Thursday, August 23, 2007

life outside the political?

i realise that this is increasingly turning into a blog about south african politics rather than my experiences of south africa/my life here more generally... but at this point, i've been so slammed with work as a result of said politics that i've barely had a personal life... and even then, it's hard to forget about politics.

an example:
on saturday night, paymon (the other american volunteer i've mentioned), dalli (completely awesome, progressive, mid-twenties afrikaner who now works at Community Health Media Trust--a treatment literacy org of sorts), and i were headed to town to meet up with some friends of ours to get a drink or two then head to a party. on the way, paymon mentioned that his sister, parissa, (who is currently visiting) was blown away by "how few black people there are here," as she phrased it. i've noticed the same myself--while the office i work in is mostly black, if i go out to the clubs or anything, they're still mostly de facto segregated. and cape town is a very, very white city in comparison with the rest of south africa. to say that i probably encounter more blacks during my life as a UChicago student, isolated ivory tower institution that it is, is really saying something.

this led into a very frank and at times uneasy discussion about race, one that i'd say has a lot of implications in the US as well. go to any bar on the north side of chicago, a city that's 42% white and ~37% black according to the most recent census in 2000, and you're barely going to see any blacks there. while it's difficult to make a comparison between the racial demographics of chicago and cape town due to the south african category of colored, it's safe to say that cape town is ~24% white according to their most recent census (1996). so yes, the de facto segregation is more striking here, but to say that very similar things aren't happening in US cities is just flat out wrong. there's also the issue that parissa's sample population was skewed--the locations she'd been to were generally very touristy/rich (like the v&a waterfront), but her point was definitely well taken--it's something that had occured to me quite often, and still does in areas like that.

dalli's response was well, yes, there are very few blacks in a lot of areas, but the fact that there are *any* there is an important change, and at this point, the absence of certain people in certain areas has more to do with class than with race. i think his point has some merit, but i'll get there in a moment--at this point, i was silent, and paymon went absolutely off on the idea of it being attributable to class--other cities, like jo'burg, have managed to create a black middle and upper class at this point, so why not cape town? to say it has nothing to do with race is to mask racism that is bound to be around thirteen years after the official end of apartheid.

i'd say that they're both right--that the legacy created by apartheid (and thus by past racism) has so thoroughly entrenched massive numbers of blacks in poverty that it will take a decent amount of time to get beyond that. kids who started school after apartheid, in desegregated schools, are just starting to pass matric (graduate), and the public school system is still a wreck. some schools pulled/are continuing to pull tricks to avoid integrating, much like schools in the US post-brown v. board, kids are still being illegally prevented from attending education, and there's a vast differential in funding between the schools in poor areas and the schools in middle-class and rich areas. during the struggle, most of the leaders espoused heavily socialist views--we now see the anc lead government, under mbeki, setting up a generally liberal welfare capitalist state. rather than get into any huge discussions about the proper way to organise an economy here, i'll just note that in order for the ideals underpinning welfare capitalism to be realised, everyone needs to have a fair shot in life, and that means equal access to education and health care. in their defense, the anc inherited a complete mess in terms of both of those systems, and i generally believe that at least on the education side of things, they're doing their best to sort it all out. but it's going to take awhile, and there's no way around that.

at this point in the discussion, we got to our destination, called it quits on the political discussion, and walked into the bar, which was filled wall to wall with people. we each left it unspoken that there were only three black people in sight.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

enough said...

another quick post, again from the ny times:

South African Study: Drugs are Best for AIDS

"'Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon -- not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin, but they also protect you from disease,' [Manto] told a news conference in 2005. 'All I am bombarded about is anti-retrovirals, anti-retrovirals. There are other things we can be assisted in doing to respond to HIV/AIDS in this country.'

The Academy of Science disagreed."

update on manto

the ny times just covered the allegations against manto. while the article is in the news section, they do a touch of commentary... and i'd say their take is spot on. it's a good summary of what's been happening here in the past week and a half.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

of drunkards, thieves, and health ministers

the health minstry just can't avoid controversy. a good deal of south african society is still in an uproar over the firing of the deputy minister of health, and thabo isn't faring too well in the international press either--when the new york times and both the guardian and the economist have serious questions about your leadership and decisionmaking, it's safe to say that it's an impressively poor call.

but the latest stories about the health ministry are hilariously scandalous. manto tshabalala-msimang, the health minister, has been raked over the coals by the sunday times, one of the biggest papers in SA. they broke a story on sunday the 12th proclaiming that a) the reason she needed a liver transplant was due to alcoholism, and b) that she drank while in the hospital for a previous surgery and harrassed hospital staff until they brought her alcohol. in response, manto sued the hospital for her medical records, which she eventually got back from the sunday times, though they maintained a copy of them.

the following tuesday, the democratic alliance (DA), the opposition party here, made an allegation that manto got to jump the queue for a liver due to behind the scenes maneuvering by president mbeki and herself, a charge that both vigorously deny. manto has not, however, denied that she was drinking in the hospital. interesting.

all the while, manto/her spokespeople/anc spokespeople have been castigating the sunday times at every opportunity... but the sunday times is not a paper to take such things lying down. instead, they took the opportunity this past sunday to destroy any remaining shreds of manto's credibility (if anyone believed that dr. beetroot had *any* remaining credibility, that is) by breaking a story that she was fired from her post as the superintendent of a hospital in botswana because she was stealing from patients who were under anaesthetics. the times also reported that because of her thievery, they banned her from the country for ten years. the sunday times also renewed their cries that she had alcoholic liver disease and reported that she was drinking before the procedure (patients are usually prohibited to drink for six to twelve months before the surgery) and has kept drinking since.

something to note here is that newspapers place their biggest and most sensationalist/interesting headlines on posters that go up daily on lightpoles around the city, so you see that the newspaper is something worth buying. so last sunday, the street was covered in "MANTO THE DRUNK" and "MANTO IS A THIEF." anyone remotely involved with hiv/aids issues couldn't help but be at least slightly pleased with the story about thievery. but she's still never going to get fired, because her husband, the head of the ANC treasury, knows too many of mbeki's secrets.

in the midst of all of this, thabo mbeki released his "ANC Today" newsletter, like he does every friday. his focus this time? not his health minster, in the midst of complete scandal... instead, his fired deputy health minister! of the tome that he wrote, a mere paragraph is dedicated to the manto controversy, with the rest of it an attempt to discredit the deputy minister of health. the tone is extraordinarily defensive, and at one point, he quotes at length an article in "the independent," a british newspaper, that quoted TAC, the DA, and a highly respected professor at UCT, Nicoli Nattrass (who, by the way, is the author of the very excellent "Mortal Combat," a book on SA's struggle with HIV that was published a month or two ago). the intent was to quote the article in order to discredit it... the problem with that strategy is that it was all true. his refutation is a complete tap dance, and not a very good one at that. perhaps he's relying upon the revisionist history (fiction?) written by his biographer (fantasy author?) Ronald Suresh Roberts, who did his damnedest to erase the entirety of mbeki's shameful legacy on AIDS by characterising his fatally dilatory stance on antiretroviral roll-out as merely "cautious." but i digress.

mbeki closes his letter in a typical mbeki fashion--subtly (or not so subtly) characterising his detractors as racist colonisers. the roberts book does the same thing. and even if one were to believe that every non-black who was an mbeki detractor was a racist, a difficult claim to swallow, that would still leave all of the black mbeki critics as what? unthinking, mindless, colonised drones with a complete lack of agency? manto has leveled this criticism against tac because two of its three main leaders in the past were a white man and a colored man--she must have somehow forgotten the existence of sipho mthathi, tac's other leader, just as brilliant as the other two--and a black woman. and that's to say nothing of the 16,000+ TAC leaders and members. it seems to me that this country is never going to move beyond race and racism if they're perpetually used as excuses... but that's a much lengthtier post for another time.

two things to close on:
Zapiro's top 10 manto cartoons
and a brilliant op ed by stephen lewis, the former un special envoy to africa on hiv/aids, and one of my personal heroes.

for me, the bottom line is that i believe in the right of access to health care for all, and that includes manto tshabalala-msimang, no matter how infuriating her policy is. i hope that if sunday times is right that she's battling alcoholism, she gets proper treatment for it. but she needs to get healthy and sober out of office. her status as health minister doesn't give her the right to jump organ transplant queues, and it certainly doesn't give her the right to a liver if her disease is alcohol related and she's continuing to drink. her policy has already proven inexcusable (no matter how hard mbeki and roberts try), and her history of theft just adds insult to injury.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

on language

for unknown reasons, i’ve always been hyper-cognizant of language as well as rather interested in its assorted usages. here’s a handful of thoughts on speech that have come to me over the course of my stay here.

while most of the people i’ve come into contact with here speak english at least conversationally, many are fluent in at least one of south africa’s other 10 official languages (the official languages are: afrikaans, english, ndebele, northern sotho, sotho, swati, tsonga, tswana, venda, xhosa, and zulu--those are the english names for all of them, by the way.)—xhosa and afrikaans are the two most common languages other than english where i am, in the western cape. this creates a wide variety of south african accents, from the high society british-sounding accent of the well-educated middle and upper classes, raised speaking only english, to the dutch influenced afrikaans accent, to the heavy native language accents that give me the most trouble. around the office, many of the women usually speak in xhosa when chatting with each other about work or personal matters, which leaves me clueless as to what they’re speaking about, save the occasional appropriated english word. i’d like to learn some xhosa while i’m here, but my clumsy american tongue has had a great deal of difficulty with the different clicks used for the letters x, c, and q… indeed, i can barely pronounce the name of the language.

the above mention of the prevalence of english should not fool you into thinking that i am always readily understood—american accents cause a bit of trouble around here, it seems, no matter whom i’m speaking with. one misinterpretation is the construal of my pronunciation of the word “latte” as “water.” this seems to keep cropping up, due to: a) the ready availability of espresso nearly anywhere (though, rarely “for take-away,” which has been a huge adjustment for me, given my high reliance upon coffee-on-the-go) and b) my great fondness for coffee (well, i say fondness, concerned family members say addiction… but an addiction isn’t a problem so long as i can get my fix, right?). a glass of water has shown up at my table instead of a latte six or seven times now… upon consultation with my south african friends, apparently i say the a all wrong, and the fact that r’s disappear from the endings of words all the time here only adds to the confusion.

my own r’s have been disappearing as well—i’ve always been one to absorb speech rather quickly. several summers back, i spent two weeks in the constant company of a crew of southerners, and have at this point given up on trying to get rid of the “y’all” that I picked up then. here, i’ve thus far picked up one of the mainstay sign-off’s, “cheers” (minus an r, of course), as well as its introductory counterpart, “howzit?”, use “as well” way too frequently (always with a strong emphasis on the “as,” unlike in the states,), and speaking of the states, refer to them as that, or “US” with an emphasis on the U. i’ve also started using the word “hectic” far too frequently, thanks to paymon, a fellow american who has absorbed south african slang to an even greater extent than i have.

i’ll end this with one of the more amusing speech differences between the states and here—they refer to stoplights as “robots.” i’ve readily replaced “stoplight” with “robot” in my own speech, but after a month and a half, i still grin at the warning signs that say “robot ahead.” one of the dance clubs around here, fiction, has a fantastic electronica night called “killer robot,” and visualising the local meaning of the phrase is still a great source of amusement after a couple of drinks. and in jozi (jo’burg, johannesburg), the hijacking rate is so high that at night, most people don’t bother stopping at red lights. they just look both ways, and if the coast is clear, they keep going. most police officers understand this and don’t bother people, but should a SAPS officer (South African Police Services, the friendlier, more humanitarian, post-apartheid version of the South African Police Forces) pull you over, an appropriate excuse is “i’m sorry officer, it’s just that i’m really afraid of the robots, a friend of mine was badly roughed up around here the other night…”

something tells me that if i try that when I get back to the south side of chicago, i’ll get hauled in on suspicion of hallucinogenic drug use.

Monday, August 13, 2007

penguins and mountainsides

as promised, here's some photos from this past thursday's adventures with gilad and paymon. gilad deserves credit for some of these photos, but i'm not sure which ones... so presume that if they're of high photographic prowess, gilad took them, and if they're mediocre, i did. above is a photo of an adult and a baby penguin at boulders beach. awwwww.

when we got to boulders, helpful signs informed us that while wheelchairs were indeed allowed, we couldn't backhand, karate chop, or shake flippers with the penguins.

a penguin shakin' that laffy taffy. convincing, but reynold strossen he's not...

after awhile, the penguins marched off. and so did we.

we ended up driving to Chapman's Peak, where we stopped at a look out point and scrambled down the mountain. some of us (that is to say, me) did more sliding than scrambling, due to unsatisfactory traction. boat shoes are not meant for hiking, as they lack any tread whatsoever. nor, for that matter, are they waterproof. between the two, i'm not quite sure how they would be of any use on a boat... but i suppose preppiness and sailing are allowed to defy logic and/or physics.

view from where we ended up, quite a ways down from the road, but also quite a ways up from the actual ocean

i put this in to give you a bit of context in terms of the mountainside. i can also say with confidence that gil, not myself, took this photo. he was hiding between the rocks in the forefront of the photo and playing paparazzi when i thought he was just shooting landscape photos.

shortly after the last photo was taken, the rain caught up with us, and we climbed back up in the midst of a drizzle, making it back to the car right before an outright downpour. while our clothes were soaked through, our spirit of adventure was not yet dampened, so we went off in search of ice cream in hout bay. alas, the ice cream place was closed, so we went back to the office. despite supposedly having a day off, there was work to be done, flowers to be ordered for shafted deputy ministers on behalf of people far more important than ourselves, and messages of condolences to be invented on behalf of said people. thus ended thursday...

Friday, August 10, 2007

happy women's day...

wow, where to start. south african politics has completely erupted in the past couple of days, due to the firing of the deputy minster of health, nozizwe madlala-routledge. to give some background (well, quite a bit of background...), south africa's president (thabo mbeki) and minister of health (manto tshabalala-msimang) are both aids denialists. manto is famous for setting up a tent filled with garlic, lemons, african potatoes, and beetroot at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, declaring that those foods were the treatment for hiv/aids (hint: they aren't...). both manto and mbeki have caused massive domestic and international outcry as a result of their inaccurate and irresponsible stances on aids treatment, and between the two of them have millions of deaths on their hands, as south africa could have afforded the proper treatment (anti-retroviral drugs), and simply chose not to distribute them.

fast forward to november of 2006, when the deputy minister of health decided to defy the african national congress' party line (the anc is the ruling party in south africa, by a landslide) and state openly that hiv causes aids, and that antiretrovirals are the necessary treatment, not african potatoes. in february of 2007, the minster of health fell ill, and in the meantime, the deputy minister sprung into action, working with civil society groups like the treatment action campaign and the aids law project to draft the national strategic plan on hiv/aids, which is a responsible and viable plan to address south africa's aids crisis (it includes antiretroviral distribution, scaling up prevention of mother to child transmission, and government sponsored prevention campaigns, among other things), one which has been lauded as incredibly comprensive, and something south africa should have done years ago.

now, however, manto is back in power, and is doing everything in her power to undermine the nsp. rumor has it that she's attempting to slash its budget by over 60%. her department is the only one whose annual budget has shrunken over the past several years, which is highly suspect given the massively underfunded state of the public health care system, and the desperate shortage of medical workers. and, of course, the demand on the public health system is rising, with increasing numbers of people infected with diseases like TB as well as 5.5m people living with hiv/aids.

which brings us to yesterday, women's day, a national holiday in south africa to celebrate the empowerment and advances of women in south african society. and, in order to celebrate empowered women, thabo mbeki completed the last step in his set up of deputy minister of health nozizwe madlala-routledge, and fired her. the reasons given for her firing were a total sham, which has become obvious under minimal amounts of press scrutiny. This is a good summary article and an excellent cartoon from south africa's favorite satirist/long time tac supporter, zapiro, can be found here. even if you don't buy that the reasons given were a complete ruse, this article should give pause--not only have other cabinet members done far worse and not gotten fired, mbeki is making it a point to say that he's not obliged to give reasons for dismissing cabinet members. while he's constitutionally correct, he's hardly making a good faith effort at laying the foundation for a transparent, accountable democracy. then again, this is nothing new for mbeki--there was *just* a scandal about freedom of the press, in which the government placed a gag order on the mail & guardian, sa's best independent rag to keep them from reporting on problems within the government owned south african broadcasting corporation (sabc). ironically, there's no freedom of the press to report on the freedom of the press... m&g summarizes as many of the details as they're allowed here. lack of transparency? par for the course for mbeki.

i had the chance to attend the press conference this morning in which nozizwe spoke out about her firing, and it was... intense, to say the least. for starters, the people holding the press conference were ostensibly only letting in people with press credentials... but they also only appeared to be enforcing that on black people. i say this, because about fifty tac members were there in support of her/to protest her firing, and they were all turned away, yet i was able to get in with little trouble. the tac members managed to make themselves heard though, literally, a short while later--they were singing protest songs outside the building in support of nozizwe, and they were audible through the windows three stories up in the room where the press conference was being held--and when nozizwe heard them, she gave a wry smile. also, true to her character and her dedication to the people of south africa, she gave a separate address to her supporters after the press conference, and joined in on the singing and dancing. (personal aside: i really wish i could learn some of these songs and join in--it feels very weird to me to be standing *beside* a protest, rather than protesting). in the conference itself, the former deputy minister of health did a fantastic job of demonstrating that she had gotten completely set up, and that the reasons for firing her were a complete ruse. she, and most of south africa, believe that she was fired for openly and publicly disagreeing with the leader of the ruling party, and for taking a stand that differed from the stated policy of the presidency and the department of health. for doing that, most of south africa knows her as a hero with an incredible amount of courage. mbeki, however, apparently only saw her as undermining his authority. paraphrasing from some of the radio coverage, her error was to serve the citizenry rather than the presidency.

in other news, i've been rather silent recently because i've been working like crazy on the informational leaflet to kick off tac's new campaign against rape, which was introduced at a march wednesday morning in johannesburg. i wrote the text for it and advised on layout--gilad isaacs deserves credit for all of the technical layout work--and, not to be self-promoting, but i'm rather happy with how it turned out. once i have a pdf copy, i'll find a way to post it. with that finished, we had women's day off, and so we went to boulders, the beach where the south african penguins kick about, and chilled with them for a bit, then moved on to some impromptu hiking around on chapman's peak. when i have the chance to post pictures, i'll do so--it was quite a fun adventure.

initially, this post was going to be about my more general thoughts on women's day, but then all of this chaos about the deputy minister broke. i'll condense my thoughts to this--while the intent behind women's day strikes me as a good one, it smacks of the same problem as black history month in the US--it's a token gesture when there are clearly bigger issues to be addressed, one that acts as a placebo when strong remedies are needed. dedicating a day or a month towards the empowerment of a marginalised group is worthless when every other day of the year, they remain on the margins. and the fact that there's more to be done is evident, in everything from the fact that the police have quit investigating this outrageous rape case to the fact that most companies in this country interpret women's day as "well, since you have the day off, it's the perfect time for you to buy a new (insert household appliance here)! Come to our store in celebration of your domesticity!" and then following all of his self-important pontificating about the importance of women's equality, the president goes and sacks one of the few female politicians who dares speak her mind... *sigh* i'd be lying if i said i wasn't disheartened.

Monday, August 6, 2007

the flat.

So I haven't figured out how to format these things yet, meaning that the bottom picture is sideways, and I can't put text above the first picture (which worked out way better with the last post than this one...) but as you can gather from the title and the first picture, here's a few photos of my flat (apparently they don't use the word apartment here?). It's quite nice, and more than spacious enough for me. While the decor isn't quite what I would have chosen, it's rather comfy, and I've very quickly adjusted to it being my new home. Above is the bedroom-ish area, which is the extension of the living-room-ish area (pictured below).

eating area


requisite poster of nelson mandela standing up (or, I suppose, in this case, standing sideways) for TAC (I really want one of these...)

so, there's the new place. all mine, until the end of september!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

place setting.

So I'm living in a town/suburb called Muizenberg, which the Cape Town locals describe as "a sleepy little seaside village"--no joke, I've heard the exact same description of this place from at least seven different people. There's not too much going on in Muizenberg during the evenings (which is fine, because I've also been told at least seven times not to go out after dark, lest I get jumped or worse), but it's amazingly scenic. I live a block off the Indian Ocean, and a block off what they call a "vlei" here-- sort of a lake/marsh area, from what I gather. My particular vlei is called Zandvlei. Here's a couple photos of the scenery near my place.
Changing huts along the beach

Indian Ocean at sunset