Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Famous Grouse: March 26

Apologies for late posting, but herewith latest Weekend Argus column, as submitted. -- AD

HERE at the Mahogany Ridge we tend to punch above our weight when it comes to making sense of the world around us. A couple of jars, say, and there we all are, experts on current affairs and well-seasoned, if not entirely credible commentators on matters of state.

Even so, it did take us a while to finally grasp the logic behind the decision by the Treasury to turn down the popular proposal for a zero-rating of valued added tax on books.

This week, the chief director for tax policy, Cecil Morden, stated that a zero-rating would only benefit book suppliers and middle and upper classes -- and not the poor.

As Morden blithely told the standing committee on finance in Parliament: “Many analysts have demonstrated that in absolute monetary terms the middle and higher income earners benefit more from zero-rating than the poor. One would hope most of the benefit will be passed on to the consumer. In reality it won’t happen.”

This is really muddled thinking. One on hand, it will benefit only the middle and upper classes, and on the other, “in reality” it won’t? Come now, which is it? It can’t be both, can it?

Confusing as it may be, this is not a new line from government. When he was finance minister, Trevor Manuel, was forever saying much the same thing, and often with some churlishness. Appeals to do away with duties on books were usually swept aside with snide braying about those who live in “the leafy suburbs” -- this being the Manuel take on the old adage that nothing succeeds like address.

I am not aware if people like Manuel and Morden actually buy books, but I happen to do so, and on a regular basis. In fact, I bought two on Thursday evening. Now, and unless I’m getting this hopelessly wrong, I rather suspect that I would have paid less for these books if they were exempt from VAT.
Perhaps these analysts that Morden spoke of could now explain why being charged less for books would not be of some benefit to me, the consumer.

In the meantime, here at the Ridge, we believe we have worked out why the poor won’t benefit from zero-rated books. It’s because they don’t buy books. They can’t afford them. They have no money. That’s why they’re poor.

Okay, that’s one reason. There are others -- chief among them being that most South Africans are aliterate. We can read, but we see no point in doing so. Who knows why -- maybe it was apartheid, maybe it came afterwards -- but we are not a nation that places great importance on a culture of reading, of books and of intelligence. This, of course, is of enormous advantage to government. A doofus electorate is one that invariably never fails the ruling party. And, call me a conspiracy theorist, but given the woeful condition of our education system, I suspect that the authorities are actively engaged in preserving the status quo.

That said, it should be noted that, thankfully, we are at least not complete morons. We know, for example, that no good can come from plans by petrochemical giants Royal Dutch Shell, Bundu Oil and Falcon Oil to explore the Karoo for shale gas.

And here I think we cannot protest too loudly about the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technique that will be used in that exploration should Mineral Resources minister Susan Shabangu give these companies the go-ahead.

Simply put, fracking first tears apart the earth -- and then poisons it. Think of it as countrycide. Shell’s application alone covers some 90 000 square kilometres. That’s nearly half the Karoo, Bundu and Falcon’s applications cover another 110 000 square kilometres. That’s about the other half.

That’s a lot of territory to frack up -- and make no mistake, if fracking’s miserable record in the United States is anything to go by, fracked up is putting it mildly.

Given the environmental devastation wrought by the search for fossil fuels, it still astounds me why we don’t just opt for nuclear energy instead. It seems far more safer.

I know that’s not quite fashionable, given the hysteria surrounding the Fukushima nuclear accident, but some common sense is needed here.

What happened in Japan was catastrophic. The country faces an epic struggle as it copes with the aftermath of a record earthquake and a massive tsunami. Whole towns have vanished. More than 13000 people are feared dead.

But, judging by some news reports, the gravest threat the country faced was a reactor meltdown which, in fact, has not yet happened.

And because of this we question the safety of nuclear power everywhere? Silly us. We should read more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Famous Grouse: March 19

Latest Weekend Argus column. As submitted for publication. -- AD

IT was with no small surprise here at the Mahogany Ridge that we noted that the UN Security Council had finally voted to authorise a no-fly zone over Libya and approved a resolution permitting “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s soldiers.

“All necessary measures”, by the way, is bureaucratese for “brute arse-whipping military action” -- something the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, hinted at when he told a congressional hearing in Washington: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences.”

For those beleaguered rebels in Benghazi, digging in to prepare themselves for Bother Leader Daffy’s much-vaunted “moment of truth”, the security council’s vote was all very in-the-nick-of-time stuff, and there has been much in the way of celebrating in the streets of the eastern Libyan port as a result.

But nowhere, I’d imagine, was the relief more immensely tangible than at Nkandla and, indeed, in the the corridors of Luthuli House.

The no-fly zone ruling means that next week’s high-level African Union mission impossible to Tripoli to somehow sweet-talk Daffy into stop laying waste to those who want to see an end to his rule will, alas and sorry for that, now have to be called off.

Quite how the members of that mission -- which included President Jacob Zuma and his counterparts from Mauritania, Mali, Congo and Uganda -- ever supposed they’d be able to convince an utter nutter like Daffy to do the right thing is perhaps a little beyond our ken.

Naturally, being the top chops on their own patches of turf they are a little dysfunctional themselves, and perhaps one characteristic of their own base urges to power is the delusion they are capable of miracle work.

Here at the Ridge we thought it far more likely that Zuma and his fellow presidents would somehow wind up as Daffy’s hostages.

You could imagine them all held against their will, far from their families and many loved ones, and the unbearable torture they’d have to endure, forced to recline on big cushions in a luxurious tent somewhere in the perfumed desert night with sloe-eyed beauties popping dates into their mouths as they watch an endless stream of Daffy’s henchbabes performing the dance of the seven veils.

But we digress.

There is a tidy symmetry to the prospect of the Libyan air force being destroyed, or rendered incapable of being used against the rebels in Benghazi.

This, after all, is the year in which we mark the 100th anniversary of the world’s first aerial bombardment of a civilian population -- an atrocity that coincidentally took place in Libya, which was then part of the Ottaman empire.

Italy, with imperial ambitions of its own, had invaded the country in October 1911 and, retaliating to local resistance, an aircraft from its fledgling air force was dispatched to drop bombs on Arab tribesmen at oases outside Tripoli shortly afterwards, thus opening a whole new dimension to modern warfare.

Which brings me, conveniently, to another atrocity -- this time closer to home. Exactly what is this drivel we’re hearing that the disasters from the massive earthquake and the subsequent tsunamis in Japan are all part of some karmic come-uppance -- because of the way they fish?

As I was told, one evening at the Ridge, “It’s the revenge of the tuna and the whales and the parrot fish.”

It’s of course nothing of the sort. But why do some of us believe that is the case? Are we that screwed up, that insensitive to the suffering of others?

There’s a fluffy sentimentality out there, and there are people, usually those who eat cheeseburgers and still believe in the magic of Disney, who can comfortably rank certain species -- dolphins, for example -- as being more important than others, like humans. What do these people feel for the rights of the tapeworm, I wonder?

On a related, and perhaps more serious matter, events at Japan’s Fukushima power station have reawakened the fear over nuclear energy, a fear which can be traced all the way back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Unsurprisingly, Eskom officials have had to reassure nervous parliamentarians that our Koeberg plant has been designed to withstand both earthquakes and tsunamis.

Maybe. But here’s something to ponder. Imagine the worst-case scenario at Fukushima. There’s a complete meltdown with adverse weather conditions and wind blowing radiation over Japan’s most populated areas. Is there a problem? This is what the UK’s chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, told the British embassy in Tokyo: “The answer is unequivocally no.”

Does he know something we don’t? 

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Famous Grouse: March 12

Saturday's Weekend Argus column, as submitted. -- AD

I READ the following in one of the newspapers this week: “If you spot one rider zipping past in a colourful Pedal Power Association (PPA) cycling shirt, then another and then 10 more, you will not be hallucinating.”

And more’s the pity, I suppose, for here at the Mahogany Ridge, there are a few regulars who fondly recall when the bicycle menace used to pass through the village.
In those days, the cyclists came barreling down Slangkop, hit the rough patches on the approach to the village, left the road altogether and plummeted down the mountain to come to a sticky end in the prickly vegetation specially grown for this purpose. As one old-timer put it, “Shame, but they don’t do fun like that anymore.”

Wisely, the race now avoids us altogether. But even though they don’t race here, the cyclists still practice here. In the last few months, the roads around the village have been thick with them, particularly on Sunday mornings. After doing their best to fall under the wheels of the boat trailers, they’d stop off at the local superette and, leaning against their cycles like cowboys, guzzle power drinks. They’d stare at us through mirrorshade wraparounds and we’d have to explain to our womenfolk that the bulges in the lycra shorts were really padding, a safeguard of sorts against saddle sores. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Sometimes, a few of the cyclists would actually wheel their racers into the superette and, cluttering up the aisle at the energy bars and chocolates section, have a loud debate about sell-by dates. Obviously these people were from Johannesburg and were worried that their ultra-lightweight, titanium-framed jobs would be pinched if they left them outside, and we’d have to tell them that it was okay, we’re all poachers here, we don’t steal bicycles, only fish.

Which is a bit of a porkie, of course. Although we say that’s we do here, just to freak out the visitors, we don’t actually poach fish. In fact, we are rather concerned about such activities, and the danger they pose to the planet’s dwindling fish stocks.

Think of it like this:

In 1968, the population of the planet was two billion. In July this year it will reach seven billion. It is, of course, not a question of space, but whether we can sustain such a population. Right now, potable water tables are falling, soil erosion is rampant, fish stocks are dwindling, and glaciers are melting. About a billion people go hungry every day. By 2025 that figure will have doubled.

Put another way, the world’s population increases by 180 people every minute, and the vast majority of those people -- some 97% of them, in fact -- are born in what is now referred to as the “developing” world, and that’s us, I’m afraid.

Which brings me to the point: can we afford to tolerate ANC Youth League president Julius Malema any longer?

Last weekend, he told followers that, in order to prevent “the revolution” from losing steam, they must have as many babies as possible. “Having babies is a revolutionary thing,” he was quoted as saying, “You must reproduce!”

A week later, and we’re still waiting for the youth league’s spokesman, Floyd Shivambu, to explain to us the “correct context” of Malema’s extraordinary call. But, in the meantime, we may choose to dwell on the news that some 17 260 pregnancies were recorded in KwaZulu-Natal schools last year, according to provincial education MEC Senzo Mchunu. That, by any measure, is a lot of revolutionary things.

However, and this may or may not signal relief for the planet and its dwindling stocks of fish or, indeed, expensive whiskies, but the unhappiness with Malema’s unhinged behaviour is growing within the ruling party.

Thabo Masombika, a former youth league leader who is now a senior empowerment manager with the Department of Trade and Industries, has done a bit of a Trevor Manuel on Malema, and penned an appeal to ANCYL members to vote their foolish president out of office at the league’s elective conference in June.

Although not as harsh as Manuel was in his open letter to government spokesman Jimmy Manyi, Masombika nevertheless makes the point that Malema’s growing arrogance and fascist behaviour, not to mention his utter vapidity and boorish drunkenness, have done the league and the party no favours.

The league, naturally, will draw ranks around Malema in much the same way as the ruling party has done around Manyi, and Masombika may find himself out in the cold for speaking his mind.

But he is correct. It is time we saw Julius off on his bicycle.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Famous Grouse: March 5

Yesterday's Weekend Argus column -- as submitted. -- AD

BACK in the dark days of apartheid, a young woman wrote a weekly column for an Afrikaans newspaper, a column that dwelt on everyday matters that may or may not have been important to people like herself.

On one particular occasion as she prepared to share her thoughts with the world, she found that something was bothering her. It was the light. Directly above her desk, deep in that monolith on the Foreshore, a neon tube buzzed and flickered. It was irritating -- but it also gave her inspiration.

“Except for blind people,” she wrote, “light is very important.”

Her readers were used to such insights. Once, and perhaps more memorably, she had boldly declared that she did not walk in her father’s shadow -- but rather his light.

The comment attracted a great deal of scorn, for the columnist was Rozanne Botha, daughter of PW Botha, the country’s president and a man who was then declaring to his government’s critics, “We have a laager with open doors,” and, more darkly, “I try to be a man of peace, but if people tempt me I can become a Thunderbird.” Clearly the aphorisms were something of a family trait.

Rozanne Botha’s columns were duly collected and published in a book. Shortly afterwards, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at a dinner party where the novelist Andre Brink tore into the collection with some gusto. It was hilarious -- but at the same time a bit unsettling. True, everything about the book was dreadful, and deserved a critical hammering, but watching someone of Brink’s stature doing so was rather like seeing the architect Frank Lloyd Wright kick over children’s sandcastles.

All of which was perhaps nothing compared to the pasting that Kuli Roberts has taken over the column she penned for Sunday World last weekend, and there are several aspects to this controversy which have troubled me.

Firstly, the contents of the column -- the crass and derogatory generalisations about coloured people. Here it has been suggested, by Roberts herself, among others, that this was a failed attempt at satire. One commentator, the Mail & Guardian’s Chris Roper, even claimed that “with a bit of editing it would have been funny”, but frankly, it probably needed something altogether more radical than that. Her editors should have simply spiked it.

But, alleged humour aside, Roberts’ comments about “naai masjiene”, the “closest thing” to being white women with their “long silky hair”, also suggest a racial and sexual self-loathing that is unnerving. She appears to be a deeply insecure person, perhaps in need of professional help. Maybe Ronald Suresh Roberts, the towering intellectual and our very own adopted Frantz Fanon, could have a few words with her.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the controversy has been the hysteria with which the chattering classes have laid into Kuli Roberts.

Those who have clamoured for her head on a spike include presumably hardened journalists and politicians -- the most cynical people in the world. One newspaper editor even claimed that she nearly fainted when she read the column she was that disgusted. Oh dear, but not too weak to crank out the self-righteous moral outrage.

But you’d expect newspaper editors to know better. And, of course, they do. They’re aware, for example, that the real issue here is not the misguided air-headed ravings of a brattish socialite who cannot write and only got the job because she looks good on television and runs with a bunch of chaps who like to wear their baseball caps sideways, but the severe lack of skills and resources in our newsrooms. It’s the elephant in the room here.

Frankly, journalism is in a mess, and this sorry saga is just another indictment of the juniorisation of our newspapers.

What the press needs, of course, are writers of the stature of Trevor Manuel, the minister in the Presidency. Manuel’s piece on his government’s spokesman, Jimmy Manyi -- apparently a proper racist and not some dilettante like Roberts -- should be required reading wherever journalism is taught.

As a column, it was topical, pulled no punches in the withering scorn department, was appropriately witty, cynical and dismissive elsewhere and, more importantly, stressed that the “highest echelons of government” had been infiltrated by Manyi’s racism.

Typically, there were those who had problems with it. The ANC Youth League, for example. But so what? You could tell them bananas are yellow, and they’d argue they’re pink. Nothing new there.

However, some newspapers have accused Manuel and the Democratic Alliance, who are making much of Manyi’s utterances about Indians and coloureds, of political opportunism, particularly with regard to the forthcoming municipal elections.

Imagine that -- politicians behaving like politicians. Whatever next?