Friday, April 25, 2008

Learning from a trip down memory lane

The Tenement Museum in New York tells the story of a tenement building in the city used as low-income rental apartments for immigrants coming to the US between 1863 and 1935. Over these years, the building housed over 7 000 immigrants from more than 20 countries.

The museum takes you back in time through the re-creation of the apartments and tells the stories of the different people who lived in them. On visiting the museum recently, it was the life of Natalie Gumpertz, a Prussian immigrant, which touched me. After her husband went missing in 1874, she raised three girls alone and pulled her family out of poverty through dressmaking and a small inheritance. Focusing on stories like Natalie’s helps you realise that everyone has a story, even those who are seemingly forgotten.

Visiting this museum got me thinking about my own history. I am lucky because I have a dedicated relative who has spent an enormous amount of time tracing the family roots. As a result, I have information about my relatives, at least on one side of the family, back to 1769.

Without boring those who are not interested in my background, what has been significant about the process is to see how the family has changed over time. There are successful relatives as well as those who had problems, like alcoholism. However, what is undeniable is that even after periods of hardship and some relatives sinking into poverty, the family recovered and moved forward.

I understand this might not be the case in all families, and appreciate that in the South African context it has been difficult for many people to lift themselves out of poverty because of apartheid. However, one of the other impacts of apartheid and colonisation is that many people have lost touch with their history. Most South Africans know little about their families beyond the memories of living relatives.

Families were separated because of apartheid migrant labour and even whites were often cut off from their country of origin. The result of this has been a simplifying of the South African story. The dominant view is that all whites are somehow descendants of privilege, and diverse cultures in the black community are perceived as homogenous.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that in South Africa, whites, largely because of apartheid, ended up being more advantaged than most black South Africans, who were shamefully discriminated against by whites. But thinking of South African national identity through the prism of the present can be limit- ing.

Many extraordinary historical stories of everyday resilience in the black community have been lost, or superseded by the bigger story of fighting against apartheid. That many white immigrants to South Africa were fleeing persecution and poverty is also underemphasised. Of course, this cannot hide the larger story of how many of these individuals then persecuted black South Africans. But my point is that losing touch with one’s history means one is more prone to repeat its negative aspects rather than learning from them. This results in those who were mistreated maltreating others, or those who make it out of poverty even today forgetting about their fellow citizens in the poverty trap.

I am not advocating a sanitised and sentimental trip down memory lane or suggesting that having poverty or discrimination in one’s background justifies one’s actions. But, rather, the process of uncovering my own family tree has taught me how change happens and to appreciate resilience, and that all history is marked with imperfection.

South Africa, not to mention Northern Ireland, could do with more complex and nuanced historical storytelling. It is only when we become aware of the indivi-dual journeys we have all travelled, and particularly how flawed these are in most cases, that we can really get to know one another and transform the present with a sense of humility and purpose.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 April 2008as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Where is the light at the end of the tunnel

The word that South Africa is famous for introducing into international parlance is 'apartheid'. However, as power outages continue in the country, its next big export will be ‘load-shedding'. South Africa did not invent the term, but it is claiming it.

Every time I speak with someone at home, load-shedding finds its way into the conversation. Load-shedding is a nice way of saying you are sitting in the dark for a stretch of two to three hours, eating whatever can be consumed cold from your fridge while the power company uses your electricity elsewhere.

For those like me, sitting comfortably in front of a power-guzzling computer in the northern hemisphere, this is an unthinkable scenario. For those in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is typical. In fact, having no power for only four hours a day would be a luxury.

The fact that others in the world have the same or worse problems does not make it any easier for South Africans. A support group for victims of power cuts is hardly going to help. People should not be wandering around, saying how long it has been since their last electricity fix. In a country with the wealth and scientific knowledge of South Africa, you would think the issue could be sorted out.

Johannesburg at Night
Nico Roets / CC BY
In my quest to learn more about load-shedding, I visited the Eskom website. It offers helpful information about what load-shedding is, and tells you about how electricity is made (or, in South Africa's case, not made). There is even a cute little graphic warning of the next blackout.

This, of course, is all well and good, if you have electricity and a computer to view it. Everyone knows the attractive layout masks chaos. Stories abound of traffic pandemonium, a massive dent on business productivity and personal impacts like individuals using emphysema oxygen-generating machines being left gasping for air in the dark.

The optimistic view is that load-shedding may result in cleaner energies in the long run and greater reliance on solar technologies, something South Africa has in abundance. Some say, tongue in cheek, generator expansion and candle production could bring in millions. Others point out that load-shedding is the product of economic growth, not decline. The pessimistic view is that nothing grows in the dark, especially an economy, and that this is the beginning of social and economic meltdown.

It is a shame that this discussion is even happening. Load-shedding is impacting on the one thing South Africa has produced in bucket loads since 1994, namely pride. South Africa was seen as the powerhouse of Africa. Now no one can find the house without a torch. It seems as if load-shedding is, outside the day-to-day consequences, creating disillusionment. The light at the end of the tunnel is lost in a bureaucratic botch-up.

But the world should take note of what is happening in South Africa. It is a global warning. The South African situation is the product of bad management, but it is also about unchecked growth. Industry, especially international companies offering investment, have been given, especially over the last decade, a free hand to build as much and as fast as possible. Regulation of power use and energy efficiency has been largely nonexistent. This is happening in countless economies across the globe. It is unsustainable.

If South Africa wants to regain some pride, either we have to beat Australia at cricket or take the easy option and find an innovative way to raise electricity supply without increasing emissions significantly. So power to the people, and for everyone's sake I hope a leaner, cleaner and more efficient and regulated solution can be found quickly. For now, good luck and remember baked beans are as good served cold as hot and red wine is best at room temperature.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 11 April 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.