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South Africans

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Small Acts of Resistance

21 November 2010

Small Acts of Resistance

By Gwynne Dyer

The “tourists” (as South Africans used to call them in deliberate mockery of their attempts to terrorise everybody, and as George W. Bush also called them because he didn’t speak English very well) are always seeking to blow up our airplanes. Why else would we employ hundreds of thousands of people to stand around in airports and go through our baggage?

True, they haven’t actually caught anybody trying to board a plane with a bomb in the nine years since 9/11. Many terrorist plots were nipped in the bud by good intelligence work on the ground, but the few who did try to carry bombs onto aircraft (the shoe bomber, the underpants bomber, etc) got through “airport security” and were only defeated by their own incompetence.

Despite all this, the airport security industry continues to flourish. Indeed, it serves a useful social function, providing employment to many people who would otherwise be roaming the streets looking for something to do, and perhaps falling in with bad companions.

However, common sense and a grasp of irony do not figure prominently in the job description for airport security personnel. That’s why we are all conditioned, while going through airport security, to avoid making remarks that even refer to the reason for all these searches.

Should you politely inquire, as they ferret through an old lady’s handbag, whether they really think there’s a bomb in there, you will spend the next twelve hours in a side-room being interrogated. Indeed, you don’t even have to get aboard an aircraft to fall afoul of the vast security establishment that has sprung up since 9/11. Just send an e-mail containing key-words like “blowing up an aircraft,” and they may visit you in the comfort of your own home.

That’s what happened to Paul Chambers, a 27-year-old British accountant. His flight to Northern Ireland to visit his girlfriend was cancelled when snow closed Nottingham’s Robin Hood airport last January, and he vented his anger to his girlfriend on Twitter.“Crap,” he wrote. “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!!”

Those who have lived among human beings for any length of time will recognise that as a lame attempt at humour, but if you spend your time in darkened rooms reading intercepted electronic messages you tend to lose contact with the human race. So Paul Chambers was arrested, charged, tried and convicted. He was fined $1500 plus legal costs. And as soon as he was arrested, he lost his job.

He appealed his conviction, naturally, and in mid-November judge Jacqueline Davies rejected his appeal. She emerged from her cave to rule that Chambers’s tweet has been “menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”

So far, it’s just another dreary tale of overweening securocrats and out-of-touch judges, but what happened next was more heartening. Thousands of people who were outraged by sheer stupidity of it all began to re-tweet Chambers’s original message in a show of solidarity.

So far, none of the people who did this have been arrested, because some senior person in the British security establishment finally realised that the whole sorry story makes them and the judges look like fools. Or, to be more precise, reveals them for the fools they are. But it would not be a good idea to re-tweet Chambers’s message anywhere outside Britain, for the equally foolish authorities elsewhere don’t know the background story.

What you could do, if you are minded to make some small gesture of resistance to this ignorant and oppressive system, is to include some reference to bombs and aircraft in your e-mails and tweets from time to time. Be careful how you phrase it – “I heartily disapprove of people who try to smuggle bombs onto aircraft” would be a safe comment – but as long as you use the key words, it will come to the attention of the system.

The computer will flag the message, and some analyst will actually have to read it. They won’t arrest you for it, although your name will probably go onto one of their data-bases. Don’t worry about that: if you have ever done anything remotely interesting in the world, your name is almost certainly on several of their data-bases already. And if enough people sent messages like that, it might even clog up the system.

Well, no, not really. Whenever they want more computing capacity, they get it, because no politician will risk being accused of stinting on “security matters.” In reality, your small act of resistance will simply trigger the waste of more of the money you pay in taxes: no matter what you do, the house wins. But it might make you feel better for a little while.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“True…companions”)

South Africa at 20

15 February 2010

South Africa at 20

by Gwynne Dyer

On the 20th anniversary of the day in February 1990 when the end of South Africa’s apartheid system was announced the former President F.W. de Klerk wrote: “We astounded the world in 1990 and in 1994, and we shall do so again.”

But in 1990 and in 1994 the astonishment was about the fact that disaster had been avoided, and even now it is not astonishment at the country’s success.

South Africa has the second-highest murder rate in the world (after Colombia), the education system is one of the worst in the world, and Aids accounts for 43 per cent of all deaths.

It may be true that South Africa is doing better than was expected, but that only shows how low expectations were when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison 20 years ago this month.

It took four years of tough negotiations between the apartheid government and the African National Congress before the first election in which non-whites were allowed to vote, and many people had grave doubts that a peaceful transition was even possible. Indeed, the most common question I heard at the time was: will there be a civil war?

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It was exactly the same question I had heard so many times when I was covering the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years earlier, from frightened people who hoped that a foreign journalist might know the answer.

I always said no, there will not be a civil war, and I turned out to be right both times, but I must admit I was less confident in the South African case. There was certainly a lot more shooting in South Africa.

In the end, South Africans’ shared interest in a peaceful and prosperous future triumphed over racism and tribalism – and a fairly peaceful and prosperous future is what they got.

There have been two lawful and orderly changes of President since Mandela took office after the 1994 election – and with only 6 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa accounts for more than a third of its gross domestic product. But it is not exactly an economic miracle. As the only industrialised country in Africa it has always towered over the rest of the continent economically, but its growth rate in the past 15 years has been only a modest improvement on the near-stagnation of the later apartheid years.

A new black middle class has emerged, but the gulf between the comfortable minority of all colours and the poor black majority has only widened.

South Africa does not control its borders effectively, and the result is that at least 10 per cent of its population are undocumented foreigners. Most come from nearby countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but there are significant numbers from as far away as Nigeria.

They are often better educated and more enterprising than the locals, and the resentment of poor South Africans exploded into vicious anti-immigrant violence in May 2008.

There will almost certainly be further violence unless most of the illegal immigrants are sent home, but the ANC says it owes the other countries of southern Africa a debt of gratitude for having given its members shelter during the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. Those countries now depend heavily on remittances from their citizens who are in South Africa illegally, and the ANC cannot bring itself to expel them.

That is a high-sounding moral motive that we can all admire, but the presence of the illegal immigrants also serves to divert the anger and envy of poor, black South Africans from the homegrown middle class, black and white alike, that has been the real beneficiary of economic growth since 1990.

Almost 40 per cent of black South Africans are unemployed, and they are well on the way to becoming a permanent underclass.

These are the people for whom the state boasts that it has built three million new homes since the end of the apartheid, but almost all of them are cramped two-room houses in the typical township style.

More millions of these houses now have electricity, water and sanitation services – but a huge proportion of the people in them don’t have jobs, mainly because they lack skills that are relevant to a modern, developed economy.

Education for black South Africans was always poor, and during the final 15 years of constant anti-apartheid protests there was a “lost generation” that scarcely went to school at all. The end of apartheid should have changed all that, but it didn’t.

The money was spent on providing houses and services to keep people quiet, not on building a school system that would give them a future.

According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa’s education system ranks 119th out of 133 countries. Only a quarter of South African children finish high school, and a mere 5 per cent go to university.

Most of those high school graduates and university students are now black South Africans, but the country is becoming a two-tier society with a hereditary underclass that gets only the crumbs from the table.

The thing about South Africa that is truly astonishing these days is that the poor put up with it.


South Africa and the Immigrants

20 May 2008

South Africa and the Immigrants

By Gwynne Dyer

It was looking ugly there for a few days, with mobs of South Africans in townships around Johannesburg randomly murdering several dozen “foreigners” (migrants from other African countries) and injuring several hundred. But now President Thabo Mbeki has acted decisively: he has announced the establishment of a panel of inquiry into the violence. That should fix it.

Just in case he gets impatient while waiting for the panel’s report, however, I can tell him what it will say — or at least, what it should say. It should say that the root problem was his own government’s “non-interventionist” policy on immigration: its refusal to control or even count the number of people arriving in South Africa from other African countries.

The mere fact that the commonly used estimate is “three to five million” illegal immigrants says it all: the authorities really have no idea how many foreigners are in South Africa. But the higher estimate is probably closer to the truth, for some four million people have left Zimbabwe alone to seek work abroad, and almost all of them have gone to South Africa.

This “open borders” non-policy had high motives. Many of South Africa’s current leaders are men and women who spent decades in exile during the fight against apartheid, and the migrants come mostly from the countries that gave them shelter at that time. How can they turn away people from those countries — from Zimbabwe, above all — now that the shoe is on the other foot?

It is an honourable sentiment, but more easily experienced if, like South Africa’s current leaders, you lead a secure and comfortable life in one of the nicer northern suburbs of Johannesburg. If you happen to live in Alexandra township (not all that far from those pleasant suburbs) amidst garbage and violence and chronic poverty, and you don’t have a job, it’s a little harder to access such noble emotions — because one-tenth of the people in the country are illegal immigrants, and lots of them do have jobs.

Miserable, underpaid jobs, for the most part, but in a country where the true unemployment rate is somewhere near half, there are bound to be a great many people who resent foreigners getting any jobs at all. Especially because there is some truth in the complaint of poor and uneducated South Africans that the illegal immigrants get the unskilled jobs because employers can pay them less and they won’t dare complain.

None of this justifies murder, but it does begin to explain it. Thabo Mbeki was incredibly foolish to assume that he could just let foreigners flood into the country and not expose them to a popular backlash. The South African media are filled with self-flagellating editorials that all basically ask “What kind of people are we if we can behave like this?” The answer is: not saintly inhabitants of some imagined “rainbow nation” that has risen above the normal human plane, just ordinary people under pressure and behaving badly.

Last week in Italy, other ordinary people threw Molotov cocktails into Gypsy camps and burned them down. Most of those people have jobs, live in comfortable surroundings, and eat quite well, and they STILL behaved badly. There are only about 150,000 Gypsies in Italy, half of whom have been there since the 15th century. They are less than a quarter of one percent of the population, and yet 68 percent of Italians want them all expelled.

The South African poor have been amazingly patient as year after year went by — fourteen years now since the end of apartheid — when so little has changed for the better in their lives. The black poor still loyally vote for the African National Congress (ANC), but their anger was going to burst out somewhere or other, sooner or later. By holding the door open to so many illegal immigrants, the government has guaranteed that they would be the primary target.

Maybe this is some Machiavellian plan to divert popular anger from the government itself, but probably not. It’s just that the leaders don’t see what has been happening to ordinary people. How else could Thabo Mbeki go on defending Robert Mugabe, the destroyer of Zimbabwe, year after year, when Mugabe’s misdeeds were the main reason that this enormous wave of illegal immigrants struck South Africa?

Justice Malala, whose column appears in The Times (the online version of South Africa’s Sunday Times), nailed it on Monday when he wrote: “(Our) people are behaving like barbarians because the ANC has failed — despite numerous warnings — to act on burning issues that are well known for having sparked similar eruptions across the globe….

“The Mbeki government’s refusal to even acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe has resulted in as many as 3 million Zimbabweans walking the streets of South Africa….Mbeki’s resolute refusal to address the crisis in Zimbabwe — and his friendship with President Robert Mugabe — has brought them here. His block-headedness is directly responsible for the eruption of xenophobia.”

Such plain talk is not “blaming the victim.” It is recognising realities, which is the first step towards addressing them. And where the despairing poor of South Africa should be addressing their anger is not at helpless Zimbabweans but at the president who let this human catastrophe happen.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Miserable…complain”;and “Last…expelled”)