Friday, December 26, 2003

Just finished updating the blogroll. Welcome to Stephen Pollard, Normblog, Oliver Kamm and Dan Drezner.

Belated season's greetings to all. I trust your holidays have been more restful than mine.

For those following the Beagle 2 mission to Mars, I'm afraid the news is not looking good. Beagle 2 was supposed to touch down on the Issidis Planitia early on Christmas Morning and then send out a contact signal an hour or so later. But, as yet, nothing has been heard from it and, although everyone seems to be putting on a brave face, it seems increasingly likely that Beagle 2 has crashed. I feel incredibly sorry for Prof Colin Pillinger, the man who, almost single handedly, put together the mission. I also fear that this might deal a death blow to Britain's nascent ambitions as a space-faring nation.

Not many people realise it now, but in the 1950s and 60s Britain had a fairly advanced space programme. The Blue Streak rocket, roughly equivalent to the US Atlas, was very successful as the first stage of the European ELDO launcher. ELDO was ultimately abandoned because of problems with its French and German 2nd and 3rd stages but Blue Streak performed perfectly every time it was fired (11 in total). Even after the cancellation of ELDO and Blue Streak, the British continued with the development of Black Arrow, a small rocket which, in 1971, put a British satellite into orbit. Black Arrow was, like a lot of high tech projects of the period, subject to the economic malaise which beset Britain at the time and was cancelled in 1971. In canceling Black Arrow, the Brits became the first nation in history to abandon their space programme after developing rockets and using them to launch satellites. In the years since then Britain has more or less turned its back on space and contributes only a very small amount to the European Space Agency, ESA.

All of this is a round about way of suggesting that there was a time when Britain had serious ambitions as a space power and, although Beagle 2 was hardly likely to herald a return to those days, it may have bumped up space in the list of national priorities. Its failure might therefore convince the Brits that their earlier decision to withdraw from space related activities was the correct one. What a shame that would be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Nominations are open at the Sunday Times for Mampara of the year. Rudolph Straeuli has been nominated, as have Manto Tshabala-Msimang and Jonathan Moyo but the prize, as far as I'm concerned, just has to go to Mac Maharaj and Mo Schaik. It's hard to think of two more deserving winners...

Friday, December 19, 2003

Daudi has an excerpt of a review of Coetzee's new-ish novel, Elizabeth Costello from the Chicago Sun-Times. They're not very impressed...

The Head Heeb has an interesting piece on the plight of Pacific ocean islanders.

Apparently, the population of Pitcairn may soon fall below the level needed to off load re-supply ships whilst the nation of Tuvalu faces the loss of its entire country if ocean levels continue to rise. The most interesting though, are the Nauruans. The population of Nauru (numbering less han 12 000) were the richest in the world during the 70s. Their small island was rich in phosphate which is in high demand. Alas, it seems that nobody thought to plan for when the phosphate ran out. That day has been reached and in the absence of any other economic activity it seems that the entire state is collapsing. Isn't there an Aesop's fable that cautions against this sort of thing?

Something which I haven't gotten around to blogging yet is the imminent arrival of the British space probe, Beagle 2, at Mars. The probe, which is being transported by the Mars Express spacecraft, is due to touch down on Christmas Day. It has been sent with the express purpose of searching for signs of life. If the mission is succesful it will not only represent a great scientific advance but a considerable riposte to the heavily funded NASA programme.

BBC has an update.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Johann at Harry's Place has an interesting take on the Armin Miewes cannabilism case currently underway in Germany. I have to say, as somebody who espouses a vaguely libertarian point of view, I'm inclined to agree with him. That being said, I think the likelihood that Herr Miewes' victims were sound of mind is virtually nil, in which case he should be sent to jail for exploiting that in pursuit of his own, very weird, ends.

Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee is well know for her extreme anti-American, anti-capitalist views but even so she still manages to occasionally say things which irritate in their breathe taking stupidity.

This week she admits that she was once taken in by a Nigerian 419 scam and then goes on to blame the presence of such scams on America, oil companies and the current White House. Yeah right..

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Desmond Tutu has issued a statement on Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth Heads of Govt meeting last week-end. As usual he impresses with his clear sense of morality and his willingness to speak his mind.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Harry's Place has an interesting article on the problems involved in being either exclusively anti-left or anti-right. Well worth a read, particularly since the blogosphere is, characteristically, just such a polarised world. Except for Southern Cross of course, we strive for objectivity and fairness at all times ;-)

Via According to the SA Sunday Times, the ANC is speculating about a possible breakaway movement emerging sometime after the next election.

In his weekly letter to the nation Thabo Mbeki addresses the recent Commonwealth conference and the failure to lift Zimbabwe's suspension. He doesn't say anything surprising and the only thing that really interests me is the way that he tries to insinuate that his support of Mugabe is linked to a principled refusal to surrender Africa's dignity in the face of Western hostility:

"Our poverty and underdevelopment will never serve as reason for us to abandon our dignity as human beings, turning ourselves into grateful and subservient recipients of alms, happy to submit to a dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude of some in our country and the rest of the world, towards what we believe and know is right, who are richer and more powerful than we are."

To be honest, Mr President, all that your actions are succeeding in doing is confirming the West's worst suspicions about African nations. Mugabe is almost a caricature of everything bad about Africa and yet, instead of making a dignified stand against him, you appear to have gone beyond even what is required in the course of normal diplomatic duty in supporting him. Your attempt to unseat the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and then to have the suspension lifted not only exposed your lack of commitment to democracy and human rights (which you committed yourself to when espousing the principles of the African renaissance) but also revealed just how isolated you are in holding such views. How many countries supported your gambit, ten, eleven out of a total of almost sixty? Supporting a tyrant does not enhance your international standing, nor does it show you to be a man of principle. What it does do is reveal you to be paranoid and stubborn and, frighteningly, quite willing to sacrifice 12 million Zimbabweans on the altar of a commitment to some fuzzy notion of solidarity.

Let them eat, er, humour!

Bulelani Ngcuka is considering resigning from his post as head of the National Prosecuting Authority according to theSABC.

This is news indeed. If he does resign, then Mac Maharaj and Mo Schaik will undoubtedly feel some vindication for all their efforts to slander his reputation. This makes me wonder, again, what's really going on behind the scenes here. Ngcuka investigates the Deputy President (and others) for corruption relating to the arms deal. He appears to have a prima facie case but lacks evidence to make the charges stick. Rumours then emerge that Ngcuka was an apartheid era spy. These rumours are given some substance when Maharaj and Schaik (both of whom were under investigation) claim to evidence that Ngcuka was a spy. The president authorises a commission to investigate, which reveals that Maharaj and Schaik had no basis for their claims and acted on little more than hear say. Ngcuka appears to be vindicated and we all look forward to him returning to his job and carrying on with his investigations. Then stories start filtering out that he might be about to resign. So, what gives?

One of the problems with this whole sorry saga is that it has damaged some of my faith in the transparency and openness of South African's govt. Obviously things would have been worse if the ANC had attempted a cover-up but as it stands I can't help but get the feeling that there is more to this entire case than meets the eye. Rumours persist that this is part of some grand strategy by Mbeki to discredit Jacob Zuma whom he doesn't feel has what is required to be the next president. Then there is is the theory that Ngcuka really was onto something big with his investigation and that, rather than let him potentially destroy the upper echelons of the ANC, it was decided to do something to either distract attention or to discredit him. These sorts of conspiracy theories are pretty unseemly but there is so much about this mess that doesn't add up. Why did Maharj and Schaik make the claims when, as the Hefer commission has shown, they had almost no evidence to back them up? Why, if there was doubt about Ngcuka's past (and it appears, from the commission, that stories have been circulating about him for a while), was he appointed head of the National Prosecuting Authority without some sort of prior background check? Why has the President been so reluctant to widen the mandate of the commission to include the Deputy President? Zuma himself claimed, at one point, that he wanted to be investigated so as to have the opportunity to prove his innocence. Most people seem to have forgotten that when the Ngcuka spy claims initially surfaced, Zuma appeared to back them up. Now, it appears that he can't distance himself from the commission fast enough.

The problem is that the Hefer commission, far from answering all our questions, has really just whetted our appetites....

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Zimbabwe has formally quit the Commonwealth citing, 'racist humiliation, arbitrariness and arrogance.' Ironically enough, the last nation to quit the Commonwealth was apartheid South Africa. Perhaps the 'racist humiliation' worked the other way in that case.

In other news, ZANU-PF has called for the Zimbabwean govt to evict the British, American, Canadian and Australian embassies. Interestingly, it hasn't asked for the same to be done to Kenya and Ghana, two prominent African nations that supported the call for Zimbabwe to remain suspended from the Commonwealth...

Via Samizdata: This interview with Christopher Hitchens is well worth a read. The Hitch started off on the left (he claimed to be a Trotskyite for a long time) but over time has moved progressively further away. Hitchens really came to the fore after 9/11 and coined the term 'islamofascist' when trying to describe the motives of bin Laden et al. Go and read the interview. Now.

I've just noticed that Sasha's added us to her blogroll. She's the grooviest chick in the blogosphere, so we're pretty chuffed.

Ah the sweet smell of success etc etc.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Sense of humour, moi?
Well, I think it's safe to say that I've finally come across a genuine, real life Scrooge. The SA Post Office has been running a series of adverts encouraging children to write letters to Father Christmas. At least, they were until Andrew October, a Cape Town journalist, complained about it, saying that unless the Post Office intended to give the children the gifts they were asking for, the commercial should be banned. It encouraged "a falsehood that could break the fragile spirits of the already disillusioned youth of South Africa", he said. So now the advert has been pulled.

Well, Mr October, all I'd like to add is that your actions have helped establish a truth which has caused me much disillusion in the past, namely, that South African journalists have no bloody sense of humour.

The BBC reports today that JM Coetzee has broken his customary reclusiveness and is traveling to Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize for literature.

The most interesting part of the Beeb's report is right at the end:

"Coetzee is not well-known in his native South Africa and few newspapers bothered to report his Nobel win, said the BBC's Barnaby Phillips in South Africa.

"Local newspapers have shown no interest... and black intellectuals say he is not a worthy winner," he said in a report for the BBC's Today programme on Radio 4.

Interviewing white South Africans in a Johannesburg suburb and black students at Witwatersrand university, Phillips found few people who had heard of the writer or knew about his Nobel."

Is this an accurate description of South Africa's attitude towards Coetzee in particular and the arts in general? I think it probably is. Throughout its history, South Africa's public sphere has been dominated by monolithic political discourses which crowded out and were intolerant of a separate, and possibly subversive, artistic space. Thirty years ago artists in SA were hounded for being 'communist' or indeed, 'liberal', now they're hounded for being 'racist' or 'negative'. Does this explain our apparent apathy or indeed suspicion of artists? Not entirely, but it does go some way.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The Youth League Speaks
I must be getting old, I'm starting to agree with some of the things that the ANC Youth League (slogan: Fight!, Produce!, Learn!) has to say. As their most recent press statement reveals, they're unhappy about the current Springbok rugby setup, and Camp Staaldraad, too.

Quick piece of advice guys, try to get somebody to edit you press statements for clarity, grammar and spelling. Not that a blogger is in much of a position to talk, mind you.

Zim Strikes Back
Well, it's official, amidst all the other problems that he has to face Tony Blair now has this to deal with. Zimbabwean state-owned paper, The Daily Herald is arguing that:

"The time has now come for Zimbabwe to fully engage Britain head-on by cutting all diplomatic ties with the former colonial master and its sidekick, Australia,"

A few interesting tidbits from the story: EDIT - not the Herald story, the one that I linked to.
- The UK is currently the biggest contributor to famine relief in Zimbabwe, having given 26 million pounds since Sept 2001.
- The UK is home to an estimated 100 000 Zimbabwean refugees.

Presumably this is all part of what, The Daily Herald calls a "a smokescreen to maintain the colonial grip on Zimbabwe".

Monday, December 08, 2003

Sometimes people's naivety with regards Africa just astounds me. I recently came across a blog by a guy working for the Christian Science Monitor in Johannesburg. Now, for those who don't know, the Chrisitan Science Monitor is in fact a fairly respectable paper and so, when I discovered the blog, I was pretty excited. Blogging by a professional foreign journalist working in SA - had to be good. Instead I got this:

"We've been in South Africa for more than a week now, and it's a bit less "exotic" than I expected. In fact, at least once a day my wife, Jen, and I say, "This could be L.A.!" With its 6-lane highways, mega-malls, palm trees, and sun-drenched days, "Joburg" is far more sophisticated and functional than I figured. It's a lot like Los Angeles, and a lot like America - at least on the surface.

For instance, in a big testament to globalization's spread - and the universality of teenage rituals - a Joburg mall was bustling with teens on a Friday night. Throngs of spikey-haired boys and midriff-baring girls were all eyeing each other. The movies, meanwhile, were straight from Hollywood - and only slightly out of date: Pirates of the Caribbean, American Wedding, etc.

But there definitely are differences. In fact, an American friend said to us on our first day: "It seems a lot like the US, but every day you'll find out more about how it's not."

For one thing, we hear Khosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, and some of South Africa's 7 other official languages. And instead of "Hi" people here say, "Howzit?" - as in "How's it going?"

I don't know what irritates me more about the post, the fact that the guy expresses surprise that Jo'burg has 6 lane highways, 'just like LA', the fact that it's, 'more sophisticated and functional' than he was expecting it to be or, perhaps this, the clincher, when listing ways in which SA differs from America, he says, 'for one thing, we hear Khosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, and some of South Africa's 7 other official languages. And instead of "Hi" people here say, "Howzit?" - as in "How's it going?"

Really, they don't say 'Hi', wow, that is different.

Just discovered a new blog by Heather Ford, a South African studying at Stanford. I'm pretty certain that I knew her vaguely whilst at school in Maritzburg. Small world is the blogosphere..

M&G has an interesting article on the threat that Mbeki's support of Mugabe poses for the 'African renaissance'.

I'm sceptical, but as far as I can see the 'African renaissance' died some time ago, in theory if not quite yet in fact. The premise, that Africa would exchange good governance for support from the West was a good idea. What was especially impressive was the fact that Mbeki and co managed to persuade the powers that be that the best way to enforce good governance in Africa would be to leave it to African states themselves. No more meddling by wealthy former colonial powers. It also appeared to mark a change in the thinking of African states themselves: no longer would they support dictators simply because they were fellow Africans. From hence forth support would be contingent upon good behaviour. And to round it all off, these principles had been formulated and were being most clearly espoused by South Africa, the major continental power and a country with considerable moral authority. How ironic then that it should be South Africa that leads the coterie of countries junking these ideals. The African renaissance was considerably weakened when Mbeki failed to offer even token condemnation of Mugabe's theft of the last election. It was further damaged when our Foreign Minister stated recently that the govt would 'never' condemn the Mugabe government. If any doubts remained, they were put to rest by South Africa's shameful, and ultimately humiliating, effort to get the suspension lifted. If the African renaissance happens, it appears that it will be in spite of and not because of South Africa.

The Commonwealth has very little power and almost no relevance in the 21st century, but what little clout it does still possess probably rests on its ability to function as a champion of the down trodden and oppressed. It is thus exceedingly good news that the organisation has decided to stand firm on the issue of Zimbabwe. Yielding to South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia's demands that Zimbabwe be re-admitted would have undermined what little credibility it has left.

But perhaps it is time to go further still and to turn the Commonwealth into a club for democratic nations only. As I say, if the organisation is to survive, it will have to be on the basis of the values it espouses rather than any economic or political clout that it wields. That being the case, it would be as well to re-think the basis upon which one is eligible to become a member of the Commonwealth and to thus try and enhance its moral authority. The fact that South Africa et al came so close to hijacking the organisation in pursuit of their own peculiar and quixotic agendas is depressing and, furthermore, it should serve as a warning to those members of the Commonwealth (the majority?) that are committed to the promotion of good governance and democracy etc. It is now time to act to ensure that what nearly came to pass this week-end does not come to pass in the future. A smaller Commonwealth, acting to promote and enhance open and democratic governance amongst its members could only be a good thing. The present set-up which gives a stage to dictators and lunatics to indulge in international grand-standing ought not to be tolerated any longer. The specter of democratic nations fighting it out over Zimbabwe was both distasteful and served nobodies purposes. If the rules for membership of the Commonwealth were clear (a commitment to democracy and respect for human rights) then it could have been avoided. There's no reason why Thabo Mbeki shouldn't cosy up to Mugabe, but he should not have been allowed to do it at the Commonwealth.

Changing the subject slightly, one of the things that I found interesting about the week-ends happenings was the fact that many African and Caribbean nations (the so-called Black Commonwealth) came out against Mugabe. The fact that Kenya and Ghana, both nations that have made the transition to democracy (even if it is imperfect in both cases), supported moves to maintain the suspension should expose the utter bankruptcy of South Africa's position. The South African government risks losing whatever moral authority it still possesses by supporting Mugabe so openly. Nobody expects Mbeki to enact a policy of 'regime change' or even to impose economic sanctions (although they might be useful) against Zimbabwe, but a clearly articulated stance of opposition to what Mugabe has been doing could only have enhanced his standing. As we've seen, even some African nations have come to the conclusion that unflagging support of dictators is not in the long term interests of Africa, which is why it so depressing that SA has chosen the policy that it has. Many of us had hoped that South Africa would emerge as a country committed to opposing dictators and oppression and to supporting the spread of democracy. Not only has it dashed these hopes, but it appears to be doing so at a time when other African countries are realising the folly of such a position. South Africa has chosen not to break the mould, but in maintaining the status quo it appears to be swimming against the flow of history.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Bob Strikes Back
Amidst the gloom in this Sunday Times article predicting increased oppression in Zimbabwe was this highly amusing quote from Mugabe:

"They tell me he's [he was refering to Australian PM John Howard] one of those genetically modified because of the criminal ancestry he derives from," Mugabe said, adding that "criminals were banished to Australia and New Zealand by the British".

This reminded me of another quirky Mugabeism, namely his labeling of Tony Blair's administration as "the gay government of the gay United gay Kingdom."

The man certainly hasn't lost his talent for amusing soundbites.

Interpol acts on Charles Taylor
Well, looks like something is finally being done about Charles Taylor. There was always something obscene about the idea of him escaping justice and living it up, at taxpayers expense, in Nigeria. Whether anything comes of this or not remains to be seen.

I haven't had much time to blog recently, and won't for a while yet, but in the meantime here's a short article about the success of the FairTrade movement in South Africa.

Thanks to Hugh Cole for that.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Words fail me: This has got to rank as one of the most bizarre stories I've ever read..

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Robert Mugabe has apparently pledged to ally Zimbabwe with China and to support China as an alternative world power. This in reaction to the snub that he received last week at the hands of the Commonwealth.

I'm somewhat amused at the rhetoric that he used to justify this decision:

"China is increasingly becoming an alternative global power point" indicating "a new alternative direction, which in fact could be the foundation of a new global paradigm. Zimbabwe must work for this new paradigm, which is founded on principles of sovereignty and independence,"

Well, yes, Bob, of course the new Chinese world order is founded on principles of sovereignty and independence, just ask the Taiwanese. Or the Tibetans for that matter.

China is in fact not quite the African neophyte that one might imagine it to be. It had a shadowy presence in Angola in the 1970s and, if memory serves me correctly, provided arms to Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement for a while. However, I think it's safe to say that the Chinese will greet the news of Mugabe's putative alliance with the amusement that it deserves.

What's most interesting about this though, is the desperation that it reveals within ZANU-PF. Two years ago, Zimbabwe made overtures to France, then came the much publicised 'alliance' with Libya, and now this. I think Mugabe overestimates his own importance on the world stage and significantly underestimates the degree to which most countries now regard him as a lunatic. Except, of course, South Africa. Murray blogged on the problems with South Africa's attitude towards Zimbabwe last month, and I'd recommend you read what he had to say if you haven't already done so.

Zackie Achmat and the TAC have been nominated for the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for "a significant contribution to the global struggle against Aids". A deserving candidate if ever there was one, although purists might argue that this stretches the definition of peace somewhat.

Zackie Achmat deserves even more recognition and thanks than he already gets. He's made a courageous stand in the face of govt bone-headedness and stuck to his guns even at the cost of imperiling his own health. When the history of HIV/AIDS in SA comes to be written the govt, from the president down, will be covered in shame and it will be people like Achmat that emerge as the heroes.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Oh, and congratulations to, whoever you are, you're the 1000th person to visit Southern Cross.

The BBC is reporting that City Press (the newspaper that first broke the Ngcuka spy story) has apologised for harming the dignity and reputation of Bulelani Ngcuka.

Unfortunately, I can't give you a link to the story itself because City Press is one of the growing number of SA papers that requires a subscription in order to read their website. Interestingly, the price is quoted in US dollars which suggests that the service is aimed at South African expats who can't otherwise get hold of the paper version. In other words, more blatant opportunism. I'm thinking of boycotting all such papers and, of course, if Southern Cross boycotts you, you're gonna know all about it...

Back to the Ngcuka story. Now that the show is over we can begin to speculate about the possible fallout. Ngcuka, without doubt, has emerged as one of the strongest figures in SA at the moment. Whatever stories were circulating about him (and by the sounds of it there were a number of them) they have been well and truly discredited. Even if there are people within the ANC who still believe that he was a spy, it is very unlikely that they would be so stupid as to air such allegations in light of the mauling that Schaik and Maharaj received. Does this mean that Ngcuka will now get on with the job of investigating the arms deal and answer the question we all want to know the answer to, namely: is Jacob Zuma corrupt. If he does, he's going to have to move quickly. If Zuma manages to get himself annointed Mbeki's successor (as seems increasingly likely) then it's very possible that one of his first moves will be to get rid of Ngcuka.

More on this as and when I have time...