Sunday, August 01, 2004

At last some good news on trade: Looks like the Doha round is back on track after 5 days of negotiations in Geneva. Even the damn French appear to have reconciled themselves to the inevitability of reduced, and in some cases eliminated, export subsidies for agriculture. Good news indeed for the many African countries which rely on agricultural exports for most of their foreign exchange earnings.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Now here's an interesting idea. British scientists are urging the govt to invest in technology to allow for the underground storage of CO2. With such technology in place, Britain could build a series of new coal-fired power stations without having to worry about breaking its emissions targets.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

It looks like the wheels are finally beginning to turn: SABC reports that Mike Jackson, Britain's Chief of the General Staff, has announced that Britain could put together a brigade size force of about 5000 soldiers to intervene in Sudan should the need arise.

I'm not convinced that Blair has the guts to order an intervention on that scale whilst still immersed in Iraq, but there's no doubt that the threat of an intervention will have a very sobering effect on the Sudanese government. I hadn't realised it, but Britain is also apparently the largest aid donor to Sudan which, combined with an army brigade in the wings, puts it in a position to exert a lot of pressure on the Sudanese.

Despite my reservations, I have to say that this is the sort of thing that Blair usually revels in. The opportunity to expend British blood and treasure in pursuit of a better world is very much in keeping with his particular brand of liberal internationalism. The pity of the Iraq war of course is that it's undermined his moral authority abroad and raised questions about his real intentions at home. A successful intervention in Sudan may be just the ticket to restoring his position.

This month's Prospect has an excellent article on Israeli historian, Benny Morris, and the implosion of the Israeli left.

Friday, July 23, 2004

I've just stumbled across the website of OWL. OWL is the European project to build an OverWhelmingly Large telescope. The name is a play on the traditional astronomer's habit of describing telescopes as 'large', 'very large', 'extremely large' etc.

So how large is OWL? Well, the main reflective surface, consisting of a number of individual mirrors acting in consort, will measure 100m across. To put that in perspective, South Africa's Large Telescope (SALT), now nearing completion, is only 11m across, and it is the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere. OWL is so large that it is claimed it will be able to resolve planets orbiting neighbouring star systems!

At last some action on Sudan. The US Congress has described recent events in the Darfur region of Sudan as genocide. The US is also proposing a UN resolution that threatens Sudan with various forms of sanctions should the govt not act to reign in militia groups.

The US Congress move is significant because it holds out the hope that the US may also propose a UN motion codemning the genocide in Sudan. If this were to happen the UN would be legally obligated to act. As I mentioned yesterday, the US and Britain need to act quickly on this if they are to avert a major humanitarian crisis and to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. BBC has more.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Anatole Kaletsky has an excellent article in today's Times detailing the need for British intervention in the Sudan if Blair is to avoid charges of hypocrisy.

I agree wholeheartedly with him and was therefore glad to see that Blair has commanded the military to draw up plans for an armed intervention in that country. One might reasonably ask who he intends to send to the Sudan since the British armed forces are currently deployed to breaking point right around the world, a situation which is about to be exacerbated by the largest military cuts in a generation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Gosh, the headline of one of today's Mail and Guardian stories had me going for a second:

Arrest Powell, says COSATU

In fact, its not a ham-fisted attempt by COSATU to intervene in SA's diplomatic relations with the US, but rather a call for former IFP bigwig, Philip Powell to be arrested for involvement in arms trafficking. Powell was the guy who supplied guns, formerly in the possession of Eugene de Kock and Vlakplaas, to the IFP before the 1994 elections. He also went to the same high-school as me, Martizburg College, and his name featured prominently on a board honouring oldboys who'd been successful after school. Which was nice!

Pursuant to an article in this month’s Prospect Magazine (which I heartily recommend, as usual) on Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals, I’d thought to compile a similar list for South Africa. As a concession to my own circumscribed view of SA and to the fact that we’re a much smaller country than Britain, I’d decided to limit it to the top 20. But I felt confident that using Prospect’s own definition (reproduced below) of a public intellectual I should be able to identify 20 people who make a significant impact on SA intellectual life.

Prospect definition of Public Intellectual:
‘…distinction in a field of intellectual or cultural endeavour coupled with an ability to communicate well to generalist audiences through the written or spoken word. Identifying distinction is more subjective in some fields (literature, journalism) than in others (science). So two supplementary criteria were added for these more contested fields, somewhat in tension though they are: first, originality of contribution; second, ability to articulate or represent an important strand of cultural life’

Well, I think I was a little bit over-optimistic. Try as I might I simply couldn’t identify 20, or even 10 people, who have the same impact on SA life as say Anthony Giddens, Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hitchens or Amartya Sen do on British life. It’s true that I’ve been out of SA for a while now, and no doubt there are people who write for the papers or appear on television who do have an impact but whom I’ve simply not come across, but I doubt that that is the end of it.

SA certainly has a class of what might be termed intellectual politicians, chief amongst them being, of course, Thabo Mbeki. Honorable mention should also go to Pallo Jordan, although I haven’t heard much from him over the past couple of years, and Blade Nzimande. There may also be one or two academics who have an impact on national life. Murray mentioned Tom Lodge when I discussed this with him. I thought of Herman Giliomee. No doubt there are others, but they don’t exactly leap to mind. Iraj Abedian might be thought of as an SA equivalent to Britain’s Anatole Kaletsky but I suspect that this is partly because he is pretty much the only SA economist with any name recognition and so gets hauled in whenever SABC or e.tv need a comment on something. Certainly there are other areas we could look to. The arts have produced a few luminaries. Coetzee and Gordimer spring to mind although neither is exactly prolific in their public offerings. Has sport, an area rivalled only by politics in its domination of SA life, produced any intellectuals? I doubt it. The media? Robert Kirby makes me laugh, but he’s no intellectual. Darrel Bristow-Bovey got himself into a spot of bother a few years back over plagiarism if I recall. There are other well known columists but, again, it could hardly be said that they shape public opinion in any meaningful way. Perhaps the Afrikaans media fares better here. Perhaps there are columnists aiming for a black audience that I’ve simply never come across. Perhaps the problem is that my world view, white English speaker from the banana province, obscures the great bulk of SA public life.

Leaving those last reservations aside though, I think its worth pondering just why SA has failed, so singularly, to develop an open and contested public space in which experts debate points and try to enlighten the rest of us. As usual I’m sure that a lot of this has to do with Apartheid. I’ve mentioned it before but it bears repeating that the Nats had a pretty ambivalent relationship with the academy, a group which might be thought of as the natural birthing ground for public intellectuals. Throughout the long years of the 60s/70s/80s as first the English, and then the Afrikaans Universities started to question some of the received wisdom about apartheid, the government made pretty strenuous efforts to keep control of things. My own alma mata, UCT, was for a long time known as ‘Moscow on the Hill’. Wits, a perennial thorn in the NP’s side, suffered repeated police invasions. All universities were riddled with NP informers, all lecturers dealing with social issues had to be mindful, to some degree, of what they said. The result of this, I think, is that Universities came to be viewed with some suspicion by the population at large. I’m sure it’s not wildly off the mark to suggest that they were seen as breeding grounds for communists and revolutionaries. Of course things have changed now but the point is that social attitudes can take a long time to evolve and I sense that there is still a lingering suspicion of the Universities and the intellectuals that reside there.

Part of the University problem stems from the fact that SA has never developed a culture of dissent. I need to clarify this claim slightly before I get shouted down. Whilst SA certainly has a tradition of political opposition, it lacks the notion of a contestable public space in which ideas are legitimately debated. Think about the opposition to apartheid, it was widespread and often violent but on the part of the Nats, and most whites in general, it was not seen as legitimate. Likewise, the ANC certainly never saw itself as negotiating with a legitimate opponent. I’m certain that this has, and some extent still does, determine the way we see debate. There is a tendency to stigmatise opponents, to dismiss as racist or reactionary or stupid those with whom one disagrees. Dissent in SA is often seen, by all groups, as somehow unpatriotic or as revealing a disturbing and intolerable subversiveness.

Another factor, and one that I’ve alluded to in the past, is simply that SA’s brightest minds usually turned to politics rather than science or art or journalism. This should hardly surprise us. For generations the smartest black minds went into politics in an effort to overturn apartheid, whilst the smartest whites went into politics in an effort to prevent that from happening. This had the effect of limiting the number of smart people active in other areas who could engage the public in conversation about topical issues. It goes without saying too that the vast majority of non-white South Africans having received only a pittance of an education and were not even in a position to make a decision about where their lives where going to go.

I wonder too about the fact that we’re so far from the great centres. Living in Britain I’m struck by the constant back and forth of ideas between this country, the Continent and North America. The daily press, the magazines, the opinion formers, are constantly engaged in conversation with the world around them. In a sense, the public intellectual domain transcends any one country such that public intellectuals and the people who read them are part of an international community. This doesn’t seem to have happened in SA. Partly, as I say, this is because we are so far from anywhere that it is difficult for noted individuals to visit us. I’ve lost count of the number of interesting people that have come through Oxford over the three years that I’ve been here. Indeed, the first time that I saw Trevor Manuel and Nelson Mandela was at Oxford. I never saw either of them at UCT! Partly, as a poor country, it is just much harder for people to access this international intellectual domain. The costs of good quality magazines such as Prospect, The Economist, The Spectator, TLS etc is negligible in comparison with other daily expenses in Britain. But purchasing such magazines in SA would make a significant dent in one’s disposable income. Of course SA could produce its own equivalents but it doesn’t seem to, mostly, I suspect, because of the costs and the very limited readership.

What are we to do about this? Perhaps nothing. With a bit of luck as the country continues to transform we’ll experience a blossoming of thought and an opening up  of the public sphere. The ANC doesn’t exactly seem to be promoting this but one can hope. Perhaps too the Internet will help us get around some of the obstacles. If my argument is correct it won’t really matter if SA never produces its own group of public intellectuals as long as those of us who’re interested in the big issues are able to access them. And maybe we should accept that as a small, poor country our concerns should be different. Possibly it’s a good thing that our finest minds are focusing on transformation, on getting the basics right rather than engaging in interesting but, at times, unproductive debate.

Monday, July 19, 2004

I'm amazed at the rhetoric that Tony Blair deployed in a speech outlining Labour's plans for fighting crime over the next 5 years:

'Today's strategy is the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country. It marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order. The 1960s saw a huge breakthrough in terms of freedom of expression, of lifestyle, of the individual's right to live their own personal life in the way they choose. It was the beginning of a consensus against discrimination, in favour of women's equality, and the end of any sense of respectability in racism or homophobia. Not that discrimination didn't any longer exist - or doesn't now - but the gradual acceptance that it was contrary to the spirit of a new time. Deference, too, was on the way out and rightly. It spoke to an increasing rejection of rigid class divisions. All of this has survived and strengthened in today's generation. But with this change in the 1960s came something else, not necessarily because of it but alongside it. It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960's revolution, that didn't always happen.'

One of the things that interests me about contemporary US and British politics is just how badly wrong-footed the left has found itself. Blair rightly looks to the 60s as the high-point of liberalism, it was a decade which marked the relaxation of rules and mores across the spectrum of society. More to the point it also marked the last time in recent history when there was broad consensus about the way forward. Call it the ratchet effect if you like but in Britain, and the States too I think, even Conservatives were broadly sympathetic to the changes underway. That consensus has long since changed. First to go was the economic theory that underpinned the welfare state, Keynesianism and the legitimacy of wholesale government intervention in the economy. Remember all those wage councils in Britain and Nixon's attempt to impose price targets? All swept away by Thatcher and Reagan, and rightly so. Keynes has a role to play in the economy, of course, but it isn't the central role. What's more interesting is that having abandoned the liberal economic model it appears that the left is now retreating from much of the theory that underpinned its model of the future of society itself. To hear Blair talk about targeting hardened criminals and cracking down on yobs is to be reminded of some of the stuff that Michael Howard used to say when he was Home Secretary.

Why the change? Why has the left given up so much of the territory that it occupied in the 60s? The answer, I think, is partly a function of increasing wealth. The 50s and 60s, particularly, in Britain marked the high-point of the battle to provide the poor and working classes with access to education and healthcare and, more broadly, opportunities. But those battles have been won. The majority of Briton's nowadays have access to all these things and furthermore, far from being impoverished, now live very comfortable lives. Even the modestly well-off in Britain enjoy overseas holidays, the use of motorcars, decent schooling etc. That being the case thoughts are now turning to those 'quality of life' items which tend to have been ignored aver the last 30 years. Yobism, unruly neighbours, out-of-control youths etc etc. On these issues the left struggles to come up with credible solutions. It's all well and good to talk about the causes of crime and the need for understanding but if your neighbours repeatedly vandalise your property you're likely to seek a sterner form of retribution

The other point of course is that the liberals of the post-war period made the mistake of promising the Earth. Remember Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' or Labour's 'New Jerusalem'. None of it came to pass and, more to the point, it has become clear that we can have the benefits of a liberal society without necessarily having to put up with all the side-effects. There's a peculiar lacuna at the centre of a lot of liberal thinking in which the notion that the 'idea' is more important than the people has been able to develop. It's not. All political, social and economic theory is simply a means to an end. When people lose sight of that they end up losing the support of the great unaffiliated centre. The left is in a state of disarray. Labour sounds increasingly Thatcherite with each passing day, the Democrats in America are struggling to present themselves as a softer version of the Republicans. They have only themselves to blame.

Nick Graham's a smart guy but by god he says stupid things sometimes. Writing about the rise of poor whites, he states:

'This situation, where blacks move up on the economic ladder and whites move down a notch or two, is exactly what affirmative action and black economic empowerment is intended to do, and, in my opinion, should do. It is all part of transforming and equalising our society; whites have to get poor. It is unfortunate for those people who are marginalised, but that is the way it has to be. We should no longer be surprised, and they should no longer be pitied, unless you feel the same for all the rest of our fellow South Africans in similar situations.'

This stuff is positively Bolshevik. Transformation is not about making whites poorer, it is about making blacks richer. To argue otherwise is simply asinine. Nick, on the basis of your logic the simplest route to fixing SA's problems would be to enact a Zimbabwe-style land and assets grab aimed at whites. If we could impoverish all whites this way (or perhaps just the 17 percent that you deem to be statistically acceptable) then we wouldn't need to re-structure the economy or boost productivity or, come to think of it, educate our people. We could avoid all that hard stuff in pursuit of some easy solution that salves your mis-placed liberalism but does nothing to actually make us ready to face the future. Transformation is not about getting the numbers right it is about changing society so that all citizens benefit.
 
Update: Laurence Caromba also has something to say on this.