The July 2021 Riots

A thought to ponder

My enduring image of the 2021 looting will not be empty shelves or burning warehouses, but a short video of a boy, maybe 10 years old, carrying a MrPrice bag. He’d been stopped by a passer-by who went through his bag. It had a t-shirt or two, a pair of tekkie shoes, one 5-pack of underwear, and one or two other things, neatly folded away.

It didn’t have toys. Or flatscreen TVs. Or even food.

It had a few clothes, and a single pack of new underwear.

The bag was closed again, and he went on his way, in the grimy and thin clothes he was wearing, into a Johannesburg winter night that was at about freezing point.

There are many things to be said about attempted coups, and factional battles, and senseless vandalism, and the desperation of yet another COVID lockdown, and a terribly slow police response, and the community response that showed the best and sometimes the worst of us, and about how the ultimate victims of the looting are almost entirely going to be the people who can least afford it. And it’s all true and important, but also … not really anything new. It’s just where we are, the unsurprising result of the last few years, and also the last few decades, and also the last few centuries, as we take steps forwards and backwards.

But when the sun comes up in the morning, we need to get up, and put down our social media feeds, and get back to work. Cleaning up, building, teaching, healing, starting businesses, spending tax money responsibly, serving customers, processing paperwork, even sending emails. Because doing those things better is the only way I can think of that we can gradually build a society that is good enough for us all.

Not (just) so that looting doesn’t happen, but so that a 10-year-old child doesn’t need an outbreak of looting to get a new set of underwear.

Micrologistics and the need for transport in Africa

‘Micrologistics’ is my name for a new approach to transport of goods in small loads, using mobile phones to provide the trust and tracking required to create an effective transport network out of existing vehicles. Below some thoughts on why I think small-scale logistics is a real problem in Africa, what the underlying challenge is, and a possible solution. I think Africa is ready for a new model of small-scale, bottom-of-the-pyramid logistics – for a ‘micrologistics’ revolution.
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“Africa at work” report finally published

The report I’ve spent quite a few months working on has been published — Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth. We look at the state of employment in Africa, and what needs to be done to create more wage-paying jobs. It’s awesome to see it getting lots of media attention, but also just good to get it out — it was a lot of work!

In other news, Claire and I are back in Johannesburg after a great year in London and a month of travel in Europe. I’m on a leave of absence for another month or so, still enjoying a more relaxed life!

Contradictions in the countryside

This last weekend I attended the wedding of (as of the weekend) Rebecca and Danson Joseph, at the Cathedral Peak hotel in the Drakensberg. It was a beautiful wedding, and a good party — many of us camped near the hotel, in a big shared campsite. My congratulations and best wishes to Danson and Rebecca!

The last 40km or so of the trip to the hotel passes through a part of what was the “self governing homeland” of Kwazulu, under the Apartheid system. It’s been a long time since I was in this part of the country, and it’s just such a reminder of the bizarre results of Apartheid, and of the difficulty of overcoming its legacy.

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Film festival on the xenophobia riots

Almost by chance, Rhiannon and I landed up watching one of the events that is part of the Tri Continental Film Festival, at the Cinema Nouveau at Rosebank. It was a screening of a number of short movies, as well as some public service shorts shown on TV, all based around the xenophobia riots that broke out in May around Johannesburg.

The films were really good, and obviously very moving. The first covered the events before and during the riots, from the ground, and I think managed very well to avoid imposing interpretation on the motivations and actions of the people concerned. The other movies focused on the displaced people (foreigners as well as South Africans from smaller language groups) and some of their stories in the refugee camps.

The riots were and remain a huge national shame, I think — that a country like South Africa, with our historical focus on human rights, and huge resources, should need to be pitching UN High Commission of Refugees camps within Johannesburg, reflects a huge failing at all levels of society. This includes the poeple involved in the violence, but also government and society at all levels, for the poor response to the crisis.

But today’s event certainly helped me understand what happened a lot better. The films were followed by a panel discussion, with all the directors, as well as a number of speakers and many of the people shown in the films. It’s quite clear that in the township of Alexandria, for instance, there were and remain major grievances around housing. The government has been building RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses, which are supposed to be made available free to otherwise-homeless inhabitants of the township. But it seems that many have been given or sold instead to people not from Alexandria, allegedly as a result of bribes. Some of the people who have landed up in the houses are foreigners, which led to some anti-foreigner sentiment in marches that happened before the full riots started. As so often is the case, the defenceless landed up suffering for the failings of others.

Taking a step back, however, it was fascinating how almost every person at the screening had a different interpretation of the underlying problem and solutions for dealing with xenophobia. We had (some very animated) diatribes about how:

  • The government’s capitalistic “neoliberal” economic policies don’t help the poor, and cause widening inequality
  • The real problem is that government leaders didn’t provide leadership at the time
  • Continuing black-white inequality is the real problem
  • It’s important to think about white guilt, and some people perhaps being pleased that black people can also do bad things
  • People have legitimate grievances
  • Grievances are not legitimate if they lead to violence
  • The marches against xenophobia that followed the riots show that lots of people recognise our shared humanity
  • (And back to the start) Marches against xenophobia are only any good if they aren’t led by Trevor Manuel, servant of The Capitalists (Trevor Manuel being the minister of finance

I may be exaggerating a little by the end, but if you take everything that people were saying seriously, then the way to prevent xenophobia is to create a utopia. To summarise: (1) everyone arrived at a different key insight as a result of the riots, and (2) no-one likes Mbeki (the president).

It was certainly very entertaining, with lots of underhand comments and funny asides. But now I am quite exhausted, and also have had a major kick in the social conscience. Maybe I’ll go start a school or something.

Ethical democracy: An exercise for the reader

With a title like the above, there are so many things this post could be about — the last few days and weeks have been excellent for providing examples of less-than-ethical democracy. But this post is in fact about none of them — it’s about a tricky personal conundrum I faced today, in exercising ethical democracy.

The thing is, I’m not a US voter, or citizen. But I am a US taxpayer and legal resident at the moment. Tomorrow the US Congress will be voting on a bill (of which more later) on an issue very dear to my heart — because it represents probably the largest ongoing damage that the US does, every day, to the poorest of the poor in the developing world and especially Africa (of which I am a citizen). So the question for the reader is: should I phone my representative in Congress and ask them to vote the way I’d like on the bill?

The bill in question is the huge farm bill, and more especially the Fairness Amendment component thereof. US (and to be fair, European) farm subsidies are a mess: they cost the taxpayer huge sums, benefit predominantly the largest agribusiness concerns instead of small farmers, offer only marginal assistance to hungry people within the US and EU, and make it impossible for developing world (especially African) farmers to compete on the global market. For instance, farming cotton in Texas costs about three times the raw price it does in Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara. But after subsidies Malian farmers can’t compete — and so huge areas of Africa aren’t even being farmed. Cotton is Mali’s main commercial export, despite this huge disadvantage — so one can only imagine the huge difference even a small tweak to the subsidies would make to the 10 million inhabitants of this desperately poor country. And as in cotton, so too elsewhere — US and EU farm subsidies are together larger than the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. But enough rant — contact me if you’d like more!

Anyway, the Fairness Amendment is a step in the right direction. The vote is tomorrow. In the end I went ahead and phoned my Congressional rep — using this really convenient and easy service.

Now the more suspicious amongst you might think that what this post is really about is getting those of you who can phone US representatives without suffering any complicated ethical choices, to indeed go ahead and phone. In fact, you might even be right. But I am also interested in what people think about whether it’s ethical for me to make such a phone call.

And yes, it’s been a while since my last blog post. I have a few stacked up awaiting typing, but this one came first thanks to the obvious deadline. Thanks for your patience!

Same-sex marriage in South Africa

As you may have heard in the news, on 1 December the South African Constitutional ruled that the wording of South Africa’s Marriage Act discriminates in an unconstitutional way against the rights of homosexual couples. The government now has to rewrite the legislation to allow same-sex marriage. The judgment is of course exciting and a triumph of South Africa’s ambitious constitution. But the text of the judgment raises some interesting questions relating to whether individual marriage officers with contrary religious beliefs should be required to marry same-sex couples.
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Rafting the great Zambezi

Eight rafts, 23 rapids, 18 kilometres of the great Zambezi river. Two unplanned swims, one raft flip, about seven grade five rapids. Altogether, one hell of a day.

My brother and I spent Wednesday white water rafting. After the briefing and breakfast, the approximately 50 of us in today’s group head down to the river. Most of the rest of the people are here on wilderness group tours — travelling in a touring truck, camping at sites along the way. It’s the usual mix of backpackers — Australia, England, South Africa, a few from American and Germany.

The route starts within sight of the base of the Victoria Falls, with the Mist that Thunders hanging over the top of the gorge walls — all 700 feet of sheer rock. We spent the rest of the day in the gorge, with the Zambezi running swift and deep between towering cliffs, and the (very welcome) sun high overhead.
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Good news and bad, in Africa

Two events happened in the last few days in Africa, one promising and one bad, which will have further knock-on effects in Africa and abroad. The good (with reservations) was the referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the situation in Darfur, Sudan, for prosecution of individuals implicated in crimes against humanity. The bad was Mugabe’s successful stealing of yet another election in Zimbabwe. Oh, and apologies for yet another long post!
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