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Archives for October 2010

Spit, sushi, and the battle for South Africa's future

Andrew Harding | 11:46 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010


A refreshing blast of contempt from South Africa's Zwelinzima Vavi, who has just lashed out at members of the country's "predatory elite" for "spitting in the faces of the poor" while guzzling "sushi... served from the bodies of half naked ladies."

Vavi's comments - which directly target wealthy relatives of both President Zuma and Nelson Mandela - remind me of another famous outburst in Kenya, but the big difference, of course, is that this time the speaker is a local, and an insider.

Vavi is secretary general of South Africa's trade union federation, Cosatu, and increasingly the most vocal counterweight to what one might call the ANC's "bling brigade," epitomised by Youth League leader, Julius Malema, who sees no reason to be ashamed of his rapidly acquired business empire.

"Why sweat," asks Vavi, "when political connections and greasing the hand of those in political office can make you an instant billionaire? We are rewarding laziness, greed and corruption and discouraging hard work, honesty and integrity."

The big question for South Africa - I'm not sure I can think of a bigger one right now - is which approach will hold more sway? Vavi's call for an end to the "rampage" of capitalism, or Malema's more seductive, "aspirational" model.

There's a wonderful description of a similar, but less loaded, struggle in Ben Okri's masterpiece, The Famished Road, where he writes about "the party of the rich" battling against "the party of the poor."

It's hard to argue with Vavi's analysis of what ails South Africa. But is his message blunted by his own position, as head of a union movement that may have secured above-inflation pay rises and perks for its members, but which sometimes seems out of step with the frustrations of the country's vast underclass of jobless, angry youths?

Skipping a century

Andrew Harding | 18:36 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010


We arrived just too late to catch one of the world's great flower shows - when the endless plains burst into a kaleidoscope of colours. But the arid beauty of South Africa's Northern Cape is startling at any time of year.

Turning off the tarmac into the tiny town of Nieuwoudtville, and on towards the brown hills, waterfalls and canyons behind it, felt like slipping back a century, or two.

The high street was deserted. It was Saturday and the farm workers had retired to a tiny white building with a dark interior, where a woman inside a heavy steel security cage served beer to a thirsty crowd. I bought two bottles and tried to take them to the car. A man grabbed them from me, thrust them down his trousers, and headed outside. It turned out he was briefly renting his trousers to me to deliver the bottles safely without contravening a law banning the public consumption of alcohol.

No national grid

We were heading, for a weekend break, to a sheep farm half an hour south of town that keeps a couple of cottages for visitors. The farm has been in the hands of the same family of Dutch settlers for some 200 years. Generations of crumbling gravestones peeped from a rough patch of sand.

It was shearing time for the lambs, and three men were working their way through the flock in a rusty shed, to the roar of a generator - a disconcertingly modern sound. The isolated farm has never been on the national electrical grid. Hurricane lamps are still used at night. Brackish drinking water is pumped to the surface by a handful of creaking windmills.

And yet, it struck me that the farm isn't behind the times at all. Instead it has leapfrogged a century.

A newer wind turbine now provides a fairly steady current to power the family's DVD player and hairdryer. A handful of solar panels store their power in some car batteries. More turbines and panels are planned. It all reminded me of the mobile phone technology that has rendered landlines redundant across much of the continent.

South Africa's power industry is in a mess - dependent on coal, and struggling after years of underinvestment. But I thought of the farm when I got back to Johannesburg (where the sun has shone in a blue sky for almost all of the past six months) and saw a series of articles about plans to capitalise on the country's enormous solar energy potential.

The solutions are out there. Fog-farming anyone?

A question of balance

Andrew Harding | 16:15 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Apologies for the long absence. I'm just back from an unexpected trip to Chile, where I was lucky enough to report on the miners' rescue. Hats off to the rescue team (a truly global effort, including some South African technology), to the Chilean government which handled the whole affair with great verve and efficiency, and to the resilient miners and their families - I spent 10 days living alongside the latter in the cheerful anarchy of Camp Hope - a clutter of tents and caravans in a desert moonscape just outside the mine entrance.

But back to things African... Trudging through reams of unopened emails in Johannesburg, I've come across this new bit of research about an activity that I would guess millions of people across the continent - particularly women - do every day.

Women carrying buckets on their heads in Africa

It's always an impressive sight - and almost impossible for a novice. But is head-carrying done for reasons of convenience, habit or culture? I had always assumed it was a mixture of all three, and had something to do with the lack of straps and other alternatives in poorer, rural communities. Does anyone with personal experience have any insights to offer?

Not another book about Nelson Mandela...

Andrew Harding | 10:08 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


Haven't we heard enough about the planet's most famous living icon - down to his favourite foods, his childhood fables, his celebrity friends; can there really be any more money or meaning to be milked? Even his own archivist admits, bluntly, that the world is suffering from "Mandela fatigue".

Some of Nelson Mandela's hand-written notes

And yet, "Conversations with Myself," is not just another retelling of one of the 20th Century's most extraordinary lives. The book - more like a giant scrap-book - is a tour through Mandela's own private archive, opened and revealed in full now for the very first time. It is a raw, intensely personal, dense - maybe too dense - and often moving self-portrait of a "flawed," "vain," and "ordinary" man who seems determined to take a chisel to the "living saint" mythology that has steadily built up around him.

The book has been pulled together by the Nelson Mandela Foundation's archivist, Verne Harris, from Mr Mandela's private notebooks, prison diaries, letters and conversations. It includes parts of an unfinished sequel to his famously inspirational, but sometimes rather dry autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom.

The voice that now emerges is much more intimate, more contemplative, more vulnerable - the voice of a husband and father, talking about his dreams, his insecurities, his sex life (or lack of it in prison), and allegations that he beat his first wife.

"It's very important that he should not be portrayed as a saint," said Mac Maharaj, another liberation hero who spent 12 years on Robben Island with Mr Mandela. "This is a great window on the private man... You see the intensity of his pain" in his letters to his family from prison.

The book is published at a time when, as the 92-year-old former South African president's health continues to fade, some of his aides are warning of a "more and more brutal" battle for control of his legacy, and of the wealth that the Mandela "brand name" can still generate. The opening of the archives is part of a broader campaign to address such issues.

"The idea that people in leadership positions are not ordinary humans is a very dangerous concept. If we just reduce him to a set of values, I think we gain nothing from him," Mr Maharaj told me, arguing that Mr Mandela himself has never shown any interest in his legacy. "He is comfortable in his skin. Every person who starts worrying about his or her legacy begins to stumble," he told me. "Read Tony Blair's biography."

Despite being one of the most famous people in the world, Mr Mandela - widely known as Madiba - has carefully guarded his privacy. Some of his closest friends admit that he can be "a bit of an enigma. He has never revealed his very innermost feelings," said Amina Cachalia, who first met him in the 1940s. "I think the world has a fair idea of the man... but he is very careful, very conscious of what he says. I always felt he had built a wall around himself. But the iconic image is also very true and correct because he is that man."

Speaking of the new book, Ahmed Kathrada - another old friend who spent decades in prison alongside Mr Mandela - said "a lot has been written about him but hardly anything in his own words. There's just nothing like that. Now the genuine man comes to the fore, in his own words, so the world will have the opportunity to see that for the first time."

Mr Harris showed me the contents of archives - much of which had been brought in haphazardly, in boxes, by Mr Mandela himself from his nearby home in the suburbs of Johannesburg. There are faded photographs from the 1950s, cheerful apartheid-era tourism calendars that he filled in on Robben Island, letters to his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and a clutter of notebooks - one with "Garfield" the cat prominent in the top corner.

"He was very uncomfortable with his 'saint' image. The theme through this collection is that this is a human being we can all identify with. A more engaging, more accessible human being, in some ways more attractive, in some ways less attractive... not an icon beyond our reach," said Mr Harris whose research left him feeling "a great relief to find out" that Mr Mandela was not "just a hero."

Woman holding Mandela is a saint T-shirt

But the new book is not simply an attempt to set the record straight. For Mr Harris, the political context is also vital. South Africa, he maintains, has relied far too much on lazy "meta-narratives" about "the rainbow nation" and "Madiba magic". "That mythology isn't helpful. It's precisely that thinking that has allowed us to remain blind to inequalities," and to other failures in modern South Africa, he says.

"We have to embrace [Mr Mandela's] flaws in order to develop an understanding of what he means to us as a country," says Mr Harris.

As for the "battle" over Mr Mandela's legacy - Mr Harris is frank about the risk of an ugly power-struggle between the Foundation, competing sides of Mandela's extended family, and the various political organisations and interest groups "jockeying for position, contesting for space. That name has a value, that image has a value, and who gets to control it?" he asks.

But Mr Harris acknowledged that "contestation" is a good, necessary thing, provided "it is done in a proper, seemly, dignified and liberationary way." He hoped the book would help show that "nobody has clean hands - Madiba acknowledges that," and that no individual could secure total control of his legacy.

Mr Maharaj agreed - arguing that as the "the first icon of the information highway," any attempt to control his legacy "will fail... I'm not worried."

Although Mr Mandela's failing short-term memory and visible frailty concern many here, Mr Harris saw him only a few days ago and said he was on good form, playfully fooling around with his signature as he signed a copy of the new book for the man who wrote the foreword, President Barack Obama.

Here are just a handful of excerpts that jumped out at me during a brief tour of the archives.

  • Regarding claims that he beat his first wife, Evelyn: "I caught hold of her and twisted her arm, enough for me to take this thing out (a red hot poker she was brandishing)... that's all."

  • Letters to Winnie from prison: "I know in you the devastating beauty and charm which ten stormy years of married life have not chilled... My longing for you... If I could be on your side and squeeze you... I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through.
  • Letter to his daughter from prison: "Once again our beloved mummy has been arrested and now she and daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home... longing for her little ones. It may be many months or even years before you see her again... do you see now what a brave mummy we have?"
  • Asked in an interview about whether he thought Winnie might be having affairs while he was in prison: "One must not be inquisitive... I resigned myself to the fact that I had no opportunity for sexual expression and I could deal with that...
  • Letter to commanding officer in prison, following his son's death: "I wish to attend, at my own cost, the funeral proceedings and to pay my last respects to his memory. It is my earnest hope that you will... approach this request more humanely than you treated a similar application I made barely ten months ago... for leave to attend my mother's funeral."
  • From his prison diaries: "Gossiping about others is certainly a vice, a virtue when about oneself."

    "Dreamt of Kgatho [his son] falling into ditch and injuring leg." "Raid by approximately 15 warders under w/o Barnard."

    "DDD syndrome: debility, dependency, dread."

    "It's easy to hope, it's the wanting that spoils it."

    "Milk for tea... new blade... Nescafe, mustard, coconut cookies, sandwich spread, marmite, fray bentos."

  • On meeting the playwright, Arthur Miller: "Like all truly great men, he did not throw his weight about."
  • From the unfinished sequel to "Long Walk to Freedom": "As a young man I combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretions of a country boy, whose range of vision and experience was influenced mainly be events in the area. I relied on arrogance in order to hide my weaknesses.

    "One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world: of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an early definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

  • On Queen Elizabeth: "She is a fine lady... she has a wonderful sense of humour... she was just sparkling and completely at ease. I thought she was a great lady, also very sharp. Very sharp. There may be a great deal of formality around her, but... as an individual is a very simple person, very plain. I formed a good impression of her."

The man with the golden trolley

Andrew Harding | 13:17 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010


The first time I saw it, I thought of a mirage.

A sudden, glittering, shimmer of lights and colour down a gloomy side street a few blocks from our house.

Solly Radili and his trolley

The next time, a week later, I turned the car round to get a closer look.

The northern suburbs of Johannesburg are a pleasant sprawl of tree-lined avenues, and comfortable houses hidden behind high security walls and electric fences.

The mirage turned out to be a trolley - a supermarket trolley, enclosed within a wire cage, and carefully, extravagantly decorated with hundreds of shiny compact disks and ribbons.

A tall, lean man in a shabby black raincoat was pushing the whole, precarious, structure along the road.

It seemed such an absurd, beautiful sight that I realised I was grinning broadly.

And for almost two years now, it's had the same effect on me, every time I catch a glimpse of the trolley - it's like a snatch of song, or a warm memory.

It's actually seven years since Solly Radili first started work on his walking mirage.

"She is art, he told me the other day, as we sat in a patch of shade. I am her spokesman," he says.

Solly is not sure how old he is, but he was born in a rural settlement not far from the border of what is now Zimbabwe. He never went to school; had an arranged marriage at the age of 17, to a girl called Maria; and soon afterwards, in about 1955, came to racially segregated Johannesburg alone looking for work.

He got a job cleaning and gardening for a white family. "I was a houseboy", he says - an apartheid label that still lingers in these suburbs even today.

For a short while, Solly left the city to work on a building site near the coast. But he drifted back to Johannesburg, and ended up walking the streets looking for scrap metal to sell, and sleeping rough in Joubert Park near the city centre.

The decades slipped by. He sent a little money home and visited Maria from time to time. They had four children, but Maria became an alcoholic, he says.

"Not me - I never drank once."

In 2003, Solly was pushing a trolley through a smart neighbourhood, looking for more scrap metal, when a white woman came out of her house and gave him three old CDs.
"I put them on the front," he says. "I like the way it looked. That is how I started".

As we're talking, he takes a pair of scissors out of his pocket and carefully cuts a strip of cloth. His long nails are caked with dirt, his brown trousers and woollen hat, threadbare. But somehow he manages to look almost dapper - like a tailor - as he neatly threads the cloth to the back of the trolley, just below a South African flag, a CD and a Winnie-the-Pooh teddy.

Solly is on his fourth trolley now. Two were stolen by scrap-metal hunters. One was confiscated by the police when he was visiting his family. "Now my youngest son is a drunk and a layabout," he says.

"I went home for a traditional ceremony, to try to cure him. It didn't work. This trolley, number four, is my best yet."

He parks it every day on the pavement near a small shopping centre. People stop and give him money. "Some want to take my photo," he says. In a day he can earn 70 rand ($10; £6).

It's noon, and a white woman walks up the street and hands him a sandwich. "I try to give him one every day," she says. "He is a wonderful man. We love to see his art."

Solly sometimes features in the local newspaper. He's portrayed, perhaps a little patronisingly, as a rather mystical figure - a man with no past, driven by some instinctive force to create art.

Solly shrugs. "They say this is art, and it makes them happy, and because of that, I don't starve. But I'm not trying to make a statement. White people like it. And I love them for helping me."

But Solly is more than a busker.

A local art gallery offered to buy his trolley, but he refused. Not just because it's his livelihood, but because he felt the gallery would somehow be cheating - taking a short cut. "It takes time to make this," he says proudly. He seems to be growing into the role of an artist. "Someday I will make something else. Something very different."

These days he is no longer sleeping rough. One of his admirers lets him roll out a mattress in his storeroom every evening.

"It's not safe on the streets at night," Solly says. "There are criminals everywhere today, and no truth in politics. It was better before."

On cold mornings he sometimes considers retirement. "I'm broken," he says. He must be at least 70.

But then he takes another bite of his sandwich, puts his scissors away, and stands up to admire his trolley, glittering in the afternoon sun. "I'm fit. I'm healthy. I can go on for years."

This was written for From Our Own Correspondent.

Does the word 'genocide' help or hinder?

Andrew Harding | 17:14 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010


It's only one word. But "genocide" has lost none of its power to enrage, distract, focus, galvanize and distort our responses to the wars and horrors that still crop up in some parts of Africa.

Has the word helped anyone in Darfur? You can argue that one both ways. But by the time it became common currency, the very worst of the atrocities there were over.

Will it help in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Its relatively tentative, lawyerly inclusion in an exhaustive UN report on a decade of atrocities has snatched the headlines and infuriated Rwanda.

Perhaps it will help focus attention on the region's search for justice - but not for long, I suspect. Will it actually do anything to help break the long cycle of impunity that keeps the beautiful Kivus in such chaos?

Over the years I have rarely covered a conflict where the word wasn't employed, almost routinely, by one or both sides. I know the strict definition of "genocide" is broader than one might expect, but is it used too glibly now?

The focus today is on Rwanda's reaction to the word, and the report. Surely we should be more interested in the voices and opinions of all those civilians who've suffered - at the hands of so many different armies - in the green hills of eastern DR Congo?

Should Zimbabwe sanctions be lifted?

Andrew Harding | 13:18 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010


Interesting to see Morgan Tsvangirai finally starting to say what he and his party really feel on the issue of targeted sanctions against Zanu-PF leaders.

For the most part, he and his MDC have kept fairly close to the spirit of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which commits them to paying at least grudging lip-service to the cause of removing the travel restrictions on President Mugabe and his allies.
Does this more confrontational line signal the unofficial start of the MDC's election campaign?

And if it does, are we now likely to see an escalation of the low-level violence, orchestrated by Zanu-PF, that's already surfaced during the constitutional discussions?

The sanctions issue remains a messy one for the MDC. The economic growth Zimbabwe is finally experiencing - perhaps 8% this year - proves beyond doubt that the sanctions have nothing (or almost nothing) to do with the country's earlier economic collapse.
And yet politically the issue is still dangerously toxic - a rallying point for President Mugabe and his party, and source of endless regional friction - see President Zuma's latest comments on the subject which come despite the troubles his own farmers are still having in the country.

The MDC does not want to fight an election campaign - which could come at any moment, although the end of next year seems most likely - with the sanctions still in place, and with President Mugabe branding Mr Tsvangirai and his colleagues "colonial stooges."

But as a western diplomatic source in Harare put it, we are "pretty cautious on the matter... there's no way we're going to advocate the limp-wristed dropping of sanctions" without preconditions.

The trouble is, those sanctions haven't proved very effective in nudging Zanu-PF towards full implementation of the GPA. There's no obvious reason why that should change now. It will take an election to break the log-jam. But on that front, Mr Mugabe holds most of the cards, and a clean, peaceful vote doesn't look too likely.

Sources here in South Africa, closely involved in trying to keep the coalition government alive, don't seem to have much confidence in the MDC's organisational stamina ahead of those elections. One senior official told me Prime Minister Tsvangirai needed to raise his game, and energise his base, if he wants to topple Mr Mugabe.

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