To fatten Africa, make Americans thinner

Should African farmers care whether President Barack Obama succeeds in pushing serious health care reform through the US Congress? As odd as it may sound, they may have a real stake in the outcome of what to most would seem an exclusively domestic tussle. Here’s the connection.

The US devotes more than 16% of its GDP to health care. It’s in a league of its own. The next biggest spender, according to OECD figures, is Switzerland, at 11% of GDP. And yet for all these outlays, the US lags behind all nations in its economic class in terms of outcomes, and the gap may be widening.

If you turned 50 in 1975, you could have expected to live another 27 years whether you lived in the US or Western Europe. Since then, while life expectancies have increased on both sides of the Atlantic, a 50-year-old Frenchman is now likely to outlast his American counterpart by a full year and a half. To a statistician, that is not a trivial difference, especially given that smoking has remained much more prevalent in Europe than it has in the US. Continue reading “To fatten Africa, make Americans thinner”


Jury’s out

What is the likely impact of the Zuma administration’s decision to reverse its predecessor’s s stance on the apartheid reparations claims that have been crawling through the US courts for the past six years? Could it speed a resolution? Or will it rekindle the otherwise fading embers of worry about South Africa’s investor friendliness post-Polokwane? The jury is out.

President Thabo Mbeki was unequivocal.  Speaking at the tabling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2003, he said it was “completely unacceptable that matters that are central to the future of our country should be adjudicated in foreign courts which bear no responsibility for the well-being of our country…”

In a letter delivered on September 1 to Judge Shira Scheindlin, before whom the claims are now being heard in the Southern District of New York, Jeff Radebe, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, said that the South African government now felt that  Scheindlin’s court – hers specifically —  was “an appropriate forum” for the case as she had framed it. Continue reading “Jury’s out”

Take him, please

Canada is a very large place, seriously in the market for more people. It was not, however, aching for the company of Brandon Carl Huntley, 31, late of Mowbray, a Cape Town suburb. He was in the country illegally. His resume, according to newspaper accounts, included stints as a carnival worker and as a garden sprinkler salesman, positions Canada is manifestly able to fill from its current reserves of human capital and which would not classify his departure from South Africa as contributing greatly to any brain drain.

So Huntley had to find some other means of persuading the Big Empty to have him. He chose to seek asylum, claiming he had been persecuted by muggers back home because he was white and the local police had done nothing to protect him. Among the logical holes in his story was his admission that he had never reported being mugged to the police. He said did not trust them to act. Evidence of their inaction was therefore lacking.

Assuming, in the absence of police reports, he truly was attacked “six or seven” times — he had scars purporting to show it — he was also hard put to prove that the alleged attacks were racially motivated. We have only his word for it that the attackers used racial epithets if and when they set upon him. And even if they did use such language, that is hardly probative of his colour having been the decisive factor in their choice of target. Continue reading “Take him, please”

A Life in Three Acts

When F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no second acts in American lives, he had been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He did not mean that Americans could not reinvent themselves. They do that all the time. He meant that in their rush to cut to the chase, they had a tendency to jump straight to the third act from the first. This rang true as America remembered Senator Edward Kennedy this past week before laying him to rest alongside his two older brothers in Arlington Cemetery.

The great, sprawling melodrama of Kennedy’s life has three well-demarcated acts. The first, encompassing his privileged childhood, hell-raising, playboy-in-the-making schooldays and easy inheritance of brother John’s Senate seat when the latter was elected president, closes with the assassination of brother Robert in 1968 and the question: does our hero have what it takes to assume the mantle of its two murdered siblings? Their courtiers certainly hope so.

Act two, the one that did not get so much attention last week, opens with a self-inflicted disaster that suggests the answer to the question posed in act one is a definitive no. Just as America is landing a man on the moon, completing the quest launched by John in 1961, a liquored up Teddy goes for a midnight drive with a young campaign worker and swerves into a pond. She drowns, he escapes and goes back to his hotel as if nothing had happened. The family machine goes into action. The victim’s family is compensated, the legal consequences are largely avoided, and the hero’s is neck saved. Continue reading “A Life in Three Acts”

Hitting the Reset Button

The Obama administration is working hard to breathe life back into relations between the US and South Africa that have become stale, tetchy and, on occasion, downright venomous. That is good news for anyone working to promote South Africa’s global reputation. It helps when what is still the richest and most powerful country on the planet wants to see us the way we want, and need, to be seen.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to South Africa last week clearly determined to “reset” ties that had begun fraying when her husband was president and, but for a curious honeymoon between then Presidents George Bush and Thabo Mbeki , had been becoming progressively unglued ever since. An unnamed member of her retinue told the New York Times that “the relationship was fraught with far more difficulty than the previous administration was willing to acknowledge. We had little access and even less influence.”

Cynics might argue that Clinton was having her team play up the negatives in order to accentuate her accomplishment in setting things right. That would not be fair. Notwithstanding US respect for South Africa’s economic management, there has been real friction on a host of matters, chief among them AIDS, the invasion of Iraq, and what was taken as a disconnect between the values enshrined in South Africa’s constitution and the Mbeki administration’s voting record in the UN Security Council.

Trade has been another contentious area. The collapse of negotiations on a free-trade agreement between the US and the South African Customs Union (SACU) left a sour taste in a number of Washington mouths. In interview published by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month, Princeton Lyman, ambassador South Africa during the democratic transition, pointed to unhappiness with South Africa’s stance in the Doha round and what he and others see as our leadership role in persuading  the rest of Africa to side with China, India and Brazil against its own best interests.

Differences over Zimbabwe have been less acute than the media has sometimes made out, although it must have rankled with Mbeki to hear Bush call him “my point man” on the issue. Perceived arrogance and condescension certainly soured things between Mbeki and the Clinton administration’s top Africanist, Susan Rice, now Obama’s UN ambassador. “I admire her somewhat,” he once famously remarked when asked about his rumoured irritation with her. His feelings for American ambassadors who publicly chided his administration on AIDS and crime can only be guessed at.

The Mbeki administration established formal mechanisms with a number of countries to help manage their bilateral relationships. The original such institution was the US-SA Binational Commission, the brainchild of President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, and chaired by Vice President Al Gore and Mbeki, his then counterpart.  Clinton, understandably, wanted to play a role in the South African miracle. At the same time, because of the ANC’s past affiliations and ideological leanings, Washington felt the need to keep South Africa’s young democracy close.

For a number of reasons, including the death of Brown, a political force of nature, the commission lost momentum. It was shelved when Bush entered the White House, though several of its committees, most notably the one on defence, lived on without fanfare.  An excess of fanfare may, in fact, have been one of the commission’s chief weaknesses. It obscured the substance.

Over time, however, the commission has come to be missed. Now, to judge from references by Clinton and International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on Friday, a new “formal mechanism” is in the works, along with a revitalized US-SA Business Council. This can only be a healthy development, especially as it seems based on a genuine, not just rhetorical, desire for partnership on issues local, regional and global.

As part of its courtship, the Obama administration is paying us some very pretty compliments. Johnnie Carson, the new assistant Secretary of State for Africa, recently observed that in coining the acronym BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India, China — Goldman Sachs had made “a small mistake. It should have added that the letter S to make it the BRICS, with the S the South Africa. For South Africa deserves its spot at the table as one of the most important emerging markets and regional states.”

His boss, on Friday, rhapsodised that “it isn’t easy to find countries with financial and economic policies that have been as sound as South Africa’s…Frankly, we could learn a lot from your example.” She said she “wanted to make sure that word is brought back to the United States that South Africa is a great place to invest in.” This was part of a story, which, as she said earlier in Nairobi, “we need to tell over and over again.”

Having credible friends tell the story is the kind of help South Africa can use.


Writing in Friday’s New York Times on the Caster Semenya affair, Gina Kolata, the paper’s respected medical writer, paraphrased Dr Maria New, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, thus: “The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, often are hermaphrodites.” This was subsequently amended on the Times’ website to: “The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, maybe more predisposed to being hermaphrodites…” More predisposed than whom was not specified.

The initial statement and the failed attempt to improve it generated a good deal of ire in the blogosphere and twitterverse. A number of web-enabled commentators found vindication of their belief that the Times is racist and/or that journalistic standards are in terminal decline. I confess to being pretty stunned myself. I tweeted the first version with the simple comment “Good Grief!”

Perhaps I was hasty. A quick Google search turned up the following from recent medical literature: “a disproportionately high incidence of true hermaphrodites is seen among the South African black population” (Journal of Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology, volume 18, issue 6, 2005); “true hermaphrodites show an unusual racial distribution, the frequency being relatively higher in South African Bantu and perhaps other African blacks” (“Human Malformations and Related Anomalies”, Roger Stevenson and Judith Hall, Oxford University Press, 2006); and “true hermaphrodites are relatively common among the Bantu population” (The Five-Minute Urology Consult, a desk reference for general practitioners, Lippincott-Raven, 2000). Continue reading “She”

Prawn Cocktail

 To tell the truth, I am not entirely looking forward to the release of “Invictus”, Clint Eastwood’s film of John Carlin’s magisterial book, “Playing the Enemy”, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Springbok captain François Pienaar. The book, director, and actors promise a knockout  picture, of course,  and one dares hope it will reinforce positive memes about South Africa’s better angels. What I dread is the accents.

Freeman has the instrument to approximate Madiba, to be sure, at least his cadences.  What really has me worried is Damon as Pienaar. No actor in the English-speaking world outside South Africa has ever been able to capture English as spoken by an Afrikaner. New Zealander Sam Neill came closest as Sandra Laing’s father in the recent “Skin”. Leonard DiCaprio had his moments in “Blood Diamonds” but could not sustain them and a lot of the time what he managed was little better than parody.

None of this is an issue in “District 9”, the instant sci-fi cult classic that opened in America on Friday. Working on a relative shoestring — $30 million — South African born director Neill Blomkamp cast South Africans as South Africans. Not only did it save him a lot of money which he was able to put into giving the cinema verite style movie its astounding look and feel, but, surprise, it turns out that South Africans can play themselves really well. In Sharlto Copley, who plays the antiheroic hero Wikus Van Der Merwe, South Africa has its very own Sasha Baron Cohen of Borat fame.  Copley is an accidental actor. In his day job he’s a producer. Blomkamp took a brilliant chance. Continue reading “Prawn Cocktail”