Friday, June 20, 2008

Viva the orange revolution

According to the publication Grocer, the number of oranges being sold in the UK is falling. Orange sales are dropping by about 2% a year, whereas the sale of easy-to-peel fruit, such as tangerines and satsumas, or naartjies, to South Africans is rising. Writing in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, Aislinn Simpson reported the sales of satsumas and tangerines rose 35% and 60% respectively.

Oranges are going out of fashion
because they take too long to eat?
Some have postulated that sales have decreased because it is difficult to carry a large bag of oranges about when shopping, compared with a neat little sack of naartjies. Others have commented that oranges are going out of fashion because they take too long to eat and people simply don’t have the time.

Stefanie Marsh, writing in the UK Times, feels it all boils down to the fact that Britons are too lazy or thick to eat oranges. She quotes a survey noting that 7% of children between the ages of 9 and 13 have no idea how to eat an orange. Consequently, Marsh laments the inability of so-called busy parents to pass on the “craft of orange peeling to the next generation”. To help, she provides a useful step-by-step guide on how to peel an orange, worth googling, if you feel your skills are on the wane.

However, I am not surprised to read these stories. I have long thought there is a correlation between oranges and the state of human civilisation and its discontents.

For example, it was the humble orange that facilitated the spread of colonisation with its miraculous ability to prevent diseases like scurvy. It was the orange that allowed explorers to circumnavigate the world, leaving oppression in their wake. However, it was, as is widely known, also the orange that finally overthrew apartheid when foreigners decided to stop eating Outspan oranges as part of the sanctions campaign.

I have also always found it telling that there is no word in the English language that rhymes with orange, suggesting its unique place in human evolution.

Thus, it is only fitting that the orange and its declining sales are the first marker, at least in the West, of the next major social upheaval: the lethargy revolution.

Seemingly, we have enough time to Facebook with friends, order pizza online, text until our thumbs go numb or spend hours playing computer games but not enough time to get to grips with the complexity of peeling an orange. What have we come to?

The orange is being squashed out of the market by the fast-food and consumer culture, which is, in turn, changing our understanding of what food should be. Do you know that, despite all that is said on cereal boxes about their enhanced fibre content, it would take seven cups of cornflakes to give you the same amount of fibre as one orange? Many of the vitamins cereals contain, such as vitamin C, have been sprayed on and are not naturally present.

Sadly, most citrus-related traditions seem to be on the decline. As a boy, I revelled in the ancient long-dead South African tradition of throwing oranges and naartjies at the opposition and players during rugby matches. My transition to manhood was also marked by the imparting of the secret of the abundance of citrus fruit at rugby matches. Oranges injected with alcohol made the perfect undetectable vessel for transporting vodka and had the added benefit of being delicious to eat, making you drunk and providing a good but harmless projectile once the alcohol had been sucked out.

So it is with great sadness that I read of the decline of the orange. I believe the time has come to start a campaign to save the orange. Let us break this cycle of lethargy and start peeling. Oh, unless the oranges are from Burma, China, Israel, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Florida or Iran.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 20 June 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A little less conversation, more unity, please

Currently, it is not possible to write about anything else other than the violence that has gripped South Africa over the last few weeks. Barbaric images of foreigners being burned alive and assaulted by xenophobic mobs have been splashed across most international newspapers and TV.

It has been sobering, leaving one feeling powerless, distraught and deeply ashamed. I imagine most South Africans feel the same way.

As I write, 56 people have been killed, 342 shops belonging to foreign nationals looted and 213 burnt down. Figures vary, but at least 25 000 people are said to have fled their homes, or, put another way, are now internal refugees. The police have arrested 1 384 individuals suspected of participating in the violence. When this article is printed, I fear these figures will be drastically out of date, but also a grave reminder of how quickly a life can be taken.

Everyone has a theory about the roots of the violence. Many say poverty is the major cause. Frustration of unmet expectations for economic change in the lives of the country’s poorest has finally bubbled over. The media has also been blamed for hyping up the illegal immigrant issue over the years, opening the door for a violent response.

Immigration authorities and the police have also received stick for their constant harassment of illegal immigrants, which has set a poor example. Still others say the violence is an orchestrated strategy to destabilise the ruling party, the African National Congress. Government is also blamed for ratcheting up anti-immigrant discourse on the one hand, but having an ineffective immigration policy on the other.

Thabo Mbeki’s dilly-dallying on Zimbabwe, according to others, was the tipping point. Zimbabwe’s implosion, in which the South African government has failed to intervene, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean refugees flowing into the country.

There is probably truth in all of these explanations. But what is interesting, reading the different theories from afar, while knowing where different South Africans stand politically, is how one-sided and hollow most of the explanations seem.

Mbeki opponents are quick to jump on his ineptitude as the key issue. The unions and the Communist Party are quick to blame global capitalism, which has meant, they argue, that economic progress for the poor has been stymied.

Many in the ruling party are quick to roll out the counterrevolutionary discourse and propose that there is a hidden hand behind the violence bent on trying to pull the State down. And I have no doubt race or, more to the point, racism, typified by the meaningless label black-on-black violence, has been used as an explanation by some whites.

A discussion about the causes of the violence is important, but I was amazed when reading the editorials and commentary, one step removed from the reality on the ground, how self-serving they currently seem.

There have been rallies to call for an end to the violence, many have donated money for the people forced out of their homes, and public condemnations have been extensive. But what worries me is that as the condemnations fly, opportunists are seeing new openings.

Criminals can loot and rob on the tailcoats of xenophobic vigilantes, political parties can all have a dig at one another, and the newspapers are selling in their thousands. As for the majority, myself included, we can beat our breasts with exasperation and outrage, making ourselves feel better, but no-one else.

So what is to be done? I don’t have an easy answer. But I do know the constant mudslinging between different political parties and the media, all looking for the best analysis or who they can use as their next scapegoat, is counterproductive. Just as attacking foreigners will not bring the poor more jobs, vitriolic attacks and blaming political opponents will not bring an end to violence. Surely unity is more important now than division?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 6 June 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.