ambition is at the core of the power struggle in the ANC, and not a heartfelt desire to serve the people? Would the political system collapse if someone in South Africa admitted that arms-deal cash found its way into the hands of some politicians? Or if we knew sometimes fictitious reasons were given by politicians to help justify war?

Remarkably, we know the truth, but we collude in the illusion that we do not until it is acknowledged. In this context, who is more inept –the maker of excuses or those of us who choose to believe them?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 December 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

* Note this article was written prior to Jacob Zuma winning the ANC Presidency. The next piece focuses on this.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The truth commission lost in translation

The South African theatre production, Truth in Translation, was the hit of the Belfast Festival this year. The play, for those of you who have not seen it, focuses on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Instead of relying on the testimonies of victims, perpetrators, commissioners or the commission audience, Truth in Translation centres on the interpreters who worked for the commission. The production tells the story of a group of translators who have to contend with 11 official languages. At the same time, there is an expectation that they remain uninvolved while recounting atrocity after atrocity. However, by the nature of translating in the first person, they get absorbed into the process, becoming vehicles for the truth and the lies they themselves have to utter. Narrating other people’s stories also results in each interpreter grappling with his or her own past.

In Northern Ireland, the production added to the debate about dealing with the past in a society where active political conflict has just drawn to an end. Watching the play in Belfast, as a South African living there, reminded me of the distance that South Africa has travelled compared with Northern Ireland, where the debate about examining the past is in its early stages.

However, at the same time, I was left wondering if the play was currently creating more debate abroad than in the country.

To some degree, the South African commission was a victim of its own success. The more public it became and the more high-profile stories it told, the more people felt that, when it was over, the past had indeed been dealt with. However, most of the commissioners would probably concede that the TRC uncovered new truths in at best 10% of the 22 000 cases brought before it. No systematic process of implementing the commission’s recommendations was ever set up.

Further, investigations and prosecutions of those who failed to take the opportunity of the generous amnesty offered to them through the TRC is an unpopular issue. South Africans still fear that further investigations might destabilise the political process or be used for political purposes. However, although the commission was powerful in enabl-ing stories to be told, as Truth in Translation reinforces, did it uncover the whole truth or build lasting reconciliation? The TRC made a good start but I doubt that most victims would answer this in the affirmative.

The needs of victims do not disappear with the passage of time. This is difficult because victims have multiple needs and it would be naive to think that any process can meet all needs. Nevertheless, expecting victims to forget the past when their lives have been profoundly altered by violence is not an option.

That said, dealing with the past is also wider than meeting the needs of victims alone. Of course, taking the political stability of the country into account is important and wallowing in the past at a social level can be counterproductive. But, equally, if we are going to tout South Africa as a model for dealing with the past, we should not avoid hard quest- ions.

Have we really addressed the needs of apartheid victims? Are some of the factors that contributed to the conflict, such as poverty and racism, still stimulating new types of violence? Or what about ongoing human rights violations like torture of criminal suspects which allegedly continues in some South African jails.

So where does this leave South Africa? There are many lessons South Africa can teach others. I am delighted to see a South African production helping to stimulate debate elsewhere. Fittingly, however, Truth in Translation does not have a neat ending or a simple answer. All the characters continue to struggle with their history when the curtain goes down. Dealing with the past is a process and not an event. Have we, South Africans, forgotten this?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 November 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is there a point to the web?

Every time I make my way into cyberspace to trawl for interesting news, the words of recently deceased Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist and social critic, come to mind. Vonnegut nobly stated: “We are here on earth to fart around.” His words ring true when it comes to the Internet. The Internet is, of course, a source of vast information, but it is also a time waster and source of junk par excellence. Needless to say, I find it irresistible.

The most recent Internet toy I came across is Google Zeitgeist. This tool highlights the so-called “the spirit of time” by retrieving information about what people are searching for on the Internet. It is meant to provide a snapshot of a past week, month, or year. Google Zeitgeist excludes generic searches such as ‘ebay’, ‘dictionary’, ‘yellow pages’, ‘games’, ‘maps’ and X-rated keywords, drawing out trends and topics that are obsessing net users.

In 2006, for example, it noted that Bebo, My Space, and World Cup were the top three Zeitgeist movers. This highlights how, particularly among the young and restless largely in the Western world, social networking on sites, such as Bebo and My Space, made a major impact on the Internet that year. The soccer World Cup also sucked up hours of Internet (not to mention TV) time.

More recently, Google Zeitgeist introduced a facility to track trends in different countries. A quick review of top queries for March 2007 is revealing.

The five top queries gaining the most growth in South Africa were medicine, a porn site that slipped through the Net that I won’t mention, Martin Luther King, Christianity and Starbucks. In the UK, they were PSP games, Johnny Depp, PC World, Audi A3 and British Telecom. In Ireland, the top four searches were tourism and health service-related. Number five was slownik angielsko polski, which I think is an online Polish-English dictionary or, alternatively, I just inadvertently advertised a Polish porn site.

Does this tell us anything? To some degree it highlights where different societies are at. The Internet in the UK is largely a tool for shopping, gaming and celebrity gossip, and is clearly used a lot by young people. This is made possible because over 60% of people have access to the Internet at home, and broadband speeds are high. In Ireland, Google Zeitgeist provides evidence of a growing Polish population.

In South Africa, the picture is less clear. Seemingly, the Internet, which is only used by 10% of South Africans regularly, is a growing source of medical advice, but also a place of contradiction. It currently appears to be oscillating between porn seekers, Christians, or those in search of non-violent political action or a cup of coffee.

Worse still, South Africans could be searching for the five categories simultaneously. Could this mean the average Internet user in South Africa, at least in March 2007, is an ailing perverted activist Christian who needs coffee to keep himself or herself awake to engage in wicked habits?

But before you write to complain about my provocative analysis, the South African trends could also suggest that South African activists, inspired by Martin Luther King, are considering a mass protest against Starbucks. Or Christians are trying to head pornographers off at the proverbial moral pass. Conversely, coffee is the source of all evil.

Then again, in Vonnegut’s words, it could just be evidence that indeed we are here to fart around and cumulatively it all means squat. So what does that tell us?

Well, if you have read this far, it is yet more evidence that baiting a reader with useless information is easy, no matter how inane. It is no wonder the Internet is filled with garbage. We love it. So why did the chicken cross the information superhighway? Sadly, the evidence suggests it was simply to get to the other site.

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 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 4 May 2007.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bigots, building bridges and multiculturalism

According to the recently published ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey’, Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of bigoted people in the Western world. The study of nearly 32 000 people across 19 European countries, as well as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, asked if people would like to have persons from different groups as neighbours. These groups included those of a different race, immigrants or foreign workers, Muslims, Jews and homosexuals. In Northern Ireland, 44% of the 1 000 respondents did not want at least one of the five groups as neighbour. Specifically, 35,9% of people would not like a homosexual living next door, 18,9% immigrants or foreign workers, 16% Muslims, 11,6% Jews, and people of a different race 11,1%. This was significantly higher than the average percentage across the countries surveyed, that were 19,6%, 10,1%, 14,5%, 9,5% and 8,5% for the same groups respectively.

The findings are startling. It is hard to imagine that nearly 20% of people across the Western world would be unhappy about a homosexual living next door, or, given Europe’s history, that nearly 10% would still be unhappy with a Jew living in their neighbourhood. Of course, one could see the glass half-full. After all, 90% of people have no problems with someone of a different race living next door. Arguably, holding a prejudiced view may also not be a problem, if you keep it to yourself and do not harm others. But, sadly, hate crimes have been increasing in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as the number of immigrants has grown. Racist attacks in Northern Ireland have a surged by 60% in the last year, while assaults on gays and lesbians have doubled.

One answer given to these problems is that we need to move towards multiculturalism. Multi-culturalism implies a world where we respect differences, tolerate one another and allow different cultures to flourish on their own terms. Proponents of multiculturalism argue that this is the best option in a world where it is difficult to reconcile different values and beliefs. But is multiculturalism enough, given the astonishing statistics quoted above? And why is the term barely used in South Africa? Given South Africa’s history of segregation and ongoing problems with racism, it seems one knows intuitively that more needs to be done. If one wanted to be crude, multiculturalism that does not seek to bring people together in some way, or socioeconomic inequality that exists between groups, could end up akin to the perverse apartheid delusion of separate development. Some proponents of multiculturalism argue that groups will learn to coexist over time, if they have equal power and status. But this seldom happens. Immigrant communities generally remain socially excluded and the result is, in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ghetto communities. Perhaps what is needed is interculturalism, where we move towards learning about different cultures and views, and engage with these in robust dialogue. This requires a recognition of interdependence that is neither assimilation nor simply coexistence. Granted coexistence might be a step along the way to interculturalism, but to seek a society that is multicultural, rather than intercultural, seems limiting.

That said, an intercultural approach can be threatening to those who see themselves as belonging to a specific community or ethnic group. But, as Bauman points out, the need for community, no matter how understandable in a world where society is so fractured, creates a double bind. As much as it provides the security of being with your own kind, the more you immerse yourself in your so-called community, the more you feel threatened by the other. Security and insecurity become intertwined, feeding “mutual derision, contempt and hatred” and making multiculturalism impossible. In short, we need to shatter the myth of the community, and, although it sounds rather schmaltzy, searching for our common humanity and celebrating interdependence while vigorously ‘dialoguing’ about our differences, seem a much better option.

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, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 23 February 2007.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The woes of 'affluenza'

In his 1895, novel The Time Machine, HG Wells takes McEnroe’s view of affluenza to its logical (if not hyperbolic) conclusion. The novel centres on a time traveller, who travels forward in time into a world where the previously rich, because of their sedentary lifestyle, have devolved, rather than evolved, into a docile and ineffectual species called the Eloi. Members of the working class, in turn, have mutated into bestial creatures called Morlocks. The Morlocks live underground and toil to keep the Eloi’s world ticking over and bountiful. The twist, however, is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi from time to time to survive. Oddly, however, all have adapted to their roles and the strange world works with a de facto class structure still in place.

Of course, the real world is not as straightforward or as fantastical as Wells’s make-believe world. Many scientists and businesspeople come from wealthy homes and continue to evolve up the prosperity ladder. Some are even philanthropists. Children of high achievers, especially those that have to continue to work hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, are usually very motivated. They are not simply modern Elois. It is equally problematic to paint the working class as inherently brutish.

That said, children born into wealth, who do not need to work to keep their comforts, are, arguably, becoming more Eloi-like. The celebrity world is filled with the offspring of the wealthy who are layabouts with little social utility, typified by Paris Hilton, heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune.

Now I am not recommending that the working class devour the rich or Paris Hilton, particularly. Publicly endorsing cannibalism seldom wins friends. But McEnroe’s comments and Wells’s novel provide food for thought.

Are sections of the wealthy slowly sinking into Eloi-like uselessness because people are too comfortable? Is the growing wealth gap alienating the needy from the world of cappuccinos and coffee shops, trapping them in a destitute and brutalising world? Will this, in turn, lead to violent revolution? Or is Wells’ two-tier world of haves and have-nots, which ‘functions’ in a perverse cycle of mutual dependence more realistic?

In terms of the latter, I was thinking of writing a science-fiction novel. The story will centre, as unrealistic as it might sound, on a world made up of people who have no choice but to work like slaves for $1 a day. These unnamed individuals work in dark sweatshops to create clothes with fashionable labels on them for others who inhabit air-conditioned shopping malls seldom seen by the sweatshop workers. The people in the malls lust after the clothes with fashionable labels, but only get temporary satisfaction from each purchase so they continually demand more clothes and varied styles. In turn, the sweatshops grind on indefinitely.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 August 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why squirrels are as dangerous as TV

One of my child’s favourite television programmes is Dora the Explorer. It is a fantastical animation about a young girl and her sidekick, Boots the monkey, who live in the rainforest and have adventures helping forest creatures. To up the educational ante, the animals speak Spanish and the adventures require colour, number and shape recognition to be completed.

According to psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, however, I am damaging my two-year-old child by allowing him to watch Dora. Sigman recently told British MPs that the State should offer guidelines on children’s TV consumption. He recommended banning TV for children under three and reducing older children’s watching hours to no more than one-and-a-half hours a day. His guidelines are considerably less than the three hours of viewing a day the average British child imbibes. He backs his recommendations by studies that link watching TV with obesity, as well as sleeping and behavioural problems.

That said, Sigman is accused of trying to create a ‘nanny State’ that regulates everyday life. Organisations such as the Save Kids’ TV Campaign see Sigman’s suggestions as unrealistic and highlight studies that demonstrate the educational benefits of TV. I have some sympathy with this lobby, which is interested in the content of TV rather than simply seeing it as an evil instrument. It feels the intellectual, creative and cultural diet we feed our children is as important as the food we give them. If done correctly, this lobby adds, TV can encourage diversity as well as an interest in sports and the arts.

Sigman is, no doubt, worried about my boy’s mental health, but, to the best of my knowledge, his TV watching, which is done in moderation, has benefits. The joy he gets out of Dora’s adventures is palpable. I could not rob him of that. It adds layers of humour and imagination to his world. In fact, if anything, I think the excessive concern with education is problematic, at times.

As much as my child enjoys Dora’s adventures and can now recognise shapes and colours, and speak a little Spanish (or so I think), as a result, the constant educational emphasis can be absurd. With traditional education, Dora the Explorer also embeds messages such as the importance of wearing seat belts in cars or life jackets at sea. The problem with this is the car Dora drives safely buckled into is chauffeured by a squirrel. She also makes a point of wearing her life jacket when riding on the back of sea creatures such as whales.

I am all for my child getting free public education. But is the seat belt message not overshadowed by the fact she’s getting into a pink convertible driven by a purple bolero-wearing squirrel, and the life jacket safety message somewhat redundant, given the fact that she’s wearing it while bareback whale-riding with a talking monkey for company.

When I think of the children and TV debate, it is the advice a teacher gave me that springs to mind: the problem with common sense is that it is not so common. Science does not need to tell us that excessive television watching could be hazardous, just as too much outdoor activity could result in injuries. Equally, we know we should give children healthy food but the odd sugary snack can be a nice treat, even if it has no intellectual benefit.

Most dangers in this world come from warmongering politicians, corrupt intellectual ideas, reckless drivers, corporations that destroy the environment, media organisations that distort reality, fanatics of all kind, criminals, some schoolteachers and, sadly, even parents.

TV can be educational – and it should be. But why not also allow it to be a medium for escapist entertainment at times? Obviously, all this should be part of a balanced diet of creative activities and exercise. Everything in moderation, I say, even the odd bit of whale riding.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 13 July 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Paradise Lost or Pragmatism?

The recent journal of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 13(1) has just been published. It contains a number of articles on the theme of forgiveness. I wrote a commentary on the various pieces entitled Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Paradise Lost or Pragmatism?. Click here to download it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Apology over the slave trade two centuries overdue

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, in 1807. As a result, debates are raging about what should be done and, specifically, whether the government should offer an apology.

Tony Blair has expressed "deep sorrow" for Britain's role in the slave trade and called it "profoundly shameful", but has stopped short of an official apology. Campaigners demand he goes further and that reparations are paid. But, needless to say, debates about what is to be done about slavery, especially two centuries afterwards, are complicated and emotive.

No one knows the exact number of Africans who were shipped overseas as part of the slave trade. Research puts the figures somewhere between 10-million and 28-million.

The system too was linked with wars which served as a recruiting ground for slaves, and it included deadly cross-country marches, as those captured were corralled towards harbours for export. Some estimate that a minimum of four-million people died in this way.

About 12-million slaves crossed the Atlantic or Middle Passage from Europe in slave ships alone, with a high percentage dying in dreadful conditions on the way. About 17-million slaves were exported to the Indian Ocean coast, the Middle East, and North Africa by Muslim traders too. There were also African middlemen who served as capturers and initial salespersons of slaves. This highlights the global and complex nature of the phenomena that lasted from the 1500s to the early 1900s in some countries.

That said, there is little doubt who got rich from the system, namely the Europeans. The slave trade allowed new markets to be developed, and slaves were integral to processing raw materials abroad and sparked the industrial revolution.

Cities such as London and Amsterdam were substantially built on wealth generated through trading human beings. This cumulatively created a wealth gap that persists to this day, and some argue a snowballing skills gap caused by the systematic removal of generations of the strongest and healthiest citizens from certain African countries.

But does this justify present day reparations and an apology? The main problem with reparations is the question of who should be making reparations to whom, considering all those linked directly with the system are long buried. Should the present generation of Europeans pay for the sins of their fathers' fathers' fathers? Also, not all European families were implicated in the system.

Irrespective of the slave trade, what is obvious is that structural injustice exists in the world, and this remains racialised. The enormous gap between rich and poor needs attention through debt relief and allowing better market access to developing countries, no matter how the situation came about. Where reparations and apologies are important in that they can force those who like to pretend history never happened to acknowledge it, and be a rallying point to address current social injustice.

More importantly, it is a truism that fundamental distrust exists between the haves and have-nots. This has a racial dimension too that is evident in how quickly Africans turn to issues such as slavery and colonialism to explain their current problems, and how swiftly many Europeans blame Africa’s problems on present inadequacies, such as leadership, rather than looking at historical legacies.

Apologies can be a way of building trust, a way of creating reconnection and, thus, can be instrumental in generating cooperation to overcome present inequalities.

So, as a first step, an apology is necessary because the impact of slavery remains, at the very least, in the mindsets of Africans and Europeans. The fact a debate is happening about slavery two centuries later is proof in itself of this. All means necessary are needed to shift these mindsets. So it is time those with the most power in the relationship, such as the British State and the monarchy, bite the bullet and, at a bare minimum, make an official statement.

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, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on13 April 2007.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Time flies in a coma

Nineteen years ago, a Polish railway worker, Jan Grzewski, was hit by a train and fell into a coma. Recently, he woke from what doctors cruelly call a “permanent vegetative state”. It is remarkable to think that someone could have been asleep for nearly 20 years. Before his coma, in 1988, Poland was still communist and the Berlin Wall was its imposing iron curtain self. When Grzewski woke, he found the changes astonishing. He is quoted as saying that shops filled with food compared to communist rationing, and the excessive number of people speaking on cellphones in the street made his head spin. But he also observed that, although life seemed better, people complained just as much as before. Clearly, singer Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Song of the Year when Grzewski passed into his coma, had little lasting impact. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, I am constantly struck by persistent complaining.

In South Africa, I often hear people, from all different race groups, say that things were better in the past. Do people remember the past? Do you remember 1988? Let me refresh your memory – there were at least 25 major bombs that went off in 1988 in South Africa, most notably at Wits Command, killing 12 people. It was also the year the Hyde Park shopping centre, and several Wimpy bars and police stations went up in smoke. The South African Defence Force continually crossed borders that year, killing African National Congress activists in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. One such attack severely injured anti-apartheid lawyer and now Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. The police detained, tortured and killed a plethora of people, too, including children. The so-called ‘Wit Wolf’, Barend Strydom, killed eight black passers-by in Strijdom Square, in Pretoria. So, 1988 was not exactly stress free.

Put in context, it is hard to argue that South Africa is now a worse place than before. South Africa, obviously, still has its problems, including ongoing violent crime and poverty. Equally, for many Poles and people in Northern Ireland, life can be harsh. But Grzewski’s observation that people complain despite positive changes is more profound than it first appears. The key to successful complaining, according to the website, (no seriously), is to be clear as to why you are dissatisfied. Grzewski is observing a general trend towards complaining for the sake of complaining, when it is unjustified and seldom specific.

So why do people complain? The answer may well depend on your socioeconomic standing and where you live, and your complaints may well be warranted if you are living on skidrow and in constant fear. Some complaining, as is often the case in South Africa, can also be politically motivated. But incessant complaining can also be the product of the forgetfulness brought on by the relentless drive towards the future, more money and being better off than the person next door. This makes us neglect the past. Most of us complain because, unlike Grzewski, who only has memories of the distant past, our most recent memories are of the present. We forget the bad old days and hone in on the problems of today. But we should spend more time remembering how appalling things were and how far we have come. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, this would make us more grateful and a lot more positive.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The war and peace legacy

Being a columnist can be taxing. The relentless search for interesting topics to waffle on about is never ending. However, now and then, a week comes along where so much happens that it is difficult to decide where to start. The week starting May 7 was one such week.

In that week, the Northern Ireland peace process reached a decisive climax. Ian Paisley, of the DUP, and Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP, which had said that it would never sit down with Sinn Fein because it considers Sinn Fein a terrorist organisation because of its links with the Irish Republican Army, agreed to share power. In turn, Sinn Fein set aside the likelihood of a united Ireland, at least in the foreseeable future, and agreed to participate in a devolved administration within the UK.

If that was not enough, in the same week, Tony Blair took the plunge, which had been pending for months, and announced his resignation date – June 27. Of course, the two events are related. Blair chose the date for announcing his departure because it was close to the Northern Ireland deal. With his legacy literally bombed to pieces in Iraq, Blair was desperate to link his exit with something positive.

This is not to say he simply jumped on the Northern Ireland peace train at the last minute. He had played a significant role in it. He kept the peace process high on his agenda, more so than any other British Prime Minister. Shortly after coming to office, he agreed to face-to-face talks with Republicans in 1997. The last British Prime Minister to do that was Lloyd George, some time after World War I.

While Blair was waging war in the rest of the world, he visited Northern Ireland a remarkable 37 times to help ensure the peace. McGuinness, who, no doubt, still feels the British have a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland, was quoted in the Guardian earlier this year, saying: “Tony Blair and Iraq is almost like a total contradiction of Tony Blair and Ireland.”

So why the split personality? And why did he become Bush’s lackey over Iraq?

My theory is that, after nearly a decade in power, he became more concerned with his global legacy than bottom-up change. I am not sure if he even saw the full significance of Northern Ireland in his own backyard until it was all he had left.

The destruction of the Twin Towers gave him an opportunity to cement his place in history. He felt this was his Churchillian moment to be heralded a saviour of the so-called free world. He misguidedly backed the wrong horse.

In Africa, his record is mixed. He showed concern, calling the continent a “scar on the conscience of the world”. He set up the African Commission and pushed debt relief. This has had an impact; for example, debt relief in Mozambique meant half a million children were immunised.

Yet, as much as things moved under his premiership, they have also fallen short and poverty certainly ain’t history. The G8 committed itself under his leadership to a $5,4-billion increase in support to sub-Saharan Africa; since 2004, it has increased by $2,3-billion.

This is no small contribution, but it typifies his leadership style – a style emblematic of many politicians. He came to power with a populist mandate, but, over time, he lost the common touch. Blair is about vision over capability and rhetoric over delivery, and his biggest weakness is that he believes his own hype. Sometimes this pays off, as it did in Northern Ireland but, mostly, over time, it belly-flops. If you don’t believe me, just ask the average Iraqi, or next time you are in the Middle East, try to find your way with the so-called road map he helped broker.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Will more billionaires help the poor

Every year, in the UK, a ‘rich list’ is published that outlines the names and fortunes of the richest people in the country. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, who is also the richest company director listed on the JSE, tops the UK list with a personal fortune of £19,25-billion. The top 1 000 rich people have a combined wealth of nearly £360-billion.

The UK Sunday Times also publishes a rich list of those under 30. Those involved in sport, film, fashion and pop dominate the list, with 65 of the 100 occupying these worlds.

The 2007 list also confirms that the superrich are getting richer. The number of billionaires in the UK rose from 54 to 68 between last year and this year, with the top 1 000 richest people’s wealth increasing by 20%. Over the last decade, there was a 260% rise in the wealth of the richest, compared with the 120% average wealth increase for the population as a whole.

So what does all this tell us?

Firstly, it proves the adage that the rich do indeed get richer. Secondly, fame, sporting prowess and celebrity are now surprisingly seen by most young people as a stepping stone to wealth, hence the obsession with TV talent shows. This feeds the obsession with celebrity status both on and off the sports field. Celebrity is seen as a quick financial fix.

Interestingly, however, 75% of those on the UK rich list have a university or college education. When the list was first launched in 1989, 75% of those on it were wealthy because of inheritance. Today, 78% of those on the list have made their money through business. This suggests that hard work does pay. But this does not mean that everyone has an equal chance of doing well. Those with access to education will do better. Not to mention that 90% of those on the UK rich list are men. Although there is a growing number of Asians on the British rich list, black faces are few. Clearly, the glass ceiling for women and for most ethnic minorities is alive and well in the UK.

South Africa has an even bigger problem owing to a massively distorted past in terms of access to wealth for blacks and whites, and men and women.

Transformation in the boardroom is, however, under way. Currently, 405 black South Africans hold 558 of the 3 125 director positions on South African listed companies. Black company ownership has moved from 0% to 10% in ten years, and the incomes of the richest black people have risen by 30%.

This suggests that wealth is slowly being shared, to a degree. Broadly, this is a step in the right direction, even though there is a long way to go. With time, South Africa will, no doubt, have its own, hopefully representative and rainbow coloured, rich list. But, if South Africa follows the UK, perhaps the real question is whether a growing number of billionaires, black or white, will really make a difference to the lives of the less fortunate?

In the UK, the wealthy are quick to point out that £1,2-billion was given to benevolent causes by the top 30 philanthropists alone in the past year. But about 25% of South Africans, almost exclusively black, have little chance of getting a job, let alone making it into the so-called middle class, or becoming superrich. Will charity, which domestically in South Africa is appallingly low, anyway, be enough to change this situation? I doubt it.

To be honest, studying the rich list over the last few days has left me a bit queasy. I strongly agree with the need for the economic pie in South Africa to be deracialised and for the economy to keep growing. However, I am left wondering, especially when growth largely benefits those at the top of the pile, exactly how this will make a difference to the poorest of the poor.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 May 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Are we all torturers inside?

When I was flying from Johannesburg to Belfast recently, I was caught out by the new system some airlines have started of weighing bags before you check in. As a result, I was found to be carrying a 24-kg bag. I was subsequently reprimanded by an official, who claimed he was just doing his job and that I had to shed four kilos or pay for the extra weight. I removed two large books and a file from my bag, reducing the weight to 20 kg. I was then told I could carry the books on board in hand luggage. That said, I was lucky compared to the woman in front of me. Her bag weighed 26 kg and, when she pointed out she had no hand luggage, she was told by the same bureaucrat to “make some hand luggage” of precisely 6 kg of weight. She had to run around the airport trying to get a plastic bag so she could carry some of her clothes on to the plane. She then had to deal with other people “just doing their jobs” who refused to give her a large bag unless she made a large purchase. “I am just doing my job” has to be one of the most inane excuses in the world. It is a phrase that I most associate with bureaucracy and, at the risk of being melodramatic, Nazi Germany and other atrocities. Remember the case of the American soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners and then took photos of them – they, too, claimed they were just doing their jobs and carrying out orders.

Of course, the annoying airline bureaucrat who enjoyed bossing me and others around cannot be compared a torturer, but the process that led to his unquestioning rule enforcement has, at least to a degree, the same root cause. Like the American marine or ‘grunt’, as they are known, who tortures someone, our friend, the baggage-weighing man, also finds himself at the bottom of a heap of bureaucratic power. No doubt, he was ordered to ensure passengers’ bags do not exceed the weight limit. Whether people do this or not is irrelevant to him personally, but he feels the hand of the rational bureaucratic machine on his shoulders and that his competence will be measured by carrying out instructions. The result is an unwavering and illogical set of actions, because, in this case, extra weight would mean little (other than more profit for the airline), considering the aeroplane was half-full. But why are we, humans, so bad at resisting problematic orders? In the 1960s, Milgram carried out his famous experiment on obedience. He showed that, when people were ordered by an official-looking person to administer shocks to participants in a study (actors, who were not hurt) when they answered questions incorrectly, most people continued to ratchet up the power because they felt they needed to do what they were told. Over 60% of the volunteers obediently administered up to 450 V.

Despite Milgram’s highlighting our weaknesses over 40 years ago, people still carry out orders which are damaging. Soldiers who commit atrocities continue to use it as an unacceptable defence. It seems, as Milgram himself warned, that when individuals merge “into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority”. But Milgram teaches us more than the fact that people will follow problematic orders when instructed to do so. The real finding Milgram made was that most of us (okay, 65% of us) have a little torturer inside and, given the right conditions, we too might just “do our jobs”, no matter how unpalatable. So I forgive the baggage-weighing man in Johannesburg and his sardonic smile, because, apparently, there but for the grace of God go I.

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, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 7 February 2007.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reconciliation: Time to grasp the nettle

Recently, Grainne Kelly and I published a short article in the Scope, a social affairs magazine in Northern Ireland, on our reconciliation research. This research looked at definitions of reconciliation. The article focuses briefly on how this research has been taken up by the EU, to download the article click here.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Day of Reflection

Healing Through Remembering is calling for a Private Day of Reflection on 21 June 2007 focused on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. The Day of Reflection website - - is now live. The website contains all the latest information regarding the forthcoming initial Day of Private Reflection on Thursday, 21 June 2007.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Don't worry, Zimbabwe is just a hiccup

A 15-year old girl in Florida in the US, recently hiccupped nonstop for five weeks. Before her hiccups stopped, she was hiccupping 50 times a minute. All manner of remedies, including various juices, breathing into a bag and consulting neurologists, were tried but nothing helped. Remarkably, the hiccups stopped on their own. The moral of this tale seems simple: sometimes, despite our best efforts, certain things just go away when they are ready to. There are no logical reasons why this happens – they just do.

It appears that world politics operates largely on this hiccup principle. Seemingly, international relations are governed by the belief that most of the time things tick over smoothly like a healthy functioning human diaphragm. Occasionally, when the hiccups start, like they have for the last number of years in Zimbabwe, the diplomatic response is to sit quietly by, waiting for them to come to a natural end. Some paltry gestures like consulting experts or knocking back the odd glass of beetroot juice can be attempted, but, in the end, the hiccups will end when they are good and ready.

The hiccup principle of international relations is, however, risky. This was evident in the bruised face of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, after being severely assaulted by Zimbabwean State forces. It was remarkable to watch him give an interview, relating his ordeal calmly and calling for international action, given what had happened. A few statements of condemnation followed, then interest waned and the world retreated into waiting for Robert Mugabe’s tyranny to go into spontaneous remission.

In seems that in Africa a little hiccupping of the Mugabe kind is generally accepted. Imagine if Tony Blair’s police assaulted David Cameron, or George Bush decided to beat the hell out of Hilary Clinton for good measure. What would the world say then? Although the latter might sometimes seem feasible in the US these days, the outrage would be immeasurable. In Zimbabwe, it is treated as a minor malfunction and par for the course.

Well, frankly, I am tired of it. I know all the arguments for and against speaking out about Zimbabwe. I know complaining about Mugabe is some white people’s way, especially in South Africa, of publicly airing racist views without as much as saying it. I know for some trashing Mugabe in this context, and a global environment that loves to portray African leaders as despots and Western leaders as angels, feels like the betrayal of the often unfairly hounded Africa continent. But I also know when enough is enough, and when excuses for silence are no longer acceptable. Should the international community have stayed quiet about apartheid?

Did you know the life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 37 years old? It was 60 in 1990. The infant mortality was 53 deaths for every 1000 live births in 1990, and it is now 81. The national income per head is $340. In South Africa, a country renowned for excessive poverty, it is $4 960. This means 56% of people in Zimbabwe earn less than $1 a day, compared with 11% in South Africa.

The situation is desperate. The decision to speak out is not a political one; it is a humanitarian one.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, some poor fellow once had the hiccups for 69 straight years. In retrospect, this makes interesting and almost amusing reading. Is that how we are going to look back on the situation in Zimbabwe in years to come? Zimbabwe, the curious little hiccup in history that lasted a mere 30 or so years, forgetting what this meant to the lives of human beings like the unemployed, the tortured, the starving and the mother who just lost her child. Waiting for Zimbabwe’s hiccups to subside is no longer an option – sustained international action led by South Africa is what is needed.

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, March 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 30 March 2007.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dinners, starving babies and fat cats

There are many challenges that face parents, but there is one that only faces certain parents. It is a complaint that I wish every one in the world would have, and it is called guilt.

Let me explain: children’s charities, certainly in the UK, now target dinner times to run adverts featuring starving children followed by a call for a donation. The result is that, when- ever we sit down for a meal with the television on, and especially if my young son is present, I am wracked with guilt about the nutritionally good life we are giving him. Despite feeling angry at the audacity of charities to bombard people so unashamedly during dinner, and that we now prefer to have dinner with the television off, the charities, of course, have a point. According to Unicef, 26% of children under five are moderately or severely underweight across the globe, and 31% of children under five suffer from moderate or severe stunting of their physical and psychological development because of undernourishment. Over 5,5-million children under five die every year from causes related to malnutrition. This disproportionably affects the developing world, which also happens to be made up of countries with greater numbers of children. Perversely, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, there is enough food to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,72 kilocalories a day. The problem is the lack of access to land and inadequate income to buy food. Poverty is the principal cause of hunger. Hunger causes poor health, which also reduces the ability of people to work.

There are many reasons for poverty, such as the unfair distribution of global wealth and a history of colonisation that devastated the developing world. Unicef notes that reducing poverty in the least-developed countries will require greater efforts in five major areas: national development strategies, official development assistance, full debt cancellation, fair trade and enhanced technical assistance from donors. Wealthy countries have a vital role in this.

But developing countries are also not blameless. Corruption and mismanagement of resources contribute to poverty. Although poverty is the main cause of hunger, endemic and unnecessary conflicts also have a part to play. According to Unicef, of the 12 countries where 20% or more of children die before the age of five, nine have suffered a major armed conflict in the past five years. So, what ever happened to the Nepad dream of Africa policing itself, holding warmongers to account and fostering peace on the African continent? Whatever happened to promises of the G8 Summit to make the world a fairer place? Where are the much-vaunted corporate social-responsibility programmes, not to mention those politicians that allegedly care about the starving? I imagine progress is being made somewhere and an objective article would balance the criticisms I raise, with some statistics showing how Nepad, the G8, some companies and concerned politicians are chipping away at eradicating poverty. But, perhaps, because of exposure to too many traumatic television advertisements, I am not in the mood. For once, I want those in the world with resources that can make a difference beyond small donations from people like me, to stand up and be counted in the fight against child poverty.

Governments, whether in the West or in the developing world, should be measured by their ability to address the needs of children. If children are the future, then why do they keep dying while the weapons industry, fat-cat multi-nationals and government officials continue to live it up? Nothing, I suspect, will ease my guilt as I have my dinner this evening, not even the meagre donation I just made to a child anti- poverty charity. But, if you people with power and wealth out there are willing to tell me what you are doing to fill a child’s stomach tonight, I am all ears.

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, January 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 January 2007.

Stern warning about environmental disaster

If you are feeling upbeat about life, I have the medicine: read a copy of the Stern Report. The report, commissioned by the UK government and written by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, focuses on the potential impact of climate change. It is gloomy reading. In short, we are destroying the planet and dramatic climate change is on the way. Stern concludes that “the scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent global response”.

A small increase of 2 oC when living in the freezing northern hemisphere might seem like a blessing, but it is no laughing matter. According to Stern, carbon emissions have already pushed up global temperatures by half a degree. If no action is taken, there is a 75% chance that global temperatures will rise by between 2 oC and 3 oC over the next 50 years. There is a 50% chance they could rise 5 oC.

This might be great for sunbathing in some parts of the world, but in others the consequences will be dire. Climate change will affect access to water, food production, health and the environment, with hundreds of millions of people suffering hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding. Poorer countries will disproportionally feel these effects. By the middle of the century, 200-million people may become permanently displaced owing to rising sea levels, floods and droughts. Melting glaciers could increase the risk of flood to small islands and cities like Tokyo, New York, Cairo and London. Around 15% to 40% of species will potentially face extinction after only 2 oC of warming, not to mention ocean acidification, which will destroy marine ecosystems and many fish stocks, and so the report goes on. Stern also weighs up the economic impact. He notes that extreme weather could reduce global GDP by up to 1%. A 2 oC to 3 oC rise in temperatures could reduce global economic output by 3%, and a 5 oC temperature rise could mean up to 10% of global output being lost. The worse-case scenario is a 20% fall in global consumption for every person.

Of course, scientists have known all this for some time, but, typically, humans only take notice of something when it bashes down their own door. Even when this happens, we spend much time thinking of someone else to blame. Rich countries like to argue that it is poor, developing countries that are poisoning the atmosphere with their drive toward development and less sophisticated technologies. Developing countries, in turn, argue that it is the industrialised countries that are to blame, with their mass consumption and production. And you and I do little because we suffer from the delusion that our own consumption of fuels or recycling of waste is a drop in the proverbially acidifying ocean. So the cycle continues.

Stern is unequivocal that all are at fault and all have a role to play in averting catastrophe. Consumer demand for heavily polluting goods and services must be curtailed, global energy supply needs to be more efficient and reduced, deforestation reversed, and cleaner energy and transport technology promoted. These might sound like grand ideas beyond individual reach and the responsibility of governments, but charity, or, in this case, saving the planet, starts at home. So here comes the lecture: ditch the petrol-guzzling car and try walking somewhere, for a change, splash out a few extra bucks on energy-efficient appliances, recycle your waste, turn off lights and do not leave electrical appliances on standby, shower instead of bath and, while you're at it, get one of those little wind-up chargers for your cellphone and get winding. Being an ecowarrior is no longer the preserve of a few nutters on the fringe; it is a necessity.

*To download the Stern Report visit click here.

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, December 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 6 December 2006.

Airport security: enough to turn one to drink

Recently, when I checked into the newly renamed George Best Belfast City Airport, I was asked if I was carrying any liquids. I found myself gagging as I suppressed a giggle. Attempts at humour in airports these days are enough to leave you sun-tanning in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay. Further, my snigger was in bad taste. Not everyone would see the funny side of the question, least of all the footballing legend George Best, who had a serious drink problem. Security these days is, of course, no laughing matter. There are genuine threats. To this end, I do not mind security procedures. But I want them to be logical, make me feel safer and minimise disruption. But, frankly, security officials at some airports seem to be making procedures up as they go along.

When travelling to the US recently with my wife and child, we had to taste six jars of baby food and four baby bottles at Belfast International Airport prior to departure. Our child’s teething gel was confiscated, his nappy rash lotion, and my wife’s hand cream, presumably a precaution against passengers making a bomb as a desperate measure to cope with a cranky child on a long-haul flight. On the way back, the US authorities let the teething gel, baby food, nappy rash lotion and hand cream through without a word, but refused to allow us to take the sterilised water through in the baby’s bottles. However, they were appeased when we mixed the powered formula into the bottles, although no tasting was required. When my wife explained that we had been able to carry the water through on the way there, the security guard replied: “This is the US”, as if we did not know that. I know that different jurisdictions probably have different rules. But, surely, if someone knew what was going on, there would be uniformity. Could the same security officials who thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq be those deciding what is hazardous on aeroplanes? Alternatively, the plan is to make the procedures so confusing that they leave would-be bombers so perplexed that they choose another mode of transport.

I know I should not make light of this important issue, and people have suffered as a result of security failures and misdirected acts of aggression, but questions have to be asked. According to airport authorities, the new security procedures have put an enormous weight on their shoulders, thus creating the mayhem.

The UK government, in turn, asks commuters for patience because it is the nasty terrorists who are the problem, not security officials. They revel in pointing out that the 9/11 attacks preceded the Iraq war. But other airports, such as those in Germany or Spain, countries which do not have troops in Iraq, are not in turmoil.

So there is a dual problem. Firstly, there is the denial in the UK that the Iraq invasion is related to the security situation at airports. Secondly, from my travels through a number of airports, there is ample evidence that suggests that no-one knows what he or she is doing. Cumulatively, this makes me feel a lot more insecure than before.

I understand this is a difficult time. But, as with this entire debacle of this so-called and amorphous ‘war on terror’, something is amiss and this involves ordinary people. Indiscriminate acts of terror against civilians, failure to listen to ordinary people opposed to the Iraq war, bombing civilians in Iraq who bear no relation to the original ‘war on terror’, and now forcing people through chaotic security systems, all add up to the same thing – we mere mortals are cannon fodder. We are caught in the cross-fire between a bunch of men who think they are all-powerful. It really winds me up and now I really need a drink.

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, November 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 November 2006.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

RAWA News and Anti-War Site

Today I was reminded, by two separate emails that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan still requires ongoing attention. RAWA have now produced a great little news ticker to give you a news feed for a website on the situation in Afghanistan. I have installed in on my news page or if you want one for your site, click here. I was also emailed by a group called Arms Against War so I added a link to my site to highlight there efforts to end the war in Iraq.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Where are the men in the battle for equality?

In the song There is a War, by Leonard Cohen, there are the lines: “There is a war...between the man and the woman. There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.” These words capture the essence of research colleagues and I carried out over the last two years on gender and security in a number of countries in transition. As part of the study, we looked at whether the security of women has increased or decreased since 1994 in South Africa. Security includes, according to the United Nations, not only freedom from fear, but also freedom from need or want. So security is tied up with economic and social security, not just protecting yourself from physical harm.

If we think about the security of women in this broad sense, South Africa has made advances with greater representation of women in government and business. Disturbingly, however, our research found that many men think that women have advanced disproportionately. These men argue that the so-called war between men and women Cohen speaks of was over years ago. Some think the victors (women) are now taking their revenge on men and excluding them, making men the new victims. But statistical evidence shows this view is desperately mistaken. It is true that 30% of parliamentarians are now women, positioning South Africa eighth in the world in terms of gender equality in government. This means the country jumped 133 places in world rankings from 1994. A greater number of women are also now moving into managerial positions. But the changes are still miles off 50:50 representation. In the business field, for example, 80% of senior management positions are held by men.

So the war is hardly over and inequality exists on a massive scale. But where does this leave the men in our society who feel they are the victims of the transition? On one level, we have to take their views seriously and listen to what they have to say because some men may have lost their jobs since 1994. But, on the other level, we cannot back away from an agenda that wants equal representation of women. Surely, if we want South Africa to be everything it can be, we must harness the potential of all citizens, regardless of gender or race for that matter.

But furthering this agenda can have devastating consequences. Many of the women and some of the men we interviewed believe that the frustration some men are feeling at being challenged by women in the workplace, or being usurped as the breadwinner in a home, is causing them to act violently towards women. This goes some way towards explaining the high levels of domestic violence in South Africa. At least 50% of women report experiencing domestic violence, whether psychological, physical or financial. This is sickeningly high.

Feeling frustrated or challenged by social developments cannot justify violence. This means that, although we must seek to understand the challenges some men are feeling and address their economic hardships too, we cannot pander to violence as a justifiable reaction to the advancement of one sector of society.

So the war between men and women rages, but the time has come for new alliances. Men need to stand up and be counted. This means not only speaking out about violence against women, but also addressing some of the root causes of it. Inequality is one of these. It is not enough, my fellow brothers, to be horrified at domestic violence or shake your head knowingly next time some awful statistics hit the headline. We have to begin to actively promote gender equality. So let us stop pretending it is someone else’s problem and be man enough to bring this war to an end.

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, October 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 20 October 2006.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

INCORE Summer School 2007

The INCORE Summer School provides a structured learning opportunity to analyse the dynamic and constantly changing field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Focusing on the latest research and concepts in specific topics of conflict resolution, participants are invited to compare, contrast and learn from different perspectives.

The School offers a unique opportunity to create links between theory, practice and policy. Special attention is given to how the experience and research of both practitioners and academics can impact upon policy makers within the field of conflict resolution. Participants also benefit from the networking opportunities with other course participants.

The 2007 International Summer School will run from June 11 - 15 2007.

This year we are offering three courses:

* The Management of Peace Processes facilitated by Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan
* Evaluation and Impact Assessment of Peacebuilding Programmes facilitated by Emery Brusset and Margie Buchanan-Smith
* Reconciliation in Societies Coming out of Conflict facilitated by Dr Brandon Hamber and Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd.

Detailed information about the 2007 Summer School, including online application details, click here.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

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.

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 September 2006.

Monday, January 15, 2007

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.

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 1 September 2006.