Friday, December 15, 2006
Blood Diamonds Part 1: The Empire Strikes Back! by James S. Henry
"...(O)ne of the great dramas of Africa: extremely rich areas are reduced to theaters of misery...."
-- Rafael Marques, Angolan journalist (July 2006)
"For each $9 of rough diamonds sold abroad, our customers, after cutting them, collect something like $56..."
-- Sandra Vasconcelos, Endiama (2005)
"We found the Kalahari clean. For years and years the Bushman have lived off the land....thousands of years...We did not buy the Kalahari. God gave it to us. He did not loan it to us. He gave it to us. Forever. I do not speak in anger, because I am not angry. But I want the freedom that we once had."
-- Bushman, Last Voice of an Ancient Tongue, Ulwazi Radio, 1997
The global diamond industry, led by giants like De Beers, RTZ, BHP Bililton, and Alrosa Co Ltd., Russia's state-owned diamond company, a handful of aggressive independents like Israel's Lev Leviev, Beny Steinmetz's BSG Group, and Daniel Gertier's DGI, a hundred other key "diamantaires" in New York, Ramat-Gan, Antwerp, Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong, and leading "diamond industry banks" like ABN-AMRO, is not exactly renowned for its abiding concern about the welfare of the millions of diamond miners, cutters, polishers, and their families who live in developing countries.
But the industry -- whose top five corporate members still control more than 80 percent of the 160 million carets that are produced and sold each year into the $70 billlion world-wide retail diamond jewelry market -- certainly does have an undeniable long-standing concern for its own product's image.
Indeed, for decades, observers of the diamond industry have warned that it was teetering on the brink of a price collapse, because the industry's prosperity has been based on a combination of artificial demand and equally-artificial -- but often more unstable -- control over supply.
Most of the doomsayers have always predicted that the inevitable downfall, when it came, would arrive from the supply side, in the form of some major new diamond find that produced a flood of raw diamonds onto the global market.
The precise culprits, in turn, were expected to be artificial diamonds (in the 1960s and 1970s), "an avalanche of Australian diamonds" (in the 1980s,) and Russian diamonds (in the 1990s.)
This supply-side pessimism has lately been muted, given the failure of the earlier predictions and the fact that raw diamond prices -- though not, buyers beware, retail diamond resale prices!! -- have recently increased at a hefty 10-12 percent per year. There is also some evidence that really big "kimberlite mines" are becoming harder and harder to find.
However, there are still an awful lot of raw diamonds out there waiting to found, and one does still hear warnings about the long-overpredicted Malthusian glut, now from new sources like deep mines in Angola, Namibia's offshore fields, Gabon, Zambia, and the Canadian Northwest.
THE REAL THREAT?
Meanwhile, the other key threat to the industry's artificial price structure -- where retail prices are at least 7 to 10 times the cost of raw diamonds -- comes from the demand side. This is the concern that diamonds may lose the patina of glamour, rarity and respectability that the industry has carefully cultivated since the 1940s.
It is therefore not surprising that the industry has been deeply disturbed by the December 8, 2006, release of Blood Diamond, a block-buster Hollywood film that stars Leonard DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, and Djinmon Hounsou.
While extraordinarily violent and a bit too long, the film is entertaining, mildly informative, and far from "foolish" -- the sniff that it received from one snide NYT reviewer -- who clearly knew nothing about the subject matter, other than, perhaps, the fact that the Times' own Fortunoff- and Tiffany-laden ad department didn't care for the film.
Indeed, this film does provide the most critical big-screen view to date of the diamond industry's sordid global track record, not only in Africa, but also in Brazil, India, Russia, and, indeed, Canada and Australia, where diamonds have often been used to finance civil wars, corruption, and environmental degradation, and indigenous peoples often been pushed aside to make room for the industry's priorities.
Surely the film is a
small offset to decades of the diamond cartel's shameless exploitation of Hollywood films, leading ladies like Marilyn Monroe, Elisabeth Taylor, and Lauren Bacall, and scores of supermodels, rock stars, and impresarios.
INDUSTRY WHITE WASH
Dismayed at the potential negative impact of the film ever since the industry first learned about Blood Diamond in late 2005, it is reportedly spending at least an extra $15 million on a PR campaign that responds to the film -- in addition to the $200 million per year that the World Diamond Council already spends on regular marketing.
For example, if you Google "blood diamonds," for example, you'll see that the industry has purchased top billing for its own version of the "facts" regarding this film. Always eager for a new marketing angle, some diamond merchants have also seized the opportunity to pitch their own product lines as "conflict diamond - free."
DEF JAM'S BLACK WASH
This shameless PR campaign has also included a "black wash" effort by the multimillionaire hip hop impresario Russell Simmons, who launched his own diamond jewelry line by way of the Simmons Jewelry Co. in 2004, in partnershp with long-time New York diamond dealer M. Fabrikant & Sons.
Simmons, who admits to "making a lot of money by selling diamonds," rushed back to New York on December 6 from a whirlwind nine-day private jet tour of diamond mines in South Africa and Botswana -- but, admittedly, not in conflict-ridden Sierre Leone, Angola, the Congo, the Ivory Coast or Chad.
Simmons was originally scheduled to travel with one of his latest flames, the 27-year old Czech supermodel and Fortunoff promoter, Petra Nemcova. But Petra reportedly preferred to stay home and accept a huge diamond engagement ring of her own from British singer/soldier James Blunt, whose 2005 pop hit "You're Beautiful" was recently nominated the "fourth most annoying thing in Britain," next to cold-callers, queue-jumpers, and caravans.
The timing of Simmons' trip, which he filmed for UUtube, just happened to coincide with the December 8 release of the Warner Brothers feature.
Upon his return, Simmons held a press conference, accompanied by his estranged wife Kimora Lee Simmons and Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Mohammed, a former civil rights activitist and fellow investor in the jewelry company who is perhaps best remembered for being fired as NAACP Director in 1994 after settling a costly sexual harassment suit, and for joining the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's Nation of islam. Simmons' astounding conclusion from his wonder-tour: "Bling isn't so bad."
Whatever the credibility of Simmons and his fellow instant experts, it was evidently not enough to save M. Fabricant & Sons, which filed for Chapter 11 in November.
THE GODS MUST (STILL) BE CRAZY
Simmons managed to tour a few major diamond mines on his African safari, but apparently he lacked time to examine the contentious land dispute between the Kalahari San Bushmen,
the members of one of Africa's oldest indigenous groups, and the Botswana
Government -- with the diamond industry's influence lurking right offstage.
In the 1990s, after diamond deposits were reportedly discovered on the Bushmen's traditional lands, the Botwana Government -- which owns 15 percent of De Beers, is a 50-50 partner with De Beers in the Debswana diamond venture, the largest diamond producer in Africa, and derives half its revenue from diamond mining -- has pressured the Bushmen to leave their tribal lands.
The methods used were not subtle. To force the Bushmen into resettlement camps outside the Reserve, the Botswana Government closed schools and clinics, cut off water supplies, and subjected members of the group to threats, beatings, and other forms of intimidation for hunting on their own land -- all of it ordained by F.G. Mogae, Botswana's President, who declared in February 2005 that he 'could not allow the Bushmen to return to the Kalahari." Those who have been resettled have been living in destitution, without jobs and little to do except drink. (See a recent BBC video on the subject.)
Thankfully, on December 13, 2006, Botswana's High Court ruled that in 2002, more than 1000 Bushmen had been illegally evicted by the Botswana Government from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where they'd lived for 30,000 years.
The Botswana Attorney General has already attempted to attached strict conditions to the ruling, so this struggle is far from over. But at least the first prolonged legal battle has been won -- thanks to the determination of the Bushmen, public-spirited lawyers like Gordon Bennett, their legal counsel, courageous crusaders like Professor Kenneth Good, and NGOs like Survival International, which has supported the legal battle.
In the wake of this decision, as usual, the global diamond industry, led by De Beers, has denied that any responsibility whatsoever for the displacement of the Bushmen.
However, the fact is that De Beers and other companies has been prospecting actively in the Kalahari Reserve, especially around the Bushman community of Gope (see this video), where De Beers has falsely claimed that no Bushmen were living when it started mining. It has actively opposed recognizing the rights of indigeneous peoples in Africa. In 2002, at the time of the eviction, Debswana's Managing Director -- appointed by De Beers -- commented that "The government was justified in removing the Basarwa (Bushmen)….’.
De Beers' behavior in Botswana has so outraged activists that they have joined together with prominent actors like Julie Christie and several Nemcova-like supermodels who used to appear in De Beers ads, in an appeal for people to boycott the now-UK-based giant -- which has lately been trying to move downstream into retail diamonds.
However, De Beers is far from alone in this effort. Indeed, as has often been the case with "conflict diamonds," less well-known foreign companies have been permitted to do much of the nastier pioneering.
In Botswana's case, these have included Vancouver-based Motapa Diamonds and Isle of Jersey-based Petra Diamonds Ltd. both of which have have obtained licenses to explore and develop milliions of acres, including CKGR lands. Petra is not unfamiliar with "conflict diamonds;" it is perhaps best known for a failed 2000 attempt to invest in a $1 billion diamond project in the war-torn DR Congo, in which Zimbabwe's corrupt dicator, Robert Mugabe, reportedly held a 40 percent interest.
In the case of Botswana, in September 2005 Petra acquired the
country's largest single prospecting license -- covering 30,000 square
miles, nearly the size of Austria -- by purchasing Kalahari Diamonds Ltd, a company that was 20 percent owned by BHP Billiton and 10 percent by the World Bank/IFC
-- which apparently saw the sponsorship of CKGR mining as somehow
consistent with its own financial imperatives, if not its developmental
mission. (!!!). Petra has also licensed proprietary explorations
technology from BHP Billiton, and offered it development rights, a
front-runner for the Australian giant.
Meanwhile, at least 29 of the 239 Bushmen who filed the lawsuit have perished while living in settlement camps, waiting for the case to be decided, and many others are impoverished.
Perhaps the diamond industry's $15 million might be better spent simply helping these Bushmen return to their homes -- and also settling up with the Nama people in South Africa, the Intuit and Kree peoples in Canada, and the aborigines in Australia.
Meanwhile, as we'll examine in Part II, despite the "Kimberly Process" that was adopted by many -- but not all -- key diamond producers in 2003, the fact is that diamonds continue to pour out of conflict zones like the Congo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, providing the revenues that finance continuing bloodshed.
The industry's vaunted estimate that they account for just "1
percent" of total production is based on thin air -- there are so many loopholes
in the current transnational supply chain that there is just no way of
knowing. Of course, given the scale of the global industry, and the poverty of the countries involved, even a tiny percent of the global market can make a huge difference on the ground.
Furthermore, in cases like Angola, the Kimberly Process has provided an excuse for corrupt governments to team up with private security firms and diamond traders to crack down on independent alluvial miners.
Finally, the diamond industry still has much work to do on other fronts -- pollution, deforestation, and, most important, the task of creating a fairer division of the spoils, in an industry where the overwhelming share of value-added is still captured by just a handful of First World countries.
The objective here is not to kill the golden goose. In principal, the diamond industry should be able to reduce world inequality and poverty, since almost all retail buyers are relatively-affluent people in rich countries, while more than 80 percent of all retail diamonds come from poor countries.
But beyond eliminating traffic in "blood diamonds," however, we should also demand that this industry starts to redress its even more fundamental misbehaviors.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
Democracy in America and Elsewhere: Part II: Recent Global Trends Toward Democracy
Of course we are also very proud of our free markets, our relative affluence, and our occasional ambitions -- at the moment perhaps a bit muted -- to provide equal opportunities for all our citizens.
However, when we try to market our country’s best features to the rest of the world, or teach our children to be proud of their country, it is not the economy that we brag about.
Even self-styled “conservatives” usually lead, not with glowing descriptions of perfect markets and opportunities for unlimited private gain, but with our supposedly distinctive commitment to defending and expanding political democracy and human rights at home and abroad.
Indeed, one of the most important official justifications for recent US forays into the Middle East, as well as our many other foreign interventions, has been to help bring “democracy” to supposedly backward, undemocratic societies like Iraq and Afghanistan (…and before that, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guyana, Guatemala, Iran, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. etc. etc.)
Even though, time and again, this noble commitment has turned out to be pure rhetoric, it provides such an elastic cover story for all our many transgressions that it keeps on being recycled, over and over and over again.
Whatever the truth about US motives for such interventions, it may come as a surprise to learn that in the last two decades, the United States itself has actually fallen behind the rest of the democratic world in terms of “best democratic practices” and the overall representativeness of our own domestic political institutions.
Meanwhile, many developing countries have recently been making very strong progress toward representative democracy, without much help from us.
Indeed, in some cases, like South Africa, this progress was made in the face of opposition from many of the very same neoimperialists who have lately voiced so much concern about transplanting democracy to the Middle East.
While we have been resting on our democratic laurels, or even slipping backwards, the fact is that emerging democracies like Brazil, India, and South Africa, as well as many of our First World peers, have been adopting procedures for electing governments that are much more democratic at almost every stage of the electoral process than those found in the US.
The institutions they have been developing include such bedrock elements of electoral democracy as the rules for:
Of course effective democracy has many other crucial elements beside electoral processes alone. These include (1) the relative influence of legislative, executive, and judicial branches; (2) the concrete opportunities that ordinary citizens have -- as compared with highly-organized special interests and professional lobbyists -- to influence government decisions between elections; (3) the respective influence of private interests, religious groups, and the state; (4) the degree to which the rule of law prevails over corruption and "insider" interests; and (5) the overall degree of political consciousness and know-how.
However, fair and open electoral processes are clearly a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for effective democracy -- all these other elements simply cannot make up for their absence.
We hope that increasing the recognition of this “electoral democracy gap” between the US and the rest of the democratic world will be helpful in several ways:
This used to be much easier than it is now. As of the early 1970s, there were only about 40 countries that qualified as “representative democracies,” and most were First World countries.
Since then, however, there has been a real flowering of democratic institutions in the developing world. This was partly due to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. But many more people were in fact “liberated” by the Third World debt crisis, which undermined corrupt, dictatorial regimes all over the globe, from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, and Zaire.
Voting in the Philippines, 2004
Assessments of the degree of “freedom” of individual regimes by organizations like Freedom House or the UN Development Program’s Human Development Indicators, are notoriously subjective. However, while there is plenty of room for disagreement about specific countries, there is little disagreement on the overall trend. (See Table 3.)
By 2004, about 60 percent, or 119, of the nearly 200 countries on the planet could be described as “electoral democracies,” compared with less than one-third in the early 1970s. Another 25-30 percent have made significant progress toward political freedom.
Voting in South Africa, 1994
Indeed, notwithstanding our present challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the standpoint of global democracy, this has been a banner year. As of September 2004, 32 countries had already held nationwide elections or referenda, with 886 million people voting. (See Table 4.) By the end of 2004, another 33 countries will join the US in doing so – nearly three times as many national elections as were held each year, on average, in the 1970s.
All told, this year, more than 1.7 billion adults – 42 percent of the world’s voter-age population -- will be eligible to vote in national elections, and more than 1.1 billion will probably vote. That that will make American voters less than 10 percent of the global electorate.
Of course, some of these elections will be held in countries where democratic institutions and civil liberties are still highly imperfect. And some developing countries like Russia and Venezuela have recently been struggling to find a balance between democracy and national leadership, partly to undo the effects of neoliberal policies in the 1990s, or in response to terrorist threats.
But the good news is that democracy is clearly not a “luxury good.” The demand for it is very strong even in low-income countries like Bolivia, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Guatemala, and Botswana. And while self-anointed dictators, military rulers, and one-party elites or theocracies are still clinging to power in 50-60 countries that have more than 2.4 billion residents, such regimes are more and more anachronistic. (See Table 5.)
Interestingly, Asian dictatorships, especially China and Vietnam, now account for more than three-fifths of the portion of the world’s population that still lives under authoritarian rule. While several Islamic countries appear on the list of authoritarian countries, they account for just one fifth of the total. Furthermore, by far the most important ones happen to be close US “allies” like Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
Evidently the simple-minded neoconservative “clash of cultures” model, which pits supposedly democratic, pluralist societies against an imaginary Islamic bloc, doesn’t have much explanatory power.
Furthermore, the US also clearly faces some very tough choices, if it is really serious about promoting non-discriminatory, secular democratic states that honor the separation between church and state among its Islamic allies, as well as in Palestine, and, for that matter, Israel.
Voting in East Timor. 2001
A more encouraging point is that many developing countries are already providing useful lessons in democratization. Indeed, as we will see in Part III of this series, there is much to learn from the experiences of new democracies like Brazil and South Africa.
These countries are undertaking bold experiments with measures like free air time for candidates, “registration-free” voting, direct Presidential elections, electronic voting, proportional representation, and the public finance of campaigns. While not all these experiments have worked out perfectly, the fact these countries have already demonstrated a capacity to innovate in “democratic design” is very encouraging.
Of course there is a long-standing tension between the US dedication to Third World democracy and its tolerance for the independence that democratic nationalism often brings. By renewing and deepening our own commitment to democracy at home, we will also protect it abroad -- even though (as in Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and perhaps eventually also Iraq) it does not always produce governments that we agree with.
Sunday, June 27, 2004
"Letters from the New World:" Fighting Corruption at Eye Level in Nigeria
Whenever we talk Nigeria, we talk corruption. The two go together. Finland, ice and cellphones. Israel, strife. Australia, complacency and kangeroos. When you talk Nigeria, corruption is the first thing that comes up.
Try it. Tell people “I’m going to Nigeria.” Four out of five responses will give you detail, usually second-hand, about the necessity of spreading your dollars through different pockets in different denominations. From there they’ll go into horror-stories about corruption.
I found my first trip to Nigeria challenging. Scary, too, but that was a different thing. When the captain said: “We’re commencing the descent” I clutched my wallet. The scare starts fading once reality replaces rumour, but the challenge doesn’t fade at all.
Corruption is one of the main reasons why Africa spent its first half-century of liberation heading, on statistical averages, backwards. Another major one is Indigenisation, Transformation, or whatever the name is for shoving wrong people into wrong roles. Indigenisation is tricky to deal with, and the real answer still awaits.
Corruption is not tricky at all. The simple answer is: don’t do it. To me that’s the sole answer. It’s ingrained. I can’t pay a bribe, any more than I can kill an animal or fling a bottle. The neurons are just programmed another way. Which poses a certain fluttering of the pulse when one is landing in Lagos, stocked high with dire warnings. But I remind myself that visitors to Johannesburg, too, are warned direly about our corruption, whilst I who live in Johannesburg remain a virgin after all these years – apart from sandwiches and cold-drinks.
Initially a little teeth-gritting is required, to take the same approach to Lagos, but it settles. By the time the first guy outright demanded a bribe (“because I am the one who is in charge of your baggage, heh, heh, heh…”) I was emboldened. All he got from me was two short traditional words.
I recognise that it’s hollow to sound holy when all you’re risking is a suitcase of used clothes, or the R500 fine for phoning while you drive. I admit I have no bosses to sack me if I fail to secure the contract,
no shareholders to re-deploy me as Deputy Manager of the Jammerdrif depot.
Still, the principle is not much different: Most times that you give the bribe-seeker short words he backs down. The times he doesn’t, it’s better to suffer the consequences than to hammer another nail into the coffin of your continent’s aspirations. In which light, the way that the going-into-Africa discussion usually plays out can be depressing.
It starts well, invariably. “We’re all Africans now, isn’t it wonderful. And you should see how much good we’re doing!”
They are, too. And it is spectacular, often. On Monday the housewives of Ndola are buying scrawny ox-shank, little more than bone with hair, chowed on for a week by 10,000 flies. They’re buying baked beans in rusted tins, a year after sell-by. They’re paying three times the price that their privileged southern sisters pay for first-class merchandise at our fancy Cresta or Cavendish supermarkets.
On Tuesday the new South African supermarket opens its doors. By Friday, Ndola is dancing to a new tune. The city is galvanised. Everybody has to give service, give value, wake up. On a March visit to a provincial capital, the dinner options are a suspicious unnameable stew on a sweltering dusty roadside, or a two-star menu at a five-star hotel with the seven-star tariff designed for the expense accounts of the aid brigade (who keep the aircon on frigid to remind them of home). In April a South African chain introduces middle-class eating at middle class prices. By July the city is holding its head higher.
Similar processes occur in every industry from brick machines to water meters. Good is being done, no two ways. But then the question the question comes up: “and, er, ahem, how do you handle the matter of adaptation to local mores?” There is a common answer to that question: “Oh, no, no, no. No corruption for us. We know that corruption causes ruin and destruction. We have no part in it, except of course when absolutely necessary.”
There is also the increasingly fashionable answer: “You know, we do have to grow into African ways. The time for arrogance is over now. We must mature into an acceptance that our sectional traditions are not universal.”
Then there is the answer that nobody gives unless he’s absolutely certain you are never going to quote him: “Why should I worry? That country is a total stuff-up anyway. If I can give some guy a million rand and make ten million in return, what do you think?”
Finally there is the still small voice that says: “No, on no account do we do it.” You hear that voice not often, and believe it less often. When you do believe it, perhaps because you know the people concerned especially well and repose in them a special faith, it is jolting indeed to find that the rumour factory is thick with alleged inside tales that place your faith under constant question.
The net result is disappointing, especially at the times that I am revelling in the magnificent welcome that tropical Africa addresses to Seffricans of the paler kind. Tropical Africa addresses magnificent welcomes to most people in most circumstances, but they have an added knack of making the whiteys from “South” as they call it, feel like a long lost brother.
You’re taken as a member of the family – a fairly pushy member, perhaps, rich in annoying habits, but in some way one of us, something more than solely a buccaneer on the profit trail. You’re a curiosity factor as well, and you’re assumed to be – potentially, at least – a handily systematic sort of character, the long lost brother who maintained the household inventory and made sure the insurance premiums were paid.
It’s a delightful combination. Not for nothing does every second SA expat go on and on about being wanted, being needed, being befriended, being loved (in the intervals between going on and on about not being robbed).
The prospects are wonderful, moving, emotional. A continent actually moving upward, after fifty years of empty talk about moving upward; moving upward and forward and with us, us, the once untouchable white South Africans, in there and part of it, in the engine room, the galley, the bridge, the lot.
Unfortunately that vista gets harder to glimpse as time goes by. Reality intrudes. I look at the heavy hands that RSA brings into the rescue of this or that failing African mine or plant or factory. I look at the hubris “stand aside, mere locals; we’re very friendly, as you see, calling us Jack and Joe and not ‘Bwana’ any more, but we’re in charge again so keep out of our way.” I look at the sickening crass insensitivity; the pulling of rank, sometimes unwitting; the disinterest in learning the barest syllable of even French or Portuguese, let alone Swahili or Hausa; the fervour to adopt every management fad emanating from New York or LA.
The pioneers carrying business to the tropics could and should be our heroes, our champions. Too often they become embarrassments. The many lesser embarrassments could usefully be discussed.
The one big embarrassment is not susceptible to much discussion. A culture of corruption means a pathetic nation; that is no more arguable than that the sun comes up in the east, and a critical mass of pathetic nations means a continued pathetic continent.
There’s sabotage in there.
Some foreign companies that have recently tried to enter Nigeria, like Shell and Halliburton, have apparently been following this well-trodden road to perdition. But there are signs of hope. A few others, like Vodafone, have recently been told by their shareholders to refuse to play at all unless they can play it straight.
Ironically, behind the closed doors of our cynical business community, it is Vodafone that gets the most ridicule. Indeed, almost wheresoever two or three businesspersons gather together in South Africa these days, one hears: “Look at these wussies, getting their asses whupped in Nigeria; buncha sissies calling themselves an African company, squealing ‘good governance’ because they’ve come short. What business did they have leaving just because they couldn’t play it straight? ”
Somebody’s got this upside-down. The real question we should be asking of is of those who stayed: “Precisely how did you manage to stay on and keep playing it straight?”
Monday, June 21, 2004
"Letters from the New World (South Africa)." Denis Beckett #6:"Soweto Revisited"
RETURN TO SOWETO
By his sixth day in South Africa, Tony had been shown around Sandton (the high-end business district in Jo’burg) five times. “A fine precinct,” he said. “Not dissimilar to some we have in Toronto.”
Whereupon began an excellent day. The high point was Soweto, for him because of the dining-out prospects once back in the 30 degrees below; for me because of the great march forward since I was last there. For instance I recall Moroka Park as a shambolic wasteland. Now it’s green and kempt with decorative railings and families sitting in Saturday sun.
Everyone, evidently, has a doctorate in “Making Foreign Visitors Go Dewy-Eyed.” A bunch of kids fiercely debated the geography of Canada (they all got “north”; debate was whether north of America, Britain or Russia). Adults were hospitable from the start and added an extra notch when the Canadian connection came up. When a kid grabbed Tony’s pen I thought ‘uh oh’, but he was just eager to write our names on his hand.
Miraculously I did not get lost, a pity in a way because getting un-lost in Soweto is throat-lumping; people take such trouble over you. But we did traverse a wider cross-section than intended, which meant lots of exposure to changes like shops looking chic and houses looking bourgeois.
I’ve always felt a gap between the perception of Soweto from the white north – all danger, squalor, tension – and the sight of Soweto close up, which includes life, buzz, flowerbeds. Never more than this time, which made it doubly odd that the most jarring note came at the most sacred ground, the old Mandela home.
For his decades behind bars, his house looked pleasant and modest. Now it’s behind its own bars, a massive ugly fence so tight that it seems to be choking the house. Next to it an electricity sub-station would look pretty. The new guardhouse outside is scruffy and boarded, and they hunted down the dirtiest, raggedy-assed flag in existence for their big proud flagpole.
In contrast, the Hector Pieterson Museum (they spell him with an ‘i’ now)put up a good showing. Actual exhibits are stunningly few – a dustbin lid, a desk, some placards and two firmly welded guns – but the arsenal of photography, still and video, is a stomach-punching reminder.
And it’s not a caricature; amazing. One expects depictions of pre-1994 life to be, for a while yet, snarling iron-teethed whiteys kicking gentle black choir-boys to pulp; but here, not really. The brutality shows up, all right, and so does the disdain which was arguably more odious and certainly more widespread. So does the extraordinariness of shoving Afrikaans down black throats; the old State writing its death certificate. But dissent is displayed as well, and plain ordinariness.
The net impact on me – and I would think anyone white, wherever they stood in the old days – is a surge of relief. How tiny are our troubles now, compared to the gross contortion involved in keeping our foot on the other guy’s neck.
Hillbrow is populated by West Africans proud of their video kiosks and cellphone kiosks; entirely warm and chatty though less than entirely clear about the origins of their merchandise. In Yeoville, only, were we made to feel like markets – many people definitely wanted to sell us something, but were strangely coy about telling us what. Looked sort of like seedlings in packets. Newtown was spic and span and treed and under-occupied, an asset waiting to be exploited. Downtown is spoiled by litter – gutters are static rivers of waste, and papers and wrappers swirl like after a nuclear blast – but is on the up nonetheless, especially the west side, smarter and more occupied than a while ago.
Thanks, visitor to our shores, for awakening this Jo’burger to his turning world.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
"Letters from the New World (South Africa)." Denis Beckett #5:"Che Guevara vs. Paul Theroux on Africa"
CHE VS. THEROUX ON AFRICA
A t an airport bookshop I recently saw a strange paperback called The African Dream, purporting to be Che Guevara’s Congo diary. It had an odd cover and an odd imprint and I took it as a skit. Imagine, pretending that history’s most public revolutionary could have had a secret life in Africa, written up but then hidden away for forty years. Who were they kidding?
My flight to Kampala was called. I took up Paul Theroux’s new odyssey on Africa and got in the queue to pay for it. At the counter, in mid purchase, annoying the people behind, a whim overtook me. What was this nonsense about Che and Africa? I ran to grab it.
Two hours later my eyelids were heavy with Theroux. It was an okay book, but over-familiar. Once again, I felt, the sleepwalk about Africa. Treatment of it was so orthodox; one-dimensional: plucky poor continent trails behind the march of nations.
Were we horses in blinkers, seeing only centre-field? Africa is about extremes, both extremes. The warm acceptance of a Kampala bus against the social iceberg of a London train is not a trailing-behind, it’s a far-ahead. But when public policy turns farms that provided crops and livelihoods into wastelands, that is not trailing behind either. It’s sabotage, destruction by edict.
In Theroux, true to My Trip To Africa fashion, the glory was half recognised and the shambles half acknowledged. A new view was surely being born somewhere, to break logjams and shed blinkers, but so far the new view was behind a bush, sensed but not seen.
Putting Theroux in the seat pocket I encountered my other purchase, and took it up for a five-minute unravelling before falling asleep.
When we landed I was 200% awake and could not stop reading, even in the passport queue with heatsweat dripping on Che’s words.
Che’s African Dream is for real, and was suppressed. That’s because Che does not say of Africa what a good communist is meant to say, i.e., forward the oppressed. He says, in 244 pages: this place is hopeless beyond belief.
In due course the book will surely become an exhibit in re: understanding Africa. When it does, I foresee two consequences. One, an end to the radical-chic view of Che, replaced by deep respect. Two, a gear-change in thinking on Africa. Today’s issues, like colour coding and alien disposal, will be in Comedy Showcase. All hands will be on deck to get Joe Africa actually moving forward rather than being perpetually assured that he should be moving forward.
But due course is not tomorrow. This exhibit is too sore to behold, as yet. Finishing Che in the Speke Hotel that night, I thought that there’d be plays and movies based on his tale, in years ahead, well ahead, when Africa had become more interested in removing the causes of its inferiority complex than in denying the effects.
Monday, April 26, 2004
426."Letters from the New World" (South Africa) Denis Beckett #3: "Hair Cut."
Scared? No, not scared, not really. You can’t be scared of a barber. Can you? True, this (South African) Shavathon was invented by sadists. True, going in wasn’t easy, past streams of bald guys coming out, clutching their heads in shell-shocked daze.
But that’s not “scared”, surely, so much as rational. A lifetime of long hair gives a ou identity, right? It instills a persona, a self-image, which has never been short hair, let alone no hair. Now you’re about to make the brushcut guys look like hippies. For sure you aren’t overjoyed.
But not “scared”, please. “Lunatic”, maybe. When they start to cut, red-alert clangs. This is the only mirrorless barber seat you ever met. Your head gets cold, in a way you never knew. Clumps of you slide down your shoulders, clumps not of plain untidy excess, but of what has been part of you since you were in nappies....
Your friends who did the easy option, the one-day green dye, are hosing themselves, pointing at you and high-fiving and slapping their sides like at Barry Hilton on the cuzzin routine.
There comes an instant that you can not believe this thing that you are doing. You feel central processing unit contacting your leg muscles with the instruction to bolt. But before the message downloads, the volunteer barber is shaking out the towel. They’re speedy here, whipping off the entire woolsack in 10% of the time that a real barber with mirrors takes to do a trim.
Rub the head, feel strange, be relieved by the touch of a film of stubble. It’s short, but it’s hair. Then the sadists guide you to the blades.
The blades. So far has been only Army-short. Kojak is yet to come. The blades are gonna abolish every wisp, everything but eyebrows.
You can choose to duck this, but a mad instinct says go the whole hog. Partly, there’s testosterone and rank order. The Kojaks are main manne, army-cuts come second and green-dyes are but honorary members of the human race. The other part is duty. Companies pay money to the Cancer Association for every bald head. Plus the world record, 55 000 heads in a day, is up for challenge, and it’s held by… Australia.
And hey, anyway, it’s just this once.
So the shaver lady sprays the lather. This time, it does take time. A head is a bigger thing than you think. A head-shave covers the acreage of six or ten face-shaves, and is a bumpier ride.
The end is shock. A hand ascends to explore, and recoils in instant horror. This is no longer foreign hair on a familiar pate. This is horror-story, feeling not like a head at all, any head, let alone the personal private head you’ve known since youth. It’s a lumpy sticky thing, foreign to the touch, as if a mother dinosaur plonked a reject misshapen egg on top of your neck.
You can choose to duck this, but a mad instinct says go the whole hog. Partly, there’s testosterone and rank order....The other part is duty. Companies pay money to the Cancer Association for every bald head. Plus the world record, 55 000 heads in a day, is up for challenge, and it’s held by… Australia.
A ou gets a skrik, but not as much as when the lady says: “there you are then. It nearly always grows back, even at your age. Just scrub the skin or it can grow inward.”
Nearly always? Can grow inward? This night was poor in sleep; strong in images of traumatised dead hair refusing to re-start, of trapped stalactite strands clutching downward and strangling the brain.
Furthermore, resting a newly bald head on a pillow is like rolling a brick on a croquet lawn. Hair is a lubricant; one of its less known virtues. Shining and slithery as the naked noggin appears, it glues to the
pillow. Each toss and each turn is a sticky, jerky, jolt.
But nightmares end. The second day the dogs stopped barking. By the third I could enter my bathroom without startling at the ugly bald stranger. By the fourth I ceased to instinctively reach for the hairbrush after the morning shower. Now my family are saying “quite nice, really”, and I’m relishing seeing the world from a short-hair vantage-point.
Sixty thousand bristly heads are walking around town feeling interconnected and a tiny bit smug. We were arm-twisted into it, yes, but whatever the motives, our haircuts brought packets into cancer support and brought us a flash of solidarity with a deeply real cause.
We give each other friendly recognising nods to say “we shared that scared moment, which we won’t admit to.” And the Aussies have come second at something.
Saturday, April 24, 2004
424."Letters from the New World" (South Africa) Denis Beckett #2: "Walk Tall."
In 1973 no-one was as non-apartheid as we all now like to think we were. Hiring the Smuts farm at Irene for a black staff picnic was a mission. Blacks? Little old United Party people in Moth badges wrung hands for weeks. They talked about “the natives”, and “raising expectations”.
But people were moving forward, groping, in that way they do. Permission was finally granted, subject to a stack of promises and guarantees nine yards high.
And everything went fine. Until lunchtime in the meat queue, when Walk Tall got aggrieved. In his view he’d been given an undersize portion, by a little old UP lady.
As the name suggests, Walk Tall was a toughie, a towering strong guy with attitude. He was also afloat in ingested substances. He drew a knife as long as a thigh, and informed the lady that he would cut off her ears to make up his protein.
At this point, you can imagine, picnic day came a little unstuck. Monday morning Walk Tall was contrite as well as hung over. I was sorry to sack him; normally he was a dynamo, and full of personality. But he had to go.
Fast forward 15 years. I’m in Anderson street, back end of town. On foot. It’s winter, it’s dusk, the air is thick with smoke. I’m alone, very alone. I’m vulnerable.
Suddenly there’s a gang around me. Instantly, I know this is farewell to my possessions. Perhaps it’s farewell to blood and breath too. Then I see that one of them is Walk Tall. My heart clangs on the tar. Day of vengeance! I telepath goodbyes to my loved ones.
Walk Tall stares, holding his pals back. Then he roars out my name. To my astonishment he’s not roaring in fury, but in tones you’d use for a long-lost brother. He grabs me – I get a close-up of a wicked blade, sideways on – and smothers me with a huge hug.
I’m introduced to the pals. Knives vanish and all four walk me to the Carlton Hotel. “You can’t walk alone!” says Walk Tall. “There are bad people here!”
On route he says he hasn’t had a job since I fired him. Once in the Carlton’s light I risk the question: doesn’t he perhaps bear ever so slight a bit of, uh, anger?
Walk Tall cracks up like I’ve made a great joke. “What! Angry! At you! No, you had to fire me! And you shook my hand!” The gang returns to the night, waving.
Having latched on to the high ground,Walk Tall has made it his life. You can practically see the halo. But this old world is full of rabbit punches. A year ago he got a job. A month ago he was told to take certain steps in re a collectable debt. In his old incarnation these steps were well in the day’s work. But this is the new moral Walk Tall. He says “I don’t do assault”, and he quits. And who gets the rap? Yeah, right. Me. “You’re the one who told me to stop doing crime, and I listened to you so now I have nothing to eat.”
Fast forward again, 12 years to 2000. Walk Tall re-appears. He has adventure stories that make Sinbad look stay-at-home. He also has a shining moral high point of his career, viz, having not killed me. His reasons have become complex enough to baffle Freud, wild flights into love and hate and black pride and conquering demons. But the outcome is clear. He has come to see Not Killing Beckett as a Nobel-deserving achievement, or at minimum worthy of eternal thanks.
I mention the mundane fact that six billion other people have also, to date, not killed me, but he is unfazed. He says 5 999 999 999 never had to do anything to not kill me; he alone stayed the knife. It is a bit different, I grant, but no way am I in lifelong debt because he aborted a crime he should never have started. He shakes his head, saddened that such callous ingratitude exists.
That subject remains an impasse, though we’ve tried several times to work it out. Once was on radio where he spoke grippingly about crime and white victims, the mugger’s eye view. People couldn’t stop listening. One guy missed a plane.
Having latched on to the high ground, Walk Tall has made it his life. You can practically see the halo. But this old world is full of rabbit punches. A year ago he got a job. A month ago he was told to take certain steps in re a collectable debt. In his old incarnation these steps were well in the day’s work. But this is the new moral Walk Tall. He says “I don’t do assault”, and he quits.
And who gets the rap? Yeah, right. Me. “You’re the one who told me to stop doing crime, and I listened to you so now I have nothing to eat.”
He hopes I’ll cough up in return for my unpunctured ribcage. I’ve told him to forget that, but another factor grows: all those parables about mercy and lost sheep and returned prodigals. Isn’t that how we’re supposed to live, giving a chance to a guy who reforms? Why do all the reformed sheep I see seem to be staring at slammed doors? Somewhere there’s an employer-type person who believes in reformed characters or in happy endings or in both, and who might communicate with (the name on the ID), at (Joburg address.)
Thursday, April 22, 2004
422."Letters from the New World" (South Africa) Denis Beckett #1: "Return."
When she left for Australia, Joy cited all the regular reasons, crime and decline and Africa’s uncertainties. She got a nice job in Sydney, and lots of peace and security, and nobody stole the paper from public toilets, never mind the seats.
But Joy’s six siblings in Jo’burg made much reason for many visits. From time to time she’d get a sense that in South Africa she felt the sun on her face in a warmer way.
She kept it quiet, of course. Men in white coats would come. Aus was for The Chosen..
One day Joy and her laaitie, Luke, were at the jungle-gym at the Zoo Lake. This is a very individual jungle gym. It didn’t come out of a box, with plastic fittings. It came out of a forest, big solid logs. It’s the gorilla of jungle gyms, a cousin of the army’s combat training courses, high on opportunity for kids to break arms and bash heads.
Luke was nervous. This was a fearsome thing, after the park at home in Sydney. That park was lawsuit proof, waxed and pasteurised and shrinkwrapped, certified safety precautions at every hinge.
But as he got into it Joy noticed a strange thing: he was having more fun. In fact, she was having more fun too.
She was enjoying this pre-waxed Africa-type park, and enjoying Luke enjoying it. Also, people greeted Luke, and greeted her, and talked to her, sommer, as in “a stranger’s a friend you do not know”. In the waxed world, thought Joy, that was stuff you heard in church. To walk up in a spirit of “hullo, friend I do not know” … you’d get a harassment charge.
On a train in Cape Town an old man befriended Luke, like a grandad, sharing sweets and games, as if Joy wasn’t there. And the conductor ad libbed. Each time he called the route he gave her a wink and a last line like “and enjoy the ride.” It struck Joy that if his Aussie counterpart broke the rules like that, there’d be disciplinary hearings.
A touring black school group and their teacher include Luke as an honorary member. Joy asks the teacher why. She’s implying: “he pays you no fees and no bonus, why should you bother?” She’s also implying, deeper down: “and what is more he’s not even your, um, race”. The teacher replies: “children are our future”. Full stop.
Joy returns to Aus. After a year there, she tallies how many strangers interacted with Luke. Answer = two. In South Africa, she reckons, it’d be hundreds, mainly of course blacks, the pastmasters, but some of the pale lot as well. That was a thing about SA’s new freedoms; the whites were picking up the good habits of Africa, by osmosis.
Joy mumbles about a return to SA. Everybody says What! You crazy? Not only the Aussies say that, so do Seffricans. She feels very alone. Is she crazy? Someone points her to www.homecomingrevolution.co.za, and she’s astounded. Lots of South Africans are going home. That fortifies her, but people say: “To indulge yourself you’re inflicting crime and decline and dead-end-for-whites on your innocent son.” She says: “No, that’s exactly wrong, it’s for my son, so he can grow up enriched by the human connectivity of Africa.” The chorus: What! You crazy?
Joy knows she’s right, in her bones, but damn, she’s scared. The chorus says: “at least put him in private school”. She can’t afford it. Everyone insists a SA government school will doom Luke to placards on street corners. She nearly chickens out. Then her Jo’burg teacher friend Dale phones to say “you’re hearing junk, you want to be here, block your ears and get here.” She did.
Last week Luke’s government school asked Joy if she could do transport, for an outing. She burst into tears. They were surprised. She explained. She’d love to help with transport. She wasn’t allowed, before. Only designated buses and certified drivers carry Aus school outings. No cowboy stuff like Mom’s Taxi.
“I realised”, says Joy, “that I like the cowboy stuff. I like a world with loose ends. I like a world that isn’t all comfort zone. And I like being required to give. It’s not ideal that so many are in need, but for me it’s better to have to give than to never give. You think bigger.”
You do, hey. You think frinstance that we may never be the world’s richest country or continent, or the calmest, or even the kings of the pitch. But heck, we can be the nicest.