Hear No Evil

The most overused word of the week is Madiba, it’s as if all the journalists were cellmates of his—a challenge since Mandela had his own cell.

I recall it as a small, spartan room, perhaps five by nine feet, maybe smaller. The god of internet will know, but I prefer to wander into my memories. When Obama visited, the English satirical magazine Private Eye had a great cartoon where the US president commented the cell would be perfect for Edward Snowden.

I’m not sure Mandela would have supported the profligacy of these endless state ceremonies, but I suspect that, like me, he would have (privately) cracked up at the invented sign language from pseudo-translator Thamsanqa Jantjie.

Jantje told CNN “My portfolio shows that I have been a champion of what I have been doing”—let’s face it, who would disagree? He’s just a champion at getting away with it. It’s a perfect con, a guy who’s hired not by the deaf people he’s supposed to help, but by others who are absolutely clueless. As long as the event doesn’t go high enough to warrant a massive television presence, old Jantje will be right as rain.

Of course that wasn’t the only ‘fait divers’ of the Soccer City session, which included persistent booing of Zuma, the Castro handshake, and for the scandal rags, the Obama selfie.

In practical terms, Mandela disappeared while I was in Cape Town last June, when he was admitted to hospital on death’s door. Much like Ariel Sharon, who was removed from circulation almost a decade ago, and was recently the victim of internet death—it’s become popular to kill off celebrities (I’m not sure Sharon qualifies) on Facebook, and accumulate ‘likes’.

All my concerns about South Africa have come back with a vengeance. We’ll see how things develop within the ANC, but when you consider the present distribution of wealth, including land, gold, and diamonds, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be a push to redistribute. Tutu, the face of truth and reconciliation, was not given credentials for the state ceremonies in honor of Mandela—not the most auspicious sign.

After Mandela came Thabo Mbeki, who caused a commotion because of his position on HIV-AIDS. In 2000, Mbeki spoke of a conspiracy uniting the CIA with big pharma to undermine him, due to his view that HIV and AIDS were not linked. In 2007, Mbeki still expressed regrets that his cabinet had pressured him to refrain from public statements on the issue.

Zuma is on record that he ‘took a shower‘ to minimize his chances of contracting AIDS, after sex with an HIV-positive woman—this statement was offered when he was on trial for rape. He went on to win the presidency of South Africa.

Past times: an ANC poster at the Mandela museum at the Robben Island ferry terminal.

Past times: an ANC poster in the Mandela museum at the Robben Island ferry terminal.

This stance on AIDS, which is a public-health catastrophe in South Africa, particularly among the black community that most closely identifies with the ANC, would be enough to cause the resignation of any European or North American political leader.

A scandal such as the recent Strauss-Kahn debacle, or the John Edwards story, terminates a political career in the West. Not so in Africa, where democracy has a very long way to go. Which begs the question of whether that is where the world is headed.

Westerners believe so—there’s an unspoken understanding that all peoples strive towards democracy, because, to quote Churchill, it’s the worst system of government apart from all the others. I endorse that, but the world’s emerging dominant force, China, sees it differently. And many African governments agree with the Middle Kingdom.

In their excellent book China’s Silent Army, Cardenal and Araújo examine the twin strategies used in Chinese foreign policy, which may be summed up as a blend of anti-colonialist language and avid imperialism. These are associated with the standard formula within China, i.e. muscled government economic intervention combined with a tight political throttle.

Within the boundaries of mutual disrespect, China and Africa are engaged in the love affair of the century. Back in colonial days, the Europeans built the African infastructure, the cities, harbors, roads… the most ambitious plan was the Cape to Cairo railway, devised by Cecil Rhodes—one hundred years later, there’s still a part missing in Sudan and Ethiopia—who knows, maybe China will finish it.

A century or two ago the Africans did the building, the Europeans provided the design, engineering, technology, and finance. Today, the Chinese do the work of both sides, importing Chinese labor to build airports in Angola, and dams in Sudan.

The whole shebang is funded by the enormous trade surplus of the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese work hard, fast, and cheap. Chinese corporations, well-versed in exploiting their workers at home, send them abroad and apply the same model.

In parallel, China follows a well-established policy of non-interference—if the kleptocratic government of Angola chooses to disenfranchise its people, squash its opposition, and murder young idealists who call for change, so be it. The same applies everywhere else, from the Congo to Zimbabwe.

African leaders welcome this opportunity for 买卖 (mai mai, or buy sell in Mandarin, i.e. business), without the bothersome need to discuss democracy or human rights. If their people remain unemployed because Chinese labor is used, well, it’s a national choice.

This approach to policy, based on the sovereign right of a nation to choose its course, rather than on a Western (I almost wrote international) model of public participation, governance, and free speech, is gaining ground.

Corporations in the West, which are effectively the new forces of government (think for instance banks) reflect parts of this model—unlike the political systems under which they operate, companies are (often strongly) oligarchic, oppose staff positions or statements unsupportive of the ‘party line’ to the point of dismissal, and may arbitrarily determine how to distribute their labor.

Right now, the jury is still out as to which model will prevail, or whether the two might simply coexist. These are the important questions for South Africa in the post-Mandela era—not the gesticulations of a pseudo-schizophrenic conman from Soweto.

South Africa is a land of great beauty and wonder. As a role model for its neighbors, it would be ideal to see it become the true rainbow nation—but for now, Brazil is the only country on the planet that qualifies. And for that, among other things, the world must thank the Portuguese.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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